Mulholland Drive

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(Dir. David Lynch, United States, 2001)

Sweet Dreams

Has any one film been so hotly debated and discussed in the past decade (or century for that matter)? Or, has any film been so universally admired and adored? Just as Kid A round up consensus for critics and audiophiles alike in the music community, so David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive became the de facto film of choice in the world of cinema at decade’s end. Even years after its release, it’s easy to see why. Filmmaker David Lynch possesses such a daringly unique and recognizable aesthetic that posits him amongst the likes of other greats such as Welles, Fellini, Bergman, Kubrick, and Malick – whose names have similarly spawned new adjectives (i.e. –ian) to describe their work. Mulholland Drive, then, may be his most Lynchian film to date. Every motif, theme, or filmic technique that mark his three-decades spanning oeuvre all appear – yielding remarkable results, I might add – here: fascination with the (falsely) halcyon era of the ‘50s, split personalities or characterizations, surrealism, and, of course, dreamlike narratives. Each of these explored separately in notable earlier works Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, and even The Straight Story, are all condensed and pressed upon more efficiently (and more rewardingly) in Mulholland Drive.

After an unexpectedly chilling and intentionally choppily edited dance sequence, the camera glimpses a darkened hallway and then a bedroom before rapidly descending on a pillow as if signifying falling asleep. What follows, we presume, is a dream. At least, the majority of the film sure plays out like a dream – an explanation that proves most reasonable amidst a sea of disparate and wild theories that floods discussion boards, digital archives, and essays on this enigmatic film (Lynch has delightfully remained silent on the matter). Like a dream, the first portion of the film is spotted with moments of unexplained incoherence and detours – the unidentified pair sharing breakfast at Winkie’s, the apartment complex murder that takes a darkly comic turn, a mysterious man confined to his chair always seen behind glass – seemingly indicative of the rabbit trails our subconscious takes us down while we sleep (or possible remnants of an abandoned TV pilot where Mulholland Drive was conceived). And, most convincingly, the dramatic shift in plot and characters’ identities following the cowboy’s memorable line: “Hey, pretty girl, it’s time to wake up.”

Alas, one needn’t offer any further proof for a given theory that has been often cited before because fully dissecting Lynch’s masterpiece isn’t necessary for appreciating its cinematic and narrative accomplishments. Of course, speculating, pondering, and diving deeply into its oft-explored complexities proves a valuable exercise, but getting lost in the sequential ordering of the perfect chaos of Mulholland Drive may overshadow a more unsettling and resounding type of dream embodied in the character of Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts). Following the traditional interpretation that the first portion of the film belongs to Diane’s dreaming subconscious, we are introduced to an alternate version of her in the naïve and annoyingly optimistic Betty. In Betty, Diane becomes everything she wishes she could be: a newcomer to the Hollywood scene welcomed with open arms, an amateur sleuth on the trail of an exhilarating mystery, a great actress and a movie star, and a first-time lover who is passionately loved in return.

This life, so perfect it could only exist in the movies, never becomes a reality for Diane and provides a detrimental blow to her fanciful expectations when we meet her for the first time. Disheveled and merely existing in a darkened, grubby apartment, Diane does not have the life she always dreamed of before moving to Los Angeles: no big parts, no real friends, and no lover. As Betty, she could turn a convincing performance on a dime soaking up praise from casting directors Diane could only dream of. As Betty, she easily wins over the heart of the equally naïve and vulnerable Rita (Laura Elena Harring). Too, Diane’s seemingly self-congratulatory traits that may or may not exist manifest themselves in her peppy counterpart: her aforementioned acting skills, her general amiability toward friends new and old, and her loyalty to Rita even at her own cost. This last point is crucial in understanding the depth of Diane’s despair in Camilla’s (Rita’s real-life counterpart) apparent betrayal by falling for the director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux). When Betty passes on the audition of a lifetime in favor of helping Rita, we learn of Diane’s view of herself as the one who traded it all for love. Of course, things may not be as clear as Diane would have us believe, for in reality Camilla is the great actress in demand who does Diane favors by landing her minor roles in her films, and it remains unclear whether or not the two were actually ever lovers despite how Diane feels toward Camilla.

Two key scenes come to mind to help in understanding Diane’s troubled psyche. First, the early breakfast at Winkie’s between two friends seems rather random ripped from its context in the bigger picture. But, upon closer inspection, it’s a telling sequence that suggests either a helpful nudge from Lynch to look more closely at what we’re watching or the possibility of Diane experiencing and manipulating a lucid dream. Dan describes for his friend Herb a terrifying recurring dream and the reasoning behind inviting him to breakfast at that specific location. As he recounts the sequence of this nightmare, its facets quickly become a reality – beginning with the frightened face of his friend standing in exactly the same place and culminating in the horrifying figure lurking behind the dumpster. Do our dreams mirror our reality? Or are they altered versions of it? And, do they meld seamlessly blurring the line between what’s real and what’s not? In Diane’s case, the elevated view of herself in Betty and the beauty of the love shared between her and Rita serve to fuel her anger in her actual position in society and with Camilla, and lead her toward a startling act of vengeance.

The second scene in question is the much-discussed, pivotal sequence at Club Silencio. After making love and catching a taxi (also notably featuring the finest example of cinematographer Peter Deming’s transfixing camerawork with a wobbly tracking shot blurring into obscurity as the pair takes off in the cab), Betty and Rita find themselves in a strangely lit theatre where an emcee with a booming voice toys with his audience by drawing its attention to the tape recorded sound of various instruments and one singer. To the audience’s astonishment, those muted trumpets, clarinets, and emotive vocal performances are all an act, though they sound perfectly real as if performed live. “It is an illusion!” the man exclaims. The parallels to Diane’s story are obvious, and the timing of this scene is key for first-time viewers who have yet to be shaken by Betty and Rita’s name changes. It stands as Lynch’s most obvious wink to his viewers, but it also serves to reveal that other illusory theme present in Mulholland Drive’s narrative: the myth of rags-to-riches fame and glory.

Just as Blue Velvet unearthed the seedy underbelly of idyllic suburban life, so Mulholland Drive similarly reveals the ugliness hidden beneath the façade of making it big in Hollywood. Leave it to the master of contemporary surrealist cinema to chart the unsentimental decimation of hopes and dreams found in the empty promises of the movies in a way both refreshingly unique and yet nostalgic in its plundering of cinema’s great past. The film boasts an unmistakable noirish vibe with ominous music, dreary sets, quick zoom-in camera movements, and female protagonists in peril. Too, Watts’ doe-eyed Betty captures all the campy eagerness typical of many a leading lady from the golden age of Hollywood (here Lynch has Watts’ superb performance to thank). There’s even a reference to one of Lynch’s personal favorite films near the beginning as the camera lingers on the street sign for Sunset Blvd. These allusions aside, Mulholland Drive undoubtedly stems from its modern setting in the first decade of the ‘00s, but like In the Mood for Love before it and There Will Be Blood after, it manages to somehow exist outside of time – never stuck in the year of its release nor pining for a bygone era prior the supposed death of film. In this way, it’s the perfect film to have ushered in cinema’s second century as an artistic medium – appropriately nostalgic, yet brilliantly forward thinking.

Lynch’s film ends with Diane, alone and full of regret. Haunted by the vile decision to exact her revenge on the object of her affection in an irreversible manner, Diane literally runs shrieking in terror from the memory of the hopes that brought her to Hollywood in the first place. The final shot, both tremendously unsettling and satisfying, lingers on starkly glowing headshots of Betty and Rita transposed over a dark cityscape of Los Angeles. Dazzled by the sights seen off-screen, Betty smiles and laughs with Rita. The forlorn strings of the music wail as the screen fades to black along with the crushed dreams of what her life could have been. Never sentimental, but also never cruel enough to punish or rebuke his audience, Lynch favors challenging us to always look closer. Blue Velvet may have caused some to think twice before buying up suburban real estate. Twin Peaks may have led others to drive straight through Small-town, USA. And, Mulholland Drive will always be there just in case you ever get stars in your eyes before embarking on what may very well be a perilous journey on the road to stardom.

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Cemetery of Splendour

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(Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2015)

Wide-Eyed Wonder

Given the number of stories that exist somewhere between varying states of consciousness in his growing body of work, it seemed only a matter of time before filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul confronted the complexities of sleep outright. His latest, Cemetery of Splendour (beautifully titled in English, as always), finds him once again in the northeastern region of Thailand known as Isan where he grew up to tell yet another simple story that conceals layers of metaphorical and spiritual depth. In this case, a handful of soldiers have inexplicably fallen ill with some sort of sleeping sickness, their hours spent unconscious in cots in an abandoned school-turned-hospital tormented by nightmares. In the film’s opening moments, middle-aged Jen (Weerasethakul regular collaborator Jenjira Pongpas) arrives at the clinic to volunteer at the bedside of one patient without any known family members. Despite her own disability (her mobility considerably hindered by one leg shorter than the other), she devotes her time to this lonely soldier Itt (Banlop Lomnoi) as he sleeps and as he wakes periodically.

The film primarily concerns this relationship – the bond that grows between patient and caretaker; intimate, but importantly never sexual. It seems both are in need of quite a bit of healing – physically, mentally, spiritually – and Weerasethakul uses his typically wandering, delightfully casual narrative approach to chart this pair’s personal growth. And, of course, Cemetery of Splendour is unexpectedly about so much more: yet another meditation on rural and urban Thailand (having lived in northern Thailand myself for some time, it was a pleasure to once again see Weerasethakul capture so fully a slice of everyday Thai life down to the imposing foreigner, public workout zones, and street food on a stick), a quiet exploration of Buddhist beliefs in a contemporary setting, and a thinly veiled metaphor for the nation’s recent military coup and subsequent political fallout.

This last point surely accounts for his latest being met with censorship demands in his home country. Sleeping soldiers whose souls are used by dead kings of old to wage wars for them while they sleep is a pretty clever, yet pointed criticism of an unthinking public and military kowtowing to General Prayut Chan-o-cha’s undemocratic grab for power in 2014. And yet, Weerasethakul’s metaphor is far more nuanced than mere current political satire. Couching this scenario in the history of Thailand’s distant past (the clinic rests upon an ancient burial site for former rulers), Cemetery of Splendour also reads as an (lighthearted) elegy for the director’s home country that has suffered decades, even centuries, of political unrest.

The controversial politics of Thailand aside, Weerasethakul’s film is ultimately less concerned with sleeping soldiers than with the personal awakening of one woman. Jenjira Pongpas is a comforting presence in Weerasethakul’s films having worked with him since 2002’s Blissfully Yours and featuring most prominently in 2010’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and yet even more than that film, Cemetery of Splendour belongs to her. Personal details of the actress’ life – her disability, her stage of life, her apparent marriage to American Richard Abramson who plays her husband in the film – are woven into the fabric of the story. Throughout, Jen longs for happiness in love with her American husband who she frequently misunderstands and in friendship with local psychic Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) who tends to these patients in her own unique manner, seeks to reconcile her spirituality in an age of increasing disbelief, and desires purpose for her life in caring for the lonesome Itt. Cemetery of Splendour marks the first time Pongpas’ physical disability plays a significant role in her character’s development, and the trajectory of her holistic healing culminates in an unsettling gesture of intimacy shared between the three major characters that borderlines on grotesque (it recalls Boonmee’s equally unnerving catfish sex scene). But, as with Cemetery’s immediate predecessor, this film’s impact shouldn’t hinge on one scene destined for festival circuit chatter.

In comparison to Tropical Malady (2004), Syndromes and a Century (2006), and Uncle Boonmee – a string of three inarguable masterpieces of modern cinema – Weerasethakul’s latest does seem to be a minor work in his oeuvre. Perhaps what is missed most is the noticeable absence of the director’s signature bifurcated narrative structure that brilliantly cleaves his best works into two halves that reflect upon one another. But, crucially, it does still operate in dualities: past/present, young/old, rural/urban, man/woman, reality/dream, and most notably sacred/profane. Spirituality and humanity commingle in the world Cemetery of Splendour paints in a brilliantly casual manner – Weerasethakul is just as likely to show a man defecating in the woods, a sleeping man’s erection that interrupts a trio of women chatting, or a wife of an afflicted soldier using a medium to inquire her husband’s soul about his supposed mistress’ whereabouts as he is to grant us breathtaking static shots of Thailand’s natural beauty or characters’ philosophical ruminations on life. And, while the supernatural is less in the foreground than in his previous work, Cemetery does feature one satisfying sequence that finds the spirits of past princesses appearing to Jen in today’s dress so as not to startle anyone.

In this way, Cemetery of Splendour is unmistakably a work of Weerasethakul. It retains the playfulness and humor of his finest films, moments of incredibly symbolic depth as well as scenes of intentional obscurity that likely mean nothing at all (a late-film bit finds a group of teens shuffling seats on park benches for no apparent reason), and one perfectly cued pop song (DJ Soulscape’s elevator delight “Love Is a Song”) to wrap everything up. Weerasethakul is proving himself to be one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. No one (and I mean no one) makes films quite like his, where the literal and the figurative coexist so naturally, so pleasingly. If his films are deliberately obscure, we can rest assured that the man hardly delights in his own pretension. No, Weerasethakul never begs to be taken too seriously, and those willing to surrender to his beguiling vision and unique perspective on life are those most likely to forever enjoy the dreamlike worlds he creates. Cemetery of Splendour is, thankfully, no exception. And, as if to suggest as much, the film’s final shot is a sustained close-up of an awakened Jen who stares into the distance with wide-eyed wonder. Here’s to hoping there are many more years and films of his to strike up that wonder in his most ardent fans.

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The Apu Trilogy

In honor of Criterion releasing this trilogy on DVD and Blu-Ray today, I’m reposting this evaluation from this summer.

Life and Nothing More

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(Dir. Satyajit Ray, India, 1955, 56, & 59)

To Live

From 1955 to 1959, revered Bengali director Satyajit Ray released three films based on two novels by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay comprised of Pather Panchali (1955), Aparjito (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959). Together the three films are known as the Apu Trilogy.


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Boyhood: Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road)

Inspired by his meeting of acclaimed French filmmaker Jean Renoir during the shoot of Renoir’s The River on location in India and a screening of Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves that would change his life forever, the young Satyajit Ray decided to venture into filmmaking himself. But, defying the pervading trend of elaborate, melodramatic Hindi films popular in his native India at the time, Ray set out to channel the Italian neorealism that captured him with de Sica’s classic tale of poverty and loss. Adapting author Bandyopadhyay’s popular bildungsroman for…

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Solaris

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(Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union, 1972)

Back to Earth

The conception of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris – now widely regarded as one of cinema’s finest science fiction films – sprang from a reaction. If the enigmatic Russian auteur’s somewhat supercilious assertion that Western sci-fi lacked any real depth – a complaint unbelievably leveled against Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film which Tarkovsky’s work is forever destined for comparison – resulted in Solaris, it’s nearly impossible to disagree with him. And, even though the metaphysical heft of Solaris is merely a prelude to the director’s later masterpiece, the sobering Stalker, it remains one of the most humane, thought-provoking explorations of the human psyche in all of cinema.

Like 2001, Tarkovsky takes his time rocketing us into space. His film opens on earth as psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) prepares to visit a far-off space station orbiting a planet named Solaris after ground control has received some unusual communications from the crew. His mission, we learn, is to assess whether or not to pull the plug on ongoing explorations of the planet’s vast ocean. Tarkovsky introduces Kelvin as a somber, serious man with as-yet-unknown personal baggage and a skepticism surrounding the tales he’s told about strange occurrences on Solaris. These early scenes are dialogue-heavy as Tarkovsky builds suspense around the mystery above and scenery-heavy as his camera gently rests on the natural landscape of Kelvin’s father’s country home, allowing his central character to bask in this planet’s beauty before he tears him (and us) from it for the remainder of the film.

Once aboard the space station, Kelvin realizes rather quickly that things have gone awry as he learns of one colleague’s unlikely suicide and the frightening aloofness of the remaining two crewmembers. Before long he’s forced to believe the absurdity of the claims of supernatural phenomena on Solaris when his late ex-wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) appears by his bedside one morning. This is no mere apparition; Hari has a physical presence with a full memory of her ex-husband and a range of human emotions. The revelation is disturbing as Kelvin is both confronted with this unexplained appearance as well as painful memories from his past. Here Tarkovsky parks his narrative as Kelvin unconsciously grows to love this version of his former lover who he knows full well isn’t who his eyes believe her to be. Conflict between the three scientists arises when Kelvin begins defending his relationship with this human-like being while one of his colleagues wishes to conduct studies on her.

Fortunately, Tarkovsky doesn’t leave his audience completely in the dark. Of course, there’s very little real science behind this premise, but the explanation for these occurrences – that Hari and others are physical manifestations of the crew’s memory and thoughts projected from the depths of the planet’s living, thinking ocean – provides the backbone for Tarkovsky’s thematic exploration. Strip away the space station and the phony science and at its core Solaris concerns one man’s reckoning with the grief that plagues him as he’s literally confronted with the memories – both good and bad – of someone he once dearly loved. The replica of Hari as a stand-in for his memories of her forces him to face his past. The intimacy the pair shares aboard the station initially clouds the reality of their parting ten years prior when Kelvin left her and she subsequently committed suicide in his absence. Tarkovsky brilliantly exposes our human desire to revel in the good memories of our past, even if it means subconsciously or consciously manipulating aspects of those memories so that we may enjoy them more fully (a notion Tarkovsky explores further in Solaris’ follow-up The Mirror where that film’s central character recalls memories of his mother as his ex-wife, visualized by the same actress cleverly playing both roles).

And yet, to strip away the deep space odyssey of Solaris’ outer layer would be to diminish all that Tarkovsky uncovers in this sci-fi masterstroke. For not only does he find his characters haunted by people from their pasts, but the lonely crew of the station also experiences a nostalgia and longing for a place. The thrill of discovery that this long-gestating project promises as humankind explores the depths of outer space still can never fill the void left by leaving home. In an early scene aboard the station, Kelvin’s colleague Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) ties strips of paper to an air vent in his room claiming that the sound resembles that of ruffling leaves. He even asserts that his seemingly unfeeling counterpart Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn) utilizes this simple reminder of home in his own quarters as well. Furthermore, the cold, stark lifelessness of the manufactured space station contrasts with the warmth and beauty of earth Tarkovsky captures in the sustained opening shots of the film prior to Kelvin’s departure. The absence of earth is palpable.

If Kubrick’s 2001 exposed the myth of human progress as the failure of deep space voyages resulted in disaster, then Tarkovsky’s Solaris takes this notion one step further: the farther humankind gets away from its home, the less human we become. There’s a reason Tarkovsky ends his film with Kelvin’s dramatic return to earth as he embraces his father (Nikolai Grinko), kneeling before him on the steps of his home. It is only when he is home – facing the very memory of all that word holds – that he is once again happy. Yet, as this is a Tarkovsky feature, the film’s final shot leaves his audience with a satisfyingly ambiguous finale urging us to question all that we’ve seen. The cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky is never easy, always challenging, and rewards multiple viewings if one has the time and patience to dive into his world of eternal questioning.

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Charulata

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(Dir. Satyajit Ray, India, 1964)

In the Mood for Love

The talents of the great Satyajit Ray are innumerable in the vast history of cinema, thus it’s rather unfortunate that today he’s been mostly reduced to the director of the Apu Trilogy. To be clear, the three films that tell the story of Apu’s transition from boy to man represent some of the finest films of the medium – and Pather Panchali remains my favorite of Ray’s works – but the man would go on to do so many other great things than just champion neorealism for poverty-stricken Bengalis. Among his post-Apu highlights, Ray poignantly chronicled the effect of encroaching modernity on the holdouts of traditionalism (not to mention crafting one of the best films infused with the appreciation of music) with The Music Room, and then powerfully revealed that even with the progressiveness of the modern age, prejudice can and does still exist in society in The Big City. But, perhaps his greatest achievement in the few years following The World of Apu – one that has gone surprisingly unsung – is how he portrayed women in his films. If Arati rising to the challenge of becoming her family’s sole breadwinner in The Big City was his most obvious example, then the titular character learning to express herself and discover what she wants for herself in his masterstroke Charulata is easily his finest in a string of films lending a voice to women.

The strength in Charulata lies not only in its forward-thinking view of women in society, but also its delightfully unexpected density of narrative that manages to be an intimate chamber drama and a microcosm of Bengali history all at once. Adapting the beloved writer Rabindranath Tagore’s novella The Broken Nest, Ray’s film tells the story of the accomplished, yet lonely wife of a wealthy newspaper man in late 19th century Calcutta. It’s clear from the onset that Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee) is a good man, but his preoccupation with his country’s future and the success of his newspaper keep him from being a good husband. Charulata (an exquisite Madhabi Mukherjee) remains bored and idle cooped up in her grand, but empty home with only the great authors of the past and present to keep her company. We meet the young woman alone in the elaborately decorated rooms of their mansion amusing herself by watching passersby on the streets below. The sight is not unlike a bird in a cage – a creature designed for uninhibited flight trapped by the confines of outside forces. There are no signs that Charu resents her husband for her situation in their early pleasant interactions, but it’s clear that Bhupati mostly remains ignorant of how his wife suffers from loneliness.

Though Bhupati invites Charu’s brother (Syamal Ghosal) and his wife to come stay with them for a while, her sister-in-law Manda (Gitali Roy) proves to be insufficient company, unable to match Charu’s level of intellect. But, when Bhupati’s cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) unexpectedly comes to visit too, Charu’s prospects appear brighter. An aspiring writer himself with a penchant for reciting poetry and discussing great literature, he quickly becomes a suitable companion for this lonely housewife. Secretly, too, her husband enlists Amal to encourage his talented wife to put her pen to paper and begin writing herself. Thus, a deep friendship forms between the pair, one in full view – and with the approval – of the man of the house. Ray captures the emotional depth of their connection in a mid-film sequence that brings our protagonist outside the home for the first time. There are hints that these garden meetings take place over time – Charu promises to make Amal a notebook of his own, then the camera cuts to a shot of her plopping the finished notebook down on his mat – but Ray lumps them together in one enchanting sequence highlighting the rapidity with which their blossoming romance creeps up on them and allowing his audience to fill in the necessary gaps. In the film’s most beautiful moment, Ray’s camera wondrously captures Charu in sustained close-up as she sways back and forth on a tree swing, the camera dizzyingly swinging along with her. It’s an utterly intoxicating shot – a supreme feat of filmmaking – that fittingly conveys the unbridled joy this young woman experiences most likely for the first time.

This love, then, an outward symbol of a woman’s choice to act upon inward longing, leads Charu to begin writing just as Bhupati had hoped. She quite literally finds her own voice and even gets published in the journal that Amal only dreams of writing for. There’s both satisfaction and a bit of justified pride on Charu’s face as she points to her name in print to Amal before she hands him the copy to read. It’s a powerful moment of character development. She may have begun writing for him, but after seeing her own name in print, she becomes more confident in her own abilities – perhaps even willing to write in the future for none but herself. Meanwhile, Bhupati, oblivious to the love shared between his wife and his cousin, rejoices with his fellow colleagues when the Liberal party beats the Tories in a crucial election back in England. The newspaper man sees this as a triumph for India, perhaps a sign of increased autonomy in the nation’s future. His dedication to the idealism of Indian independence cleverly contrasts the much-needed independence for Indian women he fails to recognize within in his own home.

The growing bond between Charu and Amal inevitably comes to a grinding halt when the veil concealing trouble at work and at home is torn from Bhupati’s eyes. When he learns that his misplaced trust in Charu’s brother led the man steal from his company’s safe, he turns to Amal as the only man he can now trust. Amal’s loyalty to his cousin leads him to break ties with the one he’s grown to love and remove himself from the situation in the dead of night. His decision, though noble, doesn’t keep Bhupati from discovering their love. Devastated, Charu sobs at the side of her bed, but her husband silently witnesses her breakdown and suddenly realizes just how blind he’s been to the suffering of his lonely wife. As typical with Ray’s best work, the film, though utterly tragic in its realistic depiction of human emotion, ends with a ray of hope. Charu tears up the letter from Amal presumably allowing her heart to move on, Bhupati returns home, she invites him in extending her hand, and he reaches for hers. But, here, Ray ends his film with an initially jarring series of freeze frame shots. Their hands are outstretched – a sign that both are willing to begin repairing their broken nest. But, by freezing on the action, not allowing it completion within the shot, Ray also suggests that this healing will take longer than a typically neatly wrapped up ending conveys. Perhaps what’s most hopeful of all – amidst the love lost and trust broken – is that Charu’s position both in her home and society (with a superb writing credit to her name) may very well improve. This then is the greatest beauty of Ray’s impeccable Charulata.

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Sansho the Bailiff

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(Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1954)

True Humanity

“Without mercy, man is not a human being.”

After directing nearly eighty films within thirty years, Kenji Mizoguchi began receiving the international acclaim he deserved when three late-career works won top prizes at the Venice Film Festival three years in a row. The third and final winner at that particular festival, Sansho the Bailiff, is likely his greatest. Few filmmakers depict human suffering as honestly or as devastatingly as Mizoguchi – particularly the suffering of women whose stories historically remain mostly untold – and his mid-century masterpiece stands as one of the most emotionally shattering cinematic experience of all time.

Adapting the 1915 short story of the same name by author Mori Ogai, Mizoguchi and writers Fuji Yahiro and Yoshikata Yoda cast the novelist’s historical work in a distinctly post-WWII light despite its feudal-era setting. These jidaigeki films – Japanese period pieces – were gaining traction in the West at the time thanks to the international success of Kurosawa’s Rashômon in 1950, but Sansho the Bailiff is decidedly different than anything Mizoguchi’s contemporaries were grappling with. There’s something delightfully anachronistic in the way the filmmakers introduce the compassionate governor Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) whose exile sets the stage for the drama that unfolds. As Tamaki is stripped of his post and banished for declaring such political sentiments as “all men were created equal,” one gets the sense Mizoguchi may very well be reflecting on the injustices committed by his own country in the Pacific not ten years prior.

What follows is the tragic story of Tamaki’s two children torn from both parents and sold into slavery at a time when Sansho’s opening title card suggests that the Heian period was an era before humankind knew how to be human. It’s a harsh indictment of our entire race, but given the trajectory of Zushio and Anju’s fateful journey to try to find their parents, it’s certainly an accurate one. Mizoguchi fills his film with crushing loss and the utter depravity of all humans, crafting nearly unbearable set pieces that might leave the most stoic of viewers in tears – the children’s mother (Masauji Taira) is forced into a boat as she desperately attempts escape as they wail along the shoreline, the pair of children laboring until they collapse, attempted escapees branded on their foreheads as a reminder of their folly, or an adult Anju (Kyoko Kagawa) sacrificing herself to allow her brother and an ailing fellow slave to escape.

Mizoguchi’s striking aesthetic only serves to highlight these moments of devastation. He, like so many of the greats, favored the long take and captured these sequences through careful staging of his performers and meticulous framing of his camera with the help of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa. Many of these scenes are achingly beautiful as a result. The two that most readily come to mind are the well-known sequence as Anju wades into the lake where she and we know she’ll never return and when Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) succumbs to the very cruelty that bound him in shackles as he brands the forehead of an elderly slave who got caught trying to escape. In both sequences, Mizoguchi graciously pans away from the sight of either death or torture, but what his camera captures instead if perhaps even more unsettling. As characters fall victim to oppressive acts of violence, Mizoguchi instead seeks to showcase the reactions of those around them. Or, when Anju wades into the water, we never see her submerge, but the rippling that slowly ceases where she presumably goes under is sure to lodge itself into anyone’s memory long after it ends.

Mizoguchi is, of course, no provocateur; these visuals of human cruelty are never meant to merely shock his viewers. But, the picture he paints throughout Sansho the Bailiff is a rather ugly portrait of humankind. The wealthy landowner Sansho (Eitaro Shindo) wields his power to steal the life of those he enslaves, and yet he receives praise from those on high for his efficiency and control of his estate. His cronies lack any semblance of compassion as they would just as easily force young children into servitude as deny the elderly any basic rights even after decades of free labor. And, even a priestess – a symbol of religious morality and justice – reveals her true colors when she betrays Zushio, Anju, and their mother by delivering them to slave traders presumably for a monetary reward. Given the destruction and loss caused by the Second Great War again only a few years prior to the release of Mizoguchi’s film, it seems we still don’t quite know how to act like human beings. The fate of this human race appears bleak indeed.

And yet, the great beauty in Mizoguchi’s film is that his story offers a solution. As the exiled governor taught his son at a young age, “without mercy, man is like a beast,” so too does Mizoguchi remind us that this is the only way to redemption. Zushio may stumble along the way giving up hope, Anju and many others may lose their lives, but in the end it is only when Zushio remembers his father’s words that he may even hope to overcome great evil. This, it seems, is a picture of true humanity. Throughout the film, Mizoguchi utilizes a song written by the children’s separated mother as a recurring motif to drive Zushio and Anju to never abandon hope for reunification. In the song she calls them both by name and ends each line with “Isn’t life torture?” It’s a sorrowful tune, which unfortunately rings too true for many, but it also leads Zushio back to his mother in the end. Life may very well be torture at times, but mercy and compassion hold the key to restoring our kind to its designed, truest state.

sansho the bailiff

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001

(Dir. Stanley Kubrick, United States, 1968)

One Giant Leap for Mankind…Backwards

If ever there were a contender for greatest film ever made (though I find that exercise entirely too subjective to seriously ponder), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey could likely serve as one of the strongest candidates. The filmmaker’s revered masterpiece is a visual and auditory sumptuous feast. Forgoing typical narration, Kubrick’s bold vision paved the way for a glorious break from tradition in ‘70s American cinema. And, though special effects have made leaps and bounds with the advent of digital technology, 2001 has aged remarkably well having attained the status of timelessness. The year 2001 has come and gone, and Kubrick was mostly wrong about the technological advances mankind should have made, but the accomplishments in filmmaking and the probing existential quandaries remain as relevant as ever.

Kubrick and author Arthur Clarke (serving as co-screenwriter) take on the imponderable task of chronicling the epic odyssey of the human race cleverly beginning with the dawn of man featuring our apelike ancestors who discover the means of survival. Beautiful landscape shots of a sun-glowed prehistoric plain introduce earth as a mostly uninhabited world of potential. These primates live in harmony with tapirs and are not immune to attacks from stronger predators or other tribes. One such tribe awakes one morning to the startling presence of a giant, black rectangular monolith standing erect outside their home. A terrifying hum of guttural, choral chants provides the soundtrack to this intruder and overwhelms the senses. Later on, one ape sitting before a bestial skeleton discovers a new use for the bones: weaponry. In an excellently edited sequence, the ape decimates the skeleton while shots of the unassuming tapirs falling to ground are spliced in. The apes have found a way to satisfy their carnivorous appetites and a way to fend off opposing tribes. Kubrick already hints at the progress of the human race.

In a remarkable transition, 2001 jumps millions of years ahead to an era of space travel. The cosmos is now rife with various spacecraft, some even commercial. Kubrick introduces this mastery of outer space with the delicacy of Johann Strauss’ famous waltz “The Blue Danube.” A space plane and station engage in a dance of sorts as the former docks at the latter. The interior of this space station is highly polished and bathed in stark whites (except for vibrant red chairs that pop against the background). Kubrick proves himself the master of framing a scene. In this sequence, we are introduced to Dr. Floyd bound for the moon where some rather strange activity has rendered an American base there incommunicado. Rumors of an epidemic arise. Floyd, once on the moon, addresses a solemn panel of scientists revealing that the epidemic is nothing more than a cover story for a discovery with paramount implications. This mysterious discovery could be indicative of extra-terrestrial life. An expedition to the site reveals that this inexplicable object is none other than the monolith standing in all its glory. An ear piercing sound foils a perfect photo opportunity, and Kubrick unapologetically leaps forward again intentionally not tying up narrative loose ends.

Eighteen months later, we meet the crew of Discovery I on a mission toward Jupiter. Three crewmembers rest in hibernation leaving astronauts Frank and Dave awake to man the expedition. The two are, however, not alone. Hardwired into the motherboard of the spacecraft, a complex computer program named HAL 9000 functions as a sixth crewmember. HAL governs the technological processes of the ship and sustains the life of the three men in hibernation. We learn that HAL is the most reliable computer ever made, foolproof, and incapable of error. Whether or not he is capable of genuine emotion, no one can know. This omnipresent device (eerily represented by a glowing red orb) watches Dave and Frank as they exercise, eat meals, and receive transmissions from home. When HAL predicts the impending malfunction of a crucial satellite on the ship’s exterior, the two astronauts begin to call into question the computer’s infallibility when they find nothing wrong with the device. A transmission from mission control confirms that HAL has predicted incorrectly. The computer attributes the mistake to human error, and Kubrick captures an incredibly tense sequence as HAL reads the lips of the two skeptical astronauts plotting in a soundproof space pod to unplug HAL, preventing any further mistakes. When Frank leaves the ship to replace the device, HAL sabotages the crew severing Frank’s tether, terminating the three hibernating men, and not allowing Dave reentry into the ship. When Dave forcibly reenters, he decidedly disconnects HAL. Dave’s heavy breathing juxtaposed with HAL’s frighteningly calm pleas to stop are particularly unsettling.

Left with no surviving crewmembers or HAL, Dave approaches Jupiter alone in the film’s fourth and final segment. Kubrick’s 2001 takes a surrealist plunge near its finale as we first see the monolith now orbiting the planet before Dave enters a vortex of neon colors and disjointed cosmic imagery. When the pod finally lands, the explorer finds himself in a Victorian decorated room with a bed and an oddly glowing floor. His pod and spacesuit disappear, and Dave begins to rapidly age suggesting an experience in another time and dimension. The monolith appears again, this time in silence, standing at the foot of the bed where Dave’s dying body rests. The fading figure morphs into an unexpected fetus. Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” commands our attention once more as this now giant pre-born figure hovers above the earth.

Kubrick’s brilliant film remains indecipherable enough to not serve as a meditation on anything per se, but seeks to explore many things. First and foremost, Kubrick’s skill as a filmmaker pushes the boundaries of traditional narration and allows technical expertise to flourish with 2001. The film flaunts exquisite cinematography – impeccable tracking shots (Frank running on the ship’s circular track), unusual camera angles (filming from HAL’s perspective), and a forward-thinking switch to handheld to build the intensity of the scientists approaching the monolith on the moon. Too, Kubrick never hurries himself along resting on images (most notably the monolith) and capturing moments with extended sequences (space plane docking, the pod repairing Discovery I’s hull, Dave’s hallucinatory descent on Jupiter). All of this allows his audience to ruminate on the film’s spectacular visuals.

Thematically, Kubrick’s 2001 cannot be as easily understood. Kubrick and Clarke openly admit that they intended this. We can glean, however, that Kubrick casts a skeptical eye on the supposed progress of mankind. Yes, our ancestors learned how to survive, but at what cost? They also ushered in an era of increased violence and carnage. Yes, mankind seems to have mastered the final frontier, but are we not still surprised by its mysteries? And, yes, artificial intelligence has propelled our species to venture into the unknown like never before, but aren’t its failures even more costly? Kubrick explores these questions throughout with the ominous monolith that ties each of the disparate segments together. What does it all mean? Kubrick and Clarke probably don’t even know. But, what we have is an intelligently engaging film that has become iconic in almost every way. Nearly every visual has entered our collective cultural conscious – the opening shot of earth eclipsing the sun, the ape smashing bones, the waltzing spacecrafts, HAL, the cosmic rebirth. Kubrick’s supremely unique vision may not provide all the answers, but it stands as one of the most rewarding exercises in asking all the right questions.

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