29 June 2011

COUNTDOWN TO ZERO - (Dir. Lucy Walker, 2010, US)

The hypocrisy of this widely acclaimed documentary was rather insidious and disconcerting. Dubiously selective in its approach Countdown to Zero is supposed to be a piece of political protest activism but such obvious liberal intentions come undone by the decision to deliver a familiar right wing singling out of Pakistan, Iran and South Korea as the main threats to western civilization. The question of nuclear proliferation and its hawkish focus on so called unstable rogue states like Pakistan and particularly Iran may seem justifiable given their poor human rights record but then why make the decision to glaringly leave out Israel and its nuclear capabilities. Additionally, what of the truth that the US is the only country to have used nuclear weapons in the history of mankind and on a nation which had effectively surrendered. This genocide perpetrated by warmongers in the west against the Japanese people is today simply viewed as somewhat of a necessity in achieving all out victory in crystallizing the supremacy of America’s military power. Crimes against humanity perpetrated by the West are not only overlooked but it is if as they don’t matter when we have nations like Iran and Pakistan to contend with in the quest for American global hegemony. Whilst nuclear weapons still pose a considerable threat to the existence of mankind then why does the documentary choose to celebrate the moves made by America to cut back on its nuclear stockpile when in fact the number of American bases around the world has in fact increased. Surely the proliferation of American bases, the illegal occupation and support of tyrannical regimes and the selling of arms around the world pose more of a threat to world stability than nuclear proliferation?

To make matters worse we have Tony Blair, a war criminal, offering yet again his sycophantic condemnation of Iran as a terror regime obsessed with nuclear capability. Even if this may be true surely we don’t need someone as despicable and disingenuous as Tony Blair to tell us this, do we? What it smacks of is hypocrisy - Blair may be right about nuclear proliferation (any sane person would support a nuclear free world) but when you are one of the political leaders responsible for the deaths of innocent Iraqis (including the genocidal UN sanctions) your position as an authority on world affairs becomes untenable. Mainstream media discourse refers to Blair as a statesman when in fact the terrorism he perpetrated on Iraq and Afghanistan is no different to the fundamentalist terrorists who are ready to wage holy war against the west; what is the difference - the difference is that the terrorism perpetrated by the West is sanitized as defense whilst masquerading disgustingly as liberation. So why leave Israel out of the nuclear question? Mainly because to include Israel and debate its nuclear policy would inevitably undermine the agenda of the documentary which wants us to take away an image of a world in which the west especially America are not in fact really that bad given their secret desires to liberate us all from the religious bogeymen and nuclear Armageddon. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw awarded the documentary five stars in his review but this is not an act of critical bravery, its indicative of the way many critics operate which is simply to reinforce the dominant point of view and naturalise the status quo which I for one refuse to accept as an absolute. The following links seem to support my position:

27 June 2011

SHOR IN THE CITY / NOISE IN THE CITY - (Dir. Raj Nidimoru & Krishna D K, 2010, India)

The multi protagonist narrative film has emerged as a favourite amongst the multiplex crowd in India and with Shor in the City we find a continuation of the familiar cocktail of crime, gangsters and expletives witnessed before in contemporary films such as Sankat City, Johnny Gaddaar and Kaminey. (See The Guardian Newspapers article on the Multiplex Indian film published last week) Collectively these films constitute a new genre of Indian cinema that one could argue extends from the Mumbai Noir lexicon. However, Mumbai Noir has mutated somewhat aesthetically (not thematically though) into the stylised multi protagonist urban crime film that adopts a portmanteau narrative structure involving chapters, colourful characters, kinetic editing, visceral camera style and a self reflexive edginess. With the rise of the Multiplex film and niche cinema the Bombay film industry has seen a flowering of new production companies who are supposedly willing to take a risk on more edgier, daring and controversial subject matter. In this instance Balaji Motion Pictures (run by Ekta Kapoor and Shobha Kapoor) backed Shor in the City and has already proven itself commercially as a multiplex player with recent films such as Once Upon a Time in Mumbai and Love, Sex Aur Dhokha. I’m not sure to what extent this claim holds any validity when one looks closely at films such as Shor in the City. Essentially the appeal of these films is constructed around a level of dark humour that is filtered through a discourse of intertexuality. Such a postmodern approach not only underlines the technical sophistication of directors who have been trained abroad (mainly in American film schools) but confirms a similar and growing cine literate appreciation in the middle class urban youth audience. Of course we have been here before in the 1970s and early 80s when Shyam Benegal referred to his films as part of a new middle cinema and it is easy to position Shor in the City and respective films in such a category that negotiates between the commercial and art cinemas of India in such a way that offers an attractive artistic compromise for film makers, producers and audiences.

Shor in the City revolves around five stories in the city of Mumbai. They are urban stories that attempt to meditate on familiar aspects of the city including power, poverty, class and conflict. Structurally directors Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D K are largely successful at weaving together the different narrative strands into a satisfying, if not far fetched, conclusion. The title card at the end claims every one of the events in the film was based on newspaper stories and this certainly holds true when one considers that micro details are emphasised as a way of validating an authentic reality. Admittedly songs do creep into the film but they are not signposted in anyway whilst melodramatic histrionics are equally restrained by the sympathetic characterisation. A fundamental point of thematic unity for many urban based multi protagonist films is the visibility of the city of Mumbai. Shor in the City gives us characters rarely seen indoors but instead shows us people constantly on the move and carried along by the flow of daily life. It is a perpetual flow of bodies, vehicles and buildings that overwhelm our powerless and fragmented protagonists in search of an anchor on to which they can fix their dreams, fears and hopes. Whilst the Ganpati celebrations seem to bring Mumbai together as a secular and collective community, the disparate lives of our struggling protagonists caught up in the euphoric religious celebrations points to the way in which most urban cities are home to an invisible underclass trying desperately to prove their worth. Like Abhay in the film who has returned from America to set up a small business in Mumbai, the city swallows him up until he gradually becomes another part of the unidentifiable mass of humanity. Shor in the City was critically lauded on its release and certainly serves to illustrate the creative vitality of the middle cinema multiplex film. What is somewhat dispiriting is the unwillingness of UK distributors to back these films as many recent independent multiplex films have simply been rejected. It doesn’t make commercial sense as they would find an audience in the UK especially amongst the youthful Diaspora.

26 June 2011

AKALER SANDHANE / IN SEARCH OF FAMINE (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1981, India)

It is clear to see Mrinal Sen’s 1983 film Khandhar is in fact an extension and a companion piece to his 1981 film Akaler Sandhane considered by many to be his masterpiece. Thematically both films use the figure of the artist - in this case a film maker to interrogate the conflict between the old and the new, tradition and modernity and the lower and privileged classes. The introspective film maker (Dhritiman Chatterjee) is perhaps the closest Sen came to representing his own anxieties about the film making process. Similarly like Khandhar the journey from the urban to the rural is a central motif as it permits Sen to question the legitimacy of the film crew in their exploitation of an impoverished Bengali village for suitable cinematic mise en scene. The narrative follows a film crew attempting gallantly but ultimately failing to make a film on the Bengal famine of 1943 (genocide perpetrated by the British empire and World War II) that resulted in the deaths of at least three million people. The crew arrive with noble intentions but their boisterous and pretentious manner as artists remains unchanged pointing to a cultural ignorance that goes somewhat unchecked. What becomes apparent as the crew begin filming the more difficult sequences is the gaping economic, social and cultural divide that exists between the privileged urbanites from Calcutta and the impoverished Bengali villagers. When one of the actors who has been cast to play the role of a prostitute absconds to Calcutta the film maker foresees the production stalling. Encouraged by Haren (Rajen Tarafder), a highly co-operative villager with acting aspirations of his own, he demands they find a suitable girl from the village. When the villagers finally discover that the role is that of a prostitute, local prejudices come to the fore and they feel their trust has been betrayed. They eventually refuse to co-operate with the rest of the filming and the crew is forced to close down production and finish the rest in a studio. The advice to leave the village comes from a respected benign school master who criticises the film crew for their inability to understand and accommodate for the poverty of those they are trying to represent in the film. It might be fine to make a film on poverty and attempt to educate other people about the famine of 1943 but what about the failure to address poverty in rural India - this is a statement put forward by the headmaster at the end and the degree of directorial self criticism in this equation suggests the crew use the gaze of the lens as a means of disguising their own shame and even guilt. Additionally, the sympathy demonstrated by the crew towards many of the villagers is momentary and full of pity as we know and they know that once filming is complete they can simply retreat from such impoverishment to the comforts of their privileged lifestyles.

The level of social criticism articulated by the head master is complicated further by the self reflexive nature of Sen’s approach who makes direct parallels drawn between the fictional dramatisation of the famine and the real desperation and servitude faced by the villagers. Smita Patil plays herself in the film whilst in the production she plays the role of an struggling mother. Sen uses her character to deconstruct the false nature of acting and the unreal processes actors go through before they can perform competently. Sen does this by having Smita Patil confront the actual truths behind her character in the shape of two dispossessed women in the village. Coming face to face with the loneliness of an old woman (Gita Sen) who spends her days tending to her incapacitated husband not only taps into a sense of imprisonment but it is a feeling rendered doubly visible in the exhausted figure of Durga (Sreela Majumdar). The impact the film production has upon the village is starkly realised in the metaphorical assertion that it is the urban educated elite who accelerate the poverty as the pressure on village resources leads to someone questioning if the film crew are in fact corrupting their identity, traditions and way of life. Akaler Sandhane is a multi layered ideological critique that manifests many of the familiar authorial tropes representative of Mrinal Sen. It is also one of the great statements on the film making process and deserves to stand alongside Kiarostami’s masterful Life, and Nothing More (1990), Wender’s The State of Things (1982), Godard’s Contempt (1963) and Truffaut’s Day For Night (1973).

25 June 2011

CINEMATIC REPRESENTATIONS OF THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY : PART 1 #

I had been under the false impression that when it came to the representation of The Black Panther Party it would be limited to a handful of texts but on closer examination a number of films and documentaries have been made since the 1960s. How significant and decisive these films have been in shaping public opinion on The Black Panther Party remains unanswered. I would argue that Hollywood continues to side step black history and whilst films have appeared on Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali (both backed by influential and prominent black artists), groups including the Black Panthers and leaders like Martin Luther have been ignored. It seems extraordinary that Hollywood has yet to make even a standard mainstream biopic on Martin Luther given his iconic cultural status. Maybe it’s not surprising that Spike Lee has one time or another been linked to numerous projects on black America with little if any of them given the green light by the studios. I’m not arguing that black film makers have a social, moral and political obligation to act as a voice for the wider community but barring Spike Lee a stronger and more vibrant political cinema should be in operation right now for black film makers. What we are faced with at the moment is the buffoonery of Tyler Perry’s cinema which has been criticised by Spike Lee as a reversion back to the coon stereotype. Personally, I have very little time for such apolitical regressive work and whilst Precious was embraced as a revelation it could do little to exorcise its dependency on sentimentality.

The Black Panther Party is still projected as an extremist organisation and whilst literature offers a revisionist and realistic view the same cannot be said for cinema. Realistic, authentic and representative works have come from the documentary form whilst the brevity of films have tended to be melodramatic, fictionalised and one sided in their account of rise and fall of The Black Panther Party. In many ways, the Black Panthers continue to be a misunderstood, maligned and controversial black organisation/movement and in the light of contemporary political activism their brand of inspiring ideological Marxist militancy is actually somewhat refreshing and truthful. I am of the opinion that The Black Panther Party is potentially a very rich ideological area for film makers attempting to deal with black American discourse (past and present) as the organisation was littered with very memorable, highly articulate and impressionable socialist iconoclasts – Huey Newton, Fred Hampton, Bobby Seale to name but a few. Nevertheless, a handful of films and documentaries do stand out as rewarding, didactic and seminal in their representation of the Panthers.

THE MURDER OF FRED HAMPTON – (1971, Howard Alk, US)

In Howard Alk’s 1971 slice of verite Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party Fred Hampton comes across as a revolutionary political leader. Articulate, outspoken and defiant in his embrace of socialist ideology Fred Hampton was murdered by the Chicago police in a pre-mediated raid sanctioned by J Edgar Hoover. Whilst the verite aesthetics suggests an observational and even impartial approach this is not the case as Alk’s documentary steadily transforms into a murder investigation. Alk thankfully refuses to repress or disguise his sympathy and affections for the black panthers which is transparent throughout and the counter culture challenge to traditional symbols of institutional power and authority are plainly evident in the documentary’s criticism of the police as the enemy. Whilst documentaries have arguably become more sophisticated now many of them seem to lack the raw political energy of an era in which nothing was sacred anymore. It is clear to see why the FBI and capitalist establishment felt threatened by Hampton as his emergence as a potential black leader was imminent given his popularity with the black community. Many of the interviews, speeches and observational camerawork set out to prove the Marxist ideology of the Panthers steadily shifted from radical militancy based on racial grounds to a brand of internationalism that positioned the capitalist system as the true enemy of a worldwide class struggle. Outrage is expressed as the police attempts to deflect blame and basically lie in front of the news media whilst the panthers attempts to plead for an independent investigation and inquiry leads to inertia. Alk’s documentary is an angry one with much of it directed against the establishment and its repression of the Panthers as a so called extension of cold war communist propaganda.

PANTHER – (1995, Melvin Van Peebles, US)

Many of those members who were part of the Black Panther party in the 60s and onwards rightfully distanced themselves from director Mario Van Peebles 1995 biopic on the Panthers. No one is questioning the motivation behind such a subject but Peebles takes extensive liberties with the truth and the end result is a film that embellishes, sensationalises and in a way ends up mis representing the Black Panther Party. The biggest criticism is the lack of objectivity - all of the Panthers and the party are simply depicted as untarnished angels of virtue and morality; ambiguity is absent. By effectively whitewashing the inner conflicts, problems with violence and political interests Peebles paints a picture that bears little resemblance to the real Panthers. Whilst it is true most historical films need a level of dramatisation, Panther is let down by the skills of an ordinary director who seems out of his depth when compared to some one like Spike Lee and the Malcolm X biopic. The noble political intentions of the Panthers are bathed in a disturbing romanticism that shows little critical distance from the director and those involved. Peebles based his screenplay on a novel written by his father - Melvin Van Peebles but for me the soundtrack was too obvious and much of the TV style in which the film has been shot means the material suffers from hyperbole. Interestingly Peebles says he struggled many years to get the project of the ground and it was the moderate success of New Jack City and Posse that finally convinced the studios. The lack of narrative coherence and poor characterisation makes it difficult to differentiate between what were some of the most intelligent, provocative and inspiring black figures of that era. Writer David Gritten for The Independent offers a sustained analysis of the film's historical re-workings.

ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE! - (1996, Lee Lew-Lee, US)

The Black Panthers evolved continually throughout the 60s and beyond which meant their ten point program to enact revolutionary change amongst the dispossessed within American society was constantly under review. Ideologically and structurally the Panthers were a complex political party and whilst this documentary by Lee Lew-Lee may at first seem conventional in its approach it actually offers one of the most comprehensive and engaged accounts of the Black Panthers. Using interviews, archive footage and an investigative manner we are taken on a journey through the civil rights era supported with exhaustive research. It does become a study of the rise and fall of a political ideology with much of the commentary and evidence coming straight from Bobby Seale and Kathleen Cleaver. What really interests Lee Lew-Lee is getting behind some of the major reasons why the party came to prominence in an era of non violence and more importantly what led to the loss of the Panther’s power base and international standing. Firstly, the assassination of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King certainly opened up a new space for the Black Panthers within their own community and the increasing collations they formed with other oppressed minority groups also widened their ideological appeal. Whilst Martin Luther King is represented as a symbol of non violent appeasement it is Malcolm X who is largely credited with developing the notion of intellectual violence. The Panthers saw themselves as natural successors who were carrying on the work of Malcolm X. Nevertheless, the documentary never loses sight of the fundamental truth that all of these different factions, leaders and ideologies were committed to ensuring the right to self determination was a universal value.

Given the fact the Panther Party started to create a united front that stretched around the world against the forces of American imperialism and capitalism it was inevitable the establishment would retaliate. A systematic campaign of covert operations run by the CIA and FBI to dismantle the Black Panther Party were mounted throughout the years in which we saw the party at its peak of political power. This led to high profile assassinations, harassment, intimidation, imprisonment, detention and propaganda used to discredit the ideological legitimacy of the group and its leaders in the eyes of the black community. In the documentary we are told that infiltration was rife and informants were used to compile psychological profiles on Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver. One member of the Black Panthers argues the FBI used psychological warfare on Huey Newton during his time in prison thus radically affecting and influencing decisions the made after his release. The documentary also draws telling parallels between the rise of the Black Panther Party and the emergence of the American Indian movement which was also dismantled by the FBI. All Power to the People! offers an accessible and entertaining historical overview of the Black Panther Party but it lacks the rawness and vitality of Alk’s 1971 documentary on Fred Hampton.

18 June 2011

DIRTY PRETTY THINGS (Dir. Stephen Frears, 2002, UK)

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'How come I’ve never seen you people before?' - The organ collector

'Because we are the people you do not see. We are the ones who drive your cabs. We clean your rooms, and suck your cocks.' - Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor)

16 June 2011

THE BEGINNING OF THE END FOR DVD?

This is an attempt to bring together some of my feelings/thoughts on the current debate surrounding the DVD format and the emergence of VOD:

A few years back in a TV interview on the BBC director Wes Anderson referred to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now as the one film that film makers of his generation keep returning to for ideas, inspiration and cinematic creativity. Whilst many would agree that Apocalypse Now is not as great as The Godfather 1 & 2 or The Conversation it is by far the most ambitious, visionary and most discussed of Coppola’s films. In one of the Blu Ray extras for Apocalypse Now is a candid conversation between Coppola and critic Roger Ebert which was filmed at Cannes in 2001 to mark the release of redux. In the interview Ebert strongly suggests that whilst Apocalypse Now is revered today by many film fans and critics as a gusty piece of against the odds film making, the film’s release in 1979 also signalled the death of auteurism and the end of a new Hollywood cinema. With the current and imminent critical discourse circulating on the apparently imminent death of the DVD format and the so called liberating power of Video on Demand (VOD), the Blu ray release for Apocalypse Now (and even Taxi Driver) makes for a valid cinephile argument why Netflix might actually end up destroying the culture of home video.

Of course the reality is that we are now being told VOD is the future by the culture industries in their typically manufactured way in the way Blu ray was touted as heralding a new dawn in the way we watch films. Inevitably Hollywood will want us to re-purchase films we already have on DVD but this time in a digital format so we can transfer it legitimately to any one of our many portable media devices. Whatever happened to just watching a film, enjoying it, reflecting on it and then formulating an opinion on the film? Unfortunately this is not the case anymore – take for example the notion of triple play; now you can own a copy of the film which comes in three different formats (DVD, Blu ray, digital copy). Of course, for a cinephile none of this really makes any sense when considering how difficult it becomes in which format one is actually going to watch the film! From a personal point of view if we do see the demise of DVD then this would potentially be disastrous for cinephiles who have curated libraries and catalogues of films. DVDs are akin to books; you browse, examine, read the synopsis or booklet and then make a qualified decision on which you will watch. I don’t know why but I feel somewhat cheated when I choose to download the film to my desktop. Also the physical distance from the film makes me somewhat comfortable – I like the pleasure and excitement that comes with holding a DVD. This has been the case with the Blu ray of Apocalypse Now.

The problem with VOD is that you are expected to do a lot more work as a consumer and what would happen to special features? VOD is working under the assumption that your broadband speed is up to the task and that you are technologically up to date with the latest hardware and software. This simply is not the case for all of us. It’s not surprising that the US has been the first to fully embrace VOD and Netflix given the instantaneous consumption habits of today’s media hungry audiences. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a technophobe what so ever but I have tried streaming and the viewing experience was jeopardised by the overwhelming threats posed by buffering. My scepticism really stems from the frightening proposition that one day all of our DVD collections will have to be transferred into a hard drive storage facility whereby endless lists would lead to an unhealthy proliferation of data that suddenly doesn’t mean anything anymore other than pretty little thumbnails. Is this the beginning of the end for DVD as a format?

14 June 2011

NOTES ON DVD VIEWING 1#


Here are some brief notes to films viewed on DVD and Blu Ray:

ANTONIO DAS MORTES / ANTONIO OF THE DEAD
(Glauber Rocha, 1969, Brazil/France/West Germany) – A landmark of third cinema with a soundtrack that really gets beneath your skin; revolutionary political statements don’t come any bolder than this.

YEH SAALI ZINDAGI / THIS DAMNED LIFE (Sudhir Mishra, 2010, India) – An uneven crime film littered with moments of brilliance; the portmanteau approach is getting a little tired now don’t you think?

THE POSTMASTER (Satyajit Ray, 1961, India) – A perfect summation of Ray Tagore’s vision of the world and a perfect introduction to Bengali cinema.

JOYRIDE (John Dahl, 2001, US) – Not bad in places for a B movie but instantly forgettable; what ever happened to John Dahl?

CREEP (Christopher Smith, 2004, UK) – A surprisingly original and quite scary British horror film; full of anxieties.

EXIT THROUGH THE GIFTSHOP (Banksy, 2010, US/UK) – A film directed by Banksy, starring Banksy and about Bansky; errr, I think I should take that back. It should read - A film by ?

HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (Woody Allen, 1986, US) – The little pontificating jazz man at his best – Caine and Allen are wonderful to watch as men who don’t understand their place in society.


THE BOUNTY (Roger Donaldson, 1984, US) – An under rated epic in many respects with terrific performances by Hopkins and Gibson; great script by Robert Bolt.

THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS (Lars Von Trier, Jorgen Leth, 2003, Denmark/Switzerland/Belgium/France) – Von Trier’s and his box of magic tricks makes for a charming deconstruction exercise. It’s got Scorsese convinced.

LIBERO / ALONG THE RIDGE (Kim Rossi Stuart, 2008 Italy) – Casting and performance are everything in this enclosed father-son study – the influences of De Sica and Rossellini loom large.

THE TRIANGLE (Christopher Smith, 2009, UK/Australia) – Smith confirms his talents as one of the more intriguing and original of horror directors; would make for a great double bill with Nolan’s Inception.

WICHITA (Jacques Tourneur, 1955, US) – Everything about Tourneur’s western is deliberately underplayed – for a film that lasts under eighty minutes it shows remarkable cinematic economy.

THE HANGING TREE (Delmer Daves, 1959, US) – I’ve never seen Gary Cooper so angry and so unlovable before; he literally seethes with rage as a doctor hiding from his ugly past. Both Karl Malden and George C Scott offer fine support.

HENRY’S CRIME (Malcolm Venville, 2010, US) – Old fashioned as they come, beautifully played out amongst a great cast and a happy ending that doesn’t make you wince or nauseous.

IDIOCRACY (Mike Judge, 2006, US) – The definitive cinematic statement on Bush stupidity – Mike Judge is an impeccable and ballsy satirist. A cult film in the making.

13 June 2011

YATRA - (Dir. Goutam Ghose, 2006, India)

Nana Patekar as the celebrated writer Dasrath Joglekar.

Yatra really took me by surprise. Made in 2006 but receiving a quick release in 2007, Bengali director Goutam Ghose has made one of the most layered, intricate and reflexive of Indian films. It is a film full of wonderful mysteries and really captivated my imagination unlike any other Indian film in a while. Like Benegal’s masterly Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda/Seventh Horse of the Sun (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1992, India) which uses the narrative conceit of the unreliable narrator to test the limits of filmic subjectivity, Ghose complicates matters by blurring the line between fact and fiction. Additionally, we are never quite sure who exactly is in charge of the narrative – is it the celebrated yet cynical novelist who appears to be at the end of his career or is this a story being singularly re-interpreted by the mind of the scriptwriter/director encountered on the train. For me Ghose has suddenly risen to the top in terms of contemporary Indian auteurs and I can’t believe I have simply sidelined such an exciting and magnificent director. I have succeeded in getting hold of both Kaalbela (2009) and Moner Manush (2010) on DVD and I am looking forward to testing the authorial powers of Ghose. What is notable taking a glance at his filmography to date is that Ghose has suddenly become quite prolific in terms of fictional feature films (3 features in a period of five years indicates Ghose is undergoing somewhat of a creative flourish) as his reputation is strong as a documentary film maker.

Fiction meets Fact; Dasrath and Lajwanti (Rekha).

The story of Yatra concerns a famed novelist Dasrath Joglekar/Satish (Nana Patekar in a career defining performance) who travels to Delhi to receive an award for his latest novel – Jaanaza/Funeral. Dasrath is a humble man who criticises contemporary Indian life as nothing more than a bazaar/a market place in which ideas, people and products are exchanged but have no cultural or moral worth. It is a telling and instructive ideological perspective that touches all those he meets on his journey to collect the award. En route to Delhi, the train ride leads to an encounter with a film maker Mohan Bhardwaj who is adamant of adapting Janaaza into a screenplay for the big screen. We discover that Janaaza is a deeply personal and autobiographical work for Dasrath and the central character of the novel is based on what appears to be a real life courtesan titled Lajwanti/'Lajjo' (Rekha). It is at this point in the narrative that Ghose segues into a series of flashbacks narrated by Dasrath that explores the story of Lajwanti but we are unsure how much of the construction is based on fact and how much is fiction; it opens up an intriguing cinematic space on the nature of truth. The image of the courtesan has largely been corrupted now and is continually being equated with prostitution. This is not the case with Lajwanti, deliberately echoing Umrao Jaan, (a role made famous by Rekha) who is a much maligned classical dancer and singer. The courtesan’s representation as the fallen woman takes its narrative accent from Pakeezah with Dasrath acting as an inadvertent saviour for Lajwanti after she is beaten and raped. All of this we discover appears in the literature of Dasrath and Lajwanti’s presence in his life becomes a source of conflict with his wife. After the award ceremony in Delhi at which Dasrath delivers an incredibly moving speech on the loss of direction and purpose in society he checks out of his hotel and tracks down Lajwanti living a marginalised life.

Tree of Life; a symbol of continuity that obliterates both the past and present

Ghose draws notable parallels between the figures of the writer and courtesan – both plead for acceptance and use their artistry as a platform of enquiry and interrogation but remain very much as misunderstood outsiders. Both Lajwanti and Dasrath appear as remnants of the past and who no longer seem to occupy a legitimate and valid place in what is an increasingly commoditised society. By choosing to finish with the young film maker on the train as he begins the process of finally adapting the novel into a script Ghose seems to bring closure to one journey but by opening up another one a suggestion is made that such closure is premature and is in fact a lie. What we are left with is the idea that Dasrath’s journey is yet to arrive at its final destination and that memories of the past remain perpetual, continuous and the subject of reinterpretation. Ghose has been compared to Satyajit Ray and whilst this comparison might be valid in some cases I would argue his grasp of narrative as a structure is both sophisticated and reflexive as Shyam Benegal with whom he also shares many directorial and thematic traits. In any case Yatra is a masterpiece.

Here is the first of twelve parts to the exhaustive documentary Ghose made on Satyajit Ray in 1999:

6 June 2011

DEEP COVER (Dir. Bill Duke, 1992, US)

Bill Duke’s career as a director never really took off as it should have and whilst he spent a long time in TV land he did show some strong promise in the two films he directed at the beginning of the nineties; A Rage in Harlem (1991) and Deep Cover (1992). Featuring a terrific cast, an exquisite production design and suitably noirish femme fatale A Rage In Harlem has simply become lost but needs to be rediscovered. However, the same cannot be said for Deep Cover, a blistering crime thriller featuring career best performances from Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum. Bill Duke’s direction is supported by one of the best crime scripts of the nineties – a wonderfully dark and twisted collaboration between respected scriptwriters Henry Bean (Internal Affairs, The Believer) and Michael Tolkin (The Player). It’s not surprising that Bill Duke made both A Rage in Harlem and Deep Cover in a climate which had given momentum to a new wave of black American film makers including John Singleton, Mario Van Peebles and The Hughes Brothers. An intelligently scripted critique of drug culture and exploring quite lucidly the American government’s duplicitous attempts to curb and protect the drug empire, Deep Cover takes an undercover cop (played by Laurence Fishburne) and places him within the urban drug scene in an effort to expose the hierarchy of power and corruption. In many ways, the conflicted undercover cop who becomes increasingly seduced by the underworld of crime whilst trying to maintain a level of critical distance is a narrative convention witnessed before in classical Hollywood crime/cop films. What John exposes is a drug empire that has its flow through governments and diplomats who fly around the world with political immunity. In the end John becomes a liability and the American government is ultimately criticised for its deliberate and deeply political drug policy that does very little to curb the influx of drugs into deprived inner city communities with largely black populations. For many at the top, such a cycle of drugs, crime and violence maintains the status quo and even John’s attempts to gain legitimacy in a such a racially divided society pushes him back to an orthodox position that limits personal aspirations. It all makes for a fascinating and suspensful morality tale.

3 June 2011

TWO IN THE WAVE (Dir. Emmanuel Laurent, 2010, France)

The conclusion that Emmanuel Laurent seems to arrive at after having dissected the friendship between Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard is somewhat predictable. I felt a little short changed actually – Laurent spends way too much time considering the legitimacy of both Truffaut and Godard as the modern auteur then gives only twenty minutes or so at the end exploring what is arguably the most decisive of splits within the Truffaut-Godard friendship, a friendship that ended in bitterness after the political fallout of 68. Nevertheless, if one was approaching the French New Wave from a beginner’s perspective or wanted to get a grip on the influences and evolution of both Truffaut and Godard as cinema iconoclasts then Laurent’s documentary would make for an excellent starting point. Illuminating parallels are drawn between cinemas of the past and present including comparisons between Godard and Lang whilst Truffaut is pared with Rossellini pointing to a difference in terms of approach, content and style. Laurent and writer Antoine de Baecque spend time examining the origins of Truffaut and Godard’s entry into film making by acknowledging the differences in terms of upbringing. Truffaut’s lower class background and encounters with the police not only pinpoints the deeply autobiographical content of his Antoine Doinel films but makes a striking contrast to Godard’s middle class, privileged and cultured childhood. The impact of Cahiers Du Cinema is also explored, reiterating the lack of a formal film education for Truffaut and Godard was more than compensated by their ravenous consumption of cinema. Whilst many of Truffaut and Godard’s films after the initial success of A Bout De Souffle and Les Quatre Cents Coups failed commercially they still supported one another both as friends and critics. They even came together to campaign for the reinstatement of Henri Langlois in 1968 by making a short protest film. However, the turning point came with the political and social upheaval brought on by the international student movement and the events of 1968. For Laurent and De Baecque, the split came to fruition at the Cannes Film Festival of 1968 at which both Godard and Truffaut declared their opposition to the Gaullist government and called for cinema in France to come together as a united front to show support for the workers. In many ways the failure of 1968 radicalised Godard so that his approach to cinema became holistically ideological and leftist in tone whilst Truffaut seemed to go in the opposite direction. Laurent and De Baecque are careful not to take sides but one is made to question the post 68 legitimacy and credibility of both Truffaut and Godard. Whilst Truffaut accused Godard of becoming a propagandist, Godard’s reply to his old friend talked of quality cinema and commercial compromise which the Nouvelle Vague had rallied against as dishonest and superficial. Perhaps Truffaut was right because Godard’s disillusionment with ideologue did become more transparent in the mid 70s but then Godard was also right when he said that can a film maker really live in isolation when one has a moral obligation to react against the socio-political determinants. One is left with the deeply moving impression that whilst Truffaut’s cinema was personal and Godard’s political, both were equally valid, relevant and revolutionary in their own way.