28 July 2011

ANDRZEJ WAJDA: THREE WAR FILMS (1955 - 1958, Poland)

Wajda's war films trilogy features some of the most powerful, influential and potent cinematic imagery. All three films make for one of the great achievements of post war European cinema. This is work of real artistry and endeavour.


KANAL (1957)


27 July 2011

SINGHAM (Dir. Rohit Shetty, India, 2011) - Return of The 'Hard Body'

Picking up from where Dabangg left off, Singham is a police action thriller directed in tribute form by an unashamed fan (Rohit Shetty) of the angry young man films of the 70s. With a plot involving a dishonoured police inspector and the village boy as mythological hero, Singham is very much a throwback film bathed in nostalgic yearnings for traditional genre cinema. I’m not so sure if this plea for re initiating a lot of the action films made in the 70s and especially in the 80s is such a worthy one given their diabolical narratives and questionable technical proficiency. Like Dabangg, Singham reasserts the rural Indian village as a microcosm of Utopian ideals in which community, honour and justice are organised around the police and local criminals. The crusading cop with a vendetta is now one of the most tired conventions in all of cinema. However, such a melodramatic convention carries with it a narrative momentum and set of conflicting ideologies (the cop who must transcend the law to reinstate order) that still appeals to film makers and audiences alike. Like Dabangg, Singham is clearly a star vehicle for Ajay Devgan who first appears on screen emerging from the holy waters of the river Ganges with a Goliath like physique – his larger than life entrance marks him out as a mythological figure; an immortal amongst mortals and whilst Singham may be a police inspector, he is also a superhero. Ghajini, Dabangg and Singham prove that the hard body is an iconographic element and established convention intrinsic to the DNA make up of the contemporary Indian action film. I’m not sure but I think it might have been academic Yvonne Tasker who coined the term ‘hard body’ in reference to the action heroes played by Stallone and Schwarzenegger in a testosterone fuelled 1980s Reaganite America. Compared to Hollywood, the hard body concept seems quite new to Indian films.

The hard body as iconography of the contemporary Indian action film.

Traditionally male leads like Amitabh and Dharmendra were expected to perform demanding stunts and also maintain some kind of physique but the Indian film star and leading male hero tended to remain a little out of shape so to speak. One could argue that much of this has changed considerably now. The emphasis on maintaining a clean, crisp and buffed physical appearance has now become an audience expectation. All of the major male leads working in the Mumbai film industry today have taken up the ethos that the inner must be in equilibrium with the outer – for many male leads such an ethos has become the norm. So now it might be appropriate to say that we are clearly in the era of the hard body cinema but with one major difference when compared to Hollywood – the absence of blood. The violence in Singham and Dabangg is a comic book pastiche, using a slow mo aesthetic that magnifies the violence as a post modern spectacle. Dabangg may have had Salman Khan as the star attraction but Singham wins out largely because of the scene stealing presence of Prakash Raj in a fantastic turn as the villainous Jaikant Shikre. Actor Prakash Raj who is closely associated with the Tamil film industry has acres of fun with his role. Of course, I am forgetting to mention a major point in my appraisal of the film; Singham is a remake of a successful Tamil action film of the same name. So, perhaps it’s not so surprising why it works so well as a mainstream summer film.

18 July 2011

THE APU TRILOGY / APUR SANSAR (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1959, India) - The Wandering Soul

The Wandering Soul - A Video Essay on Apur Sansar (1959) by Omar ahmed

Film bloggers are evolving rapidly in the ways in which they analyse and appreciate film culture. The emergence of the video essay over the past few years has led to more a more visually sophisticated means of articulating close analysis of film directors, films and genres. The video essay in terms of film criticism seems to be an area that could lead to exciting creativity for cinephiles but putting together this first attempt at my own video essay on one of my personal favourites (Apur Sansar) has been a real learning curve in many ways. Constructing a video essay is certainly more demanding than the usual blog entry as it means effectively splicing in your own commentary alongside the film sequence you are analysing. It takes a lot of time and patience, and I’m not sure how successful I have been with my deconstruction. Admittedly, the video essay could have done with edits to different examples from Ray’s work but had I chosen to do this it would evolved into a mini project. Video essay work requires a different kind of approach if you are relying on text floating across the screen. I stepped back from the voice over option because a critical voice over commentary requires a certain gravitas – in fact it requires a degree of performance and acting. I will certainly give it a shot later on once I know how to record an effective voice over and it certainly seems to be the more popular option with film bloggers. Nevertheless, here is my first attempt at a video essay on Apur Sansar (1959), the final part of The Apu Trilogy. I have chosen one of the final sequences (a personal favourite) in which Apu attempts suicide and then renounces life. The other problem with video essays is that of copyright and whilst I don’t have permission to use this footage from the Artificial Eye DVD I have done so within an educational/film culture context so it will be interesting to see how long it takes before someone pulls the video. On a final note, the biggest difference between traditional blogging and video essays is to do with economy – with video essays you are against the clock (unless you keep freezing the image for a lengthy discussion) and this means having to be succinct and show great brevity.

12 July 2011

THE TREE OF LIFE - (Dir. Terrence Malick, 2011, US)

Winner of this year’s prestigious Palme d’or, the fifth film by reclusive auteur Terrence Malick and with an A list star cast of Brad Pitt & Sean Penn, The Tree of Life arrives on UK shores with a groundswell of hyperbole and endless superlatives. It has been declared a masterpiece. Unless you live in a self contained reality with little if any contact with the media then your position as a cinema spectator may actually manifest some surprising critical distance. However, this being ultimately a Hollywood film featuring an A list cast and a director who many enjoy comparing with Kubrick, The Tree of Life is a film that cannot live up to the hype or grand expectations that have been built up around it. It has been problematic maintaining critical distance before Malick’s film arrived and he seems to keep cinephiles interested largely because of his estrangement from the media. Such a low public profile and relative seclusion bears comparisons with Kubrick but unfortunately this is the first Terrence Malick to radically polarize audiences in such an ideologically contentious way. The Tree of Life also feels like the film which to date is the most personal but in my opinion that by doing this Malick actually jeopardizes his entire approach. With relatively little critical distance which I guess he doesn’t want to maintain, the film locates itself firmly inside the theological mindset of Malick the religious philosopher, professor and student. I have great admiration for Malick’s films except this one. Friends and colleagues I have spoken to have effectively denounced the film as pretentious. However, one could argue that to a large extent pretentiousness is a label often associated with a lot of Hollywood cinema. Yet it is a characteristic that has become part of the mindset of today’s cinema audiences. Pretentiousness is no longer a stigma in many ways when discussing the merits and failures of contemporary mainstream Hollywood cinema. I would hate to label this film as pretentious and I’m not going to take up such a hackneyed and frivolous critical position because any critical discourse or wider debate becomes maligned. Additionally, the argument concerning the pretentiousness of the fragmented voice over and existential musings doesn’t hold up when one contextualises Malick’s work. Such aesthetic and thematic concerns have not simply arrived but have been present from his first feature. Admittedly, the use of voice over and montage has become more sophisticated since The Thin Red Line but we need to be cautious about using the term pretentious as it repeats an all too familiar art house prejudice.

Malick is essentially a visual poet (a painter in fact) and The Tree of Life is less a film and more of a video essay that strives to reflect religious concerns. The foregrounding of religion which is resolutely explicit in the film strips away the ideological mystique of Malick and finally confirms his deeply religious sentiments - many of which seem to function and be played out in a reality that has very little connection to the wider social, political and economic fabric of daily life. With even his most recent works including The Thin Red Line and The New World Malick’s transcendental imagery may point to another hidden world in which nature controls and shapes the human condition but the narrative and characters are situated in a real world ideology that is tangible and on going as is the case with the war machine and imperialism. It is this detachment from the political structures and ideologies of our real world that makes The Tree of Life somewhat disingenuous. If we compare Malick to film makers like Kubrick or even Godard it would be easy to determine that an engagement with political discourse is markedly different. What Malick ensured in his first films was an ambiguity in terms of religious dogma - in fact, religion is actually something metaphysical and has been continually evident until now. Like his previous two films The Tree of Life is unquestionably skillful in its use of ellipsis but such an approach in this case hits a sour note with the religious juxtaposition, coming across in many ways as a personal admittance and confession. Bresson dealt with religion, guilt and the existence of God all through his career as a film maker yet succeeded remarkably to remain relatively distant whilst simultaneously through his understated intercutting between the most benign pattern of shots, edits and sounds created an impression that all of his characters were besieged by spiritual uncertainty. Another misleading and false point of comparison is with Kubrick. Malick’s 20 year gap and the time he takes to make his films is enough for a lot of critics to compare him to Kubrick when thematically and ideologically they are poles apart. The Tree of Life has certainly divided audience reaction and during the screening I logged at least eight people get up and leave just as the creation of the universe sequence got underway. In America some cinemas have had to post explicit warnings underlining the film’s apparently unconventional form. This might be true but its view of the world is highly conventional, reiterating an old age meta narrative that re-establishes an orthodoxy/absolutism familiar to many of us. Many critics have remarked on the richness of the cinematography but no one is questioning Malick’s painterly eye for landscapes but with The Tree of Life by repeatedly framing his characters against magic hour sunsets he risks falling into the trap of redundant existential pondering. So in conclusion I would have to say that Malick's masterpiece is somewhat bloated, ineffectual and distinctly American. Mind you, the dinosaurs look great.

So here is a sample of the magical work of special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull who was involved with the universe sequence (and the clearest link to Kubrick and more explicitly the imagery in the sequence recalls 2001 in many ways):

2 July 2011

DELHI BELLY - (Dir. Abhinay Deo, 2011, India)

After the critical and commercial success of Dhobi Ghat, Aamir Khan returns with his second release of the year as a producer. If one was to unpack Delhi Belly and look carefully then it is plain to see the film uses many conventional elements of the multi protagonist crime comedy but adds a mischievousness that is both infectious and very funny. Abhinay Deo is a new film maker and whilst his debut film Game (released also this year) fell flat on its face Delhi Belly seems to suggest that given the right script, actors and producer he is more than capable of producing some exciting and inventive work. One could argue that Delhi Belly has all the hallmarks of another quality multiplex film and with the plethora of colourful expletives and reflexive characters it certainly seems to be the case. Aamir Khan and UTV Motion Pictures have developed a strong grip over the way their films are marketed and Delhi Belly has certainly been sold as an event film. The marketing for the film particularly the posters, trailers and accompanying music videos are mischievous and playful as the film itself. Written by LA based Akshat Verma, Delhi Belly almost seems in many ways a parody of Three Idiots, deconstructing many of the popular elements of the mainstream Indian film comedy. An interesting point to note is that Akshat Verma is credited in the opening titles as an assistant director, indicating his close involvement in the project.

Unlike the characters from Shor in the City, another multi protagonist narrative, who all seem trapped in some way in their lives, Delhi Belly gives us three wayward middle class characters who are experiencing the pains of youthful boredom whilst repeatedly coming up against a vein of traditionalism that they assumed had vanished. Much of the success of Delhi Belly lies in the script and it is well known that Aamir Khan has cultivated a reputation for taking his time to choose film projects. In many ways, recent films like Delhi Belly, Dobhi Ghat and Rocket Singh illustrate the centrality of a good, solid script. The use of swearing throughout the film was refreshing as it was delivered inventively and energetically by the cast especially comedian Kunaal Roy Kapur as Arun who really does steal many of the scenes (whilst the toilet humour may be juvenile it is also insanely funny) and much of the film with his hilarious performance as a photographer turned blackmailer. The opening titles, one of the best I have seen all year, juxtapose the wonderfully morose song Saigal Blues to a steady montage of shots detailing the dysfunctional qualities of the apartment shared by our three protagonists. What does feel like somewhat of a clique is the final denouement and I’m not sure if the film succeeds in sustaining the energy of the first half of the film. More strengths are the vivid production design and an alternate kind of soundtrack with the final number delivered by none other than Aamir Khan (tribute to Mithun) in one of the more bizarre 'item' numbers of recent years. New kid on the block Imran Khan definitely needed a boost to his middle of the road career and his encouraging performance as the disillusioned Tashi hints at a darker side to his acting skills. Delhi Belly holds together splendidly (no intermission folks) and comes highly recommended in terms of mainstream or should I say middle cinema from India. Like Kaminey, Delhi Belly is a very postmodern work that blends together many styles, ideas and aesthetics into a hyperkinetic cinematic whole.