Sunday, December 30, 2007

An Anxious Evening

How would you feel if you are sick and your biopsy results are coming in two hours? Anxious? Depressed? Scared? Nervous? That is what Cleo is. Cléopatre Victoire is a beautiful upcoming singer in Paris. A young lady full of herself. On a beautiful evening she wanders about Paris spending her tensed two hours before knowing her fate. And as she wanders Agnes Varda shows us about life and love in her 'Cleo from 5 to 7'.
The movie opens up with Cleo in front of a tarot card reader at 5 o'clock . As she picks up the cards and the card reader explains we find that the cards show a horrific event is incumbent upon her; that may be death may be something that can change her life forever. She leaves the fortune-teller and meets her guide-cum-assistant Angele in a cafe just to be overwhelmed by the stress of the forthcoming biopsy report. But she soon manages herself and heads back home. At home she is visited by her busy lover followed by the composer and lyricist of her songs. They rehearse a song, which she finds too depressing and heads out to relieve her stress. She meets an old friend Dorothee, who poses for sculptors. She and Dorothee hang out for sometime meets a common friend Roul. They watch a movie made by Roul. Then she drops off Dorothee and goes in to a park. There she meets a witty stranger Antonio, a soldier spending his last few hours at Paris before leaving for the war. They kick off an instant friendship. Finally on the words of Antonio, Cleo pulls herself and goes to the hospital with him to meet her doctor and she meets her.
Its a movie that chronicles one and half hour of Cleo's life from 5 to 6-30 (Well the name could have been 'Cleo from 5 to 6:30' as a matter of fact). Its a faux real time movie depicting one and half hour of Cleo's life in a one and half hour time. And in this short time Agnes Varda presents to us glimpse of life and Paris simultaneously. Her style of working is what critics say, 'photojournalistic'. As we move with Cleo on the roads of Paris we discover the city. There is a bus ride of Cleo and Antonio near the end when they ride together to the hospital and its like a tour of Paris. The camera moves with Cleo on the streets of Paris, looking at the people, looking at the shops. It gives a feel of docudrama. But this is far beyond a docucrama. It rather shows the superficiality of Cleo's beautiful existence. It shows how much she craves for her celebrity status and her looks. She often directly or indirectly says that there is no point of her life if she's not beautiful. In fact this is the driving force of the entire movie, the contrast between meaningless romantic hollowness of Cleo's youth and bitterness of life as we see in the streets of Paris or of her friend Dorothee or even her own future life of uncertainty. "The tension between a superficial high-gloss beauty and a dryer and deeper grounding in life marks all of Varda’s works..." (-Molly Haskell).
Oh, and there is this sequence where Roul shows off his film to Cleo and Dorothee (by the way, Godard makes a cameo in this film). The film is about a guy who because of his dark sunglasses views the life as a very gloomy and painful; but the moment he removes his glasses he finds a bright beautiful life in front of his.
The movie marks its tone at the outset itself. The credits start rolling in with hands picking up tarot cards in color. The cards are gleaming with color but all they tell is about futility of life - Cleo's sickness, her soon-to-happen terrible things. And as we move away from the cards and start looking at faces of the characters, its all in black and white, or rather in gray. But the people Cleo meets are not pessimistic, or dull or 'gray', they are gleaming with life - vibrant, colorful life - a life more meaningful than just beautiful youth!

Friday, December 28, 2007

End of Summer

This is my first encounter with Ozu. In fact this is my first encounter with any other Japanese cinema other than Samurai movies (and of course Rashomon, I don't like it to be tagged as Samurai movie). And Samurai movies are always little overwhelmingly active. So when I read in the leaflet that its a family drama, I didn't know what to expect. So I started watching in a free mind.
The story is simple. Manbei, the widowed father has a small sake company in Osaka. He has three daughters, widowed elder daughter Akiko, married second daughter Fumiko and yougest daughter Noriko. Fumiko's husband Hisao now runs the sake shop for his father in law. The movie opens with Manbei's brother bringing a marriage proposal for Akiko. As we go along we find there is a proposal for Norika, too. The family starts discussing over the proposals, whether Akiko is ready to marry again, whether Noriko would like to marry the wealthy guy they have selected, because that will save their business. Meanwhile there is something worng with the father, Manbei; he is spending a lot of time outside. Finally everyone finds out that he has met his old flame Tsune, who now resides at Kyoto, and their old affair is burning again. With this discovery the family gets disturbed. Fumiko tries to intimidate her father. Then one day after a family reunion at Kyoto, Manbei gets ill - a stroke, may be. The family gets concerned. Fumiko feels guilty, may be her taunts about father's affair was too hard on him. As Manbei recovers, we see the eldest and the youngest daughters, Akiko and Noriko discussing over the proposals, what should be good for them, for the family, for everyone; should they marry the persons or not. Then one day when Manbei has almost completely recovered, he sneaks out of the house to meet Tsune. That evening he has another attack, and dies at Tsune's. Everyone gets together again. But now its for the funeral of the cheerful old man who lived his life to the fullest. The movie ends as the family goes to the crematory.
A simple story, no dramatization. A simple narration. It reminded me of Satyajit Ray's style of story telling. Especially of 'Kanchenjungha'. Similar family story, similar kind of tension between generations. Sequences of Akiko and Noriko's discussion about their future generates a playful image of the youth. Whereas when Manbei and Tsune are around a tone of nostalgia floats over. Its a tale of two generations trying to live happy and enjoy the life; and for that reason someone has to refuse a wealthy proposal in spite of dire needs and someone has to go out side the social rules. Thats how life poses a set of choices in front of everyone. And only you can choose you way of enjoying life. The last words of Manbei was "Is that it? Is that all life has got?" Manbei had his share of life. Now its up to Noriko and her sisters to decide how to live theirs.
There is certain kind of warmth that floats around over the whole cinema. Akiko and Noriko discusses bout love and getting older on the riverside; Manbei and Tsune discuss about their first moonlight adventure of life; Manbei and his grandson play hide-and-seek; Fumiko makes whole hearted confessions at the reunion dinner ... all is so homely, so warm. There is nothing special about it; and that is what it is special about! It feels like story of our own lives, lives of common people.
The narrative is very fluent, simple and homely. Not a single event of dramatization. Its so natural. The transitions are very natural. Ozu uses some still shots of objects as a transition - objects of their daily life. A lot of shots are shot in a low angle as if viewed from eyes of someone, who is sitting on the floor. It gives a new perspective, as if the audience become a part of the family. I don't know anything about Japanese families but I never felt out of place while watching it. Thats what a master film maker does, he makes you involved in his way of life!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Randomly Balthasar

I don't know how to write about this movie, sorry cinema. I first came across this cinema in a novel titled 'Ishwarer Bagan'. The tormented protagonist sometimes while reflecting his dilemmas, agonies referred to this cinema. I was curious. I searched over it and found that this is a classic. I tried to find it out over internet if I can get it for buying. But couldn't locate any shop offering it. It was back in 2000, I guess. But I could locate a website named who were offering really old classics. I asked Jon Mulvaney of Criterion whether they have it on store, but he replied that they were planning to release it in future. So I kept on lookout on their website. They released the cinema in due course but I was not in position to buy it. And finally when things all fell in place, after seven years, I finally got the DVD of 'Au Hasard Balthasar'.
Balthasar is a donkey. The movie chronicles life of Balthasar. In fact thats all this movie is about. This is just about life, real life; in a very matter-of-the-fact way. The opening shot shows little Balthasar with his mother. Then he is traded from one owner to another suffering every time. Parallel to his life follows Mary's life. Mary is teenage girl of the neighborhood. She was the only person in the movie to show some love to the donkey. But her life is also miserable. Her family loses their fortune for her boastful father, and she wanders from one owner to another suffering every time. She wanders from her father to a rowdy named Gerard then to a miser and gets exploited every time. And in the end Mary leaves Jack's fantasized love and falls for Gerard again to get totally humiliated and Balthasar dies lonely on the field surrounded by a sheepherd.
What is the most captivating about this cinema is the ample space it leaves behind. It shows the events where only Balthasar is present; in a way it shows everything through his eyes. And it shows only the facts, no emotions. Sometime it is really disturbing to watch events so emotionlessly in a matter-of-fact way. But that is reality, there is no drama in life; what we do in daily life we do simply out of reflexes, automatically. And what we follow in this cinema is lives of very common people and a donkey full with their vices and vulnerabilities. This is Bresson's style. He used to work with 'models' who had their first and may be the last appearance on screen in his cinemas. He used to shoot the same shot over and over again till all the acting is drained off from the actors and they start acting out of instinct and reflexes. And it does wonder for him. The shots come out sharp, to the point and impactful. There is no scope of sympathising with any one of this cinema.
There are many parallels of Christianity and this story. Like christening of Balthasar by three children, Mary's play with Balthasar making him wear a crown of grass and flower or the death sequence of Balthasar encircled by a sheepherd. But thats not all. Its about the daily life of ours. Its about life. And life is rough.
There are very few dialogues, some good music mostly covered by noise of the surround and often interrupted by Balthasar's braying. There are many long takes and some obscure shots showing just the eye of Balthasar or may be one leg, one half of a wheel. Its not the way we are used to see in a movie. May be thats why Bresson doesn't call his work movie, he calls it cinematograph. There is a sequence when Balthasar goes to a circus. He meets other animals. And we see long takes of Balthasar and a Tiger, a monkey, an elephant stare at each other's eyes. No sound except the background noise, but it seems so many words are conveyed between them.
This cinema leaves a lot of things not told. Becuase it shows only the things where Balthasar were present or were directly related to. It doesn't show why police were after Arnold, the tramp, or what happened between Mary and the miser at the miser's place in the raining night, or even what happened to Mary at the end, did she die or did she ran away. Bresson was asked in an inteview about the night at the miser, he answered, he too doesn't know what happened. There is nothing beyond what is shown. If you want to make a story about it you have to imagine. But the fact is whatever it might be, that doesn't change the life at all!
There are movies I loved, I liked, I hated, I felt sad about. But this is a cinema that had intrigued me greatly, confused me greatly. There is something... I just can't fathom it out!

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Sonata in Celluloid

I know nothing about Sonata, but definitely listened some classic sonata without really knowing that they are sonata except mentioned in the title, e.g., the Moonlight Sonata (Beethoven). As it seems, generally for people like me who are just laymen in Wester Classical music, a Sonata is a musical movement which has five different parts or rather moods!
  1. Introduction - a short slow paced piece of music slightly toned down. Something just to introduce the themes or the main characters.
  2. Exposition - the portion of sonata when the real theme starts unfolding. A little detailed piece that takes the music to the point where the climax can start. Its the preamble to the argument.
  3. Development - the most frenetic part where the argument of the music reaches the peak. It starts right from the note where exposition ended, it is sometime hard to differentiate where exposition ended and where development started! It peaks up, reaches the climax and bursts!
  4. Recapitulation - the post climax movement when you just think and think what had just happened. The argument is over. Till the development it was just happening at such a pace, you didn't even had time to think. Now its time to slow down and go over, because its already done!
  5. Coda - the tail-piece that ends the music in perfect cadence.
Victor introduces Eva (Liv Ullman), his wife in monologue in a way that it seems he is someone who is watching the movement from outside and not at all involved in the events that are yet to come. Then Eva writes to her mother Charlotta (Ingrid Bergman) inviting her to come. As Charlotta arrives, Victor as well as you can feel Eva had so much hatred hidden inside herself for her mother; she almost takes pleasure in shocking her mother when she tells her that Helena is living with her. And why she wouldn't take avenge? It was Charlotta who hasn't maintained any contact to her daughters for seven years. She was so busy with her career as a concert pianist that she neglected her children and sent Helena, the spastic daughter to a home where she never visited. Now as Charlotta's lover Leonardo is dead and she is lonely, she responded to daughter's call. Isn't she selfish. But still they are mother and daughter, they want to reconcile... but there is wall between them. And as the day goes by the wall becomes more prominent and finally comes the horrific climax when Eva, unable to control her hatred accuses her mother of all wrongs she and her sister had suffered in childhood. All of a sudden the movement moves from exposition to development reaching for the final argument. Its a dangerous combination - a mother and a daughter, acquisition and defences. Finally the argument is over,and its time for Eva to recapitulate. She realizes what she has done and writes another letter to her mother. As Charlotta reads the letter the movie comes to an end with perfect cadence.
This is how Bergman composes his Sonata in celluloid - the 'Autumn Sonata'. I've told the almost the whole story. But only when you see it you can realize how powerful this sonata is because it's not the story only its the scenes that make up this masterpiece.
There is only three times when any music has been used in the movie. Once a piece from Chopin played by Eva and Charlotta respectively and the a Bach suit played by Leonardo that represents the tragedy of Helena. Its the scenes where Eva and Helena plays Chopin, we come to know the real Charlotta. Eva plays it conventionally with her sadness for loosing her son Eric at the age of four. But when Charlotta plays it, as she explains the piece in her way, we suddenly feel that all her emotions are confined in music; and its only music by which she can express her feelings and it is only the language of music which she understands naturally. Bergman captures it in an wonderful close up with Charlotta's profile, eyes closed, playing the music and behind her is Eva's face. She is staring at her mother with full of sadness. Well, this movie has a excessively large number of close ups almost 80% of the shots are close ups. And here we realize the how powerful actor was Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman. In the sequence when Charlotta speaks of Leonardo's death, you don't need to see the subtitle; every word is clearly understandable from the close up. Great Bergman. Or long close ups of Eva in the midnight when she, almost infuriated, accuses her mother in a high pitch voice, you know you have to watch it to realize the intensity. Then there's the final sequence of the development; Charlotta asks forgiveness from Eva for her wrongdoings. She now wants to reach out her children. She utters in great despair, 'Please help!'. Eva stays stone-faced; but upstairs Helena, who is almost a physical embodiment of Eva's emotional crippledness as if choked in dream struggles hard to reach out to something and lies on floor exhausted on top of the stairs and cries, 'Mama come'.
The commentary to the movie says Ingrid, Ingmar and Liv Ullman all had had a troubled family life. Ingmar had occasional fight with his father for his passion for theatre and he left home at an early age. He could only reconcile with his father just five years before his death. Liv Ullman on the other hand was thrown out of her family when she had a baby with Ingmar. Her marriage was ruined and she left with Ingmer. But strikingly Ingrid has more similarity with Cherlotta. She left her child daughter and went to live with Italian director Roberto Rossolini. For almost four years she couldn't contact her daughter due to her career. She knew the pain Charlotta had. As you watch through the movie you sympathize sometimes with Eva, sometimes with Charlotta.
And out of all these what is cooked up is a masterpiece, a sonata that can not be forgotten easily.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Orphan Story Part - II

Why all the orphanage have to be run by some greedy, cruel persons? Why it should be a hard-knock life for the little girls in the orphanage? Because if somebody gets lucky like Annie, it'll be a magical experience!
In the same series of movies where I watched 'Oliver!' for the first time, I watched 'Annie' and was bowled over again. I had heard its soundtrack before; songs were good, but they never happened to be so touching before I watched the movie.
Annie is a little orphan girl of eleven years staying at Miss Hannigan's Orphanage. One day the secretary of billionaire Oliver Warbucks comes to the orphanage in search of a girl whom Mr. Warbucks may adopt as a PR stunt. She, charmed by Annie, takes Annie with her to the billionaire's palace. Mr. Warbucks is a never-smiling bachelor man with practically no soft feelings! Annie and her dog Sandy with their childly plays soon become a nuisance to Warbucks. But he doesn't throw them away as it may send a wrong message to public and his image may get hampered. Annie is a charming girl, vibrant, gay and vivacious. And her charms comes to play. Mr. Warbucks starts to show affection towards this young girl and the world starts to change! But the villains are always on lookout and ... well lets not make this a spoiler. But you know all's well that ends well.
Very simple plot, and similar fluent screenplay. This, too was adapted from a stageplay with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin. Very well acted movie, though all the charecters are typical. But in a movie like this you don't look for acting calibre of some characters, you look for performance of the entire team and its amalgamation with the story and the music that flows behind. It is successfull in this.
There is something beyond all these points which makes this movie something special. It is the songs and the situations of the songs. Or to be more precise, three songs touched me very much. The movie opens with a Annie and Molly, another orphan sitting on the window on a dark night and singing the slow tune of 'May be'. I can't help reproducing the lyrics over here:
Maybe far away
Or maybe real nearby
He may be pouring her coffee
She may be straighting this tie!
Maybe in a house
All hidden by a hill
She's sitting playing piano,
He's sitting paying a bill!

Betcha they're young
Betcha they're smart
Bet they collect things
Like ashtrays, and art!
Betcha they're good --
(Why shouldn't they be?)
Their one mistake
Was giving up me!

So maybe now it's time,
And maybe when I wake
They'll be there calling me "Baby"...

Betcha he reads
Betcha she sews
Maybe she's made me
A closet of clothes!
Maybe they're strict
As straight as a line...
Don't really care
As long as they're mine!

So maybe now this prayer's
The last one of it's kind...
Won't you please come get your "Baby"

That moment I feel a teardrop rolling down my cheek! And I love all these little girls who spent their 'Hard Knock Life' with smiles with just a single hope that someday they'll surely find their parents.
After Annie is adopted by Mr. Warbucks, in one sequence Miss Hannigan sings out her laments ('Little Girls') and you see the cruel Miss Hannigan in a different way. She is cruel to the girls, that is not her fault, it is her destiny.
Little girls
Little girls
Everywhere I turn I can see them
Little girls
Little girls

Night and day
I eat, sleep and breathe them
I'm an ordinary woman
With feelings
I'd like a man to nibble on my ear
But I'll admit no man has bit
So how come I'm the mother of the year?

Third time when Mr. Warbucks launches a search for Annie's parents, in a radio show Bert Healy and Boylan Sisters sing out 'You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile' and the little girls carry through the song in their orphanage, suddenly you feel the world is not that bad in spite of all these sorrows and injustice.
There is nothing special in this movie. But you know sometimes there are some very simple and ordinary things which you love more than some precious, beautiful great things you like.

And I love this movie.

The Orphan Story Part - I

Long ago, when I was trying to create a choreography for a particular competition somebody had told me to get hold of this movie as this has wonderful and inspiring choreography. I couldn't manage to watch the movie that time. But I certainly was on a lookout. Just couple of months ago while surfing through TV channels I suddenly noticed a channel playing the opening credits of the movie. And I got immobilized in front of the TV set. It was 'Oliver!' playing on it.
Being on the lookout for 'Oliver!', I had got hold of some of its songs. Beautiful music, I must agree. I had heard that it has a choreographed chariot in one of its songs. Listening to its soundtrack, I wondered which song it might be, and how did they choreograph it. So it was time for me to clarify all my questions through seeing-is-believing.
The story of 'Oliver Twist' is an old orphan classic by the great Charles Dickens. We have a boy orphaned at birth. At the orphanage he is named Oliver Twist. The orphanage is just a medium for earning money for the greedy and heartless caretakers. The children are fed only gruels. One day Oliver gathered up courage to ask for more food and in turn he is beaten and sold to an undertaker. There also he receives pain and on one opportune occasion he fled to London, on foot, alone. Reaching London he first meets the Artful Dodger, who is just about same age of Oliver. Naive Oliver was gladdened to befriend somebody who promises him of food and shelter. Dodger takes Oliver to Fagin's den. Fagin is a criminal who runs an army of young pickpocket boys; and Dodger is one of them. Another life was beginning for Oliver. Here he met Nancy, girlfriend of Bill Sykes, an evil burglar. Nancy and Oliver took an instant liking to each other and Nancy loved Oliver just like her younger brother. She is like a mirage in the gang of villains for Oliver. Oliver is sent on pickpocketing, burglary, etc. One day he got caught and story continues to unfold. I'll not elaborate more, but it turns out that Oliver is actually from a rich family and he is reunited to his family after a long winding road.
Now the movie. A true musical. It had a stage version with lyrics by Lionel Bart. The same screenplay was adopted by Carol Reed with some modifications for the celluloid version in 1968. The movie starring Oliver Reed (Sykes), Ron Moody (Fagin), Jack Wild (Dodger), Marc Lester (Oliver) was a big hit and won six Oscars including Best Picture and Best Direction. A wonderfully made movie. Beautiful music, choreographed acting, innocent faces of Oliver and Nancy, classic script with twists - it had everything. But the thing that truly pulls forward the movie is indeed the choreography. It is no wonder that Onna White won an separate honorary Oscar for her 'Spirited Choreography' in the movie, the honor given inly twice in the history of Academy Awards (Jerome Robbins for the second time).
I sure like musicals. I've seen few musicals like Sound of Music, Singing in the Rain, Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Fiddler on the Roof; and liked them all. Inspiring music knitting the story perfectly supported by some dance sequences. Yes, after watching 'Oliver!', I'm tempted to use the word 'dance sequence' for other musicals, with due respect.
'Oliver!' starts off with a choreographed action of boys in orphanage leading to the opening song 'Food, Glorious Food' and the choreography works magically. It is the choreography that flows underneath the movie telling the story, and music supports it (not the other way round)! The moment Oliver reaches London and meets Dodger, a wonderful city opens up in front of your eyes, rhythmic, lively. The whole city, as if, dances joyously to reciprocate to Oliver's inner joy of freedom and friendship. The song playing in the background was, I think, 'Consider Yourself'. The same spirit of rhythm is carried forward throughout the movie. The dance never ends. Consider Fagin giving Oliver lesson on pickpocketing in the wonderful song 'You've got to Pick a Pocket or Two'. Then the most beautiful sequences of 'Who Will Buy' when Oliver looks over the entire London dancing in its daily rhythm from a window. How can you make a whole city moving in such a rhythm without dancing explicitly! This spirited rhythm is the main pillar for the movie's success. Then the song 'I'd Do Anything'. Dodger, jealous by Oliver and Nancy's closeness tries to impress her and sings this wonderful song. It is the song where the boys make a chariot and mocks the high society. Truly its so spirited!
I was comparing with contemporary musicals, Say 'Sound of Music' or 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' or 'Mary Poppins'. All the dances are purely dance sequences, I mean characters are made to dance to support the music. The dances are very good and impressive. But even then the sequences of the songs like 'Singin' in the Rain' from the same-titled movie or 'Miracle' from 'Fiddler on the Roof' surpasses other dances from these movies. These two choreographies have the quality what I'm trying to call spirited and what I found throughout the movie 'Oliver!'
And that is what makes 'Oliver!' stand out in the row of musicals.
Thats what I like about 'Oliver!'
I am grateful to my friend who first told me about choreography of 'Oliver!'