Nagarik (1952)

25 06 2008

A wonderfully crafted family drama in the same vein of Mikio Naruse and Tran Anh Hung, but also one that is ultimately too single-minded in its efforts at being bleak and unsettling. That said, it is a might impressive film, especially considering that it is Ritwik Ghatak’s debut. The attempts at poetry are a bit over the top, but then again, this is 1951. The way in which the more poetic touches blend in with the otherwise very straight-forward / slice of life aesthetic is groundbreaking, if not entirely revolutionary. Of course, Ghatak’s colleague, Satyajit Ray would (sort of) perfect a similar story in his debut Pather Panchali but this is still more than worth while.

The Babu family has recently been demoted to “middle class” status. They all struggle to adjust with fond of memories of their more extravagant life planted deeply within in their minds. The family must now depend on the son, Ramu, to provide financial report. He applies for a job, but a decision isn’t to be made until the end of the month. He remains optimistic, however, and promises to get his family back on track by the end of the month. The other family members see things a bit differently, though. Mother is skeptical and irritated, not only by Ramu’s unrealistic visions but also by the persistence of the land lord. As he attempts to restore the family order, Ramu must also juggle his relationship with Uma. In the mean time, a guest (sent by a family friend) arrives to ease the financial burdens.

Within the course of the first twenty minutes, Ghatak sets up what seems to be a simple family drama. Not unlike Ozu (or Naruse), he carefully establishes all the intricacies found in a typical day of a family. Upon this setup, though, the conflict is dramatically thrown into play. The family is struggling and they have to depend on their eldest son to provide financial support. Now, the focus is on Ramu and we get somewhat of a angsty young adult sensibility. The calendar motif definitely has the same sort of touch that the tea cup has in Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. This is all absolutely fine.

Then, Ghatak has to return back to the general life of the family. The sequences that depict the family confrontations are much more stale in comparison. Never do the conversations seem like anything more than just slightly articulate whining. When characters constantly present a “woe is me” things begin to feel a little dramatized. Its not that the situation that the Babu family is in should be downplayed but its just that the film tries so hard to get across just how terrible a life of poverty is. Instead of having characters constantly repeat lines attempt to beat in the tragedy, it could have been shown visually. Ghatak does have a good eye for visuals, but perhaps it is the rather supar print quality that dilutes this strength.

The Furies (1950)

25 06 2008

More proof here that Anthony Mann really is a fantastic filmmaker. I absolutely loved The Tin Star but still felt more than a little skeptical going in to this one. While there are obviously some inherently bad signs of classic Hollywood filmmaking, this is still a very personal and accomplished work. Its very likely that Mann would have preferred to do something completely removed from the boundaries of a genre, but would never get such financing. Is this film melodramatic? Certainly, but it never bothers taking itself down a serious, dreary, and bleak path that so many modern “serious dramas” tend to do.

To explain the plot of The Furies would be somewhat of an insult to the movie. There’s an unintentionally hilarious “review” from TVGuide which quickly pieces together the main thrust of the narrative. By doing so, however, is to give a very false impression of the film. It is to Mann’s credit that these events all happen rather slowly, and the “plot points” are all patched by “pointless” scenes. Of course, these “pointless” scenes are one of Mann’s strongest points. He is certainly not on the same level of the character portraits by Yasujiro Ozu, or Mikio Naruse but he is fairly close. Plus, it should go without saying that there is the irresistible influence of classic Hollywoodisms.

Even more credit should go to the very strong visual sense, which is more often than not, overlooked in films of this type. Interestingly enough, this was actually shot by Victor Milner and not Mann’s frequent collaborator, John Alton. As this is one of Mann’s very first westerns, it marks the turning point in his career when he went from a steady string of film noirs (most of which were shot by Alton) to his now famous “psychological” westerns. The visual style is reflective of this transition, as, if anything, it still feels grounded in the shadowy cinematography of his earlier films but with a new location. In other words, totally brilliant. Some will be turned off by the melodramatic trapping from the era, but those that sit through it will be greatly rewarded.

The Round-Up (1966)

25 06 2008

More of the same from Miklós Jancsó. That is to say, an exquisitely crafted film that never rises above its all too simple premise. While it is captivating to watch his camera float around and observe fantastic and bizarre events, it never goes beyond being just a textbook example of how to make a film. In all of his films, Jancsó shows a complete understanding of the mechanical aspects of filmmaking. He knows how to elaborately stage layers and layers of events in a frame, as well as how to observe these events without a sign of intrusion. But still, this seems like nothing more that just an opportunity to make other filmmakers drool with envy.

As it almost always is with Jancsó, the narrative is built around a (relatively) obscure event in Hungarian history. Unlike his other films, this one attempts to give a a little exposition before diving head-first into a situation that most viewers (myself included) are unfamiliar with. A (Hungarian) national movement lead by Kossuth has been defeated and the Austrian government has taken over. The army rounds up a group of suspects and placing them in a secluded fort at the hope that the guerrillas will break down and confess. Essentially, it just turns in to a “witch hunt / paranoia” type of story.

I’ll give Jancsó some credit for attempting to explain the usual historical specifics that make up the content for most of his films. The very straight-forward style of exposition is sort of irritating as well as conventional, but in this case, it is legitimately helpful. In my opinion, it seems important for one to worry as little as possible about what exactly is going on Jancsó’s films and instead, focus primarily on the ravishing cinematography, which I’ll praise to the heavens in a moment here. The narrative, to no surprise, consists of very little emotional involvement. This is clearly the intention as the story follows a rather unpredictable route in establishing characters, and then disposing of them. This fickle sensibility does keep things interesting for awhile, but never enhances the characters beyond chess pieces.

For all the shortcomings, though, one cannot deny the confident compitence with which the film is crafted. Yes, the characters are still just chess piece that Jancsó moves according to his interests but he does so in the most elegant of fashions. As a purely visual experience, it is extraordinary. Personally, I cannot think of any other film in which cinema scope is used so expertly. There’s always little things going on in the background or to the sides, which provides more proof of Jancsó’s clear knowledge of the medium in general. Still, it is hard to not want something more personal out of such an accomplished filmmaker.