Month: September 2013
This is what I remember: Young kids drink a brown liquid that seems to give them extra reflexes. A man works from home at his desk scraping blue dust from flowers. He de-roots those flowers to dig up worms: some of them go in one jar, some in the other. The choices seem to be made on the basis that atoms of some break up and turn blue. The scientist then takes those blue worms and puts them into pill casings as if each were a drug. He then forces that drug onto a young woman, hypnotizes her, and when she wakes up from that nightmare induced by the drug/worm is left without a home, a job, a life; she also doesn’t remember why it happened. There’s a sound man, and there are pigs and there are flowers and there are copies of Thoreau’s Walden. Something connects them but I don’t know what that is.
I remember being very moved when the girl, Kris(Amy Seimetz), finds someone like her, Jeff (Carruth), the hesitancy with which they begin to interact, how closed-off they are and needful; how they connect in spite of being scared; how they keep trying to keep the other at bay whilst simultaneously unable to keep themselves from wooing; they share to such an extent they accuse the other of stealing their memories/identities; how they seem to live in a vacuum of empty hotels and sad motels, each being the only other human connection to the other. This whole part is told in fragments, associative, metaphorical, symbolic but of what I’m not clear on. There are beautiful images of flocks of birds and a repeating phrase – ‘they could be starlings’ that I find oddly haunting.
Thoreau’s Walden seems to be something to figure out and something that links and connects our two protagonists to many other strangers. What does it signify? Have they also been dispossessed of their former selves? The colours white, blue, yellow seem to be important but what of?
I was quite moved but I also remember asking ‘where do the pigs and the sound man and the wild orchids turning blue, and the worm that’s really a drug fit into it?’ yet not wanting to take the trouble to find out.
But then I felt a need to. I looked up The Guardian but the review was overly literal and I thought the comparisons to Malick, understandable though they are, didn’t quite give me the key into the film that I sought. David Gritten in The Telegraph writes that he’s now seen it twice, finds it dense, visually gorgeous, poetic but ultimately finds the film irritating and hard to write about . I know what he means but he did end up writing on it so should have taken greater trouble. The best written review I found to be Richard Brody’sin The New Yorker: ‘Skittering, fragmented editing and glowing images suggest a tenuous hold on reason, and also abysses of irreparable loss; subplots of a sound recordist in search of effects, a pig farm with a special allure for the victims, and recurring phrases from Thoreau’s “Walden” intertwine to yield a vision as vast and as natural as it is reflexively cinematic and fiercely compassionate’. That jives with my experience of the film.
I found the most informative review to be Michael Atkinson’s in Sight and Sound. However, he still warns us that the film he describes, ‘may not resemble the film you yourself see, of course. No film may be quite as contingent on cryptic intimation as Carruth’s, and certainly no film since Eisenstein’s October has relied so categorically on associative editing. You sense that a thoroughgoing metaphysics lies just behind the secretive passage of impressions – which is where, you equally sense, it should remain. Clearly, the film is intended as a tactile experience of poetic ideas, of modern disconnection and biophysical insecurity and existential doubt, and the clarity of these anxieties is bruising and stunning.’
None of these reviewers claim to be able to describe the film they saw as the film you or I might see. All find the film beautiful, poetic, somehow meaningful to them. Not all events or states of mind much less feelings about those events or states of mind are explainable. But Upstream Colour somehow seems to convey them in such a way that it incites the audience to connect them to their own life. It’s quite something when a film can do that. It’s why, without quite feeling I’ve understood Upstream Color, I’ve already had so many interesting conversations about it. I suggest you see it if you can though, if you’re like me, it has to be in a cinema. I would have turned the TV off in ten minutes had I been watching it at home. The cinema context forces your attention and then rewards it. It’s worth taking the trouble.
The film begins almost like a Bond film, Thunderball to be precise: race car driver James Hunt ( Chris Hemsworth) comes into the hospital after being thrashed by an aggrieved cuckold and, before the blood has been cleared from his face, he’s got his clothes off and he’s got the nurse begging him to do to her what landed him in the hospital in the first place. It’s a playful, cheeky scene where Hunt/Hemsworth, or more precisely that extraordinary body of his, is positioned by the camera as the nurse’s object of desire whilst the narrative itself positions Hunt/Hemsworth as subject and locus of audience identification, however aspirational.
Most of the film is set in the 1976 Formula One season and focuses on the competition between Hunt and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) to win the Formula 1 World Championship. Hunt is handsome, charismatic, impulsive; catnip to women but a real man’s man. Hunt loves the romance of the race, of putting his life on the line purely for the glory and because the adrenaline cranks up his sex life and makes him feel alive.. Lauda is plain (he’s called ‘rat-face’ in the movie), a loner, careful, methodical. He’s in it because racing is what he sees himself being most successful at; he plays the odds but systematically; he’s warned not to follow Hunt in the sack as he’s told no one can compete but such warnings are wasted as Lauda is really more interested in a home life. The film also shows us that they have more in common than they think; not only their background or talent or the type of women they are attracted to, but the competitiveness and the way each spurs the other on.
In the film’s terms what’s at stake in the contest is symbolized by who will win it. Will it be business or will it be romance? Is it ‘Knights in Shining Armour’ or nuts, bolts and numbers? It’s a neck-and-neck race that does credit to each whilst underlining the necessary interconnection of both. Even the two very good central performances have a ying/yang dimension: Hemsworth’s star is the one that shines brightest but it is Brühl’s performance that earns our admiration and will undoubtedly get the honours.
The film has a wonderful, distinctive look: slightly grainy, over-saturated with some carefully composed images (some of people sitting on signs) and shots that are thrilling to see almost on their own (e.g. some shots filmed through the inside of a helmet with the visor being drilled on the outside and the actors eye occupying most of one side of the frame). I initially suspected that it was done that way so as to be able to mix actual footage from the original races into the narrative and, whilst I can’t vouch for that, the effect is to make us think that it could have been. The film evokes the rush, the speed, the fumes and the danger of that time where technological developments in the cars had dangerously begun to overtake the safety mechanisms of the track at the cost, sometimes mortal, of twenty percent of the drivers each year.
Rush is very glamorous. The clothes look wonderful both on the men and particularly on those sleek, long legged women that could have come out of a Roxy Music album from the period (the soundtrack features Jimmy Cliff, Bowie and many other treats). The clothes look different than what I remember people wearing but exactly as the magazines and movies of the period made us wish we could look like, which I suppose is always the gap between street clothes and high-end fashion or, perhaps more accurately, the gap between how we do in fact end up looking and the promise of how we could, in the best of all worlds and with the very best of budgets, possibly look; Alexandra Maria Lara and especially Olivia Cole fulfil anyone’s dreams and look sublime.
The film works both as a serious drama and also as a sexy action film. The race is a thrilling photo finish in which what’s at stake is not only the win but also a romantic ideal and a set of values. It is slightly marred by an overly sentimental ending. It wouldn’t be a Ron Howard film without at least a small dose of saccharine; but the rest of the film wouldn’t be as good without Ron Howard’s tremendous skill and guiding intelligence either. It’s the kind of movie that used to be made by the big studios, though they would have considered themselves lucky to produce one of this quality more than once a year. Now, according to the September 13th issue of The Hollywood Reporter, it’s a film that even Ron Howard had to make independently because the big studios wouldn’t touch a mid-budget spectacular chase movie that’s fundamentally character-driven. It’s their loss and, at least in this instance, our gain. Rush is a film to see and experience, and maybe even more than once.
It’s been mooted in the internet that American distributors don’t have high expectations for Rush because it’s about Formula 1 racing rather than NASCAR and because it’s about the rivalry between an Englishman and a German (the implicit assumption being that Americans have no interest in anything that doesn’t directly concern them); another view, mine, is that if they can’t drum up business for a sexy, glamorous movie featuring a hot young star (Chris Hemsworth) coming off a roll of hits (Thor, The Avengers, Snow White and the Huntsman, Cabin in the Woods); a movie that is choc-a-bloc with car chases as exciting as anything in Fast and Furious films, they should all be fired.
The Lonely Wife/ Charulata
(Satyajit Ray, India, 1964)
If you cannot have faith, trust; if you do not know what is true, how can you make sense of the world and how can you live? These are some of the questions asked by Satyajit Ray’s great film, The Lonely Wife/ Charulata.
The setting is an upper-class milieu of Bengali poets, journalists and politicians at a time, the 1870’s, when India is still under British rule and issues of freedom and self-determination are every-day passionate concerns. Bhupati (Sailen Mukerjee) is a rich intellectual who personally finances a political newspaper, The Sentinel. His wife, Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee) is childless, intelligent, beautiful and very talented at both embroidery and writing. Bhupati is so engrossed in politics and in his newspaper that he is neglecting his wife. He is a loving husband and aware of this so he asks Charu’s brother, Umapada (Shyamal Ghosphal) to come work for him and bring his wife Manda (Gitali Roy) to keep Charu company. Manda, however, does not share Charu’s interests. When younger cousin Amal (Soumitra Chaterjee) arrives, the husband is delighted and asks him to keep her company whilst trying to get her to write, which the husband assures him, his wife is very talented at.
This sets the scene for the drama that unfolds: Amal will write and so will Charu, to her husband’s surprise and delight. However, Umapada will end up stealing such sums of money that it ruins Bhupati’s newspaper and his press; a greater betrayal yet will be that the once lonely wife, lonely no more, in fact brimming with emotions she heretofore had only found in novels, will start embroidering slippers for her cousin rather than for her husband.
The Lonely Wife dazzles with the expressiveness of its restraint. The film begins with a close-up of a woman embroidering what we will find out is her husband’s initials before zooming out to show us the bed she’s sitting on and the richness of the bed and the room. The camera follows her as she wanders through her magnificent house, all alone with her embroidery and the books she lovingly strokes. The film’s windows are closed off against the heat but seem semi-barred and begin to suggest a prison. She hears a bird. She’s framed by her house, sumptuous but overwhelming in its immensity: it takes her a while to get to the drawer holding her opera glasses. Finally, she peeks at the world outside, with its music and it drums, its workers. Life is available to Charu only through opera glasses and barred windows. Nonetheless she eagerly follows the action outside, going from to room so she can follow the events of a world she has no access to. She’s a rich and beautiful woman aching for any kind of adventure but lonely in her luxe and with only books for company. The film’s beginning is a beautiful, wordless opening scene with a flowing camera that allows us to discover even as it frames our perception
The film has many moments of sheer loveliness: the scenes in the swing, with the camera fixed so that Charu’s face is always at the same distance from it; and with that exquisite little edit onto her feet as they lightly touch the ground; and then the camera fixed on the swing as we see the brother-in-law, younger, more literary, more poetic, more romantic than the sturdy, steady, loving husband of hers, immersed as he is in politics and the smell and lure of his printing press.
Later, near the end, a melodramatic scene worthy of Douglas Sirk: when she finds out her brother-in-law has left the house, and by implication his feeling that leaving her lonely is a perfectly good price to pay for his cousin’s well-being, the doors swing, the storm enters the house, a perfect poetic symbolization of the storm raging over her heart and, as the film cuts to the husband witnessing this thunderous show of emotion for his cousin, over their own relationship and indeed their world. Madhabi Mukherjee has the seductive and compelling presence of a great star and one can’t help looking at her when she’s on screen. But Sailen Mukerjee is the greater actor and his hurt and distress at realizing his wife loves not just another but his own kinsman is deeply moving.
Earlier on, in a magnificent speech, he’d expressed to his cousin his distress at being swindled by his brother-in-law:
‘Such a trusted person, my relative, no, more than that, a friend. If that man can betray so badly…I put all my trust in him. I feel literally suffocated. What’s owed I’ll pay but…if this is how a man treats another, a person who I trust, then what have we got? What is there to live for? Trust, faith, are these all empty words, Isn’t there anything called truth. Is everything fake, an illusion. A person this close, I couldn’t trust him either? How could people actually get along then or live for that matter? My whole world seems to be crumbling’.
It will crumble further still. The film’s told us as much via camera movement. Throughout the film, a recurring shot begins from the side of the marriage bed and travel right into the room. The marriage bed is the starting point but it is not the centre and the world extending from it flows in all kinds of directions it shouldn’t.
In the last scene, the husband returns to the home but can’t bear to look at his wife: he looks to the side, he looks down. She says come in. He looks at her but quickly looks back down. She smiles, repeats her invitation, extends her hand. He comes in but doesn’t yet look at her. Each extends a hand to the other, but before the hands meet, the frame freezes, and we get something like one of those missing scenes from the restored version of Cukor’s A Star is Born that is reconstructed only through pictures held together by the soundtrack, like the flow of narrative is fractured by isolated pictures of melancholy instances: a close-up of hands not meeting, a picture of them in the barred balcony of their home, a solitary servant on one side, a strewn newspaper on the other. The fracturing of the flow of movement subtly underlining what the sub-title will scream at us: A Broken Home.
It’s a great movie, ostensibly Ray’s favourite of his own works and based on Nastanirh/ The Broken Nest, a novella by Rabindranath Tagore, who also wrote the song that accompanies the wonderful sequence on the swing and is said to be a principal creative influence on the director.
Días de Gracia/Days of Grace or a Note on the Process of Writing on Film (Everardo Gout, Mexico, 2011)
I find the process of writing in itself an interesting guide as to how I value a film. In the last year, I’ve loved Mud, Candelabra, and The Bling Ring so much that I’ve seen them half a dozen times each but still haven’t managed to write anything on them but notes to myself: I’m paralysed with appreciation; I tell myself I need to wait for the DVD release to look at films more closely, verify my opinions, discover more of their mysteries, and find the language with which to begin to account for them. And so the process gets deferred.
Other times my need to write on a film over-rides almost everything else. In the last few days I’ve been going to lots of cultural events; Alain Bennet’s People at the Birmingham Rep, Shakespeare at Stratford, David Byrne in concert, other movies; and in spite of finding them all rewarding in their own ways, I found my mind returning, almost against my will, to focus on Satyajit Ray’s The Big City. I needed to write something.
Other films feel like a waste of time to see, encourage no reflection, and writing on them doesn’t even cross my mind. Others yet, like Days of Grace, I initially thought of just putting aside as a not-too-pleasant experience but then found myself returning to at odd moments as if my unconscious was telling me something my conscious reason didn’t quite grasp.
My first impression of Days of Grace was of an interesting, almost virtuoso, if rather bewildering and somewhat unpleasant example of types of camera movement, colour and editing now made possible by new technologies. Different parts of the film are shot in different formats: 8, 16 and 35 mm; and colour is used differently in different parts of the movie; but the oversaturation it does make use of throughout a great deal of the film has only been seen in cinema relatively recently and is probably due to computerized colour grading. The movement of the camera is relentless and dizzying; simultaneously exciting and irritating; it whizzes overhead in speedy helicopter shots over Mexico City, shakes wildly as it follows characters so you almost can’t see what’s going on. The editing must have been done digitally as objects appear and disappear from walls even as the camera pans across it and would have been a very expensive special effect in another era. And I thought there was something interesting and new about a steady but clearly mechanical (non-smooth) type of tracking shot that I don’t remember seeing before.
After I decided not to write on it (why write something negative on something struggling to find an audience as is?) my mind kept returning to the phrase of Gabriel García Marquez that acts as a pre-amble to the film: ‘La vida no es lo que uno vivío, sino lo que recuerda, y cómo lo recuerda para contarla/ Life is not what one lived but what one remembers and how one remembers to tell it’. So what is life according to Days of Grace, what does the film want us to remember, and how does it tell its story?
These questions were part of the problem I had with the Day of Grace because I wasn’t sure I followed it properly; and I was not alone. Phillip French writing in The Observer notes that the story ‘is difficult, at times almost impossible, to follow. At least first time around.’
The film is clearly a ‘state of the nation film’ with some similarities to Amores Perros and City of God. It is set during three World Cups, 2002, 2006 and 2010 because it’s been observed that, ‘every four years, for 30 days, crime rates go down by 30% because of the World Cup’. It tells three interconnected stories, that of a cop, a kidnap victim, and a family; there are even three versions of ‘Summertime’ so that the film becomes interconnected even on an aural level (Janis Joplin and Nina Simone I recognized: I had to search the credits to find the last which turns out to be by Scarlett Johansson). Each of these stories involves the other key phrase repeated throughout the film, something like ‘in Mexico, every single day is a fight for your life’. So what the film remembers and what it tells is this struggle; and it is significant that the only person who leaves the film’s carnage alive is a young boy who we see first as a child delinquent (Doroteo), then as an apprentice kidnapper (called Iguana and played by Kristyan Ferrer) and in the last scene of the film as a boxer, still fighting for his life, not yet knocked off like the others in the film. But for how long?
Everardo Gout, whose debut feature this is, has called Days of Grace, ‘A love letter to my country…the film comes out of my great love for the country, out of sadness and out of fear at the violence.’ In his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw read this ‘love letter’ as a ‘confident well made film that ends up in a blind alley of cynicism’. I do understand where both are coming from. Part of the reason my mind kept returning to the film was because it jived with my experience of Mexico when I last visited: those who could afford to lived in gated communities with their own security firms; the city police, the District police and the national police fought with each other and also against the various gangs that were often more powerful than they; kidnapping was so rife they had a term for it ‘kindnap expres’, a short-cut to ready money to which everyone who had even a minimal paycheck and a family was vulnerable to. Mexico felt like a failed State and indeed the first time I venture unescorted, it was the police I fell victim to rather than a gangster: the police were the gangsters. The film too makes it clear that there is a thin divide between cops and gangsters in Mexico. As one of the characters says in an analogy with the World Cup, ‘we’re not arbiters, we’re players’.
What to Bradshaw is cynicism, a lack of faith and hope in people and institutions, is to Gout realism, sad and fearful but of what is not of what it once was or what the society could be again. It’s a love letter because there’s Lupe, the hero who is not only a cop, but one who is linked to Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary saint and arguably a founding father of Twentieth Century Mexican ideals. In the face of Tenoch Huerta, and in his performance, in the gesture of kissing of the figure of Zapata and the bullet he once held, one sees a Utopian ideal of that daily fight not only to survive but to make things better, to make things good; and in that ideal lies Gout’s love letter.
What my mind kept turning to, what made me want to find out a little more about the film and to write something after my initial decision not to were three things a) that I couldn’t understand the story fully: was the film too fast or was I too slow? I haven’t figured out the answer to that one yet. B) The violence: brutal, relentless, stylish. This is bound to become a cult film. And c) Tenoch Huerta’s open and suffering face in his futile attempt to make things better. I also felt that the film was akin to the work of a brilliant writer who was so enraptured by his limitless ability with the medium that he ended up writing astonishing passages but forgot what he was writing about or whom he was writing to; or put another way, Days of Grace is the work of a virtuoso director. That is where my writing on the film led me to think contra my experience of watching it.
This story of a man too cowardly to follow his heart is a short but very beautiful film. A screenwriter (Soumitra Chatterjee ) looking for material in rural Darjeeling gets stranded in a small-town petrol station when his car breaks down; there are no trains and no taxis. A rich manager of a tea plantation (Haradhan Bandopadhyay) gives him a lift and brings him to stay to his house for the evening. There he meets his wife Karuna (Madhabi Kukherjee ) who to his shock turns out to be his old love, the woman he’d been too cowardly to marry. Years before he’d been a poor and struggling writer; she came from a rich family and was willing to give everything up for him. But he was too afraid of the burden those class differences would place on him, particularly in a culture where ‘caste’ and ‘keeping face’ are so important. Now he’s successful; she’s given up her painting and is living a very comfortable life but married to heavy-drinking boor. He wants her back but will she take him?
The film is disciplined and restrained but full of feeling. Flashbacks return us to what happened in the past; first the break-up, then the first meeting. However, what happens in the flashbacks also gets refracted onto the film’s present in that the screenwriter’s acquiescence to social convention, what lost him Karuna, are still evident in him, still sadly his central characteristic in relation to Karuna: he tries to win her in secret, in silence, behind closed doors, by running away; he constantly defers to the husband and never once publicly declares himself for her — even his attempts to win her become a display of his cowardice. The film has other themes knit into the major one, artistic life vs bourgeois conformity, the ideological structures and strictures of caste and class, but the perspective through which we’re shown these social and structural problems is an existential one of individual choice and responsibility.
What Ray gets out of camera movement, a glance, a hand, even a shadow moving behind a closed door, is extraordinary and should be of interest to anyone interested in cinema. Unless you’ve learned to be attentive to the various ways cinema can show and tell, you might not notice what a tour-de-force of directing the opening scene is: there’s nothing showy about it until you realise that the first scene is also the first shot, all 4 minutes and seven seconds of it.
The first image is a composition of a man smoking on the right. An open hood of a car is on the left of the screen. A sign, slightly out of focus, saying ‘welcome’ is in the middle. There’s a little window where the garage’s office is in the background and also out of focus. The man paces as the credits unfold then the dialogue starts when the credits end. We’re told the car is broken and won’t be fixed for a while. The protagonist goes into the office but the camera waits outside the window, theatrically, as if we were witnessing a play. We see his problem is the car won’t be fixed for a while and in the meantime he’s got no way to get out of town and possibly no place to stay. The camera then gets closer, seeming to expand so that the film frame is now also the window frame. We get a closer view of what we will be shown to be two of our protagonists, two opposing social types, the artist and the businessman, and two potential rivals in love, though as we can see by who needs and who is in the position to offer help, the battle has already been lost. The tea planter offers the screenwriter a place to say because his brother is a Doctor: they’re of the same class. Then the camera pulls back again to allow for the conversation of our two protagonists, pulls back even further once the planter offers him a place to stay, then even further practically to where we started so that we see the Welcome sign from Esso in focus, and seeming much larger. Then the husband and the former lover get into the jeep all without a single cut for the four minute and seven seconds duration. In the meantime, we’ve been told who these people are, what they’re doing, where they’re going, and the whole scene is set for the drama to follow. It’s extraordinary.
Looking at that opening scene which is also, yet also much more than, the opening shot, and so much less showy and attention-seeking than comparable ones by Welles, Scorcese, or the like, you realise that The Coward is also, but also much more than, the story of ‘boy wins girl, boy loses girl, boy wins/loses girl’. It’s a film that creeps up on you slowly, sadly, full of intelligence and regret, showing life to be such that only a pill or a drink makes it bearable, and shown with a technique that is unobtrusive; but it all creeps up on you and at a certain moment, after you’ve understood the themes and felt for and with the characters, you realise and go ‘Wow’; a film where the exclamation, the explosion, is not shown on the screen but created in you.
A special treat is the extraordinary beauty and the delicate performance of the great Madhabi Kukherjee as Karula.
The film, along with The Big City and The Coward, has been shown as part of the Ray retrospective at the NFT. If you don’t have access to the retrospective, Ray films are available to rent from Lovefilm, this one in a lovely blu-ray transfer from Artificial Eye.
‘ Love me! I’m such a victim and suffered so much but I won’t take it any longer, I am gay, and I am worthy and I love myself and I will be brave and I shall be released and I will throw in a child with Down’s syndrome and I will make you laugh and cry or kill you with sanctimoniousness’. Any Day Now is THAT kind of movie.
The film is set in 1979, based on a true story and gets its title from the Bob Dylan song, (Any Day Now) ‘I Shall be Released’ . It tells the tale of Rudy Donatello (Alan Cummings), a drag queen who lives next to Marianne Delson (Jamie Anne Allman), a heroin addict and the mother of Marco, a young child with Down’s syndrome. Rudy meets and falls in love with Paul Fliger (Garret Dillahunt), a D.A., just at the moment when Marianne gets arrested. Rudy decides to care for Marco rather than have the child go into social services and gets Paul to help as their own relationship deepens. The rest of the film is a demonstration of how the US justice system valued the maintenance of homophobia over the well-being of a young child with special needs.
Any Day Now is everything I hate in gay movies: smug, superior, like a little moral lesson to a wayward child by a bunch of Miss Know-it-Alls. Alan Cummings has some good bravura moments and a convincing accent. But it also looks like he’s been taking lessons on New York humour from Liza Minnelli, faux-cynical but with a silent drum-roll of a twist, and he can’t stop bloody twinkling and wanting to be loved, even when he’s lip-synching as a drag queen in full Carmen Miranda gear. He even sings a series of numbers (‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’, ‘I Shall Be Released), interspersed throughout the film and meant to evoke the state of feeling of the characters but so trite in choice and in execution that it gives kitsch a bad name.
Travis Fine is very good with actors. In spite of the above, Alan Cummings is at all times riveting, even when he doesn’t need to be. Garret Dillahunt looks like Glen Campbell did in the period and he does evoke a WASP up-tight gaucheness rooted in a settler sense of justice that is in keeping with the character and the time. It was lovely to see the great Frances Fisher back on the screen as the judge as well; and Chris Mulkey is convincingly oily as Paul’s homophobic colleague. There’s also a great performance from Jamie Anne Allman as the mother: she’s very good at conveying different emotions simultaneously and gives off an air of resentment at the injustice of having to take care of a kid like that when she could be getting stoned that reminds me of Jennifer Jason Leigh at her best. And of course, I don’t know if you can call it a performance, but what Fine was able to get from and do with the young Isaac Leyva as the child with Down’s syndrome is quite extraordinary.
The film looks 1979 and, when Cummings isn’t singing, has a wonderful Disco soundtrack. But though the film looks and sounds 1979 and is ostensibly based on real events, it has no idea what being gay in 1979 felt like much less how to convey it. Sometimes when people think they have all the answers, they reveal their ignorance of the questions and this is true of this film. There’s a moment where Paul isn’t taking Rudy’s phone calls and Rudy goes into the DA’s office, his drag make-up not fully off his face, screaming his name. There’s a reason why the fear of blackmail was so potent in pre-Liberation days. A 1979 Rudy would not have risked the job of someone he ostensibly cares about and someone who is in a position to help him by behaving like that. But here the film asks the viewer to side with Rudy; as if being in the closet in 1979 was the stuff of cowards rather than a way of coping in a homophobic society where discovery often led to jail, loss of livelihood and social ostracism. The film does show Paul losing his job later but the point is that a 1979 Rudy should have known that. And really a 2013 Travis Fine should know that and get us to side with Paul rather Rudy.
The film lacks a historical perspective, a real understanding of people, the choices they had in the period and why and how they might have behaved as they did. It is also extraordinarily manipulative. All it needed was to throw the kid under a bus and the coercion to cry would have been complete, though the filmmakers come close: they tell us the child died under a bridge after four days of wondering alone, in the cold, unattended, and presumably facing every conceivable kind of danger, like Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm. Thankfully they show that off-screen. But just as you’re about to exhale with relief at the small mercy, the film throws in a montage of a letter Paul sends to everyone who prevented the child from having a home, basically blaming them for having killed him: clunky, crude, shameless, disgusting filmmaking.
After seeing Satyajit Ray’s The Big City, Roger Ebert remarked that he had trouble approaching Ray’s films as ‘foreign’: “they are not foreign. They are about Indians, and I am not an Indian, but Ray’s characters have more in common with me than I do the comic-strip characters of Hollywood.” I agree. The film feels both of its time and very contemporary: probably most people living in cities in the non- or recently industrialised world are no more than a generation away from village life (and this includes European countries such as Spain, Romania and many more) and the problems around re-definitions of inside/outside, the family, work and gender roles are not too different than those Ray’s film so delicately and beautifully dramatises.
In The Big City, Subrat Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee), an accountant who works in a new bank, and his wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) live in a cramped apartment in Calcutta. They’re supporting his father (Haren Chatterjee), a former schoolteacher who needs glasses they can’t afford, his mother (Sefalika Devi) who’s got an expensive tobacco habit, his sister (Jaya Bhaduri), a teenager but still going to a fee-paying school, and their young son Pingu (Pressenjit Sarkar). They can’t make ends meet. The husband drops hints that maybe the wife can get a job. The wife takes the hint but then it is the husband who becomes reluctant to venture any further as a wife working away from home would shame him in front of his parents and friends. However, they see no other solution.
Ray works within the realm of the little hurts, slights, and barriers in life that must be overcome. There are no heroes or villains. The family benefits from Arita going to work but each is nonetheless and in different ways resentful that she’s taken a job. The father who loves his son prefers to bad mouth him in the course of begging for new glasses from former students rather than accept them lovingly from his working daughter-in-law. The older generation is shocked and unaccepting of this modern world in which women are allowed to work. Yet it might be shocking to us that they initially see begging, however delicately and elegantly voiced, preferable to work.
This illustration of middle-class poverty nonetheless focuses on a family who’s got a servant whom they have trouble paying; there are other people who are much worse off then they. You get a real sense of modernity arriving in the city, people who’ve just come from a village and who’ve still got a rural, almost tribal identity but in a changing world. Unusually, Anglo-Indians are depicted as the disenfranchised minority, on the face of it privileged, but de-facto structurally oppressed, their privilege being tied to the world order of a different generation and one that no longer exists. Chandak Sengoopta in ‘The Big City: A Woman’s Place’, an essay offered as part of The Criterion Collection website, offers a marvellous socio-historical context for the film’s drama.
The character of Arita is the film’s focal point; it is through her that we see Modernity structurally transforming the family and a whole way of life. Initially, the film’s focus is on the husband’s worries, and we see her encased inside the tiny apartment unable to meet the various demands the members of her family make on her. Then we see her fear of the city; how she needs her husband’s support to go outside and into the world. Then her awe and wonder at the richer homes, other ways of life. Soon she’s standing up for herself, walking purposefully through the streets, arranging contracts, wearing sunglasses and even putting on lipstick and meeting men.
The lipstick is crucial. And the lipstick is inextricably linked to her new ability to be with men who are not her husband. Arita is no flâneuse; she’s a career woman now with places to go and people to see; and all these wonderings around the city, all this career success, particularly in the light of her husband’s travails but of the culture as a whole, make her husband, and most likely the film’s initial audience, question her virtue. Part of the beauty of the film is that it makes us understand why her society and her husband might put her morality in question (what else is the husband to think when he finds a lipstick in her purse or sees her with other men?) whilst simultaneously leaving us with no doubt as to Arita’s goodness.
Madhabi Mukherjee who plays Arita seems simultaneously ordinary and a great beauty. Her features are just as delicate as her way of conveying the character’s emotions. She evokes a centered serenity even in her greatest moments of distress, even in her final confrontation with her boss. Her Arita has a calm humbleness, useful when she has to deal with each new difficulty and one which also comes across as tactful and polite: Arita does her best to prevent others from feeling threatened or ill at ease at the sense of empowerment she now clearly feels. Like so many women in the history of cinema, walking the streets offers Arita money and freedom, although Arita walks in daylight, to an office job, selling knitting machines instead of herself and is at all times respectable.
The Big City is also fascinating in relation to film form. There are some extraordinary shots: one of the husband shown through a sheet where the light makes his disembodied profile seem a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde split figure; the other of the wife looking through a glass and trying on lipstick, a modern identity, and showing us being in the process of becoming (the mirror shot is later rhymed with one showing us looking at herself with the money she’s earned from her job, the lipstick and the money crucially interlinked). What we see and how we see it seems extraordinarily modern and imaginative. The film is shot in long-takes sometimes helped along by a rather stilted though no less efficient zoom lens. Each shot is composed sparsely, minimally, there is very little too distract the eye from within the frame, but these sparse compositions create maximum effect.
The pace is languid, audiences might feel a bit too much so. But it all builds into a marvellous, multi-layered, depiction of a society in transition, and the uncomfortable choices a loving family have to make to get by. The film reminds us that drama need not involve superheroes, or natural disasters or fatal afflictions; that good and loving people trying to get by in the world in the best way they can is, when shown with such skill and delicacy, sufficient to create something beautiful and moving. It’s a great film.
Seen at the Midlands Arts Centre but also available as a great Criterion DVD
I have not read Henry James’ novel from which the film is adapted so I’m in no position to evaluate how faithful or true it is to the original novel or how well it is updated. On its own terms, the film is well-intentioned, serious, worthy. If effort were all, it would be wonderful.
The structure is classically symmetrical: Four adults, two younger, two older; four couplings; one dissolves at the beginning, the other begins at the end. One child to be tossed around amongst them.
The structure is filled out by a straightforward story. Susanna (Julianne Moore) is a rock star. Her husband, Beale (Steve Coogan) is an art dealer. The milieu is well-to-do but bohemian Manhattan. The film begins with the end of their relationship and the beginning of their brutal, acrimonious and selfish custody battle over their daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile). Margo (Joanna Vanderham), the nanny, is at all times concerned with Maisie’s feelings and need. She initially offers stability but then gets married to Maisie’s father and becomes caught in the crossfire of Susanna and Beale’s selfish hatred. Susanna also marries someone, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgärd), a tender-hearted hunk of a bartender and, like Margo, considerably younger. By the end of the film, it is Lincoln and Margo, now a couple, who are de facto doing the parenting the biological parents are too self-involved to provide.
How divorce affects a child is not a new theme in American Cinema: Mildred Pearce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), The Parent Trap (David Swift, 1961 and Mancy Meyer, 1998), Kramer vs Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979), Stepmom (Chris Columbus, 1998) and many others have in different ways touched on the theme. But cinema has rarely explored the theme as intricately as What Maisie Knew does. Susanna and Beale profess love for Maisie, and the film is complex enough to show us that they do indeed love their child. However, it also shows us how they see that child mainly in relation to themselves, as an extension, rather than as a separate consciousness and then only in the odd moments they do in fact happen to think of her. Neither acknowledges the child as having needs and indeed feelings outside their own presence or perception.
Susanna and Beale constantly declare their love for Maisie, indeed violently fight with each other for her possession, but the violence of their struggle with each other is itself a demonstration of their lack of duty and responsibility towards the child and of their own egocentrism. Is love pure feeling or is it feeling made manifest in actions; do you still love your child if you neglect it? How much do you love your child if the fulfillment of your needs is at the expense of theirs? I’m sure Maisie’s father thinks he doesn’t love her less when he decides that his business will go better if he moves back to England and thus really can’t be part of her life, at least not on a regular basis any more. I’m sure Susanna’s career requires that she go on tour. Both parents ‘love’ their child but see themselves in difficult situations in which they think they’re doing the best they can. However, the film shows us they can indeed do much better. And little Maisie knows it.
The film depicts the situation from Maisie’s vantage point literally and figuratively: her point of view is privileged and the camera is often placed at her eye-level to show us the action. Maisie is a warm, open, trusting and intelligent child. She watches and she sees, and slowly we see that she understands much more than a child should, and finally, we realise that she might even know and understand more than her parents. Onata Abrile, big eyes on that baby face, brings to mind Ana Torrent in Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, Spain, 1963), and seeing her is one of the film’s pleasures; her little arms reaching out for whoever’s handy for a hug, the eyes watching and weighed-down by the burden of knowing, and her little hand encased in Skarsgärd massive paw are moments that stay and resonate.
The rest of the performances are variable. Julianne Moore is never for one moment believable as a rock star, and the bit where we see her singing at the studio with what sounds like her voice, is pretty terrible (though of course that hasn’t stopped rock stars from being rock stars in the past); however, that aside, she’s not afraid of playing unlikeable and she screeches at her husband, cheats on her lover, and goes on tour with an abandon that always seems true to the character whilst also enjoyable to watch. She’s also very gentle and affectionate when she’s alone with her girl, and has a truly great moment where she goes to pick up her child from her former nanny and Lincoln and realizes with horror that she now makes Maisie afraid.
Skarsgärd is a pleasure to watch as well. I’ve never seen him this boyish on screen. Graphically, his enormous height contrasts well with tiny Abrile, and both are at their most appealing and vulnerable when shown together. Tender, sweet, responsible; he’s the man Susanna really doesn’t deserve. Joanna Vanderham is technically proficient, very nurturing with Maisie and a good match for Lincoln (what is incomprehensible is why someone so responsible and sensible would take up with Beale). Steve Coogan has been getting good reviews for his playing of Beale but I find him opaque in the part; Coogan traffics, and succeeds in irony, detachment, distanciation. He does technically convey the emotions his character’s supposed to feel but always at a distance; he never lets you in and, perhaps because of that, you never feel that that character is a person rather than Coogan acting out a set of character traits.
The film has many virtues. It does makes one think about love, relationships, parenting, responsibility and it treats those themes complexly. It has some good performances. Though not visually dazzling, it has some memorable images. The main problem I think is that it is too restrained. It’s dealing with material that borders on the melodramatic and doesn’t want to go there. But restraint in a film such as this should mean not to manipulate the audience falsely into emotion rather than simply abstaining from the attempt altogether. It is often through feeling that films get us to think. The main characters in What Maisie Knew deserve a tear. The film’s unwillingness to grant it feels overly detached and rather cold. A pity.