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.