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 è 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

Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice P.T.T. [1967)

Something draws me to Eastern Europe.  I blame Romania.  Thank you Romania!  Yes, there was something about the ambiance which director Cristian Mungiu conjured up in 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile) which has stayed with me for a long time.

Really, it’s a rather mundane part.  Near the top of the film.  The goddess Anamaria Marinca traipses down the hall to find some soap…and cigarettes.  The scene is a college dormitory in communist Romania (pre-December 1989).  Girls in one room chat about beauty products.  There seems to be a good bit of bartering going on.  Marinca is mainly uninterested.  Looking for a certain kind of soap (if I remember correctly).  On the way back to her room she stops off at the room of a foreign student (non-Romanian) who sells cigarettes and gum and stuff.  The whole film she is searching for Kent cigarettes (a few mentions of this brand).  Not surprisingly, there are no Kents to be had in the dorm.  She settles for something else.  Perhaps.  I don’t know.

She stops and admires some kittens which someone has taken in.

It is astonishingly real.  On par with Roberto Rossellini.

Indeed, it might be said that all New Waves (from the nouvelle vague to the Romanian New Wave) have their birth in the neorealist films of Rossellini.

But Mungiu added a new wrinkle.

Marinca.  [The goddess of whom I spoke.]

Marinca is unglamorous.  No one is glamorous in 4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile.  We get the impression that it is the waning days of Ceaușescu’s reign.

Times are tough.  The policies of the state haven’t worked out so well.  It bears some resemblance to a prison.  Material items take the place of money (reminiscent of cigarettes as currency in jails).

What I have yet to define in this article is “goddess”.  What do I mean by that?

Well, I’m glad you asked!  Marinca (particularly in this film) is a goddess to me because she represents the opposite of the typical American woman in the year 2015.  Her beauty is her soul.  Her beauty is her loyalty to her roommate and friend Găbița.  Her beauty is her dedication to acting.  She is completely immersed in her unglamorous role…and it is eye-watering.

I have mentioned a similar impression (which further solidified my admiration for Romanian films) I got from watching Dorotheea Petre in The Way I Spent the End of the World (Cum mi-am petrecut sfârşitul lumii).  This masterpiece by director Cătălin Mitulescu preceded Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning film by about a year (2006).  I was again struck by another goddess of film (Petre) who, with the help of her auteur, created a character also in direct opposition to the meretricious, vacuous ideal of American womanhood in the 21st century.

And so it is that we finally come to the film under consideration:  Душан Макавејев‘s Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator.  Dušan Makavejev is Serbian.  Out of deference to his country I have listed his name in Cyrillic script.  Likewise, the title of the film (at the top) is in Serbo-Croatian.  It is a grey area about which I am not completely informed.  Suffice it to say that Croatia seems to generally use Roman letters (as opposed to the Serbian usage of Cyrillic).  It is a bit like the distinction (and writing differences) between Urdu and Hindi [which I have heard described as essentially the same language, but with two different writing systems].

I prefaced this article on Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice P.T.T. with my own backstory concerning Eastern European cinema because it is relevant to my approach going forward.

Before coming to this, my first Yugoslav (1967) film, I opened up the can of worms which is Czech cinema by reviewing Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky).  Jiří Menzel’s sexually-charged film poem from the previous year (1966) was a major revelation for me.  And so it is that Dušan Makavejev’s bittersweet confection shares more than just a communist framing with Menzel’s aforementioned erotic portrait.

Yes, Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice P.T.T. is about our old film-school standbys:  sex and death.  I can never combine those two words (in the context of film) without remembering the ridiculously funny scene of Jim Morrison at UCLA screening his student film in Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991). 

The fictional Morrison, then, would be trying to hop on a nonfictional bandwagon represented by the likes of Menzel and Makavejev.  Morrison’s time at UCLA (1964-1965) not only coincided with the staggered births of “new waves” around the world (particularly in Europe), but also occurred while Morrison’s father (US Navy Rear Admiral [RADM] George Stephen Morrison) was the commanding officer of a carrier division involved in the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Jim Morrison lived fast.  Entered UCLA in 1964.  Graduated with an undergraduate degree in film in 1965.  Was dead by 1971.  But those years in between…  It’s no wonder Jim had an Oedipal complex (evident in the song “The End” [1966/1967]) when considering his father was involved in false-flagging the U.S. into a suicidal war against communism.  What a disgrace…

No, the real hero in the family was not RADM Morrison, but rather Jim.  He turned on the dream-switches of so many kids.  To put it quite bluntly, he was part of the counterculture in America which caused kids to start giving a fuck about the world and politics and geopolitics and confirmed charades (frauds, shams, etc.) like the Gulf of Tonkin “incident”.  Such a sanitary and slippery word:  incident.

It fits perfectly, in that there was no incident.

But while Morrison the Younger had gone off into Brechtian pop-rock, Serbian director Makavejev was busy making Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator.  It is equally stunning, for its medium, as “The End”.

Sex needs beauty.  A really luscious film like this needed Ева Рас (Eva Ras).  She is a bit like Jitka Zelenohorská’s character in Closely Watched Trains…mischievous, bewitching…  But there is one great difference between Ras and Zelenohorska:  Ras is a blond.

Though our film is in black and white, it is clear that Ras’ silky hair is rather fair (a detail which would not have escaped Hitchcock).  It must be said, however, that Makavejev did not give in to the easy femme fatale portrayal when it came to filming Ras.  Izabela (Ras) is a complex individual.  The film tells us that she is Hungarian.  She is different…other.  She needs sex.  She is passionate.

All the same, her portrayal by Ras is poetic and tender.  Really, what we are seeing here is a tentative feminism expressed by Makavejev which would become a thundering symphony of women’s liberation in Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. 

And it is good.  It is good for men to see these types of films.  We men idolize and reify women in the West, but we don’t often enough stop to really observe the trials of womankind.

In the best spirit of socialism, this film has something for everyone…men, women…ok, maybe not children.

Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator is really an intense film.  If you have seen (and made it through) Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (a film I, incidentally, once made the mistake of showing at a party), then you’ll be alright.  For those faint of heart (I generally fall into that category), there are a couple of rough moments in this film (in the context of criminology).

In all, I am very proud and happy to have seen my first Serbian movie.  As a resident of San Antonio (and fan of the San Antonio Spurs), I feel it gives me a better glimpse into the life of one of my favorite basketball players Бобан Марјановић (Boban Marjanović).  I highly recommend this film…and Go Spurs Go 🙂

 

-PD

Limelight [1952)

I didn’t know movies could be this good.

Where have they been keeping this all of our lives?

Us.

When I was young I stumbled into The Gold Rush.  25/52.

And I lived at the end of a flower in City Lights.

So I knew.

But I forgot.

That Charlie Chaplin was the most vivid outcast—the great romantic on rollerskates.

And the miracle?

Claire Bloom lives.

No Sylvia Plath ending.

And Charles Chaplin lives.

As much as Baudelaire’s vieux saltimbanque.

It was her first film.  Bloom.

Age 21.

And now she is 84 years young.

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No one told me films could be miracles.

It’s kinda like Thora Birch.

Buster Keaton.

People thought she stopped working.

But it wasn’t true.

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No greater love have I seen for an art.

Like Pierre-Auguste kissing the canvas…and then painting.

You can’t simply say Renoir in film and let it linger…

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Tell Tchaikovsky the news.

The first chord.  In Moscow perhaps.  And all 122 pages fall onto the keyboard.

A thunderous vibration like Chaliapin.

Фёдор Ива́нович Шаля́пин

Boris Godunov.

///////////////////////////////////////////////////////

A drinking problem.

Stage fright.

Torn and frayed.

At the edges.

In the wings.

Wings.

Ah yes…I haven’t heard that name in a long time.

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The piano was unprepared.

A cage of equal temperament.

And so we removed the great nest

of cosmic dissonance.

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Don’t get me wrong.

I love a good cluster chord.

An honest, flawed note.

Take your dissonance like a man…someone said…maybe Henry Cowell.

On second thought, ’twas Ives.

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I’ve spent my life in a drum.

Like Keith Moon.

A human projectile.

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88 ways to look at a blackbird.

I’ve never seen one person leave it all on the stage quite like that.

A lifetime’s work.  Painted.

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The film was in black and white?

I didn’t happen to notice.

Because behind my eyes the colours were bursting.

U.

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And so like those little speckles in the concrete which the moon caught.

As I dreamt of being a composer.

And I too dove headfirst into the void like Yves Klein.

///////////////////////////////////////////////////////

And for us it was no sleight of hand.

There was no airbrushed net.

And I landed hard.

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Gandhi is smiling and that’s all that matters.

////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

between yell and Yale

bell strut feet dill old pod loot.  Look!

88 ways to be a composer and an itch ain’t one (bite me!)

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Film is completely unimportant when writing about film.

Take Hubert’s Flea Circus on 42nd St.

I would never have known were it not for Nick Tosches.

And my favorite book:

Where Dead Voices Gather.

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Yeah, but it’s like Picasso’s musicians.

You think I’ve really cracked up.  Craquelure.

“Any fish bite if you got good bait.”

They tell us in economics there’s only one Mona Lisa.

Because the painter is dead.

Only one…

///////////////////////////////////////////////////////

Because he’s not alive to paint another.

Another Mona Lisa.

Unlimited supply.  EMI.

//////////////////////////////////////////////////////

You’re driving at something.

I just know it.

Because the film was too long.  And too good.

Not possible, Likert.

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Many aw-kward moments of perfection.

Where Chaplin hit too close to home.

Was it Dave Davies?

“Death of a Clown”

Yes, precisely.

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It can’t be described conventionally.

You can’t just go to the Grand Canyon and say, “Vast.”

Was ist das?

Ja!

That is what I’m trying to say.

-PD