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!