30 October 2011

APANJAN (Dir. Tapan Sinha, 1968, India)

Before Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray responded to the political unrest in Calcutta with their respective treatises on the Naxalite movement, the Bengali film maker Tapan Sinha had already mounted a powerful neo realist critique with his 1968 film Apanjan. All three films that I have mentioned feature a male character, symbolising the Calcutta middle class youth, undergoing a political crisis. Another characteristic of Naxalite cinema in the 1960s and 1970s is the repeated emphasis on the tenuous relationship between the old and new generations of Calcutta. In Apanjan, director Tapan Sinha attempts to bridge the generation gap by depicting a relationship between a gang of politicised youth and a fragile old widow who has come to Calcutta from the rural village. The film’s loose narrative cuts between Anandamoyee’s (Chhaya Devi) recollections of her problematic life with her husband (a theatre actor) and the contemporary violent unrest on the streets of Calcutta. Anandamoyee’s political naivety not only points to an illiteracy that she acknowledges to Ravi who leads the gang of dissidents but makes her appear out of synch with the real world. Interestingly, it is Anandamoyee’s incongruity that makes her so appealing to the disillusioned gang. Anandamoyee is lured to Calcutta by distant relatives to act as a glorified servant in the house of a middle class family. When Anandamoyee discovers the true intentions of her cynical relatives she is disgusted and leaves to care for two street children. Sinha criticises the middle class Calcutta family as selfish and deeply unsympathetic. Their exploitation of Anandamoyee suggests an ideological indifference to what was happening in Calcutta during the late 1960s and additionally their comfortable lifestyle also represents them as symbols of a corrupt bourgeoisie. The gang conflict and the political election being contested by two candidates is an aspect of the film’s wider political context that bypassed my minimal understanding of Calcutta during the late 1960s. I think this is an ideological aspect of the film that would certainly indicate strongly that Tapan Sinha was directly addressing the sensibilities of the Calcutta youth in particular. Although the film doesn’t really hold together, as it seems to initiate too many narratives and resolves very few of them, it is the surprisingly moving ending that gives Sinha’s film a particularly frightening political edge. The ending is executed with the blunt and painful urgency of Pina’s sacrifice in Rossellini’s Rome, Open City. It’s as if the machine gunfire from the streets of Rome echo through the transparent spaces of film history, arriving in Calcutta with a similar political anguish. Just as the children in Rome, Open City watch on as Don Pietro is executed so do the two orphaned street children in Apanjan look on as Anandamoyee’s dead body is loaded into the ambulance. In the final shot of the film, the two children chase the ambulance through the streets of Calcutta. It is a ghostly image as Sinha employs slow motion to make everything appear even more hopeless in what was a time of uncertainty and dread. Apanjan is a key work of Bengali cinema and deservedly belongs in the company of Sen and Ray’s films on Calcutta.

29 October 2011

SEEMA / BOUNDARY - (Amiya Chakrabarty, 1955, India)

Seema was directed by Amiya Chakrabarty and released in 1955. It was the 8th highest grossing film of that year. From 1941 to 1957 Amiya Chakrabarty directed a total of 14 feature films. Most of the films including Seema were social melodramas. Chakrabarty’s training came about during his time at Bombay Talkies and then later Filmistan where he enjoyed commercial success. Chakrabarty was a filmmaker who seemed to evolve with each film and had his life not been cut short so unexpectedly then perhaps his contribution to the development of the Hindi melodrama might be more widely discussed in critical discourse. Seema is one of Chakrabarty’s most interesting films in terms of the Hindi melodrama. The story is centred on the character of Gauri (Nutan) – a young woman who is wrongly accused of theft and criminalised by the state. Gauri has lost her parents and she is alone in the world. The film opens in a refugee camp (a bustee) and although Chakrabarty does not explicitly state any political or historical context it seems likely that Gauri is a victim of partition. Given Chakrabarty’s Bengali roots and the fact that he was forced to leave Bengal in 1935 due to his political activism, Gauri is an exile and the loss of her parents makes her character similar to Nita in Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud Capped Star, 1960). Actually, in many ways, Gauri acts as a precursor to Nita but a major difference exists between the two; Nita is part of a family and sacrifices her own ambitions whereas Gauri’s victimisation by those around her leads to rebel and openly defy the laws of social oppression. Once the police fail to contain Gauri’s defiance, a shelter for abused women run by Ashok (Balraj Sahni) take her in and offer the promise of social reformation. The first half of the film in which Gauri’s victimisation is the main focus of the narrative is by far the strongest. In terms of ideological investigation, the first half boldly asserts that social forces cultivate Gauri’s destructive nature and her repeated questioning of authority presents her as both a figure of patriarchal oppression but also someone searching for an identity obliterated by partition. The final third sees Gauri and Ashok falling in love and although Gauri is predictably reformed (thus transforming Seema into a conventional melodram; only on the surface though), Chakrabarty opts for a muted ending. It is an ending that promises very little in terms of hope for Gauri and Ashok, and may even hint at an exclusion from society. What a film like Seema illustrates quite brilliantly is that the Hindi melodrama by the 1950s was taking on a growing ideological sophistication and offering directors the perfect vehicle for exploring the lives of ordinary Indian women. Chakrabarty’s job was made a lot easier though by the added presence of Nutan who as the tortured Gauri delivers one of her best performances.

23 October 2011

ALAAP (Dir. Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1977, India)

Alaap was released in 1977 when Amitabh Bachchan’s stardom was at its peak. It has often been said that the films he made with Hrishikesh Mukherjee saw a more restrained side to Amitabh. In the film Alok (Amitabh Bachchan) wants to become a classically trained singer but Prasad (Om Prakash) his orthodox father regards the musical profession as derisory and instructs Alok to follow his lead and become a lawyer. Alok rebels and a bitter conflict emerges between father and son that results in a tragic conclusion. Sons defying their fathers tapped into a number of prevalent social issues; the generation gap, youth rebellion and iconoclasm. The Salim-Javed scripted Shakti (1982) lifts a number of ideas from Alaap and reworks them with a bigger cast. Director Hrishikesh Mukherjee starts deceptively as the focus is clearly on music in the opening but as Prasad begins to sabotage his son’s dreams, the musical aspects become perfunctory while conventions of the social melodrama take over much of the narrative trajectory. There a number of elements of the film including Rekha’s character which are ornamental as they are not given room to develop and at times distract from the central story. The characters in Shakti are much more clearly defined and have a complexity to them that is absent from the peripheral characters in Alaap. Nonetheless, Amitabh’s performance is one of his best as the character of Alok brings together Dilip Kumar’s tragic persona with the social indignation of Raj Kapoor. In terms of the angry young man films of the 1970s, Alok’s anger is visible but it is controlled and much of the anger is directed to cultural traditions (in particular class) rather than the state. Ideologically, Alaap is an optimistic film that argues reconciliation is essential if family is to continue as the ideological centre of Indian society. Given Amitabh’s bankability at the time, it does seem a little strange that Alaap failed at the Indian box office. The key to Alaap is a sequence that occurs towards the end of the film in which father and son are unexpectedly brought together. It is night. Alok picks up a passenger in the horse-carriage which has become his livelihood. The passenger turns out to be his father. Alok pulls up outside his family home and when his father gets out giving him the fare for the journey, he discovers it is Alok. As they engage in conversation, the performances at first reveal an estrangement but a closer look at Amitabh and Prakash’s tone of voice, body language and positioning within the shots points to a repressed longing for reconciliation. It is an expertly directed sequence that demonstrates the emotional power of the Hindi social melodrama. You can watch Alaap for free online (officially posted by the Shemaroo DVD label) with full English subtitles. Here is the direct link to the aforementioned sequence: http://youtu.be/_2sZ9nDBNCY?t=1h41m48s

21 October 2011

CONTAGION (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2011, US/UAE)

Contagion aims to make us anxious about our position in the world. Whereas other Hollywood films in which a deadly virus threatens to bring about a sensationalist media induced apocalypse, Soderbergh’s dystopian science fiction thriller attempts to take a global geographic approach to the conventional what if? scenario. The Underneath, Soderbergh’s first and possibly best attempt at American neo noir, saw an acceleration in terms of aesthetics. Not that he dumped his American indie credentials but with films like The Underneath, a new interest in narrative subjectivity also opened up a new space in terms of film editing. The elliptical fragmentation of time and space has become a virtual trademark of Soderbergh’s glossiest films. Non-linearity was never really an innovation but has been around since the birth of film but Soderbergh repeatedly proves that non-linear narrative storytelling can be equally compelling and satisfying for audiences than traditional approaches. David Fincher, a director often bracketed in the same category as Soderbergh, could easily have directed Contagion. Although these two auteurs may be poles apart in terms of thematic interests, a mirrored embrace of new technology particularly the digitisation of film brings together their visual sensibilities. Fincher is slowly catching up to Soderbergh but films like Fight Club and The Social Network suggests Fincher’s seems more interested in the darker elements of American culture. To say Soderbergh is more of a European style filmmaker might be an overstatement but films such as Kafka, Che and The Good German point to Soderbergh’s capacity to become global. In other words, Soderbergh has managed to broaden out his authorial standing by also looking at American culture and society from an outside perspective. The critical distancing is far more acute in the films of Soderbergh than many other American directors. Contagion is made up of an impressive ensemble cast and Soderbergh uses such A list stars (Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow) to act as a hook for audiences. Many of Soderbergh’s flawed films (Kafka comes to mind) are in a way some of his best too because they reveal a disinterest with the mechanics of storytelling and seem more focused on exploring characterisation, mood, visual style and the technical aspects of film making. Contagion is a flawed film. In the final third, the film disintegrates and loses narrative momentum. Soderbergh opens promisingly with the first thirty minutes amounting to some superb storytelling but as more characters are introduced, the central premise becomes diluted. The ideological slant on the greedy and corrupt practices of the Pharmaceutical industry could have done with more clarity and screen time but the film stops shorting of heading into the risky commercial territory of the political thriller. Much more disappointing is the ending, which reconstitutes the family unit in the context of American suburbia but does in a way that is sentimental and a little incongruous.

8 October 2011

THE KID WITH A BIKE / LA GAMIN AU VELO (Dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2011, Belgium/France/Italy)

Each year when the Cannes Jury has to decide which film deserves the prestigious Palme d’Or, the decision is usually met with either disappointment or joy. No one critic is ever satisfied. The 2011 Cannes Jury headed up by Robert De Niro certainly got it wrong, choosing to go after the over hyped and pretentious Tree of Life. A lot of Tree of Life's success had to do with the presence of Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Terence Malick – supposed American auteurs with an international profile. Many of the films that screened in competition at the Cannes film festival have yet to arrive at UK shores but one thing is certain – The Dardennes latest feature The Kid with a Bike is in my opinion the best film of year and also the film that should have really been awarded with the Palme d’Or. No film maker(s) have ever been awarded the Palme d’Or on three different occasions but had the Dardennes been given the prize they deserved then a new precedent would have been established. The Dardennes have previously been awarded the Palme D’or for Rosetta (1999) and L’Enfant (The Child, 2005). Perhaps it is a festival that doesn’t like setting new records and breaking old ones. As far as I’m concerned Malick’s Tree of Life is in fact a dud in the oeuvre of such a revered auteur. The same cannot be said of The Dardennes work to date. They have made every film count and although they have only directed six films to date, the control that they demonstrate over their latest feature validates their significance as film makers of true humility, simplicity and yes, dare I say it, humanism. Mark Cousin’s 15 hour journey through film history currently airing on Channel Four has tended to focus on the idea of creative innovation but if one was to look closely at the work of The Dardennes it is hard not determine they are not innovators. Perhaps some would argue they are. Nor are they neo realist film makers, which is a label often associated with them. One significant aspect of their work is that their films are always set in the now and they have yet to make a film set in the past and I doubt if they ever will. The now is concrete proof of their everyday connection with reality and capacity to deal with ordinary people and the most elemental of emotional dilemmas including companionship, identity, money, love, death, childhood and youth. The ‘transcendental style’ (Paul Schrader) of the Dardennes has its origins most pertinently in the work of Robert Bresson with which the film makers have come to share an increasingly elliptical approach. Although Bresson is an important influence on the work, most of their films could easily have been made at the high point of early silent cinema. The Kid with a Bike is the story of Cyril, an 11 year old boy. When Cyril is rejected by his father, he is taken in by Samanatha who works as a hairdresser. Most of the film revolves around Cyril’s coming to terms with his father’s rejection and the acceptance of a new life with Samantha. The brilliance of this film lies in the mystical denouement in which Cyril is transformed into an enigmatic symbol of continuity; it’s one of the moments of the year. Interestingly, the title of the film amalgamates two of the Dardennes favourite films; The Kid (Chaplin) and Bicycle Thieves (De Sica). I wonder if this is deliberate?

2 October 2011

DRIVE (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011, US) - Beauty & the Beast

The city streets can be a lonely place but they can also be surprisingly beautiful. Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film Drive is a virtual compendium of American neo noir cinema. It’s also probably the only film since Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004) to have succeeded in making the neon city streets of Los Angeles appear both majestic and anonymous. The driver, played by Ryan Gosling, is a man with no past who offers his services as an extraordinarily fast and super cool getaway driver. His day job is a stunt driver for Hollywood films and by keeping the dialogue to an absolute minimal, the driver soon comes to occupy the existential plain of the man with no name. The driver strikes up a friendship with his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her little boy. Irene’s husband arrives back home from a stint in prison and things start getting a little violent. Before long, the driver is sucked into a familiar film noir set up in which doom, violence and chance become the rules by which everyone must play to survive. Drive is a mood piece and it is not surprising that the narrative is a little over worked and conventional because what really matters is the interplay between the affecting cinematography (Newton Thomas Sigel) and ambient score (Cliff Martinez). Director Refn deliberately sucks the air out of the dialogue sequences and furthermore by keeping the sounds of the city at a distance, the moments between people trying to communicate with one another become full of dread. And dread is an appropriate register with which to describe a lot of the violence that is perpetrated by the driver in particular. The violence might feel unnecessary but it ties in with the murky past of the driver which is left lingering in the background as a scary afterthought. The head smashing sequence in the lift with Irene (Refn knows how to ‘do’ slow motion) is a real turning point in the film. The moment unveils a fairytale accent, with the driver emerging as the monstrous beast whereas the beauty of this twisted romance finally witnesses an actuality that she cannot fathom. Drive is one of the most accomplished films of the year and a grand addition to the American cinematic landscape of neo noir. Here are a few of the films that have shaped the visual look and mood of Drive:

The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978)

To Live & Die in L.A. (William Friedkin, 1985)

Le Samourai / The Samurai (Jean Pierre Melville, 1967)

Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004)

Thief (Michael Mann, 1981)

Bullit (Peter Yates, 1968)

The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984)