Sunday, January 22, 2012

IU Cinema Experiences: Pather Panchali

In the spirit of trying something different to see how it goes, this post begins a semi-recurring column titled "IU Cinema Experiences," in which I reflect on films that I've seen at the Indiana University Cinema here in Bloomington. Those already sick of the breathless coverage of the goings-on with my favorite local movie venue may roll their eyes on cue, but I'm taking this tack as a way to review older, classic films within the context of the overall experience with an audience in a theater. I thought of this after reporting last week on viewing Once Upon a Time in the West, one of the greatest moviegoing experiences in memory. (To my original summary of that masterwork I would add the idle thought of Stringer Bell from The Wire being a successor to Henry Fonda's Frank - a thug yearning for the white-collar respectability he's clearly not cut out for - and the fascination and pleasure in Leone's employment of intricate mechanics - of plot, of railroads, of industry - into his customarily warm-blooded filmmaking.) As one of my easterly readers noted, the revival of vintage film is par for the course in New York, but it's a game-changer here in the Midwest, and the fact that visiting VIPs from both Coasts have been taken by what they've seen here compels me to report on it as it's unfolding.

Yesterday afternoon's screening of Pather Panchali (1955) kicked off the Spring Semester's impressive "City Lights Series," following an overnight ice storm that left more empty seats than there likely would have been otherwise. I'd been looking forward to the movie because I'd seen a couple of Satyajit Ray films last year - after hearing about him long ago from glowing reviews by the likes of Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael - but his famous "Apu Trilogy" remains on Netflix curiously unavailable, so this was my chance to see the first of those films (indeed, the first film Ray made). Even sight unseen I had the idea that the movie was a coming-of-age tale about a boy's impoverished childhood while growing up in rural India. That's more or less true, leaning towards less, because Apu (Subir Bannerjee) is depicted as one part of a familial ensemble rather than the center of the story. The narrative begins - as is frequently seen through the eyes of - Apu's older sister Durga (a wonderfully assured Uma Das Gupta), whose petty larceny, it is implied, is part of the same gene pool as her cunning, opportunistic Auntie (Chunibala Devi). Yet significant parts of Pather Panchali are devoted to Apu's lonely mother (Karuna Bannerjee), who stays at home to care for the kids while their idealistic, playwright-aspiring father (Kanu Bannerjee) travels in search of work to make ends meet. The title of the film - the same as the original novel - means "Song of the Little Road," and Ray's movie casually unfolds as a string of vignettes from a folktale, held together by the calm, steady voice of a gifted orator.

Legend has it Ray had never shot a reel of film prior to the making of this one, and practically every scene in Pather Panchali - if not the meandering pace that connects them together - shows his instinctive movie-sense. One scene featuring Auntie telling a fable to her niece and nephew begins with a close-up of her shadow on the wall, slowly pulling back to reveal her gnarled face. (If I must confess to finding her character often irritating and hard to bear, I also have to admit that she's an unforgettable enough presence that the movie would be considerably less without her.) Another key sequence takes place during an evening monsoon, with Durga ill in bed, and her mother struggling to protect her against the wind and rain breaking through the rickety dwelling. Ray doesn't overdramatize the storm the way a Hollywood production would; it's very naturalness is what's terrifying. Yet his subtle visual touches - a door, a window tarp, a candle - are indicative of a master filmmaker.

Pather Panchali was the first film out of India to capture the attention of John Huston, Akira Kurosawa, and the world press at Cannes (and it's amusing how that sentence reads with authority despite my having only recently read about it). Also worth noting is Charles Burnett, during his visit to campus a couple months ago, said that it was Satyajit Ray - more than Italian neorealists like De Sica, so claimed by many critics - who was the primary influence on Killer of Sheep. (In retrospect, it's head-slappingly clear that Burnett's episodic debut about growing up in a poor African-American household shares many similarities to Ray's.) Of the three Ray films I've seen so far, Mahanagar (The Big City), a funny and bracing depiction of gender politics in 1960s Calcutta, remains my favorite; the third, The Music Room, while also a fine film, suffered from a shoddy DVD transfer and Hooked-On-Phonics subtitles. The 35mm print of Pather Panchali was imperfect, yet I suspect high-quality by what appears to be the dismal standards of Indian film preservation. More than Apu, who has every reason to feel dissatisfied, we should be thankful for what we have.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Le Carre, Leone and Labyrinths (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Once Upon a Time in the West)

(Warning: Spoilers.)

At last
Thursday night's screening of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West - in glorious 35mm at the IU Cinema - retired Executive Director of Film Preservation (at Paramount) Barry Allen described the structure of the film as "like a labyrinth...a series of concentric circles revolving around Claudia Cardinale's character at the center." That's an intriguing way to put it, and it also could apply to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson's raved-about new adaptation of John le Carre's classic espionage novel. The films are similar in complexity and employ the power of suggestion rather than overstatement. Leone's narrative, however, shoots outward from Cardinale Central to convey the expansion of modern America across the Old West; Alfredson follows le Carre's plot inward through a deadly thicket of Cold War treachery to the identity of the traitor responsible.

Commanding the investigation from along the periphery is George Smiley (Gary Oldman), whom we learn early on was forced into early retirement along with his boss, Control (John Hurt), following a botched rendezvous in Budapest leaving their operative Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) wounded. The Budapest debacle is one of at least three key flashback sequences woven into the narrative, the tale of Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) and a drunken Christmas party at "the Circus (MI6) being the other two. Ricki, another low-level "scalp-hunter" on the run from both the Brits and Russians, wants to exchange information about the KGB mole in order to help a Soviet spy (Svetlanda Khodchenkova), with whom he's become romantically entangled, defect. Meanwhile, at the Christmas party (reportedly not in le Carre's novel), we gradually become privy to the consequences of an affair on the pair of cuckolded parties.

All of this is even more complicated than it sounds, to where only an arrogant (read: intellectually insecure) viewer would claim that it's a cinch to follow. The original 1979 BBC Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring the gratingly precise diction of Alec Guinness, packed presumably as much of the book's plot that would fit its 5-plus-hours running time; the granular level of detail left many le Carre fans enthralled, but for me if it moved any slower it would have been going backwards. Alfredson's adaptation poses the opposite problem: building a complicated international thriller around glances, suggestions, and inside-baseball lingo. At times the enterprise comes across as Cliffs Notes le Carre, yet on the whole the movie held me. It's a relief to see an adaptation of a novel (the screenplay is by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan) that respects the source material without genuflecting toward it, and trusts the actors (more than that: depends on them) to get the point across. While Oldman leads a stalwart British ensemble, including Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and Benedict Cumberbatch - half of whom appear almost visibly relieved to have finally graduated from Hogwarts - Alfredson, his DP (Hoyte van Hoytema), production designer (Maria Djurkovic) and art director (Tom Brown) envelope their cast in an atmosphere that not only reminds you of an early 1970s film but looks like it could have been made during the era it depicts. It's a movie that spells out nothing, couching its emotions and its violence until they burst in tandem, like a teardrop falling from a bullet.

Last week I mentioned that I rarely review older, classic films, finding little to say about them that hasn't already been said. But I do want to mention briefly that Once Upon a Time in the West, a movie I'd seen before (several times, on DVD), is simply stunning on the type of big screen for which it was clearly made. I'd expected Ennio Morricone's multilayered score to register strongly in a theater hot-wired for sound, but I hadn't counted on the enhancement of the performances (particularly Jason Robards, whom I'd previously considered the weak link, but whose subtleties come into sharper focus; and Gabriele Ferzetti's invalid railroad baron, whose longing to see the Pacific grows unexpectedly poignant) as well as the increased clarity of the labyrinthine narrative, unusually dense for a Western, each turn of the plot clicking satisfyingly into place. Despite lousy winter weather and a concurring IU home basketball game, the Cinema was almost completely full, and hardly a sound was heard during the three-hour running time. Afterwards we floated out of the theater, oblivious to the cold, a colleague telling me the next day that going to the movies "doesn't get any better than this."

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Man From Porlock's Year in Film 2011

2011 will go down, in my tiny pocket of the universe, as the year of my movie education. Sure, I "knew" movies for many years before, to the amusement of my family and annoyance of my friends. ("You like them innerlectual movies," a high school friend informed me, after I dragged him to a screening of The Big Easy.) But as Jason Bellamy aptly puts it, "I may be a Trekkie, but these people speak Klingon." 'These people,' who may include some of you, are the true hardcore cinephiles I've encountered on Facebook, on Twitter, and in the blogosphere. I assure my circle of friends and family and work colleagues that while I know certain aspects of cinema relatively well - American movies from the 1970s on is my comfort zone - I'm an amateur regarding its history on the whole.

That history, as I've learned in the 4 1/2 years I've been blogging, is a humbling and awe-inspiring thing. I tend to focus on new releases here at Porlock (and the occasional book or TV series), because A) I've seen a mere fraction of what many of the folks with links on the right of this page have seen; and B) for those classic films I have seen, what left is there for me to say? Nevertheless, 2011 was the year of my Netflix queue, the year I made a concerted effort to expand my knowledge base. (This was also the year I came late to the Blu-Ray party, and followed up with a new wider-screen TV at year's end.) I queued movies reviewed or mentioned by other bloggers or tweeters, movies on the "pantheons" of the AFI and Paul Schrader, movies recommended by the Netflix database. I queued fewer new releases (streaming some of those instead) and watched instead films that filled an inch or two of my gaps: Preston Sturges comedies and 30s musicals, Japanese and Italian cinema, Max Ophuls and Satyijat Ray. As a result, I'd guesstimate my knowledge base has expanded from, say, 5% to 8-10%. I'll probably never speak Klingon, but as long as I keep learning and growing, that's more than fine by me.

I saw very few new releases for the first half of the year, catching up somewhat during the second half, totaling approximately 30 overall. Of those 30, less than ten were viewed at regular chains (the two AMC theaters in town). Six were at the Indiana University Cinema, and a couple more I watched at Ebertfest in April 2011. The rest were either on DVD or, more commonly, streaming on Xfinity. Luckily I caught most of the year's highlights, albeit with a few blind spots (e.g, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Separation, Margaret). Even luckier, I managed to catch up with 24 classic films through "revivals" at the IU Cinema, which officially opened on campus this year and has quickly become a center for film-viewing here in Bloomington, IN. I had seen most of these films before, but watching the likes of Lawrence of Arabia and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Psycho and Vertigo on the big screen is essentially watching them for the first time. The experience of seeing few key new releases there was also undoubtedly enhanced from what it would have been at the regular chains, with their dismaying rise in boorish audience behavior and technical malfunctions. The Cinema has had its share of growing pains - a few bad prints, an undergrad flipping open his cell phone during Meek's Cutoff, a sixty-something Sherlock Holmes conference attendee at a screening of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution cramming a large Tupperware bowl of homemade popcorn in his mouth - half of it ending up on the floor - after I politely told him it wasn't allowed ("Yeah, I know!" he exclaimed). By and large, though, audiences are attentive and the films look great. If you're ever in the neighborhood, check it out.

Although a Top-10 list from somebody who sees relatively few films would be misguided at best, I've cobbled together some of my favorites, least favorites, and other impressions from the year. I will try to avoid stepping into the territory of the aforementioned Mr. Bellamy, whose annual "Best of" post is a hugely entertaining must-read. I will also add that my opinions follow no model or method of the Right Way to view film, as some of the more tiresome critics insist there is, the more they huff and puff the less they convince. For me, the only "Right Way" is the way that's expressed adeptly and honestly, that engages the reader and encourages thought and discussion. I certainly haven't met these goals with every post, but hopefully I've hit near the mark enough for those of you regular readers to keep on reading, regardless of whether or not you agree with my views.

Best of 2011 (where and when viewed in parentheses):

1. The Tree of Life. (IU Cinema, August 2011.) Hate to be unoriginal, but Terrence Malick's fragmented epic paralleling the growing pains of a Texas youth with that of the Earth engaged my mind, opened my senses, and stirred my soul more than any movie all year.

2. Hugo. (AMC Bloomington 12, December 2011.) Martin Scorsese's elating "children's film" feels, like Malick's movie, an attempt to capture he's ever wanted to say about his own grand obsessions, as well as a vital piece of connective tissue between the uncertain future of cinema and its endangered past.

3. Drive (IU Cinema, September 2011.) A bloody, beautiful piece of mythmaking from Nicolas Winding Refn. Some seemed to think this was nothing more than a string of empty cinematic homages and a celebration of ersatz cool. It seems pretty clear, though, that Refn and Gosling want us to see the disturbing consequences of bullshit machismo as the Driver fulfills his destiny in the shimmering dark of L.A (the amazing Newton Thomas Sigel with my favorite cinematography of the year).

Other Great Films: Certified Copy, Carlos (a 2010 release I didn't see until Spring 2011), Melancholia, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Honorable Mention: The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, Cave of Forgotten Dreams,
Win Win, Attack the Block, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The First Avenger.

You Liked It More Than I Did:
Joe Wright's thriller Hanna, which I found tedious, earned some fervent admirers. Kelly Reichardt's acclaimed Meek's Cutoff had some great moments but ultimately fell short for me. Most of all, Moneyball, the year's "I don't like baseball but I really like this movie" movie, seemed to me a textbook example of filmmakers not fully comprehending their subject and trying to slip some disingenuous notions past the audience. How else to explain the dubious depiction of Art Howe as an absentee manager, or why the crucial narrative thread of a player becoming a starter inexplicably climaxes with his coming off the bench to pinch-hit, or the claim that embracing Billy Beane's principles rather than lining their own deep pockets (with at least one of Beane's former superstars) led to the Boston Red Sox becoming World Series champs? Beane's own A's have also floundered considerably in the years since, but the movie doesn't want you to know that either.

Worst of 2011: Friends with Benefits, an energetically inept romantic comedy that embraces the very conventions it pretends to be subverting (and, more unforgivably, wants to convince you that flash-mobs are cool), made me wonder if my rave for Will Gluck's previous film, Easy A, was off the beam. The Help, about which I can only second the chorus of criticisms regarding its shoddy history, naive view of racism, and atrocious script. Finally, at barrel's bottom, the loathsome animated film My Dog Tulip, which nearly made me flee my seat at Ebertfest, fulfills the conviction of its co-director (who admitted to once eating a canine) that dogs "are nothing more than piss and shit, and I wanted to reflect that." Mission accomplished.

Biggest Thrill: The opportunity to introduce Paul Schrader before an IU Cinema screening of Taxi Driver, and lead a Q&A with him afterwards. He was formidable, thoughtful, combative, and funny as hell. Runner-up: Attending Roger Ebert's annual film festival and shaking the man's hand.

Best Audience: Taxi Driver. A younger demographic than the usual Cinema crowd was in attendance and belied the claim that their generation is ruining the communal moviegoing experience. (My worst experiences for the year were overwhelmingly the result of yapping oldsters.) Not a peep was heard during the two-hour running time (nor, it seemed, did anyone move), leading a colleague to surmise, "What they felt for that film was respect."

Best Moviegoing Experience Overall: No surprise, Taxi Driver, in part because I'm biased, but also genuinely because of the tremendous audience reaction and the fact that the movie (in 2K digital resolution) looked amazing. Runner-up: Metropolis, of which I actually saw two versions with live scores, one at the IU Cinema with orchestral accompaniment from the Jacobs School of Music, the other at Ebertfest with the Alloy Orchestra. Again I'm biased, but the Cinema's experience, which debuted a new classical score (compared to the Mickey-Mousing approach of the Alloy), was the best. The IU score underlined the emotions; the Alloy version underlined the movements.

A very happy 2012 to all.