Over the past month, I’ve had some deeply profound experiences with, and reactions to, art, which have changed my perception of art in all its forms. With this column, I am going to try and assimilate these, mostly disparate, thoughts into a unified whole.
Michael Haneke’s Amour was the opening film at the 10th Chennai International Film Festival (hereafter referred to as CIFF). It was an exquisitely made and emotionally resonant film which addressed the concept of love for a couple who’re in their twilight years. (There were a few scenes that shocked me with the suddenness of their appearances in the film.) Its lead pair, being an 80-year old couple, are the perfect example of characters you have to empathize with. The husband’s sacrifices for his wife, his telling off of his daughter, the wife’s loss of dignity at the hands of nurses, or even the manner in which the husband gradually loses his patience… you have to put yourselves in the shoes of these characters to understand what they’re going through. This is especially true of the shocking and abrupt manner of the film’s ending which warrants discussion on whether it is right or wrong as well as an introspection into what we would’ve done in that situation. Here, I am forced to veer off, not too tangentially, to another film I saw at CIFF, Umut Dag’s Kuma. It is another example of a film where I sympathized with the lead characters, in this case an elderly woman who marries her husband off to a young, village girl in the hope that she would become the matriarch of the family, only for fate to deal a cruel blow to their lives. Both those films stayed with me for a long time because of how much I invested into these characters. I was left contemplating their definitions of right and wrong and whether they mirrored mine for a number of days afterwards.
Besides having strong characters, Amour and Kuma also worked for me on the most fundamental level, as in what was presented on-screen grabbed me and never let go until after the credits had rolled by. I didn’t have to mine into layer-upon-layer of subtext or ponder on what that shot meant or why this shot was framed in a specific fashion to appreciate the film. There’s a scene in Amour where the husband tries to catch a pigeon that flies into his house that many considered to have a deep impact on them. I knew this scene was supposed to imply something but I didn’t get what it was. It relies on subtext and contemplation, but it was also effective because I was watching a character I cared about deeply.
In comparison, there are two films I genuinely despised at CIFF: Majas Milos’ Klip and Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love. The former is supposed to be an indictment of the shallowness of the Facebook generation while the latter is a look at sex tourism in a third-world African country, Kenya in this case. I was bored for large periods in both of them, and the directors were essentially showing me different variations of the same scenes. How often do I want to see a young girl (Isidora Simijonovic as Jasna, the only good thing in Klip) get humiliated at the hands of someone she considers to be her boyfriend? One sex scene, or even two, is fine. But when the film literally moves from one sex scene to another, it gets lame after a point. Moreover, Jasna was a character I loathed; she has a bedridden yet loving father, an impatient but caring mother, and a family that cannot be in any way termed as dysfunctional, yet she chooses to chase after someone who exploits her as an object of sexual obsession. How can anyone be interested in these characters? Klip had failed at the most fundamental aspect of film viewing by failing to keep me engaged.
Paradise: Love evoked a similar response. It follows the journey of a German woman who’s travelled to Kenya as a sex tourist. Here is a woman who has come to a country that sells sex for money, yet she wants these so-called sex slaves to look into her eyes when they make love. There’s a scene in the film where her partner takes her on a tour to a number of different places and asks her to give a sum of money to people in each of them. He keeps saying, “Give money. Give money.” The audience, including me, found it very hard to suppress their laughter. It is pretty obvious at one point that the woman he says is his sister is actually his wife, but the German woman fails to realize that. I couldn’t help but think, “What nonsense? How can someone be this stupid and ignorant?” A lot of people have written on how the film addresses the issue of sex tourism in third-world countries, but that again involves looking at the larger picture. How can I overlook the sheer banality of what’s on-screen to meditate on the travails of sex slaves in Kenya?
The last film I saw at CIFF was Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, and it was in stark contrast to Paradise: Love and Klip. It gave the viewers a look into a day in the life of its central character known only as “Le Dormeur”. I can only guess that there is a metaphorical interpretation for the film’s visuals, which I might be able to perceive in subsequent viewings, because what I saw didn’t make much sense. However, each individual episode was filled with so much intrigue (the Eva Mendes episode and live-action animation episode), suspense (the episode with the knifing), drama (the episode with the daughter), comedy, and pathos (Kylie Mingoue episode) that how it all came together didn’t really matter. It is a very different kind of film to those I’ve discussed above. It was just a delicious and delightful romp of a film, and a case of me not giving a damn about the whole because of how outrageously entertaining the individual parts were.
I was also fortunate enough to land a viewing of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, his debut and the first film in his much heralded The Apu Trilogy, at CIFF. Of this film, there was some insightful discussion in the comments section of Baradwaj Rangan’s post Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The amour for art cinema”. (The post as well as the entire comments section makes for an intriguing discussion on art cinema thanks to some intelligent posters.) As a sample, consider the following excerpt from the comment by PK:
““Pather Panchali” is an exquisite film…, of course there are some rough edges to it (its his first film) but there is no way to deny its beauty. This was probably and arguably the first film from India where “filmic metaphors” took an intellectual rigidity like never before. Consider the first shot of Apu…, his eyes opened by his sister signifying how instrumental she will be to help him grow out and almost painfully loose his innocence. This (using the eye) is a recurring motif (looking) in film akin to how the camera (“eye”) is capturing reality. The movie is littered with shots of contrast; the famous train shot is one (black smoke vs white field, black and white film et. al.). The “Power to reveal” is highlighted in such mundane shots of the old wrinkled lady walking across the screen in comparison to the smooth skin of durga and apu running along the curved path – “The things to come” vs “The things we are leaving behind”.”
I didn’t get any of those metaphors, which I might have on multiple viewings. But even without delving into such finer details, I was able to sympathize for the plight of this particular family Ray had chosen to train his camera on, and I wanted to spend as much time with them as possible. It also did help that I knew about the culture of the India portrayed in the film, as in when Harihar says, “I know good things will happen with the blessing of God.” This kind of devotion, I was able to comprehend, whereas a Westerner might not. By the end of the film, I was anxious to chase down the rest of the trilogy at the earliest. In my future viewings, of which I know there will be many, I’ll be trying read into those metaphors pointed out by PK, though they certainly didn’t diminish my first-time viewing of this masterpiece.
Classics of the cinema are always an interesting topic of discussion because so much has been said about them that our very judgment is in question. Take Stanley Kubrick’s seminal masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey for example. I saw it during my formative years as a film-buff (think 2007-09) when I wasn’t as introspective as I am now. It is a two and a half hour film with dialogues for only one-thirds of it, and one which other viewers on forums I visited regularly had said they found boring. I approached it with a lot of trepidation, not sure whether I would appreciate it, and what the consequences of not comprehending it would be to my “cinephile” status. Yet, I was immediately able to concur with the popular opinion that it is a great film. One possible explanation would be that I am fascinated in general by science-fiction, space, our evolution and other tangential topics, but that would be myopic. I had never seen anything like 2001 before and have not seen anything like it since. Its unique blend of surrealistic visuals and serene music made for a wondrous experience; I was in awe of it all. I would like to reference another blog post from Baradwaj Rangan titled Between Reviews: Forget what it means… Just see what it is here. The article as a whole struck a chord with me, but I am particularly fond of the final line: “And so far, not a word is spoken. It’s just cinema, pure cinema.”
That final line could be applicable to any one of these so-called masterpieces I saw in the same time frame as 2001. Citizen Kane is widely regarded as the greatest film ever made. I watched it after doing some light background reading. I spotted the masterful shot of Kane’s figure being reflected in the eternal sequence of mirrors as I also did with its usage of depth-of-field. I also read Roger Ebert’s essay on the film he deems to be the finest motion picture of all time. (Please do read it, especially the last paragraph which goes into great detail on the film’s lesser known shots.) I showed it, along with Casablanca, to my sister, and she didn’t enjoy both of them. I did. I wouldn’t have done any of that if I wasn’t intrigued by Citizen Kane. These films, these masterpieces, are acclaimed because they work as films, as visual experiences first and foremost, and then, only then do they require deeper meditation as pieces of art.
If at all there is a point I am arriving at, it would be that any work of art has to appeal at its most primitive level. Each time I listen to Ilaiyaraaja or U2, I find something else to admire in their music, but I wouldn’t have sat and listened to them so many times if I wasn’t mesmerized on the first listen. The same is applicable for all those films I’ve talked about in detail. I am not suggesting this is the only way art can work. I’ve simply realized that this is what works for me. I can hear you asking, “What’s the big deal?” It maybe isn’t for you, but it is for me. This particular epiphany has made me approach films – and, by extension, everything else – with an entirely fresh perspective. Where I was previously averse to analyzing films in great detail because I was afraid my viewing might get tainted, I am now willing to walk into any film with the knowledge that such analysis is not going to spoil the film, its lack of visual appeal is. I am no longer going to be intimidated when approaching films considered to be among the greatest ever made. (Vertigo is an example of a film that made me wonder what all the fuss is about.) I am just going to experience the film as it was meant to be.