Sunday, December 02, 2012

136. Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s film in English “Life of Pi” (2012): Visually spellbinding cinema made standing on the shoulders of a marvelous novelist

Ang Lee needs to be congratulated for making an engaging movie Life of Pi.  Few other directors would have dared to even attempt the feat. As a Taiwanese director, the odds were stacked against him—filming an award-winning book populated with Indians talking in authentic Indian English accents about their quilt of culture, religion and even politics. Add to these problems, the technical difficulties of creating credible scenes of various animals and then editing all the visuals to match the tale is truly daunting.

Ang Lee had earlier proven his incredible skill of incorporating computer graphics (CG) and special effects in his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000--a movie  that went on to win a bagful of Oscars and worldwide popular acceptance).  Some will point out that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon never won a major award at any major film festival of repute. So also, a keen cineaste will note, that Life of Pi, which can boast of the finest CG in cinema to date in 3D, was not picked up by the three major international film festivals--Cannes, Venice and Berlin--in their competition line-ups. But at the same time, Life of Pi is a sure shot contender in the 2013 Oscar race just as many Ang Lee films have turned up trumps in the past.  And quite appropriately, Ang Lee and the studio’s publicity mandarins have ensured that Life of Pi will open lesser film festivals: New York, Goa’s Indian International Film Festival and Dubai. Ang Lee knows where his film belongs. Ang Lee has consciously made the film to grab a particular slice of the global audience that would make the box office jingle. And that he will.

Life of Pi is a CG dreamboat. The team behind Life of Pi needs to be congratulated on recreating a Royal Bengal Tiger with muscles rippling under its fur and a face that is more expressive than many living actors today. The film even has shots of an emaciated tiger climbing out of the boat after months without sufficient food and water, floating in the Pacific, and then stepping out on terra firma on the Mexican coast, testing the ground if it was indeed real.  The visuals are so real that it is difficult to persuade an ignorant viewer that the animals are fake and that the actor playing Pi never had a live tiger’s head on his lap or even saw one while in front of the camera. One would be surprised if Life of Pi does not sweep a bagful of Oscars in 2013. But what did Ang Lee truly achieve in this movie beyond the 3D CG magic?

Without any doubt, Ang Lee has been able to convey the spirit of Yann Martel’s novel--faith in God, well-researched animal behavior, fantasy, and an intriguing end that tosses the question of illusion and reality in the viewer’s lap. Ang Lee has been successful in presenting the ecumenical Pi, who is a practising Hindu, Christian and Muslim, even though Pi’s conversion to Islam is barely shown in the film (not so in the novel).

An honest evaluation of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is not possible without having read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, winner of the Man Booker Prize. Any viewer who has read the book will see Ang Lee’s touch as he and his scriptwriter David Magee have intentionally chosen not to film certain parts of the book but instead added sequences to the film that never appeared in Martel’s book. These differences provide the viewer with insight into judging the true merits of Ang Lee’s film Life of Pi.

It is very evident to an observant viewer--even without reading the book--that Ang Lee has one aim. That one aim is to make the film bereft of blood and violent scenes.  Ang Lee has very intelligently shown a tiger killing a hyena and a hyena eating a live zebra, just to mention two of many sequences that strangely do not put off the viewer. There is no blood (or almost no blood) and no reason why a caring parent will cover the eyes of their children from seeing a carnivore kill another animal to survive.  Ang Lee and the studios that made Life of Pi have made a film that cleverly suggests various animal actions that never end up repulsing the viewer.  It almost brings to mind the sanitized Walt Disney films of yore.  Imagine the lifeboat in the tale, several days in the sea with all the animal remains.  When Ang Lee does show the boat’s floor briefly, it is only water that you see on an unscratched surface.  That is just one of the departures the filmmakers have intentionally made.  They have made a film that is agreeable to the largest number of viewers possible.

The director and scriptwriter made three or four fascinating additions to the Yann Martel tale. The sequence where the tiger named Richard Parker jumps out of the boat and then finds that it is able to swim but unable to climb back on board and is helped back on the boat by an innovative Pi is truly a lovely addition.  This sequence strengthens the bond between man and animal under trying unnatural situations, affirming that man is possibly more considerate than an animal. I congratulate the filmmakers for their artistic license they took to make this addition. The second addition is the creation of Pi’s sweetheart Anandi, the dance student, who never graced the novel.  This addition reveals Ang Lee’s commercial instincts to add a female character to a film dominated by males. Did it add value?  This critic is not convinced that it did. A third addition to the book is the shot of the young Pi trying to feed a live tiger in the zoo and being stopped at the eleventh hour by his father. (In the book, Pi claims he never did any such thing and is puzzled why his father should show him and his brother, how dangerous the animal could be by sacrificing a live goat in front of his sons' eyes to the horror of his wife as well.) This is an addition that improves on the book and makes the incident more credible. The fourth addition that an inattentive viewer could miss is the brief long shot of the mysterious floating island built on algae that resembles a sleeping human form as Pi’s boat drifts away, after the visit to "the island." That was indeed a clever addition by the filmmakers but it lacked its virtual symbolic punch because of the director’s and scriptwriter’s deliberate decisions not to show the bizarre and the terrifying bits of the book, which made the book what it is.

To some it is unfortunate that Ang Lee and his team decided to verbalize the alternate story of Pi narrated towards the end of the film to the Japanese representatives of the sunken ship instead of visualizing it on screen.  One could easily understand that an Ang Lee who was obviously flinching from showing details of raw animal meat or even raw fish earlier in the film would never include a gruesome beheading that the alternate tale entailed. So, too, is the surrealistic encounter of Pi with another boat carrying a man with a French accent that the tiger kills and subsequently driving Pi to cannibalism, which was a key bit to the story described in the novel that Ang Lee decided to discard again for the sake of popular taste.  Assume for an instant that Ang Lee had decided to have Gerard Depardieu (who plays the French cook on the sunken ship) reappear in that scene from the book. Life of Pi would then have been catapulted into an intellectual plane and made the Cannes/Venice competition class—but then Ang Lee was making a Disney film and not making a realistic film with blood and gore. The simple vegetarian meal prepared by Pi, in the movie, would then have suggested something more profound for the viewer.

Life of Pi, the movie, provides sanitized entertainment. It presents Indian characters that appear more Indian than David Lean, a perfectionist in his time, accomplished in his A Passage to India (1984). The only scene that was compromising in CG quality was perhaps the one which has Pi’s uncle swimming in Piscine Molitor in Paris where Pi's uncle looked unreal. Even with what the filmmakers chose ultimately to show on screen, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a treat to watch in 3D with its limited intellectual query made to the viewer to mull over about which of the two tales narrated by Pi is the real one.  However, before one sings praises of Ang Lee and his talented team, one ought to demarcate what needs to be credited to Martel (who in turn, borrowed the basic idea from a 1981 Brazilian novel  Max and the Cats). Martel’s book offers much more than the film for the reader/viewer to figure out but Ang Lee and his team has brought the beauty of the tiger and the ocean’s fauna closer to the average viewer’s minds in a manner words can never accomplish.

P.S. Life of Pi is no.7 on the list of Best 10 films of 2012, ranked by the author of this blog. The movie won the Golden Globe for Best Original Score and the BAFTA awards for Best Cinematography and Best Special Visual Effects.The film has subsequently won the Best Direction Oscar and three other Oscars for Music, Cinematography and Visual Effects.

Monday, November 26, 2012

135. Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu’s film “Süt” (Milk) (2008): The Turkish "artist as a young man"

Semih Kaplanoglu is one of the finest Turkish filmmakers—and one who has a very distinct and intriguing style of film-making.  His cinema is slow, introspective and personal. He picks his actors for each role and camerapersons with considerable thought and care and the result is always apparent in the finished products. In his films, the emphasis is not on the spoken word but more on what you see and hear. In his Yusuf trilogy, each film is remarkable in the unusual manner it expounds the subtle weaves of a dyad—a sociologically significant relationship---some obvious and some less so. Süt (Milk) belongs to that very same Yusuf trilogy and constitutes the middle film in the trilogy. The three Yusuf films constantly remind this writer of the James Joyce novel A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man. The Yusuf films offer epiphanies and the coming of age autobiographical tale of a sensitive artist just as James Joyce had developed his own semi-autobiographical “Yusuf” that he called Stephen Dedalus, complete with physical disabilities. Joyce is demanding of the reader: so is Kaplanoglu’s cinema of the viewer. But the patient and intelligent viewer of the Kaplanoglu films will be rewarded just as Joyce is rewarding to an analytic and reflective reader.

 Few films have an opening sequence as unforgettable as the one in Semih Kaplanoglu’s film Süt (Milk). The scene is rural Turkey. The viewer is initially shown some villagers watching some activity from a distance on a misty morning. People are talking in hushed tones. An old man is boiling a pot of milk in the open and writing something. The camera then reveals the unusual bit above the boiling pot of milk—a young girl is strung live upside down from a tree branch so that the fumes of the boiling milk reach her face. The viewer wonders if some weird devilish torture sequence is to follow. If the viewer is already squirming in the seat, wait---out of the mouth of the girl emerges a small live snake. End of sequence. A patient viewer will sit through the film and realize that this bizarre opening sequence has one primary linkage with the main film---not the girl, not the old man, not the snake but just milk. And Milk is the title of this film and milk has so many tenuous connections to the sequences that follow, just as the other titles of the Yusuf films connect with sequences in those.

Months after viewing this unusual scene in the film, this critic decided to ask the director directly about this unusual sequence that reminds one of some kind of exorcism. Kaplanoglu’s response is revealing “There is nothing unreal about it. At first we tried model snakes in that scene, but they didn’t seem realistic no matter how hard we tried to make them seem so. I decided not to make that scene. We had little snakes in jars which were brought by a zoologist, and we used it in the other scenes. Ms. Ozen (the actress hung upside down in the film) said that she would put one of them into her mouth. We were surprised but started to think about it. The snakes have an interesting property. When they are hot, they move very fast; when they are cold they move very slowly. Our zoologist suggested we decrease the body temperature of the snake so that Ms. Ozen could put it into her mouth without any risk. I looked at both the zoologist and Ms. Ozen with surprise. It was a dreadful thing, but both the zoologist and Ms. Ozen persuaded me to allow them to do it. So we made the scene. When the film was shown abroad, some people asked me if that was just an old wives’ tale. It is not. It usually happens to people in that region. When workers sleep near the water, some snakes slither into their mouths and then into their stomachs. And people drink lots of milk so that the snake can go throughout their intestines with the milk and come out of their bodies at the other end. Or they hang upside down from a branch so that the snake falls out through their mouths. “

Süt (Milk) is the second film of Semih Kaplanoglu’s Yusuf trilogy—and it deals with the adolescent Yusuf and his mother living in a village in Turkey. While it is a standalone feature film, Süt (Milk) can be best appreciated if the viewer has seen the other two Kaplanoglu films in the Yusuf trilogy. This is because of the absence of the father in Süt (Milk) and the relationship of Yusuf with his father is never revealed in this film—the viewer gets to know about that relationship in the next film in the trilogy Bal (Honey). The second film in the Yusuf trilogy is not a mere Oedipal tale as it could suggest in isolated deconstruction but more about the original mother-son relationship (possibly with breast milk being a forgotten link that is never shown or alluded to in the film) as the young man has grown up and is selling milk, one of the many rural outputs produced on their farm (run by Yusuf and his mother), in the nearby town. Yusuf’s complex psyche is comprehensively and progressively unraveled only after watching the three Kaplanoglu films in the trilogy. Once the viewer has seen all the three films, the Oedipal angle in Süt (Milk) recedes in significance and the viewer grasps the trilogy is really about the artist flowering from bud to bloom. Explains Kapalonglu on his website “We all have mothers and it is highly possible that much is hidden in the time we spent with our mothers, and the time we are no longer able to spend with them.

Süt (Milk) is indeed a complex film. It captures the tension of a young man who wishes to be a poet, and yet is an introvert, a loner, a reader of books and one who has toiling on a farm with his mother to make ends meet, especially in the absence of a father, the traditional bread winner of all conventional families. When the struggling young poet does get his first poem published in a local journal of repute, both mother and son are happy—but for different reasons. The poem is about a beautiful, adorable woman. The mother, as most mothers would, believes it is about some young girl her son fancies, while in reality the poem is about her. The film is indeed about how the mother figure plays a crucial part in a poet’s life just as the father was so crucial to the development of the poet at an earlier stage in life (as depicted in Bal (Honey).

And there are women in Süt (Milk) who knock at Yusuf’s door, figuratively speaking. A local girl is attracted to him but the constant cell phone conversations by the girl to others while in Yusuf’s company, underscore for Yusuf how meaningless the relationship is or would end up being. At the same time, there is a sequence where Yusuf looks at a female silhouette in a Turkish bathhouse. The director seems to imply that the young poet is interested in the opposite sex but they do seem literally and figuratively shadowy and out of focus at this stage of his life. Kaplanoglu’s cinema is just that—beads of intriguing shots and sequences that could make an interesting necklace only if the viewer chooses to string them together.

Kaplanoglu’s Süt (Milk) provides insights into the manly aspirations of the Turkish male—it is a rite of passage in life to be enrolled in the military—apparently a done thing in that country to be considered a regular male Turk. And Yusuf flunks the entrance requirements as he is found to be epileptic (for Joyce’s Dedalus it was poor eyesight that was a stone round the young artist’s neck). Later in the film Milk, Yusuf the reject from the military is working in a mine of sorts with a friend whose pocket is filled with unpublished poems. Yusuf is physically capable of hard manual labor but he is still attracted towards poetry or friends equally interested in poetry. Milk is a film with sequences that can imply that imply much more than is shown. For instance young Yusuf catches a fish that could make a great meal for him and his mother. When he reaches the kitchen, to his surprise he finds his mother plucking a bird’s feathers. Obviously someone else has provided it. The sequence underscores that Yusuf is not and will not be the breadwinner for the family; his mother has chosen someone else for that role. That is Kaplanoglu’s cinema—quiet statements that add up to paint a larger picture.

Kaplanoglu’s third and arguably the most fascinating film in the trilogy is called Bal (Honey) and that film explores the father-son relationship with Yusuf as a young boy, where the presence of the mother is not paramount. His first film Yumurta (Egg) in the Yusuf trilogy looks at Yusuf as a grown up man, with both his parents now dead, but assessing a relationship with a woman who could possibly be the key to his aspirations to sculpt an artist’s life. Thus while Honey explored Yusuf under the influence of his father, Milk explores Yusuf’s growth in the shadow of his mother, while Egg deals with Yusuf who has emerged from the parental shadows and is able to understand complexities of life on his own, having distilled the influences of both his parents. Kaplanoglu is one of the two mesmerizing Turkish filmmakers alive and making films today--the other being Nuri Bilge Ceylan. While Nuri Bilge Ceylan has written and developed most of his recent works with his spouse Ebru Celyan and an early work with Emin Ceylan, Semih Kaplanoglu has often developing his scripts either on his own or with Orçun Köksal (on Honey and Egg) and Özden Cankaya (on his debut film Away from Home). If there is a major difference between Kaplanoglu and Ceylan, it would be that Kaplanoglu’s films are more personal and inward looking than Ceylan’s cinema. Both filmmakers are distinctive in their respective styles and both are fascinating filmmakers.

This writer was intrigued by the physical oddities of the character Yusuf in Kapalnoglu’s Honey and Milk, especially when we know that the trilogy is close to the life and thoughts of the director and screenplay writer. In Honey, the young Yusuf is very close to the director Kapalanoglu. Kaplangolu had clarified in an earlier interview put up on the European film awards website that Yusuf “has parts from me. I referred to my own youth and childhood while writing the three scripts and I believe I was able to handle the issues about Yusuf’s life, troubles and quests realistically. My own childhood served as a point of reference for the script of Bal (Honey) as well. My troubles at school while trying to learn how to read and write, my questions which grown-ups left unanswered, the intense cruelty and richness of nature...”

In Milk, the young Yusuf is not conscripted into the armed forces because of his epilepsy. Kaplanoglu’s explanation provided to this writer’s query on the epileptic Yusuf is revealing—and it reveals the influences on a sensitive director while developing a script. Explains Kapalanoglu, “Yusuf’s illness is genetic and was passed on to him from his father. This illness is all that remains of the father in Egg. It is also related to the sensitivity of Yusuf. I don’t see any men with epilepsy nowadays, but when I was a child there were lots. It was not uncommon to see people having seizures in the street. They were so common that the proper ways to help someone in that condition became common knowledge. Also Prince Myshkin has epilepsy in Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot”. It was a character that influenced me years ago. Maybe this is why I decided for Yusuf to have epilepsy in the film.” For those familiar with Prince Myshkin, the actions of Yusuf in Milk and Egg do bear some resemblance.

The most useful response of Kapalnoglu to this critic’s specific questions was the one relating religion--an element that was quite obvious in Honey, but less prominent in Milk and Egg. Explained Kapalanoglu : “According to many religions, this is the journey of the soul which comes from the spiritual world, matures in this physical world and returns to the spiritual world when we die. According to those religions, this world is merely an illusion, a test, a play ground, a dream as Prophet Mohammed said ‘All the human beings are asleep, when they die, they wake up.’ This is a circle which unites Yusuf’s life with the adventures of mankind. Yusuf’s life story is the life story of mankind.” This is probably why the cinematic works of Kaplanoglu (Turkey), Clair Denis (France), Zvyagintsev (Russia), Reygadas (Mexico), Kawase (Japan) and, last but not the least, Terrence Malick (USA) stand out as substantive personal cinema of a philosophical kind rarely encountered today.

P.S. Kaplanoglu's Bal (Honey) was reviewed earlier on this blog. Viewers who have seen Tarkovsky's Mirror will note several points of convergence in the scene where the baby Alexei's mother meets the doctor who has lost his way and falls down while sitting on the fence and the scene in Kaplanoglu's Milk, where the postman falls down from his bicycle while making small talk with Yusuf's mother. In both films, the rear part of the respective mother's head is underscored in close-up while opening the scene. (See the clip below.)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

134. US film director Mike Nichols’ debut film “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966): Nichols’ finest work to date

It is nearly half a century since Mike Nichols made his first feature film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Richard Burton, the lead actor, is dead. Elizabeth Taylor, the lead actress, is dead. Its screenplay writer Ernest Lehman is dead. The film’s music composer, famous for his “sparse instrumentation,” Alex North, too, is dead.  He, too, had won an Oscar nomination for this film. No longer alive are the film’s editor Sam O’Steen, who won an Oscar nomination for the film, art director Richard Sylbert, and costume designer Irene Sharaff  the last two of whom  won separate Oscars  for this film.

Yet the movie, all 23 reels of it, (this critic recalls the exasperated look, decades ago, on the projectionist’s face opening the pile of film cans to feed the spools into the projector, at a time when most movies came in lots of 6 to 12 reels at the most) made in black and white, is colorfully alive in the minds of those who can appreciate the celebration of marriage of the finest in drama and in cinema.

If this critic finds this cinematic work memorable, thanks are primarily due to Edward Albee, the playwright. The play is a clinical look at modern social and psychological conditions, then and now. Forget the yelling and screaming and visceral abuse flung between a husband and a wife, both well educated professors in a US university. Forget the constant reference to sex and sexual terms and the open attempts to cuckold and to humiliate the spouse in front of strangers. And ironically the movie is not about sex. It is a mind game at an elevated plane. The play/film is essentially about how two spouses in spite of all their differences and agonies find comfort in each other. Incredible as it seems both the play and the film ends as a toast to love, which seemed to be absent throughout the lengthy play and film. At a time when the western world was enjoying quick divorces, here was Albee searching for and finding the ephemeral strand of love that binds couples together in spite of appearances that indicate otherwise. (An unforgettable quote loaded with meaning and bitterness from the play/film is this one spoken by Martha:  “I swear to God, George, that even if you existed I’d divorce you”. And there is no divorce in the film, only rapprochement and self realization.)

Albee, for this critic, in this play allowed catharsis at its brutal best to sink into the minds of the viewers. An orphan adopted by rich foster parents, Albee never truly felt loved and by many reports never reciprocated any feeling of love towards his foster family in later years. Albee wanted to be a writer while his foster parents were grooming him to be a successful tycoon. And Albee was gay. The lack of love permeates through the pages of Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But what Albee missed in real life and yearned for is revealed at the end of the play–love and appreciation, often not apparent in the play in a cursory view, idiomatically apparent in the movie though when the night ends and the sun’s rays enter through the windows.

Albee, in this play, had brought the finest traditions of Greek theater to America serving catharsis in large dollops. One gets the feeling that couples who watched the play being performed would be persuaded not to  spar with each other afterwards but only mentally re-examine their differences to come closer to each other. Albee, the playwright, must have been truly satisfied that he was able to put on the table a slice of his own life—not about children, but more about the lack of them and the inability of adults to communicate with them and the resulting ire towards the parents formed by the kids. Second, this is by Albee’s own admission, a magnificent play structured around a formidable thought “who is afraid of living life without false illusions?” Third, the play and the film are both a toast to the thin line separating dreams/fiction and reality. The admission of Martha (played by Elizabeth Taylor) to George’s (played by Richard Burton) loaded question Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is “I am, George, I am.”  Any intelligent viewer will realize that this answer is not merely applicable to Martha but to many of us. And it takes an extraordinary gay male writer to transpose those universal shattered feelings/words for a female character to speak, a female character who prior to uttering those words seemed to dominate her husband George for considerable length in the play.

Add to Albee, the contribution of Hollywood’s scriptwriter Ernest Lehman.  It appears Lehman was smart enough to tamper very little with Albee’s play except tone down the expletives for acceptance by the censors and the studio. He also added two minor characters: a roadside restaurant owner (who speaks a few lines) and his wife (who serves the drinks without saying a word). It is often difficult to demarcate who made such decisions while making a film, whether these decisions need to be attributed to the scriptwriter or to a director (in this case Lehman vs the debutant director Mike Nichols). The opening scene in the film of the church bells ringing for instance could merely be an indicator of time, 2 a.m. to establish time frame of the action (late night /early morning to first rays of sunlight in the final scene). But the church bells could take a different meaning (if extended in a Virginia Woolf type of stream of consciousness methodology) if one links up the bells with  the “Libera me, Domine, de morte aetima, in die illa treminda”—Sung in the Office of the Dead and at the Absolution of the Dead, after requiem mass before burial, asking God to have mercy upon the deceased person at the Last Judgement, “Deliver me, O Lord, from death eternal, on that fearful day...” brilliantly chanted by Richard Burton in Latin, as no one else can, later in the film. Now Albee and students of Albee know that Virginia Woolf had little to do with the play, and that Albee had merely spotted the title scrawled by someone on a rest room mirror and used it. The rest is history. But one suspects Nichols/Lehman/Burton played up the “Libera me, Domine..” chant sequence in the film knowing well that Burton could eloquently speak those Latin lines with aplomb and thus suggestively creating the “death,”  “request for heavenly mercy” and final “absolution” of Martha in an otherwise agnostic film. This idea, though latent in Albee’s play (recall Albee used to run away from compulsory chapel attendance in college), must have been burnished by the film’s creative team.

Mike Nichols (he is actually an American, German born, of Russian lineage, with an original name Michael Igor Peschkowsky) was making his first feature film. And directors are often at their creative best while making their debut. Nichols' decision to cast the Burtons as George and Martha was a masterstroke—the studios were initially considering James Mason and Bette Davis to play the parts. Nichols’ idea to get Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to add weight and look a lot older than what they were in real life was another brilliant move. Today actors play elderly roles if the characters transform in screen time, but not if they have to appear unattractive throughout the screen time. Nichols knew he had a winner with the script and his gifted team, which included cinematographer Haskell Wexler (who also picked up an Oscar for the film).

Now one wonders who actually made the decision to film the movie in black and white instead of color  at a time when Hollywood was quite comfortable with color movies. It is now well known cinematographer Harry Stradling, who had won plaudits and an Oscar for his work with color film on My Fair Lady just two years before, had done considerable preparatory work to shoot the Nichols film in color as well. But Nichols chose young Wexler instead of Stradling to shoot the film on black and white film stock to bring out the dark shades of the psychological tale better. (It is interesting to note that John Huston took a similar decision for making another fascinating film with Richard Burton—The Night of the Iguana (1964)—adapting a superb play by Tennessee Williams for another black and white film.)  Wexler was not able to recapture a similar psychological perspective in his camerawork until he made John Sayles’ Limbo (1999).

Now Nichols subsequently has made so many successful films including Closer (2004), again based on a play, this time a play by Patrick Marber.  The color film with Clive Owen and Julia Roberts was again nominated for multiple Oscars and quaintly resembled the basic structure of the Albee tale involving four persons, one pair considerably older than the other. Closer was all about real sexual encounters and foul mouthed mind games between characters. But there is a cardinal difference between the two Nichols films separated by some 35 years—the Albee film despite its constant allusions to sex was not about sex, which is not so in the case of Closer.  An evaluation of Closer elevates Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to a far superior level of entertainment  in varied aspects of cinema.  Nevertheless, it is amusing to see Nichols being drawn towards similar plots and structures of entertainment that resemble his debut film decades later.

It is obvious even today that the success of Nichols' debut film was largely due to the casting of the Burtons at the zenith of their acting careers. Here is an unusual film where the lead actors mesmerize the viewer without the usual physical allure often associated with actors. Here is a film that attracts us because the characters are not larger than life but plain, ordinary and even downright dowdy. It is the diction and enunciation of the spoken word and the Burtons' body language that carry the film though its unusual length of screen time. When Burton switches to Greek, it does not matter if the viewer does not know that “Kyrie, eleison” means “Lord have mercy” --the viewer remains enthralled nevertheless. It is sad that Burton was deprived of an Oscar seven times, especially for this adorable effort but the Academy instead recognized the efforts of Taylor, Wexler, Sandy Dennis, the art directors, and the costume designer by giving five Oscars for the film. 

But the real winner is the ending of the film with sunlight visible through the windows as George consoles Martha with his hand on her shoulder—an amazing antidote to what has preceded in the film. There is no divorce, no break-up, only reconciliation and closer understanding between man and wife. It is indeed a formidable play about living life "without false illusions." Albee was serving an ancient Greek theater recipe to American audiences and they loved it.

P.S. This film is one of the author's top 100 films. 

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

133. Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar’s English film “Agora” (2009): An admirable subject for a remarkable feature film

Often good movies should be evaluated both by its subject and by the interesting manner the director and the rest of the production team contributes to or presents the subject as the final product.  Rarely does one come across amazing subjects captured on film that over-shadows the total effort of the production team. There are very few movies that make the viewer to cheer the movie’s filmmakers for choosing to make a film on a subject rather than for their combined effort that resulted in making it. One such example is the male Senegalese director’s Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé (2004) from Senegal that exhibited unusual courage to discuss a cultural subject that affects women of different faiths in Africa. Sembene is a respected African filmmaker but Moolaadé is important because a great filmmaker chose to highlight an issue that is rarely discussed in public fora. Similarly, this critic applauds another male director Alejandro Amenábar’s decision to make a feature film Agora, centred on the historic lady astronomer, mathematician, and thinker Hypatia (born between 351and 370 AD and died in 415 AD) that most people are not even aware of.  Amenabar’s film  Agora is certainly not his best cinematic work—yet this film will provide the viewer with sufficient material, historical and fictional, to discuss and ruminate upon, long after one has seen the movie.

Alejandro Amenábar has stated to interviewers that the film is essentially about astronomy and the pursuit of knowledge. And the film deserves to be viewed and evaluated in that context.

This writer stumbled on Hypatia’s existence when he read the multi-volume Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, as a college student of physics in Chennai some 40 years ago and often wondered why this incredible individual never got mentioned whenever Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo are discussed.  Fortunately, two decades ago, Carl Sagan mentioned Hypatia in his book Cosmos and in his equally fascinating TV serial Cosmos (1980). It is even more commendable to note that Hypatia, a citizen of Alexandria in Egypt had no relationship with Spain and yet a Spanish filmmaker, Amenábar, decided to make a feature film centred around her life. And Amenábar’s film Agora went on to become the highest grossing film released in Spain in 2009 and won seven Spanish national film awards (Goyas) that year.

Who is Hypatia? She was the daughter of the last recorded librarian of the famous Alexandria library. This library was the most famous one in the ancient world (it existed for some 600 years from the 3rd Century BC to the 3rd century AD) and contained enormous knowledge gathered by Alexandrians who copied on scrolls accumulated knowledge of civilizations and nations far away by searching each passing ship that traded the goods from the East and the West, keeping the originals in the library and replacing the originals with copied texts that resembled the originals on the ships. Moreover, the Egyptian rulers sent people to faraway centres of learning to procure scrolls (ancient books) of knowledge. Unfortunately for humankind, the great resource of knowledge was burnt partially or completely by fires on  three or four occasions, once by Julius Caesar, once during the lifetime of Hypatia, then by the decree of the Coptic Pope Theophilus in 391 AD and, finally, during the Muslim conquest of Alexandria in 642 AD.

Now, Hypatia was not merely the daughter of the librarian of Alexandria but also the head or principal of the Platonist school of Alexandria imparting the knowledge of Plato and Aristotle to her students of varied religions and nations. She is often considered to be the inventor of the hydrometer that calculates the specific gravity of liquids to this day. And she was obsessed with the movements of celestial bodies with respect to the earth, especially the theory of the sun being the centre of the Universe propounded earlier by Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 BC) —a scientific inquiry by Hypatia, which is discussed in Amenábar’s film extensively. But tragically Hypatia is stoned to death after being caught in a web of politics involving Christians and pagans in Alexandria, the seaport city of Egypt that exists to this day.

What is agora? “Agora” is a term for a gathering place, for athletic, spiritual, artistic or political activity in an ancient city. Amenábar’s film Agora deals with events that take place at the agora in Alexandria during life of Hypatia, mostly based upon historical facts with some fiction thrown in by the talented scriptwriters Amenábar and Mateo Gil, who are also Spanish film directors of repute. Amenábar cast English actress Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, and Ms Weisz does a commendable job but Amenabar would have been more historically accurate if an older actress had been picked for the role, simply because Hypatia was not as young as Ms Weisz looked when she died. The film brings together a group of great actors from different countries, including French actor Michel Lonsdale, who plays Hypatia’s father Theon the librarian, and the Iranian actor Humayoun Ershadi, who plays Hypatia’s slave and research assistant.

Instead of accepting the movie as a tribute to astronomy and to an unsung lady who promoted science, many viewers have taken offence at the depiction of the fundamentalism of the early Christians that led to Hypatia’s cruel death when she was neither a pagan nor a Christian but a true scientist and academician. The film was screened by the distributors at the Vatican before its release and there was no official objection to the movie from the Catholic church. And there are many who refuse to accept the accuracy of Gibbon’s and Sagan’s writings. But some vital facts remain undisputed—Hypatia existed, she was killed by a mob, and she was one of the earliest recorded woman astronomers in history. And Amenábar’s film Agora has helped immensely to bring this lady and the importance of the famed Alexandria library to the limelight.

Movies like Agora underline the importance of feature films in disseminating historical facts that would have remained unknown to many otherwise. Movies like Agora are examples of one country taking interest in another’s history and bringing together actors from various lands to celebrate the life of a remarkable individual stamped out of popular discussions because society is embarrassed about the events that led to her death. Movies like Agora celebrate the importance the rulers of certain countries, such as Egypt, gave towards accumulation of knowledge from distant lands, even if the process was colored by deceit and money-power.

P.S. This famous Alexandria library has now been rebuilt in 2002 on the original site of the destroyed library with funds from UNESCO to house 5 million books. (The new library’s director is Ismail Serageldin, a former Vice President of the World Bank.)

Ousmane Sembene's Moolaadé (2004) has been reviewed earlier on this blogAmenábar’s film Mar Adentro (The Sea Within) (2004) has also been reviewed on this blog.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

132. Spanish director José Luis Cuerda’s film “La lengua de las mariposas” (Butterfly Tongues/Butterfly) (1999): Touching and thought-provoking cinema

Cuerda? Who is that? When you read about modern cinema from Spain most critics seem to talk of Luis Buñuel, Carlos Saura, Pedro Almodóvar, and Alejandro Amenábar.  But rarely do you come across the name José Luis Cuerda in informed discussions on the cinema of Spain. And yet Cuerda’s Butterfly Tongues is one film this critic would recommend, if someone wanted to see a fine movie from Spain. If someone wanted details that give this movie additional credibility: the music in the film is by well-known Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar, the lead actor is Fernando Fernán Gómez (a thespian who has appeared in over 200 movies made in the Spanish language and has won the Best Actor award twice at the Berlin film festival and once at the Venice Film Festival), and the original tales on which the movie is based are written by the respected novelist Manuel Rivas.

As you watch the movie unfold, you are reminded of delicate strokes of Ermanno Olmi’s Italian masterpiece The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978).  A young boy suffering from asthma attacks is scared of attending school because the local school teacher (Fernando Fernán Gómez) appears to be strict and imposing in size, while in reality he is an adorable democrat with fondness for intellectual and social integrity that reminds you of Robin Williams turn in Peter Weir’s endearing US film Dead Poet’s Society (1989). There is even a sequence in Butterfly Tongues when the young boy urinates in the class out of fear reminding viewers of Bertolucci’s Beseiged (1998), where the audience empathized with the fear actress Thandie Newton exhibited of the lawless and brutal Africa in the throes of a un-named political uprising.

Imagine a film that attempts to capture the strengths of Olmi, Weir and Bertolucci and that is what Cuerda presents in this remarkable movie called Butterfly Tongues.  What is a butterfly tongue? The good schoolmaster explains the unusual characteristics of a butterfly tongue to his pupils: the butterflies have long tongues that are kept coiled up under their heads, resembling a watch spring. The tongue is like a hollow tube resembling the properties of a straw. The butterfly uncoils this tongue/straw to reach into a flower to drink its nectar.

Cuerda’s film is centred on the development of a 7-year-old boy called Moncho (read, a caterpillar evolving into a butterfly) through his interactions with his teacher. The learning process for the boy is unconventional yet comprehensive with new words learnt, ingested and ingrained in the young mind. Cuerda’s film eventually progresses into a sensitive study of a child having to choose between the love of a parent and the love of a favourite teacher. The resulting emotions are captured by the coiled tongue of the butterfly (read, the young boy) shouting words taught by his teacher, between words he is told by his parent to mouth.

The film can be evaluated as a fascinating study of an ideal teacher-student relationship. It is also a lovely study of teachers who teach without taking un-warranted gifts from parents. The venerable teacher applies unconventional methods to get his boisterous students to keep quiet—he keeps quiet himself and looks out of the window. Soon the students notice this and fall silent by themselves!

Somewhere in the middle of the film there is a lovely battle of wits between the atheist teacher and the local priest which I wish I could reproduce in full. But the film has quite a few comments on atheism and religion—Moncho’s mother is a devout Catholic while Moncho’s father is an atheist. Moncho’s father rubs in his views to his religious wife by pointing out to his wife that the river water was as effective as the “holy water” in curing their child. And it is the devout Catholic mother who eventually vilifies innocent friends and well wishers to protect her own family.

Yes, towards the end of the movie the political perspective of the tale becomes obvious. The dawn of Fascism can be missed out when a drunk kills an innocent dog just because it interferes with his sexual trysts. Much later in the film well-meaning, religious Catholics lead atheist Republican neighbours to their slaughter. That is Spain, 1936.

It would be incorrect to brand this Cuerda film as a political film or even a anti-war film--it is neither. It is a disturbing film if the viewer places himself or herself in the shoes of the 7-year-old Moncho. Would the viewer, if placed in the shoes of Moncho, be a good son and listen to the mother who takes a wrong moral stand for the sake of protecting the family? The end of the film is truly heart wrenching and the words "Butterfly Tongues" take on a new metaphorical meaning if the final 10 minutes of the film is studied closely. The film  startlingly echoes dilemmas of two films in its content: Zoltan Fabri’s brilliant Hungarian film The Fifth Seal (1976) and Julia Solomonoff’s Argentinan film Hermanas (Sisters) (2005). The end of Butterfly Tongues can affect different viewers differently but one thing is certain; the film will haunt a sensitive viewer on the moral issues the film presents, long after the movie is over.

The director José Luis Cuerda and his co-scriptwriter Rafael Azcona have adapted three stories written by Manuel Rivas and made them appear as a single tale. Cuerda and Azcona implicitly allow two incidents or subplots  that appear somewhat out of place—the killing of a dog (the sole killing in the film) and a brutal possessive husband with a Chinese wife who is treated like a vassal—only to underscore the Fascist tendencies already inherent in the population. Cuerda begins and ends the colour film with black-and-white footage, sandwiching the colourful tale of the 7-year-old’s butterfly years. José Luis Cuerda and his team have made an exquisite film that might appear disjointed but delivers its message with aplomb.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

131. U.S. director Arthur Penn’s “The Missouri Breaks” (1976): Re-evaluation of a Western trashed by many film critics

The Missouri Breaks deserves more attention than it has received over the years. Apart from the fact that it contains one of the most darkly comic lines ever used in cinema "You know what woke you up? You just had your throat cut,” most reviewers have logically zoomed in on the obvious—the swaggering performance of Marlon Brando at the peak of his career and an overshadowed but endearing performance of Jack Nicholson. Yet the film belongs not to these two worthies but to Arthur Penn, the director. 

The late Arthur Penn was more “sinn’d against than sinning,” after he made his third western, The Missouri Breaks, when most critics and viewers felt the film was a disaster. A famous US publication Variety described the film’s achievement as “corned beef and ham hash.” According to reports on the making of this “revisionist” western, a term given to Westerns with anti-heroes, strong women, and a critical approach to re-evaluate established military heroes, government and business policies for the sake of authenticity, Penn was out-gunned in his directorial effort by his two megastars Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson who took a dislike to each other during the filming. But is that a correct evaluation? Perhaps, not so. Most of the scenes in the film in which a viewer could assume the two stars were filmed together were actually filmed separately. Unfortunately, the poor reception of this film with the viewing public sounded the death knell of the Hollywood Western, which until then was considered commercially a safe bet among the many genres. 

When a director such as Penn chooses to make a film on any subject he/she believes in, it is inevitable that there is some value addition that the director provides to the written work of the novelist/playwright/screenplay-writer—in this case, screenplay-writer Thomas McGuane and the un-credited interloper on the McGuane script Robert Towne (who had just a few years before in 1974 earned fame with Polanski’s Chinatown, another Nicholson film). And what was Penn’s value addition? It is useful to re-evaluate the film more as a Penn film rather than Brando film or a Nicholson film or even a McGuane film. It is important to note that The Missouri Breaks was made by Penn on the heels of two important Penn films The Little Big Man and Night Moves.  Both these films accentuate Penn’s growing interest in studying opposites in human beings, in oxymorons, in duality. The very title of  “little big” is an oxymoron that viewers might dismiss as a quaint Indian name or a contribution of the  author of the tale, Thomas Berger. And yet the film The Little Big Man is all about a man with unremarkable physique who could not only satisfy four wives sexually but had the wits to out-manoeuvre the strategies of General Custer to a considerable extent. Penn’s General Custer and Wild Bill Hickok are considerably different from other tales about them.  They are heroes with lots of chinks in their armour. 
And almost every other lesser character in the film proves to be different for the viewer as that film progressed. In Night Moves, Penn’s work that followed The Little Big Man, Penn presents another anti-hero tale about a detective named Harry Moseby, played by Gene Hackman. In Night Moves, we have an engaging and yet unusual tale of a man who can solve complex marital relationships of others but inexplicably fails to solve his own. Obviously, Penn was getting fond of making movies that explored the inherent contradictions in humans---physical, mental, and psychological. 

Penn’s next film The Missouri Breaks continues to serve the viewer with similar paradoxes of his two previous films. The film opens with a lovely natural scenery that includes three horse riders making pleasant conversation on a 4th of July (the US Independence day) to reach a gathering of men women and children singing “O Susanna”. A few seconds later, the lovely bonhomie gets transformed into a hanging of one of the three horse riders, who we learn subsequently was a rustler being led to his own hanging. One wonders if this cinematic surprise for the viewer is courtesy Penn or if it is scriptwriter McGuane at work. Both Penn and McGuane repeatedly juxtaposes civilized behaviour with violent ones. Much later in the film, the rancher’s daughter, who is against violence. states “We had a famous painter out here last year... did last scenes. That man must have painted ten squares miles of canvas... and not one human face! And I wish he could have been here to paint that boy, Sandy, hanging up there so decoratively against the mountains. Because his pink tongue and his white face would have just set off the green of Montana splendidly. I mean, it would have made the damnedest bank calendar you ever saw!" An American film critic, Robert Philip Kolker, in his interesting book A Cinema of Loneliness, commendably observed that Penn wasalways concerned with the contradictions inherent in the presentation of violence.”

Penn seems to be constantly attracted by characters that stand out of the ordinary—those who are constrained either physically or mentally (The Miracle Worker, The Chase, The Little, Big Man, Night Moves, etc.). He loved anti-heroes. In The Missouri Breaks there are three anti-heroes—a rustler, a cross-dressing bounty hunter, and a gay rancher who reads Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy but serves as judge and jury as he metes out death sentences to make his little world better to live in. The film was released with the tag line “One steals, one kills, one dies.” 

One would assume in a film studded with such unlikable characters that Penn would paint them black. Penn does the just the opposite—he manipulates the viewer to sympathize with the bad guys. Nicholson's horse rustler is smart—he knows the circumstances when a gun would have a bullet in it. He knows how to court a woman by brewing Chinese tea in the Wild West. Brando's bounty hunter is equally erudite—he carries a book on ornithology while horseback as he watches eagles seek its prey through binoculars, just as he follows desperadoes before he moves in on his own human kill. The ranch owner, with a gay lover on the ranch, is a good father to his daughter and is unusually well-read with 3500 works of English literature in his library. Yet, in spite of his wide knowledge, he hangs rustlers without much of a trial so that his profits grow. What a weird set of anti-heroes! One would have expected good women to balance the bad guys. But the women of Penn’s cinema have shades of gray—The Missouri Breaks is no exception. The leading lady seems to be fascinated by the bad guys and "demands" sex. Another rancher's wife has illicit sex with a guest. 

One would wonder why Penn/McGuane would make the rancher choose to read Laurence Sterne’s 9-volume novel Tristram Shandy from a wide choice 3500 works of English literature in his library. In this English novel written in the 18th century introduces the reader to odd and black comedy, just as Penn/McGuane/Brando introduce the viewer to an odd and comic “regulator” Robert E. Lee Clayton who kills rustlers with sadistic pleasure and without remorse and has only one girl in his life--his own horse who he considers to have “the lips of Salome and the eyes of Cleopatra.” The “regulator” kills with incredible calculation and panache, yet he does not know when he ought to leave the stage, which is his undoing. One of the truly rewarding moments in the film is when Clayton makes a brief speech on justice, to drive home the cause and effect of the Wild West modicum of instant justice explained by the rancher in his own words, “he (the man who was hung earlier) was a thief... with probably a million good reasons for being on hard times. The main thing is that we put him out of his misery.” Clayton (Brando) after making the speech on justice takes ice cubes from under a corpse to reduce the pain from a toothache. Can any viewer deny that Penn was not at his best? Clayton cross-dresses and kills without mercy and yet knows well that his arch enemy will not shoot him in his bathtub when he exposes his naked back! Penn/McGuane/Brando makes the viewer briefly confused as to who is the better individual and who is to be less appreciated in this amazing confrontational sequence.

The final sequence of two important characters in the film leaving for different destinations after checking out where they would be 6 months hence leaves the viewer guessing of what would eventually happen in this tale after the movie ended (reminding the viewer of the final scene in Night Moves). Penn's films tend to end with a perspective of a detached outsider, making the characters quixotic and the leaves the films' end open to several viewpoints. Brando was a treat to watch in The Missouri Breaks—only his Quiemada (Burn!) appealed to this critic more than this one amongst all his films. Interestingly, in both these films Brando had problems with the director and allegedly took matters into his own hands at several stages. But if the viewer of  The Missouri Breaks agrees with the American critic Robert Philip Kolker, the bizarre killings of rustlers often attributed to Brando actually follows Penn’s signature style of his movies made in the Seventies.

The music and screenplay are in many ways a tribute to the rising fame of the spaghetti Western and, therefore, quite stunning—also because of the very interesting and intelligent use of sound editing. The opening fifteen minutes of the film underline this argument, although this is a Penn film and not a Sergio Leone film.

All in all, this film is a major Western as it has elements that never surfaced in most others—women who were not mere attractions, the effect of carbines on those shot by them, and of course the slow death by hanging, in contrast to the lovely countryside (stated by the leading lady). It is a Western that entertains the viewers by getting them to mull over the spoken words and the visuals that provoke and surprise unlike the conventional Western. It is no wonder that the conventional Western enthusiast found this one difficult to digest. And most important of all, the final scene suggests that it was time to adopt change. This Western entertains in a way most others do not. (The exceptions are three revisionist Westerns: William Fraker's Monte Walsh, Tom Gries’ Will Penny, and Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller). Thank you, Mr. Penn and all those who contributed to making this interesting film so enjoyable in retrospect.

P.S. Arthur Penn's The Little Big Man was reviewed earlier on this blog.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

130. Korean filmmaker Chang-dong Lee’s “Shi” (Poetry) (2010): Learning to look at apples anew

Good Korean cinema often involves very little verbal talk. The visuals often do the talking, which is not common for movies made in most parts of the world.  Chang-dong Lee’s Poetry is one such example where body language is more eloquent than the spoken word—unusual indeed for a film ironically called Poetry, a literary form that survives on words.

Early in the film, the viewer gets the feel that the tale has much to do with dementia. As the film progresses, the film shifts to examining tenuous human relationships.  Later in the film, the subject shifts gears again to focus on lack of communication between sexes and generations.  Strangely the film suggests that clumsy attempts by dilettantes at poetry writing could serve as a fulcrum to launch proactive communication between two individuals who would otherwise have remained insulated in their own shells.

A  Korean teacher of poetry induces his motley group of adult students to write poetry by asking them to draw inspiration by looking at apples anew. One can look at any object, he says, like an apple endlessly until you awaken the poetic sensibilities in yourself. So what, an impatient viewer of cinema could comment.

The film Poetry begins and ends with shots of flowing waters of a river taken from a tall bridge. Just as different perspectives of an apple could lead to inspired poetry, so too do the flowing waters allow Chang-dong Lee to develop a sensitive tale on relationships over time, until you realize the director has nudged the viewer to appreciate social values, responsibilities and relationships that make life worth living, putting aside social evils and lack of communication between family members that pervades our modern lifestyles. Poetry deals with emotions; Chang-dong Lee’s Poetry deals with individuals who seem to be devoid of emotions and somewhere towards the end of the film, the viewer glimpses emotions, subtle and yet so evocative. Just as the visual of the flowing water from the bridge might appear the same, the message of the visual becomes all the more powerful, with the viewer having learnt of the events that the movie has unfolded.

Poetry, the film, is not just about poetry. It is a film about human relationships. Poetry is a quilt of relationships—grandmother and grandson, Korean men and Korean women, Korean schoolboy camaraderie, the strange absence of a mother and a father for a growing boy, the dying urge of a semi-paralyzed old man to pop Viagra pills to have sex, and the lack of remorse of young Korean schoolboys to accept the consequence of their evil actions.

Poetry, the film, is equally a delicate study of the differences in the attitude of the sexes in Korea, in Asia, and, in an extension, the world. It is an unusual and sensitive look at male dominated societies by a male director. A girl is gang raped (the event is thankfully never shown in the film) but the director Chang-dong Lee allows the viewer to perceive detailed emotions of many individuals in the aftermath. The perpetrators of the crime are not repentant.  The male parents of the perpetrators of the crime merely want wish away the incident with the help of their joint money power. It is only an elderly grandmother who attempts to reach out to comfort the oppressed family.  Here is an unusual tale of a woman mourning the death of one who is not of her own family but of another unknown family, while men equally affected by the same death only wish the event away and cry away from accepting responsibility. In many ways, this film is like a formidable chess game between men and women. The young boy who does not flinch when the mother places the photograph of a schoolmate he had raped and is now dead as a consequence of that action, is also a young boy being brought up by a single grandmother. He does not have a father or a grandfather. The absence of the mother and the unusual reactions of the grandmother could insinuate to the viewer that he himself was born following similar circumstances befalling his mother—this remains a mystery in the film.

There are many films that deal with suicide that are dark and sad. Here is a rare film where suicide ultimately leads to redemption of many and this is so effectively conveyed by the fallen apricot the grandmother picks up during her journey to meet up with the mother of a girl who had committed suicide only to realize the importance of the seed in the full cycle of life.

The performance of the grandmother played by Jong –hie Yun is remarkable. I learnt that this actress made this film after a long hiatus from her craft.  The awards the film has earned for her worldwide acknowledge the importance of subtlety in the business of thespians that cinema can capture more effectively than theatre, at least in most cases.

Finally, the film is a 2 hour 20 minute film but the real punch of the film comes in the last twenty minutes and the sock on your jaw is a delicate one that can fell you, thanks to its potent screenplay.  The film deals with a 60-year-old suffering from the onset of dementia but the film seems to suggest lead character is deliberately trying to forget a dark chapter of her life as well relating to her absent daughter, which the script so cleverly insinuates but never elaborates. The film presents an optimistic end for a film that began with a suicide—it allows for a woman suffering from dementia to take a proactive step to improve the life of others,while she still has her wits about her. What a wonderful and uplifting tale that does not easily appear as one!

The film is remarkable because the screenplay, written by the director himself, packs so much detail and ends with an astonishing open air badminton practice, which is so delicately crafted that no viewer is likely to forget it. Hardly a word is spoken in the long scene and, yet, it is so evocative. By a coincidence, this important sequence occurs at nightfall, while the opening and the end sequences of the movie suggests early morning.  That’s subtle poetry in itself. It is, therefore, not surprising that the award Poetry won at the Cannes Film Festival was for the Best Screenplay. Here is a movie where the spoken word is so sparingly used and yet the visuals and the few words used in the movie spin true poetry.

P.S. Other films relating to dementia discussed earlier on in this blog include Naomi Kawase's The Mourning Forest and Sarah Polley's Away from Her.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

129. Chadean filmmaker Mahamet-Saleh Haroun's “Un Homme Qui Crie” (A Screaming Man) (2010): A subtle perspective from African cinema on an unusual father and son relationship

Be careful not to cross your arms over your chest, 
 assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator, 
 because life is not a spectacle, 
 a sea of pain is not a proscenium, 
 and a screaming man is not a dancing bear."

           (Extract from Aimé Césaire's poem
            Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, 1939,
            quoted at the end of the film)

Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s A Screaming Man marks a definite improvement in style and content to his earlier work, the 2006 film Daratt (Dry Season). A Screaming Man is not just well crafted cinema, it offers an unusual tale that can make you reflect on the behaviours of people. It is not surprising that A Screaming Man won the Jury’s Prize for the Best Film at Cannes Film Festival, the Silver Hugo for the Best Film and Best Screenplay at the Chicago Film Festival and the Muhr for Best Film, Best Actor, and the Best Editor at the Dubai film Festival, all in 2010.

While Daratt won accolades at the Venice Film Festival for its ability to capture the political and economic conditions in Chad, often called the 'Dead Heart of Africa,' crippled by a 40-year civil war and more recently the economic onslaught of the Darfur refugees from Sudan, A Screaming Man takes the viewer closer to the heart of an ordinary African and his family values—with the ubiquitous political turmoil of Chad taking a back seat. A Screaming Man is an inward looking essay on film, while Daratt relied considerably on the external actions for the viewer to get inside the minds of its characters such as a young man, who is proud enough to refuse charity, even when hungry and penniless. The outstanding quality of the latest two Haroun films is that both are rewarding experiences for a reflective viewer with A Screaming Man likely to have more universal appeal than Daratt, which spun around the arms–related violence associated with civil strife.

Haroun’s A Screaming Man is an interesting and subtle study of the male mind in its winter years confronted with the world of his own seed blooming in the spring of youth. A loving father, who is aging, can grow jealous of his own progeny’s success at times though this is not a common occurrence. However, this unusual situation is not particular to Chad or to Africa—the tale could be universal. Adam, the father, is a former national swimming champ, a former hero in this 'Dead Heart of Africa.' He is now reduced to eke out a living as swimming pool supervisor in the swanky hotel catering to expatriates. Haroun captures the economic turmoil in the country by the subtle takeover of the hotel by a Chinese corporate house. Haroun opens his film with the 55-year old ‘Champ’ beaten in the ability to stay underwater longer by his own 20-something-year old son, Abdel, in the hotel pool. Both are employees of the hotel employed to take care of the pool and the guests who choose to swim there. Adam loves his job and is understandably jolted when the management, in an effort to trim costs, reassigns him to a lesser job of manning the gates of the hotel, while his son continues his work at the poolside.

A Screaming Man is a film that puts the allure of the pool and swimming in the forefront for none other than a former Central African swimming champ over the bleak prospect of seeing his own son enjoying the pool each day, while he has to scamper to his feet every time a vehicle comes to the gate far away from his first love, swimming, which had once made him a regional hero. Adam truly loves his only son Abdel. The film is about the aging Adam having to consider his own son as an adversary pushing him away from what he loves most, to swim and be the pool supervisor, a job that gives him a meagre salary, pride and sweet memories of what he had achieved in life. The film also focuses on how for a poor man in a developing nation a comfortable job in a posh surroundings can gradually make him oblivious of the real life dangers for his family living outside the hotel’s insular security and cleanliness. Even the economic and political turmoil in the country seem to be distant when you have such an employment.

That is merely the preface of the movie. Can a 55-year old, who made his name as a swimming champion be forced to stay away from the attractive waters of the pool? Would a father do a sinister act to get back to the pool at the cost of his son’s life? The rebel forces are closing in on the town and the father has to either contribute financially to a warring faction or permit his son, presently enjoying good life at the poolside, to be drafted against the son’s will into the armed forces of one of the warring factions. Haroun’s film provides us with visual clues that Adam, who spends each day at the hotel, returns each evening, to a modest living quarters, indicating that he is not rich enough to contribute to the war as he is socially expected to do.

Haroun’s latest film provides glimpses of the private life of the poorer sections of the Chadean Muslim household where the wife cooks for the father and son, where the father regularly compliments his wife for her cooking and when he does not do so the wife knows that something is amiss (and that it need not be related to her cooking!). The communion at meals is a time for family bonding and we see husband and wife about to enjoy a watermelon slice, when the intimate partaking of food is interrupted by a neighbour seeking to borrow some provision. Haroun does not show us the neighbour on two such interruptions in the film, but the camera concentrates on Adam’s family and their reactions to the interruptions. Haroun’s priorities are clear—develop the characters of Adam, Adam’s wife, and Abdel—not that of the peripheral neighbour. The Chicago Film Festival got it right—it is indeed a mature and well conceptualized screenplay.

Adam’s wife Mariam is developed by Haroun as the steadfast and unbending force in the family. She cooks well and expects to be complimented and thanked at the end of each meal she provides her family. She is able to criticize her husband on the right occasions. She believes in helping her neighbours who she knows will not return her favours. Like a true mother, she is unhappy at her son being drafted against his will. Like a good “mother-in-law” she welcomes her son’s lover, who not from Chad but from neighbouring Mali, into her house in his absence without a question. (This appears to be a subtle subtext in the film that Haroun introduces on the social churning in Chad with Malian and Sudanese populations living in Chad adding to the economic burden). It is Mariam who wants the family to leave town for their safety while Adam initially seems magnetically pulled towards his job at the swimming pool brushing aside the looming dangers of the civil war closing in on his doorstep.

Now Chad has both a Muslim and a Christian population of consequence. Haroun, who has written the screenplay himself, introduces David, the cook at the hotel, into the tale. David is the Christian element in the tale though no obvious religious symbol or action invades the film. David and Adam are friends and colleagues. Both feed a stray dog when they get a quiet moment to themselves. But the new Chinese owners of the hotel decide not just to move Adam from the swimming pool to the front gate but to replace David with someone else as the hotel’s cook. An unforgettable line spoken by David to the taciturn Adam at the turn of events is “David is not going to beat Goliath this time.” Goliath could be death knocking at the door of the laid-off and now sick cook. The smart screenplay of Haroun describes the replacement of David with two the simple but brief scenes that are evocative on the screen—David’s replacement refuses to feed the stray dog and the bench that used to carry the weight of David easily breaks under the weight of the new man! Haroun, however, does develop the character of David—the downsized cook. David states to Adam rather philosophically “Life continues.. but the problem is that we put our destinies in God’s hands.” David believes in God but that statement, when spoken by David as he seems to lose faith as an unemployed and sick man, is evocative, especially in the ears of Adam and ours as discerning viewers, who can view the predicament of Chad, not merely that of Adam and David.

The interesting aspect of Haroun’s development of Adam’s character is initially as a sounding board of his wife Mariam and his Christian colleague, David. Adam listens to both and ingests their views almost silently. Initially in the film, Adam does come through as the ‘’dancing bear” of the Aimé Césaire poem.

The transformation of the “dancing bear” into “a screaming man” of the poem, follows two interesting sequences in the film. One is the arrival of the pregnant Malian singer, Djeneba, who claims to be carrying the child of Abdel and is received into the household of Adam and Mariam without questions. The second is sequence when Adam returns home and sees all the town fleeing in the opposite direction. It is then that Adam speaks one of his rare lines “It is not me, it is the world that has changed.

The last part of the film (presenting some fine outdoor camerawork of cinematographer Laurent Brunet, comparing well with his commendable indoor photography earlier in the film) delves on the actions resulting from changes in Adam's mindset and what he could do to redeem his past mistakes. And as the film began, it ends with Adam and Abdel immersed in water, albeit under different circumstances. It allows the viewer an unusual perspective of external forces that decide how you balance varied duties to your family, your profession, your religion, and your country. Ultimately the movie suggests that it is not the external forces that ought to prevail, but one's own convictions that decide one's priorities. And that development of the plot is what makes this a very decent and sophisticated African film worth viewing.

P.S.  Mahamet-Saleh Haroun's Daratt (Dry Season) was earlier reviewed on this blog. A rarely viewed film from India on a similar relationship, which is historically true, is Feroz Abbas Khan's Gandhi, My Father, also earlier reviewed on this blog.