Ajantrik (1958)

26 01 2011

In an ongoing project to thrust myself back into the life of cinephila, I’ve decided to become completely random with my viewings and dive in head first to uncharted territory. This is some pretty ridiculous rhetoric to start a review, but it explains why I just started with one of Ritwik Ghatak’s most praised works, rather than going in chronological order like I once used to do. Whatever the case, there’s still enough positive things here for me to want to return to his work. Although this isn’t nearly as refined as Satyajit Ray’s earliest work, it is of the same vein, but with its own quirks, some of which become sort of bothersome.

Bimal is fascinated with his car, ney he is absolutely in love with it. While it does provide a mean of income, his relationship with his old Chevy, which he affectionately refers to as Jagaddal, is unhealthy to say the least. Not only does he put hours of work into it, but he also takes the slightest bit of criticism as disrespect. Since the car itself is rather old and not so efficient, nearly all of Bimal’s customers find it humorous. This doesn’t sit well with him, and it contributes to his emotional collapse.

There’s definitely something silly about the story, the fact that it really is about a man and the love for his car. One could argue that movies can’t be compelling without a relationship between two humans. I’d argue it have to be living things (dogs are acceptable, more of these movies are needed for the record) but ultimately, the subject is him and his disconnect with the world. It’s funny, as crazy as Bimal is viewed by the outsiders that come close to him, he would have fit in perfectly with 1950s American car culture. There’s not really that sad, poignant implication of the west’s influence on Indian culture. His infatuation is completely foreign to everyone else in the film’s world.

It’s easy to make a quick comparison to Ray’s earlier (I’m thinking pre-1960s) films, but Ghatak has a slower, less “fly on the wall” style, closer to being an anticipation of that glacier minimalism that is dominating China last time I checked. There’s a lot of nice long, static shots in which we get to observe Bimal and his “shenanigans” in a really objective way. It’s definitely one of the most memorable elements of the movie. Unfortunately, another equally memorable element is the non-diegetic sound that is used to personalize the car. It is  unnecessary and completely intrudes on the film’s earthy, quiet tone. Still, it’s a pretty remarkable movie.

No Such Thing (2001)

25 01 2011

It is getting a little repetitive to proclaim every other Hal Hartley film I see as one of the most profound and moving statements one could put on film, but well, it’s pretty true. This might not be his best effort, but at the very least, one must concede that it is without a doubt, his most polished and most accessible. There’s a lot less dialogue for one and thus, a lot less of that dry delivery that is likely to irk many newcomers to his work. At the same time, the film manages to be just as philosophical (if not more) than his most verbose scripts. It manages to capture the essence of Hartley’s cinematic universe. There’s a lot of “big things” talked about and implied, but it all becomes centralized into something uniquely personal and moving.

The IMDB entry for Sarah Polley is unusually opinionated and states that her face enables many filmmakers to express with her facial muscles and focus less on dialogue. I can’t say this exactly applies for a cinematic disaster like David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ but it does here. The biggest difference between this and every other Hartley film is definitely the amount of talking. It probably helps a great deal that this is the best any Hartley film has looked, but that could be attributed to the DVD’s quality, seeing as how so many of his other films are treated less than satisfactory by American DVD companies. That’s a subject matter for another day and most likely, another blog. This is definitely one of the most visually appealing films in the Hartley catalogue.

As it so often is the case with Hartley’s films, the story while seemingly straightforward enough, has this opaque tone, which fits like a glove in a universe in which philosophy is embedded in the image, rather than implied or read into by overly eager viewers. At first, it seems like a pretty simple satirizing of the news, something better left to works that are grounded more in reality like The Network or Broadcast News. The crux of the film does not lie in criticizing the near cannibalistic nature of sensationalist journalism, but instead in observing its effect on those who it intends to publicize.

Sarah Polley is so great in this as Beatrice, who acts as the example of said journalism. She has a calm and peaceful demeanor, one that is easy to graft on to her ethereal physical look. Her compassion for not only the film’s monster, but the rest of the world is one that seems to resist any knee-jerk or impulsive response. When she is first introduced to the monster, she is not the slightest bit upset to find out he killed her fiance. She shouldn’t be, obviously, as it was something that had been implied and essentially accepted before she even began her investigation. If there’s anything that makes a film less appealing it is when its characters become motivated by impulses like retribution, it is the sort of reaction that seems so distant from humans with even the slightest bit of understanding in their heart. As this is the case, Hartley’s film will not appeal to everyone, not even all arthouse goers.

This is not to say that I completely mirror or even understand Beatrice’s reactions, but at least they aren’t made to contribute to some conventional narrative arc. If anything, her compassion is overwhelming that it seems to easy blur into the lines of indifference. The way in which her character floats around bares more resemblance to the alienated individuals in the world of Tsai Ming-Liang or Michelangelo Antonioni than Hartley’s usual humanized mouthpieces. I’m not saying this is inherently better, as I have come something of a fan of these mouthpieces, but Beatrice’s conversations seem much more pragmatic than those in any other Hartley films. I suppose this is sort of ironic because the film deals with a monster and surviving a plane crash, but part of me hopes that was intentional. That the film’s fantastical elements gain their legitimacy by the fact that they are downplayed by the filmmaker.

So, as usual with Hartley, there’s a lot to chew on here and I can’t honestly say I’ve come into contact with even a fraction of it, but that sort of what makes people rewatch movies, no? While this is much more reflective (which just means less talking I guess) and has a greater emphasis on visuals (which just means it looks a lot better) it seems to embody everything that makes Hartley’s work so fascinating and that is that it is completely mystifying. Like all the best films, you’ll never get anything resembling an answer, just more questions. That sounds vague and probably pretentious as hell, but the same can be said for Hartley in a way and I don’t seem to mind that in his work.

Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974)

10 01 2011

I guess this is somewhat like Two-Lane Blacktop. I mean both movies have two men, a girl, and a car but uh, that’s about it. Where Hellman’s classic is an subtle and endlessly watchable journey through Americana, this is more of a goofy little road movie. It’s a little funny, but it’s mostly forgettable. Both films are obviously products of their time, at least in content, but the same applies for pretty much everything about this film. It’s so seventies with Peter Fonda  hamming it up and Susan George being quite possibly the least interesting female lead I’ve ever seen.

The story is pretty simple, which I don’t mind, but it is pretty much built upon the idea of a never-ending car chase. Since this is the case, the movie ends up feeling more than a little hollow. It’s merely chase after chase with extremely obvious attempts at “memorable” dialogue. In fact, every other thing that Peter Fonda says is clearly trying to break into the American consciousness. It’s really a silly goal for a film that seems like it should be grounded and more understated. Adam Roarke provides this to some extent, but his characters just ends up seeming useless, except to create unnecessary drama between the two men towards the film’s ending.

The ending creates another problem all on its own. I admire the fact that it happens so abruptly but ultimately it makes the experience feel a little pointless. Sure, the film is trying to be self-contained and I admire that in some regard, but the characters’ vices and faults are not so much endearing or even interesting as much as they are annoying. Peter Fonda chuckles to himself a lot and hates women. Susan George gets upset about this hate, and Adam Roarke just sort of sits there in all of his deadpan glory. I don’t mean to make this movie out to be a complete failure, but mentioning it in the same breath as Two-Lane Blacktop is just unfair to both movies. It’s a nice little movie, but not likely to set anyone’s world on fire.