Saturday, July 31, 2010
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron
Director: John Hillcoat
Runtime: 112 min.
Verdict: Your standard issue post apocalyptic drama.
Behind all that tragedy, all that world where the civilization comes crumbling down, all that uber-darkness, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is still a little morality story we heard from parents and teachers and uncles when we were kids. I now look back at them, many of them, like for instance that woodcutter and his axe, and I realize that the essential structure is nothing more than a simple formula – ratchet up the odds and the miseries, and then prove the strength of the morality, and sneak into our minds the resilience expected out of us. I have no problems, like whatsoever, but isn’t there something odd when cannibalism and eating children and rape and suicide and blah and blah are invoked, you know, just to drive home a point? Where exactly does it stop becoming a constructive exercise, and when does it start entering the realms of the immoral? A blatant exercise in manipulation? I mean, I do acknowledge that darkness is an important part of humanity, but then its importance is best served when we realize that we are rooting for Hannibal Lecter, not when we’re shouting and blaming the Nazis in Schindler’s List. "They" is easy. "I" is tough. And I guess, "I" is art. I wouldn’t want to be too snarky here, but one of the reasons Christopher Nolan is so rare is that his characters are all about questioning themselves, and invariably are the negative people within their worlds. And that is a most honorable trait in an artist.
The Road, much like its source, is relentless alright. There are wide expansive shots of the desolation around. Obligatory shots. Every post-apocalyptic world uses them in abundance. Studios ought to keep a stock of them to save down on costs in the future. The Man (Mr. Mortensen) and his boy (Mr. McPhee) wade through it, day and night. It all feels cyclical, and one might even feel that The Road intends for us to feel the difficulty of every step they make. Noble intentions, I say. A tragedy as this ought to be relentless. It should be horrific. It should test us, test our spirits, and do its all to submit us into resignation. If this is a film about that fire that burns within us, that fire of humanity the film speaks of, then it ought to be put to the sword. This is a huge subject, a huge test, and I believe the film doesn’t have any idea whatsoever the enormity of what it is talking. All it has is an idea, and it is packaging it in shorthand.
I often imagine post apocalypse as one big void. A void of space, and a void in time. Nowhere to go, or maybe everywhere to go. The thing is, such a world wouldn’t have an edit. A jump in time, here, is a mistake. Oh, I absolutely agree with the commercial aspects of it, but I also absolutely detest the moral aspects of it. You see, I am not sure if simply telling us about a father and a son lost in this infinite wilderness, where any direction could spiral downwards, without any real endeavor to make us feel what they are going through, is entirely right. Watching The Road, I felt myself equipped with a bourgeois gaze, watching the two poor souls slogging through their lives, there, outside of the window, and I filling gradually but surely with pity. If I wanted to feel good about myself and shed a few tears, the film obliged me with a solemn background score. And that entire exercise filled me with disgust. Imagine yourself sitting in a packed auditorium. Imagine a film showing the misery of two people. Imagine the audience pitying the two people, and even crying. Imagine you walking out. Imagine the remarkable awfulness of this little situation. I don’t think it is too far from gladiatorial games, where they say (or as Gladiator said) folks were killed? Imagine it all playing to a sad music.
And let me tell you, dear reader, there’s a reason why The Road flopped. I’m not sure we want empty exercises in celebrating-humanity-triumph-against-all-odds. I might’ve raised questions that might seem absurd in the commercial world of filmmaking, but movies work on experiences. The Road, for all its misery, has a certain neatness to it that renders it a completely bland experience. There’s not much by way of imagination when it comes to the evil we’re capable of, and instead it resorts to clichéd depictions of Oh! The horror. Every hour of everyday in the world depicted is a test. Little food. Cold. Rains. The same companion. A film just cannot shorthand through such situations, through little scenes showing the misery, and then cutting to the next scene. These moments ought to be prolonged so much so that they feel present. When Mr. Gibson made us feel every lash of every whip in The Passion of the Christ, I greatly admired the devout passion behind his relentlessness. He wasn’t shortchanging violence, and I’m not sure if he really scored any middlebrow points. Whether that was truth, it is open for debate, but I guess somebody took the pains to unsettle the audience and make them feel, even for a moment, what the stakes really are. I greatly admire Mr. Noe’s bare audacity of the rape sequence in Irreversible. That, right there, if not anything else, is effective filmmaking.
Mr. Hillcoat, who’s The Proposition I greatly admire, ought to know that a drama set in a post-apocalyptic world does not, under any circumstance, warrant a background score. More so not a film like this one here, whose very calling card is a desolate world. A background score always fills the gap within your mind. It is meant to provide closure, sort the deal out with your emotions. A standard score is a cue to a standard feel. A solemn piano is a cue to string your heart. The Man’s memories are filled with images of his wife (Ms. Theron) playing the piano. I wonder if that is the music The Man would feel in his heart and mind in that barren world? Isn’t The Road, behind all its destruction, really about a goddamned cliché?
Posted by Satish Naidu at 10:32 AM
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Cast: Rajat Barmecha, Ronit Roy, Aayan Boradia, Manjot Singh
Director: Vikramaditya Motwane
Runtime: 150 min. (citation needed)
Verdict: A beautiful little film, and a rare film, that carries neither rebellion nor revolution in its heart, but honor.
Early on in Udaan, the two close buddies, Rohan (Mr. Barmecha) and Maninder (Mr. Singh) share a private moment within the woods of Shimla. It is a moment given to silence, moments you remember crystal clear years after. Rohan lets out a little poem, and Maninder listens. The poems ends, the silence continues. A moment of uncomfortable silence within a moment of comfortable silence. Beat. Beat. Beat. This is the exact kind of sequence where you want the filmmaking to pause, and let the scene live and breathe on its own. A still frame, just reflecting. Udaan doesn’t do that, and instead causes a little edit for every beat. In that little moment, you feel the filmmaking is intruding, is making itself felt rather than leaving us alone with it. To create such a moment filled not with melodrama, but naked emotions tells you this is a film given to compassion, to specifics, to life. And to intrude it tells you it is aware of the little nuances of a moment, and it feels the need to convey every little aspect of it.
Rohan and Maninder have been expelled from their prestigious boarding school, courtesy a late night run-off session at the local sleazy theatre with Kanti Shah’s Angoor. Rohan, with his big black trunk, finds himself in Jamshedpur, his old house, and his dad’s house. The house has stairs, and after having spent eight years in the boarding school, Rohan pulls that big black trunk of his up those stairs. We all know how heavy luggage feels like, especially when directed upwards, and Udaan feels the pain when he pulls it up the first flight. It cuts. To him pulling on the second flight. Is the moment undermined, or is the film just doesn’t have the heart to watch the whole thing. I don’t know, but I guess you got to be tough to pull your stuff, however high that might be. Such questions are repeated, throughout the film, slowly peeling layers off it.
Udaan is a story of such moments, tender moments, sweet moments, dramatic moments, moments that are wondering if they’ve been scripted out of movies or reality, moments that plain break your heart. And moments filled with such claustrophobic frustration you want to just punch your way through the screen into its world and bang the hell out of its obstinacy only to realize that it is not. Obstinate. Much later into the movie, Rohan tries to start his father’s rickety old Contessa Classic, that first dud out of Hindustan Motors, and it doesn’t. He tries, he tries again, and he tries again. Often, in such situations, where a piece of machinery doesn’t follow your commands, a certain stubbornness takes over your self. You just want to bend the machine. He starts, and he starts, and it doesn’t. He just picks up a rod and beats it mercilessly. In there, within that moment, you want to grab a rod too, and beat the hell out of it. The glass sure does break, but does the car? The narrative suggests, through a cop, that it is better if a new car is bought. I don’t know if the suggestion was in light of it being a Contessa, but I felt the car stand quite resolutely. The glass breaks, sure, a few dents, sure, but is it the scene of total destruction/annihilation one desires? Or is it like banging your head against a wall in total disgust? I saw the car stand there, made of iron. I think that little moment, ever so subtly, serves as a synecdoche to Rohan’s life.
My brother would often remark that Contessa Classic was a poor man’s version of that first Mercedes Benz’s car we saw in India. I don’t remember the name, but to the eyes of an impressionable little kid it felt true. Forgive me my silly prejudices. And supply me the name of that Merc. And if my brother was true, it has to be one of my earliest trysts with pretension. That Contessa is owned by Bhairav Singh (Mr. Roy), and the broad royal framework of the car is just the choice for the man. He is best described as, well, let us just say he worships patriarchy. He is tough. Raises his kids tough. Wakes them up in the morning. Compels them to jog with him, while he jogs chest held high. He smokes, and he drinks. He wears black sunglasses that accentuate his stern look. You might believe this is a completely masculine world, where even the most fleeting appearance of sentiment might be struck down and ridiculed as weakness and feminine. Gender bias is a given just as day and night are. Several films run through your mind. All those films which had the same basic desire at their heart – to be deemed worthy in the eyes of the patriarch.
I think, deep down, Udaan starts along the same lines too. There’s a little kid on the house, Rohan’s younger brother Arjun, barely six years old, and he is given no special treatment either, the wisdom of the house being that if you’re born with your own set of angoor, you better be prepared to be rough and tough, and walk around like an archetypical definition of a male. Udaan intrudes this little world, not merely as a voyeur, but as a perspective of the son, the perspective of the guarded. It sure doesn’t leave any room for us to attach our observations on the poetries and ironies of life. We are, by intercutting, by over-the-shoulder shots made aware that what goes around comes around, and what comes around goes around. You are a child, sure son, but to someone, you are a guardian. There is a little movie in there, yeah, but then little Arjun is so tiny and so innocent your heart completely breaks for him.
Traditional movie wisdom teaches us that stern fathers are most typically gels on the inside, waiting to be discovered. That’s romanticism for you. Rohan thinks so too. And he stays there silently and honorably protesting, caged by honor, to peel it all away and discover his father. Ah, honor! Father! Such magical words for a son. Honor might be the most noble of all masculine emotions. You might love or hate your son, or your father, but deep down honor guides your actions towards them. In art, sure, because in life too. That romantic notion that sons grow up to be their fathers is because that honor plants the seed of respect. You want to be deemed honorable too, and your heart desires that respect. That honor is what Rohan seeks, and Udaan is a beautiful film not because it has it all pre-figured, but because Rohan realizes the truth, moment by moment, much later than we in the audience have realized (probably because our old man is not on the screen but at home), that his little journey is not a road to discovery but a gradual path to realization. You should experience it.
My friend reminded of another movie, incidentally set in Bihar (this one is set in Jharkhand), where there is absolute absence of women. That was Matrubhoomi. In Udaan there’s no mother in the house, and for that matter there are no women in the film. Oh, but that doesn’t mean there’s absence of the feminine, or sole prevalence of the masculine. There’s a moment towards the end when Rohan, deciding to leave the house, runs away while his father chasing him. It is almost a thrilling chase sequence. But it isn’t the final shot. Because running is not supposed to. Not in my eyes. And the film surprised me, and pleased me how it ended. With an action infinitely more honorable than running away, and an idea placed within Bhairav’s brain. I tell you, you would be pleased too.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
Cast: Leonardo Di Caprio, Joseph Gordon Lewitt, Tom Hardy, Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard, Sir Michael Caine
Director: Christopher Nolan
Runtime: 148 min.
Verdict: As Stephanie Zacharek says, it is an awesome film. That doesn’t mean, it is a great film. Because it isn’t.
Genre: Sci-fi, Thriller, Action
Inception is the kind of clever Hollywood film that inspires (or maybe conspires?) us to be dumb. It like those fantastic Hollywood blockbusters, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, like Star Wars, like Goldfinger, which treats an audience not like a set of individuals but as a singular entity, say cattle, who have no purpose bringing their individuality to the film. There is nothing in the film to which we can attach our personality to, our memories to, our experiences to, or our dreams to. Even the people caught up within the lies of The Matrix would have had a more individual world created for them. Movies are grand, and movies are dreams, not because they are big, or because they are a spectacle, but because we experience something personal in them. Lord of the Rings sure as hell looks stunningly spectacular, like wow, but you wouldn’t want to have it on a deserted island. Great movies do that to us, to each of us, so that when we sit and talk about it, not sharing a common memory, but discussing an individual experience.
So, yes, I wonder if Inception, the most intricately designed movies to come in years, if not decades, a design so outrageously labyrinthine yet so remarkably clear, is a great film. It is a great vaudevillian act, and there are no questions to be asked there. Any doubts ought to be sealed and shut real tight somewhere by the very simple fact that the ending frame has every member of every audience in every part of the world unite, having the exact same thought, and wanting the exact same outcome, and wanting it most desperately. That, dear reader, is audience manipulation of the highest kind, the evidence that we are witnessing a craftsman, an illusionist the likes of which cinema has probably never witnessed. Alfred Hitchcock might have been proud, sure, but I wonder if I really give a damn. What bothers me is what have I felt and experienced that my neighbor didn’t. And if the answer to that is nothing, which it increasingly seems is the case, then does that make Inception a lesser film? Or a greater one? I ask you.
Hey wait a minute there, one of you might stand up saying, and argue that your interpretation of Inception is different from your friend’s, or mine, and that it doesn’t make us dumb because it makes us think. And I would reply, step back dear, and just wonder what exactly we mean by interpretation here, and what are we exactly interpreting. We are just making heads or tails of the story, after maybe one viewing, because the narrative is just so overwhelming with information. In most puzzles we’re connecting the dots. In Inception, we’ve not even assembled all the dots. It is narrated most lucidly alright, appealing and engaging even the lowest of denominators, a no mean feat, but it is still is very much like listening to an audio book. You see, I have never understood the purpose of an audio book. In a book, you often re-read a beautiful sentence. Re-reading is a part of the experience, part of the little imaginary world that creates around us. In an audio book, rewinding breaks that experience, and we feel silly.
And oh, I might’ve been guilty of using the word dumb in a rather casual manner. But believe me, I don’t use it in any derogatory sense. We are dumb in the sense that we’re dumb terminals. We are students in a class. I don’t have many fond memories of my college, or many that intellectually stimulated me, but I do regard Professor Shashank Joshi in the highest regard. He taught us Metallurgy, and that infamous Iron-Carbide diagram, and he taught it with such authority and interest, we just listened. I remember that day. I don’t make notes, and I don’t even have a notepad handy on me. Often not even a pen. And Prof. Joshi’s command on the subject discouraged any such distracting activity as taking down notes. I listened, we listened, awestruck. Often the topic of that graph is taught over several periods. He taught us in one go. One hour flat. In there, it all made absolute sense. I return in the evening, sit down and discuss, and to consolidate within our minds this most difficult and important (MImp) topic. And as it turns out, we’ve no clue whatsoever. The lecture was simple dense, or maybe, we were just too dumb. Whichever the case, I guess you get the point. And as for the iron-carbide diagram, it is merely a diagram you see, with temperatures and physical states, and nothing else to it. Absolutes might be the word we’re looking for. Given enough time to revise and revisit, I think most of us in that classroom would’ve been just about as clear in the details as Prof Joshi himself. The fact of the matter is, for all its fascination, it didn’t, even for a moment, feel like the day I first read Kabuliwaala in Bal Bharati and cried inconsolably. I still think Tagore might have been a bit cruel there.
As usual I digress. Are we really thinking during Inception? Are our analytical skills being tested, or is it a test of our attention span? Or retention prowess? Inception is about a new world, and its rules, but it speaks so fast you really are catching up all the time. Does it relax for you to assimilate? I don’t think so. It is all straightforward, actually, but the sheer volume of it is overwhelming. You know the broad strokes, and you know the direction of the flow, and you know that the journey feels fun, and you ride along. I don’t think many audience members asked each other questions, and if somebody indeed did, I am sure he must have been shushed in the most disdainful manner. Dude, I have a movie to understand here. Brb. Ttyl.
You might rebuke me saying the dude didn’t get the movie. Of course I didn’t. At least, I cannot answer plot resolutions. I have only watched it once. I am confused. I don’t recollect much. I know I had absolute fun. I know I was with the movie for most of the part. I know I had absolutely no idea how time flew by. And this is exactly how I wanted to analyze the film. In this state. Repeated viewings shall surely help, but then, tell me dear reader, would I find anything in the film that I wouldn’t find in an eventual Wikipedia plot summary. Everything, I suspect, is certain. Absolute. Every image seems to have one purpose, and one purpose only. A singular tone. I don’t think most of my dreams make any damn sense in a logical way. Ah, but as it says, they do make sense while I am there. I am not questioning the strangeness of any of it. Unlike most dream movies, like Mulholland Dr., like Inland Empire, like Last Year At Marienbad which are not dream movies but the recollections of a dream and hence do not make any sense while they are happening, Inception feels like a dream, where we have absolute comprehension, and in that moment we feel we’re with the game. So yes, Inception, make no mistake, is a fascinating film. In its own way, it is as interesting a film as the Resnais classic. I don’t think such a film has ever been made. Or maybe it has, and it was called The Big Sleep. It is fascinating in how Mr. Nolan, a real brilliant and smart guy, and I am sure someone who seems to have a real high IQ, uses the conventional editing in cinema, where cuts picks us from one place, and drops us to somewhere else, and gives a reason to it too. Every CUT TO: here is invaluable to the plot, because if it is a CUT TO: then it is a dream. Even a damn explosion has a reason. That is the level of plot-detailing done.
I think it might become an instant audience-classic, a movie of the people, an ambitious film the once in a decade sort of thing, like The Matrix, which I believe, doesn’t even come close in audience manipulation. There is a heist scene which is bound to become as iconic a sequence as any ever filmed. Wise studio executives should be strategizing how to make spin-offs, comic books and, if you come to think of it, a sequel to two too. Inception is like those Bourne movies, or the Ocean movies, or those Rambo movies, or even the Indiana Jones movies, where you can manufacture a stake – like those kids are kidnapped by the score in part 1, or the dad, or someone rats out in a bar – and bang, you have a reason for a sequel. I think it is time that I tell you that the plot involves a bunch of dream-cons who specialize in stealing secrets from your dreams, and who’re hired to go plant a idea in a mark. I would love that too. It is like Rififi had Tony and Jo not met tragic fates. I think Jules Dassin in Hollywood would have been making a sequel.
But then, I am not awed. My imagination sure has a great idea, thank you very much Mr. Nolan, and the movie he planted in my head and one that is infesting my brain seems to be becoming a way cooler movie. And I have already changed a lot of it. For instance, I do not get why is there a need to spend $200 million behind all that redundant architecture in Inception’s Marienbad (wink wink, clue clue). You mean to say our imaginations build something like that? Oh I do appreciate Paris restructuring itself into a reflection of itself, but long lines of buildings and bridges and water and houses in them is all we’re capable of? Or maybe, I suspect, giving Mr. Nolan the benefit of the doubt, that the infinite wall I saw in one of my dreams might seem an odd image now, but if strenuously explained would become trivial and ordinary. So yeah, there you go, Inception conjures up some beautiful odd dream images, and then strenuously explains them.
And so much of it is redundant, and flabby. There are antagonists within the dreams, who are nothing but the bad guys, and they are sitting ducks waiting to be shot, much like those millions of guys Arnold Schwarzenegger shot in Commando. There are no stakes, there is no thrill, and it made absolutely no sense. Guys are shot, wham bam, and I couldn’t have cared less. It was incomprehensible too. You see, in our dreams, we sure do not have visual access to all the action, but we do automatically know what’s happening. It’s mysterious in there, fantastical. I might be running and talking and I might suddenly realize I am a dog all along. That is not the case with Inception. It is exact. It is precise. It is to the point, a logical and mathematical equation. It is a real sweat and blood film, so skillfully designed, yet there is little beauty to it. Mr. Nolan, unlike most filmmakers, is someone with completely masculine aesthetics and tastes who appreciates melodrama but has absolutely no idea how to achieve it. He has so much of it already figured out. He is logical, he is calculative, and most importantly he is a guy. He is honorable, and the way he deals with his characters is such a pleasure. There are no villains in a Nolan film. You empathize with all of them, and you wouldn’t believe who made me well up in Inception. I hear the plot benefited from Mr. Caprio’s contribution. I can see it where, and I can see how it is the most bloated aspect of it. Mr. Nolan is a smart guy, probably more smart then you and me put together, and I think his brains can conjure up something amazing every time. He is a real smart filmmaker, and his native and instinctive understanding of cinema is much smarter and subtler than most of us. He has to have logic for everything, and here with the big studios, there seems to be an obligatory tone to his films’ more blockbuster like quality. The best parts of Inception come from within him, and had it been his first film, made independently, I can stick my neck on a railway track and say it would have been one of the greatest achievements ever. The real Rififi Part Deux. But not here. He strains to be a Michael Bay or a Steven Spielberg or a James Cameron and he just doesn’t have it in him. His filmmaking is not about images. He is unique, because he is about a feel. You walk out of his films, and you remember only fleeting images, but you have a strange eerie feeling inside of you. In many ways, he is the subtlest most un-flamboyant director ever, someone who doesn’t have it in him to show-off (like Kubrick did with most of 2001), and I respect that. He scarcely believes in a wide shot. Most of his images are personal, medium shots. His films seldom observe, they happen. The big buildings are not what I would remember a decade from now. It is that spinning top, or the tilted water in that glass. I can’t get them out of my head. They are eerie, unsettling. That is his aesthetic, and that is the kind of incredible genius Christopher Nolan stands for. He never used slow-mo in his life, and here he is using it extensively, because there’s just pure logic flowing through his veins. He can think real big, but I wonder if he can truly imagine. Imagine like a fool. Dream like a fool. Like me and you. Okay, just me.
Addendum: I’ve watched the film a second time, and I seem to make sense of it all a whole lot more. I find my early opinion quite solid, yet there are vast areas of the film we need to explore. Analyze it on its own terms, and not for what we want it to be. A little essay comes for you. As for the big question, I think I have already given the answer in my review. I find that the second viewing only confirms. And if you want a clue, I only give one – those old men dream somewhere, somewhere below. I suspect, I really do suspect now, that Christopher Nolan has created what several filmmakers before him, and several after, have only tried to. It is a labyrinth, and remember, within a labyrinth, you always feel that you have a way out. Always.
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Cast: Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz
Director: James Mangold
Runtime: 109 min.
Verdict: A most important movie to analyze movie criticism of our times. And the gender politics of movies in general. And a most charming romantic adventure
Genre: Romance, Action, Adventure
A friend walks out of the Sunday morning show, calls me, and says Knight and Day is typical Hollywood fun with lots of actions and wit thrown into the grinder, along with two stars, or judging by the box office fate of the movie, two actors who were stars. A cursory scroll through the reviews down at Rotten Tomatoes, and you wouldn’t be blamed for believing that this is just another globe-trotting romantic-comedy-action-flick. Which it is. Barring of course the “just another” part, which I realize as I watch the movie a few hours later, and wonder how skewed the gender-equation is in our movies, in them and behind them, and how shallow and inconsistent some of the film criticism is. I feel the inconsistency might be because we’re all hardwired to be conservative, and true empathy is not a natural involuntary reflex; rather it is an emotion that causes a certain bit of inner conflict and hence a certain degree of effort. Empathy, unlike most other emotions, is quite purely a cerebral exercise. But then, philosophy ought to be for another day, and tonight it is the hard facts of our movies.
And I am reminded of Manohla Dargis’ essay in the NYTimes about women in Hollywood. And I search if she reviewed the film, and instead find one of those atypical A.O. Scott redundant reviews. I search for reviews by other critics, female critics, and I stumble upon Victoria Alexander’s love letter. And in the process, I even manage to find this (you need to scroll down, or preferably word-search the title), which I believe is the best summation of the film, though I have no idea if the critic is a male or a female. Of course, the hope that female critics would offer me a deeper insight leads me nowhere, and I am no closer to finding external justification of my analysis of the film.
Still it stays, because, believe me dear reader, there is complete evidence to it that Knight and Day is best described as a feminine fantasy, much like the Twilight films. The fantasy is much the same, the ages might differ, for it is not necessary that only teenagers have teenage fantasy. Yet we do not see the same disdain and vitriol. I wonder. Maybe that is because The Twilight Saga is quite obvious, and quite obvious for two reasons – (a) the gender of the author (b) the subject (vampires and women). Knight and Day is not. James Mangold directs it, that wonderful filmmaker behind that male-driven western masterpiece 3:10 to Yuma, where the feminine vulnerabilities of a man are ripped out open. Patrick O’Neill is the screenwriter. It has loads of action. Bikes and cars tumbling and jumping. Explosions. Quite a handful of them. It indeed fits the billing of your summer action blockbuster.
But only on the outside. Think of the thrilling romantic capers the Bill Paxton character sells to desperate housewives in True Lies. And, for a moment, think of the demographic that watches Daniel Craig walk out of the sea, and would fantasize about a tryst with the superspy. And reader, Mr. Cruise, has enjoyed the luxury of a female fan following that most actors, including Mr. Pattinson, would be much envious of. And much like Collateral, which opens to the image of the instrument of fate than the fateful subject himself, Knight and Day sees Roy Miller (Mr. Cruise) walk through an airport looking for potential female passengers for, well, something. He picks up a Burger King toy, a little knight, and “accidentally” bumps into June Havens (Ms. Diaz). And from then on, Ms. Havens has little to no idea what ride she has signed up for.
This makes for a fantastic setup for an action-thriller, but, despite the wham-bham, this is fairly and squarely the story of a woman, and the fantasy-adventure she is on. That is because the wham-bham is almost never the point. We’re thrust into all those action scenes from the perspective of June Havens, and as far as I can recollect, almost none of them seem to have a suitable ending to them. June walks into them, and when she runs away, or faints, we are disconnected too. Even with the wonderfully pleasurable climactic bike-car-bull chase, the thrill of the action is almost never the point; it is all about the fantastic adventure and the pleasure of its romance. The action scenes are just a backdrop. You see, there is a significant difference between, say a film like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, where the woman is nothing but a manifestation of a male fantasy, and this one here, where the female is very much a simple average Mrs. Joe. Mind you, she isn’t a verifiable damsel in distress either, another male fantasy manifestation. June is just, well, a woman, caught in the ride with a gorgeous man, who is more importantly a charming guy. As my wife would address it, the combination is just, well, irresistible.
And here is further evidence, and how the idea that first strikes me 15 minutes into the film, gradually consolidates into a theory, and then into an analysis. The opening action scene is set within an airplane, and strictly speaking, is from neither’s perspective, where Roy shoots bad guys as June changes and redecorates herself in the restroom. In hindsight the scene confuses me.
But let us go on. Pilots die, and Miller is forced to take upon the reins. And just as the plane crash-lands in some remote farm, Havens lets out a groan. Or a moan. The sound mixing is most deliberate. And then the preceding imagery strikes me. Dear reader, I might be last person to ever bring this up, because I hate symbols in any medium. Yet, the plane feels like a phallic symbol, and just as it thrusts the boundaries of the frame, the groan makes itself heard. A theory was born, and I wondered if this is what the case is.
And the movie ensues. And I see the damnedest thing. Knight and Day, as it goes along, starts to sacrifice action sequences, just to confirm to Haven’s perspective. It runs away from one. It faints in another. A glorious montage has her drugged and change from one of transport to another, as a beeping sound in the background brings a most romantic feel. And the climax, where a June, drugged with truth serum, quite outrightly wonders if sex between her and Miller would be extraordinarily fantastic. This is where the film drinks the truth serum too, and brings out the feelings hitherto hidden under the layer, right into the daylight. It is quite marvelous.
You see, Knight and Day feels like Charade, feels like It Happened One Night, feels like Notorious, but from the perspective of the female. And that is what I believe is the cause of the film’s conception, where one might come to the conclusion that it is an inversion of Mr. Cruise’s very own MI2(a remake of Notorious itself). Is the film secretly paying homage by this inversion, I don’t know, but the cinematography very much feels like it. June wakes up with an upside down view of the world, much like Ingrid Bergman. In a glorious scene, where June’s face is studio-lit, we see them driving around in the night, gliding as if in those reverse projections, only to reveal a fantastic movie-moment. So yeah, we almost have no idea about Miller, and to his intentions. We only trust him to be the good guy. There are moments where the film seems absolutely incoherent, and as if on auto-pilot, and the sequence do not seem to be well thought out and executed. I am referring to the scenes in Austria and at Miller’s parents house, and I say dear reader, it is one of the most brilliant flashes of subjectivity acquired by a movie I have seen in a while. Ms. Havens is confused, and her mind is digesting this fantasy ride much as we process a dream, where we glide from one moment to the next, with not much sense. That is what it is, Knight and Day glides.
Oh, I might be making this sound like a great movie. I think that is immaterial. Rather, Knight and Day, much like films of The Twilight Saga, is an important film not for what it is, but what it represents. Within its inherent contradictions, where a male filmmaker is trying to somehow hit upon the notes of a feminine fantasy, it challenges the predominantly masculine tastes, notions, verdicts, aesthetics that so staunchly drive our movie-going sensibilities. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is a great film, while the Twilight films are trivial ones. I pick up the Sergio Leone masterpiece, because reader, it is one of my favorite movies ever, and yet I know there cannot be another film so utterly drenched in the fantasy of cinema. It might even be a shallow film, considering it has little to do with human nature. Or is it that, within its masculine aesthetics, it harbors something so profoundly true, that it pampers everyone from Quentin Tarantino to our fathers to us? But I show it to my wife, and I double dare you, she would be caught snoring one quarter of the way. And if she doesn’t, by god, something ought to be wrong. I ask of you, why is a James Bond movie (pick any) better than any of the three Twilight films? I ask only to start a discussion, where we ascertain if much of our criticisms are derived by honest means, and not just trivializing others’ viewpoints. So yes, I ask, what is so wrong with any of the Twilight films? It might be pitifully ridiculous in its worshipping of the male body, the objectification of a male as a thing of beauty, but then, how many times do we even see it happen? Woman in the Dunes is a great film I have never seen, but intend to for that very reason. Why then, a film as cheerful, as sprightly, as happy-go-lucky, and as frivolous as Knight and Day be imposed such harsh reviews just because it harbors ambitions of a film made with a completely feminine aesthetic, and one which although might be charmingly mediocre, intends to pamper a certain kind of feminine fantasy? It also is a wonderfully ambitious film, because not only is it satisfied with being part of the fantasy, like Bella Swan, but it intends to be an object of fantasy too. So seriously tell me, look up at the picture above, and think – wouldn’t you be want to be the one holding Tom Cruise real tight? And it is the movies where we all come to realize these fantasies, don’t we?