Meghe Dhaka Tara / The Cloud-Capped Star (1960)

27 07 2014

It takes all but two minutes of Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star for money to be discussed. Saying that money is a primary theme of the film might evoke some groans, how often do we expect works of arts to communicate something deeper, whatever that means. We often expect the grandest of artistic statements to not dabble in something so common and superficial? The binary between the grand and the everyday is, of course, a completely false one. Ghatak’s characters are motivated by money, their unhappiness and despair is fueled by their inability to pay the rent. The Cloud-Capped Star‘s biggest accomplishment is that it is as poetic as it is pragmatic. A drama that creates a rhythm of daily existence, but captures and frames the routine is such a mesmerizing way.

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Neeta breaks her sandal on her way home, but instead of purchasing another pair, she finishes her commute barefooted. Awaiting her at home is her brother, Shankar, a talented singer with no means of income. He knows Neeta is bringing home her monthly salary, and hopes she might be willing to share her earnings. Younger siblings Gita and Mantu also ask for some of Neeta’s earnings, as they seek to acquire new clothes. Putting the rest of the family before herself is just a part of Neeta’s life, even though her mother scolds her for doing so. With both of her parents unemployed, Neeta is the family’s main source of income. To continue her role, she puts her romance with Sanat on hold. She delays her own happiness, with the expectation that one day, she will be repaid for her sacrifice.

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We’ve known Neeta for a very short time when she reads a love letter sent from Sanat. She holds the letter with so much devotion that it might as well be an actual person. She gazes into the sky, presumably to dream of a lovely future. Then, she is immediately interrupted by her brother, Shankar, who begins to tease her for the letter. This early moment builds a structure that is followed throughout. Neeta’s moments of happiness and rest are fleeting, and they are likely to be interrupted. Her family expects everything of her, and when she takes time to pause from her unreasonable duties, someone comes along to correct her or criticize her for forgetting about the moon when she only gives her family all of the stars.

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It sounds a little too dreary to say that Neeta is doomed, but her situation is one that can never quite be appreciated. Her family can acknowledge her personal sacrifice, but they never seem to be fully aware of its weight. The only time her devotion is mentioned is in arguments. For example, her mother praises her in passing, but she mentions her as an example when criticizing Shankar and his lack of work. Acknowledgement comes but only with the expectation that everyone else should be working as hard as she is, never is the idea that she is working far too hard floated through someone’s consciousness. Neeta’s love interest, Sanat, suggests that she’s “not cut out to endure this” but even here, something seems to be missing. Neeta’s reply, “It doesn’t matter” is quite telling. Sure, she’s not cut out to endure this, but nobody is cut out to endure suffering.

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Sanat himself suffers, though he tells us that he suffers for an ideal. To be more direct, he is basically turning down job offers to pursue his academic interest, with the hope of a more worthy career. Throughout the film, the people around Neeta look down on “physical labor” in spite of the fact that they can’t even pay the rent. Neeta gets such a job to earn some extra money for the family, but another personal sacrifice is seen as shame. Her father asks, “Is this what the middle class has sunk to?” The family can’t pay rent, sure, but physical labor is something beneath them. Once again, everything is expected of Neeta, yet everything she does is unfairly scrutinized. As a woman trying to take care of her family, her suffering is seen as trivial next to the “artistic” or “political” suffering of her father and Sanat, the latter who willfully chooses such a life. Little do they know, her suffering is far more political.

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There are some who would hesitate to call Ghatak’s film political, if only because the idea of the “political film” evokes an idea of a film far removed from his world. I don’t like the phrase, simply because it implies a genre, one that is often used to describe experimental and consciously political works of Europeans like Godard or even Pasolini. Ghatak, like Naruse before him, is extremely political even if the vocabulary of Marxist theory is absent. I love Godard and Pasolini, for the record, but this image of the “political film” ignores The Cloud-Capped Star or When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, to give one Naruse example. Like Sanat’s consciously political suffering in this film, the musings of men is given more weight. Sure, Ghatak was a man, but it is easy to see his film gendered feminine. Those critical of the film accuse it of being melodramatic, a term that evokes femininity and something less authentic. It is something meant to undercut the political implications of such a film, after all shouldn’t Marxist theory be left to solemn white males? The answer is, of course, no it absolutely shouldn’t.

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The irony in all of this is that Ghatak himself was vocally political and a member of Indian Communist Party, but such a detail contradicts the way western film scholars construct narratives around Asian filmmakers. This is the narrative that focuses on Yasujiro Ozu’s spirituality, the one that ignores his queerness and his radical politics. It’s the same narrative that focuses the attention on Satyajit Ray and applauds his humanity, but in the same breath dehumanizes the dense and vital history of the rest of Indian cinema and its contributors. This all seems like an off-topic tangent, one that suggests a simplistic reading of western film criticism. It’s related to my larger point, though. The Cloud-Capped Star is a deeply political movie, even as it is not a “political film” in the European tradition. It’s a movie about existing in a world that does everything to get rid of you, to achieve happiness despite the obstacles being endless. At one point, Neeta remarks, “All my suffering will vanish.” She’s wrong, of course, but that’s the tragedy.

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The Clock (1945)

23 07 2014

Hollywood is the place where the most hopeless of cynics finally lay down their insecurities and admit that love is a beautiful and wonderful thing. Romance filmmakers in Hollywood often swing for the fences and sometimes the results are transcendent (Frank Borzage) and other times, we get a film like The Clock, which is admirable enough non-musical effort from Vincente Minnelli. The reason Minnelli’s boy-meets-girl fable falls apart is not because it is difficult to believe, but instead because it so flippantly portrays its romance that it is difficult to read it as anything else than just an advertisement for the idea of love. Perhaps this is what a lot of Hollywood romances were and what many modern ones inspire to be, but the parts of this film suggest something far more courageous that the disappointment is deeper.

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Joe Allen, on a two day military leave, finds himself in the inspiring and overwhelming monster that is New York City. Upon arriving at Penn Station, he bumps into Alice Mayberry. Alice, like the rest of the city’s inhabitants, seems to be in a rush, but she is eventually taken by Joe’s small town charm and she agrees to spend the afternoon with him. The budding friendship blossoms into something more as the two get into plenty of mischief running around the city. The question is, will their short time together be enough for them to stay together when Joe has to return back to the military.

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I would like to state that first off, Vincente Minnelli does not deserve all the blame here. He tries pretty much everything in his cinematic power to capture the sort of magic that is a new romance is meant to evoke, in fact he succeeds. The film opens with Joe arriving at Penn Station with a tracking shot that immediately communicates everything about New York City and Joe’s relation to it. Without ever telling us, we already know that he’s never been anywhere nearly as big. His naivety is later confirmed in the dialogue, but Minnelli gracefully speaks for the character with his camera’s movements. There’s inspired moments such as this sprinkled throughout the movie (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Keenan Wynn as a drunk) but they’re not enough to buoy an experience that ultimately suffers from certain cultural expectations.

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So where does the film fall apart? Well, at the risk of rehashing old reviews, I’d like to yet again bring up the idea of “decentering relationships” that I first discuss in my review of Hong Sang-Soo’s Our SunhiHong’s film expertly shifts the perspective from the men in relationships to one woman, and in the process, deconstructs many of the grand romantic gestures made by men in older films such as this one. In reality, one would be turned off by such actions. In The Clock, Joe is relentlessly passive-aggressive, which fine enough. I can say that I’ve exhibited similar behavior in certain situations, but here, it is somehow suggested to be a cute and endearing part of Joe’s smalltown makeup. Alice finds him charming, despite the fact she seems to have a life to return to.

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There’s something that should be said for what little we know about Alice and what little we’re given about her before she bumps into Joe. To be fair, Joe is an equally opaque character, with not much known about him beyond his involvement in the military in his midwestern upbringing. Yet, we continue to get no details about Alice. Throughout the film’s first half, we get her repeatedly telling both the audience and Joe that she really needs busy and needs to, you know, get back to her life. However, all the other things in her life, indeed the things that would help contribute to making her believable as a person with a life outside of being Joe’s fantasy are erased. We see her roommate and see the fallout of a cancelled dinner plan, but not much else. It is perhaps too much to ask a film to completely eat away at the structures that make the world relatively devoid of pressures for men, but there’s also so much at stake for a film like The Clock.

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In the past week, I’ve seen enough public displays of affection to last me a lifetime. I don’t really mind them, but it’s made me think about the problems in a film like this one. I hear many of my peers talk about they “want a girlfriend” with no idea that a relationship is a bit more than something you can just acquire. Films like The Clock, as well made as they are, feed into these ideas. Think of it in this way: beer commercials can’t actually show the product being consumed and often these romantic movies, can’t show the work that goes on within a relationship. Instead, both just show individuals being happy, suggesting that you need to experience this joy for yourself as soon as you can. It’s more than just “getting” a girlfriend, not to mention the possessive and problematic notion of such language.

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Beautiful Summer (1998)

13 07 2014

When a friend asks me to explain the magic or, hell, even the point of the films of a filmmaker like Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Tsai Ming-Liang, I often struggle. Sure, give me enough time and space and I’ll be able to confidently articulate the beauty and joy I find in these filmmaker’s work. The connection between Tsai and Hou in particular comes from their country of origin (Taiwan) but the more immediate link comes from their style. I’d argue that there’s a difference in their work, but they, for better or worse, became the iconic figures of (East) Asian Minimalism. Tetsuya Nakashima, who would direct Kamikaze Girls six years after this effort, seems far away from this type of aesthetic. Beautiful Sunday, although a bit more free-spirited formally than the work of Hou and Tsai, seems to work with a similar rhythm. A poignant story about a group strangers and the small, seemingly insignificant brushes against each other.

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A young couple’s noise complaint finally gets the attention of their land lady. She goes to investigate the source, but the problem can’t be replicated. She attempts to stomp around to recreate the noise, but does so unsuccessfully. Meanwhile, a young girl attends to her homework with rigorous dedication as her mother seems to stumble back into their loft, perhaps reeling from a bender. An older woman screams at the same time everyday, while another is trying to deal with a stalker. The behavior of all of the inhabitants of the apartment complex seems to be something one can depend on, but for an initially easygoing Sunday afternoon, things change.

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Beautiful Sunday is a movie about the end of a cycle. For most of us, Sunday itself is the end of the cycle that is the week. When we climb into bed on this day, we know that the next time we’re aware, a new week will greet us, and the cycle starts all over again. Nakashima’s characters seem to be at the end of a cycle as well. The man in the aforementioned couple (I guess now is a good time to mention that no names are ever uttered) is a writer for a television show, which he later finds out is not being renewed. Their primary source of income is now in major jeopardy. It seems like the couple’s relationship itself seems to be in danger, as their conversations frequently show both of them wanting something the other can’t simply offer.

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One of the most incisive moments of the relationship’s troubles come when the woman makes the simple suggestion to her man: “Make me happy.” A few moments later, he tries to get in bed with her, presumably to be affectionate, but she’s not interested. She hasn’t changed her mind, she most likely still wants him to make her happy, but the two have very different ideas of how this can be accomplished. Happiness, which is ever so elusive and difficult to pinpoint, looks different to everyone. One could argue this is why the relationship is beginning to disintegrate, but in reality, such errors in communication happen all the time, even in loving and “healthy” relationships.

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Rather than being about a relationship falling apart, which is still what is happening at the surface, I think the scene described above is an example of Nakashima’s meditation on attention. The idea of wanting attention is so frequently given a negative connotation. The truth is we all want attention, at least a certain kind of attention, because most of social interaction is basically, exchanging attention. This might sound like I’m trying to cheapen our relationships, but instead I am trying to move the negative stigma from attention. In addition to the moment already described, Beautiful Sunday also features a woman trying to escape the gaze of a stalker. However, when she invites him into her apartment, it’s revealed that she’s actually hired him to stalk her. One could read this as a simplistic satirical view of women’s vanity, but vanity is not the issue. The individuals in Beautiful Sunday seem to be constantly looking for emotional connections (again, in the vein of Tsai) but they seem to never work. Here, we have Nakashima navigated the idea of “good attention” and “bad attention” and validating are desires to want the former, and protection from the latter.

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