Mahanager (1963)

27 10 2008

More of the same from Satyajit Ray, though generally speaking, I’m less enthusiastic about this film than I am about Nayak. Of course, Pather Panchali still remains my favorite by a large margin, but I am beginning to get a better grip on his overall “style” which is initially a tad too simplistic. No doubt, the poetic sensory images from Pather Panchali aren’t nearly as prominent here, but that hardly makes the film a failure. In fact, Ray’s interest at this point seem to lay less in the formal and more in the personal. This does have the advantage of being perhaps the most intimate of the Ray films I’ve seen, and probably the one where the characters’ relationships are best established. Then again, they may just be a lot more interesting.

This could probably be categorized as a message film, as Ray seems to be touching upon a variety of closely related topics, all of which deal with India’s cultural progression. The main narrative point comes when the mother of the house, Arati, is forced to take a job to make ends meet. At first, this plan seems to be free of problems as Arati’s husband Subraya quickly finds her job, but Ray slowly begins to reveal how much importance the rest of family places on values. The grandparents of the house aren’t just upset by this move, they are flat-out disgusted.

This sounds almost humorous, and I admit, I actually got a chuckle out of it, but it does play in to a prominent issue addressed by many other “art” directors in the time period. Most notably, Yasujiro Ozu, who seems to be somewhat of an influence here. Ray sticks to his own aesthetics, of course, but the fact that the main conflicts come from class and family issues seems to be a gentle nod to Ozu. Also like Ozu, Ray is not preaching one way or another, but merely depicting the fact-of-the-matterness of the situation. Husband and wife both working to make ends meet is common in modern, especially American, society, but it must have been a pretty progressive statement here.

I’d hate to draw a comparison point between Ray and another Japanese director, but I can’t help but see a depiction of an “alternative version” of marriage owning something to Mikio Naruse’s Repast, which provides a much more distanced couple dealing with their issues in more drastic measures. Naruse’s film still irks people today, but Ray’s comes off as being a really well-made feminist statement. Again, he’s not preachy with these statements, but his mere observations are enough. His heroine is trapped into her family expectations: they expect her to be a housewife and while she does not want to disrespect or tear her family further apart, she also wants to maintain her independence. On paper, this all sounds a little hokey, but I honestly doubt Ray had such philosophy in his head, which is of course what makes it all work.

I feel I must stress that Ray does not use his characters as pawns to carry out these messages, or examples. They really are their own perceptively drawn-out person. It can’t be too exciting to praise film on the mere promise that it will be present full and complex characters, but there is something incredibly intriguing about seeing them interact. This is more of an actors’ film than it is a directors’. This is perfectly fine, though, as these are characters that I can’t help be eager to examine. Ray takes his time in his depictions, but that is why they are so rewarding.

L’Amour, L’argent, l’amour (2000)

27 10 2008

I’m finding it very difficult to start this review for the nostalgic weight that the film itself holds for me. It almost perfectly sums up what I looked for in films about two years ago. It’s a grainy, jump-cut happy, montage-driven film about two lonely people finding each other. In a way, I almost wish I could have seen this two years ago. It’s not as though the film’s power has been completely lost simply because I prefer “slower” movies now, but I definitely would have connected with it more then than I do now. It’s sort of like an early Lukas Moodysson film wrapped inside of Olivier Assayas’ dreamy style with 8mm montages that are equal parts Gummo and Fallen Angels. Needless to say, the film does feel a bit over-stylized at times, but I can’t help but love something so kinetic and ambitious.

The opening sequence of urban nightlife fading in with grainy, almost incomprehensible footage of the protagonist perfectly sets one up for what to expect for the next two hours. The constant use of overlapping fades is a bit irritating at first, but it becomes less noticeable once one falls into the film’s rapid fire editing and pacing. Another sign of the film’s true nature as being “formally crazy” is present in how the whole thing feels like a very prolonged montage. To call the editing elliptical would be an understatement. As pretentious as it sounds, Groning really demolishes any sense of time. Some sequences become patterns, occasionally reappearing in a completely different order than originally shown.

This is why the otherwise ugly film stock really shows a sense of being truly poetic. While this is still a narrative film, it gives off the sensibility of something archival. John Cassavetes’ Faces would be a fine point of comparison in this respect, but I wouldn’t want this review to get bogged down in how both filmmakers are interested in the relationships between men and women. It’s enormously impressive how such a grainy aesthetic can capture such legitimately beautiful images, yet at the very same time come off as trying to feel like home videos a la the 8mm sequences in Korine’s Gummo. At the same time, Groning (probably unintentionally) juggles the romantic longings of Wong Kar-Wai’s cinema into these scenes.

It is inevitable, then, that one could argue against the film’s personal expression, but of course, it has something to say. In retrospect, the young lovers are never seen in a particularly flattering light. Sabine Timoteo is likable, but perhaps only because she’s one of the best and best-looking living actresses in modern cinema. The male, though, is predictably a bit too passive for his own good. For the first half of the film, at least, he’s definitely not the power figure in the couple’s relationship. Before they fall in love, he’s actually embarrassingly resistant to his future lover’s advances. In fact, much of the dramatic material comes off as a bit cringe-worthy.

I’m not saying that all the narrative events are painfully melodramatic, but they certainly aren’t subtle, either. Instead they exist within that space that most similarly-minded films would fall in. Fucking Amal, for example, bears very little narrative similarities, but it does have a very like-minded feeling behind it. The grainy cinematography definitely helps, but I’d like to think it is more than simply that. There is one narrative element that is perhaps a bit too self-consciously “serious art film-ish” and that is the seemingly random sequence in which, Marie is brutally raped.

This really does nothing to progress the film, except prove that her profession is one that cannot be depended on. Yet somehow, it is another aspect of the film that I can simply forgive the problems on the account that I, at some point in my cinematic life, was really affected by such things. And yet, everything that follows this scene is completely devoid of conventional dramatic principles. The remaining twenty minutes or so are almost like a lost artifact from everything that came before. The scene where the couple’s car catches on fire is a bit silly, but it leads to one of the most fitting and accurate conclusions in any film.

Day of the Outlaw (1959)

27 10 2008

I was somewhat impressed with André De Toth’s The Indian Fighter but this right here is something really special. Lately, I’ve watched a lot of movies with Robert Ryan playing rather “cold” villains, almost polar opposites of his character in The Naked Spur. His performance here is similarly passive and quiet, but generally, is just a lot better. I guess being the “hero” helps to some degree, but the biggest element might be the equally cold and harsh landscapes that physically consumes him and the rest of the cast. It might be a little bit of an exaggeration, but it is difficult to look at the visuals and not see some similarities of the brutally cold atmosphere in Bela Tarr’s films.

It probably speaks to how seriously I consider westerns that I could make such a connection, but it probably helps that Toth’s visual eye fits in perfectly with the reserved and downbeat tone of the film. Robert Ryan is definitely one of the most passive protagonists in any western, which is no small feat. The result of his character’s relationship with Helen Crane is textbook western, and probably a bit too predictable, but the sequences that the two share early on are really fantastic. There’s this fifteen minute stretch that is built around just them, but it eventually takes a backseat to the plot that quite literally barges in.

The pace isn’t completely halted by this point, but it is thrown off a little. I still definitely admire De Toth’s attempt at playing around with narrative structure. Truth be told, the conventional forward plot does lead to some of the film’s best sequences: specifically, the unbearably tension-saturated dance sequence in which the “out of towners” essentially make a mockery of the local women. There’s a oddly poignant little subplot involving a romance between one of the invaders and a local girl that comes out of nowhere, yet may actually be the single best thing about the film. And again, this all set up against some of the most beautiful visuals from any western. It’s pretty difficult for me to not love something so expertly crafted.