31 January 2009

THE HARD WAY (Dir. John Badham, 1991, US)

If there was really such a thing as an eighties film maker then surely John Badham would epitomise such a stigma, ranking alongside other similarly mediocre studio directors like John Hughes and Richard Donner. It is not that they are particularly bad film makers, in fact compared to the likes of D J Caruso (I am very suspicious about the credibility of any director who has the initials D J in their name because it seems as though somebody in the marketing department could not be bothered coming up with anything remotely inventive; also 'Caruso' sends out uneasy signals to do with bloated opera singers) and Michael Bay, their body of work at least shows some consistency in terms of competent film making. Yet John Badham was such a mediocre film maker it is difficult to determine who in fact should be credited with transforming a film like 'The Hard Way' into somewhat of a cult film that has literally been swept away by the deluge of terrible eighties film making. 'The Hard Way' should be looked at more closely today as it's influence has been dismissed and continues to be by critics who simply do not want to contemplate the thought that a squeaky clean all American actor like Michael J Fox may actually have been a reasonably good comic actor. Perhaps the very nature of the action comedy makes it an easy and justifiable target for film critics today especially when you consider how impossible it is to bring comedy and action elements together in one film and actually make them work. Recent films like 'Fast and the Furious' and 'Rush Hour' have reworked the action comedy formula in the age of high concept, but none of the genuinely inventive humour that made films like 'Beverly Hills Cop', 'Lethal Weapon' and 'The Hard Way' so distinct is present in banal narratives largely motivated by ridiculously trite characterisation and over emphasis on dangerous stunts.

Badham came to prominence with his 1977 John Travolta hit film 'Saturday Night Fever' but his career after this never showed any kind of credibility and he effectively became a reliable commercial film maker, directing unmemorable films like 'War Games', 'Stakeout' and 'Nick of Time'. I am not sure if it is possible to label Badham as an auteur because the films he made were in large part determined by the script. The sign of a good director and auteur is one who can take a script and use it to deal with their personal thematic motifs. So it is interesting to note that the writer of 'The Hard Way' was Lem Dobbs, a scriptwriter who had previously enjoyed success with 'Romancing the Stone' and would later collaborate with Steven Soderbergh on the independent crime noir 'The Limey'. The other factor that elevates 'The Hard Way' out from the genre trappings of the action comedy and the dubious directorial reputation of Badham is the actor, James Woods. Revisiting 'The Hard Way' after a number of years has made me appreciate the brilliance of Dobb's exciting and hugely influential screenplay. Everything that works about this film is down to the writing of Dobbs. He really is the lynchpin in this production. Were it not for the script then I strongly doubt I would be watching this film again and which probably explains why James Woods performance as the embittered, cynical and foul mouthed police detective John Moss is such a memorable one.

The film also takes a hilarious swipe at the pretentiousness of Hollywood film making by ridiculing and deconstructing the overpaid actor, Nick Lang, played brilliantly by Michael J Fox. What doesn't work and continues to annoy is the presence of L L Cool J who crops in the film intermittently as an obnoxious token black police detective. Though the film was released in 1991, for me 'The Hard Way' is very much an eighties film and like another similarly hilarious action comedy, 'Midnight Run', what makes these films work today is the banter, interplay and humour generated by the lead actors. And yes this is James Woods film, simply because he steals the show by getting the opportunity to utter the best of the lines in his typically deadpan manner. James Woods could have been one of the great American actors but poor script choices and unsound advice from people around him like his agent who famously turned away a role for Tarantino's 'Reservoir Dogs' made his career (apart from the eighties) follow a conventional trajectory that sadly left many remarking at his eventual embarkation to television land. On a side note, the 1st unit director is none other than 'Rob Cohen' who would go on to forge a career in Hollywood by making trashy films such as the absurdly titled 'XXX'.

27 January 2009

DO BIGHA ZAMIN / TWO ACRES OF LAND (Dir. Bimal Roy, 1953, India)

INTRODUCTION

The influence and enduring character of some films are unquestionable and Bimal Roy’s 1953 masterpiece ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ was one of the first mainstream Indian films to receive international acclaim; it was awarded the Prix Internationale at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival. Though it clearly was intended as a melodrama aimed at a mainstream audience, the artists involved with the production of the film were not only inspired by a common ideological belief in socialism that defied the conservatism of Indian cinema but they succeeded in demonstrating how genre could be subverted and adopted as a tool to address wider inequalities and afflictions. The film’s influential and landmark status was even supported by one of the most revered and internationally renowned film makers, Satyajit Ray:

"With his very first film Udayer Pathe (Hamrahi in Hindi), Bimal Roy was able to sweep aside the cobwebs of the old tradition and introduce a realism and subtly that was wholly suited to the cinema. He was undoubtedly a pioneer. He reached his peak with a film that still reverberates in the minds of those who saw it when it was first made. I refer to Do Bigha Zamin, which remains one of the landmarks of Indian Cinema."

Ray’s endorsement of Roy’s introduction of ‘realism’ to mainstream Indian cinema seems to suggest that much of the cinema before had been bereft of such a vital aesthetic quality but of course this is simply not the case. However, Bimal Roy’s approach to cinema extenuated the realism aesthetic that had evolved out of the post war Italian neo realism movement. Similarly, Roy was deeply moved by how film makers like De Sica and Rossellini had effectively rewritten the rules of cinema but the shattering realisation was that such an ideological breakthrough had occurred within the parameters of the mainstream. Roy understood how De Sica had made the seemingly impossible marriage of art and commerce a daring reality in the face of a bankrupt Italian society, and he had done so on his own personal terms.

INDIAN PEOPLE’S THEATRE ASSOCIATION (IPTA)

It is difficult to discuss films like ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ without making reference to the Indian people’s theatre Association (IPTA) and acknowledging the debt Indian cinema owes to such an influential organisation. Formed in 1942 as a response to the social crisis brought on by the Quit India movement, the IPTA’s primary objective was to use theatre as means of addressing the many problems taking hold of society. Many of its initial members unashamedly declared their staunchly anti colonial views and espoused a Marxist point of view that argued for a cinema based on socialist principles. K A Abbas, Prithviraj Kapoor, Balraj Sahni, Ritwik Ghatak and Salil Chowdury were just a few of the members of the IPTA who would later become influential figures in their own right, reiterating the ideological imperative of cinema acting as voice for social change. The partition of India in 1947 and the creation of Pakistan shattered the IPTA’s desire to bridge the differences between Hindus and Muslims in cities like Bombay, resulting in communal rioting and the establishment of deep sectarian divisions that exist even today. The IPTA had received much criticism at the time from conservative sections of society, accusing the organisation and its liberally inclined members of being effectively an offshoot for Marxist propaganda who harboured unrealistic dreams of turning the Indian peasants into organising a widespread socialist revolution.

SOCIALIST CINEMA

In terms of pioneers who paved the way for a new kind of cinema in India, the figure of Khawja Ahmad Abbas (K A Abbas) proved to be crucial in realising the possibilities of a similarly inspired movement to that of neo realism in Italy. Released in 1946, ‘Dharti Ke Lal’ (Sons of the Earth), is generally considered to be the first mainstream Indian film to have outlined the notion that cinema could act as didactic force in the lives of audiences. Surprisingly, even though ‘Bicycle Thieves’ is regularly cited as a key influence in the aesthetic and ideological choices taken by Bimal Roy when directing ‘Do Bigha Zamin’, it had yet to be released when K A Abbas embarked on ‘Dharti Ke Lal’, which perhaps suggests that the neo realism movement in India was running parallel with that of Italy. If this is true then maybe the emergence of socialist political organisations and theoretical Marxist writings after the Second World War was a universal phenomenon experienced by the intellectual circles of many cities.

The directorial debut of K A Abbas, ‘Dharti Ke Lal’ (1946), documented the 1943 Bengal famine, an avoidable tragedy that criticised the failures of the British colonial government. The film was also notable for the presence of another affiliated member of the IPTA, the formidable actor and star ‘Balraj Sahni’, who would later collaborate with Guru Dutt of all film makers and collaborate most importantly with Bimal Roy on ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ as the impoverished Sambhu Mahato. ‘Dharti Ke Lal’ also expanded the boundaries of distribution for Indian films, securing for the first time distribution in Russia for an Indian film and underlining the socialist sympathies that some felt were recognisable in a film organised around Marxist principles. It seems deeply ironic that in his later career a film maker like K A Abbas would help to launch one of the biggest and iconic of Indian film stars, Amitabh Bachchan, in ‘Saat Hindustani’ (1969), inevitably paving the way for a more commercially minded type of cinema that would come to dominate the 1970s. K A Abbas has argued that the commercial potential of ‘Dharti Ke Lal’ was largely jeopardised by the social turmoil of the impending partition of India:

"It was released … in one theatre in Bombay," Abbas said, "and on the same day the communal riots started [Hindu-Moslem caste conflicts]. Our first show was full, all the shows were fully booked … The second show never got started…"

K.A. Abbas (1914-1987), Carol J. Slingo, Jump Cut, no. 33, Feb. 1988, p. 99
http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC33folder/KAAbbas.html

BALRAJ SAHNI

Many of today’s Indian actors seem reluctant to get into any kind of debate concerning personal political beliefs as it may affect potential box office, but those who are able to do so are usually the ones with the capacity to articulate their concerns and use cinema as a platform for propagating leftist ideology. Balraj Sahni was a prominent member of the IPTA and an outspoken Marxist who starred in many neo realist films that challenged the constraints of studio film making in which melodramatic elements were regularly given precedence over other ideological and aesthetic concerns. Sahni was a widely respected figure within the film industry and remained politically active throughout his career. In today’s terms, Sahni would be considered somewhat of a method actor and many of his memorable performances in films like ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ and ‘Kabuliawala’ demonstrate a physicality that is strikingly authentic. In preparation for the role of ‘Sambhu Mahato’, Sahni spent time with rickshaw pullers in the city, immersing himself in the social milieu of his impoverished character and underlining his consummate and realist approach to performance. Though Sahni may have been politically active, he was also deeply affected by the partition of India and the devastating loss of life.

Unlike his contemporaries, Sahni was very selective in the films he choose to star in and though this may have prevented him from achieving widespread recognition as a powerful Indian film star, his body of work expressed a consistency in terms of cinema that was aligned to his own political and social commitments. It is a shame that Sahni is better remembered by today’s generation for his patriarchal role in Yash Chopra’s 1965 ‘lost and found’ multi-starrer, ‘Waqt’. The death of his daughter at an early age seemed to have an impact on him personally and his visit to Pakistan after the trauma of partition was exorcised in a book. His literary talents were shared much more emphatically by his brother, Bhisham Sahni, who was one of India’s most respected writers and whose novel, ‘Tamas’ (Darkness), would later be adapted as a screenplay for a much acclaimed and controversial TV series on the partition.

THE DEBT TO NEO REALISM

The closer you scrutinise the many different new waves or movements that have emerged since Italian neo realism and it becomes starkly apparent how films like ‘Bicycle Thieves’, ‘Umberto D’ and ‘Paisan’ continue to be influential in terms of what it actually means to capture and observe reality with an honesty, authenticity and truthfulness. Examine any sequence from ‘Umberto D’ and it is difficult not to notice how De Sica’s treatment of the aging professor edges close to becoming purely sentimental. Many of the Iranian new wave film makers like Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and Darius Mehrjui were also indebted to the traditions of neo realism but unlike De Sica’s dependency on music as tool for manipulating the emotions of the spectator, Iranian cinema rejected such artifice in favour of purifying cinema and pushing the ideas of Zavattini as far they would go.

Though Bimal Roy embraced the aesthetics and ideological principles of neo realism, he was constrained by the reality of having to work within a set of limitations as ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ for all it’s socialist ideals was nevertheless a studio film. Working within the conventions of social/family melodrama genre, Bimal Roy integrated songs into the narrative which in the eyes of purists went against the stylisation and escapist nature of what neo realism was trying to oppose. However, apart from this musical compromise, ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ is closer to the work of De Sica then it is to many other neo realism films, especially when you compare the humanist depiction of the relationship between Father/Sambhu and Son/Kanhaiya. The parallels are striking when compared to ‘Bicycle Thieves’, most significantly perhaps in the idea of the son having to work tirelessly so that he can support his father’s desire to reclaim the ancestral land which rightfully belongs to him. Also consider how cynically the film represents the city; like ‘Bicycle Thieves’, the city is depicted as a labyrinth that literally consumes Sambhu’s aspirations and subsequently corrupts his courageous but illiterate wife, Parvati. Contrast that with the almost lyrical and perhaps over idealistic picture of rural village life and it is plainly obvious that Bimal Roy seems to condemning the speed of modernisation and urban life as something out of control, ravaging those who simply cannot keep up with the pace. The denial of any kind of satisfying resolution to the poverty of Sambhu is also what makes ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ such a powerful film.

THE ENDING

Not many Indian films aimed at a mainstream audience had at the time dared to defy the expectations of audiences who had become accustomed to the familiarity of the melodrama, but the film’s downbeat ending in which we see Sambhu, his wife and son looking out, despairingly at the overwhelming image of a factory being built on the land that has effectively been stolen from them is a moving confirmation of Bimal Roy’s success in being able to integrate neo realist influences with the traditional trappings of the Hindi melodrama. Ideologically, the pessimistic ending illustrates that social oppression is something monolithic, inevitable and a hegemonic extension of industrial change and capitalist triumph.

24 January 2009

THE NAMESAKE (Dir. Mira Nair, 2006, US/India) - 'I also liked your shoes...'

Returning to Mira Nair’s adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s best selling novel ‘The Namesake’ for a second time made me finally overlook the weakness of casting Kal Penn as ‘Gogol Ganguly’ and embrace the film for its many cinematic evocations. Characterised as a diaspora film maker by some, Mira Nair started her career with the award winning ‘Salaam Bombay’, eventually shifting into mainstream film making with Hollywood projects like ‘Vanity Fair’. However, it is her study of the diaspora experience that comes through most strongly and vividly in films such as ‘Monsoon Wedding’. ‘The Namesake’ is by far her greatest achievement to date and is also one of her most personal and ambitious films. The film is very far reaching in the kinds of pertinent questions it poses about immigrants who come from India to settle abroad, in this case America, and the difficulties their children encounter in trying to forge some kind of meaningful cultural identity.

In the opening sequence, we are introduced to the fearless yet benign character of Ashok Ganguly (Irfan Khan), an ordinary Bengali with few world weary aspirations, but all of that changes when the train crashes; his near death experience compels him to travel, which he does, immigrating to America. Upon his return to India, Ashok marries Ashima (Tabu), a woman of simple tastes with a love of classical Indian music. Nair had previously worked with Irfan Khan on ‘Salaam Bombay’ but the wikipedia entry reports that his scenes were cut from the final version of the film which is not entirely accurate considering I recently viewed the film and it was obvious that Irfan Khan makes a fleeting appearance. Tabu is one of India’s finest actresses and continues to maintain a low key public profile. Perhaps this explains why she is one of the most widely respected film actresses of her generation and has successfully and consistently alternated between mainstream film projects and smaller, independent ones. Tabu’s graceful elegance and exquisite acting skills is a throwback to the classic much immortalised film stars of the Indian studio era; Waheeda Rehman and Nutan are regularly cited when mentioning Tabu.

Interestingly, both Tabu and Irfan Khan have excellent comic timing, a technique that has been acquired and refined from the many admittedly hit and miss screwball comedies they have starred in over the years. Vishal Bhardwaj, cast them opposite one another in ‘Maqbool’, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and many critics commented on the on screen chemistry they generated as being key to the film’s success. Such is the case with ‘The Namesake’, and Mira Nair must be complemented on bravely casting Tabu and Irfan Khan in such pivotal roles as the intimacy expressed on screen is never forced or unconvincing. It is safe to say that we feel at ease in their company and the genuine warmth that underlines their tender relationship is somewhat reminiscent of Satyajit Ray’s understated treatment of Bengali cultural identity. The emotional power of this film rests largely on the shoulders of Tabu and Irfan Khan, and even though Kal Penn is very much at the centre of the narrative, it becomes very much a film about the painful loneliness and displacement that Ashok and Ashima have to suffer so that their children may have a chance at grasping the opportunities denied to them in Bengal.

But what must one surrender if you are to immigrate to a foreign and alien land? Should you simply push to one side your origins and the cultural roots of your parent’s identity and embrace the westernised idea of cultural assimilation? This is exactly the unanswerable questions Nair asks with the character of Gogol Ganguly, the son of first generation immigrants who suffers an identity crisis as he enters adulthood. Gogol’s first attempt at trying to reject his Bengali cultural roots is by changing his name from Gogol to Nikhil so to confirm his assimilation. However much Gogol tries to withdraw himself from the ethnicity of his community, he is constantly brought back to confront the all important question regarding his own obscured identity. Unlike Gogol’s desire for cultural integration, Ashok’s fear of anonymity is painfully realised when he dies alone in a hospital, far away from the comforts of his wife and children. It seems that Ashok is the one who sacrifices the most for his children and the tragic price he is forced to pay is painfully visualised in the wounding shot of the empty, still apartment he occupies when he leaves on a three month teaching post.

It is the details that Nair renders with great precision especially when Ashima wakes up to find herself in a strange, new world; her idea of breakfast becomes a deeply ironic hybrid of chili powder and rice crispies. The culture shock experienced by Ashima is depicted with both wonder and trepidation yet more than Ashok she remains deeply connected with her homeland; this link is never severed even though it is threatened on many occasions by the trauma of death and loss. Nair treats the death of Ashok with extraordinary humility and much of the sincerity of this film is borne out of the emotional loss one feels when Ashima accidentally gets word of her husband’s death. The terrible guilt that bears down upon Gogol after he realises the many sacrifices and compromises given by his father reconfigures his identity once more. The symbolic significance of Gogol’s shaven head underlines his rebirth and rejection of the values of his girlfriend, Maxine (Jacinda Barrett), who fails to come to terms with the notion of a continuous identity crisis. This moment of ‘growing up’ and acquiring responsibility and subsequently earning a passage into adulthood are familiar conventions of the coming of age narrative that tends to be strongly associated with the American road movie and teen high school films.

The closing moments of the film kind of brings us full circle in terms of narrative; now it is Gogol who we see on a train, making a journey into the unknown and just like his father, he too will continue searching for an identity that will continually be in flux; forever changing, never fixed or permanent. Interestingly, Nair inter-cuts between a train in America to one in India to illustrate a singular truth that really does cut across any kind of generational divide; that all of those who extend from immigrant origins will likely to be torn between the land of their birth and the one that calls out to them across the oceans. Costing $9.5 million to make, ‘The Namesake’ grossed $20 million worldwide, and even though the final film is somewhat compromised by Kal Penn’s weak performance, Nair’s decision to cast him is perhaps vindicated in the commercial success enjoyed by a diaspora film about Bengali immigrants.

21 January 2009

CHARULATA / THE LONELY WIFE (Dir. Satiyjit Ray, 1964, India) - ‘The Broken Nest…’

Satiyjit Ray was never really associated with the mainstream of any kind commercial cinema. In fact, it would be wrong to label him an Indian film maker at all as this would mean unfairly and inappropriately categorising him alongside a group of mediocre directors. His consistently broad and enriching oeuvre repeatedly showed a unique fascination with his own region and culture, representing a warm and complex depiction of an indigenous Bengali identity. Ray above all was a Bengali film maker who made films that were culturally specific in terms of social milieu yet he also dealt with universal concerns identifiable in most societies and cultures. Heralding from an ancestry who were all to some degree involved with arts and humanities, it is of little surprise to see a noticeable literary tradition in a body of work that was indebted to the humble talents of another iconic Bengali artist, Rabindranath Tagore.

Released in 1964, ‘Charulata’, was the second collaboration with the stunning Bengali actress, Madhabi Mukherjee, who had previously starred in ‘Mahangar’ as the independently minded housewife who is forced to find work so that she can support her reluctant husband and children. ‘Charulata’ was regarded by Ray as his personal favourite out of the many films he directed, and it is undoubtedly a staggering achievement. Some have referred to ‘Charulata’ as a creative high point, but such a discriminatory statement does not really do justice to Ray’s remarkable consistency as an artist – look at his films and it is rare that you encounter any kind of troubled period or downturn in terms of directorial form. Even in the 90s, Ray worked tirelessly, directing a series of films that grappled with the anxieties of growing old. Artificial Eye, a vitally important world cinema distributor, have acquitted themselves superbly in helping to make available many of Ray’s key films on DVD, but the extras on many of the DVDs have been notably extraneous and devoid of any kind of informed commentary tracks.

The availability of Ray’s films on DVD has been a slow and gradual process, mainly due to the deterioration of original prints and the pain staking efforts that has gone into salvaging much of his timeless work. Key films like ‘The Music Room’, ‘Distant Thunder’ and much of his work from the 80s and 90s is still sadly unavailable on both DVD and VHS. Though it is possible to import much of his work from outside the UK, the quality of the transfer varies quite considerably and many of the subtitles have been poorly translated. How strange it is then that Ray’s most commercially successful and widely seen film in India, ‘Abhijan’ (The Expedition/The Adventure), is the one film that has been released by Eureka in a generous DVD package including some worthwhile extras. Originally Ray had not intended to direct ‘Abhijan’ but his appearances on set, offering advice to a novice director overseeing the production gradually led to him visualising the possibilities of making a film that could silence those of his critics who regularly accused him of being unable to meet the demands of commercial cinema. Eureka's 'masters of cinema' collection of world cinema DVDs must be praised for their incredible consummate commitment to ensuring both picture and sound quality are of the highest possible standards.

‘Charulata’ is based on the short story by Rabindranath Tagore, titled ‘The Broken Nest’. It is a magnificently directed and performed Bengali melodrama that is characterised by a typically understated style which avoids any kind of reliance on sentimentality, endorsing an embrace for authenticity and conviction. One never questions the integrity and honesty of Ray’s framing; it is always linked to validating human emotions and relationships. It is the absence of superficiality that makes Ray’s film so pure and if you were looking for somewhat of a contemporary equivalent of such unpretentious cinema then you need not look further than the Iranian new wave in the 90s. The universe Ray’s characters occupy is full of imperfections and remarkable contradictions that offer an unparalleled social commentary unseen in much of Indian cinema. The story of ‘Charulata’ takes place in 1870s Calcutta amongst the wealthy, aristocratic household of an estranged husband and wife. Ray’s sombre study of ‘Charu’, a bored housewife was very much about the feminine ambitions and identity of women in a rapidly transforming Bengali society.

When we first encounter the vulnerable Charu, she is seen wandering aimlessly through the fortress like home, poetry book in one hand and a pair of delicate binoculars in the other. She seems trapped by the baroque antiques curated by her eager husband, Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee), and using the binoculars, eavesdrops like a voyeur at the innocuous details of daily life unfolding outside. Charu is obviously separated from reality, spending her time waiting upon her husband who becomes consumed by his anti government newspaper that he publishes with such religious like vigour. In an attempt to placate the disenchanted feelings of his wife, Bhupati invites his cousin and loyal friend, Amal, the ever dependable Soumitra Chatterjee, to his home, assigning him the task of tutoring his wife and encouraging her to pursue an inner ambition of writing short stories. Bhupati is represented as a man of real conviction and one who is revealed to be amazingly naive and perhaps a little too trustworthy of those closest to him as it becomes despairingly apparent by the end of this tragedy that betrayal destroys everything dear to him including his newspaper. One cannot help sympathise with Bhupati’s sense of sadness at having lost both his wife and newspaper, but at the same time it is the neglect of Charu that ultimately seals his fate.

The tender relationship between Amal and Charu is beautifully observed; Charu’s affections for Amal are underlined by the symbolic appearance of a lovingly crafted pair of slippers, a signature of affection that hauntingly reappear in the final moments of the film as Charu is unable to hide her true feelings for Aamal from her benign husband. Upon his arrival, Amal seems to be possessed by an incredible zest for life. Having only graduated, Amal is undecided about what he wants from life and the mutual relationship he develops with Charu is both invigorating but heart breaking when it dawns upon them that what they both secretly desire is a near impossibility. It would effectively mean them being made outcasts by the unreasonable forces of tradition and also having to live with the painful consequence of turning Bhupati, a man of real convictions, into an enemy.

When Amal succeeds in publishing his short story in a popular literary journal, he inadvertently ignites a vein of competitiveness within Charu. She responds by succeeding in publishing her own story, disapprovingly bashing Amal over the head with the journal so to celebrate her personal triumph and eliminate any innate feelings of superiority that he may be harbouring about her literary talents. It is an uncontrolled moment of feminine anger, externalising Charu’s sense of constant belittlement and humiliation by both Amal and Bhupati who assume she is not capable of much. Amal is played by the ever reliable Soumitra Chatterjee, a regular Ray collaborator and one of the finest Bengali actors of his generation. Chatterjee played an amazingly broad range of roles and his characteristic trademark in terms of performance was his emboldened, distinctly expressive eyes. Like so many of the great actors, Chatterjee conveyed a great deal of anguish solely through the agonising manipulation of a few side way glances.

Bhupati considers himself somewhat of an aging aristocrat with fine literary tastes and is particularly proud of using his newspaper to criticise the government and its policies. In this sense, he is somewhat of a liberal critic and politician, publicising his political opinions with a fearlessness over which he has little control. The trust Bhupati places in the hands of his editor leads to his destruction and ruin but his startling decency seems at odds with the ulterior motives of those around him. Though Bhupati returns home to Charu, envious and heart broken over Charu and Amal’s intimacy, any hope of reconciliation is cut short by Ray’s decision to freeze the poignant image of husband and wife reaching out to one another; it is an incomplete gesture, tainted with sadness. ‘Charulata’ is one of Ray’s best films and offers an unflinchingly vivid portrayal of unrequited love and painful marital compromises.

20 January 2009

DIE WELLE / THE WAVE (Dir. Dennis Gansel, Germany, 2008) - ‘Strength through discipline…’

When the leader of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci, was languishing in a jail, imprisoned by Mussolini and his fascists, he often contemplated why and how nationalism had been allowed to take hold of the ideological mind set of European society. Fascism was an ideological embrace that sanctioned dictatorship and subsequently turned much of Europe into a graveyard of inhumane and indescribable horrors. Luckily, much of Gramsci’s Marxist writings were smuggled out of prison, and his political theory of ‘hegemony’ continues to form the basis of today’s left wing oppositional thinking and intellectual criticism. Gramsci was certainly right about one thing; those of us in society who have the means of propagating ideology can not only influence mainstream thought but also willingly generate a broad consensus so that any decision or policy advocated by the government is in essence, a confirmation of the majority. It is of little surprise that the ruling elite exercise control over the rest of society by ensuring that their hegemony reigns supreme and is protected at all costs even if this means going to war.

Louis Althusser insightfully expanded upon Gramsci’s theory of ‘hegemonic’ rule by suggesting that the elite maintains it’s control over society through what he termed ‘ideological and repressive state apparatus’. Though it is problematic to advocate or implement the use of repressive state apparatus like the military in developed nations, the relative acquiescence shown by the mass population towards ideological apparatus like the media, religion and education means coercion occurs unconsciously and consistently on a daily basis. If you are still reading this and trying to make sense of it all then you are probably asking yourself how any of these political theories relate to a recent German film titled ‘The Wave’? Well, education is an ideological institution that serves as the perfect vehicle for demonstrating the indoctrination and coercion that can occur when an individual in a position of great power and responsibility, in this case a teacher, decides to take it upon himself to become an authoritarian, elected dictator who subsequently is swept up by the egotistic pleasures it has to offer an individual trapped in the nightmarish world of mediocrity and conservatism. This is a very provocative and if at times, contrived, sociological thriller that reminded me of more recent edgier contemporary based German films like ‘The Experiment’ and ‘The Edukators’. Unlike the political idealism of ‘The Edukators’, the teenagers that occupy the sterile and conformist landscapes of new Germany are represented as naive and crudely dismissive in their grasp of their nation’s troubled past.

It is an overwrought film with much of the drama between the teacher and his students feeling slightly contrived and perhaps a little too fantastical. It is shot very much like an American production, underlining the film’s desire to appeal to an international audience. However, some of the ideological aspects of what life would be like under a dictatorship are interestingly inspired by counter culture resistance towards the domination of American brands. Some critics have been judgemental of the ending but it seems appropriate in terms of exploring the idea of political extremism and how it can take hold of the youth in a very persuasive way. I can see how a film like 'The Wave' occupies the middle ground in German cinema, not too mainstream or arthouse, but pitched at a level whereby a predominately youth audience would find it immensely entertaining and even provocative.

15 January 2009

TASTE OF CHERRY (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 1997, Iran) - ‘You want to give up the taste of cherries?...’

Kiarostami revels in the art of frustrating the spectator and his rejection of an emotional approach to film making is something he repeatedly talks about in his interviews, suggesting that such faith in sentimentality is both a false and superficial means of engaging the audience. Something extraordinary unfolds in the last few minutes of Kiarostami’s 1997 film, ‘A Taste of Cherry’. After having reached the end of his journey, Mr Badi (Homayoun Ershadi), or perhaps the beginning depending on how you interpret Kiarostami’s deeply allegorical gesture of a man clambering into his makeshift grave, the film unexpectedly cuts to video footage shot of the actual film making process. What Kiarostami reveals to the spectator in those few minutes is the entire process of making the film, deliberately deconstructing the illusion of film so that one is left in a state of unsettling curiosity and amazement at the self reflexive nature of contemporary Iranian cinema. It is such a risky moment, fraught with an inexplicable suspicion towards film as a falsehood, a process that manipulates the spectator so that their gullible nature is both exposed and ridiculed. In fact, it almost seems as though Kiarostami is laughing at us in the closing moments as he simply unravels the entire narrative and journey of Mr Badi as though it was merely a conceit.

Sublimely executed by Kiarostami, the self reflexive processes are arguably aligned with the kind of deconstructive film making pioneered by Godard in the 60s. Godard’s refusal to adhere to a specific style not only recognised a discontinuous ethos but it prevented many critics and audiences from trying to position him into yet another objectionable group of film categories. Each one of Kiarostami’s films are characteristically unique but similarly share the notion of blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality. ‘Taste of Cherry’ utilises an indescribably minimalist style, pushing the theoretical ideas of neo realist practioneer, Cesare Zavattini, to the point of abstraction, opting for a series of long takes and a fixed camera position that extenuates a compelling documentary aesthetic. Ideologically, Kiarostami’s deeply conflicted middle aged protagonist is an embodiment of existential anxieties in which a desire for suicide is foremost a religious taboo that very few, if any, Iranian films have tried to probe with an intellectual rigour as Mr Badi’s repeated plea for understanding and rationality. Though many of the Italian neo realist masters foregrounded the imagery of landscapes so that the ordinary characters were constantly shown in conflict with them, Kiarostami has made the motif of the winding road or path as a key signature and Mr Badi's journey sees him alternate back and forth across the same winding road as though to underline the repressed uncertainity he feels towards the idea of suicide. If only all of cinema was as unpretentious as the films of Abbas Kiarostami.

13 January 2009

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (Dir. Danny Boyle, 2008, US) 'A little electricity will loosen his tongue...'

It is deeply encouraging to see a film shot in India about Indian characters and focusing on the issue of poverty receiving widespread critical and commercial acclaim. The film’s best picture Golden Globe award has finally confirmed the mainstream reputation of the UK film maker, Danny Boyle. It is perhaps a recognition which he has been unselfishly seeking ever since he made ‘Shallow Grave’ back in the nineties. Danny Boyle famously turned down the directorial reigns of the fourth Alien film, a wise decision on reflection as the film was plagued with creative differences between the eventual director, Jean Pierre Jenuet and the leading lady, Sigourney Weaver. Boyle’s rejection of the Alien franchise, a hugely successful commercial property owned by Fox, seemed to be somewhat of a snub, underlining the artistic integrity of a director who did not feel any obligations to compromise or even ‘sell out’ on what he felt was a very personal approach to making films. Danny Boyle’s persistency to make films on his own terms is something to be admired but unlike most UK film makers, Boyle has been very fortunate in being able to consistently secure financing for the kinds of genre films he wants to make.

’28 Days Later’ signalled a real shift in terms of financing, with the film backed by Fox Search Light Pictures, it was Boyle’s first fully financed ‘American’ film. Though it was shot in the UK, ’28 Days Later’ borrowed heavily from the zombie and post apocalyptic Hollywood genre films, suggesting that Boyle had come to grasp quite quickly that no British film maker with international ambitions could sustain a career solely by making films that catered for an exclusively indigenous UK audience. ’28 Days Later’ was well received in the US and steadily made ground, becoming an instant cult success, which subsequently influenced Fox Search Light to green light the sequel, ’28 Weeks Later’, the follow up to Boyle’s hybrid and a film that is perhaps one of the most politically astute of the British horror films made in the last ten years. After the critical high of ’28 Days Later’, Danny Boyle returned back to his origins, directing ‘Millions’, a relatively low budget enclosed social realist drama that seemed to leave critics slightly unimpressed.

Boyle’s most recent film, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is also his most ambitious and global film to date. Every year due to the euphoria and the hype generated by an awards season full of arbitrary and redundant gestures, a select few films are pushed to the foreground, usually for reasons to do with Hollywood desperately wanting to promote its humanist, liberal agenda. Such has been the case with an over rated film like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, a film that is being celebrated for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps for American critics, Boyle’s rags to riches Dickensian fairytale is exactly the type of cathartic film making they want to champion as it seems to embody the underdog qualities of a piece of cinema that can sometimes become surprisingly effective at certain awards ceremonies. Boyle’s work has never really had any concerns for realism and he certainly dispenses with such seemingly British cinematic preoccupations by embellishing the journey of Jamal and Salim, two poverty stricken street kids who live in the most wretched of conditions. To distance himself from the criticism concerning his perpetuation of certain culturally offensive stereotypes and wholly conventional exotic picture postcard imagery of the Indian landscape, Boyle has repeatedly stressed that his film in no way sets out to offer any kind of ideological critique, it is simply a ‘fairytale’. Such a na├»ve and defensive position underlines how Boyle and his scriptwriter, Simon Beaufoy, cannot help but depend upon familiar scenarios and characterisation to ensure their film about India is not rejected by audiences who are still suspicious of Bollywood as a credible film industry.

Most critics have been generous in their praise of the film’s feel good nature but what many of them seem to overlook is the stark fact that Bollywood has been busily and expertly making this kind of ‘Masala’ film for the last 30 years or so. The mere ‘rags to riches’ narrative idea is overly familiar to most fans of Bollywood cinema and the emotionally manipulative journey they take from the childhood sectarian violence of the streets to the skyscrapers of the new Indian society is stale, predictable and oddly reminiscent of an old fashioned style of underdog film immortalised by the legendary figure of Amitabh Bhachan. Not only does the film rely upon tired formulaic conventions that characterise the dated ‘masala’ genre, Boyle’s representation of Indian society and its people are sadly tinged with the most stereotypical of visual imagery that has been repeated endlessly by films made by mainstream Hollywood and British directors. Of course, it is a ‘feel good’ movie, from a westerner’s perspective, it makes one feel comparatively good about their own life when compared to the underclass of supposed slumdogs that hopelessly fill the streets of Mumbai.

India continues to be positioned in mainstream Hollywood films as the exotic other and no film about India is complete without featuring a scene at the steps of the Taj Mahal, an icon of tragic beauty that is meant to fill the spectator with a sense of wonder at the cultural richness of the country. Though this may be true, what many film makers actually result in doing is filming culturally significant landmarks that reduces the vastness of India to a few friendly postcard images that all point to a touristy hunger for yet more ridiculous ‘exoticness’. Some critics, rare that they are, have picked upon Boyle’s reversion to culturally offensive stereotypes and imagery especially in the childhood sequences at the beginning of the film in which we come across a sadistic child abductor who uses orphans and homeless children for exploitative purposes.

Why is it that the kinds of films made about India by western film makers either focus on the non offensive figure of Gandhi, the affects of partition or street children? By constantly focusing on the negative aspects not only presents a distorted picture of Indian society, it also offers a very crude snapshot that cannot help but generalise and trivialise the lives of an underclass. Also, it is glib and dishonest to even suggest that in order for the underclass to liberate themselves from the inequalities of society they must aim to appear on unreal game shows like ‘Who wants to a Millionaire?’ in the hope of achieving some kind of social mobility. Of course, such a suggestion could never exist in a film that is foremost trying to entertain us as best it can.

The formidable Bollywood actor, Irfan Khan, shows up in a few scenes as a police inspector who interrogates Jamal with a favourite Bollywood ‘B’ movie torture technique. Once again, such a cynical and lazy caricature of the Indian police is straight out of one of the many poorly directed Bollywood films that is typically rounded upon by critics each week yet such a stereotype serves no real purpose other than functioning as an obvious narrative device, triggering flashbacks. Irfan Khan is perhaps the most versatile actor of his generation but his presence, though commanding and sincere, is completely wasted in a film that amounts to nothing more than a series of cynically constructed, hyperbolic moments.

Luckily Dev Patel does not appear in as many scenes as you first assume because his performance is not only unconvincing, it smacks of a feeling that here is an actor who is simply trying his best not to act but to look as though he is a performer. Dev Patel's one dimensional performance is frustrating in the way he gawps his way through the film as though he has just been told that the next season of 'Skins' promises to be just really, really good. Boyle took a risk by casting a relative unknown, perhaps to do with budget constraints, but Dev Patel is supposed to a kid from the slums yet he appears to clean cut and 'westernised'. The love story between Jamal and Latika is trite and very sentimental, clearly lifted out of your typical overblown Bollywood musical, and the compulsion to finish with a horrendously choreographed dance sequence at the train station is simply hollow in its tribute to the enduring tradition of the 'song and dance' convention.

It also seems unfair that the composer A R Rahman is only now being recognised by Hollywood yet he has been busy working in the Indian film industry for little over ten years, producing some beautifully arranged compositions and film scores for an array of mainstream and independent films. He certainly brings a depth and soul to the film but his work on ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is relatively competent when compared to his considerably superior scores for recent Bollywood films like’Jodha Akbar’ and ‘Swades’.

Ultimately, this is a film that will be reappraised once the hype has faded away and may be viewed in the mediocre light in which it actually appears but at the moment, it seems as though Hollywood’s infectious obsession with the story of the underdog is one undeniably linked to their own myths, especially the one about the American dream and triumph over adversity, so when you think of ‘Jamal’, think of ‘Rocky’, and think of ‘Maximus’, because Hollywood loves to embrace an anti hero in such despairing times.

10 January 2009

BORN AND BRED (Dir. Pablo Trapero, 2006, Argentina) - 'Argentina - do they even have a cinema?'

Why is it that so much of the best cinema rarely ever gets mentioned in the endless pages of criticism dedicated to Hollywood cinema? Apart from the singular and undying attention Sight and Sound adorns to other kinds of cinema, most of the mainstream print publications including magazines are essentially extensions of expensive marketing campaigns run by Hollywood studios. For a while, in its initial few years, the UK’s biggest selling film magazine, Empire, was arguably offering a broad range of content and features that did not solely represent the interests of Hollywood. Yet as the magazine developed into something much more mainstream, advertisers were quick to foresee the potential of being able to target a cine literate audience of professional males with a noticeably attractive spending power.

Today, flicking through the pages of a magazine like Empire, one is overwhelmed with a deluge of banal product placements, blatant DVD promotions and poorly disguised advertorials. The mediocrity of Empire is no better illustrated then the review section, which struggles not only to provides some competent journalism but also sinks beneath the despairing conformity of its star ratings that rarely ever damn a Hollywood blockbuster in fear of being denied access to the best and the brightest in the business. Anyhow, much continues to be debated and written about the current state of film criticism and whether or not the film critic will sooner rather than later meet their demise seems irrelevant to the general public. Some publications, rare that they are, continue to bring to our attention to the voice of a new and emerging film talent.

Such is the case with Pablo Trapero, an Argentinean film maker who with his most recent feature, ‘Born and Bred’, confirmed his status as a key Latin American film maker and as another burgeoning world cinema auteur. Set in contemporary Argentina, Trapero’s emotionally assured study of grief, guilt and masculinity is beautifully rendered against the backdrop of Northern Patagonia, an inhospitable and mountainous terrain that beholds an unspeakable spiritual precedence. In his previous films, Trapero’s aim was squarely pointed at the repeated failings of a bankrupt Argentinean society that had left millions of people in abject poverty and though ‘Born and Bred’ shifts the focus away from criticising institutional power, it still retains a familiar brand of poetic realism that has become strongly associated with Latin American cinema of late.

I was unaware that Walter Salles produced ‘Born and Bred’ until the credits and it immediately got me thinking how Salles may yet be the most important cinematic figure to have emerged out of Latin American cinema in the last fifty years. Not only did Salles help finance and support Meirelles ‘City of God’, he has worked tirelessly to promote indigenous film making in the arena of film festivals, attracting critical acclaim for his own realist cinema with films like ‘Central Station’, ‘Behind The Sun’ and ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’. I strongly doubt that the current success being enjoyed by much of Latin American cinema today would not have been possible without the articulate campaigning of Walter Salles; he has honestly and rightfully earned his place within the evolution of much of today’s highly intelligent Brazilian and Argentinean cinema.

‘Born and Bred’ is a deeply emotional and involving film, observational in parts and elliptically structured so that as the past and present gradually move closer to another, the sense of loss experienced by Santiago (Guillermo Pfening) is simply not reduced to melodrama. Trapero never feels the need to explain everything, allowing his characters to exist in the realm of an acutely trivial reality that is unable to offer nothing more than a temporary state of exile. The exhausting trauma that Santiago undergoes to reach an internal reconciliation for the insurmountable guilt he harbours for the loss of his daughter may even reflect Trapero’s own personal grievances with the failings of his country. At the end, Santiago discovers that his wife is very much alive but their final reunion is fraught with ambiguity and discloses an awkwardness that points to a fractured relationship, one that will probably never heal no matter how hard they try at living with a past haunted by an unfortunate accident.

9 January 2009

THE TERMINATOR (Dir. James Cameron, 1984, US) - 'It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear...'

Long before Schwarzenegger morphed into a bogus, inarticulate political representative and James Cameron was swallowed up the by mediocrity of ‘Titanic’, they had together for a brief moment collaborated on something very special, very original and very low budget. Released in 1984, ‘The Terminator’ is perhaps the ultimate benchmark in low budget independent film making and today remains respectably and rightfully positioned alongside similar eighties ‘B’ movie American masterworks such as John Carpenter’s ‘Escape From New York’, Alex Cox’s ‘Repo Man’ and Walter Hill’s ‘The Driver’. What these films share in common is that they were very shrewd to disguise their low budget limitations by opting to shoot at night. Though ‘The Terminator’ is clearly a brilliantly effective science fiction film, Cameron also demonstrates endless visual possibilities, using as his guide, one of the leanest and most economical screenplays ever written. Not a single shot is wasted.

However, compare such an uncompromising philosophy to the juggernaut that is ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’, a hugely entertaining action film, and it becomes painfully apparent how in some cases the overwhelming size of a Hollywood blockbusting budget can shatter the notion of working under certain constraints. It is those constraints that make films like ‘The Terminator’ such a taut and incredibly enthralling piece of genre cinema. It is hard to believe that ‘The Terminator’ was made on a relatively low budget but its eventual transformation into a lucrative franchise not only confirmed the originality of Cameron’s concept, it also immortalised the culturally iconic figure of Schwarzenegger as the relentless, Uzi wielding cyborg. It is interesting to consider why ‘The Terminator’ has attracted the status of a ‘B’ movie when in fact Cameron is able to elevate the material out from its exploitation origins, producing a time travel narrative that is both intelligently structured and aesthetically translated through a nightmarish representation of Los Angeles.

To categorise ‘The Terminator’ as a ‘B’ movie is in fact partly linked to the critical contempt with which the science fiction genre has been treated in the study of cinema and Hollywood film genres. Had the film been associated with either the gangster or western film genre, then surely its status as a ‘B’ movie would not had been as forthcoming from some of the critics. What is so striking about the film in light of today’s sedate and mind numbingly mundane Hollywood cinema is it’s incredibly raw, energetic and visceral power that comes largely from what is a wonderfully under rated editing technique of montage and cross cutting by Mark Goldblatt who would reunite with Cameron on the second film, producing what is perhaps the greatest chase sequence in a Hollywood high concept action movie.

The idea of time travel had always been a staple of science fiction literature and the unexpected box office success of ‘The Terminator’ film led to a cycle of Hollywood financed time travel films like ‘Back to the Future’. ‘Blade Runner’ had already been released two years prior to ‘The Terminator’ and its cyberpunk origins seemed to have inspired Cameron in being able to successfully import the quintessential science fiction convention, that of technophobia. The motif of technology turning against society and people was not at all new or prescient yet Cameron manages to structure key moments in the narrative around the failure of technology so that the distinctly violent struggle between Reese (Michael Biehn) and The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) takes on an added metaphysical potency which actually makes a potentially implausible central idea into an altogether more imaginative one.

What also separates this from other science fiction at the time was Cameron's intelligent yet risky reinvention of the genre by generating audience sympathy by having the spectator relate to a female character whose eventual empowerment challenges traditional gender assumptions. Another term strongly associated with 'The Terminator' film is neo noir, another vague and unexplained cinematic term which is useful in positioning the feel for bleak, dystopian urban landscapes in the lineage of classical noir iconography that was shared by similarly distinctive noirish films like Michael Mann's 'Thief' and Walter Hill's 'The Driver'.

In essence, Cameron confounds genre sensibilities by simply pulling apart the conventions of science fiction and producing an 'urban noir cyberpunk' science fiction film that makes it seemingly impossible to categorise for any discernible fan of genre. Another ideologically fascinating idea that Cameron seems to be criticising is the demise of punk culture as The Terminator's convenient first encounter with a group of anti social punks immediately gives him an unusually anti conformist visual identity which is incidentally maintained throughout the rest of the film. Though he assumes the role of the archetypal villain, the accidental punk image seems to offer a contradictory reading of The Terminator as a symbol of mainstream resistance and expression of cultural dystopia.

Both Cameron and Schwarzenegger would continue collaborating but this film made at the very start of their careers seems ironically like a cinematic high point and is certainly one of the key films of a period dominated by rampant commercialism that was mirrored in the steady rise of the blockbuster.

4 January 2009

HEARTBEAT DETECTOR (Dir. Nicolas Klotz, 2007, France) - 'Misguided and Disappointing'

Art house cinema often brings with it a pretentious set of ideals, excess baggage that can easily work against certain films, especially those originating from France, a country which continues to be viewed as the protector of real cinema. Released in 2008, 'Heartbeat Detector' stars the consistently impressive Mathieu Almaric and is directed by the relatively unknown film maker, Nicolas Klotz, who by many critics standards has finally been promoted into the ranks of the under rated and promising film makers category. It is a film about corporate mentality and how the history of a well established and respectable corporation can have its origins in an ugly past that many would prefer to overlook in favour of maintaining the status quo of capitalism. Klotz's film has received many awards at various film festivals and was one of the best reviewed films of 2008. I am surprised why critics have embraced such a flat, disengaging and empty film as though it was challenging and even ground breaking in the context of the narrow types of films made by French cinema today. Apart from a fine, zombie style performance from Almaric who most recently 'sold out' by offering to become another victim on the list of 007, Klotz must have been deluded if he thought he was setting out to direct some kind of world cinema anti corporate critique as his visual approach is both suffocating and deeply frustrating. Using Brechtian devices, now the hallmark of Michael Haneke and once pioneered most impressively by Godard, have become an obvious clique of world cinema, and in this case it simply leaves the spectator bored. I will not accept the view that boredom is the exact emotional response Klotz is trying to provoke in the spectator because this simply seems like an easy Nouvelle Vague get out of jail excuse of trying to justify what is a lethargic, anemic and emotionless cinematic experience. The strangest and most annoying sequence is the much celebrated 'rave' which not only unfolds in long, pointless takes and makes use of nauseous strobing but also wants to offer some crude, unintelligent statement on how corporations are repressive. Haneke's 'Cache' is one of the few recent world cinema films that can lay a claim to the over privileged status of masterpiece and though Klotz and Haneke both deal with the tricky subject of a nation's past and the guilt it perpetrates on today's generation, the failure of Klotz's film lies in his misguided stylistic execution of what is undeniably a provocative and relevant subject matter. I had expected a great deal from 'Heartbeat Detector', perhaps too much, and instead I came away feeling very disappointed.