Sunday, November 22, 2015


Director: Jona Gerlach
Runtime: 34 min.
Genre: Documentary, Short

              Mr. Gerlach’s 14 Homicides settles down at the intersection of geography, of society, of language, of statistics, of memory, of journalism, and in my case media – or new media, I was watching the film and googling its events, which I would suggest is probably unadvisable – and suggests how history and maybe even rhetoric could be give some sort of shape. 14 Homicides feels like an alternate way of narrativizing a haunted place, and come to think of it what is the difference between a haunted and a historical place after all? Maybe the latter is a document of change, while the former has an event stamped on its very identity forever, and if we were to extend that logic, will be entering the area of difference between history and rhetoric, between memory and ideology? Mr. Gerlach presents 14 locations by way of static shots, all places with terrific immersive quality to them so much so that I would love to live in some of those and be around the others – suburban houses, superstores, apartment complexes – and the fact that haunted locations are more often than not spaces where domestic bliss has been overturned is not entirely lost.    
              There’s these static shots, and there’s a calm voiceover reading text (a lot of which I was able to find verbatim from different news sites) that intends to be a factual narrative of the events that occurred, all of them involving accidental cop shootings. These shots do not linger too long after the voiceover, linking the facts to the space thereby affecting their identities, and when the spaces start piling up with respect to the months of 2014, we enter the not-so-apolitical zone of statistics. Spaces where you or I could live a lovely little life almost seem to become hostage to a stream of events that feel more like an epidemic, contextualized and re-contextualized, by the time around them and the geography around them (all of them occur in Utah), and a clear enough rhetoric emerges even without the depiction or staging of an event. There are no people, just spaces and facts, and the grey areas that the initial text around the law governing a peace officer’s usage of deadly force merely alludes to is opened so wide these spaces seem to exist wholly and solely within them. Experts often refer to the disposition of any man-made structure – societies, SEZs etc. – and by the end of the year, these localities seem to assume the sort of disposition Mr. Lynch was not so subtle about in Blue Velvet. Mr. James Benning sure does come to mind, but while his landscapes are variables of time, Mr. Gerlach seems to suggest domestic places as hostages of their milieu.  

Note: As I said, dear reader, if you happen to watch this film on your laptop rather than at a screening it might be advisable to refrain from seeking further context and information than is being already formulated, for it only adds to the rhetoric. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Cast: Salman Khan, Sonam Kapoor, Anupam Kher, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Deepak Dobhriyal, Swara Bhaskar, Armaan Kohli
Director: Sooraj Barjatya
Runtime: 174 min.
Genre: Drama, Romance

              From what I remember, the impression I was provided by elders around was the Ms. Bhagyashree was the focal point of Maine Pyar Kiya. And if memory serves me well history Hum Aapke Hain Kaun was a complete Madhuri Dixit show. I have Raja as evidence. I wouldn’t vouch for its authenticity but I do remember Mr. Salman Khan complaining about not winning the Best actor award for it in 1994 and his reasoning was that since it was the biggest hit of the year he had to be the best actor. Don’t ask me, because I even remember Mr. Pramod Moutho using the same weird-ass reasoning to claim his right to the Best villain award for Raja Hindustani. And that is not the point. The point is that, for whatever reasons, Mr. Khan was almost never the focal point in his two biggest collaborations with Mr. Barjatya, and the whole Prem thing is something that has been cooked ages after the fact. Now, I do not want to go all meta on you and this film, but Mr. Barjatya, who, if not anything else, is pretty alright crunching emotions on a large-scale, seems to be least concerned with run-of-the-mill dramatic events and corresponding closures. See, there are spoilers and I don’t think so you need to be warned either. Read on, I say.
So Mr. Khan is in a double role here, one a Prince by the name of Vijay and another a small time stage actor Prem, and Maithili (Ms. Kapoor) is engaged to the former and over the course of the film falls for the latter. When the time comes for one (Vijay) to do the obligatory right thing and hand her over to the other (Prem), Mr. Barjatya seems to feel almost too cool to go all melodramatic on us, say like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and end it all with a grand embrace. Rather, right before the cut away from the scene (it is as a matter of fact the last moment of drama before the obligatory closing song), she is still in the same frame (a sideways shot) with Vijay, who now looks exactly like Prem. That’s it. No movement from one post to another. Either is alright, Mr. Barjatya seems to tell me. And when I think of Mr. Khan’s character in a palace full of mirrors trying to find a way out of his own reflections, the film seems to practically beg for a meta-reading I do not in the least want to oblige it with. But I guess Mr. Barjatya is not providing us with that option because I think he is quite unhappy with Mr. Khan’s present larger-than-life image. He probably doesn’t like his moustached avatar (Dabangg) and all the alpha-male antics around the women he is courting. Maybe Prem is an extension, a sort of compensation, a character who in his overall moral framework completes him, and he doesn’t like the fact that what ought to be the actor’s defining character is being overwritten by several others so different in their essence. I don’t know, I might just be pulling stuff from my posterior, but the set-up, a variation on Bawarchi formula, is painfully simple – a patriarch’s dysfunctional domestic set-up needs glue (Mr. Barjatya and his marketing team probably missed an opportunity to have the Fevicol/Fevistick brand in there somewhere, thank you very much). The variation is that the patriarch is played by Mr. Khan, and the glue is played by Mr. Khan too, and in moments when both of them are on screen the latter feels as if he were some sort of a spirit, so feeble in his presence, so devoid of the narcissist streak, so single-minded in his purpose in the narrative. As opposed to the popular understanding, Mr. Barjatya’s films don’t uphold conservative values – his thought-process is probably too run-of-the-mill to do that – and instead what his narratives do is undermine (I wouldn’t want to go as far as subvert) and hopefully reverse traditional customs and rituals. More often than not, Mr. Khan’s Prem has been the agent – in Maine Pyar Kiya the whole Mere Rang mein Rangne Wali is as close to an agreement to full-blown pre-marital sex you are going to get in Mr. Barjatya’s films, which has an interesting parallel here, once again closely linking the not-so-much outdoor-but-not-so-much-indoor space with moral frivolity (don’t almost all this flirtatious activities happen in such sort of spaces), and the whole act of wearing a favorite revealing dress be some sort of response I can’t sink my teeth into; in a world where the parents would meet-and-greet before proceeding with a match, Mr. Khan’s Prem courteously went ahead and decided to find his own in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. The point here is that Mr. Barjatya’s films, as were many others’, are essentially liberal and we don’t have to burden him with the task representing family values and traditions. For him they are just the framework within which he can carve his romance and be naughty. What is a strict no for him though is for somebody to woo his women by the size of their masculinity, ala Jeevan (Mr. Mohnish Behl in Maine Pyar Kiya) shooting pigeons and exercising a display of control, and I guess I can suspect that is how Mr. Barjatya sees his alter-ego’s distortion into the present larger-than-life image. So he gives that image an impersonal palatial complex, rigid traditions, dysfunctional family and everything else we cannot really afford to connect with, and proceeds to introduce the alter-ego he believes as the catalyst of change. A sort of supporting member in his own narrative. Which is alright, except for the fact that the whole film feels distinctly like a concept trying its level best to have the vigor to metamorphose into a story, whose cause is not helped in the least by the half-written dialogues. Mr. Barjatya could be outrageously gifted in profiling walking figures under the light, his compositions consisting of vertical lines supplementing the slender figure of Ms. Kapoor still make the half-screens in multiplexes look tall, but for our generation at least, the sound of the convenience of an English word within a predominantly Hindi sentence quite simply breaks the illusion. The residual feeling here though is of something that is slight, or maybe light, and the melodrama just does not have the heft. Maybe by design, or maybe Mr. Barjatya was running through the motions. Or let me put it this way, if this were the 90s then Mr. David Dhawan would be feeling little to no compulsion to make a comedy out of this premise.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Cast: Oliver Laxe
Director: Ben Rivers
Runtime: 98 min.
Genre: Experimental, Drama

              We have a desert, and we have a few cars driving through. There is another mini-vehicle seemingly filming them and giving them directions. Obviously we are watching this whole thing. But when the figure of Mr. Oliver Laxe narrates a riddle against a backdrop of white, and the next cut to what seems like a white desert (Sahara) is so hard and the match on the color so true that one feels Mr. Laxe practically vanishes. We see three figures walking across the desert and the screen, in what seems like black hooded dresses, humming some folk song, and the whole moment has narrative written all over it. They walk slowly, as a tribe would, for civilization (especially urban) is aggressive. More so against nature. We create a perception. Mr. Rivers gives us a cut. To a guy singing some folk song, and this time around his hooded robe is just plain sandy brown with some design. Not reductive black. When he completes his song, the camera pans down and the guy gives a thumbs up. Now, I believe a thumbs up is essentially European, and at the very least a symbol of a civilization that just doesn’t sit well with these slow-moving folk-singing tribes. So yeah, we have our first anachronism. You see, there is always the unmistakable air of privilege that walks with the agent of civilization. I traveled once to this village in Konkan, some 50 odd km from Pune, as part of a NGO team, carrying Dettol soaps. We spent a few hours there discussing with those people on how to educate their kids and how necessary it was to have a good bath, and preferably with those Dettol soaps, which we gratuitously distributed. Those folks were watching us do our thing, while we were conducting ourselves. Between our dressing and our confident demeanor and the very fact that we had “invaded” their territory and were “concerned” about their way of living, we had “privileged” written all over us. I was acutely aware of this tension, and in no small measure disgusted by it. There was a certain sense of lack, if you will, on the part of the villagers, just as was will those sex-workers in Kamathipura when Ms. Ashley Judd paid them a missionary (not catholic, but AIDS awareness) visit a few years back. There was guilt too, probably on my part, and if you were to imagine my predicament, you would have essentially two sets of eyes – one watching us, and one watching “them” watching us. The otherification is probably inevitable. What is essential though is the affirmation of the identities, because for us to be us they need to be them. This staging though is alright inasmuch as we are lost in our performance of privilege as agents of culture and unaware of any other set of eyes other than the one intently listening to us. The expectation is that Ms. Judd speaks about AIDS and the sex workers listen, or the sex workers speak about their lack of knowledges and maybe even their plight and Ms. Judd listens. But, if we have an alternate set of eyes intently looking at this conversation being performed, and the camera is distracted by it we probably have something of a breakdown.
A simple variation is where the tribe performs the rituals while we/agents arrive to “understand” the alien culture, and approximate it. The agents remain in their privileged position of anthropologists (filmmakers/documentarists) and connoisseurs of rituals as long as they are performed. But if one of them throws a thumbs up, or say flips-a-bird, or say just turns around and starts watching the camera or starts watching the agents watch the ritual, you have a Matrix-like anomaly to the proceedings. The reductive narrative of the ritual doesn’t align any longer, and one is acutely aware of the disruption in the whole dynamic. We are watching them watching us. Just as the sanctity, or let us say efficacy, of the missionary’s rite is disturbed, the filmmaker’s rite – i.e. filmmaking – goes for a toss too. I mean, broadly speaking, filmmaking would mostly contain less of a “capture” (don’t so many filmmakers love that word?) and more of a restaging of events so as to validate them as the established truth, and more importantly use that truth to underline the essential difference between the one filming and the one being filmed. The agent of civilization has the right to stare, while the performer (tribe) has the duty to perform. You could say, it is exploitation of a different nature. I will say, just about now, I guess, the opening shots of the cars and the film-crew feels like an essential afterthought to homogenize narratively the dissonance that follows next.
              Let me describe the dissonance, and then arrive at the whole description from an extremely literal point-of-view. While the author is effectively “wiped-out” from the screen, instead replacing it with a white desert with folks dressed in black we have an eye (camera, perspective) that is finding a space (real, mythic) which can affirm the identity of the subject, thus confirming the identity of the observer. Those folks sing, and they are a homogenized spectacle, if you will. Homogenized by the music of that song, I suspect, and Mr. Rivers seems to be searching for that one true note not only in the space but in the sounds too. The note of affirmation. But it all feels labored, the strain already felt (just as I am searching for that one key moment for transformation). You see, I haven’t seen much of Mr. Rivers and the tension between his rejection of the material as straight up representation is pretty evident in the manner in which an alternate meta-camera (as in the opening scene) watches the other performers watching the filmmaking unfold. But is it arrived at here, in Morocco, while making The Sky Trembles, or if it had already been arrived at, as if declaring that this is just a necessary state of affairs, I don’t know.
A main actor yells – “The Sheik has gone” – while others sit and watch and laugh. While the fiction cinema tries to pretend to be some kind of ethnographic documentary, there is the third eye trying to make sense of this tableaux, this dynamic between the agent the tribesman and the unwritten/unmentioned deal to maintain the illusion while it breaks down. We see a ritual being performed over a dead body, at a comfortable distance, and there is a certain degree of harmony there between the observer and the performer. But Mr. River cuts to a boy, seeing us seeing them, and the harmony is disturbed. Are we capturing a ritual, or are we seeing a performance? And if the latter is essentially symbolic in nature (and not real), would it be better served both aesthetically and morally to indeed simulate the whole ritual by means of a fake dead body (for some reason there are empty plastic bottles which will make an anachronistic entry later), and by reenacting the whole tableaux including asking the little boy to see us see the ritual again? Will that compensate? Will it find the point of truth? We are in a Charlie Kauffman kind of a self-reflexive environment trying to ascertain what is feeding of what, and I feel the need to share this amusing gif just to approximate the whole dynamic. For the whole of the initial section, that little girl is us.

              Mr. Rivers isn’t having much luck finding the one musical note either that gives his film that point of truth it is looking for in this land. It is fake all around, and acutely aware of it. The lines spoken by the actors (natives) do not satisfy the filmmaker’s references. The subtitles aren’t present and we aren’t sure whether what is being spoken has any meaning. It is just inconsequential sounds. While the folk songs try and create for immersive homogenized cinema, even in long shots where folks climb down/up a hill, the spell is broken whenever we hear every day noises causing us to appreciate the diversity within this setting and the utter failure of any homogenizing endeavor, the disillusionment towards which is complete when an accident and a crowd and several vehicles on a tar road seem to provide the kind of organic material (with blood? A symbol?) that Mr. Rivers is searching for in the desert.
              Now I hope you understand the predicament here, and I seem to have spent a whole lot of words describing it. But just to give a point of reference, who I believe is Mr. Rivers’, or for that matter the filmmaker’s (here, played by Mr. Laxe) brother from another mother – Mr. Quentin Tarantino – we need to imagine how he probably would have felt staging his alternate-history ritual in Django Unchained through genre-tropes. Is he actualizing/rewriting the history via the fantasy of representational/fictional cinema? Is he aware that his set of eyes viewing and rewriting history are just as important as the narrative involving the black Django? I suspect he is, acutely so as a matter of fact, and he releases this tension (partly as a variation of the above, partly as identifying himself as the representation of a white man) by inserting himself as a performer to be given equal opportunity to be exploited by history/cinema/narrative/ritual and thereby literally exploding (read: purging) out of it.
              The filmmaker, probably disillusioned by the efficacy of filmmaking as a tool to find the point of truth to complete/affirm the truth, seems to walk away assuming the role of a white man in search of the territory on his own, in a truck, leaving behind his film and allowing himself to be an object in Mr. Rivers’. The tension is greatly eased, it is just his eye lost in the reality of kids playing soccer and a girl clanking rocks against each other pursued by Mr. Rivers’ camera, gears click, and the adaptation of Mr. Bowles’ A Distant Episode follows. The filmmaker’s tongue is sliced (his language, the basic unit of any culture is taken away), and by covering his entire body in a robe of tin can lids, he is just as much a performer as the natives are in their black hooded robes. The whole dynamic is now reduced to an easy binary – them versus him – and the accentuation of the otherification of the natives only serves to emphasize the truth in the narrative – of a white man captured in a foreign land, exploited and sold as a slave. The story is now about him, as it always was, for it never could be about them. Ethnography gives way to fiction, or maybe something even more, say a snuff film, and when we see the filmmaker running away from it all, from his own narrative, from this space he came to let us culturally approximate, we know it is nigh impossible. It might be terribly symbolic, maybe a tad poetic when we think of it against the opening shot, but for some reason, I find the utter helplessness a tad moving.

Saturday, November 07, 2015


Cast: Dinesh Ravi, Aadukalam Murugadoss, Samuthirakani, Kishore Kumar G., E. Ramadoss, Kayal Anandhi, Misha Goshal
Director: Vetri Maaran
Runtime: 106 min.
Verdict: Turns audience empathy into a moral question. Middle class self-righteousness turned around on its head. Comfort of moral privilege replaced by the uneasiness of perspective.
Genre: Thriller, Drama, Crime

              There was this young and I suspect unprofessional actor accompanying Mr. Maaran on his screening of the film at the recently concluded Mumbai International Film Festival, and when asked about why he chose whom he chose to play the part, Mr. Maaran’s deceptively casual answer was – the audition involved screaming while being beaten by dummy lathis (obviously) and his screams were the most convincing. In media we use the term Telepresence, or Presence, which International Society for Presence Research defines as –
“Telepresence, often shortened to presence, is commonly referred to as a sense of ‘being there’ in a virtual environment and more broadly defined as an illusion of non-mediation in which users of any technology overlook or misconstrue the technology’s role in their experience.”
This presence, if we were to break it down even further, we would have engagement, spatial presence, social realism, and perceptual realism, and so on. An intuitive reflection will probably mark many of them to be more a variable of sound rather than the image. If we were to take a gun fight in a street, and break it down essentially on a gut level as to what causes us to ‘be there’, if you will, we might agree that more than the image the factors such as engagement and spatial presence and even perceptual realism have seemingly to do more with the quality of the sound at hand rather than the quality of the image. Alternately, for social realism, I believe, the image, or more specifically the content of it as opposed to its quality probably does the trick.
              Now, I watch two fiction films from India (not that this grouping makes any sense or provides any insight whatsoever, and it is merely a pseudo-construct to start a point) – Chauthi Koot and this one here – which use sound in interesting ways to exaggerate the presence, and Mr. Maaran is hardly interested in showing what happened. You, dear reader, your presence is very much needed for Visaaranai to be what it wants to be, which is to not merely record a specific set of events and indulge in self-righteous moral posturing (as Talvar does), but to understand and attempt to deconstruct, very much like a Michael Sandel moral experiment, the various dynamics to a simple issue of lock-up torture. He reduces his narrative to a handful of locations – a police station in Guntur, a court, a police station near Chennai and a middle class locality – and toggling between a ‘socially-realistic’/’perceptually-realistic’ image detailing provide for him a platform from where he can modulate our degree of engagement (presence), and thereby our moral response, by amplified/subdued sound detailing.
              Several keywords then, we have here, and let us try and understand the ones concerning the images before we arrive at the modulation. Mr. Maaran provides us on a placard what seem to be facts about Tamil Nadu immigrants in Andhra Pradesh, and proceeds to morning 4 .a.m. shots containing a lot of movement, where Pandi (Mr. Ravi) cycles his way to a provision store where he works. On the way he stops to drink tea (image) and comb his hair at a barber shop near a railway station (sound, for all we hear are the announcements off-screen), and these establishing details if you will, are essentially observational in nature – of behavior, of process, of locations – providing for a degree of sympathy (bathing and cycling at 4 a.m. to open a shop). We’re thus removed, and privileged (I may be presumptuous here, but the degree of engagement will be more towards the sympathy end of the spectrum rather than the identification, and also I’m an outsider), and can indulge in judging his behavior. Hook.
              We further see his interactions with his shop owner while taking the keys, and a girl who is a housemaid (Ms. Anandhi, the archetypical damsel in distress), and his heroic overtures towards the latter are cute, especially when she returns the gaze. It is important for Mr. Maaran for us to be there, to have an investment without identification, and a reaction that is more of a “that-is-so-sweet” variety. Mr. Maaran’s images are still lit in the golden hue of streetlights, whose lack of brightness, at least for me, suggests an appropriate shade for social realism. We were sympathizing the economic plight, and after the personal details, we care. I say, line.
              And just about then he pulls the plug off the social-realism treatment and has Pandi and his friends arrested by the local police. The images have greater contrast between light and shadows, and there are mostly shadows. He has the platform almost ready here now, for the images are freely moving between social realism and perceptual realism, our sympathetic and judgmental sentiments generously flowing, and here’s where he decides to amplify and contrast his sounds. Not since Raging Bull have there been punches and blows so visceral. Mr. Maaran’s sound designer does deserver a bonus and a hike, not merely because the body contact is more felt than seen (there isn’t a great degree of visual evidence) but because he amplifies such social indicators as the sounds of a shoe or the raspy voice of the cop. It is a brilliant detail, one which yanks us out of our observation tower and locks us within the chamber (complete and utter immersion), and the cop letting every syllable of every word be properly shaken by the growl in his voice, it is indeed frightening. We cared, and between that voice and their loud wailing screams, we are scared. So much so that a crucial narrative juncture, of the cop lashing Pandi at his house, is entirely predicated on the interplay between the sounds – of the lashes, of Pandi’s screams, and of that of his friends. Sinker.
              In my eagerness to describe Mr. Maaran as a filmmaker of supreme skills, I might be risking him being branded a provocateur yanking our moral strings, which I ensure you he is not. His concerns are human, not sentimental, and his endeavor is not to proclaim that the middle class morality is keen on self-righteous judgment, but to deconstruct our reactions and possibly highlight that beneath that veneer of sympathy/identification/envy dynamic there is a degree of apathy, an removed reaction to what is essentially an interplay of events if you will, that probably allows systemic tortures to happen at the first place. The cop beating Pandi is not the starting point, and Mr. Maaran takes to another police station, which is lit entirely under fluorescent lights, with almost little to no shadows, allowing more spaces and thus a far greater degree of movement. It is a different form of representation of social realism, again toning down completely on the sounds while pushing Pandi and his friends to the periphery, while focusing on another event involving now a rich man and a seemingly influential person (Mr. Kishore), whose personal detailing involves indulging in threesomes. He provides for both a poetic and narrative counterpoint to Pandi – he has no backstory, his demeanor is “arrogant” (i.e. little by way of screams) – and the essential contrast in our emotional reactions, one for whom we don’t really care about all that much having readily made a judgment and one for whom we want to essentially run away from it all. There are two floors here, upward movements and downward movements, movements aided (cops) and unaided (Pandi and his friends escorted by the cops while they clean it), rooms with cops conspiring and rooms with Pandi and his friends, and the dynamics that are drawn here remind me of Mr. Altman’s Gosford Park. The spaces assume a personality, far removed from the cut-and-dried light-and-darkness moral simplicity of the police station in Guntur, and while we cry tears of such jolly compassion when a female cop (Ms. Misha Goshal) mediates, a similar action in this police station near Chennai evokes significantly different reactions out of us. Again, Mr. Maaran isn’t a what-if filmmaker, and his concern is the human collateral. The system is people, not one person easily demonized (again contrasting with the police station in Guntur), and it is a lovely sight (I think I mean refreshing) to see this system trying to pin down Pandi and his friends while they always seem to make a resourceful run. It is one such run, set amidst a sewage in a middle class society during the night, that is one of the great scenes, purely from a functional (read: skill) viewpoint, and in its density. The police stations are external to us, but the society is when the action has invaded our territory. We no longer have willfully entered the chamber, and the event is now amongst us, whether we like it or not. We could be curious, and so doors open, and close. A biker stops, and when the cop asks him to bugger off, he drives away. And I think Mr. Maaran, if not already a master, is at least a master in the making. 

Thursday, November 05, 2015


Cast: Suvinder Vicky, Rajbir Kaur, Gurpreet Bhangu, Harleen Kaur, Kanwaljit Singh, Harnek Aulakh
Director: Gurvinder Singh
Runtime: 115 min.
Verdict: Off screen sounds and close ups create a world of paranoia and inversion. The real narrative (collateral) of the 1980s Punjab is home invasion.
Genre: Drama, Thriller

              Mr. Singh’s backgrounds here are hazy and out-of-focus. He isolates people within spaces, and between the lighting and framing – of medium shots of a group of cops talking at a railway station, or two guys waiting for a train – he seems to provide the same sort of demarcation between light and darkness, between security and insecurity that the old television serials on Doordarshan would do. He doesn’t give us any establishing shot of the railway station itself, of a continuous space so to speak, almost limiting the breathing space available around to a bare minimum. There are several shots through a door towards the outside ala The Searchers, and while Mr. Ford’s shots felt like a view from a telescope with considerable amount of breathing space for they had depth of view that was aided very well with the nature of the geography – the details of terrain – Mr. Singh’s lack depth and the monochrome green of the crops provide for a lack of detail that seems to essentially open up the house like one were to open a cardboard box. The house here feels flat, like two parallel lines pretty close by with seeming danger beyond the foreground and unknown in the background. I admit, I have never been to any rural place in any part of India, and I also feel that Mr. Singh’s Chauthi Koot is, in its form in its concerns and thereby in its very essence, a home invasion film.
              There is another enclosed box in the form of the ticket collector’s compartment tagging along with the rest of the train at its rear end, and it has a window through which we see the passing tracks on which the train is running. There are people sitting inside that box, after having sneaked/pushed their way in in spite of the ticket collector’s rejecting their earlier requests to let them travel, and Mr. Singh cuts this group – of two friends, a Sardarji whom the friends meet on the station, of two guys travelling from before – into little pockets. And on the off occasion he does bring them together, the grouping is so tight it lacks air. Earlier, we see those two friends, Jugal (Mr. Kanwaljit Singh) and Raj (Mr. Aulakh), walking and then running towards the station in a series of tight frames, and all of it creates a significant distrust for the space around. One of those friends happens to provide the essential service of framing the primary story of Joginder (Mr. Suvinder Vicky), the patriarch of a home seemingly in the middle of nowhere and with a fierce dog for a pet. It is a home that was built to be near the farms, a motivation I presume driven towards reassurance. But it is Punjab in 1980s and Khalsa members would be moving in the night to escape the cops and the army. They are not to be trifled with, and between the close-ups of Joginder’s fuming eyes and the off-screen barking of the dog, where one wishes it forget its barking duties from time to time and not bother the travelling Khalsa members, the controllable space (if home can be defined thus) seems to be shrinking all the time. There’re the cops too, and when they run through the house tearing it apart looking for god-knows-what you realize Mr. Singh, has inverted the overall dynamic of what constitutes domestic security. Every time the dog barks the walls seem to become that wee bit thinner. There is an off-screen sound of a bullet too, just as there is the off-screen BBC radio report on Operation Blue Star. And amidst all this, Home is no longer what it was, and it stands there naked just like the trailer in The Hills Have Eyes. Which makes you wonder if your home is where it belongs. Or you belong to that home in the first place. Or maybe, just maybe, it is better to have the ideological clarity of a dog and know for sure where your allegiances lie.  

Sunday, November 01, 2015


Director: Shivendra Singh Dungarpur
Runtime: 52 min.
Verdict: Fetishizing objects rather than their history. Amoral and problematic.
Genre: Documentary

              The filmmaking here is hacky, and when Mr. Dungarpur, in his cringe worthy nostalgic voiceover iterating for the 100th time his love for it all, claims that he waited for several moments for Mr. LV Prasad’s movie to fire up on the 70 mm screen only to cut to the screen a couple of moments later rather than a couple of moments before, you do realize that his claim that it was all done in haste is merely an understatement. I would want to concede the benefit of the doubt as far as the filmmaking is concerned, but to color museums/objects/archives under a solemn shade of nostalgia is, as Patricio Guzm├ín Nostalgia for the Light, or Mr. Alexander Sokourov’s Francofonia would tell us is a problematic retelling of history. Mr. Dungarpur, after Celluloid Man, feels the need to do away with talking faces and instead to narrate a history of Indian cinema through a few objects. Like for instance, Dadasaheb Phalke’s abandoned car (gracing the film’s poster), or letters from Jean Renoir to Ramanand Sengupta. Noble and presumably harmless intentions, at first glance, but this is the exact approach that papers over the true ideology/meaning/significance of an object in historical terms. It reduces history to facts and numbers, and thus assumes the role of the subtlest of propaganda tools in the hands of the prevalent authority. A crude example I used elsewhere, but a shopping mall or a skyscraper from a renowned builder comes with its own context and its own significance as a representation of the state of affairs. But focusing on its essential function, which in the mall’s case is to presumably be a place for all sorts of shopping, or in the case of Mr. Jagdish Raj’s several police uniforms is to highlight he played several cops, is to rid them of their context and what they essentially represent. 150 years does not leave a building merely as an important building from a different era. I might not be a lefty, but a little bit of ideology goes a long way in differentiating history from facts, for the amorality of the latter is not merely harmless, it is the very root of nerdy nostalgia concealing the apathy typical consumerist behaviors like cinephilia or fetishist collection of artifact for artifact sake represent. Those two chess players in Shatranj Ke Khiladi had no idea how to deal with their history, and I am not sure if the lost reel of Greed or a rare poster of some film is necessarily different. This kind of examination is dead on arrival, the kind of examination that I suppose governments/regimes/authorities all through history have looked forward to encourage for it is in essence all so self-congratulatory.

Sunday, October 25, 2015


Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Wang Leehom, Viola Davis, Yorick van Wageningen, Holt McCallany, Ritchie Coster
Director: Michael Mann
Runtime: 135 min.
Verdict: Deeply sensual. I had a dream the night I watched it. Every aspiring porn filmmaker should watch this film.
Genre: Thriller, Romance

              In many ways, The Jackal’s exploitation of the British birth-system/passport-system was a strictly local phenomenon. This was a little before globalization, and this was a little before systems developed over several years and filtered through several traditions and world-views and ideologies gave way to the homogeneity of a product formula being replicated with little to no attention to the historicity of it all. I’m 32, and when I was a kid, there was news of India not having cryogenic capabilities. What that was all about, I didn’t know, and I still don’t know. The point is that depending upon the inventory/raw-material, which itself depends upon the geographical position, a product used to have its individuality. The homogeneity that coding and software and SEZs have brought in alters that heterogeneous landscape a little bit. My friend Srikanth Srinivasan produces software on how vehicles behave, and so now, in this strangely monopoly-encouraging world of operating systems, the security system of a Volkswagen might not behave entirely different from that of a BMW. It might, please note, but only when the companies choose to configure it thus. Because it is not driven by raw material in the industrial sense of the word, because it can operate (or reduce) upon or between, or interoperate between a vast variety of symbols and thus produce pretty mutable systems, the software, more than any modernist product, lends itself to extensibility, and is pretty malleable because of those extensible points. So much so that it is one of the ushers of our culture’s journey from modernism to postmodernism, of aesthetics/design trumping functionality. It behaves different, or at least gives the impression that it can, but the core has only a finite number of algorithms (in all probability coded by a developer as a set of symbol-based instructions) to choose from. Those algorithms, which are accessible universally, and thus can be exploited not merely locally, but from any which where. So while we now have an emission problem with a particular manufacturer, we can now have a bug that attacks any system (spanning not merely across vehicle manufactures) that exposes a given extensibility point.
              Mr. Mann opens Blackhat to this world of digital non-boundaries so bright they seem to want to obliterate, or let us say overwrite, the geographical boundaries. And before you raise both your hands to dismiss this rather commonplace view of our world, which I agree it is, with a hint of criticism in its tone, I would want to add that Mr. Mann, who just like the other Mann specializes in mapping urban terrains (Mr. Anthony Mann sure was a master with western terrains, but he did have his own worldview with urban settings too), seems to understand the product nature of modern spaces like Hong Kong, where a smart city formula successful in one SEZ in one part of the world is now eagerly, and dare I say impatiently, replicated in other aspiring parts. Identity is historicity, and since the latter is ignored, the former is compromised. It is interesting then, how Mr. Mann chooses to narrate his spaces, how his lights and shadows and colors do not necessarily seem to differentiate between a skyline in the United States from a skyline in China, and how his characters seem to all wear sunglasses hoping for some sort of combination between anonymity homogeneity and good old-fashioned coolness. You could argue that this is in some ways a critique of the capitalist way, of the predominance of the symbolic/representative form over the real thing (whatever that means), and for that we need to see how Mr. Mann sets up his narrative.
              There is a cyber-attack on a nuclear reactor, and since it is a reactor (apparently this part was towards the end in the script, and Mr. Mann brought it upfront) it gives terrorism vibes, which by definition is symbolic of all attacks. I mean, we have Anonymous roping in all these leftist volunteers and committing to easy DDoS attacks, and all of this nothing if not symbolic. It is amusing how Mr. Mann chooses to represent an attack – a little army of lights (electrons?) running along towards a wall to open up a small gate (light), from where courtesy a hard push on the Enter button of a distant computer keyboard causes to unleash a deluge of angry electrons from the small gate and back towards from where the little army came to knock something out. You could argue that his intention is to show how real and material a cyber-attack actually is, instead of pointing towards ether. Or, you could argue that he chooses to represent how a cyber-attack resembles or could resemble the Trojan horse. Just in case you need extra ammunition for your respective arguments, here’s a little bit of traffic flowing both ways. Exhibit A is the film’s poster. Exhibit B is an image from the cyber-attack. Note the layer of Balinese dancers, of the men and the walls, and what I would want a human firewall if you will.

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B.

You could also wonder if Mr. Christopher Nolan would ever have such a scene in any of his films. As far as identities go, the cities themselves seem to be interchangeable. There seems to be a preference for bluish light strips on either side of the Pacific. Lots of association points sprinkled throughout (and thereby historicity in the way we are viewing the film), and both the moments below have Chen Lien (Ms. Tang Wei) speaking to either of the guardian men – Hathaway (Mr. Hemsworth), her lover, and Captain Chen (Mr. Wang), her brother – contributing very well to what is a very subtle gender dynamic arc that bears substantial fruit towards the end.    

In a curious little moment, after Captain Chen asks his sister to accompany him in his investigation of the cyber-attack, involving a trip to the United States, we have a soulful pan across a skyline (continuing with the same music) to arrive at the floor of a stock exchange in Chicago. I’m still unsure whether that is a parting filler shot, or an establishing filler shot, and that is because while the music-binding points towards the former, the empty floor with a lot of papers lying around and flying around and televisions and numbers and radio-voices and no people seems to evoke the same blend of horror/melancholy as a parting shot would. That edit between two events kind of reflexively morphs them together. Mr. Mann doesn’t mark his cities/spaces with captions/names either, as is the traditional Hollywood way to firmly establish our bearings in a globe-trotting narrative, and as we later see it is not that he doesn’t want to.
There is also in the overhead shots of the city skyline and all its lights, and this is probably just me reading it that way (pardon me) although I can claim that even Srikanth did that too, a resemblance to a printed circuit board. I often tend to get that even in other films, like the The Dark Knight Rises, and for some weird reason I think it is because of the brown-brick of the Georgian buildings. But just assuming that it is intended, is the resemblance a metaphor/symbol in a narrative preoccupied with the digital and how the material components realize the function, or is it a representation of the replicable urbanization around us? There is a reference to 9/11 here, but then, in our modern urban spaces, all it takes to evoke that event is a tall building in any city, and not necessarily the actual place in Manhattan. The terrorist attack and the narrative around it become doubly symbolic then, and with all the codes and 1s and 0s, you begin to smell just a wee bit of primitivism rearing its head.   
Most importantly, the investigation, of going through code and empathizing with it is not exactly the most feasible problem for a filmmaker, and Mr. Mann, who gave us probably the most convincing not-spelling-it-out-for-the-audience detective realization in Manhunter, mostly solves it by skipping around it. He does commit to technical jargon (some of it alright, some of it wrong, and some of it a little WTF), but to attach psychology to a piece of code (the main objective of the screenplay) is largely unfulfilled. I’m sorry, adjectives like lean and graceful, and overwritten as opposed to frenetic, is just not it. But then again, a scene of a homicide, which is real, or at least assumed to be real with all its real bodies and real blood and real events, probably lends itself better to filmmaking than say an essentially representative component – a code, a letter, handwriting, or the structure of a novel. I mean, I have no idea how that problem can be solved, and I do know I feel like Hathaway whenever I am performing code reviews in my project.         
              But then I say primitivism, and Hathaway almost completely rubbishes the notion of it by offering both the brains and the brawns. Standard Hollywood narrative, or for that matter standard whatever narrative (even Endhiran) seems to want to clearly demarcate the areas the brains and the brawns operate in. A brainy guy, like Simon (Mr. Paul Dano) in Knight and Day, can solve complex energy issues but it needs a skillset of the caliber of Roy (Mr. Cruise) to fight the bad guys. The two are almost irreconcilable (Harry and his crew in Armageddon), more so in the world of cyber-attacks, and just to be drill the point completely through, you got to look around yourself folks wanting to get into gymnasiums and do 10K runs. Mr. Mann, in his casting of Mr. Hemsworth as the guy equally good with keyboard and triggers, kind of demolishes those boundaries. He walks through an airstrip, feeling the world around, and when he refers to his disciplined mind-body-mind approach to life in prison to Chen she refers to a more intuitive approach to rapid-decision making to life outside in general and their cyber-attack in particular. I know, it is the scriptwriter speaking, but if we look at the other protagonists in Mr. Mann films (ironic?), from William Graham who doesn’t want to have any part of the world of psychotic serial killers to the not-so-much-a-Mohican Hawkeye to no-family-no-attachment Neil McCauley to whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand to this-is-just-part-time Max the cab driver, we get a feel of individuals wanting to break out of the identity of their group (maybe that is what Mr. Mann is talking about when he describes Thief as a left-extensionalist critique of corporate capitalism, and I don’t know much about it). That desire, though, gets pretty useful here, and that is probably because one feels the overall intention is to traverse from the world of representations to reality, from IP addresses to coordinates, and that desire, not for knowledge but for a way of living, from websites to servers-sites, from buildings to a Balinese dance parade with flames all around, is pretty primitivist in my book. Especially when the narrative begins with something as symbolic as a terrorist attack and ends with something as personal as Bonnie and Clyde finally “converting” the numbers we see on screen to money and walking away. Mr. Mann makes it all so sensual, of two people walking away, of two people sitting in a cab (with the camera behind them), and when we close our eyes to sleep we are not thinking of such important questions as whether a picture of a person in a mobile can serve as a useful representative but we’re thinking and dreaming about a stream of light and a piece of music. That is the pure bit of cinema Mr. Mann has at his disposal, of somehow making those figures chasing each other against a crowd celebrating some light-and-dance festival, seem more about the form than about the content. It is all terribly material and sensual, of repeated stabbings, and again of a man and a woman walking away in an airport towards seeming oblivion, and although you could capture a representation of them on screen you would never get close to the essence of it.
Just one word about the technology here. The Black Widow software examines fragments and constructs originals. I don’t know, but what does it mean? How do you, or can you do that? Traditional recovery software can get the data already there, but if it is not there, how/why do you reconstruct it? You must be assuming something which is just plain wrong. If you ask me, that part really had be worried.

Thursday, October 22, 2015


Cast: Irrfan Khan, Konkona Sen Sharma, Neeraj Kabi, Sohum Shah, Tabu, Sumit Gulati
Director: Meghna Gulzar
Runtime: 132 min.
Verdict: Adolescence and righteousness abound. Self-patting display of middle class morality. I would much rather prefer not watching Dabanng than not watching films as these.
Genre: Drama, Thriller.

              Let us do a quick roll call. The maid – has a boyfriend. The idiot witness – lives alone. Khempal – lives alone. The driver – lives alone and lusts after Shruti. Kanhaiya (Mr. Gulati) – drinks and lives alone. The security guard – is an insomniac and lives alone. On the other side, all the investigating parties and the primary accused at the end of the film and their near and dear ones and almost everybody in town – including replacement investigator Paul (Mr. Atul Kumar), who has a son, and primary investigator Ashwin Kumar (Mr. Khan) who is essentially gravitating towards his wife Reema (Ms. Tabu) under the guise of a failed marriage (a conceit to essentially underline the romance) – are neck-deep in domestic bliss. Strangely, and this with what can probably only be called a supercut of condescension – the camera recording all the testimonies from all the guards and servants – with its lumping together of “a class/type of people” into one stereotype homogenous lot (a technique that was brought about by Rang De Basanti, and one which probably needs to stop now), the maid’s boyfriend (even the word) comes across as a laughing matter, while Vedant’s (Mr. Shah) reference to his girlfriend is surrounded by no such underlining/quoting and feels matter-of-fact.
Now, here’s what I see around myself. The immigrant problem, or let us say conflict, or, toning down a little bit more, tension, is not one of the id of the migrant trying to run over the family-based values of the existing dominant class, but that the values of the immigrant overwriting the values of the dominant class. It is a conflict between two ways of living which almost inevitably has to peter out because they are essentially clones of each other, for the eager migrant desires the way of living of the dominant class. So as a filmmaker trying to put on the hat of an anthropologist, one can either hint towards this conflict with both parties trying to protect their way of living, or one can choose to completely abandon one party’s point-of-view by labelling it as crass and proceed to spend the humanist juices on the other one. You could argue that there indeed are other flavors on how to go about it, and maybe we, living in a similar urban setting, can probably draw a rather familiar analogy – of families and bachelors (For simplicity, I’ll leave the ladies out of this) living in an apartment complex – to understand them.
So, I have a hot wife, own a nice apartment in the complex, have a grand car and seem to mostly have a lifestyle you can refer to as classy. All assumptions, alright? I have, say three bachelors, living in a neighboring 3 BHK apartment. So I can assume any of the following:
a.      They look at everything I have and envy when me whenever I get out of my house with my hot wife in my nice car wearing classy stuff. They want to one day own such an apartment. They do talk about me whenever they are boozing together on Friday and Saturday evenings, and decorating me with some fine cuss words.
b.      They don’t care about zip. They’re so engrossed in their lives they probably haven’t even noticed me.  
c.      They hate the apartment complex I live in, and they in fact have booked a villa, which they are planning to move into pretty soon after they are done with their individual weddings.
d.      I envy them whenever I see them walking around with their girlfriends, or planning to spend the evening with friends boozing. Also, I compensate by declaring them as nuisance to the complex/society spreading bad examples for the kids.  
e.      Inheriting scenario (a) they think I travel the world – both on vacation tours and onsite trips. And they envy that even at my age I am supremely fit and probably attend plays and film festivals.
f.       Inheriting aspects of scenario (b) (c) and (d), they travel the world, and they attend concerts and they probably plan to attend the French Open next year and FIFA World Cup in Russia. They regularly attend their gymnasium sessions, while I carry my paunch and gastric troubles around.

Again, assumptions. Scenarios, to be strictly taken as figments of fiction for purposes of argument. The point here is that before we begin a scientific study on two set of groups, it needs to be understood what the point of differentiation is we are studying. Is it a set of ideologies, or moral values we are comparing and contrasting? In which case, are we being fooled in any way, for the driving motivation in an urban setting is usually the economy, and economy is predicated on desire and not values. I mean, the whole kit and caboodle around reality principle pleasure principle. Not to get all cheesy on you, but desires unite I and my bachelor neighbors, I guess, and it is probably wrong when a Nepali song is mostly a butt of a joke, while a song shared between Ashwin and his wife assumes romantic duties (quite literally, aapka pyar pyar aur humara pyar sex?). Or that we represent the lower class as leeches gladly feeding on free liquor, or sneaking in friends after night, but we do not get any shots of wife-swapping behavior. What Talvar seems to be indulging in is value-based profiling, and pretty poor examples of it. A cop chews pan and has a funny ringtone and is fat and has trouble bending and is regressive in his outlook. A senior cop mumbles the names. It might all be facts, but the purpose of art is not to list Wikipedia points, but to provide a sense of soul to those points. As Mr. Herzog would put it, a sense of ecstatic truth, if you will. By invoking wife-swapping and not including it the film, admittedly an unbiased take, is indeed judging an act and essentially earmarking it as an act unworthy of the middle-class morality. More importantly, by invoking it from the perspective of the lower class, it is dare I say unintentionally, associating it to a value-system attached with either the “seedy” elements of middle class, or the affluent. And hence committing not to objectivity but righteousness. This is very much the middle-class morality in play, the one that is criticized in The Wolf of Wall Street and Mr. Bay’s masterpiece Pain and Gain, and the manner in which Kanhaiya walks out smiling (one would be reminded of the old villains/rapists of yore who would commit the crime and walk out laughing at the victim, leading them to suicides, in the films of 80s and 90s), you would wonder if these same folks who would shout against death penalty if folks like Kanhaiya, or Mukesh Singh, were on the line.
              And that is primary failure point of Talvar, which is not that it is taking sides, but it probably doesn’t even know it is taking sides. It is further problematic when the only guy in town who is worried about all the liberal jargon – liberty, justice, truth and the whole package – is the principal protagonist, and who mind you, wears a moustache and sunglasses just like the gentlemen in Dabanng, Singham and Rowdy Rathore who had a similar role in their respective societies. Again, the Ms. Gulzar and co. seem to be oblivious of this, but Ashwin Kumar is essentially their representative within the film, a conduit to their voice crying for justice and truth, while they externalize (and even otherify) the world around. Ms. Gulzar, like Mr. Banerjee in Shanghai, isn’t content with showing a corrupted system, she feels the need to express her righteous indignance.

              Which I would not have been so cross with had the righteousness not taken the form of downright condescension (it almost ends up doing that, isn’t it?). Just to underline and capitalize and italicize it all, the film lands a one-two punch – (1) a “discussion” between two teams about what is the pragmatic truth, which mostly ends up being a game of one-upmanship and laughs (no prizes for guessing who wins it hands down) and (2) a dramatic video of the victim and the family. Two words I have here – (1) adolescence, and (2) kitsch. And if you are a film trying to understand the nature of an essentially tragic event, and your high points (at least based on audiences’ response) are a protagonist delivering one-liners and jokes on the Hindi translation of the word missionary, you’re in big trouble my friend. Because, you see, it is just plain wrong, and maybe even borderline narcissist that we seem to be mostly remembering Ashwin, while the victim and the family, seem to walking caricatures of grief mostly pushed to the periphery. Probably fitting that they land in jail while the film celebrates its second tear.       

Sunday, October 18, 2015


Cast (Road Warrior): Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Vernon Wells
Cast (Fury Road): Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult
Director: George Miller
Runtime (Road Warrior): 96 min.
Runtime (Fury Road): 120 min.

              Not all movies do that, I suppose. But the ones that do leave a defining image as a representative of their memory. With Memento, it is a car driving towards an abandoned building while the synthesized score plays in the background. That shot is morning for me, and during mornings when I see cars resting outside houses I am almost always reminded of that moment. That shot is Memento too. I don’t know where is the next movie that does that sort of an encapsulation of itself for me coming from, and I don’t know if my memories are getting so solid that I tend to remember whole bunch of images rather than specific ones. But Mr. Miller’s Road Warrior, which I probably watched during the early 90s, along with its sequel Beyond Thunderdome, did it. It is the U-turn of a truck leaving dust in its wake, and as the overhead shot recedes from it, the music reached a crescendo even when I couldn’t articulate of what a crescendo was. Here it is.

              This image was Road Warrior to me, and I would often go on to cite it as one of my favorite action movies based on this memory alone. I wish I could have shared a Youtube video link, so here it is (An image in a text is somehow much more elegant than a video or a link, don’t you think?). Until I saw it again just a week back, as to understand why I had loved it so much, the chase I mean or whatever I remembered of it, when I wasn’t exactly thrilled by its nitro-boosted version in Fury Road, I was pretty surprised to realize that I had not even remembered the existence of an airborne assistance. All I knew was that there was a truck, there was a road, there were vehicles, and there was a lot of dust around. I think it must have been my first Stagecoach.
              Only for all of that to be broken to pieces. There is not a whole lot of personality to the way the truck runs on the road, and I was hardly stirred. It was good, it was clearly narrated, with a lot of emotional curves I didn’t care for. I watched Fury Road again, and this time I was exhausted. These sort of chase sequences come with a shelf life, because they quite completely forget the psychological spaces any chase contains. Those few moments in The Rover will always be with me. So will Duel. It is not merely because they seem to be minimalist in nature, but because the vehicles and the road are not merely props but tend to bend the psychological nature of space. They shape the narrative, they are actors you see, and their personalities are merely the set up. I am a slow viewer, or at least slower than most of you, and since a chase contains a lot of moving parts I tend to get comfortable only when I know that I can feel my way around those spaces and can even inhabit them. The Rover does that most efficiently, it is a text-book for aspiring filmmakers, and Fury Road and its ilk reduce a chase to blunt information. This happened. Somebody threw harpoons. Somebody cutting. Somebody shot. Somebody looked back. Somebody pressed the gas pedal. Somebody shouted. Somebody jumped. Somebody came under the wheel. Whole lot of information that can at best be classified as entertainment to at best be left at the doors of the multiplex auditorium. But if you are James Cameron, or William Friedkin, or Cheang Pou-soi, or Nicolas Winding Refn, the real movie begins once you exit the parking lot and drive into the night. I think I probably know the reason why that truck U-turn was the only bit I remembered so vividly.
              So let us classify them as stunt movies with non-psychological spaces. Benchmark: The General. A worthy successor in total outrageousness: Fast Five. How do The Road Warrior and Fury Road stack up there? Interestingly, and I only realized this when I watched it this time, The Road Warrior is not even a full blown bloated (yes, this is an early dig at Road Warrior which runs close to 120 min.) action movie. Its best parts are borrowed from the thriller and the horror genres, and a key narrative set-up sequence early on, shot exclusively from a hill, as Max Rockatansky (Mr. Gibson) and The Gyro Captain (Mr. Spence) look at the action unfolding below between a group of settlers with oil and a whole band of marauders, would make both the director and the lover of Rear Window proud. The perspective-shot driven narrative of the sequence not merely elevates the content from the mundane of this happened and that happened sort of filmmaking, which can easily be found on Wikipedia, and rather aligns us with the viewers and their respective moralities without the dull usage of reaction shots. It is near exhilarating to realize that a director is so confident in his economy, to realize that the rape of a woman by marauders is a standard audience-compassion exploitation trope that need not be underlined with close-ups and which rather can be used to establish the principal viewers. Even a movement of the binoculars, our anticipation then as to what our principal character is seeing, and the realization to what has actually caught his attention is, well, pure cinema. The geography here is so smartly and efficiently defined, without ever the need of an overhead (read: objective) shot, that when we see the hill from the settlers’ angle, it almost becomes a reaction shot.  

So, it is quite disappointing when the same filmmaker 35 years later resorts to standard reaction shots as events unfold which are, at their very best, feminism-for-dummies. The wives talk, and Max looks, and Furiosa looks, and they look at each other and all this action-reaction-fest is all very mediocre. So yeah, coming back to the question at the top of this paragraph, The Road Warrior is not so much a stunt movie as much as it is a movie that also contains stunts. And its stunts are expertly done, it is all very clearly choreographed, while not being especially memorable. It is classically done, first by establishing, the overall movement – a truck followed by several other vehicles – via master shots, before giving each member their own shots, and then proceed with each stunt within the whole. There are almost no wasted edits, and there never is any visual clutter. For e.g. Mr. Miller doesn’t provide us any unnecessary and potentially confusing reaction shots of Max driving and looking around, or for that matter anything else, when Wez sneaks in and shoots the Warrior Woman while the mechanic – with whom a romantic interest has been established just a few moments back – is trying to douse the fire on his arms. It is just them, and only when Wonder Woman, who is hanging by the barbed wires on the truck, moves her head in the general direction of the front of the truck, indicating Wez now planning to sneak onto Max, does Mr. Miller provide a shot of Max looking back. A brief video follows:

I do understand that a part of it is borderline melodramatic in a Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana way, but it is all very clear without any unnecessary information to jam our cognitive reactions. Now, look at below piece from Fury Road and you will count many unnecessary reaction shots that cause unnecessary clutter, and I cannot yet understand with any degree of fluidity the emotion behind all those events because I am always so very busy gathering information hurled at me. It is all bytes of action data and if the overall intention was to cause me to feel a sense of chaos, the action here does achieve it. I know there is a lot of action, but for the life of me I can never describe it without adding to it my own imagination and my own order. Nevertheless, do you think it needed so many reaction shots – (1) At least two shots of Furiosa and old woman turning their heads around without giving any valuable emotional cue other than – Oh! (2) Wives screaming? Did it need so many cuts, I think 3, to tell me how the back of the truck pulled the old woman with the rifle? Did it allow me to feel, or at least process, anything other than a very basic this happened, and probably that happened? I think it is mostly no, and Fury Road has quite a lot of unnecessary stuff of this kind.
Pardon the atrocious quality of the video. I tried a lot and VLC just wouldn’t allow me to capture a good clean video. I hope you will fill in the details and understand my point.

I think I now owe myself and you both a clearer distinction between what I refer to in a chase film and what I refer to when I classify a movie as a stunt film. Without wandering much, I’ll just say a chase is mostly about providing the viewer an immersive experience, a psychological one, he/she is not merely following at an informational level. The surrounding space assumes just as much importance. A stunt on the other hand is mostly about conveying information that is exciting and assumes, or in fact reiterates, the divide between the performer and the viewer. In movie terms, during a chase, the screen assumes a greater presence and kind of distances us further, while asking us to care for the performer. Usually, the former involves a lot less of what we would call events and a whole lot more careful construction of spaces, while the latter involves as many events as possible. These events are to register high on three counts – degree of outrage, degree of anticipation and degree of clarity – and mildly high on one – degree of our care for the performer. The General contains a Buster Keaton we love do outrageous stunts with a clarity that is jaw-dropping. Similarly, two cars driving a bank vault on a road is outrageous enough, and it is then topped by a driver using it as a sort of hammer to knock other cars off a bridge (registers very high on anticipation). Total outrage I say, and the movements are clear, and we do care about the bunch. On the other hand, Mr. Cruise does stunts in Rogue Nation we don’t really care for all that much because their outrage is undermined by their lack of clarity.  
All that being said, Fury Road, for all its polecats and flame javelins, mainly lacks a degree of clarity. Just having a huge armada of chase vehicles doing mostly nothing other than provide numbers doesn’t help much. The stunts are mostly done by people we don’t know and we don’t care for, and the result is mostly in-the-moment-very-exciting after-the-moment-forgettable stuff. It is all too crowded, and too many shots from a close range with too many cuts. For e.g. the moment Max almost drops from the truck to Furiosa holding his leg to her being stabbed by somebody who only appears then to somebody smashing him to whatever contains close 12-13 cuts with a camera up-close showing one thing at a time in as many seconds. The fact that Nux (Mr. Hoult) appeared out of nowhere (amidst all the action, I had no idea that Nux was under) to kick Max towards the other truck only registered after 2-3 viewings is somewhat incredible. Intensified continuity, they say, and it spoils a stunt in my book because it contradicts the very nature of it. Action here is merely information we have to merely react to and anticipation (when you read the word, please picture Mr. Ethan Hunt hanging from the ceiling in CIA’s headquarters) is knocked out of the window, and we mostly become dumb terminals.   
It also didn’t help that while I found the Road Warrior terrain cinematic, I had a tough time warming up to the monochromatic cartoonish world of Fury Road. There are a few terrific images, like the one below with its brush stroke feel, but it seems to be in spite of the color code and not because of it.

At the same time, we don’t get too many of these nowadays, do we?

Let us also talk about the openings here a bit then. The Road Warrior was apparently inspired by Carl Jung, and amongst other things, the contradiction between the factual familiar black-and-white images – of the Normandy landing, of industries, of warships – and the quasi-folklore tone of the voiceover, speaking of the black fuel and warring tribes, is amusing and even borderline jarring. There is facts, and there is history, there is cause-and-effect, and there is mythologizing, post which history and culture are mashed in together. As I always like to say, Abraham Lincoln is a vampire hunter, while Batman has a statue in Gotham city hall. It all is caused by a thin image of a posturing Max against the sky – as if a distant memory – and what Mr. Miller does with the form, just as with the perspective-action-scene from atop the hill, makes the whole exercise so very interesting to watch. Especially when it cuts to color and the chase begins.
Fast forward to now, and what does Mr. Miller do with his opening voice-over in Fury Road? Cave into the same mythologizing he was studying in The Road Warrior (Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces). The film opens to your standard-issue hero posturing a man like me who has entered his thirties no longer finds exciting or interesting in anyway.

The hero explains that he has been reduced to a single instinct – survival – and I thought all the wasteland/western movies with typical amoral heroes had already taught us that bit of wisdom. They have also taught us that when the survive-mode is part of the set-up, the complete-human-emotion-spectrum-mode will be part of the pay-off. Unfortunately, Fury Road doesn’t disappoint. Which is sad, because watching The Road Warrior I felt that the people who made it were somehow making an attempt to study the culture around them. Fury Road feels as if the film was made to cater to the nerds who grew up on that film. Mr. Hardy is a great actor, and I take a certain amount of pride when I claim that I was a fan even when he wasn’t all that fashionable. But then, his grunts here are nothing more than over-directed posturing pandering to the macho-baiting section of the audience, and which I believe does undermine the film’s apparent claims at rejecting one flavor of patriarchy while promoting another. Those grunts are inconsistent, and for example the supposed “coolness” around his apparent incomprehension of everyone’s questions as he is washing his face with mother’s milk doesn’t seem to sit very well with the person who shows a great deal more awareness in situations when somebody falls under the wheel, or somebody is heartbroken, or somebody is about to die. Thus posturing, which sort of contrasts heavily with Mr. Gibson’s Max, who is mostly efficient in his ways, and the narrative around whom doesn’t involve a whole lot of post-modern digs at his archetypical nature.         
Which brings me to the whole feminist angle that is probably Fury Road’s trump card. The only thing worse than referring to women as objects is to refer to them as some kind of benevolent deities only capable of compassion and understanding and nothing else. This kind of reverential outlook is merely another form of objectifying them, demanding of them to fit into a certain mold and not wander too much. There are wombs and seeds and milk and when the milk-mothers finally let the water flow freely, I sincerely hoped that the censor board does attach, at least to the television screenings whenever it comes about, those water conservation advertisement that did the rounds on Doordarshan. As I have said elsewhere, Gillian Flynn and her Amy are precious in a way I have been slow to appreciate. You see, in very simple terms, the id here is represented by the leather-clad gentlemen being controlled by the superego represented by Immortan Joe (Mr. Hugh Keays-Byrne), and it is almost condescending to not even extend that simple enough distinction to the women in the fold. For these women, under the psychology profile, you’ll almost want to write N/A.

By amplifying on the scope, Mr. Miller also seems to run himself into a corner, as far as visual storytelling goes. For e.g. when the left-over henchmen from Lord Hummungus’ team in Road Warrior decide to make a U-turn at the end of it all, there is a sense of humanity and calmness, a sense of optimism amidst all the id-fest, that is somewhat moving. If we were to extend that to history, we would probably find parallels in all the nations that chose to withdraw an invasion (forced penetration, if you will) for they finally found themselves tired of the masculinity-size contest. The U-turn they make is slow and tired, a sense of guilt that attaches itself to probably every such penetration (something for Mr. Kim Ki-duk to explore?). Bookended by dissolves (themselves a transition technique that betrays calmness) this further underlines the formal control on display.
Now, if we were to look at the ending in Fury Road, we get absolutely no such narrative insight or formal treatise that engages the losing party. The henchmen aren’t present, for we focus only on Max and Furiosa, and when we reach Citadel, the behavior from the citizenry at large – the exploited people who tear apart Immortan Joe, and the Half-lives who for some strange reason seem to start chanting Furiosa’s name – just seems to be the script imposing itself upon us just as your average Joe libertarian would impose upon you the idea that democracy is the only way forward. Is the half-lives’ faith so thin so as to not even merit a chant of disillusionment? It is quite simply a mess, and I can’t seem to help but suspect that Mr. Miller’s skill just couldn’t handle the scale of the people and narrative. Either that, or auteurism is overrated.   

I will concede here that a part of me is reacting to the reaction the film has received from every which where, and then how can I not. It is not a terrible film and it is not the fourth coming of the Redeemer either. It is just, mostly, uninspired with hardly any bit of filmmaking that is memorable in any way. It has energy sure, and so did Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. And I suppose, we have had enough of that. Let us then bring to our attention the one interesting point of comparison worth having a conversation on: the difference in the titles and their respective designs and fonts. We can rest assured that the forthcoming Star Wars films will contain the exact same design in an attempt to not merely maintain homogeneity but to recreate that same magic, if you will. The titles will be a nod to nostalgia, I suppose. In which case, the title here is interesting which seems to depart generously from its predecessor. That was quintessentially 80s, with its blues and blacks giving the feel of night. This seems to be quintessentially now, with its burning orange. What else? You tell me.