Thursday, March 28, 2019
times dooms its keepers
by Douglas Messerli
Anthony Veiller, Decla Dunning, John Huston and Orson Welles (the latter to uncredited), Orson Welles (director) The Stranger / 1946
The other day I was delighted to discover that Netflix is now streaming Orson Welles’ 1946 film, The Stranger, a film I had never before seen. I quickly sat down to watch it.
Although this film is often dismissed since Welles, anxious to be able to direct a new film after 4 years of silence, made a sort of devil’s pact with the producer, Sam Spiegel, and the studio, promising to produce it on schedule and allowing for the numerous deep cuts that his overseers demanded. The ruminations and philosophical conundrums of his previous films he promised to resist. And, indeed this film was a true money-maker, one of the very few of Welles’ checkered career.
Since this movie is set in a small Connecticut town where evil has been installed in the form of a seemingly well-respected teacher in the town’s all-boys’ school, the work is sometimes compared with Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. However, in Welles’ original there was a long sequence is South America which I would have loved to have glimpsed to help contextualize those parallels.
Moreover, despite the film’s homey qualities, enhanced by the beautiful Loretta Young, playing Mary Longstreet—daughter of Supreme Court Justice Adam Longstreet—who is about to marry the hidden Nazi in their midst, Franz Kindler (played by Welles himself), Welles’ film is a far darker noir than Hitchcock’s wonderful work. Hitchcock’s creepy Uncle Charlie, after all, has murdered only a few elderly women for their money, while Kindler has evidently been responsible for the death of thousands or even millions of Jews and during the course of the film kills the first of the strangers to
arrive in the town of Harper, a former colleague, Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) who has purposely been allowed to escape from prison so that he might possibly lead authorities to Kindler (now living under the name of Charles Rankin). We never quite learn why the highly nervous Meinike, now a born-again Christian, wants even to meet with his former associate—perhaps simply to try to convert him—but the visit, during which he leaves his suitcase at the local drugstore, which seems to be the heart and soul of Harper, quickly results in Kindler-Rankin strangling him, presumably because he realizes the reason behind Meinike’s miraculous “escape” and is terrified that some of his students, racing through the woods on a “paper chase,” have spotted the suspicious looking outsider.
The second, and more predominant stranger come to town is the US Wartimes Commissioner, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), who has followed Meinike to that small village but, since his target has attempted to kill him as he enters Rankin’s school, has no clue to what the former Nazi, now teacher, looks like or knows anything about his current identity. All he knows is that the ex-Nazi has an extraordinary interest in clocks, which, obviously, echoes the lecture of Welles’ villain in The Third Man about the Swiss gift to the world of “cuckoo clocks.” Welles wanted Robinson’s role to be played by his long-time friend, Agnes Moorhead; it might have been a brilliant coup to have a feminist sleuth, but it was not to be.
Despite all the limitations with which the producer and editor presented him—Welles described editor Ernest J. Nims as “the great supercutter, who believed that nothing should be in a movie that did not advance the story. And since most of the good stuff in my movies doesn't advance the story at all, you can imagine what a nemesis he was to me."—the director got the upper hand by inserting long discussions between Wilson and the local, laid-back druggist, Potter (the ex-burlesque actor Billy House) while the two play checkers as they attempt to check out one another, Wilson and Potter struggling to eke out as much information from the other as they might.
Wilson loses the first round but later, paying the 25 cent fee, receives more information than he reveals, discovering the local church in the town square contains a large Habrecht-style clock mechanism, which Rankin is attempting to repair as part of his hobby.
But even when Wilson realizes he has found his man, he needs the testament of Rankin’s new wife, Mary—or at least her recognition that she is living with a man who opposes all of the values which her family has believed in. Another cut scene revealed the long patriotic military history of the Longstreet’s through a tour through the local cemetery.
Yet Welles, always the clever dodger, tells this part of the story through a bizarre combination of the wonderfully evocative score by composer Bronisław Kaper, with images right out of Fritz Lang’s M (menacing shadows overlaying the images of the town’s innocents), through the murder of Mary’s dear dog, Red, and the help of her wised-up brother, Noah (Richard Long), who, along with a sawed-off staircase (straight out of Shadow of a Doubt) incriminates and finally destroys—in a scene that might have come straight out of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist—Rankin/Kindler, allowing our villain to suffer the justice that the Nuremberg Trials could not provide.
This isn’t Citizen Kane or (without the last scene) the brilliant The Magnificent Ambersons, but it comes close, at moments, to revealing the great director’s genius. And I’ll watch it any day over so many other less challenging movies of its genre—whether it be noir or Nazi conspiracy tales.
Los Angeles, March 28, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2019).
Sunday, March 24, 2019
three indian gay films
swimming back to life
Onir (screenplay, story, and director) My Brother…Nikhil / 2005
For either budgetary reasons or, perhaps, the sudden hiring of a gay programming wizard fresh out of India, Neflix (god bless them) have suddenly issued on the live-streaming venue several new gay Indian films, movies that got made despite the restrictions of Indian censors and, even more importantly, the homophobic aspects of that culture.
Onir’s My Brother…Nikhil, the earliest of 3 films I saw in the past few days (from 2005), is surely the most emotionally wrought and the harshest in its critical evaluation of India’s anti-LGBTQ attitudes. For in this film, a strapping young champion swimmer suddenly is diagnosed with an HIV infection and thrown into the nightmare of early (late 1980s and early 1990s) hysteria about what people then described as the “gay” disease.
Nikhil, although asked whether or not he has been having sex with women prostitutes, is also almost immediately accused of being a homosexual. He secretly is gay, an Indian reality that is explored in all of the three films I saw. Being closeted is also terribly destructive in this culture.
Not only is Nikhil Kapoor (Sanjay Suri) immediately isolated from his former swimming colleagues (when he attempts to return the pool all others immediately remove themselves from the water), but he is virtually arrested, taken away from any contact from his family, his father Navin (Victor Banerjee) and his loving mother Anita (Lilette Debey), and is thrown into a lockdown rat-infested room with no proper necessities. Goa, where this movie takes place, represents the capitalist tendencies of its former Portuguese rulers. Here Nikhil is not even permitted a phone call to his now-alienated family.
Fortunately, in this film, Nikhil has three individuals who care enough to find him and seek for his recovery back into the society: his handsome lover Nigel D’Costa (Purab Kohli), his beloved sister Anamika (Juhi Chawla), and her boyfriend, Sam Fernandez (Gautam Kapoor), who hire a lawyer to release him from the horrible imprisonment and work to help make people perceive that AIDS is not an outwardly communicable or a singularly gay disease.
The pain of this almost complete isolation from the lovely world in which he has grown up—in a beautiful Goa home with a loving family around him—makes it quite clear how almost anyone in this period, suddenly diagnosed as HIV-positive, was shaken from everything he or she had previously known, the ability to be who they had been, the ability to love, and, most importantly, the inability to be loved. Fortunately, Nikhil has the trio of individuals who fight for him, despite the fact that both he and they know it is a terrible downhill battle. Even the lawyer warns them of the ostracization they will surely face.
It’s odd (one of my ongoing coincidences) that the day before I had seen Kurosawa’s 1946 film No Regrets for Our Youth, in which an entire family was similarly rejected because a son, opposing the rise of Fascism, was accused as being a spy. That film was based on a true story, as was this one, recalling the life of Dominic d'Souza. But Onir was forced by Indian censors to disclaim the reality of the work simply so that he might get this movie approved.
Perhaps the history of the film is even worse than what that film depicts. But it is, nevertheless, a brave project, although often sentimental, that reveals what happened the earliest of AIDS victims.
Onir, quite brilliantly, turns his film into a direct encounter with its audiences by having the characters speaking, quite often, directly to camera, recounting their own memories and, most importantly, their regrets for not having acted more forcibly to help create the changes needed to accept their loved ones. The statements of Nikhail’s mother, wherein she recognizes how she should have spoken out against her husband’s prejudices, are particularly moving.
What can any of us say? In those days, the 1990s and even earlier, the entire culture didn’t know what to do with those who suddenly were dying and wasting away, who were marked by terrible bruises on their faces, welts across their bodies, stomachs that no longer could allow them sustenance.
At least in this Bollywood version, there is a lot of plaintive singing, a longing to be whole again, an empty desire to rejoin the society from which they have almost inexplicably been ousted.
Fortunately, as in Tony Kushner’s great duo of dramas, Nikhail has angels—lover, sister, friend—to help carry him into the next world.
Onir clearly was influenced by Kushner’s work, but his version of it is so specifically Indian, with its overlayers of years of colonial Goa rule, that Roy Cohn seems like a slight distraction. Goa is this film, is Cuba, imprisoning its gay-infected inhabitants. This is Russia, who proclaimed again and again that AIDS was not occurring in that country (after all, gay sexuality had been banned). This is Reagan territory. It is about people who didn’t want to admit that a whole new world had become infected, simply through the act of the most beautiful joy possible, sex.
Los Angeles, March 24, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2019).
Friday, March 22, 2019
the right person in the wrong place
by Douglas Messerli
Ritesh Batra and Rutvik Oza (writers), Ritesh Batra (director) Dabba (The Lunchbox) / 2013, USA 2014
The 2013 Indian film The Lunchbox is a likeable film that grew out of an idea of director Ritesh Batra to do a documentary on the famous lunchbox delivery system of Mumbai, where lunches, cooked by wives and restaurants, are regularly delivered just before lunch by dabbawala, highly efficient street-runners who deliver up the lunches to office workers throughout the city.
Spending time with the dabbawala, however, Batra began to hear tales and personal stories that, apparently recounted errors and mistakes in the system, which helped the director reconceive his tale in the form of an epistolary cinema, in which one morning, suddenly without explanation, a senior worker, Saajan Fernadez (Irrfan Khan), a widower about to retire, is delivered the wrong food. Instead of the standard cauliflower-based, over-salted cooking of the restaurant from which orders his meals, he receives a deliciously-flavored series of dishes cooked by a young married woman, Ila (the beautiful Nimrat Kaur). Ila and her husband, incidentally, are not getting on so well, even though they share a young daughter, and when the pack of lunch dishes is returned completely licked clean, and Ila’s husband describes his lunch as “good enough,” she realizes that her special lunch—concocted with special ingredients and suggestions by Ila’s aunt, who lives above them—has gone astray.
The next morning, after cooking an even more special lunch, she adds a note, explaining the mixup, and thus begins a series of short letters, at first just filled with bits of information and advice, but gradually opening up, particularly in the case of Ila, to reveal aspects of personal life. Before each of them know it, their daily correspondence has grown into a kind of intimate conversation, in which Saajan reveals his loneliness, as Ila admits that it appears that her husband, Rajiv (Nakul Vaid) is having an affair.
To reiterate the changes going on in the mind of the less loquacious Saajan, the writers and director introduce a likeable if inept future replacement for Saajan and his job, a young man Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who is ready to please his trainer and in love with a young woman whom he is about to marry. He is also a good cook. Yet, at first, Saajan entirely ignores him, refusing to teach him or train him in the job. After a few days, however, Skaikh’s eager face and Saajan’s increasing pleasure and even slightly exciting sexual correspondence, opens him up to actually listen (in both Hindu and English) to the young man’s hopes and own joy of life. Bit by bit, he allows Skaikh to take over some of his duties—all of which ends disastrously, when it is discovered that, after long years of spotless bookkeeping, the files have gone terribly awry. Refusing to blame Skaikh, however, Saajan corrects the books and even accepts the orphan Skaikh’s request to stand as his witness in Skaikh’s marriage to his young lover.
As Ila’s hospitalized father dies, and her husband continues to distance herself from her, the epistolary relationship between her secret food lover and her becomes even more important in her life, and, finally, she requests to meet him in one of her favorite restaurants. Sadly, Saajan fails to show up, and the next morning she sends him am empty food box which, when returned that afternoon, explains that he had, indeed, been there, but that, when he saw the beautiful young woman before him, he realized that as an older man closing down his life, it would be wrong to continue such an illicit relationship. The tender missles of Ila had deluded him into believing, for a short while, that he was young again.
Determining to meet him, nonetheless, Ila drills the dabbawala, insisting that he has been delivering to the wrong man, and tracks Saajan to his office, only to be told that he has quit his job and moved to Nashik.
In the very next scene, Saajan returns to Mumbai, now determined to seek out Ila; Ila, almost as in an O. Henry story, has, in turn, sold her jewelry and moved with her daughter to Bhutan, a location which Saajan had previously suggested to where they might escape. Whether these two lonely and lovely souls ever do find each other, we never know. But we can presume, by the tone of this soulful “comedic” work, that neither of them will ever hook up with each other, and what might have been at first perceived as a light-hearted “mix-up” has been transformed into a serenade of lost opportunities and love.
Perhaps that most poignant aspect of Batra’s film, at least for me, is the fact that the over eager and incompetent, men and women like Shaikh and his young wife, as well as Ila’s philandering husband Rajiv, all find love and live life quite fully, while the honest, capable, and truly nurturing figures such as Ila and Saajan are left on the outside, lonely and joyless, a theme reiterated through the film as night after night, Saajan is seen quietly drinking and smoking upon his balcony as he looks down, almost like a voyeur, upon a family enjoying their joyous dinner below. Ila too, in her daily chores of cooking and washing, seems completely isolated from world around her, despite Mumbai’s busy streets, a woman, whom we fear, may turn out like her Auntie, trapped in her room by a man who stares incessantly at a ceiling fan, she forced to change his diapers. It is almost as if their competence and special gifts keep them from enjoying the fruits of their behaviors. To give freely of oneself does not mean that the world will give anything back. All one can do is to continue to true to one’s own nature, and perhaps even the recognition that someone once noticed those special qualities is all the reward one can expect. Perhaps the dabbawala, who defensively argues that there can have been no mistake in his delivery, has handed up Ila’s lunchbox to right person, after all, while putting it down in the wrong place.
Los Angeles, March 19, 2014
Reprinted from Nth Position (April 2014).
Thursday, March 21, 2019
the beautiful neglected son
by Douglas Messerli
Paul Osborn (screenwriter, based on the novel by John Steinbeck), Elia Kaza (director) East of Eden, 1955
It had been decades since I last watched East of Eden, and I wouldn’t probably have watched it the other day had it not been that I found little of interest on the live stream of Netflix that I hadn’t already seen. I’ve never been a great fan of Steinbeck (although I do love the movie version of his The Grapes of Wrath). Screenwriter Paul Osborn, moreover—although having written one of my favorite stage plays, Morning’s at Seven—is better known for his overwrought and/or sentimental adaptations of works such Wild River, Sayonara, Point of No Return, and his own The World of Suzie Wong. As a young man I saw all these films in the movie theaters, and even back then felt that they were sexist and somewhat racist.
I recalled East of Eden, furthermore, as an angst-driven drama wherein the young “hero,” Caleb Trask (James Dean), spends most of the time pouting as the black sheep outsider of his family, which includes his far-too-righteous and religious thumping father, Adam (Raymond Massey), and his “goodie-two-shoes” brother Aron (Richard Davalos), along with Aron’s fiancée Abra Bacon (the wonderful Julie Harris).
The film’s melodramatic feeling is also supported by a score, complete with an overture by Leonard Rosenman, hinting at the work’s operatic qualities. Actually, I think this work would make a wonderful opera and hope some younger experimental composer will take up the challenge.
Like many of the 1950s films, it seemed far too melodramatic for what the narrative provided, in this case a thinly veiled updating of the biblical Cain and Abel story. Even this time around, after having much more sympathy for the seemingly outcast Cal and even more pleasure in simply watching the beautiful Dean perform the role, I still couldn’t quite believe in his tears and poundings—although this time he reminded me more of myself at his age, faced with feelings of frustration and helplessness.
But my mother was a saint compared with the would-be murderess (Jo Van Fleet, who reportedly shot her husband before running off from their home and leaving her two boys to be raised by Adam alone) now a madame of not one but two houses of prostitution in the outskirts of Monterey Bay, a short ways from where Cal has grown up in Salinas. Obviously, she was not a happy woman in Adam’s would-be Edenic home. We get a wonderful sense of this from the local sheriff played by Burl Ives.
Looking back on it, living with a hard-working housekeeper and a kind and generous father, my life was the real melodrama of my own making. Perhaps it is just that Dean, a feast for the eyes, had not yet found how to act with any great subtlety. Kazan’s direction and Osborn’s script certainly gave him a great deal of slack.
Some of these acting “ticks” were quite brilliant, as when, forced to read a Bible passage about guilt and forgiveness, Cal names the passage numbers again and again, even when told by his father to leave them out of his recitation. And his slumping stalk of his prostitute mother is absolutely perfect. Despite the delirious hoots of one of Kate’s prostitutes—she shouts out “Hey, Pretty Boy,” a standard description of gay boys throughout history—Cal is too shy and intimidated to actually visit his mother and discover the truth.
On his return home, he uses his sweater almost as a kind of shroud to protect himself what he knows is reality. And, later, his first illicit kiss with Abra—who has previously been terrified of the younger boy and now, discovering his personal dilemmas, almost falls in love with him—is beautiful, as Dean reveals a kid who simply wants to please, to become a kind of blessed figure as his brother is to his father and his fiancée.
Yet, he and we know he is not blessed, nor will he ever be, even after his father’s projected business—shipping refrigerated vegetables for the West to the East—bankrupts him, and Cal, raising beans with a loan from his estranged mother, makes back the money. For one moment, knowing that he has finally become a successful farmer, Dean dances through the bean fields in a kind of manic whoop of victory. But Adam finds the money, gained from profiting on the nation’s needs of World War I, to be ill-gotten and rejects it. The gift he planned for his father’s birthday is utterly rejected, while Aron’s sudden announcement that he is marrying Abra receives the beneficent joy of the elder.
It is not, as Cal believes, that he is truly bad, simply that, in his father’s eyes, he, reminded of his once-beautiful mother, cannot accept him. And, in this sense, he has ousted Cal from any possibility of normality. It used to be thought that parental relationships had a great deal to do with homosexuality and lesbianism. Perhaps they do play a part, although it is now pretty evident that one is simply born with another sexual inclination. But if there ever was any truth to this Freudian concept, it is clear that Adam has turned his son not just into an “outsider,” but a pretty boy, someone who cannot be with women, since they will always remind him of his “evil” mother—and his societally evil self.
The rumors of Dean’s homosexual relationships are extensive, and it has become apparent that, if not truly gay, he bedded down with many homosexual men, perhaps including Marlon Brando and Rock Hudson. Many other gays have claimed to have sex with him, imaginary or real.
Kazan’s film does not outwardly express this, but in my reading this Cain is damned only because of his special beauty and his inability to live within the organized society his father demands. In Steinbeck’s work Cal kills his brother not with a stone or a knife but by luring him, like a kind of male Eve, to visit their mother, forcing his brother to face a truth has been unable to conceive. One might almost imagine such an act to carry with it some justice; but it is, in fact, an act of vengeance for Cal’s inability to join what his society determines is the natural course of maturation. Cal is still a troubled child who may never be able to define what it means to be a male adult in his world.
In reaction, Aron rushes off to war where, he can only imagine, he will die, forcing Cal to be even more of an outcast to this society.
The original and the film attempt to ameliorate this possibility by employing a truly sentimental trope: Abra pleading with the now dying Adam to allow his son entry into his love. Adam dismisses his nurse (an uncredited Barbara Baxley) to allow his son to attend to his dying.
This was precisely the role I played during my father’s death, I the bad boy who had come home to care for the grand patriarch (see My Year 2002). Even if Abra remains to share her love for Cal, we sense that Cal, given what he has done to his brother, will never truly be able to accept it. He is now a wounded figure, a boy begging, far too late, for his father’s reluctant love.
Los Angeles, March 21, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2019).
Tuesday, March 19, 2019
when home is not where the heart is
by Douglas Messerli
Tanuj Bhrama (writer and director) Dear Dad / 2016
As the reviewer Subhash K. Jha begins his piece in the Hindustan Times about the 2016 film, Dear Dad:
It takes a whole lot of guts to make a film on alternate
sexuality in India, especially when you are a first-time
director. Tanuj Bhrama has pushed the envelope out of
the closet as far as possible. And then some.
We learn almost from the very beginning of this film that the central character, Nitin Swaminathan (Arvin Swamy), married with a son and daughter, has recently come out to his wife as a gay man and that she is seeking a divorce. She, quite rightfully insists, that Nitin also explain the situation to her son, Shivum (Himanshu Sharma); so begins a road-trip drama to Mussourie and other Indian nature spots that is not so very dissimilar from the journey the gay figure of Evening Shadows takes with his mother. And, like that film, the central purpose of the trip is reveal and explain his homosexuality, which in both cases ends at first in confusion and anger before final assimilation.
Yet, unlike Rangayan’s lean telling, wherein he reveals the love the hero and his friend feel for one another, Bhrama’s Dear Dad has little to do with sex—Nitin is single and apparently has no lover, nor do we get a glimpse at his sexual preferences, although he does mention that he is not attracted to “all men.”—so that the film becomes a statement of the father and son relationship more that it is a gay film.
If the movie represents, at first, Shivum as a fairly typical self-obsessed kid, far more interested in his cellphone and a “celebrity” (Aman Uppal) whom he spots at a local restaurant (requesting a signature), it suddenly shifts when the two stop by Nitin’s parents. There his overly-loving mother greets Nitin and Shivum with joy; but it is the sad empty relationship between Nitin and his dementia-inflicted father that provides deeper psychological perceptions.
While Shivum seems mostly bored in the company of his father, Nitin quickly leaves the arms of his loving mother to attend to the old man, who has been left in the yard with shaving lotion pasted across his face, apparently awaiting his daily shave from his wife. It is an almost a surreal scene, as Nitin takes up the razor—hinting at both true love and perhaps a little hate—to accomplish the task of shaving his father. During the gentle scrapes of the razor he explains, knowing the father will comprehend very little of what he is saying, that he is a gay man. The camera focusing on the older father and son, however, gradually pans away, revealing that Shivum has overheard the conversation.
Through this device, quite early in the work, Bhrama sucks almost all the expected drama out of his cinema, while for the rest of the film the focus shifts to the hurt and angered son who must suddenly come to terms with a father who he has never truly known.
The only bit of drama, other than the son’s growing angst, is provided by the fact that the duo again encounter the “celebrity” (we’re never truly told why he is famous) along the road, hitchhiking, Shivum insisting that they give him a lift, if no other reason than to put another being between the intensity of his father and him.
The two, father and “celebrity” even share a bedroom—hinting even that the easy-going and quite accepting “guest,” could have shared Nitin’s bed. Yet Bhrama does not suggest any sexual actions, and the “celebrity” expresses a kind of standard “heterosexual trope”: “But you’re married, with kids!” So too was the hero’s uncle in Evening Shadows.
However, it is the “celebrity” who, after Shivum has fed his father something to make him very ill, who nurtures Nitin to health again and who advises the boy that he must accept his father for who he is, admitting that he too left his father out of hatred, and hasn’t been home in 15 years. By film’s end, we recognize that his journey has been one to see his family again.
Shivum moves on to his boarding school, still harboring anger that “things can no longer be the way they were.” He, so a pop song proclaims must still grow up and “learn to fly.” Which he eventually does, winning top honors in mathematics in his school.
For the honors celebration, his mother, with her new lover (“Isn’t he a bit old?” asks Nitin; “Well at least he’s straight,” she quips. “Ouch,” is his response); but the loving Nitin, after a long emotional scrapbook of images from Shivum’s and his close relationship years earlier, does unexpectedly show up to congratulate his son, who finally is able give him the inevitable hugging forgiveness.
If this is not a great queer film, it is an important one simply because within a very homophobic culture it takes a different trajectory, exploring a married adult coming out—with all the numerous issues that decision represents—as opposed to the more common young man coming out to his parents or to himself. Yet there seems to be something missing here, particularly when Shivum asks his father, near the end of the movie, “are you going home?”
The film might truly have explored this question further. For a man who has had to abandon everyone and everything in order to no longer live a “false life,” where is home? Clearly for such an individual, “home is not where the heart is,” but in a larger world of possibility and desire. It is quite clear that for Nitin his love lies with his son and younger daughter. But his access to them will now be limited, and his ability to show that love or any love will lead to constant searching.
Yes, this is a brave film, a work that truly explores what is next in mid-life after you made a major decision to change your lies into truth. Where do you go from there, and how to obtain whatever dreams or even illusions are left?
And for those left behind, well patriarchal relationships, as this film makes clear, are always so far more difficult that matriarchal ones. Just ask Freud.
Los Angeles, March 19, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2019).
Monday, March 18, 2019
eating the screen
by Douglas Messerli
Jacques Richard (director) Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque / 2005
How to describe the rotund Henri Langlois? He was a kind of genius, perceiving, with-founder Georges Franju, far earlier than other archivists, just how important it was to save older films, particularly “lost” silent films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. He was a showman who introduced older films to many French directors, particularly those of the New Wave such as Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, as well as later celebrating their work. He was a kind of cultural hero, saving hundreds, if not thousands, of cultural artifacts from destruction by the Nazis during World War II. Actress Simone Signoret reveals that she helped transport the illegal films in a baby carriage.
Langlois clearly was a kind of charmer, finding finances for his cinémathèque from the most unlikely of sources. And through his regular film screenings, sometimes presenting as many as three showings each night, he might be described as a remarkable educator of an entire generation of film-lovers.
Yet director Jacques Richard’s documentary also reveals him to be a kind of cultural glutton without the real abilities, desire, or talents to create the cinema he so loved. And French governmental authorities, when finally determined to help fund the organization he had created, found him to be a terrible businessman without proper records and budgetary skills.
Richard presents this information and much else through the incredible gathering of at least 80 talking heads from Georges Melies’ granddaughter to Pierre Cardin and Alfred Hitchcock. So many voices shot usually head-on does not itself make for great cinematic viewing. But fortunately Richard intersperses these discussants with brief clips from many of the greatest films Langlois collected along with numerous still and video images of the archivist himself.
As the reviewer from Variety, Todd McCarthy summarizes:
In other words, Richard has filled his 3½ hours with
enormously diverse material that meshes to create a
picture of the man that is satisfying on both the intellectual
and human planes. For anyone with a pre-existing interest
the subject, absorption in the film is so total that the time
passes in a flash; for younger viewers who find their
way to it, pic represents the ultimate illustration of what
devotion to the cinema means, and incidentally underlines
the individual obsession that initiated the now-widespread
effort to preserve the history of the cinema.
Despite the informative value of Richard’s film, however, I felt that, in the end, I would rather have attended the cinémathèque itself rather watch this documentary about it, and it might have been far more interesting, I suspect, instead of simply reporting what Langlois achieved—as significant as
that was—why he chose to collect film, particularly films of the past; what led this man to become a sort of state librarian to cinema art? Moreover, since he espoused the idea that all films of equal interest, since they revealed the life of the times, why did he let a film starring Theda Bara escape his hands? What criteria did Langlois have for inclusion? And how did he convince so many people not so very committed to film of the past to finance his purchases.
Since this was a “collection,” one wonders what he didn’t collect among the 80,000 titles of the cinémathèque? Did he include documentaries such as this one, cartoons, media, highly experimental works such Stan Brakhage? How did he organize them or decide each evening what films he might show?
Finally, I might ask one of the most important of questions that never truly gets discussed. Did the collector actually comprehend the thousands of films and could he write coherently about them? As a film reviewer, I feel this is one of the most important of questions. It’s clear that Langlois loved the genre and had a fairly discerning sense of what might be significant. Yet Richard gives us little idea about how the collector/archivist saw in the thousands of films he gathered.
Chabrol does not discuss any conversations he had with Langlois, for instance, but only wonders what the corpulent Langlois and his equally plump partner, Mary Meerson, might had done in bed: “I tried to imagine them in frenzied copulation, but … .”
If nothing else, Langlois had an enormous appetite not only for food but for “eating the screen.”
Los Angeles, March 18, 2019
Reprilnted from World Cinema Review (March 2019).
Sunday, March 17, 2019
when worlds collide
by Douglas Messerli
Sridhar Rangayan and Saagar Gupta (screenplay), Sridhar Rangayan (director) Evening Shadows / 2018, 2019
Although Hindi cinema has had several gay films, including works by director Sridhar Rangayan, this director’s most recent film, Evening Shadows, now available on Netflix, is perhaps one of the most nuanced and relevant of LGBT Indian films—particularly given the fact that it speaks contemporaneously of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes homosexual acts.
More importantly, this film, through its focus on a rather well-to-do conservative Hindu family in southern India, reveals the effects of patriarchal privilege and misogynistic behavior that underlines much of the culture.
Our point of view is through the eyes of a young gay man, Karthik (Devansh Doshi), a photographer living with his gay companion, Aman, in Mumbai; Karthik has returned home for a visit for a holy puja ceremony, which involves songs, rituals, prayers, and invocations to the god, often involving fire and special objects. It is clear Karthik does not often visit his birth home, and his mother Vasudha (Mona Ambegaonkar), particularly, is excited about her beloved son’s return.
Karthik’s father Damodar (Anant Mahadevan) is also impatient for his son’s return—but for reasons very different from those of his maltreated wife, a woman expected to do all the cooking, care for the selfish live-in aunt, and attend to all the details of the puja; he has planned the occasion to announce the arranged marriage to a local girl, Neela (Disha Thakur),with whom Karthik has grown up. It is time to come home, he announces, and find a real job in business—photography in his mind obviously not being a true “business.”
This film, in short, is a mini-version of “When Worlds Collide,” as Karthik is forced, quite gracefully, to bow out of the proposed marriage with his beautiful young neighbor, calm his anxious lover back in Mumbai (who apparently is highly involved with the politics of the Section 377 decision) and pay the attention to his loving mother that she deserves. On top of that, he has a married uncle, in the closet about his sexual identity, hotly pursuing him. He calms his ineffectual aunt by taking photographs of her which she might post on a dating web-site. This might have been pure farce, but Rangayan calmly puts the pieces together so that we can easily differentiate the loving and generous life Karthik leads in Mumbai from the conservative, over-heated, often hostile world—particularly for the women—of Karnataka.
We perceive that world, the society in which Karthik grew up, in small, carefully edited flashbacks and poignant memories. There are many lovely scenes in which the young Karthik works in the kitchen with his mother—while the father mocks their closeness—when the young boy, visiting in the “evening shadows” a local cruising place, where he encounters, unexpectedly his uncle, realizing that the man is also gay, and when he recovers a “treasure” he has buried as a young adolescent—a container with pictures of handsome young men and male movie stars. Through these artfully directed throwbacks, we come to comprehend that Karthik’s sexuality has not been a sudden awakening in the big city, but a gradual realization of who he was in a cultural backwater.
It’s odd how much Karnataka and my upbringing in Marion, Iowa have similar parallels. I had no gay uncle, and my father was never intentionally misogynistic. Yet Damodar’s utter hatred for gays and lesbians reminded me so much of my own father. Even an innocent question, as I mention elsewhere in the My Year volumes, about homosexuality before I had imagined myself as gay, brought down a torrent of wrath that I could not even assimilate. The culture that supported both had a conservative religious bond from which, like Karthik, I too had to escape in order to survive. After I met my companion, visits home also grew fewer and fewer. Although eventually loved by my parents and my grandmother, Howard seldom opted for a visit. I don’t have a cell-phone, but my intense calls to Howard during my stays must have seemed like a kind of male hysteria.
Karthik handles it all with much more calm and helps Vasudha, through a trip with her alone to Indian archeological sites at Talkad, to perceive the abuse she has had to endure. But when he finally admits to her that he is gay, she goes into temporary shock, crying, moving into silence and shunning the boy she so intensely loves.
But like many such mothers, she finally comes into a kind of acceptance, and in so doing recognizes the narrow patriarchal world in which she too has had to allow in order to love the unloving husband. When Karthik’s uncle tries to rape him, his wife enters, observing his own version of male rites. Surely their relationship, despite their children, cannot now survive.
In the empty house where Damodar rules, he accidentally uncovers pictures from his son’s computer that make it clear about Karthik’s sexuality.
Fortunately, the director does not follow that discovery. It is Karthik’s mother who will now steer the family into the acceptance of her son’s difference.
I should add that this film, at moments, with its many beautiful songs, seems almost like a Bollywood version of a tense gay drama. So much the better. We should sing of the joys of motherhood, of sexuality, of living as we all naturally should.
The shadows may remain, but evenings are filled with joy and, now perhaps, a new kind of understanding—or at least comprehension. The whispers and secret troves can now be spoken and opened for all to see. Damodar no longer rules.
With good reason, this film won several awards at queer movie festivals throughout the world.
Los Angeles, March 17, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2019).