27 July 2013

FRANCES HA (Noah Baumbach, 2012, US) - New Wave Intertexts

‘I know when to go out. And when to stay in’, sings Bowie on ‘Modern Love’, the opening track to his 1983 album ‘Let’s Dance’. Bowie’s music disputably transcends context but a song like Modern Love educes nostalgia for the 1980’s occasioning the dissolution of time and space in Frances Ha. Although this film is not contingent in temporal affirmation, the negation to contextualise New York as a contemporary topography signifies an intertext to Woody Allen’s patina of romanticism in films such as Manhattan and Annie Hall. What matters is the city, not the time in which it is set. The same principle applies to Frances Ha, thereby conjuring Frances (Greta Gerwig) into a ball of schizophrenic energy. Her neurosis, an unfolding existentialist crisis, adjudicates her ‘undatable’ status. Director Noah Baumbach first worked with Gerwig in his mid life crisis feature Greenberg starring Ben Stiller. Frances Ha sees Gerwig in the leading role, and in virtually every scene, but also as a co-writer on what is a semi autobiographical script (this fact seems certain when in the film she takes a ‘home for the holidays’ trip that sees her real life parents cast in the roles of mum and dad in her home town of Sacramento). Gerwig’s ascent came through the Mumblecore film genre/movement characterised by a painful naturalism, static camera aesthetic and quirky observations of middle class characters in their mid to late twenties. If Baumbach conveys the sensibilities of a 1970’s Woody Allen then Gerwig infuses the episodic narrative with a Mumblecore naturalism since her continual on screen presence creates an offbeat, beatnik vibe that is both infectious and reminiscent of Diane Keaton’s now iconic Annie Hall. 

Nonetheless, Baumbach and Gerwig’s co-creation of Frances as an ‘un-datable’ New York woman rejects the coming of age orthodoxy by using the alter ego of Sophie (the best friend archetype) to explore a singularly Mumblecore psychosis of twenty something anxieties realizing commitment, personality and ephemeral relationships. Given the despondency Frances is faced with throughout her attempts to kick-start a career in dance, the denouement is surprisingly upbeat and judged with a sensitivity that makes one internalise the memories of such maladjusted yet earnest characters. Baumbach has acknowledged the influence of the French Nouvelle Vague on his films, explicitly stated in the plethora of intertexts in The Squid and the Whale, but he has also said it was Rohmer and not Godard to whom he felt more of a personal cinematic affinity. Before Midnight, Linklater’s latest film, also reportedly owes a considerable debt to the cinema of Rohmer and Truffaut. You could argue that The Squid and the Whale (Godard), Margot at the Wedding (Rohmer) and Frances Ha (Truffaut) form a loose trilogy of French new wave homages by Baumbach and that perhaps the real Mumblecore feature is in fact Greenberg and not Frances Ha. Nonetheless, all three are memorable love letters to both French and American independent cinema. Frances Ha also has one of the best soundtracks of the year that will have you instantly listening to Modern Love on a never ending loop of hyperbolic salutations. 

22 July 2013

AGANTUK / THE STRANGER (Satyajit Ray, 1991, India/France) - Anthropological Articulations

Ray's final period as a director was effected by his ill health and while some critics have remarked on the predominance of sequences shot indoors in his final films, I'm not sure of the validity of such a statement considering Ray's best films, Charulata and The Music Room, unfold in a similar contextual space. Agantuk, released in 1991, was Ray's final film and although it is not as masterful as some of his best works, it is still impressively directed. The story of a long lost uncle coming to stay with his niece in Calcutta leads to an investigation about identity, personal prejudices and urban values that continue an interest with characters out of sync with mainstream contemporary India. Disappearance and re-appearance is an abiding theme in Mrinal Sen's Absence trilogy and the arrival of Uncle Mitra (Utpal Dutt) sets up a fascinating ideological conflict between two generations reminiscent of Sen's bravura dissection of middle class anxieties. Thematically, the philosophical debate between Sen Gupta (Dhritiman Chatterjee) and Mitra on the fine line between the civilised lifestyles of the urban middle class and the so called barbarism of rural Indian tribes reiterates an invaluable discourse that has marked Ray's greatest works; the tradition vs. modernity dichotomy. In an interview conducted in 1992 by Kerstin Andersson, Ray refers to his last three films, Ganasatru, Branches of the Tree and Agantuk as 'political films' (Cardullo, 2007: 205). What makes this a significant admission by Ray is that whereas academics and critics alike criticised Ray for his apolitical cinema, his final films, perhaps even a loose trilogy about urban civilisation, are relatively unexplored in their explicitly stated political content. 

What Agantuk tells us about Ray as an individual at the end of his life is a fundamental and absolute rejection of modernity 'I don't believe in modern life. I am disappointed, disillusioned' (Cardullo, 2007: 211). Ray's disillusionment with modern life is underlined in the final sequence of Agantuk. Having claimed a substantial financial inheritance, Mitra leaves his entire share to his niece then departs to continue his anthropological studies abroad. The political symbolism of such an act of good will should not be overlooked since Mitra's rejection of capitalist wealth can be interpreted as an extension of Ray's disillusionment with modern life and all its materialist trappings. Mitra's preference for the simplicity of rural life is shared by the director. Given this was Ray's last film it is not surprising that Mitra feels most content and in his element amongst the tribes of India as illustrated in the penultimate sequence that sees his niece, a reluctant dancer, join in with the Santals as they perform a traditional dance. This moment is significant, returning to a journey Ray commenced in the rural with Pather Panchali. Although the urban intersected on many occasions, it was the rural that Ray seemed to offer the most consistently articulate observations on India and particularly Bengal. This may not be a masterwork but it does tell us a lot about Ray's outlook on life at a time when his was sadly drawing to a close.


Satyajit Ray Interviews, Edited by Bert Cardullo, University Press of Mississippi, 2007

AT ANY PRICE (Ramin Bahrani, 2012, US) - Moral Bankruptcy

Premiering at Cannes in 2012, Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani's At Any Price seemed to disappear without a trace. Some critics dismissed the film outright whereas the late Roger Ebert, a champion of Bahrani, and perhaps a singular voice in doing so, reiterated the director's mastery. At Any Price was touted as Bahrani's shift into the mainstream and while this was his first time to work with major stars such as Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron, the focus on marginalised aspects of American society, this time exploring a family and its ties to modern agriculture, is consistent with his past works. With shades of East of Eden and The Last American Hero, this is Bahrani's first real exploration of white America and his interests in family are dissected through a father-son narrative that taps into an ugly contemporary age of bankruptcy, austerity and cut-throat capitalism. Less elliptical than films like Goodbye Solo and Chop Shop, At Any Price builds slowly and it is the second half in which domineering father Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) and rebellious son Dean Whipple (Zac Efron) are brought together over a tragic incident, transforming a pedestrian social drama into a semi quotidian religious allegory about modern America. A denouement in which parents collude to mask the crimes of their children bears witness to a debilitating social condition that placates guilt with a survivalist instinct passed down through generations of familial pride. Performances are uniformly brilliant especially Dennis Quaid who offers some of his best work as a slimy, incongruous and pathetic father. Bahrani operates in the world of American independent cinema and his marginalisation compared to his contemporaries such as Kelly Reichardt remains somewhat of a mystery and travesty.

KNIGHTRIDERS (George Romero, 1981, US) - Knights of the Realm

George Romero's reputation as a director is predicated on the Dead films. Although this may sound like a resolutely conventional introduction to Romero, this is an observation which has been determined by a specific discourse privileging the processes of film cannonisation that have in turn created an ellipsis of sorts in the way we discuss the careers of certain directors. In other words, anomalies and oddities that have usually failed either at the box office or with critics, quickly become mere footnotes and are largely forgotten. Although Romero has never openly fought or resisted the label of zombie auteur, his body of work does show attempts to challenge such directorial typecasting with excursions into sub genres but such range has often been ignored. The on going culture of reception studies is a significant one, permeating the approaches to research and film analysis. Reclaiming films from the past then recontextualising and reincorporating them into a contemporary discourse is especially for the critical reputation of the film auteur. 

DVD film labels like Masters of Cinema, Arrow and Second Run, to name just a few, are one variant in helping to reclaim a past. Arrow's recent home video release of Romero's 1981 political fantasy Knightriders asks us to reconsider the authorial status of Romero as a director of horror and retrace a wider thematic interest with politics that runs through much of his work. Knightriders is Romero's most ambitious film and the film's appearance at the start of the 1980's with its vehemently anti establishment and anti capitalist sentiments looked forward to Reagan's nightmarish divided America. Bikers as Knights (inspired by Arthurian legends) roaming rural America adhering to a quasi Marxist medieval code of honour, solidarity and nobility uses the potent ideological sentimentality of a commune to reject the mainstream. The galvanising figure in Knightriders is Billy (Ed Harris in his first leading role), the reigning king and mythical rebel whose refusal to integrate into mainstream society and become subsumed into the system gives this idiosyncratic fantasy piece a fascinating political edge. Billy's anti establishment views positions him as an outsider and his repeated conflict with mainstream institutional power such as the police recalls a latent Marxist preoccupation representing American capitalism as diversionary, parasitic and destructive. Billy's hatred for a system demanding ideological compromise points to a fatal flaw that cannot be compensated or accommodated by an untamed, ancient radicalism. This might in fact be a key film from the 1980's.

12 July 2013

LOOTERA / ROBBER (Dir. Vikramaditya Motwane, 2013, India) - Paper Flowers

Lootera is in fact more of a testament to Bengali cinema than anything else. It is more Bengali than Indian and as a period melodrama the film arguably comes close to being excluded from mainstream Hindi cinema. The narrative takes inspiration from a short story titled ‘The Last Leaf’ by O. Henry. I have not read the short so it is difficult for me to comment on the relationship between the film and text so I’m not going to focus on this particular area and instead consider the various links and cinematic allusions made by the film to the riches of Bengali cinema. Before I continue, it may be useful to briefly outline the story and key characters. The main story is effectively a romance between archaeologist Varun (Ranveer Singh) and Pakhi (Sonaskshi Sinha), the daughter of a wealthy, decadent zamindar. Varun and Pakhi’s romance is blighted by wider social forces including the introduction of a zamindari act (which forces zamindar’s to hand over much of their estate to the government) and a rising resentment towards a privileged zamindar elite clinging into vestiges of power. It is a film set in the 1950s, a point made well by the playful use of the iconic song 'Tadbeer Se Bigdi Hui Taqgdeer Bana Le' from the 1951 Guru Dutt film Baazi starring Dev Anand. 
One abiding link to Bengali cinema is the iconoclastic work of Ritwik Ghatak, underlined in Pakhi’s tuberculosis. Pakhi’s ‘bloody’ coughing recalls that of Neeta’s gradual deterioration in Meghe Dhaka Tara. Neeta is admitted into a sanatorium by her older brother Shankar in Meghe Dhaka Tara and whereas Pakhi’s symbolic exile from her ancestral house to the snowy idyllic retreat of Dalhousie smacks of potent romantic imagery, it is her despairing isolation that echoes Neeta’s predicament. Perhaps my next cinematic allusion to Ray’s Charulata is stretching it a little but Pakhi’s voyeuristic position she takes up, peering through the shutters at Varun is a motif deployed so strategically by Ray particularly in the opening sequences of Charulata. Unlike Charulata’s voyeurism that smacks of a longing to break free of boredom, Pakhi’s is predicated on more traditional romantic notions and such perpetual gazing which is repeated melodramatically in the final third continually reminds us of a psychological imprisonment linked to the story ‘The Last Leaf’. Another similarity that Pakhi shares with an archetypal female protagonist like Charulata is a desire to write. This hunger for literature comes through strikingly in Charulata but only seems to linger as an afterthought in Lootera.
While Charulata is a notable point of comparison when it comes to the representation of power and class, two other Ray film possibly alluded to by Lootera is The Chess Players and The Music Room. Both films are concerned with a narrative concerning the loss of power. The Music Room, featuring a story about a zamindar’s fading respect is voiced in Pakhi’s father, the zamindar babu, who has his land and wealth taken from him by a politicised gang of looters. Lastly, in terms of Ray’s cinema, the use of pathetic fallacy is evident throughout Lootera in the two distinctive moods represented in the two contrasting halves of summer and winter. Pathetic fallacy is a common enough literary device adopted by many filmmakers and the second half set in a glacial landscape is a suitable context for a denouement in which death plays a preoccupying role. I’m tempted to even say the second half of the film reminded me of Ray’s Kanchenjunga in the metaphorical use of nature and weather.
If such plural cinematic allusions are true, does this make Lootera less or more of an original work? Motwane’s reluctance to explain the political motives of the gang of looters targeting the zamindari elite may at first seem like an ideological flaw but such fantasy wish fulfilment taps into a contemporary and growing resentment towards an over privileged elite that has emerged as a result of Indian market liberalism. When Varun is challenged by Pakhi over his actions in the cottage (he accidentally kills his best friend) he never really explains in detail why and how he joined the gang. Although this is the 1950s, an elitism and casteism still prevails in much of India that is reflected in an explicit narrative closure that by punishing Varun for his crimes not only re-establishes the social order but reiterates a hegemonic condemnation of potentially criminal acts of dissent. I’m not arguing Varun is a revolutionary but his death at the hands of the establishment martyrs him, transforming Varun into a tragic figure which is in conventional of popular Hindi cinema’s representation of the male hero or in this case, anti-hero.
Motwane was a long time assistant to director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and what he has inherited from Bhansali is a propensity for overblown melodrama which unfortunately creeps into the final third of the film. In fact, the winter wonderland fairytale topography of Dalhousie, in particular the artificiality of the snow, recalls Bhansali’s Saawariya in which formalism works to erase any sense of narrative. The unreal properties of the cottage could almost be interpreted as Pakhi’s deepest imaginings of a romanticism unable to be realised in a world in which she has lost her place. Her exile, a consequence of independence, positions her later as an outsider, and by existing on the margins Pakhi becomes a pitiful, if not, obtuse creature. Her loneliness at first seems cosmetic yet what makes it affecting is a salience in regards to a doting father who comes undone by a new India that attacks gross inequalities and unspoken collusion with the British. The production design, costumes, cinematography and music are all first rate and it is not surprising Anurag Kashyap is one of the producers given his association with Motwane from Udaan. Since Motwane has only directed two films to date, Lootera may in fact turn out to be a minor work, but as a second feature it is undoubtedly a major achievement.  

8 July 2013

CENTRAL PARK FIVE (Dir. Ken Burns, Sarah Burns & David McMahon, 2013, US) - Folk Devils

The re-telling of any kind of past brings with it a complicated reality since remembering and reaching back relies on a diachronic process in which memories are subjected to varying degrees of emotional, ideological experiences. Central Park Five is a documentary about the past and it mounts a revisionist account of events, bringing to light the wrongful conviction of five youths in New York for the rape and assault of an investment banker who was jogging in Central Park. Filmmakers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns  & David McMahon explore the semantics of an unethical media and a racial bias predicated on a hunger for controversy, sensationalism and the preservation of a status quo. Most telling is the final section in which a historian argues the arrest and trial of the Central Park Five was amplified by the media as aberrant whereas their subsequent release and overturning of the original convictions, many years later, got very little media attention. Why? Simply put, race determines the way institutions like the media and police operate and react to certain groups of people. The argument regarding racism is not a particularly revelatory observation but it is a story that needs telling, especially in an age in which racism has all but disappeared from the news agenda, replaced by a thirst for terrorist led new stories. 

The filmmakers are particularly interested in the role played by the media and police in demonising the black youths, recalling a chronology of racist oppression stretching back centuries. The unsaid collusion between the police and media not only imagined a narrative in which the youths were projected as monsters but white middle class anxieties in a Reaganite era of rampant excess displaced actual social problems into a news story that re-presented an enemy, the young black ‘wilding’ male, as a recognisable folk devil. The documentary is powerful in connecting with a disparaging 1980s social reality about a capitalist system of exclusion that prefers to reinforce racial myths concerning the black male’s sexual threat to the white America as one of the most consistent and insidious of hegemonic racial constructions. It is the cultural potency of this myth, the black man as folk devil, that permitted the media/police to naturalise and normalise a narrative based on ingrained prejudices. The refusal of the police and District Attorney to be interviewed for the documentary is evidence enough of their guilt. By interviewing the five men who were wrongly convicted is a moving catharsis and the attempts to restore a dignity which was nightmarishly stripped away from them testifies to the way the documentary medium can still be a vehicle for expiation.

6 July 2013

A FIELD IN ENGLAND (Dir. Ben Wheatley, 2013, UK) - The Ultimate Trip

Taking its cue from films such as Stalker (1979), Culloden (1964), Winstanley (1975), Blood on Satan's Claw (1970) and Witchfinder General (1968), Ben Wheatley's A Field in England is a psychedelic folk horror shot through a trippy haze of virtuoso ideas. Given the film's multi platform release and low budget, it would be tempting to declare this is a minor work but it is in truth Wheatley's most ambitious and intellectual film to date. Whereas monochrome can be a short cut to garnering credibility, in this instance the evocative imagery transforms the rural, hostile landscape into a virtual paradigm of allegorical dreamscapes. The superfluous plot involving a bewitching tale of alchemy, class and metaphysics makes for an unconventional melange in which a group of unsavoury characters become victims of a unworldly fatalism. Wheatley has little faith in people and his films tend to unveil a lurking ugliness that usually results in characters acting out certain taboos and repressions in violent catharsis. It is a violence which is grotesquely unnerving, and in the case of A Field of England, violence is perpetrated in the context of an antagonistic male dynamic brimming with paranoia. I do feel it was wise of the distributor to give this film a multi platform release strategy since the marketing generated a strong buzz and offered audiences an event film as an alternative to the current deluge of dreadful summer blockbusters. A Field in England should be celebrated for an originality underlined by the growing talents of Mr. Wheatley. It is in the words of the tagline to Kubrick's 2001, 'the ultimate trip'.

VIDEO ESSAY - Sticking It To 'The Man': Instances of Cinematic Civil Disobedience and Revolt

3 July 2013

PRESSURE (Dir. Horace Ove, 1975, UK) - Diasporic Discontent

Pressure is a British film firmly embedded in the discourse of Black British screen representations. Horace Ove's Pressure was Britain's first Black feature film and while it is clearly a film of its time, the exploration of racial tensions in a changing Britain still resonates with an affecting clarity. Particularly interesting is Ove's ability to critique the limitations of Black militancy, drawing out painful contradictions which lead to a position in which racism is equated with a wider economic disparity linked specifically to a perpetual class struggle. In many ways, it is the film's understanding of hegemony which makes the ideological debate prescient in a contemporary Britain that continues to witness a privileged elite shape not only the interests of a nation but also bamboozle the masses with moral panics concerning an invisible Other. A defining moment is when Anthony, the disillusioned and excluded black teenager, tells his parents a truth which they would rather not hear; that their attempts at economic/social mobility, civil obedience and assimilation are indicative of an unconscious racial inferiority. Once Anthony has made clear his refusal to be subjugated any longer, his anger is echoed by his father who also speaks out against his wife for her selfish desire to be viewed as part of a white 'middle class'. Most striking in this 'speaking out' by the father is his longing for his homeland, The Caribbean, and being forced to leave for a false aspiration that will never be achieved. Pressure may in fact have been the first film to articulate the anxieties of an emerging Diaspora from The Carribean, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Although Pressure is a defining statement on race relations in Britain, it is also quintessentially a brilliant piece of filmmaking. Researching Pressure has led me to discover Ove made a number of pieces for television that extend his interests in race, identity and the Diaspora.