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I am Naari, Hear me Roar

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 10, 2015

Earlier published at The Scene, Mad About Moviez and Former People.

If you listen closely, it's a meow.

If you listen closely, it’s a meow.

“[Mrs Ramsay] had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance; finally for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to feel or to find agreeable, something trustful, childlike, reverential; which an old woman could take from a young man without loss of dignity, and woe betide the girl – pray Heaven it was none of her daughters! – who did not feel the worth of it, and all that it implied, to the marrow of her bones.”
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

The first time I remember meeting Mrs Ramsay was, in a sense, at least a year and a half before I read even my first Woolf novel, Mrs Dalloway, when I read Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. And I’ll be honest: it baffled me when I first read it.

The Wikipedia summary of act one of the play is

The play opens at Christmas time as Nora, Torvald’s wife, enters into her home, “thoroughly loving her life and surroundings (Ibsen, 1871, p. 590).” An old-time friend of hers, Mrs. Linde, arrives to her home seeking employment. At the same time, Torvald “has just received news of his most recent job promotion (Ibsen, 1871, p 590).” When Nora learns of her husband’s promotion she instantly and excitedly hires Mrs. Linde. In the meantime, Nora, who is playing the ordinary housewife, is unhappy with her husband and becomes very distraught with him. While conversing, “Mrs. Linde complains about her most difficult past, and Nora mentions that she has had a life in resemblance to Mrs. Linde’s (Ibsen, 1871, 590).”(Emphasis added.)

But before we get to Nora, we should acquaint ourselves with Mrs Bennet. I read Pride and Prejudice a while after Mrs Dalloway, but nevertheless she forms an important precursor to both Nora and Clarissa. One thing Austen is not famous for but is an important element in the book is her judgmentalness towards characters she doesn’t approve of. Probably the character who gets the most flak from her is Mrs Bennet, a tactless housewife whose only aim in life is to get her five daughters married as quickly as possible. Not having read any other books by Austen, I can’t say how common it is, but I’m willing to bet that her acerbic criticism of Mrs Bennet’s narrowness is not a moment of whimsy. Any feminist worth zir salt will tell you exactly why this is a horrible thing to do. Melissa McEwan, in an article about allegations often made against feminists of ‘man-hating,’ wrote,

“There are the stereotypes—oh, the abundant stereotypes!—about women, not me, of course, but other women, those women with their bad driving and their relentless shopping habits and their PMS and their disgusting vanity and their inability to stop talking and their disinterest in Important Things and their trying to trap men and their getting pregnant on purpose and their false rape accusations and their being bitches sluts whores cunts… And I am expected to nod in agreement, and I am nudged and admonished to agree. I am expected to say these things are not true of me, but are true of women (am I seceding from the union?)”

While this is an illustrative quote, it doesn’t really explain the situation: it boils down to the fact that hating people for doing what they are socially conditioned to do is just another aspect of subjugation – freedom involves the freedom to act in socially acceptable ways too (there are much deeper issues here, to do with the criticism of not being aware of the world beyond one’s own nose but there are arguments against that being phrased against women and the associated domestic and cosmetic concerns but not men and the associated concerns about cars and sports and business and being aware of the world beyond one’s own nose in extremely kyriarchial terms etc – it’s a part of what’s encoded in the word ‘femmephobia’ which means hatred of the womanly).

Nora, like Mrs Bennet, starts off the play as an extremely ‘shallow’ (the deep/shallow dichotomy needs to be tackled in a separate piece altogether – but it’s probably not too hard to appreciate the fact that I hate it) woman, living entirely in the sphere of her social life, her relationship with her husband and her housewifely duties; she’s basically a doll, in her doll’s house. The play is about how she breaks out of the doll’s house in her head and then walks out of the doll’s house owned by her husband.

And, despite such a seemingly clear arc, it baffled me till I was reading a collected edition of some of Harold Pinter’s plays. At least two of them (The Birthday Party and The Room) had a housewife figure who, when faced with her domestic idyll giving way to gaping chasms in her path, tried to make it right by pretending nothing was off and trying to convince everyone, through entirely friendly social persuasion, that everything was all right and they should stop acting so fucking messy. Now, this made sense to me: it was a classic story of the abyss staring at someone and that person closing her eyes and trying to jump over it – it’s one of the most fascinating arcs I’ve ever encountered.

What defines all these women –and countless similar characters, including our very own Charulata and every Bollywood mom ever – is a certain brittleness of character. They’ve been trained all their lives to be the emotional and spiritual backbone of their families, the susheel naari, and they’ll do that no matter what, damn those men and their annoying egos. Tropes like a mother desperately searching for her child or acting as an intermediary between a feuding father and offspring sound like clichés even though I for the life of me can’t come up with examples.

Now, the fact that this is how women are often portrayed speaks directly of the prevalence of oppression and is therefore not a good thing (but, to be clear, it is not in itself evidence, though it is part of a larger class of things that is at least motivation for plausibility). However, the other fact is that in most Bollywood movies the moms are not the central characters, and that is a manifestation of misogyny (and other things) too; what is a good thing is that there is a subgenre of narrative art, and often created by men, which tries to use these tropes to at the same time point out the effects of oppression and provide sympathetic portrayals of the women – that is nice.

But, you know, everything I’ve spoken about was created by men; to really take these tendencies as far as they need to go needs women (well, I don’t see any reason it should in principle but in practice women are the only people I’ve seen go the distance on this – this may of course have something to do with the fact that they have probably at times had to actually consider the possibility of being Charulatas).

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is the story of, and from the point of view of, a woman whose intellectual freedom and her awareness of the oppressiveness of the thinking-is-bad-for-women world around her can’t coexist; it causes a fragmentation of her experience (I ought to warn you that that’s just my favourite way of phrasing it), which boils down to her describing herself tearing down the not-too-subtle-symbol-for-oppression wallpaper in the third person.

Clarissa Dalloway is a woman who long ago chose a stodgy, conventional man over an adventurous intellectually open and respectful free spirit whom she loved. One of the best things Mrs Dalloway does is make a deep case to us that that may not have been the right choice but it definitely was a right choice. Yes, she isn’t respected for her not inconsiderable intellectual capabilities, but she chose a certain sort of emotional stability over that, and it’s not as if her intellectual life is dead: beneath her veneer of the party hostess is the woman, the one who carefully picks her guests for a very specific purpose:

“But why should she invite all the dull women in London to her parties?”

“But to go deeper, beneath what people said (and these judgements, how superficial, how fragmentary they are!) in her own mind now, what did it mean to her, this thing she called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom?”

“And yet for her own part, it was too much of an effort. She was not enjoying it. It was too much like being — just anybody, standing there; anybody could do it; yet this anybody she did a little admire, couldn’t help feeling that she had, anyhow, made this happen, that it marked a stage, this post that she felt herself to have become, for oddly enough she had quite forgotten what she looked like, but felt herself a stake driven in at the top of her stairs. Every time she gave a party she had this feeling of being something not herself, and that every one was unreal in one way; much more real in another. It was, she thought, partly their clothes, partly being taken out of their ordinary ways, partly the background; it was possible to say things you couldn’t say anyhow else, things that needed an effort; possible to go much deeper. But not for her; not yet anyhow.”

But, let’s cross 1950 already. What’s the situation like after the feminist movement got a hold? Obviously, the domestic woman is still a prevalent character, as is her brittleness, from The Godfather’s women to Carmela Soprano, from every Bollywood mom ever to the crazy punisher of Ek Hasina Thi, from the bar dancer who doesn’t want her sister to marry a prominent thief to – as a friend entertainingly called the anti-heroine in Maqbool – Lady Maqbool. And, as I’ll explain, the quality of portrayal is not significantly better.

Dibakar Banerjee and Urmi Juvekar’s Shanghai features a cascading set of women who are prompted into action by the deeds and misdeeds of the men in their lives; at its centre is an ultra-rich half-white woman who only pays lip service to the cause of the poor people around her till her boyfriend/teacher is murdered and then goes on an investigation spree for justice (which also solves the problems of the aforementioned poor people), even after finding out that sleeping with his students is a common behaviour for the man.

Or, for a less conflicting example, let’s turn to the well of American TV series. Specifically, Cougar Town, created by Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel. It’s a ‘hangout comedy’ (or whatever they’re calling it nowadays) about a group at whose centre is the intensely motherly Jules Cobb (Courteney Cox); she got pregnant at sixteen and the father couldn’t provide so she raised her kid on her own and now (eighteen years later) she’s a well-off real estate agent. And, you know what, she is usually a fluffy ignorant irascible woman but she commands respect like few other characters I’ve ever seen; ‘hear me roar’ is actually a line she might say when she gets worked up, and she will be taken seriously. And then there’s even more: she’s a depressive. There are whole episodes about her unstoppable downward spiral, and they often contain some of the show’s greatest moments. But it’s as if there’s an on/off switch. Certain episodes will be about her internal life and certain episodes will focus on her exclusively as an anchor for social dynamics; it could have been a great show if the writers had been able to handle these elements with the consistency and respect with which they handle all the others.

“Because my daughter needs me.”

On the other hand, there’s Gilmore Girls, created by Amy Sherman-Palladino (and her husband Daniel Palladino is a non-trivial creative force too). It’s also about a woman, Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) who gets pregnant at sixteen, finds the father inadequate, and begins her own life. The series begins sixteen years after that, and at its centre resides the relationship between Lorelai, her daughter Lorelai urf Rory (Alexis Bledel) and her mother Emily (Kelly Bishop). And it features a massively inclusive world – every side character gets a fully-fledged personality, so much so that the other relationships are almost as important as the central ones.

And at the centre of this network of relationships? Lorelai. Not only is she dangerously close to being defined solely by her relationships, she speaks in an unending stream that makes it easy not to take her seriously. Further, we are introduced to her at the cosiest, happiest period in her life, after she’s finished her rise from maid with baby on back to manager of the inn, when she is free to just sit back and have fun with her daughter (whom she’s really close to).

It could have been very easy to go through this show considering her an unbelievably fun and lovely person, but not necessarily someone to respect and look up to, had it been written by the team of Cougar Town. But it’s not, and so it’s not.

An epicentre for these considerations is the thirteenth episode of the third season, “Dear Emily and Richard,” in which Rory gets stuck alone at the birth of her half-sister and simultaneously we get to see the events surrounding Rory’s birth, though they are already well fleshed-out in conversation. And this episode honestly alters your perception of Lorelai. It’s not as if I didn’t respect her before, but this is an episode where we get to really see the hard, strong core that allowed her to go from a super-rich family to maid to manager. We see how she heard the father’s resigned agreement to marrying her and told him to go away, and ran away from her suffocating home, and how for her her loyalty to her daughter is everything; she may have been a person with a bright future at some point in her life, but now her life is defined by her daughter and her daughter above all else, and that’s neither ‘okay’ nor ‘not okay’ but just is.

We can narrativise all these similarities and the attendant differences in many ways, but that would be an exercise bordering on facility; it’s too easy to impose a conventionally feminist understanding of reclamation of women’s identities and stories but not give any reason other than ‘my narrativisation, based on the examples that I picked explicitly to support it, makes intuitive sense and is therefore right.’ But that doesn’t change the fact that this is a well-established trend, or at least a strain; and it certainly doesn’t change the inherent value of the characters and pieces of art.

Posted in Books, General, Movies, Philosophical Ruminations | Leave a Comment »

Goodbye, Mr Ebert

Posted by Ronak M Soni on April 6, 2013

Originally published at MadAboutMoviez.

A movie is not about what it’s about; it’s about how it’s about it.

As you’ve probably heard, the sweetest old man of American film criticism died yesterday, at the age of seventy-one, due to the jaw cancer he’s had for years, and inspired a great horde of affecting memorials (particularly good are those by Jim Emerson and Andrew O’Hehir).

(In good news, he got to watch the latest Terrence Malick film last week; and in good news for us, he’s written about it.)

To illustrate what sort of a person he was, let us go back to December 2009. Roger Ebert got a mail about a reviewer called Dan Schneider; Schneider had some pretty dismissive things to say about Ebert, mainly based around the assertion that he was a great writer but not much of a critic. Ebert put up the whole letter he’d got, all the pieces in which Schneider had mentioned him, and a short answer on his blog, and asked his commentariat to judge. What Roger said:

Dan Schneider is observant, smart, and makes every effort to be fair. I would agree that I am a more emotion-driven critic than Siskel or Schneider, and indeed many others. My reviews usually include a reflection of how I felt during a film, since film itself is primarily an emotional, not a cerebral, medium. For example, although like most everybody I found “Triumph of the Will” evil, I also lingered on how boring it was. If you’re not comfortable sitting through a film, what can you easily get from it?
I must say I still agree with my opinions as quoted by Schneider, and I conclude he is more analytical and less visceral that I am. Readers find critics who speak to them. What is remarkable about these many words is that Schneider keeps an open mind, approaches each film afresh, and doesn’t always repeat the same judgments. An ideal critic tries to start over again with every review.
There are three things on which we adamantly disagree. (1) I do not have a broader film knowledge than Donald Richie, and Schneider may be the only person who has ever thought so. (2) I disagree with his dismissal of Spielberg. The man who made “E.T.” is not a schlockmeister purveying tripe. (3) The third is Ingrid Bergman, and my “burblings” about her lips. A critic who doesn’t acknowledge the role of her face and presence in a “Casablanca” will, I fear, date just about anybody. Our critical differences I leave to you. I invite you to continue your discussion in the Comments below.

What I said at that time is a much better tribute to the man than I have been able to write today:

I attribute much of my knowledge of film to reading too many of your reviews. In July I was stuck with nothing to do except a computer whose only interesting aspect was its internet connection, and I remembered reading a review by some guy which completely changed my view on The Reader, so I went to his site and read his reviews for 10 days. This did two good things to me: I learned to trust my own emotions (don’t even ask about my history of appreciation, though I should say I was regularly put too much on my guard because I realised that I was unable to dislike a movie), and I learned the need to analyse my emotions.

That said, I think that you are horrible at writing negative reviews. Instead of trying to think/write about why you thought Dead Poets’ Society was gimmicky, you just said that it was. In fact, in most of your negative reviews, I don’t see an attempt to understand why you reacted negatively to many of these movies (there are notable exceptions like Fight Club and Memento), rather I see a discourse on what you saw wrong after finding the movie bad. In these cases, even you forget about subjectivity (I see it surfacing many times throughout your oeuvre, more often on the blog).
The Dead Poets’ Society review is like a sore thumb to me because I ended up agreeing with you.
So, I mainly treasure your positive reviews, because you show in them a love of cinema and pure emotion (I am a rather emotional viewer myself). Of course, there’s also insight. (Personal favourites out of your reviews: Ikiru and The Apu trilogy – both reviews had me crying – and Disgrace – just plain beautiful) I come and read one of your reviews every time I find something confusing in a movie, because you take special pains to convey your insights without actually spoiling the movie (this last has influenced me too much, because it makes review-writing so much more fun, and even necessary).

[…] when I look back at my life, I’ll see those ten days in July (yes, this year) as the most significant part of my development. From now on, I’ll just be building on the legacy of that.

He continues to be just such a large presence among my influences. However, that’s more or less about it; I can’t say that my soul has torn its way out of my body because he died, because I didn’t know the guy. But that doesn’t prevent me from taking this opportunity to commemorate a writer of dazzling brilliance and tenderness.

So, in memoriam, some excerpts from his reviews, that show how damned nice and insightful he was, not just simultaneously but inextricably.

La Dolce Vita: This is a movie he cited as the one that most continued to fascinate him, and in some sense his favourite.

Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw “La Dolce Vita” in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom “the sweet life” represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello’s world; Chicago’s North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello’s age.
When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was 10 years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him. And when I saw the movie right after Mastroianni died, I thought that Fellini and Marcello had taken a moment of discovery and made it immortal. There may be no such thing as the sweet life. But it is necessary to find that out for yourself.

Yojimbo:

There is a moment at the end when old and new hang in the balance. The wounded Sanjuro no longer has his sword, but we have seen him practicing with a knife — skewering a bit of paper as it flutters around a room. He faces Unosuke, the gunman. Without revealing precisely what happens between them, let me ask you to consider the moment when Unosuke aims his pistol at Sanjuro. It may be loaded, it may not be. Sanjuro cannot be absolutely sure. He is free to move away or to disarm Unosuke, but instead he sits perfectly motionless, prepared to accept whatever comes. This, it strikes me, is the act of a samurai aware that his time has passed and accepting with perfect equanimity whatever the new age has to offer.

Annie Hall:

This is a movie that establishes its tone by constantly switching between tones: The switches reflect the restless mind of the filmmaker, turning away from the apparent subject of a scene to find the angle that reveals the joke. “Annie Hall” is a movie about a man who is always looking for the loopholes in perfection. Who can turn everything into a joke, and wishes he couldn’t.

The Apu Trilogy:

I watched “The Apu trilogy” recently over a period of three nights, and found my thoughts returning to it during the days. It is about a time, place and culture far removed from our own, and yet it connects directly and deeply with our human feelings. It is like a prayer, affirming that this is what the cinema can be, no matter how far in our cynicism we may stray.

Best films of the noughties: Notice how little his list has to do with any others you saw, and yet how each movie deserves to be on the list.

On watching The Godfather with the Wachowski brothers(now the Wachowski siblings):

One thing he noticed in “The Godfather,” he said, was how director Francis Ford Coppola filmed the moment when Michael finds the gun in the restroom and pauses before returning to the restaurant to commit murder for the first time.
“Michael stops, runs his hands through his hair, stares at the door and prepares his mind,” Larry said. “Coppola does that moment as a high-angle shot from behind. Any other director would have moved around for a close-up. It’s so much better the way he does it. We’re forced to think about what’s ahead of him that he’s walking into, not just look at a shot of his face.”
“I can see the whole camera crew jammed up there next to the ceiling in the john,” Andy said. Everyone laughed. It occurred to me that the scene might have been shot using a studio set. But why bring it up? They knew that.

The Departed: Ebert, a devout Catholic, felt an almost spiritual connection to Scorsese’s work, praising him from the moment he saw his first movie. This is nowhere more apparent than here.

It is intriguing to wonder what Scorsese saw in the Hong Kong movie that inspired him to make the second remake of his career (after “Cape Fear“). I think he instantly recognized that this story, at a buried level, brought two sides of his art and psyche into equal focus. We know that he, too, was fascinated by gangsters. In making so many films about them, about what he saw and knew growing up in Little Italy, about his insights into their natures, he became, in a way, an informant. I have often thought that many of Scorsese’s critics and admirers do not realize how deeply the Catholic Church of pre-Vatican II could burrow into the subconscious, or in how many ways Scorsese is a Catholic director. This movie is like an examination of conscience, when you stay up all night trying to figure out a way to tell the priest: I know I done wrong, but, oh, Father, what else was I gonna do?

Disgrace:

Then there is Malkovich, an actor who is so particular in the details of voice and action. After you see “Disgrace,” you may conclude no other actor could possibly have been cast for the role. He begins as a cold, arrogant, angry man, accustomed to buying his way with his money and intelligence. He is also accustomed to being a white man in South Africa. In no sense does David think of himself as a racist and probably always voted against apartheid. But at least it was always there for him to vote against. Now he undergoes experiences that introduce him to an emerging new South Africa — and no, I don’t mean he undergoes conversion and enlightenment. This isn’t a feel-good parable. I simply mean he understands that something fundamental has shifted, and that is the way things are.

2001: A Space Odyssey:

The genius is not in how much Stanley Kubrick does in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but in how little. This is the work of an artist so sublimely confident that he doesn’t include a single shot simply to keep our attention. He reduces each scene to its essence, and leaves it on screen long enough for us to contemplate it, to inhabit it in our imaginations. Alone among science-fiction movies, “2001” is not concerned with thrilling us, but with inspiring our awe.

And, let’s not forget, when his critical faculties took apart a movie, there was much about it that was awesome too.

The Mummy Returns:

1. The ads give the Rock, the World Wrestling Federation star, equal billing with Fraser. This is bait-and-switch. To call his appearance a “cameo” would be stretching it. He appears briefly at the beginning of the movie, is transmuted into a kind of transparent skeletal wraith and disappears until the end of the film, when he comes back as the dreaded Scorpion King. I am not sure, at the end, if we see the real Rock or merely his face, connected to computer-generated effects (his scorpion is blown up to giant size, which has the unfortunate effect of making him look more like a lobster tail than a scorpion). I continue to believe the Rock has an acting career ahead of him, and after seeing this movie I believe it is still ahead of him.
2. Alex, the kid, adds a lot to the movie by acting just like a kid. I particularly enjoyed it when he was kidnapped by a fearsome adversary of his parents, chained and taken on a long journey, during which he drove his captor crazy by incessantly asking, “Are we there yet?”
3. The dialogue “You have started a chain reaction that could bring about the next Apocalypse” is fascinating. Apparently we missed the first Apocalypse, which does not speak well for it.

Fight Club:

“Fight Club” is the most frankly and cheerfully fascist big-star movie since “Death Wish,” a celebration of violence in which the heroes write themselves a license to drink, smoke, screw and beat one another up. Sometimes, for variety, they beat up themselves. It’s macho porn — the sex movie Hollywood has been moving toward for years, in which eroticism between the sexes is replaced by all-guy locker-room fights. Women, who have had a lifetime of practice at dealing with little-boy posturing, will instinctively see through it; men may get off on the testosterone rush. The fact that it is very well made and has a great first act certainly clouds the issue.

Helena Bonham-Carter creates a feisty chain-smoking hellcat who is probably so angry because none of the guys thinks having sex with her is as much fun as a broken nose.

And, to leave you, an audio-visual reading of one of his best reviews from Kim Morgan and Matt Zoller-Seitz, both themselves bright stars in the internet film critic community:

Posted in General, Movies | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

3-D non-cinema

Posted by Ronak M Soni on January 12, 2010

This post originally appeared at PassionforCinema.

the seedsToday, I finally watched Avatar. Much has been said about this movie, and if you’re looking for a conventional review, I recommend this; I will restrict my general remarks to ‘I enjoyed this movie as a good-looking, well-made action movie.’ All I want to talk about is the 3-D.

I think there is something essentially uncinematic about the whole technology. It has something to do with the floating jellyfishish seeds, seeing which in 3-D might be the strongest reason to spend over a hundred bucks to visit the theatre. I noticed, at one point, one of these pop out of existence dangerously close to the centre of my vision. I was wondering why the hell it irked me so much till I got back home, when I finally figured out. The basic reason is: peripheral vision. This is something I’ve noticed to some degree ever since my first 3-D outing Monsters v/s Aliens, which I found entertaining enough but full of disembodied torsos flying around, because all the action happened outside the screen. At the time, I pointed out (in some comments section or the other) that the edge of the screen was always at the depth of the real screen. Now, I think this is close to the truth but subtly off. I thought this problem would be solved by the all the depth on the other side of the screen paradigm of Up when I first heard that that’s how it was. I watched most of it without the glasses; all the important bits were in focus anyway. So, why? It’s, as I’ve already mentioned, peripheral vision. A screen, unlike our vision, is a hard-edged object. Our vision peters out from central to peripheral in a smooth continuum. So, when, the seed passed out of the screen when it was really ‘close’ to me, it was also nearer the centre of my vision than it would be at screen depth. In other words, that seed wouldn’t really have passed out of my vision at that point in time. Now, you might ask, 2-D provides a ‘perfect illusion’ of 3-D, so why does it not irk us in 2-D? Why, in fact, would it look wrong in 2-D if that seed had stayed in the screen? It’s because 2-D provides us the perfect illusion for our area of focus, as our focus is generally on one plane anyway. 3-D takes that (naturally two-dimensional) area of focus and turns it into a three-dimensional panorama. But the three-dimensional panorama is missing that important thing of something (except the glasses) to occupy our peripheral vision, so it can never be quite real. The only way it would be really immersive is if put you in the panorama, but the too much detail on the side will restrict the ability of what you’re watching to be considered a movie rather than a game (and in what form will you be watching the movie).

And that’s not the only problem. The other major problem is the detailing. I’m not talking about the panorama but in the number of planes. Every face, human and humanoid, in Avatar looks like a cardboard cut-out in its 3-D surroundings, because there are too few planes in it compared to the background (I’m not completely sure why this should be so, because we can easily deal with much more depth; my guess is that the recording equipment had its limitations). In Up and Monsters v/s Aliens, everything looked too round, because of insufficient detailing of the planes’ positions (the difference arises in the feature/animation difference).

But, despite all these flaws, and despite the fact that the first one alone convinces me that 3-D is not the future of intelligent cinema, and even despite the fact that a substantial number of the best shots in this movie had me straining to find the third dimension because they looked like they were 2-D, I’d heartily recommend this watch; there’s something to be said for the fact that I never felt the need to take the glasses off.

Posted in General, Movies | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

On the Auteurship of Actors

Posted by Ronak M Soni on December 10, 2009

We normally ascribe a movie to the director and, to a lesser extent, writer. Not that actors don’t get any credit – acting is as important for the success of a movie as direction – but that a movie is, in some way, the director’s rather than the actors.

The director is definitely an artist, an auteur, because he has a vision. The actor, too, is in one way an artist, because what he does to his role is as important to it as how the director visualises it. I mean, can you imagine Raging Bull or Taxi Driver without De Niro, or No Country for Old Men without Javier Bardem? But it’s still a Scorsese movie, or a Coen brothers film. Obviously, this is because it’s Scorsese or the Coens who visualised it. They made the right casting choices, they did a countless number of things right. Amidst all this, the actor comes out looking like nothing more than a pawn the director moves around to do what he wants to.

The question I’m wondering about is, is this pawn an artist? In the trivial way I’ve already explained, the answer is yes. But, art is about expression. Whether you believe it’s the expression of an individual qua individual or that of an outlet of society, it’s about expression. How is this pawn expressing himself? This pawn has little choice about what projects he can become part of, because it’s finally the player, the auteur, the director, who chooses what he does. Yes, there is some amount of self-expression involved in bringing yourself to a character, or bringing a character to yourself – as the case may be – but with most artists – directors, writers of both books and screenplays, painters, composers – we can look at the oeuvre as a whole and deduce something of what drove this person to live, to create this art.

Obviously, an important part of expressing yourself in this way requires choice. An actor may see some project close to his heart, but not be able to join it for various reasons. He may have to take up Snakes on a Plane (Samuel L. Jackson) or2012 (John Cusack) to perform his pet-puja. Of course, we can ignore these massive aberrations, but what about small aberrations? There is, for example, a man called Adam Sandler, who is certainly a certified auteur; all his roles are one and the same (let’s ignore quality). It took a great filmmaker (look at the word) called Paul Thomas Anderson to understand the point his movies were making. This is why Anderson made Punch-Drunk Love, which has famously been called a piece of film-criticism. Of course, you might argue, how do you know you get the point a director, or a writer or a painter, is making? Well, at least I can come up with something. There was, on the other hand, a sum total of one person who understood Sandler’s movies, or even came up with a theory of understanding of his movies. Till him, everyone just dismissed Adam Sandler as a buffoon out for profits. On the other hand, every roadside drunk can theorise about Woody Allen and where he is missing his point.

One thing I said was that actors don’t have choice. This is where the star system comes in handy. Here’s a clip from Waking Life which advocates a new paradigm of movie-making (I suspect that this is how I started thinking about this):

Till a couple of days ago, I thought typecasting was a bad thing. Whenever someone told me Jack Nicholson was a great actor, I’d think, “In his type of role, yes”. Now, it occurs to me that that reservation might be the very thing that makes him a great actor, an auteur in his own right, a man about whose oeuvre you can think of in much the same way as that of Elmore Leonard. Of course, it might also be something which resulted in an inhibition of self-expression because he isn’t considered for other roles, but I think a star has enough clout to be auditioned for any role he wants.

While it seems that the whole business is settled, it’s not. A De Niro night go his whole life without finding his Scorsese, while a director need make only the type of movie he feels like, using either the new generation of actors who believe in moulding themselves to suit the movie’s needs or the old-fashioned audition. I suspect that actors who are called great – De Niro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Peter O’Toole – are the ones who found, and consistently kept finding, roles that suited them, both by means of clout and of choosing the right roles to mould for their own self-expression. Or maybe not. Maybe they were just pawns who fought remarkably well, pawns who got to the opposite end of the chess board to become queens. Then, the real question is: how much does it matter which it is, whether he was just a great pawn or someone who transcended his pawnhood to perfectly resonate with the player? The answer is: I don’t know. Yet.

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My Favourite Genre of Movies (Or not)

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 11, 2009

I see it clearly now: idea movie schmidea movie. Being John Malkovich is an idea movie exactly as much as The Dark Knight is an action movie. It’s just dressed up as one, and it’s only morons like me who think it actually is. Charlie Kaufman is using this format of comedy/inventiveness to make repeated statements about human nature, building up a fearsome oeuvre. This means that it’s not idea movies that inspire my excitement but something else(the classification, of course, still stands).

This is my original post, from yesterday 11/10/2009 (note especially how I rationalise my classification of Being John Malkovich):

My favourite type of movie is what I call an ‘idea movie’, a type of movie which takes an idea, a vision of an alternate reality, and looks at its consequences. Not science fiction, so much, but a movie that squeezes everything out of the idea, every little consequence, the income tax officer – to refer to an old joke about the squeezing out of the juice of a lemon – to the strongman that is science fiction. The best ones, of course, are the ones that do the looking unflinchingly, while also giving us a credible, if not great, human story. It is, honestly, a minute genre which only includes, as far as I know, the works of Charlie Kaufman and the movie The Man from Earth. Read the rest of this entry »

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