PIANO NOTES, FIERY SPIRITS AND LIFE PORTRAITS.

THE PIANO(1993)

Inspiration can be striking and is often found in intertextual strains of thought. As much as I have appreciated Jane Campion’s output on TOP OF THE LAKE and this year’s seminal THE POWER OF THE DOG, THE PIANO had been out of my reach so far. Blame the fact that it’s not available on any streaming service. I certainly didn’t want then to sift through a select few clips because that’s not how I approach viewing any particular work or writing about it based on a passing glance.


It was Maggie Gyllenhaal’s words while discussing her latest directorial feature THE LOST DAUGHTER as part of a FILM INDEPENDENT panel that stoked the fire in me to watch THE PIANO finally. She referenced its haunting final scene and since I had read about it earlier not too long ago, that atleast emboldened me to find it on YouTube. Lo and behold! it was there in a respectable visual definition and sound. Which is to further emphasise how everything we watch and read leads us to discovering benchmarks as this one.



THE PIANO is immersive to me because of Holly Hunter’s rich inner world that unravels sans a single word spoken by her. Her body language and expressive face, though mired in limited social interactions and a marriage of convenience, is something that will make any cinephile plunge deeper and deeper into what goes through her mind. In her, the lingua franca of repression and a simultaneous sturdiness of being find equal representation. It is also richly indicative of a single person’s individual agency. So even though there are gender norms afoot in her world, she exercises a freedom and control over her desires as much as her affinity to the piano. The piano, thus, is her lifeline, her only connect to who she essentially is. Her gift of playing the blessed instrument is her source of unmitigated agency which she refuses to part with at any cost. It symbolises her and is a metaphor for the power of music that guides us through thick and thin. In Jane Campion’s direction, all these factors are given a dense complexity along with a fluidity of expression on the screen.

It is also a work that understands Ada’s journey to the new world, i.e. to her marital home in New Zealand from her native Scotland, is one rife with further subjugation for her. It’s a compelling parallel to the way the native Maoris are shown here, assimilated by dint of an exotic idea of who they are and colonized by the white man’s desire for their land and resources. Both refuse to be tamed and revel in the way of life they choose to lead.

Anna Paquin and Hunter together paint a beautiful mother- daughter bond where the interactions show us the true, non-judgmental nature of this universal relationship. Besides the fact that Ada refuses to speak out of her own choice since the past many years, we get a tantalising sense of the circumstances that led her to do so. A kind of backstory gets created in our minds which will be unique to each person imagining it. I have to say that THE PIANO devoted its narrative to flesh out, in minimalistic strokes, the dynamic between Ada and Baines ( Harvey Keitel) which at face value is one of an unhealthy sensual transaction, a point of one-upmanship on the part of the man in the relationship. But even here, Ada’s consent and refusal to be a mere chattel and the man’s own moral compass imbue it with an unpredictable gravitas. Equally important is Sam Neill’s contribution as her husband who blows hot, blows cold and is perhaps as repressed as Ada which, in turn, fuels his rage to the point of cruelty in the end portions. He relents to the reality of this non-existent relationship between ‘man and wife’ and lets her go. Each strand is seen through Ada’s agency, through her nimble, animated actions and conveyance of her own desires in this unusual passion play.

To me, each relationship here and the level of passion invested is an extension of the sensual charms of playing the piano for her. Every touch, every sensation that she responds to springs forth from that knowledge of her own affinity to its notes. That delicate touch, which she receives when in the arms of passion, means everything to her. Those are the moments where she is free to be herself. That final image of her and her beloved piano on the surface of the sea is hence haunting, signifying the choice to live in a mortal world with unfair paybacks but where she can be one with her instrument of self-expression.




THE PIANO is a deep dive into the very core of individuality, with a winsome score by Michael Nyman. The thematic score titled THE HEART ASKS PLEASURE FIRST is a symbol of everything this work stands for in terms of its sensuality and focus.

***

THE INNER EYE(1972)

It feels good to write about this Satyajit Ray directed documentary short on the great artist Binode Mukherjee since it is one title that I wanted to watch for the longest time. Thanks to FILMS DIVISION channel that uploaded it few weeks ago, I got lucky. Told in twenty minutes and narrated by Mr. Ray himself, THE INNER EYE honours the man, the artist, the figure of individuality and perseverance who didn’t let his lack of vision hamper an intrinsic gift for creation.

A treasure trove of his sketches, frescoes and lifelong involvement with Shantiniketan paints the place as a sanctuary for artistic integrity and one of its beacons as a teacher and disciple. I love the straightforward visual and narrative style accorded to this humble practitioner of his craft.

I implore you all to watch it.




SHIV KUMAR BATALVI- POET OF PUNJAB(1979)

The visual power of this 11 minute short on Punjab’s very own creative son captures the imagery, recreated here and funneled by his poetic gravitas, along with the pathos and poignancy of a short lifetime.

They just don’t make a presentation like this anymore. So watch it and be haunted by the words, the legacy of a figure whose output was instrumental in reaching the current generation too vis a vis AAJ DIN CHADEYA and IK KUDI.



***

SEBERG(2019)





Every minute of Benedict Andrews’ directorial tribute in feature length form to the fiery spirit of actor/activist Jean Seberg had me in rapt attention. A lot of the credit here goes to the exceptional merit in Kristen Stewart’s understated, naturalistic manner of bringing her concerns to the screen in a committed whole. The opening shot shows her in her Joan of Arc avatar on film, with the burning logs around her( a real life turn which gave her actual physical scars) acting as a metaphor for her own life-script being governed by scrutiny, censorship and slander. Her trajectory is, in a way, one on the same challenging wavelength as the figure she portrayed. It’s also a parallel that she worked and lived in France for almost her whole life, the same provenance to which the cultural exemplar of courage that is Joan of Arc belonged.

SEBERG looks at her life post her meteoric rise as the lead in Godard’s BREATHLESS and her return to America, to Hollywood and the steely determination with which she continued to extend her activism( inculcated since her early teens) to the cause of Black Panthers. The personal inextricably becomes political. The cultural churning of racial unraveling of the late 1960s gradually brings her to the chokehold of the F.B.I. and its invasive measures aimed at tracking her every move.

It’s here that her resilience and realization come at odds with the psychological unraveling spearheaded by this state of surveillance. To the powers that be, she is a disruptor. A destroyer of established convention pertaining to race. Or maybe to them, she is just an actress biting off more than she can chew. SEBERG absolutely riveted me when the interlocking strands of this fear-mongering and siege on her privacy lead to slander, reprimand and a slithering sense of danger.

Andrews is able to design some compelling scenes here. Such as when she confonts the man who is tracking her on the phone, with her steely resolve intact or her address to the media after she unfortunately loses her two day old daughter whose very parentage was called into question in the first place. Most importantly, her distrust of those around adding to the mental toll of being under censure. Those silent frames where she is in her bathroom moments before a suicide attempt are particularly attuned to how she is feeling, with the essence of her alienation raw and bare. Or the final scene.

I have to, however, laud the other cast members for their commitment to their parts. Whether it’s Vince Vaughn and Jack O’ Connell revealing two different sides to working in the FBI or Zazie Beetz and Margaret Qualley as women attempting to grasp the personal along with the political. Anthony Mackie is a highlight too as Hakim Jamal, the Black Panther frontrunner. All of them get their individual concerns essayed in scenes that fluently capture their conflicted emotional states.




So watch SEBERG because it is very relevant in our day and age where the threat of our personal life being pried upon by state stakeholders is an open secret while surveillance has become an ominous fact of life in both its elusive and omnipresent permutations. History informs us that FBI’S unjust practices were nipped by dint of activism but the long-lasting impact on Seberg and several like her couldn’t be deducted from the larger picture. This film is a corrective not only to the forgotten ambassadors of truth and freedom of expression but acts as a rejoinder to the invasive policies of governments worldwide especially when dissent has become a term to be played with loosely adjunct with personal whims. I highly recommend SEBERG for all discerning cinephiles.

***

THE HAND OF GOD(2021)

I loved the robust communal and familial ethos at the centre of an almost perfect first half, to this autobiographical feature from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino. Where laughs and snide remarks, cuss words and erotic impulses course through the seaside sprawl of Naples, Italy. Where two long-time partners and devoted parents( Teresa Saponangelo and Toni Servillo) whistle to each other as a mark of longevity of this bond. Where an elderly lady cusses gloriously, much to everyone’s amusement and a sister permanently remains in the bathroom, only to make an appearance in the end, at a rather poignant juncture for the protagonist. The latter conceit is humorous for the most part as is the presence of an aunt’s older paramour who communicates with a vocal device. These are flourishes of absurdity that are offset by another aunt’s( Luisa Ranieri) mental unraveling as she becomes an object of desire but crumbles from within. So the universal idiosyncrasy of having an extended family with all its reserves of good and bad, absurd and poignant elements, is instantly identifiable.





THE HAND OF GOD, in general, has an episodic style. A kernel of truth is in abundance as regards the teenage protagonist Fabietto( Filippo Scotti) especially when he tells his father he has no friends. Or when his almost perfect family comes undone as his father’s indiscretions come to the surface. The second half reels with the aftermath of an unforeseen event that claims two pivotal figures in his life. The long and winding road to coming of age, setting priorities and re-evaluating life from the prism of the present and incoming future sets the ball rolling. Cue his plans for the future offset by his brother’s( Marlon Joubert) resignation to fate or his memorable meeting with a temperamental man who goads him to look at his hometown differently and seek creative inspiration from his immediate surroundings. His recessive emotional state is a product of his circumstances. He is animated only when visuals arrest his imagination. So his dreams of pursuing filmmaking, a nebulous idea at best in his current station, spurs him to leave for Rome and contemplate on the journey ahead while taking every experience with him in his repository.

Barring one disturbing and unnecessary scene relaying an encounter with an elderly baroness, which I feel completely ruins the innocence and coherence of this screenplay, THE HAND OF GOD revels in love, relationships, some stirring visuals and a poignancy mined from everyday life. It is also a tribute to Sorrentino’s love for soccer and its abiding superstar Diego Maradona who became one of Naples’ resident prodigal sons.

****

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