Thursday, December 17, 2009

IFFK 2009: Alcoholous Anonymics

Dr. Fu Man Chu got on the boat today. He received a brief message in the morning underlining that it was most imperative for him to return to his laboratory at once. The message was simple- ‘The albino gorilla has given birth (stop) It is a boy (stop).’

His time was up. His time had just begun.

Next stop: Genetic modification, anarchy and world conquest.

This unholy night, I think of him in his boat and as a concerned tax-paying citizen I am most worried about the condition of the good doctor’s mind. A daylight nightmare brews in his brain. Contorted noises. Strange Faces. Ancient mazes of terror and darkness. Desecrated temples. Debauched women. Utter lunacy.

You might just want to call it ‘innocence lost’. But we’re not talking ‘Paa’ or ‘Khan’ here, simple jack. This is the full retard.

Before I start out writing my capsules of day 3 & 4, I apologize to the three of you for not publishing my post yesterday when it was due. But dear readers, you will be happy to note that the good doctor, myself and local Brando- Hard Ed were sufficiently decadent and that the breeze blew beautiful, there were intermittent showers and at dusk, the colors began to flow across the horizon, liquid as wine.

And now, Back to business.

Day 3

More Than a Miracle

On day one I promised more Francesco Rosi and here it is. Atypical it may be, as produced by Carlo Ponti, the genius huckster of the psychedelic art house of the 60s (Antonioni, Godard, Varda, Menzel, Warhol… you name it.), the robust rush that possesses the movie is pure Rosi.

A slight digression on the awesomeness of Hot Shots:-

Hot Shots, the Charlie Sheen starring, Top Gun-Rambo-Casablanca-Lady and the Tramp skewering madcap Zucker-Abraham collaboration is something of a classic. It is immensely rewatchable, crazy-side-splitting funny and takes on the harebrained tropes of Hollywood with a cavalier sense of lampoon and plays it as broad and as madhouse as it gets. And Charlie Sheen is THE SHEEN. The Hollywood spoof once a rare beast has now in itself become part of the system. Without going into matters of quality, let us just assume that it has become a major genre with elements which now cross-over into other genres. For example, ‘Shrek’, ‘Ratatouille’, ‘Inglorious Basterds.’ If the spoof genre has to be reckoned it needs atleast one canon film. Something must do for the genre what ‘Bicycle Thieves’ has done for neo-realism and ‘Blade Runner’ for dystopian sci-fi. You have these classics- Airplane!, Kentucky Fried Movie, Hot Shots!, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz etc. But we’re looking at canon material here. We’re looking to inform dialogues and rage dialectics and publish large hardbound books.

I’m suggesting Francesco Rosi’s ‘More Than a Miracle’.

End digression.

Produced by Carlo Ponti. Directed by Francesco Rosi. A Lush background score by Piero Piccioni (the memorable ‘Traffic Boom’ on the Big Lebowski soundtrack). Written by Tonino Guerra, poet and screenwriter for Fellini, Tarkovsky, Antonioni and Angelopoulos. Starring and now, you’re probably wondering- ‘what could beat THE SHEEN?’ You don’t just say Omar Sharif. You say ‘the legendary’ Omar Sharif. Charlie’s got time yet. And opposite the dashing Egyptian, you have the swoon, the brass goddess, the verve, the moxie, the lady among ladies, Mrs. Ponti- Sophia Loren. And seen through the gaze of Rosi and like the mesmerizing Brenda Lee in ‘The Weavers’, your senses shall be transfixed.

This is arch-subversion. Poker has never seemed so straight before.

Rosi and Co. pick a children’s fairytale. Princes. Princesses. Magic. Gods and Angels. Quests with Happy Endings. The little illustrated stories you read as a kid that in some way shape the values you believe in and then Walt Disney and Co., ever so sweetly whistle their way to the bank.

The film starts quietly. Pretty soon you see a flying monk. Then Sophia Loren slips her tongue in a lock and Sharif gets paralyzed with a chicken drumstick in head. Then there is a barrel that floats across to faraway kingdoms with Loren trapped inside. Then a donkey that is a bank- a sequence that has to be seen to be believed. The ante of absurdity is progressively raised. A 3000 egg omelet, a proud French chef who had Henry IV licking his fingers who condemns his rejected dinner to be placed in a hole and buried. But it is not all over until you wash the dishes. But there is treachery in that. Will the Prince find true love with the peasant women or will he marry the wicked princess? And the lumpen proletariat of the village- what will they eat?

‘More than a Miracle’ calls the bluff on the fairytales and the morals and inane quietisms of religious parables. The prince here is an obstinate royal fool. The guardian angels asks the peasant women to not listen to the rest of the angels who will tell her it is her duty to suffer and that life is short and paradise eternal. We even see the rest the other angels and it’s all pretty ridiculous.

This kind of mischief is rare. It was plain sublime. Like THE SHEEN says it- “I’ve fallen for you like a blind roofer. My heart is falling down around my ankles like a wet pair of pants.”

And yeah… it was all at IFFK 2009.

The Last Supper

Tomas Alea’s ‘The Last Supper’ screened this year as part of the Cuban panorama was one of those films I had intensely anticipated over the years. On two separate drunken evenings that share no common shore other than that I was present at the same table as two gentlemen who seemed to have an excellent choice in films, had come up with the ‘The Last Supper’ and ‘Memories of Underdevelopment’ as two films that any person who reckons himself a cinephile should be sure to catch. Having already missed my chance at the later film, I made sure I wasn’t going to be missing this one and the doctor and me were better sloshed and late than never. We arrived just before the grand set-piece of the title was about to play.

A count who’s inordinately worried about how his sins and virtues would add up in the great book outside the pearly gates fancies himself a chance at redemption and he wants to play martyr just like good lord Jesus Christ. To this effect, he invites the African slaves who toil at his mill for the titular feast and seats them across his table. The almost theatrical yet subtle and provocative conversational scene that takes place, rendered decadence with candlelight turns into one of most potent debate, that as it slides into inebriation takes on an almost feverish glow. Even if the characters start off as mere symbols, Alea first etches them human and flawed and after a bit of wine, brings out his tongs and rips apart the colonial corporate mindscape of the white master and speculates on the institutionalization of the slaves.

Alea calls religion’s bluff. For the white master it is a matter of convenience. He presides over the table, alluding himself with the son of God at his last supper and tries to impress his dark-age, racist ideas on his slaves as the word of God himself. As the supper proceeds, Alea shows the moral weakness of the master that relies on religion which is but an easy frameworks of beliefs and values for a businessman like him to fall back on. The hierarchy of a society religiously organized allows the imperial white man to propagate his supremacy. Organized religion is not presented just as a scam but rather as a delusion that the white man had to buy into not only for the money but also to assuage his own guilt. The slaves laugh when the master proselytizes about ‘sorrow’ being the greatest gift that humans can make to the altar of God. The slaves bring with them earthy stories not written in books- ancient fables and songs of sorrow. At the end of the supper, Alea exposes the white master as a weak and afraid. And finally, seeing their master up-close for what he his, the slaves begin to assert their voices.

The next day of the Holy Saturday, the slaves are promised a day off. When the manager of the mill forces them to come to work, anarchy reigns. The Manager and his wife are killed. The white master retaliates, forgetting all that he had promised the slaves the night before. He has but one plan to crush the uprising- to make an example of the 12 who sat across the table on Friday. Here the film picks up a trashy subaltern aesthetic. Music pumps. The camera supervised by Mario Garcia Joya moves like a cat through the jungle. The film thumps with suspense and action. The chase is breakneck and wild and the 11 of the 12 are swiftly and brutally murdered and their heads savagely stuck on poles by the civilized white man who promises to build a church in the memory of his manager. But the 12th man runs wild. From the folds of the white man, he returns back to earth and he is complete and strong. The film ends with vigor, fists pumping in the air. Viva la revoluzione!

It is not an empty headed call for machismo. Alea gently dismantles layers and gets into the heart of the truth. The call to arms and freedom is full-blooded yet tranquil. Truly, one of the greatest political films of our times.

Day 4:

In Search of Famine

For the good Doctor, the Mrinal Sen retrospective was one of the eye-openers of the festival. When I was soaking in the technicolor of ‘Monrak Transistor’ (Day 1), he was soaking in ‘Calcutta ‘71’ which has become some sort of a canon or reference point for all the films that he watches. He convinced me to get myself a DVD of the movie as soon as possible and that I must see it at once. When I catch my own boat back, I hope it’s one of the things I get to do real soon.

‘In the search of Famine’ is probably not one of Sen’s greater works. As a film it is complex, engaging in an introspection on the medium itself and on the ‘aesthetics of poverty and destitution’ and if ‘that’ means anything. It is an inquiry into values and morals in the context of the rural-urban divide. It is ingeniously structured- a film within a film and at first it is sheer joy to watch Sen adapt the New Wave aesthetic in an Indian context. But the stylistic flourishes, aided in no small bit by Sen regular and one of our greatest cinematographers- K.K. Mahajan, quickly tire as the films draws itself into knots and muddles and stagnates without much exploration. The story of the film crew and the story of the film they are making both seem to compliment each other too comfortably and with a kind of pretentious quietism, rather drawing out nuances with conflict and contrast. The film tries but perhaps not hard enough. The characters barely escape caricature and if they do it is because they’re terrifically essayed by the actors. Dhritiman Chaterjee exudes an easy cool as the director and there is an excellent turn by the actor who plays the villager who becomes the go-to-guy for the crew. The scene stealer is obviously Smita Patil playing herself. It must have been said before but that is how it is- she is positively radiant.

Mrinal Sen directs with detatchment, never passing comments on the subtleties while still taking a dig at the larger structure. In that, ‘In search of Famine’ is a success. He concedes and gives away his politics and ideas to the idea of being human. But in his larger questions, neither is there a sense of complexity nor does he claim disillusion.

As it is, the film is uncommon and ambitious. But the nagging feeling is that Sen was onto something that he really couldn’t pull off and run with.

I mentioned it to the doctor. He asked me check out Calcutta ’71. I’ll be doing just that.

Hands Over the City

There is a scene in ‘In the Search of Famine’ where a screening of ‘Guns of Navarone’ is being announced in the village and the village boys ecstatically run behind the vehicle from which the speakers boom and pamphlets are being distributed. There is a palpable excitement and clearly, it contrasts with the prospects of Sen’s own film probably destined for the film festivals and foreign art houses and at best, a run in Calcutta. It is one of the questions that the film merely grazes without probing deeper. But as I was watching my third Fransesco Rosi of the IFFK 2009, I think I was almost about to say,” Eureka.”

‘Hands Over the City’ is a procedural film, not one of those pulpy policers or courtroom dramas which can atleast rely on a plot of cheap pulp for the thrills. Rosi’s film is a Parliamentary procedural. Motions are passed, long debates are held, ballots are taken, there is a lot of talking and very little action. But the corridors of diplomacy have rarely been channeled with such fire. Every scene contains such momentum, such jazz energy that within the first five minutes whatever remained of ‘Michael Clayton’ in my head was reduced to ash and blown away. Every set-piece, every mis-en-scene was a giddy exploration of corruption and the modern corporate-industrial structure and the common man’s losing battle against the beast.

The movie is directly engaged. It lifts the perpetrators by the collars and sheds the spotlight right on them. Just like ‘The Weavers’ he crates the oppressive atmosphere of a noir, crisscrossed in white and black, reeking of greed and vice. He sets an honest man amongst it but the games within the corridors of power are exclusive to the avaricious and the power hungry. He captures the nuances of the balance of power, of coalitions, of the language of diplomacy, of the workings of the state that take the choices and information away from the people. He neatly delineates the seduction and authority of the system which can entrap the honest and innocent. He frames the corridors with a Kafkaesque flair, every frame seminal and the usage of sound is extraordinary and it contributes to the depth and emotion of the scene. There is an anger at the heart of ‘Hands Over the City’ and it is not just Rosi’s impeccable style but his unshakable faith and his love for the city of his birth and also that of the Mafia- Naples, that informs the energy of the film.

Once again, another Rosi film like nothing I had ever seen before. Like ‘The Last Supper’ mentions it is difficult to recognize the truth these days because it walks with the head of a lie. ‘In Search of Famine’ couldn’t seem to distinguish either. But Rosi rooted in native Naples calls it right. He calls a shovel, a shovel.

Rod Steiger gives of those legendary performances that command very inch of the screen as the corrupt Eduardo Nottola and Salvo Randone who was terrific in 'the weaversl gives yet another stellar turn as the honest and fighting De Vita.

Coming out the theater, I added to my list of Calcutta 71- Gomorrah and Il Divo.

Homero Manzi, A poet in the Storm

I walked out of this one. They changed the schedule and put this in instead of T.V. Chandran’s ‘Bhoomi Malayalam’. This one was about an Argentinian revolutionary. It was made by a director of commercials who probably considers ‘Amelie’ as one of the touchstones of cinema. Don’t cry for me Argentine. I’m okay with it. My only regret is that I missed a second viewing of ‘Monrak Transistor’ to stay with this one.

Well, that’s it for the day. And Dr. Fu Manchu. You got out while the going was good.

I’ve got tickets booked for Avatar tomorrow.

But before that I watch a Ripstein.

And Avatar is gonna change filmmaking forever! Really! Oh yeah! Goddamn Simple Jack!

(Cross-posted at

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