Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Cast: Nadezhda Markina, Andrey Smirnov, Alexey Rozin, Elena Lyadova
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Runtime: 109 min.
Language: Russian
Country: Russia
Verdict: Could very well be one of our modern master’s best film.
Genre: Drama, Thriller

        Elena finds Mr. Zvyagintsev in an intensely political frame of mind, and one might feel he isn’t pulling any punches. Punches, those seem to be coming from the extreme right. There are two crucial sequences where he almost goes out of his way to let his point be heard, and provide for a running commentary of sorts. Sequences, that work to “complete” a whole of sorts, like different perspectives in one of them hyperlink films. Around the 30 min. mark is angle-1, and it starts in a basement parking lot serving some luxurious apartments housing the affluent members of the society. Vladimir (Mr. Smirnov), the old rich guy, walks to his car. A primarily narrative/subjective/dramatic intent would’ve probably tracked his movement into the car, and fixated on him while he revved the engine, and either cut as he drove out of the frame, or tracked the car out of sight. Mr. Zvyagintsev instead chooses to layer Vladimir’s subjectivity with his own, thereby making the shot (and the ensuing sequence) morally and politically alive. He tracks Vladimir’s motion, as the old man walks towards his car and unlocks the central locking, all the while moving towards his subject, and just about the moment he “meets” his subject, who is settled in the car, the subject drives. There’s a remarkable almost mathematical precision to it all, the camera’s motion reflecting a similar optimization as that supported by the central locking. The sequence continues further in a fluid tracking shot of the car driving up the parking ramps, the view being from inside, and it feels as if the entire frame is floating. Vladimir turns the car around a corner and one of those automatic gates opens, and the entire sequence seems to be unfolding with the same sort of unobstructed, or rather “unopposed” ease as Henry Hill’s in Goodfellas’ Copacabana. Up until Vladimir finds some workers “crossing” the road seemingly taking their own sweet time. Mr. Zvyagintsev cuts to a shot of Vladimir from outside the vehicle, and here’s a man who seems to have nothing but contempt for this class. He doesn’t dwell on this reaction shot, which otherwise would’ve surrendered the emotion (contempt) completely to the subject (Vladimir), but instead cuts to the workers ambling across the road in a single file, thereby transferring, or rather inspiring that emotion within us. It is one hell of a moment from one of our modern masters, a moment that through its content addresses the motivations in the narrative and that through its aesthetic creates a rather synecdochical representation of history of a country that had its aristocrat stopped in his tracks by the working lot.

        The alternate angle comes just about an hour later, in another part of the city. It is one of those matchbox apartments, and considering the presence of three cooling towers in the vicinity, I guess it stands next to a nuclear plant. It concerns a bunch of good-for-nothing teenagers, a caricature of mindless criminal-tending anarchic youth if you ask me, and the fact that I don’t seem to have any problem of any sort with it when any caricature of the opposite kind (the establishment, the rich et al.) would have had my frothing in my mouth is probably a just reflection of the hypocrisy resident in my criticisms. My defense: we need more films that are pro-rich, and that this has come from Russia makes me very happy. Mr. Zvyagintsev’s constructs a social space whose geography reflects the desires and intentions behind any city – that of having the low-class pushed into a ghetto, where the prosperous form the sky-rises and wide roads and lush apartments representing the future, and where the decay is a representation of the past. These matchbox project apartments and the cooling towers are vestiges of the communist era, a city of Others, and the working class living within them is some sort of pest feeding over the prosperous and considering it its right to do so. I have a hunch that is Mr. Zvyagintsev’s view of things, especially considering the way he describes this alternate angle by tracking the teenagers crossing a road through a handheld camera, conveying a rough chaotic world. They hurl abuses at cars that pass by, and I have some special feelings for those who cross the road right in the middle of the traffic not even bothering to run and with that outstretched hand considering it their goddamn right. Elena reflected those feelings. These guys walk into the wastelands surrounding the plant and enter a meaningless brawl that is presented intentionally without any context and thereby becomes a caricature rather than anything specific. They all beat each other up. We don’t even know who is who, what with everybody’s outfit being so similar, and its abstractness inspires no emotion than contempt, especially in the wake of the film’s principal criminal act.

        Elena and Elena regularly travel between these two socio-geographic spaces, and judging by the length of Elena’s travel, these two seem to be pretty far away. Irreconcilably far away. That is not Mr. Zvyagintsev’s point though, but merely serves as the backdrop to his narrative. It is one killer of an opening as he reveals not merely new spaces but people and the equation between them. A montage of static shots establishes a luxurious apartment. We meet Elena. She seems to be living there all by herself. Until she opens another room and draws the curtains and wakes up Vladimir. Who is he, we’ve no idea? We wonder why they don’t sleep alone, and if they are relatives. We get the answer much later, by way of implication, of a rather young marriage between two older people, each having their own life. They sleep in different rooms, watch different televisions, have different kids – he a daughter, she her son – and yet there’s nothing apparently strained between them. Every marriage has a different logic, and this one has its own, which we need to find. Mr. Zvyagintsev sets it all up like a chain of clues, set of actions – she waking him up and walking into the kitchen, he walking into the bathroom, she coming back in and neatly setting up the bed, he coming back and getting ready and sitting on the table, and she serving the porridge and coffee. It is smooth and efficient, all working like a well-oiled clock. They talk about their kids, his daughter Katya and her son Sergey. They sit on opposite ends of the table. Elena, more than any of his two films, finds Mr. Zvyagintsev at the peak of his narrative capabilities, and he’s able to build images and sequences that support both associative and historic readings. You got to look at the train sequence later in the film and the Hitchcockian thrills that completely destroy our nerves. The apartment is an apartment, but then again one can easily read it, especially in hindsight, as symbolic of the palace (Kremlin). Vladimir and Elena come from different strata of the society. He has the money, and she provides him with sex and service. She needs some of that money for her son, which he refuses to give out of principle. Each new clue reveals something about the marriage. So much so that when Vladimir is discharged from the hospital we see a nurse set his bed right and open the window and clean the room, with just about the same degree of finesse.
        And yet, for all the specificity, Mr. Zvyagintsev’s intentions aren’t ambiguous. More than being pro-rich, he seems to stand against the anti-rich stance. He sets up standalone sequences detailing the uselessness of Sergey and his distinct lack of ethics or principles (little actions like taking money from his mother and hiding it in his pocket and handing over his wife only a portion of it) and yet corresponding complaints from Elena aren’t served with any evidence, her only standalone moment coming far later in the film and in a vastly different context. Still, one might argue that those make for the peripherals. Elena, what do we make of her? She walks into a church to pray, and she has no clue how to go about it. Not that she’s particularly religious either, as she looks through the picture at her reflection within it. It is remarkable how Mr. Zvyagintsev sets up these little daily activities and employs subtle variations in the order of focus-shift, or in behavior to reveal little nuggets of character subjectivity. You have to wonder about a woman who willingly wants to stay with a man and marry him who wouldn’t let her on his bed. Or maybe, you don’t. You don’t really need to wonder about a woman who watches reality shows, who looks at herself just as often, and one who offers different emotions (regarding her grandkids) before the husband and her son. The final sequence only confirms who her real family is, and the moral aloofness of it all. All she wants is the best for her and her kids. That is all she cares about.

Monday, December 26, 2011


Cast: Rachel Weisz, Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn, Monica Belluci
Director: Larysa Kondracki
Runtime: 112 min.
Verdict: An offensive often disgusting film.
Genre: Thriller, Drama

        Here is a film that is about sex trafficking and capitalist monsters and the titular whistleblower, and offers more than enough to whet our appetite for lurid material. There is a glorious scene right in the middle of it all where a huge metal rod is pierced into a woman’s you know where, and it is obviously the film’s showpiece a.k.a. the “gut-wrenching and horrific truth”. Thankfully, the film doesn’t explicitly show the action but implies it, by following up the poor girl’s wailing with the rod dropped on the floor, and the other girls’ reactions thrown in for good measure. Oh yeah, the men here are brutal, and all most of these irredeemable bastards want, especially even the guys who form the U.N. peacekeeping mission, is to bang every decent-looking woman in sight. Kathy Bolkovac (Ms. Weisz) is driven into Bosnia on a military bus to serve her peacekeeping contract working for a security firm called Democra Corp, and a cursory glance underlines reveals that her colleagues seem to be all men. Oh except for one other woman sitting in the behind. A guy nudges his friends to have a look at Kathy, and she laughs it off as she would any of these schoolboy shenanigans, little aware that she’s walking into the unfinished fourth part of the stories where the men really, really hate women. And although nothing of note happens to her, by way of physical harm I mean, while the Balkan girls are raped and mauled and pierced and shot, The Whistleblower’s utter brilliance lies in the manner in which it turns all of it into Kathy’s crusade. The girls might be in danger, a mother might have little idea where to look for her daughter, but the real fight is Kathy’s alone. My blood boils, but for different reasons.
        The film’s opening shot is of two young girls having fun in the night. The film’s closing moments provide for Kathy declaring to her BBC interviewer (Tim Sebastian?) that if needed she would do all of it again. The “all of it” includes trespassing into the organization’s office and stealing the necessary files and revealing it to the media. In the film’s post-script, we learn of the guys who committed these atrocities, we learn of Kathy and amidst all this Ms. Kondracki has somehow turned the story of scores of unwitting girls into a triumphant story of a crusader. Right from individual scenes, where the film’s primary strategy is to provide for these young girls to suffer or run or die and end it all with Kathy’s reactions, thereby making it all hers, to the film’s numerous 360-degree dramatic shots, which only serve Kathy and nobody else, one gets the feeling that the trafficked girls are merely the mechanics of a plot, or rather a macGuffin, whose sufferings the film only employs to draw some valuable dramatic tension so that the real characters – the good guys represented by Kathy, Madeleine Rees (Ms. Redgrave), Peter Ward (Mr. Strathairn), the bad guys represented by the significant others (no, not the Bosnians but the Americans) – can draw leverage out of it. A girl running in the woods scared shitless for her life is found by Kathy and the tears that are focused on (thereby more important) are not the girl’s. In a witness room, when a couple of girls ask Kathy to promise them safety, it is not their situation that the Ms. Kondracki is interested in but Kathy’s conscience and her word. Every sequence with Kathy in it ends with the camera on her. What’s at stake are not the lives of these girls but the humanity of an international organization, which, the film claims, was built from the ashes of Auschwitz. I wish I had a spare arm I could throw at the film.
        But then, there’s a parallel little drama, floating unattended, with the film cutting to it only as an obligation, which unfolds between the mother and her sister, and which in its present state only serves to further anger me. Yet, I think there’s more to it. There’s a story lying in the cutting floor, and maybe it is about them and not about the American morality. I would’ve respected The Whistleblower had it taken its subject head-on and not provide us with the kitschy horror of those young girls. Or if it had blown itself into one of those hyperlink films where the mother and her daughter and her friends and the other Balkans get the same respect as Kathy. Otherwise the film, for all its preaching, is treating them much the same way it accuses an organization of doing – like objects.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Art Cinema: The Shortening of the Sight

A noted film critic, M.K. Raghavendra, about whom I had been quite ignorant until a few days back, has written a lengthy piece on the worthlessness of Mr. Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation as an artistic work. I had the good fortune of meeting him at the recently concluded Bangalore Film Festival, right in front of the film’s poster while he was dissing the film and the filmmaker. stood there in disbelief, I was a little shell-shocked too, and it is probably a moment I wouldn’t forget.
He asked me to read his piece, which has been published here, and here are my reactions to it.

“An art film is the result of filmmaking as a serious, independent undertaking aimed at a niche rather than mass market.”

Should this sentence lead me to assume that The General, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather and Terminator 2: The Judgment Day aren't art? To define an art film in terms of its audience is asking for trouble even before the first word is written. Where exactly does "niche" end? Which of us audience member should be eligible to be considered as niche? Where does mass begin? How do we define mass? The author is dead smack in the middle of slippery ground and he has barely finished his first sentence.

“Film scholars typically define ‘art films’ through those formal qualities that mark them as different from mainstream Hollywood films, which includes, among other things, a narrative dwelling upon the real problems of everyday life, an emphasis on the authorial expressivity of the director rather than generic convention and a focus on the subjectivity of the characters rather than on plot.”

This sentence places "mainstream Hollywood films" as not being art, and anything that is different from the mainstream automatically becomes eligible for consideration. Furthermore, a narrative dwelling upon the "real problems" of everyday life is art. What constitutes as real in our everyday life? I once had a discussion with Srikanth Srinivasan on my review of Mr. Jarmusch's The Limits of Control, and although my estimation of the movie's worth hasn’t appreciated the least bit, my arguments were ultra-narrow. Can we here at least appreciate how subjective that "real" is? What exact real-life problems did Sergio Leone deal with in the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West? Where does avant-garde sit here? Does seeking sensory pleasures from the medium count for nothing? I’m reminded of Susan Santog’s Against Interpretation, and although I disagree with her, her arguments carry a lot of weight here. The author cites generic convention and puts it against authorial expressivity, which represents a false dichotomy. How do we appreciate the cinema of Johnnie To? Or the westerns of John Ford? To claim that focus on subjectivity is a necessary criterion for artistic merit is to both ridicule innumerable cinematic talents (directors, screenwriters, editors, set designers) and to elevate the Hollywood machinery, the one the author indirectly represents as non-art. It is quite standard to see hacks like Ron Howard or mainstreamers like Michael Bay using character subjectivity to pass-off their “crowd-pleasers” as verifiable stories. Moreover such a differentiation renders all of action cinema positively art-less, and that would make David Bordwell very angry.

“If the art film finds it difficult to reach wide audiences, the place where it thrives is the international film festival in which films that rarely get public releases are shown to a discerning public.”

I fail to understand the first part of the sentence, and unless I'm misinterpreting, which I think I am not, it contradicts the art film's intentions as defined in the opening sentence. Does this phenomenon lead a film to be defined art, because it is "unable" to reach the non-discerning wide audience? Should this have been the opening sentence? I don’t know, but the logic seems to have eaten itself.

The subsequent few paragraphs offer nothing but plot summarization, and hence offer nothing for us to argue. We jump to the fifth paragraph, which is still describing the plot, but offers two curious, if not interesting sentences.

“A Separation works by enlisting our sympathy for everyone in it.”

I hope the author intends this sentence to be an appreciation of the film's intentions. Because if it isn't, Jean-Pierre Melville goes for a toss, and when that happens I start frothing in my mouth. It gets uglier.

“She was hit by a vehicle when she was retrieving Nader’s father from the street the previous afternoon and that actually caused the miscarriage.”

The film never ever resolves this, and although I am willing to give it to any viewer/reader to assume that the accident is the cause I refuse to accept that the film provides complete unquestionable evidence. Any such assumption on our part is rather evidence of the skill Mr. Farhadi displays in making us the judges, which for me is the film's central purpose rather than some socio-political rhetoric. The judiciary in the film has a subjectivity, much like us.

The sixth paragraph. I take the liberty of arranging sentences together so that I can tackle them a little conveniently and eliminate any redundancy.

“A Separation is brilliantly made; it has the authenticity of real life and no one in it even seems to be acting.”

Thank you very much, but should I assume “authenticity of real life" as another of those descriptions of the film as being realistic? As I have , that is quite debatable, and to plainly assume that is to look away from half of what is on display. And "no one seems to be acting"? I used to hear these arguments in my tenth grade, as a testament to a good film, or an "art film", and this underlying assumption of acting goes very much with the other binaries that seem to run through the author's arguments, which constitute the framework for a very narrow/rigid view.

“But there are some aspects to the film that cast doubt on its value as a serious work of art. While the film includes a large amount of detail – how a certain part of the populace lives and even on some legal/ social issues in Iran – one does not get a sense of how Iran’s society is constituted – its social structure, the exercise of power etc….. If Rajieh and Nader belong to different classes, the classes themselves are not in conflict although individuals belonging to them may squabble.”

This is the problematic part (heart) of the essay, and probably the very foundation of the author's stance. Forget that the basis of this class struggle between the middle class and the poor, between the former's belief in democracy to the latter's religious manipulation through theocracy is entirely debatable (the protests of 2009, when the film might have been made contained a huge percentage of youth), so much so that the Class wars could be argued as a false dichotomy. My point is WHY should a work of art have depiction of social constitution on its checklist? Why should a work of art try and be a representation in the first place? There's plenty of politics to be had beyond the mere socio-political equation, and the author by looking for rhetoric is ignoring a whole lot of messy stuff. He describes Nader as good in one of the paragraphs, but is that a description or just a throwaway judgment? Nader is a gentle mixture of traditional and liberal thought-process, having both a set of beliefs and a set of ideas. The author doesn’t even touch upon the gender equation, or the universality of the parenting equation, and the kind of mess it creates. My aim here is not to describe the film though; my aim here is to describe how the author's short-sighted vision is causing him to overlook matters.

“The portrayal of the court (as in Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up – 1990) virtually establishes the Iranian state as the most reasonable of arbiters.”

Oh please, what do we want here? That the filmmaker present evidence of what the media feeds us so that we get a chance to exercise our kitschy political reactions? This is exactly like the situation in Dogtooth, and what we fail to understand is that there is a certain internal logic that better not be judged from armchairs. The filmmaker rather presents evidence, whether it is his belief, whether it is doctoring evidence, whether he is a right-winging orthodox cleric, does it lessen the work of art? The author himself claims that the film enlists our sympathy for everyone, which is so considerate of a filmmaker. So I fail to understand why should a film be anti-establishment, or rather conform to our beliefs and our politics and our world-view. Is our world-view a fact and the film's fabrication?

“Rajieh being unable to swear on the Quran about the cause of her child’s death is also problematic, not least because it furnishes the film with a moral resolution. When we accept it in the film, shouldn’t we also wonder if we would have accepted a similar resolution in a Western film in which a lie is exposed because someone cannot swear on the Bible?”

But it doesn’t provide any moral resolution. Rather, it does the very opposite of it. The central problem with Nader is his rigidity, and his conscience is his daughter. He deliberately lies. Rajieh's conscience is her God. The film doesn’t state that she is lying; it is that she is merely unsure. To claim that she is lying is twisting the facts, and again an act of judgment. She backs out even in the face of all the financial upheavals and achieves grace. Termeh looks at Rajieh's poor little girl, ever-shrinking in the corner. Probably the money might have given her a peaceful domestic life, but Nader had to appease his own guilt and justify himself. Rajieh's decision not to swear absolves him of the crime but causes him to slip further down in the eyes of his conscience. He is corruptible as has been proven. So, where is the "moral" resolution? The author seems to be mistaking the crime for the guilt, but the film is actually using that crime to reveal moral fallibility in everyone. This, if anything, is an irreconcilable view.
What we’re accepting, and respecting, as viewers, is Rajieh’s right to her beliefs. And as for the final question, I present to you Barry Levinson’s Sleepers, where the father played by Robert De Niro is asked to lie to protect the friends. And after resolving his moral beliefs, off-screen and off-screenplay, he does that. Would that count, Mr. Author? Or The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

The next paragraph has nothing about Mr. Farhadi's film, except for the last couple of sentences.

“‘Censorship is the origin of metaphor,’ wrote Jorge Luis Borges but A Separation does not even use metaphor in the service of social truths about Iran. It seems to have its eyes focused entirely on the international arena and the approval of audiences that decline to relate the film’s portrayal of Iranian society to whatever they know about politics and society in Iran.”

I believe the author ought to use "rhetoric" instead of truth. And he is looking for a film that confirms to his view of Iranian society. In all probability I do not have even a fraction of his socio-political knowledge of that country and in my ignorance I claim that the social view in A Separation felt true, and the moral truth felt profound.

His next paragraph introduces Mr. Zvyagintsev's Elena, a filmmaker and a film I absolutely love, but it is the comparison to Mr. Farhadi's film I am presently concerned with.

“Where A Separation has an intricate story filled with superficial detail about life in Iran, Zvyagintsev’s Elena is straight and flat – not because it lacks local detail but because it assumes that audiences will recognize what it is dealing with, without them being deliberately informed. Where A Separation abounds in elements which are intended to enlighten international audiences but could be commonplace to most Iranians, Elena seems, largely, to be addressing an audience inside Russia.”

Okay, here is the catch. A Separation won the audience award, and swept all the main categories at the Fajr Film Festival. Unless Mr. Farhadi's film is state sponsored, or if the film festival is being rigged by the state, I don’t think there is anything to comment upon.

I admit, I am getting a little tired, and so I lump together everything that is left and that is remotely worthwhile.

“The general sense to be obtained in A Separation was of a society knit together by universal faith, even if God hands out different dispensations to different members of the Faithful. The film apparently portrayed a simple society united by a common set of beliefs with no underlying tensions between any of the groups or classes constituting it. But even apart from the known problems facing Iran today, the issue here is whether there is not something dishonorable in presenting a society in terms as uncomplicated as those informing A Separation. The differences between A Separation and Elena cannot be made clearer than through an understanding of the single factor which apparently brings them together – their open-endedness. From my description of the film it should be evident that Nader and Simin’s divorce is not the central issue in A Separation. My sense is that it is made the central issue to distract us from the fact that the conflict between Nader and Rajieh is irresolvable – except in a trite way. If this conflict had been admitted as the central one, the film could have hardly concluded in the open way in which it does because it would have ended with Rajieh being unable to swear on the Quran – and therefore affirming the moral authority of the theocratic state. By subordinating the more important issue to the less important one, the film is playing up to film festival audiences/ juries, which demand ‘ambiguity’ as a primary requisite of art.”

I again put it here – the Rajieh case is not resolved, at least not morally. It is a situation where everybody is right, and everybody is fallible. And that is what manifests itself into the film’s central dilemma mirrored through Termeh’s. The film is not being ambiguous for no reason. Amidst all the fallibility, can Termeh truly decide? How does she learn of these ethical defects? Through the Nader-Rajieh case, which if truly had been resolved, at least morally, would the ending still be ambiguous? And that's my argument.

Oh yeah, as for affirming the moral authority of the theocratic state, I again present to you ladies and gentlemen The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which actually takes this issue head-on.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Cast: Yiftach Klein, Yaara Pelzig, Michael Mushonov, Menashe Noi, Michael Aloni, Gal Hoyberger, Meital Berdah, Shaul Mizrahi, Rona-Lee Shimon, Ben Adam
Director: Nadav Lapid
Runtime: 105 min.
Language: Hebrew
Country: Israel
Verdict: For topicality alone this is one hell of a film. Comparisons to Full Metal Jacket wouldn't be misguided. And in Mr. Lapid it is some talent we have here.
Genre: Drama, Thriller

        The film opens to a bunch of cyclists, five of them I guess, peddling down a hill, and I wonder why are they even bothering when they can just glide their way down. The central guy, strategically placed within the frame, pedals his way into a close-up, and with his pursed lips and sunglasses he immediately reminds me of everything that is going on with the personality of Salman Khan in Dabangg.

He is Yaron (Mr. Klein), a member of an elite anti-terrorist squad, which we later come to learn but already seem to know, courtesy the title and the opening few frames. These guys stop to have one of them echo-sessions, and also declare the land as the most beautiful in the world. In their broad shoulders there is a certain surety, a righteousness that is palpable. You might even call it vanity, and I would agree. When Yaron comes out of the bath and looks at himself in the mirror (a marvelously precise and un-flashy moment), our perception from the opening close-up is transferred (or reflected) into the film via the mirror. We do not need a second invitation to conclude that in Mr. Lapid we have a tremendous craftsman we better keep a tab on.
        Moments later, we see him dance for his pregnant wife towering over his wife (courtesy the masterful low-angles), and provide her with a labor-helping massage – a parental action that also doubles up as a sexual interaction owing to the position (read alpha-male). The wife’s a kid to be taken care of – a classic macho (as opposed to patriarchal) behavior, and later in the film he carries her in his arms as they climb two floors. Mr. Lapid pays special attention to the numbers here – the number of floors, the number of kilometers, the number of push-ups, the number of birthday bumps, the number of catches. God knows how vital numbers are as a goal to be achieved for the macho, a virtual aim (peak) in the absence of the real. A set of five 40-set of pushups is what I need to feel good about myself. The audience is me. While in a lift, Yaron does some pull-ups. Little targets turning into little triumphs for the ego turning into little reasons to feel good about the self. That Yaron and his buddies are members of the anti-terrorist squad only fortifies their righteousness, or masculinity.
        Or, virility. Mr. Lapid seems to view this virility as an offshoot of boyish behavior. They cycle, have courtyard barbecue parties, fight out in games, wear uniforms but walk out in the sun as opposed to being hinged to the interiors of an office, sit at cafeterias and drink beers and judge female posteriors, and in the case of Yaron even flirt. They always walk in groups. One might argue some of the behavior is downright caricature-ish, and I would only reply (not defend) that Mr. Lapid’s film is intensely political. On the scale where Cristi (Politist, Adjectiv) represents the average working middle-class, Yaron and his buddies seem to be the privileged elite (he has a super-sized LED and remote-operated blinds). Not a single shot presents them doing anything like work, except indulge in "action" involving guns. Maybe, the long period of relative peace (since Lebanon), the anti-terrorist squad has precious little to do. As far as topicality is concerned, this period is Policeman’s jumping point. Yaron wants to buy a house with a courtyard for his soon-to-be-born daughter, and that gentle reminder of the Israeli housing-bubble sort of works as a hint for the film’s inclinations.
        Those inclinations formally introduce themselves through Shira (Ms. Pelzig), whose car is kicked and punched and shattered by one of them adolescent gangs whose economical marginalization has given them the certainty to carry out hate crimes. Mr. Lapid is shrewd here, immediately cutting to Shira and her friends indulging in a shooting exercise in the mountains, and for a moment we assume that Shira and her friends would seek revenge. This momentary assumption on our part is probably not unintentional, as we later learn in a bar, where Shira confesses a rather different bend to her ideological stance – much less Marxist in its leanings, and pro rich. It is an abrupt shift in the narrative, from Yaron to Shiri, which Olivier Père compares to Mulholland Dr. and Certified Copy, a shift which opens itself to a description that is a whole lot messier than a straightforward Yaron to Shiri. From the very first frame, Yaron, as a (super)hero does in every such film that has ever been made, has this uncanny ability to hog the camera, best represented in the little fight-game the buddies play. He is popular, and in the barbecue party drops in every group to resounding hi-fives and shoulder hugs. The film’s narrative until this shift is all about Yaron, and his presence in every frame of the film until then, the camera either tracking with him or fixed on him.
        Any such assumptions about Shiri being the central figure of the film post-shift is slowly dispelled by drawing parallel narrative strands for each of the members of the group, making each of them distinct individuals and despite the plot diffusing any notion of a central figure. These four youngsters, or let us just say misguided comrades for convenience, are neatly placed around the frame, or compartmentalized within the frame, and the motivations and relations are slowly drawn out, or exposed, thereby decentralizing the center of power (or distributing our center of attention). A moment in particular achieves some spectacular political connotations, where two of the comrades – one the supposed leader Nathanael (Mr. Aloni) and the other I forget the name of – walk by a street violin player and the latter is critical of his abilities. The leader dares him to take his position and play, which he does thereby impressing his leader, and at that moment this misguided youth brigade both literally and figuratively assume the responsibility of the economically challenged. It is a strange sort of music he plays (although I scrape the bottom of the barrel as far as taste in music is concerned), and I wonder what they do with the money they collect afterwards.
        Mr. Lapid doesn’t mock the ideology but the confusion and the silly roots of such a revolution. These kids are in search of an aim, a target themselves, and when Shiri reads out figures (the worth of three billionaires) it draws a stark reminder to Yaron’s need for numbers. There is an order in and around Yaron, that contra to the arbitrary nature around these revolutionaries, who in a way are themselves vying for our attention, like say Carlos. It is need to prove to themselves more than any belief or ideology. I’ve read elsewhere that slogans from the film were chanted during the , and one can easily look for motivation from what happened at Tahrir between the cops and the crowd. Yet, probably because of the numbers, because of the order, because of the machismo, and because of the pride, Israeli forces are reputed to be a different breed. In those final moments, when Shiri’s comrades fall by the wayside, and the desperation of her belief finally brings within her a surety, Mr. Lapid discovers a moment as true and fragile as anything. Looking at that non-Arab face, Yaron’s certainty is rattled. It is a historical meeting, when these two narratives collide, and a defining moment for any nation.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Runtime: 112 min.
Verdict: The year’s most unsettling film.
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Horror

An excerpt from Mr. Ed Gonzalez’s review down at Slant Magazine:
“Ramsay both sets the film's incoherent tone and states her stale feminist agenda immediately with a shot of Eva (Tilda Swinton) being hoisted by a throng of tomato-doused revelers at Buñol's El Tomatino festival. Just as there's no sense of this artfully photographed vision as memory or fantasy, Eva's unmistakably Christ-like pose makes clear who the victim is in this story about a troubled mother-son relationship.”

Mr. Gonzalez is considering the opening of the film, wherein we’re introduced to the whispering silence of, what at first sounds like a ceiling fan and later turns out to be the lawn sprinklers, and a “white” curtain gently blowing. It is dark, except for some faint light from outside. The movies have taught us over the years that when the lights are out, the door’s open, and a white curtain is at the mercy of external forces, we need to be worried. It is a slow zoom, heightening the eerie silence of the moment, and Ms. Ramsay cuts to an overhead shot of the El Tomatino festival Mr. Gonzalez is talking about. Eva (Ms. Swinton) is drenched in red and with her arms outstretched she’s reveling in it. It’s bliss. Not for a moment did Jesus ask me to consider his presence amongst all this, because that pose of his on the crucifix, howsoever iconic in our culture, is not registered against his name. I see Eva, I see a slow-moving camera, and I see a woman intoxicated with the experience. This woman is an adventurer. She is a traveler, and Mr. Gonzalez probably recognizes this aspect of the imagery when he categorizes it under the tag of “feminist agenda”. That’s his reaction, which is fine.
        What’s hugely debatable is the blunt judgment at the beginning of his final sentence when he empowers his reactions with the authority of objective truth, and claims there’s no sense of “artfully photographed vision as memory or fantasy”. On the contrary, if one were to take the aid of traditional narrative techniques, like in the opening of L’Affaire Farewell, or more suitably Saving Private Ryan, where an opening burst (former) or the calmness (latter) is contrasted with the subsequent imagery, conveying a shift so to speak, we know 9 out of 10 times it’s got to be a flashback. Or in the case of The Aviator, where a similarly whispering moment of a mother warning a child is contrasted with the cacophony of Howard Hughes right in the middle of a shoot, a flash-forward. The point to note is that such a sequence, especially in the case of We need to Talk about Kevin, where neither the tension nor the drama has been resolved, provides for a fulcrum, a sort of center so to speak, and which needs to be returned to at some point of time in the narrative. Ms. Ramsay exploits this with the skill and precision of a seasoned exponent of genre. The contrast, the abrupt shift is the key. And just because we do not have a face at that moment to which we attach this flashback (memory) doesn’t mean the filmmaker ought to be blamed. As I shall claim later this strategy is intentional.
        This empowerment on Mr. Gonzalez’s part leads to further problems, and owing to his assumption regarding the film’s supposed intentions he shifts the blame further on the film:
“I haven't read the novel by Lionel Shriver on which the film is based, but in a recent article for Slate, the author speaks of pregnancy, to Eva, as "an infestation," and her world travels as a means for the character to assert her superiority over others. From this we may glean that Eva possibly did travel to Buñol at one time, that the cartographic wallpaper inside one of the rooms in her luxe manse, like the job she takes in the present day at a travel agency, expresses her search for worldliness, but we shouldn't have to look to the book to help us make sense of the film. Because We Need to Talk About Kevin fails to articulate Eva's desire to travel, it means nothing that the walls in her favorite room are covered in rare maps instead of, say, pink elephants when the malicious Kevin charges into his mother's study with a paint-loaded squirt gun in hand.”

Dear reader, you would observe here how Mr. Gonzalez realizes that “Eva possibly did travel to Buñol” only later, and that the film, by not presenting a face establishes a fact about Eva’s presence there at the very beginning. Had we had a face, a question of fantasy might be worth a consideration. But at that moment during the narration, because of a lack of any hinge, because of Eva’s introduction within that moment, it comes across as a fact. The narrative is framing the subject and not the other way, and we audience respond to that accordingly. Mr. Gonzalez’s confusion is probably a result of the ensuing shift in time, to the present day, where a ragged looking Eva lay on the bed, in which case this edit firmly installs the preceding moment as memory or fantasy. Personally, it was a bit of both, and that is how our most pleasant memories live within us.
        But, again, what’s wrong is Mr. Gonzalez’s conclusion that we need to read the book to make sense of those images and connect them to Eva’s love for travelling. Again, on the contrary, it is pretty obvious, and had Mr. Gonzalez shown some flexibility in reading the El Tomatino posturing beyond the symbolic Jesus-on-the-crucifix, he might have left some space to let the joy of the moment affect him. I haven’t read the book either, and yet I would want to claim that We Need to Talk about Kevin quite economically and quite magnificently articulates Eva’s desire to travel. This little tomato moment is as much a synecdoche for Eva’s free-spiritedness as much as it is about a woman’s worldly desires beyond the household stuff. One can label it feminism, sure, but I would want to resist the presence (explicit or implied) of quotation marks around it. The mere presence of Ms. Swinton, who is too specific to be a stereotype, discourages any such intention. So yeah, when Kevin squirts colored-elephants all over the rare maps in “her room”, it really boils your blood. The skillful framing of our frustration through Ms. Farmiga’s in Orphan sure comes to mind. And Mildred’s. So yeah, when Mr. Gonzalez suggests that the film is a snide art-house take on The Omen, I begin to question where the boundaries of “art-house” end and mainstream Hollywood fare begin. I mean, the modern horror film has been known to adopt mainly medium shots and close-ups and shallow focus, and the present tense here contains shots that show only a portion of the action. Such framing, like the close-up of a hand using a brush to wipe the floor, of eyes blinking behind the shades, of fingers taking egg-shells out of the food, is too claustrophobic for comfort. There’s a certain manic energy when we see an act this closely, when it fills our vision, and we probably perceive it an excess. Obvious comparisons to Roman Polanski’s chamber films further serve the point that Ms. Lynne Ramsay is using the tropes from the horror-genre. Everything around Eva, every eye around her, the walls, the confines of her car, everything that the camera manages to frame, every inch of space around her is her own personal chamber. So yeah, I guess “snide” is a little uncalled for, because this film here, much like a film like Mulholland Dr., is what distinguishes horror from scary.
        This here is the problem with some of the criticisms being leveled against the film from various quarters, a recurrence of what one might label as award-season bash/backlash, and I pick Mr. Gonzalez’s review only because it at least presents itself as a criticism worthy of being analyzed, and which acts as an example for the assumptions and a reluctance to engage with the image other than in its symbolic form, thereby categorizing it under the same section as that of hack-jobs like Black Swan, films which not only strip their images of everything else, but move ahead with little sense of respect or consideration for the moment, rendering themselves absolutely lifeless.

        We need to Talk about Kevin, with its reds and yellows and blues and sauces and jams is not symbolic but expressionistic, and Ms. Ramsay imbues its each moment with such specificity and narrative energy, much like There Will Be Blood that each of them – the literal, the narrative and the symbolic – co-exist within the same frame and support corresponding interpretations. Let me take three examples, each related and building upon the other, and each of them easy targets for the “in-your-face-symbolism” accusation. We begin with the interiors of Eva’s house, the walls and the panes all smeared in red, and when Eva moves out of the house to see the cause, we see red splashed all around. Including the car. The narrative has barely begun so much so that this moment is part of it, and we’ve no idea what’s in store. The way Eva drags herself out of the house suggests she is some sort of crazy wanderer, or lunatic, and that the red has been sprayed by external forces. Who? Naughty children? Some festival? No idea, but its presence is foreboding. We fast forward to a moment where Ms. Ramsay provides for one of those extra-tight close-ups, as Eva is cleaning bits out of her hair, and we not only draw connections to the red sprays and the El Tomatino festival, wondering where the residual bits have come from, we also draw conclusions that Eva’s life is, in a general sense, haywire, and that her perspective of the world around is skewed. The red is residual for guilt of some sort, a symbol for blood, and an indicator of a messy/crazy way of life. And when we find Eva in the aisles of a superstore, hiding from a woman, with cans of tomato soup filling the background, both the symbolic thread and the narrative thread have accumulated to support their own little threads. We’re not merely thinking of those soup cans, but also the woman beyond the frame, and who could walk into it anytime and confront Eva. Within that frame, the soup cans leave no room for any air whatsoever for us, or Eva, to breathe, transforming what is technically medium shot into a super-tight close-up. As I said, the frame is the chamber.
        The big question – what does the film have to say about parenting? As much as easy answers are being provided every which where, there’re two specific moments Ms. Ramsay provides us with, which when contrasted with the third would obviously account for those easy ones.

        And yet, as much as those moments are synecdochical, presenting a very specific image as shorthand for parenting problems, Ms. Ramsay is shrewd enough to fog this moment with tension and ambiguity. We first hear the sound of a wailing child, and we see Eva holding him. The narrative until here, especially the preceding moment, where she lay in bed in the hospital, in a state of shock more-or-less, considering this abrupt shift in life, and her husband holding her son, impresses us with the notion that Eva isn’t too good with kids, and that she’s holding a time-bomb.

Yet, the kid is crying when the father is holding him in the hospital and his wailing pierces two time-shifts so as to present at least the notion of a demonic child and a helpless inept mother. As with most things in the film, it is a bit of both, and it is this ambiguity that lends the film its structure.
        I’m a plausible, and when a film (ca)uses a temporal fragmentation I need a dramatic/thematic justification. It is probably a reflection of my need to find logic, and when I demand a reason from a film, it is more to appease to my narrow view than to analyze/criticize a film, asking of it to shred every bit of gimmickry and exercise subtlety. There’s also the contentious issue of morality, the presence of which greatly relieves me, and I ask myself if the film’s central structure, with its opening moment setting up the big reveal at the end is some sort of money-shot, one of those twist endings horror movies need to have. I want to like the film, and don’t want to feel betrayed by something sensational. There is the big scene at the school, which is merely another event and not the film’s focal point, for Ms. Ramsay conveys to us, through those horrified kids and Eva’s stunned reactions and the slaps and broken eggs, its foreboding presence well in advance. I wonder to what dramatic end the narrative would structure itself thus, and the final moment, where I felt the tension between the mother and the child finally giving away to tenderness, I could not help but recollect the one preceding moment, where the child is sick and the mother is taking care of him, and the father comes in and the child asks him to get the hell out of there. As in a good suspense film, the ending is not what it is about, but what it represents, and how it surprises our assumptions. For all its running time, we feel that Kevin has robbed her of her worldly desires, and that her decision to give birth to a daughter is merely to pad herself from father and son. And because of the fragmented structure, where camera eye movements in the present are mirrored in the camera movement of the past, where both of those places merge together to make one continuous quest for Eva to come to terms with her loss, like that of White Material, we learn layer by layer, up until the final reveal, how Kevin’s killer blow is to wipe out that personal life Eva has accumulated for herself. Until then, it is only the angry eyes of the without that she needs to escape from, and that she is probably safe inside the walls with her guilt as the antagonist. But as she hugs her son and walks the corridor at the end, all those moments inside the walls of her house present a life destroyed from within. Where does Eva go, other than to be caught up between both? Could she run to France, or another country? The early parts suggest her financial life is a mess. But more importantly, she probably cannot leave her kid, that they share a unique form of affection, and that they are the only ones closest to each other. This is the sort of unresolved stuff horror movies are made of.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011


Cast: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Max Minghella
Director: George Clooney
Runtime: 101 min.
Verdict: Thoroughly gripping. And one hell of an acting show.
Genre: Drama, Film Noir

        The general word is that this here is film is about loss of innocence, about Steven’s (Mr. Gosling), a young and bright Junior Campaign Manager, shift from the pink of idealism to the gray of realism, from being a patriot and a gentleman to being a manipulative asshole. Can one notice a general movement in the above sentence, a gradual shift that seeks to collect the blame from everyone around and land it on the protagonist? I hope your answer is yes, and I love indulging in a simultaneous critique of myself. The thing is, Mr. Clooney’s film serves as a, what can I say, a depressing antidote to his ’05 masterpiece Good Night, and Good Luck. It is not so much about Steven discovering lies and treachery and deceit in politics as much as it is about him discovering, or unleashing, those necessary (apparently) qualities lying dormant within. Coming from Daniel Ocean, whose team member gave us an adolescent and cheesy “Yes, we can”, I find The Ides of March strangely reassuring.
        The question though, in an expressively (read awesome) acted film as this, if Mr. Clooney sets the chain of events so as to justify (if not glorify) Steven’s actions, i.e. his vengeance, or should one read them as a condemnation, and hence a classic implication of the viewer’s own desires. (Aside: It might practically be impossible to not view Mr. Gosling as an incarnation of The Driver, and when he walks into Duffy’s (Mr. Giamatti) office late in the film, I couldn’t help myself from remembering the hammer.) The thing is, there’s a petite young lady who almost opens the film, offering, at least in hindsight, a narrative counterpoint to Stephen. She‘s the archetypical blonde bombshell, and she’s played by Ms. Rachel Wood, who seems to have the very demeanor that makes me entirely suspicious of her intentions. I might be out on a limb here, but she comes across as a, how do I say it, uhm, a manipulative bitch. In her glossy but pursed lips, through those cold eyes, there’s a certain silken smoothness that makes me instinctively wary. Hitchcock would’ve had a field day with her. She’s not all-out Marlene Dietrich or Tippi Hedren, and by God I would’ve had been comfortable with that. She plays Molly, a young intern in Mike Morris’ (Mr. Clooney) campaign, and when she brazenly “invites” Steven for drinks over to her hotel, one cannot help but wonder. I know I know, I’m aware of the orthodoxy in my arguments (remember I’m on a limb), that numerous actresses have been “out there”, and that includes Ms. Naomi Watts in Mother and Child. Yet that bouncy “cat-walk” and the confident smile (arrogance?) through which Mr. Clooney introduces her to us, and which eventually leads her to Steven’s door, both office and hotel, I perceive her as a threat. Makes me want to label her a schemer. Especially in the light of Mildred Pierce, and it is often tough to look at an actor past their previous role, and more so when they seem to intertwine. Ms. Wood’s facial features are very economic, very terse, and that probably reflects in the way we perceive people. Sizable features (big eyes, pouted lips, chubby cheeks) probably feel accessible. Oh boy, I don’t know if all this is speaking about me, or the film, or the way we draw a pattern, or if the film is drawing leverage out of it? I wish I were writing about a Martin Scorsese picture, I could comfortably shift the blame. Best to change the paragraph.
        In bed, Steven learns of her secret. It is one of those spectacular acting moments, with Mr. Gosling’s split wide open, and you want to applaud. We learn a little later she has been at somebody else’s “door” a while before, and that initiates, or highlights, a thematic parallel. There are hell of a lot of these parallels caused, both by way of screenplay and intercutting, to drive home the point – what goes around, comes around. The order is important, I suspect. When it goes first and comes back, that’s karma, when it comes first and goes back, it is justification. The trouble is, courtesy the film’s masterstroke, its central contrivance is both the cause and the effect, is both what “goes” and “comes”. Steven walks into his campaign office, sits in his cabin, and scans the breadth of the room. It’s shattering. His cabin suddenly becomes a manifestation of his inner disillusionment and the detachment that brings. In a film of several authorial masterstrokes, this finds Mr. Clooney at his classical best – a simple pan drenching what seems like objective reality with expressionism. One ought to be reminded of Martin Scorsese’s slow pans in Goodfellas, and here Mr. Clooney uses his to color the surroundings in a character’s inner turmoil. Morris belongs to the public, right at ease when surrounded by them, and when he gets a call on his phone late in the film, it is another master pan. Jaime N. Christley speaks of Mr. Clooney’s methods as that of pitting a conventional movie (Lumet) against an observational one, and this is where one derives a hell of a lot of pleasure from The Ides of March.
        The question, about the nature of the film’s manipulation, still remains, and if it is implicating us in the way some of those revenge films do. Or, is it about the frailty of our untested morality? Steven refuses the invitations of the opposing camp’s campaign manager Duffy, and yet walks first thing when the tide turns against him. There’s one Senator Thompson in the mix too, the plot throwing him for maintaining the flow of parallels. The thing is we all rationalize, and that’s how the conscience is assuaged, and that’s probably how a realist is born. It’s often a cliché in most films, but by stacking his characters one behind the other in a circle and asking them to pull the trigger, Mr. Clooney both implicates and absolves. The final moment finds us looking at Steven into his eyes, while words like “integrity” are heard in the background. As we zoom closer and closer, are those words fading away? As melodramatic as it sounds, are those words being heard from within him? Is the conflict still raging? When asked if he would run for office, Mr. Clooney says – “No. I've slept with too many women, I've done too many drugs, and I've been to too many parties.” I imagine if this here is an autobiography of sorts.