31 May 2011

SENNA - (Dir. Asif Kapadia, 2010, UK / France / US)

Brazilian Ayrton Senna won the F1world championship 3 times before his tragic death.

By rejecting many of the current documentary tendencies for the performative and reflexive, Asif Kapadia’s moving celebration of the late Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna confirms the early promise evidenced by his startling debut feature The Warrior. Opting for the poetic mode and constructing a compelling narrative through extensive and elucidating use of archive footage Kapadia succeeds in creating both a visceral journey of Senna’s extraordinary life and an intimate portrait of someone constantly on the precipice of death. Part biopic, the documentary explores the origins of Senna’s passion for the sport and steadily charts his rise to the echelons of Formula One dominance. One of the more fascinating aspects of the narrative is the intense rivalry between Alain Prost and Senna which is depicted as a larger than life battle for egotistical glories. Kapadia is wise to push aside interviews and have friends and colleagues talk over the footage of Senna – this not only keeps us immersed in the gripping nature of such a dangerous sporting spectacle but builds a breathtaking rhythm (complemented by a terrific score by Antonio Pinto) that can only be contained by the tragic ending. In many ways it is somewhat problematic to label this a documentary given the intense narrative and genre elements closely imitate the language of fictional film. Kapadia depicts Senna as an Icarus like figure, demonstrating devotion for the sport that would lead to his inevitable destruction. A Working Title production and a favourite at Sundance, Senna is undoubtedly one of the best films I have seen all year.

30 May 2011

ROUTE IRISH - (Dir. Ken Loach, 2010, UK/France/Italy/Belgium/Spain)

As long we have Ken Loach, Paul Laverty and Rebecca O Brien working together as a collective then a credible and strong political discourse exists in British cinema. With Loach is it not right to compare his films to each other or attempt to position Route Irish via an authorial approach because all of his films are motivated by social currents. The cinematic dialogue by British film makers on the subject of Iraq continues to lack any kind of engaged political vigour and the relative absence of any kind of social criticism of the war crimes committed in Iraq by the British government is representative of British cinema’s acquiescence. Route Irish might actually be one of the first British films to represent and address the displacement of Iraqi people who have been forced to flee their homes in Iraq as a direct consequence of the invasion and occupation. At first the presence of an Iraqi exile may seem contrived but Harim (Talib Rasool) is a well constructed character given a platform from which to express a maligned voice typically repressed in the mainstream media. His talents as a musician actually makes him more intelligent than Fergus whilst the victimisation he faces at the hands of hired thugs indicts private security firms as yet another ugly manifestation of corporate hegemony. Whilst The Wind That Shakes The Barley offers an allegory of imperialism and the politics of occupation, Route Irish approaches neo colonialism through the narrative of two Liverpudlians and British mercenaries; Fergus (Mark Womack) and Frankie (John Bishop). Consistency especially an ideological one is exceptionally rare in cinema and whilst he continues to face the wrath of a right wing media in the UK, the intentions of Loach to make the film he wants to and on his terms has to be commended. With the suspicious death of close friend Frankie in Iraq, Fergus sets upon a personal investigation and uncovers an all too familiar conflict; people vs. profits. In the final analysis, Fergus does get a chance to re-address the political imbalance but his complicity in the war crimes of Iraq equates him with the merchants of war.

28 May 2011

KANDAHAR / THE RUINS (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1983, India)

Shabana Azmi is on terrific form as the powerless Jamini - a figure of dread and uncertainty.

The gaze of the photographer Subhash (Naseeruddin Shah) is one that shows little compassion for the predicament of those imprisoned in the past. Whilst the initial reaction to marry Jamini (Shabana Azmi) is motivated by sentiment, it holds no actual validity or merit when the decisive moment arises. Subhash sees reality through the lens of his camera – it is a critical distance that stops him from becoming emotionally involved with the subject. The image of Jamini he captures frozen in the milieu of the feudal ruins transforms her plea for escape into a ghostly memory akin to the photos hanging grotesquely in the photo studio of Subhash. He is strictly an observer and preserver of reality which is an aspect of his flawed and troubling personality that Jamini is unable to comprehend. Additionally, Subhash views the feudal past through a tourist like perspective. Jamini is rendered a prisoner of the past by simplifying reality through his photographic lens which essentially cannibalizes rural India and re-presents it as a collection of palatable and stereotypical images. If Subhash is a likely authorial expression of Sen the film maker then he directly implicates himself in the criticism that films allow audiences to pass through historical narratives as casual tourists – such is the guilt free journey taken by Subhash. Subhash feels the disassociating gaze of the camera empowers him and lets him unassumingly think he sees everything but Sen juxtaposes the urban gaze of Subhash with the ancient and truthful gaze of the bed ridden blind widow/mother of Jamini. The mother, a symbol of feudal decay, may represent the past but her failed attempt to construct a link between the past and present cannot transpire given the distance between the urban and rural is simply too extreme. A number of films come to mind that offer interesting formal links including Kamal Amrohi’s gothic noir Mahal (The Mansion, 1949), Antonioni’s L’Avventura (The Adventure, 1960) and The Passenger (1975). Kandahar is one of Sen’s most ideologically and stylistically complex works whilst the final image of the helpless Jamini (Shabana Azmi) reduced to a photographic memory is a haunting one.

25 May 2011

SARA AKASH / THE WHOLE SKY (Dir. Basu Chatterjee, 1969, India) - Marital Bliss

Samar - the husband....

How often has it been stated and reiterated that 1969 was a seminal year for film making in India as it signalled the emergence of New Indian Cinema. Whilst Mani Kaul and Mrinal Sen more or less remained resolutely independent in both form and content throughout their later years the same cannot be said for Basu Chatterjee who debuted with Sara Akash in 1969. Kaul’s Uski Roti, Sen’s Bhuvan Shome and Chatterjee’s Sara Akash may have had a transparent and lucid neo realist agenda, much more significant was the signature of cinematographer K.K. Mahajan who shot all three films in an unorthodox style. Unlike his contemporaries Chatterjee was an auteur whose impact on other film makers was less discernible yet the influence of a film like Sara Akash can be seen in both Ray’s Pratidwandi and also Benegal’s Ankur. Samar, a young college graduate with worldly ambitions and Prabha, a sensitive and intelligent matriculate, become husband and wife through an arranged marriage. It transpires that neither of them are prepared for such an arduous new life and the family inevitably victimise the new bride and slowly gang up on her in the house, making life difficult. Samar’s refusal to accept the cruelty of traditions which he cannot reject makes him bitter towards his wife. His silence and refusal to even touch her or make eye contact becomes a great source of marital animosity and Prabha is treated like a pariah. Samar’s thoughts of imprisonment and escape are expressed through dream sequences which would go on to influence Pratidwandi. However, unlike Ray’s politicised representations of Bengali youth Chatterjee’s urban adolescent is waking up to the stark realities of cultural traditions.

...and Prabha - the wife.

In many ways Chatterjee seemed to shift dramatically from such realist film making with some immediacy, thus Sara Akash really stands apart in his oeuvre when compared to the light comic touch he would bring to his films in the 1970s. Perhaps what makes Sara Akash unconventional as a film for Chatterjee is the rejection of song and dance. Such a rejection gives the text a greater artistic validity and imposes a sincerity that ties in with the manifesto of 1968 espousing realism. In many ways, the narrative mixes elements of the youth film with strong melodrama accents and the focus on family as a destructive guardian of tradition is a strong point of social criticism. The ending feels like a compromise though because Prabha who comes to the house still takes the abuse and reconciles with her husband Samar. Of course Chatterjee deals with another reality here – that it would be impossible for her to simply leave Samar as this would mean disgrace for her, so in a way she is forced to stay merely out of a dependency on tradition. I’m not so sure if Prabha should have been so unforgiving considering the vindictiveness of Samar’s rejection. For me, it is a problematic ending full of compromise. Sara Akash is not a particularly strong film nor is it a seminal one but what makes it alive and fresh today is K.K. Mahajan’s extraordinary eye. His cinematography gives the film a special look and at the time some of the bold, audacious camerawork was visually indicative of Indian cinema’s capacity to show signs of radical iconoclastic authorial expression. K.K. was central to the development of a realist, creative aesthetic in the late 60s and his work with Mrinal Sen in particular is simply brilliant. Like Pratidwandi, Padatik and other films during the New Indian Cinema phase, Sara Akash is a film about youthful ambitions and dreams that collide with the regressive traditions of Old India, leaving us with a painful resolution in which both parties are imprisoned for their cultural subservience.

Here is some useful reading on cinematographer K.K. Mahajan who passed away in 2007:

http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/fl2415/stories/20070810509308700.htm

http://www.upperstall.com/people/kk-mahajan

http://www.mattersofart.net/colomnkkmahajan.html

24 May 2011

ALL WATCHED OVER BY MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE (Dir. Adam Curtis, 2011, UK) - Episode 1 : Love and Power

Adam Curtis has returned with a new documentary series on the impact of machines on the human condition, society and market economics. Titled like a belated Radiohead Album ‘All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace’ is another witty and brilliantly ideological polemic on the elite’s duplicitous cajoling of the helpless, pacified masses – namely us for their own interests. You might ask yourself – is this another Chomsky inspired critique of power? So what if it is. The first episode titled ‘Love and Power’ begins with the collective rationalism of Ayn Rand – an American radical thinker and writer who foresaw the notion that selfish individualism would one day take hold of society. Curtis argues that Rand’s thoughts and particularly her influential 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged underpins much of the ideological ethics of American individualism best symbolised in the technological revolution spearheaded by the Silicon Valley crowd in the nineties. Similarly like The Trap (2007), Curtis juxtaposes much of his archive footage to American film scores producing a political montage that is anchored largely by a fatalistic voice over offering a sustained, compelling and nightmarish alternate reality in which the determinants of market economics are the yardstick by which politicians and governments are judged.

It’s hard not to be convinced by the argument that a technological enslavement is underway and that the so called democratisation of the media is in fact yet another illusion, distraction and universal falsehood. Curtis argues that individuals around the world communicating through the new electronic worldwide global village are in fact not liberating themselves from all former restraints but commodifying their personal interests – this is evident in the truth that even the banal now has a value on the worldwide web. This might seem like an old argument – that machines ultimately alienate individuals and inadvertently rob them of the freedom they seek through sub conscious enslavement. Curtis links such a proposition to the grand Utopian ideal that computers and the web would let everyone live out their desires thus enhancing democracy as a universal aspiration. All of this is a falsehood. Even Alan Greenspan’s ideological imperative of computers bringing stability to the markets is respectively undermined by the uncontrollable and unpredictable nature of the human condition – in this case it is love (an altruistic impulse) that suggests machines are merely an enhancement not an evolutionary solution to hegemonic greed, control and enslavement. It all makes for invaluable viewing. Roll on Episode 2 next week...

18 May 2011

ACE IN THE HOLE / THE BIG CARNIVAL (Dir. Billy Wilder, 1951, US) - Rotten to the Core

Wilder’s satire is as caustic as they come. Human depravity was extenuated with a memorable accent in Wilder’s 1944 classic noir Double Indemnity by the scheming Phyllis Dietrichson. ‘We’re both rotten’ she tells the doomed Walter Neff, only his response is more telling ‘Only you’re a little more rotten’. The corruption of an ideal is aptly demonstrated by such a metaphor – rotten souls, rotten people and rotten dreams are some of the charges levied at the grotesque journalist Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas). It’s not surprising Wilder’s 1951 treatise on the American news media was a critical and commercial failure considering the prescient tone struck by the insidious fabrication and duplicitous manufacturing of news. Tatum like Neff is a victim of hubris but unlike Neff’s death march Tatum’s descent is a venomous trajectory of egotistical excess which offends and polarises all those around him. Wilder paints a picture of American society that is inherently unsympathetic. The parasitic hunger for sensationalising personal tragedy is sustained primarily through an ending in which imagery of rampant exploitation and prostitution is galvanised by Tatum’s dying words ‘You can have me for nothing’ he says pathetically before he drops down dead in a heap. It is a savage denouement and one that cuts deep:

17 May 2011

BABYLON (Dir. Franco Rosso, 1980, UK) - Streets of Fire

Brinsley Forde as David/'Blue' who works part time as a mechanic in an attempt to supplement his real passion in life - reggae music.

I stumbled upon Babylon when in fact I should have seen it as part of essential film viewing because in many respects it is hugely influential and one of the best British films of the 1980s. Directed by Franco Rosso who assisted Ken Loach on Kes and starring Brinsley Forde (Aswad) as David/Blue, Babylon like Horace Ove’s Pressure opened up a new discourse and space on screen for Black British representations. Backed by the National Film Finance Corporation under the art cinema reign of Mamoun Hassan, the politics of race evident throughout Blue’s attempts to rise above the prejudices of hate has arguably influenced numerous British films including most notably This is England, Bullet Boy and perhaps even Shifty in some respects. Babylon is a stronger film than the ones mentioned because its immediacy and power as a strong social statement resides in the impact of the ending in which the Rastafarian youth and police collide. Co-scripted by Martin Stellman who was also involved in the screenplay for Quadrophenia (1979) along with a very talented cast of black actors including Dennis Bovell, Trevor Laird and a young Brinsley Forde, Babylon is now finally available on DVD and Blu ray after a digital restoration. Crisply shot by award winning cinematographer Chris Menges and filmed on location in Lewisham, Babylon is a black British Diaspora film that takes the familiar coming of age narrative with Blue’s love of reggae music and blends it with an ideological dissemination of Rastafarian culture. For a film made in the 1980s many would argue Babylon has become a historical document of a certain crisis in British culture but in no way have the politics of the film dated – even today its confrontation of racism, family, community, music and black youth identity are issues still pertinent especially in many of the ethnic minority communities in the UK. It also has a fantastic soundtrack.

9 May 2011

BOMBAY TALKIE (Dir. James Ivory, 1970, US/India) - 'Typewriter, Tip, Tip, Tip...'

Ismail Merchant and James Ivory were illustrious and varied collaborators and with a career spanning over 40 years it was one of the most substantial partnerships in modern cinema. I have yet to see a lot of their work but the more films I encounter the more appreciative I am of what they have achieved given the tight budgetary constraints they worked under. Whilst much has been made of their so called heritage films produced in the late 80s and early 90s, their critical reputation rests largely on this sustained creative period. The problem with such a contentious categorising of their work is that inevitably everything else becomes somewhat secondary and simply a precursor for greater things to come. Yet in many ways it is their early work and continuous interest with India that gives them a decidedly unique and emboldened body of work. Films such as Bombay Talkie, The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah, Heat & Dust and The Deceivers may offer idiosyncratic tales of unfulfilled relationships but the clash of cultures in many of the narratives points to a sustained attempt to repeatedly interrogate the relationship between the West and India. Merchant and Ivory were exceptionally lucky to have cast the emerging and talented Shashi Kapoor in their debut feature – The Householder (1963). As it turned out the experience became an on going and very creative collaboration with Shashi Kapoor returning continuously over three decades to take the main lead in many of their best films on an ever evolving Indian society. The final element and one not to be overlooked was the contribution of writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. I do think it’s unfair that the title Merchant and Ivory remained consistent because its development into an international brand in the early 90s not only took the focus away from the contrasting ideological content of their films but obscured the contributions of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from the commercial and critical success of their finest films.

Released in 1970 Bombay Talkie continues to be dismissed by some critics as relatively insubstantial compared to their later work. Nevertheless, it is a well crafted piece of work with a very talented cast and crew who seem to really relish the opportunity of sending up the Bombay film industry. Utilising the typical Hindi melodrama situation of a love triangle in which we find two men with considerable egos – in this case a populist actor and a poet turned scriptwriter, vying for the affections of an English novelist (Jennifer Kendal – Shashi Kapoor’s off screen wife) who has come to India in search of an adventure, the film has in some ways become an influential work on western film makers approaching India from an outsider’s perspective. Perhaps this is most evident in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited – a film that raids the enchanting and memorable musical scores of Satyajit Ray. Vikram (Shashi Kapoor) as the egocentric playboy actor neglects the concerns of his wife (Aparna Sen) whilst his irrational and commercially motivated approach to cinema articulates a blunt criticism of the Bombay film industry. Sumptuously shot by Subrata Mitra, Ray’s regular cinematographer, and with a memorable score by industry regulars Shankar-Jaikishan, the film’s gradual shift into a tragic melodrama may at first seem like a grotesque denouement but on closer reflection seems like the perfect way of ending a film about the Bombay film industry and all its excesses. The opening titles are a work of art:

6 May 2011

THOR (Dir. Kenneth Branagh, 2011, US) - Branagh's Blockbuster

Thor is yet another big budget comic book extravaganza from the Marvel universe and with the decidedly low key cast coupled with a more than competent director in the shape of Brit Kenneth Branagh it succeeds moderately in achieving its aims of sensational entertainment. This was a considerable financial gamble given the lack of an A list star in the main lead, Thor’s relative obscurity as a comic book hero and Branagh’s inexperience with blockbusters yet an old fashioned morality tale that forms the main conflict in the transparent narrative prevents the machinations from becoming caught up in the now generic pause for spectacular action. In many ways, Branagh’s planetary landscapes and hyperbolic production design resembles the world of Mike Hodge’s Flash Gordon – a cult favourite amongst science fiction fans today. With a sizable opening box office take, Thor also confirms the monolithic grip that the comic book genre now has over audiences and sets up a depressing notion that Hollywood is likely to retreat to such a bankable position for years to come. Whilst the Nordic mythology of Thor is predictably realised and sustained, this is an origins film and in some ways cynically works towards establishing a foundation for the likelihood of a franchise. With Disney’s 2009 acquisition of Marvel, the foreseeable future looks very bright for comic book fans but I’m not so sure if this means the same for cinema audiences. The main reason I watched Thor was for Branagh because I do think he is a fantastic actor and an under rated director in many respects. I'm happy this film has been commercially and critically successful as it might give Branagh a chance to pursue more personal cinematic ideas.