Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: A Review of Sorts

The year in review: 2011

After the significant gains of 2010 (Udaan, Karthik Calling Karthik, Peepli Live), Hindi cinema in 2011 was a bit of a letdown. Vishal Bharadwaj finally delivered a clunker, 7 Khoon Maaf. The story - about a woman who keeps killing her abusive husbands - needed something like the Wilder touch. Bharadwaj instead ended up directing like the David Fincher of Se7en and Fight Club: the film was cynical, oppressive and unremittingly dark. It did, however, have “Darling”, which would have been the song of the year if it’d been original (it was an acknowledged cover of the Russian song "Kalinka").

Aamir Khan continued his golden run as producer. Kiran Rao's Dhobi Ghat was a muted tribute to Mumbai, and far too gentle to remember for long. Yet, there was a lot that was just right about it: the performances by Prateik and Kriti Malhotra (who has the most relatable voice), the score by Gustavo Santaollala and a unwillingness to concede to popular appeal (down to Aamir Khan’s irritating mind games about how this wasn’t a movie for the masses). Delhi Belly was its polar opposite: loud, trash-talking, fast-paced. It had whipcrack editing, the funniest script in recent memory, three leads who cussed like they didn’t care, and crazy, cross-eyed Poorna Jaganathan stealing scenes from everyone's noses. Also, I hate you like I love you love you love you…

Shor in the City may not have been as slick as 99, but it did manage to take the manic comedy of that 2009 film and turn it into something darker and more substantial. Directors Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D also got Tusshar Kapoor to act, an aberration that was quickly forgotten after his turn in The Dirty Picture (which, despite a joyously smutty performance by Vidya Balan, was very average).

The close but no cigar film of the year: Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster, which had an impressive Randeep Hooda, a surprisingly effective Jimmy Shergill and an awful Mahie Gill.

Ra.One might just be the worst film ever made in this country's history. If you’ve already seen it, I don’t need to tell you why. If you haven’t, read this Vigil Idiot strip.

Level any charge you’d like against The Tree of Life, but I could not get those images, or the haunting “Les barricades misteriuses”, out of my head for a long time. The most ambitious and flawed film of the year.

Drive unfolded like a cool dream interrupted by hideous violence. Gosling was a real human being, and a real hero (how old-fashioned). Carrey Mulligan will have to stop with that sad smile, or every film she does is going to end up this way.

Yet to see Shame, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Artist, War Horse, any of which might be the year's best.

Finally, some miscellaneous categories with no significance whatsoever:

Best concert I attended this year: Vieux Farka Toure Toumani Diabate and the Manganiyar troupe at Siri Fort

The concert I attended that I wouldn’t trade for the best concert I attended this year: Bob Dylan, live in Singapore

Best concert I didn’t attend this year: Metallica, Gurgaon

Best concert I’ll never attend: R.E.M, who broke up this year

Album of the year: The Beach Boys’ Smile, pieced together and released after four decades in the vault

Oh, and I bought my first original Criterions this year: Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. And we won the World Cup.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

But only worth living/ Manhattan

Why is life worth living? It's a very good question. Um... Well, There are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. uh... Like what... okay... um... For me, uh... ooh... I would say... what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing... uh... um... and Wilie Mays... and um... the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony... and um... Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues... um... Swedish movies, naturally... Sentimental Education by Flaubert... uh... Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra... um... those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne... uh... the crabs at Sam Wo's... uh... Tracy's face...

Friday, December 2, 2011

Dinner and a movie

A piece I did for Time Out about PVR's Director's Cut

“Nowadays, people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing,” says Paul Kemp in The Rum Diary, quoting Oscar Wilde. The line wafts over to me as I lie back in my recliner, sip an ice tea and idly wonder whether I should tear my eyes from the screen long enough to glance through the iPad menu by the armrest. This is Director’s Cut, the new ultra-luxurious offering from PVR. It opened last month in Vasant Kunj’s Ambience Mall, and houses four movie theatres – the largest of which has a capacity of 108 – a multi-cuisine restaurant, a café and a bookstore.

Director’s Cut appears targeted at people who believe that things of value should come at a price. But just how valuable is this experience? The recliners are admittedly comfortable. It’s great to have a decent (if not very adventurous) in-theatre menu – though be warned, a pizza here can set you back Rs.500. The main benefit, though, is being able to watch a movie in a hall and in peace, in the company of other “connoisseurs” (as the press release would have it). Who could put a price on that? PVR can; tickets are Rs 750 on weekdays, Rs 850 on weekends. My bill, lunch included, came to Rs 1,778, a decidedly expensive outing for anyone who doesn’t shop regularly at Emporio Mall.

PVR entered the luxury movie-viewing market a couple of years ago with their “Gold Class” halls in the NCR and Bangalore. The plush surroundings in these theatres are roughly the same as what Director’s Cut is now offering. PVR’s Joint Managing Director Sanjeev Bijli acknowledged that Director’s Cut was an extension of the Gold Class concept, albeit with more food and beverage options. “It’s very annoying sometimes to be thrown into the exit corridors after the movie finishes,” he said over the phone. “A lot of people want to sit back, have a glass of wine and discuss the film. That’s why we decided on a restaurant.”

PVR also has plans to reel in the discerning (as opposed to simply wealthy) viewer with screenings of “vintage and classic cinema” in one of the four halls, under the Director’s Rare label. Try medium rare. This week, they screened the Javier Bardem-starrer Buitiful, which released in regular PVR theatres earlier this year (as did Drive, shown the week before). They also screened The Shawshank Redemption, a film whose rarity is compromised by the fact that it’s on TV every other fortnight. Cinephiles are more likely to find something of value in the bookstore, which has an impressive collection of literature on cinema, reasonably priced movie posters and Bollywood-inspired memorabilia.

Director’s Cut wants to be seen as the place for sophisticated cinema lovers. “The interiors…are soaked in classic and contem­porary film-based art, so as to underline the classic quality of the experience,” rhapsodises the press release. This “art”, mainly signed photographs of directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Akira Kurosawa on the walls, is a smokescreen, an illusion to make the patrons of Director’s Cut feel like they’re discerning viewers. The truth is that Director’s Cut is a luxurious viewing experience, not necessarily a quality cinematic one. What would make this offering more interesting is if PVR could start screening genuinely rare movies, something that cultural centres here do for free. That would certainly add some value to the price.

Monday, November 14, 2011

In which we walked around Def Col Market looking at films on walls

After years of treating it as a pathway to the other side, it was a bit of shock to realise that Defence Colony Market has a nice park down its middle. It was clean, and the shrubbery actually looked like it’d been tended to. It was on this lawn that a projector was set up, pointing at the wall above Soi, Thai & Burmese restaurant. A string of lights, left over from Diwali, hung down, obscuring the “&” as well as the pale green logo of A Wall is a Screen.

A Wall is a Screen originated in Hamburg in 2003, when three filmmakers decided to project short films onto the walls of the City Centre there. Since then, the same has been done in a few dozen countries around the world, and on just about every surface imaginable. When the Delhi venue was announced as Def Col Market, I wondered what they’d be able to do with that crowded, rather indistinct crush of bars and restaurants.

6.55pm. Some 20 odd people have gathered in the park. Most of them sound German (Max Mueller Bhavan is co-organising), though there are a few locals as well. The first screening begins, a pounding animation inspired by Blake’s “Tyger Tyger”. It’s over in five minutes – most of the films were about that length – and a couple of crisp, friendly announcements are made, first in English, then in Hindi. The organisers are clearly keen to draw in casual onlookers; there’s no sign of the cliqueshness that sometimes happens with foreign cultural centre events.

Two short screenings on the adjoining wall, and we make our first location shift. By now, the crowd’s gained some 15 members; it’s diversified to include a baby in a pram, a couple of interested-looking grandmothers, and smatterings of German, French, English and Hindi. We stop in the lane opposite Barista, and watch a rather disappointing Irish Bollywood spoof (a drunker heckler saying something about knowing Lata Mangeshkar was more entertaining). The next projection was on a private wall. The film, the announcer explained, was on German houses, so they felt it was fitting to layer it on an Indian house. One of the owners came out mid-film to scattered applause. By now, the crowd was closing in on 50.

The organisers continued to match wall and film; an animation on waste disposal was screened near a garbage dump, while Motodrom, with its gritty black-and-white images, was perfect for the crumbling, whitewashed-a-decade-ago facade beside the Orient Bank ATM. People sat on parked scooters and bikes and tried to make sense of the flickering images. Rickshaws passed on the road behind us, their passengers craning their necks. A couple of policemen looked on from a distance. An auto-driver was moved by the mention of Yamuna to emerge from his vehicle and tell whoever would listen exactly why the river was so dirty. And a young MBA graduate came up to me – incorrectly assuming that I’d been dragged here against my will – and asked if I went to these kinds of things often.

The last surface, in a break with tradition, wasn’t wall as screen, but just a screen. This was placed in the park at the head of the market. We sat in its mini-amphitheatre (which I didn’t know existed – I’d never even noticed this park before), and watched an entirely charming short about mobile cinema in Calcutta. As I stared up at the white canvas, I suddenly understood why A Wall is a Screen was such a success wherever it went. It reminds us of how we used to watch movies as children, heads raised, looking up in wonder.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Wisden on India: Review

Just this month, Wisden announced that it would be launching an India edition in early 2012. It’s a measure of the times we live in that this announcement went out, to quote Douglas Adams, in a blaze of no publicity at all. Two decades ago, the news would have had Indian cricket fans out in the streets, waving their floppy-brimmed hats. But today, there’s Cricinfo and relentless TV programming and mobile applications to fill in the gaps – and that’s assuming fans here are still reading anything longer than Yuvraj Singh tweets. And what’s an almanack anyway?

The Wisden Cricket Almanack is the game’s one holy book. It was first published in 1864, and has come out every year since, making it the longest-running sports periodical in history. Since the game’s beginnings on the village greens of England, Wisden has been its most faithful scribe, and generation after generation have set its pronouncements in stone. Despite this God-like reputation, it would be unwise to view Wisden on India as a definitive history of cricket in this country. This is, at best, a selective history of Indian cricket, seen largely through British eyes. Compiled by writer Jonathan Rice, it brings together all the major reporting on Indian cricket that’s appeared in Wisden over the years, starting with the Parsee tour of 1886 and ending in 2009, with Virender Sehwag as Leading Cricketer in the World.

In Beyond a Boundary, arguably the greatest cricket book ever, CLR James wrote about how, at one point in his life, he was so much “on the alert for discrimination” that he would underline anything said against the West Indian team in his copies of The Cricketer. Reading Wisden on India might stir similar feelings in history-conscious Indian fans. There are some major omissions – Palwankar Baloo and his 118 wickets at 18.11 apiece on the 1911 tour of England are barely mentioned. The tone, especially in the early years, is often patronising (for instance, the vague mention of a “want of harmony” in the touring team of 1936, followed by the sage advice: “If a team of India cricketers is to be successful, differences of creed will have to be forgotten”). There’s also a tendency, noted by Rice, to detail the exploits of blue bloods who merely dabbled in cricket in India.

But for every real or imagined slight, there are substantial rewards for the patient reader. Some are in plain sight, like the two guest articles by Vijay Merchant, the first great Bombay batsman. One is an overview of the first two decades of Indian cricket, the second an exhortation to the 1959 touring side titled “India, Be Bold!” (They weren’t, and lost the series 5-0). Others are buried treasure: the last line in the obituary of the Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi predicts a bright cricketing future for his then 11-year-old son. Mansoor Ali Khan “Tiger” Pataudi, who passed away this month, led India to its first series win in 1962.

Wisden on India is not for the casual fan. There’s a lot of statistical information, and little by way of anecdote. The Almanack’s writing, until recently, has never been of the flashy sort, and several pages go by without any verbal flourish. Serious readers may be disappointed by the lack of literary heavyweights in this collection. Neville Cardus and John Arlott wrote for Wisden, and about Indian cricketers, but never, it seems, at the same time. RC Robertson-Glasgow, Matthew Engel and John Woodcock only make cameos. There are, however, some memorable pieces by famous Indian cricket writers. Ramchandra Guha (whose A Corner of a Foreign Field Rice calls “by far the best national cricket history yet published”) hypothesises hilariously about Mahatma Gandhi’s cricketing career, while Mihir Bose does a spot-on bit of crystal ball-gazing, predicting, back in 1997, the impact Indian money would have on the game.

Wisden is obviously committed to striving to keep up with changing trends. In recent years, its pages have featured articles dedicated to the intricacies of powerplays, as well as a loosening of style (to the extent of including an explicit tweet by English pacer Tim Bresnan in the 2010 edition). If this book and their Wisden India plans show that they’re not above tapping a lucrative market, it also indicates their desire to not just survive the brave new world of modern cricket, but also remain the authority on it.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Citizen Kane: 70th Anniversary Edition DVD

The year was 1941. After conquering Broadway and scaring the living daylights out of America with his “War of the Worlds” broadcast, Orson Welles was busy making his first feature film. Because he was already a celebrity before he arrived in Hollywood, he’d managed to negotiate a contract with an unprecedented measure of freedom. The film, then titled American, was about the spectacular rise and fall of a media mogul called Charles Foster Kane. It cost under a million, starred Welles’s cohorts from Mercury Theatre, and contained every manner of innovation, from overlapping dialogue to Gregg Toland’s stunning depth-of-field camerawork.

It’s been 70 years since then, but Citizen Kane regarded by many as the greatest film ever made – hasn’t aged. One can only envy the uninitiated viewer, encountering, for the first time, Herman J Mankiewicz’s crackling dialogue, with its parodies of “Timespeak” and jabs at Hearst, the audacious, fractured narrative and the lively performances, all the way down from Welles as Kane to Agnes Moorehead’s few odd minutes of screen time. As for those who’ve seen the film enough times to have Bernstein’s speech about the girl in the white dress down verbatim, there are two excellent commentaries by critics Peter Bogdanovich and Roger Ebert included on this DVD.
There are several ghosts hanging over the 70th Anniversary Edition DVD of Citizen Kane. The first is Kane himself, or rather, the person he was based on – William Randolph Hearst, real-life media baron and a pioneer of yellow journalism. The second is Orson Welles, who directed this film at the age of 26, and died 26 years ago, striving till his last days to divert the public’s attention from Kane to his other excellent films. The third, and most obscure, is film critic Pauline Kael’s polarising 1971 article “Raising Kane”, which suggested that Mankiewicz had a major role in shaping the film. The article is mentioned by both commentators: Ebert calls it “lovely” and seems to agree with Kael’s assessment that the “Rosebud” device was a gimmick, while Bogdanovich caustically remarks that it “showed how wild some critical opinions could be”.

Viewers who’ve seen the film but are unfamiliar with the mythos of Kane – Hollywood’s jealousy of wonder boy Welles, the closed sets that concealed the film’s explosive subject matter, the blacklist of the film by the Hearst press – would probably want to hear Ebert’s commentary track, with its nonstop barrage of information, first. Ebert is particularly effective at explaining how Welles created such a grand-looking film on a relatively modest budget. One of his opening gambits is particularly fascinating; he mentions that this movie has as many special effects as Star Wars, it’s just that they’re invisible.

Bogdanovich, on the other hand, uses to his advantage the fact that he was a Welles confidante in the master’s later years (he interviewed him for the book This is Orson Welles). Many of his pronouncements come with the “Orson said” tag, making the track less exhaustive, more intimate. Of the many anecdotes he narrates, one is particularly resonant. Once, when Welles was talking about Greta Garbo, Bogdanovich mentioned what a pity it was that she’d only been in two really great movies. Welles stared at him for a while, and then said, “Well, you only need one.”

Sunday, October 30, 2011

American History X: DVD Review

As shocking as the day it first released, Tony Kaye’s American History X is a high-water mark in the director-as-sadist tradition. The movie pounds the sensibilities of the viewer like a piñata. Everyone is either yelling or cussing (usually both), and since this is a film about race relations, it’s interspersed with a slew of racial epithets. Get used to that and there’s the violence (filmed in slow motion so you don’t miss the finer details). Get used to that and there’s the yawning gap where something profound ought to be. You’d expect a film this inflammatory to at least have a stand about race relations in America beyond “violence begets violence”, but hey, why bother when it’s all so pretty to look at.

Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) is a skinhead messiah, someone younger zealots can look up to. He’s all the more dangerous because he has a way with rhetoric – something that white supremacist leader Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach) recognises and uses to his advantage. It all comes undone when three African-American hoods try to jack Derek’s car. He does what any reasonable neo-Nazi might: he shoots one of them in the back and kills another with a brutal “curb stomp”. He goes to jail, and, for reasons that are never made entirely clear, has a change of heart there. Cured of his racist tendencies, he returns to find his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) following in his goosesteps.

American History X has a large number of fans who laud its unvarnished take on what might well be a reality in some American neighbourhoods. Yet, there are questions that one needs to ask a film of this nature. One of the most disturbing about American History X is not so much its unbridled bile but its bias in granting the proponents of hate so much screen-time, while shutting out the voices of reason. There are exactly two of the latter – a school teacher (Elliot Gould), who is shown to be limp and pathetic, and Derek’s prison mate, who’s a comedian. Pitch that against the terrible magnetism of Edward Norton and you have an unfair battle.

In Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, an equally controversial but far superior film on race relations, a character called Radio Raheem describes the battle between his two fists: one with “love” tattooed on it, the other “hate”. In his version “Left-Hand Hate [is] KOed by Love”, and though Lee’s film ends with an uneasy truce, at least it gives love a chance. Tony Kaye’s film doesn’t, preferring to believe instead in the circular nature of hatred. The cult of American History X is uncomfortably similar to the one shown in the film: loyal followers seduced by noise and violence, unwilling to ask the questions that matter. You can believe every claim made for Norton’s performance though – there’s no taking your eyes off him. Norton also had a hand in rewriting the film, along with Kaye, and was present during the editing process (unlike the director, whose erratic behaviour earned him a studio ban). Kaye later disowned the film and tried (unsuccessfully) to remove his name from the credits. It would have been fascinating to have him or Norton explaining exactly how their versions differed, but we have to settle for a few deleted scenes and a trailer.

This piece was published in Time Out Delhi.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

Thrillers are best served funny. Howard Hawks knew that. So did Hitchcock. And, in 1974 at least, so did Joseph Sargent. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three mixes rough comedy with edge-of-the-seat tension, the same cocktail which Jaws used to break the bank nine months later. The film a hijack drama set in the New York City subway system, and is executed so flawlessly it’s a wonder Tony Scott thought he could improve on it (for the record, he missed by miles).

Four criminals, headed by Robert Shaw, take control of subway train Pelham One Two Three. They read out a list of demands, primary among which is the ransom payment of a million dollars for the 17 hostages aboard. On the other end of the line, in charge of negotiations, is transit officer Lt Gerber (Walter Matthau). Matthau, in a rare non-comedic role, is perfect as the quick-on-his-feet Gerber. The movie doesn’t make him out to be a great human being, but he’s the right man for the job – level-headed, pragmatic, committed. Matthau’s schlumpy heroism is complemented by Shaw’s precise hijacker and Martin Balsam as his sneezing cohort. There’s also an entertaining supporting cast of growlers, scowlers and wisecrackers.

In the years since its release, the film has spawned a 1998 TV remake, as well as Scott’s version with Denzel Washington and John Travolta last year. It had a vital role in pioneering the cult of the stripped-down action movie (Tarantino was a fan, and filched the idea of criminals identifying themselves as colours for Reservoir Dogs), though its clear how big-ticket movies like Speed have borrowed from it as well. A large part of the success can be attributed to cinematographer Owen Roizman’s work; the grungy look is like New York City sans makeup. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is the kind of action movie they don’t make enough of now days – plain-spoken, funny, and conveying a real sense of the place and time it is set in. Compared to the CGI-heavy behemoths clogging theatres now days, this film feels like a wiry prizefighter punching above its weight.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

It's been a bad day, please don't take a picture

It happened yesterday

My favourite rock band, R.E.M, just called it a day. This was conveyed via one typically non-dramatic message on R.E.M.HQ yesterday:
"To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening." R.E.M.

On a shortlist of Sachin retiring, or the remaining Beatles or Bob Dylan popping off, this is about the worst news that I can imagine. I'm still in shock, so I'll take a day or two to collect my thoughts and hopefully return with something coherent about what this band has meant to me and why I'll always be a fan.

"It Happened Today", from their latest, and now final album: a song whose words now read like a gentle warning.

Monday, September 12, 2011

This week in totally unnecessary censorship...

Last night, Easy A was playing on Sony Pix. Reasonable people might describe this movie as sharp-tongued; only a puritan would call it profane. It began at 11.15 at night, not an hour at which innocent young ears need to be protected. Nevertheless, Easy A was subjected to a barrage of bleeps (blanks, actually – they’ve stopped using bleeps) that might have been appropriate if the movie in question was Reservoir Dogs. Anyone else getting the creeps over the gratuitous use of silencer on TV screens in this country?

On the evidence of last night, words we’re being protected from:











Half-assed (they cut ‘assed’)





I can’t decide which of the last two is more shocking.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Agora’s plot may suggest swords and sandals, but it’s really about astronomy and 4th century religious politics. But before you go “Yawn” and head off to check the timings for Spartacus: Blood and Sand, let us also add that Agora, far from being a dud, is a decent stab at the legend of Hypatia, the Egyptian philosopher and proto-feminist. Though hampered by Hollywood’s penchant for putting plummy British accents in togas, the film raises several complex issues without sacrificing the considerable human drama – including the infamous sacking of the Library at Alexandria – of the time.

Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) is a scholar whose disinterest in marriage is matched by her love for the sciences. She tries to transfer this enthusiasm to her students, who are increasingly distracted by the events unfolding outside the library compound. For the first time in ancient Egypt, Christianity is on the rise, and the Pagan ruling class is feeling the heat. Director Alejandro Amenabar moves quickly into scenes of uprising, ransacking and pillage. Some Christian commentators protested when the movie came out, but the Pagans are shown to be equally merciless early on; the real target seems to be organised religion’s brutality and contempt for science. Amidst all this, Hypatia remains immersed in her work, even as her enemies plot her death.

Agora isn’t as satisfying as Amenabar’s previous films, which include The Sea Inside and Abre Los Ojos, but it does boast a number of strong performances. Weisz confirms her status as one of the most underrated actresses around. Also impressive are Oscar Isaac and Max Minghella (Divya Narendra in The Social Network) as her former student and slave respectively. There’s also particularly good use made of the overhead shot in the mob scenes, a twin reference to Hypatia’s study of celestial bodies and the tragedy of not being able to see the larger picture.

A version of this piece appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Les Baricades Misterieuses

Francois Couperin was a 17th century French Baroque composer. Now, I don't want to pretend like I know from 17th century French composers. But that doesn't mean the spell that "Les Barricades Misterieuses", which I heard for the first time a few weeks back in The Tree of Life, is less all-encompassing than any it might cast over someone classical music-literate. It haunts my waking hours. It reduces me to near-tears in office. And what a tremendous title! What mysterious barricades is Couperin talking about? The piece is so simply and elegantly constructed that barricades are the last thing that come to mind.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Rabbit Hole

Films about couples who’ve lost a child are invariably a bruising experience. Often, it’s not just the dark subject matter but also the fact that directors faced with such material often try to break though the sorrow with shocking dramatic devices. Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now had a serial killer dwarf. Lars Von Trier’s cheery Antichrist had genital mutilations. By those standards, Rabbit Hole is pretty tame. Sure, Nicole Kidman starts stalking a high school student and Aaron Eckhart trades group therapy for getting stoned in a car, but compared to a self-disemboweling fox, that’s practically normal.

Rabbit Hole is about a couple, Howie and Becca Corbett, who lost their son in a car accident outside their house. Eight months have passed since the tragedy but they’re still struggling to return any semblance of normalcy to their lives. The film shows how all-pervasive grief can be, how it can ruin anything from a conversation with a friend to a trip to the supermarket. David Lindsay-Abaire’s script, adapted from his own 2005 play, allows Howie and Becca moments of humour and spark, but their personalities mostly remain submerged, like icebergs in a sea of sadness.

Grief without catharsis is one of the least rewarding cinematic experiences, which is why so many sad films end up veering towards violence, be it physical or mental, or high drama. Former indie director John Cameron Mitchell may have considered these devices tawdry, but the downside of this restraint is that Rabbit Hole remains tied-down in its grief. Early on when Becca says “Nothing will ever be nice again,” one assumes it’s just a low moment. By the end, though, you end up agreeing with her. Though there’s little to fault in this movie, there are hardly any moments you’d like to take away with you either.

A version of this piece appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


A Time Out piece I wrote, about the Hollywood Musicals festival (Fri Aug 19-Sun Aug 21) at the American Centre. Rocky Horror got cancelled but I'm including the writeup I did for it here, mainly because it gives me an excuse to hear "Hot Patootie Bless My Soul", which is hands-down the funniest title in rock 'n roll, again.

Berlin, Astaire, Berkley, Kelly, Rogers, Crosby, Caron. If they’re all in heaven together, that cloud they’re on must be one non-stop party. Rather like the films they left behind. This fortnight, revisit classic song-and-dance films at Celebrating the Hollywood Musical, presented by The American Centre and Cine Darbaar. The eclectic selection dates back to 1929, but also includes releases as recent as 2007. Here’s our picks from the line-up.

Top Hat (1935)

Hollywood ignores the Depression and heads to a Europe of the imagination, with Venice recreated, art-deco style, in a studio. Dale Tremont is awoken one night by someone tap-dancing on the floor above her. The culprit is Jerry Travers, and since he’s played by Fred Astaire and she by Ginger Rogers, we all know where this is headed.

Reasons to watch: Dance equals love whenever Fred and Ginger are together onscreen. Watch them tear up the floor in “The Piccolino”, and tear up yourself when they do “Dancing Cheek to Cheek”.

An American in Paris (1951)

Gene Kelly is an expatriate painter (why doesn’t he get a job dancing?) who, despite his wealthy patron’s advances, only has eyes for Leslie Caron, who’s engaged to someone else.

Reasons to watch: Eye-popping colour, the smoothest of opening scenes and a stunning climactic ballet (with one of the sexist moments in filmed dance), all of which bear the overblown touch of director Vincente Minelli. Oscar Levant as a misanthropic pianist is great too.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Gene Kelly meets Debbie Reynolds on a 1920s movie set. He’s a star, she’s dubbing for his opposite number. They dance, sing, fall in love, dance some more.

Reasons to watch: The elasticity of Donald O’Connor in “Make ’em laugh”. Jean Hagen as Kelly’s co-star, with a voice so ridiculous it earned her an Oscar nom. The title track, in which Kelly uses everything from a lamppost to a stern cop to augment his hypnotically graceful moves.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Tim Burton’s macabre vision found a perfect match in this 1979 Stephen Sondheim musical. Based on a Victorian pulp serial, it’s the story of a barber out to avenge his wife’s death. Sondheim’s cerebral melodies guide the viewer through shaving contests, throat-slittings and the baking of human meat pies.

Reasons to watch: The emotion that Alan Rickman and Johnny Depp, neither of them trained singers, bring to their rendition of “Pretty Women”. The artistry of production designer Dante Ferretti, also responsible for creating the grimy, cruel worlds of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Two lovebirds out on a rainy night take shelter in a castle: a standard B-movie start for a B-movie that set its own standards. The young couple are soon beset by dozens of perverted cross-dressing glam-rockers, led by Dr Frank-N-Furter of Transsexual, Transylvania.

Reasons to watch: The possibility, however remote, of this being the one link between Elvis and Lady Gaga. The song titles: “Sweet Transvestite”, “Dammit Janet”, “Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul”. Tim Curry, who is so outrageously winning as Dr Frank-N-Furter it’s difficult to believe this was his first onscreen appearance.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Anatomy of a scene: Boogie Nights

The animal strains of “Spill the Wine” have just started as the chauffer in suit and tie walks towards the pool. Maybe it’s because he’s fully clothed but the camera has no use for him and is diverted to the black man in the red Roy Rogers shirt arguing with his girlfriend about whether the cowboy look is coming back. He gets up in disgust but we only follow him as far as the next table where a Hispanic man is trying to get word through to Jack via a lady so pale it feels like a medium-size slice of irony to put her in such strong sunlight. From there it’s on to a Joni Mitchell look-alike drawn to a table with an insultingly healthy man who’s doing lines. He has powder to spare but the camera is distracted yet again, this time by something sylph-like walking through like no one’s watching, taking a drag, disdainfully throwing the rest away. Seven small steps and she’s swimming away and surely now you’d expect that pesky camera to quit its stalking. But the water’s so tempting it dives in right after her. Eric Burdon’s voice gains in echo as her legs thrash decisively, propelling her away from us. Abandoned, possibly a little disappointed, the camera bobs like a cork on the surface as a man in orange trunks does a jack knife, the bubbles rushing up like a toast to a summer day so intoxicating it could scarcely be real.

This one-take scene is from Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful Boogie Nights. As the director acknowledges in his DVD commentary, it’s a very close replica of a similar poolside scene from the 1965 Soviet-Cuban production I Am Cuba. While the debt to the original is undeniable, there is one key difference – the mood. In I Am Cuba, the sunshine is deceptive. You may be watching people get high but you’re not encouraged to feel high yourself. In Boogie Nights everything is dappled and smooth, and you’re being asked to either glide by or jump in. It’s like you could pause this scene at any point and years later still be able to recall what that particular day was all about just from looking at that one isolated moment.

Watch: The Boogie Nights scene and the I Am Cuba one.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bitte Orca

There is no need for a song-by-song examination of The Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca. They all cohere into a trilling, thrilling whole. The numbers cast fond glances at art rock and modern R&B but refuse to settle in with either. The guitars are largely unplugged, with very little strumming, something which helps keep the songs unmoored and fresh even after multiple listens (I still can’t pin the individual tunes down in my head). Instead of riffs, there are complicated plucked figures – swirls of sounds that the voices can dance around. The drumming is splashy, crashing in when you least expect it, a necessary bit of violence to offset the delicacy of the vocals and guitars. It all comes together, song after song; in the enchanting backing vocal of “Cannibal Resource”, tossed at lightning speed between the three female vocalists; in the invigorating violence of “The Bride”; in the way “Fluorescent Half Dome” breaks down into what sounds like the end of the party and the dawn of a new day.

Bitte Orca’s that rare album which really is impossible to categorise, not because it hops or melds genres because it creates its own. If they are influences, they have been consumed and absorbed into the bloodstream of the band’s sound. Though I thought of Talking Heads the first time I heard them, and later Bjork (the band has collaborated with both), the Projectors are their own idiosyncratic snowflake. Talking Heads always seemed to be heading towards the groove in their songs; the Projectors are constantly dodging it (except on “Stillness is the Move”, a possible clue as to why this track was deemed most fit for radio play). And while they share Bjork’s off-kilter approach to vocalisation and sound, their harmonic juggling is based around melodies more welcoming than those of the combatively experimental Icelandic songstress.

No vocal combination has ever sounded the way the Projectors do on Bitte Orca. The reason is more than the sum of three superb female singers – Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, Haley Dekle – and Longstreth’s pleasant falsetto. It’s the way their voices are arranged, how they work in harmony and counterpoint to each other, how traditional ideas of backing vocals are transformed into something as unpredictable as birdsong. Most of the songs have Longstreth or one of the girls laying down the main melody, and the others circling and adding to it with little fills. Some of these interjections are like cuckoos peeping out of a clock, others like a bunch of children rushing through the door. The exhilaration of not knowing when or where the next voice is going to come at you from is what sets the Projectors apart from other superb contemporary vocal groups like the Fleet Foxes, who take their cues from the Beach Boys and other, more recognisable sources. It’s also what set Bitte Orca apart from the other albums released in 2009. And earlier that decade.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The winner by knockout: Coke Studio Pakistan

I thought it might be unfair to slam Coke Studio India for not matching up to the magnificence that is Coke Studio Pakistan. In its first week anyway. So I waited a month, and from what's been trotted out till now, it looks like that sudden burst of brilliance everyone here's been hoping for isn't forthcoming this season.

Two songs, one from our Coke Studio, the other from Pakistan's. "Chitthiye" is limpid, inoffensive, swamped by the same all-pervasive synth sound that won't leave any of CSI's songs alone. It's...what's the word...contented. "Alif Allah-Jugni", on the other hand, is a stream of energy so taut driving that it sounds like it couldn't settle down if it wanted to. Why this difference? It's not the singers; Chauhan and the Wadalis are in the same vocal league as Shafi and Lohar. It's in the attiutude. It's the difference between rock and pop. It's in the annoying girl-group chorus they have in "Chittiye". It's the reason why Pakistan produces great rock bands and we don't, and why their Coke Studio success is something we have not, and from the looks of it, will not replicate.

Monday, July 11, 2011


Hereafter begins with a recreation of the 2004 tsunami that devastated South-east Asia. It’s a tremendous sequence, eschewing overwrought visuals and concentrating on the suddenness and the sheer kinetics of the event. After it’s over, director Clint Eastwood seems to say, okay, everyone’s had their fun, now it's time to watch a real movie. The result is a film about the afterlife that’s moving at times but ends up frustratingly slight.

Matt Damon plays George Lonegan, a psychic whose talent is forging a “connection” with people who’ve recently lost someone close, and helping them contact the spirit. Marie Lelay is a French reporter who, after a near-death experience in the tsunami, has started having visions of her own. Marcus is a young British boy who can’t let go of the memory of his lost twin. Eastwood and writer Peter Morgan seem to set these stories up to converge, but then refuse to let them do so till the very end. Instead, we get subplot on subplot, some of which involve Marcus’s drug addict mom, a potential love interest for George (Bryce-Dallas Howard in fine form) and Marie writing a book on the afterlife. Compared to his earlier Frost/Nixon, Morgan’s script is a letdown, trading insight for generalities. And even though Eastwood provides a lovely score and some witty directorial touches – a driver pausing to check his breath as an afterthought after hitting a kid in the street, an aerial pan of San Francisco as a nod to the opening credits staple in the Dirty Harry series – his treatment of the dead is too restrained and polite to bring the screen alive.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Fair Game: DVD review

Fair Game is based on the real-life case of Valerie Plame, undercover operative with the CIA. Plame was outed by White House officials in 2003 after her husband, a former ambassador called Joseph Wilson, wrote an article exposing the false claims of the Bush government regarding the sale by Niger to Iraq of yellowcake uranium, allegedly to build WMDs. This effectively ended her career, though she fought back successfully, resulting in a Congressional committee sentencing the Vice President's chief of staff Scooter Libby to 30 months imprisonment. Fair Game, from Plame’s book of the same name, starts off strong. We follow Plame, played by Naomi Watts, on her covert operations, watch the build-up to the Iraq war, see Wilson’s malcontent manifest itself at dinner parties. Then Wilson (Sean Penn) writes his piece and the movie goes from political thriller to soggy domestic drama.

Director Doug Liman obviously wants us to feel as deeply for his characters as we do for their larger battles. The problem is that neither actor does much to warrant our sympathy for their marriage cracking at the seams. Penn is extremely dour until the last half hour, when he mutates into a speechifying crusader. Watts has an even more implausible transformation; she loses her steely resolve after the revelations and becomes another Hollywood movie damsel, making irrational decisions, in need of rescuing. The melodramatic script does neither actor any favours. As an expose of the Bush government, this movie feels dated (spoiler alert: there were no WMDs!). And as usual, the Iraqis are just a plot point, a way to illustrate how much the heroine cares, but not vital enough to keep around very long. No special features, which at these prices would seem to convey that the DVD-buying public here is fair game too.

A version of this piece appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The only student in the Morrissey dance academy

Drawing a line from Johnny Marr to Peter Buck isn't difficult. But who speaks of Morrissey's influence on Michael Stipe's dancing?

Thoda khao thoda phenko

I'd put together a list of food disasters from the movies to coincide with Delhi Belly's release. Only ended up using five, but here's the whole list.

“Dal mein kankad” (Mr India)
When this film was released, it wasn't uncommon to find stones mixed in with dal bought from ration shops. Mr India took this everyday frustration and turned it into comic revenge. An invisible Anil Kapoor forces a corrupt businessman and his date to chow down on a bowl of pebbles.

“Death by chocolate” (Chocolat)
The dire consequences of having diabetes in a Hollywood movie. Dame Judi Dench plays a spinster with an insulin problem, who, after denying herself for years, goes out in a chocolate-smeared glaze of glory.

“Pie-faced” (The Great Race)
The Stooges did it first – and best – but for destruction caused, number of flingers and sheer volume of pastry there’s no beating the pie-fight from the Jack Lemmon-Tony Curtis starrer The Great Race.

“Brain food” (Hannibal)
Anthony Hopkins slices open Ray Liotta’s skull, sautés a part of his brain and feeds it to him. Off the top of our heads, this is one of the most mind-bending food disasters ever.

“Yoga omelette” (Coolie)
As Amitabh Bachchan tries to make an omelette by cooking along with a radio programme, Rati Agnihotri keeps changing the frequency to a yoga show. Bachchan follows every instruction faithfully, ending up cross-legged, contorted and upside down.

Thanks to an inexpertly glued mustache, Utpal Dutt finds out Amol Palekar isn’t the upright citizen he says he is. Googly-eyed with menace, he walks towards the dinner table, offering to feed the offender select desserts from across India. His manner, though, is the opposite of sugary, and the dinner invitation soon turns into a hold-up.

Animal House
This scene, replayed across college campuses the world over since 1986, begins to build when John Buleshi starts to load his lunch tray. Item after item pile up until you can barely make out his face behind the food. Of course, in the best traditions of American Comedy, if there’s food, it must be flung.

The Gold Rush
A high-water mark of the Silent years, this scene shows Charlie Chaplain tramp boil and eat his shoe with sublime seriousness. Lucky for him method acting was still years away.

Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam
Among other things, this scene proved that the necessary impetus for eating 11 green chillies in a row – even if you’re fearless like Salman Khan – lies in the promise of Aishwarya Rai feeding you dahi-chini afterwards.

Hitch (Allergies)

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (Thoda khao thoda phenko)

Namak Halaal (Dog eats cake and dies)

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (The dinner that never happens)

Run (Kauwa biryani)

Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (Egg throwing)

Satte Pe Satta (Attack your food)

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Dirty Harry Box Set: DVD Review

In 1971, Clint Eastwood was on the verge of becoming a star. Sergio Leone’s Dollar trilogy had rescued him from TV Westerns and made him a marquee name (even if it was a man with no name). But it was with Dirty Harry, and in particular the scene which ends with “Well do ya, punk?”, when Eastwood’s scowl passed over into legend. The film, directed by Don Siegel, was as taut a cops-and-robbers tale as Hollywood ever produced but no one at the time paid attention to the craft involved. Critics, the media and the public were divided down the middle on the issue of whether the film was, as per reviewer Pauline Kael’s famous putdown, a “fascist work of art”. What’s interesting is how the remaining Dirty Harry films would take the premise of an edgy, violent cop at war with the system and tweak it in ways that were often unexpected.

Magnum Force, the second in the series, literally takes aim at its liberal critics; as the credits end, Harry points his .44 Magnum straight at the screen and shoots. With a group of rogue patrolmen playing the bad guys, the film tries to peg its antihero as a lesser evil. This is a bit of a con – Harry is excessive no matter who the antagonist is. But it’s difficult to deny the guilty pleasure in watching a perpetually pissed-off Eastwood battle the system until he gets frustrated and pulls out his cannon of a handgun. Next up was The Enforcer, the only film in the series that recognises the potential for humour in Eastwood’s stony mutterings. Under the direction of James Fargo, and paired with a female partner (Tyne Daly) for the first time, this was Harry’s last great outing.

Two more films would follow. Sudden Impact, with Eastwood himself directing, tried to present a more sympathetic killer, but ended up trite and predictable. The Dead Pool, directed by Eastwood’s one-time stunt double Buddy Van Horn, was also unremarkable, the only point of interest being a cameo by pre-fame Jim Carrey. Despite this decline in quality, the series as a whole has been remarkably influential (its raggedy spiritual heirs range from Lethal Weapon to Bad Boys) – a fact you’re reminded of again and again by the numerous special features on this box set. There are audio commentaries for three of the films, discussions on Harry, his methods and cinematic legacy and several looks back at Eastwood’s career. We’d recommend the Sudden Impact commentary by critic and Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel; perceptive and wry, it’s a good deal more rewarding than the film itself.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Good Night Good Morning

I’ve always had a soft spot for Richard Linklater, one of the few Hollywood directors who makes talky films. You might assume I’m talking about Before Sunrise/ Before Sunset, which are the most overtly talkative of the bunch. But Linklater has always been fascinated by words and their possibilities, from the rambling monologues of his breakthrough feature Slacker to the stoned, proud declarations by the teens in Dazed and Confused. Time and time again, Linklater gives his characters enough time to ramble, realise they’re rambling and steer the conversation back to safer ground (though some of them just go on talking).

This freedom to not make sense all the time lends Good Night Good Morning, which recently showed at the Habitat Film Festival, a bracing authenticity that’s perfectly in line with its subject matter. It’s been directed by Sudhish Kamath, and stars Manu Narayan as Turiya (The Love Guru) and Seema Rahmani, whom some may remember rising above average material in The Loins of Punjab, as Moira. The movie name-drops Before Sunrise early on and it soon becomes clear why: the movie is an extended conversation (on phone) between two almost strangers. It beings with Turiya drunk-dialing Moira from a car; he’d met her briefly at a party in NYC a couple of hours ago. She hangs up on him, then realises she can’t sleep and calls him back. You could argue that stuff like this don’t happen in real life. Or you could recall the times similar things have happened and you’ve said “Man, this is just like in the movies…”

Turiya and Moira proceed to talk the night away. They flirt, discuss their past loves, their mistakes and future plans. Since it’s their first meeting, there’s also an inevitable sizing up, followed by a subtle, ever-present struggle for the upper hand. The great triumph is in the way Kamath ensures that their lines never sound like a movie conversation. These two don’t have the nonchalance to look act when they say something witty – instead, they do what normal people do, and look extremely pleased with themselves. It takes great skill to write something that sounds this off-the-cuff. Too clever, and the viewer beings to question the likelihood of two strangers spitting out one-liner after one-liner at three in the morning; go too far in the other direction, and it becomes commonplace, and not worth watching. Kamath told the Habitat audience that when the movie was being scripted, he’s asked his friends to do what Turiya does – dial a stranger and speak to them. He said that what they spoke didn’t turn out to be important as the way their conversations unfolded, jumping from one topic to another. The dialogue in Good Night Good Morning has this same quality of leaping without looking. It’s that rare screenplay which sounds like it’s unscripted.

The movie’s shot in black and white, though I’m not sure I can see a reason why (I can’t see a reason why not, either). The leads had to be charming for it to work, and they are, Narayan with his timid overtures, Rahmani playfully knowing. The only off-note is Raja Sen as Turiya’s crass buddy J.C., providing comic relief in a film that doesn’t require it. The film is split-screen almost throughout, except for the flashback sequences (absent from the MAMI screening, but wisely inserted back). The actors in these sequences are always Narayan and Rahmani, no matters who the characters in question are. You could argue that the director uses this as a device to garner easy laughs. It’s also possible that this is his way of indicating how potential loves always have to measure up to past ones in the beginning. In the same vein, I must return again to the reference made in the movie to Before Sunrise. Once that title was out there, it would always be a question – maybe in the back of people’s minds, but there nonetheless – of whether Good Morning Good Night would measure up to it. I’m happy to say it does.

Addendum: A link to Sudhish Kamath's blog. Ain't nothing wrong with film critics making movies.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Call Northside 777

This 1948 film begins documentary-style, with grainy footage of Chicago’s streets and a portentous voiceover informing viewers about the crime wave that hit the city in 1932. The conceit isn’t kept up long; after those first few awkward minutes, Call Northside 777 settles down into a more conventionally satisfying whodunit, albeit with one important twist. The crime in question has taken place eleven years ago, and the two men sentenced to life imprisonment are innocent.

That much we gather from the first of five minutes. The rest of Call Northside 777 details the efforts of PJ McNeal, reporter for the Chicago Times, to help free the two men. Like every other Hollywood newspaperman of the time, McLean (James Stewart) starts off cynical but is eventually won over by the faith shown by the imprisoned Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) and everyone who knows him. He starts piecing together the case again, and finds, like the real-life case this movie is based on, that it is full of holes.

Call Northside 777 is methodical to a fault, but Stewart’s performance, with its subtle transformation from bystander to crusader, is skilful enough to keep the viewer involved till the end. Lee J Cobb also does well, playing McNeal’s editor in his usual grouchy style. There’s hardly any score to speak of, unusual in a film from that time (maybe it was assumed this would extend the documentary motif). Joseph MacDonald contributes some top-drawer noir camerawork – plenty of shadows and just enough light to illuminate a silhouette. Director Henry Hathaway’s films, often uneven, have tended to produce some striking performances – John Wayne in True Grit, Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death. Stewart’s may the best of the bunch, and is the primary reason why one ought to see this film.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter

In pop cinema heaven, there’s a special corner reserved for Tokyo Drifter. Its story – about a veteran hitman who wants to call it quits but keeps getting pulled back – could have belonged to any yakuza B-film of the time. But in the hands of Seijun Suzuki, it was transformed into something strange and beautiful, an idiosyncratic mix of primary colours, eccentric editing and a score that ricocheted from opera to fifties rock ‘n roll to Morricone-like trumpets. Suzuki would soon become a thorn in the Nikkatsu studio’s side; he was never able to make his contracted commercial ventures straightforward enough for the studio bosses. This willful disobedience can be seen all over Tokyo Drifter – in the audacious jump cuts, in the unique visual aesthetic, and in the character of yakuza hitman “Phoenix” Tetsu, smart enough to do anything except find a way to quit.

In many ways, it is like a Melville film directed by Godard. The story isn’t unlike Melville’s Le Samourai, released three years later, in which the assassin Jef is carrying out what he hopes will be his last job (the scenes where the injured protagonists are standing alone in their rooms are intriguingly similar – though this is probably a coincidence). Suzuki also reminds one of Melville in the codified behavior that his protagonists exhibit. Notions of loyalty, to one’s bosses, one’s family, even to one’s enemies, populate Tokyo Drifter. It’s pretty much the first thing we hear, in the mournful song that accompanies the opening credits and spells out the movie’s world-view: “If I die, I’ll die like a man/ For me, loyalty comes before love”.

The treatment, however, is very different from Melville’s meticulous variations on gangster film genre. Suzuki never met a hurdle he couldn’t paint day-glo and straddle merrily. This aesthetic finds an echo in the early work of Jean-Luc Godard. There’s a similar use of colour in A Woman is a Woman, and Tokyo Drifter would make a great double bill with such unpredictable deconstructions of the gangster film as Breathless or Pierrot le Fou. But Godard was always political, whereas Suzuki by and large seemed to have no particular motive other keeping his audience as entertained as possible. In this, he is closer to equal Quentin Tarantino, who has acknowledged Suzuki’s influence on his pop fantasias. The more florid moments of Tokyo Drifter are paid tribute to in Kill Bill Volume I –fake, glittering snow, fountains of blood spewing from a slashed wrist.

A large contributor to Suzuki’s greatness is his use of colour, lighting and space. In this film, he’s assisted hugely by cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine and Takeo Kimura, one of the great art directors of Japanese cinema. I was particularly struck by three scenes, each with its own distinct visual style. The first is the gritty opening sequence, shot in high-contrast black and white. The second shows a girl unintentionally catching a bullet; after a long overhead shot, she keels over, and the stain on her blouse is matched by the luridly coloured red screen behind her. The third is the climax, in which the impossibly strange yellow décor tries to drag one’s attention away from a gunfight that John Woo must have watched and committed to memory years later. Each of these scenes could have been from a different movie. All of them, however, feel like they’ve come from the same director.

Branded to Kill, as memorable a flourish as any in the “cinema of flourishes” (as David Bordwell described Japanese cinema), released in 1967 and proved to be the last straw as far as Nikkatsu was concerned. Suzuki was summarily dismissed, but by then his reputation had grown. Retrospectives were held; his imprint was noted in the diverse styles of Tarantino and Woo, Wong-Kar Wai and Jim Jarmusch – four filmmakers who affected our conceptions of cool in definitive ways. Fans of their work should know this: if you like that Reservoir Dogs walk, or are fond of chewing a toothpick and wearing a long overcoat, Seijun Suzuki is where a lot of it began.

A music video with visuals from the movie expertly cut to a cover of the title song by Japanese Academic Punks.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Moments in Live Music Vol. 1

Otis Redding brings “I can’t turn you loose” to what appears to be a close, then yells “I KNOW YOU THINK I’M GONNA STOP NOW, AIN’T GONNA STOP, WE’RE GOING ONE TIME, WATCH ME NOW” and dementedly raves on for another two minutes.

Bob Dylan, battling a combative crowd, mumbles incoherently into the microphone. When the hecklers finally quiet down to hear what he’s saying he ends his flow of gibberish with “…if you only wouldn’t clap so hard” and launches into “One Too Many Mornings”.

Three-quarters of the way through “Mountain Jam” at the Fillmore East, Duane Allman picks up his slide and burst forth with a series of licks so wild and joyous you understand why he’s ranked amongst rock’s best guitarists even though he didn’t live to see twenty-five.

Simon and Garfunkel, Central Park, New York City. Capping an evening that sounds like it was sprinkled over with magic dust, Gerry Niewood’s sax emerges out of a burst of horns with a short solo that’s absent in Simon’s studio version but captures perfectly the wistful ache of “Still Crazy After All These Years”.

Jesse Ed Davis’s syncopated solo in Taj Mahal’s performance of “Ain’t That a Lot of Love” in Rock ‘n Roll Circus. It’s the supreme guitar moment in a show that included Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton.

After performing for an hour and a half at the intensity levels of a man half his age, Bruce Springsteen is joined by the gathering dusk and every singing member of the E Street Band in a goosebump-raising rendition of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More”.

The albums: Otis Redding, Live in London and Paris; Bob Dylan, Live 1966: Royal Albert Hall Concert; The Allman Brothers, Live at the Fillmore East; Simon and Garfunkel, Concert in Central Park; Various Artists, The Rolling Stones Present The Rock 'n Roll Circus; Bruce Springsteen, Live in Hyde Park.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Flash mobs

This piece was written to coincide with a lecture on social documentary photography by Ram Rahman. That was a while back, but since it was one of the more interesting stories I'd meandered into, I thought I'd post it anyway.

Rome, 1958. An Armenian dancer called Aïché Nana does an impromptu striptease at a high-society party. Terni, 1958. A large crowd gathers after word spreads that children have seen the Virgin Mary. Rome, 1960. Anthony Steele, husband of Swedish starlet Anita Ekberg, tries to assault a member of the press who was attempting to take their photograph.

Ask a keen cineaste about the link between these images, and they’ll reply that all of them correspond to scenes from Frederico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, a legend of Italian cinema which won the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1962 and had Fellini nominated for the Best Director Oscar. This is not wrong, but it’s only half the story. The real link is a man less well-known, a tabloid photographer named Tazio Secchiaroli. In a lecture on social documentary photography at The Attic this fortnight, photographer and Fellini-lover Ram Rahman talks about how Secchiaroli’s snaps of Rome’s high-society scandals served as inspiration for the much-lauded 1960 film.

“The still photograph, if you’re looking at it in its deepest sense, can be like the language a novelist uses – a visual novel, if you like,” Rahman said, explaining the importance of the photograph as social document. It’s unlikely that many at that time would have seen that quality in the photographs shot by Secchiaroli and his compatriots. Much like today’s Page 3 snaps, they were just good, salacious fun. But Fellini recognised potential for building a film around this profession and its ethical compromises. The central character in La Dolce Vita, a morally flexible reporter played by Marcello Mastroianni, was in some ways a stand-in for Fellini – an observer, detached from the scene, and an outsider to Rome.

Mastroianni’s partner in the film, though, had the more lasting contribution. A high-society photographer based on Secchiaroli, his name – Paparazzo – was adapted to describe a new profession, the paparazzi. According to Rahman, Fellini almost cast Secchiaroli himself for the part, but then went with Walter Santesso. The real-life Paparazzo went on to do the stills for the film, and later established himself as a still photographer much in demand at Rome’s Cinecittà studios (at one point, becoming the personal photographer to Sophia Loren).

Rahman plans to juxtapose photographs from his collection with scenes from La Dolce Vita, to illustrate how keenly art was imitating life in Fellini’s film. The director spoke with many photographers and used their stories to create scenes like the suicide of Marcello’s friend and the climactic “orgy” sequence. Anita Ekberg’s romp in the Trevi fountain, one of the movie’s iconic scenes, was based on a real-life incident. Rahman also pointed out that Ekberg had been photographed in “situations of scandal and confrontation” by Secchiaroli years before the movie was made (a fact that’s unlikely to have escaped Fellini’s attention). The style of the tabloid photograph even dictates the way some scenes are framed. A number of stills from the movie, Rahman said, could easily be substituted with samples of the photojournalism of the time.

Rahman’s talk will also zoom out to the broader story of social documentary photography. He will discuss his own work in this field, as well as the diverse styles of Sunil Janah, Walker Evans, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Brassai. We recommend watching La Dolce Vita beforehand, but in case you’re strapped for time, just bring along page three of the day’s newspaper.

Below: A Tazio photograph recreated in the movie; Anita Ekberg, on and off screen

Monday, April 18, 2011

North to Alaska

North to Alaska has the some of the characteristics of a Howard Hawks film but nothing resembling the same execution. In the hands of Henry Hathaway, everything gets swept away in an avalanche of clichés. Sam McCord (John Wayne), a misogynist gold-miner, is sent by his friend (Stewart Granger) to pick up his French-speaking bride-to-be and bring her to Alaska. When McCord finds her, however, she’s already married to someone else. This is hardly a roadblock in a film whose view of sexual politics is about as subtle as a rabbit in heat. McCord can simply go to the whorehouse, pick out another “Frenchie” and bring her back as a substitute.

That unfortunate role is played by the French actress Capucine, and it’s to her credit that she manages to salvage some dignity despite her character being treated like a piece of meat, handed back and forth by Wayne and Granger. She looks so poised and lovely (there’s a bit of Jeanne Moreau in her features) that it’s not difficult to imagine men making fools of themselves over her in a much better movie. Here, though, she must make do with one sorry quartet: Granger, smarmy villain Ernie Kovacs, pop star Fabian (terrible in a bit role as Granger’s kid brother) and ultimately the Duke himself, reluctance written all over his face and muttering lines like “Women…I never met one yet that was half as reliable as a horse.”

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.