31 October 2008

THE PROFESSIONALS (Dir. Richard Brooks, 1966, US) - 'Let's go to work!'

Long before Quentin Tarantino made an illustrious cinematic career out of recycling instantly quotable dialogue from the popular series of 'men on a mission' movies that struck gold at the box office in the 1960s, films populated by the unmistakable screen presence of the legendary Lee Marvin were leaving a lasting impression on audiences who were constantly being exposed to changes in genre and contexts. As audiences were busy deserting auditoriums for a newly found liberalised lifestyle, auteur's like Richard Brooks, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman were creeping in under the radar of dis empowered studio executives to take on the orthodoxy of a system that had faltered badly at the domestic box office.

Though 'The Professionals' is not a revolutionary and deeply radical piece of cinema, it does subvert many of the conventions of the Hollywood western by borrowing elements from the new European cinematic renaissance. Unlike traditional westerns, the image of an enemy represented as the savage other who indiscriminately murders and massacres for reasons to do with instant gratification is no where to be seen as the character of 'Raza' played by Jack Palance actually turns out to be a revolutionary figure, advocating a radical ideology that happens to make sense to many of the men set to assassinate him and bring back the ill fated damsel in distress.

Beautifully shot by Haskell Wexler and Conrad Hall, 'The Professionals' is a slick and dynamic film that predates the fatalism of Peckinpah's 'The Wild Bunch' by a number of years. And if you are wondering, yes, this is the film that inspired Tarantino to borrow the infamous 'Let's go to work' line for his debut, 'Reservoir Dogs', and the link between Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) and Lee Marvin is evidence enough of the debt contemporary auteur brats owe to the most unlikely of film stars.

12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST (Dir. Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006, Romania) - The New Wave

The lasting impression of the neo realism movement in post war Italy is still affecting film makers today. The reaction to fascism resulted in a fresh approach to cinema and most movements have tended to emerge out of nations trying to come to terms with their own terrible past as is the case with Romanian cinema today. The films produced by the new wave of film makers from Romania have all in one way or another explored the affects of the post communist era on mainstream society. Corneliu Porumboiu's '12:08 East of Bucharest' was released in 2006 and unlike most of the new wave films that have opted for a gritty, neo realist style, Porumboiu chooses to examine the probing question of post communist revolution by employing political satire as a mode of address. Most of the film takes place in the confines of a low budget television studio in which a presenter and his two guests attempt to clarify whether or not their was a revolution in the small town. Excellent performances, an evocative sense of location and a biting vein of dark humour ensures that this is yet another strong example of contemporary Romanian cinema.

SILKWOOD (Dir. Mike Nichols, 1983, US) - False liberalism

Any film that stars Cher is bound to have an affect on the spectator that can only be best described as inducing a pre-meditated emotional response commonly associated with those who suffer from nausea brought on by Hollywood's pretentious claim to embodying an unquestionable brand of liberalism. Directed by Mike Nichols, written by Nora Ephron and starring Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell and Cher, 'Silkwood' is based on the true story of Karen Silkwood, a worker at a plutonium processing plant who begins noticing illegal practises and slowly becomes politically active by joining the local Union and arguing for greater change in the workplace. However, Karen's newly found sense of activism conflicts with the uncompromising ideals of the corporation that begins its own violent persecution. Though you can probably understand the noble intentions behind wanting to make such a film, especially given the fact that Karen Silkwood is a compelling character, the film's sense of liberalism is false, preachy and sentimental drivel. Nichols and Ephron seem more interested in elevating the performance of Meryl Streep and this means the film approaches what should have been a deeply angry, provocative and politically charged narrative with a disappointing level of female melodrama which takes away the focus from exploring the pathological nature of corporate ideology.

Cher plays a confused lesbian, Kurt Russell swaggers around crushing beer cans whilst Streep works through her usual neurotic mannerisms with such clinical precision that one is left wondering if this is a film that is trying much too hard to make itself appear as though it was a serious and tough piece of political cinema. A unique aspect of 'Silkwood' is that it makes you develop a special kind of contempt for an actress like 'Cher' (her idea of instant lesbian status is by brushing her hair down over her eyes, wearing ugly clothes from a jumble sale and acting permanently moody) who is perhaps one of the most annoying and unlikely of film stars to have been produced by Hollywood in the contemporary era.

30 October 2008

LA ZONA (Dir. Rodrigo Pla, Mexico, 2007) - The State of Things

This is one angry film; provocative, satirical and moving. Set in Mexico, possibly sometime in the future, emerging film maker Rodrigo Pla's critical dystopia depicts a society deeply divided on social, political and economic grounds. The wealthy and apathetic ruling elite live in a Utopian enclave, 'La Zona', governed by their own laws who have been granted impunity from the government and they are prepared to go any extremes in order to protect and preserve their racist attitudes. This is a society driven by a culture of fear, xenophobia and paranoia that manifests itself transparently when Miguel, a 15 year old boy and symbol of the dispossessed, is lynched in a chilling sequence which unveils a disturbing level of racism. Such fear of 'the other' is a timely reminder of the increasing economic and class divisions that have become a defining characteristic of late capitalism today. What is possibly more sickening is that the people of 'La Zona' act collectively in their actions and the casual discarding of Miguel's dead body which turns up later as human waste is a frightening metaphor of contemporary social anxieties prevalent in much of western life.

This film could easily have become a vehicle for political preaching and Pla steers his course through the narrative with great assurance by choosing to use an understated directorial style that does not draw attention to genre. Though 'La Zona' has been marketed at a specialised audience, it bears many similarities with Alfonso Cuaron's recent film, 'Children of Men', however where it departs from adhering to Hollywood conventions is in the downbeat ending. No solutions are offered to many of the telling questions posed by 'La Zona', but one question that lingers once the credits have rolled over, is the one question that the greatest political film makers continue to ask today - how long can we allow this to go on for?

25 October 2008

TAARE ZAMEEN PAR (Dir. Aamir Khan, 2007, India) - A flawed directorial debut from one of Bollywood's biggest film stars

In the last fifty years, only a select few of mainstream Indian cinema’s glamorous star elite have been able to distinguish themselves in terms of the quality of the films they have made. Whilst Bollywood continues to struggle with the ridiculously below par barrage of films they churn out each year, some of the mainstream film stars like Aamir Khan have tried to limit the number of films they make each year in an effort to maintain some degree of artistic consistency. Unlike the majority of the A list Bollywood film stars who have all aptly learnt the art of product endorsement, Aamir Khan’s position and star image is singularly unique, particularly in his life-long boycott of redundant Award ceremonies that rather than celebrate artistic achievements, descend into farcical and spectacular re-enactments of a romanticised former cinematic glory.

Though Aamir Khan has always been cautious not to completely disassociate himself from mainstream Indian cinema, his star image has gradually shifted from his early poster boy image in films like ‘Jo Jeetah Woh Sikander’ that made him a household name in India to the mature, socially conscious actor in challenging films like ‘Lagaan’ and ‘The Rising’. Whilst ‘Rang De Basanti’ confirmed the ideologically leftist political agenda that has shaped much of the anger in his recent films, he also in 2006 offered his fans a mainstream ‘masala’ offering as a troubled terrorist in ‘Fannah’, a Yash Raj production that teamed him up with Kajol. Imitating the Yash Raj formula, ‘Fannah’ was a blockbuster in both India and overseas, reiterating the continuing popular appeal of Aamir Khan and that he could still compete with the likes of the most bankable stars.

2007 saw the release of his directorial debut, ‘Taare Zameen Par’, and the film went on to make a clean sweep at the major Award ceremonies with many praising Aamir Khan’s continuing commitment to addressing difficult social issues, which in this case was the flawed education system and it’s incapacity to cope with the problem of a child’s severe dyslexia. Aamir Khan took over the directorial reigns from the original writer of the film, Amole Gupte, who initially came to him with the project so that Aamir Khan would function as the producer. Nobody can really question the motivations behind such an important film, but I was surprised that Aamir Khan who directs and also stars as a sympathetic and inspirational teacher, never questioned the unjustified running time of three hours.

After a gloriously imaginative first hour that largely takes place through the eyes of the young boy, the film falters once we reach the intermission and once he is left alone in the boarding school the film becomes less interesting and altogether more stagnant. The first hour shows real restraint in terms of resorting to outright uses of sentimentality, but as the second half begins, the narrative loses real momentum and is eventually reduced to becoming an extended ad campaign for promoting wider awareness about dyslexia. I’m not sure if the film loses some of its convictions by the casting of Aamir Khan as the school teacher or if it mistakenly shifts the attention away from the compelling story of the disillusioned young boy to one about the contrived personal crusade of a liberally inclined teacher trying to come to terms with his own educational experiences.

Whatever the reasons, the film relies on far too many melodramatic plot contrivances and dated stereotypes to try and sustain interest in a story that seems to reach its conclusion once Ishaan is sidelined by his family and berated by his evil, Hitler like father who subsequently lives up to the archetype of the bullish patriarch with great sincerity. Taking its influence from Hollywood films like 'Dead Poets Society', cinematic representations of teachers tend to be limited to either conservative, authoritarian creatures of disdain or self proclaimed liberators who are prepared to sacrifice their own professional position in an attempt to radicalise the minds of those being conditioned into the banal rituals of conformity.

The world seen through the perspective of the child has been a popular narrative tool used by many cinemas around the world, and film makers continue to find new and original ways of using children in movies as an allegorical means of addressing realist concerns, and though Aamir Khan's directorial debut falls short of much of his recent work, it succeeds brilliantly in bringing to life the colourful imagination and emotional conflicts of a child who matters as much as any other in today's increasingly competitive and dehumanising new Indian society.

23 October 2008

GOMORRAH (Dir. Matteo Garrone, 2008, Italy) - The Italian Renaissance

Italian cinema had a real impact on the Cannes film festival this year and Matteo Garrone's Neapolitan Mafioso urban crime thriller 'Gomorrah' was awarded the Grand Prix prize, giving indigenous Italian cinema a much needed commercial and critical boost. 'Gomorrah' is a terrifyingly bleak and grim neo realist film that focuses on five compelling narratives featuring characters who are in some way affected by the reach of the local mafia.

What sets this apart from Hollywood gangster films is Garrone's refusal to offer us a sanitised and glamorised representation of the Mafia, stripping away the romanticism so that what is on display is both repulsive and authentic. Though it would be a mistake to label 'Gomorrah' as a gangster film, it seems to make perfect sense when you consider how the absence of women in the male dominated landscape confirms that the unremittingly despairing reality is perhaps an obvious celebration of the conventions of a genre shaped by thematic obsession with male identity.

Based on a best selling and controversial novel by Roberto Saviano, Garrone certainly replicates the brutality and power that the Mafia exercise over virtually all the major facets of society including even the most banal physical chores like the disposal of industrial waste. The broad range of characters, symbolising all the spectrum's of Naples society allows Garrone to move back and forth, illustrating with expert detail and frustrating ambiguity how the Mafia control and direct the inhabitants as though they were insignificant to a much wider context based on an ideology that manifests violence, death and human destruction.

Hollywood multi narrative films like 'Babel' that have been underpinned with a strong socialist agenda and independent experimental narrative films like 'Memento' have meant that audiences are quite accustomed to being challenged with unconventional uses of narrative. Like much of world cinema or should I say 'global cinema', Garrone avoids the current Hollywood conditioning of over explanation that finds its way in much of today's hyper real high concept film making. Though this can be at times disorientating and even difficult for the spectator, it means the audience is left to fill in the blanks on my occasions.

Scorsese's 'Goodfellas' is probably still the nearest that Hollywood cinema has come to redefining the rules of the genre and imitating a stylised realism that ensured its appeal was not solely limited to fans of the gangster film. In one of the most chilling sequences, Toto, a 13 year old who has been brought up in a culture of crime, is inaugurated into the local gang through a twisted ritual that involves him and other boys of a similar age being made to wear a bullet proof vest and then being shot at by a menacing, gun crazy representative of the Camorra. Toto's confirmation of his passage into adulthood is immediately underlined when one of the older gang member says, 'Now you're a man', to Toto after having survived the ordeal of first of many gang rituals. The acceptance of violence and subsequently death seems to inextricably tied to male identity in a culture that seems to have become normalised to the lawless nature of organised crime.

What really fascinates Garrone above all is the idea of ownership; all those who are affected by the local Mafia are also viewed as part of them and anybody who entertains the notion of escaping from the domineering grip of organised crime is assured of death. Pasquale, the dressmaker, crosses the boundaries of his regimented, dull life by making a deal with the Chinese and though he survives the assassination attempt, the punishment he receives is being forced to have to do the every day, menial jobs that nobody really wants to do. Pasquale's final anonymity as symbolised in his transition from crafted dressmaker to routine truck driver suggests how the Mafia not only controls the local economy, but also shapes the fate of those who are courageous enough to question the very immorality of a bankrupt society.

14 October 2008

THERE WILL BE BLOOD (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007, US) By far the finest Hollywood film of 2007

Had I seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece in 2007 then my end of year top ten list would have surely featured the film in the top spot, relegating Fincher’s near masterpiece ‘Zodiac’ to the second spot. ‘No Country for Old Men’ was another long list of American films released in 2007 that seemed to signal a departure from conventional, formulaic Hollywood cinema. Though ‘No Country for old Men’ cleaned up at the Oscars, it is Daniel Day Lewis’ performance as Plainview in ‘There Will Be Blood’ which will looked back at as the crowning achievement of 2007 Hollywood film making.

It is difficult to call a film a masterpiece, but to take a film like ‘Zodiac’ will perhaps throw some light on why it is so problematic to immediately call a film a masterpiece when considering how the term is thrown around by mainstream film magazines in an attempt to sustain the credibility of their awkwardly compromising style of film journalism. Having viewed ‘Zodiac’ several times, including once on the Blu ray format, it is easy to state quite categorically how it is by far Fincher’s greatest cinematic achievement. However, appreciation for the flawless visual style and nerdy attention to detail also seems to reveal a great annoyance about Jake Gyllenhall’s unconvincing performance as Graysmith.

The casting of Gyllenhall was dubious from the get go, and had many questioning Fincher’s need to appeal to the tastes of the mainstream and especially the youth audience when embarking on the production of a film that would require financing of a kind only brought by a major Hollywood film star. As the last third of the film rests largely on the independent investigations of Graysmith and his increasing obsession with the case, Gyllenhall’s youthful alienation gets in the way of the storytelling, exposing his inexperience as an actor who is not only out of his depth trying to play a role that would have been much better suited for a mature actor, but also underlining Fincher’s terrible compromise in terms of casting.

However, no such compromise exists in a film like ‘There Will Be Blood’, as its status as an instant masterpiece depends greatly on inspired casting decisions that benefits the final shape of the film enormously. I am of course referring to the magnificent performance of Daniel Day Lewis as Plainview, an apathetic and monstrous oil prospector who feels no remorse whatsoever about leaving a never ending trail of human destruction. ‘There Will Be Blood’ is a bold and frightening illustration of contemporary American cinema and authorial desires, invoking genres like the period western, but also managing to convey an ideologically relevant conflict between perhaps two of the most potent and dominant strands of western thought; capitalism and religion.

The first thing to say about this remarkable film is Hollywood’s increasing commitment to engaging with a different and distinctly art house kind of political cinema, the kind of films that John Sayles has been making for the last 20 years. Both ‘No Country for old Men’ and ‘There Will be Blood’ were distributed by Paramount Vantage, an independent production arm of Paramount Studios who formed the company in response to the recent commercial and critical success enjoyed by indie films like ‘Crash’ and ‘Little Miss Sunshine’. However, such artistic commitment on part of reluctant studios was a short lived phenomenon as Paramount Vantage no longer exists, but for a moment, it seemed as though Hollywood had desires to resurrect the ghosts of the 70s new Hollywood authorial cinema in the shape of directors like Paul Thomas Anderson.

Ideologically, this is a film that bears little resemblance to much of Hollywood cinema of the past ten years, purely on the basis of its striking criticisms of a capitalist culture that most film makers are afraid to interrogate in fear of revealing an underlining vein of Marxism which has defined some of the most daring and controversial Hollywood films including Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’. Plainview is a summation of the anxieties of a particular ferocious breed of capitalism formed on the fundamentals of free enterprise, and his disregard for emotional attachments is shown in the narrative as an apathetic and corrupting feature of a deeply flawed personality incapable of expressing any kind of empathy with other people particularly those who are get too close to him.

Many have described the film as a western but very few critics have actually categorised the film as a western, which perhaps indicates the confusion over the film’s genre status. The clearest indicator of the film’s claim to being a western is most apparent through Anderson’s inadvertent allusions and parallels with Robert Altman’s 1970s revisionist western, ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’, another film that traces the journey of a capitalist who is unable to overcome the hegemonic forces of collective corporate power. Anderson even chooses to shoot the film as though we were back at the turn of the century, opting for a grainy, unfiltered look that emphasises natural lighting and a nostalgic yearning for period detailing that is both obsessively recreated and gloriously represented on screen.

Another aspect the film shares with the Altman School of cinema is the intense concentration on character, and though this is a Paul Thomas Anderson film, it is perhaps more of a film about the celebration of performance and Daniel Day Lewis’ effortless character study of the greedy, ugly Plainview is one of his most visceral, squalid and contradictory cinematic manifestations. It is also one of the most compelling monsters you are ever likely to come across in a horror film. Unfolding episodically, Plainview’s journey from poverty row oil prospector to shrewd businessman and his final hideous transformation into the staunchly apathetic capitalist is shaped to a large extent by the fundamentalist figure of a religious preacher and ‘false prophet’ who takes the name of Eli Sunday and is played brilliantly by an emerging Hollywood talent; Paul Dano.

Plainview’s promise of a new church for Eli in exchange for the wholesale purchase of his father’s land so that he can produce oil is a narrative thread that forms a fascinating aspect of the film, provoking the idea that both Eli and Plainview are related by an unknowing degree of falsehood. Both are charlatans and false prophets who are prepared to go to any lengths in order to propagate and defend their ideological beliefs, and it is such fanaticism that bides the two together as though were in fact distant blood brothers as suggested in the final few moments in which the triumph of capitalism is both deemed a hollow and unsatisfying one because it seeks no compromise, only assimilation or destruction.

Plainview’s deep mistrust of those around him gradually evolves into a form of loneliness that is pathologically violent especially in the sequence in which he kills the impostor claiming to be his step brother. This moment of melodramatic morality has its repercussions on Plainview who has desires to build a pipe line from his expanding oil fields to the coast through land owned by an indigenous, orthodox farmer, but the price that Plainview must pay so that he can pursue his capitalist ambitions is to seek redemption at the church of Eli Sunday by repenting for his sins in the most humiliating of ways.

The raw, emotional power of the sequence between Eli and Plainview in the church comes purely from the performances of Dano and Day Lewis who in the presence of a scrutinising audience, subdue and control their outright contempt for one another by immersing themselves in a spectacle of false ideologies. Yet Plainview’s coerced cry for help in the form of ‘I have abandoned my son, my child’ smacks of an undeniable honesty that he would prefer remain repressed and forgotten in fear of forging some kind of emotional connection to a world that he intensely dislikes.

The final act of the film takes place in 1927 and the narrative jumps quite unexpectedly to an urban setting, moving into the climactic confrontation between Plainview and Eli in the setting of a shiny new Bowling Alley. Much has been written about the film’s final moments and Plainview’s uncompromising character metamorphoses into an ideological statement; for capitalism to breathe, expand and excel, then all other ideological forces that may bring doubt in the form of emotional sentimentalism or concern for humanism into the foreground must be extinguished, expunged and destroyed without inkling of remorse or guilt.

Such a brutally truthful ideological act is taken to its natural fruition by Plainview and for this reason alone, ‘There Will Be Blood’ can be deemed an American masterpiece that is uncompromising in terms of film making and ideologically resonant in light of today’s continuing worship of capitalism as the meta narrative that forms the basis of all religions, whether they be theological, economic or political.

7 October 2008

CHILDREN OF MEN (Dir. Alfonso Cuaron, 2006, UK/US) - Despairingly beautiful cinema

Sometimes it takes an outsiders perspective to offer an alternative critique on another society, and such is the case with the Mexican film maker, Alfonso Cuaron, who in 2006, released his science fiction masterpiece ‘Children of Men’ to widespread critical acclaim but muted commercial success at the box office. Though the film was a success in the UK, the release of the film in America was severely criticised by the preeminent critic J. Hoberman of the village voice who underlined how the distributors effectively ‘dumped’ the film so that it was never given a proper release nor promoted with the vigour usually associated with traditional Hollywood science fiction films.

Any film that aspires to art-house aesthetics is bound to make any studio quite hostile and apprehensive towards those involved, and with American audiences having entirely oppositional cinematic sensibilities to their European counterparts, it did not come as a surprise why studios lost their nerve when it came to marketing and pushing the film into cinemas. If they had kept their faith in Cuaron’s vision then the film may have even received more awards and appeared with more much more frequency on critics and audiences top ten end of year lists.

In interviews published as the film appeared in UK cinemas, Cuaron talked about how he wanted to downplay the science fiction elements of the film, in an effort to avoid alienating the younger generation as it is clear that the ideologically profound message of restoring mankind’s faith in humanity is one that is deeply sentimental but also universally identifiable by all types of audiences especially the youth. Perhaps this explains why Cuaron alternates our sympathies between three characters that slowly merge into the symbol of the baby, and the increasing focus on Kee’s character as the narrative unfolds provides yet further evidence of Cuaron’s want to engage a generation that would typically stay away from a genre defined by male preoccupations.

The problem with depicting a vision of the future on screen today is that such a challenge is plagued with endless Hollywood representations of a post apocalyptic society ridden with overly familiar imagery of implausible, fantasy based scenery that serves no real ideological function other than as casual spectacle to keep the audience entertained. Critical dystopia is engineered by speculation and ‘Children of Men’ succeeds brilliantly in the dense intertextual allusions to actual contemporary cultural events, creating a richly textured mise en scene layered with a far greater degree of realism than is usually expected from similar films in the genre like the disappointing ‘V for Vendetta’.

Science fiction continues to act as the ideal vehicle for the exploration of contemporary fears and anxieties and the post 9/11 context has created a hysterical media induced paranoia around terrorism that permeates every frame of Cuaron’s film. The representation of illegal immigrants serves to underline the current xenophobic prejudices of middle England newspapers like The Daily Mail that resurface in the film as frightening propaganda adverts instructing people to report any suspicious behaviour or suspected ‘fugees’. Such provocative Orwellian imagery has become iconic of virtually every dystopia represented on film, but its potency and presence seems altogether more powerful in light of today’s growing fascination with surveillance.

In terms of genre, the film interestingly morphs from a science fiction film into a road movie in which Theo (Clive Owen) undergoes his own spiritual awakening, and then in the final sequences becomes a war film as Theo and Kee dodge their way through a war zone deeply reminiscent of recent conflicts like The Balkans, Iraq and The West Bank in Palestine. Cuaron seems to favour humanism over politics, and uses ‘The Fishes’ to illustrate the complexity of political activism and how everybody involved in the militant terrorist organisation seems to conceal a hidden agenda. Luke’s assassination of Julian (Julianne Moore) radicalises our political attitudes and soon we distance ourselves from ‘The Fishes’ as the level of fanaticism becomes brutally decisive in confirming Theo’s rejection of any kind of political allegiance.

What also distinctly separates ‘Children of Men’ from similar science fiction films is Cuaron’s bold decision to use long takes, especially in the car ambush sequence and the final sequences through Bexhill prison. The fact that Cuaron was not burdened by a heavyweight film star attached to the project surely gave him greater creative freedom in terms of trying to push the technical constraints of working with the long take technique. Such impassioned commitment to the long take challenges many of the technical conventions we typically associate with the genre and Cuaron’s minimal and subtle use of computer generated imagery never interferes with the narrative or ideas being explored on the surface.

Many have categorised ‘Children of Men’ as a British science fiction, which even though is a film fully financed by an American studio, still manages to adhere to one of the most striking aesthetic principles of many of the best British films, that of truth and realism. This is a film of real beauty, intelligence and an exceptionally well made Hollywood movie that offers the perfect marriage of European sensibilities and American genres.

4 October 2008

SORCERER (Dir. William Friedkin, 1977, US) - A film waiting to be rediscovered

Released in 1977, the year of 'Star Wars', 'Rocky' and 'Taxi Driver', director William Friedkin's 'Sorcerer', an expensive and troubled remake of the classic 1950s French thriller, 'Wages of Fear', came and went with a deathly silence that also signalled the demise of Friedkin's commercial power at the box office. Already having made his name with films like 'The French Connection' and 'The Exorcist', Friedkin's reputation as a film maker was characterised by a willingness to take on genres and offer audiences with intelligent, serious and controversial films.

However, on its release, most critics and audiences turned away from 'Sorcerer' with disdain, trashing the film and it's director as an example of Hollywood auteurism that was clearly out of control and beyond the constraints of the studio involved. Why is it then after nearly two decades, 'Sorcerer' still has not been given a proper DVD release in the UK? This does seem very strange and quite peculiar when considering how underrated Friedkin's film is in light of today's empty and hollow Hollywood adventure films.

Clouzot's original adaptation of the novel by Georges Arnaud borrowed the fatalism of many of the classic American noirs like 'Thieves Highway' and offered a provocative critique on greed and failure. Friedkin originally wanted Steven McQueen in the lead role but his demands for accommodating his wife, Ali McGraw, in a supporting role meant that he was forced to secure the services of Roy Scheider, whom he had worked with prior on 'The French Connection'.

The story brings together four desperate criminals who reluctantly take on the job of transporting nitroglycerin to a primitive oil refinery through the ancient jungles of an unknown part of South America. I recently read somewhere a critic stating the importance of 'Sorcerer' as a key step in the development and later emergence of Michael Mann as a spirited advocate of 'Tangerine Dream' as a key signifier in the universe of Mann's ambient narratives. The influence is undeniable on a filmmaker like Mann, especially in Friedkin's depiction of man's struggle to attain some kind of personal transcendence that occurs on both a spiritual and emotional plane.

Friedkin's film is a rare anti-genre illustration of 70's authorial obsessions and his evocative depiction of the South American landscape particularly the journey through the jungle is memorable in how it documents the textures of a physical struggle with nature, capturing with great care the haunting imagery of rain, mud, sweat and blood. 'Sorcerer' is a brewding and tough film that reminded me of the classic Howard Hawks movie 'Only angels have wings', another film that seems to test the limits of male camaraderie. Not a brilliant film, but forgotten and worthy of being rediscovered by a new generation that may hopefully elevate it to a much more notable status within the oeuvre of Friedkin.

MAHANGAR / THE BIG CITY (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1963, India) - And yet another masterpiece

On the cover to the Vol. 1 box set of the new Satyajit Ray DVD collection is a prior warning about the state of the transfer, but Artificial Eye and everyone involved in the production and release of this DVD really have acquitted themselves commendably, demonstrating how digital restoration is becoming an increasingly important act of cinematic preservation that any film maker had they been alive today would have surely endorsed with great fervour. 'Mahangar', 'Charaluta' and 'Nayak' may at first seem unrelated but look closely and the feminist vein becomes revealingly transparent in how Ray repeatedly placed the female character at the centre of an episodic narrative. Focusing on the emergence of an educated, progressive Indian middle class that is eager to do away with the backward looking traditions of an older generation out of step with the exponential rate of change, the story traces the emotional journey of Arati, a housewife who is forced to take on a part time job as a sales girl, and the many social challenges she must face as she becomes financially independent.

Though much of Ray’s approach to cinema stems from the traditions of Italian neo realism, his distinctly understated and sparse visual style shares parallels with the work of another influential world cinema director; Robert Bresson, also making his ascendancy in film at the time. Ray’s observational approach, more or less rendered the camera invisible, and blurred the barriers between fiction and documentary, so much that everything that unfolds and appears within the frame seems effortless and not forced in anyway. An expert at directing his actors, Mahangar features a strong set of performances from the cast including Madhabi Mukherjee, in what would be her first of many collaborations with Ray. Unlike genre films that require a leap of faith and the suspension of disbelief, watching any Ray film demands no such commitment as we rarely question the authenticity and conviction of his actors and the situations that they find themselves in.

Such desire for understated realism can still be found in the films of Ken Loach, but Mahangar is a film that defies the cynicism that we traditionally associate with notions of realism, and repeatedly, like the neo realist masters in Italy, Ray never damned humanism, always directing blame at tradition, and acting as a courageous voice for the inequalities and injustices suffered by those in the minority, especially women. The recurring thematic motif of hypocrisy and how it preoccupies the patriarchal domain of contemporary Bengali society manifests itself most clearly in the character of Arati’s softly spoken, benevolent husband who likes to see himself as somewhat of a progressive, liberal. However, once Arati begins showing signs of economic prosperity and independence, his initial feelings of personal liberation soon transforms into a form of self imposed humiliation, especially after he loses his job at the bank and begins to act feverishly paranoid about what his wife gets up to at work.

Many great films have been made about the affects of the city upon the individual, and though Ray embraces the acceptance of women in the workplace as a step forward, he is fiercely critical about the overwhelming nature of a city that enriches, consumes and destroys those who cannot make the compromises in exchange for social and economic mobility. By the end of the film, both Arati and her husband are shown to be unemployed, and Ray chooses to finish here, purely to demonstrate how happiness can come out of the most despairing of moments; Arati’s feeling of happiness is both truthful and strangely uplifting.