14 June 2010

MEMORIAS DEL SUBDESARROLLO / MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT (Dir. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1968, Cuba) - A Mind In Exile

Some films may declare themselves to be outright political yet many waver when it comes to actually asking those questions that challenge the prevailing status quo. I had heard a great deal about this film and it didn't disappoint in the slightest. Memories of Underdevelopment has perhaps one of the most brilliant titles for what is a pseudo political essay on the complexity of revolutionary ideology in a country like Cuba. I don't know much about Cuban cinema and the same goes for director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's status as a film maker but this is a film which is recognised as a seminal one and its 1968 release date makes it particularly important for the internationalist struggle that was taking hold of the developing world towards the end of the sixties. Equally, Alea's film doubly functions as a historical document of Cuba in a post Castro-revolutionary stage whilst the focus on the singular character of Sergio, a bored Marxist intellectual who spends his day gratifyingly scrutinising the lack of mental development in Cuban society, acts as a symbol of the middle class in crisis. When his wife and best friend flee to America after Castro takes power, Sergio retreats inwardly, raiding memories that detail a life unfulfilled and somewhat decadent. Sergio's central argument is that though a physical revolution may have taken place as symbolised in the seizing of power and vanquishing of American imperialism, the social and political development of the Cuban majority remains stagnant. In his Marxist analysis, Sergio points to the women in Cuban society who he argues are underdeveloped thus ideas of revolution can never truly be implemented or put into practise.

In many ways, the loose episodic narrative that juxtaposes memories, fantasy and reality parallels the political deconstruction of Godard's cinema. The sequences in the apartment as Sergio listens to recordings of his bourgeoisie lifestyle, extenuated by his banal conversations with his estranged wife are some of the most astute and intimate, creating a warm character study. Sergio's liberalism and involvement with a young girl leads to charges of rape but later he is acquitted in what amounts to a satire of the judicial system. The girl's parents reveal a conservatism and that is in keeping with the film's criticism of such underdevelopment. Alea's masterpiece is overflowing with strong political ideas and in particular the subjective nature of the narrative and use of flashbacks seems to have had a lasting impact on many film makers including even someone as mainstream as American auteur Steven Soderbergh. I could not help but feel that Alea's film is something quite unique and perhaps even singular in terms of political cinema. I can't wait to revisit this one again to see what else it has to offer.

9 June 2010

THE KILLER INSIDE ME (Dir. Michael Winterbottom, US, 2010) - 'There are things that have to be forgotten if you want to go on living.'

Winterbottom's latest genre foray is a splendid film but it continues to be overshadowed by the controversy currently being amplified by the media's deliberately motivated focus on the violence directed towards the women in the film. Touted as a faithful adaptation of American crime writer Jim Thompson's novel, The killer inside me is a very grim, realistic character study that operates in the murky realms of film noir but also draws upon elements from the western genre. I'm not sure if I entirely agree with the knee jerk reaction that the film has received largely from the conservative media. Many newspapers have simply labelled the film as misogynist, calling an end to the whole thing. The violence depicted in the film towards the two female characters played by Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson did make me feel uncomfortable and it is very brutally played out but of course we have to ask ourselves is it justified? and is there an appropriate context for such violence? The answer I feel to such pertinent questions is undoubtedly yes but it is quite illuminating to see the split between the press and mainstream film journals, many of whom have tried to appreciate the film's on artistic merits whilst also debating the role of violence in the film. The press in many regards have really gone for Winterbottom on this one, drawing parallels with the recent furore created by Lars Von Trier and Antichrist. Yet why is it that one of Britain’s finest directors can only get press coverage when his films provoke controversy? In this case, the attention Winterbottom's film has drawn in the media for its representation of violence seems to only confirm a cultural snobbery that circulates in the press regarding film in general. Nothing new there then.

Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman’s comment on the film is one of the few 'sensible' defences that I have come across in the press, emphasising that ‘domestic violence really is brutal’. The violence regularly depicted in American cinema especially Hollywood films is either heavily sanitised or appears as a bombastic spectacle in which somebody being punched, shot or exploding into smithereens is somewhat ideologically chic. I think it is pretty obvious that Winterbottom intended to make the spectator feel uncomfortable when watching the violence yet such is the heinous context, the consequences of such violence perpetrated by the central male character is questioned throughout. It is not good enough for critics and the press to reduce Winterbottom’s film down to the two sequences in question as it not only misrepresents the content of the film as a whole but it polarises opinion, thus stifling any robust room for a proper debate on why exactly the director refused to sanitise the violence. Having said that, I don’t think this is one of Winterbottom’s stronger works as it seems to lack direction and the ending didn’t really work for me. However, like most of his films, one can still take plenty away in terms genre and authorial concerns. A couple of reference points in terms of American cinema and film noir included nods to such classics like Chinatown, Dennis Hopper’s hugely under rated The Hot Spot, Kiss Me Deadly, The Grifters, Detour and even shades of Hitchcock’s Shadow of Doubt.

4 June 2010

RAAJNEETI / POLITICS (Dir. Prakash Jha, 2010, India) - The Epic Tradition

The Mahabharata revolves around the struggles between two princely families, the Pandavas and their cousins, the Kauravas for possession of a kingdom located near the present city of Delhi. The central character of the epic is Lord Krishna, a man of action and a statesman. The climax is the great battle in which Lord Krishna becomes the charioteer of Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers.
Indian Popular Cinema - A Narrative of Cultural Change, Gokulsing & Dissanayake, 2004: 43

Prakash Jha's much touted and handsomely mounted political epic falls short of expectations. Though it is ultimately an uneven and somewhat disjointed film it still succeeds intermittently in borrowing liberally from India's greatest narrative - The Mahabharata to writ large the destructive nature of politics in today's society. A tentpole production from UTV motion pictures and featuring an impressive ensemble cast including the likes of Nana Patekar, Ajay Devgan and Manoj Bajpai, Raajneeti has been slickly marketed as an event picture. Supported by what is an equally expansive marketing campaign the film is likely to succeed at the box office. Of course, had Jha wanted to stick with the stalwarts of the Mumbai film industry the film would never have attracted the expensive budget it needed to do it justice thus the inclusion of a baby face Ranbir Kapoor and the model turned actress Katarina Kaif is perhaps the compromise that had to be made. I don't think Ranbir Kapoor is a poor actor and with Rocket Singh he has shown a lot of promise but as the scheming and morally righteous son he is tragically miscast. I can understand that an up and coming actor like Ranbir Kapoor risks becoming typecast very quickly but showing range can also work against you especially when those around you in a film like Raajneeti have learned to work so naturally and fluently over so many years.

Manoj Bajpai is a terrific actor and after a number of years of obscure performances it is encouraging to see him being given a role worthy of his talents, much of which has been tragically wasted on seeing him but failing to fit into the mainstream. I guess it is largely the dependable performances of Nana Patekar and Ajay Devgan that rescues the film from being smothered by what is an overlong running time. Admittedly, Indian cinema is one of interruptions but the interval seemed to mark a turning point as the second half of the film falls short of sustaining interest in what amounts to a plethora of soap opera like constructed plot lines. However, having mentioned soap opera as though it was a dirty word would also be the right way of reading this film as The Mahabharata revolves around the most elemental and universal of conflicts, that of warring families. Yet one must also be weary of the fact that though Prakash Jha explicitly refers to The Mahabharata in his film this is a Hindu text that has permeated the very psyche of Indian culture and in many ways most TV shows, films and books knowingly or unknowingly acknowledge it's influence. Of course we have been here before as both Shyam Benegal with Kalyug (The Dark Age, 1981) and Kumar Shahani with Tarang (Wave, 1984) as part of parallel cinema made their own versions of the Mahabharata in the 1980s.

With the character of Indu Pratap (Katarina Kaif), the references to contemporary Indian politics including Sonia Gandhi are quite obvious but one suspects if this element of the film was purely instigated to generate media interest in the project whilst also building wider contextual credibility. Jha does succeed in generating an epic sweep to his tale of power, greed and corruption and whilst we have witnessed the deconstruction of such universal themes before it was encouraging to see a film maker attempting to use political electioneering as a suitable and involving backdrop. I had the pleasure to see Raajneeti on a digital screen and it looked magnificent throughout especially the faultless cinematography. This film does have many flaws (including a ridiculous sub plot involving Ranbir Kapoor's American girlfriend) but Prakash Jha is a graduate of the Pune Film institute and one can see clear signs of a film maker negotiating his own authorial demands with those of commercial cinema. Does he succeed though? On this occasion, I would have to say no.