Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Cinema Darling, Cinema

The Chennai International Film Festival 2013 was a lot of fun. I watched 10 films in 9 different languages in 4 days. Here's the list:

Salvo
Mold ( Kuf )
Like Father, Like Son
How to Describe a Cloud
Waiting for the Sea
A Long and Happy Life
Nordvest
A Touch of Sin
Young & Beautiful
In Bloom

Of all these films, 1 was outstanding, 2 highly enjoyable, 2 downright depressing and the others falling somewhere in between.

I would actually recommend Like Father, Like Son to every parent and child. It is very powerful and tear-inducing but also outrageously funny and deeply charming. Hirokazu Koreeda directs with a very sympathetic eye and a very gentle touch; He shows us how deeply flawed we can be but also tells us that we can redeem ourselves. The actors are a treat to watch, especially the kids who seem to have been left to be themselves, with the actors playing fathers deserving special mention. I have read about Koreeda's other work and I think he is a filmmaker one cannot afford to miss.

I was awed by Bakhtiar Khudoijinazarov's audacity, and though by no means is Waiting for the Sea a masterpiece, the fact that it aspires to scale the epicness of individual ambition makes it a compelling watch. These days when film protagonists are getting more and more solipsistic and film worlds are deeply entrenched in existentialism, it is heartening to see a hero, who in the spirit of Greek gods takes upon himself an impossible task and accomplishes it with the sheer force of his will.

On the other hand, Michael Noer's Nordvest is if anything, a stark opposite of Waiting for the Sea. Here we have an 18- year old petty robber in a dog-eat-dog, urban jungle of Denmark, totally clueless about the meaning and purpose of his life, and being pushed and pulled by factors beyond his control. It is an example of the kind of films European art film circuit has helped popularize around the world ( work of filmmakers like Michael Haneke, Bela Tarr, Lars Von Trier come to mind ) in the last couple of decades. These films deal with European philosophies that came about around the Great Wars and deal with grim issues like like absurdism, determinism, nihilism, the meaninglessness of life and are marked by very grim aesthetic sensibilities like shooting in real time, with no discernible camera movement, almost no background score and a reluctance to explain to the audience the motivations behind the actions of the characters. All that matters is the act- Either because the character could not help but do it or because it has done it. What we and the character should now care about are the repercussions. Nordvest could have been bleak and a bore to watch, but Noer makes up for his high art sensibilities by ensuring that the camera movement is handheld and kinetic, which brings a certain sense of urgency to the proceeding, and editing it ruthlessly. No shot is one moment too long.

Good editing is a compliment I cannot offer to films Ali Aydin's Mold, Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza's Salvo and  Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Grob's In Bloom. The problem with making an art film is you want to come off as deep and insightful and just because a few past masters used long, uninterrupted shots that must have meant something in the context, it does not mean that any film that has moments of inactivity is an intelligent one. The three films I mentioned above were trying to impress than inspire and that left me cold. I can watch films that are idiosyncratic and egoistical but these were just plain boring. And that left me thinking about how hard it is to truly make a film that utilizes moments of inactivity so well to deliver the intended effect.

Boris Khlebnikov's A Long and Happy Life is an earnest film talking about socialism in this age and how modern societies convert even well-meaning, idealistic young men into cynics. It is meant well, moves at a reasonable pace, again with no background music but the ending seemed too abrupt. The transformation of the young man could have been handled much more sympathetically but Khlebnikov does not spend even one moment empathizing with his protagonist. Everything is presented as distantly as possible and though this ensures there is no adulteration, it grabs only our attention but not our imagination.

I cannot describe David Verbeek's How to Describe a Cloud. I will leave by saying that I went there to watch the highly acclaimed Kattell Quillevere's Suzanne but due to some technical issues, they screened How to describe a cloud and I found the first fifteen minutes so dull and dry that I dozed off. When I woke up about twenty minutes later, I couldn't make head or tail of what was trying to be said but ended up watching the bleak-toned film just because I couldn't go back to sleep.

That leaves us with Jia Zhanke's A Touch of Sin and Francois Ozon's Young & Beautiful. I had to come running from Casino to Woodlands, a distance of about two kilometers, just to get a seat for A Touch of Sin. Everyone I had been bumping into spoke about it and it was even recommended by the festival curator. Sure enough, Nikhil and I could only find the seats in the first row empty and watched the film with sore butts and aching necks. I don't know if that contributed to my experience but I found the film to be cheap, sensational and hellbent on shocking the viewer with the gore portrayed. I don't know what the criteria of the Cannes film festival is to pick up nominations for the Palme D'or, but I don't think sensationalism is one of them. At times it felt too much like a Balaji Sakthivel film where nothing even remotely good happens to the protagonists and though that might actually be true, the filmmaker uses that as an excuse to savagely demonstrate violence than as a cue to observe and celebrate their lives. No, definitely not worth the neck pain.

Young & Beautiful casts a ravishing actress in the role of a teenager who is coming to terms with her sexuality and it documents her life through four seasons. Though the story is hardly new, and is not even treated all that differently, it is a stunning film to look at. Marine Vacth is a gorgeous woman and the camera does justice to her beauty by just letting it linger on her. And though the film tries to come off as poetic, it follows rules too rigidly for it surprise or amuse us.

Apart from those films, I watched Lucia. Totally fell for it, and though the story invariably brings up Nolan comparisons, I thought Pawan Kumar's tone was really new and his approach very Indian. The film is a must-watch and must be commended for its work in all departmens though Satish Neenasam's works deserves a special mention. He so effortlessly straddles the worlds of a lonely, confident superstar and a nervous, bumbling but happy torch-shiner that midway through the film, I totally forgot that it was just one actor performing two different roles. Searing. I also watched Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery and re-watched Anything else, which incidentally is his first film I ever saw way back in 2004. Did I know that I would be such a big fan of his work? I don't think so, but even then he had appealed to my sensibilities probably because his films do not seem to follow a story structure or a narrative arc. They happen just because they're funny and interesting. Only now, after watching and reading about so many of his films, am I learning to appreciate the kind of work and genius it goes into making something seem so effortless. And then, this afternoon, I saw Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain. Though I am a huge fan of The Wrestler and A Requiem for a Dream and though this film breezed by, I found myself unsatisfied. This did not seem like it was an Aronofsky movie, it didn't have the unflinching gaze or brutal honesty of his other films, and the story was too thin to be masked with pop philosophy and fancy editing. Ebert in his review of the film spoke about a director's cut. I will be waiting for it too.

Apart from introducing me to a large range of film which I wouldn't have known otherwise, the film festival also had a happy side-effect. For the first time in my life, I was in the midst of people who took cinema as seriously as I did and I bumped into film buffs from IIST, assistant directors from Telugu and Tamil film industries, a couple of cinematographers and 50 year old men who seemed as ecstatic as a kid in a toy room. The film mania was permeating. Also, I missed a couple of films that I wanted to watch, Paulo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty and Bojan Vuk Kosovcevic's The Whirlpool, I will be sure to catch them out soon.

So that's how things have been on the film side. And the title of this post is inspired by this song.

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