Saturday, December 10, 2011

De Vlaschaard (1943)

Boleslaw Barlog’s little-known film De Vlaschaard (meaning “The Flax Field”; also known as Wenn die Sonne wieder scheint) is yet another masterpiece from the best of decades for cinema: the 1940s. Shot with a camera given to detail, the film narrates an ages-old story of father-son rivalry in a world where land means everything; inevitably, women have not much role to play in this capitalist world where only the stronger is richer, except being a silent motivation or conscience to their lovers and husbands. A brilliant performance is given by the two Pauls, Klinger (the son) and Wegener (the father): these two men, who dominate the film, who cannot understand each other, are tied by relations of familial pride in each other, and yet resent each other’s ideas and way of doing things.

In spite of flaws like a happy ending where it looks out of place and terrible miscasting of the son’s love interest Bruni Löbel, who doesn’t at all look like a poor farm girl even if I forget her lack of acting skills, the film doesn’t fail primarily due to its tight structure: even if the camera lingers, the story doesn’t, and in a matter of 80-odd minutes an effective, realistic and sad story of many fathers and sons across ages is told. There is also no attempt to brush-stroke characters sympathetically, but rather the world is shown as it is.

Klinger’s character, while ambitious, unafraid to follow his own lead and even if his ideas do turn out to be right always, does turn out to be insensitive and selfish, unable to think outside of himself or his farm; the story is very well constructed, so that Klinger’s offer to go away from the farm if Löbel were to be turned out comes only at a certain critical juncture of the film, when he is full of frustration and rage at being unable to do things his own way. Klinger also comes across as a Rudin-like character, unable to fulfil his promises and yet giving them thoughtlessly.
On the other hand, while Wegener on the face of it resents Klinger’s advice, he does follow it furtively, and when he’s away, he does celebrate the intelligence of his son with his neighbours: for him, his son is just like his farm, and he hopes it is also a very good produce. The issue, however, is that human beings, especially the good produce, are not mute like flax would be: that humans are not owned like cattle. However, while both father and son are obstinate, Wegener is to the point of being obdurate, thoughtlessly so: and he does fulfil his promises, if just for the sake of recklessness.

Without pretentiousness and without claims to intellectual stuff, De Vlaschaard is a powerful film telling a real story and asking questions. The most poignant scene is to watch and imagine the corruption of Wegener’s heart in a world which lives by things like capital and thus-earned respect and morals: how the man has become blind to everything but these, how he estimates himself and his worth and his youth in only these. And maybe, Klinger with his fond love for his farm will follow in the same steps of decay.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Third Man

A film from that golden era of English films, whether coming from Hollywood or Britain, the 1940s, when films dared to be grey, realistic and yet fogged in a halo of street lamps, Carol Reed's The Third Man boldly tries things which few films have done throughout the history of cinema, until today. A music that grows on your nerves rather than forming a complementary to the plot; a key man of the plot being introduced when you had almost forgotten of him (and what an introduction!); and some never-to-be forgotten dialogues that give the film a human relevance much beyond what its film noir look would have done so: these are things that are hardly done nowadays, when directors claim to be "experimental," let alone back then in that era when women often had nothing to do except being the love interest. Alida Valli also doesn't have to do more than that, but in walking off from the blundering positive protagonist, Joseph Cotten, she makes a statement to rival that made by Maj-Britt Nilsson in the Swedish film Sommarlek, interestingly from the same period: the statement that a nearly similar film, at least as far as the atmospherics are concerned, George Cukor's Gaslight, failed to make, in spite of a remarkable performance by the talent of Ingrid Bergman.

Apart from the music, the film's strengths lie in its unconventional cinematography but conventional editing, and actors very well suited to their parts except Welles to a large extent and Valli to a certain extent. However, since Welles' role is primarily that of bringing a shock value at points in the film, it does not matter that much; it is the ensemble of the self-pitying but still-searching Joseph Cotten and the very internationally diversified world around him in the post-War Vienna that form the crux of the cast and the strength of the film. Where crisp cinematography, Valli's eyes, and Cotten's performance are already ruling the roost, it's a feat to even be noticeable: Austrian actress Hedwig Bleibtreu rather manages to illuminate the whole film, in the matter of hardly minutes, with that minor role of the landlady of Valli she has. Not only that, but in the context of the post-Welles film, she - more than any gangrened patients in the hospital, who should've been shown by the camera (this is one major flaw of the film; I don't know if it was due to any production code issues or merely that fine detail of avoiding hurting people's sensibilities) - it is she who represents one of those obscure "dots," which hardly matter in the scheme of things. While Raskolnikov's old lady might have been portrayed as mean and not in a flattering way, here is another such obscure dot, waiting to be exterminated: but this time this dot is brimful with life. Life not in the sense of doing great things, rushing from one city to another, or unbounded laughter or sex; but life in that ultimate sense of living, that love for living which permeates so many of us, which only gives meaning to everything we do.

A lot has been said of that brave shot at the end of the film, and even after having watched hundreds and hundreds of films, I, too, find it a really brave shot: I hadn't expected it at all. Only Lean's entry for Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia rivals it, but I would say even that wasn't as brave a shot as this one is: to set such a shot at the climax of the film, with around 2 mins of screen time without wavering from that simple walk that rejects the pretender, could not just be termed brave, but could have been called visionary, had the later filmmakers learnt anything.

Talking of other things, Trevor Howard gives a fine performance, as does the Austrian actor Ernst Deutsch in a vampirish-looking role. The accent of Bernard Lee makes a delightful addition to the film. And the end of Welles is probably even more remarkable than the entry of Welles in the film: clutching and grasping. For? Money? Or this time, life? Salvation? Or trying to escape from being a once-upon dot?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Le roi et l'oiseau

A precursor for many films and inspiration for many filmmakers, Le Roi et l'Oiseau (int'l title: The King and the Mockingbird; more appropriate would have been the literal translation, The King and the Bird) is not merely a heritage object; it says things that many other films do not, it brings to life characters that appear stilted even in live-action movies, and it moves with a fluidity that is remarkable and typical of a good animated movie.

Fluidity does not only belong to the storyline and editing; it also belongs to the brilliant animation work done, especially considering that it's traditional 2D work and not 3D. In the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale extract, when the chimney sweep helps the shepherdess come down a ladder, the movement of the hips of the shepherdess is a sight to watch: and compared with the precedent climbing down movement of the sweep, a highly instructive lesson as to how carefully observed life has to be to create a good work of art. Sustained by the music and more of excellent animation work (the King has no rivals in all the animation work I've ever seen), the film also, atypically for an animation film, attains greater consistency by not introducing too many characters. Yes, the finale has a bevy of carnivores, but they are more a chorus rather than an assortment of tricks.

A much more interesting feeling that one gets is that the film is not only an attack on unenlightened monarchy, but an attack on any kind of totalitarian institution. The film attacks, much more snidely than Yann Jouette's brilliant Berni's Doll, which seems to have taken the baton and carried it forward, all sorts of assembly-line work: it is worth noting that not only there are a thousand statues of the King being assembled, but every member of the King's police force looks alike and behaves in the same stupid and dead manner. It is only the lower city that has escaped the dummification, and yet they are also dummies in another way: waiting for the Bird to come as their messiah. However, they are still not dummies in every way: they still do believe that the Sun exists, they still listen to music and can dream that more beauty is there even if they can't really say what it is like, and hence they can still be someone. It is interesting that most of those who are under the Sun and the Stars have nothing to believe in and know everything, most of those are dead; and that from those for whom the Sun is a myth and to say that the Earth is round a prayer, who can only and do believe, most are still alive, even if stripped of the confidence in themselves. But it is the swaggering Bird who believes and yet knows a lot, who makes - one knows not - stories or truths of all the world she has seen but also has the anger to finish the last cage in the world of Kings, which exemplifies the virtue of being sagacious and yet a romantic, especially in a world being increasingly populated by dummies.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

El espíritu de la colmena

At times, silence speaks much more than voices, forebodings are truer than what happened, and a deserted plain has more secrets than a forest of chestnuts. I will call Victor Erice, the director, the timekeeper: a man who must have had the ability to feel the untold burden and the untold wealth of love, fear and anger to be able to make El espíritu de la colmena (int'l title: The Spirit of the Beehive).

The film has no need of oblique references to Franco and the Spain of yesteryears; within itself, the story of a child haunted and imprisoned, a life-changing sentence that at once is transcendental between life and death, between the meaningless order of bees and the disorder of humans consequent to striving for meaning, the story not only moves you sweepingly in her world, but also thrills you and grips you. Even without the horror, there is horror; the film is shot carefully, with colors chosenly blended: a heavy melancholia pervades at all times the house of two lively girls in the silent Castillian village. While Isabel slowly develops sadistic streaks as her form of rebellion against the silence, Ana chooses silence to cut silence: finding labyrinths through the silence, she must encounter the spirit, and determine if the spirit is even evil or not. Why to accuse the spirit beforehand? She is ready for change, for a new oncoming; may not a spirit bring more sense to the world of bees, building cells and collecting honey as if they were run mechanically?

Every shot is a beauty to watch, and it is rare that a film succeeds when every shot is some thing: here it does, because every shot has a purpose, a meaning. The art direction is very relevant, only enhanced by the extraordinary cinematography. At once, through rich poetics, Erice addresses growing up, rebellion, the gatherer's life we choose to live, and the meaning of poetry itself in life. A film hard to forget, The Spirit of the Beehive raises the rarely asked question: who is said to exist?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes

Klaus Kinski had to play only himself; but it is the way that Herzog restrains himself in his critique of the West’s lust for power and riches, not going overboard and yet being to the point, that defines the astonishing film Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (int’l title: Aguirre, the Wrath of God). And it is the music of the film that gives that elemental touch to the film, when man is at war with nature: nature not only of the Amazon but also nature within, where man makes a slave of himself in pursuit of mastery over everything and everyone. Power brings with it the subjugation to the oppressed: something unfinishedly said in Orwell’s “Shooting an elephant” and more refinedly in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. For when you establish a power over someone’s body and wealth, his will and land, you tie yourself up within the realm that that power gives you; the more vast the reach, probably the wider is the radius of your tether, and yet tied you remain. And sometimes like a hurt animal ready to bite, as Aguirre (Kinski), mad but ready to pierce every envelope, and madder for he has the intelligence to feel that this was not a prison worthy to broken, a fort worthy to be taken; gold means nothing, for fame and power are absolute to him; and yet, if he had attained that fame and power, would he have finally felt satisfied? Or, like Ashoka, been driven on to that eternal lust of repentance and God?

Werner Herzog would have been the right man to make a film on Ashoka, for here he leaves the business unfinished; the final realization, that the powerful is the most powerless, is here only as the apparent truth, but what about the implied truth, when even the senses say otherwise? But given the limited scope of the film, he does marvellously: the way he only touches upon the aspect of incest since the start of the film; the manner in which he handles the pristine beauty of the landscape without letting it be the central element of the film; and how he handles, sparingly, Kinski himself. Rather than any antics or rhetoric, it is Kinski’s burning, blue eyes that bespeak the maniac in him, the man who is not the average but who has risen to only so far as to despise the others, not more above. A bully besotted with himself.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


When you do not believe in anything, how empty is your life? A story stunningly portraying the decay of Western civilization, L'avventura (literally The Adventure) goes where films as a rule don't go: a sincere attempt to comprehend reality. The film stops where Sandro stops: wanting sympathy, in despair, and himself not knowing where is the response. And, outside the pales of forgiving or forgetting, having crossed the sense of culpability in loving a forbidden, does Claudia know anymore?

Like leaves without wills blown at wind's whim, men and women flow about: what they leave behind is facades, ruins and church bells. What they desired is an answer to who they are: but they forgot to seek it in the other; they forgot to ask who the other is. Obsessed with the quest for themselves, every human comes crafted for them: Anna and Sandro have merely utilised each other in this lonely and selfish quest, and none has ever really thought about the other. None has known how horizons can be expanded; tragically, Anna's mysterious vanishing will only bring to the fore the inability to cope with themselves as they are. Sandro does find himself, would know what he is: a man unable to love. He will not need to look in Claudia's eyes for that judgment; he will need to look at the sky, or he will need to look at the buildings he never built. He is but the man who watches, envies, takes malicious pleasure in destroying the beauty he seeks, and tries to leave furtively; he is but the pitiable human who are born for greatness but are lost for ever in trying to deconstruct beauty. And the woman, Claudia?

Among the few women's films, l'Avventura is one. Monica Vitti (playing Claudia) neither is pretty nor knows very well to act, but the way Antonioni has used her is remarkable: she is not exactly wooden either, and her beauty is the kind that you will believe in one day and not the next day. Which is why, the constant focus on her face gives the film a double edge: a sympathy that she is ruining her life by falling into that love, but that she could not do anything otherwise. She is the one who still believes, who has that courage; and she has the horrible destiny of being undeceived: of how the others don't, and of how they can merely fit you in the scheme of things. Her belief, whether in Anna's being alive or whether in love and happiness, is never very well founded, yet never seems crazy, and seems a better thing to have than coldness which would be called realist by some.

It is a wonder to me how could a film be made so well demonstrating the decay at the heart of the West, and yet not take a preachy or a flippant tone. In a way, Fellini does the same thing with 81/2 but he adds in a lot more absurdity, which makes the effort that much less touching. Rohmer does the same thing in all his films, but Rohmer is more like Zola: he is empty of ideas. He only points the microscope at the bacteria, but has no ideas about the bacteria's place in universe. In addition, using stilted dialogues and contrived situations, Rohmer can often be preachy and indulging in vanity. But, here, we have a storyteller who knows the phenomenon and knows the evolution, who knows the germ and who knows the fruit: and one who is in love with stories and humanity, and thus with himself.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

L'uomo che verrà

It is as simple as a Daudet tale and it is as touching as the silent moonlight is: with a surprising sincerity even when the subject is Nazi devastation, avoiding rhetoric and background music scores that seek to put a story in relief, and treating children more like adults, L'uomo che verrà (int'l title: The Man Who Will Come) is first and foremost a story that desires respect for being story, for being truth: references can be dispensed with, even the actual Marzabotto massacre on which the film is based. If you've liked Hollywood and Polanski, you will not like this film: insincerity, pomp and loud activism find not a single echo here. If you love Tarkosvkiy and have asked yourself the question what can make a man so cruel, you will want to watch this film.

Education? That is the central question of the film: can it immunize a man to everything, and all the morals and all the conscience are only an education, a conditioning we have been born bathed in? Goring a human flesh and using a woman as your lover as good as it lasts: is there something wrong in it? Is it only yet another argument to justify cruelty, or is there no cruelty but in the head, in the imagination, in the fulfilment of the Other's desire through you? People want to be humane, as they are expected to behave so; they can easily want to be efficient killers, if they are started being expected to behave so? Where does desire get born? In yourself or in the Other? And yet, sometimes a shooting squad member will falter, a boy's blue uncomprehending eyes will ask him strange questions: is it simply that he was too grounded in his earlier education of morals and stuff? Those blue eyes, they don't trouble the other serial killer, after all. Shouldn't the blue eyes trouble every potential killer so as to prove an absolute?

In a very different way, the film raises almost the same questions as Tarkovskiy's beautiful Andrei Rublev raises, most notably during the Tatar raid in Rublev: an almost Salvador Dali-esque sequence, but instead of laughing in its face more intent on asking and asking. Beautifully shot, parts of the film will remind you of that yet another great movie, L'albero degli zoccoli; the grinding poverty of an Italian village and the dominant Catholic influence (absent in present-day Italy) do not serve to pigeonhole the film in an epoch, but only mark the universality of man's material concerns: food for himself and for his horse, clothes and marriage. A son, a daughter. Like many other Italian films, the film does not employ actors quite known, except Maya Sensa, who slips into her quiet role very efficiently; editing is not fancy but simple, and the film slowly lurches from grim monotony to shocking barbarity: just like it would have been for the inhabitants of Marzabotto. Disbelief. No, this can't be possible. Surely, not the church? Surely, not the women and children? Surely, not the priest?

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

La Collectionneuse

Words, works of art - and silences - are but the razor blades to keep an annular space of void, a zone of no-entry, between the world that constantly endeavours to attack us and the self. That is what Daniel articulates but that is also what every Rohmer character does in La Collectionneuse. The film is nothing but a deep, patient study of the decay of society: Adrien's vain solitude and Haydée's pointless flirtations and love-making are sadly not even due to an inordinate appetite, but those are the razor blades that each one has selected to keep everyone else at bay. At once narcissistic and unable to love, the choice before them is to manifest in deeds and words - or silences - their identity and their existence.

The private space of any human being is sacrosanct, but that private space is also peopled, and not sterile: peopled however by one's own emotions, beliefs and love for others, because alone in myself I cannot know myself. It is in the other's eye that I have a role, it is in the other's laugh: mechanical sex only makes me identify myself as a pump though I may believe that I have given the world a pump and retained myself intact. Which and what myself? Love is in the loving.

Haydée Politoff as Haydée is perfect; it is surprising that how did she never become a famous actress, considering that she is not only beautiful and can look dumb, but also that she is someone who would slip into most parts very well: she is not gorgeous and yet charming, and the air of mystery that can be construed both as real mystery and as dumbness multiplies the number of possibilities of roles for her. Camera work in the film plays a key role; it's a leisurely observation of chameleons basking in the sun, and all one should keep in mind is to let the viewer feel everything: every movement and every smile, the nap in the sun and the swim in the sea. Expressions on the faces of both the lead characters are focussed upon for great lengths of times, and the rest of the characters have been given a bit of a short shrift.

It's always puzzling to me why Rohmer used to make such films? If you remove the prologue, most viewers would be at a loss to understand the film: most of them anyway I guess watch it to gawk on Haydée Politoff. The film is like a camera observing how flies die: however, Rohmer instead of showing human existence as purposeless shows how the riches and the beauties are there and yet it is we who make of ourselves the flies. Words are for reaching out, and there already exists a void between the expression and the enunciation, so there is never the danger of the sacred space getting violated: yet, when we begin to understand ourselves from our own words, when we begin to take the proof as the all there is to it, when we lose track of discrepancy between the parole and the parler, it is then we erect razors, and we see words as razors: it is then that we start searching for our identity in every night's pleasure and in every witty statement.

A beautiful film by Eric Rohmer, with the typical French pace of cinéma, there is hardly a moment where the viewer is not engaged.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011


I haven't ever read interviews of Ingmar Bergman, or rather anything about him - the way I know him is his work, his films. He is, to me, one of that rare breed who are not afraid to doubt - who stand within the pales of religion and yet take a promenade in there. He is a "doubter" - not just in the sense accepted, that of doubting religion and God, but also doubting the arguments contrary to it. Bergman's overarching pain, which he imposes on others through his films, has been striving to understand the perfection of a world which has so much ugliness as well; if man is God's work, why the ugly institutions he created to venerate the same God? Why, Man whom Eva alludes to in the film as having the highest and the lowest in him at the same time, why that man who bears the image of God in himself does need the external symbols and securities? Eva loves: this is the expression of Man, and we give it names. She loves; and thwarted in a world long decayed, she tries to learn to live, wherein every day is a practice.

A beautiful film, which on the face of it is about a failed relationship between two humans, a mother and a daughter, Höstsonaten (int'l title: Autumn Sonata) delves much deeper and brings into play all the themes Bergman struggled with, all the things he tried to understand. One of the features of most Bergman works, one which is not met often in literature or films otherwise, is that it is the women who are successful (and also often prey to that success, just as men are in others' works): forgetting the successful pianist Charlotte, even the tormented and unloved daughter Eva comes across in a way successful compared to her silently suffering husband, Viktor. That is the way Bergman plots the film: although, of course, a silence does not mean that a person does not suffer, yet Viktor is, for Bergman's film, dispensable; he is merely a "detached" narrator, a man playing a side role in the prominent story of a daughter who wants to be loved as she is, without questions and without judgments, without expectations and without bouts of enthusiasm and worry about her. She wants to live but be loved, but not be weighed down by love. Or the affected love - as that of her mother.

Autumn Sonata brings in one more very strange constant of Bergman's work: an old, cynical, intelligent man, a man who understands the world very well but is always a bit bored and wants to keep himself amused by a novelty (Stavrogin if you have read Dostoyevsky, Uncle Erland if you have seen that marvellous Bergman film Summer Interlude), who finds a new prey in a young girl, ready to believe and love, ready to adore and pray, a girl whose spirit is strong but who is what the world will call as naive (it is interesting that in a politically correct world, all the actual cruel words do keep on existing). I consider the Leonard-Helena happening as a complete byplot in the film: probably, in structural terms, it is even a defect; it distracts from the main body and that for a long time in a mere one-and-half-hour film. Yet, who will mind? To glimpse what goes in Bergman's mind, and what dark shadows lurk there, is more fascinating itself.

The question that Bergman never really asked openly - maybe he never got further to the pith, or somehow he just didn't want to - is not a mere rhetorical one, that why this? It is, rather, why the boredness? At the same stroke, Bergman, almost, attacks the religious institutions and glorifies God: in a world of thousand things and patterns to learn, or as Eva says in a world of many alternate realities than we can sense or know ever - God - there is the pew-sitting, there is the sacrament, and there is the choir - religion - someone instilling and instilling always inside us, as if we were mere cardboards, as if our desires and hopes were unclean, as if they were not enough to make us learn ourselves. Instead of trying to know the other realities, we don't even know ourselves - but run after a shining wax model erected by someone and told as desirable, all to protect us from our insecurities, a deus ex machina for the times that we are in doubt of us.

For, yes, we are doubters: and it is good that we are doubters. The inherent opposition between the concept of God and the idea of religion has probably never been so brilliantly put, excepting Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor. Brilliant acting performances, especially by Liv Ullmann, and a simple film with no editing tricks elevate Ingmar Bergman to a master story-teller: the one who touches hearts, who can feel oneself.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Ivanovo detstvo

Tarkovskiy's first feature, Ivanovo detstvo (int'l title: Ivan's Childhood), lacerates the viewer with pain, questions, and a moody silence: Kolya Burlyaev as the 12-year-old Ivan shows a maturity of acting skills unsurpassed and is the pulse of this wonderful film, another example of what a fine black-and-white film can achieve and how strange it is that poetry is felt when one watches beautiful cinematography in black and white.

As a film, a young director's flaws do come out and at times there is more intellect than heart, more the intention of sending out a message than an attempt to understand and explore the message oneself using the medium of a film this time: some of the dream sequences like the apples one and the final fantasy of all gathered in a paradise? seem imposed on the film, seem like tacked onto it. However, even the flaws of a genius are beautiful to watch or experience, and such foibles do not in any way take away from the rare thing that Ivan's Childhood is: a humane attempt to make sense of an insensible world, a struggle to not reject, to not give way to the easy method of denial of everything. This is where the stunning performance of Kolya as Ivan comes to the fore: his burning hatred not just provides him with the fodder to live on, and the will power for action, but it also would have led him to a more enlightened self, through which he knows himself, that what he is, who he is, and probably that there are differences between the what and the who.

The subplot of Masha seems like a complete early Ingmar Bergman film: however, it does seem unneeded to me in this film. There is little time already in a one-and-half-hour film to devote to Ivan; outside of his dreams and his hate-filled eyes, there is little to choose from, and had it not been the expressions on Kolya's face which are themselves a million stories, the viewer would have been stifled. Tarkovskiy gives glimpses of that rare ability that Resnais had, to play with time, but compared to the latter, he still is green. I did not like the voiceover at the end when Ivan's fate was revealed to the viewer: the voiceover is a simple trick but ungainly because in real life there are no voiceovers (sometimes, it is effective, but those are different sets of circumstances). It very much reminded me of an opening scene of the Hindi classic Saahib, Bibi aur Ghulam, where the discovery of some broken bangles by a civil engineer leads to the unravelling of a past, forgotten story (here, the discovery comes only at the end, but again the end of the protagonist can only be guessed at by the person who discovers the remains of a life lived passionately). Time, even though we see it as so separate, is so kneaded: why to use voiceovers and flashbacks to reinforce the notion that time is separate, divided into discrete periods? Considering the intention Tarkovskiy set out with, I felt the story betrayed, the boy betrayed. He looked for synthesis everywhere: his quest for justice and vengeance was nothing but a search for resolution. A resolution above all in time: the old man who has lost his wife, he himself who has lost his family, Russia whose future is uncertain and present black, and Siberia where time and space both seem to stand still, for even 200 or 2000 kilometres in Siberia is not far.