Archive for September, 2007

Michelangelo Antonioni

September 6, 2007

It must have irked Ingmar Bergman no end that in death he had to share the limelight with one of his least favourite fellow filmmakers – Italian Michelangelo Antonioni, who happened to die on the exact same day, at the age of  94. Antonioni’s cinematic preoccupations and explorations were often close thematically to his Swedish counterpart’s, but his style was a completely different animal. Where Bergman allowed his emotional palettes to be laid bare in his work, Antonioni’s canvas was spare, stark and frigid. His characters, as distanced from themselves and each other as they were from the audience, often seemed to merely exist rather than to live, drifting against their non-descript, melancholic backdrops, their lives purposeless and filled with nothing but ennui. The director said that his screenplays reflected his view of the modern age of reason and science, where mankind still lives by “a rigid and stereotyped morality which all of us recognize as such and yet sustain out of cowardice and sheer laziness.”

Antonioni would let his camera linger endlessly on his characters’ state of emptiness. By choosing to stay with a certain image far longer than others would have, he forced his audience to focus their attention on the implications of this technical and artistic choice. In L’Eclisse (1962), for example, the camera stays on Monica Vitti as she stares curiously at electrical posts. And again, in Red Desert (1964), Antonioni expressed the lack of forward momentum in his characters’ lives by employing a series of long takes with little movement and little to no dialogue. Needless to say, he didn’t connect with a universal audience, but did find staunch champions among art-house aficionados and critics.

Unlike most of his European contemporaries, Antonioni did at one point venture into making English language films. The first of these, Blowup (1966) was a commercial and critical success and provided the blueprint for Brain De Palma’s 1980 John Travolta vehicle Blow-out. Though the film’s theme was a challenging one – looking at the subjective nature of truth and memory – in other ways, it was far more accessible than his other more esoteric work. He was rewarded with his sole Oscar nomination for Best Director, and the film is still considered a key text of the 60s. The Passenger (1975), starring Jack Nicholson, was a commercial failure, but had much going for it artistically, not least of which was a seven-minute take, that, for its darkness and beauty, remains one of the most remarkable shots in film history.

Unlike his fellow countryman Federico Fellini, Antonioni never became Hollywood’s exotic flavour of the month, but his work did permeate the sensibilities of many a future filmmaker, many of whom count his work as a major influence. Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai’s sparse emotional landscapes surely owe a debt to Antonioni.

Felled by a stroke in the 80s, Antonioni nevertheless returned to glory again, collaborating with German filmmaker Wim Wenders on the wondrous Beyond the Clouds in 1995. A work of stunning visual beauty, the film was based on Antonioni’s own short stories and brought him great acclaim anew. The director himself was characteristically philosophical about his work and his ‘comeback’: “A director is a man, therefore he has ideas; he is also an artist, therefore he has imagination. Whether they are good or bad, it seems to me that I have an abundance of stories to tell. And the things I see, the things that happen to me, continually renew the supply… I am not a theoretician of the cinema. If you ask me what directing is, the first answer that comes into my head is: I don’t know. The second: All my opinions on the subject are in my films.”

The following year, Michelangelo Antonioni was awarded an Honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement. He was introduced by his one-time star Jack Nicholson with these words:

“In the empty, silent spaces of the world, he has found metaphors that illuminate the silent places of our hearts, and found in them, too, a strange and terrible beauty: austere, elegant, enigmatic, haunting.”

R.I.P.

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R.I.P: Ingmar Bergman

September 6, 2007

“Ingmar Bergman is dead.”

“Isn’t she the one who was in Casablanca? How sad.”

“No, that was Ingrid Bergman. Ingmar Bergman was a man.”

“Oh, I see. Was he Ingrid’s father?”

Philistinism can be so infuriating. Especially cinematic philistinism, to a cinephile like me. But I imagine that when the legendary director from Sweden died last month at the age of 89, many conversations in the vein of the one above must have followed. Bergman was a deservedly acknowledged and much lauded master of the cinema – the Academy loved him, awarding him a record three Best Foreign Language Film Oscars (a record bested only by Federico Fellini’s four wins), he in turn is idolized by innumerable filmmakers, Woody Allen and our very own Mehreen Jabbar among them – but I would venture that fewer and fewer younger people know who he was. We, as a species, are forgetful (ergo all the repeating of history); well, our loss I say. If the blog generation is unfamiliar with the connotations of the adjective ‘Bergmanesque’, then they are poorer for it.

My first brush with Bergman came when I was twelve – that’s what comes of being born in a family with a strong arty ‘brought-up’. Having ditched school because of a non-existent stomach ache, and finding myself alone and bored, I happened to pop into our spanking new VCR a tape of Fanny and Alexander (1982), which was a good choice since, as I was to learn much later, some have called that Bergman’s most accessible film (‘foreign’ films, it seems, are generally incomprehensible to mere mortals). One moment from it took my breath away and has stayed with me since: the two children of the title are playing hide-and-seek on a quiet afternoon in the family home. Alexander, hiding underneath a table, peeks out and glances at a marble statue that has fascinated and haunted his imagination forever. Then, as his eyes pop in wonder, the statue moves… I was enchanted.

My second encounter with Bergman occurred almost a decade later when, as a student at film school, I saw Cries and Whispers (1972), the first of only three foreign language films ever nominated for a Best Film Oscar. A film of immense visceral power and visual beauty, it shocked with its stark and brutal view of human frailty and hypocrisy. It was a far cry from the gentle and nostalgic lyricism of Fanny and Alexander. All the more intriguing because Cries and Whispers had been made a full ten years before Fanny and Alexander. Like so many artists, it seemed Bergman too had mellowed with age, the latter film reading like an ode filled with a longing to return to a more innocent, gentle age. Indeed, he expressed just such a yearning some years later: “I’m deeply fixated on my childhood. Some impressions are extremely vivid, light, smell, and all. There are moments when I can wander through my childhood’s landscape, through rooms long ago, remember how they were furnished, where the pictures hung on the walls, the way the light fell. It’s like a film – little scraps of a film, which I set running and which I can reconstruct to the last detail – except their smell.”

Bergman himself, of course, was often far from gentle in his appraisals of fellow members of the film fraternity. He famously turned up his nose at Italian impressionist Michelangelo Antonioni: “He’s done two masterpieces, you don’t have to bother with the rest… [Though there are brilliant moments in his films] Antonioni never really learned the trade. He concentrated on single images, never realizing that film is a rhythmic flow of images, a movement. I never understood why Antonioni was so incredibly applauded. And I thought his muse Monica Vitti was a terrible actress.” He also expressed derision for Hollywood’s ‘boy wonder’ Orson Welles calling him “a hoax”, and his revered opus Citizen Kane “empty, dead, a total bore… The amount of respect that movie’s got is absolutely unbelievable.” He was, however, impressed with Spielberg, Scorsese and Coppola, and held the highest regard for Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky calling him “the greatest of them all.” Fellini, too, found favour with the Swede: “He is intuitive; he is creative; he is an enormous force.”

So what does Bergmanesque actually mean? The director himself said that it implied a preference for intuition over intellect, as well as the exploration of themes of mortality, loneliness, and faith. The notion of female sexuality was also often at the core of his films, most notably in Persona (1966), perhaps his most experimental and uncharacteristic film, for visually, his work tended to be direct and austere, rather than overtly stylized . His actors were often encouraged to improvise dialogue, and his propensity for capturing them in extreme close-up became his trademark, as did his dynamic lighting technique. Most importantly, though, he seemed to use his films as an instrument of personal catharsis, infusing them with an emotional resonance that is almost unparalleled.

For a time, Bergman fell out of favour with his champions, both among his audience as well as film critics. The emotionality of his work became an easy target, just as Chaplin’s penchant for pathos had also lost him fans in the post-70s Reaganesque climate. As in so many other instances, though, critics reconnected with his work in the late 90s, and he was proclaimed the world’s greatest living filmmaker by Time magazine, in 2005. From the Grim Reaper of The Seventh Seal (1957), and Van Halen’s song of the same name, to being a target of loving parody in everything from The Simpsons to French and Saunders, without even being aware of it, a number of our cultural markers come from Bergman’s films.

And that is immortality.

Teesri Manzil: The Soundtrack

September 6, 2007

Just as apple pie is incomplete without that generous dollop of ice-cream, as Laurel is without Hardy, as Butt is without Bhatti, so too the soundtrack of our lives would be incomplete without the sonorous sounds of the late, great Panchamda a.k.a. Rahul Dev (R.D.) Burman, scion of maestro Sachin Dev (S.D.) Burman, and Bollywood music man extraordinaire. Where would we be without ‘Tere Bina Zindagi Se Koi’, or ‘Piya Tu Ab To Aaja’, or, ‘Raina Beeti Jaaey’, or ‘Ek Larki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga’? Certainly poorer, soul-wise. 

 

A musical prodigy from an early age, R.D. started his stint in the industry by assisting his illustrious father, who had already acknowledged his son’s genius by ‘borrowing’ the latter’s tune for one of his film assignments, which would become ‘Ae Meri Topi Palat Ke Aa’. Teesri Manzil was his first big budget, starry opus, with superstars Shammi Kapoor and Asha Parekh in the lead roles, as well as Helen, there for the seetees. After its resounding success, R.D. would become ensconced as the composer for Nasir Husain Films’ colourful extravaganzas, including Caravan, Hum Kissise Kum Nahin, Yaadon Ki Baraat, and Zamaane Ko Dihkana Hai.

 

The soundtrack for Teesri Manzil was another example of R.D.’s affinity for Western grooves and instrumentation. Where earlier he had urged people ‘Aao Twist Karein’ in Bhoot Bangla, here he doffs his feather-infested cap to rock ‘n roll. And he has at his disposal the inimitable vocal expertise of Mohammed Rafi and Asha Bhosle, as well as Majrooh Sultanpuri to pen the lyrics.

 

Rafi’s association with Panchamda would go a long way in establishing him as a playback singer of great versatility. Since the beginning of his career, Rafi’s mastery over all elements of shastriya sangeet made him the choice for the predominant musical stylings of the 50s i.e. ballads, ghazals, and light classical numbers in the vein of those worked by Naushad and company for films like Baiju Bawra, Basant Bahar etc. It was first O.P. Nayyar and then, more significantly, S.D. and son R.D. who experimented with him in a more modern mode. Teesri Manzil and beyond saw Rafi also gaining incredible command over boisterous, contemporary, jazz-inspired numbers, thereby ensuring that his vocal elegance did not go the way of the dodo when Bollywood musicals tastes started to veer away from the classical era in the 60s and 70s, towards a more ‘Western’ tempo and melody. Where Rafi had crooned the astonishing ‘Madhuban Mein Radhika Naache Re’, in Raag Hameer, for Kohinoor, he graduated to the infectious rebel yell of ‘Yahoo! Koi Mujhe Junglee Kahe’ for Junglee, to the breathtaking middle-ground of ‘Chura Liya Hai Tum Ne Jo Dil Ko’ for Yaadon Ki Baraat. And the second half of his journey started right here with Teesri Manzil.

 

And Rafi is matched note-for-note by Asha Bhosle, finally emerging tentatively from under her didi Lata Mangeshkar’s looming shadow. Championed earlier by O.P. Nayyar, Asha was nevertheless mostly called upon to sing for vamps of the Kitty-Suzie variety rather than for the heroines. Here though, she gets to sing for both and does a darn fine job of it. Although she does not get a solo here, she is never overshadowed by her more experienced cohort, and more than holds her own in their duets.

 

Take, for instance, the wonder that is ‘O Haseena Zulfon Wali’, a complete blast of a number which bears all the trademark jazzed up instrumentation that we associate with the big Nasir Hussain musical epics, with trumpets, saxophones and electric guitars embroiled in a fiery pas de deux with the driving rock ‘n roll drum line. Listen in particular to the drum solo that launches the tune, at par with any Western percussion you may have heard. Rafi is in great, flamboyant form, clearly relishing his lot. And then Asha makes her entry, all sultry and dripping with seductive panache: “Woh anjana dhoondti hoon, woh  deewana dhoondti hoon, jala kar jo chup gaya hai, woh parwana dhoondti hoon.” Her vocals charms are matched onscreen by a never-better Helen, encased in lycra and silk and giving as good as she gets. And later, at the end of the antara, the pace quickens and she exclaims “Main bhi hoon galiyon ki parchai, Kabhi yahan kabhi wahan, Shaam hi se kuch ho jaata hai, Mera bhi jaadu jawaan!”, to be met with a bevy of trumpet blasts that leads us back to the mukhra. And what eye candy the visuals are, with dynamic camera movement and an amazing psychedelic set with a giant Dali-esque eye that’ll make your head spin.

 

The second great dance number from the film is the musical adrenaline shot of ‘Aaja Aaja Mein Hoon Pyaar Tera’. In the same tradition as Shankar-Jaikishen’s composition ‘Jaan Pehchaan Ho’ from Gumnaam, made a year earlier (and immortalized further as Thora Birch’s getting-down song of choice in Ghost World), this is one rock ‘n roll locomotive that has and will never need a jhankar-ification, so potent is its boogie pedigree. With its irresistible guitar riff, thumping bass line, cunning brass section, and breathtaking rhythm, it knocks your socks off. And the Asha-Rafi vocal interplay is so infectious as to be a medical hazard! I challenge you to hear the rather suggestive ‘A-a-aaja A-a-aaja’ section, combined with sly notes on the trombone, and not be compelled to shimmy and shake along.

 

Probably the least well-known song on the soundtrack is the underrated ‘Dekhiye Saahibo Woh Koi Aur Thi’, which, admittedly is a very situational number and not as easy to appreciate as a standalone piece, but there is still much to recommend it. Rafi’s vocal, for instance, is quite experimental here, with the opening verse playing like a kind of staccato singing style that is highly unusual and works beautifully with the stop-and-start rhythm of the song. Special mention must also be made of the picturisation, which takes place at a mela, and boasts some awesome camerawork.

 

Rafi’s breezy ‘Deewana Mujhsa Nahin Is Ambar Ke Neeche’ is a lovely medium-tempo number that oozes hill-station romance circa the 60s. With minimalist orchestration that also uses a subtle jaltarang, this one is an immortal classic for the aashiq in all of us.

 

In many ways, the strongest track on the record is ‘Tumne Mujhe Dekha’. Employing one of R.D’s favourite secret weapons (used to wonderful effect in ‘Yeh Larka Hai Allah’ from Hum Kissi Se Kum Nahin) i.e. an instrumental intro that contrasts sharply with the main body of the song, it starts off with a rocking intro but then segues into a torch song of amazing intensity, which is at once dark and luminous. Rafi’s searing rendition scorches the soul, emphasizing the depth of Majrooh’s filmi but soulful lyrics: “O kahin dard ke sehra main, Rukte chalte hote, In hothon ki hasrat main, Tapte jalte hote, Meherbaan hogayi zulf ki badliyan… Jaan-e-man, Jaan-e-jaan…” Matchless!

 

It is really no wonder that ‘O Mere Sona’ is a perennial favourite with remix ‘musicians’; the melody is so alluring, so full of spice and zing, that the song refuses to age in the slightest. Although it is not technically a solo – Rafi sings a few lines at the end – this is Asha’s song all the way. To use a cliché, her voice is like a finely tuned instrument that scales the highs and lows of the tune with such remarkable élan that it is impossible not to get blown away. The vocal exuberance is complemented by some elegant sections on the accordion, which are a highlight.

 

Among all of R.D. Burman’s Bollywood projects, Teesri Manzil is surely a priceless jewel, and considering that his oeuvre consists of the likes of Amar Prem, Aandhi, Masoom, and Ijaazat, that is saying something.

 

Enough said!

Transformers: A review

September 6, 2007

Dir: Michael Bay

*ing: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Jon Voight

 Bet you didn’t see this one coming. Yes, usually this reviewer is entrusted with the ‘issue’ films – you know, so somber and ‘important’ they give you a nosebleed. But one needs a break from all that guilt-inducing righteousness now and then. After all, cod liver oil may be good for you, but nothing hits the spot like a chocolate shake. And I happen to like inflated-budget concoctions just as much as the next 14 year-old geek with an unnatural sci-fi fixation. To be sure, even among that fare, we usually prefer the darker, more intellectually challenging stuff, like Blade Runner. But at other times, we just want ‘em big, dumb, and soaked knee-deep in testosterone.

 Which brings us to Transformers, the latest bazillion-dollar smorgasbord from Michael Bay, the prince of indiscriminate explosions. After wreaking cinematic havoc at Pearl Harbor, The Rock, and The Island, here he is putting the world into grave and immediate danger, with the tagline ‘Their war. Our world.’ As for the plot…

 Ever get the feeling that your car has a mind of its own? Well, turns out that it just might. The movie, you see, is about these ordinary, everyday machines that transform into big-ass, ultra-powerful, um, machines. But that’s not lame because they’re from outer space and anything that’s from outer space is automatically cool. There’s also some sort of power gizmo they’re after and, during their quest, vow to protect us poor earthlings – put-upon teenager Sam (La Beouf) and high school hottie Mikaela (Fox) chief among them – from an evil, renegade band of… machines. Well, with a story based on a bunch of slightly weird toys and a cheesy 80s cartoon series, you were expecting Hemingway?

 But as silly films with laughable plots go, Transformers is, well certainly not the best, but sort of the filmic equivalent of the little engine that could. It’s totally ridiculous but you gotta love it. It’s a couple of barrels full of fun, and as everyone knows, fun beats meaningful and coherent hands down any day. The first half, especially, gambols along winningly, with some inspired moments of humour that are laugh-out-loud funny – check out the overgrown gadgets trying to ‘hide’ from Sam’s parents.

 But what’s an f/x movie without f/x? And the ones on display here are (mostly) pretty darn spectacular. The action set-pieces may be on the comme çi comme ça side – explosion is an explosion is an explosion – but the autobot transformation sequences are truly breathtaking and never cease to shock and awe. Really, it’s only when the movie stupidly attempts to get all serious and message-y that it lays a few leaden eggs, but those instances are easily ignored.

 Transformers also has an ace up its sleeve in the person of Shia Labeouf, a gifted actor who has pints of charisma and an easy, guileless charm reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart, or Tom Hanks without the annoying earnestness. With another sleeper hit – Disturbia – under his belt this year, Labeouf is surely destined to be a big star, even though his parents are probably the only people on earth who can pronounce his name correctly.

 By now, any and all silly puns about Megan Fox have been exhausted. As in, her name is Fox and, you know – nudge nudge, wink, wink – she also is one. So as one of those Pussycat Dolls might say, I won’t go there. Suffice to say, though, for all her histrionic abilities, she could just as easily have been called Megan Balsawood.

 All in all, Transformers is 144 minutes well spent. I do have one gripe though. Why are all the transformers male? Über lunks with super-macho vocals to rival those of James Earl Jones? I mean, if a few of them were girls, they could have resolved all their differences over a shoe-shopping spree and been home in time for cocktails, without all that unnecessary unpleasantness. But I guess then it would have been a really short chick flick. And it would have been called Machine Sex and the City.


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