23 June 2014

KING OF NEW YORK (Dir. Abel Ferrara, 1990, US) - Socialist Gangsterism


The pale, anaemic skin tone of Walken’s Frank White bleeds through the chiaroscuro urban nightscapes of New York. We first see Frank, a capitalist vampire, in prison which acts as his tomb, and in exile from a kingdom from which he has become disconnected. Frank’s return to a city which he calls home is undermined by a sensibility brought on by institutionalisation, suggesting he is no longer part of the living. ‘Back from the dead’ he remarks to his friends. This is one of the many lies Frank is beholden to, perpetuating an illusion of insanity that terrifies those around him. The gangster figure draped in black, a conventional iconographic idiom clashes with the jaunt paleness of Frank’s face, projecting a vampirish image that becomes immortalised in a sordid milieu of hypocritical middle class parasites. Frank’s world is populated by an individualism typifying the American crime film and its propensity to insidiously forge a twisted sympathy for the devil. Conflated with the image of dread is the fatalism of noir, mapping out a trajectory of doom that is debilitating for Frank. Although in the words of Warshow, Frank is a man of the city, he also drifts through spaces and places leaving a ghostly residue, positing an asynchronous attitude that he masks with a terrifying pathos. Frank White may in fact be the only socialist gangster in the American crime film yet this is strictly not a crime film, it is Ferrara’s uniquely capitalist vampire fable. If the vampire is immortal then it is not surprising Frank envisions he will be remembered for a late socialist cause to save the local hospital from closing. The desire to be seen legitimately in the eyes of society is recognisably connected to the gangster’s image in the genre. King of New York is a signature film for Ferrara and the fusion of crime with horror produces a singularly unique genre film that is more vampire than gangster, perhaps finding an iconographic connection with films like The Addiction.

9 June 2014

MATRU KI BIJLEE KA MANDOLA (Dir. Vishal Bhardwaj, 2013, India) - Drunken Imaginings


Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (MKBKM), labelled a ‘Bollywood political satire’, is a googly of a film traversing classical Hindi cinema (particularly agrarian pastoral films like Do Bigha Zamin) and the spirit of parallel cinema (a feudal revolt forms part of the narrative) with a postmodern satirical sensibility that squarely has neo-colonial capitalism as a target for critique and denunciation. Bhardwaj has in the past shown adeptness at integrating songs into his films so they become part of the thematic and narrative content but MKBKM is a film into two states of mind. It is both Bollywood and Indian art cinema, schizophrenically clawing at each other so it becomes a film about Bhardwaj the auteur trying desperately to explore very political themes in the guise of Bollywood cinema. Bhardwaj is arguably one of the more interesting filmmakers of his generation and MKBKM’s average commercial business clearly suggests the quirky and edgy marketing for the film was too smart for audiences. In many ways if one was to discount the songs and the love story then MKBKM could be classed as a film that harks back to parallel cinema. Some of the visible intertexts include the casting of Pankaj Kapoor and Shabana Azmi, iconographic markers of parallel cinema. Perhaps the most striking link is to Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, an influential political satire and key film of parallel cinema which also features Pankaj Kapoor in the role of an exploitative housing contractor. In MKBKM Kapoor plays the role of an ambivalent zamindar seemingly in cahoots with the state minister to sell of land owned by peasants to make way for a shopping and apartment complex. In the past, the zamindar has been constructed monolithically as stereotypically despotic, remorseless and morally corrupt. Nonetheless, MKBKM might be a first for the zamindar as we see a buffoonish redemption that takes hold at the end, forging an alliance with the oppressed peasant farmers. This could be interpreted as ideological fantasy though which is as brilliantly audacious as the Gulabi Bhains (pink buffalo) that haunts the drunken imaginings of the zamindar. MKBKM shares much in common with Peepli Live but cleverly filters ideology through the prism of populist Hindi filmic tropes.

1 May 2014

IL SORPASSO / THE EASY LIFE (Dino Risi, 1962, Italy) - The Italian Comedy as Road Movie


Criterion’s release of Il Sorpasso is one of the home video releases of the year. Described as the ‘utlimate Italian comedy road movie’ Il Sorpasso has undergone a striking restoration. In previous weeks I have also seen Mario Moncelli’s The Organiser and Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion, also released by Criterion. The release of these three Italian films is substantial in terms of revising a filmic historical past arguing for greater inclusivity. Film academia has in the past framed 1960s Italian cinema through the prism of an existential art cinema, leading to the canonisation of international auteurs including Bertolucci, Pasolini, Antonioni and Fellini. One could argue the popularisation of the auteur theory around about this time also crystallised a hegemonic ‘art cinema’. Such a valedictory attitude fabricated a snobbish historiography of Italian cinema. The exclusion of genre films especially Italian comedies from the canon of 1960s Italian cinema, many which were commercially successful in Italy, reiterates a familiar rhetoric of low and high culture that disputably led to their ostracism. All three films fuse conversant genre idioms with a darkly comedic tone: The Organiser (neo realism), Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion (political thriller), and Il Sorpasso (the road movie). In doing so, the fusion of forms led to certain perceptive works of innovation like Il Sorpasso. Director Alexander Payne says director Dino Risi films the landscape through which Roberto (Gassman) and Bruno (Trintignant) travel in their car not simply to offer us picturesque scenery but more importantly to show us the everyday humanity of Italy and its people. This interest in the landscape seems to be a unifying thematic and aesthetic principle common to many of the Italian filmmakers of this era not just the international auteurs. Equally, Il Sorpasso is a template film. Several American road movies counting Easy Rider, Thelma & Louise, Sideways and recently Nebraska replicate Risi’s tragicomic narrative as it seems perfectly suited to a genre in which the iconography of the open road can lead to endless unexpected situations. In truth the real cinematic charm of Il Sorpasso is the affable Gassman whose laddish, uninhibited spirit is infectious as it is destructive.