Author Archives: SR


Sudarshan Ramani

Resnais and Guillaume

Statues Also Die

One of the most beautiful pearls of observation on the nature of cinema comes from the great Alain Robbe-Grillet. An exceptional novelist and an extraordinary film-maker himself, he had written the film Last Year at Marienbad as a complete outsider, breaking rules screenwriters are supposed to follow, like not specifying camera placements and shot descriptions. On seeing the finished film, Robbe-Grillet noted that Alain Resnais did not divert in any significant form from his screenplay but somehow, the finished film was unmistakably a Resnais film, a great validation of Godard’s dictum in his notes on Contempt that anything filmed was automatically different from anything written.

It also describes Resnais’ style, invisible yet omnipresent. In his long career and lifetime, Alain Resnais has in the words of William Faulkner, “seen the first and the last”. He has worked with artists like Chris Marker, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Jorge Semprun, John Gielgud, Stephen Sondheim, Adolph Comden, Alyn Ayckbourn, Jean Cayrol, Hans Werner Henze, Jacques Sternberg, Henri Laborit. He also edited La Pointe courte, Agnés Varda’s first film. That gallery comprises the middle-of-the-20th Century, a meeting point of classicism, modernism and post-modernism which Resnais keeps blurring all the time, right to his later films.

Alain Resnais can best be understood as a “fellow traveler” to the French New Wave. He was a cinephile, he loved Hitchcock, Louis Feuillade and Jean Renoir yes, but unlike them, he was also far more generous to the pre-war French film-makers like Sacha Guitry, Jean Grémillon and Marcel L’Herbier. He also began making films a full decade before them. Here’s a fun fact, the only film by Alain Resnais to win an Oscar is the 1948 Van Gogh which won Best 2-Reel Documentary at the 1949 Academy Awards.

Before making his first feature, the landmark Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais already secured immortality by directing four of the greatest short films ever made in any language. Les Statues Meurent Aussi brought together Resnais, Chris Marker and cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, one of the most piercing films ever made about colonialism, one of the few Western films admired by Senegalese master Ousmane Sembène. Other masterpieces include the mesmerizing and wondrous, Toute le mémoire du monde (1956) on the National Library of France, and his happiest short La Chant du Styrène (1958), a film about the manufacture of polystyrene plastics, shot in delirious color with narration in rhyming couplets supplied by the legendary Raymond Queneau. His most famous short is Night and Fog (1955), a film about the Holocaust that gazes at the horror without flinching or yielding to sentimentalism and despair.

Resnais noted in an interview with Noel Burch that there were no fundamental differences between making shorts and features aside from the fact that short films were harder, required greater preparation and had more restrictions than the features. The films for which Resnais are best known for, and still his most influential work is Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961) which is closer to the style of his short films than any feature afterwards. Their constructions are more rigid and tightly knit than the films that followed.

Muriel ou le Temps d’un retour (1963) is perhaps a more important film from the standpoint of the development of Resnais’ career than Marienbad or Hiroshima Mon Amour. It is of course deeply political but the style is more eclectic. The theme of identity, the sense of the environment and the media structuring human consciousness, blurring our memories with our fantasies is achieved even more strongly in this film. This idea is developed in his later films, especially the epochal Stavisky…(1974) which recreates the period glamour and filigree of 30s only to locate death amidst the sunshine. With Stavisky being a tragic fraud who heralds the end of what Charles Boyer’s Baron describes with incredible emotion as “Biarritz-Bonheur”, a sign of a shop that he had only glimpsed once in passing but which to him describes the serenity, real or imagined, of the past.

Ultimately, Resnais’ films represent the most inspiring and optimistic bodies of work in film history because with each new major work, whether it’s Stavisky… or Providence (1977- A rare English-Language film with Dirk Bogarde and John Gielgud) to the impossibility that is Mon oncle d’Amérique (1980), he was constantly changing, discovering and shifting his style and approach, never resting in anything safe and conventional. The third phase of his career begins with Mélo (1986) and continued right until his recent triumphs of Pas sur la bouche (2003), Coeurs (2006), Vous n’avez encore rien vu (2012) and the film that has now become his final film, Aimer, boire et chanter (Life of Riley).

Like Antonioni and Bergman, Alain Resnais reinvented the cinema. Their passing along with Eric Rohmer, Danièle Huillet, Chris Marker, Claude Chabrol, Miklos Jansco and many others represents an apotheosis of cinema as the art of the 20th Century.

Only the Lonely: Ashim Ahluwalia’s ‘Miss Lovely’

Sudarshan Ramani

Niharika Singh in Miss Lovely

Niharika Singh in Miss Lovely

The trouble with being an original talent in Indian cinema is the sense of being in the wilderness, with no small patch of grass for the stray cow to graze in. When a movie that is truly original manifests itself in Indian cinema, a film like Miss Lovely where every cut is labored over, where the actors are directed with grace and subtlety and where the compositions have a visible consistency from beginning to end, you see the film and you don’t know what to make of it because there is literally no context to provide explanation for its very existence, a fact the film is very aware of.

The film’s opening is a thing of beauty. The credits highlight Ahluwalia’s fascination with patterns and textures, which is a recurring focus throughout the film, whether it’s the pale green textures of Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s shirt as he stretches across the frame when crossing down the aisle of a train or the interiors of the ceiling of a shady building, one of whose rooms is a repurposed film set.

The first scene is a movie-in-a-movie, a lame low-rent horror production that throngs the screens of shady theatres and whose posters and bills we recognize splattered across Bombay. Ahluwalia recreates the distinct look of these films with a deft touch. We recognize the faded color, the limited lighting but the clarity with which he presents this lends it a beauty that it otherwise would not have. The ghost when it appears is not scary, merely strange and unusual. The multiple exposures of the ghost as it descends down a staircase, a simple trick made beautiful in context.

The title Miss Lovely refers to a dream of a film. A dream that is disappointing and unfulfilling even when, especially when, it comes true, a failure that parallels the film’s success in succeeding to excavate beauty from the margins. The film portrays a world where the fulfillment of desire requires an engagement with the undesirable. In other words, the film’s subject is prostitution, one which in this film extends beyond selling your body or pimping the body of the woman you love but to prostituting your dreams, the ultimate obscenity.

The glimpses we get of sexuality in this film, the shooting of sex scenes for various softcore exploitation horror films often revolve on physical contact with the other. A “suhaag rath” has the bride tied down only to be fondled by a man with skin deformities, the rape of the beautiful by the ugly. Ahluwalia takes the standard premise of horror films, one common across the world, to create a rich ironic vision of desire and false promise, made ironic and painful for the hollowness of the thing pursued, in the case of Siddiqui’s Sonu, a feature film that will allow him to break out of the shadow of his brother Vicky(Anil George-wonderful performance) and make a movie star out of his discovery, Pinky (Niharika Singh).

Ahluwalia sets up Sonu’s doom at the beginning, a wonderful moment of insight where Sonu and Pinky “technically” meet in the train for the first time, where Sonu gazes at Pinky and we cut to Pinky feeling the gaze, looking at Sonu and then looking away. This moment is worthy of Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel, a film about mistaken glances and ignored gestures, to which this film would compare favorably. It also compares to the Ferrara film in keeping key moments of the action off-screen, we glimpse Sonu offering Pinky a part in his movie and the next we see her, she’s a dancer in a music number for a “mythological”. Similar key actions are elided throughout the film. The voiceover by Sonu is opaque, explaining little in terms of character motivation and milieu.

The narrative of the film moves at a very steady pace, which counterpoints and estranges the familiarity of the settings, the distinctive visual look of the film, which recreates the tacky fashions and faded color of prints of old Hindi color films. The film’s rhythm allows it to linger on visual textures, the scratchiness of old mirrors, the syncopated illumination of disco lights. The claustrophobia of the framing imprisons the actors, prevents us from fully seeing the action, like when Sonu and Pinky are dancing in a bar and people throng the foreground and background, making us preen our necks to gaze at them, which suggests so much strongly the complete lack of privacy of their world.

Miss Lovely is a film that builds up plot threads for several Bollywood movies even if the milieu it portrays, the now nearly finished industry of C-Grade movies (thanks to Internet porn), is shown with a lot of research to actual production conditions. We have a crime milieu, which goes far in rendering sympathy for Vicky, to his brother and his crew an Alpha Male sleazebag but in the actual scheme of things, far below the food chain to his gangster producers and distributors. Ahluwalia’s eye for clutter in the early scene where he’s beaten at broad daylight on the poolside where middle-class patrons look apathetically and embarrassedly at the action suggests his helpless plight. We have the romantic interlude between Sonu and Pinky where they kiss on a boat ride, this scene is shot with genuine sincerity that you forget that the former dreams to make her the “star” of his low-budget sleaze film. The denouement takes us into the space of melodrama with brothers against brother, the location a dirty shack to shoot a “blue film” and the chase sequence of guilty crook and self-righteous policemen shot with the sadistic enforcement of justice shown in countless Bollywood films.

Ashim Ahluwalia’s film is about its own loneliness, about its own lack of claim to any cinematic lineage. Its sense of lacking a sure ground to stand on is mirrored by the lives of his characters, who expend considerable energy for no reward and little honor. Its aesthetic energy and focus is all the more commendable for its refusal of even the tiniest commercial compromise. If Indian cinema is to have any future or release from the tacky dullness and insipidity of the mainstream than it is Ahluwalia’s film that best represents it today.

Mother of Exiles: James Gray’s ‘The Immigrant’

Sudarshan Ramani

Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix's hat in The Immigrant

Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix’s hat in The Immigrant

For Indians, immigrating to the States is a long investment in VISA applications, work permits and airfare, and a riffling through all the near and distant relatives or friends of relatives we might have in America to save cash on housing. It’s a highly expensive affair and as such restricted for the already middle-class who emigrate for education, money, or to seek flight from Indian society’s conservative nature. As such, the general myth of immigration in American culture that oppressed people from around the world could come to America and start a new life and new identity is something that’s alien to us, obsessed as we are with maintaining roots and links to a real or imagined ethnic identity.

For most of the people around the world, immigrating to the United States of America was the great quest of the 20th Century. A quest lionized in such masterpieces as King Vidor’s An American Romance, where Brian Donlevy’s Hungarian peasant with a few words in English ends up becoming a steel tycoon over fifty years. Elia Kazan’s America America makes this journey a picaresque epic to rival Xenophon’s Anabasis, the story of Kazan’s uncle who braved oppression in Anatolia, life as a dock labourer and the promise of a banal marriage to finally kiss the grounds on the shores of New York.

The definitive image is that of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, where young Vito Andolini is smuggled out of Sicily to America, where a birth register re-baptizes him Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro, Marlon Brando) after the village where he came from. This defined the immigrant, a man who in America was defined by his roots but who in America became greater than the feudal village he hailed from. The story of immigration so far has essentially been triumphant in tone, an enabling story of American promise for all the considerable ironies, caveats and qualifications put in by the film-makers. They have also, not coincidentally, been exclusively male-centered and heroic. These stories are magnificent triumphs of masculinity and male endurance, stories of the young boy turned American patriarch and founder of a new way of life.

This makes James Gray’s The Immigrant an exception.

Here the immigrant experience is redefined as feminine, with a distinct approach to survival and endurance. The earlier films were celebrations of ruthless will to power, of men who became hardened and cold and reserved in order to survive and make it through. This hardness is visible in Marion Cotillard’s Ewa who urges her sister to reign in her sickliness to pass through the line. But it is tempered by her genuine love and compassion for her sister’s plight, indeed her quest in the film is to rescue her sister and look after her. Ewa’s purity never dies despite becoming a prostitute and burlesque performer. A fact not lost on Bruno who falls in love with her even as he continues to pimp her. This same purity inspires the affection of Bruno’s cousin, Emile (Jeremy Renner) who calls himself Orlando the magician and shows promise of breaking out of the ghetto in which they live in.

Sternberg's The Salvation Hunters

Critics have followed the cue of James Gray in fixating the film as a return to the New Hollywood, not only Coppola but also Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller for its burnished period glow. But to me the film’s depiction of 1910s New York is closer to silent cinema. The opening sections on the boat naturally recall Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant but the strong depiction of poverty brings to mind Josef von Sternberg’s film debut, The Salvation Hunters (pictured above), much of which was shot on location in New York’s ghettos which the film recreates with limited means. Marion Cotillard’s Ewa is not exactly Dietrich or Georgia Hill, but in the scene where she pricks her finger and uses blood as lipstick and slaps her cheeks till they glow like make-up rouge (which leads to Jeremy Renner’s coup de foudre), she suggests the Sternberg theme of hard steel beneath flash and filigree.

The depiction of tenement life and the center of activity in Bandit’s Roost takes us to films made contemporaneously in the year of the film’s setting. 1912 was the year of D. W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley, the world’s first gangster film. A madam at the bar which Bruno operates out of complains about the popularity of the motion pictures, which takes away talent from vaudeville performers. The dynamic between the love triangle of Bruno, Ewa and Emile/Orlando is that of Fellini’s La Strada. That dynamic had previously informed Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and Joaquin Phoenix’s wide, round figure and hat, in addition to mental illness from time spent in prison makes him an American Franz Biberkopf, a tragic pimp who as Ewa notes, “brings people to sin but suffers on their behalf.”

The Immigrant is Ewa’s story, her awakening and survival in an America that only has room for the tough and ruthless. It’s a world where as a prostitute her clients include husbands, fathers, bankers and rich sons shaking their virginity. She won’t earn enough money as a seamstress to save her sister but “a lot of fucking” she is assured would lead her there. This makes her hate herself and her people, making her cold to her fellow prostitutes who rightly call her out for putting on airs over them. She lapses into Polish to rudely dismiss the complaints made by another streetwalker over her relationship with Bruno and Emile, only for her to reply back in Polish, taking her aback. It is to Gray’s credit that Ewa doesn’t gain a false toughness, rather he and Cotillard locates her resolve in her longing for their meadows back home(shown in a surprising dream sequence, cut with a bold freedom) and her faith in God.

It’s in this final aspect that The Immigrant becomes audacious. Ewa’s identity as a Catholic, her faith in God and yearning for absolution of her sins is contrasted by Bruno’s indifference. Bruno is a Jewish street kid who is always reminded of this by the police (they call him k-ke and beat him and take his money) when he crosses a line. Through these characters, Gray achieves an incredible synthesis between the Catholic and Jewish notion of suffering and forgiveness. Ewa’s wallowing in sin and compassionate nature leads her to forgive and even sympathize with Bruno while the latter has no illusions about himself and does the little good he does with no hope for succor or any possibility of reward. Ewa is an innocent, a madonna even when she is a whore while Bruno’s life is focused on the common Jewish experience of survival, exile and discretion.

Bringing them together allows Gray to redefine America’s immigrant experience as one of compassion, forgiveness and solidarity, a fitting public service in the present crackdown on illegal immigrants in America and also other parts of the world that continue to be hostile to migrants and expatriates. His perspective is feminine rather than masculine, communal rather than individual, which fits the famous poem by the poet Emma Lazarus (who was Jewish and New Yorker like Gray). This poem, inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty redefines the New Colossus as “the mother of exiles”, or in the contest of the film, a new Madonna of unconditional love for lost immigrants to the New World. Gray brings home the definition by crude means, where Ewa is dressed up as the star, “Lady Liberty” in Bruno’s burlesque show.

Gray fashions immigration into a myth of communal yearning for Catholic redemption measured against a reality of Jewish suffering and humiliation, which makes The Immigrant a special achievement in recent American cinema.

Feels so empty without me

Sudarshan Ramani

The phrase narcissism just doesn’t quite cut it anymore. I mean it’s rational to admire yourself, to listen to the waves in your brain and to love the sound of your voice. What does it say about a guy who gets turned on by his own reflection? That’s something quite beyond narcissism I’m afraid.

Indian movies abound with homoeroticism and subtext. And a movie with cars and bike chases lends itself to much phallic interplay. In these movies, we find that cars and bikes are as lovingly photographed as bikini models and indeed women are often photographed next to it as pleasure objects in films like The Fast and Furious and others. Dhoom 3 however avoids this. Katrina Kaif is in this film, but aside from a musical number where overalls become part of a stripper’s routine is quite beside the point. The real importance in this movie is Aamir Khan’s boobs and six pack and where this becomes creepy and disturbing is that there’s two pairs of it kept side by side with Aamir staring at himself with soulful eyes.

Indeed the end credits has the two Aamirs who after all is one Aamir doing all kinds of creepy palling around and blooper stunts. The end of the movie, and this is spoilers, has the two Aamirs who the narrative tells us are twin brothers, one retarded, one not-so, with the retarded one the lover of Katrina Kaif choosing to sacrifice himself Thelma And Butch Cassidy style over a damn as they eye-fuck each other to the bottom. I mean this is absurdity beyond Ionesco.

It takes a kind of talent I suppose, to put this across, with a straight face. The two Aamirs are told apart by the retarded one’s shtick of stuttering phrases, bug-eyed leer and angled left lip quiver, going in Ben Stiller’s phrase, full retard. The main guy played by Aamir is a classic narcissist conman operator who can afford to live in a loft in Chicago and afford fancy equipment while still pretending to be some robin hood robbing from a guy called Warren Anderson(ooh…political subtext…so cute!). At least the Joker in The Dark Knight, which this movie robs from, pointed out that all his gimmicks cheap and he sells it well. So that’s about all there is to say there.

MAMI 2013: 3x3D, Godard’s Les trois desastres

Sudarshan Ramani

3x3D is an anthology film which as a rule tend to be mixed affairs with wild variations of quality. Even by these dubious standards, 3x3D is a real shocker. The pearl is obviously Jean-Luc Godard’s Les trois désastres. But the ones preceding it range from the irritatingly smug (who else? Peter Greenaway) to Edgar Pera’s marrow chilling dreck. Those attending the festival, hoped that Godard’s film would play first, so that they can attend that and The King of Comedy, with which it had a short overlap. The producers outmoved us on that front, placing Godard at the end. The result isn’t fruitful because the poor quality by the earlier two shorts took away from the grandeur of Godard’s dirge.

What for some is three dimensions is for Godard three disasters. This short film uses digital video of various kinds as well as film clips to create a poetic assemblage bridged by Godard’s voice.

Godard’s voice, a big part of his films – beautiful, soft as a whisper in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, and still filled with spirit in Notre Musique – sounds uncomfortably frail in this film. The words come out with more audible strain, and at one point, a webcam close-up of Godard speaking (just his mouth), we feel something strange and sad. The film peruses the history of the 20th Century and that of cinema which as Godard has repeatedly pointed out, is nearly the same thing. We see clips from classic films, Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible and also a clip of Eisenstein speaking in English, in addition to this these are clips from Orson Welles’ The Tragedy of Othello and MacBeth. In addition to this there are scenes from contemporary 3D films including Paul WS Anderson’s The Three Musketeers. In-between we see a clip of a dog in the countryside where Godard says, “Voici le conté a dit par le chien…” which may or may not be an anticipation for his 3D feature Adieu a langage.

What makes the film heartbreaking is this haunting phrase, “My life is full of dead people, and deadest of all, is the boy I once was.” The invocations to the film-makers of the past, touchstones like Nicholas Ray(introduced with a clip from the end of They Live by Night and Peggy Lee singing “Johnny Guitar”), Eisenstein, Ford, Lang and Welles is not exactly a lament or nostalgia. It’s almost an acknowledgment of defeat, that the celebration of a kind of cinema he championed no longer has value in the age of “the professor of Titanic”. Godard’s deployment of 3D is more subtle rather than obvious, for him 3D is about the expansion of space, which he discusses in geometric terms, and expresses visually in the swivel of three dices.

Yes, Godard does play dice with the universe.

MAMI 2013: Stray Dogs/Tsai Ming-liang

Sudarshan Ramani

Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times has an incredible sequence that is perhaps not talked about as often as other sequences in that movie. It happens when the Tramp and Paulette Goddard are on the road and they pass by a billboard advertising a middle-class family life. The film presents a dream sequence where the poor couple enact the roles of the bourgeois life. Then in reality, the tramp and Goddard find an awful hovel of a house which they claim as their home and they then act out their dream roles in the reality of that hovel which they pretend is an upscale modern house with amenities. In a simple contrast, Chaplin suggests a great deal about the experience of poverty. It is one thing to suggest and another to show, that job is taken up by Tsai in this film.

Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs presents that same contrast and persistence in his film. There are few films which deal with the matter-of-factness of poverty as Tsai’s film does. A poor family bathe and wash their kids in public restrooms, they eat poorly and subsist barely scrounging around the city and relieve themselves of urine and excrement publicly. Tsai never dials down or explains the poverty, though the dialogue makes references to the Tsunami with echoes of the financial crisis. In one amazing sequence, Lee Kang-sheng, breaks in a rich and wealthy house and squats there for the night, wearing a suit and pant and sleeping happily and restfully for the first time, free from his family obligations to his children. The film is full of surprises, especially an incredible fade-out to black that forms the start of the film’s astonishing coda.

Stray Dogs is said to be Tsai’s last film. He has announced a retirement from making feature films at least. If so, it’s a dark and haunting note to leave on. I hope he sticks around longer. If only for Lee Kang-sheng’s sake, who gives a great performance despite having very little dialogue and plot to create a character. There are very few films as mysterious as this.

MAMI 2013: The Canyons | Paul Schrader

Sudarshan Ramani

Lindsay Lohan in The Canyons

Indian audiences know Paul Schrader as the man who wrote Taxi Driver, which is a bit like praising Buster Keaton for being the Marx Brothers’ best gag writer. Ranking among the best of the most marginalized American auteurs, Schrader has nonetheless had great cultural impact as a screenwriter – not only Taxi Driver, but other films with Scorsese (Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing Out the Dead), and other directors (The Mosquito Coast for Peter Weir, The Yakuza for Sydney Pollack, Obsession for Brian DePalma, and the early draft for Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind). As a director, Schrader is different from all of them, especially from Martin Scorsese. His works are more playful, sly in its parody of narrative and genre, and in dealing with sex and especially in portraying it, he has one over his great collaborator.

Never a critics’ darling, Schrader’s The Canyons nonetheless attracted the worst notices of his career, the American press, no doubt distracted by the star Lindsay Lohan’s off-screen behavior, savaged the film. Some of the local audience, expecting another Taxi Driver from a man with a forty year directing career had their own separate feelings of disappointment, though the response seems to have been favorable on the whole. Indeed the film played to a full house. Shot in digital, Paul Schrader’s film could make a neat double bill with Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, dealing as it does with the politics behind the making of a film and the blurring between fictional and real. Where Hellman dealt with independent film production, Schrader’s film is set in what can be described as whatever’s left of Hollywood that runs these days.

The Hollywood we see in this film is glamorous and consumerist, yes, but it feels like a dilapidated ghost town filled with dead movie theatres(which plays over the opening and end credits and in the inter-titles that mark the progression of days). Lindsay Lohan’s Tara asks Amanda Brooks’s character during lunch, “Do you like movies? When was the last time you liked seeing a movie in the theatre?” She responds by discussing a premiere she attended but Terra quickly corrects her, “Premieres don’t count.” The thrill is gone as the song goes. This is ironic because The Canyons is suffused with “movieness”, which Schrader, who started as a film critic, is very aware of and which he treats with a great deal of humor.

The “movieness” becomes obvious in the shot of Lindsay Lohan, clad in hat and glasses walking down Los Angeles – this moment is shot like a documentary because Schrader foregrounds the fact that the actress is Lindsay Lohan herself, the setting and shots is not different from many of the promos on tabloid channels. Lindsay Lohan’s casting as a young and confused actress who is not excited by movies obviously suggests her off screen tabloid profile. This self-reflexivity extends to the film collaboration between auteur-actresses which the film variously suggests – Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, Godard and Anna Karina, and, closest to home, Sternberg and Dietrich whose collaborations, dealing with morally compromised women and men engaging in sexual power-plays, finds many echoes in this story.

The Canyons is an incredibly intricate story. We never lose sight of the characters and their movements in the course of the short stretch in which the film takes place. Indeed the theme of surveillance, the presence and use of cell phones and social media websites which this film accurately engages with, makes it impossible for people to truly stay out of sight. The characters openly discuss the lack of private life, but the film differs from other films in the approach to this fact of 21st century life. The lack of privacy extends even to intimate moments, the running theme in this film is the false, artificial dialogue where characters try to get each other to confess to some secret which they then report to a higher power. This paranoia is enshrined as the primary means of communicating messages, something which even Ryan(Nolan Funk), the closest to a “good guy”, indulges in. Within this, the only one with some sort of purity is Lindsay Lohan’s Tara, who is the one being spied on and reported to by the people around her.

Yet Tara is herself a fascinating creation. There are few morally compromised yet emotionally compelling character roles for actresses these days, and Lindsay Lohan explores her with relish and authority. She is alternatively innocent and narcissistic, bitchy and doe-like and also impressively cruel, as in the film’s orgy scene(a kind of homage to Donald Cammell’s Performance) when she forces her boyfriend to receive oral sex from a man, triggering his breakdown with an amazing close-up to her cruel smile as neon lights strobe around her. In an article for Film Comment, Schrader compared her to Marilyn Monroe for being incapable to not be herself at any given time, an actress who gives everything to all her film roles and her life. It’s a shame that Lohan seems to have backed away from promoting this film, it’s a role that few actresses ever get and even fewer can actually play.

You Only See What We Show You

Sudarshan Ramani 

You’re watching movies trying to find the feelers,
You only see what we show you. – The Who, The Punk and the Godfather

There is a lot of misunderstanding it seems to me about Woody Allen refusing to release Blue Jasmine in India. Or rather, the context of the importance of this decision.

For quite some time now viewing standards of movies in Indian culture have steadily declined, not only in the theatres but also on television. When I say viewing standards have declined I am implying that there used to be an acceptable stage when things were okay. The answer is yes and no. As Laya Maheshwari writes in his diligent article on indiewire (a leading online resource on international and independent film production), the viewing of English films on commercial runs in India was always a mixed basket. Intervals, prized by theatre owners to sell snacks would interrupt a film for which no intermission was made. In addition to this Indian audiences only received a small portion of good quality Hollywood releases in a given year with the more risqué and unusual films coming to television rather than theatre and even there in censored form.

In the 90s to early 21st century, the rules played fair in that it was a logical and consistent extension of Indian society’s conservativism. No f-words (even in a TV screening of Raging Bull, its dialogues re-edited to elide all four-lettered words, it’s actually quite skillfully done), little to no nudity and some restrictions of violence. The rules as always are hypocritical and two-faced as censor laws are wont to be. For instance violence in Hindi films (which tends to be bloody, gory and brutal in its action scenes) and risqué scenes of questionable spirit were given free passes, while relatively tasteful and authentic depictions of the same by American releases were censored.

Indian films avoided facing the the axe as long as a) They toed the line, b) the context and the content wasn’t politically charged.

Censorship of movies and poor choice of quality content naturally led to the prevalence of piracy which is a casual part of everyday life in India. Sure people liked to see a movie for free, but what they liked even more was seeing a movie with no intermission, no censorship and its integrity uncompromised. Outside of a film festival, moviegoers are not likely to find this at the big screen in any multiplex or an old-fashioned single screen exhibiting a film in a commercial run. While there are other factors that lead to piracy, a great reason for this occurrence is the total decline of mainstream viewing experiences. Many of the existing policies, such as anti-smoking commercials, national anthems before screenings (which by the way is only native to Mumbai, a supposedly liberal city), only curtail these experiences even further. Policies which are consequences of the arcane censorship laws that throttle Indian cinema.

So who is to blame for this? The CBFC? The Indian government? The Anti-Smoking Lobby? Sure, but the final responsibility has to rest with Indian film-makers themselves, the prime beneficiaries of the majority of India’s box-office surplus, who, select exceptions notwithstanding, continue to make films under whatever new absurd rules and requirements sent their way.

The truth is that censorship across the history of cinema has always been combated by film-makers asserting their rights as artists, rather than waiting in line to be handed to them. American law enshrined cinema as an artform after a legal case surrounding Roberto Rossellini’s controversial film The Miracle. Within Holllywood, censorship was gradually eroded by the persistent efforts of film-makers like Otto Preminger whose Anatomy of a Murder remains startling for its dramatization of a rape trial. The generation to which Woody Allen belonged to included transgressive works by Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni and films such as Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris.

These film-makers saw themselves as artists set on depicting life as it is and allowed themselves full freedom of imagination in realizing their vision. In India, around the same period, Satyajit Ray stepped on some toes with Devi, a film which raised the ire of Hindu fundamentalists for its ironic vision of religious experience, while Ritwik Ghatak’s Komal Gandhar ran afoul of political thugs who sabotaged its commercial run. Central to a film-maker’s resistance against censorship is the assertion of his or her identity as an artist with a vision unblemished by local dictates.

Woody Allen’s generation was the age of the auteur. The period where critics like Andrew Sarris and others imported the French “politique des auteurs” as the American “auteur theory” which argued that the director was the central unifying force of a film. This obvious truth upset many in America and didn’t extend to actual legal protection as it does in France, where the droits d’auteur allows film-makers to own actual copyright of the work. But it did help in introducing the concept of “final cut” where certain film-makers were allowed to have the final deciding voice on the editing of a film, a courtesy absent in classical Hollywood. Woody Allen’s first credited work as a director, What’s Up Tiger Lily?, was disowned by Allen because he did not have final cut at the time. He enjoys this right on every film which follows. Understanding this context explains and clarifies the statement by his publicist that states, “Due to content in the film, it cannot be shown in India in its intended manner. Therefore, the film [Blue Jasmine] is not scheduled to play there.”

Reactions in India have included several statements from Indian film industry professionals such as Milan Luthria and Shoojit Sircar issuing their commiserations for Woody Allen’s decision as well as admiration for his stance. But the truth is that it was a natural decision to take for a film-maker persistent in maintaining his artistic integrity over forty years of professional experience. The real fight has to extend away from the fairly pointless debate on the effectiveness of anti-smoking ads as stated in the unintentionally hilarious “open letter” to Woody Allen by Dr. Pankaj Chaturvedi, or smoking in general.

Industry professionals are fully aware that cigarette smoke fuels their productions. No production unit in India is bereft of piles of stray cigarette cartons. They live the truth that Indians and people around the world, will keep smoking, fully aware of the health hazards it might and might not cause, regardless of any gory message given to them. It is with this awareness that many of them step forward to argue against this stupid law. But despite this, the fact remains that Indian cinema accepts the reality of censorship, and persists in operating in conditions that represses radical freedom of expression.

Indeed, the cynical justifications for such practices are already making the rounds. Rajeev Masand, the film reviewer for CNN-IBN is also a member of the censorship board. Ostensibly a man aware of film aesthetics and the history of auteurism, he nonetheless takes the path of rational pragmatism by asserting, “If Indian filmmakers have accepted it, even if reluctantly, the others can’t say that they won’t follow the rules. Every country has its own terms for acceptability. If Mr. Allen was showing the film in China, he would have had to take out any instances of nudity. You can’t be arrogant.”

This statement by Mr. Masand seemingly implies that while Indian screens are intolerant of smoking, they are tolerant of nudity on screens. A revolution that missed me and the vast majority of Indian moviegoers I would believe. Furthermore, as repressive as China is in its laws of freedom of expression, major film-makers like Jia Zhangke continue to challenge and assert their own artistic vision. The same cannot be said of the world’s largest democracy where by and large film-makers – producers, directors, screenwriters, actors and technicians – , have never mounted significant pressure to challenge and mitigate censorship laws in India.

Woody Allen will go on making a film a year for the foreseeable future. His present form has produced some of the richest and most exciting films of the last decade, with masterworks like Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream and Midnight in Paris and underrated poetic works like To Rome With LoveYou’ll Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, Whatever Works. Some of these movies played in India before and Match Point is a cult favorite among the college crowd, quite a few of whom anticipated the release of Blue Jasmine in India. This experience probably bodes ill for the release of future Woody Allen films in India, and also sets a precedent for other film-makers with a similar uncompromising stance on creative control. External shame might solve the immediate problem of smoking ads during a screening but the long term goal of preventing silly laws such as this and others from having effect has to be taken up by Indian film-makers themselves.




“It’s curtains for everyone…”

Sudarshan Ramani

“Color can do anything that black-and-white can.” – Vincente Minnelli.

“Red and green…[André] Derain died last fall in a hospital. You wouldn’t know who he was.”
“It happens I do! … A French painter. One of Les Fauves!”

“He died in a hospital…in a white bed, in a white room – doctors in white standing around – the last thing he said was ‘Some red…show me some red. Before dying I want to see some red and some green.’

The Cobweb is one of the stranger films of the 50s. The 50s being a strange period for American cinema overall, this is no mean achievement. The simple plot of this gothic-inspired drama is a bureaucratic tussle on the style of living room drapes in the common room of the Castlehouse Clinic for Nervous Disorders, which is the principal setting of this film. The film is identifiable today as a kind of proto-Altman ensemble film of multiple characters forming a mosaic of interlinked vignettes which form a larger tapestry. The film marks the first of Vincente Minnelli’s melodramas, a series of films that included later triumphs like Some Came Running, Home from the Hill, Lust for Life, Two Weeks in Another Town as well as smaller films like Tea and Sympathy, The Sandpiper, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father and also the musical, Bells Are Ringing which fits more easily with his melodramas than films like The Band Wagon or The Pirate.

Of course the divide between the melodramas and the musicals is not entirely tenable. For one thing The Cobweb resembles Meet Me in St. Louis to a great degree. It shares with that film the DP George Folsey and like that film it attempts to portray a community instead of a few individuals. It shares with that film also an examination of childhood anxieties – it has a fascination for the grotesque that is anticipated in the famous Halloween sequence of Meet Me in St. Louis. Minnelli re-invented the musical with that film which was also his first in colour . With The Cobweb, he discovers CinemaScope, a crucial addition to his apparatus. The movement of the actors in this film, the fluidity of the tracking shots and the many extended takes also share much in common with the way Minnelli shoots musical numbers in Meet Me in St. Louis. Add that to the plot revolving around who gets to decide the new drapes in the library room and it’s easy to imagine how The Cobweb could be a musical. Minnelli of course plays it straight and serious and the film is all the more audacious for the fact that this serious approach works pretty well.

Perhaps the source for The Cobweb comes from Minnelli’s stated interest in adapting Maxim Gorky’s classic play The Lower Depths. This play is famous for its French adaptation by Jean Renoir(Les bas-fonds, 1936) and the dark, unremittingly bleak version by Akira Kurosawa (Donzoko, 1957). Minnelli stated, about the Gorky story, “I think there is beauty in that kind of squalor”. The play is set in a relief shelter about an underclass maintaining their spirit by falling into illusions of phony escape. The shelter of The Cobweb is considerably better furnished at least from the outside (John Kerr’s character Stevie says at one point, “you should see it from the inside…like the inside of a dead fish”). Yet one can say that the inner lives of these characters are squalid, showing how little financial stability, education, knowledge and material provide actual comfort and stability. Like Fassbinder’s 70s melodramas, they appear to simply direct people to more sophisticated traps.

This is of course a common Minnelli theme. One befitting that of a man who started as a designer of window displays before moving on to designing some of the most beautifully staged and most deeply felt musicals of all time. Minnelli’s films feature the conflict between surfaces and reality, the persistence of all kinds of illusions and the way they affect and determine the lives of his characters. One can say of course that this is the common theme of all film-makers, in some way or some form. What makes Minnelli so suited to this theme is the way his mise-en-scène is able to bring out this conflict. 

The way for instance that a decent upstanding father like Richard Widmark, tries to comfort his young son who is a troubled witness to his parents’ crumbling marriage. A simple scene of Widmark closing the lights reveals the darkness in the house, transforming the good father into a menacing figure.

A drama that deals with characters that have knowledge and experience of the functioning (or malfunctioning) of human behaviour has to create its own brand of tension. Minnelli plays this tension in the unusual casting of the film. Richard Widmark brings a great amount of pathos and vulnerability to his tough, dependable, and responsible psychiatrist. Charles Boyer who could have easily played the Widmark role in his younger years but what he plays is Douglas Devanal, a bloated a bloated self-parody, suggesting at times a quite despair that makes his character affecting, despite being, seemingly, the designated villain. When later in the film, Minnelli cuts to an insert of the title of Devanal’s thesis, it amounts to a statement of the film’s aesthetic manifesto.

The Cobweb is about characters being affected by their surroundings. The patients, John Kerr’s Stevie for instance is so powerfully sensitive that the slightest change triggers a breakdown. But the doctors are no less affected, involved as they are in their petty disputes and small grudges over the greater good of the clinic. Even the hero, Stewart McIver isn’t exempt from this “cobweb”. The Cobweb is in effect an anti-horror film. That is to say, rather than manufacture a frightening milieu that unites a group, a unit or a family to stave off an external threat, the film creates milieus – the clinic, the homes of the staff, which reveals the horror inside the very unit, group and family with no external threat to provide ready-made solutions to their conflicts. The decor does not express the emotions and tensions of the group, it rebounds and reflects the tensions on to the people who are unaware of their traps.

Kathleen Byron(Black Narcissus, left), Gloria Grahame (The Cobweb, right)

The film that resembled The Cobweb most is Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. A film about a group of nuns trying and failing to establish a mission in the Himalayas, only to find the surroundings, sensual and beautiful and lush, opposed to their restrictive way of life. They in turn find themselves alienated from their own convictions throughout the course of the film.

The Cobweb focuses on a more subtle and everyday kind of alienation, but the manner in which the psychologists try and remain strong for their patients is challenged by their own failings and weaknesses in their personal lives. And of course Gloria Grahame, right before the key climax when she changes the drapes without warning like a thief in the night – is transparently channelling Kathleen Byron(image left).

A Short Discourse on Fake Happy Endings…

Douglas Sirk is the great German fim émigre, who made some of the most successful Hollywood melodramas of the 50s. This included Imitation of Life which remained the top grossing film for Universal Studios until 1970’s Airport. Some of his films, A Time to Love and A Time to Die was praised by Jean-Luc Godard in Cahiers du Cinéma. Nevertheless it came as a surprise when the publication of Sirk on Sirk(edited by Jon Halliday) and other interviews published around this time revealed Sirk to be a serious intellectual. One who thought deeply about the effects of his films, and moreover conscious of the traditions of narrative expectations and its operating ironies. This along with the championing by great 70s Punk Ironist Rainer Werner Fassbinder, led to a greater degree of awareness of what we now call “the fake happy ending”, the shallow, fake promise of restoration and order in Old Hollywood movies that is about as convincing, on reflection, as the closing speech in Shakespeare’s MacBeth. 

Sirk’s inspiration was the great Euripides, arch-parodist of the Deus-Ex-Machina. His plays, as per Aristotle in his Poetics exemplified the worst, most obvious and least convincing endings in tragedy. Which is in fact the point of the “fake happy ending”, to be obvious, direct to a fault and unconvincing. The great mode is ironic, a tradition rich in Europe but not as much in America, at least in Sirk’s opinion. The fake happy endings of Sirk are actually fairly direct, especially the case in the bitter near-Chekhovian There’s Always Tomorrow, with its nasty, ringing, final lines sounding like it was uttered by the most bullying of all heavenly cherubs. In fact, the only way one could truly appreciate Sirk’s films emotionally, that is relate to the characters, is to engage with its ironies which are dramatic and painful.

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) – A toy-maker(Fred MacMurray) has the same freedom as his creations.

Even the most touching of happy endings, the most convincing shall we say, contain within itself a sense of futility. We see this in Vincente Minnelli’s wonderful Meet Me in St. Louis. Meet Me in St. Louis is a musical with a deftly paced vignette style narrative where the main “plot” of the family moving to New York doesn’t come in until a hour into the film. The main focus of the film is the coming of age of the daughters, with the eldest (Judy Garland) finding love with the boy next door and the youngest Tootie (the unforgettable Margaret O’Brien) in thrall to the heightened world of discovery that exemplifies childhood and most visible in the film’s Halloween sequence. Her imagination is so great that the powerful moment where she dramatically destroys the snowmen registers as especially heartbreaking, suggesting a child killing her childhood. At the end of the film, the father decides not to go to New York and stay in St. Louis and the girls attend the famous World’s Fair, but the film’s focus on growing up, on attacking childhood suggests only a momentary delay of the deeper problem. On the film’s DVD introduction, Liza Minnelli, daughter of director Vincente and actress Judy Garland notes that her parents met during the making of this film and at the end she suggests, with a tone of wistfulness, that the reason why the film is so successful is that “we would all like to have a family like that.”

A more notable unhappy happy ending is another film by Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz. The revelation that Oz was a dreamland and dreary, drab Kansas the reality which Dorothy accepts for all time and which she seemingly prefers to vibrant, magical Oz. Salman Rushdie in his BFI Monograph fulminated against this ending as a conservative Hollywood cop-out where happy, multi-cultural Oz was somehow considered inferior to drab, rural Kansas. In fact, one rumour about the film is that many audiences remember seeing a version of the film where the final shot of the film shows Dorothy in sepia-brown walking, back to audiences, with ruby red slippers. I am not entirely keen to dismiss this rumour because when I first saw The Wizard of Oz on TV as a small child, I remember distinctly seeing the film ending like this . The second viewing on TV, years later I might add, showed otherwise but my memory and powers of recollection are fairly good, nigh-eidetic, in fact.*21a7Q5cVmmTA11JpI*u7Tbmb4b-BLX3g8RnkGOcK0ynlhV618nhABZnZy5jWhPSFjOAbhg/rat.jpg

The Departed (2006) – “The rat symbolizes obviousness…” truer words were never spoken.

The wistful longing and false promise of Happy Endings is the subject of a grand spectacular music number in Martin Scorsese’s New York New York (1977), which Robert DeNiro’s character jokingly dismisses as “sappy endings”. He himself chases his own version, which he calls, “Major Chords”(the name of his cool night-club at the end of the film), mocked in turn by Liza Minnelli, who dedicates the title song song to her friend who’s “a great believer in major chords”, right before her performance. Famously, according to myth or legend, George Lucas told Scorsese that the film would be a success if it had a happy ending and then the film opened in the same week as Star Wars. Scorsese wouldn’t supply a sarcastic finish in the high-Sirk tradition until the last scene of The Departed, where a belated God in Track Pants, and the most perfectly placed rat in film history finishes a film whose main point is the absence of any driving moral force to barter justice. This finale thereby suggests a world so corrupt that the film itself cannot escape what it decries. A far cry from the genuinely tragic Casino and the mock-heroic Goodfellas which remain triumphs free of compromise.

So, the important question of happy endings is whether the film-maker is able to offer sufficient resistance or critique and place it into bold relief so as to(in the case of Sirk and Fassbinder) enable the audience to neither demand or ask for such hollow denouements in the first place.

Sirk has the final word: “In tragedy the life always ends. By being dead, the hero is at the same time rescued from life’s troubles. In melodrama, he lives on — in an unhappy happy end.”