The original draft of this post just basically read ‘This movie does not deserve any words of mine’. So anything further you are reading basically just emanated from a basic moral quandary, and that being that I couldn’t have a straight conscience by clubbing whatever this is with anything remotely close to cinema. Watching Njan Markkutty isn’t just an assault from a cinematic front but also on a moral one. Every single scene seems to be written by a bot programmed to generate maximal impact, with each one of these scenes further being accentuated by a deafening background score and a dialogue in the minimal English the writers of this pulp must be privy to. There is not one genuine, not one fucking genuine scene in the 126 minutes of its runtime. All it does is just ‘rape’ (yes, I am using that word) your moral conscience by bringing forth an important tale and just diminishing it to utter garbage frame by frame. Even worse, there are scenes of brutality in this film which while not even having the cinematic sense of a 12 year old’s backyard short films also drawn on purposefully every time to extricate an emotion from us with no regard for any of the themes or characters. And coming to characters, there is no scope of their development since their motives are, as Welles once eloquently put it ‘ it could be written on the head of a pin’. They are not characters, they are robots in a clockwork stage of emotion-extrication machinery. Then why didn’t I walk off you may ask ? Not that I didn’t consider it, but something oddball happened. In the middle of the movie, the ceiling of the theater started to leak a bit. Drops of water started falling on me, and for a period, I was lost in thoughts of a scene similar to this in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. 126 minutes of a projector screening a ”film” and the only thing remotely resembling cinema was a leaking ceiling.
The first half hour of Raazi is bad direction. Its clockworks tend to move so thrift that our protagonist Sehmat is thrust into action in a manner only could only associate Indiana Jones with. Sehmat’s character arc, which was the founding stone on which the film was meant to be built upon, is inexplicably substantiated with a few lines of patriotic dialogues. Impetus is rather laid on her training process since this is meant to be a crackling thriller and everything else hitherto should be a means to achieve it.
This faulted premise is what bogs Raazi down, a movie in which the virtues and vices glare together with full effect. While credits have been pouring in for director Meghna Gulzar (and deservingly so) for not reducing her characters to stereotypes so as to fit in the image moulded by the general consensus, she has however fallen into another pitfall with her characterization, and that is with her dialogue. For a film supposed to be riding on a haywire of tension and uncertainty, the dialogues are never ‘off’ in a sense as it should be. Her characters seem to be reading out their lines than thinking them, having the perfect words on the tip of their tongues even in the most precarious of situations.
Yet, after the dismal beginning, the film manages to pick up. Meghna prodigiously charters the architecture of the house where the action takes place in a gradual course, hence perfectly setting the stage for the high tension scenes of espionage. When a character enters a room, we know precisely how distant he/she is from Sehmat and how long would it take to nullify that distance. This sets the stakes perfectly for these scenes, yet their impact is marred to some effect by the needless background music which diminishes note-by-note the suspense silence could have generated.
Gauging the performances in the film is an arduous task. Alia, whose initial attempts to establish a meek persona falters horrendously, is sterling when she does her emotional side, while the ever talented Vicky Kaushal seemingly dissolves into his role. But neither these two or any other act in the film comes anywhere near the realm that Jaideep Ahlawat’s performance inhabits, with his stone cold dialogue delivery and a face that doesn’t betray any emotion making up for one of the most memorable screen outings in recent Bollywood cinema.
Going through this review again, I feel I might have come across as rather harsh on the film. It is a biopic and does a pretty decent job being one, but the wasted potential that breathes in some frames is hard to forgive easily. The film seems to be itself while also simultaneously being the promise of so much more. While I was watching Raazi, the occasional silences paved way for the very lines you have trodden upon in this review. And by the time the credits rolled, it was only a matter of typing this down. And as far as I am concerned, when the mind perceives that what a film has to say ends with what shows up on the screen, believe me, it is never a good sign.
In 2017, writer-director Christopher Nolan released his much anticipated war outing ‘Dunkirk’ which polarized audiences worldwide right from the moment ‘go’. One group, to which I belonged, hailed it as a work of imaginative triumph and as an instant classic, while the other group criticized it for the lack of a human core and labelled it a bland and pretentious by nature.
Much hate in particular was vented towards the non-linear narrative, which the naysayers of the film rendered needless and out-of-the-place within the subject matter of the film. This brief write-up of mine hopes to prove the contrary :-
- CONFLICT :-
Although I am aware of the exceptions to this rule (Walden, Man With A Movie Camera, Chelsea Girls to name a few), it goes without saying that almost of all the movies we see thrive on the progression from the establishment of a conflict to its resolution/non-resolution. They make the work engrossing and act as an invisible adhesive that joins scenes together by giving them a route of focused and logical progression. The fracturing of time ‘is’ the conflict of Dunkirk with its incoherence prodigiously utilizing our inherent need to juxtapose the events in linearity so as to draw us into the work. Many have argued that Nolan should have rather opted for a straightforward, linear narrative, but they do so in complete ignorance of what the film hopes to accomplish in the first place – portraying war through a collective consciousness rather than an individual one. A conflict situation in the context of Dunkirk would have only emanated in a linear narrative had it been approached from an individual perspective (say The Pianist) or a battalion perspective (like Saving Private Ryan), but doing so would be completely at odds with the crux of the movie. The nature of the narrative acts a syntax here doing what Rosebud does in Citizen Kane, molding into a cohesive whole what would otherwise have been hanging threads, full of potential but no viable means of exploring it with.
2. NATURE :-
Dunkirk is a work epic in its scope and fittingly, so are the antagonists at play in it – land, water, air. Less is inflicted on the Allied forces by the ‘enemy’ compared to the hindrances the elements of nature bring to the fore. The non-linear narrative enhances the feeling of entrapment omnipresent in the film by creating the sense that all events are materializing at the same time, which contributes to the development of an aura that all the elements of nature have risen up together at the same time, up in arms to prevent the escape of the soldiers stranded at Dunkirk. It levels the stakes to an unparalleled high which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.
3. TIME :-
As a medium, cinema lets us fracture time, elongate it and more importantly in this case, compress it. The evacuation of Dunkirk is so massive in its scope and so distant in its varying geographical settings that to have to make this film with a linear narrative would have meant risking a runtime mirroring a Tarr or Diaz film, a risk Nolan couldn’t afford to take considering the production values riding on the film. More importantly, the non-linear narrative helps put a clock on the events, menacingly ticking louder and clearer with every passing scene. Nameless these soldiers remain, but the clocks act as a connective tissue making them human and knowable to us, causing us to care almost beyond bearing about their fates and in process, transfixing us to the screen, watching in fear of what might happen to them. And us.
What is cinema? Oxford dictionary defines it as the ‘art or industry of producing films’, yet every film aficionado reading this knows better. More closer to the truth was Andrei Tarkovsky, who defined cinema as ‘a mosaic of time’, and also Ingmar Bergman, who asseverated it to be ‘either a document or a dream’. There are many such definitions, all of which go further to show that even the very meaning of cinema is inscrutably bound to the ordeal of subjectivity, just as it is when it comes to how it is perceived. So since cinema is different things to different people, the definition of cinema is also bound to vary from person-to-person. Some will define it in terms of their favorite directors’ oeuvre (like Jonathan Rosenbaum does with regards to Carl Dreyer), some will define it in terms of the utility cinema serves for them (like escapism, self-addressal, etc.), while some may even define it in terms of a socio-political-economic context. Personally speaking, as I always am, gauging cinema for me has always been treading on that fine line of what it invokes, and what it chooses not to. It has always been for me that unintelligible euphoria after walking out of a great movie, experiencing the indiscernible where all emotions seemingly converge yet never let you pinpoint on any one of them. So, in my case, I choose to define cinema as ‘cinema is what cinema does’.
Now, I want you to forget all that for some time and start over. Again. Here. With me.
The origins of cinema show it in its naive and purest form, unadulterated of any influences from other forms of arts. They show averseness to complexity, choosing rather a straight path en route to the viewer’s consciousness. Remember the character introductions in Birth of a Nation (where the good-evil distinction is established by how the characters treat animals) or in Nosferatu (where the terrifying Nosferatu is established with a low-angle shot so as to impose his larger-than-life nature). With the passing of time however, cinema gradually assumed a more complex form (and for the greater good) becoming apt at dealing with themes which had been deemed out of bounds for the rest of the arts. And that is the cinema of today, which can chronicle anything from the depths of an individual (Synecdoche New York) to that of the universe (The Tree Of Life). These two forms represent polarities of the very sort the Greek philosopher Parmenides once took great pains to jot down, and the fact that the transition was from the seemingly negative to the positive, it further adds on to my case there.
The thread which binds these two apparently unrelated paragraphs together, and the actual focus of this post, is my favorite director Steven Spielberg. Spielberg’s filmography has been personified by an unparalleled diversity in subject matter, the half of which seems to be poles apart from the other half. His work captures cinema for me in its transitionary realm, from the naive to the mature. Speaking broadly here, there exist two Spielbergs for most: – the ‘blockbuster’ Spielberg and the ‘serious’ Spielberg. Pauline Kael, a fan of the former, called his work ‘a boy soprano singing with joy’. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, all signalled the arrival of a born entertainer, whose works were plain fun done with heedless joy. The energy is infectious here, with boundless imagination at play at a breakneck speed. But under the jovial brouhaha, lies a deeper layer. Take Raiders of the Lost Ark for example – When Indiana grabs the hood ornament of a Mercedes truck, it snaps off. When the Ark is being transported in a Nazi ship, the swastika catches fire. And obviously, there is obviously the character of Belloq (think carefully, doesn’t he mirror Occupied France?). All of these sardonic wits masked under the unrelenting action.
If Pauline Kael didn’t see the arrival of a film artist, the reasons are the same as it goes for most, for she did never care to look beyond the intelligible lie Spielberg parades around, while effectively masking the unintelligible truth, with the dismissive attitude inherent towards blockbusters further helping the notion. It is this subtle touch Spielberg gives to his larger-than-life stories that stand out: – holding back the shark for the first hour in Jaws to build the audience’s anxiety and so on. But furthermore, I see even in these movies an expression of the self as personal as Truffaut’s in 400 Blows. These movies seem like a getaway to Spielberg towards his younger self, to discover again and invoke in others the same excitement that beheld him when he first saw the trains crashing in The Greatest Show On Earth. There is another predominant element: – the troubled parent-child relationship. In E.T. and Indiana Jones, Spielberg’s pains from the past of his parents’ divorce resurface, and that he does express them in the most unembellished form we can think of is to also understand that he does so in the very form that he felt them.
Then there was the inevitable transition, with his work assuming a startling maturity. Spielberg started making movies he didn’t ‘have’ to make, but ‘needed’ to. In Schindler’s List, we have the two halfs of human nature, with the monstrous personified along with the sacrificing, both seeping into each other at points and hence, clearly evading a black-and-white characterization. The implications Spielberg raises with the interpreter character in Saving Private Ryan raised it above another run-of-the mill patriotic war movie expected of him, and Munich grapples with questions for all nations that believes it must compromise its values to defend them.
Some movies, dear reader, are to make us feel, some to make us think, some to take away our problems and some to examine them. While most greats try to master one of these facets, Spielberg’s oeuvre charters through all of them. Some of them misfire for me, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The BFG, but the vices in his movies stand taller for me than the merits of most others.
His work has been labelled as kitsch by many, but I sincerely disagree. His films are rather a yearning of kitsch, a struggle to achieve the idealized version of the world he envisions for himself, surrounded by the background noise that is the reality of the world we live in. Am I biased towards Spielberg? Probably, yes. His works paint the entire mosaic of cinema to me, in other words, they do all that ‘cinema can do’. I know this article hasn’t divulged any objective standpoints from where the appreciation of Spielberg may accentuate among his haters, but it has promulgated what he means to me. For when it comes to Spielberg, I can only be personal, only view his work through the prism of my own being. But it is the same manner of how I view cinema too. Hence, for me, Spielberg and cinema remain the very same.
As far back as I can remember, I have always been at odds with religion. I feel it is an exercise in futility, for it tries to compartmentalize all of God’s teachings into human ways. I could never make sense of this notion, for how could we perceive his teachings in our ways when his ways were so different from our own ? I asked my parents, who asked me to pray for faith to God. I was further befuddled. How could I pray for faith to God when I needed faith to believe in him in the first place ? All these quandaries and sixteen years later, I find myself quoting Garrison Keillor in saying ‘Anyone who thinks sitting in church can make you a Christian must also think that sitting in a garage can make you a car.’ Religion is a journey outwards, it perceives you as a societal being and attempts to mould you in its most ideal version. So, a case can be made that society probably invented religion and made God the propreitor to sanctify its hold. However spirituality, on the other hand, is a whole different case.
The Passion of Joan Of Arc by Carl Dreyer is a spiritual movie. It will reaffirm for some and rekindle in most (even I belong to the latter) their faiths. Joan of Arc, one of France’s most unfortuante daughters, and the trial which lead to her execution forms the crux of the movie. Joan is played, or to put it more correctly, lived by Renee Falconetti. The judges are full of spite against Joan for proclaiming herself as the daughter of God and her mission as the work of God through her, and want her to sign a confession which asseverates that is rather Satan who has worked through her. I haven’t more to say since this is all there is to it, and nor should I say more, for anything more than this should be experienced in its full glory and pain on film rather than be diminished of its greatness in mentions even as humble as this.
The trial sequence is heartbreaking, because it less Chayefsky and more Bresson. It is completely one-sided, with judges hurling questions which Joan is utterly clueless about. Tears continually stream from her eyes, at her naiveness and the even bigger one of the judges. Falconetti’s performance (although it feels wrong even now to confine it just in the realms of a ‘performance’) is to acting what 2001 is to cinema. I want to list every single gesture she makes, every stare, every smile and even the blanks, and talk about how every one of them defines and accentuates the moment in which it is delivered. I want to do all that and more, but I will never know where to start or where to end. So the only thing that I can bring myself to say is that one day, I hope I bring myself to a position where I feel that I can deserve to write about it.
That last bit holds true for the movie as well, but the thing is, I do know of three or four dogged minds who might not have heard of this work, and do love me enough to read till here. And now I beg of you, watch this movie. I hope you understand why I said beg instead of ask. I hope you understand why I can’t talk about Falconetti. And I sure hope you understand how when one of the judges says to Joan that it wasn’t God that commanded her, that he is right and wrong at the same time. Right, because it is Joan herself who posed the command. Wrong, because the kingdom of heaven is within onself.
And I hope you know why this is for Joan :-
‘Baby Jesus, meek and mild
Pray for me, an orphan child
Be my guide, be my friend,
Be with me, until the end‘
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread treads through the murkiest waters of morality, and it does so in the full etiquette of its world. Its primary strength lies in the way the tension is handled throughout, in how it builds suspense even if it seems be to be telling us everything we want to know. The emotional bedlam that ensues gradually is the beating heart of the movie, yet its pounding is suppressed in mere whispers as if it to be a nugatory underlining, which causes it to coil inwards. The effect that betides is that every passing frame starts to take on the form of a ticking bomb, due to explode at the slightest misunderstood utterance. So even when nothing remotely wrong is happening in a scene, everything else seems to suggest the very contrary.
This is the textbook example of a director with an unyielding mastery of his craft working here at the top of his form. Consider how Anderson tackles the primary elements of sensuality and tension that emulsify to form the base of Phantom Thread. Rather than the bountiful skin-show that the naïve would have resorted to, Anderson never strays from the suppressed tonality of the world he concocts, choosing to rather resort to the very essence of physical attraction which is the total mobilization of the senses. Lewis and Krieps observe each other intently, scrutinizing every grimace and roll of the eyes and straining to catch every sound of the other. The tension is educed from the subtle lingering between lines and scenes, with this delayed transition giving way for silence to strikingly meander which is then filled henceforth by the mood of the movie, which as aforementioned, never runs for a second without a tinge of tension.
Parts of the movie center themselves on the physical process of the creation of art. The measurements, the tapes and the threads are all unravelled before us, shown here in great detail. Then, a duly focus and patience is given to the very creation of a dress, from the inception circling around the designing process and coming to a denouement with the material fruition. I know all of this sounds pretty boring. Believe me; it is more thrilling than a car chase.
Herein, I also wish to bring attention towards the scrupulous sound mixing which otherwise runs the risk of going unappreciated. So, it is said that artistic processes take place on the right side of the brain, the side that is liberated from the mundane considerations of the verbal left side. Whenever Reynolds gets engrossed in the creative process, Adrian Bell & John Midgley (the sound mixers) draw out all the brouhaha of the external world and immerse us in the world that is Reynolds’ mind. And whenever the external world is perceived from Reynolds’ point of view, every monoscopic sound is incorporated to let the viewer comprehend the incertitude of the relationship between the creative and the external.
The chunk of the runtime deals with shifting power dynamics within Reynolds, Cyril and Alma. Both Cyril and Alma are strong and Reynolds is weak and both want him to feed off their kindness. Alma however fears that Reynolds sees here merely as an object, while Cyril knows that Reynolds sees not Alma’s outside, but the insides. Reynolds is left in a state of stupefaction between this shifting power dynamics dubiety, and in the midst of all this, Anderson subtly masks the crux over which he weaves the entire movie around – the relationship between Reynolds and his mother. The notion of love, dear reader, is a strange paradox. As the fictional philosopher Richard Levy puts it in Allen’s Crimes & Misdemeanours ‘The paradox consists of the fact that when we fall in love we are seeking to refind all or some of the people to whom we were attached as children. On the other hand, we ask of our beloved to correct all of the wrongs that these early parents or siblings inflicted on us. So that love contains in it a contradiction, the attempt to return to the past and the attempt to undo the past’. As we can infer from the sparse information that Anderson treats us to, Reynolds life seems to be a mere continuation of his mother’s, much as the course of a ball on the billboard table is merely the continuation of the player’s arm movement. In the midst of the women in his life, Reynolds intently becomes weak and infirm, so as to compensate in their affection the tutelage from his mother for which he was never privy to. Or is the other way round?
I haven’t the faintest idea, and Phantom Thread isn’t a movie that gives answers. When Anderson pulls the rug out from under Phantom Thread, it raises even more questions. To try to answer them is to miss the point. These are ambiguities which are meant to get under your skin and stay there.
There will be detractors of course, as there should be. But do ignore the ones which say ‘nothing happens’ in the movie. I say so because whether you like it or not, it is indubitable that ‘so much is happening’ beneath what we see. As Milan Kundera once succinctly put it ‘On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth’.