Friday, November 27, 2009

When Movies Trouble: 'Kurbaan'

I do not believe that movies should be responsible. Or be inoffensive. Or be historically accurate. Or that they should represent the generally perceived notion of 'truth'. A movie is simply one (or more) person's view of a situation and it is what they are choosing to show to the rest of the world. Nothing more. In a free world, every person should be free to make a movie as they please. And every viewer has a choice to either see it or not. If they choose to see the movie, afterward they can either agree with it, or vehemently protest. Anything outside of that would result in committing that biggest of offenses: censorship. Art should not only engage and illuminate and entertain. It should also on occasion provoke, offend, frustrate and enrage. How else to engender discussion about wildly opposing views? How else to reconcile polarizing differences? How else to, no matter how briefly, stand in the shoes of someone you find hateful?

All of the above may sound lofty. But I say this within the context of feelings invoked after watching the Indian movie: 'Kurbaan' (Sacrifice), written by Karan Johar and directed by newcomer Renzil D'Silva. If you are planning on watching this movie, you may be best served by stopping right here (and coming back after seeing the film). Since I will be bringing up critical plot elements of the movie, including its conclusion, please consider this your fair and final SPOILER WARNING. 

As I was sitting in my cinema seat watching 'Kurbaan', I found myself increasingly troubled by the film. Don't get me wrong; in the current climate of mind-numbindly neutral cinema, I am glad for films that have the power to elicit strong reactions, even if negative. I will rush to acknowledge that 'Kurbaan' is technically a very well-made movie. It is clear that all of the filming was conducted on location on what must have been difficult shoots. And the film boasts some of the better acting talent from the indian subcontinent. But what does it all add up to? Ask someone else. If there is an underlying message to the movie, it was lost on me. I do not believe that all movies need to have a message. But this one goes out of its way to invoke some mighty large issues: nothing less than the state of the war on terror in the world today. For a movie that comes advertised as a red-hot, topical take on terrorism and religious fundamentalism, it turns out to be oddly toothless in the end. How else to explain a movie that goes about picking on one hot-button issue after another and then decides to spend its last hour on a well-oiled but tired, conventional exercise in will-the-bad-guys-manage-to-detonate-the-bombs-or-not? 
Publicity still for the movie, 'Kurbaan'
Let me elaborate. Here is a movie about a sleeper cell of Islamic terrorists in New York who are planning on blowing up the city subway stations. A dangerous premise for sure, but also amenable to providing interesting insights if handled carefully. Instead the film indulges in surprisingly schizophrenic treatment of the material. We are asked to sympathize with the lead character; he has become a terrorist (it is explained in broad-stroke narration) because his wife and kids were killed during a bombing in Afghanistan. But we are also presented with scenes where he efficiently and cold-bloodedly kills several individuals including many local policemen in New York. So what are we to think of him? The movie has characters in a classroom debating about how so many more Afghani civilians have been killed by the joint US and UK forces than Americans who died during 9/11. It is mentioned that America has engaged in war for pursuit of oil, and we should pause before placing all of the blame for the current situation on Islamic terrorists. All this while the movie emphatically reinforces every stereotype about Islam itself; of the eight or nine male Islamic characters in the story-line, all but one are revealed to be terrorists! It has a scene where a Muslim man is asked to undergo a random security check at an American airport, and he complains afterward that he got picked only because of his appearance and his Islamic last name. And this comes not ten minutes after the movie has shown how a Muslim suicide-bomber boards a plane and successfully manages to blow it up. What IS your point, Mr Johar? Why a commentary on racial profiling when your plot seems to present a strong rationale for justifying it? The movie has the heroine recoiling from a terrible deceit and forced to live under oppressively strict Islamic code (with her head covered, and the men and women usually separately clustered, the men talking gravely about important matters and the women cooking). And then the movie has a scene where an older Muslim man (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) ruefully complains that young Muslims are hesitant to protest about how they are treated in America for fear of being labeled fundamentalists. So the movie wants us to be sympathetic toward the plight of Muslims in America, even as the film itself paints them in the worst possible light? 

And so it goes back and forth, as the movie simultaneously patronizes and offends all of its characters. Let us set aside all religious and political considerations; this is just lazy scriptwriting; we have here a writer who wants to keep every faction happy even as he is impugning all of them. The snake devouring its own tail. Other Indian movies have explored the subject of terrorism in the past with varying degrees of sensitivity; 'Maachis', 'Dil Se', and 'The Terrorist' come to mind. All three movies were flawed in small measure or large, but at least those films had the courage to present their story with a single-mindedness of narrative perspective. They took a stand and stuck with it in the telling of their story. Not so, unfortunately for 'Kurbaan'. What to make of a film that indulges in self-righteousness without declaring what it is self-righteous about. 

I am not troubled by the fact that this movie troubled me. I liked that. As mentioned at the start, any movie/book/painting/art-form that can incite and provoke and lead to fervent discourse is of value. What troubles me however is how little has been said of these issues in other reviews of this movie. In fact it is the lack of discourse on the treatment of the subject matter in this film that surprises me. What does it say about the state of things that the Indian press is inclined to expend way more ink on the lead actress' (Kareena Kapoor) exposed back during a scene than on how little is ultimately heard of these filmmakers' voices for all the shouting and noise in this movie. 

Monday, November 16, 2009

2009 Toronto International Film Festival - Update Five

Deliver Us From Evil  ****

September nineteenth 2009. The last movie I saw at the festival before rushing to the airport was 'Deliver Us From Evil', a film advertised in the programme as a 'smart, propulsive Danish thriller'. Tickets go fast at the festival, and I am in general pleased with the movies I had picked a week ahead of the start of TIFF 2009. And I had evidently saved one of the best for the last.

Consider a man driving a commercial truck down a deserted road as he is chugging alcohol.  One hand on wheel, he bends down to retrieve something from under the seat next to him, and then hears a sickening thud. That sound of having run over something; or somebody. Recognizing that the woman he has killed is the beloved wife of the unofficial mayor of his hometown, he decides to frame this tragedy on the one person in town who would be the easiest target. Thus starts the movie 'Deliver Us From Evil', at a brisk pace, introducing its characters through a clever set of scenes set in an idyllic little seaside town in Denmark. 

It is certain then that the film is going to be a morality play. But perhaps also a thriller. And perhaps also a keenly observed study of specific characters. And perhaps a commentary on xenophobia. As it moved along, it was not obvious to me though as to which of these it was going to primarily be in its conclusion. And then about halfway through the movie a scene comes along where the clouds build ominously in the darkening evening sky and the background music screeches to a terribly jolting crescendo that takes the foreboding visual to its full expression - and then, about half a mile further. And while one part of me could not believe how much of a cliche this was (literally, dark clouds gathering in the sky!), the other part was shocked at how effective this was. Overused movie conventions be damned, I was filled with delight. And I settled in my seat as I realized with crystalline clarity what this movie was going to be about after all. Honestly, I live for moments like this. When you realize with satisfaction that you are in the hands of a good storyteller.

Publicity still for 'Deliver Us From Evil' from TIFF 2009

A bit more about the story. The cast of characters includes Johannes, his wife Pernille and their two kids who have all recently moved from the city to a small town, a town where everyone seems to know each other. There is Alain, the child-like Bosnian refugee who has lost his family in civil war, and is employed by Johannes to do odd jobs at his home. There is the older Ingmar, who is more or less the town's head, respected by all, and his wife Anna who is liked even more by the townsfolk. Johannes' brother Lars is everything he is not: a hard-drinking, hard-living, twisted soul of a man who would be a caricature of evil, if he were not also so frighteningly real. And credit goes here to all of the actors for making these individuals akin to someone you might actually know. Lars' pregnant girlfriend is, as one reviewer put it, an open wound through much of the movie. I have not revealed anything so far that is not outlined in the first few minutes of the movie. While driving his truck, it is Lars who runs over Anna biking on the road on the day of a local town celebration. And this sets into motion a series of events that would have you thinking you are ahead of the movie. But you are not. All of the characters get pulled into the whirlpool: Johannes, Ingvar, Lars, Alain, and Pernille. And the events domino one into another in a controlled procession until the movie takes off into perfect flight at about about the halfway mark. [SPOILER WARNING: And it is at this point that it becomes evident that the movie is going to be an epic, bloody showdown between a man (presumably) in the right and the rest of the world gone mad].

I would never have guessed this walking into this film, but in terms of its theme, it has commonality with 'The Reader" from last year. Both movies I believe are about how far a person should go to turn a blind eye to what they know is completely and morally wrong. Both movies depict extreme examples of human failings in this regard. 'Deliver Us From Evil' works just fine as a rock-solid thriller. But the reason why it registers as something more is because even as it gets its feet completely wet within the conventions of a traditional suspense movie, it dares to ask unpleasant questions that most movies would rather ignore: When does the need for communal unity and preservation of tradition lapse into xenophobia ? What if your devout faith asks you to join hands with others in doing something unspeakable?  In many ways, this very well made thriller shows how easily the sort of horror depicted in this movie could happen anywhere in the world. And has actually been happening for a long, long time.  I suspect this is the reason this film will find a wider audience.

This is visually a stylish movie. The entire film appears to have been shot in a bleached, sun-burned palette, sometimes almost seeming Black and White. This complements the Danish countryside well. 

There was one aspect to the movie that I found troubling. It has to do with how comfortable the movie is with racial slurs. Perhaps the intent here was to simply be truthful about how people talk, and therefore just reflect reality. But there is a scene in the movie where a large group of people all begin to chant a racial slur, and it came off as particularly distasteful. Yes, I realize that it is eventually revealed that these individuals are truly heinous. But in the scene earlier in the film where it is repeated again and again, I worried about how audiences might take it. It is the old 'Borat' debate again. In a movie that spends a lot of time depicting hateful behavior, there is danger that some may take it at face value and not realize that the film is actually deeply contemptuous of it. I have chosen my words carefully and intentionally not brought up another issue that the film points a very harsh finger at; it is because there is no way to talk about it without giving away critical plot elements.

At the end of the day, this was a movie that made me giddy with its thriller elements, and has kept my brain active for months after I have seen it with the thorny moral questions it raises. Movies seldom deliver so gloriously on their intended promise, and it is worth applauding the director, Ole Bornedal for his achievement here.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (***1/2)

Do you have a member of your extended family, a spoilt nephew perhaps, or a cocky uncle, who is incredibly annoying? He will not listen to anyone, and will blatantly disregard all norms. And most frustrating of all, he will - again and again - come through with flying colors in everything he does. The prodigiously talented insufferable. Quentin Tarantino belongs in that company.

'Inglourious Basterds', the title of the latest from Tarantino, refers to a group of American men brought together to fight back, with full militant vendetta, against the Nazi assault during WWII. This story intercuts with that of the opportunity presented to a young Jewish girl to exact revenge for the death of her family at the hands of German troops led by an unreasonably devious Nazi colonel.

The movie is many things, but to me, the one thing it seemed more than anything else was - indulgent. From the deliberately misspelt title, (I understand the film borrows only the most basic premise from the late seventies italian movie of the same name), to the mix-and-match opening credits (half in technicolor bright yellow 70's font, the rest in regular font), to characters who talk and talk and talk (in Tarantino-speak, of course), to the casual disregard for historical accuracy, it could have been terribly labored.  How indulgent you ask? The last words uttered in the movie are, "I think this might be my masterpiece". Really, Mr Tarantino? Imagine how overwrought this film, clearly a pet project, could have become. But darned if Tarantino does not make it all work. Not just make it work, but take off with giddy delight. This is a movie that does not have a minute that is not interesting

The movie is essentially a putting together of six to seven precisely structured (and fully realized) episodes that more or less tell a full story. I suspect Tarantino shot a much longer version, but had to slash off large portions for a shorter theatrical run time. [The DVD release of the movie may tell if this the case. It would not be the first time; Kill Bill - Volumes I and II, released separately in cinemas, were originally shot as a single movie]. Tarantino is as good if not a better writer than a director; nobody does dialog like him. In this film he demonstrates a particular proficiency for structuring cat and mouse scenes of unbearable tension. From the first scene, a charged, mostly verbal exchange between the Nazi colonel and a French farmer who may be hiding a secret, the movie crackles. There are scenes of particular (and sadistic) wit that follow, which show Tarantino using every trick in the book, but with such intelligent structuring, that it all comes off new. He confounds expectations beautifully; there are many developments that occur in the latter half of the movie that break cardinal rules of the film book. I would offer specific details, but do not want to give away critical plot elements. There is, in particular, a scene in a tavern late in the movie that is so smartly written, tightly constructed, and well played out, that this episode alone would make a memorable short film worthy of the price of admission.

Much has been made of the character of the acid-sharp Nazi leader, Colonel Handa. I will only add that by now, thousands of films have provided us with hundreds of legendary villains, and it takes skill to present a bad guy who is unlike anything we have seen before. Christoph Waltz, who plays this character with an impossible balance of grace and evil, has an assured lock on a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Melanie Laurent, who plays the lead female character in the movie has a face meant for cinema; Tarantino fetishizes this face with many generous close ups - for good reason. I was transfixed by her face to the point of distraction in her scenes. I am surprised that much has not been made of Brad Pitt's performance. I suspect his job was to bring the masses in, who will be surprised to find that he is not in every scene of the film. This is a true ensemble film, with memorable work by dozens of actors. But even then, Pitt does well here with lifting his role out of caricature into a believable character; I fully bought his southern accent (what is the story with the scar that runs along his neck in the film?). On the issue of accents, this is truly a European movie (made with American financing), where key plot points are built around accents. And here is the miracle: Tarantino (and Pitt?) were able to bring in millions to the cinemas to watch this movie that turns out to have sub-titles through more than half its running length. I am all for destroying the aversion to movie subtitles for good and all. And kudos to 'Basterds' for tricking the movie-going masses wholesale into seeing a subtitled film.

I also liked the fact that this is a movie about movies. The lead female character owns a cinema house in Paris. Characters talk about films often and there are many cinematic references. The climax is structured around events that transpire during the screening of a pro-Nazi film in Paris. There are critical events that transpire in the projectionist's room of the theatre. All of which allow Tarantino to indulge in his obsessive love for the cinema and to pay homages. There is a nice little tip of the hat to Chaplin's 'The Great Dictator'. For the movie lover, I am sure there are endless references to discover upon repeat viewing.

The film is cleanly violent. While this did not bother me, what I did not appreciate was far too many shoot-em-ups - the kind that popped up suddenly and pretty much decimated everyone on the screen. These scenes pulled me out of the film due to acts that seemed dissociated from the flow of the story. But this is a minor quibble. Before going to see it, I had poor expectations for 'Inglourious Basterds', because the reviews had been polarizing. And I was fully ready to dislike it based on Tarantino's more recent contributions to popular culture. Imagine then the pain it causes me to say that this movie squeezed out my admiration for this director once again. To grant him, yet another time, the elusive 'g' label. Yes, this movie is genius.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

2009 Toronto International Film Festival - Update Four

Love, and Other Impossible Pursuits  ***1/2
Cracks ***
Road, Movie  ***

September eighteenth 2009. I saw three very different movies today, ‘Love and Other Impossible Pursuits’, ‘Cracks’ and ‘Road, Movie’ at TIFF. 

In ‘Love And Other Impossible Pursuits’, the director Don Roos does what Pedro Almodovar did several years ago with ‘All About My Mother’. Known for his brazen, envelope-pushing movies (‘The Opposite of Sex’, ‘Happy Endings’), this is Roos’ grown up movie. To be fair, his underrated 2000 movie ‘Bounce’, starring Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow was a fairly serious film, and this one is a return to that tone.

Publicity still for 'Love And Other Impossible Pursuits' from TIFF 2009

‘Love And Other Impossible Pursuits’, (based on the novel of the same name by Ayelet Waldman) is what you might be forced into categorizing as a romantic comedy, but it has a deep underlying sadness. Natalie Portman plays Emilia, a twenty-something woman in New York City trying to find stability in her life. She is married to the man who used to be her boss and his life is still occupied in large parts by his son (Charlie Tahan) and wife (Lisa Kudrow) from a former marriage. The movie begins soon after Portman’s own infant daughter has recently died. She seems to have adapted, but she has not. This may lead you to believe that the film is a look at grief associated with the death of the very young. However Portman’s character defies the sympathetic stereotype; she certainly does not make life for anyone around her easy. She is quickly bruised, needy in her demands from her husband, hostile to the attempts from well-meaning family members and friends to empathize with her loss, and uses her grief as an excuse to lash out at those closest to her. She finds herself having to spend increasingly more time with her precocious teenage step-son and their relationship is fraught from the start. The majority of the movie is about Emilia coming to terms with her situation, not always in the expected ways.

As an actor, Natalie Portman, has always had that mix of poise and intelligence about her. And she acts her heart out here. But ultimately the role seems a little wrong for her, because it requires a certain amount of darkness about it and Portman can’t help but glow (not in a physical sense, but by way of her sensibility) even when she is miserable. And the role also calls for, in my mind, someone a bit older. But these are petty quibbles in a movie that otherwise hits most of the right notes. There is fine work here also from Charlie Tahan, the young actor who plays her step-son. Lisa Kudrow (a fixture in most Don Roos movies) however walks away with the film; she has few scenes, but she owns them. She plays a shrill shrew of a woman, maddening in her nastiness and ability to singe with words, and Kudrow does not once succumb to the temptation to make her nice or likeable. But somehow, through the meanness of her character, the humanity peaks through. This is what good actors can do; she deserves recognition for this role.

I harbor disdain for films that are specifically aimed to tug at the heartstrings; the slightest whiff that this is what the film is up to and it usually turns me off. But I will admit that this film moved me. Also, well cast ‘romantic comedies’ made by well known directors are always playing a losing battle for me. This is one of the hardest genres to make a movie in and my expectations for mainstream romantic comedies are very high and they almost always disappoint. This one did not. It is sincere, and well made, and well acted. It is definitely worth seeking out when it has a wide release.

‘Cracks’ made by first-time director Jordan Scott (daughter of Ridley) appears to have been more than a little influenced by “Picnic on Hanging Rock”, that great Peter Weir film of epic tension and foreboding (and also, resolute refusal to provide answers at the end). It has the same sense of impending horror in the midst of the mundane. It also has a similar setting.

Publicity still for 'Cracks' from TIFF 2009

Eva Green (‘Casino Royale’, ‘The Dreamers’) plays a teacher, Miss G., in a prestigious all-girls British Boarding School in the forties. She is a free-spirit and unconventional in her methods of instruction. Young, beautiful, and confident, she is adored by the girls who look up to her as a role-model. Some are stronger drawn to her than others. Miss G. makes no qualms about playing favorites with some students who she believes worthy of extra attention, and this inevitably has resulted in a delicate political structure amongst the girls. The arrival of a new girl from Spain disrupts this shaky balance of power. The new girl, Fiama, rumored to be a member of royalty, carries about herself with even greater confidence than Miss G., and refuses to bow to either the other girls or her teacher. Her seeming arrogance eventually reveals as being simply a manifestation of her knowing more (and being athletically better) than the other girls. Fiama starts making it evident to the other girls that their adored teacher is perhaps not who they have thought to be all along. And may be not worthy of their adulation. Pretty soon a tug-of-war for power erupts, between Fiama, Miss G., and the other girls (led by the previous leader of the pack, Diana).

This is where the movie goes suddenly very dark, delicious even (at least initially), in the hard-boiled tightness of its well-laid plot. It becomes evident then that the movie had all along intended to descend to sinister places. Like ‘Picnic on Hanging Rock’, this film began with a tone of foreboding and approaching maelstrom, but when it got there, I was still unprepared for it. And therein lies its success. I will say no more.

I do want to comment on one aspect of the movie that surprised me. There is a part late in the movie about a transgression that Miss G commits that is surprisingly, not implied, but visibly depicted. And the movie gets away with it, I suspect, because the teacher happens to be a woman. If the setting had been changed to a boy’s school and the teacher played by a man, this would have caused outrage. I had a similar issue with “The Reader” last year, which depicts a very sexual relationship between a school boy and a much older woman. Switch the genders (young school girl and man old enough to be her father) and the movie would have been a hotbed of political fury. Switch the gender in ‘Cracks’ and the movie would possibly not have been made. There is something about the way that sexuality is depicted in “Cracks” that made it unsettling for me. But perhaps that was the intent all along, to make the viewer uncomfortable and therefore somewhat complicit in the dark places it gets to. Consider me spooked.

I had purchased my ticket for “Road, Movie” not realizing that the screening was the North American premiere for the film. I enjoyed the premiere rituals prior to the screening (introduction of the movie by the director and bringing out of cast and production team to the stage) for that air of electricity and caged nervousness that they carried.

Premiere of "Road, Movie" at TIFF 2009. From left, Cameron Bailey (TIFF Co-Director), Dev Benegal (Director of movie), Satish Kaushik (Actor), Tannishtha Chatterjee (Lead Actress), Abhay Deol (Lead Actor) and Susan Landau (Producer).

Directed by Dev Benegal, [son of the legendary Indian film director, Shyam Benegal], whose two previous movies ‘Eyes Wide Open’ and ‘English August’ are unseen by me, this movie surprised me by its maturity, and its determinedly indie sensibility. Heck, the second half of the movie even goes for outright surrealism in one or two places.  For Indian cinema this is quite the road not taken.

The protagonist is a young man in contemporary India who wants no part of his father’s hair-oil business (you read that correct). He gets conned into delivering a large consignment across the country. His mode of transportation is a beat-up truck that has seen better years. And so our hero sets out across the arid landscape of northwestern India (Rajasthan) characterized by harsh deserts and nomadic locals. As indicated by the title of the movie, on the way, he meets the expected motley cast of characters who accompany him through the expected misadventures. This includes a young kid looking for adventure (Mohammed Faisal Usmani), an avuncular mechanic (Satish Kaushik) who may also become his roadside/spiritiual advisor, and a nomadic woman (Tannishtha Chatterjee) with whom he shares an unexpected connection. I will grant that all of these characters are well developed; they all carry a well-lived authenticity about them, an unscrubbed hard-earned rootedness to their characters. There is thankfully no concession to any fast-talking, glib, side-kick characters.

The road trip is made in the kind of truck that used to serve as a mobile movie theatre across rural towns in the near past, the sort which had an antiquated movie projector in its back and a make-shift cloth screen that enabled pit stops from village to village to show movies and generate some income along the way. This neat conceit allows for some of the best scenes in the movie. It also lets the filmmakers indulge in a bit of nostalgia about the power of movies, and to show yet again, people universally falling under the spell of moving images. And how so many in India are making do with so little.

In the latter portion of the movie, there are some scenes filmed in a seeming mirage in the middle of the desert, where the world suddenly comes to life. The teeming of people living there, the music, the food, the reckless abandon with which some characters consummate their lingering attraction - all appear to be an exercise in surrealism. Did this occur really or is it all imagined; I suspect you are not meant to know one way or another. Also, while Tannishtha Chatterjee does very convincing work here as a wandering tribal woman, her character appears out of nowhere and (perhaps intentionally) is oddly without context. Abhay Deol, the lead, is that rarity in Indian cinema, a lead actor who does not feel the need to behave like one. His understated, ego-less, but not passive role serves the movie remarkably well.

I had some complaints. Some scenes veer dangerously off tone from the rest of the movie. There is a bit about bandits who go loony that are from another farcical film. There is some commentary thrown in about the corporatization of water and the abuse that comes from its terrible need in a dry land that does not fit with the rest of the movie. Also, the movie could have used some judicious editing; there are too many long pan shots of the truck moving solitary through desolate landscapes. The endless, sandy, dry landscape began to grate on me a bit after a while. I wonder if this movie will play well in India, particularly in the multiplexes. But I hope it does because it has moments of great humor as well as heart. 

Publicity still for 'Road, Movie' from TIFF 2009

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF) 2009 - Update Two

Have you ever connected with someone within the first five minutes of meeting them? "Shades of Ray", a movie I saw recently at SDAFF 2009 is the cinematic equivalent of that experience. The movie put a smile to my face within the first few minutes and I settled in comfortably for the rest of the screening. Few are the movies that can build this instantaneous trust and then sustain it. 

"Shades of Ray" is the story of the people in the life of a young man, Ray (Rehman) who has a Pakistani father and an American mother. His parents, living on the East Coast, are trying to exert their will on him in their separate but well-meaning ways. His Muslim father does not know that his son, living in Los Angeles, is a struggling actor who pays the bills by working in a bar. Considering that alcohol consumption is not encouraged in Islam the irony is not lost on Ray. His American girlfriend will not give him an immediate answer to his marriage proposal. And he never seems to be close to the fit the casting directors are looking for at every audition he goes to (not ethnic enough, or too ethnic). Worse, his father forces him to have dinner with a Pakistani girl he thinks Ray should get to know. And to his utter surprise, he does not hate this girl. 

This may sound like sitcom fare. And maybe it is, but that would not be a bad sitcom. Nobody is going to put this movie on their list of the best movies of all time. But sometimes all a movie has to do is to be true to its intentions, and be honest and to have heart, and that is enough. The movie does not do anything path-breaking, in tone, story or style. It sets out to register this story about a character we have not seen before (a half-Pakistani man in America) and gets it ably accomplished. That what it has to say about identity, and race, and finding one's foothold in the ever liquifying melting pot that is America, resonates with others is a small measure of its success. 

Ray is played by Zachary Levi (the lead actor on the NBC show 'Chuck', unseen by me) who has a loose-limbed naturalness about him that serves the delivery of many lines of dialog well. Kathy Baker, always a reliable actor, plays his mom. Consider that his quintessentially Muslim father is played so convincingly by Brian George, a Jewish actor born in Jerusalem and trained in Canada (I learn from IMDB). He steals nearly every frame of the movie he appears in. 

One could do a lot worse than to pick this movie to spend two hours of their time on. Even as I realized this is not an exceptional movie, I walked out of it feeling something approaching fondness.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF 2009): Three Unlikely Indian Films

Where else will you get to see films like this? I have been trying to indulge as much as possible at the ongoing 2009 San Diego Asian Film Festival, within the confines of time and scheduling. Over the past week or so, I got to see three Indian movies at SDAFF and they are simply unlike any other Indian movie I have seen. This is not faint claim. And I am not necessarily praising these movies, just scratching my chin at the previously unimagined diversity within the diaspora of Indian cinema. 

The standard Bollywood masala movie is nothing if not consistently predictable. The three movies I saw, 'Karma Calling', 'Tandoori Love' and 'Bombay Summer' will never be confused for a typical Bollywood movie, or marketed like one. And I am grateful for film festivals such as SDAFF that offer this opportunity. 

Take 'Karma Calling', for instance. This is a film about an Indian family living in New Jersey that is struggling with the usual woes: assimilation into the foreign culture, mother in law problems, first-generational disconnect with parents, unrequited love, unlikely alliances, financial get the idea. This is a little movie, with little production values. It looks like it was made with a pittance because it probably was. It has no big name actors, and is the kind where you would not be surprised if many of the roles were played by friends of the film-makers. The soundtrack seems like it was pieced together on somebody's computer. For all of these setbacks though, it has one big thing going for it: its sincerity. The movie has so much genuine affection for its characters, that it won me over in spite of its technical deficiencies (large, loud, empty Bollywood movies should take note). Each character is granted a fantasy sequence in the film. And each clip is played for genuine humor or as an opportunity for incisive commentary. I look forward to what these film-makers next do, because this movie had that Kevin Smith feeling of 'see how you can find sparks of genius even in his earliest films'.

'Tandoori Love' goes the other direction. It is made by a Swiss director with a fondness for the Bollywood tradition that verges on obeisance. This translates into an exercise in the juxtapositioning of unlikely motifs. What we have here is a story set in Switzerland that incorporates indulgent Bollywood dance routines! We have carefully constructed scenes with competent writing suddenly invaded by the need to burst into song and dance. We have a requirement for the suspension of belief every ten or so minutes as the plot veers wildly. We have actors mouthing typical Bollywoodesque songs in intermixed English and Hindi, and some German thrown in for good measure. We have a beautiful blonde heroine being wooed by Vijay Raaz, that comic Indian character actor who is physically the unlikeliest of romantic leads. We have a story that remains defiantly absurd: an Indian man who cooks for a crew of filmmakers shooting a Hindi movie in the Swiss Alps falls hopelessly in love with a Swiss girl who happens to run the local hotel with her boyfriend. We have Europeans in a quintessentially Swiss snowy resort inexplicably falling for the charms of Indian cooking. I also found it odd that the movie harbors a surprising fondness for graphic violence, that borders on the macabre. It goes on like this until you start to relish the audacity with which the filmmakers keep tossing random concepts together seeing which ones will stick. Eventually I stopped rolling my eyes and accepted the movie for the carnival that it was. I should also add that the movie is beautiful to look at, particularly in spectacularly filmed sequences of food preparations. There is a scene halfway through the movie where luscious, freshly-sliced, deep red strawberries get tossed into a pan on the stove with perfectly golden friend onions. Why? Because it makes for incredible eye candy. Nobody is actually going to eat strawberries cooked with fried onions, but what does it matter. This is that kind of a movie. It is absurd yes, but I have to grant that it is quite entertaining. Where are you going to get to see a movie like this?

Consider finally 'Bombay Summer', the most unlikely of the three unlikely Indian movies I have seen at SDAFF so far. As Indian movies go, this one comes closest to embracing neorealism than any other I have seen. The entire movie can be summarized as follows: an unlikely friendship develops between a young man and a young girl and her boyfriend in contemporary Bombay, and an event occurs that changes everything. That is it. This is a shockingly spare film by Hindi movie standards. The movie spends a lot of time observing these three young characters, the minutiae of their individual lives, who they know, what they do, how they live. The camera pauses long as someone reads a book, or as two characters rest during a lull in their conversation, or as someone stares at the ocean. The young director of this movie (in attendance for the screening), a previous maker of documentaries, applies the tenets of that style of film-making to this, his first narrative feature. And it takes some getting used to. But it also forces a measure of meditation out of the audience. This is not a movie for those with short attention spans. Or for those that need to see the gears of the plot move clickety-click through every minute of the movie they are watching. There are episodes in this movie -  a long, nearly-wordless visit to an abandoned textile mill, or a song sung by a local musician which plays in its near-entirety as the main characters simply listen - that require full surrender from the viewer. Getting impatient or irritated would not be useful. The acting is top-notch, particularly from Tannishtha Chatterjee (who I also saw in "Road, Movie" at TIFF 2009) and Samrat Chakrabarti (who was incidentally, also in 'Karma Calling', but in a far different role). This sort of movie demands an austere submission - on its own terms - for the audience to fully enjoy it. And I am not sure if I truly enjoyed this movie, but I admired its organic, defiantly non-commercial soul. After the movie was over, I felt I had experienced something. And again I ask, where are you going to get to see a movie like that?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Squid And The Whale (***1/2)

"The Squid and The Whale" is testimony to good coming from the painful sometimes. Here is a movie about four rather specific characters (a husband, wife and two sons) who go through a difficult period in their lives. And somehow the movie becomes about all families. 

The parents announce that they are getting divorced and the film is about the immediate, consequential and inconsequential events that follow. The happenings here are too specific - in time, in place, in the minutiae of the details - to be entirely fictional. And so I presume that much of this movie is a documentation of a divorce that was borne witness by the screenwriter. This does not takes away from the achievements of this movie in any manner. In being honest to the point of embarrassment, it at least gets rid of the self-consciousness that plagues these sorts of movies, right off the bat. Movies about families breaking apart tend to be either too self-aware, or too keen to point fingers, or the most offensive of all, melodramatic. 'The Squid and The Whale' has the good sense to indulge in none of that. There is usually great pain in the unraveling of those who at some point have shared great love. This film wisely chooses to be utterly matter of fact in depicting the events that follow the announcement of this unraveling.

Sure, there are arguments, and misinformed dalliances, and oversights and pettinesses and events driven by poor judgment. However, it is all played straight. And the camera never lingers a second too long to extract payback from some emotional moment or another.

There were many things I admired about this film. First about the acting. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney have of late reached that place in their careers where there is no need to adhere to vanity and this has allowed  their performances to be unfussy. To be able to free a character from the desire to be likeable is a measure of progress. Linney and Daniels here go through their roles with the ease of having lived in the skins of these characters for a lifetime. And the two young actors who play their sons have the unpleasant task of being brutally honest in the depiction of adolescent anxiety and all of the embarrassments that come with raging hormones and confused allegiances -and they are up to the task. Which brings me to the other thing that I appreciated about the movie: the honest depiction of adolescent sexuality. This is always a slippery slope and most filmmakers, for good reason, stay away it. In its forthright and non-judgemental take on what these two boys are going through, the movie reminded me of "You, Me, And Everyone We Know", just about the only other recent movie I know that has gotten this right. It is difficult to be candid, but not prurient or judgmental when it comes to depicting teen sexuality - and this movie achieves it. What I also liked about the movie is that it is so quintessentially rooted to a specific location, in this case, Brooklyn. The geography of where the events occur becomes a character of its own and adds another layer of authenticity to the movie. 

All of this may make you wonder if this is a funny movie, or a painful and sad one. It is actually neither, at least not deliberately. It walks you step by step through all of the fumbling messy proceedings that unfold after the announcement of a divorce and seemingly does not have an agenda to amuse or to elicit sympathy. And somehow, for this movie, that is enough. 

Saturday, October 10, 2009

2009 Toronto International Film Festival - Update Three

J’ai Tue Ma Mere (I Killed My Mother) - ****

Write about what you know, they say. Same goes for film. 

September seventeenth, 2009. There are scenes in the only movie I saw today (‘J’ai Tue Ma Mere’; I Killed My Mother) that are real to the point of gasping recognition. Real in the sense that the worst of reality can be. Real in the way that two people who love each other terribly can say and do the most hurtful and damaging things to one other. I have not seen a movie that so perfectly captures the ebb and pull of a relationship prone to emotional excess in quite some time. Funnily, I have scarcely much in common with the situations the movie describes, and yet it felt oddly familiar, this documentation of familial emotional violence.

There are several things that make this movie remarkable. First, the relationship in question is not between two lovers, but as the title indicates, between a mother and son. The movie is so specific in its details because it needs to be, and yet, the dialog takes off from almost the very first few frames into such well-worn patterns from real life, that you forget you are watching a movie. Instead it feels like eavesdropping. Only the very best movies can do this, that is, pull the viewer from out of his seat and into the lives of the people on the screen. I forgot I was sitting in this cinema watching this movie, and instead felt like I was visiting these people. This is one of the hardest things to do in a movie.

The second, and perhaps greater evidence of how remarkable this movie is the fact that it has been written, produced, directed and (lead) acted by a twenty year old. He was sixteen when he wrote the screenplay. Again, the recurring theme from the past two days at the festival, strikes with uncannily strong resonance. That of the young taking the camera and creating products of breathtaking confidence. If a celebrated filmmaker had made this movie, I would be no less enthralled by it, but the fact that a kid from Quebec decided to spend what little money he had to make a movie that is largely autobiographical (one presumes) and came up with something this searing is hard to ignore. The prodigal Xavier Dolan wrote a screenplay that is quite simply about his relationship with his mother when growing up as an adolescent. And then made a movie out of it. Somewhere in between he generated a product that premiered at Cannes, won three awards there, and is now being shown at the Toronto Film Festival. If young filmmakers, or old ones for that matter, want to find inspiration, they cannot do much better than Xavier Dolan. I am already waiting to see what he is going to do next when he turns the weary old age of twenty one.

A word about the acting here. Bad acting is easy to identify, but good acting is undefinable, it is just there, natural as the air you breathe, and unfettered, unpretentious even in the most extreme things being depicted. The actress Anne Dorval plays the titular mother with such effortless realism in portraying a specific woman, that I wondered at one point if the movie was a documentary constructed from taped scenes from the director’s life. As for the other lead, the director, it is bizarre that someone this young can elicit a performance this unaffected. Consider how indulgent it would have seemed if the acting was anything less than note-perfect in a movie directed, produced and written by the lead actor.

I do not want to spend too much time about the plot. The title may lead you to believe it is horror movie about a child killing its mother. The title simply refers to a situation early in the movie, when a school-teacher asks students to interview their parents for a project. The lead character, unwilling to engage his mother, lies to his teacher that his mother is dead (and could he interview his aunt instead?). How twisted can your relationship be with your mother that you would rather figuratively kill your mother than have a serious discussion with her. The movie is a simple documentation of the hard-earned ups and terrible downs in a relationship between this mother and this son. And it never feels indulgent, or repetitive, because every character is allowed to be flawed and mean, and irrational and petty. Just like real life. But there is also great love. Would it not be good if this movie were to find the same bond with audiences worldwide, who would be exasperated, horrified, united, and enraged while watching the movie, but who would also greatly love it. Just like the two main characters.

Publicity shot for 'J'ai Tue Ma Mere' (I Killed My Mother) used at TIFF 2009

[P.S. I fear that this movie may get labeled as a ‘gay movie’ (or worse marketed that way) because the lead actor and director is matter-of-factly gay and a story of his life relates to this fact occasionally. But I hope this does not limit the movie, because it will spark the flare of recognition in any audience member who has had a tumultuous relationship with another family member. I hear that this movie has already been picked up as Canada's entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, so it should hopefully get seen by many]

2009 Toronto International Film Festival - Update Two

Phobidilia - ***1/2
Bunny and The Bull ****

September sixteenth, 2009. Today I saw two movies, “Phobidilia” (at the Varsity Cinemas at 2:30 PM) and “Bunny and the Bull” (at the Scotiabank Cinemas at 8:15 PM). The two films could not be further apart in tone, and outlook. But what unified them was their confidence and their singular high quality. Their craft. Each was a movie that looked as professionally well made as any I have seen. And both should put standard Hollywood fare to utter shame. I hope that there were Hollywood executives in the audience, who saw what these film-makers have accomplished with so little, and wept. Wept for the horrible squandering of money in typical Hollywood fare; and the poor quality of the product. When here were prime examples of inspired people making inspired movies, terribly good movies, with so little.

Before I comment on the two movies themselves, I did want to mention that by far the best thing about attending film festivals is the ability to see the director of the movies; nothing surpasses the experience of the Question and Answer session that follows after each movie has finished. I find these Q&A sessions more than a little moving. And inspiring. Here is the person who has been with the movie from the start and parented it from birth to graduation, and it is such an honor to see the parent(s) and hear them speak about their child at the end of the screening. In the case of ‘Phobidilia’, the two directors, Israeli brothers aged 30 and 32 years, talked to the audience at the end of the screening. And look what they have accomplished at such a young age – such a polished, uncompromising, reassured directorial debut. Right there, seeing those two talk and be humble and be real gives me hope for the future of cinema. [Incidentally, how do you avoid stating the banal, or invoking heavy-handed metaphors, or sounding trite during these Q&A sessions? Whatever the trick, these two had mastered it] For “Bunny and the Bull”, at the end of the screening, the British director too appeared on stage along with the funnier of the two main leads from the film and the producer. And they were all so droll, and humble, that if I had the power to grant success to their film - and - worldwide distribution - and - audience attendance I would do so in the blink of an eye.

“Phobidilia” (based on an Israeli book by the same name) is a hard examination of agoraphobia, the fear that prevents some individuals from leaving the safety of their homes. Ever. It is a story of a young man who seems remarkably unremarkable in how he lives his life, until it becomes eventually clear that he does not appear to be venturing out from within his home. He works as a programmer from home, orders everything he needs online and seems generally well settled. Until the landlord of the apartment he is renting, and a determined woman who works as a survey taker for television programs start to push at him to venture out of his cocoon, both for very different reasons.

As I was watching it, the movie started off seeming tentative and a little precious. But it quickly dropped that tone for a rapidly escalating pace  - all the way to the unyielding conclusion. This is a film with four, perhaps five characters and yet, it never feels structured, or formal, or like a play. This is where the movie wins; in a traditional film, perhaps one made in Hollywood, the movie would have wound its way toward ‘happy’ conclusions to meet with expected conventions. Phobidilia however goes to dark places undaunted and with confidence. It takes its subject matter to its logical conclusion and does not extract a single drop of unearned optimism. Wherever it dares to be positive it does so only by paying its price in kind for objectivity. It is a remarkably assured debut from the filmmakers, unshaken in its belief, uncompromising in its treatment. Also a word about the lead actor, apparently one of the more popular stars from Israel. He goes with this movie wherever it takes him, with no vanity and utter commitment. Other young actors could do well to emulate this fidelity to the craft.

Publicity shot from 'Phobidilia' used at TIFF 2009. 

“Bunny and the Bull” is a gem. A delight. A little piece of whimsy that floats about on its own silly gaseous energy. It is the story of a man (Edward Hogg) living a regimented life who seemingly has an aversion to leaving his home [curious I saw this movie the same day as ‘Phobidilia’]. One day he starts recalling events from his past including a wacky, odd and often hilarious road-trip taken around Europe with his best friend, Bunny (Simon Farnaby). All of these events come full circle of course but to say more about the plot would be a disservice to the film.

During the Q&A, the producer of the movie admitted (when pressed for details) that this movie was made for two million US dollars. See this movie please, and pay attention to its inspired and consistent use of animation and set construction, and see how much (and how lovely) two millions dollars worth of rightly used money can get you. The movie is resolutely inventive in its telling, almost militant in its creativity. And yet it never feels labored for doing so. This soufflĂ© rises and stays put. Its good-heartedness, the loveliness of the script, and the great acting from the three main leads never once threatens to have the movie collapse on itself from all of its maverick stylings. How often can you say this about a movie. Nothing is told linear, and when a character travels to some new place, it is just as likely to be an animated background as an unrealistic set created out of shear insanity. How else to explain a giant crab that sits atop a car as it is being driven across Europe (replaced by a giant stuffed bear later in the film), a golden glowing matador uniform, a man who crosses the line in his attachment to his dogs, a bull fight with a giant orsine creature made from metal pieces….I could go on, but it all comes together beautifully, not just at the end, but from the very start. A tale about male bonding in its simplest common denominator, the movie is a set of wonderful anecdotes sewn together with affection. Even when it is foul and preposterous in its vulgarity, it has a sweetness to it – and all the criticism you can summon for its temporary crassness changes to smiling disbelief at the audacity of the filmmaker. The two male leads are so good at playing their characters convincingly, that I suspect that if I see them in another film I may resent them for playing different characters. From a script perspective, the movie is so consistently funny that most viewers who listen carefully will get their money’s worth for the dialog alone. But this movie is much less (yes, much less, because most of the scenes involving travel are done on an animated palette) and in doing so it becomes more. The director was asked why he made a conscious choice to film all of the outdoor scenes using artificial, animated, whimsical facades? And he answered that it was because they did not have the money for actual on location outdoor shooting. So most of the movie was shot in a little studio in UK. How serendipitous that what makes the movie unique is a by-product of being forced to being thrifty. I hope this movie gets wider distribution, because it could be a real audience pleaser. It may seem like I am piling on too much praise for this film, but it is because I have only high regard and sweet affection for this film.

Publicity shot for "Bunny And The Bull" used at TIFF 2009

Inspirations that may have gone into the making of an inspired movie

[The following is something I wrote up the week after I saw 'Up']

All good cinema sits comfortably on the shoulders of films that have preceded it.

While I was watching "Up" this weekend, and being smitten by its simple audacity, I could not help but wonder about at least one or two films that may have inspired parts of it. It would seem that the makers of the film (the writer/director team of Pete Doctor and Bob Petersen) might have been influenced by the following movies [SPOILER WARNING: If you have not seen 'Up' yet, please do yourself a favor and stop reading]:

"Howl's Moving Castle": The folks at Pixar, including Andrew Stanton have long acknowledged that when it comes to animation, they bow at the feet of Hayao Miyazaki. And the Japanese master's most recent US animation release "Howl's Moving Castle" was about a magnificent structure that floats through the clouds and houses the main characters. Notice any resemblance to 'Up'? Many reviewers have pointed out that 'Up' may be Pixar's homage to Miyazaki, not just in the floating house but also with regard how the interiors of Charles Muntz's giant blimp in 'Up' have been designed.

"Fitzcarraldo": This is a movie that documents the story of a man so obsessed with building an opera house in the Peruvian wilderness, that he takes on the impossible task of moving a 180-ton ship containing musical instruments across the Amazonian forests and mountains to the site of the opera house. Werner Herzog, who directed the movie, ironically became consumed with actually moving the ship across the locations where the film was being shot - with no particular regard to time, money or cost to human life. The resemblance to the middle portion of 'Up' is striking: the South American setting, and the main characters pulling a house through the wilderness with their own physical strength. And with the single-minded determination of bringing it to its planned destination at any cost.

"Gran Torino": It could be just me, but I see more than a passing resemblance of 'Up' to Clint Eastwood's most recent film, a story of a cranky misanthrope who has lost interest in life after being widowed. And who eventually finds a semblance of meaning to his life by becoming an unwitting mentor to a boy from the neighborhood.

There are a few other obvious inspirations including 'ET' but I will let others discover those for themselves

Friday, October 9, 2009

Photographs taken while at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 09)

The Roy Thomson Hall, where many of the Gala screenings for TIFF occur. 

The TIFF 'headquarters' at the intersection of Dundas and Yonge streets.

The church adjacent to the Roy Thomson Hall on King Street.

Toronto has some amazing high-rises.

Some impressive urban architecture

My first name (Yazdi) has been mangled often and in amusing ways. Curiously, no one has called me 'Yuzu' yet.

Castles in the sky

A grand erection of steel and concrete

Toronto is not a bad place to visit if you are an admirer of tall buildings

Urban cathedral

Got steel?

Metal inflorescence

A near-perfect blend of the old and the new.

Does your bank look this good?

A vomit of neon.

At the premiere of "Road, Movie" at TIFF 2009. From left, Cameron Bailey (TIFF Co-Director), Dev Benegal (Director of movie), Satish Kaushik (Actor), Tannishtha Chatterjee (Lead Actress), Abhay Deol (Lead Actor) and Susan Landau (Producer).

Until the 2010 film festival comes along, good bye TIFF! 

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Wendy and Lucy (***)

There is a scene in the second half of 'Wendy and Lucy' that broke me. I was watching the movie until that point not knowing quite what to make of it. I have nothing against a movie that is spare, and does not have its cards laid out in front of you. But it was unclear to me whether this one had a dramatic arc at all or whether it would be the kind of film that is content just to show a slice of life. Turned out it was both, and therein lies its strength. 

Make no mistake, 'Wendy and Lucy' is not for those who watch movies only for giddy entertainment. It sits squarely at the fringe of spare movies, austere even, in its single-minded regard for one character through its running length. Well, to be fair, two characters. Wendy, a young woman (Michelle Williams) traveling north across the country with precious little money is on her way to Alaska hoping to get employed in a cannery there. Her only companion is her dog, Lucy (that has some Golden Retriever in her). Somewhere in Oregon, Wendy's car breaks down, and down on her luck, she chooses unwisely to shop-lift in a grocery store. Arrested and taken away to the local precinct for hours, upon return she finds Lucy missing from outside the grocery store where she had been tied up for the duration of the presumed short trip to the store. The remainder of the movie is about Wendy's search for Lucy; and a testimony to life as hell for that for those who sit at the bottom of the country's economic structure. 

For those who think that the United States is the land of plenty and of overwhelming opportunity, here is a movie to give you pause and to remind you of the many who are trying hard to get by with little, so little. Movies about the poor usually tend to romanticize poverty, and even those about characters who are living a hand-to-mouth existence tend to be upbeat in their assured promise of uplift at the end. There are few movies that choose to show those at the bottom in their true state, caught in a cycle of despair in a system unwilling to grant them any breaks. Here the movie reminded me of 'Frozen River' from last year. There is a line in 'Wendy in Lucy': 'To get a house, you need a house. To get a job, you need a job'. How did it get to be so? Everyone knows that with every economic casualty, it is those at the very bottom who are (irreversibly) affected the most. But to see this honestly depicted in a movie still comes as a shock. For someone like Wendy who does not own a permanent home or a phone, it is impossible to integrate into society with its current rules. How is she to procure a job, or find a lost dog even? 

An intriguing facet of the movie is that Wendy's character remains without context - without information about her past or how she came to be in her current situation. She just is at this point in her life. Without a home, with few belongings, and without much money. How could someone get to such a dire condition, you may ask, but the movie offers few clues. While I admittedly found this frustrating when watching the film, this turned to something approaching admiration upon further consideration. Influenced by italian neorealism, the director Kelly Reichardt, in telling a story about the poor and the working class and in filming it in a no nonsense, documentary style, does not want to let the viewer get away with easy explanations. She respects her characters too much, as miserable and down on their luck as they may be, and will not permit the audience to judge them based on their past. She forces you to evaluate the movie on the basis of the current facts only, which beautifully subverts the easy way out with the 'she deserves this fate because of the choices she made in her life' judgment. 

There is not a shred of sentimentality in this film, no false hope, no hope at all, actually. It is so resolutely realistic in its depiction of continuous hardship, that when some small measure of respite appears occasionally, even that seems too little. Which brings me to the scene in the second half of the movie, that came up suddenly and moved me to tears. Roger Ebert has long maintained that what moves him in films is not the very tragic, but instead, it is people doing good in the worst of situations and in spite of themselves. I will not give away the scene in question in "Wendy and Lucy" (and it is not the more obvious one later in the film), but it certainly makes Ebert's case beautifully. 

As twee as it sounds, happiness is having your dog retrieve a stick you have just tossed. Any dog lover knows this. But for Wendy, and others in the world like her, who do not have any disposable income to indulge in other activities for fun, this is one of the few remaining free pleasures in life. To watch this movie with attention is to gain perspective on how terribly separated the 'have-not's have become from the 'have's in this world, even now. It is a sobering testimony. 

Thursday, October 1, 2009

One Degree of Separation

What makes a particular kind of music connect with an individual?

Music we like can be perplexing if overanalyzed. When I was growing up, nothing brought instant coolness cache than the type of music you professed to love. You could say the names of the right artists and gain immediate heft in your personality when mentioed to others. Music you like associates itself to you as a label more quickly and more easily than almost any other label a person can acquire.

Few things tell as much about a person as their personal music collection, in its entirety. Sure, everybody will admit to the well-regarded, well-respected music in their collection. But how many will tell openly about songs they like that are frankly an embarrassment. Actually, you can tell even more about a person by the music they dislike. If I told you that a certain friend disliked most current popular music and only cared for the Beatles and The Beach Boys, that says something about that person, does it not. Or if someone professed to really not caring about jazz, that would help you make an instant opinion about them, right? And admit it, if someone said that they only liked country music, you have a picture of them already in your mind. Or if someone only liked music from the eighties. Or if classical music is their favorite. Stereotypes jump out of your brain and fix labels on those people before you can control them with self-correcting political correctness.

Almost everyone loves a particular style of music, or songs, or artists that they are ashamed of revealing to others. Either because that music/song is not popular by current standards, or is from a long forgotten era, or is from an artist who is currently a laughing stock. People have the distinct fear of being told, "surely you do not own that CD?". Or "please tell me you are not a fan of that song". So I suspect there is a lot of hiding that goes on when it comes to musical tastes. I would suggest that the music on most people's iPod is an incomplete collection of what they truly love, because they dare not have others go through their iPod and find therein, songs of questionable taste.

Which gets me to thinking, what really makes us like a song? Almost in spite of ourselves. Sometimes it is simple association with what was popular at a certain critical portion of your life. But more often than that, it is just voodoo. Unexplainable. You cannot help but like what you do and the best you can do is try to deny outright to liking it. But the fact that you connect with some songs at an almost primal level is hard to ignore. It is something fundamental, and as hard as it may sound, perhaps something to celebrate because this connection with a particular kind of music or song is so uniquely wired into your personal DNA.

So what really makes us like a song? I cannot answer this for others, but for me I have only very recently begun to understand how this works for me. And I find it brilliant in its simplicity. For me it is always a song that sounds familiar the first time I hear it. That's it. You listen to it the first time, and it seems comfortable - and - seemingly resonates at the very same frequency as something within you.  You never know when you are going to listen to something, on the radio, or in someone's car, which is going to sound immediately familiar to you. And it can be the tackiest, silliest thing, but there you have it. It has somehow ingratiated itself into your fiber. This does not happen often, so I have learned to cherish it, as exasperating as it may sometimes get.

This happened most recently for me when I listened to the CD, "The Boy Who Knew Too Much", by Mika. The first song, "We Are Golden" was fine, but based on the previous CD from the same artist, "Life In Cartoon Motion", I had expected more. But one minute into the second song, "Blame It On the Girls", and I was moving my head along like, yes, I had known it my entire life. The reaction was even more visceral for the third song, "Rain"; this one had me singing along at the first listen as if it had been my personal anthem growing up. I love it when this happens. Who knows when very specific music will connect instantly with unknown individuals around the world who otherwise have nothing in common with the artist who created it. An immediate One Degree Of Separation.

The best songs, I think, are the ones which manage to do this with the most number of people. The kind of song that gets into your head and will not leave it for days. It is a minor pleasure in life, I think, to have the ability to resonate like this, with a piece of music, completely outside our personal control.