Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Rossellini & India

Cinematheque Ontario has mounted a huge Roberto Rossellini retrospective.

Man [sic] goes through four stages of life in the Hindu, Vedic tradition: (1) Brahmachari, ends at age 25: study, devotion, veneration of your teacher, celibacy; (2) Grihastha, ends at age 50: marriage, becoming a parent and householder; (3) Vanaprastha, ends at age 75: begin to move away from worldly attachments; and finally, (4) Sanyasa: Renouncing the material life, leaving home, devoting oneself to meditation and prayer and “the eternal life,” until death.

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Along with Renoir’s The River, Rossellini’s 1958 documentary India, Matri Bhumi ("India, Motherland") is probably the best film I’ve seen about India made by a Western filmmaker. The former is readily available on a plush Criterion DVD, while the latter is mystifyingly difficult to see. Who knows if I’ll ever get a chance to see it again? So I thought I’d set down, affix, the memory of my first—and perhaps, last—date with this film.

While Renoir adapted Rumer Godden’s novel for his film, Rossellini traveled to India with the barest outline of what he wanted to do. He was fascinated, he said, by India’s “simultaneity of history” in which past and present, traditional and modern, seemed to coexist in harmony. Rather than create an impersonal, ‘objective’ documentary portrait of the country, he structured the film in the form of four highly fictionalized episodes, flanked by an overtly documentary—although still highly personal—beginning and ending.

The film begins in Bombay: “Upon arrival, one immediately feels euphoric,” the voiceover declares. Witty outsider observations about India and Indians follow, assembled in a fast-cutting, playful fashion. But before you know it, the film quickly leaves the city behind for the countryside, where it stays until the closing minute or so. The fast cutting is gone, replaced by (mostly) long takes and measured camera movements.

Rossellini has always had a great, deep feeling for place, and you can tell that he’s discovered a whole other realm with India. Before he gets to the stories, he first seizes an interlude to film and speak of temples and ancient Indian architecture, which calls to mind the antiquities of the museum scene in Voyage In Italy. The first episode relates the story of a young mahout (elephant handler) who works his charges in the jungle; how patient and saintly these elephants seem as they use their trunks to load trees onto a truck with composure. Then, in the film’s most lyrical scene, the men wash and scrub and minister to the elephants in a lake for hours under the hot sun. The two scenes (men work elephants, then pamper them) depict a wonderful give and take between animals and humans; there are animals galore in this film. Later, the mahout woos, proposes to, and marries a young woman he has only seen, never spoken to.

In the second episode, an engineer finds out that he’s been transferred out of his current assignment at the Hirakud hydroelectric project, on the Mahanadi river. (We lived right on the banks of this river in Orissa when I was a kid.) He spends a day visiting the vast work area for the last time, bidding farewell to the fruits of his labors, and those of thousands of other workers. His voiceover celebrates the miracle of electricity. He takes a ritual, prayerful dip in the dam reservoir; it’s a great gesture of connection between tradition and technology. With chalk, he writes on a wall the story of his emigration from East Bengal during the Partition. (Echoes of Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life, with messages on buildings and walls soon to be submerged by a large hydro project.) He has a small altercation with his wife; they argue and he pushes her away roughly in a moment of frustration and sorrow over their leaving. I flashed back to Rossellini’s trilogy—Stromboli, Europa ’51, Voyage In Italy—the greatest films about marriage I've ever seen.

The last two segments deal with old age and death. An old man finds that the tiger in a forest might have been unsettled by the arrival of iron prospectors, and tries to chase the tiger away to a safe place. In the final episode, a monkey’s master dies during a heat wave and the monkey frees herself, wanders about hungry and then manages to find work as a trapeze artist at a circus. The film returns from the countryside to the city (Bombay) for a coda. The four fictional episodes, it seems to me, mirror roughly the four stages of the cycle of life in the Vedic tradition.

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I think what I admire most about India is its wonderfully ‘messy’ collision of documentary and fiction, and its shaky relationship to neo-realism. The early neo-realist films (e.g. by De Sica) have a certain 'seamlessness of reality.’ Yes, I agree that they are socially purposeful films, set among the working class, using nonprofessional actors, actual locations, etc. But in place of the Hollywood classical cinema the neo-realist films were opposing, they substituted a ‘reality’ that is internally consistent and unruffling, with few overt and visible signs of personal mediation between ‘reality’ and the artwork. One might even argue that neo-realist films, like classical Hollywood films, aimed for a certain ‘invisibility of form.’ And they used traditional story structures, touches of melodrama and even, occasionally, some sentimentality that made a play for the viewer’s sympathies.

By contrast, Rossellini’s India is a (wonderfully) uneasy admixture of real and fictional elements; the ‘reality’ that he found in India combines both lyrically and jarringly with the multiple subjectivities that course through the film. For starters, the framing segments in Bombay are narrated in booming Western third-person voiceover. Within each fictional segment, there are usually two voiceover tracks, one an external observer (presumably a stand-in for Rossellini) and the other the lead (Indian) character in the segment. All the characters (whether they are Bengali, South Indian, etc) speak their voiceover, oddly, in Italian! (Like Fritz Lang’s The Tiger of Eschnapur/The Indian Tomb, in which Rajasthani kshatriyas speak flawless German!)

Why do I admire these dissonances? Because Rossellini’s intense passion for his subject, India—not to mention his greatness as an artist—leads him to confidently, with conviction, place in full view the constructedness of the work. Not for him the ‘invisibility of form’ in service of ‘reality without artifice’ (is there such a thing?) that the early neo-realist films seemed to value so much. The four fictional stories are brazenly made-up, and although they use nonprofessional actors and location shooting, the film variously mocks the very idea of a documentary without deep subjective intervention and mediation. The best thing about this film is that it’s not a distanced, pretend-‘objective’ view of the country and its culture; it’s India completely filtered through Rossellini's subjective lens.

One of the interesting things about art is the way it resists rules and prescriptions. Key scenes (e.g. the tiger in the forest; the vultures circling the monkey and its dead master) are shot using inserts and cuts rather than deep-focus long takes, which Bazin might have maintained would have surely enhanced their impact. And yet, they work here even though we know that they involve camera trickery and props like fake blood. The intensity of intent and feeling that underpins these scenes gives them (to steal a phrase) a “truth beyond appearance” that is overpowering, one that is paradoxically enhanced when the 'seams' of subjectivity appear all the more prominently like tears in the tapestry of the film.

Monday, November 20, 2006

VHS/Led Zeppelin

I’m sending a shout-out of gratitude to my dad.

I invited my parents to spend six months with me last year. When my American friends hear this, they first feign politeness and then their façade breaks down and they ask me in shock how one could possibly live under the same roof with one’s parents as an adult without going batty. I would’ve heartily echoed this sentiment in my twenties but to paraphrase Cyndi Lauper, time changes everything.

My dad has always been furiously energetic, and is always happier when he has his hands full. So, when they were visiting last year, my parents were always looking for things they could “do for me.” (I’m still trying to find some of the stuff they put away in “a safe place”!)

I have about 1500 VHS tapes that I made off cable, mostly TCM, over a period of about 10 years. As one of his projects, my dad put together a VHS library in an upstairs walk-in closet. He collected the tapes, numbered and indexed them, and arranged them in boxes. Months later, I am now realizing what a joy it is to have this large trove organized and easily accessible.

Before he shelved the tapes away, my dad (always the scientific thinker in the family!) asked me to divide them into three categories (A, B and C) based upon how urgently I needed access to them, thus arranging the tapes accordingly. So, from the relentless listmaker in me, here is a gratuitous sample of “A” items, the films I’d like to get to soon. Maybe I’ll be able to make a serious dent in them over winter break. None of them are available on region 1 DVD as far as I know:

Budd Boetticher (The Tall T, Buchanan Rides Alone, Decision Before Sundown); Frank Borzage (Smiling Through, Strange Cargo, The Mortal Storm, Hearts Divided); among the last few Samuel Fullers I haven’t seen (Fixed Bayonets, The Baron Of Arizona); ditto Fritz Lang (Human Desire, An American Guerrilla In The Philippines); Jean Renoir (La Marseillaise, The Little Theatre Of Jean Renoir; Woman On The Beach); a gang of Tod Browning (West Of Zanzibar, The Unholy Three, The Thirteenth Chair); King Vidor (The Crowd, Show People, The Champ); Glauber Rocha’s Terra Em Transe; Atom Egoyan’s made-for-Canadian-TV Gross Misconduct; Philippe Garrel’s Le Couer Fantome; Youssef Chahine’s Silence, We’re Rolling; Alain Cavalier’s Le Combat Dans L’Ile; Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates; Jean Gremillion’s Remorques; John Cassavetes’ Husbands; Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dynamite; and Frank Tashlin’s Artists And Models.

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Yikes, synthesizers on a Led Zeppelin record?! Indeed. Here's one of my favorite Zep tunes, “All My Love” [mp3], on their unfairly maligned “commercial” record, their last studio release, In Through The Out Door (1978).

You know how as the years pass, a song can often fluidly change its appeal, different aspects of it shifting into the foreground and catching your ear and becoming more important for you? What I like best these days about “All My Love” is Jimmy Page’s rhythm playing, something I long heard only in the background. Not at all befitting his hard-rock pioneer cred, his guitar tone here is thin, brittle and stringy, almost ready to dissolve. He alternates (sometimes in the same bar) between a reggae-ish strum and single-note figures bent so strongly that he sounds occasionally like a pedal-steel player. All rhythm guitarists looking to learn how to play fills: look no further!

And then there’s that big, fat and beautiful analog synth solo at 2:35 that is the very essence of simplicity in single-note playing. (It often takes more courage to play simple melodies with forthrightness and respect than it does to play complex ones!) And when the band changes key in the closing moments (at 4:25), we float away on a small wave of 'pop' transcendence….

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Coming next week: Roberto Rossellini goes to India.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Triple Bill

The one clear glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in Jacques Tati's Playtime: reflected in glass.

Recently, I caught a triple bill at Cinematheque Ontario.

The day I purchased the Criterion DVD of Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967), I decided, in a moment of cinephile-purist guilt, that I would only re-view the film on DVD, and would wait for my first time to be on the big screen. That was six years ago. Am I glad I waited—what an unbelievable theatrical experience this movie is!

I know you are in mid-yawn as you read this—perhaps a write-up on Playtime is only a touch less redundant than one on, say, Citizen Kane—but I’m still in the throes of stupefaction, so thanks for humoring me while I rhapsodize just a bit.

Premise: A group of American tourists arrives in Paris and spends a day in the modern steel-and-glass city. Playtime’s most famous feature is its modernist refusal of the conventions of classical storytelling—it has practically no plot, no dramatic arc and (most amazingly) no real ‘characters’ that we can fasten onto. Even in the most daring narrative films we are given one or more ‘lead characters’ who exist in relief just as ‘figure’ exists in relief and relationship to ‘ground’ in a painting. But figure and ground are (democratically!) indistinguishable from each other in Playtime.

Also, to lasso a musical analogy here, the frame in Playtime is polyphonic, with the ‘melodies of action’ occurring simultaneously in the foreground, middleground and background, all given equal importance. But it is simply impossible for your eye to be in three places at once! And so, if ever a film required multiple viewings, it’s this one. Nöel Burch even wondered if “the film has to be seen not only several times, but from several different points in the theater to be appreciated fully." (!)

Playtime has: hardly any real dialogue, just a musique concrète of speech sounds; no single language but interchangeable shards of English, French, German, Spanish, and more; no subtitles despite this profusion of languages; and no close-ups, only medium or long shots.

What Playtime shows us is the ridiculous reverence we display—silently, with hardly a thought—for the modern spaces in which we move about all day, every day. If we could somehow turn an eye on ourselves and see ourselves in these spaces, we’d see the unwittingly hilarious role each of us plays in that epic comedy, 'modern living'....

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It’s always bothered me that I write about Western movies while knowing next to nothing about Western religion, specifically Christianity. I was raised Hindu and even though most of the schools I went to as a kid were run by foreign (Western) missionaries, they weren’t permitted to teach Christianity or proselytize in schools. So all of us Hindu, Muslim and Christian kids took a religion-neutral “Moral Science” [sic] class instead.

Anyway, I’m fairly clueless about picking up on Christian symbolism in movies, which is why I’m both stunned and a bit perturbed that some of my favorite filmmakers (e.g. Bresson, Dreyer) have Christian themes running through their films. I respond strongly to what I intuit without difficulty to be the spiritual import that permeates their films, but the grounding of the Christian themes in details quite escapes me until I read about it later. It’s just another example of something I’ve always believed—that I often learn at least as much about a film from reading or hearing what others have to say about it than I do by simply thinking about the film on my own in solitude. (Yet another reason why I value the blogosphere so much....)

Rosselini’s Europa 51 (1952) is the second film of his “Voyage” trilogy, which includes Stromboli (1949) and Voyage In Italy (1953); all three feature Ingrid Bergman in the lead. The trilogy is a long-acknowledged landmark of modernist cinema—Antonioni’s films seem unthinkable to me without them. Right after he made Francis, God’s Jester (1950), Bergman reports that Rossellini said to her: “I am going to make a story about St. Francis and [Francis is] going to be you.” Europa 51 was the result.

Ingrid Bergman plays a self-absorbed socialite, but when her son dies unexpectedly, out of deep guilt she decides to devote her life to helping the poor. Both Rossellini and we the audience see her become almost saintly, but the society in the film (her husband, parents, doctors, the Church, etc.) views her, quite simply, as mad. Rossellini films her often on her own (meaning, not sharing the image with others), and shoots her in expressionist, chiaroscuro close-ups; the frontality of these close-ups reminds us immediately of Dreyer’s Saint Joan. (A few years later, Rossellini made his own Saint Joan movie with Bergman.) The film ends on a remarkable note of spiritual grace—no knowledge of Christianity was needed for complete emotional lift-off!—although friends tell me the ending was saturated with religious allusion.

Also, I’m beginning to realize Rossellini’s powerful feeling for place and its relationship to human life, form and psychology, and this is one of many ways in which he is surely an influence on Antonioni. Much more on Rossellini in the works, coming up soon....

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The third film on the bill was (against all odds, given its predecessors) the most immediate knockout; I hadn’t even heard of it. Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan lived for four months in a village near the 17th parallel, the dividing line between North and South during the Vietnam war. Their documentary The 17th Parallel (1968) contains no talking heads reflecting on the war, no direct address to the camera detailing war experiences, no historical account of the conflict, and like Playtime, no ‘lead characters’ or ‘story arc’.

Instead, as bombs fall from overhead daily, the film records North Vietnamese villagers at work: (1) Building underground shelters in their homes; (2) Creating daily schedules for rice planting which are coordinated with American bombing runs (when the bombers come by day, they plant at night, and vice versa); (3) Filling in bomb craters for re-cultivation; (4) Cannibalizing unexploded American bombs for parts to make, in one instance, a printing press to publish a daily newspaper for the village! One villager remarks after carefully inspecting the parts disassembled from a U.S. bomb: “It’s better than the stuff we get from Hanoi…”; (5) Building ramshackle portable shelters against pellet bombs in case planting is interrupted by a bombing raid; (6) Proposing a physical exercise program for the villagers, since they spend most of their time underground, in an oxygen-weak atmosphere; (7) Writing long letters to (separated) family in South Vietnam; (8) Singing songs of fortitude while digging, clearing or planting en masse; (9) A tailor at work underground, using a mannequin with half-destroyed arms, ironically reminiscent of Venus de Milo; and (10) The most tragic of all: the village schoolteacher conducting his class underground and teaching 8-year-olds the only English they will need to know—what commands to issue to a captured American soldier to make sure he will do your bidding. Bottom line: this movie will break your heart.

The 17th Parallel was my introduction to Joris Ivens; I know he’s thought to be one of the great documentarists/essay filmmakers in cinema. I have Spanish Earth, taped off TCM, ready to watch. I’d love to get my hands on more Ivens, especially his Tale Of The Wind (1988), which sounds, from what I’ve read, amazing.