Sunday, April 19, 2009

83. German director Tom Tykwer’s film “Das parfum (Perfume: The story of a murderer)” (2006): Capturing the smell of the bizarre with sight and sound

German cinema through the ages has shown an incredible felicity of dealing with the bizarre. And Das Parfum is no exception. The 1920 silent film of Robert Wiene called The Cabinet of Dr Caligari laid the foundation for world cinema to deal with the hallucinations of an insane mind. The film was an expressionist classic for any student of cinema. German classics that followed over the years (Marnau’s Nosferatu, Fritz Lang’s M and The Testament of Dr Mabuse, von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, films of the Oberhausen school that included Syberberg, Herzog, Wenders and Fassbinder) have captured the aberrations of the human mind on film in a way that no other country could match in terms of quality or numbers. Then along comes Tom Tykwer holding the very torch that Robert Wiene lit almost a century ago.

Confronted with a screenplay of a bestseller that at least four major filmmakers Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Milos Forman, and Ridley Scott thought was difficult to capture on film, Tom Tykwer has proved the masters wrong. He has quite effectively adapted Patrick Suskind’s bestselling novel Perfume on screen. And he was able to capture the “essential” smell of the novel on screen with sight and sound.

Tykwer presents the viewer a film on a murderer with little or no visual violence (recall Fritz Lang’s M). There is no sex either. Tykwer presents a not so ugly-actor, Ben Whishaw, as an ugly/repulsive personality Jean-Baptiste Grenouille on screen. The character speaks only a few lines but has to "speak" instead with his body (recall the silent films Dr Caligari and Marnau's Nosferatu). Tykwer presents visuals that are strangely expressionist in character (the abject filth of the fish market, where the lead character is born or the amazing, sudden, metaphoric collapse of the house of the leading Parisian perfumer, Baldini, played by Dustin Hoffman, in which he lived and worked). Tykwer is able to visually suggest the foul smell of the fish market, just as Goscinny and Uderzo created the “foul smelling” fishmonger Unhygienix and his wife Bacteria in the Asterix comic strips. If the viewer has been fortunate to have viewed Wiene's Dr Caligari or Marnau's Nosferatu one could spot an unnerving resemblance with Tykwer's visuals. Both visually exaggerate to drive home a psychological perspective. The lengthened black and white shadows of the earlier films are not far removed from the visual repulsion of the fish market captured in color in Tykwer's work or even the strange abode of perfumer Baldini designed for the film. In Tykwer's film, realism is replaced by a new type of expressionism. Anyone looking for conventional realism, will not find it in this film.

The film and the book, on which it is based, present the 18th century fictional story of man born in filth and foul odor who has a highly developed sense of smell and can even smell stones and glass that most of find odorless. He is ugly and despised. He is hated by one and all. Tykwer’s film initially encourages the viewer to hate the character who has killed 13 beautiful virgins for the bizarre requirement of their body smell to make the ultimate perfume that would diminish hate and develop love. Perfume is not a real story; it is a modern fable that digs at the viewer’s sensibilities. A viewer is prodded to figure out what the director and the story-teller are suggesting. How much science is there in this fable? We do know of plants and animals exuding pheromones. We also know that the females of species exude them. The main character of the film/novel likewise collects the odors of young women, not of men.

An interesting aspect of the film is that most of the talking is done by the peripheral characters in the tale. Ben Whishaw has to emote in different ways while animating his extraordinary olfactory sensibilities and Tykwer aids this by employing close-ups of his nose. The casting is an imaginative one—Whishaw is a talented Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) alumnus while the three major conventional roles are given to established actors Dustin Hoffman, John Hurt and Alan Rickman.

 "It could not turn him into a person who could love" 

A casual viewer would approach the film as a thriller about murders--which the film is indeed at the most basic level. But the film is much more—it is a film about love in a world full of hatred. Can we love the wretched of the earth that are ugly, smelly and poor? Novelist Victor Hugo wrote about the unforgettable hunchback of Notre Dame who was only loved by one person and hated by all others. Can a perfume-like agent change our attitudes? Can a perfume-like agent transform the appearance of an ugly person into a desirable one?

For those interested, Suskind’s novel and Tykwer’s film are replete with parallel Christian symbolism, with ugly Grenouille representing both the devil and Christ, the "crucifixion", and the change of heart of the average person after “the event,” the importance of love in a world bereft of love, etc. The list goes on. But the film entertains even without the suggested symbolism. Over the years writers and filmmakers have come up with individuals who personify both the good and the evil. This movie is another example of cinema where the viewer will be encouraged to read the novel after enjoying the film, if the viewer has not read the book already.

For some, the film will serve as a source of knowledge of the two methods of extracting perfumes—maceration and enfleurage. The film’s story takes us to the fields where flowers are grown to extract their essence/oils and this practice is prevalent to this day.

Tykwer’s film uses the narrator (the soothing John Hurt’s voice) to infuse the element of a chorus as in Greek play. “There was only one thing the perfume could not do. It could not turn him into a person who could love and be loved like everyone else. So, to hell with it he thought. To hell with the world. With the perfume. With himself.” This technique allows for the viewer to believe the narrator to be neutral.

The film ends with the narrator stating “For the first time in their lives, they believed they had done something purely out of love” Tykwer’s end is philosophical, positive and seemingly uplifting. A reader of the novel will know what actually transpired. Tykwer opts for visual suggestions on screen at the end of the tale thereby avoiding a graphic description of the end. A close look at the final shot will reveal the director's contribution. It was an astute move by the director to win his audience. Tykwer needs to be complimented for every decision he seems to have taken, in making this movie. He made an impact with his unusually different cinema in Run, Lola Run (his debut film ) and I believe he was equally successful with his second film based on the late Kieslowski’s script Heaven, which I have yet to view.

Tom Tykwer, luckily for us, seems to have identical cinematic genes as those of Wiene, Marnau, von Sternberg, Herzog and Syberberg. Predictably, the film has won many awards in German speaking nations but not elsewhere. You might not like Tykwer's films initially, but they are films that will not be easy to forget not just because of the unusual subjects but equally for his cinematic treatment of the subjects.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

82. US director-screenplay writer Tony Gilroy’s debut film “Michael Clayton” (2007): A screenplay, a writer would like to direct without compromises

Michael Clayton is an unusual Hollywood film of substance. Unusual it is, for several reasons.

Rarely does a Hollywood film get released with a title of a fictional non-entity because it defies reasonable marketing strategies to win audiences. Erin Brockovich was a somewhat related film but there was a real person and real events behind that film’s title to attract audiences. Ed Wood was another example of a film with such a non-descript film title with just a person’s name-but again it was a biography of a real person. People who knew Ed Wood would show interest. But, Michael Clayton? The character Michael Clayton (played by George Clooney) is the product of screenplay-writer Tony Gilroy’s figment of imagination. And more surprisingly, the title character is not that of a fictional superman or a ladies man or even a high-flying lawyer. The burnt-out lawyer’s own admission in the movie is a hyperbole that rings in your ears as the film un-spools “I am not a miracle worker. I am a janitor.” Any sensitive viewer would be hooked by the Graham Greene like anti-hero’s pronouncement. And cleverly, the statement is placed early in the film by the screenplay-writer to hook the viewer.

Further, the movie is not based on a novel. It evolved from the observations of a talented screenplay-writer Gilroy who was astutely observing life in major US law firms while writing the screenplay of The Devil’s Advocate which had Al Pacino playing a leading role. Following Gilroy’s success as the screenplay-writer of the trio of fast-paced action films—Bourne Identity, Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum--Gilroy seems to have gathered confidence to weave a yarn bereft of the Bourne-type action but instead infused the tale with the adrenalin surges associated with insidious yet deadly corporate games. Here devious murders and explosions take place along the periphery of the main story—personal battles of three individuals, two men and a woman—all legal worthies of different hues--while confronting ethical issues.

Is the film offering entertainment that Hollywood never presented before? Yes and no.

A personal favorite, Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Conversation (1974), is somewhat similar. That film is another infrequent example of a director filming his own original screenplay that was not adapted from any novel or play. A film of similar hue is another personal favorite--Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) made a year later based on the writing of little-trumpeted screenplay-writer Alan Sharp. Along with the Coppola film, another interesting cinematic effort crawled out of the Hollywood wood works—Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) made with an intelligent script of Robert Towne (uncredited) and two others, which in turn was based on a book by a certain Loren Singer. All the three movies underscored evil that is often not perceived by the common man.

More importantly the directors of these three films decided to examine individuals caught up in the quagmire of evil, where the viewer could put in perspective the troubled world of the individual pitted against the larger evil forces. These three films made an indelible impact on me with their brilliant final sequences—ones that capture complex troubled individuals pitted against murky macro-scenarios. In Coppola’s film, we see the protagonist seeking comfort in playing a saxophone all alone and morally beaten; in Penn’s film, it is the protagonist drifting on a seemingly rudderless boat going around in circles in an empty sea-scape; in Pakula’s film, the media are not allowed to ask questions but told to await a future report.

Three decades after the three interesting films came out of Hollywood, Gilroy presents a similarly evocative but different ending sequence—the protagonist hires a cab to say “Give me 50 dollars worth. Just drive.” The camera captures the silent facial expressions of Michael Clayton for a long while before the credits begin to roll. Unlike the three afore-mentioned films, here in Gilroy’s script/film there is a closure. But the audience is encouraged to relive the events of the film as we stare at George Clooney's face. Does the individual win against the system? If he did, at what cost we ask ourselves.

Many would question the above viewpoints to say that these are indeed the signatures of the directors and not those of the screenplay-writers involved. I agree it is a thin line that separates the two roles especially when they are different individuals donning the different hats.

To Michael Clayton’s credit the film does not have to merely survive solely because of its final sequence. The film reverberates not from gun shots but from the vivid and intelligent script. A second character in the film, Arthur Edens (played by Tom Wilkinson), when described as a legendary lawyer says “I am an accomplice”. Simple words, “accomplice” and “janitor” are used by two big lawyers to describe their own status as they deal with corporate intrigues on a day-to-day basis. Like Coppola’s creation Harry Caul in The Conversation, Michael Clayton and Arthur Edens of Michael Clayton are good guys with ethics who are perhaps psychologically and socially challenged compared to others. Edens' statement “I am Shiva, the Lord of Death (sic)” (it ought to have been 'Lord of Destruction' or 'the Transformer'), is repeated by Clayton towards the end of the film.

A third lawyer (played by Tilda Swinton in an Oscar-winning performance), a general counsel of a chemical pesticide company, is a woman executive who is climbing the corporate ladder, who spurns ethics and even stoops to kill in the process of her climb. With minimal screen time, the lady counsel's character is dissected for the viewer, thanks again to the clever script. So much is said in so short a screen time, if the viewer pays attention, and needless to add the short performance won an Oscar for Ms. Swinton.

None of the three main characters are normal, each of them are essentially loners and losers. Yet they are real and utterly believable. Only Clayton has a precocious son to care for, a young son who has advice picked from obscure children's tales for elders.

Finally, I am not surprised that the late director Sidney Pollack bankrolled this film and acted in the film as a morally ambiguous individual–a choice of roles he loved to portray on screen including his turn in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Pollack belongs to the rare clan of Hollywood directors who made remarkable offbeat films such as Castle Keep.

I guess that Gilroy and Pollack insisted to the studio marketing team that Michael Clayton be retained as the title because this colorless name could help an average viewer identify with the character and empathize with him/her and his/her eventual actions. Gilroy probably knew this was a film best directed by himself and took the plunge into direction. The film does look at three unremarkable individuals plotting their own interesting road maps while making compromises to reach their individual career goals. Somewhere along the story-line you encounter an ethereal scene of the protagonist trying to talk to three horses in a field as dawn breaks. Silent poetry in the midst of prose? And what’s more, Gilroy’s nonlinear narrative and word-smithy keeps a mature viewer delighted for a full two yet very short hours. Gilroy has proved that he can match Coppola's brilliant The Conversation, made three decades ago, with this film. A rare Hollywood film, indeed, from a very talented screenplay-writer!