Monday, May 30, 2005

Wedding On The Water

My friend Colleen got married last weekend. Pam and Chris, whom I hadn't seen in years, came into town.

After I moved to the States, Pam was one of my first American friends. We played guitar and hunched over a Neil Young songbook together. One time, we were walking in the park, and I cracked open a pack of gum, balled up the wrapper and tossed it on the ground. Pam lunged to pick it up and gave me a horrified look: "Girish, you can't ever do that, okay?" I mumbled an apology and said something lame about it being "different in India". To this day, when I buy chewing gum, I think of that moment.

Chris and I used to record music together in a home studio. Now, I've been a movie-head for as long as I can remember but I don't think Chris ever knew that. We talked about absolutely nothing but music. At the wedding, we made plans for our ongoing dream project, writing arrangements for a bunch of jazz ballads set to electronica beats.

The ceremony was alfresco, on the lake. As Colleen and Jassen were exchanging their vows, the speedboats criss-crossing the water blew their horns to wish them well. Meanwhile, a hundred people leaned forward in their seats, trying to disentangle the words of the bride and groom from the din of the horns. Fragments and phrases floated up, and we didn't hear a single sentence in its entirety. But we knew what they were saying.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Emmanuelle Devos

By chance, I once sat next to French actress Emmanuelle Devos at a film screening. It was a slightly unnerving experience.

She was petite, quietly dressed, and low-key--with not a thing that called attention to herself.

But movies are a medium of magnification. I had seen her in the Hitchcockian thriller Read My Lips, in which she won a Cesar (French equivalent of the Oscar) for playing a deaf-mute secretary. Onscreen, she was larger-than-life and charismatic, with a face you could never forget.

In fact, discussing the wonderful new French film Kings And Queen, Ella Taylor was entranced by her this week: "...she has a slack, ripe mouth, a mane of untidy brown hair and china-doll blue eyes that, on first acquaintance, seem vacant or evasive. Devos can vanish into herself and turn primly mousy, or blossom into ripe seductiveness, with a touch of the insolent slattern".

What unnerved me was the disconnect between her poetic, arresting screen presence and the prosaic, nearly anonymous person who sat next to me.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005



On Sunday, I was babbling about some of my favorite moviemakers. Today, J. Hoberman's column appears in the Village Voice, and happens to echo some of the same sentiments, even word for word. I ask: what's not to love when cool people are in agreement with you?

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Making A List, Checking It Twice

Santa Claus visits me each year, not at Christmas-time, but in early September at the Toronto International Film Festival.

I get a sneak peek into his gift-bag in early May when I discover what's showing at Cannes. Most everything that plays there appears in Toronto in the fall. Here are the people whose movies I'm most looking forward to this year:

  • Hou Hsiao-Hsien from Taiwan, my favorite filmmaker on the planet. If there was any justice in the world, he'd be famous--the way that Bergman, Fellini and Godard were famous film/cultural heroes in the heyday of the sixties.

  • The Dardenne brothers from Belgium, who have been piling up one masterpiece upon another for a decade now. La Promesse, Rosetta and The Son (all available on DVD or video) restore your faith in the spiritual power of movies.

  • For my money, the greatest English-language filmmaker working today, David Cronenberg. How sad that he has been simplistically typecast in most people's minds as a "horror" director. In reality, over the last twenty-five years, he has made a string of rich, brilliant movies that look better and better with the passage of time: Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, Crash, eXistenZ and Spider.

  • Michael Haneke from Austria, probably the fiercest social critic in contemporary movies.

  • Gus Van Sant, who has left Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester far behind, and is now one of the leading U.S. art-filmmakers [ten years ago, who'da thunk it?].

  • Seijun Suzuki, the Japanese New Wave veteran, about whose new Cannes-screened film Manohla Dargis rhapsodized in the New York Times: "Suzuki's Princess Raccoon is mad, nuts, lysergic, wonderful, kitsch, genius, smutty, sexy, funny, funny, funny, Zhang Ziyi, Joe Odagiri, Kabuki, Snow White, The Wizard of Oz, Romeo and Juliet, Noh, hip-hop, rock, Broadway, Disney, fuzzy-wuzzys, yakuza, swordsman, by the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea, the cherry blossoms are in bloom again."

Those, and three hundred other movies, should be on the sleigh to Toronto in September.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Etta James

CURRENT LISTENING: Etta James, The Chess Box.

Etta has to be up there in the sixties soul stratosphere, along with Aretha and Otis.

Since she recorded for the big poppa of all blues labels, Chicago-based Chess Records, you might think that she was an acolyte of the great blues masters. Not so. Spunkily, she once said, “I didn't want to go into that Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf was a little too down-home for me.” Instead, her role model was the idiosyncratic Johnny “Guitar” Watson: “He was so slick, so uptown....and I always wanted to sing like a dude anyway.”

The first thing that pleasantly confounded me about her Chess recordings was Riley Hampton’s arranging, thick with cellos and flutes, not instruments you usually associate with gritty R&B. But they really worked, and without sacrificing an ounce of soul, helped her gain a crossover audience that traditionalist blues artists had hoped for and never achieved.

But Chess Records continued to struggle like other black music labels of the period. Apparently, in order to make his orchestrations sound fat and luscious, but lacking the budget to hire enough violinists, Hampton wrote arrangements that regularly called for double-stopping (where each violinist would be assigned to play two notes simultaneously), resulting in the illusion that Etta was being backed by a large orchestra. Talk about creative problem-solving.

Drug addiction later derailed Etta’s career. Soon after Leonard Chess died, she heard a knock on her apartment door. Expecting eviction, she discovered that he had bought her the apartment, and left her the deed in his will. It marked a turning point in her life.

She’s enjoying a second, rejuvenated career today as a fine jazz singer. Her Billie holiday tribute record, from 1994, is a real peach.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Rin Tin Tin Joins The Ku Klux Klan

Okay, here’s something I can’t figure out.

I have a handful of Canadian and French film-loving friends and when we talk about Samuel Fuller, we marvel at two things: (1) how he is one of the most exciting and vital directors in the history of movies, and (2) why most Americans find our enthusiasm for Fuller laughable.

Last evening, I read my friend Doug Cummings’ marvelous piece on Fuller’s controversial 1981 movie White Dog. I had attack-dog nightmares last night, and taking them as a Freudian sign, I watched the movie this morning, having taped it off some late-late-night cable airing years ago.

White Dog is about a German shepherd that is trained to attack and kill black people. A black trainer then sets about trying to deprogram the dog of its racism. Apparently, the NAACP protested to the studio that the movie might encourage the breeding of such attack dogs, and the studio saw fit to shelve the movie for ten years.

Which is tragic because Fuller’s movies have always been about X-raying the American psyche to expose its multiple prejudices. But because he worked in genre cinema (like westerns, war movies, or gangster films), and was drawn to pulp and tabloid material, his art is sadly considered “low”.

The truth is that Fuller is a completely unique and visionary stylist in cinema. His approach is so original that it takes a little while to get acquainted with and get used to. The first time you see a Fuller movie like Forty Guns or The Naked Kiss, it seems to flirt outrageously with looniness. When you return to it after having seen a dozen Fuller movies, the same movie registers as being positively sublime.

I stole the title of this post from J. Hoberman, whose ten best films of 1991 list leads off with White Dog.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Dennis The Menace, part II

My parents and I have been sitting around the dining room table, swapping stories.

My mom and dad (or Mummyji and Papaji, as we call them in India, with the customary suffix -ji denoting formal respect) were "arrange-married" in the early sixties. They came from very different Brahmin backgrounds.

Papaji's family was of very modest means (he rode a bullock cart to school) but well-educated -- they were all either village school-teachers or priests. Mummyji's family was wealthy, and my grandfather was a successful CEO. He had an outsized personality and was a cultural sophisticate. He was also a fearsome autocrat, charismatic but extremely temperamental. Adults or children, we'd quake in his presence and speak only when spoken to.

Scouting around for a husband for his only daughter, my grandfather one day paid Papaji's home a surprise visit after having quietly researched the family. No one was home but my dad and it is believed that the cup of coffee that he whipped up for his guest was so good that my grandfather instantly decided that this was the man his little girl would spend the rest of her life with.

Grandpa traveled a lot, and we saw little of him. Once, when I was five, he took us out to the ritziest restaurant in town. When he asked Papaji what he'd like to order, I blithely interjected, as my parents watched in horror: "Beer!" My grandfather's eyes narrowed, he fell silent, and it is said that he was always a little suspicious of poor, abstinent, clean-living Papaji from then on.

I have few memories of my grandfather. When I was twelve, he retired and made plans to come and stay with us for the first time ever. A week before he was to arrive, we got the phone call to say he wouldn't be coming.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Three Comrades

Remember the scene in Wonder Boys when Tobey Maguire recites for Michael Douglas a laundry list of Hollywood suicides? On that list is the beautiful actress Margaret Sullavan, whose most famous role was opposite Jimmy Stewart in The Shop Around The Corner.

Some of Sullavan's best films were made by the sadly obscure director Frank Borzage. One of these films was Three Comrades (1938).

The movie is set in the moral and economic limbo of post-WWI Germany. Margaret Sullavan and Robert Taylor play doomed lovers caught up in the social chaos that would soon invite the rise of Nazism. But Borzage is interested in Germany's political context also because it is a brutal environment, unsuitable for his child-like lovers. He seems to be saying: the fate of the world ultimately rests on the success or failure of romantic love. (He even made a movie with one of the most romantic titles in the history of cinema -- History Is Made At Night).

Borzage loved the human face. When he films the couple in Three Comrades, their every glance and gesture becomes monumental, and every movement trembles with intimacy. Love, without ever ceasing to be sensual, simultaneously becomes mystic.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Dennis The Menace

“I’m here ‘cause I’m not sleepy. Ruff’s here ‘cause you whistle when you snore.”

My parents are visiting me. We were reminiscing. “Don't you remember?” asked my dad, “when you were five, you were a terror —- we called you Dennis the Menace.”

In India, a newspaper used to be no more than ten pages long, not the phonebook-sized tome that we now think twice about reaching for at the store each Sunday. There were no funny pages, merely two cartoons -— one by a top-notch Indian cartoonist, usually R.K. Laxman, and the other by a top-notch Western cartoonist, usually Hank Ketcham or Charles Schulz. Dennis was thus a venerable Indian institution, a household name.

I loved the strip dearly when I was a kid. I rediscovered it as an adult, and was amazed by something I was oblivious to as a child —- Hank Ketcham’s quiet artistry.

For example, in the above panel, check out the lightness of touch of his drawing; the interesting contour of the shadows in the top right, done with straight lines; the patch of white that offsets the shadow right below it; the black spotting of both Mr. Mitchell’s hair and of the night sky that counterpoint all the white. It’s just a measly little cartoon, but visually, it’s tight and economical; and yet in execution it seems quick and effortless.

What I like most about Ketcham’s style is that he doesn’t use a ruler. All the straight lines -— the shadows, the night stand, the dresser, even the panel borders -— are inked in free-hand. The effect is beautiful -- not technically perfect perhaps, but with the fingerprints of human imperfection. Which enhances its casual small-scale realism and pulls you right in.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Glenn Miller Story

I'm a huge fan of the five dark, morally tortured westerns that director Anthony Mann made with Jimmy Stewart in the fifties: Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend Of The River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1955), and The Man From Laramie (1955).

They are everything we expect a western NOT to be: anti-heroic, claustrophobic, and with no sure sense of good and evil.

But in between those five films, Mann made The Glenn Miller Story (1953), a biopic that mirrors many qualities of Miller’s music. It is pleasant, sometimes soothing, sometimes bland, and always inoffensive.

Jimmy Stewart plays Glenn Miller, the most popular white bandleader of the swing era. In the late thirties, Miller discovered that by having a clarinet play the melody line, with a saxophone doubling that melody one octave below, an unusually sweet sound resulted. It was an arranging innovation that proved influential on other white jazz big bands of the time.

The film itself traces smoothly if simplistically Miller's short career until his plane vanished during the war in 1944. There are cutesy little stories here to illustrate the origins of various Glenn Miller hits like "Moonlight Serenade", "String Of Pearls" and "Pennsylvania 6-5000". And Jimmy Stewart gives a marvelous, commanding performance.

But yet the sourpuss in me, while watching this big-budget widescreen bonbon, couldn't help thinking of other jazz bandleaders -- a dozen times more innovative, far superior musical visionaries -- who were never destined to achieve this kind of Hollywood immortality.

Specifically, the greatest of them all: the not-white Duke Ellington.