23 July 2010

PRATIDWANDI / THE ADVERSARY (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1972, India) - Chronicles of Dissent

Figure 1 - 4. The revolutionary impulse nurtured by Naxalite sentiments - Siddhartha's imagination of dissent.

Figure 5 - 16. Passions and repressions coalesce into an extended dream sequence that recalls the cinema of Bergman and Fellini.

Figure 17 - 19. The closing shots - the call of the bird and the sounds of a funeral procession.

20 July 2010

SHATRANJ KE KHILARI / THE CHESS PLAYERS (Dir. Satyajit Ray, India, 1977) - 'I rather like the sound of Hindustani....'

Satyajit Ray was a Bengali film maker and though Hindi cinema failed to really lure him into their path he did on two occasions venture forth and indulge the opportunity to direct adaptations based on short stories by writer Munshi Premchand. The first and most notable adaptation was of Premchand’s short story Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players) in 1977. The second Sadgati (The Deliverance) was shot specifically for television in 1981 and brought together the talents of Om Puri and Smita Patil. Ray had a real ear for dialogue and his classical upbringing naturally led him to adapt many of the literary giants of Bengali literature. The Chess Players is by far Ray’s most ambitious film and similarly like Ghare-Bhaire (Home and the World, 1984) it was one of the few occasions that Ray directly engaged ideologically with the colonial legacy of the British Empire. Whilst Ghare-Bhaire offers a complex analysis of Nationalism and how religious divisions in Bengal were exploited by the British to retain an unchallenged hegemony, The Chess Players focuses on the events that led to the Great Mutiny of 1857. What we also witness in the film is the transition of power from the East India Company to Imperial rule, an aspect which is symbolised in the cultural xenophobia espoused by the perplexed and agitated figure of General Outram (Sir Richard Attenborough).

The year is 1856 and the story takes place in the decadence of Awadh, a state ruled by Wajid Ali Shah who is one of the last remaining Nawabs. In a nation in which the cultural and political influence of the Mughal Empire has ceased to exist, the British have a vision for imperialist expansion which means the end to any kind of alliance with the Nawabs who had initially helped them to rule with certain impunity. Set against this tumultuous political backdrop is the peripheral story of our eponymous chess players; the house proud Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and the cuckold Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey) who feel they are safe and secure in their harmless games of chess. The capital of Lucknow has always provided a fascinating landscape for film makers with an interest in reconstructing the Mughal period and Ray’s recreation of Lucknow is blissfully romantic, recalling a time in which the cultural attractions of Lucknow were on the verge of collapse. At times, eerily so, Lucknow comes across as a city haunted by ghosts and the spectral figures of Mirza Ali and Mir Ali drift through their banal lives indifferent and unconcerned to political and social change taking place around them. Of course, it is a change and transition which they want no part of as it signals their demise yet such is the impact of the British in Lucknow, by the time Wajid Ali Shah has abdicated, Mirza and Mir play on helplessly with tears in their eyes.

Ray somehow persuaded Richard Attenborough to play the part of General Outram and he delivers what is surely one of his finest performances as a man who is faced with the difficult decision of coercing the effeminate Nawab to surrender his throne, all without causing grave offence to his majesty’s reputation. Much of the humanist warmth comes from the hilarious interplay between the warring and comical figures of Mirza Ali and Mir Ali. Constantly engaged in a battle over the latest game of chess, they are prepared to go any lengths to keep the game going even if this means alienating the affections of their wives which they do with great veracity. In terms of political symbolism, the chess board and its polished pieces of ivory which are intelligently staged and moved around with an attempt to outsmart the opponent is an apt metonym for wider power relations. Shabana Azmi pops up in a minor role as Mirza Ali’s much maligned wife and though she is somewhat wasted in the film the decision to cast her was motivated largely by Ray’s assertion that she was a brilliant actress – an observation that no one can really argue with. The remarkable ideological restraint Ray shows in many of his films means that politics never transform into polemic which seems to explain how Ray within a post colonial context never sets out to simply demonise the British as the evil oppressor nor reduce the Muslims of Lucknow to redundant stereotypes. Every Ray film I watch, the stronger the case mounts for his unparalleled position in the sphere of global cinema – his oeuvre has not been surpassed and his skills as a film maker remain unrivalled.

Someone has uploaded the entire film in parts on YouTube HD including subtitles. This is one of Ray's great colour films and the Artificial Eye DVD offers a pristine transfer. Here is the opening part - watch out for the satirical use of animation to provide us with some sharp context:

18 July 2010

INCEPTION (Dir. Christopher Nolan, US/UK, 2010) - Deleuzian Mind Games (300th Post!)

There is nothing particularly complex about the philosophy of Christopher Nolan – he likes puzzles, mind games, conundrums, enigmas. But does this instinctively make him an intellectual Hollywood director? For many, the answer to this question would be yes many times over. Comparisons with Kubrick seem a little odd really when given Nolan operates in a periphery similar to that of Michael Mann. This led me to question why western academic film criticism continues to over praise the likes of Kubrick, elevating his work to an exalted plane when in reality under represented directors like Satyajit Ray rarely get a look in. I’m not sure if the West including Europe has produced a film maker as prolific, ideological and magnificent as Ray. Anyway, the canonization of film makers and their work deserves an altogether separate post and I do attend come back to the Eurocentric bias that continues to afflict academic film criticism. Come to think of it; Kurosawa and Ray should dominate the discussion but Kubrick and Scorsese end up being the likely suspects for critical pontificating.

Hollywood has been reluctant with shooting films in the IMAX format as it is generally expensive and only a handful of screens are capable of accommodating such technology in terms of cinema exhibition. Nolan’s The Dark Knight was perhaps the first feature film to fully exploit the IMAX format yet Hollywood seems to have embraced 3D technology rather than the potentially epic spectacle and visceral experience offered by IMAX. Though Inception was not shot using IMAX cameras, Nolan’s decision to shoot in scope was triggered by a desire to see his film play in IMAX screens. I’m still trying to decide whether or not this is simply another Hollywood blockbuster with an intellectual edge or it evidences a genuine evolution in the career of Nolan. It is definitely not lacking of ideas or short of imagination. If a film is labelled as having a convoluted narrative it usually means the film’s director knows how to manipulate narrative so as to make it appear sophisticated for a mainstream audience. Inception is a very cerebral film, perhaps too cerebral for the mainstream audience it is going after. It is also a science fiction thriller, a genre aspect which the marketing has deliberately downplayed in fear of over egging the film as another The Matrix derivative.

One of the major problems with Inception is that Nolan overdoes the narrative and at times the explanations offered by the various characters on the nature of extraction and inception are rather quite muddled and at times confusing. However, Nolan’s attempt to tackle large scale philosophical and metaphysical ideas in the framework of a high concept summer film should be commended – memories and dreams seem to be the life force of cinema. Yet the blurring of the line between the dream world and our own reality is one of the oldest conventions of a really strong science fiction movie. Having said that Nolan’s films unlike the work of Kubrick do not inherit the clean symmetrical lines which make films like The Shining and Full Metal Jacket clinically constructed. The cool intensity and crisp visual aesthetics of Ridley Scott and Michael Mann linger attractively in many of the jaw dropping action sequences. Beginning with Memento which has been described by one critic as the ultimate mind fuck movie, Nolan like Mann has tried to make films on his own terms and though he followed up Memento with a remake of Insomnia, the two Batman films proved to the studios he can magnify his artistic sensibilities to a much larger canvas. The Dark Knight is one of the stand out mainstream blockbusters of the last ten years and though it is infected ideologically by an allegorical Bush-Bin Laden context, Nolan’s ending is audaciously executed.

One of the other drawbacks with Inception is that Nolan over populates his Deleuzian landscapes with way too many characters and then fails to develop them through the course of what is a mind boggling narrative. This was an initial criticism of the film but on reflection it doesn't really affect the content and shape of the film in any major way considering how Nolan's spectacular and bold images impress throughout. Cinema has always been about size and the IMAX context delivers an altogether more visceral experience, making one consider if all films that cost up to $200 million should be screened only in IMAX. With the growth of home cinema, IMAX certainly suggests that size will never be out done by the domestic sanctity of large plasmas screens or expensive projectors.

Nolan is serviced well by three additional elements, two of which are regular collaborators; Wally Pfister's luminous cinematography, Hans Zimmer's bombastic and at times moving score and Leonardo DiCaprio's impressive performance as a mind heist magician. DiCaprio has matured over the last few years into a strong actor. I was never convinced of his talents but his last three films including Inception, Shutter Island and Revolutionary Road have certainly witnessed an evolution in terms of being able to command on screen presence whilst also performing to a consistently high level. A lot of critics are declaring Inception as Nolan's masterpiece but I think it is too early to start saying such things considering how he is still evolving as a film maker. Yet I do agree that trapped inside the body of this expensive summer spectacle is an intelligent art film and superior genre cinema. Inception is likely to be one of the best summer films this year and though I do tend to stay away these days from the overcrowded silly season of dim Hollywood films auteurs like Nolan try to make things just that little bit more exciting and interesting for the discerning cinema goer. Inception is one of those films which is surely to grow with audiences and part of me already wants to go back and watch this again just so I can start putting together what amounts to a skillfully engineered jigsaw puzzle. Additionally, theological and philosophical interpretations of the film is already making this quite popular with those with an interest in the work of Gilles Deleuze.

The teaser trailer for the film is brilliantly put together and really does put forward a strong argument on the dying art of making a half decent trailer:

13 July 2010

HELEN (Dir. Christine Molloy & Joe Lawlor, 2008, UK/Ireland) - The Influences of Antonioni

Helen is the debut feature from British directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor. I remember reading the reviews for this one, which were excellent, but it was another of those blink and you will miss it art house releases so perhaps it was slightly disconcerting that I was able to pick this film up on DVD for under a fiver. Watching Helen, a couple of cinematic influences quickly surfaced including the work of American indie film maker Gus Van Sant and most significantly Italian auteur Antonioni. When a young college girl goes missing, the police reconstruct the events following up to her disappearance. Helen, one of the students at the college, is chosen to help the police retrace the last hours of the missing girl but it soon becomes clear that Helen has a dark past of her own which she is struggling to come to terms with. The merits and perils of Slow Cinema continues to form an important area of discussion for cinephiles – as proven by the recent furore generated by the articles and letters pages of the past few issues of The Sight and Sound film journal. The Hungarian Bela Tarr could rightly be credited with germinating the seeds for the Slow Cinema movement and an enigmatic film like Helen would certainly fall under such an auspice. I’m in the camp that argues Slow Cinema does not use boredom as a technique to engage the spectator but rather demands close observational analysis of the mise en scene.

Directors Molloy and Lawlor’s background are community based projects and Civic Life, a series of nine short films shot on 35mm cinemascope which were commissioned to explore the diversity of local communities in the UK, attracted critical acclaim at a number of festivals. Shot on a shoe string budget and financed through multiple commissioning partners including the Newcastle Gateshead Initiative, it is surprising Helen even got a half decent distribution deal given the cultural elitism that exists towards British film makers trying to do something different or alternative. There are echoes here of Antonioni’s classic art house conundrum L’Avventura (The Adventure, 1960) in that the disappearance becomes a narrative conceit with which to explore personal anxieties plaguing the alienated characters. Though Helen is a British film, it is not British in terms of cinematic sensibilities and seems to reject the realist tradition for an altogether more reflexive and self conscious style. I think UK film critic Jonathan Romney was right when he said Helen is a real discovery in terms of new British cinema but let’s hope Molloy and Lawlor can get the support they need in terms of marketing, financing and distribution to develop as potentially interesting film makers.

Here's a sample of what makes Antonioni so pleasurable for fans of real cinema:

12 July 2010

GREEN ZONE (Dir. Paul Greengrass, 2010, US) - Does political scare you?

The latest by Paul Greengrass comes as a major disappointment. Green Zone was touted as a potentially interesting political thriller given the source material originated from Rajiv Chandrasekaran's celebrated book on the American occupation of Iraq. It's not surprising to see the book being credited merely as an inspiration and nothing more because the involvement of Hollywood scriptwriter Brian Helgeland turned what should have been a fascinating political thriller into just another lame chase movie with incoherent action sequences. It didn't help with the marketing emphasising ridiculous quotes such as 'Bourne goes epic' on the posters in a last ditch attempt to convince audiences that Damon was actually invoking the franchise with which he has become synonymous. Costing in excess of $100 million, the commercial failure of yet another Hollywood film about the war in Iraq has certainly called an end to this current crop of films. Personally, Green Zone has no real narrative to talk about in depth nor does it really offer anything new about the way Hollywood has decidedly represented the occupation of Iraq.

Reinforcing the dominant American point of view, most of the Hollywood films about Iraq have failed categorically to give a credible and notable voice to the people whom have been subjugated and are currently under occupation. In Green Zone, the Iraqi representative whom the American army name 'Freddy' is yet another underwritten Other. The politics of the film which focuses centrally on the hunt for WMD's seems not only a few years too late but is dealt with in a very naive and inept manner whereby the audience is spoken to as though they have no contextual understanding of why such an illegal war was waged by Bush, Blair and the hegemonic forces of corporate evil. By the end one feels Greengrass and Damon have deliberately steered clear off asking the really important political questions, settling on the comforts of heroic escapism which chimes badly with the sensibilities of so many who feel utterly pissed off at Hollywood's lack of sympathy with the destruction of Iraq and its people.

As for Greengrass, he has attracted a reputation as one of the best directors working in Hollywood today but the dubious and pretentious apolitical nature of his latest film seems to suggest his work has been triumphed for no particular reason other than an empty realist or cinema verite aesthetic which looks quite weary now. Mainstream film critics should give it a rest - Greengrass is a competent director at best, the rest is hype. As to the question, 'Does political scare you?', well, you know the answer to that one - 'Radical political scares me. Political political scares me.' (The Player, 1992)

3 July 2010

DVD ROUND UP 5: Zombies, Teen Rebels and Danny Boon

SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (Dir. George Romero, 2009, US)
YOUTH IN REVOLT (Dir. Miguel Arteta, 2009, US)
THE BOOK OF ELI (Dir. The Hughes Brothers, 2010, US)
(Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2009, France)

Danny Boon stars in Jeunet's visual tour de force Micmacs.

Survival of the Dead
is the latest in the long line of Romero directed Zombie films. I have always been an admirer of his work and not just the Dead Saga; just consider The Crazies and Martin - both remarkable American horror films. Whilst Romero's last Dead film, Diary of the Dead was an allegory of the media, this time one could interpret the story of warring families as a suitable metaphor for sectarian conflict - The Troubles are the most explicit political allusion. However, Survival of the Dead falls short of Romero's best work as it suffers from weak performances (not that performance really mattered in any of the Dead films) and a lack of substance. It is perhaps the worst of the Dead films and could be the last one in the series if Romero comes to his senses. (The studios won't though).

Youth in Revolt
, starring the quirky and likeable Michael Cena is a teen pic that manages to rise above the crass and pretentious sensibilities of the current crop of high school films through an irresistible performance and assured direction from American indie film maker Miguel Arteta. Though the screenplay cannot really steer clear of convention, Cena's dual role as rebel and conformist generates enough subversive undercurrents to guide the film to one of the stronger endings for a teen pic I have seen in a while. Miguel Arteta is evolving into a very interesting film maker as his last films including The Good Girl and Chuck and Buck evident his knack for subtle characterisation.

The Book of Eli - yet another over wrought post apocalyptic movie.

The Hughes Brothers latest film The Book of Eli was released at the same time as much anticipated The Road. Though The Book of Eli benefits enormously from the presence of Denzel Washington as the mysterious stranger who is an equal mix of samurai warrior and western cowboy, the film's premise is poised on a twist that may surprise but can do little to counter such obvious and tired imagery of the dystopian nuclear nightmare. The Hughes Brothers could have potentially become great film makers but have struggled to get projects off the ground whilst also having to deal with studio interference. Why does Hollywood cinema feel sincerity can be constructed by simply having characters recite redundantly from the Bible? A poor conceit. Had this been a western, it might have worked as the moments in the town are by far the most interesting. What's worse is the off putting cameo of Malcolm McDowell who shows up in the last reel donning a ridiculous Fu-Manchu moustache.

In terms of pure cinematic invention, Hollywood need only look to the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and his latest Micmacs, a Chaplinesque and Tati inspired slapstick comedy of errors. Starring French cinema's current hot property Danny Boon, Micmacs really took me by surprise. The magical work of George Melies looms large over much of Jeunet's films whilst Danny Boon's eccentrically over the top performance as the unfortunate Bazil who has a bullet lodged in his skull generates just the right level of sentimentality to avoid falling into clique. Every minute of Micmacs pulsates with a visceral energy that is infectious and Jeunet confidently uses the slapstick genre to critique the arms industry. A highly original work like Micmacs does seem to suggest that though Hollywood may be able to lure away big name directors like Jeunet, the net result is usually quite negative as evidenced in the spectacular failure of Alien Resurrection which Jeunet had the misery of directing. I wish I had seen this one on the big screen which is where it firmly belongs as a joyous, childish spectacle that offers infinite pleasures for the film spectator.

TETRO (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 2009, US/Italy/Spain/Argentina) - Wellesian Parallels

Vincent Gallo as Tetro

Receiving a limited release, Tetro is the nearest Coppola has come to personal cinema. Of course I am not the one who is saying Tetro is a deeply personal film, this has all come from interviews with Coppola who says that the low budget route in which film making is detached from mainstream studio interference is one that aspires to an art film ethos. Before New Hollywood there was Coppola, a director who was the first to make the French notion of director as auteur a reality in the mainstream. Coppola's achievements as a director proved illustrious and influential in the seventies but with the return to a commercialised cinema initiated by Coppola's protege George Lucas, Coppola went through an erratic period in the eighties. Coppola's masterpiece Apocalypse Now (1979) has arguably more creative ideas locked into its mythical landscapes than most of the work produced by many of his contemporaries of the seventies era. It is also the one film that has become central to the current crop of new Hollywood film makers including Wes Anderson and David Fincher.

I had to seek out Tetro at the local multiplex and the screening featured the presence of only four audience spectators which strongly indicates it will not be around very long. Admittedly The World Cup has kept audiences away from what is a very weak summer season of blockbuster films. I'm not saying Tetro has fallen prey to such circumstances but the reviews for the film were pretty poor. Add to that the films delayed release and what you have is an obscure art house oddity yet I was quite taken by Coppola's bold cinematic experiment. What stood out for me was the playful referencing to the work of Italian cinema of the sixties including Antonioni, Federico Fellini and even shades of Bertolucci. The obvious theme to pick up on is that of family which of course is central to the narrative but locked in the operatic subtext is the story of Coppola as an artist who has struggled to make himself heard and taken seriously by the Hollywood establishment. The love and hate relationship he has had with Hollywood and the system makes for problematic Wellesian parallels. In the eighties when Coppola failed, he was made into pariah and though he was constantly seen to be self critical of his shortcomings, he always felt that by submitting to the commercial demands of Hollywood cinema he had effectively sold out. Pioneering film editor Walter March has always been a crucial part of Coppola’s most interesting and personal films. Murch is a master of linking shots together so to create an organic, graphic and aural rhythm; no editor in the business quite knows how to make such expressive use of the transition edit.

The decision to shoot in black and white draws parallels with Rumble Fish, another of Coppola’s expressionist films that have been overlooked. In the production notes, Coppola says that he also looked at Kazan’s work especially On the Waterfront and Panic in the Streets for cinematographic inspiration. The mention of Kazan’s On the Waterfront seems relevant to the central conflict between the two brothers and in many ways is resolved in a way that recalls the traditional melodramas of the Hollywood era. Having said that Tetro is a reflexive film; like many of Coppola’s best films, it seems to say something about the nature of the director yet it is also one of the most distinctive films Coppola has made to date. On the website to the film, Coppola talks in length on the motivations for shooting on location, recalling the formative experience of making The Rain People with George Lucas. The premise was simple; film making on the road with all the equipment in the back of a van. Like his friend, George Lucas, Coppola’s interest in technology meant he wisely invested in his own equipment, thus freeing him from the system. The tragedy of Coppola is that whilst his peers including Spielberg and Scorsese spent much of the eighties producing some of their best work, he struggled to choose the right projects and really flourish as the great film maker he should have been. I don't blame Coppola, I blame the system. At least, Tetro attempts to make amends for such a period of under performance. Personally, The Conversation not only wipes the floor with most quality Hollywood films but is more accomplished than the entire oeuvre of some film makers working today. As for Coppola, he says he still learning to make movies.