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.