Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The gay romantic comedy is a strange hybrid. Dennis Lim , writing in the Village Voice, says that Bumping Heads, a short in the Boys Life 4 anotholgy is "stupendously inept", a "blabbering concussed cringefest of unrequited lust". Lim, like his colleague Michael Atkinson, is guilty of overkill. Dave Kehr, writing in the New York Times, says that gay indies havce become "much less overtly political" and "tend towards naturalistic comedy and drama, trading slogans for complex emotions.".

I have nothing against Bumping Heads which I found slight and pleasing. It belongs to that genre of indie romantic comedies, which adopt multiple-points-of-view narrative, overlapping voiceovers and intersecting flashbacks to jazz up a light romantic story-line. What I object to is that this short is placed in a gay shorts anthology even though, it has really nothing to do with the experience of being gay.

The same goes for "This Car Up", an annoyingly pretentious story that claims to be about serendipity and fate when it is really nothing much more than a series of meet-cutes lifted straight from the movies. Again this one is buoyed up by its fancy syntax: four split screens, two to map out its protagonists and two that act as their thought-bubbles.

The other two shorts can at least claim to be "gay". O Beautiful which is again filmed mostly in split-screens (suprisingly well, I must say) is about the aftermath of a hate crime. The premise and the movie's ambition and it's fearlessness to venture into melodrama are it's strengths. Its actors' tics and mannerisms are it's liabilities, as well as its inability to make the melodrama really affecting.

The worst film in the anthology is LTR, a preening, elbow-digging pseudo-documentary. I suppose Philip Bartell thinks that filming a mock documentary on two twinks who rhapsodize about love committment rings is insightful. Well, it's not. This is the kind of movie that tries to make itself good by making its viewers feel superior to the protagonists. Forget about insight, it's not even remotely funny, except when the documentary-maker ends up having a fling with one of the guys he's filming.

Is it a sign of progress and amalgamation that indie gay cinema is leaning more towards light romance rather than "serious" examination of gay issues? Not really. It'd be a sign of acceptance if gay romantic comedies found a place in romantic comedy anothologies, rather than gay anthologies. This is clearly not the case. Gay romantic comedies are clearly marketed towards gay audiences. The need of the hour is to take the gay out of the romance.

The star of Quills far from being Geoffrey Rush is Joaquin Phoenix. As the Abbe Coulmier, he is the anachronistic good-hearted liberal, a man of faith who tries to solve all his problems by compassion. He is deceived repeatedly, by the Marquis, and even by the inmates of the lunatic asylum he runs, but he retains his kindness. Being kind is probably the only way he has of retaining his sanity, but the film implies that this probably might also have been the reason for his undoing.

consider this scene where the the Abbe realizes that the Marquis has been publishing his pornographic books behind his back. He storms into the Marquis's cell with a copy of Justine, but is sidetracked when the Marquis asks him if he has read the book. Phoenix's voice almost breaks with indignation. "Its not even a proper novel. ....Frankly it even fails as an excercise in craft. The characters are wooden. The dialogue is inane. And not to mention the endless repetition of words like ...(pause) nipple and pikestaff". I found Phoenix's performance breathtaking; the battle between lust, love, duty and innate kindness plays out on his face on a near operatic-scale. I'd never have thought that the lugubrious Phoenix and the winsome Kate Winslet would make a heart-breaking couple but they do. Winslet is amazing (as always). So is Rush.

It is the character of the villain, played by Michael Caine, that ultimately trips Quills up. The man is a monster, with no redeeming qualities about him. He sodomizes his wife, a child of sixteen, presumably because that way, she retains her virginity. He practises torture ruthlessly, and for all practical purposes derives a kind of sexual pleasure from it. He condones murder, kills people, drives them insane. He is probably the embodiment of the AntiChrist (and I use that word only because the film uses it once) that probably the Marquis thought he himself was. But the man is frankly, not believable. And in directing all the source of evil to this one person (what about the Marquis himself? He wasn't a saint now, was he?), the movie reduces its own complexity.

But beyond a doubt, the film is a masterful piece of work. It is sumptuous in its look and feel even when its second half is filled with blood, death and torture. It even tries, by its own standards, to show the other side. The conservative argument against pornography is that it gives people "ideas". A key plot development in Quills rests on an inmate, who wants to try out the things he hears in the Marquis's work. The puritan right can no doubt use this plot-point in the movie to justify it's stand on pornography or any "deviant" sexual act. But the Marquis was not a man who only dealt in normal kinky sex between consensual adults. As so many commentators on this film have pointed out, he was an aristocrat who believed that his position gave him (and others like him) a license to kill (and torture, and mutilate) for pleasure and sexual gratification. What should our reaction be to his work now? The cannibal case in Germany has shown that kinky sexual acts must be constrained; S&M torture has to be within boundaries, if it involves taking human lives, however consensual. The question: Can the Marquis de Saade be our hero in opposing the puritan right? The movie's answer is an emphatic yes; but since it softens the Marquis considerably, by turning him into nothing more than a witty kinky indomitably scoundrel, I don't quite agree.

Friday, June 18, 2004

John Sayle's Lone Star is a quiet contemplative well-crafted film, but what distinguishes it from it's competitors is it's texture. In a space of two odd hours, Sayles manages to create a series of rich sketches involving more than 10 characters. On the surface, of course, it seems like a crime-thriller when the discovery of an old skeleton prompts the local sheriff (Chris Cooper, brilliant!!!) to launch an investigation. The investigation is more of an excuse for Sayles to examine a small Texas town in all its contradictions. I have never seen a movie with so many characters, each of whom is so strongly written. The movie does however have a final "twist", but its not the one I'd been expecting. The delicate, yet stunning end, is the movie's tour de force. A great movie!!!

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Is a satire successful if it never reveals its true nature? Or a colossal failure?

Robrt L Pela, in his review of What the #$*! do we know?, compares it to the faux documentaries of Christopher Guest. This is cavalier treatment of Guest, all of whose movies from Waiting for Guffman and the more recent, A Mighty Wind, are extremely funny and a treat to watch. Aside from the Polish Wedding sequence, What the #$*! is greyly unfunny, endlessly repetitive and in the final analysis, tedious. In his review, Pela mentions "those humorless movies that soft-pedal science to those of us who wouldn't know the nucleus of an atom if it entered us from behind". This one however makes no attempt to even soft-pedal science. Sure, we get a lot of talk about quantum mechanics, but there is never an attempt to explain it, howsoever rudimentarily. No Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle, no dual nature of matter. Maybe, it is "too wacko to be what it claims to be: a semi-serious documentary", but it is never really wacky either.

Despite what Pela says, I don't think that movie is intended as a spoof. The behavior of its talking heads - who perhaps think that the best way to hammer a concept into our heads is by sheer mind-numbing repetition - indicates otherwise. But on its own terms - that is, as a semi-serious docudrama - it is even worse. It starts off with a gratuitous extrapolation of quantum mechanics, which is applied in a seemingly arbitrary manner to all manner of things from the nature of reality to the presence of free-will. The metaphysical mumbo-jumbo used borders on cant. Then, we veer off into neuro-chemistry - emotions are compared to addictions – and then suddenly, the talk turns to the nature of God. But it's only in its tedious final quarter that the movie reveals its true colors. All of the talk - quantum theory, neuro-chemistry, and even the dubious meta-physics - is in support of that standard staple of self-help hacks - - "I am what I think I am".

Concurrent to all this is the fictional narrative of a young deaf-mute recently-divorced woman whose conception of reality changes. A smirking young boy asks her "How far down the rabbit-hole do you want to go?” And later on she stumbles on to a woman who talks about how the power of words changed the shape of water molecules. The movie asks us to imagine what we could do to ourselves if we only thought right. At the end, our protagonist has dutifully started loving herself and becomes a more satisfied person (or so the movie would like us to believe). This straight-for-TV story is interesting only because of some delightfully funny animated sequences - sequences, I must say, that are strangely incongruent with the rest of the movie.

Is Pela spoofing himself when he recommends the movie as “fine family entertainment”? I have never been less entertained in my life. The movie peddles bad science – and what’s more, its bad film-making too. This is a self-help book/movie masquerading as a scientific documentary-parable. Instead of wacko insights, we get repetition. Instead of soft-pedaling science, we get pseudo-scientific rubbish.

I just wish that the film-makers had made an all-out faux documentary instead. Their animated sequences cackle with energy and a few times, even had me convulsed with laughter. But finally, I hope to God that the movie was intended as a spoof, even if an unsuccessful one. Because otherwise, it becomes not just a bad film, but instead criminally bad film-making that ultimately endorses bad science.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

West Side Story would probably have been a much much better movie had it been a dance-musical without dialogue. Alas, the movie does have have characters that talk and one cringes to hear them sometimes. When Natalie Wood makes her climatic speech over her dead lover's body "All this happened because of HATE", the more cynical among film viewers might burst into laughter, while the more restrained ones (I count myself among them) would merely squirm in their seats and wait for the scene to end. It is said that the redoubtable Pauline Kael called Wood "machine-tooled" and her character "so banal that she destroyed all thoughts of love." Typical Kael! Maybe its just the way the character is written. What, for example, can one say about Wood's character Maria, who at one point (when her lover has killed her brother), tells her lover, "Hold me! Tighter!!", and goes limp in his arms? Wimpy, I thought, as I watched the movie. Get a hold on yourself, girl.

Without those jarring dialgues though, the movie is marvellously choreographed by Jerome Robbins and has a fine score by Leonard Bernstein. The first set-piece begins with a stationary frame, continues into gorgeous overhead shots of Manhattan and then zooms right into a basketball court to introduce us to the Jets and the Sharks. The greatest compliment comes from Roger Ebert who says that if street gangs could dance, they'd have danced like the Jets and the Sharks. And they would, really. Robbins manages, by the sheer force of his dancers' moves, to bring out the arrogance, the power, and even the fights. (I've never seen anything like the Rumble which is a dance-fight scene.) The movie comes alive during the dances, in a way, that makes it seem even more dissapointing when it's characters start talking. The foot-tapping number America is easily the finest in the film and the dancing in Cool is simply breathtaking.

There is a performance in the movie that is brilliant, moving even, but it belongs to Rita Moreno, who plays Bernardo's girlfriend Anita. The scene were she almost gets raped by the Jets is the most harrowing scene in the film. (Even this has been choreographed as a dance.) Her dancing, her dialogue, even her singing carry the kind of conviction that no other actor is able to match, except while dancing.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Today I remembered Richard Goldstein's article in the Village Voice, where he had mentioned conservative columnists David Brooks and William Safire's volte face on the issue of gay marriage. Since the op-ed pieces in the New York Times cannot be accessed after 7 days (that is, unless you want to shell out an absolutely incredible sum of money for an article - what do they base their prices on anyway?), I did some appropriate googling (God, what would we do without Google and the net?).

David Brooks article can be found here.. Safire, however is a slippery nut and it is hard to figure out exactly where he stands on the issue.

Brooks opens his piece with the line.
"Anybody who has several sexual partners in a year is committing spiritual suicide. He or she is ripping the veil from all that is private and delicate in oneself, and pulverizing it in an assembly line of selfish sensations."
The equation of monogamy and marriage with morality is very common even today, despite the sexual revolution. And I don't find it strange that Brooks, staunch conservative that he is, is almost dogmatic on this point. However rather than monogamy being the moral thing to do, I prefer to think that most people opt for a monogamous life, not because it saves their soul, but because, it satisfies, in some way or the other, their human desires. Brooks is essentially condemning people, who would prefer living an alternative life-style, of say, promiscuity. I don't know whether I should be pleased that Brooks is supporting gay marriage or angry about his reasons. ("sanctifying love with marriage and fidelity", "sacred relations"). There are points when the writer does hit home though. Like Francis Fukayama in his The End of History, Brooks is clear that it is the idea that marriage is a contract - a social contract, maybe, but a contract nevertheless - is the reason why so many marriages end in divorce these days.

The idea of morality must not be confused with a person's sexual ethics. There is something ridiculous in the idea that a man in a monogamous relationship is moral simply because he has sex with only one person. Even more ridiculous is the idea of classifying acts as moral or immoral. This is at best, an oversimplification, at worst, clear distortion.

I read Tony Hendra's wonderful book Father Joe - The man who saved my soul recently. When young Tony commits the "sin" of adultery with an older married woman, Father Joe tells him that his sin was not one of fornication but of selfishness, of subjecting an unhappy woman to his own needs. Hendra writes simply but the book moved me absurdly. It illustrates perfectly how, by judging human beings based on their sexual habits, one ignores the context behind those laws completely. It takes Father Joe, a monk whom Hendra unabashedly calls a saint, to show us that.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Something's Gotta Give

To get a few things out of the way, Something's gotta give has the worst trailer I've ever seen, rivalling even Moulin Rouge. And while, claiming to be a film about an older woman, it unintentionally ends up endorsing views that are, uh, contrary to its intentions. (I guess we probably have to wait till Roger Mitchell's The Mother is released) Lets just say that it tells me that most post-menopausal women in their fifties better stick to someone their own age (or older, for that matter) rather than going for younger handsome hunky doctors (Keanu Reeves gives a performance that I can only call delicious). And oh, you really don't stand much chance unless you look like Diane Keaton (who gives new dimensions to the word gorgeous). And that wierd title!!! Couldn't they even think of anything else?

I wasn't thinking of these things when I actually did see the movie though. The movie is pat, predictable, filled with romantic musical montages, but I enjoyed it. Writer-director Nancy Meyers gives her actors dialogue that has a sitcommy feeling, but you end up liking it just the same. After a customary meta-session, where both characters (Keaton and Nicholson) recite each other's biographies, Keaton says "The truth is, it all goes by real fast, doesn't it?". He replies, "Yeah, in the blink of an eye.". I wonder if Keaton and Nicholson were thinking about themselves when they said it but whatever may be the case, the moment strikes a poignant chord. And then there is an oddly hilarious post-coitus scene, where both of them start sobbing. The crying is played for laughs, but its oddly touching.

Nicholson and Keaton are unparalled comic actors. And, without sounding too pompous, the best comic acting is one where the dialogue is played for laughs but the underlying sadness comes out. I've never seen Nicholson give a sweeter performance and as for Keaton, the best thing to say is that she is the indisputable star of the movie, that was essentially designed to show her off.

After their parting, Harry hears about a play that Erica has written that is ostensibly about their own relationship. And they have a wry understated conversation.

she: what did we have? i'd like to know......
he: can i email it to you when i figure it out?

she: you worry about me?
he: yes, honey, the schmuck, who deserves to *die*, worries about u
she: doll, i'm doing great...so you dont have to....

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Syntax, Setup and Revelation: The problem of syntax in movies

I saw Alejandro González Iñárritu's 21 grams on it's release last year. To say that it is not an interesting movie would be insane. The movie is an impeccably crafted piece of work but it doesn't quite work. Inarritu's previous feature, Amores Perros, had a similar plot (an accident that links three different people), a somewhat similar structure but it worked, in a way that 21 grams does not. Probably because even if conceived as an essay on chance, fate and love, it has a gritty realism and some brilliant acting (particularly Gael Garcia Bernal, whose feverishly intense face is the high-point of the movie). The acting in 21 grams is right up there; even Sean Penn manages not to overwhelm the movie. But it ultimately fails because its structure overwhelms its themes. The movie's avowed purpose may be the exploration of grief but its lurchy narrative anesthetizes it's audience.

The other problem is that the film seems to be building up to a kind of cosmic revelation (although one can see it coming a mile off) and the revelation cheapens the movie's themes. It was the same with Atom Egoyan's Exotica which has a similar structure but a little more polish.

There is a problem here. Movies like 21 grams use their plot/themes as a launching pad for their fancy syntax rather than the other way around. Would 21 grams, for instance, be the same film if it was narrated linearly instead of it's current random structure? It would and probably be all the better for it. But then it would then not build up to it's grand revelation. What about Exotica? Now, of course, things change. Exotica may be much more polished in it's non-linear narrative but once it reaches its climax, the movie is strangely empty. Exotica hooks its viewers because of its syntax and the surpise-elements, which makes 21 grams a slightly better movie.

Anthony Minghella's gorgeous The English Patient and Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter are, to my mind, the only two movies that manage to blend their syntax seamlessly with their set-up. Both however are based on novels that are classic non-linear narratives. Michael Ondaatje's novel slips from flashback to flashback while Russell Banks' The Sweet hereafter is a striking point-of-view narrative.

(To be cont'd)

Friday, June 04, 2004

Is there an actor more beautiful than Ewan McGregor? And what a pity that his wonderfully expressive face is not put to more use. McGregor was brilliant as the naive protagonist of Moulin Rouge and Big Fish, two flawed movies for which he doesn't get enough credit despite the freshness and vitality of his performances (and that voice!!!!!!). Yet he can be terrifyingly feral like he was in TrainSpotting, Velvet Goldmine and now Young Adam.

David McKenzie's taut low-key film stars McGregor as Joe, who works for for a bargeman, Les, played by Peter Mullan. The movie is unflinching in it's protrayal of barge life, dark, uncomfortable and mind-numbing. To relieve his boredom, Joe indulges in mindless bouts of fucking and there is something disturbing about the way Joe eyes Les's wife, Ella, played by Tilda Swinton. Their relationship and the discovery of a body in the barge of a woman named Kathy, with whom Joe apparently had another sexual fling, is the crux of this rivetting movie.

McGregor, Mullan and Swinton are amazing. I find it unbelievable the amount of dedication that Swinton brings to her roles. As Ella, she brings a kind of feverish intensity to the sex scenes, which are stark, dank and rough. McGregor gets to project a kind of sinister narcissism that he hasn't displayed since Velvet Goldmine and his performance only goes to show that he's the most under-rated actors today. Not to mention the most beautiful!

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Imagine my horror when I stumbled across a blog supposedly by Google creators Larry and Sergey. It is titled Page and Brin's Blog If Page and Brin did write something like this, what a sensation that would cause. It would almost be like...... the height of hubris. But relief!! - it all turned out to be a parody.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Romantic comedies don't really get much better than Bounce (2000), Don Roos' comparatively main-stream, yet extremely satisfying follow-up to his scintillating The Opposite of Sex. Working strictly within the rules of the genre, Bounce could be a text-book study for the writers of all the tedious romantic comedies out there on how a movie can be predictable yet endearing. That it has two good-looking stars in the lead doesn't hurt it either.

Paltrow steals the show in Bounce. Her acting is mannered and sometimes has a sitcom-like feel to it, but it's a marvellous performance right up there with Shallow Hal, Shakespeare in Love and possibly Sylvia (which I haven't seen yet. I was surprised how restrained Ben Affleck managed to be in the movie. This is his best performance, definitely. The real star of Bounce is however Roos, whose dialogue, while sometimes (but very rarely) glib, is brilliant. I am waiting for his next movie, called Happy Endings.

Oh and for those who watch Bounce on DVD, stay away from the second disc. In The commentary (Roos, Paltrow and Affleck talking about certain scenes), Roos reveals that the dialogue about "No arguments" was ad-libbed by Paltrow but Ben, frankly, sounds drunk. And when Gwen and Ben (yikes!) mention that the fact that they went out helped their performance in the movie, all you want to do is hurl the DVD out of the window.