Saturday, July 31, 2004

I just got back from the execrable "The Village" just now and I can safely say that M. Night Shyamalan has probably created his silliest plot twist ever. Which, I guess, was bound to happen some day or the other. How can a man create an entire story around a plot twist? Yet that is exactly what Shyamalan does. It helps, of course, that he is the master of the medium. There are a few scary sequences in "The Village" that are, well, exquisite. Its just that Shyamalan is never content to make just a good old-fashioned scare picture. He needs to put something else in there as well and as far as it goes, his pseudo-philosophy is just not as interesting as his direction. Take Signs, for instance. What could have been a standard alien-scare picture (and boy, was it scary!!) is instead some kind of fable for proving that God exists and whats more, that miracles are possible. To say that this is hokum isn't quite right but as David Edelstein has pointed out, a director utterly in control of his story and his characters is almost God.

In "The Village", Shyamalan tries to spin up a political allegory. It is never very clear when exactly the movie takes place but we do hear something at the end about combat casualties. The idea seems to be that creating a money-less insular society away from all "evil" might be the best way for us, considering the decadence we've fallen into. But Shyamalan, not surprisingly, (his movies are inevitably about ghosts and gods) injects religious overtones into the movie - the idea peddled is that the village is a holy place, full of love and innocence, a veritable paradise, in fact. Michael Agger has noted in Slate that Signs became a hit only when it was adopted by Christians as a movie about the power of faith. The same could work for The Village, despite that fact that God, in all of Shyamalan's movies, is a non-denominational entity.

There is nothing wrong with a film-maker working with different themes in a thriller. Hitchcock, on whom Shyamalan clearly models himself (the point-of-view shots, the total control over the camera and the music, even the cameo appearance), clearly grappled with love, obsession and desire, even though, on the surface his films are all routine thrillers. But Shyamalan's thinking is sloppy and his pseudo-religosity borders on the exploitative. Can an insular world - a closed ecosystem - really be that "holy"? This is an idea that seems to possess everyone - from woolly-headed Gandhians to even more woolly-headed globalization-protestors. Hell, before the British came to India and started their whole-scale exploitation, villages in India were mostly self-sufficient, closed-off ecosystems. But were they really such "ideal" societies? We see reports of atrocities and hate-crimes everyday and most of these take place in small towns and villages. An insular system is a sure recipe for stagnation - human progress comes from an inter-play of ideas and resources. But Shyamalan, of course, will have none of that. Instead, he combines his ideas with his religious fervor so well that such logical objections must necessarily be cast aside. It helps of course, that he does not have the mentality of a raving street-prophet, that his movies combine nerve-jangling sequences with a stately, glacial pace, qualities that could be easily mistaken for profundity.

Shyamalan's great talent is directing young actors with spooky looks in their eyes. Haley Joel Osment in the Sixth Sense, Rory Culkin in Signs, and now Bryce Howard in The Village. I was impressed with Howard who makes her debut here. I loved Joaquin Phoenix's acting in Quills and although, his performance here is sub-par, the man still manages to be interesting. As for The Village, go see it for the scares - but please, Mr Shyamalan, lets stop all this pseudo-profundity.
Make no mistake about it, Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart is an angry polemic. There is little poetry in it, or beauty or any of the things that we so admire in art these days. The play is an angry howl of rage, the rage of a man who fought the system and encountered systematic indifference, apathy, even outright hostility. Kramer's greatest achievement in the play is that he manages to walk the thin line that separates righteousness from self-righteousness.

Ned Weeks (who, I suppose, stands for Kramer himself) is an angry young man. He is strident, shrill, disagreeable and very very annoying. Kramer himself spent months creating a group that would help raising AIDS awareness. He was also fired from the same group he helped create before he wrote Normal Heart. The play is a damning indictment of everyone in power when the AIDS epidemic began. Like his earlier novel Faggots (which I haven't read yet) , it is also an indictment also of the gay subculture that has separated sexuality from the mind so completely that it was the easiest target for the HIV virus.

The Normal Heart recently had a revival in Chicago where it received a luke-warm reception. The NYT even carried a touching letter in response to their article on the play's closing.

Friday, July 30, 2004

I am having a hard time wrestling with my demons after seeing the Irish film "Cowboys and Angels" recently. It's not just the fact that people I watched it with found it "sweet" or "cute", who told me with frank bewilderment in their voice, "How could you *not* find it cute?". Was the movie an unabashed piece of populist film-making? Yes, most definitely. Is that bad? Again, definitely not. I've never been a big fan of far-left criticism (read The Village Voice) that casually dismisses movies that it considers even remotely populist.

But its more than that. Consider "Cowboys and Angels". It traffics in cliches. Like a sort of Irish version of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy", it has a queer guy and a straight one. Both room-mates. Of course. Of course, the straight guy gets a make-over courtesy the queer guy. There's the inevitable fag-hag who the straight guy has a crush on. There are a couple of gangsters who complicate matters. There's drugs and a little (just a little) bit of sex. And of course, there's the customary happy ending with the even more customary rites-of-passage. All of this, handled rightly, could definitely have made for a "cute" movie.

But Cowboy's problem is not the the cliches it peddles. It is the movie's fucking tepidness (or is it tepidity?). Its utter lack of dramatic intensity. The way it meanders in different directions but never - never - ever backs up its cuteness with emotions. Midway through the film, our hero reveals that he lost his father in an accident and had to give up his dreams of college. The scene is played with the customary weepy background score - but it amounts to nothing more than words. The actual import of what has happened is never conveyed - neither by the cute actor Michael Legge nor by the film-maker himself. The deep bond that develops between the room-mates by the end of the movie remains a screen-writer's device. It is not even remotely in evidence on the screen. And the movie's set-piece - a scene where the gay guy tries straight sex and a homo-thug goes down on the straight guy - is so contrived that I actually burst into laughter.

For a movie that calls itself gay - and markets itself as a plea for tolerance (blah!!) - there's a curious double standard on display here. Like NBC's Will & Grace, homosexuals are fine - hell, they 're even amusing - as long as they don't have sex. The movie's one moment when the gay guy is actually shown having sex - if it can be called sex, that is - is also it's biggest cheat, proving that in movies, characters are functions of plots.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Fernando Meirelle's City of God (or rather, Cidade de Dues, as my friend calls it - its so much more glamorous!) is filled with astonishing visual tricks.  The narrative is full of little digressions and detours yet the weave is astonishing.  The movie made the adrenaline literally sing in my veins, I got up around the room, I paced, I paused the movie when I wanted to savor a moment. It's like a well made MTV-video - the shot-composition is brilliant, the cuts and the fades are just right and the music - the music! - is one throbbing rave.  The movie pulses like a heart - a live heart. 

Yet for all its virtuoso techniques - and it is brilliant film, really! - the movie left me uneasy.  Now a film, that, for most parts is full of gun-toting kids, some of whom are barely five or six, would make anyone uneasy.  But its a little more complicated than that.  The movie made me uneasy because it wasn't uneasy enough about what was going on.  It's all there - the City of God was created to keep the poor away from the posh confines of Rio, the law is absent, only the fittest survive and children get inducted rather early into the cult of violence - but the movie uses all these elements as the raw materials in it's jazzy syntax to craft, what is ultimately, an action film.   There is no moral center in the city of God. 

Our protogonist is a photographer, a little like the director of the film himself.  Yet, his photography, and his camera, to him, are little more than instruments of escape - of escape from the City of God itself.  He - and consequently, the movie and the viewer - learn nothing from what is happening around them.  The startling thing about the movie is that the rites-of-passage it promises at the beginning never really happens, instead our hero remains stuck in his limbo - he may appear to have climbed out of it but he's stuck nevertheless. 

I hate to sound like a puritan nag here.  I've never felt that movies needed a moral to be good - particularly if the moral was one of those old out-dated cringe-worth cliches that we often pass off as morals.  The exhilirating movies of Quentin Tarrantino, for example rarely offer any morals, as such.  Critics of Tarrantino have criticized the nihilism of Kill Bill, with it's fetishistic violence.  (Interestingly the same critics would never say the same of the sadomasochistic violence in The Passion of the Christ).  But Tarrantino's movies take place in their own parallel world and in that specific world - he imbues his films with feeling and even, may I say it, with honor.  City of God, on the other hand, uses it's realism in a way that borders on the exploitative - it's been adapted from a book which took the author 8 years to write and which is based on his own experiences in the City of God. 

It's a great movie - just not that great!