Friday, December 28, 2007

77 Barton Street

“Joy Division’s guitarist, Bernard Sumner, recalls teenage years blighted by the simpering commerciality of the pop charts: he told me recently, with a wince, that one of the reasons he’d wanted to form a band was hearing the song ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’. Not enough attention has been paid to how depressing light entertainment can be....The teenagers who formed Joy Division found their role models in bands from a previous era that had ‘lifted the lid on things’, as Sumner puts it: the Doors, the Stooges, Can and The Velvet Underground. Like other post-punk bands, Joy Division believed that music could be a medium for unsettling ideas. They also believed in the DIY aesthetic (putting out records on their own label, or a small independent label), and rejected punk and all the sloganeering that had gone with it. Tony Wilson, a hugely influential figure who ran Joy Division’s record label, Factory, explained the shift: ‘Punk enabled you to say “Fuck you,” but somehow it couldn’t go any further. Sooner or later someone was going to want to say “I’m fucked,” and that was Joy Division.’”

—Dave Haslam, “77 Barton Street,” from the London Review of Books, 3 January 2008

A lot of this is journalistic oversimplification: plenty of punk bands were self-excoriating, and as for sloganeering, a buddy of mine and I recently spent half an hour trying to unpack the lyrics of the Sex Pistols’ “Holidays in the Sun” (here’s a sample: “Claustrophobia / There’s too much paranoia / There’re too many closets / So when will we fall?”; I’m sure there must a slogan in there somewhere). The idea that Joy Division rejected punk will be puzzling to anyone familiar with “Interzone” or “Shadowplay” or “Disorder” or “Ice Age” or any of their music, really. And the DIY aesthetic they embraced was central to the ideology of punk, even if in practice many bands (the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Gang of Four) ultimately abandoned it—to their regret.

And some of what Haslam reports in the full article is hard to credit: apparently Ian Curtis’ bandmates now claim that they didn’t pay any attention to his despairing lyrics. But the article—a review of two recent books on Joy Division, as well as Anton Corbijn’s film Control (2007)—is worth reading. And despite my major misgivings (I only lasted through 20 minutes of 24-Hour Party People (2002)), it makes me want to see Control. I’ll post again on Joy Division when I do.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sholay

SholayI'm hesitant to write about Sholay (1975) because it has such a revered place in Bollywood history. Sholay often makes it onto lists of the best Bollywood films, and indeed received Best Film of 50 Years at the 50th Filmfare awards ceremony. While it's hard to compare eras, it is listed by BoxOfficeIndia.com as the highest-grossing Bollywood film of all time after adjusting for inflation. It's the movie that made Amitabh Bachchan a superstar, and many of its scenes are now considered classics.

So in the face of all this acclaim, why is my reaction to Sholay so lukewarm? Why would I rather watch Rani Mukherjee and Sonali Bendre cavorting in Shimla (see my review of Chori Chori) than Amjad Khan frothing his way through his role as Sholay's psychotic villain Gabbar Singh? Before you slap your forehead in disbelief and stop reading, let me explain why, for me, Sholay doesn't live up to its legendary status.

It's been described as a "curry Western," and the parallel to Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns is deliberate. Like Leone's films, Sholay is a self-conscious pastiche of elements from other movies. In the case of Sholay, elements are lifted from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), High Noon (1952), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and its Japanese original Seven Samurai (1954), and Leone's own films.

Sholay's borrowings from Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) are especially blatant. Much of the plot is lifted directly from the Leone movie: two petty thieves, Jai and Veeru (a young Amitabh Bachchan and a slightly gone-to-seed Dharmendra) are recruited by a former cop (in Leone's film, it's a widow) to take revenge on the gang that terrorizes his village and that has massacred his family.

Warning: multiple spoilers follow.

Sholay's director Ramesh Sippy restages many scenes from Once Upon a Time in the West--only less effectively. In the opening moments of Once Upon a Time In the West, a young boy emerges from a house, crying, and wanders among the bodies of his murdered family. Then (if I'm remembering correctly; I haven't seen the film in 20 years) a shadow falls over him. He looks up--into the blue eyes of Henry Fonda. Your first impulse is to think that he's saved, that the sheriff has come to rescue him; Fonda has to be a good guy, of course. Then a shot rings out, the boy crumples into the dust, and we're staring into Fonda's blue eyes again. Only this time we see in them the cold stare of a brutal killer.

In Sholay's massacre scene, which comes in a flashback halfway through the film, Gabbar Singh's gang slaughters the family of the Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar). A young boy runs out of the house--and is immediately blasted by Gabbar Singh. There's no similar moment of (delusional) hope, or any ambiguity in the casting (Amjad Khan plays Gabbar Singh as a demented sadist from his first moments onscreen).

The action of the final gun battle in which Jai single-handedly holds off the bad guys trying to cross a bridge is also badly managed. I'm not complaining about the unerring aim of the good guys or the seemingly limitless manpower and ammunition that the gang can bring to bear--those are pretty standard features in "Westerns" of all nationalities. But at one point the gang rolls a bundle of dynamite onto the bridge. If it goes off, of course, it will destroy the bridge (making it impossible for the gang to get across), but apparently they didn't think of that. When the dynamite doesn't go off and Jai's gun falls silent, the bad guys decide to advance en masse across the bridge. You can probably guess what happens next, although the bad guys evidently couldn't. Ramesh Sippy needed to rewatch Leone's The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966) or even Buster Keaton's The General (1927) to see how the bridge/dynamite thing should be handled.

There are other direct borrowings from Once Upon A Time in the West in Sholay; for example, Jai periodically plays a lonesome harmonica, just like Charles Bronson's character (named Harmonica) in the earlier film. But if the idea was to suggest a parallel between their characters, it's misguided. As Jai, Bachchan lacks Bronson's sense of inarticulate menace, and the tension between the two hired guns in Once Upon A Time In the West (Bronson's face is an impassive mask--his limited acting abilities become an essential part of what makes his character so unsettling) is replaced by Bachchan and Dharmendra's Butch Cassidy-Sundance Kid buddy act.

That act is indeed a pleasure to watch, and it's easy to understand why this film made Amitabh Bachchan the epitome of cool. Hema Malini is also terrific as the flirtatious love-interest Basanti. There are other effective moments: a Russian roulette scene which holds several surprises; and the end of the film, where the good guys don't entirely triumph and the closing off of possibilities is beautifully symbolized (I'm trying not to spoil these moments for anyone planning to see the film).

I realize that as someone who doesn't speak Hindi and who must read the dialogue in subtitles, I'm missing out on a key dimension of the movie. Most people who praise Sholay talk about its endlessly quotable dialogue (Javed Akhtar and Salim Khan are credited as the writers). But for me it's impossible to escape the feeling while watching Sholay that the movies on which it's based surpass their Bollywood reincarnation. Of course, several generations of Indian filmgoers couldn't disagree more.

P.S. For a thoughtful introduction to Sholay (and to Bollywood in general) aimed at western viewers, see the Sholay page of Philip Lutgendorf's Philip's fil-ums: Notes on Indian Popular Cinema.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Chak De! India

"Anyone who watches a movie on video is guilty of an aesthetic crime of which they are themselves the victim."

--Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies

Beth's recent posts on Om Shanti Om reminded me that there are movies that are best experienced in a theater with an audience. As Exhibit A, I submit Chak De! India (2007), a movie whose plot is almost indistinguishable from any number of Hollywood sports movies. You have the ex-jock coach who's trying to redeem his own failures; you have the multi-ethnic group of fractious individuals gradually coalescing into a team; you have the rebellious star players gradually coming to see the effectiveness of the coach's "no stars" approach; and of course, you have the Big Game, where it all comes together in a moment (actually, two moments) of truth. (And no dance numbers, alas--the (few) songs serve as soundtracks to montage sequences of training or travel.)

In a theater with a cheering audience, the timeworn elements of the sports movie would probably be less apparent. On a TV screen in your living room, they're harder to ignore. But what makes Chak De! India worth watching, in spite the sports-movie clichés being checked off one by one, are the committed performances by its actors (amazingly, this is the film debut for most of the members of the team, and Shah Rukh Khan gives an excellent performance as the coach), the keenly observed details of the characters' lives, and most of all, that it's about the Indian national women's field hockey team. It was pretty great to see a group of strong athletic Indian women making no apologies for sweating, fighting (there's a great scene in an Indian McDonald's (!) where the team physically schools some impolite men in how to properly address their sisters) and playing all out on the field--all portrayed without the slow-motion prurience of a film like Personal Best.

And unlike Bend It Like Beckham's bending over backwards to assure us that the two female friends at its center are only friends, none of the team members in Chak De! India is given a crush on the coach to prove her heterosexuality. Not that the team members are portrayed as having no sexual lives; it's strongly implied that one of them is sleeping with her cricket-star fiancé, and it's treated with no undue emphasis. (Another player offers the coach sexual favors in exchange for playing time with a calculating weariness that suggests that she's had to do this before.)

If its matter-of-fact sexual politics aren't remarkable enough, there's another striking aspect of Chak De! India. Before the big game, we see the coach Kabir Khan praying to Allah for his team's success. I don't think I've seen a Hindi film before where a character's Muslim faith is treated as simply part of who they are; certainly I can't recall ever seeing any character played by SRK (himself a Muslim) invoking Allah in a film. There are also oblique references to Hindu-Muslim tensions (Kabir Khan and his mother are driven from their neighborhood after he misses the shot that would have won his Big Game) and an implied criticism of the emotional emphasis placed on sports outcomes in Indian society (though Indian society is hardly alone there--perhaps Steve Bartman could give us some insights about the overemphasis on sports in American society, if he could emerge from hiding).

In Paheli SRK endorses a woman's right to control her own sexuality, and Chak De! India attacks the pervasive sexism that views women as less capable than--and showers all the money, equipment, facilities and attention on--men. It should inspire a movement for an Indian equivalent of the US's Title IX, but its message is also broader: that equality of opportunity should exist throughout society. It's a message that we in the US should take to heart as well.

So all in all Chak De! India manages to be a pretty remarkable film in spite of the unavoidable sports clichés. See it for the small and large details of each woman's struggle to excel, for the oblique light it shines on some knotty issues in (not only) Indian culture and society, and for the sheer exuberance of the performances. And not because you'll be surprised by the outcome of the Big Game.

Postscript: after writing the above, I learned that Chak De! India is based on a true story--the gold-medal performance of the Indian women's field hockey team at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The team was led by Mamta Kharab (seen in the photo at right), on whom Chak De! India's character Komal (played by Chitrashi Rawat) is based. So reality offers the ultimate rebuke to my talk of clichés--sometimes underdogs do overcome impossible odds.

Postscript 12/6/07: It turns out that the actual Pauline Kael quote is: "If you watch a great movie on TV, you will be committing an aesthetic crime, of which you are the victim." Since both versions of the quote are a bit awkward I'm citing the correct version here, but I'm going to leave the "quote" at the head of this post as it is.

Friday, November 23, 2007

La Rondine

La Rondine ("The Swallow") is a rarely-performed Puccini opera. After seeing Wednesday night's performance at the San Francisco Opera, it's hard to understand why it's not almost as popular as La Bohème or Verdi's La Traviata, operas with which it shares plot and character elements.

Perhaps those inescapable echoes of the better-known operas are part of the problem. Both La Rondine and La Traviata center on a Parisian courtesan's attempt to escape her role and sustain true love. La Rondine's second act takes place in a dance hall that bears more than a slight resemblance to La Bohème's second-act Cafe Momus. And La Rondine shares with Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus the character of a maid who borrows her mistress's clothes and then encounters her in public in a mutually embarrassing situation.

La Rondine echoes other operas musically as well as dramatically. For example, both the first and second acts end with a couple singing the final notes of a love duet as they leave the stage (just as in La Bohème's famous Act I offstage "Amor!"). And while La Rondine is appealingly melodic, some of those melodies are themselves reminiscent of Puccini's previous operas (though self-borrowing is an operatic tradition that goes back to Monteverdi).

But it would be petty to complain about the opera's derivative aspects when experiencing such a wonderful production. What made it so involving was Angela Gheorghiu's performance in the lead role of Madga, the courtesan who tries to seize a last chance at true love. Gheorghiu doesn't just have a stunningly beautiful voice--she isn't afraid to use it expressively to convey emotional extremity. We have a recording of the opera with Kiri Te Kanawa as Magda; listening to it after seeing Gheorghiu, it was sometimes hard to tell the difference between Te Kanawa's arias of joy and pain. Gheorghiu's singing, although thrillingly opulent, never sacrificed dramatic meaning for sheer beauty.

Of course, Gheorghiu is also very beautiful woman, and she looked great in Franca Squarciapino's attractive costumes. Her revealing Art Deco gown in Act I--the opera was updated slightly to the 1920s--gave her an opportunity show us why Magda has bewitched all Paris.

As the student Ruggero, whose arrival in Paris offers Madga a chance to relive the innocent love of her past, Misha Didyk made an appealing partner for Gheorghiu. His voice was especially strong and clear in the upper register; in the role's lower compass he sometimes lost some volume, and what sounds like a tiny lisp on certain vowels became more prominent. Both he and Gheorghiu required a few minutes to gauge the acoustic of the very full house, but soon both were soaring over Puccini's orchestral wall of sound without apparent difficulty. Didyk was also convincing as a naive young man who doesn't realize that in a corrupt world, love alone isn't sufficient for happiness.

Anna Christy was utterly charming as Lisette, Madga's maid--in the first act her bright soprano and spirited stage presence almost threatened to steal the show. Along with Gerard Powers' amusingly cynical poet Prunier, Lisette is half of the comedic couple whose story parallels and comments on the tragedy of Madga and Ruggero. (Just as Magda finds her past as a courtesan inescapable, so to does Lisette find herself returning to Magda's service after a brief fling at independence with Prunier.)

Of course, opera is a hugely complex undertaking, and so inevitably there were some flaws in the production. Using a video for the fire in Magda's palatial apartment in the first act was a miscalculation that should have been cut at the first rehearsal--it was too prominent, and strongly reminiscent of the yule-log Christmas TV broadcasts Mark Morris mocks in his Nutcracker parody The Hard Nut. Director Stephen Barlow's blocking was sometimes static or pointless, and lighting designer Duane Schuler's representation of dawn light filtering in through the windows of the dance hall in the second act looked instead like a glaring streetlight (he made up for it with the beautifully diffuse seaside twilight of the third act).

But these are minor problems in what was otherwise a memorable production of this unjustly overlooked gem. And most of what made it so memorable was Angela Gheorghiu's lovely and heartrending performance as Magda. Gheorghiu has made a recording of this opera with her husband Roberto Alagna; on the basis of this performance I'd give it a very strong recommendation.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Punk rock in print

Punk rock saved my life; punk rock destroyed my life, or at least one (pretty boring) possible version of it. Punk rock was a challenge to my entire view of the world and my place in it. It made me question everything--all of my assumptions about who I was and the sort of existence I had planned--and revealed possibilities of action and expression that before I encountered punk had been unimaginable.

It also let me know that there were people out there--articulate and pissed-off people--who were just as alienated as I was. The only difference was that they were drawing on their alienation as a source of creativity.

Given punk's importance in shaping my sensibility, I'm a pretty critical reader of books about punk. I keep hoping that some brilliant book about punk is going to appear, and I'm usually disappointed. Books about punk tend to fall into two broad categories: journalistic retrospectives (Michael Azzerad's This Band Could Be Your Life, Jon Savage's England's Dreaming) or words committed to print in the heat of the moment (the Sniffin' Glue or Slash fanzine compilations, Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons' The Boy Looked at Johnny (first published 1978), Caroline Coon's 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion (first published 1977), any Lester Bangs collection). I tend to prefer the latter, but two books I've read recently have tried to combine the forms, to (as you might guess) mixed effect.

Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World was first published in 1993. (In 2005 it was reprinted in a second edition with the better but still misleading subtitle The Birth of American Punk Rock.) It's a narrative of a countertendency in American rock music beginning with the Velvet Underground, continuing through the Stooges and MC5 and New York Dolls, and then focussing on the mid-1970s scene centered on the Bowery club CBGB: groups like Television, Patti Smith, Ramones, Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Heylin also writes about Cleveland bands like Rocket from the Tombs, Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys, and a little bit about Boston's Modern Lovers.

The book provides a corrective to the common idea that punk rock started in England. Even the punk look--spiky hair, leather jackets, and torn T-shirts with hand-scrawled slogans--is being modelled by Richard Hell in a 1974 photo included in the book at a time when the Clash's Mick Jones was still in his glam-rock phase of bell-bottoms and platform boots. Incidentally, Malcom McLaren, co-owner of what later became the Sex fashion boutique and future manager of the Sex Pistols, was in New York in 1974 managing the New York Dolls; he was acquainted with Richard Hell and would have been quite aware of Hell's anti-fashion statements.

Heylin didn't call his book an oral history, but he might as well have--his narrative contributions provide connecting paragraphs between extensive quotes from major and minor figures, taken mainly from other people's interviews at the time. While the interview material is fascinating, Heylin's writing is less so. He's a mainstream rock journalist who adopts what I'd call the liberal perspective on punk rock: that it was about "resuscitat[ing] rock & roll." As that mini-quote suggests, his writing too frequently falls into cliches and shorthand; he also has a weakness for lyrical allusions and puns (although weirdly he includes virtually no lyric excerpts), and can be repetitive: I stopped counting the number of times he refers to the (literal) collapse of New York's Mercer Arts Center as though he was telling us about it for the first time.

Perhaps because he wasn't a scene participant himself (I'm guessing), Heylin's perspective on the music is that of a record collector. And he's got a record collector's fascination for minutiae, documenting the most fleeting combinations of musicians (one Cleveland group he writes about lasted all of two rehearsals) and obsessively detailing demos, alternate takes and B-sides.

What he's less effective in conveying is why we should care or why any of it should matter two decades later (when written--now it's three and a half). What it might have been like to wedge yourself into a sweaty, smoky club and hear the Patti Smith Group, the Ramones or the Heartbreakers roaring through a set for the first time and sounding like nothing that you'd ever heard before is largely missing from Heylin's account.

To convey that excitement is clearly one reason why a few years after Heylin's book came out Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain published Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. Despite the overarching subtitle, it focussed on the same time period, locations and bands that Heylin's book did (that is, it excluded UK bands) and was presented in a similar format. The only difference is that McNeil and McCain contribute even less prose than Heylin does: Please Kill Me is more of a collage of quotes. As in Heylin's book, the interviews were mainly cribbed from contemporary articles in Creem, Punk, and New York Rocker. The key difference is that Legs McNeil was a major scene participant: he had co-founded Punk magazine in 1975 to document the New York bands (and get free records and entry to shows), and was a CBGB regular.

But that participant's perspective is also distorting in a different way. It's been awhile since since I read Please Kill Me (the title is taken from a self-produced Richard Hell t-shirt), but I recall it as pretty entertaining, at least at first. Eventually, though, the endless stories of drug- and alcohol-fueled binges start to pall. Instead of feeling liberatory, "decadent," or even just fun, it all comes to seem a bit squalid and pathetic. Other people's experiences of substance or sexual excess are entertaining only to a point, and that point was reached for me with about 250 pages left to go.

The definitive punk history is unobtainable. It would have to combine Lester Bangs' brilliant word-riffing and his generosity of spirit, Jon Savage's and Clinton Heylin's appetite for detail (but adding a sense of why the detail might matter), Legs McNeill and Gillian McCain's sense of why punk was so exhilarating (but without the tedium of so many drug and groupie stories), Julie Churchill and Tony Parsons' skepticism about the whole enterprise, Greil Marcus' range of art- and music-historical reference (but without his deadening prose). It won't, and can't, happen, but--like the youth utopia punk promised and couldn't deliver--it's still a seductive dream...

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Chori Chori

Chori Chori (2003) is one of those movies that seems better while you're watching it than it does in retrospect. It's the story of Khushi ("Happiness"--subtle, no?), played by Rani Mukherjee, who trades on her abundant charm to run various small-time cons on her boss and landlord (and who can blame her?). Just as her luck is running out she meets the architect Ranvir (Ajay Devgan), whose girlfriend Pooja (Sonali Bendre) has just issued him a resounding vote of no confidence. Ranvir has gotten stuck--in building his dream house for his future life with his girlfriend (which is looking less and less likely), and in his job, which involves churning out efficient designs for factories instead of the beautifully designed homes of his imagination.

Khushi dynamites Ranvir's emotional logjams. She starts making the aloof Pooja jealous, tells Ranvir's boss about his dreams (and as a result, engineers his promotion to partner in his firm), and helps Ranvir to finish the house. She also wins over his family, so that they become invested in the idea of her marriage to Ranvir. What they don't know is that Khushi is on salary--Ranvir is paying her to stick around so that Pooja, faced with a rival, will stop taking him so much for granted.

Chori Chori's failings are those of many Bollywood films. Just when it seems that the movie is heading for the denouement, it treads water for another 20 minutes and an additional musical number. The acting is uneven. Rani is terrific, but Ajay Devgan's emotional range stretches from slightly pained to slightly exasperated, and Sonali Bendre doesn't have a whole lot to do but look jealous, beautiful, and too thin. There are a couple of subplots that are abruptly truncated (probably because the movie was running long) and there's an entirely predictable final scene at the marriage altar.

So Chori Chori depends almost wholly on the charisma of the star at its center; fortunately, that star is Rani. Her performance carries the film, and allows a sympathetic viewer to ignore several glaring plot implausibilities. She looks great, manages to be both cynically mercenary and appealingly soft-hearted at the same time, and has several excellent dance numbers (one of which is about a third as long as it should be). The music is compelling, and several of the dance numbers shade into amusing fantasy sequences. The extended marriage scene at the end, with Ranvir's family reassuring Khushi of their love and support, while she refuses to come out of her room because their love for her (and her own for Ranvir) has made her unwilling to go through with a fake marriage, rates with me as some kind of classic.

And despite the limitations of Ajay and Sonali's characters, I think the film does illustrate three truths. First, that a fresh perspective is sometimes all it takes to resolve seemingly insoluble difficulties in our lives; second, that the appearance of a rival will renew our flagging romantic interest--whether that's wise or not; and third, that for good or ill we can become what we pretend to be, even when we're not entirely aware that it's happening.

So my advice is to enjoy the film for Rani's delightful performance, for the stunningly beautiful mountain landscapes of Shimla, and for some keenly observed scenes and well-staged dance numbers. And don't think about it too hard afterwards.

Update 11/15/07: MemsaabStory has written a beautifully nuanced appreciation of Chori Chori, which is much more generous (in all senses) than my post. Read it to find out why she's right and I'm too critical. Thanks to Beth Loves Bollywood for alerting me to her review.

Friday, October 19, 2007

My ten favorite films

We took some good friends of ours out to dinner to celebrate a birthday the other night. Over champagne one of our friends asked us to name our ten favorite films. Not the ten films we'd consider the best or the most significant, but the films that we find most pleasurable--the ones that we find ourselves watching happily for the fifth or tenth or thirtieth time, the ones that we never miss when they're shown on TV. I didn't come up with a very adequate answer at the restaurant (thanks, no doubt, to the champagne), but now I've managed to give the question a bit more thought.

The "pleasure" criterion means that greatness is neither sufficient nor even necessary for a film to make the cut. Among the filmmakers who didn't make my list are Almodovar, Bergman, Buñuel, Chaplin (and Keaton and Lloyd), Cocteau, De Sica, Fellini, Godard, Kieslowski, Kurosawa, the Marx Brothers, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Renoir, Rossellini, Scorsese, Truffaut, Welles, or Wilder. The only claim I'm making for the movies that did make the list is that I've formed an intense and continuing personal connection with them.

Entire genres are missing, too: there are no silent films, horror films, or action films. Meanwhile, three-quarters of the list could easily have been Hitchcock movies, or films noir. So I decided that for some entries, one film would have to represent many others. Of course on another day I might decide that my favorite noir is The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity or Out of the Past. As a consequence this list should be thought of as a continual work in progress.

So here are some of my favorite films, in the order in which they occurred to me:

1. Vertigo. No surprise to anyone who knows me (or who has read the first installment of this blog), Vertigo not only occupies the top spot for itself; it stands in for many of Hitchcock's other films as well: Rear Window, North by Northwest, Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, Blackmail, The 39 Steps, Young & Innocent, Sabotage, Strangers on a Train, Psycho, The Birds, Dial M for Murder...

2. Singin' In The Rain. In my view the most purely enjoyable Hollywood musical save one, and which just beats out An American in Paris, the Astaire/Rogers films, On The Town, West Side Story, and Gold Diggers of 1933. Which is a bit of a surprise, because Singin' in the Rain's music (by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown) is far weaker than the scores for the other films, supplied by the likes of Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Kern, and Bernstein. But the story by Betty Comden and Adolph Green about Hollywood's rocky transition from silents to sound is just brilliant, and provides the perfect period context for Freed and Brown's songs.

3. The Wizard of Oz. The best Hollywood musical that isn't Singin' In The Rain, and one of the most frightening films ever made (at least, so claims my 6-year-old self). The flying monkeys still give me nightmares. (Incidentally, I'd seen the film perhaps ten times on black and white TV before I saw it in a theater and discovered that the Oz scenes were in Technicolor--and yet even in black and white it was so wonderful and terrifying to my youthful imagination I'm not sure I could have borne it in color.) Those veteran vaudevillians Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr deliver their schtick as though for the first time. And when 16-year-old Judy Garland steps forward to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" I hold my breath, even though I've heard it countless times before.

4. The Big Sleep. Bogart and Bacall in a film whose plot is nearly incoherent--but who cares? Their chemistry carries the film (as it does To Have and Have Not, also directed by Howard Hawks). This title has to represent many other films noir: The Maltese Falcon, Lady from Shanghai, Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, Sunset Blvd, The Big Heat, Gilda, Laura, The Big Clock, Gun Crazy, Detour, Narrow Margin, and on and on. If you're a fan, I highly recommend Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference edited by Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward and James Ursini, and Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, by Eddie Muller.

5. Casablanca. Perhaps it's an obvious choice, but the crackling, endlessly quotable script, Bogart in his archetypal role, a cast filled with European refugees played by actual European refugees, and Ingrid Bergman's luminous beauty make it impossible for me to leave it off my list.

6. La Jetée. I'm cheating a bit here because this isn't a feature-length film. But it's haunting and unforgettable, and should be experienced in a theater if at all possible. In this film composed of stills the moment when the man's sleeping lover opens her eyes is one of the most moving in cinema.

7. Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick's renowned chilliness as a director gives this movie a deadpan tone that makes it both hilarious and horrifying. Peter Sellars is so brilliant in multiple roles that the first time I saw it I thought he was three separate actors, and George C. Scott's gum-chewing, explosively exasperated General Buck Turgidson is Sellars' perfect foil.

8. It's a Wonderful Life. Not nearly as saccharine as you probably think it is, this is actually a very dark story about how George Bailey's dreams of escape from his constricted small-town existence are continually thwarted. Plus, if George hadn't existed Donna Reed would have become--a librarian! What could be more horrible? I have a fantasy that one day I'm going to re-edit this movie, cut God out of it entirely, and reveal it as the true noir masterpiece it is.

9. The Philadelphia Story. The Hollywood studio system functioning at its highest level, with a cast of Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn. This film stands in for many other great pre-WWII comedies (most of which, come to think of it, also star Cary Grant): His Girl Friday, The Awful Truth, It Happened One Night, My Favorite Wife, My Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday...

10. Kal Ho Naa Ho. An atypical Bollywood film set among young Desis in New York, KHNH makes this list on the appeal of its stars (Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan, and Preity Zinta), the cleverness of its script, and the way its musical numbers are integrated into the story. Once again a single film represents many others: Modern-day Bollywood classics such as Devdas, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Veer-Zaara, Paheli, Diwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Kandukondain Kandukondain, the original Umrao Jaan, Khal Nayak--most of which, come to think of it, also star Shah Rukh Khan.

Honorable mentions to Some Like It Hot (Marilyn Monroe at her most comically luscious), La Belle et La Bête (the utterly magical images of the Beast's castle) and Ugetsu Monogatari, which were on earlier versions of this list but somehow didn't make the final 10.

While the movies on the list are pretty evenly distributed from the 1930s through the 1960s, there are none from the 1970s (sorry, Godfather), 1980s (sorry, Wings of Desire and Dekalog), or 1990s (sorry, Groundhog Day), and only one from the 2000s (sorry, Amélie). And with the exceptions of La Jetée and Kal Ho Naa Ho, I had seen all of the films on the list by the time I was 25. Are movies getting worse, or am I getting less susceptible?

All comments, flames, and alternative lists welcome.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Chourmo and Solea

"Had I, without realizing it, become permanently unhappy? Believing as I did that the small joys of everyday life were enough to make you happy, had I given up on my dreams, my real dreams?"

--Jean-Claude Izzo, Solea

Both Jean-Claude Izzo's weaknesses and strengths as a writer are magnified in the two final volumes of the Marseilles trilogy, Chourmo and Solea.

In Chourmo (Provençal slang for galley slave, the Marseillais equivalent of the American "homeboy"), Izzo's antihero ex-cop Fabio Montale discovers connections between organized crime and fundamentalist Muslim organizations operating in the housing projects of northern Marseilles. Montale, who resigned from the police force at the end of the first book in the series, Total Chaos, is unwillingly dragged back in the world of cops and criminals to investigate the murder of his cousin's son, the assassination of a social worker, and the disappearance of a college student with whom he had once contemplated an affair.

In Solea (the title is taken from the final track on Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain album) Montale is the unwilling recipient of computer discs containing the results of an investigation by his journalist friend Babette into the Mafia. She has detailed the penetration of organized crime into the highest political and economic levels of France, and indeed the global economy. Soon hit men are on her trail and start pressuring Montale to tell them her whereabouts. Only instead of grabbing Montale and making him talk, they start murdering his acquaintances and friends one by one.

In fact, the violence levels in both books are implausibly high; most professional criminal gangs don't go around murdering random civilians, which can bring them unwanted attention. The vivid descriptions of bodies after heinous acts have been committed on them also seem pretty gratuitous. It's as though Izzo doesn't want to be accused of getting too literary, and so periodically has to rub our faces in some gore.

Or sex. Chourmo reaches a low point in this regard, with an inscrutable but irresistible Vietnamese Dragon Lady who ruthlessly beds every man she thinks she can use. But Solea doesn't stint in this regard, either. One of the greatest mysteries in the trilogy is why so many beautiful women in Marseilles seem to find a middle-aged, semi-alcoholic ex-cop to be so sexually mesmerizing.

But the genre aspects are the price you pay for what's really distinctive about this series, which is its depiction of the chaotic sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Marseilles in all their multiethnic glory. Izzo describes in loving detail the typical foods and wines of Provence that his characters consume with such delectation. And he also limns the clash and melding of cultures, styles, and traditions that makes contemporary Marseilles both so vibrant and so ridden with conflict and despair.

Izzo also captures a certain attitude in his characters that might best be described by Antonio Gramsci's formula "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will." Seeing the corruption, injustice and hopelessness of the world all too clearly, and yet living for whatever moments of human connection and pleasure they can find. Izzo portrays this attitude as ultimately the only honest one, and yet he also shows its limitations, as when Montale muses on why he'd never wanted to be a father:
"I'd never wanted a child. With any woman. I was afraid I wouldn't know how to be a father. It wasn't that I couldn't give love, it was just that I didn't think I could teach a child to trust in the world, in me, in the future."
What's distinctive about the books as crime novels is that the real perpetrators, who direct and profit from these vast criminal networks, remain out of sight and out of reach of the hero's retribution. Meanwhile, the effects of their decisions are visited with crushing weight on Montale, his friends and acquaintances, and all those who try to eke out some small degree of happiness from their daily lives. Corruption and criminality are pervasive among those who wield power, justice is unobtainable, and the truly guilty are can never be touched.

Solea ends on a deeply ambiguous and pessimistic note. My friend Robin Walz has suggested that Izzo may have known as he was writing the book that he had only a short time to live; he died of cancer only two years after Solea's publication. To me, the ending seemed inevitable, and of a piece with the portrait of Montale's world portrayed from the first pages of Total Chaos. But even though I knew where the trilogy was heading, such is Izzo's skill and the vividness of his characters that I was happy to go along for the ride.

Europa Editions and expert translator Howard Curtis should be commended for making these novels available to an English-speaking audience. If you're a fan of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, James Ellroy, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán or Paco Ignacio Taibo II, you should find in Jean-Claude Izzo a kindred spirit.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Mozart Dances

Joan Acocella is a wonderful writer about dance (or pretty much about anything). Writing about dance for a non-specialized audience is very difficult; you have to manage to say intelligent things without employing the technical vocabulary that dancers and choreographers use to describe movement, since that vocabulary wouldn't be generally understood. There's a similar problem in writing about music, of course, but with a piece of music a writer can often refer to a score or a recording to refresh her memory; with dance, there's only the fleeting moment-by-moment configuration of bodies onstage.

I think Acocella does a particularly amazing job of capturing what it's like to see dances by Mark Morris. She's written an excellent full-length book on Morris whose only flaw is that it came out 15 years ago, and so is overdue for an update. Still if you're at all curious about Morris I recommend the book highly. Acocella published a substantial piece in the New Yorker recently about Mozart Dances; I'll give a link at the bottom of this post to the article, but in fact this is one of the rare occasions when I disagree with her perceptions about the piece.

When the Mark Morris Dance Group is in town, my partner and I always buy tickets to two different performances. We were especially glad that we'd done it for Mozart Dances, which struck us as being among his best recent works. It's in three parts: "Eleven," danced to the Piano Concerto No. 11 in F major, K. 413 from 1783; "Double," danced to the Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, K. 448 from 1781; and "Twenty-seven," danced to the Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595 from 1791, the final year of Mozart's life. In Berkeley, the first and last pieces were performed superbly by pianist Garrick Ohlsson and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jane Glover; the fiendishly difficult Sonata for Two Pianos was played by Ohlsson and Yoko Nazaki. All received well-deserved ovations at the final curtain. I've gotten used to hearing period instruments in this repertoire; I'd forgotten how lush modern instruments can sound. Morris insists on having live music to accompany his dancers, and it makes a huge difference.

Apart from a brief dance for the men of the company at the outset of "Eleven," it's a piece for the women. They're dressed in black (except for the soloist, Lauren Grant, Mark Pakledinaz's costumes are gauzily revealing without being particularly sexy), and if women dressed in black bring up associations of mourning, I think they're not inappropriate to this dance. Mozart's music offers both light and shade, but the movement in "Eleven" is consistently dark in tone, or so it seemed to us. Except for Lauren Grant's periodic solos, the movement is very austere (and often quite beautiful), reminding me in places of moments from Morris' version of Henry Purcell's Dido & Aeneas. There is a disturbing recurring moment, though: women lie on the stage, then suddenly twist their torsos and necks and stiffen their arms and legs, stabbing outward. It's a gesture of horror, pain, and perhaps death, and it's the final image of the piece.

In the middle piece, "Double," it's the turn of the men. The soloist in this one was Joe Bowie, a long-time veteran of Morris' troupe; he's a beautiful dancer, and it was wonderful to see him featured. Again, the music had a brightly sunny quality in its outer movements, but the dancing reflected a more somber mood. Bowie's first entrance is backwards, hands raised upwards as though to ward off a blow or to block something too horrible to bear from view. The other dancers echo (or is it double?) his movements, but only Bowie seems to invest them with a foreboding quality. If there's a narrative here, it's that the other dancers imitate him, without really understanding what he's showing them. In the middle movement, something extraordinary happens. The women return briefly, dressed in long, flowing gowns; they look like the malevolent wilis from a particularly effective production of Giselle. And indeed, they surround dancer Noah Vinson while Bowie runs around their unbreakable circle looking in vain for a way in. It's a rich moment: are the women protecting Vinson from Bowie, or is Bowie trying to rescue him from them?

For the final piece, "Twenty-seven," the entire company is onstage, and now dressed in white. Many of the movements seen earlier return now in different contexts, but a new one appears: a kind of beseeching or supplicating gesture, where groups of dancers reach out to others emerging from the wings, but the expected joining of hands never happens--instead, those being supplicated hold up their hands in a rebuffing gesture, or echo the supplication gesture without making contact. In Acocella's article she writes that she sees in this "loving friendship"; to me it seemed more like something had gone wrong, that emotional connections had been damaged or broken. Morris himself compares the gesture to the end of Mozart's opera Cosi fan tutte, where two couples, wounded by infidelity, may or may not get back together. That Acocella didn't perceive this is due to the music for this section, which repeats a happy folk-like tune over and over; but in many places in Mozart Dances the music is suggesting one thing while the dance is telling us another. For a choreographer who is sometimes accused of slavishly illustrating musical structure, Morris has done something striking here: he uses the structure, but alters the emotional meaning.

In one other place I have to disagree with Acocella's article. She writes that because Morris's newer dancers are more technically accomplished than his older dancers, his current troupe should be more celebrated. While I'm not competent to make technical comparisons, the dancers from the first decade and a half or so of the Mark Morris Dance Group were all vivid personalities as well as superb dancers. After seeing them once or twice, we knew all their names. They could dance beautifully in unison while at the same time maintaining their distinct individuality. Now his dancers are more anonymous-seeming. There are exceptions--David Leventhal and Lauren Grant are instantly recognizable--but most of his newer dancers are young (many have come into his group right out of college) and they don't leave as strong an impression. Perhaps greater uniformity is what Morris is looking for now, but I miss Tina, Mireille, Ruth, and Guillermo. Morris' new dancers have program bios that list their BFAs in dance from Julliard; Guillermo's bio used to consist of one sentence: "Guillermo Resto dances with Mark Morris."

Joan Acocella's New Yorker article on Mark Morris's Mozart Dances can be found here.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Total Chaos

"Marseilles isn't a city for tourists. There's nothing to see. Its beauty can't be photographed. It can only be shared."

--Jean-Claude Izzo, Total Chaos

The first volume in Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseilles Trilogy takes its French title (Total Khéops) from the Marseilles rap group IAM. The novel pulsates with the energy of the multiethnic, polyglot port city of southern France, where people of various Mediterranean descents--Italian, Spanish, Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, North African--mix uneasily. "You already heard a strange kind of French spoken in Marseilles," Izzo's narrator Fabio Montale, an "unimportant neighborhood cop," relates, "a mixture of Provençal, Italian, Spanish and Arabic, with bits of slang thrown in." The residents of the city are creating a unique identity that's not so much French as Marseillais. The city itself is a major presence in the novel.

As Montale investigates the deaths of two street criminals, his friends from adolescence, he mulls over the points at which their fates diverged. Izzo's prose is blunt and spare, in the hard-boiled tradition. He does experiment with shifting time unexpectedly--in the middle of a conversation you'll realize that the speakers have changed, and that Montale is reliving a memory from three decades ago. Then just as abruptly you'll be returned to the present. These unannounced temporal shifts are a bit disconcerting at first, but you quickly enter the flow of Montale's consciousness, where past and present intermingle. (The book has been translated expertly, to my ear at least, by Howard Curtis.)

Izzo has also made his narrator something of a gourmand, and the novel is filled with memorable descriptions of the preparation and consumption of spectacular meals. Don't pick it up when you're hungry.

The vivid setting, narrative experimentation and mouth-watering meal descriptions are welcome, because some aspects of the novel fall into time-worn clichés. There's the narrator Montale, a hard-boiled cop whose attitudes are a bit too sympathetic to the downtrodden to ring true; a hooker with a heart of gold; various beautiful women (including the aforementioned hooker) who apparently find unimportant neighborhood cops to be irresistible; and a multiethnic crew of thugs who possess enough guns to supply a small army. Of course, the street criminals are doing the bidding of those connected to the political and economic power structure, who are insulated from any danger of being brought to justice.

In that, as in the loving attention paid to food and sex, Izzo's novel bears a strong resemblance to Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's Pepe Carvalho mysteries, which are set in another Mediterranean city, Barcelona. There's the same blunt language, incredible meals, gorgeous and inexplicably available women falling over each other to bed the middle-aged hero, and criminals who are ultimately too powerful to touch.

But despite its derivative aspects, Total Chaos is very much worth reading for the picture it offers of Marseilles, the city's mix of cultures and the new sorts of identities being forged there. A place where, despite daily racial tensions, the presence of the anti-immigrant National Front, and relentless pressures on poor immigrants, their vitality and resilience win out--at least until the next day, when it will start all over again. As Montale says, "That was the history of Marseilles, and always had been. A utopia. The only utopia in the world. A place where anyone, of any color, could get off a boat or a train with his suitcase in his hand and not a cent in his pocket, and melt into the crowd. A city where, as soon as he'd set foot on its soil, this man could say, 'This is it. I'm home.' Marseilles belongs to the people who live in it."

Saajan

Saajan (1991) features two of my favorite Bollywood actors, Sanjay Dutt and Madhuri Dixit, and one of my least favorite, Salman Khan. The plot is relatively straightforward, at least for Bollywood: Aman is a crippled orphan befriended in childhood by Akash and taken in by his family. When the two boys become young men, Aman (Sanjay) has become responsible and thoughtful, and writes poetry under the pen-name Sagar; Akash (Salman) has become a frivolous playboy. Madhuri is Pooja, a bookseller who is Sagar's biggest fan. Aman, ashamed of his inability to defend Pooja one night when they're accosted by a gang, decides to make her believe that the young, rich, handsome and musclebound Akash is Sagar.

Yes, it's the Cyrano de Bergerac story, with the twist that Aman is Akash's adopted brother, and feels that he bears an unpayable obligation to Akash's family. Choosing Sanjay--an actor with brooding, soulful eyes and the smoldering physical presence of the young Robert Mitchum--to play the disabled poet Aman was a bold idea. Unfortunately the other two major casting choices are either completely predictable or befuddling. Salman is cast utterly to type as the playboy Akash. But if you're typecasting, why would you give the superb dancer Madhuri Dixit a major role as their mutual love interest, and then give her just one dance number? And the choreography for that one number is mediocre--although that's actually an improvement over the rest of the songs, for which the choreography is nonexistent. The music by Nadeem-Shravan and Amar Halidpur-Faiz Anwar is enjoyable, if not incredibly memorable on a first hearing (I did notice that the soundtrack was ranked number 28 in the all-time top 40 soundtracks in a recent BBC poll, so perhaps it grows on you), and Lawrence D'Souza's direction isn't particularly subtle. Still, I'd say it's worth seeing for Sanjay and Madhuri.

Two years later Sanjay and Madhuri would be reunited in the delirious Khal Nayak (1993), a film that gave both actors more room to deploy their considerable talents and appeal. In that film Sanjay plays a gangster's lieutenant and Madhuri a police agent who becomes his moll in order to send information to her police contact (and boyfriend) Jackie Shroff. Several of the dance numbers from the film have become classics, including the racy "Choli Ke Peeche" ("What's underneath my blouse?"), the wildly surreal "Palki Pe Hoke Sawar" and the Las-Vegas-on-acid title song. Madhuri and Sanjay's onscreen chemistry in Khal Nayak is electric, perhaps aided by their rumored offscreen affair. The obvious emotional connection between them renders the conceit of the film--that their onscreen relationship remains chaste, despite the fact that Madhuri is travelling alone with Sanjay's gang for months--utterly ludicrous. Nonetheless, the film is highly entertaining, mainly for Madhuri's superb dancing and the catchy music by Laxmikant and Pyarelal. (I'd recommend fast-forwarding through the frequent fight scenes that alternate with the dance numbers, though.)

Salman and Madhuri would later be reunited in what is inexplicably the most successful Bollywood film ever, Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! (1994). It's the glossy, big-budget family drama that Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) was apparently trying to supplant. HAHK has at least one bizarrely great dance number, "Didi Tera Devar Diwana" ("Sister, your brother-in-law is crazy"), which involves voyeurism, female cross-dressing, and shoe-stealing. Otherwise, the film succeeds (at least, as far as it does succeed, which with me isn't very far) mainly on the appeal of its all-star cast. That cast does include Anupam Kher, who is another Exotic and Irrational favorite.

If you're interested in seeing a young Sanjay Dutt, Saajan and Khal Nayak offer him in strikingly different roles; if you're interested in seeing a young Madhuri Dixit, in Saajan her talents are mainly wasted, while in Khal Nayak she's at her most ravishing (and the dances are entertainingly over-the-top). As for Salman, I have to confess that his appeal completely escapes me.

Anna Moffo as Madama Butterfly

To call someone an “overnight sensation” is usually the laziest sort of journalistic cliché. Usually years of training and dues-paying precede a performer’s “overnight” discovery.

But if the term can be applied to anyone with justice, it might be soprano Anna Moffo. In January 1956 she was a 23-year-old singer who, after graduating from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, had come to Rome on a Fulbright scholarship to continue her voice studies. Her professional opera debut had come just a few months before in Spoleto, a small city outside Rome, where she had sung the role of Norina in Donizetti’s comedy Don Pasquale. But then director Mario Lanfranchi cast this unknown singer in the lead role for his television production of Puccini’s tragedy Madama Butterfly. Broadcast by Radiotelevisione Italia on 24 January, 1956 (at least that's the date of an audio-only recording), Moffo's performance as Cio-Cio San made her--yes, overnight--an international star.

Video Artists International has released a DVD of this broadcast, and it’s easy to see why it created such a sensation. Moffo is a radiant and heartbreaking Butterfly; if she doesn’t quite look 15 in Act I, she is certainly very young-looking. She is slim and graceful, a convincing maiko; her dimples are irresistible.

And what a voice! Whether she’s soaring lyrically over the orchestra in her climactic aria “Un bel di” or floating delicately soft tones in her final moments of despair, Moffo’s singing is simply stunning.

She’s well supported by the Suzuki of Miti Truccato Pace and especially Afro Poli’s American consul Sharpless. Renato Coni’s callow American officer Pinkerton is self-involved and a bit annoying, and it’s not clear whether those are aspects of the character or the singer. And as the marriage broker Goro, Gino Del Signore (like every Goro I’ve seen) can’t avoid portraying a painfully racist stereotype.

The production is a bit threadbare, although Lanfranchi’s fluid camerawork makes the most of the somewhat cramped set. Oliviero de Fabritis’ conducting of the Orchestra & Chorus of Radiotelevision Italiana Milano is sympathetic; the sound is a bit compressed at climaxes, but otherwise acceptable (the gorgeousness of Moffo’s voice comes through clearly). The picture is a bit washed-out looking at places, and there are a few moments of poor synchronization between the soundtrack (recorded before filming) and the movements of the singer’s lips.

But if you’re willing to make allowances for the age and technical limitations of the source, which truly aren’t very bothersome, you'll be rewarded by Moffo’s amazing performance, for which no allowances need to be made. Over the following decade and a half she would go on to become a famous performer of both comedic and tragic heroines, until the toll that her meteoric rise and subsequent overwork took on her voice could no longer be disguised. But knowledge of Moffo’s own tragedy isn’t necessary to find her Butterfly to be truly heartbreaking. Moffo’s career was too short, but what a glorious beginning.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

King of Bollywood

Anupama Chopra is a well-regarded film journalist with insider connections. Shah Rukh Khan is a charismatic actor who came to Bombay with no money or connections and transformed himself into a superstar. The combination of their sensibilities and talents should have resulted in a memorable book. The intention seems to have been to view the changes in Bollywood from the late 1980s to the early 2000s through the lens of Shah Rukh's career; the jacket copy promises "the first comprehensive narrative of Bollywood published in the US."

Alas, King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema is a bit of a disappointment. We hear what sound like well-worn stories about Shah Rukh's early career, and we get a highly compressed description of the changes in the Indian economy in general and Bollywood in particular in the decade following the economic liberalization of the early 1990s. Chopra's main thesis seems to be that SRK symbolizes a new cosmopolitan Indian identity. His characters often live in or travel to London or New York, and display the consumer tokens of globalization (Pepsi, basketball, designer clothes). At heart, though, SRK's characters retain a deep connection to Indian traditions and culture, easing viewers' anxieties about the loss of a specifically Indian identity under the impact of Western-style consumerism. The original template for this character appears in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), but similar elements recur in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Kabhi Khushie Kahbie Gham (2001), Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006); the reawakening of an identification with India in a Westernized engineer is the explicit theme of Swades (2004).

But the book is hardly comprehensive--there's little discussion of other stars or filmmakers outside of Aditya and Yash Chopra, Karan Johar, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali--and apart from DDLJ and Devdas (2002) it lacks detailed analyses of particular films. In particular Chopra gives short shrift to SRK's post-Devdas work, omitting discussion of films like Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), Veer-Zaara (2004) and Paheli (2005). Large chunks of the narrative are lifted almost verbatim from her 2002 book on DDLJ, and a certain critical distance seems to be missing throughout.

This is understandable. Beth Loves Bollywood recently posted a comment from a friend of hers who participated in a group interview with SRK on the occasion of the London opening of his new film Chak de India (2007). Beth's friend wrote, "I asked him a question about where he sees Indian cinema in 5 years and he looked at me as he spoke. At this point, I began to feel slightly, uh, swoony. He has the most amazing eyes--a sort of liquid amber, like cognac or something. They are mesmerising. I could feel my critical faculties ebbing away as they were directed at me..."

So nothing against Anupama Chopra if her critical faculties ebbed a bit during the research for this book--she's only human. I do think, though, that the definitive book on Bollywood from the late 1980s onwards remains to be written. Meanwhile, I highly recommend her book on DDLJ, and only wish that in King of Bollywood she had discussed more of SRK's films at a similar level of critical detail.

Update 9/12/07: On re-reading this post I realize that it sounds a bit more negative about King of Bollywood than I actually feel. Chopra's book is entertaining and well-written; it just doesn't fulfill some of the promises the jacket copy makes, or meet some of the expectations raised by her book on DDLJ. For another (more enthusiastic) perspective, see Beth Loves Bollywood's review of the book.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Floridante

"Sex, violence, lust, incest, jealousy and betrayal: ah, it's comforting to slip into the world of High Art, isn't it?"
(Donna Leon on Floridante)

18th-Century Italian opera is the art form Samuel Johnson described as "exotick and irrational entertainment." Oddly, its greatest composer was a German living in London, George Fredric Handel. Floridante dates from 1721, the second season of the Royal Academy opera company (financed by nobles temporarily enriched by the South Sea Bubble). If Floridante is not quite up to the musical or (especially) dramatic standard of Handel's later Royal Academy operas such as Giulio Cesare or Rodelinda, it still offers much beautiful music.

In composing Floridante, Handel was responding to the challenge of a rival composer, Giovanni Bononcini, who was renowned for his "airs of tenderness" (according to 18th-Century musical historian Charles Burney) and who also composed operas for the Royal Academy. Bononcini's skill in composing slow, melancholic arias had struck a chord with audiences, and in Floridante Handel responded with an opera full of music expressing sorrow and anguish.

The plot has the typical complexity of 18th-Century opera seria: Oronte has usurped the Persian throne, raising the murdered king's orphaned daughter Elmira as his own. She's been promised to Floridante, prince of Thrace, who has just triumphed in battle. Floridante has captured the disguised prince of Tyre, Timante, who had been betrothed to Oronte's true daughter Rossane. Rather than rewarding Floridante for his victory, though, Oronte banishes him, because he's decided that he wants to marry Elmira himself. Elmira, though, thinks that Oronte is her biological father, and is horrified. Multiple disguises, revelations, and selfless gestures ensue before the two pairs of lovers (Elmira and Floridante, Rossane and Timante) are united, Oronte is overthrown (but forgiven), Elmira takes her rightful place as ruler of Persia, and peace between Persia and Tyre is established.

It's a cliche that in Baroque opera the plot is merely an excuse for situations of emotional extremity expressed in glorious music and virtuosic singing. In fact, many Baroque operas can be dramatically effective if they are given attentive, intelligent stagings. However, Floridante comes close to fulfilling the stereotype; even without a fully compelling drama to anchor the opera, though, Handel's music is exceptional.

The cast on this recording is superb. Joyce DiDonato in the role of Elmira sings ravishingly; she is supported admirably by the contralto Marijana Mijanovic in the male role of Floridante (sung originally by the castrato Senesino); soprano Sharon Rostof-Zamir as Rossane; and soprano Roberta Invernizzi in the male role of Timante (sung orginally by the castrato Benedetto Baldassari). (Yup, cross-dressing heros and no tenors--two big reasons we love Baroque opera.) There is no weak link in the cast.

The booklet note claims that this recording of Floridante is an attempt to recapture Handel's "original intentions." However, those intentions are unrecoverable. Handel had orginally conceived the role of Elmira as being sung by the Italian mezzo-soprano Margherita Durastanti, and Rossane as being sung by a contralto, Anastasia Robinson, but had only written the first act of the opera when he found out that Durastanti would not be able to come to London in time. Robinson--an English singer who was the mistress of one of the major sponsors of the Royal Academy--was given the transposed role of Elmira, and another Italian soprano, Maddalena Salvai, was given Rossane. This recording casts a mezzo (DiDonato) as Elmira, but a soprano (Rostof-Zamir) instead of a contralto as Rossane.

It doesn't matter. Whatever the musicological merits of the choices conductor Alan Curtis has made, we can simply wallow in the glorious singing and music which are so abundant on these discs.

If you've never heard a Handel opera before, I'd recommend Giulio Cesare, Alcina, Ariodante, or Rodelinda as the places to start. But this recording of Floridante is very alluring, and makes a strong case for this opera to be considered among Handel's masterpieces.

For other reviews of this recording, see Ionarts and Prima la musica, poi le parole.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Why I love Bollywood

I'm a Bollywood-loving white guy. I want to make it clear that I'm not some hipster whose ironic or camp "appreciation" is really a form of mockery--I truly enjoy Bollywood movies, and what's more I find myself unexpectedly moved by them.

The enjoyment part shouldn't be hard for me to explain: Bollywood movies are full of song and dance and spectacle, sweeping emotions and sweeping music, timeless dilemmas of love versus duty that aren't always resolved in the way that a Western viewer might expect. (That's the lovely Rekha from Umrao Jaan (1981) in the photo.)

Another thing that makes Bollywood so delightful is its recombination of influences. In a single film--heck, a single dance number--elements from Hollywood musicals, kathak dance, MTV, and the Ramayana may be mixed together with joyful heedlessness. The latest buzzword is "mash-ups"; Bollywood has been doing them for decades. Bollywood soundtracks were "world music" before the term was invented, drawing sounds and rhythms from Indian classical and folk music, flamenco, disco, African and Caribbean music, surf guitar, and European classical music. Salman Rushdie wrote that his work "celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs." It's a perfect description of Bollywood.

So there's little mystery about why I find Bollywood movies so pleasurable. What's harder to come to terms with is why I find key scenes in certain films so emotionally affecting. This is a commercial cinema whose manipulative effects are highly calculated, as the analytical part of my brain is all too aware. And yet, when I watch my favorite films for the tenth time I can still find a lump forming in my throat. It's forced me to confront the fact that underneath my sophisticated, cynical exterior lies (as Captain Renault from Casablanca would say) a rank sentimentalist.

My analytical brain gets overwhelmed, I think, partly because of Bollywood's unabashed emotionalism. Hunky Bollywood leading men and gorgeous leading women are unashamed to weep copiously at key plot moments, and their visible distress can set me off too. Also, certain Bollywood actors have a powerful appeal that makes their filmic dilemmas that much more intense for affected viewers like me. But maybe it's better not to question too deeply, and just accept that many Bollywood films can, against my better judgment, reduce me to an emotional wreck. And in fact if I'm truthful with myself that's a key reason I return to them again and again.

I have to confess, though, that one thing that gives Bollywood films such power for me is the aesthetic strangeness of the music and words. If the equivalent lyrics were sung in English to standard pop instrumentation, I'd probably find it all a bit much. Of course I realize that saying I enjoy the "aesthetic strangeness" of another culture's cinema puts me in the middle of a political minefield. But I'm not so much talking about the picturesque appeal of the exotic (although I do think saris are just about the most attractive garments ever created). Rather, it's a certain distance enforced by lack of both familiarity with the language and lived experience with the cultural references. I feel something similar (though to a lesser degree) when I listen to Italian opera, or watch French films. It's like the old Gene Kelly line from An American In Paris: "Back home everyone said that I didn't have any talent. They might be saying the same thing over here, but it sounds better in French." Well, lines like "When you're close this world is naught / Destroyed in your love, a triumph sought" ("Mere Hath Mein" from Fanaa (2005)) sound better in Urdu.

Look for more film reviews and recommendations to be posted here soon.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Disappointment Artist

I've just begun reading Jonathan Lethem's book of essays, The Disappointment Artist (Doubleday, 2005). The very first essay in the book is called "Defending The Searchers," and it's about his (mainly futile) attempts to convince college classmates, friends, roommates and casual acquaintances that John Ford's The Searchers something more than "a racist antique...dredged out of our parents' bankrupt fifties culture."

First, though, there's the painfully funny (or is it just painful?) scene of his first viewing of the movie, at a college film society screening that he's arranged. Mocking laughter and catcalls greet the first part of the film, while Jonathan feels confused and defensive. At one point, when the film breaks, he gets up and scolds the audience for not giving it a chance. Then comes a scene of "such giddy misogyny, such willful racism" that it stuns Jonathan into numbed bewilderment for the rest of the film. Wasn't this supposed to be Scorsese's favorite movie? The movie continues to haunt him, though, until after multiple later viewings he is able to finally come to terms with it.

I've only seen The Searchers once, when I was in college, and giddy misogyny and willful racism seem like pretty accurate descriptions of what I remember seeing that night. But this post isn't intended as a challenge to Jonathan's perspective on the film--I'm not really competent to talk about it in any depth. It may really be as complex and self-critical as he claims ("The Searchers is racist the way Huckleberry Finn is racist," he reports telling a friend). No, instead this post is about my own parallel experience with a problematic film, one that I dismissed on my first viewing, but one that ultimately got under my skin to such an extent that I'm still working out its meanings: I'm talking about Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. Be forewarned: spoilers follow.

Willful racism may not play much of a role in Vertigo, but giddy misogyny sure does. Or so it seemed to me on my first viewing, at a movie palace in 1983 (Vertigo had just been re-released by the Hitchcock estate after a decade out of circulation). When the lights came up at the end and scattered applause was drowned out by sustained booing, I was silently on the side of those who were being vocally dismissive. This was supposed to be Hitchcock's masterpiece? A movie in which the main character, James Stewart's San Francisco detective Scotty Ferguson, spends half the film bullying some poor salesgirl (Kim Novak's Judy) into replicating the exact image of the woman he still loves but thinks is dead? A movie in which Scotty's response when Judy objects to dyeing--dying?--and restyling her hair to match Madeline's is "It can't matter to you!"? A movie in which Judy has to die in order for Scotty to be cured of his vertigo? Feh!

I had assumed that because Scotty was played by an immensely sympathetic actor that Hitchcock intended the audience to fully identify with his perspective. I hadn't actually seen many Hitchcock films by this point, so I was unfamiliar with just how ambiguous Stewart's roles in previous Hitchcock films--Rope, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window--actually were. And I didn't realize how problematic "identification" is in this movie.

But something about the film must have continued to bother me. A decade later my lover was arranging a screening of Vertigo for an international conference of psychiatrists (!). She asked me if I wanted to sneak into the mid-afternoon screening (this was before the film's restoration, and it was rare to have a chance to see it on a big screen). I couldn't resist the setting, so I agreed. From my third-row seat, as the introductory panel discussion among four or five psychiatrists began, the entire event already seemed enclosed in quotation marks. (Hilariously, Vertigo contains a scene where a pedantic psychiatrist in heavy black hornrims explains the zombie-like Scotty's affliction as "acute melancholia together with a guilt complex." Scotty's been prescribed a daily dose of Mozart--and probably off-screen shock treatments, this being the 1950s. In any case, the asylum scene is hardly a ringing endorsement of the methods of modern psychiatry.) Before the movie had even begun, the irony meter was pinging off the scale.

And then the film started, and from the first moments I was completely transfixed. Bernard Herrmann's sweeping, powerful score; Hitchcock's swirling, disorienting camera; James Stewart's anguished portrayal of Scotty; Kim Novak's coolly erotic Madeline and pleading, insecure Judy--I was amazed by how much better the film seemed ten years on. And how could I have so misread the ending, when Scotty, shattered, utterly bereft, gazes down from the ledge of the tower? I've now seen Vertigo more than a dozen times, and it becomes richer with every viewing.

A major part of what changed my perspective was Tania Modleski's brilliant book of essays on the women in Hitchcock's films, The Women Who Knew Too Much (Methuen, 1988/Routledge, 2005). A few months before my second viewing of Vertigo I'd picked up her book because it discussed some of the other films I'd finally gotten around to seeing at my friend Glenn's urging: Blackmail, Rebecca, Notorious, and Rear Window, among others. Each of Modleski's essays offers an extremely perceptive and nuanced close reading of a particular film, and each substitutes for the simplistic myth of Hitchcock's alleged misogyny a much more subtle and ambiguous analysis. After my second experience with Vertigo I reread her essay on it, "Femininity by Design." She describes how, at the moment in Judy's hotel room that the camera lingers with her, and where we discover the solution to the mystery, Hitchcock creates an identification in the viewer that's split between Scotty and Judy for the rest of the film. But she also points out how identified Scotty is with Madeline, the nonexistent/murdered woman--the end point of all his yearning being the abyss into which he gazes in the film's final moments.

Another critic with insightful things to say about Vertigo is Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. In Looking Awry (MIT Press, 1995) he describes how Vertigo exemplifies the mechanism of desire, in which it's precisely the unattainability of something that makes it desireable. Once we've attained it, its former allure is diminished. And indeed, that's what happens in the final minutes of Vertigo. After Judy enters the hotel room as Madeline (to the sound of Herrmann's trembling strings echoing Scotty's anxiety), and the famous 360-degree kiss, there's a fadeout. When we fade back in, "Madeline" has reverted back to Judy, and Scotty seems distracted, pensive, not joyous. It's at this moment that he is finally able to see that Madeline was Judy all along. He's attained his desire, only to discover that it was an illusion from the first. And it's Judy who must pay for his disillusionment with her death. (In fact, for every woman in the film--Carlotta, the real Madeline, "Madeline," and Judy--being the object of men's desire results in death. The one exception is Midge, who tries and fails to make herself the object of Scotty's desire.)

Sorry, I can keep going about Vertigo forever. But in closing I want to return to the (far from exact, I realize) parallel between Jonathan's experience with The Searchers and mine with Vertigo. Sometimes the movies (and books and music and art) that are most immediately appealing don't end up sustaining our admiration, while those that are difficult, that we have to work a bit to understand (or that we find ourselves deliberately resisting), wind up being the ones we return to again and again. Not always, of course--some works just grab you and never let go, and some are truly dislikeable. But this sort of conversion experience has happened enough times for me to think that a reflexive dislike of something might just be my brain's perverse way of alerting me that I might really end up enjoying it after all.