I’ll admit it : I will write very briefly here owing to a paucity of time, something I usually don’t face. But the show must go on and certain important cinematic milestones – each actual benchmarks in their individual standings – will be written about, revived for those unfamiliar and rejuvenated for cinephiles who appreciate their qualities.
I also recognized a commonality in all these cinematic works. They all addressed some kind of internal, intrinsic darkness of the human soul and the people portrayed here inhabited morally cramped spaces in deeply skewed corners of the mind, unencumbered by era, place or history even gender.
** a still from THE MASTER (2012)
The pendulum always swings to and fro and the basic idea of human endeavour is put at the thrust of the narrative in all these films, traversing the classic epoch and modern classics. For me, life unfolds in all hues in them.
So here we go.
** a still from TOUCH OF EVIL(1958)
INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE (1999)
A life in freefall when it should have scaled true heights- that’s the tragic gist of Dorothy Dandridge’s story . She was a woman ahead of her times. Yet she was a woman/ individual of her times. I bet a present generation still hasn’t been able to recognize, let alone know much about this pathbreaking actor who worked at the peak of the classic movie era and became the first African American actress nominated for an Academy Award for her lead performance in the musical CARMEN ROSE. Hattie McDaniel had won an Oscar for GONE WITH THE WIND, marked by a ceremony in which her racial identity made her sit in a segregated portion of the room. It was a breakthrough, fur sure. A deeply entrenched sense of colour prejudices marred true progress in that moment in time. Until this possibility beckoned with Dorothy Dandridge . She didn’t win on the final night and still her star had crested.
So there’s a valid, hard earned sense in the casting of Halle Berry here as this great figure , almost an ironic ring to it. She’s a historic figure in her own right, a right she earned by dint of her talent alone so it’s a profound trajectory that post her award winning streak for this role courtesy Emmy, Golden Globe among others, she stunned the world with her turn in MONSTER’S BALL (2001)and became the first African American actress to triumph with an Oscar. It seemed her moment of glory was aligned with the real life figure she had brought from shadows of anonymity. Both their dreams had aligned and no racial barrier could come in the way.
I had to honestly write about all that I felt while watching INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE as it charts the promise, sting, glory, personal travails, hope and ultimate subsuming factors of her life script that ended in a premature death. I was particularly heartbroken by that one instance in which a whole pool is drained after she sets her foot in it owing to a racially charged decree for non whites. Her pain had been buried with her. Till Halle commissioned a revival and chose to use her own wattage as a consummate performer to bring the pathos of a young lady who was every bit talented, passionate, optimistic and beautiful as a conventional ‘white’ performer. These are all characteristics Halle continues to uphold to this date, as an individual first, in charge of her singular gifts . The undertow of survival for actors of minority communities has today led to the blossoming of great talents like Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Angela Bassett, Taraji P. Henson, Jennifer Hudson among so many, so much so that they commit to their roots and yet transcend narrow blocks of their skin color or ethnicity.
History doesn’t always serve some individuals / communities well. INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE befits its title as we still need to unveil her life, twenty good years after this HBO movie premiered. It’s a showcase of the cutthroat entertainment world and the personalities that cut her short of real breakthroughs. Kudos to the team behind it and to the gradual winds of change that recognizes talent sans myopic considerations in current times. Still, real progress is far, far away.
THE MASTER (2012)
The tension within placid beginnings and stunted progressions in a post World War 2 America is sought here in Paul Thomas Anderson’s insightful, highly internalized THE MASTER.
This tale of a battered soldier who tries and fails to integrate himself to life after wartime is a potent, intimate study of the dramatic effects of alienation. With nobody from his immediate kindred to turn to, he seeks the enigma of a religious cult that is not unlike what we presently know as the Church of Scientology. The push and pull of his emotional center or a lack of it, the hushed whispers and moral corruption within this organization that exploits his rage and then discards him and the sexual currents that merge with his passive aggressive mindfields are dealt with a quiet melancholy for the man and an unfeeling world that actually has nothing to do with his post traumatic stress disorder. The continuum of it all leaves him bereft of a real core.
As the titular master, the great PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN taps into reserves of distance, authority, some kind of unchecked myth and along with AMY ADAMS goes for the sheer absurdity in detachment that never allows humans to be fully transparent to their fellow beings. Above all there’s Joaquin Phoenix. His broken spirit, feral degradation and directionless mound of insular existence has stayed with me. As has the serene music by Johnny Greenwood. Also check Rami Malek in one of his early performances here.
THE MASTER haunts us by the very improbability of its silent unfolding. It holds an emotional storm within, pointing at the fragility of human contact in the wake of life changing events.
The jagged edges of urban spaces – whether in neon drenched buildings, palm lined boulevards or the seemingly tranquil face of a no name stunt man- make DRIVE worth a trip down the underbelly of human values. NICOLAS WINDING REFN is an excellent technical wizard, as is evidenced in THE NEON Demon, which I saw, and he handles the implicit violence of the human mind with a masterful trick of focusing on beautiful imagery and pumping out the latent blood and gore – in short human depravity – that occupies the margins of those painstakingly manicured outer lives.
DRIVE has that on display to full effect and I loved how desperation and organized crime has a slow burning implosion here not unlike real life as a host of L. A residents get tweaked and twisted emotionally to arrive at a point of no return. There is the poignancy of an incomplete love story between Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, bitter ends for Oscar Isaac and Christina Hendricks and the deceptively simple but complex tangles of the mastermind that is Bryan Cranston. We never doubt the beauty and the ache of love or the simmering dangers of underhand activities. You see, crime here is much more underrated and hence unexpected in the resolutions it offers. The chain reaction bears on everyone’s souls.
Ultimately, the darkness creeps up on us and the silent stakes feel more biting on the conscience. DRIVE is wonderfully structured, revealing down and out individuals without much artifice ; essentially trapped in a whirlpool of intrinsic goodness and the evil of circumstances. The images, performances, cinematography and music are just spot on.
A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966)
This is a tale and human document of the highest order, one which graced my history books as we went through the motions of English monarchy. The battle of ideologies between Sir Thomas More , a man of religion, duty, intellect and righteousness and Henry the 8th,a lustful, self serving, brutish monarch who upended rules at every step for the sake of his own transgressions, has raged on far beyond those pages. This is no dog eared, archaic moral lesson belonging to one definite time line. In a predominantly man’s world, this tale tells us of the grave stakes that individuals on the side of constancy and moral eptitude like Sir More find themselves in, irrespective of a particular era and their gender which gives them no upper hand.
Fred Zinneman’s cinematic recreation, culled from an important play that imagined the power play in the Tudor court of yore, is leaden with tension from the opening frames where a group of men travel by boat in the middle of the night, carrying a missive to higher authorities. The feel, look and apprehension of the period is held firmly intact with the stark frames and candle lit interiors. As Sir More safeguards the soul of England by refuting to grant permission to King Henry(an excellent Robert Shaw) to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn(Vanessa Redgrave ) , thereby incensing the ruler who turns up against his loyal aide and institutes his own laws, a larger storm brews. Integrity is met with derision, corruption and the idea that one man cannot change the course of the world. Still Sir More( a wonderfully sage Paul Scofield) perseveres even as his wife ( Wendy Hiller) doesn’t fully comprehend his decision and actually wants him to be spared of any further danger.
What I found interesting is how rigid moral mores within the formal structure of courtesies and mannerisms create an uncomfortable interplay. Every move is restrained because it has to be in the line of decorum within the church and monarchy and many faces of humanity rear heads. Leo Mckern as court leader Thomas Cromwell opts for boot licking and undue corruption while John Hurt as an impoverished underling takes a safe spot rather than listening to his conscience, learning the ropes of survival from the others before him and going against his mentor More. The great Orson Welles is here as well, as a Cardinal questioning More’s beliefs and his own. Of course there is Susannah York as More’s ever supportive daughter whose clear conscience and fearlessness mirrors her own father’s brave example.
A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS is about the soul unbending to authority, even the privilege and status of one’s own which could be twisted and emboldened for corruption. In this case, Sir More doesn’t use his own clout to summon clemency as his conscience is above all the primary motivator. He is summoned in court and plied with falsifications, from plaintiffs who know the absurdity of their own lies and yet they prevail. The word of truth towers way higher even as More is ultimately executed.
Paul Scofield, to me, is Gandhian in his composure here. An epilogue reveals how all opposing players self destroyed themselves soon after his death. So above all, this photoplay is riveting in its unadorned ring of truth, seemingly static but effective in its entirety, just like the life it portrays.
TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)
In TOUCH OF EVIL, Orson Welles’ directorial swansong( before THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, released in 2018, was rediscovered), the formal aesthetic of film noir is at its most exemplary. I’ll agree, I didn’t warm up to it immediately but I waited for a point to arrest me and slowly and steadily the whole made sense along with the form, the carefully rehearsed manners of the actors and the play of smoke and shadows so integral to this sepia toned landscape.
It’s a riff on cops (Orson Welles and Charleton Heston) versus unruly players, a border town between Texas and Mexico where local residents and the idea of a gringo ( outsiders in principle) rule xenophobic tempers, a newly married couple’s unexpected unraveling and a criminal record that is as obvious as the sweltering heat of the place. Something truly damp and dangerous, loaded with apprehension, is here . To the policing fraternity here as in anywhere, corruption is a finagled foe and the most explicit functionary of our living world dictates choices . The men call shots, commodifying women as wives(Janet Leigh) or ladies of the night ( Merlene Dietrich) and mind games keep us on the edge.
TOUCH OF EVIL operates like a snare till the end and effectively paints a cloistered world where the ‘evil’ is truly internalized. The performances are good and the mood sombre, exhausting, delving into the nature of things in a hazy moral sphere. Give it a shot and you will be rewarded.
So I see. I have been able to write more than I had intended to and suffice to say that the restorative power of cinema made me commit to my vocation and turn this into a well fleshed out article.