Thursday, August 27, 2015

182. Indian director Anand Gandhi's debut film “Ship of Theseus” (2012): A remarkable thought-provoking, non-commercial film from India

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had 30 oars, and was preserved by the Athenians, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
-- Plutarch (Greek historian, 45-120 A.D.)
Ship of Theseus is an unusual and a philosophical film from India. It deals with an interesting philosophical subject that Plato and Socrates debated, philosopher John Locke postulated replacing the ship with a torn sock, and Jules Verne used in his story Dr Ox’s Experiment.

It is unusual for several reasons.

First, much of the film Ship of Theseus is in English and, that too, in good spoken English, and represents visuals of mostly emerging urban India.  

Second, it is not a big budget film (made with less than the equivalent of US$ 0.19 million as per IMDB, a fraction of what it takes to make a commercial Indian film in Bollywood) and yet has good technical quality--quality that earned it international awards. The sound design  is credited to a talented Hungarian duo who did sound design of British director Peter Strickland’s Katalin Varga (2009) and two of the Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s films The Turin Horse (2011) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). 

Third, one segment of the movie has as an actress Aida El-Kashef, an Egyptian filmmaker, who filmed the famous Tahrir Square protests in her country. Her performance in Ship of Theseus won her the Best Actress award at the Dubai International Film Festival, and the Best Supporting Actress Award at the 61st Indian National Film Awards.  

Fourth, the film, which does not have any commercial trappings, was released briefly in major theatres in India and subsequently won the country’s top national award, the Golden Lotus, in 2014 for the best feature film of the year. The film also picked up awards for the Best Film at the Transylvania film festival. A dream achievement indeed for a debut filmmaker from India! 

And finally, Ship of Theseus is a rare work of cinema that highlights ancient Jainism as a religion that sprouted in India and continues to be a way of life of millions, even to this day.

Plutarch’s conundrum is placed before the viewer by director Anand Gandhi, and his two co-scriptwriters Khusboo Ranka and Pankaj Kumar, by presenting three disconnected modern tales on human organ replacement to extend the concept of aging parts of the fabled ship of Theseus being replaced with new parts until all its original parts are replaced . Each of the three segments of the film Ship of Theseus approaches the effects of the physical replacement with different perspectives. 

The blind photographer (Aida El-Kashef) capturing urban India
on camera aided by sounds 

In the first  segment, an almost blind photographer (Aida El-Kashef) clicks away with her camera, using intuition, touch and sounds to come up interesting photographs that are eventuially exhibited as art. On regaining her sight, the photographer reviews her blind work. The concept of “good creative“ art, once applauded, is reassessed by its creator, post her critical organ transplant.

Barefoot Jain monks meditating on the sea front captured against the backdrop
of a recently constructed  bridge in Mumbai 

In the second  segment of the film, a well-educated, well-read Jain monk Maitreya (played by theatre actor Neeraj Kabi) spearheads a legal war against the torture of animals for the benefits of medical research of the pharmaceutical industry. The very same medical world points out that Maitreya’s liver has cirrhosis and needs to be treated with drugs or even replaced. As with most Jain monks, for whom the concept of “Santhara” or fasting to death is an option, Maitreya has to choose between what his religion, which he has practised over decades promotes, and an option of modern medication combined with organ transplants. (The concept of “Santhara” has been in the news in recent days as an Indian court ruled it to be similar to abetment of suicide, provoking Jains to point out that it conflicted with their fundamental freedom guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.) The option before Maitreya is not a Hobson’s choice. However, Maitreya’s  final decision in the film makes one rethink about all our own moral stands, not just his. What director Gandhi’s film asks is if a critical organ transplant can change the views of a well-read, ethical person as well.

Wrecked and junked cars are a metaphoric backdrop for a converstion on
the illegal human organ trade 

The third segment of the film Ship of Theseus deals with the growing problem in India where the poor and the uneducated are robbed of their organs without their knowledge by a growing organ transplant villains who sell their spoils to unsuspecting rich clients worldwide who need the organ to survive. In this segment, Gandhi’s film questions the ethics and morality among the world of organ recipients, the organ robbers and the amazing evolutionary changes in the views of morality of those who were actually robbed of their critical organs. A young bright stockbroker Navin (Sohum Shah) stumbles on the larger story of unethical human organ transplants and tries to help a poor labourer, who was robbed of an organ unwittingly. But the outcome of his efforts is even more thought provoking.

Young Anand Gandhi brings all the three protagonists of his film Ship of Theseus together reprising what the famous Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski had done at end of Three Colours Red (his final part of the trilogy, made in 1993-4) by bringing the critical characters of Three Colours Blue, Three Colours White and Three Colours Red briefly by a seeming cosmic coincidence. Kieslowski showed the characters as lucky survivors of a boat tragedy, but Gandhi shows his varied characters as lucky survivors of the organ transplant medical operations in India. In Kieslowski‘s three celebrated films, a key character always cried at the end. In young Gandhi’s film, no one sheds tears as the characters from the three segments watch a film together on caves and the exploration of the unknown, a visual metaphor of the film in itself.

Anand Gandhi and Aida El-Kashef have won accolades at international film festivals for their respective contributions to Ship of Theseus. Equally creditable is the contribution of cinematographer and co-scriptwriter Pankaj Kumar, whose talents are quite evident. Several handheld photographic sequences of the film such as the sequences  involving extremely narrow and winding approaches to the labourer’s living quarters and the exterior shots of the peripatetic monks against modern windmills and electric pylons taken from another high vantage point, ask questions of the viewer the effect on the rapid changes in Indian society on past beliefs and social views that also relate to the same primary Ship of Theseus conundrum. Pankaj Kumar won awards for his contribution as a cinematographer for Ship of Theseus at the Transylvania film festival, the Tokyo International Film festival, and at the Mumbai International Film Festival. The talented Pankaj Kumar has subsequently moved on to commercial mainstream Bollywood cinema working on films such as Haider and Talwar. Ship of Theseus also brought to the limelight a fascinating stage actor Neeraj Kabi, who plays the Jain monk in the middle segment of the film. Kabi, according to reports lost 17 kg in weight, over 5 months, to enact the starving monk. Actors such as Kabi are rare to come by and he was spectacular in his role. 

The movie Ship of Theseus not merely raised the quality of contemporary Indian cinema but proved that good cinema can be made with low budgets, if truly talented people made the film. Most importantly, it is a rare film made in India that forces the viewer to think about philosophy rather than provide escapist entertainment. Such films do not just win international awards but provide quality entertainment for the discerning viewer. Evidently, it was not considered as an Indian entry for the Oscars because the film is in English, which eliminated it from being considered in the foreign film category. Young Anand Gandhi needs to be congratulated for roping in the rich talent from diverse fields to make his remarkable debut film with a limited budget.

P.S. Indian cinema has seen some young filmmakers accomplishing interesting works with limited budgets in recent years. Sudevan’s CR. No. 89 (2013) is one such film made in Malayalam language reviewed earlier on this blog. Another is Praveen Morchale’s Barefoot to Goa (2015) in Hindi, also reviewed earlier on this blog.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

181. US director John Cassavetes’ “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976) based on his own original script: A creditable tale about entertainment, ambitions, and reality

I won't call my work entertainment. It's exploring. It's asking questions of people, constantly. 'How much do you feel? How much do you know? Are you aware of this? Can you cope with this?' A good movie will ask you questions you don't already know the answers to. Why would I want to make a film about something I already understand? 
There is no reason why a serious film, one about life, can't be enjoyable, maybe even fun. Emotions can be very entertaining, you know. I try to use them generously in my films.

                                                              --John Cassavetes, on his own films

If this critic were asked to list his favourite US filmmakers, the first would be Orson Welles, the second Terrence Malick, and the third John Cassavetes. And while each work of Cassavetes as a film director is admirable, his The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a wee bit more fascinating than the rest.

The late John Cassavetes was an amazing man.  First, he arrived in the world of  cinema playing impressive roles in front of the camera, specifically in three films: Martin Ritt’s Edge of the City (1957), Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964), and Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967). He proved that he could act and be remembered for his performances, big and small.

Cosmo (Ben Gazzara). in his limousine, at the height of his success

Then Cassavetes, the director, came into focus of film viewers—a man committed to making films that portrayed reality without interference from the big studios that often lead to artistic compromises. Cassavetes carefully ploughed back what he earned as compensation for his acting in front of the camera to make his own independent films, based on his original screenplays in which he would often be behind the camera both as director and un-credited cinematographer. He even handled the distribution of his films. The big Hollywood studios had little or no role in his films.

Each Cassavetes film proved to be different and it is not easy to find out why he chose to write the script of each work, so distinct, so original, and so honest.  Cassavetes soon established himself as a notable American director, arguably in the league of the immensely talented Orson Welles. Like Welles, Cassavetes was an actor, a director and his own original screenplay writer. And unlike Welles who had proved his genius on the radio waves, on the stage and in cinema, Cassavetes was focussed solely on cinema; one that projected reality and not make believe. His films captured emotions and subtle human interactions of ordinary Americans, often including morally upright losers. The spoken lines were often improvised in his films. The plot mattered less than the irony of situations and human reactions to each situation.   He was the epitome of the independent filmmaker in USA. Moreover, his cinema importantly side-stepped even covert racism—all human beings were equal socially and politically in the cinema of Cassavetes (most obvious in his debut film Shadows and later in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie). His love for cinema was so great that he entirely reshot Shadows, initially made in 1958 and appreciated by critic-cum-filmmaker Jonas Mekas, replacing the improvised dialogue with a proper script. His commitment to making honest cinema even forced him to hypothecate his home as collateral for monetary loans to first make and then distribute his films independently to movie halls without big studios to back him.

Cosmo: A good man trapped and alone with a gambling debt

Why is The Killing of a Chinese Bookie Cassavetes’ best work? Many viewers might find the movie to be below average cinema, especially if they go by the title and expect to see a noir gangster film.  But The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is not a typical gangster film, though it does include a killing and is a tale that involves gangsters.  More than a gangster film it is a bleak tale of a strip club owner called Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), who has clawed his way to the top of his personal goal to fulfil his dream of running a club that is financially viable and debt free. Cosmo Vitelli introduces himself thus:  “I'm a club owner. I deal in girls”. Notably Vitelli is not racist, he is closest to a black family.

Vitelli and the real life Cassavetes are people with their own personal visions of dedication to providing  entertainment and are honest individuals who apply a moral code to their actions.
Both the character Cosmo Vitelli in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and the director Cassavetes in real life love to control what they dish out as entertainment.  Says Cosmo Vitelli to the patrons at his club  "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Sophistication and his De-lovlies will be along in a moment. My name is Cosmo Vitelli; I’m the owner of this joint, I choose the numbers, I direct them, I arrange them. You have any complaints you just come to me and I’ll throw you right out on your ass.” The entire plot of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and the very name of the Club in the film, “Crazy Horse West” are evident metaphors for the director Cassavetes’ own struggles for his own dream of making his own films the way he wanted without compromises where he is in complete control over all the details of his films, just as Vitelli is in control of “Crazy Horse West.”  The fictional Vitelli and the real Cassavetes have parallel objectives and yet do differ.

Cosmo, an honorable man, always pays off his debts 

Vitelli achieved his life’s ambition of owning a successful debt –free club, having his club’s star ladies accompany him publicly, travelling in a limousine with a well-attired chauffeur, and doling out gifts to those who helped him reach those heights of “style.” In the film, he corrects his chauffeur Lamarr that he, Vitelli, now has “Style, not class.” At the height of his success, Cosmo Vitelli  boasts “I've got a golden life. Got the world by the balls. That's right, I'm great... I am amazing.”

Those familiar with literature would pick up the familiar signals of hubris at this juncture in the film. When there is hubris, there is a fall that follows. Vitelli’s fatal flaw is gambling. At the peak of his achievements, he borrows $23,000 from gangsters to pay off a gambling loss.  And his life, unlike that of the real life Cassavetes, spirals downwards because Vitelli is a man of honour and will pay back his debts as he has always done before while retaining ownership of his Club.

Mr Sophistication (Meade Roberts), entertains at the club,
without sophistication, as Cosmo wills it

Cassavetes is very clear about one fact: his film is not about the gangsters who twist Vitelli’s arm to kill a Chinese bookie to pay off his $23,000 debt, his film is about Cosmo Vitelli, his love for his dream strip club, and his steadfast desire to pay off his debts, as required. He is not a killer, but he can kill if he has been driven to do so. Even while going about his killing assignment, he stops at a pay phone to enquire about his club’s affairs and sorts out a minor problem by a singing a song over the phone.  The killing is less important to Cosmo Vitelli than his club working well. Thus those who are looking for a typical noir film or an action gangster film will be disappointed.  The gangsters are seen minimally but never emphasized. For Cassavetes, the film is not about the killing but all about Cosmo Vitelli reaching his life’s aspirations and then having to lose it all—all for a game of cards.

There is more to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie than what meets the eye. Cosmo Vitelli’s club is often playing the song "I can't give you anything but love." At the end of the film you hear the song again. Cosmo Vitelli’s life is embodied in those words. He had given that love indirectly to his employees in his cloaked speech of the inevitable end when he said with a grin and a swagger while a bullet was still lodged in his body: “ ‘cause what's your truth... is my falsehood.  What's my falsehood is your truth and vice versa. Well, look. Look at me, right? I'm only happy when I'm angry... when I'm sad, when I can play the fool... when I can be what people want me to be rather than be myself.” Cosmo Vitelli’s last contrasting statements in the film follow in the same vein: "I’ve never felt better in my life,” followed by “I don’t feel too hot.” 

An important aspect of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is its deliberate avoidance of glorifying the bad guys and reducing on-screen conversation of the gangsters to the minimum. The discomforting film is not about a killing or about gangsters, but rather a film about an honest achiever, who loses everything due to a fatal tragic flaw in his character. What happened to Cosmo Vitelli at his peak of his success could happen to the best of us. Cosmo Vitelli is a loser, as most characters in a Cassavetes film are. With all his flaws and even as a killer, Cosmo Vitelli emerges as a good man and an anti-hero. Cassavetes leaves it to the perceptive viewer to imagine what is not shown. He was not bothered if a viewer misconstrued the lack of unnecessary details for a lack of quality or capability. It is a rare American film director who can do that in every film he makes.

Friday, June 19, 2015

180. The late Hungarian maestro Zoltan Fabri’s “Az ötödik pecsét” (The Fifth Seal) (1976) based on Ferenc Sánta’s novel: The ultimate debate on conscience and self-respect

Very few films deal with philosophy and ethical human choices under extreme testing situations.  The Fifth Seal is one that not only presents a philosophical dilemma on screen but will make any intelligent and sensitive viewer to ponder over his or her own choice under similar circumstances.  The film directed by Zoltan Fabri (1917-94) won the Golden Prize of the Moscow Film Festival in 1977. The film is based on a novel written by Ferenc Santa, arguably the finest Hungarian writer who has won almost all the top honours in that country. Santa himself wrote the screenplay of the film and, therefore, one can guess the film reflects the novel’s content pretty accurately.  This is the second work of Fabri that was based on a Ferenc Santa novel—the first being Twenty Hours (1965). Both films won the top award in the respective years at the Moscow Film Festival. The Fifth Seal is one of the top 100 films of this critic and the film made such a positive impact on him that he travelled to Budapest in 1982 and succeeded in interviewing the director. (The exclusive interview was published in the English daily newspaper, The Telegraph, of Kolkata, India, in 1982.)

The book seller, the watchmaker. the carpenter, and the bar keeper meet as usual
-- the photographer (with his back to the camera) is invited to join them 

The basic debate on conscience is raised during a meeting of four friends in a Budapest bar, set during the Nazi occupation of Hungary during World War II, though the film/novel replaces the swastika with an odd-looking cross on the uniforms of the Nazi-equivalent characters. But the mention of the Russians replacing the current military occupation of the Nazi-equivalent characters, give away the obvious intention of the writer/director.  The question thrown up in The Fifth Seal is, if we were to die today, whether one would like to be reborn as a powerful, rich, cruel dictator/slave owner who does not believe he/she is doing anything unethical or as a slave who is poor and is continuously brutalized and humiliated by his/her master and yet is happy that he/she has not done any action that is wrong in spite of his/her powerless condition.

Keszei, the photographer, makes the crucial soliloquy quoting the relevant
 passage of the Bible on the Fifth Seal 

To appreciate The Fifth Seal sufficiently, it would help considerably if the viewer has some knowledge of the Holy Bible and of visual art, specifically the works of the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516). The reasons are simple. The title of the film refers to the following excerpt from the Holy Bible:  

“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.” Revelation 6:9. 

Further, a character in the film/novel, Karoly Keszei, who is an artistic photographer and a wounded ex-soldier, refers to the above passage, specifically mentioning the Fifth Seal, in a crucial monologue in the film.

Similarly the artist Bosch has additional relevance in the film The Fifth Seal. The book seller, László Kiraly (László Márkus), who is referred to mockingly as the “intellectual” in the film/novel, states that he procured two prized portions of meat for consumption, shown in the film, on selling a Bosch painting, or possibly, a book on Bosch’s paintings.  Director Fabri intercuts important pieces of dialogue with visuals of Bosch’s paintings. And interestingly much of Bosch’s famous paintings deal with the Book of Revelation in the Holy Bible, the perverted delights of a sinner, and martyrdom of various early Christians. (Bosch is increasingly being acknowledged today as the first surrealist painter, while surrealism as a movement is often considered to have begun only in the 1920s. Works of Dali and those of Bosch are so strikingly similar, that one wonders how four centuries could separate them.) And the film's director Fabri does not stop with the paintings—he recreates visuals from Bosch’s paintings with live human beings for the bookseller Kiraly to fantasize in a drunken stupor while reflecting on the philosophical issues raised in the film/novel earlier.

The crucial towards the end of the film that redefines all that the viewer has
been shown and believes

The film can be divided into three segments though these are seamless. The first is the situation in the bar where Miklós Auricular (Lajos Öze) a watchmaker, Kiraly the book seller, János Kovacs  (Sándor Horváth) a carpenter, and Béla (Ferenc Bencze) a barkeeper meet and discuss a variety of subjects in the presence of Keszei, the artistic photographer, who joins these gentlemen for a drink by accident. The second segment takes the characters out of the bar, where each come to a decision as to who he would like be reborn as. The third segment puts all the characters in an extreme environment, where interestingly for different reasons, all the characters seemingly reverse their earlier decision made in the film to the question posed by Mr Auricular. One metaphoric aside made by Mr Auricular is whether you would choose to eat veal breast or an artichoke, if given an option, referring directly to the piece of meat the book-seller has procured to eat later. The third segment adds another aspect to the final decisions—the aspect of self respect.

Bosch’s surreal images and the surrealist manifesto of the 1920s would nudge the viewer at the grim end of the film. All through the film, an intelligent viewer will note the characters in the film constantly reassess their philosophical stance or points of view, according to circumstances. Nothing is as per the obvious. Keszei, the photographer, lost his leg on the war front, like the slave in the philosophical conundrum and believes he has a clear conscience. Yet his actions prove to be the opposite. The viewer would also need to reassess his/her judgements of the characters the end of the film, particularly in in view of the past and possible future intentions/actions of Mr Auricular.

Mr Auricular, the watchmaker, asks the carpenter the difficult
philosophical question

The final shots of the film underscore the fact that one is ultimately alone and the final decision of a reflective soul could surprise oneself. This movie is undoubtedly the best work of Zoltan Fabri, a marvellous filmmaker, who most cineastes the world over have yet to discover. And this is possibly the best work of the author/novelist Ferenc Sánta, little known outside his country. This is a film with superb performances (especially Lajos Öze as Mr Auricular), the lovely music of Georgy Vukan that opens (with colourful details) and closes (in deliberate contrast with a dark, blank screen) the film, intelligent editing (Ferencné Szécsényi), and needless to add, a great script. The “intellectual” in the film would like to distract himself with music or play snooker, when someone has been shot dead outside. These are some of the little nuggets of detail that make this work truly outstanding.

What is so remarkable about the film? The viewer will find that as the film progresses, the viewer's own judgement of the principal characters' response to their individual conscience keeps changing right up to the end. That's what will make you think deeply about this work of cinema.

Thank you, Mr Zoltan Fabri and Mr Ferenc Sánta, for the top-notch cinema.

P.S. The full movie is available on You Tube.  The film is one of the author’s best 100 films. The author had interviewed Mr Zoltan Fabri in Budapest in 1982 as a staff film critic of a daily newspaper published from New Delhi, India.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

179. The late French director Maurice Pialat’s “La Gueule Ouverte” (The Mouth Agape) (1974) based on his own original screenplay: An unforgettable cinematic work on dying and family bonds

Here’s a film every true film enthusiast ought to make an effort to see though it is rarely found on the “best film” lists of the better known film critics and directors. Some 40 years ago when this critic saw The Mouth Agape for the first time, the film and its director leapt out not only among the pantheons of French cinema’s giants but also those of world cinema. Forty years later, on a second viewing, this film, The Mouth Agape, still remains for this critic one among his world’s top 100 films. Most importantly, it has one of the finest subtle endings in the history of cinema, one that will be appreciated by any dyed-in-the -wool film viewer. And this review is not revealing it.

The Mouth Agape.  What a name!  One guesses Pialat’s choice of the title had something to do with the popular belief that people die with a last gasp for air associated with death.  Interestingly no such scene is included in the film, which is indeed pegged on the death of a lady Monique; only scenes prior to her death or after her death are included. The actual death is not shown on screen; it is inconsequential. The laboured heavy breathing of the dying Monique is captured with no other aural distraction and presented in a manner rarely seen on screen. Pialat could not have chosen the title because of the spoon-feeding of her semi-solid diet, which is shown in the film for the simple reason that the mouth is not always open when you eat or drink. It would be too simplistic to state the film is about Monique’s death, it would be more accurate to say the film is about Monique’s immediate family. If we zoom out of the specific tale, the film is about the fragility and the strengths of modern French family bonds which can be best assessed when death comes knocking at the door.

Monique (Monique Melinand) in hospital 

While one is not privy to the casting details and chronology of the writing of the original script by Pialat, one unique fact would strike the mind of an intelligent viewer. There are four major characters in the film, the dying mother Monique (Monique Mélinand), her husband Roger (Hubert Deschamps), her son Philippe (Philippe Léotard) and her daughter-in-law Nathalie (Nathalie Baye). Three of the four major characters have the same first names of the actors. It is too much of a coincidence. Did the script develop after the casting of the actors? If the choice of names was a decision of convenience for the director and the actors, why was Roger called as such and not Hubert? Only those closely involved with the film would know.

Monique at home, later withering away

Now Maurice Pialat (1925-2003) is not as celebrated in France or elsewhere as Godard or Truffaut or Chabrol are. His cinema is different. One possible reason for his lack of prominence is that he made his first film at 44, an age at which when most other directors would have established themselves and earned some recognition.

He creates a realism that is bereft of sentimentality. His strength in depicting realism is both aural and visual. One almost feels the Austrian director Michael Haneke is his pupil and that Haneke’s Amour (2012) borrowed heavily from Pialat’s The Mouth Agape (1974) while dealing with a similar subject. In both films, the dying wife steals the show.

The second best sequence, early in the film: son Philippe (Philippe Leotard)
and mother Monique's intimate conversation at home

Why is Pialat’s The Mouth Agape so fascinating? Early in the film there is a lovely yet brief and intimate conversation between Monique and Philippe (mother and grown-up son) alone recalling their past and the family dynamics. The script is brilliant just doing that and then it offers more. We learn for the first time that Monique was superior morally and socially (she was from Paris) to Roger (a provincial man to the core) and could have cheated on her husband but did not. We learn that Philippe was not a healthy child and was tended with care by his mother. Suddenly, Philippe gets up and puts on a record as though he is bored reminiscing the past and probably he is. They are listening to Mozart’s opera Così Fan Tutte/Thus They (Women) Do All.  The static camera of Néstor Almendros captures the two faces as the record plays for a very long time. (Haneke repeats a similar sequence in Amour for a different family relationship.) Then the phone rings. Philippe attends to it. And Monique, whom the viewer would have assumed was listening all the while to Mozart, continues wistfully the discussion she was having with her son, the music and phone call notwithstanding. It is so beautiful and intimate . And so real! This is the second most important sequence for this critic in the entire film after the awesome end sequence. In both sequences, it is the mastery of Pialat the director and scriptwriter hand in hand with Almendros that create the magic. The choice of the Mozart piece for the sequence adds on another layer of irony, bringing to the fore the differences between Philippe and Monique, which becomes apparent only much later.

Roger (Hubert Deschamps) and son Philippe watch over the dying Monique:
a newspaper covers the lamp's harsh light

Pialat’s film provides a contrast between the two women (Monique and Nathalie) and the two men (Roger and Philippe). The men have a roving eye and drift with the tide; the women are more anchored to their spouses. And yet the film captures another strange phenomenon: men change, at least some seem to change. Roger, the philanderer, is the one who asks Philippe to turn off the TV, “Honestly, Philippe, have some respect (for your mother) “, when Philippe loves to distract himself from the dying mother. Roger, the philanderer, is the one who feeds, cooks and takes care of his dying wife. When he cries, the viewer is devastated by the emotion. But Pialat’s tale does not merely show Roger having two sides to his personality—all the four have. Even the mother Monique we learn from others only cared for money and possessions, especially of her father after his death. And yet only Monique is the apparently religious person in the family.The film urges viewers to look at characters in totality, rather than a few actions. This is done with carefully planned dialogue and shots, that often linger when actors have left the frame.

Roger lovingly massages his dying wife Monique's toes

None of the other works of Pialat worked as well for this critic, possibly because this is perhaps the only Pialat film in which the cinematographer was the legendary Néstor Almendros (1930-92), who was responsible for so many marvellous works of cinema, including Malick’s Days of Heaven, Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice, and Truffaut’s Story of Adele H all of which are great movies primarily because of the strength of the cinematography.

When one studies the camerawork of Almendros in The Mouth Agape there are the static shots in limited space and the moving camera that reveals delicate details, often social, rarely done in cinema. There is a sequence of the funeral service of Monique captured by Almendros and Pialat without entering the church or showing the dead body.  They are more interested in the living folks who are gathered outside. What a brilliant sequence! And finally much later the superb end sequence where no words are spoken and only images talk and jolt the viewer to figure it all out. That’s cinema. 

This is a movie, subtler and better than the best of Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, and Chabrol, based on an original screenplay created and developed by the director alone. It is essential viewing for cineastes and students of cinema.

P.S. Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012), which recalls the style and content of  The Mouth Agape, was reviewed on this blog earlier. The Mouth Agape is one of the author's best 100 films.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

178. British director and screenplay writer Mike Leigh’s “Mr Turner” (2014) based on his own original screenplay: A cinematic canvas providing perspective and colour to the mind and soul of one of England’s finest painters

JMW Turner and John Constable were two of the finest painters in Nineteenth century England renowned for their emotional response to nature and are classified as exponents of romanticism and eventually emerging as major contributors to modernism in painting.  Mike Leigh’s film and original screenplay gives ample scope for movie viewers to appreciate the work of JMW Turner anew. However, the film is not as much about his paintings as it is about the man who made the paintings.

Mike Leigh deliberately titled the film Mr Turner. Now what’s in a name, one would ask? The obvious reason is the film is more about the man and much less about his paintings. The initials “JMW” are replaced with “Mr.” Even in the film, very few addresses the painter as Mr Turner.  Even the physicians, who treated him towards his last days, addressed him reverently as the famous painter “Turner.” JMW stood for Joseph Mallord William. In the film, when Turner wants to hide his true identity while renting a room to stay he calls himself “Mallard” not even by his little known middle name Mallord. Those close to him addressed him as William or Billy. And to some he was just Mr Booth, the “husband” of his landlady.  And Turner straddled two worlds with equal felicity—the world of the nobility and the rich and educated and the world of the poorer sections of society including maidservants, not-very-rich landladies, and prostitutes. The title “Mr” adds a degree of respectability to a man who conventional society may not deem respectable. The title “Mr” also avoids a degree of intimacy that his father and some of his admirers among the nobles had for the painter when they called him William.

Turner (Timothy Spall) after dramatically adding the touch of red to his painting,
an idea he picked up from Constable's painting with lots of red

Leigh’s stated reason to make the movie Mr Turner was to “examine the tension between this very mortal, flawed individual, and the epic work, the spiritual way he had of distilling the world.”  And Leigh succeeded in a not so obvious way.  Had Leigh cast someone other than Timothy Spall in the title role who looked more like the young and dashing JMW Turner in his self-portrait, some purists would have appreciated that fact.  But Mr Spall who plays an older Turner, does not resemble the self portrait by a mile. But instead what Leigh made Spall do was to make him learn to paint as Turner would have painted, over a period of 2 years.  Mr Spall is presented by Leigh as a Turner with awful teeth—and there is evidence that the artist had indeed major dental problems in his later years. Leigh and Spall together succeed in creating a flawed personality, physically and mentally, which Turner apparently was. Not many would totally ignore his own flesh and blood—and Turner ignored the two children born to Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) , publicly and never stayed with Sarah Danby in later life giving greater importance to his work. Leigh cleverly shows Spall’s  fingers curling in anguish, only visible to the camera and not to others in the room, as he interacts with Sarah Danby and his daughter. Towards the end of his life, Spall’s Turner is equally dismissive of another lady in his life, his faithful maid servant Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) with whom he had several sexual trysts, though she cared for him at all times. He would at best enquire about her health and well being, when in close proximity.

But why did he behave in this manner? Leigh provides the answers to any perceptible viewer. Turner’s mother went insane while Turner was young and she made his and his father’s life miserable. On his death bed, Turner Sr admonishes his son “Show her respect. The bitch..” when Turner Jr speaks disparagingly about his mother, who had made life hell for both. Evidently, this had much to do with Turner’s disdain for most women as depicted in the film.

Turner (Timothy Spall) often ignores his faithful housemaid
 Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson)

But Leigh’s intelligent script shows yet another side of Turner the painter. There is a subtle insinuation that Turner finds Miss Coggins, the piano player, in a nobleman’s house attractive, as after staring at her,  he comments “Exceedingly beautiful.” Miss Coggins, being prim and proper, makes no further move to come closer to Turner. For the viewer, the deft editing of the film’s sequence suggests that the comment was not about the music being played by Miss Coggins as it was about the lady’s visage that caught the painter’s attention. Turner makes a similar comment much later in the film “You are a woman of profound beauty,” to Mrs Sophie Booth (Marion Bailey), the landlady, and it is Mrs Booth, less sophisticated than Miss Coggins, who takes the initiative and drags him into her bedroom following his overtures. Earlier before the relationship with Mrs Booth bloomed, the script has Turner getting heady on wine during a dinner and making a comment to an attractive lady sitting next to him “Loneliness and solitude, ‘tis not the same.” There is much to admire in Leigh’s scriptwriting skills.

Turner (Timothy Spall) and  Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey): a change of attitude
towards women

The high point of Mr Turner the film for this critic was the incident where the painter goes to a brothel not for sex but to paint the prostitute lying in bed.  While painting, the otherwise gruff Turner breaks down in tears. Was he thinking of his mother, was he thinking of his daughters? Mike Leigh’s Turner is a complex character—one that you can pity, one that you can dislike, and one you can admire, all in equal measure.  

Turner at work capturing light and landscape

This is in contrast to the superb opening sequence of the film, where two young Dutch milkmaids walk by close to where Turner is standing taking feverish notes of the sky and dawn. Here Turner does not care for women or people as others would have in his place.  He is preoccupied capturing the magic of light and landscape.

Leigh’s Turner is a man with a mission--to paint and earn world recognition for England. He was born poor but he painted his way to success, money and education (his apartment has many shelves of books)—an incredible achievement for the son of a barber and wigmaker.

Dick Pope's magical cinematography

When one views the film Mr Turner, it is not the painter alone that you admire: you admire the filmmakers and their obvious individual commitment to good cinema. You like Timothy Spall not because he is attractive on screen but the effort he has taken to grow into the role of an often dislikeable individual, grunting and spitting. You admire Dorothy Atkinson’s drab and ugly role as Hannah Danby, the psoriasis-stricken dutiful maid-servant who has been so faithful to the painter. You admire Dick Pope’s brilliant cinematography that makes the film so watchable and you wonder at the pains he taken to match the landscapes and seascapes that so fascinated the painter.  You hear  with awe of the commendable pains Leigh and Pope took to get the right shots of the steam locomotive, which was not achieved in a studio as many Hollywood films would have preferred to do.

Director Mike Leigh and Dick Pope's collaboration:foreground of admirers
in black and shadows,
while Turner dramatically adds red to his painting 

Another unforgettable sequence in the film is of Turner and Constable together displaying their works to the admiration of peers and art lovers at the Royal Society exhibit. Leigh’s Turner goes around the hall giving positive comments and suggestions to his peers but avoids making any comment on the work of Constable. Constable’s work has a lot of red dabs of paint which makes it stand out from the rest. Turner’s work on the other hand is admirable but lacks colour.  Turner procures a brush of red paint and creates a red blob on his painting’s seascape, apparently ruining it, to the shock of his admirers including Constable.  After some time Turner returns dramatically and uses his fingernail and cloth to reshape the blob into a buoy floating on the water. Turner got the idea to improve his painting by noticing Constable’s use of red colour in his painting. This is the only scene in the film where Turner’s active artistic skills are shown in such detail.

Where does Leigh’s Mr Turner stand among great films on painters? Luciano Salce’s El Greco (1966) with Mel Ferrer as the painter and the music of Ennio Morricone, Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956) with Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn, and Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh (1991) are all lovely films of a similar kind. For this critic, Leigh’s Mr Turner and Salce’s El Greco tower over the rest as a complete cinema experience. While Leigh’s film won the Best Actor award for Timothy Spall and the Vulcan Prize for Dick Pope for his cinematography at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, the film failed to win a single Oscar though nominated in four categories. However, Mr Turner is undeniably Mike Leigh’s best work and Dick Pope’s best work to date.

Not a painting--its the cinematography of Dick Pope

...and again Dick Pope!

As a student of aesthetics, who earned a postgraduate degree in the subject from Bombay University, this critic has been an admirer of both Turner and Constable and have spent valuable time studying their original paintings on display at various museums and galleries on both sides of the Atlantic.  Turner was a “master of light”, a harbinger of the revolutionary modernist impressionism and expressionism that bloomed much after his demise. Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner helps a student of art to appreciate his paintings even further by putting the painter’s psychological perspectives in focus while viewing his paintings.  Thank you, Mr Leigh, for your creditable effort in putting it all together. It is a mature work that sadly the Oscars missed to honour but Cannes recognized. That matters.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

177. Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure” (Turist) (2014), based on his original story/script: Cowardice (and heroism) of an ideal father figure in a modern family

What is force majeure? Force majeure — or vis major — meaning "superior force,” is also known as cas fortuit or casus fortuitus or a "chance occurrence, unavoidable accident.” Director Ruben Östlund’s film uses this legal term Force Majeure as the title of his film, released in some countries under the less meaningful, alternate title Tourist. The term force majeure is used to describe an unusual situation that prevents one or both parties under a contract from fulfilling their obligations. In practice, most force majeure clauses do not excuse a party's non-performance entirely, but only suspends it for the duration of the force majeure. Some understanding of the legal term will enhance a viewer’s appreciation of this remarkable film.

Tomas with his cellphone--an item that matters in the "Lord Jim" moment

Why then is Force Majeure, the film, worthy of being termed as a remarkable one?

First, director Östlund conceived and scripted the film all by himself.  Few directors are able to do this. Ingmar Bergman and Naomi Kawase, are prominent among the select band of directors who often did/do this. American director Damien Chazelle accomplished a similar feat with the Oscar-winning Whiplash in 2014. Most viewers do not differentiate a film adapting another work from another medium from a film that is the director’s own original conceptualization. Most viewers do not differentiate directors standing on the shoulders of very competent and gifted co-scriptwriters from those directors who sculpt original films based on their own imagination and acumen. Östlund is one of the latter breed. He is able to conceive and develop a tale of a small, young Swedish family enjoying a brief costly vacation in the Alps into a complex, compressed  tale of 5 days of conflict, self realization, and ultimate reconciliation, of not one but two sets of families that could have taken years, if not decades, in real time for other families.

Developing the script from the ideal tourist family on holiday
to present a complex tale of 5 days of conflict and resolution

Second, Östlund in Force Majeure deals with cowardice of principled “heroes” of society. The famous novelist Polish novelist Joseph Conrad dealt with the precise subject in his novel Lord Jim, made into a lovely film in 1965 by Richard Brooks with Peter O’Toole in the leading role. O’Toole played a ship’s captain, who in a rare moment of cowardice jumps off his sinking ship into a lifeboat, not caring for the fate of his devout Muslim passengers for whom there were no lifeboats, when by tradition the captain ought to have been the last person to leave his sinking ship. In Force Majeure, Östlund is not discussing seafarers (though the script does include mention of a recent Estonian tragedy with similar trappings) but instead focuses on the bulwark of a good Swedish family—a hardworking, successful 30-something male called Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuehnke), with a devoted wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their daughter Vera and son Harry. Director/scriptwriter Östlund creates a convincing ‘Lord Jim’ situation for his devoted family as they enjoy their second day of a 5-day holiday in a plush hotel cum ski resort in the French segment of the Alps mountain range. The US director Brooks adapting Conrad’s tale had a beautiful line in his film: “It only takes a split second to make a coward a hero or to turn a hero into a coward.” There is a huge difference between an American director and a Scandinavian one—the latter is less obsessed with words and more with visuals, sound and silence. The cowardice (and heroism) is more to be perceived than heard in the Swedish film.

Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuehnke) accepting his cowardice

Third, Östlund uses the scenario to make an indirect commentary on male heads of families and their ability to care for the members of the family, in contrast to women like Ebba whose maternal instinct to care for the family at a moment of insecurity comes to the fore. In Force Majeure, the interesting script deals with two male heads of families Tomas and Mats, and a contrasting mother (Charlotte) they meet at the hotel , who like Ebba, is a mother of two but unlike Ebba wants her free time, in which she is not distracted by her responsibilities to her husband or children. (Interestingly the script, as in Kieselowski’s masterpiece Dekalog, where a strange silent individual transects most tales, in Force Majeure too, a silent hotel cleaning staff watches the various developments between the couples with interest).  All three, Tomas, Mats, and Charlotte admit their lapses, big or small, directly and indirectly, at various stages of the film in being a responsible part of their respective family units. Charlotte indirectly admits her guilt by deferring to converse further on the observations of Ebba on the subject.

Even half asleep, the ringing phone is more important for Tomas
(the male bread winner) than all else

Fourth, Östlund uses unusual methods of filmmaking that will upset the purist. Sometimes, in Force Majeure, the speaker’s head is out of the frame; the camera is more interested in the listeners rather than the speaker. In a particular scene, the speaker, Ebba, walks around and sits with her back to the camera, and the viewer gets to see only the listeners. The Swedish director is breaking the cinematic conventions deliberately. Then there are static exterior shots that end each day, or punctuate “acts” in the film as in a play.

Static camera captures a mirror shot of all four members of the family
brushing their teeth

Fifth, Östlund uses the ‘Summer’ segment of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in a manner reminiscent of the curtain falling on a proscenium stage at the end of each act. While one is befuddled by the choice of the Summer segment, the effect is indeed staggering.  Most of the film does not depend on the music of Vivaldi as much as it does on the use of sound of ropeways or of creaking wooden floorboards.  The sound management in the Swedish film is top notch.

Finally, Östlund uses the time-tested Edward Albee technique of the play/film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by pitting the major husband and wife duos’ problem on another couple to extend the arguments of the film. And like Albee’s play there is certain resolution of the conflicts. Even the strong Ebba towards the end of the film shows the shades of a Don Quixote tilting at windmills, while Charlotte appears more composed and practical in comparison to her. As the film progresses, Tomas has occasion to redeem himself as a hero to his kids soon after admitting his folly to his family.  The best part is arguably the final innocuous conversation between son and father (Harry and Tomas). Harry asks Tomas “Do you smoke, Papa? on seeing his father smoke for the first time and the father replies “Yes, I do.” Tomas is finally honest and Harry appreciates it. That honest answer puts much of what has preceded in perspective and provides a final example of the director/scriptwriter’s maturity evident in Force Majeure. The very child that earlier asked its parents to leave the hotel room, now looks up at his father with trust.

One parent who never cared about his own kids carry another's kid,
while Harry learns from his father Tomas
about his father's smoking habit for the first time

Force Majeure is not in the same league as certain important and fascinating movies of 2014 such as Leviathan, Still the Water, and Winter Sleep. Force Majeure is nevertheless a remarkable work that will make any astute viewer to sit up and admire the fresh approach to cinematography, the excellent casting, and a thought provoking original script where saving one’s cell phone (the link to your job and office) is perhaps instinctively more important than saving members of your family.

P.S. Force Majeure won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film FestivalThe films mentioned in the above review Lord Jim, Dekalog, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Leviathan, Still the Water, and WinterSleep have all been reviewed earlier on this blog.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

176. Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s “Still the Water” (Futatsume no mado) (2014): A perspective on death, grief, and continuity for those alive and questioning their lives’ meaning

Naomi Kawase stated that she expected to win the Golden Palm at the 2014 Cannes film festival for her film Still the Water during a press conference but she was disappointed. All the awards and attention were instead grabbed by the Russian film Leviathan and the Turkish film Winter Sleep, both competing with the Japanese film for the honors. But a close evaluation proves there was very little differentiating the three awesome films, except for the cultural differences of the subjects in each of the three films.

Trees and the sea enveloping growing minds 

This critic had described Ms Kawase as the Terrence Malick of Japan on this blog in February 2012 while reviewing her previous work Hanezu, which had lost out to Malick’s The Tree of Life at Cannes for the top honor of 2011 at that festival. But if you ask a Japanese cineaste about Terrence Malick he or she is likely to call Malick the ‘Kawase of USA.’ And for good reason—Kawase’s 2007 film The Mourning Forest was about loss of loved ones, death and regeneration, while Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life also dealt with death and reconciliation with a larger cycle of life. Both dealt with the sun and the trees/forest. Only for Malick the loss is often of the young, while for Kawase, the loss is often of adults. For Malick, the references are Christian theology and scriptures; for Kawase it’s Buddhist scriptures and shamanism.  For both directors, nature teaches humans to live a better life by observing nature, not resisting it.

Kyoko swims in the sea wearing her school uniform

Still the Water begins with visuals and sounds of the wrath of the sea only to be followed by visuals of the quiet sea where a schoolgirl goes swimming in her school uniform. Yes, the waters can be stilled, philosophically. What matters is our attitude.

Like most Kawase's films, there is a death of an elder that provides the fulcrum of the film. Kawase’s choice of the beautiful Makiko Watanabe (who plays Kyoko’s dying mother in Still the Water and a minor role of Wakako in The Mourning Forest) is laudable and elevate the quality of both films. Preceding the death of the elder in Still the Water is a cruel, unsavory killing of a goat by an old man watched by a young person that almost makes you leave the auditorium unless you know Kawase’s visuals have a purpose beyond shock and gore. The old man pats with affection the goat that he has just killed.  (This is the second important film in recent times that begins with the graphic killing of an animal, the first being Emir Baigazin’s Kazhak film Harmony Lessons (2013), winner of a Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival,  only to be followed by a contrarian humanist story.)  While the gore repulses the viewer, the films use these scenes to prepare the viewer for deeper thought as the films unspool. The death of goat/sheep is contrasted with peaceful death of young Kyoko’s lovely mother dying in the company of her caring husband and daughter from an unspecified disease. The ‘waters’ of the film are metaphorically stilled. “Mother’s soul will be part of you,” Kyoko is told in consolation. A large banyan tree, occupies some space in the movie's script and visuals, with drooping branches and aerial prop roots that grows into thick woody trunks making it difficult to distinguish them from the main trunk.

Wisdom of the elders for the young

Much of Kawase’s films have autobiographical touches. Kawase’s father had abandoned her when she was young and she was brought up by her grandmother. In Still the Water, the young shy boy Kaito, is being raised by his mother after his father has left the village to live in the city blaming the circumstances on ‘fate’. Thus both the youngsters in the film suffer from a missing parent whom they love. The girl loves the sea, while the boy is afraid of water. Early in the film a wise old man comments:  “These kids don’t know what lies in the sea.”  Animate and inanimate objects have relevance in the films of Malick and Kawase in equal measure.  Both are visual poets of nature, life and death. 

Halcyon days: Father, daughter, and the sick mother during a light interlude

Kawase’s handling of Kyoko’s mother’s death is truly unforgettable. The mother, a shaman, dies holding her daughter’s hand s the villagers sing the mother’s favorite song. Friends come to sing and dance as the mother dies reminiscent of an Irish wake.

For Kawase, memory of successive generations lives in trees and forests (The Mourning Forest and Still the Water), and rocks (Hanezu) and life is eternal (the arachnids of Hanezu and roots of the banyan trees in Still the Water.)  The most interesting line Kawase provides in Still the Water is “Young people should be brave to leave us elders to pick up the pieces.” 

The banyan tree as a metaphor of life

The tale of life, death and love as it affects two young people in a Japanese village on the forlorn island of Amami is scripted by the Japanese director herself. The appeal of what she provides as cinematic visuals and storyline could be eclectic to Occidental viewers but it would appeal more to the Oriental mind that seeks spiritual connection with nature and respects the forces of nature.  She might not have won the admiration of Cannes with Still the Water but this work is her most engaging work since she made The Mourning Forest.  The love tale of the boy and the girl is submerged by the sea of philosophical thought the film attempts to provide. Most other directors would have been inclined to do just the opposite.  The unknown killer of Kyoko’s mother’s lover is never revealed.  The detail is peripheral for Kawase; instead the effect of the death on other characters is more important for her. That is where we need to admire Kawase, she is different from the regular filmmaker.  For this critic, Kawase is the finest living active filmmaker of Japan today.

P.S. Kawase’s earlier films Hanezu and The Mourning Forest have been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog.  Still the Water is one of the author’s top 10 films of 2014.

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