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Journal Notes: 2004 2003 2002 2001

Senses of Cinema End of the Year 'Favorite Film Things' Compilation: 2002

Springtime in a Small Town (Tian Zhuangzhuang)
Ten (Abbas Kiarostami)
Unknown Pleasures (Jia Zhang-ke)
Oasis (Lee Chang-dong)
Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov)
The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismäki)
Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)
Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes)
Iran Veiled Appearances (Thierry Michel)
From the Other Side (Chantal Akerman).

Honorable mentions:
Le Fils (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) and The Turning Gate (Hong Sang-soo).

2002 Film Related Reading:

Close Up - Iranian Cinema: Past, Present and Future by Hamid Dabashi.
Editions Dis Voir: Bruno Dumont by Sébastien Ors, Philippe Tancelin, and Valérie Jouve.
Indecent Exposures: Buñuel, Saura, Erice and Almodóvar by Gwynne Edwards.
Speaking the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer by Raymond Carney.
Editions Dis Voir: Tsai Ming Liang by Olivier Joyard, Jean-Pierre Rehm, and Danièle Revière.
The Essential Mystery: The Major Filmmakers of Indian Art Cinema by John W. Hood.

2002 Retrospective, Film Festival, and Series Program Notes:

Transcendent Realism - New and Old Cinema from Belgium
New York Film Festival
NYFF Companion Series - The Actor as Activist: Celebrating Shabana Azmi


11-19-02: Notes on Close Up - Iranian Cinema: Past, Present and Future by Hamid Dabashi.

Close Up - Iranian CinemaHamid Dabashi presents a comprehensive, passionate, and insightful personal account on the evolution of Iranian art cinema in Close Up - Iranian Cinema: Past, Present and Future. By presenting the works of key films and filmmakers within the contextual framework of Iranian history - in particular, from the state-sponsored, forced modernization programs initiated by the Pahlavi regime to the subsequent fundamentalism of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 ushered by cleric Ayatollah Khomeini - Dabashi examines the indelible effects of shifting national ideology on Iran's distinctive native cinema.

Abbas Kiarostami - The intellectual counter-culture of 1960s Iran, marked by dissatisfaction towards the nation's colonial heritage and increasing identification with the West (a sentiment encapsulated within Jalal al-e Ahmad's highly influential publication, Westoxication, in 1962), resulted in a native, creative resurgence in Persian literature and modernist poetry. In the 1970s, Abbas Kiarostami rode the wave of artistic renaissance and became a member of the film division of the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanun), a cultural project developed by the Pahlavi regime to provide a creative outlet for Iranian youth in an attempt to divert them from politically subversive activities. It was through the state-sponsored Kanun that Kiarostami would create his early documentary films. Nevertheless, despite Iran's increasing political turmoil, Dabashi explains that Kiarostami was consumed by a different, creative preoccupation:

"Kiarostami sought a re-reading of reality from a tabula rasa that would make the world once again meaningful and trustworthy. Kiarostami's cinema has always explored from a slight angle otherwise hidden from ordinary sight."

Following the Islamic Revolution, Kiarostami produced two films that examined the interrelation between actual reality and constructed reality: Toothache (1980), A Kanun documentary on oral hygiene, weighs the benefits of maintaining healthy teeth over the convenience of dentures (created reality), and The Chorus (1982), an examination of an old man's mixed feelings over his hearing aid, as he becomes subjected to the noise of the busy streets, but misses his granddaughter's visit after he turns off the device and does not hear her knocking. This recurring theme foreshadows Kiarostami's thematic signature, and has become a perennial aspect of his subsequent feature films, most notably in Close-Up, The Earthquake Trilogy: Where is the Friend's Home, And Life Goes On..., and Through the Olive Trees, and A Taste of Cherry.

Bahram Beiza'i - One of Iran's most prominent and versatile creative visionaries, Bahram Beiza'i has made significant contributions to filmmaking, theater, and the performing arts both artistically and academically. Profoundly influenced by Persian art and poetry, Beiza'i's films achieve a fusion of social realism and representational symbolism. From a metaphoric interrelation between Earth and man in The Ballad of Tara (1978), to a figurative rebirth of the young protagonist away from his war torn homeland in Bashu: The Little Stranger (1986), to a surreal, profound connection that leads to a study on masculine-feminine perspective in Perhaps Some Other Time (1988), Beiza'i's films are infused with ephemeral, often mythical elements that subconsciously reflect reality and in the process, evoke a cultural shift in perspective.

Bahman Farmanara - Bahman Farmanara's adaptation of Houshang Golshiri's contemporary fiction, Prince Ehtejab (1974), like Daryush Mehrju'i's earlier film, The Cow (1969), represents a watershed in Iranian cinema with its synthesis of literary fiction and filmic narrative (Mehrju'i's The Cow was based on a story by Gholamhossein Sa'edi). However, a year after the Islamic Revolution, fueled in part by the trauma of a nine-hour interrogation by a representative from the Committee for the Prevention of Sin over the banning of his newly completed film entitled Tall Shadows of the Wind (another film based on Golshiri's work), Farmanara uprooted his family and settled in Vancouver, Canada, where he embarked on a different career as a film distributor. Farmanara continued to submit scripts to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for approval over the next 20 years to no avail, but his triumphant and hard-fought return as a filmmaker would finally come with the semi-autobiographical,
Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine (2000), a film ironically inspired by his severe depression over his failing health, his continued inability to gain project approval from the board of censors, and the increasingly ideological irrelevance of his aging, pre-Islamic Revolution generation.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf - Dabashi's extensive interview with Mohsen Makhmalbaf illuminates several aspects of Makhmalbaf's fascinating personal and professional history. Raised in a devout and education-centered extended family, Makhmalbaf's unconventional childhood entailed a traumatic parental abduction by his biological father:

"Fear of my father had the effect of scaring me, isolating me from the life of the alley which was more or less the real world, and trapping me in a house where three important people tried to take care of me. One was my grandmother, who introduced me to religion. One was my aunt, who made me literate. The last was my stepfather, who made me political."

His self-confessed politicization by his stepfather, Kamalian, would eventually culminate in his arrest and imprisonment during the Pahlavi era at the age of 17 for attacking a police officer in an ill-conceived plan to steal his gun for a bank robbery in order to fund the activities of his armed resistance group, Balal-e Habashi. He was subsequently released after the fall of the Shah during the Islamic Revolution, where his activism soon turned to creative imperative, as his displeasure over contemporary Iranian cinema led to independent research studies on the process of filmmaking, and eventually, to a career as a filmmaker.

Makhmalbaf defines his films into four distinct periods. The first installment reflects his early activism and consists of Nasuh's Repentance, Two Sightless Eyes, Seeking Refuge, and Boycott. The second period deals with contemporary social issues, and is composed of The Peddler, The Cyclist, and The Marriage of the Blessed. The transitional third period is marked by a complexity of character that is a departure from the self-described absolutist perspective innate in his earlier work - whether through religious or social reform - and consists of A Time for Love, Nights on the Zayandeh-rud, Once Upon a Time, Cinema, and The Actor. The last period converges towards what Makhmalbaf describes as "an illustration of relativity" that is reflected in the contemplative objectivity of Salaam Cinema and A Moment of Innocence:

"It's in the fourth period that the light begins to enter. It's the worldly nature, such as that of Sohrab Sepehri, of the first period to which I am attracted, but the worldliness of the fourth period has made the greatest impact on me... I've moved toward life and humanity, away from deadly serious subjects.

...I am looking at two general questions. One is the multiplicity of perspectives and the other is human sorrow. I am searching for an emotional perspective, and the warmth of my films comes from the joy of living in the frame of human sorrow."

Notes from Transcendent Realism - New and Old Cinema from Belgium series at the Walter Reade.

11-11-02: Iran Veiled Appearances (2002). Composed of a series of diverse, and often contradictory images of mundane rituals of everyday life juxtaposed against historical footage of protest and revolution in Iran, Thierry Michel's Iran Veiled Appearances is a compelling and insightful documentary on life in modern-day Iran 23 years after the Islamic Revolution. The film opens to the disturbing image of a funeral ceremony for poet, writer, and free expression activist, Mohammed Mokhtari, who is subsequently revealed to have been the latest in an ever-growing series of mysterious disappearances and deaths of prominent and outspoken intellectuals, presumably assassinated by the Islamic militia. Michel presents two images of Iran: the first, traditionalist and passionately committed to the ideas of martyrdom for the Revolution and allegiance to their religious Guides (often espoused by the older generation); the second, increasingly modern, free thinking, and ambivalent over the direction of the country's future. By illustrating the generational and ideological division inherent in the theocratic society of contemporary Iran, Iran Veiled Appearances becomes an understatedly powerful document of a country at the cusp of profound change.

From the Other Side (2002). A young man stranded in a Mexican border town recounts the vivid and tragic story of his older brother who crossed the border with a group of illegal immigrants into the U.S. only to wander for days in the disorienting wilderness - each night piling together for warmth and protection, and each morning, fewer and fewer survivors emerging from the huddled mass - until everyone eventually perished in the harsh and unforgiving desert. Faced with a stringent border policy that reinforces patrol of the traditionally urban, highly populated crossing areas of San Antonio and San Diego, desperate undocumented aliens have been undertaking increasingly dangerous - and often fatal - attempts to cross through rural, largely uninhabited areas and vast, inhospitable deserts in search of economic opportunity. Although the first half of the film is encumbered with overly repetitive, extended sequences of the ubiquitous, formidable border, the latter part of the film, punctuated by a deeply moving expression of gratitude to the film crew by a group of destitute, stranded immigrants hoping to send word of their plight to their families after being abandoned by their paid smugglers, illustrates the filmmaker's profound affection and concern for these marginalized, and often dehumanized, people. In the end, Akerman's visually rigorous, alienated, and uncompromising image of arid and barren landscapes in the film illustrates, not a geographic location exploited for illusory dreams of a better life, but a senseless and unforgiving trail of human desolation.

11-09-02: Gbanga-Tita (1994). Defined by Thierry Knauff as a purely cinematic "moment of grace" (during his introductory remarks on the films being presented), Gbanga-Tita was initially shot as footage for his ethnographic film on the Baka pygmy of the Equatorial forest in South-East Cameroon, Baka. The film consists of a single unbroken close-up shot of Lengé, a tribal Ancient and taleteller, as he engages the young people of the village in a solemn chant that recalls the tragic fate of ancient children whose lives were lost to the river in pursuit of a mythical calabash called Gbanga-Tita. At the age of 43, Lengé is the eldest member of the tribe, and the last taleteller among the indigenous people of the region. The film is a poignant glimpse of sacred tradition, ethnic legacy, and cultural extinction.

Anton Webern (1991). Thierry Knauff's impressionistic and emotionally lucid film, Anton Webern is a poetic and allusive biography of the early 20th century Austrian polyphonic composer Anton Webern. Entirely devoid of narrative dialogue, Webern's life is representationally articulated through expressive, isolated shots of Webern's hands: his early childhood development as a pianist, his tutelage under famed twelve-note composer Arnold Schoenberg, his abbreviated military service in World War I due to poor eyesight, his diversified work as musical conductor and German lieder composer, the loss of his beloved son during a train strafing attack in World War II, his creative persecution and political disfavor under Nazi Germany, and finally, his accidental death in exile at the hands of American occupied forces in Austria. Anton Webern is a challenging, but instinctively cohesive film on creativity, artistic passion, and the tragic consequence of turbulent history.

Wild Blue, Notes for Several Voices (2000). Thierry Knauff's unique and evocative filmic language of poetic imagery and sensorial polyphony is further developed in the sublime, dense, and haunting hybrid documentary composition, Wild Blue, Notes for Several Voices. An early image of a combat boot footprint and subsequent image of painted hands against the walls of an African mudhut symbolize Knauff's theme of the destruction of natural order caused by the imprint of human intervention. By presenting a series of serene and indelible international images of everyday life against harrowing and deeply disturbing testimonies by multicultural female voices describing acts of inhumanity, atrocities, and terrorism, Knauff achieves a sense of visual texture and instinctual cadence that reflects on the dichotomous coexistence of beauty and savagery in contemporary civilization.

Wild BlueWith the privilege of participating in a subsequent informal Q&A session with the filmmaker, I had the opportunity to ask Knauff a few related questions on the function of repeating the 35 mm film footage with subsequent, lower resolution (and often magnified) video image in the film. Knauff explained that his intent was not only to achieve compositional texture to the same image, but also to reflect on the delicate interrelation between awareness and a kind of myopia that results from being too close to the subject. As a result, Knauff presents the repeated video images as approaching an impressionistic, contextually ambiguous (the resolution systematically degraded in each image transfer to a different visual medium), and dissociative level of recognition. In illustrating the indefinable balance between spectator and participant, Knauff further poses an important and socially relevant question on the role (or complicity) of media in perpetuating violence through the repetition of the innately disturbing images.

Klinkaart (1956). Paul Meyer's short film, Klinkaart, opens to the image of two sisters attempting to retrieve a fallen fruit drifting downstream of a river. The older sister then joins the other women from the village as they walk to the brickyard for her first day of work: removing the clay bricks from forms, laying them into endless rows to dry in the sun, returning the emptied forms to the brickmaker. Inevitably, the young woman is confronted with the sad reality of the tedium and drudgery of her unrewarding, monotonous vocation, and the unwelcome harassment and abusive behavior of other workers. The film evokes the spare and austere cinema of Robert Bresson, particularly Mouchette and Au Hasard Balthazar, in Meyer's parallel imagery of humanity and animal exploitation, from the distinctive footsteps of wooden clogs striking a brick paved road that is reflected in the clacking of horseshoes, to the crosscutting sequence of the young woman exhaustedly toiling in the sun with the horse pulling the clay cart.

From the Branches Drops the Withered Blossom (1960). The title of Paul Meyer's compassionate, sincere, From the Branches Drops the Withered Blossomand deeply personal feature film on immigrant labor, cultural assimilation, and exile, From the Branches Drops the Withered Blossom, is a line from a poem by Salvatore Quasimodo pondering the inevitability of change. Initially commissioned by the Ministry of Education to promote the integration of immigrant children into the Borinage school system, the film evolved into a cultural portrait of the increasingly desperate plight of the immigrant population, as the area's primary commerce - the mining industry - fell to economic hardship, mass layoffs, and plant closures, and rendered the lives of these children more uncertain and hopeless. The film is highly reminiscent of Italian neorealism in its depiction of the working class: the familial bonds of Luchino Visconti in Rocco and His Brothers, the bleak, natural landscapes of Roberto Rossellini (such as the hot springs of Voyage in Italy), and industrial decay of Michelangelo Antonioni (particularly
Red Desert). As in Klinkaart, Meyer employs parallel imagery to illustrate both real and surrogate families created by the work camp community, and is especially evident in the contrasts between the itinerant (and seemingly fragmented) Domenico and an underemployed Italian miner who sent for his large family to resettle in Borinage despite financial hardship and lack of employment opportunities.

11-08-02: Hop (2002). The divisive issues of immigration and social integration are also in Dominique Standaert's visually resplendent, whimsical, and affectionate film, Hop. In the opening scene, Justin (Keita Kalumba), a young immigrant from Burundi, tells a fantastic tale of the pivotal role of the African pygmies in the defeat of the Carthaginian general, Hannibal, during the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome. Hannibal, according to the resourceful young man, enlisted the aid of the pygmies after learning of their magical ability, called Hop, to exert control over the mighty elephant. Hannibal's military strategy is widely successful until the pygmies discover the destructive, environmental toll of the devastating war and abandon Hannibal's campaign against Rome, precipitating his defeat. The folktale would prove to be a source of inspiration for Justin as he hatches a plan to reunite with his deported father (Ansou Diedhiou), enlisting the aid of a crotchety, but goodhearted former radical named Frans (Jan Decleir) and his devoted housekeeper, Gerda (Antje De Boeck). Although the film strains credibility in a few places, Hop is an admirable and technically adept effort for Standaert, whose genuine compassionate for the plight of his characters and gentle humor pervade the film's well-intentioned soul.

10-07-02: Notes on Editions Dis Voir: Bruno Dumont by Sébastien Ors, Philippe Tancelin, and Valérie Jouve.

The Editions Dis Voir publication, Bruno Dumont, opens with a short chapter entitled The Work of a Filmmaker that seems to characterize Dumont's films within the context of the distinctive cinema of Robert Bresson. Through referential allusion to the informal, fragmented passages of Bresson's Notes on the Cinematographer, Dumont's artistic methodology, similarly captured in kernelled reflections, is distilled into a series of essential statements and musings on the filmmaking process:

Bruno Dumont"The body is the beginning of the soul, the primal matter and the substance of filmmaking.

Literature is civil, not cinema. Cinema is mythical. It tells the story of how we came to be. That is all (nothing more).

Directing has to implicate itself in the most visionary position, one I find to be so close to ecstasy.

Incompleteness is what resides in nature. Cinema can return to it."

In the essay, Poetics of Fatality, Sébastien Ors defines Dumont's films as a dynamic interrelationship between society and individual, natural order and laws of civilization. Citing Freddy's uncontrollable seizures in Life of Jesus (1997) and Pharaon's "slowness" in L'Humanité (1999), the author presents the characters' defects (even impotence) as singular, unique physical attributes that sharpen their senses. It is this realization of one's sense of place that consequently, render the characters closer to nature and, inevitably, to the transcendent realization that humanity is "the sacred part in the human being."

"The sacred is at the heart of man, not in the heart or chancel of the churches, nor in the sky that Kadar looks at, placing his faith in Marie, and where Freddy surrenders, seeking to appease his remorse."

Two interviews with Dumont, Philippe Tancelin's Enquiries on Reality and photographer Valérie Jouve's Dialogue in Space and Time provide insight into the director's creative process, themes, and visual style. On Tancelin's observation of the spareness of his films, Dumont responds:

"Emptiness may be the condition necessary for the audience to change. Violence, cruelty, roughness are also regressions, a return to something primary to alter the sophistication in which we live today. That is why I choose rustic people. And my characters are so expressive because they are all unfinished. They are expressive in contact with the bodies and minds of the audience because the audience completes them. I must be drawn to this roughness. It is the shapeless matter placed in front of the spectator's face."

The dialogue between Jouve and Dumont further illustrates the underlying concept behind the aesthetic of assimilating still photography into Dumont's definition of a cinematic shot:

VJ: But you use images. In Humanity, there are times when everything stops, and it is no longer just a still shot but a still image.

BD: Yet for it to stop, it has to move. Otherwise it cannot move. I look for a rhythm in order to break it. Like having an airplane pass overhead in order to hear the silence that follows. You really need noise to hear it, otherwise silence cannot be perceived even if there is silence.

Notes from the 2002 New York Film Festival.

10-05-02: Tian Zhuangzhung's Springtime in a Small Town is a visually sublime and nostalgic film that is somewhat reminiscent of Satyajit Ray's exquisite Charulata in understatedly depicting the repercussions of emotional betrayal. The film takes place in the ruins of a large rural mansion in postwar China, as a physically fragile aristocrat (Wu Jun) is reunited with a childhood friend, a Shanghai doctor named Zhang Zhichen (Xin Bajqing), only to discover that Zhichen was his wife, Yu Wen's (Hu Jingfan) first love. Tian uses slow tracking, long shots, and evocative landscapes to create a timeless, romantic, and old-fashioned melodrama in the best sense of the word. An exquisite, subtly sensual, haunting, and unexpectedly moving mature work from a very talented filmmaker - one of my favorites from the festival.

10-03-02: The Man Without a Past is another understated, idiosyncratic, and hilarious offering from Aki Kaurismäki. A man (Markku Peltola) suffers amnesia after being violently attacked while napping on a park bench. A poor, kindhearted family nurses him back to health and introduces him to the social services of the Salvation Army, and to the shy and compassionate Irma (Kati Outinen). However, as the nameless man attempts to rebuild his life, he finds that knowledge of his identity is the key to reentering society. Kaurismäki's usually excessively vibrant colors seem to be a bit more muted in this film, although he retains his penchant for borrowed, incongruous American pop culture and melancholic folk ballads. The film does not have the dark undercurrent of loneliness and alienation of The Match Factory Girl, but instead, like Drifting Clouds, focuses on the tenderness, affection, and humanity of all the socially marginalized characters. A highly accomplished and sensitively realized film.

10-01-02: Ten is a captivating, humorous, and understated film by Abbas Kiarostami that follows a series of (ten) conversations by a divorced middle-class woman as she engages a series of passengers in a dialogue while navigating the streets of Tehran: her precocious son who feels suffocated by his parents' competition for his allegiance and affection; her sister who dotes on her husband; a religious older woman; a beautiful young woman who prays for a successful resolution to her stalled long-term relationship; an anonymous prostitute searching for a high traffic street in which to conduct business. Less narrative driven than Through the Olive Trees and more episodic than the encounters in A Taste of Cherry, Ten is an insightful, universal window into the everyday complexities of contemporary existence.

09-30-02: Jia Zhang-ke's Unknown Pleasures is a challenging film in the sense that there is a pervasive sense of aimlessness and inertia among the protagonists in the film. The film illustrates the social polarization of Chinese society by capturing the daily lives of underprivileged people amidst images of China's push for globalization. As Jia explained the reality of modern-day China in the post-screening Q&A session, a kind of dual economy currently exists in contemporary China: one fueled by the global market (and usually the US dollar), and the other by the traditional state-run economy. The people who are getting left behind economically (like the young people in the film) belong to the latter. There are some equally sad and funny episodes like the father finding a one dollar bill and the boys rejoicing that they are rich that powerfully underscores their economic disparity and the social marginalization of the people left out of the global economy. Highly recommended for admirers of Hou Hsiao Hsien's languid, contemporary films of rootlessness and alienation such as Goodbye South Goodbye, Dust in the Wind, and Millennium Mambo.

09-29-02: Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters is fairly representative of the British social realist films of the past 20-30 years - bleak, atmospheric, interminably depressing, grimy. While some of the more recent films are very well done (Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth or Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher, for instance), I found that this particular realist presentation tended to be quite overdone in its attempts to provoke that it almost arcs to the point of caricature. Recommended for those who like the films of Ken Loach or the British social realist genre in general. Although it is a well done film, it just wasn't my taste.

09-28-02: Like La Promesse, Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Son is another well crafted, moral tale about redemption, although this time, played with an element of suspense. The Son falls in the realm of religious parable, not in the sense of finding a revelatory moment of a greater purpose, but in a Bressonian sense that an ordinary, emotionally scarred person can find transcendence from his earthly pain through ritual. The Robert Bresson comparison is probably the best way to describe the film: awkward, fragmented body shots (usually the back of the head), unemotive actors, and repeated shots of manual labor. Although I still think that La Promesse is their best film, this is certainly very high caliber filmmaking, along par with Rosetta. The handheld camera was especially pervasive in this film, and I must admit, I was not feeling too well for the rest of the evening.

Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark was next, and it is quite a spellbinding, visually brilliant film, as Sokurov transports us through episodes of Russian history through the confines of The Hermitage Museum in one long unbroken shot (in the same experimental vein as Alfred Hitchcock's Rope) that seems to create a seeming perpetuity that underscores a sense of history's transience, but also Russia's rich legacy and turbulent evolution - a sense of corporeal ghosts inhabiting a disconnected and inescapable (albeit glorious and majestic) space, and visually (or technically), deriving continuum from a finite space. The film creates a seeming parable for a nation irretrievably moving ever adrift from the rest of Europe, and oblivious (or apathetic) to its cultural and artistic legacy. What is visibly absent though, are the aspects of spirituality and metaphysical concern that had attracted me to his earlier works.

Im Kwon Taek's Chihwaseon is another painterly, highly formalized, and exquisitely composed film based on the life of a famed 18th century Korean painter. Like Kenji Mizoguchi's Utamaro and His Five Women and Jacques Becker's Montparnasse 19, the film deals with the essence of creation and artistic integrity. An exquisitely realized film, even more beautiful and accessible than Im's earlier film Chunhyang.

Notes from NYFF companion series - The Actor as Activist: Celebrating Shabana Azmi.

10-02-02: Preceding Khandahar was a short documentary entitled Shabana! Actor, Activist, Woman by Dev Benegal that seeks to capture the essence of the charming and luminous Shabana Azmi's complex persona: actress, celebrity, wife, mother, Muslim, social activist. Favorite moments from the documentary: Ms. Azmi hosting a group of evicted slum dwellers into her own home as she compassionately listens to their plight and stages a protest; Ms. Azmi stepping back to make tea in the kitchen of an affordable housing apartment, as she encourages the owner of the apartment to take center stage to explain the details of the housing program. What a gracious, fearless, intelligent, and beautiful human being.

KhandaharMrinal Sen's Khandahar (1983) is an absorbing, intelligently constructed film that centers on a blind, invalid, elderly woman (Gita Sen) of aristocratic descent who is cared for by her devoted, unmarried daughter, Jamini (Shabana Azmi) in the ancient ruins of a feudal-era zamindari (the landowner's estate). On a Christmas holiday weekend, Jamini's cousin Dipu (Pankaj Kapoor) convinces his friends Subhash (Naseeruddin Shah) and Anil (Annu Kapoor) to take a break from their jobs in the city to visit his ancestral home in the remote countryside. Upon hearing that Dipu has returned, the mother becomes convinced that he has returned with Jamini's prearranged suitor in order to finalize their long-awaited marriage. Sen's visual aesthetic and incorporation of landscape as a metaphor for spiritual (and economic) desolation is especially stunning and provides tremendous depth to the film's themes of duty, obsolescence, and fading tradition.

Shyam Benegal's Ankur (1974) is a highly engaging and insightful portrait of the hypocrisy, inherent contradiction, dichotomy, and residual legacy of rigid class structure in contemporary India as a seemingly socially progressive and "enlightened" college graduate, Surya (Anant Nag) from an aristocratic zamindar family inherits his father's remote abandoned farm. Arranged to marry a young woman from a privileged family who cannot join him until she becomes of age, Surya begins to seduce a beautiful, low caste married housekeeper named Lakshmi (Shabana Azmi), a selfish act that leads to irrevocable consequences. The harrowing final scene exquisitely captures the beauty and cruelty of human existence. Sublime filmmaking - a brilliant example of India's parallel cinema.

08-04-02: Notes on Indecent Exposures: Buñuel, Saura, Erice and Almodóvar by Gwynne Edwards.

Indecent Exposures - Bunuel, Saura, Erice, AlmodovarIndecent Exposures: Buñuel, Saura, Erice and Almodóvar by Gwynne Edwards examines the unique influence and residual legacy of the Spanish Civil War on the films of four notable Spanish directors:
Luis Buñuel, Carlos Saura, Victor Erice, and Pedro Almodóvar.

Edwards examines three Luis Buñuel films, Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel, and Tristana,in order to characterize the seemingly odd alliance between church and state during the Franco regime. By analyzing the permutation of underlying human behaviors of the inherently patriarchal culture of Spanish society under the ideological conflict posed by the political environment of Fascist Spain, Edwards categorizes Buñuel's pervasive themes of objectification of women, subliminal guilt, and sexual repression as perverse consequences of this unnatural union. In Viridiana and the subsequent film Tristana, Buñuel reflects the hypocrisy and incongruous coexistence of institutional religion and individual desire through the complex societal roles and dynamic personal relationship between a chaste and vulnerable young woman and an older, sexually aggressive benefactor.

Like Buñuel, Carlos Saura's body of work during this period also reflect the dysfunctionality of human behavior under a repressive society. Saura's early films, The Hunt and Cría Cuervos provide a dark and unsettling portrait of dehumanization and instinctual violence that results from the inbredness of profound isolation. Additionally, Saura's "musical" film Carmen, the second installment of the dance trilogy that also includes Blood Wedding and Love the Magician attempts to capture the coexistence of passion and violence innate in the culture. Returning to a subject broached in Cría Cuervos through Ana's mother's abbreviated career as a musician, Saura's subsequent film Ay, Carmela! also reflects the suppression of artistic freedom and creativity under the Franco regime.

The films of Victor Erice provide a more oblique approach to illustrating the vestigial scars of the Spanish Civil War. In The Spirit of the Beehive, Erice encapsulates the frustration, uncertainty, and confusion of children attempting to reconcile with the sense of isolation inherent in their emotionally detached parents and insular community. In the film, The South, Erice depicts the the process of demystification and self-discovery as a young woman's quest to learn more about her idolized father leads to a poignant realization (a theme similarly explored in Theo Angelopoulos's Landscape in the Mist).

Buñuel's enduring influence in contemporary Spanish cinema is especially evident in Pedro Almodóvar's penchant for surrealist plots and dark, caustic humor, as his affectionate, but comically absurd films, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and High Heels illustrate. In
Matador, Almodóvar parallels the spectacle, choreography, and violence of traditional bullfighting with the performance of the mating ritual. It is through this examination of the interrelation between sexuality and violence that Almodóvar's films draw comparison to Buñuel's subversive cinema.

05-13-02: Notes on Speaking the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer by Ray Carney.

Speaking the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer by Raymond Carney provides an intelligent, thoughtful, and accessible analysis of Carl Theodor Dreyer's body of work. In order to illustrate the recurring themes and distinctive visual aesthetic that pervade Dreyer's films, Carney examines The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath, Ordet, and Gertrud.

In Day of Wrath, Carney introduces the idea of Dreyer's archetypal heroines as struggling to transcend the repression, suffering, and personal limitations of their social position by existing in an imaginative realm. Anne's characterization (as realized by actress Lisbeth Movin) as a luminous, vibrant, and curious physical spirit further reinforces her ability to find an emotionally substantive, yet ethereal sanctuary. By defining Anne's enigmatic behavior as a manifestation of her desire to exist outside the confines of her corporeal existence to inhabit a world of dreams, Carney also reconciles Dreyer's seemingly aberrant film on mysticism and the supernatural, Vampyr.

Carney describes Ordet as an assimilative experience that correlates Dreyer's deliberate and minimal camera movements with the restrained interaction and fractured relationships among the characters and, more significantly, Inger's unifying role as mediator, pragmatist, and reconciliator.

On the disparity between Kaj Munk's theatrical portrayal of Johannes as a strange, but enlightened prophet and Dreyer's characterization of Johannes' state as a disconnected spirituality in Ordet, Carney explains:

"In short, Johannes summarizes an empowering ambivalence about the relation of abstract ideals and practical expressions that is present in all Dreyer's important work. One can say without irony that Ordet is the product of Dreyer's willingness to admit his confusion, rather than resolve it too easily. Kaj Munk was not confused about his Johannes, and the greatness of Dreyer's film is a result of his willingness to be uncertain about the relation of souls and bodies, of spiritual and practical matters, of ideals and worldly expressions, in a way Munk was not."

Carney further clarifies the misconception of Dreyer as a purely spiritual filmmaker, arguing that Dreyer's perspective is reflected through the pragmatic spirituality and conciliatory nature of Inger, rather than the rigid, but emotionally and intellectually inaccessible faith of Johannes. By presenting the film from the perspective of Inger (and later, through Inger's daughter, Maren), Dreyer illustrates the need for personal balance and reconciliation between generations, sexes, religion, and ultimately, life and death.

Addressing the general criticism of Gertrud as slow and talkative, Carney proposes that Gertrud's static and distended tone mirrors the themes earlier presented through Anne's retreat into imaginative coexistence in Day of Wrath (and Allan Gray similarly experiences in Vampyr). Carney proposes that Dreyer stylistically manifests Gertrud's ideological defiance of her repressive environment and unrequited emotion through the inherent minimalism and visual economy of the mise-en-scene. In distilling the physical distraction of setting, Dreyer figuratively focuses attention on the ephemeral - specifically, Gertrud's uncompromising and intangible possession - her unattainable, imaginative ideal. Similar to the singular focus, impracticability, and inaccessibility of Johannes and Peter in Ordet and Joan in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Gertrud also exhibits an unrealistic resoluteness that leads to profound alienation and tragedy.

03-18-02: Notes on Editions Dis Voir: Tsai Ming Liang by Jean Pierre Rehm, Olivier Joyard, and Danièle Revière.

Tsai Ming LiangThe Editions Dis Voir publication, Tsaï Ming Liang, consists of two sections: a compilation of critical essays that examine key elements of Tsai's intensely personal cinema, Bringing in the Rain by Jean-Pierre Rehm and Corporal Interference by Olivier Joyard, and an extended interview with Tsaï Ming-liang entitled Scouting by Danièle Revière that discusses his influences, themes, and work.

In Bringing in the Rain, Rehm illustrates the pervasive elements of Tsaï's cinema: the absence of narrative, the unoccupied and malleable characters (especially as portrayed by Lee Kang-sheng), the exclusive use of natural and ambient sounds, indeterminate time and place of reference, and sequential shots.

Citing Tsaï's recurrent imagery of elevators - the phantom stopping of the elevator in Rebels of the Neon God, the mother's monotonous occupation in The River, the linking setting between dreams (Grace Chang musical interlude) and reality (an inebriated Hsiao-kang impeding the closing of the elevator doors) in The Hole, Rehm illustrates Tsaï's seemingly existentialist themes of stasis and spiritual stagnation:

"But this is only a misleading illusion, like in The Hole: the elevator never really goes up, it only opens and closes. A comparably minimalist technique can be found in the elevator where the mother works in The River: floors pass, people enter and exit, but it really goes nowhere. The escalator at the beginning of the same film is a mere interchange. No justification for mysticism can be found in Tsaï Ming-liang's films, not even a physical one: there is no mystery, no revelation; no descent into Hell, no redemption."

In Corporal Interference, Joyard examines the role of hollow spaces: the physical body as a transient vessel of the soul, and the impersonal, vacant interiors as a reflection of emptiness. Joyard discusses Tsaï's concept of the impermanence of the human body, and its role as a vehicle for commuting the joys, sorrows, fears, and desires experienced by the soul. This observation is further validated through Tsaï's remarks on the role of the city as a character: "When I film a city it's as if I were filming a character. Because I think that everything has its place, its own life. It's an idea very close to Chinese Buddhism, which regards the human body as a place of 'passage'."

Joyard further discusses the appearance of rain and water in Tsaï's films as an external, atmospheric barometer for the level of societal turmoil and personal anguish: "Water forms an inescapable structure, another way of showing what goes on inside our bodies and heads, bringing the internal circuits, veins and organs to light, pointing out the leaks."

Tsaï further expounds on the ubiquitous presence water in his films in the 1999 interview transcribed in the section entitled Scouting. Tsaï's concise and simple explanation of the mother's ritualistic actions in The River, encapsulates the emotional honesty and innate compassion of Tsaï's profoundly humanist cinema:

"The first thing she does on returning home is to pour herself a glass of water and drink it. We also see her drinking before she goes out. Because I always regard the characters in my films as plants which are short of water, which are almost on the point of dying from lack of water. Actually, water for me is love, that's what they lack. What I'm trying to show is very symbolic, it's their need for love."

02-19-02: Notes on The Essential Mystery: The Major Filmmakers of Indian Art Cinema by John W. Hood.

Essential Mystery - Indian CinemaThe Essential Mystery: Major Filmmakers of Indian Art Cinema is a thoughtful, appreciative, analytical, and comprehensive overview of the influential filmmakers that have defined, shaped, and elevated the status of Indian art cinema. By correlating the filmmakers' personal experiences with the common themes and individual styles presented through their respective cinema, Hood illustrates the diversity, integrity, and undiscovered artistry of Indian films.

Ritwik Ghatak - Born in Dhaka in the former region of East Bengal in 1925, Ritwik Ghatak experienced the trauma of the Partition of Bengal that occurred after gaining independence from the British in 1947. Consequently, Ghatak's poignant and personally relevant cinema often reflect the tragedy of exile, displacement, and poverty. Hood cites Ghatak's 1960s films as his artistic and narrative zenith:
Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star) portrays the travails of a displaced middle class East Bengal family in Calcutta; Komal Gandhar (E-Flat) chronicles the rivalry between two acting troupes of a once united theatrical company; Subarnarekha examines the divergent fates of two idealistic refugee teachers. Plagued by a propensity for self-indulgence and lack of discipline, as reflected in his final film, Jukti Takko Ar Gappo (Argument, Discussion, and Story), Ghatak nevertheless creates a profoundly moving portrait of the human condition and the devastation of imposed geographic, social, and political division.

Satyajit Ray
- Hood prefaces his analysis by acknowledging his great respect for Satyajit Ray, and his trepidation in dissociating himself from personal bias to provide an objective evaluation of his work, especially in Ray's penchant to drift into occasional sentimentality in his later works. Hood examines Ray's spare and minimalist style throughout his diverse and prolific body of work: from humanist films such as the Apu Trilogy and Charulata, to insightful social commentary of films such as Devi and
Jalsaghar, to repercussions of political events (the Bengal Famine of 1943 and the Naxalite movement of the 1970s, respectively) in films such as Distant Thunder (Ashani Sanket) and Jana Aranya (The Middleman). Ray's mastery of the visual aesthetic that combines a reverence for naturalism with the concerns of social realism sufficiently validates his iconic status in Indian culture and world cinema.

Mrinal Sen - Like contemporaries Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen was born in Bengal in 1923 and profoundly marked by turbulent political history, especially by the devastation of the Bengali Famine of 1943. Hood categorizes Sen's body of work into three general phases: his early, "conventional" social realism films as illustrated by the films Akash Kusum (Up in the Clouds) and Bhuvan Shome (with the title character portrayed by Utpal Dutt); his political "agitation" films, as embodied in the three interrelated chronological stories on the effects of poverty in Calcutta 71 and Mrigaya (The Royal Hunt) that examines the effects of the Santal Rebellion of 1855-1856; his later, social studies of the middle-class, as exemplified by the intelligently crafted film, Ek Din Pratidin (One Day, Everyday) that explores the issue of a woman's right to social autonomy, and his masterwork, Kharij (The Case Is Closed) that explores the tragic circumstances behind a young house servant's accidental death from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan
- Born in 1941 in Kerala, Adoor Gopalakrishnan's films reflect the idyllic atmosphere and gentle pace of life in the southern city, and the inevitable crisis of change. His highly accomplished and narratively minimalist films present an acute awareness of human relationships and social inequity. Generally considered to be his greatest film, Elippathayam (The Rat Trap) is a graceful, poetic, and metaphoric film that explores the vestigial effects of feudalism and class stratification on a decadent, yet increasingly irrelevant, aristocratic family. Gopalakrishnan further explores similar themes of the inconstancy of individual perception and reality in Mukhamukham (Face to Face) and Anantaram (Monologue).

Shyam Benegal - A great admirer of Satyajit Ray's cinema, Shyam Benegal founded a film society in his native Hyderabad, before settling in Bombay where a career in advertisement eventually led to filmmaking. A popular and well-respected contemporary filmmaker, Benegal examines the hypocrisy of a patriarchal society, the conflict between tradition and modernity, and the inequity of social class. Benegal's most memorable films,
Ankur (The Seedling) and Nishant (Night's End) chronicle the exploitative actions of cruel and abusive zamindari (feudal landowners). Benegal continues to address relevant social issues in Bhumika (The Role) and Mandi (The Marketplace) (the role and value of women) and Aarohan (The Descent) (exploitation of workers).

Govindan Aravindan - Like his contemporary Gopalakrishnan, Govindan Aravindan was born in Kerala. The son of famed humorist Govindan Nair, Aravindan's films reflect his artistry as a painter and his acute sense of social observation as a satirist. His distinctive early films displayed his penchant for narrative economy, symbolism and inference, natural sounds, visual composition, and minimal dialogue. His first film, Uttarayanam (The Throne of Capricorn), understatedly examines the economic turmoil of a post-colonial 1970s India through a young graduate's inability to find employment (a topic similarly explored by Ray in Jana Aranya). Hood cites Kanchana Sita (Golden Sita), a story adapted from the Indian epic, Ramayana, on the interrelationship between man and nature, and Thampu (The Circus Tent), a poignant examination of human cruelty and alienation, to be among Aravindan's finest films. In contrast to the social realism of his early films, Aravindan's subsequent films, Kummatty (The Bogeyman) and Esthappan (Stephen), possess elements of fable and suspension of disbelief to illustrate his familiar themes of harmony with nature and human compassion.

Buddhadeb Dasgupta - Already a renowned Bengali poet before turning to filmmaking, Buddhadeb Dasgupta's cinema evolved from conventional narrative (developed from his earlier documentary and short films), to an imagistic and poetic style. His early humanist films, Duratwa (Distance) and Nim Annapurna (Bitter Morsel), are mature and socially relevant works that examine personal values and human relationships in the face of chaotic change (Naxalite Movement) and despair. Dasgupta subsequently explores the dilemma of compromise, survival, and artistic integrity in his highly accomplished, visually poetic, and stylistically transitional films, Phera (The Return) and Bagh Bahadur (The Tiger Man).

Govind Nihalani - Govind Nihalani was born in 1940 in Karachi (now in Pakistan), and began his career in film as the director of photography to Shyam Benegal before directing his first feature in 1982. The accessibility and popular appeal of Nihalani's films are attributable to his narrative realism, technical maturity, and meticulous attention to mise-en-scene. Nihalani examines contemporary, socially relevant issues in films such as elitism and egoism in Party, power and corruption in Ardh Satya (Half-Truth), and the dissolution of a marriage in Drishti (The Vision). Often considered to be his best film, the five hour epic film, Tamas (The Darkness), based on the novel (and two stories, Sardarni and Zahud Baksh) by Bhisham Sahni depicts the irrational chaos, divisiveness, violence, and senseless destruction of the days leading to the Partition.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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