Monday, October 25, 2010

Nargis (1929-1981) and Mother India (1957)

Nargis with screen love Raj Kapoor.

A short entry about the probably most famous (and best - and beautiful) actress of Hindi cinema, Nargis. She was born in Calcutta, India and made her film debut as a child in a little film called Talashe Haq (1935, does not seem like there's much information about it), and again as a 13 year old in another obscure film called Tamanna (1942).

However, Raj Kapoor entered her life with his pencil mustache, and the two became an unbelievably popular silver screen couple in India. If you get the chance, see Awaara (The Vagabond, 1951) - it's a lovely, easily watchable and entertaining film directed by co-star Raj Kapoor. Apparently, Nargis and Kapoor's on-screen romance was not only make-believe, but we all know how neighbors chatter.

Nargis and Raj Kapoor in Awaara.

Nargis and Raj Kapoor in Shree 420 (1955).

Nargis appeared in many Indian films, until the three hour epic Mother India (1957). There she met her co-star Sunil Dutt, and fell in love with him after having been rescued by him from a fire that broke loose on the set. Heroic and romantic! After Mother India and becoming Mrs. Nargis Dutt, she did not appear in many more films. She died of pancreatic cancer in Bombay, India in 1981.

Nargis, Sunil Dutt and children.

Dutt plays her son in the film, but they are the same age. I watched Mother India in school today, and it's easy to understand why it is called the "Indian Gone With the Wind". We follow a young woman, Radha (Nargis), from the day she gets married until she has grandchildren and then some. Like Gone With the Wind portrayed the harsh life during the Civil War, Mother India shows the hardships of farming, raising children, failed crops and dying children. And an egoistic (but handsome) husband, who after losing both his arms in an accident walks out on his family out of humiliation. Radha is left to care for her three children by herself, and suck up to an evil moneylender that takes advantage of the poor farmers' illiteracy.

As Radha in Mother India.

I had to process the film for a few hours before I could say that it was quite amazing. It was a big deal when it was made too, and it was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category.

However, there are some strange cuts in the film, that I can't explain. It was the same with Awaara, but that one had been brutally cut by some nutty American that obviously did not see the film before he handled the scissors. In the case of Mother India, I have to either believe that 1) They did not think continuity editing was that important in Indian cinema, 2) The copy was damaged and pieced together best they could, or 3) Another nutty editor should be relieved of his cutting duties.

There is also the culture clash that makes it hard for me to adjust to the thing where they throw in songs in deeply depressing scenes, but I am willing to try to get used to it. For some reason, the songs are seldom bad. They're quite pleasant, actually.

Back to studying!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sweetie (1989)

Director: Jane Campion
Australia 1989
97 min
Starring: Karen Colston, Geneviève LemonTom Lycos and Michael Lake, among others.

Opening shots.

Once again, I have been happily surprised by a film I had neither heard of nor intended to see. Sweetie is Piano (1993) director Jane Campion's feature film debut, and a popular analyzing subject among feminist film scholars. It was filmed in New South Wales in Australia, and for some reason not a hit at the box office. But being a non-mainstream film that couldn't care less about classic narration, it might just be understandable.

The sign followed by gentle love making.

The film centers around a peculiar woman named Kay (Colston) and the more or less socially retarded people around her. In the beginning of the film an elder woman tells her fortune in tea leaves, telling her that an influential man with a question mark in his face will be the love of her life. Kay finds him at work, recently engaged to a female co-worker, and somehow manages to convince him to go with her instead. You know, the spirits and the flipping of coins tell them so. They make out in a garage and then stay together.

The man, Louis (Lycos in his only film role) and Kay move in together, but their relationship starts failing. He romantically plants a tree in their garden, "an anniversary tree", but Kay has nightmares about it. She rips it from the ground and stuffs it into a closet.

Co-workers showing their dislike, and the unexpected visit from a crazy sister.

Thus far, everything strange with this movie is highly comical in a dark way, but when Kay's mentally disturbed sister breaks into her house with a drugged producer (Lemon and Lake as Sweetie and Bob) the film starts to dig into a deeply dysfunctional family. What lies in their past is only hinted in subtle actions and reactions, and as we meet the sisters' parents there is no doubt that something is not right.

Still, the ruthless humor remains and is accompanied by stunning visuals. Artistic color schemes make some scenes look almost dream like, and the diagonal staging of people and objects function as a metaphor for a polished surface on rotten ground.

I loved Sweetie (the film, that is - I wanted to kick the character in the face). There's a nice Criterion Collection edition to buy. Only $32. Humph.

Daddy visits, Sweetie falls deeper into insanity and Kay seems uncomfortable.

Attempt to serious talk about Sweetie in a restaurant,
and said person becoming aggressive.

Diagonals in the staging.

Arranged blocking, tense dialog and smooth color schemes -
this film remind me of Roy Andersson.

Broken horsies!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

International cinema: Australia and New Zealand

I'm currently taking a course about cinema history from the 1960's onward - and Gloria almighty, there's a lot! Studying film was much easier and reviewable in the silent era, when there were Hollywood, some cool and artsy German films, Swedish films with a lot of snow, Italian over-the-top historical epics and some Soviet propaganda.

When studying cinema was an easy task.
The Phantom Carriage (Sweden, 1921) and Battleship Potemkin (Soviet Union, 1925).

But after the 1960's every damn underdeveloped country had their own cinema movements, and suddenly there is a hell of a lot to study! Of course, it's wildly interesting too. Last week I watched a Senegalese bisexual version of Carmen, to mention something.

Tomorrow we are going to watch House of Flying Daggers (2004) in the context of Oceanian cinema, and since I thought that the director's previous effort Hero (2002) was visual mastery with a plot that was as fun as watching the grass grow in slow motion... well, it will probably be a nice morning.

Anyway. What I just came to think about while reading about films from Oceania, is that there is a hell of a lot of international cinema that most people have seen without probably thinking too much about it. Perhaps it's just my own interpretation, but it is almost like one expects all movies at the theaters to be Hollywood productions, since it's the standard. Therefore, I thought about writing some posts highlighting special "waves" of cinema from countries other than the USA, that have reached a great audience that not only consists of cinephiles. Well, a brief overview at least. Now: Australia and New Zealand.

Feel free to mention which of these films you have seen, and if I should have mentioned anyone in the context!

Australian cinema started to flourish in the late 1970's and early 1980's, and historical epics was a popular subject. What you might have seen in that category is a young Mel Gibson in the Word War I drama Gallipoli (1981). But wait, don't we need more Mel Gibson? Who can get tired of a drunken antisemitic Don Juan? Throw in the wildly popular futuristic action movies Mad Max (1978) and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981).

Historical depictions and hunk action: Gallipoli and Mad Max.

And then there was the Australian comedy. For some reasons, in the 1980's the world just went crazy for Australian humor. Along came Crocodile Dundee (1986), Muriel's Wedding (1994), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) and Babe (1995). The latter was however American financed since USA likes to fund already winning concepts (like Crocodile Dundee II).

Australian comedies: Crocodile Dundee, Muriel's Wedding, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Babe.

And when Australia could deliver films that were popular with the audience, along came more American financed films from Australia and with Australian directors. Australian actors that became popular and could enjoy a Hollywood career (often with either an American or British accent, though) are Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett, Hugh Jackman, Heath Ledger, Geoffrey Rush and Naomi Watts (born in England, raised in Australia). To name a few. The violent drunkard Russell Crow is from New Zealand, see below.

Australian director Baz Luhrmann directed Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001). The animated family film Happy Feet (2006) is also a fairly new American-Australian co-production.

New Zealand, being a smaller country and often confused with Australia, had a much more modest success in the film industry. Jane Campion made the fantastically successful weepie The Piano (1993, and yes - I kind of almost cried a bit too). It was a USA-Australia-New Zealand (phuh!) co-production, with middle-aged-woman-fascination and New Zealand raised Sam Neill in the cast.
New Zealander Lee Tamahori made Once Were Warriors (1994) about Maoris, and at least I remember my mother's fascination with a VHS copy of it when I was little. The Swedish translation of the title was the more corny "The Soul of the Warrior". (Just a bit of useless trivia.)

Drama from New Zealand: The Piano and Once Were Warriors.

But then! Oh, but then. Then came the previously cool and original B-movie director Peter Jackson and pumped in money like the greatest of Arabic oil countries into the New Zealand film industry with his adaption of J.R.R Tolkien's complicated nonsense books The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003). Suddenly New Zealand could finance films like never before, and Jackson built a state-of-the-art facility in Wellington where cool D stuff for films like Avatar (2009) could be made. (Well, I'm not into the specifics of the technology - blame me!)
After that cash wave came films like Whale Rider (2002) about a Maori girl, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2004) by a New Zealander. Then nobody heard about New Zealand ever after the latter beautiful film played the lovely tunes of the Andrew Sisters' "Oh, Johnny, Oh, Johnny, Oh!".

See you next time with... some other part of the world in some era or another.

A screenshot from some Lord of the Ring film, the female protagonist of Whale Rider and a both beautiful and disturbing scene from the beautiful and disturbing Chronicles of Narnia.