Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Satyajit Ray's "Mahanagar"

Growing up in Calcutta, I first discovered the Indian director Satyajit Ray's films on television. His Apu trilogy from the 1950's is the stuff of legend there, and is easily among the greatest Indian movies ever made. In a country that has always been beset by enormous economic, social, and political (not to mention colonial) problems, Ray is one of the few Indian figures in the arts who has a towering international reputation. And when you hear Indians (especially Bengalis) speak of Ray, you can always detect a certain pride in their voice.

Andrew Sarris once said (and I'm paraphrasing here) that even the lesser films of great directors are often far more interesting and worthwhile than the best films of merely competent, efficient, "non-auteur" directors who don't have a personal style or touch. Mahanagar ["The Big City"] (1963) feels a bit lesser than some of Ray's other works not because it is a mediocre film (far from it) but because he has made so many extraordinary films.

Mahanagar was Ray's first movie set in modern-day Calcutta. In it, a lower-middle-class family finds itself financially strapped and the young, intelligent wife (played by Bengali screen icon Madhabi Mukherjee, best known for her role in Ray's famous Charulata) decides with her husband's assent that she needs to get a job to help support the family. It turns out to be a decision that rocks the household to its foundations, destabilizing generations of carefully cultivated "tradition".

The plot and narrative arc may appear utterly familiar, but they are simply the broad brush strokes of this movie, a mere structuring device to convey its real strength, which is its incredible wealth of carefully observed daily detail.

The men of the family (the husband and father-in-law) may appear monstrously male chauvinist to Western eyes but Ray treats them with a remarkable, profound sympathy. Like Jean Renoir, he was quite incapable of creating "villainous" characters. His all-encompassing humanism wouldn't allow it.

Ray's visual conception is so economical that a mirror and lipstick become objects with a huge emotional resonance. The family lives in a small apartment and Ray makes the most of this cramped space. Through his use of close-ups, he turns claustrophobia into intimacy as the camera captures, at close range, the subtle interactions of this typical Bengali family. Thus, like every great artist, he takes constraints and, working within them, turns them to his advantage.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Jazz Is

"I listen to a jazz band at the Casino de Paris: high in the air, in a kind of cage, the Negroes writhe, dandle, toss lumps of raw meat to the crowd in the form of trumpet screams, rattles, drumbeats. The dance tune, broken, punched, counterpointed, rises now and again to the surface." --Jean Cocteau, 1923.

"Jazz joins together what man has put asunder. To man the theorizer, builder, tradesman and scientist, jazz restores man the tribesman, maker of symbols, myths and dreams..." --Fr. G.V. Kennard, S.J., 1961.

"There's something of the opium eater in your jazz cultist. His enthusiasm affects him like a drug habit, removing him, it seems, from the uninitiated and less paranoid world about him and encouraging many of the attitudes of full-blown megalomania." --Orson Welles, 1946.

Friday, September 24, 2004

A Woman Of Paris

Charlie Chaplin's A Woman Of Paris (1923) is a beautiful, forgotten gem from the silent era. It begins with the title card: "In order to prevent any misunderstanding, I do not appear in this picture. This is the first serious drama written and directed by myself."

I wonder if this movie is not as well-known because it is a drama and not a comedy. Chaplin made it as a sort of gift for Edna Purviance, his long-time leading lady. She plays a provincial innocent who comes to Paris and becomes a kept woman to the callow dandy Adolphe Menjou.

The movie takes place in decadent, debauched 1920's Paris. It is immaculately designed, and looks as if it was made not in celluloid but in velvet. Despite Chaplin's title card warning, it is very very funny, though its humor is rooted in melancholy.

A Woman of Paris is one of those rare movies that was much more a favorite of other movie directors than it was of the public. German filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch liked to say that he refashioned his entire career once he had seen it. (He was being entirely too modest, but I can see what he means). Martin Scorsese thinks of it as a totally modern film, and even Sergei Eisenstein adored it.

And I don't know how Chaplin does it, but for a movie that climaxes with a horrific suicide, he pulls off a magically happy ending.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

New Friends

I made some new friends on the web a couple of months ago.

I met up with all of them for the first time last week in Toronto.

We watched a lot of films, rode the subway, ate in restaurants and generally gushed and gesticulated about movies.

[in alphabetical order]:

The exemplary film critic and cinephile Doug Cummings who lives in Los Angeles and runs that tropical oasis of international cinema, Film Journey. Doug is the generous, intelligent, cohesive force behind the group.

The soft-spoken and thoughtful Robert Davis, who lives in San Francisco, and is a film critic for Paste magazine. He also keeps a very interesting and valuable weblog, Errata. We feel passionately about many of the same filmmakers and I wish we had had more time to spend discussing them.

The wryly witty and insightful Darren Hughes who is writing his Ph.D. dissertation, is the impresario of a Tennessee film club and has been covering the Toronto Film Festival in thought-provoking detail at his weblog Long Pauses. Of the entire group, it turned out I spent the least time with Darren, which I thoroughly regret.

The charming J. Robert Parks, possessor of enviable social facility and a thousand and one friends, who writes about movies in his original and engaging first-person manner. Even when J. Robert and I diverge in our opinions about movies, I find it practically impossible to tear my eyes away from the page! (A more genuine compliment to a writer I could not pay).

And through these new friends I made some new new friends--Candace [ultra-cool rock queen, why she decided she was going to spend a week hanging out with us film-obsessives I'll never know] and David [1980s pop connoisseur, rock keyboardist, writer, and urbane Edmontonian].

It was a lightning-quick week of rare and rewarding fellowship.

Is it too early to start counting down to TIFF 2005?

Monday, September 20, 2004

Toronto Film Festival--Looking Back

I've got the film festival withdrawal blues.

After twenty-one films in a week, today feels like an eerie vacuum. It will take a day or two longer to get re-adjusted to reality.

Personal faves:

  • Cafe Lumiere--Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Japan.
  • L'Intrus--Claire Denis, France.
  • Ghost In The Shell II--Mamoru Oshii, Japan.
  • The Holy Girl--Lucretia Martel, Argentina.
  • Clean--Olivier Assayas, France.
  • 10th District Court--Raymond Depardon, France.
  • Demain On Demenage--Chantal Akerman, France.

Over the years, I've discovered a nice rule of thumb. A good year for French cinema automatically means a good year for Toronto.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Toronto Film Festival--"Cafe Lumiere"

Great films from all over--they keep rolling in.

If I had to choose my one favorite film director working anywhere in the world today, without hesitation I'd pick the Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien.

Hou is scandalously unknown to most moviegoers in America and until recently, none of his films were available on DVD here. But what I find odd about it is that his films are not particularly inaccessible or difficult. One of his best, Flowers Of Shanghai, tells the engaging story of an 18th. century Shanghai brothel with knockout visual sumptuousness. Its mysteries are many but forbidding or opaque the movie is not.

I was a bit nervous approaching his new film, Cafe Lumiere, because it came with the advance news that it was a tribute to Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. What's more, it is a Japanese-language film shot in Japan and not in his native Taiwan. I was dreading an imitation-Ozu movie, a starry-eyed homage, no more.

Not to worry. The film is solid, signature Hou all the way--long, observational takes; wonderfully meditative pacing; and sweetly unpredictable transitions.

The experience of watching a Hou film does a funny thing to your mind and body. It slows your rhythms right down, and chills you out--not in a narcotic or somnolent fashion, but in a way that sharpens your attention, pulling you deep into the depths of the movie screen.

Cafe Lumiere is about a young woman who finds out that she is pregnant, and decides to the silent consternation of her parents that that she will be raising the child on her own. Ozu-style, they travel to Tokyo to see and counsel her. At dinner, not everything goes according to plan.

Meanwhile, trains course through the metropolis, passing each other, criss-crossing, never stopping. And life goes on.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Toronto Film Festival--"L'Intrus"

And now I arrive with some trepidation at the most vivid, confident, musical, beautiful and baffling of the films I've seen at this festival--Claire Denis' L'Intrus ("The Intruder"), which has violently confounded and divided movie-lovers here.

When all is said and done, there is a line carved in stone between the world of narrative cinema (that which tells "stories", however sketchy, and nods at some sort of dramatic closure, however open or provisional) and the world of avant-garde (or so-called "poetic" or "experimental" or "non-narrative") cinema.

Of course, there are scores of films that contain avant-garde elements in them (like the gorgeous kaleidoscopic transitions that PT Anderson used in Punch-Drunk Love) just as there are plenty of avant-garde films that use narrative (like the psychodramas of Maya Deren).

But ultimately, I would argue, we impose upon a narrative film an obligation to somehow honor its story enough to give it some sense of a dramatic arc, some kind of resolution, some hint of motivation.

But is it really fair to place this burden upon narrative films given that we would likely not bring the same pre-conceptions to an avant-garde film, and that we would almost certainly give the avant-garde film a lot more leeway (it is an "experimental" movie, after all!)?

L'Intrus is narrative in that it contains characters and some semblance of a story, however foggy. It is avant-garde in every other way.

Claire Denis is a filmmaker who has an eye for the rich physical geography of people (their physical characteristics, the way they move, or sit still, or the way they do the minutest, most ordinary things) and of places, both interiors and exteriors. I also believe that she cuts with a fluency and surprise unequalled in movies today.

Thus, in L'Intrus, the narrative recedes in importance, a merely loose framework on which to lay the hypnotic, tactile flow of what is really a savage, tender film-poem.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Toronto Film Festival--"The Holy Girl"

Lucretia Martel is one of the key figures of the recent Argentine New Wave. She's young, and has made just two feature films, but she has a completely new and original storytelling vision.

In The Holy Girl, a schoolgirl undergoes an orthodox Catholic education, lives in a hotel run by her mother and experiences the tumult of adolescence. The story is simple and familiar enough, but it is the manner in which Martel tells the story that is remarkable.

She provides no convenient backstory for the characters, and charges the narrative with pyschological ambiguity. Further, she shoots relentlessly in close-up. It seems to me that what Martel is trying to do is create a kind of palpable cinema--all the physical contents of the frame (faces, skin, hair, clothes, furniture, the steel-blue swimming pool) become larger-than-life, resonant. The sound design is surgically precise--and enhances this resonance.

Recognizing that we have too long relied on words to tell stories in cinema (a visual medium, let's not forget!), Martel works instead through the silent voice of the physical, palpable world that we live in, see and touch every day. When you can capture this sensual world in strong, indelible images, you can make them speak a language no less eloquent than words.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Toronto Film Festival--Avant-Garde Films

When I'm at the Toronto Film Festival each year, I try to catch at least a couple of screenings in "Wavelengths", their avant-garde/experimental film program. I have a great interest in this kind of cinema but truth be told, the vast majority of movies I see each year are "narrative" commercial or independent/art movies. Unless you live in a large city like New York or San Francisco, avant-garde films are hard to see. And woefully few of them ever turn up on DVD.

Three interesting avant-garde films I saw tonight:

It's Not My Memory Of It--Three Recollected Documents, by two media artists, Julia Meltzer and David Thorne, who call themselves "The Speculative Archive". The film is about the process of historical documentation undertaken by organizations like the CIA which deal in "the management of secrets". We think of historical and public records as embodying some form of "truth", but this movie tries to establish the utter naivete of that notion.

Anaconda Targets is a chilling tape of a US bombing engagement in Afghanistan, with an audio track of army personnel locating moving targets on the ground and blowing them away with smart bombs, videogame style. The tape was secretly made by a pilot and smuggled into the hands of San Francisco filmmaker Dominic Angerame. Not something you'll be seeing on your television set anytime real soon.

Williamsburg, Brooklyn is a "diary-film" by avant-garde legend Jonas Mekas, which documents his neighborhood and its people over the years, starting in 1950. There's no grand dramatic narrative here, only the fleeting poetry of ordinary people caught in little everyday moments. And yet it counts for more than all the computer-generated apocalypses on a thousand multiplex screens.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Toronto Film Festival--"Clean"

The first film I ever saw by French director Olivier Assayas was Irma Vep (1996), which is in a genre I particularly like--a movie about the making of a movie.

My favorite film in that genre is Truffaut's Day For Night, and Irma Vep seemed like the dark flip side to that film, much more night than day.

I find it exciting that every Assayas movie is an utterly conscious about-face from the previous one. His last film was the experimental corporate/cybersex thriller demonlover, now fast on its way to becoming a cult movie.

And of course, Assayas's new film, Clean, is completely unlike demonlover.
In it, Hong Kong superstar (and Assayas's former wife) Maggie Cheung plays a rock-n-roll widow and drug addict (the French word for which, I learned this weekend, is the vivid toxicomaniac!), who struggles to get clean and regain custody of her child from her in-laws.

Despite Assayas's signature hand-held camerawork (which is as gritty and beautiful as always), this is his most classical, stylistically conventional and emotionally powerful film.

Like they say--sometimes, old is the newest of all.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Toronto Film Festival--"Ghost In The Shell II"

If you're a plot fetishist who loves to caress every curve and twist of the narrative and knit every last thread of the story into a neat bundle with no loose strings hanging about, then you might despise Mamoru Oshii's Ghost In The Shell II.

Don't get me wrong--this Japanese anime film has a strong story, dense and eventful. But what is special about the movie is the way it scatters the elements of the story about like mere crumbs so that each viewer is forced to pick up and follow a different and unique trail.

And it is the digressive journey of that trail, not some well-resolved puzzle of a plot, that is most fun about this futuristic science-fiction thriller.

Most of the dialogue is collaged from a dumbfounding variety of sources. Descartes and the Book of Psalms fly about, sharing the air with the sounds of machine-gun rounds.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004


A page ripped from my sketchbook, probably scribbled in the hangover of some film noir from the night before, either American (perhaps Out Of The Past, with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer), or French (maybe Le Samourai, with Alain Delon).

Sunday, September 05, 2004


I get all nostalgic when I think about the early 1970's--that last great era of American movies!

After Bonnie And Clyde (1967), big Hollywood studios did something they'd never done before--they took real risks on a bunch of original, daring movies.

Like Medium Cool, Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop, Badlands, McCabe And Mrs. Miller, The Last Picture Show and Mean Streets.

And Alan J. Pakula's Klute (1971). Jane Fonda plays a New York prostitute in this unsettling thriller. Donald Sutherland is the small-town private eye in the big bad city, looking for a missing person who might have been her john.

The most remarkable thing about this movie is its darkness. There is so little light (deliberately so!) in the way the film is shot that you are literally peering into the screen, trying to make out seen from unseen, light from shadow, good from evil.

The cinematographer, Gordon Willis, was nicknamed "the prince of darkness" because of his underlit style. He was also responsible for the dim, grim look of The Godfather.

That great era of Hollywood experimentation ended abruptly when Steven Spielberg invented something new with Jaws in 1975--the "blockbuster". The rules of the game changed overnight. And alas, we're still playing under those new rules!

Saturday, September 04, 2004


I've been compulsively drawing guitars all week.

It's probably because I've been listening to the Smiths album Louder Than Bombs for the first time in years.
Johnny Marr plays all acoustic and electric guitars on it.
He sounds sweet and bitter in all the right places.

Friday, September 03, 2004


It's my birthday.
And the day of birth of this weblog.

I'm a moviefreak.
Which means that this occasion inevitably reminds me of something movie-related.

"Lumiere" means "light" in French.
And really, what are movies but compositions in light?
So, it's a fabulously fitting coincidence that the birth of the movies occurred, in 1895, at the hands of Pierre and Auguste Lumiere.