Friday, August 31, 2012

Tony Scott

The aftermath of Tony Scott’s shock death revealed how his films divided cinephiles and were not given much thought. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s excellent article points to this:

While the last few years have seen Scott embraced by a certain cinephilic community (the Cinema Scope  crowd, the Mann-Scott-Baysian "vulgar auteurists," etc.), he remains, for the most part, a director of immensely popular and commercially successful films who has never been all that popular or successful with critics or "serious film types."

I was certainly not aware of this polarization even though I should have figured something was amiss given the lack of articles exploring his works. I had seen 12 out of his 16 directed features but I couldn't remember reading a single in-depth critical analysis of his films, although many articles have now surfaced, some of which were written a few years ago. One of those older must read articles is Cinema Scope’s brilliant piece which uses Deja Vu as a jumping point to gaze at other Tony Scott features.

All the wonderful articles on Tony Scott inspired a quick film spotlight. The starting point was obviously to catch up with the 4 missing films from my viewing list, The Hunger (1983), Revenge (1990), Man on Fire (2004) and Deja Vu (2006). I revisited a few other titles to have an eight film spotlight, half of Tony’s total feature output.

The Hunger (1983)
Revenge (1990)
Days of Thunder (1990)
True Romance (1993)
Man on Fire (2004)
Domino (2005)
Deja Vu (2006)
Unstoppable (2010)

Trying to maintain control

"Control is an illusion," Kidman already said to Cruise’s NASCAR driver way back in Days of Thunder (1990), and in hindsight it seems an announcement of themes, even style. -- Cinema Scope 29

Christoph Huber and Mark Peranson hit the nail on the head with regards to “control” in Tony’s films. Obvious examples are films in which characters try to control fast moving objects such as planes in Top Gun, cars in Days of Thunder and a speeding train in Unstoppable. However, control is not limited to objects and a few of Tony Scott’s films explore emotional control. Crimson Tide is about staying calm and in control, something which is required in Domino & Man on Fire as well. On the other hand, The Hunger, True Romance & Revenge depict events that unfold when characters give in to their urges and fail to keep their emotions in check. It is incredibly difficult to maintain control when love is involved so it is not a surprize to find that a lot of Tony Scott’s films have love at their core. True Romance and Revenge are clear examples but Tony’s films are not limited to physical love but explore compassion and parental love as well. In Spy Game, Brad Pitt’s Tom Bishop puts his life in danger because of a woman (Catherine McCormack’s character of Elizabeth Hadley) while Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) puts his life savings and reputation on the line because of the father-son like relationship he shares with Bishop. A parental concern is also echoed in Man on Fire with Denzel Washington’s desire to save young Pita (Dakota Fanning). Deja Vu shows that love can manifest itself even when two people don’t share the same physical space. In the film, Denzel Washington’s Doug Carlin falls madly in love with Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton) just by looking at photos and pixels of her.

Love is present in many of Tony’s films but that emotion does not dominate the films which are jam packed with thought provoking ideas packaged in a pulsating framework. Spy Game is set against the backdrop of complicated political policies, Man on Fire looks at corruption and kidnappings in Mexico, Deja Vu examines the possibilities when space-time is folded while Domino is a fierce commentary on reality television. As a result, Scott’s films are not hollow entertainment but offer an insight into society and human behavior in general.

Top 5

There are many Tony Scott films that I have enjoyed and revisited multiples times over the years but the following would be a current rough ordering:

1. Deja Vu: The film perfectly mixes elements of Rear Window and Minority Report with a tender loving touch.

2. Spy Game: Espionage, terrorism, compassion and some clever trickery while the clock ticks away.

3. The Taking of Pelham 123

4. Unstoppable: Besides the obvious attempt to control a runaway train, the film is also a brilliant take on the modern economic crisis by showing how an employee's blind rush results in a problem that gets bigger with each passing minute. If this employee had taken an extra few minutes to properly complete his job, then a small one person problem would not have turned into a gigantic mess that impacted millions.

5. Domino

Of course, just like Deja Vu this list would have been completely different four days ago.

Final thoughts

Domino (written by Richard Kelly) and True Romance (written by Quentin Tarantino) also show that Tony Scott nicely incorporated the writers sentiments with his visual take on the material. One can observe seeds of Kelly’s Southland Tales in Domino with regards to an over hyped pop culture while Tarantino’s trademark crisp dialogues and love of movies are all over True Romance.

And lastly, if I had to pick one frame to depict the sentiment of control and speed shown in Tony Scott’s films, I would pick the wheelchair race in Days of Thunder that takes places in the hospital between Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise) and Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker). In the scene, a nurse is pushing Rowdy’s wheelchair down the hall when Cole’s wheelchair enters the frame. For a few brief seconds, Cole and Rowdy find themselves side by side before Cole decides to edge his chair forward a bit. Cole’s act is a call to war for Rowdy who then pushes himself ahead. And it isn’t too long before both Cole and Rowdy are racing down the hospital in their wheelchairs. A race that started in cars continues in wheelchairs. And even if there were no wheelchairs, both characters would have still found a way to race against each other. No injury could remove the urge to speed from their DNA.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Indian Films in Sight & Sound

In Sight & Sound's 2012 poll, 39 Indian films got votes. This number only includes Indian productions or co-productions directed by Indians, such as Salaam Bombay!. Foreign co-productions such as Gandhi are not included in this number.

Aaja Nachle (2007), Anil Mehta
The Adversary (1971), Satyajit Ray
Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Manmohan Desai
Andaaz (1949), Mehboob Khan
Aparajito (1956), Satyajit Ray
Arguments and a Story or Reason, Debate and a Tale (1974), Ritwik Ghatak
Awaara (1951), Raj Kapoor
The Bogey-Man (1980), Govindan Aravindan
Charulata (1964), Satyajit Ray
The Cloud-Capped Star (1960), Ritwik Ghatak
Days and Nights in the Forest (1970), Satyajit Ray
Devdas (1955), Bimal Roy
Dil Se… (1998), Mani Ratnam
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Aditya Chopra
Distant Thunder (1973), Satyajit Ray
The Duo (1997), Mani Ratnam
The Emperor of the Mughals (1960)/Mughal-E-Azam, K. Asif
The Golden Thread (1965), Ritwik Ghatak
Johnny Gaddaar (2007), Sriram Raghavan
Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), Guru Dutt
Kalpana (1948), Uday Shankar
Mahal (1949), Kamal Amrohi
Man of the Story (1996), Adoor Gopalakrishnan
Maqbool (2004), Vishal Bharadwaj
Mother India (1957), Mehboob Khan
The Music Room (1958), Satyajit Ray
Om Dar-ba-Dar (1988), Kamal Swaroop
Our Daily Bread (1970)/Uski Roti, Mani Kaul
Pakeezah (1972), Kamal Amrohi
Pather Panchali (1955), Satyajit Ray
Pyaasa (1957), Guru Dutt
Rang De Basanti (2005), Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
A River Called Titas (1973), Ritwik Ghatak
Saint Tukaram (1936), Vishnupant Govind Damle, Sheikh Fattelal
Salaam Bombay! (1988), Mira Nair
Sholay (1975), Ramesh Sippy
Siddheshwari (1989), Mani Kaul
Teesri Kasam (1966), Basu Bhattacharya
The World of Apu (1958), Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak have the most film mentions with 8 and 4 respectively. In total, Satyajit Ray’s films got 56 votes from critics (plus 17 director votes) while Ghatak’s films got 12 votes (plus 6 director votes). For many Western Critics, Indian cinema starts and ends with Ray and Ghatak, so it is not a surprize to discover these two directors have the most votes. Thankfully, Guru Dutt & Mani Kaul are included in the poll albeit with a tiny number. Guru Dutt’s 2 films got a total of 9 votes from critics while Mani Kaul's 2 films got a single vote each. Sadly, there are no mentions for Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen or Gulzar, something that feels worse considering that Aditya Chopra & Anil Mehta got one vote each. In another decade, Anurag Kashyap will likely be included and Amit Dutta might get a mention if he continues to make films.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Shyam Benegal

"If Ray reflected the Tagorean enlightenment, Benegal is undoubtedly the chronicler of Nehruvian India. He shares its ‘socialistic’ bias and its foundations in secularism, pluralism, democracy, equality of opportunity, human rights, women’s rights and all their concomitants. His all-India identity is pronounced, obvious. Compare him to Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak and the difference leaps out. Ray was a Bengali and an Indian; Ghatak was only a Bengali; Benegal is only an Indian.” -- Chidananda Das Gupta, Seeing is Believing

Chidananda Das Gupta’s words about Shyam Benegal being “an Indian” certainly ring true. Benegal’s films cover India’s diverse landscape by focusing on a range of characters living in different social circles. His camera is not rooted in a specific region but instead effortlessly takes a journey from rural to urban centers to depict stories about villagers, landowners, priests, politicians, policemen, prostitutes, businessmen and industrialists. Benegal’s camera does not judge but instead presents characters in their moments of agony, suffering or happiness without melodrama thereby creating rich portrayals. Chidananda Das Gupta describes the key component to this style:

But the strand central to Benegal’s ideology and his oeuvre is of the documentary. His feature films turn fact into fiction; they grow out of the documentary approach. One should first look at his Fabian semi-documentaries on the theme of the cooperative movement, best illustrated by Manthan (milkmen and women), Susman (handloom weavers) and Antarnaad (fisher-folk).... -- page 268, Seeing is Believing

Looking at Benegal’s career, it is easy to understand why documentaries play such a fundamental role in his films. He started his film career by directing 22 documentaries in a seven year period from 1967 to 1974. Through these docs, Benegal examined social and economic issues affecting Indian society. He continued this keen examination in his early feature film career as Ankur (1974), his feature film debut, along with Nishant (1975) and Manthan (1976) appear as extensions of his documentary style packaged in a fictional framework. Such a style perfectly balances the villagers way of life, their economic hurdles, social oppression with intimate accounts of their lives. Manthan is a shining example of this approach. The film describes steps the villagers need to take in order to set up a milk cooperative, something which will prevent their exploitation at the hand of the local landowner. The cooperative debate is vital to the story but does not dominate the fictional framework of the film and instead forms just one of the tension points shown between the villagers, landowners and the city workers. As a result, one can understand the concerns and suspicions that exist on the opposing sides because the story and Benegal’s style allows a closeness to all the subjects including villagers, landowner and city workers thereby creating a realistic depiction of events.

In Chapter 8, "Film as Visual Anthropology", Chidananda Das Gupta uses the term "realistic New [Indian] Cinema" to perfectly explains Benegal’s style:

Both [Manthan & Susman] show a singular ability to make fiction out of documentary material without compromising the complexity and basic truth of the material. Technical fluency plus an extraordinary penchant for good casting and for the structuring of material make the films dramatic without being too fictional to be true. A remarkable sureness of feeling for people and places in this prolific film-maker enables him to overcome some elements of contrivance in the mix of drama and documentary. With Benegal we reach the frontiers of documentary and fiction and get the feeling that beyond this point, the portrayal would cease to be recognizable.

Near the end of the chapter, Chidananda Das Gupta also briefly mentions "Direct Cinema" when talking about North American cinema movement:

Later, the 'Direct Cinema' movement in the USA remained mainly peripheral both to the film industry and the corridors of power.

Even though he does not link the movement directly to Benegal’s films, the appearance of the words in the same chapter provide some food for thought. If one had to follow the pure definition of "Direct Cinema", then Benegal’s films won’t fit the bill but his films share plenty of sentiments not only with “Direct Cinema” but also with the “Actuality Dramas” of Allan King. In order to explore some similarities between Benegal’s style and Direct Cinema, I refer back to David Clandfield’s insightful essay From the Picturesque to the Familiar: Films of the French Unit at the NFB (1958-1964) which discusses the difference between Candid Eye movement and Direct Cinema.

Technically, of course, both movements had much in common: shooting without script or conscious staging, use of light-weight equipment, a search for the real which deliberately shunned the dramatic of the heroic.
For the Candid Eye filmmakers, the subject of the film was its subject matter rooted in objective reality. The starting point was a social or human event-- ephemeral, inscribed in an ephemeral world-- the form and meaning of which require the mediation of the filmic process to become evident. The function of the filmic process, then, was not to mould but to reveal form, and with it meaning.

For the cinéma direct filmmakers, the point of departure is the filmmaking process in which the filmmaker is deeply implicated as a consciousness, individual or collective. It is this process--this consciousness--which gives form and meaning to an amorphous objective reality. Instead of effacing their presence, the filmmakers affirm it.

Instead of rendering the technical process transparent (supposedly), they will emphasize its materiality. Instead of standing apart from their object of study or enquiry, they will implicate themselves within in. Their search for the authentic will involve not only the critical detachment of the empirical investigator in order to strip away “myth” or misconception, but also commitment to the social project under investigation in order to avoid the pitfalls of he aesthetic or the “picturesque.” The overt personal involvement of the subject-filmmaker in the object-reality of the pro-filmic event was, then, the key distinguishing factor of the Québécois cinéma direct from the Anglophone Candid Eye.

1) "shooting without script or conscious staging":

Benegal’s scripted trilogy was filmed with actors so that would not qualify it under a pure direct cinema label.

2) "a search for the real which deliberately shunned the dramatic of the heroic.":

These words apply to Benegal as his trilogy highlights “the real” in opposition to conventional hero vs villain scenarios. Benegal’s films presented both sides of the story and the camera peered into the homes of both landowners and villagers. At times, it is hard to tell who is the hero in these films as most characters are driven by their own fear and insecurities which clash with the needs of others.

3) "overt personal involvement of the subject-filmmaker.":

In Manthan, a milk cooperative paid for the film thereby forming a very valid connection with the filmmaker and the subject of the story. Also, the subject matter of the films show Benegal’s interest in the social plight of the villagers and the story gives a rare voice to the villagers. Although the villagers voice is provided by actors.

Direct Cinema-Actuality Dramas-New Realistic Indian Cinema

Michel Brault’s Direct Cinema, Allan King’s Actuality Dramas and Shyam Benegal’s Realistic Indian Cinema all share traits of portraying pure reality. Not surprizingly, all three directors started their career by making documentaries. Even though Benegal’s realistic cinema are fictional films, they contain elements of documentaries in depicting genuine events. And even when Brault directed Les Orders, a fictional film, it was a retelling of actual events based on interviews. Interestingly, all three directed some of their breakout works within a decade of each other. King’s Warendale and A Married Couple came out in 1967 & 1969 respectively, Brault’s Acadia Acadia?!? was released in 1971, Les Orders in 1974, and Benegal’s debut fictional film Ankur came out in 1974. King and Brault would have crossed paths because they worked in Canada but Benegal was probably not aware of either movements. Just like the 1950’s and 1960’s were a period of rich foreign cinema, it appears that the 1970’s and 1980’s were a period of rich reality based movements such as Direct Cinema, Actuality Dramas and the New Realistic Indian Cinema.

Equal Voice and balanced portrayal

Ankur, Nishant and Manthan are completely realized works because they provide an equal voice to both opposing sides whether it be villagers vs landowners, villagers vs city workers or men vs women. The female characters are essential to all three films and the camera ensures that they are given enough screen time to properly understand their situation. This balanced approach ensures the films are not one-sided. Benegal is also a rare Indian filmmaker who has given women a proper spotlight in his films, not only in terms of acting but also by story focus. Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil are key components of Ankur, Nishant and Manthan and would go on to play relevant parts in other vital Indian films. Later in his career, Benegal directed a women centric trilogy, Mammo (1994), Sardari Begum (1996) and Zubeidaa (2001), films which featured focus on three Muslim women. This equal portrayal just affirms his status of a genuine Indian filmmaker.

The past & present, religion & myth

Shyam Benegal not only depicted current state of events in Indian society but also explored Indian’s colonial past. Junoon (1979) takes place in colonial Indian and is set against the backdrop of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Whereas, Kalyug (1981) is a brilliant retelling of the Mahabharta in the closed Indian economy of the 1980’s when strict quotas for production resulted in corruption and labor disputes. The business model depicted in Kalyug was due to "License Raj", a term going back to 1947. In essence, Kalyug brings together one of Indian’s famous epics, post-British Indian legacy and contemporary Indian society in the 1980’s. So it depicts three time periods, or Trikal, which also happens to be the title of Benegal’s 1985 film which explores three time periods in Goa.

The dangers of blindly following a sage’s advice are perfectly highlighted in Kondura which shows that blind faith can sometimes result in someone being manipulated and committing a grave error. In the film, Parashuram (Anant Nag, a regular in Benegal’s films) gets a vision first from the sage Kondura (Amrish Puri) and then from a Goddess, both of whom warn Parashuram about stopping the growing sin in the village. Their instructions are vague and they never point to a specific case of evil in the village. It is left up to Parashuram on how to interpret their words. Parashuram’s few attempts to correct things, such as rebuilding a temple and the discovery of water in an arid land, lead some villagers to regard Parashuram as a sage. His ego is buoyed by his new found followers and combined with his intent in fulling the sage’s words causes Parashuram to fall into a trap set by the local landowner Bhairavmoorthy. The film cleverly includes some elements which question the authenticity of Parashuram’s visions. Kondura is only shown in one scene and is played by Amrish Puri, who provides the voice for Bhairavmoorthy even though the landowner is played by a different actor. Also, the Goddess that visits Parashuram takes the form of his wife Ansuya (Vanisri) which also lays a seed of doubt about whether Parashuram is imagining his visions.

Mandi stands apart from other Shyam Benegal films because of its sharp witty humor. Despite being light hearted than his other films, Mandi tackles plenty of relevant social issues in its portrayal of the women working in a bordello, the clients, landowners, policemen and politicians whose lives hover around the bordello. In fact, the humor manages to highlight the hypocrisy and selfish nature of the characters perfectly. The film is jam packed with movement where characters are constantly entering and exiting a frame thereby creating a theatrical like feel to the work. All the performances are top notch which is not a surprize given that the film contains a stellar cast of Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Amrish Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Saeed Jaffrey, Om Puri, Neena Gupta, Ratna Pathak, Pankaj Kapur, Satish Kaushik, Harish Patel, Annu Kapoor and Ila Arun. Only Anant Nag is missing otherwise the film would have featured a complete lineup of key actors featured in India’s parallel cinema. Mandi also stars Aditya Bhattacharya, director Basu Bhattacharya’s son and director Bimal Roy’s grandson. Aditya is not well known as an actor even though his few acting titles include Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday and Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi but more importantly Aditya is know for his directorial debut film Raakh. Released in 1989, and starring Aamir Khan, Supriya Pathak, Pankaj Kapur, Raakh is one of the best Indian films to have been made in the last few decades. In fact, along with Parinda, Raakh set the stage for the wave of gritty and dark crime movies that emerged in India near the end of the 1990’s.

The following seven films were seen as part of this spotlight:

Ankur (1974)
Nishant (1975)
Manthan (1976)
Kondura (1978)
Junoon (1979)
Kalyug (1981)
Mandi (1983)

Only Manthan and Kondura were first time viewings while I revisited the remaining five after a long gap. Kalyug is the only film that I have seen multiple times while growing up and the recent viewing was particularly rewarding. Girish Karnad and Shyam Benegal’s screenplay incredibly adapts key characters and situations of the Mahabharta in a corporate business setting. The background score heightens the tension and sentiments of revolution and violence beautifully. For these reasons, Kalyug is a personal favourite film.

Sunday, August 05, 2012


Driven written by James Sallis, published by Poisoned Pen Press.

Driven, the sequel to James Sallis' noir fiction Drive, catches up with Driver seven years after he left Bernie Rose for dead. Even though a lot of time has passed in between the two book's timelines, the opening words of Driven are directly related to events in Drive.

They came for him just after 11:00 on a Saturday morning, two of them. It was hot going hotter; sunlight caught in the fine sheen of sweat on Elsa's forehead. A hint of movement in the side of his eye as they passed a short side street -- and the first one was there. He spun, slamming his foot and the whole of his body weight against the outside of the man's right knee, and heard it give. By the time the man was down, that same foot hit his throat. ...

The two men have come for Driver because of what he did seven years ago. Driver thought he had escaped his past but unfortunately for him, and his fiancee, his past manages to crash his new life and identity. Driver now goes by the name of Paul West but despite a new name, some things have not changed in his life, such as his love for Mexican food and eating at reasonably priced restaurants. Many of Driver's conversations take place in such restaurants or diners serving thick black coffee and a good old fashioned piece of pie. The violence is also present in ample doses because Driver has to protect himself and seek revenge. His love of cars wins new admirers and opens new doors for him as he seeks to outrun his past.

Driven is a brisk read at 147 pages and even though it leaves one wanting more when it ends, the book is a tad disappointing and not a stellar work like Drive. A lot of the weaker moments in Driven are related to conversations of free will, purpose in life or attempts to examine Driver’s "sense of belonging". For example, the following words on page 18 take place before it is revealed that Driver met Elsa at the mall.

Back early on, back before the house, before the job, before Paul west, he had a fascination for malls. In ways he never understood, they drew him. Bright colors, lush displays in windows, the sense and sound of all those bodies moving separately and together, music, the cries of children, friendly banter. Malls were a country in miniature. He visited them, stepped into them, as though just off the ship. As though if only he sat in them long enough, put in enough miles along those arcades and scuffed floors, ate enough food court specials, something – some understanding, some sense of belonging – might solidify around him.

Such words give the impression that the book is just idling, buying some time with empty words, before the relevant material kicks in. This is because Drive was perfect in outlining the character and persona of Driver so the added descriptions in Driven are not required and come off as mere padding. Thankfully, these idle moments are few given the short length of the book and it is not too long before the juicy material of cars and thugs kicks in. The filthy characters and their shady backgrounds are the true meat of both books and any attempt to examine questions of self and the universe appear forced within the book’s framework. Perhaps, a future book might put things right as Driven feels like unfinished business especially because the ending is a wide open road that could lead to new adventures. And if there is another book in the series, it will likely be called Drove.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

The Uptown

It is sad to hear about the Uptown cinema's closure. The Uptown was an integral part of Calgary's art-house theatrical scene and its closure will leave a huge void that may never be filled.

I have been fortunate to have seen many excellent foreign, indie and cult films at The Uptown over the years. The first film I ever saw there was Priyadarshan's excellent Virasat, a film that left me in awe. Over the years, I saw many memorable film festival titles such as Kontroll, The Motorcycle Diaries, Cache, Nostalgia for the Light, One Week, The Edge of Heaven, Ragnar Bragason's Children & Parents. Also, equally special were one time screenings + Q & A with directors such as the one with Crispin Glover a few years ago.

This news also brings Calgary one step closer to a future where cinemas in the city will only show Avatar sequels and endless reboots of Spider-Man, Batman or other Hollywood flicks.