PIONEERS, REBELS AND INFIGHTING KINDRED.

A TRIP TO THE MOON(1902)

Georges Melies’ A TRIP TO THE MOON has been etched in my mind ever since a betokened Films and Literature paper at university opened up to me a world of creative pioneers.

This fifteen minutes short is one of the first efforts at developing a filmmaking idiom after the Lumiere brothers. The pithy runtime also caters to the audience’s penchant for discovering an art form in motion that was new and exciting. This is then a historical archive of the earliest imprints of 20th century, meant to educate and entertain our modern sense of wonder. Yes, there will always be naysayers who will discount this restored reprint as an unwieldy fossil. Just because they have been exposed to an advanced, sophisticated form of animation and science fiction today doesn’t mean the first advent, with its trappings of technology available at the time, is lesser or completely dispensible. Unfortunately, that’s the way culture gets its reception in the here and now.





For true cinephiles, the silent frames, comedic tone, theatricality, true to the form’s era-specific influence,  and stylistic imperfections of this film truly tip a hat to the child within all of us. It’s imbued with flights of whimsy and fancy without resorting to scientific precedents. The idea is to entertain with a madcap journey of how humans often trip on their feet despite their best intentions and willingly allow hubris to dictate their interactions with an extraterrestrial world. Yet, the design of the spaceship and crater-like surface of the moon are accurately presented while that iconic image of the spaceship landing on a grimacing moon is the stuff of legends, intimating us that human endeavours often end up breaking barriers of natural dispositions and expectations.  To even think of all this a good half a century before the space age is, in itself, revolutionary.

Martin Scorsese gave Mr. Melies'( played by the indispensable Ben Kingsley) spirit of innovation a lovely tribute in 2011’s HUGO. The painstaking craft behind the making of A TRIP TO THE MOON ended up enthralling us there. It’s then a positive coincidence that Mr. Scorsese’s own contributions in the restoration of an Iranian hidden gem CHESS OF THE WIND has led a cinephile like me to watch it and write about it, here below.

So, here’s to the spirit of revival and restoration in the realm of popular culture.

***

A FANTASTIC WOMAN (2017)

Sebastian Lelio’s quietly propulsive A FANTASTIC WOMAN is a work that informs us of how human advancements have only belittled our capacity for empathy for another fellow human being.

Marina’s journey here is not only of battling prejudices as a transwoman but of showcasing an inner peace and self-confidence with her identity dwindling in real time, around people who use the opportunity of her lover’s untimely death in her presence to bid for her failure. Daniela Vega catches hold of that not so rude awakening to present a series of interactions that really have no ranges or nuances other than being a reflection of a strictly heteronormative society.

Here is a citizen who is law and peace abiding but has to hold her breath as a cop, a doctor, her lover’s family members, even a female detective use their verbal indignities, sometimes laced with threatening hostility and at others tempered with faux concern, to attempt to show her place in society. Only the dead man’s brother truly upholds human dignity and decency, extending them towards her with genuine care.





Harking back to her former gender pronoun, name and identity, giving her an invasive strip search and disallowing her from attending her lover’s funeral and wake are part of her unraveling. Vega’s restraint is a reminder of these challenges she had internalised and was prepared for. Her grief then is often shortchanged by others for an interrogation of her real self or true intentions. In watching this, I often felt for those lovers and partners who are made to endure such an ordeal irrespective of gender affiliations. But this particular rendition is powerful precisely because it is implosive in its societal dissection of hate and opposition; individuals like Marina are not given the leeway to protest or be vocal about how they feel.

That surreal instance then of Marina engaging in a group dance and then being ushered upwards to the camera, like an aerial act, illustrates the real sense of freedom she perhaps feels innately but is denied because she is not alone in this world, she is among moral judges.

But her gentleness, endurance and grace, qualities which she doesn’t deserve to exhibit when all she should embody are anger and indignation given her situation presented here, become her talismans. Vega’s work is extraordinary here, transmitting her pain, joy, affinity with her lover and herself despite the odds directly to us, with the psychological and physical, reel and real marks visible.

Also given that it’s directed by Sebastian Lelio whose GLORIA BELL was my first foray into his world of filmmaking, I could draw similarities between several tense exchanges occuring in parking lots and apartment flats as well as music becoming an outlet for self – expression. Here, Marina is a singer at a club, trains for an operatic rendition and plays Aretha Franklin’s NATURAL WOMAN on the car stereo before meeting with another woman who doesn’t remotely approve of her.
Finally, the image of Iguazu Falls here in the beginning ties it in with another queer classic, Wong Kar Wai’s HAPPY TOGETHER.

***

CHESS OF THE WIND (1976)

This lost Iranian feature was restored and exhibited globally courtesy Martin Scorsese’s world cinema project. To this cinephile, CHESS OF THE WIND is as universal as it comes.

The fact that it was banned in its native country upon release and still cannot enjoy full screenings givenĀ  the cultural lexicon of repressive silence and authorised conservatism speaks volumes about how its own individual story needs to be opened up to discerning audiences. I would reiterate that in its thrust on profits and losses, property and jewels, inheritance and backstabbings, an universal sense of avirice overriding human interactions and familial infighting is instantly relatable. That way, it’s a familiar yarn.





Let me say that in CHESS OF THE WIND, there is a Shakespearean sense of intrigue where mutual hatred leads to murder. The grisly undertakings that make it especially hypnotic beyond the forty minutes mark and the moral comeuppance saddled with poison tinges of guilt and mental troughs are very much in the same brooding fashion as Macbeth and Hamlet. Cue the central male antagonist’s murder at the time of offering prayers and the latter work by the Bard immediately springs to mind.

Here, the production design and lighting are primary characteristics, integral to the mis-en-scene. Atmospherics of doom prevail.
As does the social commentary. Of note are three scenes where chatter at the back of the mansion finds women servants washing clothes at the fountain. They provide a requisite context to the upper echelons’ mystery and debauchery, their commentary shedding light on home truths and class structures.

More than these were individual scenes that stayed with me. The leading female protagonist who is wheelchair bound and her maid’s interpersonal intimacy has prominent erotic impulses. I could almost hark back to Bergman’s CRIES AND WHISPERS in that regard though that was a tender, mutual bond which transcended a lot of the pain associated with one’s immobility.

The last half of the feature then is appropriately haunting, shot in a seedy orange light, and blurs lines between pure fact and fiction or the versions presented to us and couched as truth. For most of the runtime, the mansion’s ornate and impeccable interiors keep these people enslaved to opportunism and antagonistic tempers. Only to properly open up to the outside world in the closing moments as the camera captures the neighbourhood and skyline beyond.

The old lady servant and a child server are left as sole gatekeepers of a violent, suppressed legacy that they had witnessed first hand. That, to me, was strikingly haunting. As was Shohreh Aghdashloo’s young housekeeper retreating from the mansion in a black dress, contextualising ‘a woman walks home alone’ imagery in its open-ended delineation. The call to prayer or evening aazaan too makes it pertinent. This gothic tragedy, then, becomes an extension of the ways class heirarchies imprison us even as the lead players perish. Their deeds haunt history. And posterity.

CHESS OF THE WIND is effective on all those collective fronts.



****