Monday 31 December 2012

Un Flic (Dirty Money) [1972]

Un Flic, Jean-Pierre Melville’s final film, wasn’t just an excellent swansong for the French auteur, it was also the perfect follow-up to his previous film, Le Cercle Rouge. Like the latter movie, this too was a stylish and existential thriller centered on a heist; but, while Alain Delon played the role of a laconic criminal in the earlier film, he swapped places to the more agreeable side of law here – yet in either case it didn’t end on a happy note for his character. The film begins with a bank robbery on a particularly rainy day, staged by 4 men led by Simon (Richard Crenna), a nightclub owner. Ironically, Commissioner Coleman (Delon) happens to be a friend of Simon and a regular visitor to his nightclub; he’s even having an affair on the sly with Simon’s platinum blonde fiancée (Catherine Deneuve). Coleman has utmost derision towards criminals and bends the law whenever necessary to get his job done; he leads his life and does his work in the most cold, jaded and existentially detached manner imaginable. The measured pace with which the plot moves forward, alternately focusing on the two opposing sides, allowed terrific development of the various characters, as well as, superb build-up of the film’s mood and palpably melancholic tone. The atmospheric, washed out visuals brilliantly evoked the perpetual sense of doom and fatalism that the film has been gift wrapped with, leading to the underplayed but subtly affecting climax. The performances, in sync with Melville’s style, were completely restrained. An audacious drug robbery scene, carried out by Simon on a moving train, remains one of the hallmarks for the film.

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller/Post-Noir
Language: French
Country: France

The Color of Pomegranates [1968]

There are experimental arthouse films, and there are experimental arthouse films without the former’s seamless quality. The likes of Chris Marker’s La Jetee, Vera Chytilova’s Daisies, or more recently Leos Carax’s Holy Motors are glowing examples of the former. Sergei Parajanov’s much acclaimed work The Color of Pomegranates, unfortunately, clearly fall in the latter category. Purportedly a biopic on the revered Armenian poet and musician Sayat-Nova, this was a highly whimsical and surreal take on what his life and his ideas were representative of. Parajanov presented the poet’s tortured and troubled conscience in the form of a series of disjointed tableaus, aimed at capturing his inner self and his religious influences. The film, consequently, is filled with Armenian imageries and religious icons to that effect, and is bereft of any conventional narrative structure. Parajanov’s creative choices and the film’s experimental nature, unfortunately, were too deliberately brazen for its good – so much as to make the works of Bunuel, Fellini, Tarkovsky, Godard et al seem mainstream in comparison. The vibrant colour schema was eminently noteworthy, but its visual design, too, was obsessively idiosyncratic. Further, not only was the film so heavily laden with symbolisms as to make it a burdensome exercise for the viewers to keep a track of, some of them were also too damn cryptic for a non-Armenian person. As for the symbols which were decipherable – and there was no dearth of them – they singularly lacked of subtlety. I understand that this film has been celebrated by various quarters, but simply failed to strike a chord with me – intellectually or otherwise. Interestingly, Sofiko Chiaureli, the Georgian actress and Parajanov’s muse, played six different characters in the film.

Director: Sergio Parajanov
Genre: Avant-Garde/Experimental Film/Surrealist Film/Biopic
Language: Armenian
Country: Armenia (erstwhile Soviet Union)

Sunday 30 December 2012

Damnation (Karhozat) [1988]

Damnation was a watershed moment for Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, as it established the visual style and rigorous formalism that defined his works thenceforth. It was also a terrific introductory piece to his follow-up film, Satantango. The protagonist here is a morose, alcohol-addicted pseudo-intellectual called Karrer (Miklos B. Szekely) who is in love with a highly alluring bar singer (Veli Kerekes). However, unfortunately for him, she is highly fickle about their affair, and she is married to a man who scares him. So, when the manager of Titanik, the bar where she croons, offers him a shady job, he passes it on to her broke husband. This doesn’t just give him the opportunity for some quality intimacy with her, it also provides him on a platter the chance to exact a sweet revenge. The plot might remind one of 40s noir, but Tarr’s tonal, thematic and stylistic decisions made this an austere and bleakly beautiful portrayal of small-town ennui, anomie, isolation, existential alienation, moral decrepitude and stasis. Shot in high-contrast B/W, using his trademark audacious single takes, the film’s visual signature is quintessential Tarr. The desolate, depopulated and grimy wastelands, and the perpetual state of rain and mud, against which he juxtaposed his weary characters, were essential to the film’s mood and tone, as were the long moments of silence and inaction. Tarr’s fascination with long, loosely choreographed dance sequences, too, was on mesmeric display here. Interestingly, it is a rarity in Tarr’s canon in that it comprised of far more music – albeit played on-screen as opposed to background score – than is generally the case with his films, including a lovely song.

Director: Bela Tarr
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Avant-Garde Film
Language: Hungarian
Country: Hungary

Saturday 29 December 2012

La Grande Illusion (Grand Illusion) [1937]

Filled with understated humour, wry observations and humanism, Renoir’s Grand Illusion was both a deeply anti-war film and a subtle commentary on societal differences borne out of class, race and nationalities. Captain de Boieldieu (Pierre Fesnay), an aristocratic senior officer, and Lt. Marechal (Jean Gabin), a proletariat pilot, are taken captive in a German POW camp, commanded by Captain von Rauffenstein (Renoir’s idol, Erich von Stroheim), during a reconnaissance mission. After numerous failed attempts, Marechal finally manages to escape along with a Jewish inmate, and they take refuge in the home of a lonely German widow (Dita Parlo) during the course of their arduous journey. Renoir painted a deftly textured picture on the utter futility of war. And, by displaying such anachronistic gentlemanly conduct between the two parties, the film’s grandest illusion was brilliantly depicted – made starker on hindsight by the horrors that WWII has become synonymous with. Yet, for all its poetic realism and its humane portrayal of men and women trapped in the cogs of world politics, Renoir also provided a sly peek into our ingrained social barriers. Boieldieu and Rauffenstein, despite belonging to opposite camps nationally, are bound by their aristocratic heritage and mores; ironically, Marechal and his fellow escapee are naturally strung together by their class and nationality, but the question of race lingers at the back of their minds. Boieldieu and Marechal, despite their national obligations, represent inherently opposing social orders. Luminously photographed and excellently enacted, these paradoxical sociopolitical subtexts, and the juxtaposition of old and new orders, made this a universally relevant masterwork whose resonance has only increased with the passage of time.

Director: Jean Renoir
Genre: Drama/War Drama/Prison Drama
Language: French
Country: France

Friday 28 December 2012

The Sound of Silence

(Cinemascope thanks Ms. Camiele White for this excellent take on the use of silence in cinema, which is particularly relevant in this darn noisy world of ours. The 1920 short that she begins her essay with, holds a special place for her - and not just for cinematic reasons - adding an affecting  personal touch to this fine piece)
Unlike many of my other posts, this one didn’t come at the hands and sounds of Björk. I was gifted a very rare video – a 10-minute clip of an early silent film, in fact. It was the first (and to my knowledge, only) silent film starring an all Native American cast. My undying admiration and love of my Native American heritage led me to watch every second of this silent piece of cinematic history, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I was almost in tears. However, it wasn’t just the pull of my ancestry (my tribes being Blackfoot on my father’s side and Cherokee on my mother’s) that claimed all the working pieces of my heart. Rather it was the brilliance with which each moment was portrayed, the silence giving depth and purpose to each movement, each exclamation of physicality.

The film, The Daughter of Dawn, is an intimate look at the tradition and beauty of the Cheyenne people. However, more than that it’s simply the love story of two people who were promised to others but found their soul’s counterpart in each other. It’s a common tale, dating back as early as the 15th century, most likely even earlier than that. It’s also a story that through its many permutations can get bogged down with cliché and unoriginality.

But therein lay the beauty inherent in silent film. There are no words, no verbal inflections or cues. All the audience has is the use of human expression and interaction and a loose sense of a story. The grandeur in silence is its ability to transcend expectation and give new form and texture to something as simple as a love story.

There are films even beyond the silent genre that manage to encapsulate their brightest moments in the quiet space between scenes, the whispering tension between two characters. Some of the most incredible in my memory seem to find the fine balance between intimacy and physical largeness.

It’s pretty well documented that I tout Japanese animation as probably the Mecca of all things subtlety. But the truth is, the understanding of how to give the story room to express itself is something so innately ingrained in the very fabric of the culture itself, there’s little doubt who all the real masters of this concept of silence are. Though the films exhibit grand sweeps of illustration, form and soundtrack, the truest moments of elegance and bigness come from the quiet times when even a whisper can break the fragility of the moment. One of the most heartbreaking films ever produced, Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies opens with a throbbing silence, a pulsating murmur of a dying memory in the heart of a man forced to accept the maturity and fire of wartime Japan. The snapshots of his life drenched in blood and the refuse of adult anger and greed were all posed in shocking bluntness, each moment completely devoid of sound, save perhaps the crackle of fire that seemed to underscore the background music of the film.

However, while Fireflies was a testament to the power of absolute silence in jagged moments of anger and isolation, a film like Les Triplettes de Belleville was a master class in the art of dialogue – or lack thereof in this case. Indeed, there were perhaps five full lines of dialogue in all 80 minutes of the film; however, the music and animation managed to give great texture and depth to the story itself. Indeed, Sylvain Chomet seems to be a master of storytelling, allowing the characters’ experiences to make up for any lack of verbal communication. It’s all in the eyes, in the minute details. The sound itself is secondary, creating a thrumming background music that allows the story to unfold through the music and the movement of the characters.

Of course, the best horror and thriller utilize silence to give the films height and unending cinematic scope. Such films as Se7en and The Exorcist rely on the moments between moments to give the story texture. The tension is palpable, one is literally able to reach out and grab the thickness of certain scenes as if the film itself were attempting to kidnap the viewer and throw her headlong into the madness.

Then there are films like Nakata Hideo’s Ringu. Talk about incredible use of silence, the film is drenched in an unsettling amount of silence, provoking viewers to almost have to fill in the spaces. But what’s so masterful about the piece is that it simply basks in its own largeness without muddying up the story with erroneous bits of flash. It’s as simple as taking a photo, each shot only as big as it’s supposed to be. On the contrary, a film like Miike Takashi’s Audition is all big movements and gruesome moments. Though also heavily steeped in silence, in contrast to the other films, it’s the moments of sound that are so poignant. One almost yearns for silence in order to ease the sickening feeling of foreboding that comes whenever the crazed love interest opens her mouth and traps us in her grisly universe.

I’ve always found the lack of sound an even more exhilarating form of storytelling than even the most astute dialogue. It forces the actors to give in to the drama of the moment, each second poised at attention and ready to burst. I’ve found that even in the absence of music, there’s a bubbling anticipation that these silent moments seem to bring to an explosive crescendo without the crashing of cymbals or the heavy cut of bode instruments. Sometimes, my friends, silence is the breaking point that forces us to reexamine our understanding of sound.

Camiele White suffers from too much film information. In order to remedy her psychosis she’s decided to write about it. Right now, she’s trying something a bit different and writes has her own blog called Madasa Writing. If you want to engage in a little conversation (at your own risk) she can be reached at