Thursday, August 21, 2014

On PTA's Epic "There Will Be Blood"

There Will Be Blood is an epic, but a strange one at that. Lavishly scaled, with a time-frame spanning over decades, it certainly has the structure and the ambition of an epic. However, unlike most epics, it does not present us with a grand narrative: it is neither interested in providing us with a full-fledged storytelling nor in giving us a comprehensive character-study. This movie seems to operate more with the logic of images than with that of a narrative or of characters.

Consider the protagonist Daniel Plainview. I don't think this movie makes an attempt to understand and explain him. We do not really get into the depth of his psyche, nor do we get to witness a sweeping exposé of his life. Everything we get to know about him is obvious and right in front of us. His name is Plainview. PLAIN VIEW. The view is plain. It's just flat out there. There is nothing concealed or left out. Everything is on the screen. What we see is what we get. And what we see is a man who cannot be categorized or summed up. He is as viscous as the oil he drills and as complex as the inscrutable expressions on his face. The depth is on the surface.

The story itself moves like oil. It moves slowly, lingering at places where one would not generally expect it to linger. We get several long scenes whose purpose seems to be more about wallowing in the complexity of the images than about advancing the plot. Anderson, it seems, is interested in forming a completely new language of cinema, one that is neither tethered to a narrative, as most mainstream movies tend to be, nor severed from it, like most of the so-called "avant-garde" movies. There is definitely a story in There Will Be Blood, but it's told in a rather unexpected manner. Hard EightBoogie Nights and Magnolia were movies that had linear storytelling (albeit with multiple narratives), but with Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and the recently released The Master, Anderson clearly seems to be more interested in telling a story through the logic of images than through the logic of narratives.

A lot of people have linked There Will Be Blood with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. The connections definitely seem reasonable. Like Citizen KaneThere Will Be Blood charts the journey of an imposing egoist, from his humble beginnings to his lofty, lonesome heights of success and madness. Citizen Kane was, in one sense, a movie about the futility of attempting to understand or explain a man with a mere word. "I don't think any word can explain a man's life." Anderson seems to understand this very well. There Will Be Blood has a lot to do with the distinction between words and images, and Anderson, being a filmmaker, seems to privilege image over words, especially in this movie. The first fifteen minutes or so of this movie is completely wordless, just like the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey (other obvious nods to that movie are the bowling alley which has a perfect symmetry like the room that we see in the climax of Kubrick's film. Likewise the composition of the shot when Plainview smashes Sunday's skull is similar to the one at the beginning of Kubrick's film where the ape smashes the skulls with a bone. Plainview, by the end, even begins to walk like an ape.)

When we do get words, they seem to be mostly declarative and assertive. "Ladies and gentlemen, if I say I'm an oilman, you will agree." Likewise, he seems to be dictating the end of the movie when he utters his last words "I'm finished." Even the title of the movie itself is at once a prophecy and a declaration: There Will Be Blood. The images in this movie, however, are in sharp contrast to the words. They are not declarative and straightforward, but uncertain and complex. We get a lot of close-ups of Daniel Plainview's face and yet we are never certain of his expressions. His face exudes multiple expressions all at once, which belies explanation or categorization. This ambiguous and multivalent nature of image as compared to the declarative (and almost dictatorial) nature of words seems to be the subject that this movie is mainly interested in.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Lost in Translation: Americanized Japan

I'm big in Japan! I'm big in Japan! - Tom Waits

Most of us tend to look at Japan as an antithesis of America. The supposed quietness, diffidence, courtesy, and the slow lifestyle of Japanese people represent a stark contrast to the loudness, openness, speed, and the vulgarity of the Americans. However, what we see in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation is a Japan (or, at least, Tokyo) that is transforming itself into America. A westernized Japan. Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), two Americans who have come to Japan, see skyscrapers, neon lights, and advertising hoardings everywhere, as though they are in New York City. The view of Tokyo from Charlotte's room looks just like Manhattan. The Japanese ad filmmakers who direct Bob seem to be very much influenced by American culture, asking Bob to imitate all kinds of American movie actors. Bob himself is a has-been actor in America, but he seems to be somewhat big in Japan.

The Japanese seem to love Americans. However, Bob and Charlotte themselves are two Americans who seem to be weary of Americans. Throughout the movie, both of them constantly try to escape from or ignore Americans: when Bob's American fans recognize him and mention his "great car-chase scene", he runs away from them. He also tells his wife, "I don't want all that pasta. I want to take care of myself. I would like to start eating healthy... like Japanese food." Likewise, Charlotte looks at the blonde actress with an amusement and almost a disdain. She appears bored and literally leaves the restaurant when her husband and his friends talk about American phenomenon like "hip-hop" and "anorexia". She seems to be tired of who she is and seem to be searching for something different. She and Bob both show interest in Japanese culture.

However, when they encounter pure Japanese culture, it is all too foreign and unfamiliar to them. They just can't understand it or make sense of it. After visiting the Buddhist shrine, Charlotte tells her friend that she "did not feel anything." Bob constantly has problem communicating with Japanese people who can't speak English. Likewise, when they try to order food at a Japanese restaurant, they are unable to tell the difference between the different kinds of food available in the menu.

Thus, they find themselves in a strange position: they no longer want their old life and the new life they want to adopt is all too strange and foreign to them. As a result, they seem to be literally lost in translation. They don't know what to do with the state they are in. Things around them are changing (or, on the verge of changing) and they don't know what to do with it. Charlotte tells Bob, "I'm stuck." Bob tells his wife "I'm completely lost." At one point in the movie, they try to adopt the American lifestyle. They go out and party and try to be loud and open, but they literally have to be the opposite of what they are in order to act that way: Bob literally wears his t-shirt inside-out; Charlotte wears a wig. And, even then, it only lasts a while, and they find themselves back to who they are.

It is this feeling of being lost and being out of place in a rapidly changing world and not knowing what to do about it that seem to bond Charlotte and Bob. They both are going through a critical phase in their life, they both are in a foreign land, and they both seem completely lost. They recognize this fact in each other and find a strange kind of solace in each other's presence. And, by the end, what occurs between them is a kind of love that is beyond mere physical attraction and also something beyond the  realm of language. What occurs between them is something that cannot be put into words. We literally don't get to hear what Bob whispers into Charlotte's ear at the end of movie.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

on "Inside Llewyn Davis"

At first glance, Inside Llewyn Davis looks like one of those "an artist living for Art" kind of movies. We see the life of a "great" singer not wanting to sell his soul and, as a result, struggling to make a living. The whole plot, indeed, revolves around the idea of a "struggling artist". However, it is the way this idea is treated in this movie that makes this movie different and special from the rest. The Coen Brothers take the cliched idea of a "struggling artist" and give a refreshingly smart and twisted take on it: although it's a movie about a struggling artist living in a "cold world", instead of sympathizing with the artist (as we generally tend to do in such movies) here we end up not sympathizing with him.

We come to understand that once we understand that the whole movie is an exercise in a radical point-of-view. I think we are meant to see everything from Llewyn Davis's perspective. When the movie begins, we are literally inside Llewyn Davis. Almost everyone and everything in the movie is a bit exaggerated in their negative aspects. That's because that is how Llewyn Davis sees everything: beside his music, he sees everything as either stupid or boring or ugly. The world looks a bit too cold and gray, his girlfriend appears mean and angry all the time, the two people with him on the road trip seem very boring, the guests that come to his apartment have weird face, everything the military guy does seem pretty annoying, other singers appear ridiculous. Only Llewyn's singing seems beautiful. When Llewyn sings, we get extreme close-ups of him, as though he's lost in his own heaven, as though we are listening to the greatest singer in the world, because that's how he perceives himself (and not necessarily because that's how he is). In reality, things might have been different. And, indeed, the movie gives us enough clues to suggest that things aren't the way Llewyn Davis seems to perceive it. His girlfriend helps him get a job, the doctor doesn't charge him extra money, people give him free rides, they let him live in their house and forgive his insensitive acts. Of course, Llewyn is oblivious and indifferent to all this. In a sense, the joke is on him.

Llewyn Davis, like his name, is a difficult person to live with. He's cocksure, insensitive, and vain. He thinks very highly of his art and of himself as an artist, and considers everything else as worthless. Therefore, he has a very strong conscience when it comes to art. I think the cat represents his "conscience": it always tries to escape but he doesn't let it. We literally see him feeding it and letting it walk all over him. (There are, of course, other interpretations, but that's how I read it.) As a result of all this, he never ends up anywhere. He keeps having a bad time throughout the movie. He gets ample opportunity to make things better for himself, but, because he is an asshole, he loses them and just ends up remaining pathetic.

The movie begins and ends with the same scene. At the beginning, when we see him get beaten by a stranger, we feel sorry for him. We think it's unfair. But, by the end, when the exact scene is repeated, we don't feel sorry for him. We feel that he deserved it. If his life is needlessly difficult and sad, it is for the most part his own doing.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Lootera (Not Just a Love Story)

Lootera, on the most basic level, is of course a love story - and not just a love story but a very ordinary love story (the sort we've seen one time too many): A bad guy meets a good girl. Bad guy decides to become good. Bad guy has to face his past (conflict). Bad guy overcomes his past with the sheer power of love. Lootera certainly has all of this, and yet to read this movie that way, I think, would be too simplistic and will not do any justice to the complexities and nuances of this film. After all, why is it a period film? What is the significance of the fake leaf? Why is the plot inspired by O’Henry short story “The Last leaf”? Why does Varun (Ranveer Singh) say he wants to paint a masterpiece? Why is Paakhi (Sonakshi Sinha) ill? Why the title “Lootera”? Why does the movie refer to Guru Dutt's “Baazi”? All these questions go unanswered if we read this movie simply as a love story. It begs to be read differently. There is a lot more going on beneath the surface of this love story. I think this movie, in a sense, is the opposite of Baazi and many other innumerable “Good vs Evil” Bollywood films. In most of those movies, it is the lower class that struggles against the tyranny and injustice of the upper class; in Lootera, it’s the upper class who are struggling. Most of those movies also tend to be about the “Evil” embracing the “Good” (which, of course, is not difficult. We see something good, we like it. It's easy to affirm goodness!). Lootera is interested in the opposite. Here it is the "Good" having to embrace the "Evil". The main conflict of Lootera is not Varun having to come to terms with his past, but Paakhi having to come to terms with the darkness of this world. "How does an innocent soul like Paakhi survive in this new, dark world?" That seems to be the question this movie is interested in.

Lootera is set in a village in India, in the early 50s, at a time when, to quote Bob Dylan’s great song, “The times they are a-changing.” Right at the beginning we learn that the old world is dying. "Duniya badal gayi hai..." says Paakhi's father. New rules, regulations, innovations, and customs are being implemented throughout the country and the days of the zamindaars are coming to an end. But as the old world collapses, we not only lose the bad aspects of it (aristocracy, hierarchy, inequality, etc.), but also the good aspects of it (order, simplicity, peace, innocence, morality, honesty, charm, vulnerability, tradition, etc.). Lootera is a movie concerned with this aspect of the old world. [The movie itself has a very old-world feeling to it: it’s an old-fashioned narrative told in a very traditional manner. The editing is seamless, the camera does not do anything fancy or call attention to itself (except for one scene towards the end), and the pacing is relaxed and relatively slow. Unlike most period films, the rich people (the zamindaars) here aren’t shown as evil people, but as really nice, simple, honest, down-to-earth people. The havelis and thakurs are not shown with the opulence, grandeur and melodramatic excess of Sanjay Bhansali,  nor does it have any fashionable cynicism and darkness of Anurag Kashyap (Both of whom were Motwane's mentors). The color of Paakhi's haveli is almost brown (earthy, to be precise), and it gives a feeling of nostalgia, warmth, and simplicity.] The new world brings with it not only freedom and equality, but also deceit, disenchantment, disbelief, chaos, and a lot of darkness.

Varun comes from this new world. He is street-smart, modern, amoral. He’s someone who has seen a lot of darkness, and he seems to be tired of it. The first time we see him, he’s literally lying helpless under a tree. Even his voice is sedated, low, weak and soft, as if silenced by the darkness around him. He comes to the village as an archaeologist (albeit a fake one). An archaeologist is someone who is interested in old things. When Varun meets Paakhi, he's taken by her. Paakhi represents to him all that is beautiful about the old world: charm, innocence, simplicity, honesty, vulnerability, etc. She is also seriously ill and literally dying. It is when he realizes that she is seriously ill that he falls in love with her. Of course, due to complex circumstances and necessities, he ends up not only breaking her heart but looting everything of hers. Varun literally takes away from her everything she believed in and had been sheltered by. Paakhi, who had been living in a dream-world all this while, now suddenly has to face the darkness of this world: betrayal, heartbreak, cruelty, robbers, sickness, death, loss of loved ones... She almost becomes an embodiment of us (modern human beings), who are not being able to cope with and come to terms with the darkness around us and who just ends up willing death. She is literally counting her days (counting the leaves, to be precise). 

It's in the second half that the movie becomes quite complex. Unlike most crappy Bollywood films, the wounded female here does not take revenge on her "nemesis". Nor does she seek pity from him. She doesn’t want to take revenge, but is not forgiving, either. She is angry, but not dismissive. When Varun comes back, she begins to feel complexly about him (unlike the cop, for whom a robber is a robber, a murderer is a murderer, no matter what.) Rather than being judgmental, she tries to understand his position, albeit reluctantly. Likewise, Varun's response is also very complex. He does not repent for his wrongdoings! On the one hand, he justifies himself by explaining the necessity of it; on the other hand, he acknowledges that what he's done to her is unforgivable. He admits that he will never be able to forgive himself for it. So whatever good he tries to do for her becomes not an act of seeking redemption or forgiveness, but just a pure act of selfless love. He becomes almost the embodiment of darkness, a darkness (or, if I may say, though it might sound a bit far-fetched, ahem, of god) trying to justify this dark world that it has created. (The name Varun means "Deliverer from evil", if I'm to trust wikipedia!) 

And how does he justify? How does he deliver Paakhi? By hanging a fake leaf in the leafless, winter tree! If the winter tree is symbolic of Paakhi's lifeline as well as of this dark world and impermanence (Nature literally dying), then the fake leaf becomes symbolic not just of Paakhi's new life, but also of true love and, as well as, of affirming this dark world through Art (Varun asks her to affirm her life through her writings) and of immortality (It is the most fake thing in the tree and yet it is the one that will not fall.) It is Varun's masterpiece. The world has changed and it is impossible to go back to the old world (belief in order, god, morality, innocence, etc.) and if we are to embrace this new world we ought to do it through the affirmation of Love and Art. That's what this movie seems to be insinuating. When Paakhi smiles at the end, it is not the smile of innocence (there is sorrow and tears, but also contentment and peace); it is a smile of reconciliation and understanding. If "Udaan" was Vikramaditya Motwane's flight from the bourgeoisie into a new and different world, then "Lootera", I'd say, is his affirmation of that world through Art and Love.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

SPRING BREAKERS: The Way of the Superficial

 “Two little chickies left in the nest. 
   But those be the chickies that are the best.” 
Spring Breakers is, needless to say, a movie that deals with the lifestyle of superficial people: dumb bitches, wannabe gangsters, Britney Spears. However, the ambiguous nature of this movie has left many people perplexed as to whether this movie is an indictment or a glorification of the superficial. Is it ridiculing or embracing? Exploiting or accepting? Condemning or advocating? Some are calling it a nasty critique while others are deeming it to be an unapologetic celebration. I think that to side with either of these sides is to miss the point. I’d argue that this is a movie where the distinction between criticism and praise disappears. It erases the rigid boundary between these two incompatibles, just as it erases the boundary between high and low culture, pop and poetry, art and commerce, good and bad, beauty and ugliness, black and white, cinema and real life, material and spiritual, and dream and reality.

The youths in this movie are portrayed as being utterly shallow, vulgar, vapid, uninhibited, irresponsible, insensitive, depraved, and debauched. They steal a car, rob a restaurant, piss on the street, utter foul words, indulge in drugs and sex and violence, roam around in bikinis, wear DTF trousers and ski-masks, carry guns, and, by the end, execute a mass murder. They only think about instant self-gratification and don’t give a damn about other people. “Pretend like it’s a video game,” says one of the girls before robbing a restaurant with water pistols. Their whole philosophy of life is boiled down to partying wild all the time. Their idea of a spiritual place is Florida. Their dream is spring break forever.
Alien (James Franco) is their dream come true. He is the incarnation of all their beliefs. The avatar of Spring Break. "Maybe you did all that prayin' and I’m the answer to your prayers." He is all style, no substance; all surface, no depth. Shallowness made flesh. He claims he’s a bad-ass, but we soon find out that he isn't really bad; he’s just shallow. Whatever bad things he does, whatever harm he causes to other people, whatever evil we sense in him comes from the fact of him being utterly shallow and not because of him being inherently evil. It’s the same with the girls. Despite all their wickedness, they are not necessarily evil; they are just shallow. That terrific scene where they let Alien deep throat the silencer, instead of blowing his head off with it and running away with all his money (which they could have easily done), shows that they aren't really evil. However, because they are so shallow, there is every chance that they’d end up doing something utterly abominable at any moment. 

This is one of the things that the movie keeps reminding us about. Being superficial is not just about partying and having fun, but also about being susceptible to the dark side. A little sun can bring out your dark side. (Alien himself looks alluring and at the same time menacing, ridiculous but at the same time mysterious, formidable but at the same time vulnerable. He’s a rapper but also a hustler, a clown but also a killer, a poet but also a gangster, a guru but also a loser.) The scenes which seem ludicrous or innocuous at first are later shown from a different perspective, and we suddenly experience the gravity and the danger inherent in them. At first we see the restaurant robbing scene from outside, bereft of the noise and the close-ups, and it almost looks comical, but when we see the same scene later on from inside, we see how serious and dangerous it is. We also see Alien flaunting his shit, almost childishly, at first, but later that same moment turns into something menacing.

However, I don't think Harmony Korine is reminding us of all these dark sides in order to warn us of the dangers of being shallow. I don't think he's moralizing. On the contrary, I'd claim that he's telling us, "Look, being shallow is not just about parties and booties, it entails all these seedier and darker things as well. So, knowing that, are you up for it? Do you now have the balls to follow the way of the superficial? Do you have the guts to join this party?"

Faith (Selena Gomez), who is the least shallow and the most moral of the four, clearly doesn't. She tries to adopt the lifestyle of the superficial thinking that being a spring breaker is all about partying and having fun. But as soon as she senses a bit of weirdness and danger, as soon as Alien goads and tests her a bit, she freaks out and leaves. She returns home, where she can be safe, but also bored. Cotty (Rachel Korine), who gets shot in the arm by Archie's (Gucci Mane's) bodyguard, also leaves when she realizes that her life is at risk. Archie is pissed off at Alien for bringing spring breakers into his territory (This, I think, is a very sly move that Korine makes because he clearly understands that Black culture is the original culture of superficiality and it is the White people who are trying to usurp it. Alien himself is a white guy who has appropriated black culture, and now the girls are trying to do the same. At the beginning of the movie we see these girls sitting in a class where the professor is lecturing on Second Reconstruction and, by the end, we see them exterminating all the Black people.) It is Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), the two hardcore ones, who stay and are able to truly follow the way of the superficial. The movie portrays them as being utterly superficial, but shows that that is exactly what makes them great. It is not a cautionary tale. It does not proffer any judgment. 

The movie itself wallows in superficiality: it is hyper-stylized with an overdose of neon colors, dubstep, floating camera, and non-linear editing. The plot and the characters have no depth. The dialogues are utterly trivial. They are nevertheless extremely quotable, not because they are profound, but just because they are fun to utter. Alien himself relishes in uttering them: “spraaang braaake” “lu-r-r-r-r-r-r-kin’” “y’all” “Gaaangsta". When he flaunts his shit, it is utterly ridiculous and yet one can’t help loving his childish exuberance. The “Everytime” scene, I think, perfectly encapsulates the whole movie: It is ridiculous, absurd, funny, campy, strange, extreme and yet it is also captivating and beautiful. What we see in it is the beauty of the shallow.
It is in the climax (which, apparently, most people seem to hate) that everything comes together. It is where the movie reaches the height of ludicrousness, foolishness, recklessness and darkness as well. Alien, Brit and Candy take on Archie and his gang. But, hilariously enough, Alien, who has been claiming to be a gangster all the while and whom we expect to be the formidable one among the three, is the one who dies without killing a single soul. Everything is left to Brit and Candy, and these two college kids end up exterminating Archie and his whole battalion of black gangsters with  sheer ease and confidence. At this moment, the movie becomes pure dayglo:  it glows when things become black. When they reach the apogee of shallowness is also exactly when they become the most powerful. What’s ugly about them is also what’s beautiful about them. Where they've completely lost it is also where they find themselves. It is, indeed, their spiritual place! No wonder the last shot of the movie is literally upside down.