Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago

The most significant extant film to be made in Chicago after the Lumiere brothers’ 1896 Chicago Police Parade is probably the Edison Manufacturing Company’s Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago. Made only one year after the Lumieres’ pioneering effort, the Edison film, copyrighted in July of 1897, is a fifty-foot, one shot actuality that depicts exactly what the title states. However, like most of “Edison’s movies,” Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago was not made by Thomas Edison himself but rather by his favorite director/cinematographer team of James H. White and William Heise. Although both men had been prolific in the motion picture business since the pre-projection days of 1890, it does not appear as though their technique had much improved in the ensuing seven years. When viewed alongside of Chicago Police Parade, with its incredible use of depth of field and impeccably composed diagonal lines, Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago offers an object lesson in the difference between Thomas Edison and the Lumiere brothers (i.e., the difference between approaching movies as a business vs. approaching them as an art).

Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago shows a jumbled mass of people, horses and trolley cars in Chicago’s Loop as they hurriedly move in every conceivable direction at the same time. Some of the subjects are carrying large placards advertising “BOATING” and “ELECTRIC POOL.” Just as Chicago Police Parade is of interest because it proves that 99% of all Chicago cops had mustaches in the late 19th century, so too is Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago of interest because it proves that 100% of all Chicago civilians, including women, wore hats during this same era (and in the middle of summer no less!). In terms of style, it appears that White and Heise have taken little care with the composition of the image, which looks particularly chaotic when compared to the clean lines and artful compositions associated with the Lumieres. Still, however slapdash its technique, it is of tremendous interest (like so many films of its era) for being an evocative portrait of a specific time and place.

The complete description of Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago from the Edison Films Catalogue reads:

“The busiest corner in Chicago. Cable cars and street traffic of all descriptions. Hundreds of shoppers. Fine perspective view looking north toward the Masonic Temple. 50 feet. $7.50.”

The film can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube, courtesy of the Library of Congress, here (although at only 25 seconds, the speed of this particular transfer appears to be too fast):

It should be noted that Andrew Erish, in his excellent new biography Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood, claims that Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago was a Selig Polyscope film that Edison pirated and copyrighted as his own. Most other sources, however, cite it as an authentic Edison film. Edison copyrighted Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago along with several other Chicago-shot films on July 31, 1897 (Sheep Run, Chicago Stockyards, Armour’s Electric Trolley, Cattle Driven to Slaughter, etc.) Selig Polyscope copyrighted the similarly-titled State and Madison Sts., Chicago in 1903.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Noi the Albino (Kari)
2. The Quiet Man (Ford)
3. Blazing Saddles (Brooks)
4. How Green Was My Valley (Ford)
5. Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman)
6. Fargo (Coen/Coen)
7. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) (Hitchcock)
8. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (Wirkola)
9. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
10. The Last Laugh (Murnau)

Odds and Ends: Zero Dark Thirty and Gender Politics

A big thanks to Jillian McKeown and Stacy Sandow for being such swell movie-going pals and conversationalists. This post was largely inspired by a post-screening discussion with them.


One of the most disheartening aspects of the “torture controversy” surrounding Zero Dark Thirty is that, while the torture scenes obviously do play an important role in the movie, they are also only one small part of an ambitious film that ends up saying and doing a lot of other very interesting things. The torture-talk has unfortunately been so dominant in the media discourse surrounding the movie (including, I’m sorry to say, on this blog) that it has ended up overshadowing a lot of Kathryn Bigelow’s other considerable achievements. Fortunately, critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has perceptively analyzed the film as a fascinating portrait of 21st century warfare as an “elaborate technocracy” – where strategic moves are made only after data has been analyzed and probability calculated. But I would argue it isn’t just the content that makes Zero Dark Thirty a distinctly 21st-century work of art, it’s also the form: does this mark the first instance of the aesthetics of “Google Earth” being incorporated into a film’s visual design?

Even more surprisingly absent has been any discussion of the movie’s gender politics. What seems increasingly obvious with repeated viewings is the extent to which Zero Dark Thirty must have been highly personal for its female director, and it is tempting to read it as something like a personal testament. Jessica Chastain’s tenacious Maya (“Washington says she’s a killer”) and her position within the “boys’ club” of the CIA can be seen as analogous to Bigelow and her position within male-dominated Hollywood. There is a great moment early on, so subtle I didn’t catch it on first viewing, when “enhanced interrogation”-expert Dan (Jason Clark), a character whose fratboy mannerisms I described in an earlier post, first introduces Maya to their superior, Joseph (Kyle Chandler). Maya is visible to both men through a large glass window but remains out of earshot. Dan nudges Joseph and says, “Was I lyin’ or what?” Maya then emerges from the room and greets both men before Joseph can answer the question or Dan can elaborate on what exactly he means. We can only surmise that Dan means he wasn’t lying about Maya being, you know, hot. I couldn’t help but wonder how many times a similar phrase must have been uttered either just before or after – or, heaven forbid, during – a meeting between Bigelow and Hollywood studio executives.

Joseph, with his Donald Trump-hair and steely demeanor, is in many ways the real “villain” of Zero Dark Thirty because he is such a concrete obstacle in Maya’s path – unlike the Al Qaeda terrorists who remain an abstract, largely faceless blob and thus come across more like some mythological force. If, next month, Jessica Chastain wins the Best Actress Oscar that she so richly deserves, it will likely be because of the hallway screaming match scene between Maya and Joseph – the most dramatic moment in the film. The relationship between Dan and Joseph is also intriguing; there’s a sense that, as archetypal characters, Joseph-the-successful-suit is who Dan-the-fratboy is destined to become – and this is even before we see Dan’s physical transformation from tattooed, wavy-haired beardo to clean-shaven executive-type. We are left to wonder if Maya will ever rise to a comparably lofty position in the CIA or if there’s a glass ceiling in her way. The fact that this thirty-something woman is referred to as “the girl,” even as the agency expert who identifies Osama bin Laden’s corpse at the end, and the manner in which she’s banished from the main table during a meeting with James Gandolfini’s Leon Panetta (who, to carry my Hollywood analogy to its logical conclusion, can be seen as representing a studio mogul), suggests the latter.

But perhaps a silver lining can be found in the dialogue scene between Maya and Debbie, an even younger female agent who makes the crucial discovery that the courier they’ve been looking for was in their files under a different name all along. (This scene, plus several more between Maya and a character played by Jennifer Ehle, make Zero Dark Thirty one of the few American films in recent years to pass the Bechdel test with flying colors.) Debbie clearly looks up to Maya as a role model just as surely as up-and-coming female filmmakers look up to Kathryn Bigelow, who may be unfairly shut out of this year’s Best Director race at the Oscars but who will forever be known as the motherfucker who directed this masterpiece. Sir.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Loveless (Bigelow)
2. The Spring River Flows East (Cai/Zheng)
3. History of the World – Part I (Brooks)
4. Song at Midnight (Ma-Xu)
5. The Story of Film: An Odyssey (Cousins)
6. Scanners (Cronenberg)
7. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
8. Amour (Haneke)
9. Rabid (Cronenberg)
10. Dead Ringers (Cronenberg)

Now Playing: Tabu

dir. Miguel Gomes, 2012, Portugal

Rating: 9.6


The bottom line: “You can run as long as you can and as far as you can, but you cannot escape your heart.”

Premiering in the greater Chicago area for a one-off screening at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema this Friday, and currently playing elsewhere around the country in limited release, is Tabu, a hypnotic art film from the young Portuguese critic-turned-director Miguel Gomes. This exciting, thematically-dense, cinematically-entrancing movie, shot on real, eye-filling black-and-white film stock (oh yeah!), tells the story of a doomed love affair set against the backdrop of Portuguese colonialism in Africa. It also boasts a fascinating and complex two-part structure, the filmmakers’ assured formal control of which is never less than dazzling. This is only Gomes’ third feature-length movie as a writer/director, following his acclaimed earlier efforts The Face You Deserve (2004) and Our Beloved Month of August (2008), neither of which I’ve yet seen but both of which I’m now eager to check out as soon as possible. Tabu received its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival at the beginning of 2012 where it won two prizes before traveling to other festivals around the globe and considerably upping Gomes’ international profile. For Chicago cinephiles who may be curious as to what the fuss is about, I couldn’t recommend Friday’s screening more highly; a trek up to Evanston would be richly rewarded (among many other glories, you’ll get to hear a bitchin’ Portuguese cover of The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby” – twice).

In recent decades, Portugal’s most high-profile cinematic exports have been the films of Manoel de Oliveira and Pedro Costa. Tabu is similar to the work of those filmmakers in some respects – the affectless performances of Gomes’ entire cast often recall the flat, neutral line readings of the former, while his unlikely thematic mash-up of cinephilia and colonialism might put one in the mind of the latter. But Tabu is also part of what might be considered a wider contemporary pan-European trend: the attempt of young filmmakers to provide a moral reckoning with their governments’ past colonial exploits in Africa, a difficult and, until recently, somewhat taboo subject to broach cinematically (not unlike the topic of, say, slavery in American movies). The French director Claire Denis might be said to be the spiritual godmother of this trend, having explored the subject in her first film (1988’s Chocolat) and returning to it regularly ever since with increasingly disturbing results (e.g., 1999’s Beau Travail and 2009’s White Material). More recently, 2011 saw the release of Ulrich Kohler’s Sleeping Sickness, a powerful, unsettling culture-clash drama about a German doctor from the World Health Organization stationed in Cameroon who “goes native” and loses his mind like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Interestingly, Sleeping Sickness, like Tabu, also has a bifurcated structure – with each half taking place on a separate continent and separated by a span of years. Perhaps uncoincidentally, both movies were co-produced by the gifted German director Maren Ade (Everyone Else).


The content: Tabu begins with a short, mysterious prologue where a European explorer in safari clothes is traveling through a jungle somewhere in southern Africa. A male narrator (director Gomes) describes the unnamed explorer’s adventures using florid, romantic language, which is presented in ironic counterpoint to the the more muted and melancholy images. This “intrepid explorer,” we learn, is haunted by the literal ghost of his deceased wife (who speaks aloud the quote at the beginning of this review). While none of the characters from the prologue figure into the main story proper, the scene nonetheless allows Gomes to establish the movie’s unique poetic tone and also one of its most prominent themes – the inability of escaping one’s own heart. There is also the intriguing suggestion that the prologue may be a film that is being watched by one of the characters within the first part of the story, which is titled “Paradise Lost” and set in contemporary Lisbon. In this section, Gomes introduces us to a kindly, middle-aged woman named Pilar and her elderly neighbor, a compulsive gambler named Aurora. Pilar is concerned for Aurora’s health because the old woman has been exhibiting signs of dementia and complaining that her black servant, Santa, is a witch. On her deathbed shortly afterwards, Aurora puts Pilar in touch with an old lover, Ventura, an Italian expatriate living in Portugal with whom she has had no contact in decades. The elderly Ventura tells Pilar a story that serves as a catalyst for the flashback that constitutes the film’s second half. This second part, titled “Paradise,” is set in the 1960s and depicts the illicit affair between Ventura, who, as a handsome young cad, played drums in a rock and roll band, and a young Aurora, who was then married to and pregnant by another man while living on a farm in “Mount Tabu,” Africa. The passionate affair between Aurora and Ventura, featuring one of the most gorgeously photographed and erotic sex scenes in memory, is eventually found out by a third character (the lead singer of the band Ventura plays in), and this discovery leads to murder and tragedy for all.

The form: in addition to Tabu‘s overarching two-part structure, which is borrowed from F.W. Murnau’s 1931 film of the same title (although there, because the story progresses chronologically, the “lost” part comes last), there are many other formal strategies employed by Gomes allowing him to carefully organize his disparate narrative elements. Most obvious are the pointed contrasts in style between the two parts: while both sections are shot in black-and-white in the almost-square aspect ratio of 1.37:1 (ubiquitous in the silent and early sound eras, dead after the advent of widescreen cinematography, but thankfully resurrected in recent years), “Paradise Lost” was shot in super-sharp, high-contrast 35mm film stock, while “Paradise” was shot on grainier – and blurrier – 16mm. This gives each half a distinctive look illustrating the idea that the present is more “realistic” than the foggy and dreamlike “past” (which, in this case, may be the memories of one or more characters rather than any kind of objective reality). This notion is furthered by the contrasting way that each section is broken down into further chapters: “Paradise Lost” takes place over a few days in late December and early January, and each scene begins with a title stating the date (“December 31,” “January 1,” etc.). “Paradise” takes place over the better part of a year, and each scene begins with a title stating the month. This may indicate that the images of “Paradise Lost” belong to the characters’ fading memories – fragmentary, elliptical and lacking the specificity of their memories of the more recent past. Finally, the most important stylstic contrast lies in the audio: while the sound design of “Paradise Lost” is relatively conventional in the way it mixes dialogue, music and effects, “Paradise” eschews location dialogue entirely in favor of voice-over narration. The second half is essentially a “silent movie,” mostly narrated by Ventura (from, we assume, the vantage point of the present day), but we occasionally hear Aurora reading letters in voice-over as well. In one instance, we hear her read a letter that Ventura claims he destroyed, suggesting that at least some parts of this section originate outside of the limited scope of Ventura’s point-of-view.


Of course, Gomes’ preoccupation with form would count for little if it did not appropriately serve his content; his provocative juxtaposition of the film’s two halves ultimately says something profound about time, memory, old age, love and death. By presenting the stories of old and young Aurora consecutively and in reverse order, Gomes asks viewers to mentally superimpose the image of the young character over that of her elderly self. The effect is the cinematic equivalent of that shocking epiphany many young people have upon realizing their grandparents were once just like them – with similar hopes and fears and even passionate love affairs. One of the great joys in watching Tabu stems from the way we synthesize “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise” in our minds. And this may be just what Pilar, the person to whom Ventura is telling his story, is also doing: the dreamy images of the film’s second half may be Pilar‘s fantasy of who young Aurora was, instead of either objective reality or Ventura’s memories. Or they may be some combination of all three of these possibilities. Whatever the case, splitting the film into two halves of roughly equal length creates a narrative rupture that increases the film’s overall sense of mystery. (Even the most minimal intercutting between the two halves – something a lesser filmmaker might have been tempted to do – would have reduced the ambiguity about what the second half “means.”) But there are also similarly provocative ruptures within each half. The highlight of “Paradise Lost,” for instance, is a rambling monologue given by Aurora in an Estoril casino where she describes to Pilar a dream she had of being raped by a monkey; the scene begins with traditional shot/reverse shot setups between the two characters but the monologue concludes with a lengthy take in which Aurora delivers her lines directly to Gomes’ camera. Audaciously, Aurora appears to be physically attached to the camera rig (a la Emil Jannings in the famous drunk scene in The Last Laugh) as it circumscribes a complete 360-degree pan around the room. This stylized camera movement creates a sense of unreality – for one thing, it seems to remove Pilar, the person being addressed, from the location – but it also perfectly corresponds to Aurora’s disordered mind and personifies Gomes’ highly-developed sense of film aesthetics.

Although more stately and less batshit crazy than Holy Motors, my favorite film of 2012, Tabu is nonetheless similar to Leos Carax’ masterpiece in the way that it mines the history of cinema (reference points range from the Lumiere brothers’ Le village de Namo – Panorama pris d’une chaise à porteurs from 1900 to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line from 1998) in order to gloriously affirm the vitality of the motion picture medium in the 21st century, and refute the strangely trendy notion that the movies, and/or “movie culture,” are somehow dying or dead. Gomes reminds us that we should not ultimately be using box-office receipts to gauge the state of the art, but rather the creativity and originality of the films themselves. As long as movies like Tabu are being made, the cinema will never die.


Odds and Ends: Zero Dark Thirty (Again) and Amour


I’ve now seen Zero Dark Thirty three times and not only has it grown in power and resonance with each viewing, I have also become increasingly incensed by the ridiculous controversy surrounding the movie’s depiction of torture (which, in case you’ve been living under a rock, its detractors claim it endorses). Actor David Clennon (thirtysomething), a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, recently announced he would not be voting for it in any category at the upcoming Oscars because the film “never acknowledges that torture is immoral and criminal.” Martin Sheen and Ed Asner, among others, have also publicly joined Clennon in this boycott. Well, I suppose they’re right about Zero Dark Thirty to the extent that it features no lines of dialogue in which a character acknowledges the immorality or criminality of the torture being practiced. But, I would argue that Bigelow, being a true visual artist, also understands the crucial importance of showing instead of telling. How do I know ZDT isn’t pro-torture? First, let’s acknowledge that Reda Kateb, the great Arabic actor who plays Ammar, the man being tortured, lends the character dignity (which is more than the actors playing the one-dimensional baddies in the non-controversial Argo are allowed to do), and this is equally true of Homayoun Ershadi (the lead in Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry) who plays another detainee. More importantly, even if the movie showed that “torture worked,” which it doesn’t, even if Ammar had blurted out bin Laden’s address while being waterboarded, ZDT would still not be pro-torture because the overall tone of the torture scene is pathetic. Kathryn Bigelow has said that she wishes torture was “not part of that history” and her attitude is reflected in many subtle decisions she makes in terms of composition and editing: in the torture scene, notice the reaction shots of Jessica Chastain’s Maya recoiling in disgust, or the way a tear involuntarily falls down Ammar’s face as soon as he starts drinking from a juice bottle, or the quick close-up of Ammar clutching the bottle tight against his chest as if he’s afraid that Dan, his CIA “interrogator,” is going to take it away from him. If anything, viewers are asked to identify with Ammar over the unlikable Dan, whom Ammar calls “an animal” and whom the filmmakers have pointedly tricked out with frat-boy mannerisms (he calls people “bro” and references kung-fu movies and Bob Marley). There’s an irony, I suppose, in the way Clennon and his ilk imply they could’ve conceivably enjoyed the very same movie if only the filmmakers had bothered to have a CIA character say something as simple as “This torture business is terrible. We were wrong to do it!” Fortunately for the rest of us, Bigelow doesn’t believe in making movies for the dumbest members of her audience.


Speaking of torture, the execrable phrase “torture porn,” which has entered the unofficial critical lexicon to describe a relatively recent subgenre of the horror film, did run through my mind while watching Michael Haneke’s Amour. This movie’s primary reason for being is apparently to make the audience suffer as much as possible by not only showing the inexorable physical and mental decay of a stroke-addled old woman but stretching it out for a near-pornographic eternity. In a way, it’s a shame I can’t recommend it; the lead actors (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) aren’t just great performers, they’re iconic symbols of a heroic era in French film history. I mean, a love story about an octogenarian married couple where the man is played by the lead from My Night at Maud’s and the woman is played by the lead from Hiroshima Mon Amour? Who could screw that up? Austrian miserabilist Michael Haneke, that’s who. The only Haneke films I had previously seen were the original version of Funny Games and The Piano Teacher, both of which turned me off because of what I perceived as their hypocritical mixture of titillation and moralizing. Amour has been regarded in some quarters as a more “mature” version of Haneke but it seems to me he’s really only substituted euthanasia here for the violence in Funny Games and the sex in The Piano Teacher. This wouldn’t be so offensive if Haneke were more upfront about what he was doing. But never in cinema’s history has a filmmaker tried so hard to hit the viewer with a sledgehammer while simultaneously trying so hard to pretend that’s not what he was doing. Haneke is like a more dishonest version of Lars Von Trier (who at least acknowledges his role in rubbing your face in unpleasantness) in that he’s much more careful about stacking the deck when it comes to punishing the audience – notice how Trintignant’s Georges isn’t just a good husband, faithfully devoted to his wife, but impossibly good, flawless, and practically saintlike? Contrast this with the way a truly great director like Leo McCarey presents a more complex, human and heartbreaking dynamic in his similarly-themed masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow by having his elderly protagonists occasionally behave in ways that are kind of annoying. Pauline Kael once derisively used the phrase “a clean pornographer” to describe Stanley Kubrick but that’s a description that I think better suits the morally and intellectually bankrupt Haneke, a master of exploitation who always hides his visions of human nastiness beneath the alluring veneer of high culture. I hated, hated, hated Amour.

Amour Rating: 4.9


(While I can’t endorse Amour, I can highly recommend this parody twitter account for Haneke. This is the funniest thing on the internet:

Nagisa Oshima R.I.P. (1932 – 2013)


And the list of the world’s great living directors just got a little shorter. Japan’s Nagisa Oshima passed away of pneumonia today after a reportedly long bout of ill health. He was, along with Shohei Imamura, the most important figure of the Japanese Nuberu Bagu (“New Wave”) of the 1960s. I haven’t yet seen his short first feature, 1959’s A Town of Love and Hope, but his next two films, Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun’s Burial (both 1960), were groundbreaking portraits of post-war Japanese malaise whose sheer ferocity still has the power to shock and awe. Oshima was always the most transgressive of the Japanese New Wavers – he embraced radical leftist politics while simultaneously reacting against the “humanism” associated with the Japanese cinema of the 1950s. As the 1960s progressed, he increasingly experimented with form, introducing Brechtian distancing devices, a la Godard, in movies like Violence at Noon (on the short list of great films about serial murderers) and Death By Hanging (a powerful indictment of bigotry against Koreans in Japan). He is best known in the west for In the Realm of the Senses, a 1976 art movie featuring hardcore sex scenes that is still banned in its native country, and its less explicit follow-up, the 1978 ghost story Empire of Passion (an important influence on The Ring). In the 1980s he upped his international profile by making the WWII prison-camp drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (partially shot in English and co-starring David Bowie) as well as the French-set Max Mon Amour (a comedy about Charlotte Rampling having an affair with a chimpanzee, to which Leos Carax paid explicit homage in last year’s Holy Motors). Oshima had a debilitating stroke in 1996 but managed to direct one final masterpiece with 1999’s controversial gay-themed samurai film Taboo.

Nagisa Oshima was previously on my list of the 10 Best Living Directors (his place has since been taken by Clint Eastwood). Here is what I originally wrote about him there:


“With his wild, provocative, darkly humorous, misanthropic but highly personal brand of political cinema, Nagisa Oshima single-handedly dragged Japanese movies kicking and screaming into the modern age. No other director was willing or able to depict the pessimism of post-war Japanese society with the savage incisiveness of early Oshima classics like The Sun’s Burial and Cruel Story of Youth. As with most provocateurs, Oshima’s movies became increasingly extreme over time and while he’s occasionally run off the rails (I think it’s particularly regrettable that In the Realm of the Senses remains his best known work), he’s also made more than his share of trailblazing masterpieces; my personal favorites are Death By Hanging, an infernally funny examination of Japanese racism against Koreans, and his likely swan song, the mysterious and haunting ‘gay samurai’ film Taboo. Reportedly in ill-health, it is doubtful Oshima will direct again.

Essential work: Death By Hanging (1968), Boy (1969), Taboo (1999)”

I didn’t always “get” Oshima and he occasionally drove me up the wall but he also provided me with more magic moments than most other directors. I’ll never forget seeing a 35mm revival of Death By Hanging at Facets Multimedia in the 1990s and being blow away by the strangeness and audacity of it. I also caught Taboo on its initial theatrical run at the Music Box and was haunted for weeks by the mysterious finale where “Beat” Takeshi Kitano chops a cherry blossom tree in half with his samurai sword.

I would now say my favorite Oshima film is 1969’s Boy. It is based on the true story of a Japanese family who intentionally got into roadside accidents in order to shake down the “culprits.” It is number 18 on my list of the best films of the 1960s:

Taboo is number 18 on my list of the best films of the 1990s:

Needless to say, Nagisa Oshima will figure prominently on my Japanese New Wave cinema primer when I eventually get around to compiling it. In the meantime, I raise a metaphorical sake cup in his honor.

Listen to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s very beautiful and justifiably famous theme song to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence below:

A Bluffer’s Guide to Indian Cinema

India has – and has had for most of cinema’s history – the second most prolific film industry in the world behind the United States. I confess, however, that I don’t know very much about Indian movies, in large part because any enthusiasm I’ve felt towards Bollywood, the insanely popular mainstream Hindi-language film industry known for their epic musicals, has always been tempered by a certain befuddlement. Something in me is always baffled by their unique and nutty combination of extreme melodrama, strict censorship and 15-minute song-and-dance numbers; some culture gaps, alas, feel well-nigh insurmountable. Nonetheless, I am a fan of Bengali art cinema and I have seen just enough Hindi movies that I do admire that I was able to put together not so much a national cinema primer but what is probably more appropriately referred to as a bluffer’s guide to Indian film. I can wholeheartedly recommend the following dozen movies, the best I have seen to come out of one of the world’s most celebrated and interesting film industries.

Awara (Kapoor, 1951)

Raj Kapoor both directed and starred in this outrageously contrived Dickensian melodrama, considered one of the essential Hindi films of the Fifties. There are elements of Neorealism, Surrealism and Hollywood-style star-crossed romance in this story of a judge who disowns his pregnant wife, believing her to be unfaithful. The child grows up to a be a charismatic, Chaplin-esque thief unaware of his true father’s identity. Eventually he meets and falls in love with Rita (the sensual Nargis Dutt), a beautiful young female lawyer who turns out to be – you guessed it – the judge’s adopted daughter. My favorite sequence in the film’s three hour-plus running time is a wild musical number/dream scene featuring massive sets depicting heaven and hell that look like they could have been designed by Salvador Dali. But all of the scenes between Kapoor and Dutt delight in their eyebrow-raising eroticism.

The Apu Trilogy (Ray, 1955 – 1959)

Satyajit Ray began his film career by creating this celebrated trilogy of films released over a span of five years. It consists of Pather Panchali (1955), Aparjito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959), although the movies work so well as a whole it is arguably more meaningful to consider them that way as opposed to stand alone works. Over the course of these films we witness the coming of age of Apu, a little boy in a rural Bengali village, his growing awareness of both death and the outside world, his unlikely success at school, his blossoming career as a writer and, eventually, his own experiences with marriage and fatherhood. As much as any great work of art, these humane, wise, ultra-realistic and heartbreaking films capture the very essence of what it means to live. The soundtrack for each also features an excellent original score by Ravi Shankar (RIP).

Pyaasa (Dutt, 1957)

One of the key films of the golden age of Hindi cinema is this dark melodrama/musical about an unemployed alcoholic poet named Vijay and his relationships to two very different women – the college girlfriend who left him for a man with better financial prospects (and thus inspired much of his poetry) and the prostitute with the proverbial heart of gold who supports his burgeoning literary career. Director Guru Dutt, who certainly must have identified with his tortured-artist protagonist, is credited as the first director of Hindi musicals to seamlessly integrate songs into his storylines (not unlike what Vincente Minnelli did in Hollywood). Stylishly shot in black and white, this shows a better grasp of film aesthetics than any Bollywood film I’ve seen in more recent decades.

The Cloud-Capped Star (Ghatak, 1960)

Next to Satyajit Ray, the most prominent exponent of Indian art cinema is the Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak, whose film The Cloud-Capped Star is generally regarded as his finest work. It tells the story of a family of Pakistani refugees living on the outskirts of Calcutta. The protagonist is Nita, the beautiful youngest daughter of the family, who sacrifices her education, her fiance and, eventually, her life, to ensure the well-being of her brothers, sister and parents. This study of female suffering and self-sacrifice is like an Indian version of one of Kenji Mizoguchi’s mature masterpieces – minus, of course, the prostitution. In other words, an overwhelming emotional experience.

Mughal-E-Azam (K. Asif, 1960)

This impressive period drama is based on a popular Indian folk tale about a 16th century Hindustan prince who falls in love with a slave girl (well, more like a lowly “court dancer”) over the objections of his Emperor father. This conflict eventually causes the prince to incite his father’s army into rebellion, causing a full-blown civil war. While all of the narrative ingredients of this film are familiar from Hollywood, what really makes it noteworthy is the ridiculously epic scale: opulent set and costume design for which no expenses were spared, a battle scene with thousands of extras that feels like something out of Eisenstein, and, best of all, ravishing Technicolor sequences for some of the musical numbers. Director K. Asif only directed one other film besides this and it’s no wonder; it took him the better part of a decade to complete. A milestone in Indian cinema.

Charulata (Ray, 1964)

My favorite Satyajit Ray film is this 1964 masterpiece, the title of which is sometimes translated as The Lonely Wife. It tells the story of Charu, a housewife with an interest in literature, whose wealthy husband is preoccupied with his business of running an English language newspaper. The husband’s younger brother comes to visit and forms an instant intellectual bond with Charu that threatens to turn into something more serious. The psychology and emotions of the characters are vividly captured by both a flawless cast of performers as well as Ray’s atypically daring use of film form (i.e., camerawork, editing and even optical effects) that suggests the influence of the French New Wave; highlights include the impressionistic swing set scene and the unforgettable final freeze frame.

A River Called Titas (Ghatak, 1973)

Ritwik Ghatak adapts a popular Bengali novel by Advaita Malo Barman for this powerful neorealist study of one of the poorest regions in India. The film’s unusual and complex story proceeds in fits and starts, following a diverse group of characters including a woman who is kidnapped by pirates the day after her wedding, her husband who goes mad as a result, and the child she is forced to raise alone. After becoming assimilated into a desolate fishing village whose inhabitants are at war with the local capitalist landowners, the mother dies and the son is raised by an “auntie” who coincidentally also lost her husband immediately after marrying. What makes this film so memorable is Ghatak’s poetic feeling for landscapes and the ordinary villagers whose lives play out against its cyclical, natural rhythms.

Sholay (Sippy, 1975)

I would characterize most of the Bollywood films I’ve seen as hokey, sloppily made and just downright bizarre (and I say this as someone who thinks the populist Hong Kong cinema of the late 20th century arguably represents the greatest era for any regional cinema ever). However, even I was overawed by this legendary “curry western” about an ex-cop who hires two notorious but good-hearted thieves to hunt down the vicious bandit who massacred his family. Director Ramesh Shippy liberally borrows from Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Seven Samurai (or is it The Magnificent Seven?) in crafting an outrageous action/revenge epic with a uniquely Indian flavor. This has it all: endearing protagonists, a memorably hateful villain, broad comedy, a love subplot, terrific action set pieces that boast impressive stunts, crisp editing and slow-motion, as well as vibrant color cinematography and, yes, musical numbers. For anyone curious about yet unfamiliar with Bollywood, this is the movie you should see first.

Purana Mandir (Ramsay/Ramsay, 1984)

Made by the famous Ramsay brothers, this batshit crazy horror/comedy/romance/musical hybrid begins with the origin story of an ancient curse placed on a royal family by a demon. The curse prohibits any of the family’s female heirs from marrying lest they die in childbirth. The film then flashes forward to the present where a recently-engaged female descendant travels with her fiance and another couple to the old temple where the demon, Samri, is buried, in an attempt to break the curse. This ridiculous concoction mixes low-comedy with big scares (Samri’s make-up is genuinely creepy), and features, yes, many musical numbers besides. Think of a Bollywood version of The Evil Dead and you’ll have some idea of what the Ramsay brothers are up to – though the filmmakers also manage to improbably shoehorn in plot elements borrowed from Sholay and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Ajit Singh’s musical score, which alternates between romantic ballads and atmospheric horror movie music, is a consistent delight.

Lagaan (Gowariker, 2001)


In the late 19th century, British colonialists strike a deal with the impoverished Indian villagers under their rule: if the natives can defeat the Brits in a game of cricket (a sport heretofore unknown in India), they won’t have to pay “lagaan” (i.e., land tax) for the next three years. But if the Indians lose, they’ll have to pay triple the amount they usually owe. It is up to Bhuvan (producer/lead actor Amir Khan), a humble but courageous farmer, to teach his fellow villagers cricket for the big match to be held in just three months time. This is considered one of the best Bollywood films of the 21st century and it’s certainly one of the most accessible to non-devotees: there are no abrupt tonal shifts or out-of-the-blue climactic fistfights that mar so many films from this industry. What you have instead is a rousing, three-and-a-half-hour underdog sports drama – think Rocky with musical numbers – crossed with the rousing, anti-colonialist message of something like Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. A Scanner Darkly (Linklater)
2. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow)
3. Hamlet (Kozintsev)
4. The Irony of Fate, Or Enjoy Your Bath! (Ryazanov)
5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Fincher)
6. The Dead Zone (Cronenberg)
7. Tabu (Gomes)
8. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow)
9. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Kim)
10. We Own the Night (Gray)

A Brief History of Oscar


I will be at the Wilmette Public Library on Sunday, February 10 to give a lecture titled “A Brief History of Oscar.” It will be an hour-long overview of the history of the Academy Awards featuring clips from movies (ranging from 1927’s Sunrise to 2009’s The Hurt Locker) that illustrate what Oscar-winners reflect about both the Hollywood film industry and American society at large. The fun begins at 2:00 PM. I can’t guarantee that Don and Melanie will be there but you never know. Don’t you dare miss it!

More info can be found in the Wilmette Library’s Off the Shelf newsletter:

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