Archive for June, 2006

Early Hitchcock

Posted: June 27, 2006 in Cinema
Tags: , , ,

I watched an early Hitchcock film two days ago. The film, called Murder, is probably not among his best known work. But, it was an insight into early and future Hitchcock.

The film, as with all Hitchcock, is shrouded in mystery. Diana Baring, an actress, is  found  in a daze with the dead body of her murdered colleague, Edwina. Did she kill her? The audience, of course, knows in their heart that Diana didn’t kill Edwina. But then, who did?

The commonalties between early and later Hitchcock are the build up of suspense and the use of unpredictable. But, there are some differences.

This film was made  in 1930 when Hitchcock was still  a British director. So, early Hitchcock was very British. He is also strikingly reminiscent of both Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. Yes, later Hitchcock has the unpredictability of Christie and Doyle as well. But, by that time, Hitchcock had developed a style of his own. He rarely reminds you of someone else.

Early Hitchcock is highly theatrical. He still has to gain that command over cinematic technique that would characterise Hitchcock, the Master.

But yes, his use of suspense to have his audience hooked on to the script is already evident. There is also the beginning of the creation of confusion to leave the audience wondering about whether the protagonist is guilty.

Yes, it is still early Hitchcock, but there are already traces of the master.

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I’ve been a member of Collective Chaos for sometime now. And thanks to them, I’ve been watching some outstanding films. So, what is Collective Chaos? It’s a group that is involved in promoting good cinema – they do this mainly through screenings of masterpieces from world cinema.

So, this weekend, I had a date with Robert Bressnon. In case you have not heard of him, he’s a French director who lived between 1901 and 1999. This means that a lot of his work belongs to the 1950s and 1960s…and that automatically translates into a fair share of masterpieces in the black and white genre.

The two films that I saw were The Diary of a Country Priest and Pickpocket. The thing that stood out in both films was the use of the black and white medium. It was awesome.

The shades and the framing in each scene were just correct. Many of the scenes were so perfect in the setting of different elements that the scene could have been frozen into a picture at any point and still been perfect. Among the Indian masters, this is the kind of mastery that one sees only with Satyajit Ray. And as with other French classics, the screenplay and the dialogues had an inherent sense of poetry.

Bressnon himself has said, “Yes, for me, the image is like a word in a sentence. Poets elaborate a vocabulary. They willingly use desperately common words. And it’s the most common word, the most used, which, because it’s in its right place, all of a sudden shines extraordinarily.” This is especially true of Bressnon’s work.

The Diary of a Country Priest is the tale of a young priest who has moved into a new parish. His idealism is rarely understood, and the parishioners often work against him. But, even as he secretly struggles with self-doubt, he always works towards his ideals. It is only in death that he finds relief – both from nagging self-doubt and from pain. Self-doubt and the sense of a world unraveling are also common themes in Pickpocket. The film is the telling of the life of a pickpocket, Michel. He does finally find peace as well – but for him, it will be restoration in love.

Damnation and salvation are common themes in both films. It is not for nothing that Bressnon is called the ‘patron saint’ of cinema.

There is also the interesting use of the diary as a recurring motif in both the movies. Through this, you also view the protagonist’s soul, and the glimpse is one of a man viewing himself before a mirror.

The interesting part is that it has been said that L’Enfant (the film mentioned in the entry on the International Film Festival) must be seen in the context of Pickpocket. While Pickpocket is a very brooding look at the journey of a self-destructive man, plagued with self-doubt, L’Enfant tells the same tale. But, this time the darkness is spattered with light and laughter. The despair is gone, but the poignancy is retained.

I saw this as well when I watched Pickpocket, and I finally understood why it had won the Golden Palm at Cannes.

I think to completely understand the greatness of a film one must see it in its context. Otherwise it is meaningless. The persons who are part of the culture of which the film is born make contextual connections automatically.

The International Film Festival was playing at Pallavi between June 9th to 15th. Of course, I wanted to see all the films. But, I ended up catching only some of them. The ones that I saw made an impression on me for different reasons.

The Child (L’ Enfant) – This  French film, directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne, won the Golden Palm for the best film at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. Like most of the audience, I went to watch the film with this mind and expected much. But, there was nothing earthshaking to it. It was the story of a young couple in love. The man is a petty thief, and comes out as a bit of a rascal at first. When they have a child, the man’s latest scheme is to make some extra money is selling their son.

The story is told very simply, but it has a certain ‘trueness’, which cannot help but touch you. No, I still did not understand why it got the Golden Palm, but I could that its simple trueness was lacking in a lot of mainstream Hollywoood and Bollywood productions.

Fuse (Gorivatra) – This was a Bosnian film, scripted in Serbo-Croatian, and directed by Pjer Zatica. It was the winner of the Silver Leopard at the 2003 Locarno film festival. It tells the story of a town, two years after the Bosnian civil war, gearing up for the visit of President Clinton.

I loved this film, and for me it was the best of the lot. Of course, there is also an element of personal prejudice in that statement.

Pjer Zelca understands the art of story telling, and the tale has the richness that characterise classics like Cinema Paradiso and  Fiddler on the Roof. Like them it is the tale of a community across generations, with a certain timelessness. Like them, it has a warmth and vitality that we associate more with East than the sterile productions of the West. There is also the depiction of the intricate ties of community, family and home that bind. As an Indian, I could identify completely, and it struck a chord. I could see the similarities between our cultures.

But, even when simply told, it is a complex story, ridden with metaphors. It makes you laugh at the world you live in, then it makes you cry about the world you live in.

The Barbarian Invasions – This French Canadian film, directed by Denys Arcand, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2004. If you thought that this was a good reason to discredit the movie, you would be surprised. The movie tells story of a man who is dying. He looks back over his life, savouring the last dregs and makes his peace with death.

The film is incisive, challenging you to think. But, even when you are covered with a lingering sense of pathos, it can make you laugh. There is a glimpse of the agony, the ecstasy and the final nothingness that is life. But, you still leave the theatre with a song playing in your heart.

If ‘Catcher in the Rye’ was your all time favourite book, this would have been your pick of the festival. The stories are different, but it would appeal to a ‘Catcher in the Rye’ kind of person.

La Marche de l’Empereur (The Emperor’s Last Journey) – This French documentary, directed by Luc Jaquet, has also won an Oscar. The Oscar notwithstanding, I liked the documentary very much. It tells of the journey of the Emperor penguins to mate and then give forth and protect life.

It’s not a documentary. It is poetry in motion – even with the subtitles. This was complemented by spectacular photography and screenplay. The end result = a powerful love story – very movingly told.

If you were a ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ (film) kind of person, this would be your pick of the festival. Of course, this was a tale of the wild. But, it’s the spectacular visual effects and the poetry that lingers on.

Kongekabale (King’s Game) – This Danish film is set against the Danish elections. It is a well-told tale of political intrigue. On one hand, it was a superbly edited, gripping tale. On the other hand, it also dared to ask penetrating political questions.

Hollywood makes poor versions of this kind of film all the time. But, inspite of Hollywood turning this genre into a cliché, this particular film stood out as a classic.

If Manoj had joined me to the screenings, this would have been his pick of the festival.

The festival confirmed what I have known for sometime now. The best films are not really happening in Hollywood.  You need to look in the less trodden places to find true art. And this may not always be popular – the International Film festival played to an almost empty house.

I first watched a Guru Dutt film almost two decades ago. The films were Aar Paar and Mr and Mrs 55. The child that I was lapped up Guru Dutt, the legend and loved it all.

But, this week, a 30-year-old adult returned to Guru Dutt with a more analytical mind. The films were Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool. I also have Sahib, Bibi and Ghulam in my collection, and I should be watching it soon.

Pyaasa is the story of a down and out poet (played by Guru Dutt), rejected in life and glorified in death. He will be betrayed by all, including the woman he loves (played by Mala Sinha). The only truth that he finds is with a prostitute, Gulab (played by Waheeda Rehman). Together, they turn their back on the world.

Kaagaz Ke Phool tells the story of the downfall of a director (played by Guru Dutt) and the short memory of his audience. In the course of his journey, the director will find solace in his leading lady (played by Waheeda Rehman). But, even this brief companionship between two solitary people is not allowed to blossom. The director dies in poverty, forgotten.

The thing that struck me about these two films was its searing sense of pain. Guru Dutt is not a master of the black and white genre as Satyajit Ray is. And there are moments when he tends to drift into the melodramatic, which is typical of most Bollywood productions. Yet, the pain of it all overwhelms you, and you find yourself drawn into the film.

It is also to Guru Dutt’s credit that he deals with themes that were ahead of their times. Divorce and love outside marriage still have to find a complete acceptance on Indian cellulod. Yet, he approached these themes in his times.

Waheeda Rehman is also oustanding in these two Guru Dutt productions. When you see her haunting beauty in these two Guru Dutt productions, you have to admit that she is but  a ghost of herself in later productions.

There was a special event that happened two weekends ago at the Nani cinematheque. It was the screening of films that have won awards in the previous Cannes Film Festivals. The idea was to expose the audience to the spirit of Cannes.

I’ve been planning to blog on it for sometime, but just never got down to it. And now I think I better get started before I forget what I had to say 🙂

The film that worked best for me was the Akira Kurusawa film, Kagemusha. The film won the Palm d’Or at Cannes in 1980. It maybe argued that the film was not the best film of the festival. In fact, at the time this film was made, Kurusawa had not made a film since 1974, and it shows. But, I loved it because it was another angle to the craftsmanship of Kurusawa, the director.

This was my third Akira Kurusawa film. And while it was not in the same league as Roshomon, it had some of those trademark features that I have come to associate with Kurusawa. Once more, it was a film set in medieval Japan, with an intricately crafted plot that had you hooked till the end.

The story was simple. A powerful and feared Japanese warlord, Shingen is dead. To keep his enemies at bay, a petty thief who looks like the Lord must play his substitute (read shadow). It is a battle of nerves as the ‘shadow’ must always stay ahead of those who could unmask him. But after many victories, he will finally be revealed, and with that begins the downfall of the empire.

Japanese films, like Bollywood productions, tend to be melodramatic. But, in the case of Kurusawa, he still has you watching because of the twists and turns in his plot, and the different levels of complexity that are inherent to his script. Sometimes puzzling, at other times heart wrenching, but never predictable. This is given greater impact by his willingness to stray away from the traditional happy ending. Well, I guess I could do a separate blog on that subject 🙂

The next day, I managed to catch a Yugoslavian film, Underground, which was directed by Emir Kusturica. This film won the Best Film award at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. And it was in every sense a dark comedy.

The film deals with members of the Serb resistance who hide in a cellar during the World War II. As a result of a betrayal, they remain underground even 20 years later, unaware that the world has moved on. There is laughter, betrayal, incredulous moments and stark realism. And the powerful metaphor never leaves you. How many of us choose to live our lives in the underground? How many of us choose to ignore that change – albeit good or bad – has come?

For many, the best film of the festival was the Iranian film, A Taste of Cherry, directed by Abbas Kiarostami. This film won the Palm d’Or at Cannes in 1997.

In this film, Mr Badii plans his suicide and the director narrates his journey. The film concludes on an open ended note. But, even for those who believe that Mr Badii did indeed commit suicide (and I was one of those), there is a sense of lightness.

The thing that stands out about this film is its sense of realism. There is no sense of the actors ‘acting’. It is straight out of life. And this is true on other master Iranian directors that I have watched in recent times, like Makhmalbaf. Even with him, the actors are ordinary people in everyday situations. And their lack of practiced expertise gives them trueness.

When I make a film, I would like to have it all…the craft of Kurusawa, the strength of metaphor that comes with Kusturica and the trueness of Kiarostami. Would that be asking for too much?