Archive for ‘movies’

March 25, 2014

Her

Some weeks ago, just after I’d watched Her, I had some thoughts. A month later, I’m not entirely sure I can decipher them, and I’m glad as always that this bulletpointsing absolves me of having to have any sustained opinion of anything. Anyway.

  • Here is a story about someone who’s vulnerable, whose marriage has recently ended, and who finds companionship and eventually love with an artificially-intelligent operating system, until the AI grows beyond humans and goes away. The “someone” is Amy Adams, and hers isn’t the story Her chooses to focus on.
  • Her spends a lot of time working at uncreepifying the gender implications of its premise; by which I mean the woman who is bought and owned, who does not come with inconvenient things like crying and screaming and having a flawed physical body, and whose gradual independence becomes threatening; the man who owns her. And so we’re told of AI-human relationships where the AI “belongs” to someone else, we’re even told that Samantha is in several such relationships. It’s clearly important to the film that we know that this isn’t an exploitative relationship.And yet this is the story it chooses to tell, not the Amy Adams love story that happens in the gaps left by Theodore’s story, or any of those other romances between computer programmes and people who don’t own them.
  • And so, presumably, we’re meant to feel discomfort, and we’re meant to cringe when Theodore bursts out that Samantha is his. I’m not sure what Jonze is doing with that discomfort apart from just invoking it; look, look how problematic this is but also let us devote more time to this instagram-filtered manpain. The whole thing reminded me of (500) Days of Summer, another film that teeters awkwardly between acknowledging its protagonist’s creepy, damaging view of relationships and sympathising with him over how awful it is that the women he falls for don’t conform to said view.
  • The Amy Adams story would have been better.
  • Perhaps the most sfnal thing about this world (apart from, you know, all the AI romance) is Theodore’s job, with its implications. He’s a professional writer of other people’s personal letters; not in a sort of Cyrano de Bergerac way, but as part of a legitimate company. In a way this is merely a version of a job writing greeting card poems (and here’s another link with 500 Days of Summer; when will someone write that essay?) but it’s more than that. A sort of taken-for-granted willingness to outsource, to commodify one’s own emotions is something that the world of the film takes for granted. To admit that they are generic.It’s there in the “play me a melancholy song” scene that most reviews seem to have quoted, and in the fact that apparently Theodore can have his letters published without asking for permission from any of the people whom those letters were for or about. We learn at one point that Theodore has inserted his own observations into the letters (something about a woman’s teeth I think, though it’s been over a month since I saw it?) and they have become a part of a couple’s understanding of one another; presumably at least in part because some of their communication is through Theodore’s words. And Samantha takes that further; if emotions can be generic then there’s surely nothing surprising about her feeling the same thing for hundreds of people she talks to as well as Theodore. Which is of course the point where Theodore pushes back, demanding his own specialness.
  • Samantha’s thingness is never so clear as in that moment where the operating system cant be found.
  • The women in this world are all constantly feeling inadequate. In the case of Amy Adams’ “Amy” a partial cause is easy enough to find; her awful husband Charles keeps undercutting her and is generally horrible. In Theodore’s account of his own marriage he suggests that his ex-wife Katherine’s family were similar, and that she turned to him because he was different. We’re not told what motivates Isabella, the young woman who volunteers to be Samantha’s surrogate in sex with Theodore, but when he can’t go through with it she shuts herself away, blaming herself for not being good enough and apologising to Theodore and Samantha . And then there’s Olivia Wilde’s unnamed character*, who goes on a date with Theodore and is terrified that he won’t call her back. Perhaps I’m being shallow, but what is this dystopian future where people don’t call Olivia Wilde back?
  • The relationship flashbacks suggest that the real cause of the end of Theodore and Katherine’s marriage is that moustache.
  • The moustache distracted me throughout. It is terrible.
  • Onscreen bodies become crucially important to the background of a the film where one of the main characters doesn’t have one. There’s an early shot in which Theodore fantasises about a beautiful, shiny, airbrushed pregnant woman in a magazine. The ‘real’ bodies have pores and blotchy skin. Some of them (one minor character, a few people in the background) even have skin that isn’t white. Some of them are fat.
  • I watched Her with people who know and love science fiction. I suspect most people in the auditorium were less embedded in the genre; they didn’t laugh when we did. There are some wonderful moments; a dead philosopher is brought back to life by being rewritten, there’s a book club, there’s Samantha overturning Theodore’s world in the blandest of voices, expressing at the most mild surprise that he is surprised. Of course she’s evolving really quickly, of course she read that book in a fraction of a second, of course she’s talking to thousands of people at the same time as him. I’m not sure how many people were sitting there rubbing their hands together and gleefully waiting for the singularity while Joaquin Phoenix was crying onscreen. I think I may have looked a little heartless.
  • I think Her‘s ending might be the thing that makes it a better SF film than the more beautiful Under the Skin (the other inhuman! Scarlett Johansson film I have recently watched), but my dissatisfaction with that film is better saved for a post on it.

*She’s credited on imdb as “Blind Date”. (She comes out of this better than Evelyn Edwards, who gets to be “Mother Who Dated Pricks” and Steve Zissis who is “New Sweet Boyfriend Of” Edwards’ character.)

March 7, 2014

Patricia A. McKillip, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (and also Frozen)

From this weekend’s column.

Once I’d decided this book and this movie had a lot in common, more and more came to seem worthy of comment. I’m thinking for example, of the parallel scenes between Anna and Hans in the movie and Tamlorn and his attendants in the book, where both are about to go into the fortresses of the dangerous women they call family, and both reassure their worried companions that this woman would never hurt them. Of course, Tamlorn’s visit occurs at the end of the book and he knows Sybel well; Anna can’t really make that claim to knowledge of Elsa, to whom she’s barely spoken since the two were young. That Anna turns out to be wrong is one of the things about Frozen that I liked very much;* that we trust people at all is so often portrayed as proof that they will justify that trust, here people can be ‘good’, whatever that means, without necessarily being safe, hurt can be unintentional or even (in Sybel’s case) intentional; we can love people and not want to hurt them, and do so anyway. (In Frozen, less explicitly, this principle is also evident in some of the most terrible parenting ever).

 

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There’s a moment part of the way into the recent Disney movie Frozen, in which Elsa, one of its protagonists, leaves her kingdom after being shunned for her (ice- and snow-producing) powers. What starts off as the flight of an outcast becomes something more powerful as Elsa decides to embrace her powers, accept her apart-ness from her people, and build herself a magnificent fortress of ice in which to live alone. You can’t help suspecting that this spectacular edifice was put in for its impressive 3D potential, but there’s something appealing in Elsa’s remote, cold sanctuary.

Of course, Elsa doesn’t really want to be there; her grief almost turns her evil (and puts her in a sexy dress, which is almost as bad) and at the end she is re-integrated into her kingdom. She’s not, as her sister Anna (who the movie would have you believe is its real heroine) happily paired off, at least.

And recently I read for the first time Patricia McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. McKillip’s heroine, Sybel, lives for most of her life in a similar fortress on a mountain (one considerably greener than Elsa’s), with only the titular beasts for company. She does not miss people, never having lived among them. But people arrive, in the form of a child whom she must care for, a king, and an attractive young man, and she is drawn into their world.

There’s very little about the plot of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld to justify the way it lingers (and its winning of the first World Fantasy Award in 1975). But Sybel’s interactions with the world of which she must now become a part have a detachedness to them, a standing apart and commenting on this society even as she tries to seem part of it. Atop Eld Mountain Sybel was cut off from the world; now that she walks in the world she is still remote. Which is not the same thing as unfeeling, as she finds when she first experiences real, terrible anger.

That I watched Frozen and read McKillip’s book in the same month is coincidence, but read together the two work strangely well. Sybel is constantly described in terms invoking the cold; “ice-white Lady” with hair “silver as snow”, “and then you melt and slip cold through my fingers”. And both stories are about anger, though Disney lacks the visual vocabulary that allows us a glimpse of Sybel’s impersonal, almost inhuman wrath.

Eld Mountain is cool and green, the house is of “white, polished stone” and feels like something out of legend, one of those distant images from shared story. At points I’m not sure that The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a novel at all; with its lists of names (Sybel calls the beasts to her with her knowledge of their true names) and abundance of interchangeable princes it would make for a satisfying saga, merciless and impersonal and so, somehow, the better able to speak of the most primal of emotions. Like Frozen’s Elsa, Sybel will be led by her anger into doing something unforgivable—though unlike her, she will do it deliberately and with full awareness of its repercussions. But the narrative, as detached from Sybel’s story as it sometimes feels Sybel is to the world, merely states the fact.  As if this were simply something that happened, as if it wasn’t up to the book, or to us, to redeem Sybel or not.

Frozen ends with Elsa having tamed her powers and returned to her responsibilities as queen. Perhaps this is a happy ending, and conjuring up frozen ponds for her subjects to skate on is more satisfying than architectural marvels of ice. I’m less certain about the happiness of Sybel’s marriage and declared intentions towards motherhood. But once they come down from their mountain sanctuaries, I’m not sure they can go back and that itself feels like a loss.

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*It almost makes up for the bit where Anna declares that “nobody” really wants to be alone and is by implication proved right.

February 3, 2014

Bulletpoints: Dedh Ishqiya

 

  • There’s a moment in the second half of Dedh Ishqiya where Arshad Warsi’s Babban drags Huma Qureshi’s Muniya into a corner to discuss their future (travelling the world, apparently). Babban has so far failed to grasp the obvious–that Muniya has no interest in sharing a future with him– and so she makes it clear with some well-timed shaming. These men keep confusing sex for love, she says; she slept with him, but that was it. It’s funny for a moment because it’s a reversal, because so often in stories like this it’s the men for whom casual sex is casual, the women who are portrayed as clingy and over-attached. But then Babban, rejected and humiliated, reacts by beating her, shoving her against the wall; her sounds of protest become increasingly panicky, and we’re shifting uncomfortably in our seats.
  • It’s a scene that is all the more striking because we know that violence isn’t that serious in this film. Babban may be at the mercy, temporarily, of a gang lord; Khalujaan may be shot while escaping with the jewels, Jaan Mohammed’s men may occupy our heroes in a standoff that lasts all night but most of these have no real consequences (and the last ends in comedy). Violence takes place in a sort of golden world where nothing truly bad can happen, and where we can guiltlessly enjoy the picaresque adventures of the main characters without feeling uncomfortable about some of their crimes. Even the film’s title, which to me echoes the dhishkiaaon of the overexaggerated bollywood bullet, signals this. It comes as a shock, then, to realise that there are forms of violence that are violent and I like the film better for subjecting us to it, and for making one of its loveable heroes the perpetrator.
  • Gender isn’t the only source of violence though. The villain of the piece is Jaan Mohammed, the local MLA who is in love with both Madhuri’s Begum Para and the life that she represents. But he is also unfitted for that world–unlike Khalujaan, who seems to have the sort of background that allows him to believably fake “nawabiyat”, Jaan Mohammed has to kidnap a real member of that class to write his poetry for him. But Nawab Italvi escapes and now the law (in the form of honest Malayali cop and his minions) is on his side, as indeed it should be on the side of kidnap victims. But once the force of the law has been brought to bear upon him we see Jaan Mohammed stripped of his shirt, beaten and bleeding as Italvi viciously reminds him that he’ll always be an outsider to Italvi’s own world.
  • The world Jaan Mohammed so longs for is a romanticised version of that inhabited by upper-class Muslims decades ago–I’m not sure it even exists anymore. There’s been some fantastic commentary on the ways in which Dedh Ishqiya uses Urdu not just as a language (though it is a film that revels in wordplay) but as signifier to a whole culture. We’re encouraged to view the haveli through a haze of romance. It’s almost a fairytale.
  • And if it’s a fairytale, Madhuri Dixit is its princess. There’s something fairy-talish anyway about the idea of the swayamvar, princes competing to win the hand of the woman they all desire. One of my favourite things about Dedh Ishqiya is the way it uses the iconography of Madhuri Dixit almost as much as it uses the actress herself–when she appears to greet the participants in the mushaira she’s lovely and remote and gracious and unattainable, more symbol than person.
  • Except of course that she is a person, with a life and love that none of her admiring suitors expects. Begum Para in her private life is worried and nervous and affectionate and physically close to Muniya. Late in the first half of the film Khalujaan/Iftekaar convinces Para to dance again, as she used to when she was younger (and how nice to see multiple, untroubled references to the fact that a beautiful woman is growing older). It’s all a pretty blatant excuse to give us Madhuri dancing onscreen, but while it happens we see a series of men watching through windows: Iftekaar and Babban in the present, Iftekaar’s younger self in flashback. They are all on the outside; it’s to Muniya that Para turns to share her joy in this gift that she has got back.
  • By now it’s not a spoiler that the film features what is pretty evidently a queer romance. There’s a direct reference made by one of the characters to Ismat Chughtai’s “Lihaf”, but the film also borrows from that story for the histories of its own characters. Para is the beautiful Begum, married off to a Nawab who much prefers the company of young men; Muniya is the faithful servant who nurses her back to health. Chughtai’s story is told from the perspective of a child who finds the whole relationship sinister, and there’s an incident where the Begum appears to take an interest in the child. I love many things about “Lihaf” (most of all the mere fact of its existence) but this moment in which same sex attraction is shown to be predatory has made me uncomfortable since I read it. (Here‘s a piece that goes into some of this, and that also provides a translation of the story) Dedh Ishqiya strips these aspects of the story away, and substitutes Rabbu’s jealousy with Muniya’s demonstrative protectiveness, and leaves us with a loving, joyful relationship between two women.
  • I think it’s that joy that makes this film feel *important* — independently of the ways in which it is otherwise smart and funny and happy-making. I have friends whose reaction to the film was to be thrilled at seeing people like us onscreen and happy; that’s not really how I react to film, but I know that it matters. And it’s just thrown out there and accepted immediately by at least one of our main characters (I don’t think Babban has read Chughtai) and Khalujaan continues to treat the Begum with the same almost courtly love as before.
  • My screening of Dedh Ishqiya did not have subtitles as I’m told others did; it did have an interval during which one of the two trailers (the other was for something titled One by Two) was for Gulaab Gang. My feelings about this movie are more wary than anything else (though I hadn’t realised how much my 90s-Bollywood-watching childhood self craved evil Juhi Chawla) but I was rather pleased by how neatly some of the scenes in the trailer echoed others in the second half of the film I was watching. I’m now convinced that having driven off in their car and started a dance school, Begum Para and Muniya turn her students into a militant feminist group.
  • I do miss Vidya Balan though.

 

 

December 23, 2013

Bulletpoints: Catching Fire

I watched three movies in one week recently. This was one of them.

 

  • I remember so little of the books beyond basic plot that I find it difficult to be sure how far the things that are wrong with the film (there is a lot right with the film though) are also things that are wrong with the book. I’m not a fan of criticisms that excuse the film based on the book’s flaws though–particularly since I get the feeling that the biggest problem could quite easily have been fixed without too great a deviation from the book’s plot.
  • That biggest problem is this–that this is a series of three books about violent revolution told from the perspective of someone who remains unaware of said revolution (that her own actions exist within that context) until the end of the second book. It’s less glaring in the first book and movie, in part because we don’t know much about this wider context either. But one of the things the first movie did well, I thought, was to fully utilise its shift from the first to the third person and allow us to see things Katniss couldn’t. The second movie rarely does this; it seems that one of its strategies is to keep us as innocent as Katniss is.
  • Katniss’s innocence/moral purity/something is another interesting point. One of the complaints I had when I read the first book (and I saw many people say the same of the first movie) is the way in which, despite the awful circumstances she’s put in, Katniss never has to make a morally difficult choice. All the people she has to kill are presented not only as trying to kill her (it’s the Hunger Games, it’s not like they have a choice) but as fundamentally bad as well. ‘Good’ people who might have posed a challenge (Rue, whom she befriends and Thresh, who saves her life) are conveniently killed off by bad people. Catching Fire takes this and makes it a plot point–suddenly there’s an entire set of characters invested in making sure that Katniss never has to do anything that would make her morally grey, since apparently this would compromise her status as a symbol. (Which, Collins seems to suggest, would seriously compromise the revolution? I’m no expert on revolutions, but I have my doubts–but sure, let’s assume this to be fact.) I find this fascinating, because it’s as if we’re asked, in the second movie (and book? I can’t really remember), to notice something that feels like a clear flaw in the first book-and-movie.
  • That absolutely wonderful, believable moment where Katniss says no, really, she hasn’t got time to think about love because awful things have happened and she’s dealing with those.
  • YA gets a lot of flack for its love triangles (though I really don’t see that many in the YA I read) but this trilogy’s general treatment of romance is a lot more complex than it gets credit for. Love can be part performative, is at least partly voluntary, is ultimately part disposable. People can have no time for it, people can choose the relationships that won’t destroy them. Obviously there’s an element of wish-fulfillment in the fact that Katniss gets to do all of these things while two attractive men are pining for her, but why not?
  • This is connected to a general, practical heartlessness that we see glimpses of and that I adore. Think of Katniss calmly telling Haymitch that she wants him to volunteer (and therefore probably die) in Peeta’s place.
  • I do like that Peeta’s the stronger one in the political arena.
  • Finnick is Aquaman.
  • Perhaps it’s old age or general callousness or the sheer numbers involved, but I find it hard to care about the characters in the arena once I’m aware of what’s happening outside it. I went in expecting to cry quite a lot (I cry at all movies–I once managed to cry at Legally Blonde) and warned the friend with whom I was watching. He was a little confused, therefore, when I spent most of the time snickering at the pure evil being inflicted upon our heroes by the Capitol. I did get a bit teary at the early scene in District 11, but once that was over it was hard to feel very strongly about Katniss and Peeta and their struggle for survival.
  • In an early scene, Katniss is unable to shoot a turkey without having a traumatic flashback to her time in the arena. A couple of weeks later (we haven’t seen her shooting at all in the interim), when she’s training for the games, she’s fine. I can think of multiple reasons for this, but the movie chooses to visit none of them.
  • Didn’t Kristen Bell want to be Johanna?
  • Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket was one of my favourite things about this movie and I’m hoping that the next two movies are as ambivalent about her as I remember the books being.
  • I suspect that when I have few thoughts about a movie this whole bulletpoint format just highlights that fact and makes me look bad. Oh well.
  • Edit: It strikes me that a useful way of reading the trilogy (I’m sure someone’s done it properly by now) is as a progressive widening of perspective; beginning with Katniss’ very individual sense of grievance against the state, moving to the wider political ramifications of the games (beyond the ways in which they compromise Katniss’ selfhood, which is the driving force behind her rebellion in the first book), realising (as the audience also gradually realises) that other people have subjectivities, that Gale’s involved in rebellion as well as pining for her, that Prim has capabilities other than being saved, and so onward and outward to the events of the third book.
November 23, 2013

Bulletpoints: Thor: The Dark World

As ever, there are spoilers.

 

  • There’s very little that is new or startling about this movie, but it does have one scene that verges on revolutionary. An early scene is set on Vanaheim, where Thor and co. are bringing peace to the realm by hitting things (Sif is particularly good at hitting things). The battle ends when Thor explodes the biggest of his enemies (you’ve seen this in the trailer); Hogun tells Thor he’s planning to stick around for a while, and as the two men talk they walk past large barrels (urns? baskets?) filled with what look like spices. None of these barrels (tubs?) of produce has been overturned for effect during the battle.
  • No seriously, go back and read that again. I could not believe it.
  • It all begins with the voiceover from Lord of the Rings. We’re told of the evil of Malekith, the power of the aether (we’re not really told much about the aether, other than that it exists and is powerful), over scenes of battle. The Good (probably) guys get the aether, the dark elf army collapses, the good guys decide they can’t destroy this awesomely powerful thing (at which point one of the people I watched it with whispered “cast it back into the fire whence it came!”). It is all very familiar.
  • Other things are also very familiar. Asgard is a bit Rivendell and a lot Star Wars (I suppose this is unavoidable), a mid-credits scene is classic Star Trek.The aliens-crash-into-big-city-and-do-damage scenes are at least recognisably in London rather than some generic city, so that’s nice.
  • As ever, this wholesale destruction of Western cities makes me very glad that aliens rarely choose to stage cosmic battles in Delhi. (Think of all the overturning-things potential of Chandni Chowk though.)
  • arse-guardian“.
  • The whole thing feels rather unfinished. The music sometimes builds up to big climactic moments and sometimes forgets to, some of the dialogue has a distinctly *menacing speech goes here* placeholder-y feel to it.
  • Idris Elba has a tiny action scene where he chases an invisible spaceship and incapacitates it with a sword.
  • I think all this alien technology might not be as impressive as we’re led to believe? The excellence of Elba aside, if your large spaceship can be brought down by a single man with a pointy stick, you need to do better. Likewise, whoever’s responsible for Asgard’s security shield thing needs to ensure that it cannot be broken by someone throwing a punch at the controls. Meanwhile, Earth technology manages to turn an anomaly-detecty-thing into an anomaly-causy-thing in about two minutes, that strikes me as pretty good sciencing.
  • I love the Dark Elves’ armour, particularly the empty-eyed face masks.
  • I also love Christopher Eccleston’s elaborate hair. But this, as my friend Kate points out, raises the entire question of elven haircare–since Malekith probably isn’t doing it himself and most of his people are dead, do the remaining dark elves do one another’s hair? (I would read this comic)
  • As usual, tumblr is right in having the primary romantic relationship be between Jane and science. I’m not sure why Portman’s character has felt so inconsequential to me over these two movies–her badness at dating and sudden moments of science geekery almost made up for it here.
  • And they don’t sexualise her, or Darcy, or Sif, in any of the obvious places. Instead we get random shirtless Thor, which is so clearly put in as a “here you go, ladies”* moment.
  • DARCY.
  • Maybe it’s homesickness but Thor’s cloak (if that’s what it is?) reminds me of the draped shawl of an arty Indian man in a Delhi winter. Note to self: Chris Hemsworth is not a Bengali poet.

 

I’m sure I remember having other thoughts about this film. Hm.

 

*Straight and bi ladies who are into that sort of thing, and also anyone else who is into that sort of thing.

September 14, 2013

Bulletpoints: Madras Cafe

 

 

  • When I watched this film a couple of weeks ago, PVR Priya in Basant Lok was showing two films: Madras Cafe (obviously) and Chennai Express. Neither film is set in Chennai/Madras, though Madras Cafe does have a few scenes there.
  • Other people have written in much greater detail about the film’s glossing over huge swathes of the real political events it depicts-but-doesn’t-really (since changing everyone’s names/refusing to name certain characters is the best disclaimer). And I’m not confident enough of my own historical knowledge (and have too many Sri Lankan relatives) to add to this. For most of this post I’m going to pretend the whole story is fictional, but there are real-world consequences I can’t ignore.
  • Intent is not the best angle upon which to hinge one’s own critical position, but in some places I found myself wildly curious to know what the creators of this film were trying to do.
  • Was it, for example, their intention to create an Indian intelligence service that was quite this … unintelligent? The gormless but well meaning Vikram Singh (John Abraham) who only seems to know anything at all about the fraught political situation in Sri Lanka because he did his “homework”–his wife, who actually watches the news, at least seems to be aware that there’s a war going on. Perhaps she’d be better at his job than he is. The gormless but well meaning Siddharth Basu, who really ought to have stuck with Mastermind India–what are things coming to when T.V quizmasters are politicians? (*insert joke about Derek O’Brien*) The gormless but well meaning group of Indian government types who sit around a table and discuss the intervention of the country into the Sri Lankan situation, but apparently do not recognise the key figures in the war? All the way up to the gormless but well meaning ex-prime minister who seems to be useless at regarding warnings.
  • In the context of India’s 2014 elections I do wonder how this works. Well-meaning incompetence is pretty much the UPA’s electoral platform.
  • As a result of all this, Nargis Fakhri’s British-journalist-with-American-accent comes across as the most competent and well-informed person present. This isn’t saying much.
  • All of Fakhri and Abraham’s interactions go as follows. Abraham: please share your sources. Fakhri: I’m not sharing my sources, that would be bad journalism. Okay, here are my sources.
  • I’m also fascinated by the characters in the film and their apparent deification of not!Rajiv Gandhi. Gandhi was assassinated in 1991–at the time I was very young and in another country. So I don’t remember mass mourning, and I don’t remember my parents being hugely affected by it (perhaps they were and I was too young to understand, but I remember what they were like when the Berlin wall came down).
  • Madras Cafe has its characters genuinely adore not!Gandhi. When his wife dies, Vikram Singh mourns appropriately and goes back to work. When his ex-PM dies, Vikram Singh quits his job, stops shaving, and begins to haunt a church in Kasauli. Siddharth Basu’s character’s wife is brought into the film for about a minute only to express shock at not!Gandhi’s death and ask what wrong poor, innocent not!Gandhi did that he deserved to die? It’s the same question that Vikram Singh asks upon the death of his wife.
  • Which makes me wonder if we’re supposed to see all of these characters, and by implication the nation itself, as widowed by not!Gandhi’s death.
  • What’s more embarrassing, Judi Dench reciting Tennyson in Skyfall, or John Abraham reciting Tagore’s “Where the mind is without fear” in Madras Cafe? Ans: Do not put people reciting poetry in movies. Especially do not do this if the only relevant poetry you know is something you were forced to recite in school. I was cringing.
  • Sinister white people are behind everything.
  • It is very prettily shot.
August 13, 2013

3 ways of looking at Chennai Express

Trying to make sense of it all. I’d warn for spoilers, but I’m not sure you could spoil this film.

 

1. Deepika Padukone is not human. Okay, not entirely human. If the film is to be assumed to be set in the human world, she’s existing on a slightly different plane to everybody else.

I don’t mean this as an insult. Pretty much every review of the film I’ve seen has talked about how surprisingly good (“surprisingly”, because what she has to work with is a pretty terrible plot and a ludicrous accent) Padukone is–far superior to pretty much anyone else in the movie. One piece of evidence that she isn’t quite of this (the film’s) world comes shortly after the interval. SRK’s Rahul and Padukone’s Meena have convinced the innocent and morally pure inhabitants of a village that they are legally married and on the run from the bride’s angry family, and they are offered a room to stay in with only one bed. Comedy ensues, as the conservative southern girl does not want to share a bed with this man she barely knows, and man she barely knows asks if she thinks she’ll be unable to keep her hands off him. It turns out Meena actually has a pretty solid reason for not wanting him in bed with her — at night she is possessed by some sort of spirit that manifests itself in making her sway and mutter at him not to come near her and kick him out of bed. This sudden intrusion of the supernatural into the film’s world is never addressed, beyond a quick joke towards the end about a future in which she keeps kicking him out of bed.

But this moment is enough to suggest that there’s something not quite normal about Meena. In an earlier scene, Rahul suggested that Meena was some sort of harbinger of doom–that since her arrival into his life everything had gone horribly wrong. While this is probably unfair to her (his character is so irritating as to deserve all that happens to him) perhaps it’s another indicator that she exists on some level outside the film itself. In a later scene, an old woman tells the couple they’re destined to be together for seven lifetimes. Meena looks miserable. Perhaps this is because she’s doomed to be aware of all seven, perhaps it’s because she knows she’s going to spend a lifetime shoving a man old enough to be her dad out of bed every night. Meena spends most of her exchanges with Rahul gazing at him with a sort of fascinated disgust that makes perfect sense in context–but it works just as well if you see her as a sort of superhuman, semi-outside-the-text figure. We who are also outside the text can easily understand her pain.

 

2. Chennai Express is a film about the breakdown of language. One of the things that interested me about the film were the ways in which Rahul’s lack of knowledge of Tamil played a role. Rahul is our narrator, and much of the film is shown to us from his perspective. We’re not shown subtitles when those around him are speaking Tamil; we’re expected to share his incomprehension and hope that Meena (who he calls “miss subtitle”) will translate. At one point the film addresses this directly–yes, yes, Rahul tells us, he knows we don’t have a clue what’s going on either.

I’m not a Tamil speaker, but I’ve grown up around people who are and I generally understand what they’re saying. If this was made somewhat difficult by Rahul’s voiceovers occasionally cutting over what the other characters were saying, it was interesting to know that I was, in this very basic way, not a part of the film’s intended audience. Except, of course, that it is releasing in Tamil Nadu as well, and people are presumably going to watch it.

There’s an utterly bizarre scene about midway through the movie where Rahul is walking alone in a forest and comes across a dwarf sharpening a knife. This man, it turns out, speaks neither English nor Hindi, but communicates in a series of clicking noises. He and Rahul bond over their mutual inability to understand one another (or Rahul does- we’re not told what the other man thinks they’re bonding over), and how they’re both too old to have to learn new languages. Then they part.

On the surface there’s no point to this scene (a friend who was watching the film with me wondered if this was some sort of Tom Bombadil-ish digression), and that’s without even getting into the “a little person! How hilarious!” undertone that is apparently supposed to pass for comedy. The only possible function I can see in it is as a reference point for the end of the film, when Rahul’s voiceover reminds us that India has many languages, but that love has only one (the second half of this assertion is patently untrue). We’re all doomed to keep misunderstanding one another, to understand only a small fraction of what the rest of our countrymen are saying. Communication is an impossible mess, we’ll keep hearing “teri ma ki” when people are asking us “Tamil terima?” (or “monkey” when people are saying “teri ma ki”, as Harbhajan Singh’s defenders would claim). What “bakwaas” dictionary is Rahul operating from, asks Meena early on in the film. Indeed, what bakwaas dictionaries are we all relying on?

 

3. The patriarchy will reassert itself over and over and over and over and … Meena is running away from her family (by trying to catch a train that will take her to her ancestral village?) because her father is trying to force her to marry another man. Meena doesn’t want to marry, she explains to Rahul, before using him as a decoy fiance so that she can escape once more. Rahul having been introduced as Meena’s (supposed) preferred partner, he’s still expected to fight her previous fiancee to prove his own worth.

In many ways, Rahul is the opposite of the sort of man Meena has had chosen for her. He’s physically smaller and weaker than Tangaballi (though who isn’t?), from the other side of the country, and of a lower social class–for some reason she cannot get over the fact that he is a halwai. In embracing her fake (and later real) relationship with him she’s choosing a different set of values to the ones she’s expected to embrace, and a relationship in which she has at least as much power as him–though at present this power is derived from her facility with the local language and his fundemantal hopelessness more than anything else.

But first religion, then patriarchy (and the two are strongly intertwined here) pop up as obstacles. Rahul “proves” himself to have unexpected quantities of upper body strength when he carries her up 3000 steps to a temple to humour the innocent villagers among whom they have fallen; and Meena immediately begins to gaze dreamily at his sweaty face. When the two of them escape Tangaballi (again) by the sensible act of running away, she begins to hint heavily that he should marry her, sulking when he refuses to take the bait. For all that Meena has claimed she doesn’t want to marry, she doesn’t seem to have given thought to what she does want to do. Her options appear to be to lurk in a friend’s house in Pune, lurk in Rahul’s house in Bombay, or go home and marry. In the universe of the film, women with careers don’t seem to exist.

All this is moot though, since Rahul decides without Meena’s permission to take her back to her village. Meena has tried to escape the parameters within which her family and society seem to demand that she live her life; Rahul autonomously decides that no, he must win her freedom within those parameters, and face her father on his (her father’s) terms, not hers. An embarrassing speech (by Rahul, who has apparently transcended the language barrier and therefore rendered Meena unnecessary to this discussion about her rights) on the position of women in an India that has been independent for 66 years, leaves the listeners … unmoved. The patriarchy doesn’t care about your fine speeches. The patriarchy will only accept Rahul as Meena’s suitor (and Rahul has already accepted for Meena that the patriarchy’s acceptance is required) when he has proved himself on its terms–by beating the shit out of every man present. Rahul wins, he and Tangaballi shake hands; Meena has run away from the guy who wins women by beating up other men into the arms of the guy who … wins women by beating up other men. Her radical choice has been entirely co-opted into the system she wanted to escape. It’s so sweet how women think they might get some control over their lives.

 

I suppose there’s also 4. Arvind Kejriwal’s Epic Road Trip Across South India, 5. LOL, Madrasis, and innumerable others, but I refuse to do more. I watched Chennai Express with a devoted SRK fangirl and after a point even she couldn’t take it anymore. It’s utterly dire.

 

(Beth Watkins is far, far nicer to the film here)

July 26, 2013

Creepy uncles and Sixteen

I have a piece at FirstPost in which I talk about why one of the central plotlines of Raj Purohit’s Sixteen freaked me out. I may have used the phrase “creepy uncle gaze”. I may have linked to a song from The Sound of Music. I may have mentioned a Dev Anand film the world would prefer to forget.

July 23, 2013

Bulletpoints: Pacific Rim

There will be spoilers, and also squee.

  • Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes so very yes.
  • But also no.
  • Um.
  • Okay, so this movie has all the flaws of many other big summer movies. It’s incredibly cheesy, respectable actors are forced to mouth the stupidest of lines (poor Idris Elba with his “cancelling the apocalypse” speech), we never come anywhere near passing the Bechdel test, entire cities are destroyed without it seeming to matter to us that people’s lives are being torn apart because explosions are pretty, our hero falls in love with the sole female character.
  • The thing is, though, some part of my consciousness is just so immensely satisfied by giant robots punching giant monsters.  I think this might be how Michael Bay wants us to react to his films, at a level that is far removed from the intellect … I want to say something about lizard brains, but then I suspect I’d be more in favour of kaiju punching giant robots. I do not respond to Michael Bay films in this way. Here I was smiling throughout, even while groaning at the cheese.
  • There’s a moment when the young Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako is terrified and shaking and she sees Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost step out of his jaeger and he takes his helmet off and the sun is behind him and all you can see is golden light and that is what looking at Idris Elba is like and this movie gets that.
  • The fight scenes were at their best when they were at their silliest. Of course the kaiju can pick up a jaeger and carry it nearly into space; of course the jaeger has run out of weapons except for an actual sword; of course the vengeance-hungry woman co-piloting the jaeger screams “for my family!” while wielding it.
  • During the interval we (I watch movies with the best people) had an argument over whether someone involved in the film was a Lovecraft fan or a China Mieville fan. Del Toro loves his monsters which to me must indicate a familiarity with Lovecraft, but what with the breach under the ocean (The Scar), the occasional giant bones with cities built partially around them (Perdido Street Station) and the two-people’s-brains-required (Embassytown) …
  • The women, sigh. All …three (?) of them. There are a bunch of minor characters who could have been women without it causing some massive change in the script but no. Three women, of whom only one gets a name that is repeated so that one actually remembers it. There’s the Russian jaeger pilot who speaks maybe one word in the entire film, the nameless woman in Hong Kong who speaks to one of the scientists, and Mako, who is one of our heroes. Mako can take on our other hero in a fight, and is apparently supremely qualified to pilot one of these machines. Except that she has emotional issues that compromise her (and that nearly get a lot of people incinerated) and that somehow the men around her still feel the need to defend her honour (our hero gets into a fist fight). The men often treat her as delicate and inexperienced (and she is inexperienced, but the film chose to write her that way), and from the moment she gets into the machine Raleigh seems to take over.
  • The frustrating thing is that Mako comes so close to being the hero of this film (and see this for a more charitable reading than mine of how her character is treated). She has odds to face (her own personal demons that hold her back from being the brilliant pilot she’s capable of being), things to prove, daddy issues that aren’t really daddy issues because she and Pentecost mostly have what seems a respectful adult working relationship, more backstory than her co-star Raleigh (though I liked that he was also emotionally damaged). And I genuinely like that she doesn’t have to be a Strong Female Character and show a consistent ability to be tough and sassy and brilliant at everything. But. Pacific Rim isn’t necessarily interested in a traditional hero arc (and most of the time I think this is a really good thing about the movie); even the giant robots that power the story need two pilots with linked minds. And so Mako gets what feels to me like a raw deal; she gets the earlier obstacles and failures of the hero story, then as the narrative builds up to the point where she can prove herself, the focus shifts and we remember that this is not a hero story. She gets her big moment (it is cheesy and involves swords and I laughed a lot and it was great), but it’s followed by Pentecost’s big moment and Raleigh’s big moment (which involves near- sacrificing himself for The Woman He Loves) so it no longer stands out.
  • Most of the time Pacific Rim is entirely critical of the hero narrative, in any case. The jaeger pilots with their twinned minds and the need for emotional compatibility between them. The coming together of the various nations that we’re told of at the beginning– more on this in a moment. The heroes that think of themselves as heroes and act according to traditional lone wolf narratives, such as the younger of the Australian pilots, are horrible people. If this movie has a protagonist at all (considering the central plot is GIANT ROBOTS ARE PUNCHING GIANT MONSTERS) it has at least two, and possibly four.
  • And yet it insists on its heroes. Raleigh has to be willing to sacrifice himself to save Mako and the human race, douchebag Australian younger guy has to sacrifice himself as redemption, Pentecost has to sacrifice himself because Idris Elba is too perfect for this world, our small but dedicated team of heroes is going to Save The Day (shoutout to science dudes, who also helped). This isn’t so much teamwork as it is a collection of individual hero stories– and if I find myself struggling to articulate what the difference between those two is I’m not sure how much of that is my own incoherence and how much it is a general problem of not having those narratives to draw on for examples.
  • At io9, Annalee Newitz suggests that this film is somehow international, “a fairy tale for the global age”. She says ” There is no undercurrent of American patriotism, the way you get in Transformers or Independence Day. It’s just humans against monsters. No nation or group can do it alone … we need to stop identifying as Americans or Chinese or Russians — we need to identify as humans”. And agreed it’s  lacking most of the America, yeah!ness that characterises many big budget action films. But this is setting a low bar, and let’s not do that. The jaegers we see are American (but run by one American and one Japanese pilot), Chinese, Russian and Australian, okay. Pentecost has a British accent. And most of the film is set in Hong Kong. Surely this will be the smart, multicultural film the world needs? But the Chinese characters don’t talk, the Russian characters don’t talk; apart from Mako (and I don’t even know how citizenship works in a post-giant-monsters world; would Mako have taken on Pentecost’s citizenship at some point in the last howeversomany years?) all the dialogue is between English guys, American guys and Australian guys. Quite a reasonable proportion of the people in the background in this picture (via Vulture.com) are black, and maybe we can choose to believe that most of them are from countries other than England, the USA and Australia–it’s not like we can be proved wrong, since they don’t get to speak. The movie is unable to get away from the reality of the actual population of Hong Kong, but they barely speak either. And this is the thing–we can’t forget that we’re “Americans or Chinese or Russians” when being only one of those things is a guarantee of being heard, and when the people celebrating the global diversity of movies like this somehow fail to notice that most of the world doesn’t get to speak. So is it possible to make a movie where two out of three of the main actors are non-American people of colour, set it in Hong Kong and still provide a vision of the future in which England and America (and white Australians, because they’re not The West but they kind of are) are the active parties who save us all? Apparently.
  • Right, back to short, bulletpoint-sized points. What was with all the shoes? If baby!Mako was wearing one tiny red shoe and carrying the other, surely this meant she had both shoes? And what was with Ron Perlman’s character losing a shoe and having someone pick it up? Is this a world where people just randomly take other people’s shoes as souvenirs? Is it secretly Cinderella fanfic in some clever way I haven’t understood?
  • Possibly the one aspect in which this film shows restraint is in its refusal to give us more than a glimpse of the alien world from which these creatures come. I respected that. I also wished I could have seen a Del Toro fantasy landscape though.
  • We terraformed the world for monsters. Whoops. It’s information provided in a  throwaway line that doesn’t turn itself into a Message, and somehow becomes the more effective for that.
  • I genuinely thought the baby kaiju was going to think comedy scientist guy was its mother. I feel like that comedy subplot was not taken to its full potential.
  • There is a dog that lives. There is an awkward confession of love right before the glorious last stand that the characters will probably not survive. There are awkward confessions of parental love as well. Cliches are embraced with an enthusiasm that (mostly) makes them incredibly endearing.
  • No one makes a “once more into the breach” joke, despite ample opportunity to do so. This is a genuine loss.
  • A nerdy English scientist wears a bowtie and says “by jove!” I will forgive many movies many things for this.

But I loved it. And I have Issues. And I want to watch it again just so I can watch my friends watch the fight scenes because pure, childish glee is something I find I value a surprising amount.

 

July 16, 2013

Redface, Cumberkhan, and whitewashing in Hollywood

Apparently I have been so openly grumpy about Hollywood whitewashing in recent months that I was asked to do this piece for the Indian Express. It is considerably shorter and less ranty here than it was in first draft, at least.

 

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In an interview with the cast of Star Trek Into Darkness, done months before the film was released, actors were asked to choose a favourite Star Trek villain. John Cho, who plays Hikaru Sulu in the rebooted series of films, chose Ricardo Montalban’s Khan Noonien Singh, adding pointedly that he was  also “a man of colour”. Cho’s comment may have

(The newspaper version of this piece may not have contained this picture)

seemed innocuous enough at the time. But the same interview included Benedict Cumberbatch who was at the time only known to be playing the villain of the movie. A few months later we were subjected to the ridiculous spectacle of the lily-white Cumberbatch declaring “my name is Khan”.

Hollywood has a history of changing the ethnicity of a character, either by rewriting them as white, or by having white-skinned actors don “blackface” (or “yellowface” or “redface”) in performances that frequently lampooned them through the use of racial stereotype, as in the whole tradition of minstrelsy. While it is generally accepted that blackface is no longer acceptable (though a Hindi movie used the trope for humour earlier this year), the number of non-white characters played by non-white actors is still far smaller than one would expect it to be.

Racebending.com was an organisation formed in 2009 by fans of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The series was based on a number of Asian cultures, yet Manoj Knight Shyamalan’s adaptation failed to cast Asian actors in the major positive roles.

It is not simply a case of getting the “best” actor for the job, though that excuse is often trotted out. In an industry where white is the cultural default (unless a role is specified as belonging to a character of a specific ethnicity it is too often assumed to be white) talented actors already have a difficult time finding a range of complex roles. Even when ethnicity is specified, it is sometimes not clear enough for the culture around it. When the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games was released last year, there was a wave of internet outrage over the casting of the character Rue. Collins had mentioned Rue’s dark skin and hair more than once but this wasn’t enough for readers, who went so far as to suggest that the character seemed less “innocent” and her death less tragic when played by the African-American actress Amandla Stenberg instead of a light-skinned, blonde girl. Viewers also expressed anger at the movie Thor, when Idris Elba was cast as a minor character. The idea of race-blind casting seems to be trotted out selectively, and rarely to the advantage of non-white actors.

Most recently, there’s Johnny Depp’s performance as Tonto in The Lone Ranger, which released in theatres this week. Tonto has long been a controversial character, a pidgin-speaking sidekick whom a number of Native American critics have found to be a demeaning stereotype. Depp has spoken about the potential for reimagining the character in a respectful way, perhaps even mocking the racist depictions that have come before. But none of this answers the question of whether or not Depp should be playing Tonto in the first place. Depp claims some unconfirmed Native American heritage, and has been adopted as an honorary son by a member of the Comanche Nation, but this hardly makes his casting appropriate. Surely Disney (or Depp himself, if the project is so important to him) could have produced a film with a Native American actor in the part? Debate will continue to rage, people will continue to point out that there are no Native American actors of Depp’s stature (and why would that be?) and the cycle will continue. (Edit: I was going to link to one of Native Appropriations’ posts about Depp and Tonto, but here are all of them)

But there’s hope. Iron Man 3 came as a huge surprise this summer. When the most recent movie in the franchise, starring Robert Downey Jr was announced, much attention was focused on Ben Kingsley’s turn as The Mandarin, a character originally portrayed in the comics as a half-Chinese supervillain. Kingsley, of course, is not Chinese (though he is part-Indian) and to many fans this particular casting choice, and this choice of villain, seemed potentially fraught. In the event, what the film offered was a partial deconstruction of the “yellowface” it seemed to perpetuate; The Mandarin wasn’t a Chinese man at all, merely an English actor (though one far less successful than Kingsley) playing to stereotype. This is still far from ideal, and the movie’s exploitation of its own seeming racism for effect is problematic. But the implication that the movie recognises that audiences are aware of this debate is heartening. If, as the blogger Marissa Sammy at Racebending.com suggests, the makers of Star Trek Into Darkness deliberately used the secrecy surrounding Cumberbatch’s role in order to avoid criticism, this too is heartening in a way. It suggests, at least that the issue is finally making its way into the public discourse to an extent that it can no longer be ignored. What Hollywood chooses to do with this information is yet to be seen.

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