Sunday, October 28, 2007

Pandora's Box

There is a lot that can be said about Pandora's Box and Frank Wedekind's plays on which it is based. Indeed there are few historical periods of modern era more widely and extensively studied than the Weimar republic, specially its contributions to arts and culture. The criterion DVD has a commentary by two scholars of German cinema Thomas Elsaesser and Mary Ann Doane who announce in the beginning that they have "worked" on this film for more than twenty years. (It is actually all downhill from there. When they are not rehearsing the obvious, they fall down into a cliche-ridden academese, which sounds more like a sequence of buzz words from the academic discipline of feminist culture studies (too much superficial talk about the "gaze," and "agency"). Anyway, I think there is enough on internet and in books for the curious and of course watching the film without all the historical and theoretical baggage is a very rewarding experience in itself.)

After watching the film I read the original plays by Frank Wedekind too on which it is based. Though not as good as Spring Awakening it still is an extremely provocative piece of work. The only problem with it is that it is too rambling, overlong and highly repetitive. The stage versions are generally highly edited to make it more manageable. The film prunes some of the episodes from the play too, and very wisely so I think. The play follows sequence of events in the life of the eponymous heroine "Lulu" as it charts her decline and fall from a high-society temptress and a kept-woman in Berlin to a prostitute walking on the foggy streets of nighttime London eventually meeting a grisly end by the hands of Jack the ripper. The end is not really a spoiler because in one of scenes in the beginning of the play itself Lulu admits that she longs to fall into the arms of a sex-murderer. It is actually far from a naturalistic play and those looking for plausible situations or characters will be a little disappointed. The narrative is overly deterministic and all the scenes are there just to drive home a point, even at the risk of feeling heavy-handed and unreal.

The individual scenes in the play mainly underscore Wedekind's central theme about the essentially destructive nature of human sexuality. Lulu is presented as an embodiment of amoral (or rather beyond-moral) sexuality which only serves to wreak havoc in the lives of everyone she comes across. In scene after scene there are deaths, ruin, suicides and murders. She never plays any active part in any of these, she is always passive (that's what makes her different from a standard femme fatale). It is as if she destroys everything just by her very presence. Unlike traditional femme fatales her amorality is not calculative but entirely natural and un-self-conscious. It also helps that Louise Brooks, who is absolutely extraordinary in the role, is so different from the traditional image of femme fatale as portrayed on screen by the likes of Marlene Dietrich or Barbara Stanwyck. No offence meant for the fans of the either of the two (at least among the latter I include myself) but this role could only be played by Brooks. In fact Dietrich was initially considered for this role (a few years before The Blue Angel actually). With Dietrich it would have been a very different film altogether.

It is mainly because of Brooks that the film version of Lulu becomes a much more interesting character than she is in the play. Unlike in the play, in the film she is both, an abstraction and a very real and alluring figure, both at the same time. The film also departs in very fundamental ways in the final scene with the Jack the ripper. In the play it is a grand guignol scene, with shock, horror and brutal violence, while in the film it is a very moving and tragic scene. Jack is shown as a kind of tragic figure who struggles hard against his temptations when he is with Lulu but ultimately fails. There is also no gore, no blood - everything happens offscreen, all shown in a very indirect manner.

My only gripe with the film version vis-a-vis the play was the way it gives short shrift to the character of Countess Geshwitz. In the play there is an extensive subplot about her unrequited love for Lulu which is quite explicit in its portrait of lesbian sexual attraction, specially for its time. The film very disappointingly shifts her to the margins of the story, alongwith the whole lesbianism subplot which is barely noticeable. It is specially disappointing because otherwise the artists of the Weimar era are renowned for their revolutionary ideas about gender and sexuality.

Pabst instead adds a scene in the end showing the salvation army on Christmas which is not in the play at all which ends on a very hopeless note. It is as if he is saying that the only hope lies in somekind of desexualisation of the world as represented by Christmas and the Salvation army. Interestingly the original version of the film was deemed too shocking for the American audiences so they reedited the intertitles to show that Lulu herself joins the salvation army in the end! Now that would be a real optimistic and happy ending!

There's a lot of stuff to read about the film. For starters an essay here.

Twin Peaks Scene

A great scene from Twin Peaks, one of my favourites. Something very horrible has just happened and all these people can already feel it...

The words in the song are of David Lynch (Dust is dancing in the space/Dogs and Birds are far away). The music by Angelo Badalamenti and it is sung by Julee Cruise, featured in the video too.

Another nice song from Twin Peaks by the same team, "Into the Night" here. No clips from Twin Peaks though.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Thomas Bernhard: Woodcutters

There is a very astute observation by Mark Anderson on the back cover of Thomas Bernhard's Woodcutters. He says, "One can write continuously and still have a writing block, just as one live with the ongoing thought of one's imminent death - and laugh at it." This is a very revealing way to look at what would look like Thomas Bernhard's idee fixe - his constant and never ending fixation with a small set of subjects (madness, isolation, suicide, why is Austria hell on earth etc.) and his one track style. Like all of his other books this book is also one unbroken monologue. The occasion is an "artistic dinner" being held to honour an actor who has recently performed in a Burgtheatre production of Ibsen's "The Wild Duck." The narrator is a Bernhard-like figure who has returned to Vienna after spending 20 years in London. Now much to his regret he finds himself accepting a dinner invitation from his erstwhile friends and mentors - the Auesberger couple, with whom he is now bitterly estranged. Auesberger was a music composer of some talent ("a successor of Webern", "Novalis of sounds," the narrator calls him) but has allowed his talent to be dissipated through alcoholism, social climbing and celebrity mongering.

He reserves similar vitriol for two of the female guests to the dinner too. One of them, Jeannie Billroth, sees herself as "the Virginia Woolf of Vienna" while she actually is, according to the narrator, "an unscrupulous, petit bourgeois hypocrite of the most dreadful kind." Things get a little messy when the narrator reveals that he once had an affair with her twenty years ago when he was a struggling young writer himself. There is also another female writer, this time it is "Austrian Gertrude Stein or an Austrian Mariane Moore." All of his invectives against these artist figures have one common theme - how state patronage of arts and literature makes artists and writers compromise and betray their ideals and promises in order to ingratiate themselves with the state so that they can win honours and prizes. (Wittgenstein's Nephew also has some really nasty comments about state prizes and honours as it is practiced in Austria.) As he is thinking about all this he is also regretting and criticising himself for accepting such an invitation. As it happens, one of their mutual friends just committed suicide and they went to her funeral that very morning and he sees his acceptance of the invitation as an act mired in hypocrisy and sentimentality. The narrator also moves back and forth in time and reveals his own complicated relationship with the deceased, which takes up major portion of the book.

All this while the narrator has been sitting in the wing chair and observing the guests waiting for the Burgtheatre actor to arrive. Once he arrives the scene changes to the dining room chair (though the monologue continues unbroken) and the actor takes over from the narrator. He goes on and on about how hard it is to play the Ekdal character and related trials and tribulations of being an actor. The narrative now switches to a reported monologue where the narrator reports what the actor is saying, laced with his own dismissive comments. Though as the party progresses late into the night the narrator's view of the actor changes too. Under the influence of alcohol perhaps the actor himself launches a similar vitriolic attack on his hosts and the Viennese Virginia Woolf, and at that time the narrator suddenly realizes that he is not as idiotic and hopeless as he seemed initially, specially when he utters the words, "The forest, the virgin forest, the life of a woodcutter - that has always been my ideal," the narrator realizes that he has witnessed something important and he must set it down on paper at once (which is what we have been reading actually). The book ends with these lines:

"And as I went on running I thought: I'll write something at once, no matter what -- I'll write about this artistic dinner in the Gentzgasse at once, now. Now, I thought -- at once, I told myself over and over again as I ran through the Inner City -- at once, I told myself, now -- at once, at once, before it's too late."

I was expecting some more explicit discussion of Ibsen and in particular "The Wild Duck" because the play covers a lot of similar ground in terms of subject too but Bernhard never goes into it. Though he does make it clear that nobody in the party has any idea about what the play is about and actor's soliloquy about the problems of playing Ekdal and Gregers wouldn't have made any sense to most of them. In the end it is still a great work of social satire and criticism, in the same vein as Ibsen. It also offers a very penetrating glimpse at the Austrian cultural establishment, in particular the institution of Burgtheatre. Though it is very specific to Austria, most of it applies to any place with a similar system of official patronage and rewards.

David Lynch Doc

The New York Times talks about a new documentary about David Lynch. It is compiled from footage collected over two years as he worked on his latest film Inland Empire. From the reviews it sounds like for fanboys only. Other reviews from village voice and slant. Trailer here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

German Literature Quiz

I should rather say Germanic literature quiz. Anyway identify the books the following excerpts are from... I have omitted the names of the characters.

1. Farewell [X]-whether you live or stay where you are! Your chances are not good. The wicked dance in which you are caught up will last many a little sinful year yet, and we would not wager much that you will come out whole. To be honest, we are not really bothered about leaving the question open. Adventures in the flesh and spirit, which enhanced and heightened your ordinariness, allowed you to survive in the spirit what you probably will not survive in the flesh. There were moments when, as you "played king," you saw the intimation of a dream of love rising out of death and this carnal body. And out of this worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all round-will love someday rise up out of this, too?

2. He was so shaken that he felt compelled to flee the light of the terrace and front garden and hastily sought the obscurity of the rear grounds. Oddly indignant and tender admonitions welled up inside him: "You mustn't smile like that! One mustn't smile like that at anyone, do you hear?" He flung himself on a bench, frantically inhaling the plants' nocturnal fragrance. Then, leaning back, arms dangling, overwhelmed and shuddering repeatedly, he whispered the standard formula of longing-impossible here, absurd, perverse, ridiculous and sacred nonetheless, yes, still venerable even here: "I love you!"

3. Once upon a time there was a poor little boy who had no father or mother. Everything was dead, and there was nobody left in the whole wide world. Everything was dead, and he went away and searched day and night. And because there was nobody left on earth he thought he'd go to heaven. And the moon looked at him so kindly! But when he reached the moon he found it was piece of rotten wood. And then he went to the sun, and when he reached the sun he found it was withered sunflower. And when he came to the stars they were little golden gnats that a shrike had stuck on a blackthorn. And when he wanted to go back to earth, the earth was an upturned pot. And he was all alone. And he sat down and cried, and he's still sitting there still, all alone.

4. We run after them for years, begging for their affection, I thought, and when once we have their affection we no longer want it. We flee from them and they catch up with us and seize hold of us, and we submit to them and all their dictates, I thought, surrendering to them until we either die or break loose. We flee from them and they catch up with us and crush us to death. We run after them and implore them to accept us, and they accept us and do us to death. Or else we avoid them from the beginning and succeed in avoiding them all our lives, I thought. Or we walk into their trap and suffocate. Or we escape from them and start running them down, slandering them and spreading lies about them, I thought, in order to save ourselves, slandering them whereever we can in order to save ourselves, running away from them for dear life and accusing them everywhere of having us on their consciences. Or they escape from us and slander and accuse us, spreading every possible lie about us in order to save themselves, I thought.

5. Because thoughts are something special. Often they are nothing more than accidents that pass away without leaving a trace, and thoughts, too, have their times to live and die. We can have a flash of insight, and then slowly, it fades beneath our touch like a flower. The form remains, but the colours, the scent are missing. We remember them word for word, and the logic of the sentence is completely unimpaired, and yet it drifts ceaselessly around on the surface of our minds and we feel none the richer for it. Until-perhaps years later-all of a sudden another moment comes when we see that in the meantime we have known nothing of it, although logically we knew everything.

6. It is as if a curtain had been drawn from before my eyes, and, instead of prospects of eternal life, the abyss of an ever open grave yawned before me. Can we say of anything that it exists when all passes away, when time, with the speed of a storm, carries all things onward, -- and our transitory existence, hurried long by the torrent, is either swallowed up by the waves or dashed against the rocks? There is not a moment but preys upon you, -- and upon all around you, not a moment in which you do not yourself become a destroyer. The most innocent walk deprives of life thousands of poor insects: one step destroys the fabric of the industrious ant, and converts a little world into chaos. No: it is not the great and rare calamities of the world, the floods which sweep away whole villages, the earthquakes which swallow up our towns, that affect me. My heart is wasted by the thought of that destructive power which lies concealed in every part of universal nature. Nature has formed nothing that does not consume itself, and every object near it: so that, surrounded by earth and air, and all the active powers, I wander on my way with aching heart; and the universe is to me a fearful monster, for ever devouring its own offspring.

7. Hours passed there, hours breathing together with a single heartbeat, hours in which [X] constantly felt he was lost or had wandered farther into foreign lands than any human being before him, so foreign that even the air hadn't a single component of the air in his homeland and where one would inevitably suffocate from the foreignness but where the meaningless enticements were such that one had no alternative but to go on and get even more lost.

8. It is the fulfilment of man’s primordial dreams to be able to fly, travel with the fish, drill our way beneath the bodies of towering mountains, send messages with godlike speed, see the invisible and hear the distant speak, hear the voices of the dead, be miraculously cured while asleep, see with our own eyes how we will look twenty years after our death, learn in flickering nights thousands of things above and below this earth no one ever knew before; if light, warmth, power, pleasure, comforts, are man’s primordial dreams, then present-day research is not only science but sorcery, spells woven from the highest powers of heart and brain, forcing God to open one fold after another of his cloak; a religion whose dogma is permeated and sustained by the hard, courageous, flexible, razor-cold logic of mathematics.

9. So, then people do come here in order to live; I would sooner have thought one died here. I have been out. I saw: hospitals. I saw a man who swayed and sank to the ground. People gathered round him, so I was spared the rest. I saw a pregnant woman. She was pushing herself cumbrously along a high, warm wall, groping for it now and again as if to convince herself it was still there. Yes, it was still there.

10. Several times during the day I felt a desire to assure myself of a reality I feared had vanished forever by looking out of that hospital window, which, for some strange reason, was draped with black netting, and as dusk fell the wish became so strong that, contriving to slip over the edge of the bed to the floor, half on my belly and half sideways, and then to reach the wall on all fours, I dragged myself, despite the pain, up to the window sill. In the tortured posture of a creature that has raised itself erect for the first time I stood leaning against the glass. I could not help thinking of the scene in which poor Gregor Samsa, his little legs trembling, climbs the armchair and looks out of his room, no longer remembering (so Kafka's narrative goes) the sense of liberation that gazing out of the window had formerly given him. And just as Gregor's dimmed eyes failed to recognize the quiet street where he and his family had lived for years, taking CharlottenstraBe for a grey wasteland, so I too found the familiar city, extending from the hospital courtyards to the far horizon, an utterly alien place. I could not believe that anything might still be alive in that maze of buildings down there; rather, it was as if I were looking down from a cliff upon a sea of stone or a field of rubble, from which the tenebrous masses of multi-storey carparks rose up like immense boulders. At that twilit hour there were no passers-by to be seen in the immediate vicinity, but for a nurse crossing the cheerless gardens outside the hospital entrance on the way to her night shift. An ambulance with its light flashing was negotiating a number of turns on its way from the city centre to Casualty. I could not hear its siren; at that height I was cocooned in an almost complete and, as it were, artificial silence. All I could hear was the wind sweeping in from the country and buffeting the window; and in between, when the sound subsided, there was the never entirely ceasing murmur in my own ears.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Blogging Slump

Been busy lately for a change. Also distracted with too many idiotic things.

Will be back soon.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Flowers of St. Francis

The story of Don Quixote is often interpreted as a story of a Christian saint in a post-religious age. I was repeatedly reminded of it while watching Roberto Rossellini's 1950 film The Flowers of St. Francis which dramatizes a few events in the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Though unlike Cervantes Rossellini and his co-writer Fellini are fully on the side of the Quixotic monks. (The Don Quixote question is quite debatable though. Nabokov famously called it a sadistic book which most people find quite unfair.)

Just like in Quixote, the Christian values that the monks want to live by and spread in the world seem hopelessly out of place and anachronistic but the film captures these contradictions with extraordinary warmth, humour and a generosity of spirit which really elevates into a totally different category. The monks are played by real-life monks, so the acting itself is quite spontaneous even when it is a bit awkward. The film is shot in the standard neo-realist style with minimum cuts, full of medium shots and largely improvised mise-en-scene.

All the episodes are beautiful and moving, though some are funnier than others. My favourite is when brother Juniper goes to ask "brother pig" for his leg so that he can feed the soup to his ailing brother in the chapel. Even for a sentimental vegetarian like me, it was really funny. In an earlier scene the same Brother Juniper with his even dottier fellow brother Giovanni prepares an omnibus soup enough for a few weeks so that they have free time to preach. Another particularly funny episode was towards the end titled "How Brother Francis and Brother Leon experienced those things that are perfect happiness." I will not spoil it for you by revealing Francis's definition of "perfect happiness" you have to see it for yourself. (It was another scene which had parallels in Don Quixote.)

In short a warm, funny and a great religious film. A longer essay on the film here.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Pasolini's Poetry

Feeling a little impudent in commenting about Pasolini's poetry but then what else is a blog for? I don't know anything about Italian tradition in poetry. I have read Inferno (in a very literal way) and have heard of Eugenio Montale but that's it. (With prose the situation is a little better. I am familiar with at least the representative works of Svevo, Levi, Moravia and Calvino.) So this will probably just be a shout out for the fans of Pasolini's films (which I have become recently). I haven't stopped thinking about Mamma Roma and Accattone ever since I saw them a couple of weeks back. I had the same reaction to his Teorema and Gospel According to St. Matthew which I saw early this year. Before everything else, his films work as an embodiment and expression of a unique and rare sensibility. Having read his poems and understood whatever I could, I think the same is applicable to his poems too. (In a way isn't all poetry about encapsulating an attitude towards the world and the self?)

The volume I have is a bilingual edition containing selections from five of his published poetry collections. Most of the poems are quite long - on an average around 20 pages (more than 500 lines). So reading these poems it feels like you are following a sustained trajectory of a thought and actually the interest of the poem lies in the nature of that trajectory itself. Most of these poems can fit into standard genre of confessional poetry, or at least they start like that, in the first person, with lamentations and self-reproachments, but just a few pages after you find him talking about Italian society, Marxist history, the hopelessness of the bourgeoisie, finally ending in exhortations of a bloody revolution! One of the poems in the book titled "Reality", that I liked particularly, starts with these lines:

Oh practical end of my poetry!
Because of you I can't overcome
the naivete that shrivels my prestige;

because of you, my tongue cracks with
anxiety, which I have to smother with talk.
I search my heart only for what's there.

And in the end after calling for a bloodbath of a revolution...

This is what a prophet would shout who doesn't have
the strength to kill a fly - whose strength
lies in his degrading difference.

Only when this has been said, or shouted,
will my fate be able to free itself,
and begin my discourse on reality.

"Tears of an Excavator" is another poem that resonated with me. The way he writes about the sights and sounds of a poor shantytown where he lived when he was a schoolteacher is very evocative in the same way as are the similar scenes in his films. He also writes about his homosexual experiences in a very frank manner. It is very close in tone to his initial films which had similar background - Accattone and Mamma Roma. Another noticeable and very interesting thing is that unlike many modern poets, writers and intellectuals writing about the modern life he doesn't write about the problem of alienation, the isolation of consciousness from the outside world. His subject is the exact opposite -- too much openness, a willingness to let the self completely disappear in the world, a radical immersion in the world. He writes about his sexual encounters with the young boys in the same mystical vein. There is another long poem titled "The Ashes of Gramsci" which moves in similar confessional territory despite its title. (Gramsci was an influential Marxist philosopher and a co-founder of the Italian communist party.) It didn't really make much sense to me though. There is another rather simple and moving poem addressed to his mother ("Prayer to My Mother") in which he prays to his mother not to die. There is another poem titled "A Desperate Vitality" starts with the line, "As in a film by Godard--rediscovery/of romanticism in the seat of/neocapitalistic cynicism and cruelty--. It didn't make much sense to me either. Another poem "The Beautiful Banners" is similar and somewhat shortened version of "Tears of an Excavator" and readily recognizable for someone coming to it after his films.

Most of these longer poems are written in unrhymed tercets which actually makes them a little easier to read. These tercets often (but not always) end in one line conclusion which probably makes it something else that I don't know about. The introduction to the book (translated from the Italian too) is pretty disappointing and not very helpful for the beginners. The book does contain some short notes in the end though which explain Italian specific phrases and words. I couldn't find anything of much help on the internet either.

An interesting exchange in the latest NYRB about Pasolini's poetry. The original essay in question is more about Pasolini's death than about his works.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Spanish Cinema under Franco

MOMA is organizing a retrospective of Spanish films made under the dictatorship of Franco. Details here. I have seen two of the films selected, Luis Bunuel's Viridiana and The Spirit of the Beehive by Victor Erice, both of which are masterpieces and my personal favourites. It is also A brief article in village voice has more details. Seeing these films with their proper historical and political context is even more important than usual. Otherwise Viridiana will look like a work of bilious and scattershot misanthropy, while it is actually an attack on the false pieties on which Franco's dictatorship was based. Similarly you will miss the way Spirit deals with the larger historical trauma and mourning in post-war Spain.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Frank Wedekind: Spring Awakening

I just finished reading Jonathan Franzen's translation of Spring Awakening, the nineteenth century German play by Frank Wedekind. It is quite good actually, exactly the kind of dark and mysterious tale of sexual awakening that I love. I would love to see it on stage if I get a chance sometime. Incidentally in much of his introduction (low on information and high on polemic, alas!) Franzen rails against a recent Broadway musical adaptation of the play.

"One example of the ongoing danger and vitality of Spring Awakening was the insipid rock-musical version of it that opened on Broadway in 2006, a hundred years after the play's world premiere, and was instantly overpraised. The script that Wedekind had finished in 1891 was far too frank sexually to be producible on any late-Victorian stage... And yet even the cruelest bowdlerizations of a century ago [i.e., the early censored versions] were milder than the maiming a dangerous play now undergoes in becoming a contemporary hit. [....]The result is funny in the same way that bad sitcoms are 'funny' - viewers emit nervous laughter at every mention of sex and then, hearing themselves laugh, conclude that what they're watching must be hilarious."

Even though I haven't seen the Broadway version I can understand what must have happened. It is not hard to fit the play into a standard teenage sexual confusion and frustration genre that the Hollywood loves so much, without realizing that Wedekind's view of human sexuality if far from the standard sexual-liberationist view of "if we only we could get laid as often as we want, everything would be alright." Wedekind saw sexuality as a chaotic and destructive force which is only made worse by our unwillingness to acknowledge and confront it. The play contains some really fierce and merciless caricatures of authority figures, the parents, the representatives of the church and the teachers who all collude in the collective denial of the presence of sexuality in the lives of children leading to some really tragic consequences. (There is some really strong stuff in it - suicide, physical and sexual abuse, rape, botched abortion leading to death etc.)

On the surface the central idea of the play may seem to be anachronistic. Indeed nobody can say that in this age sexuality is something hidden and its presence is not acknowledged enough. Sexualisation of children and the way pornography has become mainstream, it all seems so harmless and normal to us now. But one has to only look closer to realize that this sexuality is a normalized and homogenized version manufactured and foisted on us from outside by the commercial culture. It has no basis in the authentic inner experience. A real authentic sexuality will still be too subversive to handle.

Complete text of the play in an older translation is available here. Complete Review has more information and links. May be Franzen had this review in NYT in his mind when he called the musical version "instantly overpraised."

The same accusations can't be levelled against the movie versions of other plays by Wedekind - the silent German classic Pandora's Box by G.W. Pabst and the French film Innocence which came a couple of years back, both of which are masterpieces. In fact I saw Pandora's Box only recently. I will try to write in more detail about it later. Probably I should look for his Lulu plays on which the film is actually based.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Arthouse gossip and film related miscellany

Some interesting gossip. Anne Wiazemsky, who played the role of Marie in Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, has revealed in her just published memoir that during the course of shooting the film Bresson became obsessed with her - "at first, he would content himself by holding my arm, or stroking my cheek. But then came the disagreeable moment when he would try to kiss me ... I would push him away and he wouldn't insist, but he looked so unhappy that I always felt guilty."

She says similar things happened on the sets of Pasolini's Teorema too! Hard to believe such forbiddingly hyper-intellectual directors falling for someone as catatonic as her. (In Teorema she appropriately plays a girl who goes into coma.) Indeed it would have been laughably easy to dismiss had another intellectual director par excellence Jean-Luc Godard himself had not fallen for her in real life. They remained married for twenty years!

Anyway, some other interesting film related links. Review of a biography of Otto Preminger, director of Laura, Anatomy of a Murder and other classics. This reminds me I have to compile my list of five favourite films about courtroom drama. Anatomy of a Murder would be somewhere on the top. Another review in the LA Times talks about the contribution of Salavador Dali to cinema.


Also an old essay on Pasolini in The Nation which is pretty good. Has this interesting if a bit bizarre quote by him:

"Young males are traumatized by the duty permissiveness imposes on them--that is to say, the duty always and freely to make love. At the same time they are traumatized by the disappointment which their "sceptre" has produced in women, who formerly either were unfamiliar with it or made it the subject of myths while accepting it supinely. Besides, the education for, and initiation into, society which formerly took place in a platonically homosexual ambiance is now because of precocious couplings heterosexual from the onset of puberty. But the woman is still not in a position--given the legacy of thousands of years--to make a free pedagogic contribution: she still tends to favor codification. And this today can only be a codification more conformist than ever, as is desired by bourgeois power, whereas the old self-education, between men and men or between women and women, obeyed popular rules (whose sublime archetype remains Athenian democracy). Consumerism has therefore finally humiliated the woman by creating for her another intimidating myth. The young males who walk along the street laying a hand on the woman's shoulder with a protective air, or romantically clasping her hand, either make one laugh or cause a pang. Nothing is more insincere than the relationship to which that consumerist couple gives concrete expression."

"Daft, of course," that's what the reviewer says to this.

And this comment by Susan Sontag from the blurb of Pasolini's Selected Poems:

"Of Pasolini's multiple incessant genius, only one facet, that of the film-maker, is well-known abroad. That of the poet, novelist, the structuralist critic, the cultural and political journalist inter alia - these remain to be discovered. Pasolini seems to me indisputably the most remarkable figure to have emerged in the Italian arts and letters since the Second World War. Whatever he did, once he did it, had the quality of seeming necessary. His poetry is an important part of his passionate, proud, historically vulnerable body of work, a work in and with history; and of the tragic itinerary of his sensibility."

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Stanislaw Lem: Solaris

The last time I read Solaris, just a year back actually, I found it extremely tedious. It was specially surprising because I love the film versions a lot, both by Tarkovsky and also by Steven Soderbergh. I was also a little busy with other things at that time so I thought may be I didn't pay too much attention so I thought let's read it again.

I found the book more interesting this time, certainly far from boring or tedious, though still somewhat flawed. The basic events and the plot points are almost the same as the movies. Kris Kelvin, a psychiatrist and an astronaut gets a mysterious call of help from the space station which is studying the planet Solaris and its strange Ocean. When Kelvin reaches the station he finds out that the friend who had sent the message has committed suicide and the other two colleagues are showing strange behaviour related to acute paranoia. Talking to them he learns that the Ocean has the power to create human forms from nothing but the fears and guilt hidden in the deepest psyche of people. He soon finds out that his long dead wife, who had committed suicide in a state of nervous depression, has come back to him. Rest of novel is about his torments as he tries to make sense out of what is happening and also what to do with the apparition.

The main problem with the book is its structure. Actually the story of Kelvin and his wife Rheya takes up only a small part of the novel. The real protagonist of the novel is the Solaris ocean itself. This is where the structural flaw of the novel becomes obvious. The story is told in first person by Kris, so to get the exposition about the Ocean going Lem uses some very silly and ridiculous narrative techniques. Kris on a regular basis finds himself with a book or some collected journals of "Solarist Studies" and uses this occasion to tell us the entire history of how the planet was discovered, about attempts to describe and classify the various parts of the Ocean and to make contacts with it and to study its nature. This is all written in a satiric style, parodying the scientific language. (Somewhat similar to the Island of Lagado section in Gulliver's Travels.) Last time I didn't realize that it was supposed to be funny and I was reading all the mumbo-jumbo about symmetriads, mimoids, phi-structures very seriously. Of course I soon got tired of it. I didn't even realize when Rheya starts reading a copy of "Interplanetary Cookery Book"!

The parody distances us from Kelvin and his story but it drives home the basic point of the book too, which is as one of the characters says about the ways scientists have been studying Solaris, "We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors." This is a question that philosophers have been debating since long, specially in philosophy of science and philosophy of knowledge - the problem of classification and categories. Lem thinks that scientists are rigid in their definitions of categories and the way they classify things like Solaris, they only make fools of themselves in the process. He is basically making a comment about the scientific hubris.

Both the movie versions leave out the intellectualism of the book and accentuate the emotional, love story part of the narrative. The book also captures the mournfulness and despair of Kris's character very well but it is not that effective because of all the surrounding pseudo-science nonsense. Actually as I kept on reading the book I liked the idea that Lem didn't really care for verisimilitude that much and he was willing to go on and on as and when an idea struck him. I think that's what sets this book apart from average science fiction. Lem is not just interested in creating a fantastic but internally self-consistent world, he is more interested in using it as a pretext to explore complex ideas.

I liked this last paragraph of the book:

On the surface, I was calm: in secret, without really admitting it, I was waiting for something. Her return? How could I have been waiting for that? We all know that we are material creatures, subject to the laws of physiology and physics, and not even the power of all our feelings combined can defeat those laws. All we can do is detest them. The age-old faith of lovers and poets in the power of love, stronger than death, that finis vitae sed non amoris, is a lie, useless and not even funny. So must one be resigned to being a clock that measures the passage of time, now out of order, now repaired, and whose mechanism generates despair and love as soon as its maker sets it going? Are we to grow used to the idea that every man relives ancient torments, which are all the more profound because they grow comic with repetition? The human existence should repeat itself, well and good, but that it should repeat itself like a hackneyed tune, or a record a drunkard keeps playing as he feeds coins into the jukebox...[...]And yet I lived in expectation. Since she had gone, that was all that remained. I did not know what achievements, what mockery, even what tortures still awaited me. I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past

Another extract from the book when Kris and Snow are talking about imperfection of gods and finally trying to understand Solaris in these terms.

"What do you mean by imperfect?" Snow frowned. "In a way all the gods of old religions were imperfect, considering that their attributes were amplified human ones. The God of the Old Testament, for instance, required humble submission and sacrifices, and was jealous of other gods. The Greek gods had fits of sulks and family quarrels, and they were just as imperfect as mortals..."

"No," I interrupted. "I'm not thinking of a god whose imperfection arises out of the candor of his human creators, but one whose imperfection represents his essential characteristic: a god limited in his omniscience and power, fallible, incapable of foreseeing the consequences of his acts, and creating things that lead to horror. He is a...sick god, whose ambitions exceed his powers and who does not realize it at first. A god who has created clocks, but not the time they measure. He has created systems or mechanisms that served specific ends but have now overstepped and betrayed them. And he has created eternity, which was to have measured his power, and which measures his unending defeat."

This is a very well-directed scene from the film by Soderbergh. This is when Kris first encounters Rheya in the space ship. (It has a brief footage of George Clooney's unclothed posterior, just in case!)

The final scene from Tarkovsky's Solaris here. I love the music. It is by Bach but I don't know what it is called.

Also an article in the new york times compares the two movie versions with the book.

Passion in Pasolini's films

This is a nice video with clippings from some of Pasolini's films showing the representation of religious images, specially those related to the Passion of Christ. The films are Accattone, Mamma Roma, La Ricotta and The Gospel According to St. Matthew. It is set to Bach's St. Matthew Passion.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Two films by Pasolini

Before Pasolini turned to fim making in 1961 with his life in Roman slums drama Accattone, he had already established himself as a major poet and a public intellectual, of the thorny, adversarial kind. As has been noted at so many places he was a man of contradictions but that is only if you look at it from a superficial level. His whole artistic project was to show how false and hollow these contradictions are. He was a dedicated Marxist who was obsessed with the idea of the sacred and was always searching for an epic and mythical dimension in life that is his opinion was being destroyed and devalued in the modern industrial societies. In his poetry, and in many of his films too, he elegized the vanishing peasant culture of Italy and "the desperate vitality" (the title of one of his poems) which he thought was being replaced by a shallow consumeristic material prosperity in postwar urban Italian society. He was also an avowed atheist who made some of the most stirring and profound religious films ever (including a couple, Teorema and The Gospel According to Saint Matthew which won prizes from some Catholic organizations while inviting boos and calls of bans from others) As if all of this was not enough he was also openly homosexual. One has to actually look at his Teorema or Mamma Roma to see how he reconciles all these apparent contradictions into one complex and exhilarating work of art.

Accattone is a generic Italian word for what Americans call a "bum," a street scrounger, a good for nothing. The hero's name is Vittario but people call him Accattone and he doesn't mind the nickname. He is actually a pimp, living a food-chain existence exploiting those who are weaker than he is-- that is the women who work for him as prostitutes. The main narrative follows him closely as he goes about his life, tries to get straight, though very half-heartedly and ultimately fails tragically in the end.

Even though on surface it looks like a standard neo-realist film documenting the lives of outcasts, downtrodden and marginalized people, you soon realize that it is no regular documentary work of political protest. Pasolini's interests lie elsewhere. He is more interested in locating that idea of sacred in the lives of people living in the Roman slums. In one scene when a prostitute is beaten brutally by a bunch of thugs the soundtrack swells to the music of Bach's passion. For someone not aware with his sensibility and ideas, the whole thing will look too pretentious and heavy-handed but once you realize what he is trying to achieve the scene becomes deeply moving. It is far from being a reactionary work, romanticising the life of the slums though, to Pasolini the whole issue of social injustice and moral failure is too obvious to really bother depicting it explicitly. It could otherwise have become yet another film full of slogans. He is tackling more complex themes here.

I think I am babbling rather incoherently so I will just link to this essay which says the same things in a much more interesting manner. This comment in particular - "Unlike so many other young iconoclastic directors at this time, Pasolini is not intent on de-mythifying and de-sacralising but rather on “re-sacralising” human existence."

Pasolini made Mamma Roma just one year after Accattone and though in the subject, characters and the basic treatment it repeats a lot of what is there in the earlier film, it still is a far more satisfying film in technical aspects. Or may be it was just that the dvd was issued from criterion with their usual attention to quality transfer. The visual compositions and the cinematography is much more beautiful and evocative in the film. With the way he shoots even the garbage dumps or the billowing grass on the waste lands, it is not hard to understand what he meant by his quest for a mystical dimension in the apparently seedier side of human existence. The film also has Anna Magnani, at her stormy best, in the title role. Pasolini generally worked with non-professional actors (this is another thing that will trouble a neophyte) but Magnani's acting is so over the top and stylized that it works beautifully in counterpoint to the awkward actors all around her. With the way she laughs (rather guffaws), or the way she walks or even carries herself, she reminds of the Pasolini's phrase "a desperate vitality."

The basic story concerns the middle aged prostitute played by Magnani trying to start a new life in Rome for the sake of her teenage son. She gets a new house, becomes a vegetable vendor, even gets her son a job through an elaborate con-scheme but tragedy is always around the corner. Her pimp returns, forcing her to walk the streets again. Her son eventually learns of her past and gets involved in some petty crimes all ultimately leading to tragic consequences.

Like in Accattone the film is full of religious symbolisms, most of them so obvious, blatant and over the top that it will make your jaw drop with its audacity. The young son as he lies dying in prison is photographed in the manner of the religious paintings of the dying Christ. Mamma Roma herself is portrayed as the Virgin Mary. The music, like in Accattone, is highly operatic and religious in nature. The final scene looks like as if it is shot for an opera or a tragic drama with even a bunch of people acting as a chorus. Pasolini was actually inspired by the medieval and renaissance religious painting and his visual compositions show it very clearly - the way he shoots the faces in medium closeups, always occupying the center of the frame. Before shooting Accattone he also showed his cinematographer clips from Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc which is again an interesting reference point when thinking about this film.

There are so many more things that can be said about the film but I will probably keep them for future. Both of these films are masterpieces, specially Mamma Roma which is I think the best place to start if you haven't seen any film by him. Will also try to post about Pasolini's poetry sometime soon. For now, the senses of cinema has a profile of Pasolini which is a very good introduction to his films. Also an essay on the criterion site.

And the nobel goes to...

...Doris Lessing. I have read her book The Grass is Singing which was actually her first book. I don't remember a lot of it though. The Nobel committee thinks The Golden Notebook is her most important work.

New York Times has a featured author page with links to past reviews and essays.

Also a controversy she was involved in some time back, when she asked feminists to "Lay off men!"

This is a nice picture:

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

More Italian Films

Have been watching some Italian films beyond the usual Rossellini, Fellini and Antonioni triumvirate. Two really excellent ones I saw recently. Two films by Pasolini in the next post.

At first I was a little hesitant about watching this 1965 film Fists in the Pocket directed by Marco Bellocchio. Not another film about dysfunctional family and "the sick soul of the suburb," that Hollywood has turned into a cliche in the last decade or so, I thought. I was wrong though. It is far more shocking and perverse and the whole grotesquerie is mixed with a deep pathos and melancholy which takes it beyond the realm of polemic and wilful profanation of conservative values into that of poetry. (Pasolini called Bertolucci's debut film La Commare Secca "a cinema of poetry", while Bellocchio's film to him was "cinema of prose." I found them both very similar in the style though. Bertolucci's film is not very famous but is quite good too.)

The film follows the story of its protagonist Alessandro who in his delusions has decided that murder and collective suicide are the only ways to solve his family's problems. He harbours incestuous feelings for his sister and is resentful of his elder brother, who is the only normal person in the family, may be only because he has been able to conform and mingle in the outside society. (The film actually takes places in a house around snow-capped mountains. I didn't know Italy had such landscape, may it is somewhere along the Austrian border.) The film succeeds partly because of the extraordinary acting and screen presence of Lou Castel in the role of Alessandro. He is like the young Marlon Brando, who he even resembles in looks. He is aggressive and awkward, outwardly calm but only to reveal the intensity that is bottled up beneath, as if ready to explode any moment. (Also beautifully captured by the title of the film.) Like Brando his gestures are always spontaneous and very unpredictable. (If you had any doubts about the Brando connection, the film makes it totally clear. His sister keeps a picture of Brando affixed above her bed.)

Bellocchio sees the institution of the family, at least in its isolative, self-sufficient nature, as another of those fascist institutions which continued to exist even after the nominal demise of institutional fascism. In this the film resembles Bunuel who explored similar themes with a similar sensibility of wilful blasphemy. There is even an obvious visual quote from L'age d'Or in which Alessandro and his sister throw off all their household things belonging to their mother through the balcony. In the Bunuel film even the pope is defenestrated in the end. In the interview featured on the disc Bellocchio says that Bunuel saw the film but disliked it. Anyway I found it endlessly fascinating and extremely thought provoking. It is a masterful work, not really meant for casual viewing. More information on senses of cinema and the criterion site.

Ermanno Olmi's 1961 film Il Posto ("The Job") cut really close to be bone and had me a bit depressed for some time after I watched it. After going through a bunch of ridiculous tests and psychometric interviews a small town boy gets a job in the nearby city of Milan. At the job he secretly yearns for a pretty coworker but instead finds himself being systematically dehumanized by the big, inhuman corporate machinery. It is a very subtle film, reminiscent of Jacques Tati's Playtime both in its humour, visual style and comment about the essential alienation of human beings embodied in the modern architecture, everything shown through with careful scene compositions. It is also interesting to think of it in comparision with Antonioni's L'Eclisse which is also set in Milan and which deals with the same subject. Olmi eschews stylistic abstractions of Antonioni for a comparatively more documentary look.

The young boy in the film is extremely good. His scenes with the girl specially are wonderfully directed by Olmi. The shyness, lack of confidence, the silent attraction and equally silent heartbreak, all filmed in exquisitely understated manner and more powerful and devastating just for that. In the final scene he gets the place of a recently deceased accountant who it is revealed was actually working on a novel. Olmi means to show that with his observant, curious and introverted character the boy will have a hard time in his new life-role too and may be his fate will be the same as the accountant - an anonymous life with an unfinished novel in the end. As it turns out the character of boy is largely autobiographical so may be it is not entirely hopeless. Perhaps someday he will find some way to break loose and become a a writer and a artist too.

Olmi's skill and craft in filming the romantic scenes are also evident in a short film collected in the criterion disc called "The Crush." A teenager who looks like Woody Allen in his spectacles has this idea of using what he calls "the modern industrial ideas" to make the process of courtship more efficient and productive. Basically it just seemed to be a variant of the classic stable marriage problem (just thinking of it gives me nightmares). Anyway as it happens all logic, best laid plans and carefully designed algorithms come to nought when he lays his eyes on a pretty and cute french import named Jeannie and learns some valuable life lessons in the process. It was first shown on the Rai TV and may be because of that technically it is not that great. But still very interesting and heart-warming story.

An excellent essay on the film by Kent Jones here and another article has more information about Olmi and his other films.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Javier Marias: Dark Back of Time

It is very difficult to describe what Javier Marias' Dark Back of Time ("a false novel" as he himself calls it) is all about. Half of the book, certainly the most entertaining section is about the publication and subsequent reception of his Oxford-set novel All Souls in English (I had earlier written about it here). As he claims quite a few real-life people in and around Oxford took it to be a roman a clef and found themselves portrayed as fictional characters, even to the extent that started behaving like the characters in the novel. A few were satisfied and happy but most others not so much. He also clarifies that he doesn't have a wife named Luisa back in Madrid as the narrator claimed in the earlier novel, much less he is the father of a small baby. He basically writes about his encounters with these real-life people and records their observations and comments and muses about the nature of fiction and representation of reality.

Rest of book is a bit tedious and I frankly lost track of the whole thing quite a few times reading it. It may appeal to geeks, trivia hunters and obscure books enthusiasts but it doesn't work entirely on its own as a work of literature. He basically recounts the biographies of a number of eccentric Englishmen (Marias seems to a passionate anglophile) punctuated by his own commentaries about the nature of time and fiction and its relationship with reality. All of these people and their histories are actually real, Marias even has newspaper clippings, photographs and maps as if to "prove" that what he is talking is indeed real and he is not making them up, though in the end the whole thing becomes even more mysterious that it was before. In this the book invites comparisons with W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn which also had the same structure but which is a much more interesting work because Sebald's ideas and his style give the anarchistic musings a deep, though still somewhat mysterious, sense of unity and purpose.

Marias, again like Sebald, comes back repeatedly to the nature of time, specially the lost time, people forgotten and taken over by oblivion. At one place in the book he explicitly says that he comes back repeatedly to:

What I've called in several books "the other side of time, its dark back", taking the mysterious expression from Shakespeare to give a name to the kind of time that has not existed, the time that awaits us and also the time that does not await us and therefore does not happen, or happens only in a sphere that isn't precisely temporal, a sphere in which writing, or perhaps only fiction, may -who knows -be found.

I had come across this phrase in his All Souls and at that time I didn't know that he took it from Shakespeare. It is actually a somewhat modified version of the phrase used by Shakespeare in The Tempest, where Prospero is asking Miranda of the time before she came to the island, "What seest thou else/ In the dark backward and abysm of time?" It is a very evocative phrase. Marias interprets it to mean not just the irretrievable past but also the future which will never come, signifying our own mortality and finitude of our lives.

This section where he tells the story of these forgotten writers and adventurers I found a bit tedious as I said earlier. Much of it revolves around John Gawsworth, a forgotten writer of fantastic fiction, who died in utter destitution and was also the reigning poet-monarch of the kingdom of redonda. As it turns out Marias has now taken over the kingship and has also awarded various dukedoms, most notable to people like Coetzee, Almodovar and Pinter. He also writes about a writer who died in Mexico of an accidental gunshot at a new year revelry and a spy who was executed by the Germans. He also talks about his elder brother who died before Marias was born and so many other things that I have, I think, already forgotten. All this meanderings and seemingly random excursions drive the same point, at least that's what I think, that there is no order in the facts of the world, time is an all powerful force of destruction and in the end fiction and the faculty of imagination is our only hope for resistance against this anarchy and inevitable oblivion.

Some more information about the book is there on the complete review which finds it "odd but well done" which seems pretty accurate to me.


As a bonus a hilarious extract from the book about "The Podium Effect" (this is after he reveals that he is not married, much less has fathered a baby)

"So it isn't true?" a student insisted. "Because we were all convinced you had a small baby." I remember she said "convencidas todas" in the feminine--"we women were all convinced"--perhaps not so much because of the large number of women in the class, always the case in literature classes, as because the discovery had been discussed only among those of her gender. And on the face of one of those female students I thought I noticed an expressions of contentment at hearing that I was not married. Nothing to feel boastful or conceited about, given that all the world's professors, male and female, enjoy what could be called "the podium effect," due to which even the ugliest and most squalid, horrible, tyrannical and despicable among them arouse spurious and delusional passions, as I know all too well. I've seen dazzling women barely out of their teens swooning and melting over some foul-smelling homunculus with a piece of chalk in his hand, and innocent boys degrading themselves (circumstantially) for a scrawny, furrowed bosom stooped over a desk.

Those who take advantage of this podium effect are generally contemptible, and they are legion. What I didn't understand, though, was the contentment of that student whose colors were the same as my briefcase (eyes blue, hair black), because she, in any case, was married. Perhaps it was a purely literary satisfaction, and she was happy to confirm that what she had read as a novel was indeed a novel.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Joseph Roth's Rebellion & Michael Haneke's TV Films

I saw Michael Haneke's film adaptation of Joseph Roth's Rebellion yesterday. I thought I will write something about the book too but then came across this review by James Wood in the Guardian. It is quite good, so I will just link it here. (He has written a longer essay on Roth too which is collected in his book The Irresponsible Self, titled "The Empire of Joseph Roth." I found it too technical but it is also quite good.)

This novella is not as great as his masterpiece The Radetzky March but if you have read that book you will probably want to check this one too. His melancholia and the dark and extremely pessimistic view of human history and human affairs in general is really something you can't shake off easily. For him things like God, Death, Fate, Destiny are all synonymous (he uses capital letters for all). Everything is already hurtling fast on the path towards doom and destruction, even the inanimate things. In common with a lot of Central European literature of that period, there is also an apocalyptic sensibility at work in his books which sees the end of the habsburgh monarchy as the end of the world itself. It was actually the case, specially for the Central European Jews who were left homeless after the rise of ethnic nationalism in the wake of the collapse of the empire, leading to catastrophic consequences just a decade later.

Wood is all praise for his craft and the skill with which he uses language but personally I find it a little overwrought though I can understand why someone can feel excited after encountering a sentence like, "Night attached itself to day, and then melted in the grayly victorious morning," to describe the passage of time. What I love in his books is not the craft, which is quite conventional, specially so if you compare it with his illustrious compatriots and contemporaries (Kafka, Musil, but rather his worldview and his dark, apocalyptic sensibility that I talked of earlier.

Roth wrote this book early in his career and it is very interesting to see how his ideas about the empire changed from an attitude disrespectful and critical of empire to a pure sentimental elegy. The hero of the novel is a "believer," he believes in the essential justness of the state (and the world) which he sees as an agent of a merciful and just God on earth, even after losing a leg in the war. It is only after a series of personal misfortunes that he realizes his folly and comes to the side of "the heathens," the rebels, the criminals, even the Bolsheviks! In the end though this idea of political revolution itself is given a completely different spin because of his "leftist melancholy" (as Walter Benjamin called it in a different context for a different writer whose I don't remember now.) This idea of moral rebellion against God and connecting to the the authority of an unjust state is already there in Dostoevsky. He even named his chapter in The Brothers Karamazov "Rebellion." It is quite possible that Roth had read Dostoevsky. The final monologue spoken by the hero, hallucinating that he is in the court while actually he is in his final death-throes, feels quite similar to Ivan Karamazov's speech in Dostoevsky's, the same accusation of injustice, the same expression of revulsion towards all authority figures including God, the same "I believe in Your existence but I revile You." Also the way he writes about the byzantine and comically (and tragically) inefficient Habsburg bureaucracy, intent on crushing weak and innocent human beings, does indeed put him in the same league as Kafka and Musil both, who wrote about the same on a much larger scale. (The cover picture above is very suitably Kafkaesque.)


Michael Haneke's adaptation of the novella as expected invites all kinds of superlatives - both as a cinematic work on its own and also as an enlightening companion piece to the book. (In fact it received a big applause from a packed audience at the moma.) This is one of those cases where the book and the film adaptation complement each, enhancing appreciation of both. I had read about the Viennese Waltzes that the hero plays on his portable Organ machine in the book but only in the film I really heard how it actually sounded. Haneke of course uses the same theme in other scenes as well, again giving a unity which is not as perceptible in the book. The cast as is usual with Haneke is uniformly brilliant, there is not even a single false note anywhere. He also bookends the story with newsreel footage of the war and the Vienna of the twenties providing a historical context which you otherwise have to bring with yourself when reading the book. The screen palette itself is a kind of faded brown giving it a feel of found footage. Also like in his adaptation of The Castle he uses overhead narration to mimic the omniscient voice in the book. It may seem like an easy way but it is actually designed very carefully, to create just the right ironic and contrapuntal effect between the action onscreen and the narration. I recently saw Fassbinder's Effi Briest, an adaptation of the nineteenth century German novel of the same name by Theodor Fontane, which used the same technique of extensive narration. In this case even many of the dialogues were "acted out" by the narrator. In the beginning the film feels static but as you get into its rhythm it is extremely effective.

The other TV film of Haneke I saw yesterday was not as good. Fraulein with the subtitle "A German Melodrama" looked at best a sub-Fassbinder work. The same subject is treated much more forcefully and effectively in Fassbinder's well known The Marriage of Maria Braun. It also takes a critical look at the speedy revival and regeneration of post-war Germany and shows that moral and spiritual compromise, willful amnesia are just the side-effects of the essential will to live and pursuit of happiness. This film has some complicated cross cuttings between the scenes making it very non-linear so stylistically it can't be compared to Fassbinder but I don't think this way of telling story added anything worthwhile apart from making it very difficult to follow, specially in the beginning. These two tv films also clarified the mystery specially for those who were astonished by his shocking debut The Seventh Continent. He had been honing his craft since quite long before venturing full time into feature film making. He also has an extensive experience directing Austrian theatre which probably explains his facility with the actors. I want to see his Three Paths to the Lake too which is based on a short story by Ingeborg Bachmann. It is sometime in the coming weeks. I had linked to the moma schedule before. Another link (the same exhibition I think) with brief details about his films here.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Bollywood Retro.

Was watching the film yesterday after a long time. What a complete bloodbath of sentimentality! I like this song though.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Two Italian Comedies

Two very funny Italian films I saw recently:

Divorce Italian Style is a nasty black comedy and a merciless social satire exposing the sexual hypocrisies of the Italian (Sicilian?) society. Ferdinando is living an oppressive life as a scion of an aristrocratic family whose best years are already past. He is also fed up with his silly wife and her smothering and clinging love. He instead is lusting after his seventeen year old cousin Angela, played by a very beautiful Stefania Sandrelli (who was also in The Conformist), who lives next door. The only problem is that the Italian law forbids divorce and so does the catholic church. What is to be done? Well, as it turns there is a way out. He finds out there is "an unwritten law" that if a man catches his wife in flagrante delicto he can actually get away with murder with a lenient sentence because he was actually protecting his and his society's honour. (The same thing applies to a woman too but in that case leniency is comparatively harder to get.) He hatches up a plan to lure a man to his wife and soon enough finds out an ex-flame of hers who is in town, leading to some predictable and other not so predictable consequences.

The film very deservedly won an Oscar for best screenplay which is quite rare for a foreign film. Every dialogue crackles with wit and sarcasm. There is specially a scene in the courtroom in which the lawyer for the defence holds forth on the concept of honour in such a grandiloquent manner that it is to be seen to be believed (he manages to bring in Shakespeare, Crusades and history of Christianity). The film also won an Oscar nomination for Marcello Mastroianni and his performance in this film was one big surprise for me. Just a few posts back I was complaining of him being miscast in Visconti's Le Notti Bianche as a shy, awkward lonely young man and speculated that it might be because of his image of suave, sophisticated and attractive guy with too-bored-to-care attitude that he perfected in films like La Dolce Vita. Watching him in this film was a revelation. He plays the sleazy smooth-guy with hair brilliantined and smoking cigarettes through plastic holders with such relish that I was wondering if he was the same guy who played Marcello in La Dolce Vita. In fact Fellini's film itself is used as a subject of satire. In one of the key scenes of the film the whole town and even people from the neighbouring village gather in the local theatre for a screening of the film. (In an earlier scene a bishop in the church is shown to be fulminating against the film.) A man who is ogling Anita Ekberg in the classic fountain scene, after getting disapproving looks from his girlfriend, explains, "she is beautiful, but she has no soul" showing how Fellini's film was actually received in his own country and how his aims and his ideas fell flat on common people. Rest of the supporting cast is also great and so is the music score (which was nominated for an Oscar too.) A great comedy classic, not to be missed.


Big Deal on Madonna Street is a hilarious riff on the classic caper films like The Asphalt Jungle, Rififi, The Killing and others. Some familiarity with these films is required to appreciate the humour of the film. The basic behind all these films is the same. A bunch of down on luck criminals led by a brilliant mastermind embark upon a crime with which they plan to alter their course of life forever. The meticulousness and intelligence with which they plan the heist is designed to make one think that nothing can go wrong but a malevolent fate is always scheming against them and they can't resist or go back even if they know they are headed to their sure doom. The solemnity of such films makes for an easy parody and satire, as this film indeed shows. As Bruce Eder says in this essay, "If the action in Monicelli’s film is governed by a personified deity, it’s not the vengeful, dark God of American film noir, but a cheerful, whimsical God who smiles and appreciates a good practical joke." It also riffs on many neo-realist films dealing with the petty criminals and replaces their pessimistic social critique with good humoured social and character observation. So in this case we have a petty criminal, played again by Mastroianni (actually a cameraless photographer), who is taking care of his baby and whose wife is in jail for selling smuggled cigarettes. There is a boxer character too, staple of quite a few noir films. Every one of them sees working for money as something below his dignity. In the end when two of them find themselves mistaken for workers they can't believe it. "Do I look like someone who works for a living?" he asks. That's the problem of lumpen proletariat, the film seems to be saying! Very funny overall. My only gripe with the film was that Claudia Cardinale was completely wasted in a two-bit role. She is an actress of middling talents but she looks really hot in the few scenes she has in the film. If she had more scenes it could have saved me some time and effort spent in pausing and rewinding. Still a wonderfully entertaining film.

Two Epigraphs

From The Confusions of Young Torless by Robert Musil

"As soon as we put something into words, we devalue it in a strange way. We think we have plunged into the depths of the abyss, and when we return to the surface the drop of water on our pale fingertips no longer resembles the sea from which it comes. We delude ourselves that we have discovered a wonderful treasure trove, and wehn we return to the light of day we find that we have brought back only false stones and shards of glass; and yet the treasure goes on glimmering in the dark, unaltered."


This other one had me in splits for some reason. This is quoted in the beginning of Montano's Malady by Enrique Vila-Matas (in which Musil himself makes quite a few guest appearances.)

"What will we do to disappear?"

- Maurice Blanchot

I have only read a few pages so far but I think I should start with his Bartleby & Co. first which seems to its precursor, if not a prequel. A review on disquiet thoughts blog. More info here.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Films of Mikhail Kalatozov

BAM is organizing a mini-retrospective of films of Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov. Details here.

I have seen two of his films and they are both visually ravishing works. The Cranes are Flying, a love story set in the second world war, is about a young girl dealing with the trauma of separation. A common enough love story, even a sentimental one but what makes it exceptional is its stunning camera work. It is not surprising that they have named the retrospective "The Emotional Camera." The restless moving camera, the endless tracking shots, extreme angles... every single scene in the film is a marvel. In some ways it anticipates Andrei Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood which is more elliptical and perhaps as a result less emotionally immediate as compared to The Cranes are Flying. It is also available in a nice dvd from criterion. I had mentioned this film briefly before on the blog too.

I am Cuba, the Cuban-Soviet co-production, is even more extreme in its style, specially in its use of the same long tracking shots. It is a very strange film actually. Ostensibly a propaganda documentary about the Cuban revolution, it is a defiantly formalist and experimental exercise in film making. No wonder both the Cuban and Soviet cultural authorities were pissed off with it and the film was virtually forgotten. It was rediscovered and promoted by the noted Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante following which it was picked up by various filmmakers most notably Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola both of whom added their endorsement for the re=release of the film. You can watch the entire film here. It is quite long (over three hours) though the first 15-20 minutes is enough to convince you of its sheer strangeness and uniqueness. The monologue spoken by "Cuba" in the film was actually written by the famous poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Lots of interesting stuff to read on the internet about this film. A review from Sight and sound here.

Another article about the retrospective here.

Tadeusz Borowski

Ruth Franklin's New Republic essay on Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski is now available on Powells website.

But Borowski's suicide can also be read as a final act of rage against a world that turned out, in his estimation, to be little better than Auschwitz itself, a world filled with robbers, swindlers, and murderers, and governed by similarly corrupt codes of conduct. A. Alvarez has famously written that "around Borowski's stories there is a kind of moral silence, like the pause which follows a scream." But the scream, for Borowski, was the essence of his work. If Elie Wiesel was the great mystic of the Holocaust and Primo Levi was its great analyst, Borowski was its angry young man, a pent-up vessel of pressurized fury that could do nothing in the end but explode.

I found his story collection This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen extremely hard to read or even to get into when I read it a few months back. I had written about my bafflement with the book earlier. (That comment by Al Alvarez I think does capture the source of discomfort to some extent.)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

John Cassavetes: A Woman Under the Influence

Though I saw John Cassavetes' Faces only last year I now remember absolutely nothing except that I slept through most of it. A Woman Under the Influence is much better as compared but even then I think his film making style doesn't really work for me, although this film did make me appreciate it. I also understand why he is so beloved of the young and passionate independent filmmakers. He showed that to make films you don't really need much except passion and dedication to the work. His films are made on ultra-low budget, shot with ordinary cameras with no effects, in ordinary looking interiors with the cast and crew consisting of his family and friends.

His cinema is basically an actor's cinema. He is not interested in taking "a beautiful shot" or manufacturing a performance by manipulating the reaction shots of the actors. In his films director with all his tools and techniques is slave to the actors, their gestures, their body movements and dialogues. It is also far from a static theatre though. His camera is always there inside where the action is, in the bed, on the dining table, wherever the characters are, the viewer is right in with them.

My main problem with his films is that it is so profoundly anti-intellectual. In its quest for freedom and spontaneity, what it ends up with is chaos and emotional hysteria. This particular film tells the story of a middle-aged suburban housewife losing her grip on reality but Cassavetes isn't interested in any intellectual analysis of a woman's experience of alienation and problems with adapting to a role which is emotionally repressive and unfulfilling. Gena Rowlands is marvelous in the role (she deservedly got an Oscar nomination) but still without a context she remains uninteresting and unproductive as a character. She makes the viewer feel her pain but that doesn't help him understand her situation any better.

Still I think the film works because the small and minor domestic scenes are so naturally setup and acted. Even minor humiliations and emotional troubles that the characters have come alive on screen. Apart from Rowlands the other actors are very good too, including Peter Falk as the husband. This film actually reminded me of Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, which I actually like much more. It is similarly setup - a woman slowing losing her grip and everything shot inside one apartment.

A nice appreciation in NYT here. Another essay argues for its feminist credentials and along the way accuses Altman, Kubrick and Scorsese of misogyny.

More Hungarian Literature Enthusiasm

Some enthusiasm for the Hungarian novelist Miklos Banffy, whose name I hadn't heard of before, in The Telegraph. He seems to have specialised in the already over-crowded discipline of "the end of Habsburg empire" studies too. (I was of course quite annoyed by the article because if its philistine swipes at one of my most beloved books):

Much of this ground has been covered before. Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March is rightly considered to be one of the greatest novels of the last century, and Stefan Zweig composed another bitter-sweet masterpiece, Beware of Pity, in 1939, a year before Bánffy completed his trilogy.

One might also throw in, for historical purposes, Robert Musil's long, unwieldy novel, The Man Without Qualities. But that is a cold book, driven by philosophical inquiry. You can love Roth and weep at Zweig, so warm are their books. Musil, being uninterested in human character, forfeits the reader's sympathy even though he has, unaccountably, gained a reputation.

He probably means Stefan Zweig's autobiography The World of Yesterday which I haven't read but have heard is full of sentimental nostalgia. Beware of Pity on the other hand is a very dark Freudian love story which I don't think has anything to cry about. Certainly not the dissolution of the empire.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Luchino Visconti: La Terra Trema

Luchino Visconti's La Terra Trema ("The Earth Trembles") is a classic of Italian neo-realism. It was shot on real location, in a sea-side fishermen community of Sicily. The title sequence proudly announces that the actors are fishermen of Sicily themselves. It doesn't mention any individual names. The language of the film is not Italian but rather a Sicilian dialect because as the narrator says, "Italian is not the language of the poor." Visconti actually went to the location to make a documentary about the lives of the fishermen but then decided to dramatize and make a feature film instead. Although the film retains the basic documentary form and features, complete with a voiceover narration, its style is highly deceptive. It tells the story of one fisherman family in particular which tries to break away from the exploitative clutches of the middlemen and wholesalers by buying a boat of their own. But for that they have to mortgage their house. As is typical of those neorealist films, fate and external forces are always ready the crush the human spirit. Their boat gets damaged in a storm and they find themselves stuck in a ever downward spiral of destitution, debt and doom. A very bleak film. It was partly financed by the communist party of Italy and the narrator at many places does get into standard political slogans about how important it is to organize and how hopeless the act of solitary rebellion is. This film could easily have become a predictable political propaganda or a standard social document film but its highly complex and very deceptive style puts it on an entirely different level.

I had read about this film in Satyajit Ray's Our Films, Their Films (slightly disappointing book I must say). He makes some unkind remarks about it in the book (excerpts available on google books):

"Had Visconti's talent been as far-reaching as his ambition, the film might have been a masterpiece. As it stands, La Terra Trema is a great bore, a colossal aesthetic blunder and a monumental confusion of styles. The grim naturalism of its locale is in constant conflict with the behaviour of its human beings--deliberate and stylised to the point of ballet. Visconti's meticulous composition within the frame heightens the feeling of artificiality. Moreover, in an effort to achieve a slow rhythm, he holds his shots till long after they have ceased to perform their expressive functions, and boredom results from a cumulation of a hundred such 'blank' moments when the audience is obliged to contemplate on the abstract qualities of the images which were, however, not primarily intended for such contemplation."

It is interesting because these were exactly the reasons why I was so impressed with the film and what he considers "a monumental confusion of styles" I thought was very self-conscious and very intelligently designed and thought out and in the end highly effective. You start with the feeling that you are watching a documentary, then all of sudden there is a startling and stark composition (one for example in the screen shot below) and your whole idea of what you are watching changes. Those "blank moments" as Ray calls them are also consciously designed that way in order to let reality portray itself unmediated by montage which was one of the basic principles of neorealist films. Visconti is not interested in exploiting every scene's dramatic moments only. If a person is taking off his shirt he is going to show the whole thing, button by button. It may make the film boring but it is also a stylistic statement, an honest and humbling submission to the rhythms of reality. (Pauline Kael in her review quipped that "it is perhaps the best boring movie I have ever seen.")

Some of these aspects of this film are discussed in more detail in Andre Bazin's What Is Cinema? (excertps available on google books) who praises the film very highly. He even says the only reason the Sicilian fishermen didn't get the best actor awards in Venice was because there were no real film critics in the film festival. Actors are awkward, yes, but they are also honest in ways professionals could never have been. Martin Scorsese in his excellent documentary My Voyage to Italy also praises this aspect of film. He says the actors may look awkward in grand and traditional dramatic situations but they bring an emotional experience from their daily lives in that neighbourhood. The way they handle the boats, the nets - professionals could never have done it. In any case it is the setting and the way the landscapes, backgrounds and interiors are shot that matters. In later Italian films like Antonioni's L'Avventura or Rossellini's Voyage to Italy this expressive use of landscapes is more obvious but in essence Visconti had already done it in this film. It also shows the continuity between the neorealist films and the Italian films that followed.

Bleak yes, Boring may be, but also a great classic. I had written about the marvellous Martin Scorsese documentary My Voyage to Italy before. It is an absolutely fantastic introduction to Italian cinema, specially to Roberto Rossellini and the Italian neorealism film movement. Wikipedia page of this film has some more information about it. Some stills from the film here.