Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang [2014)

I bet you thought I stopped writing about film, right?

ūüôā

Me too.

Sometimes.

I think…

“Am I still a film critic?”

With all this Trump this and Trump that.

With these tableaux.

This lazy poetry.

But I am back with an actual film.

And it is a masterpiece.

But I don’t know what to call it!!!

It’s a Chinese film.

Sort of.

But not really.

Because it’s by a Brazilian film director.

But not just any Brazilian film director.

Someday I will get around to reviewing one of the best exemplars of¬†na√Įvet√© ever made.

Yes, one of the best FILMS ever made.

Central do Brasil.

Central Station.

A formative episode in my filmic life.

But back to this Chinese film directed by a Brazilian.

I didn’t even get to his name yet ūüôā

Walter Salles!

Yes…two masterpieces are enough to make an auteur!!

But we can’t use the Chinese title here.

For the film.

Under consideration.

Because that would be disingenuous (and we will get to Trump).

[Or we will try.]

{so much…stuff…in the world}

Let’s paint the picture…

Three Gorges…no.

We must wait.

Central Station was a fiction film.

A beautiful masterpiece which stretches even up into the sert√£o.

But¬†Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang¬†is a documentary…about a guy from Fenyang…named Jia Zhangke.

Messrs. Baggini and Fosl (Julian and Peter) would call that a “spectacularly uninformative sentence”.

And Kant, the less-colorful–less-candid “analytic proposition”.

But we hit an impasse.

The film I am reviewing is so little-known (apparently) that it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page.

Worse, it has a strange, butchered title on iMDB.

There it is called Jia Zhang-ke by Walter Salles.

Hmmm…

I must admit:  it appears some people in marketing over at Kino Lorber are dicking around.

But we press on…

Just who the fuck is Jia Zhangke?  And why should you care about him?

Well, first: ¬†he’s a film director.

And second: ¬†he’s as good as Jean-Luc Godard.

Did I just say that???

Yes.

I just put someone on an equal level with my favorite director of all time.

What’s more, a Chinese guy you’ve probably never heard of.

Of whom.

And what about this Fenyang business?

Well, let’s get out our maps.

First, we must find Shaanxi Province.

Northern China.

The capital is Xi’an.

But we must get to the more obscure.

Fenyang.

Home of our subject auteur:  Jia Zhangke.

So we don’t exactly know the title…here to there…from this platform to the next.

But we will say this.

If you are in the U.S., this film is currently streaming on Netflix under the title Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang.

Or something like that.

This is the confusion of a lack of standardization.

Where’s ISO when you need them…or Zamenhof!

Ok…so why should you watch a 105 minute documentary about a filmmaker of whom you have likely never heard?

Because Walter Salles compels you.

He says, “Watch my story… ¬†Pay attention to this little self-deprecating Chinese man. ¬†He’s a cinematic genius.”

Wouldn’t it be great if all artisans and artists helped each other out in such a way?

A filmmaker, age 57, decides to make a film about another filmmaker, age 46.

Actually, that is quite an honor.

That an older filmmaker would help in the career of the younger one.

So we heartily praise Salles for his mise-en-scène as well as his morals.

But then we hit another impasse.

Because words cannot express the brilliance of Jia Zhangke’s grasp on cinematic language.

And so, why should you watch this film?  I ask again.

Because it gives you an introduction (not dumbed down in any way) to the works of a contemporary film artist who is leading the cinematic medium into this new century.

Likewise, it gives you an introduction to Chinese film at the same time.

These aren’t kung fu flicks (for the most part).

These are art films.

Similar to Breathless

Born of the French New Wave.

But also born of Raj Kapoor.

Indeed, as a young boy…Jia Zhangke remembered an early film which extolled thieves. ¬†And it was this Indian film shown in China. ¬†And the Chinese kids remembered the melismatic melodies for decades…to rip off a shred and a few threads of a melody which bound them as enfants terribles.

Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang is a bit like Cinema Paradiso.

The big director returns home.

And there’s a sadness.

Maybe you can see your childhood home.

And hit the wall one more time.

You can imagine the family bed and the father’s desk was there.

And the books on shelves along here.

So many books.

That there is a sadness of being from Fenyang.

I feel it being from San Antonio.

And Jia Zhangke, all throughout this film, ideates thoughts which have now and then wisped in and out of my dreams.

Jia is very calm.  Thoughtful.  Serene.

A true artist.

And as he talks about the process of creation, I find him to be an exceptionally dedicated artist.

We hear about Xiao Wu (1997).

Pickpocket.  Starring Wang Hongwei.

I mean, this bloke…Wang… ¬†His clothes hang on him in almost a magical way.

He’s a good-for-nothing bum in the Chaplin mold, but still puffing away like Belmondo in¬†Breathless.

But Jia was right.

It’s the gait.

The way Wang Hongwei walks.

Body language.

Brilliant!

And the shots we see of Platform are really moving.

It’s like being from a place like Kiruna, Sweden.

Gotta get there by train.

Up past the Arctic Circle.

And the kids…they don’t have a lot of entertainment.

Maybe even the sight of a train.

But in China…………….far more vast.

These remote places.

Like the Three Gorges area where Jia made Dong and also Still Life.

But the joke’s on me.

Because the whole world knows Jia Zhangke.

The whole world of cinema.

And me, with my insular approach, not so much.

Because Jia won the Palme d’Or in both…wait.

We have the wrong envelope.

Ok…so maybe he’s not that well know.

His films have been screened in competition at Cannes, but no hardware yet.

With the exception of his Golden Lion from Venice.

But none of that matters.

What matters is that he’s making great films.

What matters is that he has the potential to best us all.

This was a very moving film for me.

Because it speaks to the obstacles of life.

Of the unhappiness.

Of the solitude which must be for creations to ferment properly.

To mix metaphors, we need the darkness in which to screen our masterpieces of light.

We cannot screen them in a glass house…at 2:30 p.m.

Finally, this film will give you invaluable insights into the recent history and current state of China.

All the people on Weibo (like Twitter).

The market system which has been kicking ass since the 1990s.

And crucial periods such as 1976-1989.

The restructuring period right after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

WE NOW JOIN PAULY DEATHWISH NEWS NETWORK…IN PROGRESS: “…

Xi Jinping.  His father purged in 1963.  His father jailed in 1968.  Xi was sent without his father to work in Shaanxi Province in 1969.  [The remote province from which film director Jia Zhangke hails.]

This was a time of immense violence in China.  Being purged.  Being jailed.  Being sent to the countryside to work and be re-educated.  All of this was suffused with violence.

So when President Xi got the message from President Trump himself that the U.S. had just launched 60 Tomahawk missiles into Syria minutes earlier, President Xi was met with the shock of surrealism…a perfect steak…beautiful ladies…the glitz and glamour of Mar-a-Lago…and the throat punch of an actual tiger. ¬†No paper.

“Get North Korea in line, and fast!” ¬†Would have been the message.

So that, in these times, to truly appreciate that which is unfolding around us, we need directors like Jia Zhangke.

These are our new philosophers.  Our new poets.

Thinking about social media.

Fooling around with it.

Inventing new artistic forms.

And finding new types of loneliness.

And desperation.

Jia came from a very poor area.

He loved his family very much.

The Chinese don’t like violence.

We Americans don’t like violence.

See this film.

Then get back to me on¬†Dereliction of Duty¬†ūüôā

-PD

An American in Madras [2013)

Here we come again to India.

And again to Tamil Nadu.

When last we visited India in our minds, we spoke of For the Love of a Man.

Another Tamil documentary.

About the superstar of South India:  Rajinikanth.

But An American in Madras takes us back.

WAY back!

Indeed, it is the story of a man named Ellis Dungan.

And his 15 years of fame (complete with tuned klaxons) [meme mixing] was 1935-1950.

Ellis Dungan from Barton, Ohio.

Who went to Spain.

And bicycled to France.

Worked a bit in Paris.

Became interested in photography.

And somehow ended up in one of the first cinema cohorts at USC.

Met an Indian student.

Got an invite to Madras (Chennai).

And six months turned into fifteen years.

Isn’t that the way life works?

If you think I’ve spoiled too much of this story, you’re WAY wrong.

There is so much more to this fantastic documentary directed by Karan Bali.

Mr. Bali is in his prime, being just 48 years young.

But he has made a significant contribution to cinema with this picture.

Yes, this story is unique and compelling.

But again, we get a priceless view of India.

I promise we will move from Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu eventually (the only two provinces I have really covered).

But you really must see An American in Madras.

It is currently on Netflix.

And by the screenshot–the thumbnail…you might think it’s about a Jewish director.

That would be wonderful and fine.

But you would be wrong in assuming such.

Indeed, it seems that the six-pointed star on the “film poster” is not the Star of David but perhaps, rather, the Star of Goloka.

Which is to say, an Indian six-pointed star.

And though there are (and certainly were) Jews in India (though not very many…all things considered),¬†An American in Madras is just about a bloke from Ohio who somehow ended up directing some (14) of the classic Tamil-language films.

1935-1950.

He left India at the behest of his wife.

They divorced a short time later.

Okay, ok…I will stop giving spoilers.

But suffice it to say that An American in Madras tackles a very sticky conundrum:

motivation.

For most of my life, my main motivation has been EXPRESSION…

What I’m doing right now.

Showing off my verbiage.

But hopefully adding value to the world.

[there goes my business school dissection…it’s second-nature now!]

And yet, my motivation changed.

For I was presented with a crossroads.

Not like Robert Johnson’s crossroads…

But more like Robert Frost’s crossroads.

Two paths.

God damn it!

I chose the path less-taken.

I chose love.

Not lust.

Not romance.

Just love.

And it doesn’t make me a saint.

But it is what it is.

I gave up music.

I gave up expression as my main motivation.

And I attempted to evolve.

To nudge an inch closer to nirvana.

I chose love.

As my main motivation.

It is not a rockstar path.

Mother Theresa probably had some pretty rough days…

And I ain’t no Mother Theresa.

But I’m trying.

Trying to put other people before myself.

Often failing.

But steadfast.

I am on the path.

And yes, I become wistful.

It seems like 40 years ago.

Maybe I can catch a wisp of song in my memory…a shard…a sherd…some hieroglyph of my past life.

But growing into an adult can entail smiling through the tears.

Singing a snippet, and being glad to be here now.

-PD

Chuck Norris vs Communism [2015)

Dear Ilinca¬†CńÉlugńÉreanu,

You have made a beautiful film.

Which the world needed to see.

And the title made me think it would be imperialist propaganda directed at North Korea.

But I could not have been more wrong.

Because Romania has touched my heart so many times.

And so I am glad to add another name to the list of auteurs.

Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu,¬†CńÉtńÉlin Mitulescu, Cristian Mungiu…

And now¬†Ilinca CńÉlugńÉreanu.

Yes, it is only right that a young female director should bring us this story.

This documentary.

Ms.¬†CńÉlugńÉreanu, born in 1981.

Because this film is very much about the 1980s.

VHS.

Videocassettes.

And the situation in Romania.

Chuck Norris is merely a placeholder.

A meme which has undergone a certain détournement.

But there is no substitute for communism in this tale.

Perhaps, authoritarianism.

You see…

if you tell people to do one thing…and you’re really heavy-handed about it,

they will almost certainly do the opposite.

At some point.

And Ms.¬†CńÉlugńÉreanu’s very persuasive hypothesis is that videocassettes brought down the¬†Ceau»ôescu regime.

And so there is very little way around this impasse without talking political economy.

First, let us address the very astute current Russian minister of culture Vladimir Medinsky.

The esteemed Mr. Medinsky has famously (?) called Netflix “U.S. government…mind control”.

Or at least that’s how¬†The Washington Times (who needs the¬†Post?) framed it.

But let’s investigate.

Let’s have Mr. Medinsky’s words and not just a CliffsNotes, elevator-pitch summation of them.

He says [translated],

‚ÄúAnd, what, you thought these gigantic startups emerge by themselves? One schoolboy sat down, thought for a bit, and then billions of dollars rained down from above?‚ÄĚ

That is pursuant to the funding which helped birth Netflix (and, presumably, other American companies with what Mr. Medinsky feels is a global, insidious reach).

He continues [translated],

‚ÄúIt turns out that that our ideological friends [the U.S. government] understand perfectly well that this is the art form that is the most important…‚ÄĚ

Ahh, cinema…

And Vladimir Lenin himself knew it!

Mr. Medinsky then seems to evoke the Leonard Cohen of “Tower of Song” when he says [translated],

‚ÄúThey understand how to enter everyone‚Äôs homes by getting into every television with the help of Netflix…”

Leonard Cohen (God rest his soul) said it thus:

“Now you can say that I’ve grown bitter but of this you may be sure
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor.”

Ah!

What a lyric!!

And that was in 1988!!!

So our director, Ilinca CńÉlugńÉreanu, knows that of which she speaks.

Because the grip of Ceaușescu was beginning to slip.

But let’s give Mr. Medinsky one more say [translated],

‚ÄúAnd through this television, [they get into] the heads of everyone on Earth. But [Russians] don‚Äôt grasp this.‚ÄĚ

Ok.

Now why was Mr. Medinsky so upset?

Well, because Netflix undertook a vast expansion this past summer.

Indeed, the article from which I’m pirating these quotes (yes, translations are intellectual property) dates from June 23, 2016.

The same article notes pointedly that Netflix’s expansion into Russia, plus a vast number of new territories, means that the streaming service is now available in 190 countries worldwide.

Wait a minute…

How many countries are there, you might ask?  196.  Or 195.

Poor Taiwan, they just can’t catch a break.

So then you might say, well…what the fuck?!?

What countries is Netflix NOT in???

It appears those countries are China, North Korea, Syria, and…Crimea?

Suffice it to say, the international “community” is not unanimous in their appraisal of Crimean statehood.

Is it part of Russia?

Is it part of Ukraine?

What do the words Republic of Crimea even mean if its not an independent country?

Which brings up the specter of “frozen conflict zones”.

I’m guessing that Netflix might be unavailable in Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Transnistria.

But I digress…

Because we are on to more specific matters.

There are at least two major ways in which Americans can view the Romanian communist period as it has been depicted in motion pictures.

First, Americans can sympathize with the repression of the Romanian people.

Any doubters should do a little digging on the PATRIOT Act.

Indeed, the psychosis of surveillance (which is mentioned in Chuck Norris vs Communism) could not field a more forbidding bogeyman than the National Security Agency.

And so, dear peoples of the world, would you feel more or less safe living in the same country in which the NSA is headquartered?

Exactly.

Second, Americans could extrapolate Ms. CńÉlugńÉreanu’s hypothesis to mean that countries such as China will eventually implode as a result of the fulminating combination of repression and technology (even, perhaps, with a starring role for entertainment).

All of that is to say that movies COULD bring down China or North Korea or even Iran.

[Notice the non-Netflix countries…Syria is without, but apparently Iran does have the service.]

Which is to ultimately say, Mr. Medinsky’s fear is completely warranted.

What is at stake in Russia?

The fall of Putin.

A sea change in leadership.

And I will be quite frank.

There is no doubt that Netflix’s catalog is heavily biased towards globalist propaganda.

One of the most glaring areas is India.

I can’t tell you how many watery, transparent premises there are on Netflix which are some permutation of a young person rebelling against a repressive culture.

It’s almost like they’re churning these formulaic films out in a factory.

Boy marries girl from lower caste.  Mayhem follows.

Girl goes to human rights court. ¬†Happily ever after…

Boy rebels against father’s traditional ways [read: ¬†religion].

I mean, at a certain point it’s just pathetic.

But we must hand it to Netflix for some (SOME) of their selections.

Actually, I have found a good many gems on the site.

But it is a very biased (and historically-uninformed collection).

In general, history doesn’t exist for Netflix.

Unless that history is the Holocaust.

Then, of course, there are a plethora of scenarios to “inform” you about the Nazis.

Make no mistake (my best Obama voice), the Nazis were bad.

Really bad.

But do we need 10 fucking films about the Holocaust?

And if¬†Schindler’s List¬†is the zenith of the genre, God help us…

But I digress again…

Chuck Norris vs Communism is a very beautiful film.

It’s about rebellion.

It’s about the little things we do to assert our existence.

And in this case, it’s about a translator (a voiceover dubbing artist) who reached the hearts of innumerable Romanians.

Irina Nistor.

Whether it was Chuck Norris, or Jean-Claude Van Damme, or Sylvester Stallone, Irina’s voice made the dialogue come alive in Romanian.

But it was a subversive activity.

“Imperialist” films were not allowed in Romania.

But Romania was falling apart.

To take the interviewees of our documentary at their word, their lives sucked…without “video” night.

But we must be clear.

Everything (EVERYTHING) about this enterprise was illegal in Romania.

First, the videos had to be smuggled across the border.

Then they had to be copied and dubbed (voiceover).

Then they had to be distributed.

Then some brave schmucks took the risk of screening these films on their TV sets (for a few lei, of course).

But it was dangerous business.

Especially if you were the kingpin.

So it is then strange to meet this kingpin of video piracy face to face.

Zamfir.

Not the guy with the panpipes.

No, this was Teodor Zamfir.

Made a pretty penny.

But the fascinating thing (by¬†CńÉlugńÉreanu’s hypothesis) is that he completely changed Romanian culture.

The seeds of revolution were sown by Dirty Dancing, Last Tango in Paris, The King of Comedy

And especially by the action films.

Rocky, Rambo, Lone Wolf McQuade…

And so, if you want to piss off a communist (or socialist, or whatever they’re going by these days), you can go with the familiar tack,

“Didn’t they already try that? ¬†Wasn’t it an immense failure?”

I don’t know.

But I don’t doubt the faces of those who lived through¬†Ceau»ôescu.

No national cinema has been nearly as effective as the Romanian in communicating to the West just what life under communism was like.

And so Romania becomes our lens into the Soviet Union and its satellite states.

I know there are Russians who fondly remember communism.

Let’s be clear: ¬†capitalism can also suck.

Change and upheaval can be deadly.

They say, “Watch the price of eggs” (to demonstrate how a free market dictates prices).

But we see a very similar discontent in the Middle East.

Is this democracy?

Fuck this!

Yes, America has made some mistakes.

And so we should watch everything with a critical eye.

Be your own critic.

Be like Emerson.

Be bold.

And then double back.

Waffle.

Live by palimpsest.

Because you are the ultimate philosopher.

For your life.

I can’t tell you.

And you can’t tell me.

We have to learn.

It must be the right time.

To receive a particular lesson.

I draw courage from Irina Margareta Nistor.

But most of all, I draw courage from the Romanian people.

Perhaps my country’s Hollywood crap (the stuff I took for granted) was just the stuff necessary in the dark times.

Entertainment.  Ass kicking.  Escape.

But the Romanian cinema of today inspires me beyond words.

And so let us remember, whether we are capitalists or socialists, the price paid by the people of Romania in December 1989.

Was it 1,100 people?

11,000 people?

110,000 people?

It’s troubling that nobody knows for sure.

But even if it was a thousand people.

They didn’t just get trampled by goats or run over by garbage trucks.

It wasn’t a bloodless revolution.

At least 1000 people.

They saw their moment.

They seized on a moment.

They capitalized on their opportunity.

There was something which impelled them not to just sit at home and listen.

I salute these brave souls who went out into the streets.

For a thousand people to have died, it seems rather inconceivable that there wasn’t an attempt made by the government to “restore order”.

That’s the line which can’t be crossed.

That’s when a government has lost its legitimacy.

Some stories are twisted.

And full-blown civil wars do erupt.

But it appears, in the end, that repression lost.

And repression, censorship, and heavy-handed tactics (whether adopted by socialists or capitalists) should, by historical lesson, be most strictly avoided.

It is human nature.

The people will not tolerate being treated like livestock.

And something as seemingly inconsequential as VHS tapes can tip the balance.

-PD

For the Love of a Man [2015)

What a film!

Sometimes I end with that sentiment, but I want to make sure that you take away that message.

This fantastic documentary takes a look at the cult of personality surrounding the biggest star of Tamil cinema:  Rajinikanth.

To paraphrase from one of my favorite films (Genghis Blues), Rajinikanth is like Michael Jordan, Elvis, and John F. Kennedy rolled into one.

If you live in the state of Tamil Nadu.

India.

Yes, we recently touched on Rajasthan, but let’s find Tamil Nadu on a map.

Very southern tip of India.

On the east side.

And here’s where we find Chennai.

[Which seems to be pronounced Chin-ay]

And, of course, Chennai used to be called Madras.

Now that we are caught up on geography, let’s get back to this amazing figure known as Rajini (short for Rajinikanth).

If we are to compare him to other international cinema stars, we might look to Jean-Paul Belmondo.

That great lip-rubbing outlaw of À bout de souffle.

Definitely a smoker.

Smoking those thick-tar Boyards cigarettes.

[Or so I imagine]

And sunglasses.

Rajini must always have his sunglasses.

Cigarettes and sunglasses.

Sounds like a ZZ Top song.

But for Rajinikanth, you need a big, thick mustache.

And you need a certain finesse with those props (the smokes and the shades).

Like Michael Jackson in the “Smooth Criminal” video.

Yeah!

This is India, man!

There’s dancing in the films!

The stars dance!!

And sing!!!

[Of course, don’t tell the generations of voiceover singers that]

But it is well-known.

Mohammed Rafi.  Lata Mangeshkar.

But did Rafi ever sing in Tamil?  Not that I know of.

And Lata? ¬†I have no idea. ¬†But it wasn’t her main language.

So let’s take a step back here…

Tamil.

By “native speakers” (70 million), Tamil is the 20th most spoken language in the world.

That’s ahead of Turkish, Italian, and Thai (just to name a few).

By “total number of speakers” (74 million), Tamil is still the 20th most spoken language in the world.

That’s ahead of Korean, Turkish, and Vietnamese (to name just three).

But what about Tamil cinema?

I’m sure it goes without saying that this is my first venture into writing about this unique slice of the world pie.

Indeed, it’s my first time even really contemplating it to a serious degree.

But back to this Rajinikanth fellow…

He’s ostensibly been the biggest star in Tamil cinema…since the 1970s!

He debuted in 1975.

His first film was in Tamil.

In 1976, he was in four films (only one of which was in Tamil).

In 1977, he was in 15 (!) films (eight being in Tamil).

In 1978, he was in 21 (!!) films (16 in Tamil).

Funny enough, Rajinikanth was not born in Tamil Nadu.

No, rather, he was born in the state of Mysore.

However, this state no longer exists under that name.

And being born in the city of Bangalore (a.k.a. Bengaluru), Rajinikanth would have been born in what is now the state of Karnataka.

65% of Kannadigas (those who live in Karnataka) speak Kannada (not to be confused with Canada).

Oddly, Rajinikanth was born to a Marathi family.

As in, people who speak the Marathi language.

So how does he become the biggest star of the Tamil people?

He indeed spoke Marathi (and Kannada) as a child.

It was only when Rajinikanth came to the Madras Film Institute (well into life) that he finally learned Tamil.

He was 25 when he acted in his first film (a Tamil production).

But I must say, Rajinikanth is a very charismatic figure.

I never finished comparing him to other actors.

Part of me wants to say James Dean, but I think Bruce Lee might be even more apt.

Rajinikanth kicks butt.  But with style!

He has moxie!

And most importantly, he stands up for the little guys.

Having been a bus conductor himself, he has played roles such as that of an auto-rickshaw driver.

And by dint of his sheer magnetism (and an almost Soviet, Trotskyist atmosphere in Tamil Nadu), he has spawned a legion of fans who await his film premieres with what can only be compared to the manic thrall of Beatlemania.

His fans literally scream their lungs out on opening nights…so happy to see their hero in a new picture.

And Rajinikanth makes but one movie every three years now.

If all of this sounds remotely interesting to you, then you absolutely must see For the Love of a Man (which is currently on Netflix in the U.S.).

Director Rinku Kalsy proves herself worlds above many of her contemporaries with this penetrating documentary.

Producer Joyojeet Pal seems to have played a very “hands-on” role as well (as a researcher for this picture).

It’s not always clear where the action is occurring in our film, but it seems that some of it (at least) was filmed in Sholinghur (which is about 67 miles inland from the coastal Chennai).

Then again, we do catch one glimpse of the actual Rajinikanth in the film…and it is in front of his residence in Chennai.

Which is to say, For the Love of a Man is very much about fandom.

And it reminds me of my own devotion to my heroes: ¬†Jean-Luc Godard, Mercury Rev, Bob Dylan…

So I very much identified with the cross-section of Tamil society surveyed in this documentary.

Their devotion to their “leader” is very touching.

Not least, Rajinikanth seems like a very spiritual and magnanimous person.

A really generous human being.

And THAT is what really cements the devotion of his fans.

Any film publication that ripped this movie (Hollywood Reporter) must not have its head on straight.

Anyone in Venice who pooh-poohed this film needs a good spanking.

For the Love of a Man is a masterpiece.

-PD

Filmistaan [2013)

I consider it an auspicious sign that my survey of Indian cinema begins in earnest with the masterpiece Filmistaan.

Do not mistake this piece of cinema for a half-baked idea.

Do not even attempt to lower it by calling it a comedy.

And not least, do not think only of India.

I wanted to come up with a catchy pigeonhole.

Indian Subcontinent.

The Subcontinent.

But I have too much respect for the great traditions of Bollywood (and Lollywood) to do such a thing.

And so this is very much an Indian film.

India.

And it is very much a comedy.

So funny!

But it is touching in a way to which few films can ever aspire.

Filmistaan, like Roberto Benigni’s magnum opus¬†La vita √® bella,¬†takes on a very serious subject with the best weapon of all: ¬†humor.

But instead of the Holocaust, we get the Partition.

And yet, Filmistaan is not some laborious period piece.

[leave that to the artless Spielbergs]

No, our film addresses the tension between India and Pakistan in the most deft, feather-light manner imaginable.

And for this we have to thank a new auteur on the world stage:  Nitin Kakkar.

I say “new” because Mr. Kakkar has not been graced with the honor of his own Wikipedia page in English yet.

Well, he is wholly deserving of that honor (based on Filmistaan alone).

But Mr. Kakkar had to have magical actors to pull this off.

Luckily for him, he did!

Sharib Hashmi is undoubtedly the star of this picture.

His performance as Sunny goes from the highest highs of emotion to the lowest lows.

It is truly remarkable.

Mr. Hashmi is about one month older than me.

40 years old.

Perhaps that’s why I identified with his youthful optimism and passionate devotion to cinema.

But to understand our film, we must first locate Rajasthan on a map.

It is the biggest state in India.

It is northwest.

And it borders Pakistan.

To understand Rajasthan, we must comprehend the Thar Desert.

Most of the Thar Desert is in Rajasthan, but it extends somewhat into Pakistan.

These are all important details in understanding our film.

Rajasthan is arid.

Like the American Southwest, it’s a good place to get lost…or kidnapped.

But friends are to be found in the most unlikely places.

And the friendship of shared interest, such as two cinema devotees, knows no borders.

For Mr. Hashmi, the brilliance of his performance depends on the artful support he receives from fellow-actor Inaamulhaq.

But let’s examine the divide between India and Pakistan for a moment.

It is a fact that a man from Peshawar (if he speaks Urdu) can communicate with a man from Delhi (if he speaks Hindi).

Peshawar, of course, is in Pakistan.

Indeed, it’s so far into Pakistan that it’s almost in Afghanistan.

Delhi, of course, is in India.

It is in the north-central part of the country.

It is, further, not essential that the two talkers hypothesized above be men.

The salient detail is that Hindi and Urdu are essentially the same language (in their spoken forms).

This is vital to understanding Filmistaan.

But continuing, the two languages could not look more different once they are written down.

[Which is to say, the two hypothesized men might be at loggerheads were they forced to communicate with pen and paper]

Urdu looks similar to its written forebear Farsi (the language of Iran) [which is itself a descendent of Arabic script].

To put it quite simply, a neophyte like myself would probably have a difficult time telling the difference between Urdu, Persian (Farsi), and Arabic.

Hindi is in the wholly different Devanagari script.

You will not confuse written Urdu and Hindi.

It’s at least as obvious as Picasso to Pollock (if not Warhol to Rembrandt).

But enough analogies.

Why should you watch Filmistaan?

Well, for one…it’s currently on Netflix.

Yes, ever since I have joined the streaming service, I have ventured to be a more “worthwhile” film critic by giving you relatively-spoiler-free reviews of current titles to be found on the U.S. version of the site.

But that’s only the beginning.

Yes, there are wonderful performances from Kumud Mishra and Gopal Dutt (as well as a plethora of fine supporting actors).

But the real reason is that Filmistaan expresses the sublime.

The context is terrorism.

The context is border tension.

Indeed, on the Indian Subcontinent, the context is two nuclear states.

Pakistan and India.

But the context goes back.

To Jinnah and Nehru.

And the threads bind.

Cricket.  Cinema.  Music.

There is an excellent example in Filmistaan which illustrates the situation.

Dilip Kumar.

Now 94 years old.

Like my hypothetical man from earlier, born in Peshawar.

Then a part of “Pre-Independence India”.

Now a part of Pakistan.

Bordering Afghanistan.

In Filmistaan, Inaamulhaq knows him as Sir Yusuf.

Sunny knows him as Dilip.

Dilip Kumar was born Muhammad Yusuf Khan in Peshawar in 1922.

Sir Yusuf.

Dilip Kumar.

Same person.

It’s like the World Wars.

fenêtre in French

das Fenster in German

window.

/\

fenêtre /\ Fenster

But when you look through a window (or a border), everything can look backwards.

You’re so close, in reality.

But you’re reading the word as if in a mirror.

Nitin Kakkar directed a masterpiece with Filmistaan because he put his heart and soul into evoking peace.

There are no winners in a nuclear war.

And peace is a rare commodity on the world stage.

Geopolitics…

But we must reach out that hand.

And shake it.

I congratulate Nitin Kakkar and Sharib Hashmi for their dedication.

It is evident.

Though I speak neither Hindi nor Urdu, I was able to watch.

And understand.

I needed the subtitles.

But sublime emotions may be mutually intelligible across cultures.

What a film!

-PD

India: Matri Bhumi [1959)

This is a hard film to title.

India.

ŗ§ģŗ§ĺŗ§§ŗ•É ŗ§≠ŗ•āŗ§ģŗ§Ņ.

Matri Bhumi.

The Devanagari (ŗ§ģŗ§ĺŗ§§ŗ•É ŗ§≠ŗ•āŗ§ģŗ§Ņ) translates to “homeland”.

And this brings us full-circle to a subject which has preoccupied us off and on for a month or so.

But we shan’t get too far into that excursus.

Nay, ’tis better to attempt a bit of writing regarding the film at hand.

First, we are thankful.

That Roberto Rossellini made a film about India.

Now, why would he go and do something like that?

Well, we must remember that he was only married to Ingrid Bergman from 1950-1957.

In 1957, he married Sonali DasGupta.¬† They were¬†married until Rossellini’s death.

Without getting too lurid or tabloid, let’s just say that Jawaharlal Nehru invited Rossellini to India to help with the country’s film activities.¬† It was then that he met Sonali.

The rest is beyond the scope of this review.

But what is germane is the screenwriter Fereydoon Hoveyda.

Mr. Hoveyda, an Iranian diplomat and author, helped stage this documentary in much the same way that a Robert Flaherty film might be put together.

Think Tabu:  A Story of the South Seas (1931) on which F.W. Murnau collaborated with Flaherty.  Or even Louisiana Story (1948) which was a Flaherty propaganda film for Standard Oil of New Jersey.

Hoveyda, being the Iranian Ambassador to the U.N., was ostensibly in New York when the Revolution happened in 1979.¬† I’m guessing he stayed in America.¬† Probably a pretty smart choice.

And he was a smart guy.

Indeed, some of the books he wrote seem very timely indeed:

-What do Arabs want? (in French) [Hoveyda assumedly being Persian, not Arab]

-The Hidden Meaning of Mass Communications (2000) [sounds like a particularly interesting application of linguistics and/or semiotics to ends similar to the agenda-setting theory]

-The Broken Crescent: The Threat of Militant Islamic Fundamentalism (2002) [a rather suspicious title released at a potentially opportunist time]

and finally

-The Shah and the Ayatollah: Islamic Revolution and Iranian Mythology (2003) [the year the US was steamrolling Iraq…perhaps with salivating neocons looking to quickly expand into Iran]

I wouldn’t be so suspicious, but I noticed where Mr. Hoveyda passed away:¬† Clifton, Virginia.

Fairfax County.  Vienna.  Herndon.  Definitely some DoD in there.

Furthermore, it is home to the CIA (yay!), the NGA, the NRO, and the DNI’s office.

So my guess is that Mr. Hoveyda probably worked for the US intelligence community.

This would probably be a good time to tell you that I am pro-Islam.

I am pro-CIA.

I’m pro-Palestine.

I’m pro-immigration.

Pro-Mexico.  Pro-Russia.

But most of all I’m pro-America.

I hold no other citizenships.

Some of these revelations will be old hat.

Some new.

All probably confusing for one reason or another.

I’m pro-NSA.¬† I’m pro 25 AF.

I’m even pro-FBI.¬† [pro-DIA, pro-ONI, etc.]

Yes, I’m a 9/11 “truther”.

I want to know the truth.

Do I think Saudi Arabia did it?

It was impossible for any group to pull it off without state logistical support.

So it still points very much to an inside job.

The guilty state being the USA.

But maybe I’m wrong.

I do know one thing.

Mr. Trump has rightly noted that the WTC towers did not fall down by themselves.

Nor did they sustain enough damage to fall at near-freefall speeds.

So there was a team (a gargantuan effort) which wired those buildings to explode.

Who was that team?

What was their allegiance?

There were several big pieces to the attacks which needed substantial protection and handling once inside the U.S.

Ok, that’s about as open-minded as I can get regarding 9/11.

I just had to get that off my chest.

My assessments are fallible.

But I’ve seen an optimism in America in these past few days.

It’s not unlike the optimism which Rossellini captures in India:¬† Matri Bhumi.

Buzzards always circling.

And you’ve let me write about film.

And haven’t begrudged my politics.

So this is for my friends.  From many countries.

And every day I sit and try to think of the right thing to do.

Some things I know.

But there are many things I don’t know.

Many truths which are likely a combination of half-truths I never considered gluing together.

I wish all of you a happy day or night.

This is probably the worst review I ever wrote.

Because I’m better at insulting things.

I’m better at guessing.

But maybe I haven’t connected the dots?

It’s not my job.

But it’s been on my conscience since 9/11.

Who can we trust?

Why are there so many internally-incriminating anomalies?

And so many indications of a cover-up?

I welcome the Saudi lawsuits if only for the opportunity to learn who the REAL culprits were.

The Saudis were middlemen (if that).

They were central casting.

Until the remote flight plans took over.

God, what a daft war…

Based on nothing…and stirring up a continued mix of real and fake.

Impossible to discern anymore.

Maybe Trump has the guts to get some truth.

Obama squandered eight years without even a hint of curiosity.

Buzzards circling.

-PD

Fist of Fury [1972)

For most of the world, life is an endless battle.  There are precious few who enjoy existence in a comfortable parentheses.  Indeed, we here in the West can look to the beginning of our literature:  The Iliad.  Rage.  Yes, it is the most intense disgust possible.  Perhaps there are few who take the rage to heart.

It often stems from lies.  Honor.  Respect.  Sympathy.  We do not like it when our fellow humans are sacrificed.  It gives birth to divine disgust when we see innocent people murdered.

Yes, some remember.  Some take it to heart.  And some search for the answers.  They know the story is a lie.  It does not honor the dead for them to be buried in lies.

From the start of this film we see Bruce Lee clawing through the lies just as he claws through the dirt which covers the casket of his dead teacher.  Perhaps few can understand this sort of devotion.

There are very strong emotions which cause such lasting connections.  The emotions are imprinted in our memory.  We become bound to others.  It is our duty to honor them in life and death.

Let’s face it:¬† the Japanese chose poorly.¬† How on earth did they ever (with a good conscience) ally themselves with the country which nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Likewise, F.D.R. let those men die in Hawaii.  His policies might have been in the best interest of the people, but he was a cynical bastard.  The blood of Pearl Harbor will forever be on his hands.

And so, we have an ethnic, nationalistic slant to this film.  It is China vs. Japan.  And to a lesser extent it is China vs. Russia.

The setting is Shanghai. A man returns in a white suit to marry his fiancée.  But when he returns, he returns to disaster.

In some respects this film has a rather fumbling plot compared to The Big Boss, but overall it is quite an artful film.¬† Lo Wei’s direction is generally very good.

Paul Wei perfectly plays the sniveling traitor Wu.¬† Wu is a translator…basically the opposite of Sibel Edmonds.¬† Though Bruce Lee initially maintains his composure when taunted by Wu, Lee soon enough returns the gift.

We must remember than Gift is German for poison.  Just as Mist is German for shit.  Dick, by the way, means fat.

Yes, the bearers of gifts turn out to be intimately acquainted with poison.¬† Perhaps we can find hints of their Nazi leanings in Lo Wei’s direction.¬† The Japanese seem to have an unfair hold on procedural law in Shanghai at this time.

There is another fleeting bit of cultural symbolism when Chen (Bruce Lee) is refused admittance to a park.¬† He seems to simply want a thoroughfare to return to his school (after schooling the Japanese dipshits).¬† Yet now he must answer to a Sikh guard enforcing a “no dogs and no Chinese” policy for the commons.¬† And so we have a short bit of China vs. India.

Ah, but we risk so much by playing the hero.¬† The true heroes often lose everything.¬† That’s what they don’t show you in the Hollywood version.¬† At least in Hong Kong, they seemed to know that life is a constant battle.¬† There is such a thing as honorable defeat.¬† Defeat rarely enters into the Hollywood lexicon when describing the protagonists.

But then arrives on Earth the phenomenon of the fist of fury.  It is strength.  It is passion.  It is torque.  It is velocity.

When Chen discovers the truth, he kills the murderers.¬† But that is not enough.¬† It’s time now to track down the enablers and the grand conspirators.¬† Lee does just this.¬† Talk about cleaning house!

Listen to “Peace Frog” by The Doors.¬† Sure, it’s great rhythm guitar from Robbie Krieger, but the lyrics might be Jim Morrison’s best.¬† Blood in the streets.¬† Up to my knees.¬† Up to my thigh.¬† I’m not sure if Morrison ever read¬†G√©rard de Nerval, but it wouldn’t surprise me.¬† It’s hard not to think of Nerval and Vlad »öepe»ô when seeing Lee gradually string up body after body from that lamppost.¬†

But let’s talk about more pleasant things, shall we?¬† Like Nora Miao, for instance.¬† She is so beautiful in this film.¬† And what a cute name!¬† I can’t help conjuring a cat to mind…Chairman Miao perhaps.

On the humorous side we have Inspector Lo and his two assistants…sartorially identical to Bogart from the neck up.¬† The disconnect comes when seeing their fedoras juxtaposed with traditional Chinese garb.¬† It is truly surreal!¬† Marlowe as Mar Lo.

The Russian connection comes from a visiting martial artist named Petrov.  We must remember that Putin joined the KGB in 1975.  Likewise, before Vladimir became a sixth degree black belt (or red and white if you want to get closer to Russian colors) in judo he trained in the Russian art of sambo (beginning around 1966).  So perhaps the Petrov character is a lucky match to current world leaders.

The villain of the film, Suzuki, propagates a massacre of Chen’s school (which bears a striking resemblance to the thuggery from The Big Boss).¬† What’s new is the Inspector Clouseau aspect of Lee’s persona.¬† We see him in disguise as an elderly newspaper salesman, a telephone repairman (!), and a rickshaw driver.¬† There is even a Chaplinesque visual humor to the telephone company employee portrayal–almost like¬†an invocation of Jerry Lewis.

What is more, director Lo Wei eventually adds a further mystical dimension to Lee’s fighting prowess when his hands move with psychedelic tracers trailing in blurred wonder.¬† But for every true hero a firing squad awaits.¬† In the end, perhaps it’s better to run towards the bullets.

-PD

The Pink Panther [1963)

Reporting from Lugash…I just have word that Cortina d’Ampezzo is a real place.¬† It cannot be confirmed at this time, but the report indicates it was the location of the 1956 Winter Olympics.¬† What is even more unbelievable is the claim that a James Bond movie was shot there in 1981.

There is no disputing that Switzerland has four official languages (including Romansh), but our fabled Cortina is said to have a language called Ladin.  This is, I know, hard to fathom.  It is even said that Hemingway wrote for a short time in Cortina, but I do not believe it for one second.

Now…Skardu, in Pakistan:¬† that is an actual town!¬† [and not too very far from Lugash, I might add]¬† But one must never confuse Akbar the Magnificent with the Mughal Emperor Akbar.¬† They are approximately 450 years apart chronologically.¬† There are some rumors of a mountain called K2 in the vicinity of Skardu, but do not pay this any mind.¬† It is simply a myth, I tell you.¬† It would behoove these mythmakers to concentrate on more pressing problems such as Y2K.¬† The world is still in danger, I tell you!¬† Think, for instance, if a clock was 15 years behind, yes?¬† It could be this very New Year’s Eve when this very real menace finally brings our technological world to its knees.¬† But I digress…

Now, let me tell you about this lake in the vicinity of the very real Skardu (near to the very real Lugash).¬† Shangrila Lake is as lovely as the probably-fictional Cortina purports to be.¬† There is even a restaurant in the fuselage of an aircraft which crashed nearby.¬† See:¬† you would never have such an obviously real detail in the notes of a “place” like Cortina.¬† One must use logic and deduce what is faux from what is not faux.¬† Now then…

I tell you all of this back story because I firmly believe Sir Charles Lytton to be one and the same with Sir James Bond.¬† I¬†know this may seem to be a stretch to the untrained mind, but I will elucidate my reasoning in due time.¬† I would also be willing to bet my job with the S√Ľret√© that this same Sir Charles is the elusive Phantom for whom I have been searching my entire life.¬† In due course I will explain this, this…how do you call it?¬† Triple agent!

I, of course, am now writing from the Gaol here in Voghera.¬† I believe that the very real Princess Dala was conspiring with someone (I don’t know who…certainly not my wife) and that she stole the Pink Panther herself so that it would not be taken away from her by the government of the very real country of Lugash (Voghera being a little-known hamlet in the Lombardy area of Lugash).¬† I will address the claims that I am homosexual at a later date.

The fact that I was made to testify against myself in court was really a sneaky gambit on the part of Sir Charles’ barrister.¬† I must admit that I passed out in shock from having the Pink Panther fall from my coat pocket.¬† Now they are claiming I also stole some ridiculous and obviously nonexistent jewel called the Hope Diamond, but I tell you…I am about 400 years too young for that to even be possible.¬† And contrary to accounts, I have never gone by the name Tavernier.

I would like to clear up some further controversy.  The Daria-i-Noor diamond does not exist.  I can see how some might mistake it for the very real Pink Panther because of the preposterous similarities between the very real Lugash and some fictional country called Iran, but I can assure you that there is no Iran.  India?  Yes.  Persia?  Of course.  Iran?  It sounds like a song by The Flock of The Seagulls.  It is obviously a lie.

Most importantly!¬† I do not plan to be held in the gaol for much longer as I am sure the real Phantom will strike again.¬† At that point, I intend to resume work for the S√Ľret√© (having been properly exonerated of all wrongdoing).

Furthermore, I have never heard of this silly Alfred Itchcock nor his supposed film Foreign Correspondent so I cannot answer claims that any of my story bears resemblance to his film.¬† But be well-advised:¬† when I chase a criminal, I always catch that criminal.¬† As my great countryman Racine said, “There are no secrets that time does not reveal.”

One last note.  Topkapi is just a movie.  I will admit, I do not see the humor in the criminal aspects, but I do enjoy that the thieves are eventually dispensed justice.  So to further clarify with the geography lesson:  Topkapi is not a real place.

I have been asking for coffee here in my cell in Voghera in Lugash since I have been imprisoned and if TopkapńĪ were really a neighborhood of Istanbul I would demand they bring me a Turkish coffee immediately (and it better be tonight).¬† But you see, they could not…the whole concept is a farce…unlike my very sad and serious imprisonment.¬† Please tell my darling Simone that I love her…and remind her not to be too frugal with the housekeeping money.¬† I know she is quite capable of buying mink coats from the leftover money.¬† She has done it before, my pigeon…

-PD