Finally Catching Up with Apu

I finally saw Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy in its entirety this week. And yes, I loved it.

Epic in scope, the trilogy follows the life of poverty-born Apu from birth through young adulthood. None of the three films has a plot in any conventional sense, but they all brim with drama, laughter, joy, suspense, and heart-breaking tragedy. In other words, they’re about life in all of its complexity.

Except that it’s specifically about life in India in the first third of the 20th century. That means a very precarious life, in a society where dying of old age is rare. Almost everyone whom Apu loves dies too soon, and always of natural causes.

And it’s also, even more specifically, about the life of one man and his family.

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The films have been newly restored from some very damaged elements. The original negatives were destroyed in a fire in 1993. But L’Immagine Ritrovata at the Cineteca di Bologna did the seemingly impossible, physically restoring much of the burnt negative to the point where they could be scanned. What they couldn’t recover they scanned from other sources, and you can see the quality difference. The restoration is a miracle.

I saw the films on consecutive nights at the Shattuck.

Like all great filmmakers, Ray didn’t work alone. Much of the film’s power comes from the musical score by Ravi Shankar (not yet famous in the West). I’m not enough of an expert to know for sure, but I think that Shankar’s music showed greater western influence in the last film, The World of Apu. That makes sense, because Apu’s world becomes slightly more westernized as the story progresses.

Subrata Mitra’s atmospheric photography brings a great deal to the films–especially the first one, Pather Panchali. Set in a rural village, the light plays with trees in ways that are both beautiful and dramatic. I don’t know if Mitra was influenced by Kazuo Miyagawa’s work on Rashomon, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

And of course there’s the cast. Four actors played Apu at different ages throughout the trilogy, and they all seem to be the same person (not that the transitions are as smooth as those in Boyhood, but Ray couldn’t wait that long). Kanu Banerjee and Karuna Banerjee give excellent performances as Apu’s parents, and Sharmila Tagore as his wife.

Ray’s eye for unusual faces rival’s Kurosawa’s. He finds people who seem grotesque, but deeply human and therefore beautiful. Consider Chunibala Devi–the 83-year-old actress who plays the only major character who gets to grow old. (Of course, there are plenty of attractive people in the cast, as well.)

Okay, a quick rundown of the films themselves:

Pather Panchali
Our hero is born early in this film, which then skips a few years so we can know him as a curious and mischievous child. Upbeat in nature, Apu seems to delight in the world around him–despite considerable hardship. His rural family lives in desperate poverty, and his educated but dreamy father’s unrealistic optimism doesn’t help. Apu’s mother is far more level-headed, and that makes her far more scared. Meanwhile, Apu and his older sister Durga play and fight and avoid their responsibilities. There’s a great deal of joy in this film, but a greater deal of tragedy.

I’m very tempted to give Pather Panchali an A+, but I think I need to see it a few more times before I can be sure it deserves that grade. So consider it a very high A.

Aparajito
As is so often with trilogies, the middle film is the weakest, but it’s far from weak. Apu grows from late childhood into late adolescence, and his view of India and the world widens considerably. He excels in school and becomes excited by science. In many ways, it’s a more optimistic film than its predecessor; this kid just might be going places.

But there’s a heavy price to pay for advancement out of his class. His now widowed mother can’t bear to lose Apu to the world.

I give it an A-.

The World of Apu
The adult Apu leaves college, but seems reluctant to grow up. Like his father, he’s a dreamer, and assumes that good things will come his way. His best friend from college does much better, but then, he came from a rich family. One good thing does come his way: He marries, almost by accident, and finds happiness and true love. But tragedy is never far away in Apu’s world.

As with Pather Panchali, I’ll hold off the temptation to give it anything higher than an A until I’ve had a chance to revisit it.

Death and families: Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (Blu-ray review)

No horror movie can come close to the fear, dread, and dark hatreds of Ingmar Bergman’s great chamber drama, Cries and Whispers. To watch it is to face the end of a slow and painful death by cancer. But that’s not all. This film, centered around four women and set almost entirely in one house, forces you to face the neglect and out-and-out cruelties with which we treat those who should be closest to us.

This is not escapist entertainment.

Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is in the last stages of a long decline. She’s weak, terrified, and often in horrible pain. Her two sisters–who can barely stand to be in the same room with each other–have come to the family home to help ease her passing. How do you face the death of someone you love? Or worse yet, someone that you think you should love, but there’s very little love in your soul.

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One suspects that life has been easy for the stunningly beautiful sister Maria (Liv Ullmann). So easy, in fact, that she doesn’t know how to react in a crisis. When she watches someone’s suffering, she doesn’t rush forward to help, but holds back and cries. A respectable, upper-class wife and mother in late 19th century Sweden, she’s as immature and flirtatious as a teenager.

The other sister, Karin (Ingrid Thulin), is almost her polar opposite. She’s cold and remote. She does what she has to do, and behaves properly. But she can’t stand impropriety or physical contact.

The fourth woman is the household maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan). She’s been with the family for years, and spent many of those years nursing Agnes through her long illness. Unlike Maria and Karin, Anne truly loves Agnes. When Agnes complains of being cold, Anne crawls into her bed to keep her warm. Were they lovers? Hard to say. When Anne cuddles Agnes, the image is closer to a mother comforting a small child.

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The confined story appears to happen over a few days. Flashbacks provide some backstory, and introduce us to Maria’s and Karin’s husbands. But even these take place in the family estate.

You can recognize the interior of the house easily; everything is red–walls, carpet, curtains, and furniture. At the end of a scene, the film fades not to black, but to red. It’s a strange choice, but the right one. All of that red produces a sense of blood, of passion, and of the womb.

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Thank cinematographer and long-time Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist for those reds. He allows the crimson to dominate the image, without it ever looking false or getting out of control. Nykvist clearly deserved the Oscar he won for this picture.

imageAs you would expect, Bergman drew brilliant, loving, yet horrifying performances out of the four leads. When we first meet Agnes in an extended close-up, Andersson’s eyes look directly into the camera with a fear that we all must experience when we face our mortality. When Maria attempts to seduce a former lover (Erland Josephson), her face shows a combination of lust, fear, and pride, confidence, and a deep uncertainty.

I’d have a hard time naming another drama as intense or emotionally realistic as Cries and Whispers. And yet it flies by like an action movie, and has scenes that could have come out of a horror film.

First Impression

Cries and Whispers comes in the usual transparent Criterion case. The cover shows imagea close-up of Andersson–in black and white tinted red (of course.)

When you open the case, you’ll find, along with the disc, a fold-out dominated with an article by Cambridge professor Emma Wilson named–believe it or not–Love and Death. When you’re dealing with such dark matters,the comic reference is appreciated.

Like all Criterion Blu-rays, the disc comes with a timeline so you can bookmark favorite scenes. When you insert the disc into a player on which you played that disc in before, you’ll have the option to get back to where you left off.

How It Looks

Nykvist didn’t win that Oscar for photographing pretty pictures. Or sharp ones. Cries and Whispers uses defused light and soft focus. In other words, this isn’t the movie you use to show off your cool HDTV.

But the transfer does its job. Those ubiquitous reds are deep and rich, yet never bloom out of control. The atmospheric lighting, usually replicating sunlight or oil lamps, does exactly what it’s supposed to do. Neither Bergman nor Nykvist lived long enough to approve of this transfer, but I suspect that they would.

How It Sounds

I have no complaints about the uncompressed PCM 1.0 mono soundtrack. It’s the mix that Bergman approved, and it probably sounds as good here as it did in the projection room. It certainly sounds better than it would on a 35mm print with a 1973 optical soundtrack.

It also comes with an optional English-dubbed track. I didn’t listen to it. The newly-translated English subtitles are just fine.

And the Extras

No commentary track, but still plenty of supplements.

  • Introduction by Ingmar Bergman:1080i; 7 minutes. A subtitled interview from 2003. It’s rather long for an introduction, but it contains some interesting stuff.
  • Harriet Andersson: 1080p; 20 minutes. The actress in conversation with film historian Peter Cowie, recorded in 2012. Quite wonderful, especially the behind-the-scenes footage of the cast and crew goofing off while making this extremely serious film.
  • On-Set Footage: 1080i; 34 minutes. More of that footage, this time with commentary by Peter Cowie. An interesting overview of the film’s production.
  • Ingmar Bergman: Reflections on Life, Death, and Love with Erland Josephson: 1080i; 52 minutes. Interview with director and star from Swedish TV,1999. As I have not yet watched this one.
  • On Solace: 1080p; 13 minutes. 2014 video essay by cinema theorist  ::kogonada. Disappointing. His dull, monotone voice suggested a profundity that simply wasn’t there.

Criterion has done justice to one of Bergman’s best films.

French Girls in the hood in Girlhood (my review)

B+ Coming of age drama

  • Written and directed by Céline Sciamma

When we first meet Marieme (Karidja Touré), she’s part of a school all-girl football team. Soon afterwards, an unseen counselor tells her that her grades aren’t good enough to get her into high school. (Apparently high school has requirements in France.) she’s failed the same year twice , and the counselor thinks that a vocational school would be better for her.

Marieme goes through many other joyful and wrenching experiences over the course of the film. Only 16 years old, her options in life are horrifically limited. She tests these options, and finds acceptance and community only young women who rob, steal, and fight. She lacks the maturity to see this as a dead-end lifestyle. Although Girlhood has many scenes of love, affection, and real happiness, the overall effect is deeply disturbing.

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Don’t let the title fool you. This French drama has nothing to do with last year’s indie hit, Boyhood. It’s not set in Texas and it wasn’t shot over a period of 12 years. The original title is Bande de filles. When I asked UC linguistics professor Eve E. Sweetser for a translation, she suggested "Band/troop/gang of girls," pointing out that "Bande doesn’t mean musical band (or dance troupe), but would cover, for example, robber bands?" I’m guessing that Strand Releasing renamed the film Girlhood so that people would associate it with Richard Linklater’s work.

Considering Marieme’s family situation, it’s no surprise she’s doing badly. Her mother works long hours and is rarely home. There’s no mention of a father. Her older brother, apparently a gang member, is often abusive and violent. She takes on much of the responsibility of raising her two younger sisters, whom she clearly loves.

The neighborhood she lives in–within commuting distance from Paris–looks like what we in America call the "projects." Everything is ugly, and drugs and crime are everywhere.

So Marieme joins up with three girls whose lives seem far more exciting than hers. They wear cool clothing. They strut with confidence. They rent a nice hotel room and party through the night. They fight with other girls. They take what they want, often with the threat of violence. Marieme, now calling herself Vic, starts carrying a switchblade.

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And yet, she’s still a very loving person. You see it in the way she cares for her sisters, and also with her new-found friends. They’re all cheering each other down a very bad road, but the love and concern they have for each other is deep and genuine.

Vic also finds another kind of love in her romance with Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté). He clearly adores her, and the two are very sweet together. Nothing in the film suggests that he’s anything other than a decent young man.

Writer/Director Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies–another worthwhile look at adolescence) tells the story with an unblinking but sympathetic eye. She examines the various micro-communities that Marieme/Vic wanders through, finds the parts that make them attractive, and shows decent people in all of them. But she also lets us see the rot beneath both them and the overall society that makes them possible.

I would have very much liked to have seen Marieme find a happy place in the world, but Girlhood isn’t a fairy tale. It is, however, very much worth seeing.

Divorce Israeli Style. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

A Courtroom drama

  • Written and directed by Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz

Viviane Amsalem moved out of her husband’s home years ago. But her remote and stubborn husband won’t give her a divorce. The resulting court case spans years in this chamber drama from Israel.

The filmmakers chose a simple, direct, inexpensive, and very effective way to tell their story. Although the film covers many years in the lives of the main characters, it’s entirely set in a small, plain judicial chamber, with a few scenes in an adjoining waiting room. As in a stage play, the characters’ lives outside of that room are only alluded to in dialog. Although the protagonist, Viviane, has a life and runs her own successful business, the limited settings emphasize that in a very real way, she’s trapped.

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Let me explain: Despite the fact that most Israelis are secular, Orthodox rabbis own a monopoly on Jewish matrimony. You can’t get married or divorced without their approval. And by their rules, only the husband can grant a divorce (gett in Hebrew). If the husband has been particularly cruel, the rabbis can put pressure on him, and even jail him. But only he can set his wife free.

And so the hearings continue. Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) explains the nightmare of her marriage. Her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) proclaims to be a good man and good husband. Witnesses speak on both sides. And little by little, we learn about their lives.

He’s deeply religious and keeps kosher. She grew up that way, and was Orthodox when they married, but now wants to leave religion behind her. And here she is, trying to win the sympathies of three Orthodox rabbis who may hopefully force Elisha’s hands.

Elisha is not a violent man, but he’s cold, self-centered, and horrifically stubborn. You can easily see what a nightmare it would be to be married to such a man. Even the rabbis–who one would assume are pre-disposed to favor an Orthodox man over a secular woman–hate him. But they can’t grant a divorce without him.

Over the years (scenes are separately by intertitles that tell us how many months have gone by), Viviane’s look and demeanor show her growing secular leanings. Her clothes get less modest and more modern over the course of the film.

The picture doesn’t tell us everything about Viviane’s life. For instance, we don’t know if she’s sexually active–quite possibly because she doesn’t want the rabbis to see her as an adulteress. But there are fleeting moments that suggest she has something to hide. And a few glances between her and her very handsome counsel (Menashe Noy) suggest a mutual, although probably not acted on, attraction.

There’s no question that Gett is a didactic film. It’s clearly meant as an indictment of the Israeli system of marriage and divorce. But it’s also an intimate tale of a very bad marriage, told in an atmosphere so claustrophobic that we only see the outside world twice–and both times through a window. And only twice, outside of the opening and closing credits, do we hear music.

Daring in its stripped-down style, Gett never makes you wish for a more expansive canvas. It may make you thankful for the first amendment.

Whiplash and the All-Male World of Jazz

I saw Whiplash a couple of nights ago. I liked it. It was tense. I very much wanted the protagonist to succeed, even though he was kind of a dick. Veteran actor J.K. Simmons, playing the most evil music teacher since Hans Conried in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., finally got the juicy part he so long deserved (he’ll also deserve the Oscar he’ll almost certainly get Sunday). And best of all, the music was great.

But it was set in a New York City that was almost entirely male, and pretty much white.

In Thursday’s Chronicle, Mick LaSalle wrote an excellent piece on the achingly few good roles provided for women in today’s American movies. He didn’t mention Whiplash, but it really made his point.

The film is set in what appears to be a very classy, totally fictitious music conservatory, apparently devoted entirely to jazz. And it’s an almost entirely all-male school? I saw one young woman among the students. We never heard her name, and if she had a line of dialog, I don’t remember it. She played sax.

Since that conservatory was created by writer/director Damien Chazelle, he was completely free to select the demographics of the student body. So why was the ratio of boys to girls something like 40 to 1?

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Whiplash tells the story of a young drummer determined to become a great and legendary jazz musician. His name is Andrew, he’s played by Miles Teller. He is, of course, a white man. Simmons plays the teacher/bandleader Fletcher, also a white man. About half of the class are black men. But the important characters, including Andrew’s father and the drummers he competes with in class, are also white.

In reality, this teacher would have been fired long ago. He’s verbally abusive, and sometimes physically so. He uses sexist and homophobic insults. Obviously, in his view, you get the best out of a budding musician by loudly insulting his manhood in front of his peers. The film doesn’t suggest that these insults are in any way acceptable–Fletcher is, after all, the villain–but it seems strange that he’s been apparently getting away with this behavior for years.

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There is a sort of female lead in the film, and…you guessed it…she’s Andrew’s girlfriend. Their relationship doesn’t last long. That’s hardly surprising–Andrew is a single-minded narcissist. To the film’s credit, the break up avoids the usual clichés. I don’t think she’s in more than four scenes.

Almost every American film, Hollywood or independent, is male centric, but this one seemed especially extreme. As I said, I liked Whiplash, but it left an uncomfortable taste in my mouth.

Timbuktu: Tyranny works slowly

A political drama

  • Written by Abderrahmane Sissako and Kessen Tall
  • Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako

At first glance, life in the fabled city and the surrounding prairie seem to have changed little over the centuries. But there are changes far more unsettling than the ubiquity of cellphones. An armed group of Muslim fundamentalists have taken over the area. Music, smoking, soccer and women with bare hands are now forbidden.

Abderrahmane Sissako’s remarkable film sometimes feels like one of those Altman movies about intertwining lives. We meet the gentle and forgiving imam who tries to tame the fanatics, the fishmonger who refuses to wear gloves while selling her fish, the young people unwilling to give up music, and the Islamist official who secretly smokes.

But mostly, we get to know the cow herder Kidane and his family. They live in a tent outside of town, they don’t have much money, but their lives are rich in love. Not that they’re living in the past. A prized cow is affectionately named GPS (I suspect that the 12-year-old daughter had something to do about that). Kidane will face horrible consequences before the film is over.

Timbuktu

At least his tragedy is, to a large extent, self-inflicted. Everyone else is inflicted by the new, fanatical rulers of Timbuktu. And yet, at least at the beginning, even they don’t come off the way we westerners imagine such people. Yes, they’re walking around with big guns and creating ever-more restrictive rules. But they act calm and friendly, and they seem reluctant to enforce the new rules. In other words, their fanaticism hasn’t completely destroyed their humanity.

Sissako and film editor Nadia Ben Rachid give Timbuktu a slow and stately pace. People think before they act. Much of the dialog is through interpreters (not everyone speaks the same language), so much of the dialog has to be said twice. The camera often lingers on an image. And yet, not for second did the film bore me.

The slow pace also enhances the strange, off-beat humor. In one remarkable scene, a group of teenage boys in a field play soccer with an imaginary ball. When some Islamists drive into and around the field, the boys quickly switch the calisthenics. Once the men with guns disappear, the imaginary game restarts.

As the film progresses, the fanatics become less of a joke and more of a mortal threat. People get whipped for infractions. An Islamist takes an unwilling bride over the objections of the young woman’s mother. A couple are buried up to their necks and stoned to death.

Timbuktu’s overall sense of tragedy and helplessness sneaks upon you slowly. I suspect that’s how it happens in real life.

Godard and Wilder: Friday Night at the Pacific Film Archive

What do Jean-Luc Godard and Billy Wilder have in common–aside from the obvious? The Pacific Film Archive is currently running series on both of them: Jean-Luc Godard: Expect Everything from Cinema and Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder. Friday night, the PFA screened one film from each series. This was not a double bill; each movie required a separate ticket, and the films didn’t really go together. As far as I know, I may have been the only audience member to attend both screenings.

The night started with Godard, and ended with Wilder.

Germany Year 90 Nine Zero

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To be honest, I wouldn’t have bothered to see this film if I wasn’t also going to the Wilder one. I rarely enjoy–or get anything out of–a Godard film. But the last time I saw a Godard film at the PFA, I was pleasantly surprised. I thought maybe I’d be surprised again.

No surprise this time. Made for French television in 1991 (he was asked to make a film about solitude), Germany Year 90 Nine Zero is a dull meditation on all things German, made just after the wall was torn down. As Eddie Constantine wanders around the former East Germany, playing an out-of-work spy, multiple narrators talk about German artists, Communism, Nazis, the Holocaust, and whatever. News clips and shots of monuments fill the visuals. Much of what the narrators say, at least judging from the subtitles, sounds like an adolescent’s idea of profundity. A few juxtaposing images were clever, but that was about it.

The 35mm print was okay, but had seen better days.

Ace in the Hole

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Billy Wilder at his most misanthropic.

A once-great, now washed-up newspaper reporter–a man with a lot of talent and no scruples  –stumbles upon a big story: A man is trapped deep inside a cave, his legs pinned beneath rocks. The reporter (Kirk Douglas) makes the personal possible tragedy a national sensation. Huge crowds gather to camp out and watch the rescue. Politicians turn up. The whole thing becomes a county fair (the film was alternately titled The Big Carnival). The reporter, hoping to milk the story for as long as possible, pulls strings to delay the rescue.

I first saw Ace in the Hole on broadcast TV. That would have been in the late 1960s. It was broken up by commercials, and I was about 12. Friday night was my second experience.

It’s a pretty good melodrama, heavy its message–which feels very timely these days–and extremely bleak. The characters are all types, not people. The last act stretched my credibility. I enjoyed it, but it’s not one of Wilder’s best.

But it is one of his biggest. I don’t think I’ve seen a Billy Wilder film with so many crowd scenes. Of course, since it was set in the present (1951), Paramount didn’t have to spend much on costumes.

The PFA projected Ace in the Hole off a DCP. But it was a poor transfer that often looked more like video than film. Oddly, the opening credits were windowboxed (black bars on all four sides). This is common for transfers intended for TV, but I’d never seen it before for a theater-bound DCP.

And now, I’d like to discuss what bothered me about the final act. If you haven’t seen the movie, and object to spoilers, please stop reading now.

I mean it.

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Okay, everyone here willing to read about the ending?

As the story nears its end, the reporter grows a conscience, and tries to force the trapped man’s cold and bitter wife to wear a fur her husband bought her. The argument turns into a fight, and she stabs the reporter with scissors. As he bleeds to death, he drives to a church, picks up a priest, drives back, takes the priest down into the cave to give the trapped man last rites, returns from the cave, hops a makeshift elevator (a moderately impressive stunt done by Douglas himself)  to the top of the mountain, gives a speech, lets his sidekick drive him to town (which we’ve been told is a three-hour drive), goes back into the newspaper office, and manages to deliver a clever line before dropping dead.

As I said, the last act stretched my credibility.

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