Tuesday, May 02, 2006

New Film: Water

Warning: the second and third paragraphs contain partial spoilers.

Deepa Mehta's Water (2005), a Canadian-Indian co-production that concludes the director's 'elemental trilogy,' is foremost an object of social protest against the continued practice of child marriage in India, and particularly, the Hindu prohibitions against remarriage placed on widows of any age. Mehta's film, situated during the reform-minded late 1930s, tells the story of Chuyia, a seven-year old widow who is sent off to spend the remainder of her days in a monastery that we later discover is financed by the prostitution of another of its inhabitants, the radiant Kalyani (Lisa Ray). Like the much younger Chuyia, Kalyani never did meet her husband, but has been nonetheless conscribed to an existence best described as a sort of living death -- the only other options that these women have, we are told, would have been to burn themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres or to marry their brothers-in-law.

The rambunctious pre-pubescent quickly befriends the twenty-something Kalyani, as well as an ancient woman she calls "Auntie," but runs afoul of the shrill mistress Madhumati, whose only companion seems to be Gulabi, the transvestite "eunuch" and pimp who whores out Kalyani. When Madhumati learns of Kalyani's plan to marry the liberal-minded law graduate, Narayan (John Abraham), she chops off the younger woman's hair -- until now, she is the only one who has been allowed to grow her hair long, owning to certain economic imperatives -- and locks her in her room. After being freed by the religiously-conflicted Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), another of Chuyia's early antagonists who will later become one of little girl's chief advocates, Kalyani joins Narayan in preparation for their union. Kalyani's fellow widows celebrate by flinging vibrantly-colored powders (including an incandescent shade of fuchsia) on one another, as the tragedy of their existence seems to have been mitigated by the social reforms championed by progressive political paragon, Mahatma Ghandi.

Yet, the logic of Mehta's social critique does not allow for such a happy resolution. After Kalyani inquires as to whom Narayan's father is, she abruptly ends their engagement. Without providing further spoilers, suffice it to say that Chuyia will be subjected to the same ruinous experience that assured the former's tragic end. The point is that the restoration of the familial structure, long an axiom of the popular Indian cinema, is here denied its currency; such conservatism is disavowed by Mehta's progressive platform.

Rhetorically, Water belongs to a tradition whose origins can be traced back to Satyajit Ray's epochal Pather Panchali (1955), which itself challenged India's dominant popular mode by bringing neo-realist social description to a cinema that similarly excluded the use of diegetic song picturization and epic temporal structures. (For instance, Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zamin [1953] likewise invested its content with a neorealist style, though it maintained Bollywood's musical and epic conventions.) In the case of Water, however, Bollywood-styled music is still utilized, though not in the typical diegetic manner -- this is to stay that the characters don't themselves sing, though the narrative placement of the numbers and the choices of the singers' voices effectively dictate their emotions. As such, a perfunctory realism is maintained, while the conventions of Bollywood cinema are referenced (and revised).

Likewise present are a variety of Indian character types, which find rather direct correspondences in Ray's corpus. There is the Bengali archetype of the urbane, well-educated, liberal-minded son who returns to the countryside (cf. The World of Apu, 1959); his friend, the lazy descendent of aristocracy who embraces Western mores (cf. The Chess Player, 1977); the rascally, toothless old woman (Auntie) who befriends Chuyia (cf. Pather Panchali); and of course, there is the head-strong, if somewhat mischievous child protagonist, whose perspective guides the narrative -- all the way down to the camera's insistence eye-level framing (again cf. Pather Panchali, and particularly Apu's sister).

In fact, Mehta's connection to Ray's feature debut is made even more explicit by the opening compositions of a lily pad-covered marsh, which while imitating the master's indelible black-and-white photography of the corporeal world, nonetheless incorporate an extreme over-saturation of color that is all her own. Moreover, if Ray's exposition of natural beauty serves to underscore the director's ideas concerning human transience, his latter-day counterpart's co-option of this schema indicates nothing so much as an aesthetic preference and an awareness of its position within the history of Indian counter-cinema. Nevertheless, the visual grace of Water nearly matches the Ray: consider for instance the images depicting the couple beneath the giant hardwood on the banks of the river, with its powerful bleached white light pouring through the tree's tangled branches.

Indeed, Mehta's is a work unapologetically grounded in the concerns and the immediacy of this life. In this manner, the film's greatest provocation is its challenge to the wisdom of a religion that could countenance such a deplorable tradition. While, the evils of child marriage remain a distant -- and obvious -- transgression for any Western audience member, the film's inversion of the equation "God is truth" to read "Truth is god" could be counted as a rebuke to any theistic faith. In this way, the hyperbole of the melodrama -- make no mistake, Water is propaganda -- and its apparent distance from Western practices, becomes less safe than it would at once appear. Still, this is a film whose potency remains twined to one's feelings concerning the evils of child marriage and the Hindu religion's traditional prohibitions on remarriage. That Water is therfore the ultimate middle-brow art house spectacle -- one can feel bad about what is presented on-screen without ever being accused of complicity -- should not mitigate its very real power.

Monday, April 10, 2006

New Film: Magic Mirror & A Comedy of Power

Warning: the following contains spoilers in the fourth paragraph.

96 year-old Portuguese auteur Manoel de Oliveira -- that really says it all doesn't it -- is the world's oldest active filmmaker and is the only director to begin his career during the silent era. Oliveira has been particularly active since the mid-1970s, having made approximately one film per year in the period since. Yet, what is more remarkable than the director's age or even his late-career productivity is the consistent high quality of his work: no European filmmaker has made more great films in the past fifteen years than Oliveira (and were not such a large number of his films from the 1980s still unavailable, one could perhaps push that date back even further). For arguments sake, one could name Abraham's Valley (1993), The Convent (1995), Party (1996), Voyage to the Beginning of the World (1997), The Letter (1999), I'm Going Home (2001) and A Talking Picture (2003), and one would have one of the world's most autobiographical and formally adventurous cinemas without even naming such agreed upon masterpieces as No, or the Vainglory of Command (1990), Inquietude (1998) and The Uncertainty Principle (2002), which like the earlier films, remain unavailable to US audiences.

Oliveira's latest feature, Magic Mirror (Espelho Magico, 2005) -- if one doesn't count the picture he is currently shooting with Bulle Ogier and Michel Piccoli -- has likewise not yet secured US distribution, and may remain without a distributor into the immediate future. For one, Oliveira hardly rates as a household name, despite the brilliance of his body of work; and two, the Portuguese master remains one of the international art house scene's most challenging auteurs.

Magic Mirror continues many of the master's long-held formal and thematic preoccupations: namely, mortality, the relationship between film and theatre and the moral status of wealth. Similarly, Oliveira utilizes the gorgeous Leonor Silveira (a mere 60 years his younger) as a proxy for his person, just as he did with his supreme achievement of the past decade-and-a-half, Abraham's Valley. In this case, Silveira plays the devout Alfreda, whose childlessness compels her to fantasize about seeing the Virgin Mother, particularly after she is told that Mary was the product of a wealthy family: she too was born into enormous wealth (as was Oliveira himself), and hopes above all else to talk to the woman, presumably in hopes of unlocking the mysteries of both the Christ child's miraculous birth and also the Judean woman's relative fortune -- thereby settling the issue of the wealthy's difficult path to salvation that one finds in Christian doctrine.

Significantly, Alfreda never finds the answers she seeks, just as one might suspect Oliveira himself has not found sufficient answers to the questions of God's existence (The Convent and Party seem to treat this subject most directly; and in a similar fashion, one might see Ricardo Trepa's freed criminal and his prison companion as exemplars of a protest theodicy of sorts, particularly with the latter's instance that he is animated by hate) and second, to means by which he might reconcile his social position and the social imperatives of his art -- again Abraham's Valley is the finest treatment of this subject. Still, Oliveira does happen to save one unprecedented moment of genuine magic for the end: the narrative continues after Alfreda passes on, without the answers, compellingly giving us Oliveira's own conceptualization of life after his own death. Here, we see a newly-minted couple, a smiling young child and the continuation of the estate (that houses much of the drama) accompanied by the joyous lilt of the score. Life continues, unabated, in all its richness.

In this concluding passage, Oliveira offers what could have been a wonderful epithet to his career -- just as I'm Going Home could have been one of the most profound final films ever made -- were he not already at work on something new. Whether this film rates with the others listed above (it most likely does not, though it is by no means minor within the context of European art cinema) the fact that we still have Oliveira and that he is still as prolific as ever is itself cause for celebration.

Also without US distribution at present, is the latest from French New Wave auteur Claude Chabrol, A Comedy of Power (L'Ivresse du pouvoir). While Chabrol is more known in the broader culture and film world as a whole, the quality of his work is far less consistent than is Oliveira's. The French director's latest effort is middling to be sure, even if it begins with an absolutely brilliant opening sequence: in one unbroken take, Chabrol follows a corporate criminal from the heights of his suburban Paris office to the street where he is apprehended and charged with defrauding shareholders. From this bravura opening shot, Chabrol establishes a spatial logic that he maintains for much of the film -- namely that power relationships are established in terms of distance from the ground. The film's conspiring CEO's occupy the upper floors of glass and steel behemoths, while the film's crusading magistrate, Isabella Huppert, operates far closer to ground level. Of course, the point is to get the big-wigs out of their towers, just as it is for Huppert to herself ascend. Conflict, on the other hand, is the result of shared heights, such as Huppert and her cause-weary husband, as well as with the fellow female magistrate next to whom they (the conspiring Gaullist power-brokers -- very much Lang territory -- that is) place Huppert, in the hope that they will take each other down.

Together, these threads suggest a narrative critical of bourgeois greed and the will to destroy those with money -- an interesting critique by a director like Chabrol in a nation like France, certainly. However, Chabrol's narrative soon loses the focus of its first part, en route to one of the least satisfying endings of the director's recent career, which is doubly disappointing considering that the spatial logic is for time, the most rigorous of any of Chabrol's films since Le Boucher (1970). Yet even in this system, Chabrol doesn't complete the promise of what at first appears to be genuine mastery.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

New Film: The Sun

Aleksandr Sokurov's The Sun (Solntse, 2005) is the third chapter in a tetralogy, for which Moloch (1999) and Taurus (2001) were the first two parts. Like these, The Sun treats the subject of a 20th century dictator -- or "hero" -- who "suffers a personal tragedy" (Islands of Sokurov). In the case of The Sun, Sokurov depicts Emperor Hirohito in the final days of the War, while he is awaiting the fate to be handed down to him by the "occupying forces." Sokurov's episodic narrative includes a conference of the Emperor's cabinet, Hirohito's study of marine biology, two of his meetings with General MacArthur, a photo-op with the Allied forces, a sit-down with a biologist and a reunion with his family. While their temporal relationship to one another is imprecise (and unimportant) the basic arc of the narrative suggests one day with the dimly-lit, misty morning giving way to a sunny afternoon and then to the pale light of evening: these transmogrifications portend the drift from the nebulous opening moments with the Deity cocooned in his palace to the sun-diffused, white light and candle-lit distinction of his meetings with MacArthur where he agrees to renounce his divinity.

Yet, to even make this claim for The Sun is to participate in the sort of analysis that a work as impressionistic as Sokurov's would (almost) seem to resist. Almost, as Sokurov's hieratic shot-reverse structure -- frequent transgressions of the 180 degree rule -- discloses his interest in preserving the spatial disorientation that his eschewal of establishing shots effects. The idea is that we never really know the spaces of the Imperial Palace, as if the narrative were remembered, dictated from a point in the future; at the same time, The Sun offers an imprint of that evanescent moment existing immediately prior to Hirohito's end -- immediately before and after the dictator renounced his divinity (and suggestively, before his final fate). It is a refashioning of Mother and Son's subject, as it is of Russian Ark's interest in preserving a disappearing culture (and even of Dolce's articulation of Eastern visual aesthetics).

All of this is to say that The Sun coalesces a number of Sokurov's preoccupations -- it could even be described as a signature. Then again, the seriousness of much of Sokurov's work is absent in The Sun, in spite of its ostensible subject: there is the old servant who lusts after the Hershey bar, to say nothing of the dictator's peculiar gestures. Indeed, it is in these actions, strange and banal alike, that Sokurov conveys the humanity of his subject (much like as he does with Hitler in Moloch). Ultimately, this can be said to be the director's purpose, namely to tactilely lend presence (and humanity ) to the person of Hirohito, as when we see the Emperor sliding on his slippers, smelling his breath in his hands -- there exists an effervescent quality to this gesture which could be said to summarize his entire aesthetic: as with Whispering Pages he reproduces the impression of a place and time that is as fleeting as the enveloping mists that descend upon the island nation -- or when we see his mouth forming words which never pass through his lips.

This brings us to another key feature of Sokurov's inimitable style: namely, the sometime absence of naturalistic synchronicity between sound and image. But even more, it is the soundtrack's discordance, such as the scrambled radio transmissions or even the crickets' chirping, that offer an often menacing oral counterpoint to the narrative's quotidian incidents. In the end, of course, this is a film about a man meeting his fate, though it almost goes without saying that something of this dramatic register will not appear on screen.

Qualitatively, it could (and should) be argued that Sokurov is working on an entirely different plane than virtually anyone else in cinema today, and that The Sun rates as one of his most accomplished idiosyncrasies. It is the ultimate Sokurov film, far more so than his international art house breakthrough, Russian Ark, both for its instantiation of such a large number of his key themes and also for its attempted recreation of the profoundly transitory -- the life of a God in a disappearing world. In closing, I would also wish to praise Issei Ogata's brilliant recreation of this living deity, which no less than animates Sokurov's glorious work of art.