Being unemployed for the last few months has been great for my cinematic education. I have come across three beautiful movies in this time that I would recommend to everybody around me. They are: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and District 9.
Movie: Before Sunrise
Director: Richard Linklater
Year of Release: 1995
Before Sunrise is a love story. And it’s about love at first sight. Now before you dismiss it as some kind of run of the mill romantic comedy, let me explain. It is about an American guy (in his early 20s) who meets a French girl (also in her early 20s) on a train to Vienna. They impulsively decide to spend a day and night together exploring Vienna and exploring each other. The next day they part ways, the girl goes to Paris and the guy goes back to America. The movie is about the meeting and the exploring. Each time they speak it seems they are tentatively and hesitatingly digging deeper into each other. All at once you see confusion, excitement, curiosity, embarrassment, longing, love, desire, lust, intrigue and the all important need to define where next this relationship is headed. At last, when night arrives all these emotions are manifested in their conversation about whether or not to have sex. Should we do it? Perhaps not? Would it spoil this wonderful thing we have had all day? And yet, they seem to enjoy even this discussion of the possibility of having sex. Their comfort with each other is so complete. In the end, they realize they cannot really bid goodbye to each other and decide to meet again in the railway station at Vienna after 6 months. Obviously, we don’t know if they do.
Movie: Before Sunset
Director: Richard Linklater
Year of Release: 2005
Before Sunset is a sequel. It is set ten years on (quite literally with the same actors), when the characters are in their early 30s. They have both changed considerably. The guy who was a struggling writer in the first movie has actually published a book and as part of its promotion has been touring Europe. He meets the girl in Paris. The girl is working for an environmental organization. They hit it off once again. Obviously, someone stood someone else up 6 months after their first meeting. But that is cleared up fairly early in the movie. A very interesting and engaging repartee follows between them as they discuss politics, love, sex, work, marriage, children etc throughout the movie. There is less embarrassment and confusion. They are very different people now, but their changed selves are falling in love all over again. The audience now wants to know if this is going to be another transitory meeting like the earlier meeting or if it is the beginning of something more lasting.
Movie: District 9
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Year of Release: 2009
In contrast, the third movie, District 9, literally takes the heart out of your lung cage, plays ball with it, slaps it around, gives it a shake, irons it out, puts it through the shredder, stamps on it, and then, still beating, albeit faintly, puts it back in your lung cage. Admittedly this movie requires a mood, the mood to think and the mood to be bombarded with the realities of the world. If you have read Kafka’s Metamorphosis, this is very much like that. The story, set in South Africa, revolves around a man, an officer in the administration, who is given the job of clearing out an alien settlement, District 9, because they are ‘illegal’ immigrants and have created a lot of resentment among the locals. The movie starts out like a political documentary with sociology experts and the like giving their piece of wisdom to the camera. And quite early on you are introduced to the protagonist. The character has a comic clumsy side to him and the start is rather lighthearted, very deceptive of what is to come. In time, the protagonist comes in contact with some fluid that changes a human in to a ‘prawn’ which is the derogatory term for the aliens. Attitudes of people everywhere changes towards him. Why? His own attitudes towards the prawns, the people, his wife, and the Nigerian arms trading gangs are changing completely.
The one unnecessary element was perhaps the segment about the Nigerian arms trading gangsters. And ofcourse too much blood and gore for my liking. I firmly believe in the strength of a subtly crafted message. But I also realize it’s the times we live in; the more blood and gore the more candid the picture is perceived to be.
This is social satire and political allegory of the toughest, most hard-hitting kind. Interestingly, when I googled the movie, most reviews seemed to consider it in the category of sci-fi and evaluate it on that score. However, except for the alien bit, I think it has very little sci-fi and lots more of social commentary.
Be sure to catch these when you can. They are classics.
A smartass once asked my mother, “ oh you read for entertainment too? I thought you only read for edification”. Apart from being obnoxious-bordering-on-the-rude, ridiculous-bordering-on-the-hilarious and patronizing-bordering-on-the-supercilious, that comment is also one of the most meaningless-bordering-on-the-absurd ones I have come across. Speculating on what she meant wouldn’t interest me and is beyond the scope of this article. But I am going to look at this and some other similarly futile distinctions because it entertains me to the hilt, not to mention its edifying side effects 😀
One such is the parallel cinema-commercial cinema dichotomy. The dichotomy includes a certain disdain for commercial cinema as being without content and stupid. A friend once told me that parallel cinema was boring and depressing; he would much rather a bollywood commercial cinema for entertainment. Bheja Fry, which was a big hit at the box office, one that easily could be called a commercial success, was also critically acclaimed. Using political satire and humour as tools, it had a sophisticated plot and script. And whats more, the acting did justice to the story. Bheja Fry was also far from depressing. Dev D, a rather stinging criticism of society, its double standards, patriarchy and more, had its share of songs and dance sequences that made it a commercial success. Dor, not much of a commercial success but one of the most thought provoking (and gently instructive) films made in Indian cinema. It deals with dilemmas, so it keeps the audience restive but in no way depressing. For filmmakers, the dichotomy only serves the purpose of justifying making stupid movies under the commercial cinema banner. And for movie goers, it helps in justifying the lowering of their own standards in cinema.
Another dichotomy is the traditional- innovative. Unlike the parallel-commercial cinema dichotomy, this actually exists and is not as absurd. The ‘traditionalists’ pride themselves because their art form is ‘pure’ and ‘unsullied’. The’ innovativists’ look down upon the other because they have broken the time warp that the ‘traditionalists’ are in. Now, my own insight into this dichotomy comes from my little dabbling with Bharatanatyam. Obviously, the raging debate has some significantly persuasive orators on both sides, but I am going to give my, what might seem rather, raw view of this dichotomy. My previous teachers (and I with them) performed an innovative piece called Shyam Sakhi. The innovation was in the way they approached the subject matter- the relationship between Lord Krishna and Draupadi- and also in form because they had a mixture of Kathak and Bharatanatyam in their dance drama. The innovation in content- this relatively unexplored aspect of the relationship between, not brother and sister as the as is traditionally taken, but between loyal friends- was, in one word, SUPER. The innovation in form, though, left much to be desired. Jhelum Paranjpey’s Leelavati is a brilliant exercise both in innovating content and innovating form. What I gather from these experiences is that one needs to be sufficiently steeped in tradition to make the kind of innovation that is deep enough, in both form and content, for it to be included in the greater knowledge base of the art form. And that’s the only kind of lasting innovation that makes sense in any art form.
Similarly, the dichotomy of entertaining reading- edifying reading is meaningless for the simple reason that everything that’s entertaining is edifying. For something to be edifying, it has to be engaging first; for something to be engaging, it has to be entertaining first. If it isn’t entertaining, it won’t edify. I remember my mother banning some books for us, not because she was concerned about content or anything, she just thought it was necessary to ban them in order to help form a good reading habit. It is true we never since developed any taste for that kind of literature. But I don’t necessarily subscribe to my mother’s view. I think we would have read and dismissed such books on our own. Enid Blyton, for example, we used to read all the time and I loved every bit of it. But now, I cant stand her books. Her books are racist, intolerant to the ‘different’, perpetrates patriarchy and written, many times, with wrong grammar. I have realized these shortcomings albeit late but I have done so irrespective of the fact that I lived and breathed Enid Blyton. Finally, edification ( I hate the word; it sounds so pompous) is something that has more to do with the individual. The individual either learns and improves from whatever it is he is reading ( even deciding to avoid certain kind of literature because it is stupid is an edifying process) or he learns nothing at all. It is possible, after all, to read Crime and Punishment or The Discovery of India and come out with no improvement whatsoever in oneself.
I have just figured that if there is one single thing I really hate in this world it would be dichotomies because most of them are meaningless but, sadly, catching.
P.S Apologies to my readers following the adventures of PC for this grand delay in the appearance of the 4th Chapter. It can be attributed to my relocating woes. But I am sure to update it coming Tuesday. So watch out for it!