Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cold cuts and Warm Blood

Let the Right One In

At the time of penning this analysis, I am afflicted by that most common, but nevertheless irritating of annoyances – the indefatigable common cold and its accompanying man Friday of sorts, the fever. Viral or influenza, the doctor alone can tell. She diagnosed it as a respiratory tract infection. Upper, thankfully. While the illness does the best in its capacity to reduce me to a lump of flesh and bones conveniently confined to the perimeter of my bed, I do my bit in breaking its spell by pretending to be on a creative or artistic high. One of my friends remarked that I seemed to be in a jolly good mood while chatting on the instant messenger. Maybe, I was just reveling in the joy of idling my time at home on a workday that would have otherwise been spent at the office.

This minor affliction however, inspired me to fire up my laptop and sing high praises of a Swedish movie that I recently had the good fortune to have watched. Let the Right One In (2008)a brilliant feature by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson was one of those titles that lay gathering dust  in my bewilderingly diverse collection of DVDs. They were all being queued up for screening on a momentous occasion. I had tried watching the film once before and my DVD player acted like a thorough spoilsport. Thankfully, I’d just about seen the opening credits when the player got stuck.

Had I reached a crucial juncture in the film and been subjected to this misery, I might have lost any interest in pursuing the film further. This time around, it was a single-sitting accomplishment that was so memorable, I’d felt like including it in my blog. Now, like every other idiot, I went about reading the synopsis of the film, which reveals a crucial plot point right in the opening lines. As someone imparting the high point of watching this film, I’d ideally prefer not falling into that category of spoilers who mess up your viewing experience.

So, let me warn you right away – please go watch the film. This blog post contains no plot giveaways or spoilers. But I’d still want you to take my word for it and go watch the film and come back here. You’d thank me for it once you’re done watching the film. For the rest of you who’d still want to read ahead, do so at your own risk. If I were you, I’d take those words seriously. For, nothing can prepare you for the experience that comes in the aftermath of this film. You’ll be staring into space, gobsmacked, elevated and heartbroken – all at once.

So let’s move in for the kill. Let the Right One kicks off more or less in exactly the same fashion that most European art house flicks do. You are confronted by an icy cold cityscape, desolate and lifeless to the point of despair. Maybe it’s my ignorance of world cinema, but European filmmakers do tend to eroticize the forbidding austerity of their great outdoors. There’s usually nothing great to look at. Or at least nothing new to look at – it’s the same old dreary North Block urban housing projects, painted uniformly in shades of grey and brown or snow capped peaks extending beyond an infinite horizon.

The people, you might be tempted to assume, are as cold as the weather. But no, you’d be mistaken if you took that stereotype too seriously. It’s the film making aesthetic that benefits from the depiction of European countries as this colorless, frigid and unloving patch of landmass. The reality might be, or rather is certainly, far from it. I got to experience this reality check quite early in the film, when a character that we shall refer to as the Caretaker for the purpose of this analysis, is seen seated at a diner in the vicinity of his apartment.

Allow me to digress. One of the many joys of cinema, and maybe storytelling in general, is to be at times, ahead of a character (s) with regard to the understanding of other players in the drama. In simple words, there are points in a film, when we know so much more about a character than those who have the fortune or misfortune of running into him or her. Maybe this is what the creators refer to as the process of building tension. Let me illustrate this with an unrelated example. I use the term 'unrelated' very loosely as film buffs might find thematic similarities between the examples mentioned and the film in question.

Consider the character of Anton Chigurh. The mysterious assassin is played to horrifying effectiveness by Javier Bardem in the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel No Country for Old Men. His character of a remorseless, cold blooded murderer is established early in the film when he disposes off a gentleman on the highway using a cattle gun. Now as we have been introduced to Chigurh, we find ourselves anticipating a grisly killing every time he makes an appearance on screen.

This pretty much harkens back to the character arcs of serial killers like Jason or Freddy Kruger in slasher films like Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street. (Oh, there’s your killer. Oh, there’s the hapless victim. Oh no, too late). It’s cut and dry and that’s all there is to it. But then, the Coen Brothers do something different, thanks in no small measure to the economy of prose employed by McCarthy in his novel. Chigurh doesn’t behave like your average, run of the mill psychopath devoid of any concrete motivation.

Javier Bardem takes no prisoners as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men

Chigurh goes the beyond the call of duty by imbuing his personality with a dependence on providence. When he enters that shanty little convenience store that plays host to his most memorable line from the film, “Call it, Friendo,” we are expecting a blaze of carnage – as raw, brutal and unforgiving as Chigurh’s persona allows him to be. Instead, Chigurh confounds us all by engaging the ageing storekeeper with a conversation that chills us to the bone.

Chigurh tells the storekeeper at the checkout counter that a coin, which he is about to flip, will decide the fate of the storekeeper, whether he lives or dies. He further tells the storekeeper that everything the storekeeper has done in his life, up to this point in time has led him to the coin. In fact, the coin has been waiting for the storekeeper since God knows how long. This reminded me of the words of Aron Ralston, the mountaineer who inspired the Danny Boyle film 127 Hours starring James Franco in the lead.

Aron had to amputate his own arm to escape what would have otherwise been a slow, painful and inevitable death. Having trapped himself between a boulder and a rock face deep in the canyons, Aron was forced to make the excruciatingly traumatic decision of severing his right arm and climb his way to life and freedom. At the end of that film, Aron remarks that the boulder that had trapped him in the canyon was waiting for him his whole life.

In a strange way, it seemed like Anton Chigurh’s and Aron Ralston’s statements, made under very different contexts shared some common ground. It hinted at the presence of a force of nature that was hurtling objects, circumstances and people towards each other. Like a group of weightless, autonomous but powerless particles floating in suspended animation inside an invisible centrifuge spinning around with programmed precision. Much like how the Earth spins around the Sun with all its inhabitants and the baggage that they are born with and accumulate over the course of their lives.

It also reminded me of the tagline of the film Crash (2004), which was so poignant in its brevity. It said, “Moving at the speed of life, we are bound to collide into each other.” It got me thinking, if we’re all spinning in the same direction, sooner or later, one of us is destined to meet up with the other at some point of time in our lives. Considering the average human lifespan and our tendency to change tracks every now and then, it might seem like a tall order – running into people time and again, and destiny catching up with you. But believe me, it does happen.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re left wondering by now, where all this mumbo jumbo is going. I’d love to pull the rug from under your feet and retort with glee, “Nowhere!” But I guess I’m too much of a softie to do that. There is a point after all, to these allegedly pointless musings. Pardon my attention deficit disorder, but I believe it helps make these posts even more fun – not for the reader, but for me.

Coming back to the matter at hand, we were speaking about being ahead of the curve when it comes to characters in a film. With Anton Chigurh, the audiences knew they were faced with the presence of a relentless killing machine. It’s an altogether different scenario for the hapless storekeeper (I hope you still remember him). Sure enough, Chigurh did look a little intimidating with that ridiculous hairdo, but the storekeeper had no reason to believe that Chigurh came with murderous intent.

Clearly, the director duo of No Country… was toying with the audience’s expectations, manipulating them while at it. Why I chose to spend your valuable time expounding on the merits of character development with help from Anton Chigurh, while discussing Let the Right One In, will become clear in a moment. In the Swedish film, which I consider one of the most transcendent movie-going experiences in recent times, a principal character, the Caretaker is seen seated at a lone table in a diner close to his apartment. He has a no-nonsense demeanor and expects to finish his meal without being disturbed.

Now, seated in the same restaurant is a group of friends, comprising a woman and a few men, all in their late 40s, some whose lives will be changed forever by their interaction with an individual related to the Caretaker. The group notices the Caretaker sitting quietly in a corner of the diner finishing his meal. And they whisper among themselves if they should invite him over to the table.

I, for one, was pleasantly charmed by this one scene. And with good reason too. You see, I was always under the impression, or for lack of a better phrase, perpetually nurturing the misconception that the climate prevalent in the Scandinavian nations or other regions of Europe reflected in the actions or motivations of the characters in these films. I bought into the prevalent stereotype of European realism or fatalistic pessimism that had become a trademark of many such films from the region.

What I had failed to ingrain was the simple idea that these people were folks just like those found in other parts of the world. They felt the same emotions, the same joys and the same pains and their climate had nothing to do with it. For all you know, the chilly weather might have actually given them a reason to be even more warm and friendly, towards their families, their neighbours and in this instance, even a stranger who they’d seen up close for the very first time .

Although late, the epiphany brought back memories of my days spent watching reruns of Fargo. Detective Marge Gunderson played with such genuine and heartfelt sincerity by Frances McDormand was one of those movie characters that’d never grow stale in the labyrinth of my cinematic subconscious. Maybe it’s the hopeless romantic inside me, but what’s most memorable about detective Marge was not her wit or her quick thinking or her drawl of a Southern Minnesotan accent.

Frances McDormand plays Marge Gunderson in Fargo

In my opinion, Marge makes herself even more endearing to the audiences through the scenes that transpire in the domestic front. For me, the sequences involving Margie and her supportive husband, an artist and a man of few words are what lie at the heart of Fargo. She’s a cop by day. But she’s as real as women come. Her husband, who affectionately refers to her as Margie, brings her lunch to the office. And he wakes up to make her eggs on a chilly wintry morning when she has to make an early call.

These are folks who live in towns plagued by extreme weather. But they are people whose hearts are warm enough to keep their hearths burning bright and cosy. I can’t comprehend how I could have been blinded to the reality that stared at me all along. Thanks to Let the Right One In, I can proudly say I have learned something new about the way a European film functions. And I have learned to accept cinematic devices for what they are.

Having said that, I must tie up the loose ends by telling you why this exposition was necessary. The diner scene teases audiences with a situation that humanises an otherwise ordinary sequence of events. We know what the Caretaker does. And no one in their right mind would have attempted to invite him over to their table to share their conversation or their drink. The group of friends are not privy to that bit of information. But we, as audiences are made aware of that fact beforehand in the film.

While the friends reveal themselves to the audiences as do-gooders, we find ourselves thrust into a universe we have no control over. We are made to empathise with these people in a matter of seconds. But of course, in the service of the story, we’d rather see our protagonists appear unscathed rather than these minor characters making it through. And yet, we begin to care for them without being prompted. I am surprised at my own audacity for having put in so many words and not yet given my readers a clue about what entails in the film.

You can take it from me, if someone pours their heart and soul into an analysis, while resisting the urge to reveal crucial plot points, even at the risk of sounding too abstract or random, there’s a good reason behind it. Let the Right One In makes a perfect case for such ruminations. Go see it for yourself. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Down Memoir Superhighway

Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive

Over the past few days/weeks, I have been trying to catch up on a few films that I’d planned on watching eons ago. The joy of entering a multiplex is almost lost on me. So, the laptop screen presented itself as my savior. Less than half a decade ago, it was my trusted CRT monitor with its big ass picture tube, yoke and accompanying CPU that nurtured my film-going experience. I remember those days following the millennium when I first got addicted to cinema. Every day, I would aspire for the high point of raiding the pirates at Penta Menaka, which was then the equivalent of what we now refer to as a shopping mall.

My waypoints on these trips would be predestined. I’d get off the bus, head straight to the mall, go down to the basement and turn right into my favorite pirate’s den. My dealer’s face would light up like Tungsten as soon as I’d make my way in. I’d reciprocate his gesture and ask him, what’s new?  He’d ferry me to a comfortable corner of his store and hand me dozens of titles that would instantly send me into a tizzy. Forget about the kid in a candy store syndrome, this was more like a junkie in withdrawal, begging for his latest fix syndrome.

Well, those were the good ol’ days. Of course there was torrent, but that would be like going on G-Talk instead of actually meeting somebody in person. No amount of internet research could make up for real world learning. And that’s something I learned firsthand during my pirate raids. The dealer would always have something new to show me. Some obscure European or Asian filmmaker I had no clue about would find his creations comfortably nestled within my dealer’s stock in trade.

Of course, I loved to return the favor. After all, this was a democracy and a free market, all rolled into one. Monopoly wasn’t really the idea. Live and let live. So while my dealer would brainwash me into parting with up to a grand or two on occasions, I would regale him with my take on why he should stock himself up with the entire David Lynch collection. I’d tell him about how cool Mulholland Drive is, and how Blue Velvet is like the most trippy mind screw ever. And he’d take my word for it. And he’d stock himself up with titles that I loved.

And I’d tell him to push those movies ferociously into the market. It might have been my latent wet dream to conquer the world. And maybe run into a cinema junkie on every street corner who’d badger me with stories of how Eraserhead messed up his mind. And I’d walk away with a self affirming nod, gloriously proud that my work in this world was done.

A lot has changed since then. I don’t dream of Oscar glory. I don’t dream of walking down the red carpet in a tuxedo, with a lovely lady on my arm, waiting with bated breath for my name to be called out as they announce the Best Picture. I am not looking for approval any more. I just feel a need to live for what it’s worth. Maybe trip down some villages around my country. If possible, see a few oceans around the world as well. I had dreams of writing a screenplay some time back. A long time back, actually. Some days, the dream returns. And I hope to succumb to it. Some days, I just feel like writing one good book. I do know how it feels to have strangers come back to you on something you have contributed to the literary space. I just don’t know how I’d feel to have penned something that would strike a resonant chord in a million hearts.

I guess it might just be an amplification of how I feel right now. I’d read somewhere that the Internet is just an extension of your real self. If you’re feeling lost in the real world, going online would make you only more miserable. And if you’re cheery in the offline world, the virtual terrain might just about be another happy place. Robert Kiyosaki of Rich Dad, Poor Dad fame likened this phenomenon to money. He says money makes happy people happier and sad people sadder.

Of course, like every other thing in the universe that’s been conjured up by man, there really aren’t any absolutes. And coming from a narrator as unreliable as me, you should know better than just base your beliefs on blind faith. I’m no Leonard Shelby (Memento) or Tyler Durden (Fight Club). I am not even Charlotte Rampling’s Sarah from Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool. Heck, I am not even Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint from The Usual Suspects. But I do hope to belong to that esteemed pantheon of individuals whose intents outlive their actions, or vice versa.

To leave you with some food for thought, I’d like to refresh your memory with a lovely scene from The Matrix. It transpires when Morpheus takes Neo to see the Oracle, who gives Neo some bad news. The dejected Neo however, finds a reason to smile as The Oracle adds as an afterthought, “You don’t believe in all this destiny crap. You make your own destiny. As soon as you’ve walked out that door, you’ll feel just fine. Now have a cookie.”

The glorious Gloria Foster as The Oracle in The Matrix

Re-Loading, Again

Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, the very first film that I saw
It’s been ages since I blogged about anything. Precisely, it’s going to be about six months since a word’s been written in the blogosphere. That’s about half a year. That’s around 180 days without a single line being written about an art form that I hold close to my heart. I’d be lying if I said nothing’s changed in the past few months. Everything’s changed. Maybe not everything, but a lot of things certainly have undergone a major transformation. I feel a lot of these changes have happened internally. However, these shifts have exhibited their extrinsic repercussions as well.

One of the immediate effects has been disconnecting from the world of cinema. I had seemingly distanced myself from the celluloid or anything to do with it on a grand scale. My movie outings reduced drastically. My anticipation with regard to new releases was almost conspicuous by its absence. I couldn’t bear to watch a film on my laptop anymore. Least of all, on that pint sized 15” screen. I’d occasionally try to catch a movie in the theater, just for the heck of it, just to know if I could feel that magic once again.

Sometimes I do experience that ecstasy, but more often than not, it just ends up being a ho-hum experience. I shall refrain from naming these films, out of respect for my friends who might have either recommended these titles to me, or had the misfortune of accompanying me to these movies. However, there were a few other films that I had watched over the last six months, which managed to leave some sort of an impression on my mind. Over the top of my head, I recall The Descendants, War Horse, Hugo and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

I had watched all these movies on the big screen – I wouldn’t have had it any other way. And they turned out to be some of the most heartening movie-going experiences this year. The list might appear inconsequential – four films seen in a theater over the last six months. That's tantamount to two-thirds of a movie every month. But it does point to a very significant evolution in my cinematic choices. I almost completely disowned the concept of a blockbuster, irrespective of the star or the director.

Therefore, the Mission: ImpossibleDark Knight and Avenger franchises bemoaned the lack of my patronage, while secretly rejoicing in their victory over the masses. I was more than glad to be bereft of this sense of communal belonging, which gets reinforced every time a big-budget action flick hits the screen. A realization dawned on me during this time. It wasn’t an epiphany, in the truest sense. It was more or less one of those things you’ve always known, but never acknowledged. The greatest movies ever made, were relics of a time gone by. 

In other words, a majority of the best films I would ever see in my life would be ones made before I had the realization that there were so many great films. Honest to goodness, I have been obsessing about movies since the longest time. My mom tells me that I was weaned on simultaneous reruns of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music during my toddler days. As per photographic evidence, I could be bribed into finishing my lunch, comprising Thayir Saadam (curd rice) simply by popping in the VHS of this musical.

Captain Von Trapp and Fraulein Maria served as my indispensable lunch-mates every single day for about three years. Thanks to them, I grew up soon enough and went through my share of The Empire Strikes Back, Moonwalker, Thriller and Inner Space during my early school days. Those were some of the titles I starkly remember. I also recall going gaga over Amitabh Bachchan in Hum. A fixation with Bollywood followed shortly thereafter, a short-lived melodramatic episode that shall be expounded about in another post.

I’ll do a time jump now and cut straight to the chase. I have found a new goal for myself. And that’s trying to finish watching all the movies that I already have with me. I’ll take my own sweet time. And I’ll blog about them too – as and when a film merits a blog, to be specific. As much as possible, I’ll avoid the new releases. They are being dissected a dime a dozen. So you won’t find me venturing into those seas. If you’d like to drop in and say a thing or two about the film, you’re more than welcome to do so.

I’m not venturing into the highly contested arena of writing about movies to make some kind of a statement. It’s just a personal record of sorts that I don’t mind sharing with the world. And I hope it gives me the discipline to lead a better life bereft of aimlessness and procrastination. I’ll be happy if you folks enjoy reading it. If not, I’d still be happy. Or at least, that’s the idea. Bouquets, brickbats, adoration, adulation, indignation, as always, are most welcome. Rave about it, rant about it, if you feel like it. But let’s just get back on track and put passion back to where it truly belongs – in the realm of the arts. Jump in.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Chronicle – or How I learned to love Cloverfield

A still from Chronicle

Ok. So, this was like, one of those films I had heard nothing about. And the only reason that I had ventured into the theatre to watch it on a Sunday evening was because one of my iconic Tweeples had ravished my timeline with raves about how coolly the film was made. Fair enough, I trusted his judgment more than my own and set about watching Chronicle, which he described as the coolest found-footage film ever or something on those lines.

As usual, I am not going to review the film because I hate the idea of a review. Every Tom, Dick and Dirty Hairy worth the depreciation cost of his smartass phone seems to be in a position to review a film. So why the hell would I do the same? I instead, chose to do what I do best. And that is tease potential audiences of the film – taunt them with nuggets of data, not the whole thing, just a part of it. ‘Don’t tell them nothing,’ I am reminded by one of the wise guys from Scorsese’s Goodfellas. 

So how do I even begin? Maybe, we could start with something that resembles the truth. Something, like I have never even seen Cloverfield. Not even once. And I also hate the shaky-cam style of filmmaking. I don’t care who taught you that. I don’t care if you graduated from Darren Aronofsky’s school of Disoriented Imagery. I don’t give a flying flick if you cut your teeth sitting through Lars von Trier’s meandering treaties on the Dogme 95 movement.

And most of all, if you even happen to be related to the guy (or gal) who designed the Snorricam, maintain a minimum distance of a 100 yards if you spot me in a public place. Chances are it might get ugly. But I’m gonna be partial to Chronicle. It’s a lovely film for almost 45 minutes of its running time. There are sequences that are certified fresh – stuff that deserve to be in hall of fame of cinematic inventiveness. And almost everything works in favour of the film in its first half. I was kind of dazed by the multihued range of emotions that it evoked in me.

There were thrills, chills, guffaws, plain vanilla delights and even breadcrumbs of conspiracy theories being thrown around. And it was all entertaining until the filmmaker was compelled to think about the direction in which one could take the story after you ran out of his surprises. It felt like a letdown. Much like the manner in which In Time, and to some extent, Duncan Jones’s Source Code opted for some Deus Ex Machina mechanisms to salvage their story in the last reel.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m completely pro-‘character development’. It’s only when screenwriters and directors develop their heroes in ways that belie their original sensibilities, do I have a problem. It happened with the crew of In Time and now the demon has come back to haunt moviegoers in Chronicle. I risk giving away too much about the film by elaborating any further. You can take my word for it. Go watch Chronicle. It’s a brilliant experience for a majority of its running time. And it a bellwether of the manner in which modern day storytelling is headed on celluloid.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

To have loved, and lost

Kristin Scott Thomas and Ralph Fiennes in the poster of The English Patient

I’ve always heard people talk about how it’s the journey that’s important, and not the destination. Having watched The English Patient for the very first time a few weeks ago, I was left with a certain sense of sadness, and maybe an ounce of regret. Sadness, because I found it hard to comprehend that when the time came, even my journey had to come to an end. Sadness, because I was unwilling to let go of this world – this world that I had so thoroughly invested myself in, so willingly allowed myself to be led into, so voluntarily and vulnerably permitted myself to be a part of – at times as a voyeur, at times as an admirer, and above all, as a lover.

I had taken it upon myself as a personal challenge to finish reading the Booker Prize winning novel by Michael Ondaatje, upon which the film was based. And I wanted to do soak myself in my own re-imagination of this tale of doomed romance, set in the backdrop of the Second World War, before I watched the late Anthony Minghella’s cinematic adaptation for the big screen. What I realized was that how the experts had once prophesized that the novel was unfilmable, even I came to a premature conclusion that reviewing the film was an impossibility.  And I’ll tell you exactly why I came upon that realization.

A still from The English Patient

To start off with, I wasn’t an uninformed filmgoer – at least with respect to The English Patient. I had completed the book in a record time of a week – which I think is a personal best. And I remember how I had struggled with certain passages in the novel, which were too lyrical for my untrained mind. The works referenced in the novel consisted of everything from verses from Paradise Lost, to seminal accounts of desert exploration written by travelers who had long since succumbed to the ravages of time. I figured that in some ways, the entire book was an exercise in placing time on a see saw as the past and the present tipped back and forth in unspoken harmony.

I had ordered the book with the hope of getting it autographed by Michael Ondaatje, when I ran into him at the Jaipur Literary Fest this year. Alas, that dream was to be shattered by my indecisiveness, and to some extent, my sense of righteousness. I shall delve on that disappointment someday later when I look back at the year 2012 and remember it as the year when Michael Ondaatje came to India and I missed out on running into him and getting my copy of The English Patient signed by him. But, now, in the larger scheme of things, my loss could barely be equated to the heartache endured by the chief protagonist of the film, whose tale of love is unlike any you’ve read or seen before.

Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient

I shall certainly blog about the book someday in the future, after many more re-reading episodes. But for now, I shall focus on this film, which I discovered for the very first time this year. I don’t have to reiterate, but it has been one of my most longing-ridden, romantic and dreamy-eyed movie-watching experiences in a long, long time. It has arguably, the most enchanting opening credits sequence ever, if you consider love stories set in a specific period. It has gorgeous cinematography that bathes its wonderful and beautiful actors in some very moody set pieces.

Set in the backdrop of a foreboding landscape at a time when love might have been afforded the least priority, The English Patient is a languorous, unhurried journey in search of one man’s identity. I wouldn’t like to corrupt my readers with preemptive data on what the movie entails. But I’d surely tell them about a scene that makes this movie a must watch. Fear not, for it's not a spoiler and your experience of watching the film wouldn’t be diminished in the slightest manner by my revelations.

So let’s start off – right at the beginning. Early on in the film, we are introduced to Juliet Binoche, the magically talented French actress, who plays the unforgettable role of Hana, a war time nurse with a heart of gold. I must explain my bias towards the powerhouse of acting that is Binoche. I am completely in love with her to this day. She first broke my heart with her wrenching performance as a young woman forced to come to terms with the loss of her husband and daughter to a road accident in Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue, the very first of the Three Colors trilogy.

Juliet Binoche in The English Patient

I had admired Juliet in Blue, being privy to the fact that she had won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for The English Patient. And I had vowed to myself that I’d watch her Oscar-winning movie someday. Thankfully the day came, almost after a decade. Now, the scene that I am referring to involves Juliet Binoche’s Hana kissing an injured English soldier as he lies on his berth. They’re both passengers in a train doubling up as a makeshift hospital that transports several hundred wounded infantrymen, just like him, to safety.

And it is during this journey that a young English soldier, barely in his 20s, but bedridden, requests Hana to give him a kiss. Although she has her doubts at first, her angelic heart melts when the boy tells her that it would mean so much to him if she kissed him. So she plants an almost maternal peck on the boy’s lips which he acknowledges with gratitude. Sure enough, Hana says he’s welcome and proceeds to walk towards the door at the end of the aisle. But that’s when the rest of the soldiers lying in the adjacent bunks begin to jovially chide her into giving them a kiss as well and tuck them in.  Hana, being the darling that she is, laughs off the requests saying, “Go back to sleep, all of ya.”

I think this one scene at the start of the film was worth the price of admission. It established Hana’s character and gave audiences someone they’d care about. Actually, if you’d consider the performances of Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, you’d realize that there isn’t a single actor who hasn’t gone beyond the call of duty to bring this motion picture to life. My heart bled for the duo and their star-crossed romance. I felt genuine pain at certain junctures in the film and I knew it was the work of a master filmmaker and his crew that had brought tears to my eyes as if on cue.

Kristin Scott Thomas in the poster of The English Patient

I’d also like to tip my hat to the legendary editor of this film – Walter Murch, who has in the past, been credited with such phenomenal films like the two Godfather sequels and Apocalypse Now. As a reader of the book The English Patient, I knew how challenging it was to keep pace with Michael Ondaatje’s ‘time and space’ warping literary style. And I couldn’t even imagine how hard it might have been for Walter to have edited this film, staying true to the vision of the author, the director and his own personal beliefs. I also am a big fan of Walter for his utter contempt for anything to do with 3D. Yeah, even he thinks it sucks.

Lastly, but in no way the least, I’d like to dedicate this blog to the memory of Anthony Minghella. I hadn’t been able to fully comprehend the power of his images until some weeks back when I got to see The English Patient for the very first time. In retrospect, I realize how painfully formal and unobtrusive his technique was, in service of his story. Only after seeing his film did I realize, how inconspicuous his absence of directorial flourishes was. And I began to understand how daunting it might have been for him – to direct this movie and to steer clear of the temptation of showing off in the presence of such powerful material.

Anthony Minghella - 6 January 1954 – 18 March 2008

The classical filmmaking legacy of not calling attention to oneself or one’s work, as set in place by the true masters – directors, cinematographers, editors and technicians alike, was broken by the likes of new age auteurs like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky and more. The latter spared no opportunity in exhibiting their so-called visionary chops as viewers lapped up every overblown frame rife with signature shots, impossible camera movements, obsessive dolly and tracking scenes and mind-bending editing setups.

But that’s where the repertoire of someone like Anthony Minghella comes in. He belonged to that elite task force of directors, who had dedicated their lives to upholding the values, ideals and vision of the true auteur of the work. He needs to be revered for sticking to his guns and his old-school armory, for not bending over backwards in search of directorial praise. He needs to be remembered for attempting to reinforce the fact that the director’s responsibility is to tell the story through the medium of film – nothing more, nothing less.

Anthony Minghella stayed true to Michael Ondaatje’s vision of The English Patient as I sat in wonderment of the journey that I’d just been on. And I thought to myself about that invisible force that held my hand and guided me through this dusty, lovelorn universe and even brought me to my destination before gently bidding goodbye in the most unassuming way. Having come so far, it’s the journey that I still yearn for and the opportunity to make that trip all over again - with Minghella hand-holding me through the dunes of his desert, amidst the disappearing sands of time that cradles the lovers into eternity and beyond.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Happily N(ever) After

John Corbett and Nia Vardalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding

It’s a New Year and I might be expected to write something new. But I won’t do that considering the fact that nothing really changes in the New Year, unless of course, you make a conscious decision to bring about some alterations in the way your life pans out in the days, weeks, months and year(s) to come. During breakfast hour today morning, I was seated opposite my mom and I found myself digging into a hot plate of puttu, which she had lovingly prepared for me, in spite of not being in the pink of her health.

The contents of my breakfast menu demanded to be softened by the application of pummeled banana pulp to the mixture of steamed rice powder and grated coconut. I had only lately begun to enjoy this combination of puttu and pazham, something that my brethren had been relishing with gay abandon from time immemorial. As the semi-solid mixture found its way into the corridor of my mouth, finding bylanes and shortcuts through the megalopolis of my gapped teeth, I found myself arguing with my dad over some inane topic.

As the two of us made our cases concerning the exact age at which a child starts becoming selfish, my mom supplemented us with data that said babies/infants were exempt from any such self-serving classifications. This prompted me to dissect the etymology of the word ‘selfish’ – much like the family patriarch from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who swears by his belief that every word known to mankind has its origin in the Greek language. Fair enough, for as soon as I put on the best Greek accent that I could muster, my mom set off on a most welcome tirade expounding the cool factor of that film.

As we began reminiscing on some fond memories pertaining to the film, my mom regaled me with her pick of the most loved scenes from this gem of a romantic comedy. One of our common favorites is the scene “What do you mean he don’t eat no meat?” The dialogue takes place when the heroine of our film, Toula, played by the lovely Nia Vardalos brings home her lover-cum-fiance Ian and he refuses to eat a certain meat-based dish offered to him. His attempts to convince Toula’s headstrong aunt that he’s a vegetarian elicits a nonchalant consolation from her as she tells him, “Don’t worry. I make you lamb.”

And that was it. I told my mom then and there that the new blog post, the very first of this New Year is going to be based on films where weddings assume the central theme. I have picked my movies from a diverse lot – steering clear of predictable Hollywood fare and sticking to the larger canvas of world cinema with wedding-centric films. Needless to say, since the germ of the idea was unleashed by my mom, this blog post is also dedicated to her.  I Love You Mommy – this one’s just for you.

A still from My Big Fat Greek Wedding

My Big Fat Greek Wedding: This is my quintessential guilty pleasure chick flick and I have absolutely no qualms in endorsing the feel-good factor of this film. Everything about this film is cute. From the gingerly fashion in which Toula steps out into the real world to her blossoming into a woman of her own, finding her true love Ian and sticking to her decision of marrying the foreigner, or as her father refers to Ian, a Xeno, the film is a layered and heart warming look at the things that makes us unique and the forces that bring us and keep us together.

The aforementioned ‘eat no meat’ scene is accompanied by several guffaw-inducing moments that showcase the strength of the family and the bond shared between these flawed but lovable Greeks. There are plenty of verbal gags and a few masterpieces of slapstick as well. The aunt that I had mentioned before is one of my most beloved characters from the film.
Pay special attention to the scene where she, aided by Toula’s mom, tries convincing Toula’s father as to why his daughter should be working in the aunt’s travel agency. While providing insights into the blueprint of the male ego, the scene amply demonstrates how women get things done their way with a bit of tact. Gather the whole family for this invigorating and romantic romp of a film – there’s no other way of watching it.

Naseeruddin Shah leads an ensemble cast in Monsoon Wedding

Monsoon Wedding: How do I even begin telling you about Mira Nair’s delightfully quirky family drama? I remember watching the film for the very first time at a really small theater in Kochi called Little Shenoy’s. I had no idea what I was in for, just a premonition that it would be something fun and memorable, because the director of Salaam Bombay was at the helm of it. But, boy – was I charmed beyond words or what? From the hypnotic background score by Michael Danna to the exhilarating soundtrack and the honest-to-goodness performances from Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Tillotama Shome and above all, a revelation in the form of Vijay Raaz – the marigold-chewing, potty mouthed wedding planner, the movie was a heady trip in every sense of the word.

In fact, I remember rushing into Music World immediately after the movie got over, to get myself an audio tape of the film (yeah, those were the days – we used to buy our music, not torrent it). And I also remember calling up my cousins and telling them how they just had to watch this new film. Heck, I almost felt like getting married after the movie, or at least being invited to a North Indian /Punjabi wedding. The film takes a realistic look at  what really goes on during the preps for a marriage – the politics and dynamics that surface upon the arrival of certain members of the tribe and the jubilation of marital union.

It’s a feel-good flick, it has its heart in the right place and it’s got some of our country’s most brilliant actors giving us what seems like the most effortless performances of their careers. Oh, and it’s got Vijay Raaz voicing the choicest expletives way ahead of his ‘Aye Loondry’ turn in Delhi Belly. Do you need any more reasons to soak yourself wet in this brave new gust of indie spirit?

The awesome foursome in Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married: For the longest time, the DVD of this Anne Hathaway starrer lay neglected on my shelf, gathering dust and begging to be sampled. Having read rave reviews of the film, I had decided to watch the movie on a day when I could give it my undivided attention. Five minutes into the film was all it took me to realize what a fool I had been to not have seen Jonathan Demme’s handheld docu-styled, warm concoction of a days-before-the-wedding drama. To put it lightly, I was moved, having gone through the experience of this film.

I felt emotionally alive on so many different levels and in such brilliant ways. It’s hard to isolate a single scene that had not been responsible for bringing a lump in my throat or a tear to my eyes. It might be an ensemble piece, but it’s Anne Hathaway’s uninhibited performance as a recovering alcoholic that is at the core of this masterpiece. Anne’s turn as Kym, the non-proverbial black sheep of the family, headed back to normalcy, while the rest of the family is caught up in the throes of the wedding preparations of her sister Rachel, is a bravura bit of inspired filmmaking. Jonathan Demme, the man behind Philadelphia and The Silence of the Lambs – two films that couldn’t have been more dissimilar, once again proves his mastery of the medium and the human condition as he pulls off all stops and careens headfirst into the lives of his only-too-humane characters.

The piece-de-resistance of the film, in my humble opinion, is the scene where the father of the bride is pitted against the groom-to-be in a dish washing challenge set in the arena of the household kitchen. Rest assured, you’ll be going back to this scene over and over again, just to immerse yourself in the spirit of the moment.

Sibel Kekilli and Birol Unel in Head-On

Head-On (Gegen die Wand): This brash, unapologetic German-language offering might not be a purely wedding-centric film. But, the institution of marriage does play an important role in Fatih Akin’s biting take on freedom, individuality and the pointlessness of love set against the backdrop of the river Bosporus. Fatih chronicles his saga of love through the lives of the star-crossed lead pair – essayed with poignant grace and painful honesty by Birol Unel and Sibel Kekilli. The suicidal lovers settle for each other in a marriage of convenience – the former, owing to his need for someone to pay the rent and cook for him, while the latter, owing to her need to get away from her protective Turkish family, who just wants her married to a respectable Turk.

I won’t be delving on what happens next. But you can take my word for it – you won’t know what hit you. Powered by a killer, punk-laced soundtrack, featuring artists as varied as Depeche Mode, Agir Roman and more, the film packs an emotional wallop, the likes of which you might not have experienced in a long, long time. Certain scenes are predestined to form an impenetrable layer on your subconscious. A case in point is the heroine’s first night out after getting her belly pierced. As the opening chords to The Temple of Love, by Sisters of Mercy sets the mood for the night that will play out to the audiences, we know for a fact that it’s going to be one cathartic sojourn. 

The acting is in a class of its own with the protagonists aiming for the jugular in their go-for-broke approach to their parts. Love, loss, longing, anger, jealousy, pride, indifference and an almost masochistic disdain for self preservation – our lovebirds experience and endure it all. And the audiences are left with memories of one of the most affecting love stories ever committed to film.