21 September 2009

EK DOCTOR KI MAUT / DEATH OF A DOCTOR (Dir. Tapan Sinha, 1990, India) – Victims of the State

Pankaj Kapoor and Shabana Azmi were also paired opposite one another in the 1985 film 'Khamosh' (Silence).

Bengali director Tapan Sinha had a prolific career, steadily working outside the mainstream on a range of socially engaged projects. In 2009, he sadly passed away at the age of 84, leaving behind a body of work that remains some what undiscovered and unrecognised. ‘The Films of Tapan Sinha’ by Subhajit Ghosh provides an excellent, worthwhile overview of the films he directed and also examines his journey from working in the British film industry during the 1950s to his eventual position as an unpretentious auteur in the parallel cinema movement. ‘Ek Doctor Ki Maut’ was made in the final phase of his directorial career and like many of the most powerful Indian art films, it was funded by The National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC). Based on a true story titled ‘Abhimanyu’ by writer Ramapada Choudhury and starring an ensemble cast made up of parallel cinema regulars including Shabana Azmi, Pankaj Kapoor and Irfan Khan (in one of his earliest roles), Tapan Sinha’s realist melodrama uses the medical, health and science institutions of India to offer an agonizing study of one doctor’s struggle to seek recognition for the vaccine he has developed to fight leprosy.

Using his academic position as a means of sustaining his interest in scientific and medical research Dr. Dipankar Roy (Pankaj Kapoor) spends his nights at home in what is a rudimentary make shift laboratory. Experimenting on mice, Dr. Roy succeeds in developing a vaccine for leprosy but in the process, the relationship with his wife (the consummate Shabana Azmi) becomes fraught with accusations to do with neglect and abandonment. Aided by the leftist ideals of an aspiring journalist (Irfan Khan) who helps to publicise Dr. Roy’s important discovery, the state (symbolised by the archaic medical and health organisations) persecutes, demonises and humiliates the doctor’s breakthrough as merely an extended lie. What Dr. Roy’s discovery reveals is the savage jealousy and ugly scepticism that plagues the middle classes who collectively stand in the way of his brilliance, preferring instead to vilify than endorse progressive ideals. Inevitably, Dr. Roy is severed from his research and once the state intervenes by virtually exiling him in to a remote village, it becomes an impossible task for him to complete the publication of his research notes.

Dr. Roy becomes a victim of the state.

Having made sure of his public humiliation and professional denigration, Dr. Roy is devastated when he hears the discovery of the vaccine is credited to the work of two American doctors. It is a moment of bitter disillusionment at the failure of the state and Indian society to embrace change and celebrate individual achievement. Both Pankaj Kapoor and Shabana Azmi effortlessly deliver a series of equally superlative performances, fiercely conveying an outrage at their wrongful condemnation. The character of the lonely, educated housewife (Shabana Azmi) and her willingness to put up with her husband’s intolerant research habits has origins in the 1960 film ‘Anuradha’ directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. However unlike Leela Naidu’s repressed housewife, Dr. Roy’s wife is later forced to take up a job as a teacher so they can maintain some semblance of normality in what becomes a disruptive relationship. Tapan Sinha was a key film maker in the parallel cinema movement and also a hugely significant figure in Bengali cinema, and ‘Ek Doctor Ki Maut’ is yet another creative high point in the parallel cinema movement.

20 September 2009

FLAMMEN AND CITRONEN / FLAME AND CITRON (Dir. Ole Christian Madsen, 2008, Denmark/Czech Republic/Germany) - Heroes and Villains

Flame and Citron are considered to be Denmark's two most famous World War II resistance fighters.

Not another World War II film you might ask indifferently yet this Danish production, directed by the austere talents of film maker Ole Christian Madsen is a handsomely mounted espionage thriller that documents the contribution of two of the most famous members of the notorious Danish ‘Holger Danske’ resistance; Bent Faurschou-Hviid (‘Flame’) and Jorgen Haagen Schmith (‘Citron’). Touted as one of the Danish film industry’s most expensive feature films, ‘Flame and Citron’ was given a limited release in the March of this year and has continued quietly to attract critical acclaim, with many comparing it to both Spielberg’s ‘Munich’ and Jean Pierre Meville’s ‘Army of the Shadows’ in the moral contradictions that haunt those who choose to resist and use violence as a means of self defence. I’m not so sure if the film possesses the impressive aesthetic and ideological confidence that makes Melville’s 1969 film a classic of the genre. However, Ole Christian Madsen certainly knows how to tell a compelling story, weaving together an evocative recreation of Denmark under siege in the 1940s with a sympathetic appreciation for the sombre betrayals and secrets which would lead to the eventual destruction of the Holger Danske resistance group.

Flame harbours a particular disliking for the Gestapo.

Dispensing with glib heroics and manufactured sentimentality, the film seems much more interested in the way in which the resistance was exploited for personal financial gain and entombing the past. In terms of characterisation, Madsen wisely indulges mythologizing Flame and Citron as dark avengers who may appear stylistically chic in their suave dress sense and inviting tics but emerge as flawed, broken manifestations of a city paralysed by brutal occupation. Mads Mikkelsen is perhaps the face most familiar to audiences in the UK and US, having portrayed the villain ‘Le Chiffre’ in the recent James Bond outing ‘Casino Royale’. Mads Mikkelsen has created a notable reputation in the Danish film industry as one of its finest actors and his fearless portrayal of Jorgen aka ‘Citron’ as the dysfunctional family man forced to surrender his status as both civilian and father certainly marks him out as someone who straddles the middle ground between mainstream and art house cinema. The character of Bent aka ‘Flame’ is played by a much younger Danish actor, Thure Lindhardt, who is equally impressive in what is a cocky, assertive and uncompromising performance.

With a magnificently stark visual style, incorporating an authenticity for locations and a tragic, understated ending that involves imaginative use of cross cutting, ‘Flame and Citron’ transcends the limitations of the genre by never losing sight of the moral integrity which rightfully helped immortalise the memory of a universal will to resist. Made on a budget of $10 million, the film has not fared too well at the global box office, having only grossed an equivalent $10 million. This is disappointing considering how well such a film could have played to a genre savvy Multiplex crowd in the UK.

18 September 2009

AWAARA / THE VAGABOND / THE TRAMP (Dir. Raj Kapoor, 1951, India)

Raj Kapoor and Nargis made for one of the most popular and striking on screen pairings.

The Kapoor dynasty continues to be measured against the hugely popular cinema of Raj Kapoor and one can see why such a truism exists when isolating the brilliance of a film like ‘Awaara’. Though the 1956 film, ‘Jagte Raho’, may certainly have been imbued with a sense of outrage directed against social equality and also seemed to offer a more ideologically inclined manifesto keeping in line with the emergence of neo realism, it was the Kapoor directed 1951 spectacle ‘Awaara’ that blended poverty as a theme with expressionist melodramatic fantasies to produce cinema that bridged the gap between realism and escapism. RK Studios came of age in the early 1950s with the production and release of their first film ‘Awaara’ which unexpectedly opened to international critical acclaim. The generic label of showman often associated with Raj Kapoor detracts greatly from taking such a film maker seriously as an influential auteur who succeeded at marrying the traditions of Hollywood narrative cinema with melodramatic concerns. With ‘Awaara’, Raj Kapoor not only mastered the art of mainstream melodrama but he was able to outline and refine a template that is still being imitated today.

Raj Kapoor owes a considerable debt to the universal appeal of Chaplin's 'tramp' figure.

With a script by the celebrated and influential neo realist writer and film maker K A Abbas, who would remain central to Raj Kapoor’s career, ‘Awaara’ is essentially a story about a bullish patriarch who ostracises both his wife and son for personal prejudices, formidably articulating the social anxieties of class and caste that plagued a post partition Nehruite society. Such a familial estrangement finds a startling and feverish manifestation in the stark, monochrome compositions evident in the opening sequences, with much of the imagery recalling both Welles, Toland and film noir. Daringly mounted as a first production in a studio that had yet to be completed, Raj Kapoor’s handling of the ‘Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi’ dream sequence is an astonishing achievement in terms of set design, choreography and thematic trickery. Additionally, the uncompromising ending in which the figure of the vagabond remains a prisoner of class prejudice is principally remarkable for a mainstream film that offered audiences the romantic on screen star pairing of Raj Kapoor and the iconic Nargis. A spirited classic.

12 September 2009

DVD ROUND UP 4: Larry Flynt, Dourif and The Motorcycle Boy

RUMBLE FISH (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1983, US)
‘Somebody ought to put the fish in the river…’

Coppola’s latest film ‘Tetro’ appears to trace a linage back to his 1983 ode to expressionism, ‘Rumble Fish’. Aesthetically speaking, after ‘Apocalypse Now’, ‘Rumble Fish’ might actually be the most visually sophisticated of the films Coppola directed in the 1980s. Even today it seems to provoke a strong reaction, with some continuing to declare it as a masterpiece whilst others prefer to see it as a self indulgent fairy tale. It has undoubtedly been the film which helped shape the cinematic perceptions of Sofia Coppola. One can easily see the existential dilemmas that plague the disaffected youth in ‘Rumble Fish’ re merge in Sofia Coppola’s 1999 directorial debut ‘The Virgin Suicides’ including the time lapse photography of metaphysical cloud formations. Shot back to back with ‘The Outsiders’, Coppola’s film takes its inspiration from the aesthetics of German expressionist cinema, the film noir universe of 1940s American cinema and also the monochrome beauty of Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese samurai films. ‘Rumble Fish’ is a stunning achievement, presenting a preciously constructed image of teen angst, hopeless youth and gang culture on the outskirts of what is a cannibalised, post modern American industrial town.

Essentially a biblical tale about two brothers and harking back to the cinema of Elia Kazan, Matt Dillon stars as the gullible and dim witted Rusty James who wastes his time mythologizing the escapades of his older brother, ‘The Motorcycle Boy’ (Mickey Rourke) whilst pretending to live up to a self made reputation as a notorious gang leader. Coppola’s peers and the so called American new wave of the 70s including Spielberg (1941), Scorsese (Mean Streets), Lucas (American Graffiti) and De Palma had all in one way or another made autobiographical statements about their youth. ‘Rumble Fish’ seemed to be like Coppola’s chance to say something about his own adolescence, youth and the reverence with which he looked up to his own older brother, August Coppola, to whom the film is dedicated; a film about the beguiling nature of cinema.

THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT (Dir. Milos Forman, 1996, US)
‘I turned the whole world into a tabloid…’

Milos Forman’s uneven biopic on the infamous American pornography publisher Larry Flynt staggers from one moment to the next, offering what is an indulgent and farcical representation of events. Using his porn publication, Hustler, to take on the boundaries of taste and decency in what had become a morally conservative America, the affable Larry Flynt was persecuted and imprisoned several times for what was really an overbearing liberalism which made ‘the moral majority’ feel considerably anxious. I could never take Woody Harelson seriously as an actor, never mind a TV star on the hit series ‘Cheers’ yet he is perfectly cast in the role of Flynt, performing commendably to get across a continuous sense of outrage at the establishment. Produced by Oliver Stone, the film certainly offers an interesting parallel with Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in De Palma’s ‘Scarface’, as Flynt like Montana gradually becomes a grotesque aberration of American society. The once talented Edward Norton shows up in a supporting role as Flynt’s tetchy, over paid and much abused lawyer. Though the credits explicitly state the name of European √©migr√© Milos Forman as the director, ideologically the film bears the hallmarks of Oliver Stone’s liberal humanist preoccupations.

WISE BLOOD (Dir. John Huston, 1979, US)
‘No man with a good car needs to be justified!’

John Huston career as a film maker started in 1941 with ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and ended in 1987 with ‘The Dead’. Towards the final phase of his career, Huston translated concerns to do with morality, existence and death into cinematic terms. ‘Wise Blood’ is perhaps one of the most idiosyncratic of all Huston films, adopting a folksy western style and unearthing an unwashed underclass of false prophets for whom religion equates to commercial sagacity. Disillusioned with the empty promises articulated by religious preachers, Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) takes it upon himself to haphazardly establish the first church without Christ. The key to Huston’s bleakly dark religious satire is Dourif’s performance as the disagreeable Hazel Motes, a dubious figure who retains a permanent scowl of contempt and for whom society is merely a trap to make you in one way or another dependent on its illogical illusions of grandeur. A faithful adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s novel, Huston’s cerebral grasp for the grimmest and most despairing of locations (filmed in Georgia) ensures that a kind of sickness permeates much of the film’s tone. Another unsurprisingly first-rate release by the Criterion label.

9 September 2009

OFFICE SPACE (Dir. Mike Judge, 1999, US) - 'It would be nice to have that kind of job security...'

Fear of the workplace.

The workplace as a source of humiliation, entrapment and resignation is something that Mike Judge does spectacularly well to critique in his 1999 cult film, ‘Office Space’. This is in essence a socio-political satire disguised as one of those self indulgent Judd Apatow movies that seem to spring up with despairing regularity at the local multiplex. It is a cheerily deceptive political satire in which we find a hapless IT worker, Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), zombified by the relative nothingness of contemporary office life. However, Peter Gibbons decision to ‘take it easy’ makes him rebel against the powers that be and effectively liberate his soul from the tiresome machine called capitalism. It is somewhat mystifying that such a biting and acerbic statement on the culture of work and the workplace has come from the chasms of a mainstream genre. One could easily argue that the film simply adopts a default conservative ending in which most of the characters achieve their goals yet such a valid point would overlook the apocalyptic nature of having to work in a meaningless job that is perfectly encapsulated in the absurdest facial expressions of Peter’s circle of co workers.

The films of Mike Judge offer some of the sharpest and funniest insights into the psyche of the American workplace and his latest film, ‘Extract’, is a continuation of a preoccupation with magnifying those spaces that have been patented by the corporate mass. Ricky Gervais, the creator of the UK TV series, ‘The Office, must have seen this one, if not, then perhaps both Mike Judge and Gervais tap into a nightmarish commonality of work related anxieties recognisable in most societies today. The only real flaw is the director’s misjudgement in casting the annoyingly untalented Jennifer Aniston as the love interest. A key American film of the 90s for sure.

This original classic fax/copier mash up from the film has been parodied endlessly on YouTube by die hard fans. An obvious Marxist statement - the enslavement of mankind by consumer culture and arbitrary machines.

2 September 2009


RIDE LONESOME (Dir. Budd Boetticher, 1959, US)
'There are some things a man just can't ride around...'

The term minimalist cinema is not really the first thing that springs to mind when mulling over the cultural worth of Budd Boetticher’s westerns yet it is the one word that is often repeated by critics and directors alike when commenting upon his style; Martin Scorsese takes a similar approach in his introduction that accompanies the DVD of Boetticher’s 1959 western ‘Ride Lonesome’. One tends to keep the idea of minimalism far away from genre as it is a lofty theoretical principle often reserved for exceptional auteurs like Robert Bresson operating in the throes of art cinema. Working in scope, this is perhaps the most beautifully framed of the westerns Boetticher made with Randolph Scott. ‘Ride Lonesome’ is also closest in tone to the temperamental landscapes of the revenge westerns directed by Anthony Mann. Essentially a study of one man’s lust for revenge, Boetticher’s use of framing becomes increasingly daring as the narrative unfolds and the appearance of the hanging tree in the final act of the film is an unconventionally abstract image for a western made in the 1950s. The grotesque, sickening appearance of the tree and its relationship with death alludes to a past that has all but consumed the figure of the loner embodied by Randolph Scott. The manifold symbolic purposes the tree comes to serve acts as the perfect natural anchor, resolving much of the conflict at the end. Both Lee Van Cleef and James Coburn have supporting roles and interestingly enough, Leone would later cast both actors in his Spaghetti westerns. The haunting final shot of the burning tree as Randolph Scott looks on is a potent one, underlining how the complex psychological symbolism of Boetticher’s films seemed to evoke a genre classicism and art house sensibility that few westerns of the era were able to acquire and articulate in such an effortless way. Neurotically psychological, this is the closest Boetticher came to making a Freudian western.

DECISION AT SUNDOWN (Dir. Budd Boetticher, 1957, US)
'Is he a big man in Sundown?...'

The honour of a virtuous woman and its protection was a precious commodity in the chivalrous mythology of the American west. Boetticher’s continuing collaboration with Randolph Scott meant he was able to creatively circumvent the rules of genre film making whilst pursuing similar themes and motifs. With ‘Decision at Sundown’, Boetticher scrutinised the hypocrisies and self delusions hidden in the conservative idea of a woman’s honour. Scott’s character arrives at the town of ‘Sundown’ with the sole intention of avenging the murder of his wife. The town reveals itself to be a cowardly place, ruled by the greed of one man who has acquired an intimidating control over the local sheriff. As it transpires, the virtuous image of his wife that Scott carries with him turns out to be a fraud. Yet he is unable to face up to such a reality as it would mean humiliation in the eyes of the town and a challenge to his hardened masculine persona. Having stood his ground, Scott’s final confrontation with the so called villain fails to take place at all. Boetticher complicates audience sympathy by blurring the line between nobility and treachery, populating his universe with characters who we would today purportedly label as anti heroes. By ridiculing the hero’s quest and reversing narrative conventions, Boetticher ingeniously subverts audience expectations. Similarly like ‘High Noon’, the collective failure of the town to respond to the sickness of greed presents a vision of the west far removed from the romanticism that characterised many of the ‘A’ pictures of the era.