Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Spotlight on Chaplin

One of the earliest cinematic memories I have is of watching a Charlie Chaplin film. My parents recall taking me to a Chaplin special series at a local theater when I was between 3-5 years old. Even though they remember me as being very fond of the movies, I don't remember anything except two images which are still clear in my memory -- the first is of Chaplin eating a shoe and the second is him struggling to stay to on his feet while the house around him moved like a see-saw. But as I grew up, I forgot all about Chaplin's films and never saw anything else by him. So in order to finally rectify my cinematic lapse, I decided to visit some films from a film-maker whose work I was introduced to even before I could formulate a complete sentence!! I picked four films at random and as it turns out, the fourth film from my choice ended up being the one from my childhood memories :)

Poverty, homelessness & dream sequences:

The Kid (1921): Rating 8.5/10

Chaplin's Tramp character comes across a small baby left on the street side.

He takes care of the baby and the child grows up in Tramp's spitting image, complete with similar antics and dress sense.

The two create havoc on the streets. But with the Tramp, the police are never far behind. In this picture, he is flirting with a woman. But as it turns out she is the wife of the police chief who is after Chaplin. The chief reaches out for Chaplin who is busy laughing. Little does he know...

Despite all the problems, we eventually get a sweet and tender happy ending. But before the ending, we are treated to some slapstick comedy, a dream dance sequence and some emotional moments.

Modern Times (1936): Rating 10/10

Right from the film's opening moments upto the finale, we are treated to a very rich and enjoyable story!

The opening two shots of the film perfectly convey the master-slave motif that the story tries to portray. The first picture is of sheep being herded, which is followed by...

a picture of men rushed through a subway en route to the pains of a daily working life.

The working life means no time for a break or even a smoke -- work, work, work!!. In the following picture, the Tramp can't even enjoy a break in the bathroom because the giant tv screen allows the boss to see what everyone is upto! (Note: the movie was made in 1936, 13 years before Orwell crafted his big brother 1984).

In order to improve efficiency, the boss even entertains the idea of a machine which feeds lunch to employees so that they can get back quicker to work!

Ofcourse, working with machines is a perfect opportunity for the Tramp to get into trouble. In the next two pictures, he finds himself trapped in the giant internals of the machine.

Eventually, despite all his adventures and troubles with law, the Tramp finds true love with a Gamin. In this picture, she comes to greet him after his latest release from jail.

Both are poor but as they say, home is where the heart is. And this simple shaft is called "Paradise" by the Tramp.

The Tramp is content in love but he soon finds out that love can't buy food. So he is determined to find a job to provide for a better life for the two of them. He lands a job at a local club and is willing to do anything to please his bosses, even if that means singing!

The next pictures are when the Tramp sings the "nonsense song", a gibberish mixture of Spanish, French and Italian sounding words which make no sense. Nonetheless, the catchy music along with his dialogue delivery and expressive antics make for a very enjoyable song!! Je La Tu La Ti La Twa

But the long arm of the law catches up with the two of them and they are on the run again. Despite all their problems, the Tramp tells the Gamin to see the bright side of life. Smile :)

A very sweet and romantic walk into the sunset!! Perfection!!

City Lights (1931): Rating 7.5/10

This time the big complicated city forms the background for the Tramp's latest adventures. After the tramp saves a rich man from committing suicide, he is awarded with plenty of money and even a car. But with all these additional riches come more complications. And his love for a blind girl only increases his needs. Like his previous films, the Tramp is willing to work only for the benefit of others around him. Otherwise, he is content with his wandering ways. The film is a bit thinner on story and uses slapstick comedy to strech the movie along.

The Gold Rush (1925): Rating 8/10

The following image on the DVD menu indicated that this might be the movie from my childhood:

As it turns out, this was indeed the film that I saw when I was less than 5 years old. I can see why I liked this movie as it is mostly slapstick with the Tramp trying his best to stay out of trouble.

Even though the title might lead one to imagine an adventure in a hot countryside, the film is set in the freezing mountain locales. The two most essential requirements in these conditions are to stay warm and get adequate food to eat. The tramp eventually finds a shelter to stay in but food is the problem. And this is where the famous scene from my childhood memories comes into play.

With no food around, the tramp decides to eat a piece of wood.
He finds that the wood tastes better with a little salt!

And when there is nothing around, he decides to try his luck with a tasty boiled leather shoe.

Next, the shoelaces must be treated like they are noodles.

Bon Appétit!

After finding it difficult to use a knife to tear into the shoe,

he decides to bite into the leather sole.

The other scene from my memory takes place near the film's end when the house is pushed to the edge of a cliff.

Once the house falls over the cliff, a pile of gold is found where the house once used to be. The Tramp becomes rich and eventually gets his woman.

Cue happy ending!!!!

Memories & Influences:

What memories! The Chaplin films have influenced countless imitations in the cinematic world from Hollywood to Bollywood. Raj Kapoor's masterpiece Shree 420 owes plenty to the Tramp character. Even the wonderful song "Mera Joota hai Japani" has shades of the Tramp's attire & wandering ways.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Michelangelo Antonioni Films

When I heard of the consecutive deaths of Bergman and Antonioni, I felt a sudden jolt. Even though it had been a few years since I last saw a film by either of them, their deaths were a reminder that the masters of cinema are all but gone (Godard and Alain Resnais remain and are amazingly still making films). Driven by a guilt at having not seen some of his masterpieces and in way of a tribute, I decided to visit some of Antonioni's critically acclaimed films.

Mystery, Loneliness, Beauty and disappearances:

L' Avventura (1960): Rating 9/10

A beautiful woman. A picturesque Italian countryside. But all is not right beneath the surface. Anna (Lea Massari) is unsure about her affair with her lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). She undertakes a trip with him, her good friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) and few others. An isolated island. 30 minutes into the film, Anna disappears. Just like that.

Everyone looks for her but to no avail. Claudia is distraught because because she cared for Anna the most.

Sandro tries to look for her but eventually runs out of ideas.

Claudia has lost feelings for everything. A beautiful sun-rise only means that an entire night has gone by without Anna having been found. Hope is fading but her anger with Sandro is increasing as she believes it is his fault that Anna has gone.

Shortly after the characters leave the island, the film makes us forget about Anna. Sandro chases after Claudia and the two of them temporarily find comfort in each others arms. But Sandro is not an easy man to love and Claudia finds herself with the same misery and doubts that Anna had faced.

There is an easy flow to this film. The camera moves effortlessly from scene to scene and at all times Antonioni is aware of what he wants to show us. The visual beauty of the landscapes only heightens the fact that each character is miserable and lonely. Each person is an island in themselves and occasionally, they let the others come near them.

There are two sequences in the film which highlight man's lust for beauty. In the following sequences, the men in a small town freely gawk at Claudia's beauty.

But all the town men are reflections of Sandro -- they chase after an object of desire and after having their way with them, look for the next beauty.

Beauty, Chaos & Time:

L'Eclisse (1962): Rating 10/10

Although Antonioni directed La Notte in between L' Avventura and L'Eclisse, the start of L'Eclisse feels like a scene which could take place a few days after the ending of L' Avventura. Monica Vitti appears in a similar black dress to one from the final scene of L' Avventura. Her character Vittoria is discussing her relationship with Riccardo. The words they exchange are something one would have expected Claudia to have shouted at Sandro in L' Avventura.

Vittoria and Riccardo go their separate ways and the camera freely drifts to the stock exchange where Vittoria's mother is a regular buyer and seller. The chaos and madness of the trading floor is beautifully captured. For a long while, we forget about Vittoria as the film focuses on the stock market's meltdown which results in a lot of people losing money, including Vittoria's mother. This segment of the story focuses on Piero, a sharp floor trader who is ambitious and knows the market's pulse.

When Vittoria returns to the screen, she and Piero engage in a little romantic tussle. Piero is clearly in love with Vittoria but she keeps him at a distance.

The next few shots show the distance between the two despite their bodies being close together.

This is one the most beautiful shots in the film. This hug speaks volumes -- two faces which touch but are miles apart. Piero knows that this is the last time he will ever touch Vittoria and Vittoria knows that she will leave him never to return.

The final sequence in the film is series of landscape shots which we have visited earlier in the film. The only difference is that the scenes are devoid of Vittoria and Piero. We see some new characters and in one case, Antonioni toys with us in trying to show a character that is similar to Vittoria.

I believe these scenes represent the passage of time. Vittoria and Piero have gone but time moves on. Earlier in the film, Vittoria had placed an object in a barrel of water and by the film's end, we see the water slowly drip out of the barrel. Eventually, the barrel is empty but we see no sign of her.

All the film's main characters are gone by the ending. They have moved onto other loves. Yet movements in the street go on. Beautiful and haunting.

Sexy mystery:

Blowup (1966): Rating 10/10

The choice of London and use of English language gives this film a very different feel from Antonioni's previous films.

Thomas (David Hemmings) plays a fashion photographer with an attitude. He wants to shoot the girls the way he wants. But he also gets bored easily (something he shares in common with other Antonioni film characters) with the stick beauties in front of him. When we first meet him, we see a carefree and reckless person -- his driving is rash and impulsive, just like his instincts for buying beautiful objects.

Eventually, we see a different side of him. He loves to photograph nature and is making a collection of photographing everyday shots of harsh reality. On a visit to a park, he comes across a couple enjoying a day out. He obsessively follows them, sort of like a modern day paparazzi (or what Paparazzo would have done in Fellini's La Dolce vita). The woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) sees him taking the pictures and gets angry at him for invading her privacy. She demands the pictures but he refuses.

Later on, when he blows up the pictures, he finds a real mystery unfolding before his eyes. A murder, an affair? We see what he sees in one of the film's intense and engaging sequences. Our curiosity is pricked and we can't wait to find the answers. But we never do get the answers we want. And that is how life goes. An adventure (L' Avventura) that hides a mystery?

The Camera that knows it all:

Blowup is a visual treat like Antonioni's other films. In all three films, the camera moves freely from one locale to locale. Even though at times, we may feel that the camera is giving us the freedom to see everything, we have to be aware that we are only seeing what Antonioni wants us to see. So sometimes we are offered a close-up, a long shot or even a 360' degree view of the sky. At all times, the freedom of the camera is exactly the kind of freedom that Antonioni wanted the camera to have. This controlled freedom is a real pleasure because his camera freely follows one character and has no hesitation about leaving one character mid-stream to chase another. Each character is only followed until there is something worth noticing about them. Once they go off-screen, we really don't miss them because we have now moved onto more interesting characters.

In L' Avventura & L'Eclisse characters disappear off-screen -- a character walks out of a scene and out of the movie. But in Blowup's final scene, a character disappears in front of our very eyes. Time has moved on. The camera has shown everything that needs to be shown. Lights out. Nothing more to see here. We can leave.

But the images stay in our head. We replay them when we close our eyes. The camera may be turned off but the audience can use their neurons to fire those visuals up. The artist may be gone but his work lives on..........................