Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Top Ten Films of All-Time

With cinema's taste-making class again in the process of participating in its once-every-decade ritual of selecting "the top ten films of all-time" for Sight & Sound, long-time consumers and students of the list eagerly await not only the latest rankings, which have remained relatively stable (and one might argue conservative) since the lone epochal shift in the survey's history - the rise of the Cahiers-auteurist critics in the 1962 poll - but also, and to a much greater extent (at least for this writer), the individual choices of those made familiar through their scholarship and criticism, in classrooms and most recently on Twitter. In that spirit, I will offer my own, unsolicited picks below, though I must add that I have not yet earned my invitation from the British Film Institute; in other words, my picks will not be reflected in the poll and in no sense represent the tastes of this year's respondents. I offer them instead for those of you who have come to know me similarly, in person or through this site.

However, before I get to my own picks, choices which I should add may change by the time I have finished authoring this piece - such is or should be the nature of participating in this fool's game - let me consider first where the 2012 poll may witness some change from those that have preceded it. For starters, 2012 may just be the first survey to see a new number one since the aforementioned 1962 survey, with Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) surging to a close number two in 2002 behind perennial number one Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). No other film, save perhaps for the similarly fast rising and seemingly of the moment 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), would seem to have any chance of unseating the Welles. What would appear to play in Vertigo's favor in particular is the feeling that a change on top is finally possible, while that film's greater prominence in 2002, given its then still recent restoration, may work against it (as might the comparative, at least to Welles, lack of agreement as to the director's finest). In any case, count on the Welles, the Hitchcock and Kubrick to all occupy positions in the top five, and perhaps even the top three, with the Hitchcock the best bet in forty years to defeat the incumbent.

Beyond these, the safest picks to remain in the top ten are perennial selections The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939) and Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953). Both have long since emerged as not only the consensus greatest works of the directors but also of the national cinemas in which they were produced. Be shocked if either finish outside the top ten. If history is any predictor, that leaves one spot for one of the remaining five incumbents: The Godfather, parts I & II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972 & 1974), The Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925), Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927), 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963) and Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952). If I had to guess, I suspect The Godfather's will experience a small backlash (and greater competition from other New Hollywood sources) that will drop the diptych from contention; The Battleship Potemkin will lose enough votes to the rising Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929) - though not enough to put that pinnacle of the silent screen in the top ten - to place it outside the list for the first time in the poll's history; 8 1/2 just seems to me to be out of fashion, leaving it and the Italian cinema entirely off the list; and Singin' in the Rain will suffer enough classical Hollywood competition to drop it off once again. That leaves Sunrise as the lone holdover among these five - and very plausibly, the lone representative of the pre-talking cinema. Then again, if any film can live up to this pressure it is certainly Murnau's first Hollywood feature.

What films then will take the remaining four places? The surest bet, it seems to me, would be previous selection The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), representing the consensus choice of a director who has been celebrated in the past decade with Fox's monumental box set. Do not be surprised if Ford finds his way back into the top five after sliding out of the top ten in 2002. I would also anticipate a second former favorite in Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (1954) to squeeze back into the bottom of the poll on nothing more than a hunch - and a general contemporary taste for an intensified continuity that the Kurosawa seems to prefigure. As for the aforesaid 'New Hollywood' replacement for The Godfather, Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) seems like a safe pick - though only if it tops Raging Bull (1980) among Scorsese's films. Lastly I would anticipate a post-1960 French film to replace the Fellini with Robert Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar (1966) and Jacques Tati's Playtime (1967) both possibilities for the first time - given the former's exceedingly belated commercial release in 2003 (in the United States), the latter's 70mm restoration one year later and the Criterion treatment that both subsequently received. To cheat let me predict a tenth place tie for these two personal favorites.

Which leads me to my own selections for the 'top ten films of all-time.' As I said above, this list is ever changing, and most certainly will be different moments after I publish this post. (I will resist updating it as best I can.) I offer these picks with no additional commentary - the way the poll should be, in my estimation - and with no runners up (though if you really are interested, I have listed more than eight hundred films that I highly admire on Tativille's affiliate site, Ten Best Films, on a year-by-year basis). With no further delay, here they are, in alphabetical order:

Au hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, 1948)
Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937)
Pakeezah (Kamal Amrohi, 1972)
Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)
Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959)
The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1939)
Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami, 1994)
Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932)

Update (6/4/2012): In an effort to make this post obsolete, I have post my top one hundred of all-time here.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"Body and Soul: Pakeezah and the Parameters of Classical Indian Cinema"



Rio Bravo [1959] is the most traditional of films.  The whole of Hawks is
immediately behind it, and the whole tradition of the Western, and
behind that is Hollywood itself.  If I were asked to choose a film that
would justify the existence of Hollywood, I think it would be Rio Bravo.”
                                    -Robin Wood, Howard Hawks[1]

            The classical Indian cinema today is no more in need of justification than was its Hollywood counterpart in the late 1960s.[2],[3]  This is not to argue that either cinema has been immune historically to dispersions against its artistic character, nor even that it no longer is; as commercial industries, each has and continues to arouse criticism for its relationship to the marketplace, and for its supposed concessions to capitalist enterprise.  Still, to say the neither requires justification is to make the least controversial of claims: that art and entertainment can and do coexist in the finest instances of each tradition.  Whether one searches for confirmation in Citizen Kane (1941), Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Vertigo (1958) or Awaara (1951), Mother India (1957) and Pyaasa (1957), the matter would seem to be settled. 
            Still, Robin Wood’s formulation, beyond the compellingly revisionist quality of its canonization of Hawks’s film, sustains force to the extent that Rio Bravo tells us something particular about the Hollywood cinema.[4]   In much the same way, writer-director Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (‘Pure Heart,’ 1972) succeeds in “validating” the concept of a classical Indian cinema: that is, Pakeezah’s existence – and indeed its elevated artistic status – is altogether implausible outside the contours of Bollywood filmmaking.  This is not to suggest merely that Amrohi’s film required the commercial and/or technological institutions of the Bollywood industry.  Rather, Pakeezah owes its existence to the singular formal structure of the popular Indian cinema.  Specifically, Amrohi’s picture is constructed according to Bollywood filmmaking’s defining epic structure; its characteristic recourse to diegetic musical sequences – with motivations that are not always readily discernable; and its wild disjunctures of space and time.  This is to say that Pakeezah adheres to a set of conventions that mark its distance from the characteristic economy of Hollywood studio filmmaking, even as it instantiates a popular idiom of its own.
            At the same time, Pakeezah does not represent simply an adoption of this popular form, but instead an appropriation of its formal singularities for its particular semantic ends.  That is, while Pakeezah utilizes a pre-existing mass-art form, its application is calibrated to match the idiosyncrasy of the film’s content.  Thus, though Amrohi has not invented a cinematic idiom unique to his film, he has nonetheless succeeded in producing the same level of organic rigor – between form and discourse – than have those artists who have remade the language of their cinema in the image of their subjects: from Carl Theodor Dreyer to Chantal Akerman to Abbas Kiarostami, among scores of others.  It is almost as if we might say that the language of the classical Indian cinema is Amrohi’s, to the degree that it was under his direction in Pakeezah that the form appeared to become as malleable as it long has been for the greatest exemplars of counter-cinema, who have all transformed the language of their art to match the content of individual works.  Pakeezah thus justifies the classical Indian cinema as it not only marks it as but in fact makes it a singularly expressive form.

‘Rare is the connoisseur who appreciates such a flower’
While it is easy therefore to compare Pakeezah with Rio Bravo on the level of its adherence to a national tradition of popular art-making, to say that Pakeezah has the ‘whole of’ Amrohi behind it, as Wood said of Hawks’ Western vis-à-vis its filmmaker, is far more problematic.  In particular, whereas the American was credited as the director of more than thirty features by the release of Rio Bravo, Pakeezah was only Amrohi’s third directorial effort – with only one more to come – with writing credits on approximately a dozen more (including his three directorial efforts to date). 
            Amrohi was born Syed Amir Haider Kamal in the town of Amroha, located in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, on the seventeenth of January, 1918.  Initially a writer and poet (Hindi-Urdu), many of the Amrohi’s early writings can be situated within “the Shakespearean contours of the Urdu Parsee theatre.”[5]  In 1949, Amrohi made his directorial debut with Bombay Talkies feature Mahal, a ghost story-psychodrama starring Ashok Kumar.  Even in this his premiere feature, a number of Pakeezah’s key preoccupations are already present – such as the obsessive desire of a male protagonist concentrated on a single female figure of surpassing beauty, or in its emphasis on the tactility of human touch (a subject which will be discussed in some detail with respect to Pakeezah).  In other words, Amrohi began his career as a mature filmmaker, attuned to the medium’s sensorial nature – and particularly to the cardinality of sight and its relationship to touch; indeed, film historians Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen have acknowledged that “Mahal is now considered a Hindi classic.”[6] 
With his second feature Daera (‘The Division,’ 1953), made for the director’s newly-formed Kamal Pics, Amrohi teamed with his third wife Meena Kumari.  Kumari also starred in Pakeezah, which commenced shooting in 1964, the year that she and the director divorced, thus halting production indefinitely.[7]   Eventually agreeing to resume the project, Pakeezah was completed seven years later.  In the meantime, Kumari had succumbed to alcoholism, which would lead directly to her death in 1972, only a few days after the film’s commercial release.  As Rajadhyaksha and Willemen put it, “her off-screen life extended her image as the lovelorn woman who drowns her passion in drink.”[8]  In fact, Kumari’s notorious end yielded outstanding box office receipts, even after the initial lukewarm response the film received prior to Kumari’s death.[9] 
Of course, Pakeezah’s popularity can also be explained in part by its genre, the ‘courtesan’ film, which Rachel Dwyer and Divia Patel describe as “one of the most popular genres, in terms of the box office success rather than the number of films produced.”[10]  (In this respect, Amrohi’s picture again differs from Hawks’s.)  In these works, where the heroine is “always a Muslim,” the courtesan’s “attractions give rise to a variety of pleasures in the audience.  She is portrayed as a victim of men’s lusts and as an object of the viewer’s pity, but also delights the audience in being the object of the male gaze as she dances for his entertainment.” [11]  Consequently, in Pakeezah the spectacle on display is not only that of the beautiful Kumari’s body – first in the role of Nargis and then as her daughter, the eponymous Pakeezah – but also her deterioration commensurate again with the actress’s real-life withering.  However, Kumari’s decay is procured not simply for the pity it might arouse for the character, but in fact highlights the personal nature of Amrohi’s narrative.  Indeed, when the film’s narrator (in the picture’s penultimate line) claims that “rare is the connoisseur who appreciates such a flower,” it is apparent immediately that he is referring not only to Pakeezah’s fictional lover, but also to the line’s author as well – that is, to Amrohi, the film’s creator and Kumari’s former spouse and lover.  In this moment, the film’s autobiographical content comes to the fore.    
Following his third film, Amrohi directed one last feature, 1983’s Razia Sultan, a biography of South Asia’s first female Muslim ruler.  Less conspicuously personal, Razia Sultan joins the Amrohi-scripted, all-time Hindi classic Mughal-e-Azam (1960, K. Asif) as works of a distant historical setting.  The later work is perhaps most noteworthy for the poetic consequence of its gestures – as for example when the film’s young male protagonist Yakoot (Dharmendra) has the female Sultan’s (Hema Malini) communication carved onto his chest, insuring that his blood will forever carry his lover, the Sultan’s, words.  Similarly, Amrohi’s final film concludes with one of the most lyrical sequences in the recent history of popular filmmaking.  With an echoing voice-over commencing as Yakoot rides off in slow-motion, a spear in his back, we see the heavens, shooting stars and a series of red flares.  The aforesaid booming vocal proclaims: “there is a call from the skies!  Come!!! This world is unfit for you!  We are decorating another new world for you in the skies!  It’s God’s order!   Shining stars of the skies take our humble bows!  The sacrificed love drenched in blood… Are coming into my protection!”  In short, Amrohi suggests the union of these two lovelorn souls in the world to come, as a union not of flesh but of pure spirit.   

‘Her soul cries out’
            With a similar, reverberating narration, Pakeezah opens in a brothel.  As the golden-haired courtesan Kumari dances for a gathering of male admirers, the disembodied voice-over begins :[12] “Here is Nargis… [Whose] enchanting voice and the music of her anklet-bells create a stir everywhere.”  Indeed, her seductive power flows not only from her staggering physical beauty, but also from the allure of her song.  She captivates by sight and by sound, engendering the obsessive, self-destroying desire of her suitors.  As we are instructed in the proceeding line of dialogue, “countless hearts spurned by her lie disregarded beneath her feet.”   Throughout, Amrohi restricts his camera to the same dimly-lit interior, establishing Nargis’s renown through his film’s overdubbed commentary, refusing at this earlier juncture to illustrate her history. 
Suddenly, the narration switches registers as we are told that Nargis’s “soul cries out.”  This proclamation is followed in quick succession by the arrival of a dark, bearded man, Shahabuddin (Ashok Kumar – likewise the star of the director’s Mahal), who retrieves her from the hell of the world she inhabits.  Amrohi thusly replaces the diegetic relation of information – that is, through the act of telling – with a more analogical system.  When we see Shahabuddin save his lover, it is not as if we are viewing a document of the event, but rather the spectator is provided with an impression of Shahabuddin’s and particularly Nargis’s emotional states in light of their union; Amrohi approximates or glosses the event.  Or, to put it yet another way, it is a fundamentally poetic or even spiritual depiction of the formation of the couple, presenting their union not in the space and time in which it was forged – through the words, actions, and gestures that would result in their coupling – but instead through an emotional congruence conveyed in acts that do not proceed along the lines of verisimilitude.  In this respect, Pakeezah’s opening will be paralleled subsequently by Razia Sultan’s conclusion.
            Pakeezah’s analogical prologue continues after the opening brothel sequence.  Here, Amrohi’s film sustains its distance from verisimilitudinal reality as Nargis and Shahabuddin travel to the gentleman’s estate, in order to seek his father’s consent for their marriage.  In a series of shots depicting the pair in a carriage, the pitch black interior eliminates all background detail, leaving only the couple in each other’s arms.  Their touch is infinitely soft, demonstrating a tactility which will implicitly structure a subsequent sequence on a train – the double for that passage, this precursor also focuses upon the sensorial (touch in both instances) in the confined interior of a moving vehicle.  The world in this moment is Nargis and Shahabuddin, which will be shattered in the forthcoming scene once his father rejects this woman of low standing.  At this point, Nargis rushes out onto the street, where under a pool of lamplight in the deep distance, she hires a rickshaw to take her to a graveyard. 
            Once there, the introductory prologue concludes with one of the film’s more literary details: her death is figured explicitly in both the crumbling ruins of the ancient graveyard and also in the fact that this is a place which houses decaying flesh, the shells of long-departed souls.  Like the sequence in the carriage and also the confrontation with the patriarch, this section in the graveyard is again explicitly picked up later in the narrative, when the eponymous Pakeezah – Nargis’s daughter, who again is also played by Kumari – claims that her “vagabond dead body has returned to be buried” in the “colorful tomb” of the brothels.  As she says to another courtesan, “every whore is a dead body;” they are “living corpses, adorned and embalmed.” 
Structurally, the film’s prologue provides the groundwork for the subsequent parallels that emerge between mother and daughter, which of course the double casting of Kumari is intended to reinforce.  Likewise, the film’s introductory passage also confirms the work of fate in dictating the outcomes of their lives: as the above dialogue emphasizes, all prostitutes are in effect the living dead, whether it is Nargis in the collapsing cemetery or Pakeezah in her later self-awareness.  Each will experience the effects of time, losing that which has made them desirable, and indeed a commodity: their beauty.  Of course, time’s passage signals not only this loss but a second that is far more severe, though in the world of these women, analogous – that is, death itself – provided that no amendment is made for life after death.  In Pakeezah, death is immutable, precisely as the soul does not migrate.  Even so, the soul, which is to say the metaphysical self, does exist in Pakeezah: namely, it is that which communes – often magically – with other human beings.  It is this surely that Amrohi is signifying in the film’s prefatory opening, or in the forthcoming description of Pakeezah’s great love. 

‘Don’t taint them by letting them touch the ground’
To be sure, the themes of beauty and loss in Pakeezah are most clearly present and acutely distilled into a single feature of the courtesan: her feet.  They are both the principle tool of her trade and the primary source of her attraction.  Again, corresponding in part to the sequence in the carriage, Amrohi portrays Salim (Raaj Kumar) encountering a sleeping Pakeezah on a train.  Salim sits beside her and the beautiful courtesan’s toe, imitating the back-and-forth rocking motion of the train cabin, persistently touches the gentleman’s leg.  His head bobs up and down with the rhythmic touch of her foot.  Amrohi’s framing isolates the object of desire, Pakeezah’s feet, and the male subject, mesmerized Kumari’s appendages. 
Responding to this encounter, Salim pens a note telling her that she must not allow her feet to be tainted by  “letting them touch the ground.”  He slips the message between her toes and leaves without once making her aware of his presence.  Waking, Pakeezah finds the note, leading her to instantly fall in love with its author, who has appreciated her beauty without placing any sexual demands on her in return.  In this way, his love is inimical to the acquisition of pleasure that distinguishes her profession.  He apprehends her beauty without attempting to own it, which given her vocation would be his purview.  Consequently, it is to him that she will give her love in the same spirit of freedom.    
However, following a set of circumstances that will seemingly render their love as impossible as her parents’ before them, Pakeezah’s response is to destroy the same object of desire which initially attracted the gentleman and ultimately precipitated their union: she knocks over a lamp and proceeds to dance on top of the glass, slicing open her feet.  Indeed, this is a gesture of suicide triply: first, she is renouncing her former lover and making any resolution impossible; second, she is committing an act of professional suicide destroying the principle object of her commodification as a dancer; and third, with the ensuing loss of blood, she is literally committing suicide.
            The gravity of this action, however, is grounded in the prior rendering of her feet as a siphon for Salim’s desire.  And like the earlier sequence in the carriage which renders the tactility of their touch with extreme precision, the train-car sequence is conferred with a similar physicality.  Here, it is the bouncing of her toes and Salim’s resulting gaze which confirms the excitement that this illicit touch stimulates in the protagonist.  The specific relation between sight and touch is concretized thus, with desire becoming the connective tissue between the male spectator, that is the subject whose gaze directs the mise-en-scène, and the ensuing touch, the possession of beauty which said desire elicits.  Accordingly, the space extant between the subject and object produces the corresponding hope and anxiety which a longed-for touch creates.  The ultimate end of beauty becomes its possession, even if it is certain to wane, which Amrohi describes in Pakeezah’s (and Kumari’s) aging – the fact that Pakeezah was shot over a period of more than seven years secures a literal instantiation of this same theme.  Symbolically, Amrohi figures the female protagonist’s deterioration in the brothels in the object of a kite, which is shown first intact and trapped in the tree, and later decaying in this same place.
            Of course, there is another side to the identification writ into Pakeezah’s economy of sight and touch: the perspective of the object.  Certainly, as much Salim wishes to touch his beloved, Pakeezah desires the touch of her hallowed lover.  While this reading is not immediately obvious at this moment – Pakeezah is after all sleeping, and presumably unaware of his presence – it becomes clear enough when she subsequently finds herself in her lover’s camp.  Here, after Pakeezah discovers that this is the man of whom she has long dreamed (the details of which will follow in the next section) Salim arrives home to find her mysteriously lying on his bed.  Formally, Amrohi places Pakeezah inside the tent in the right foreground, leaving the center left empty and open, looking out onto the river.  When Salim returns, he fills this negative space with Pakeezah remaining turned away from the gentleman.  Amrohi cuts to a medium close-up of the male, and then to a point-of-view of her body, which slowly pans down to her feet.  Thus, Amrohi reminds his viewer that she is the object of the male protagonist’s gaze.  However, his passion is clearly matched by her’s: she remains turned away from Salim, breathless, with her bosom heaving up and down, which Amrohi shows in a tightly-framed medium close-up, cropped from her chest up.  Indeed, in this image Amrohi inscribes two distinct witnesses – the one longing for the touch and the other longing to be touched.  Desire is shared by subject and object alike.  Still, it is essential to remember that Pakeezah’s enchantment followed initially from Salim’s refusal to attain her love coercively.  Freely, the object gives itself to the subject.

‘I don’t know when this dream will end, and in what wilderness I will awaken?’
            The description thus far emphasizes Pakeezah’s objecthood.  However, it is less Salim’s vantage which directs the narrative, in spite of the fact that his subjecthood is established in the point-of-view shots detailed above, but rather it is Pakeezah’s mentation and her anxiety that shapes the narrative’s structure.  Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the passage following a series of interactions in the Pink Palace – an opulent brothel in the film’s Punjabi location[13] – between various courtesans, madames, and their potential suitors.  In one such moment, Pakeezah tells another courtesan that “every night at three o’clock, a train seems to come off its tracks and run through my heart.”  Consequently, with the train whistle, Amrohi shows his audience the female protagonist rushing out onto her balcony to see the passing train, which she clearly associates with her still faceless lover.  Indeed, on multiple occasions, we see Pakeezah reading and rereading her missive; she is completely transfixed by the words of the gentleman. 
            Yet, it is not a simple pondering of these lines that Amrohi communicates – he is not content in telling his audience that Pakeezah thinks of this noble gentleman, that she is lovesick.   Instead, what follows is a mapping of her internal processes, her thoughts and feelings.  After a fellow courtesan rejects her assumption that the letter was intended for her, Pakeezah removes herself and lies beside a pool of water.  Condensation drips from a chandelier.  Then, abruptly, the narrative shifts spaces to a houseboat floating leisurely down a river.  (Amrohi composes this image with the boat surrounded by a white field, extracting the action from the space as if presenting a bordered illustration.)  The narrative then continues inside the houseboat where Pakeezah finds herself with the same suitor who had purchased her earlier in the passage.  He remarks that his heart tells him that she is “stolen property, a crime to buy.” 
Following this exchange, he is summoned by his crew as elephants threaten the vessel; she lies back down as the boat is smashed to pieces.  Pakeezah however survives and is washed ashore, sleeping on a remaining fragment of the ship.  Consequently, she finds herself in the riverside camp mentioned above.  Looking through the camper’s things, she discovers a journal that mentions the incident on the train; amongst his things is a feather which Salim had retained from her as a souvenir.  Amrohi then depicts the woman singing and dancing in a series of disparate landscapes before returning to the camp.  Once back, Salim returns and they converse with Pakeezah’s back to the gentleman (as has been detailed in the prior section); they speak through the canvas of the tent, with Salim telling her that he must leave – though likewise assuring her that he will return before sundown.  Though Salim keeps his promise, she is brought back home, after being spotted by a party from the brothel.  As such, her journey has proven to be a zero-sum affair; it as though she has not encountered her lover at all, particularly as she has yet to look at Salim.  Having thus returned to the place whence her journey began, it is as though Amrohi has depicted Pakeezah’s fantasy of an encounter with her unknown lover rather than a consecutive series of events, however improbable their succession.
 In fact, this alternative encoding of fantasy extends to other passages, providing a double to our comprehension of the film as a series of linked, sequential places and times in which the diegesis occurs.  In these sections, Amrohi has constructed a narrative that not only operates on the basis of a series of discrete, consecutive events, but additionally upon the internal hopes and conflicts of the female protagonist.  Together, these forge the film’s narrative-temporal progression, as a detailing of Pakeezah’s thoughts and anxieties, even as Pakeezah offers a more conventional reading of its narrative world.
The first clue to this alternate interpretation is in the causality attached to the female protagonist’s act of lying down.  In example after example, her performance of this gesture precedes a shift in the space and the time of the narrative: for instance, when Amrohi transitions from the brothel to the houseboat, the houseboat to the camp, and subsequently back to her lover’s company after returning to the Pink Palace.  In this final instance, she is nearly attacked by a landlord, before collapsing in front of a train, upon which as it happens Salim is riding.  Heretofore, it would have seemed that the pair was destined to remain apart; however, with the reclining gesture – which of course, was Pakeezah’s position when they first met as she slept on the train with her feet exposed – Salim and Pakeezah are brought together once again, as if the repetition of this action itself possess a conjuring power.   To be somewhat crude, it is on her back that she is transported away from the trappings – and dangers – of the courtesan life (her purchaser, the snake) to the possibility of happiness (in each case with Salim).   Hence, Amrohi does not simply present a series of events with different players, but in fact offers opposable contingencies demarcated again by the repetition of a gesture, which it bares stating may suggest that Pakeezah is dreaming.  At the very least, Pakeezah’s desire is inscribed in these reversals between a loathsome reality and an ideal alternative.

‘Beloved, let us journey to the moon’
            Yet, the indication that Amrohi is charting Pakeezah’s internal life does not stop with the exposition of contingencies, but further is manifest, and indeed dictates the geographical and temporal location of a pair of musical numbers.  In “Mausam Hain,” which follows Pakeezah’s realization that she is in her lover’s camp, the introduction of the song number commences with a tight centered close-up of Pakeezah opening her eyes.  This gesture corresponds to an earlier image where her wealthy suitor is shot utilizing this same frontal framing as he stares directly ahead, even as Pakeezah keeps her eyes closed.  Thus, in the sequentially latter instance, Pakeezah’s desire and commitment to Salim is revealed by her repetition of the gesture that she earlier withheld from the prior admirer.  With her feelings for Salim, she is awakening from her slumber. 
Indeed, this passion is both displaced onto the following musical sequence and simultaneously, again, guides the spatial and temporal shifts that occur presently.  To be specific, Amrohi cuts from this close-up to a slow motion long shot of a riverbank where scores of birds take off during midday.  The director then cuts to an image with a similar subject, but one which occurs at sunset.  The next image is of Pakeezah in her hammock looking off into the distance – it is again daylight – as the lyrics to “Mausam Hain” begin: “love is in the air.”  She slowly turns toward the camera with Amrohi lyrically utilizing slow-motion once again.  Following another image of the birds at sunset, Amrohi cuts to a long shot-composition of the camp, alongside the river, in the light of late afternoon.  Pakeezah is thereafter shown wading into the river in slow-motion; standing atop a small cascade; and then, following an image of a landscape after dusk, she is depicted in daytime on dry land.  Consequently, it becomes clear that while this passage can be read tentatively as a series of places in which Pakeezah improbably (given the floral and topographical variations that the author presents) finds herself over a period of time – inserted with non-diegetic landscapes – it also might be read much more plausiby as an exemplification of her emotional rapture at the revelation of her good luck.  Amrohi tells us what is within Pakeezah more than where she stands.
            While certainly musical numbers are used routinely in Indian popular cinema to articulate the feelings of a character, thereby occupying distensions in the time of their narratives, it just so happens that in this apparent moment of temporal expansion, Amrohi also uses a series of often unconnected and temporally incongruent landscapes to similarly parse Pakeezah’s feeling of love for her still (at this point) unknown suitor.  Consequently, these landscapes can be viewed in a fashion similar to the song lyrics, which themselves serve to reinforce the conflation between interior and exterior that governs this musical sequence.  As she says at one point, “the dark monsoon clouds awaken a desire in me.”  The landscapes themselves indicate her emotional state.
            The second of the two songs that figure Pakeezah’s thought in the spatial-temporal logic of its picturization, “Chalo Dildar,” follows the protagonist’s tortured disclosure to her lover that she is a prostitute.  His reaction – that it is immaterial because he loves her – prompts the number beginning with the lyric “beloved, let us journey to the moon.”  Again, the protagonists find themselves within a primordial site of beauty – that is, within nature. 

‘Each day my soul struggled away from my body’
However, even more important than the recurrence of this logic is the dialogue that precedes it, or to be more specific, a single line of dialogue spoken by Pakeezah during the build-up to her pained confession: “each day my soul struggled away from my body.”  In this declaration, not only does Amrohi encapsulate the psychology of his female protagonist, but moreover succeeds in defining the structural logic of his entire film: Pakeezah represents the wanderings of her soul in contradistinction to the degradations (and ultimately degeneration) of her body.  On the one hand, she is a courtesan, she is nothing other than her flesh; her entire value as a human being rests in her physical appearance, which is bought and forcibly returned to the Pink Palace.  On the other hand, Pakeezah is the sum of her dreams and fears; she is a romantic that longs after a mysterious lover.  As such, Amrohi’s narrative form allows for the exploration of her physical self (as instantiated by her role as a prostitute) and her metaphysical self (showcased in her meetings with Salim) simultaneously.  That Amrohi succeeds in this is accommodated by the film’s classical Bollywood structure, which allows for the aforesaid spatial and temporal disjunctures.  The non-epic Hollywood form again would not permit this film’s structuring contradistinction.  It is in the form of classical Indian cinema that Amrohi finds space to explicate his metaphysics.   
            As to this content, it bears stating that as much the sequence that leads up to and follows their initial meeting in the camp can be read as a depiction of pure interiority, of contingencies for which she alternately fears and longs, it might be viewed likewise in terms of its alternations between the subjection of her body to the waking death of prostitution and the enlivening possibilities of love.  To be sure, Amrohi seems to suggest this antagonism in her final return to the brothels where she remarks that prostitutes are ‘living corpses, adorned and embalmed,’ and that she is a “restless corpse, lying in an open grave.”  In this way, Amrohi is suggesting the spiritual-emotional emptiness of this life and that these women are in fact shells with no deeper metaphysical presence.  This declaration comes after the film has charted her internal wanderings in great detail, thereby reaffirming the disconnect between body and soul – in a sense, the moments of connection with Salim are nothing more than pure spirit, soul without body – and thus sharpening the film’s discourse: there is no escape ultimately for women of this society. 

Conclusion
            Ultimately, Pakeezah’s achievement once again resides in its simultaneous inhabitation of the contours of a commercial art, even as these forms convey the film’s unique content – namely, in its communication of its female protagonist’s subjectivity.  If this subject exceeds the expressive limits of film art, to the extent that cinema is the most material of media (limiting itself to surface realities) classical Bollywood’s pliable narrative structure allows for the exposition of interiority.  That is, Pakeezah highlights the capacity of commercial Indian cinema to engage matters of the soul through a conventional adaptation of its forms.  By comparison, the presence of religion in Hollywood filmmaking, and in those instances of counter-cinema that have been positioned in relation to, and as a response to conventional studio filmmaking, dictate that immateriality is conveyed in the subject matter, iconography or as explicit absences (as in the blank surfaces of Robert Bresson’s cinema).  By comparison, immateriality is repeatedly the subject of Pakeezah, whether it is the invisible relationship between sight and touch or the meeting of pure spirit that the film’s conventional narrative structure weighs against the deadening corporeal existence of the eponymous lead.
Still, Pakeezah remains one of the most profoundly material and indeed tactile films ever made, whether it is the film’s emphasis upon the sensorial or its more ubiquitous treatment of beauty as a subject.  Nowhere is the latter focus clearer than in the second song sung by the titular lead, “Thade rahiyo.”  Here, we see Kumari centered and positioned in the lower half of the symmetrical frame – all of which is characteristic of Amrohi’s mise-en-scène in Pakeezah – with reflecting pools beside either shoulder.  These bodies of water are utilized throughout the sequence to reflect the actress’s image or the red candles that ring the liquid.  That is, Amrohi’s staging of this sequence emphasizes the pictorial richness generated by these shifting surfaces, in addition to Kumari’s beautiful, moving body.  In each case, it is with beauty that Amrohi populates his frame.
This is not to suggest, however, that Amrohi’s staging lacks an organic relationship to the film’s content – which is to say that it does not seem imposed of the film’s thematic constellation.  In the preceding musical number, “Inhi logon ne,” Amrohi constructs a multi-planar space to highlight the scope of the world Pakeezah inhabits: with Kumari, covered by a cascading red veil and dress, again restricted to the center of the lower foreground, we are provided a vantage of Patiala filled with multi-storied structures containing arched apertures.  In these framed openings – and in one case, on the roof of a structure in the right background – we see women echoing Kumari’s movements, dancing and spinning.   As such, Amrohi visually constructs the scope of the social problem instantiated by Nargis and later Pakeezah, through a series of receding, populated planes. 
At the same time, this space construes the director’s obsessive interest in detail that was equally present in the prior example.  In a word, we become aware in either case of the director’s aesthete’s sensibility.  His concern is for beauty, whether it is Kumari’s, his sets’ and costumes’ – Dwyer and Patel have argued that the courtesan genre is responsible for “some of the most extravagant and beautiful sets and costumes in the history of the Hindi film”[14] – or the pooling of a golden, artificial light that paints his actress as she returns to the Pink Palace.    Hence, if Pakeezah’s narrative structure (which is also to say its use of time) derives from the codes and conventions of Bollywood filmmaking, as does nominally its emphasis on art design as a source of spectatorial pleasure, Amrohi’s spatial articulations and handling of light underscore his individualized sensibility.  In this respect, Pakeezah does more justify the popular Indian cinema; it manifests the artistic sensibility of a truly ‘rare… connoisseur.’ 

This essay was originally published in Indian Auteur, No. 3 (May 2009)

[1] Robin Wood, Howard Hawks (Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2006): 29.
[2] Throughout the essay, the terms ‘Bollywood’ and ‘popular Indian cinema/filmmaking,’ will be used synonymously.  This is not to suggest that either is unproblematic or unworthy of interrogation.  Rather, it is my contention that such a task is beyond the purview of my paper, and for the sake of variety I have decided to use each when the meaning of a national commercial industry is clear.  As for the ‘classical Indian cinema,’ my use of this term is intended to suggest Indian cinema’s bifurcation into blockbuster and art cinema traditions.  Whether or not this had occurred by Pakeezah’s release in early 1972, it seems clear that the film’s initial conception in 1958 squarely precedes this distinction.
[3] Wood’s claim that he would choose Rio Bravo to ‘justify the existence of Hollywood’ first appeared in Howard Hawks (London: Secker and Warburg; Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1968).
[4] As Wood puts it, Rio Bravo is “a triumph of what I have described as a ‘communal’ art, growing out of a rich tradition, in which established genres, certain basic methods of collaboration at all levels all contribute: an ideal democratic art in which the artist is a pervasive presence without feeling the need to insist upon it.”  My argument for Pakeezah, is, quite to the contrary, located in Amrohi’s individual sensibility.  Pakeezah is a work, or even the work of singular artistic vision.  Rio Bravo (London: British Film Institute, 2003): 85. 
[5] Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen cite as an example his script for Akhtar Hussain’s Romeo and Juliet (1947).  Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, revised ed. (London: British Film Institute, 1999): 42.
[6] Ibid. 314.
[7] Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, New Revised ed. (London: British Film Institute, 2002): 42, 410.
[8]  Ibid. 135.
[9] Pakeezah managed a net gross of 2,75,00,000 and a distributor share of 1,65,00,000, according to website BoxOfficeIndia.com  (http://www.boxofficeindia.com/1972.htm).  The former was sufficient to make Pakeezah the second highest grossing film of 1972.
[10] Rachel Dwyer and Divia Patel, Cinema India: The Visual Culture of Hindi Film (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2002): 69.
[11] Ibid. 69-70.
[12] For clarification, Dwyer and Patel note that “in the booklet for Pakeezah we are given explanation of what these women stand for.  Known as tawaifs, they are regarded as being of a much higher status than the Western term ‘prostitute’ allows for.  The booklet projects them as representing a tradition and a form of cultural institution, and their existence is traced back to ancient India where they are mentioned in the texts and were used as informers by the administrators, thus placing them ‘at the centre of politics and culture for centuries and centuries’… The booklet emphasizes that she is not in the sexual market and that she is almost a one-man woman.’”  Cinema India: The Visual Culture of Hindi Film, 206.
[13] Pakeezah’s is set in Punjabi’s “princely state of Patiala in the early years of the twentieth century.”  Ibid., 69.
[14] Ibid. 70.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

"It's a Whole Different Business Now": Billy Wilder's Fedora (1978)

Produced a little more than a quarter-century after his Sunset Boulevard (1950) requiem for a long deceased silent art, Billy Wilder's penultimate Fedora (1978), from an I.A.L. Diamond and Wilder adaptation of a Thomas Tryon story, does the same for a no less historic classical Hollywood cinema. In fact, following a brief rear-projected death scene and television news montage, Fedora opens with the body of its eponymous heroine (Marthe Keller) lying in state, as parades of mourners come to glimpse and pay their last respects to one of the silver screen's greatest icons. Eulogizing star and also studio, Fedora is a funereal cinema, presided over, like Sunset Boulevard, by William Holden's first-act narration. Indeed, it is the era of Holden and not Swanson, Wilder and not Erich von Stroheim whose passing Fedora both depicts and signals - with the writer-director's feature exclusively financed by French and West German money, shot on location in these same nations and on the island of Corfu, and starring the Swiss born Keller (whose body-of-work spanned a number of national cinemas).

Flashing back two weeks from the opening Parisian-situated funeral, Holden's down-on-his-luck producer Barry "Dutch" Detweiler arrives on a sun-bleached Corfu in search of reclusive, retired screen star Fedora. As the spectator will soon learn, thanks to a subsequent flashback-within-the-flashback, Fedora and Dutch had a one-night stand decades earlier when the legendary screen beauty seduced the young assistant director after the latter was employed to cover her exposed nipples during an aquatic back-lot shoot at Metro. Through this Mediterranean setting, Wilder's film strongly recalls the director's under-appreciated, Amalfi-situated Avanti! (1972), as well as Jean-Luc Godard's deeply self-reflexive, Hellenic predecessor Contempt (1963). As Dutch attempts to contact the mysterious female lead - who, on the rare occasion of appearing in public, sports the same wide brimmed hat and dark sunglasses as Karen Black in Alfred Hitchcock's fine Family Plot (1976) - Wilder and cinematographer Gerry Fisher's lighting favors the over-saturated, blown-out look of the cemetery sequence in the aforementioned master's Vertigo (1958), not to mention the mid-1970s look of Hitchcock's final feature. The earlier masterpiece will especially prove cardinal to Fedora, however, with a mid-narrative plot reversal procuring a very similar reflexive interest in the production of the film's focal object of desire, namely that of the female film star, whether it is explicit as in Wilder's film or implicit as in Hitchcock's.

Dutch does manage to cross paths with Fedora shortly, where he discovers that his former lover has remained almost ageless in the three decades since their previous meeting. Reminding her of the past, Dutch mentions Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which prompts to Fedora to respond: "that's all gone now, isn't it?" Dutch, an independent producer, confirms that it is, noting that they sold the back-lot and auctioned everything off years ago. When consequently Dutch joins Fedora and the Countess Fedora Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef) at their prison-like estate (in another direct quotation from Wilder and Holden's previous collaboration), he admits that he needs Fedora to secure financing, noting that he has located tax shelter guys so long as she is willing to come out of retirement. Dutch rues the fact that "it's a whole different business now" and that "the kids with beards have taken over," in an acknowledgement of the new generation of "movie brats" that were at that very moment replacing the retiring and passing Hitchcock, Wilder, et al. As Fedora's male lead puts it, in conspicuous opposition to writer-director Wilder's preferred mode of filmmaking (both as director and previously as one of the industry's great screenwriters), "they don't need scripts; just give them a hand-held camera with a zoom lens." Fedora's complex, archly-baroque flashback structure - in this sense Wilder remains forever a product of the late 1940, early 1950s film noir moment, of the age of Sunset Boulevard that is - told in unrelentingly classical shot/reverse-shot decoupage stagings, preserves the earlier mode, which is to say the type of film practice that would come to a conclusion with the passing Wilder's artistic generation.

As Wilder and Diamond's screenplay puts it, "I guess time catches up with all of us." That is, all of us except for Fedora, as Dutch notes, who again looks no older than she did when they spent the night together on Santa Monica beach in 1947. The filmmakers' immediate explanation for Fedora's timelessness, which it should be added inverts Sunset Boulevard's presentation of Swanson and her fellow silent cinema cohorts, is the extensive, experimental plastic surgery that Doctor Vando (José Ferrer) has performed on the actress over the course of a number of years. In another flashback to the early 1960s, following the film's key mid-point reversal, the viewer sees Fedora's face wrapped in bandages that for the contemporary spectator may call to mind Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In (2010) synthetic variations, as will Fedora's scribblings of her name in one notebook sheet after another. To this end, it should be recalled that Almodóvar has cited Sunset Boulevard, Fedora's dialogic partner, as one of his favorite films, making the latter a plausible additional source of inspiration for the Spanish director's queer appropriation of Vertigo's human remodeling. Indeed, it would seem that Fedora no less than mediates The Skin I Live In's mannerist, post-plastic surgery take on Hitchcock's masterwork.

While Fedora ultimately cannot escape the ravages of time that likewise defeated her Sunset Boulevard predecessor Norma Desmond, she does manage to die young, so to speak at least, in the same fashion as those she calls the "lucky ones," Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe. Of course, to do so it takes a plot twist that this writer is not keen on spoiling. Suffice it to say that this move allows for the divesting of the person from the star persona she inhabits in a manner that is more classical though no less self-reflexive than Jacques Rivette's period Pirandelloism's. In this sense Fedora is a movie of its high modernist moment, even as it looks to the past, to a cinema whose death it was expounding in using its very form. Here again this career peak for Wilder becomes a film of an era, which is to say of the classical Hollywood cinema's sunset years.

For the moment, Fedora remains available in the United States only on out-of-print videocassette and laser-disc formats. However, rumor has it that Frank Tarzi's Olive Films has licensed a high-definition remastering of Wilder's 1978 picture for future home video release.