It’s been a slow and steady process of inching back to normalcy in our world right now and weekends, in particular, have given me, personally, the time to watch some works that I had made up my mind about. That’s because we must not give up our ways of living on a day to day basis and if you are a cinephile like me, your viewing sensibilities must be always on alert and as if this period has made us privy to works we may have never had the chance to watch with such urgency. It’s just that the current world order has allowed us the wisdom to not leave things till tomorrow.
That said, we don’t have to be guilty of indulging in our interests and passions in the current climate as long as we keep the transformative nature of this year and the real issues affixed to it in due consideration and hence generate empathy in vital spheres of our diurnal cycles. Cinema, at its best, is an instrument of empathy and these examples mentioned here do that even when we have to willingly suspend our sense of disbelief in one case( here’s looking at you, THE MAN FROM EARTH)
I’m happy to tell you all that you too can benefit a lot by watching these diverse works, one of them a biography, some complex short films and one particular cult classic that had been put on the backburner yet remained on my mind for years after a highly intellectual close friend’s recommendation. Here, I share my thoughts on them together in one capsule.
These two short films released in the span of a decade show us the possibilities that the cinematic medium always conjures up in truly diverse ways. I don’t use the word ‘diverse’ here sparingly because it is reflected in the works’ approach, thematic style and yet they share the twin aspects of innocence and indefatigable human bonds forged in youth transcending lines of morality and social pressures.
Take STATIONARY released in 2020 as it skillfully uses just the interiors of a car to infuse years of regrets among two friends struggling with a dependency on drugs and how one of their own siblings has inevitably become embroiled in this personal narrative. Words and expressions create an authentic 12 minute account of friendships navigating complexity of adulthood and the direction is so subtle, a specialty in the shorter format of filmmaking, that it leaves us guessing if there’s any hope for this trio which has already seen its fair share of emotional upheavals at a young age already marked by innate vulnerability.
That way, given its stationary setting, it’s an engaging chamber piece if we discount few instances of the external location seen from the car itself. The performances maintain its broil of realism and empathy and come 2021, I hope by dint of word of mouth, it finds favour among Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences too. It deserves to be seen for its raw nature mimicking the mental states of its protagonists. In a demographic marred by substance abuse in varying degrees, STATIONARY’s conversational quality addresses some bitter truths about relationships and how everyone involved is affected by it. This is what so many people have to talk about and watching it unfold with honesty brings us deeper understanding of a social undertow we usually wouldn’t like to be confronted by.
TROPICO is iconic chanteuse Lana Del Rey’s 20 plus minute film conjoined with her second studio album PARADISE that in its own dark, gritty imagery traces the origins of human nature and toys with fundamentals of good and bad, in this case even suggesting ideas of reincarnation and our lack of choices regarding our current station on earthly realm. It’s a divine intervention perhaps, like we always end up iterating when our own flaws seem to be irrational and driving us towards doom.
It’s no surprise that the visual impact of this short film alternates between the pure and explicit, from the lush verdure of Eden and Adam and Eve myth to the present day hell of strip clubs and gun toting outcasts living in a damned community outside the periphery of law or justice. Frequent Rihanna contributor and music video savant Anthony Mandler makes the idea of beauty, whether in terms of lovers or the environment in which they must survive, flirt with constant danger. He had previously directed Lana’s mini film for her single RIDE. The ideal of American consciousness is dead and simultaneously alive in her music and she has found a worthy collaborator to give her aural vision a post- modern charge, integrating John Wayne,Marilyn Monroe and Elvis through an emotional topography affected by culture in myriad ways. By the end, it achieves a pure, swooning, transcendental aura, much like her entire catalogue of albums. It’s at once poetry and an inverted Walt Whitmanesque dystopia that yearns for a safe haven for the pure at heart.
Damien Chazelle’s FIRST MAN is less a biography of Neil Armstrong and more a lesson in how to deconstruct the very idea of a real-life account on screen. His restraint is a direct corollary of perhaps what the 1969 moon landing meant to Armstrong as an individual, given to none of the exhibitionism we associate with our heyday of social media campaigns. Not just because he came from a different time period when things were simpler and more dignified but because that was his own sense of self as discipline and faith in the cause of space travel meant more to him as a characteristic, collective human endeavour than a historic feat. It implied duty and responsibility. He was a man of action and few words. I understand that because it is conveyed so fluently by Ryan Gosling, turning this into the story of an Everyman whose decade long preparation for that fateful day came on the back of several technical failures, spectre of death and familial tensions, including the death of his daughter.
All of that is kept in the vein of realism, often documentary style, to keep the interiority of the mission in the realm of 50/50, the destination being one of involuntary spiritual catharsis. The Moon Landing sequence then becomes an expression of mankind’s leap of faith and for Neil a way to feel closer to his beloved daughter. Ryan’s tear streaked face attests to this as a triumph of life and unexpected humility. Claire Foy, harnessing her reserve and stoic posture perfected on THE CROWN, grounds it in a commonplace shore of emotional stability. All the other participants relive history with their feet planted firmly on the ground. That is the genius of FIRST MAN, to make it a dramatic work that grasps internal strength of character rather than raise its journey to epic proportions. It is haunting then, in more ways than one, almost like the wordless exchange between the Armstrong spouses that close the film.
THE MAN FROM EARTH (2007)
My friend who has a knack for reading philosophical works and accounts of karmic complexity, that can very easily pass off as esoteric to every second individual, raved about THE MAN FROM EARTH almost a decade to this date. He often called it a probe into the possibilities of humanity and mortality that was meant to stir one’s intellect beyond its science fiction origins by writer Jerome Bixby.
Now that I have finally watched it courtesy Amazon Prime, I have to say I am so thankful for his insistence on watching this cult classic that never released in theaters, was distributed online and, in a way, had predicted the ubiquity of steaming services much before it was a pertinent cultural point of reckoning for this generation.
The way it questions history, the sweep of events throughout the human epoch and tantalizes our powers of belief v/s incredulity and common sense is gripping. Given its consistent tone of conversational exchanges and one room setting, it’s the most wordy and yet restrained example of a chamber piece committed to screens. Watching it on my television set brought to its intimate interactivity a heft. It is a narrative told simply, with viewpoints among a bunch of professors informing us of the protagonist’s unique claim to be a man who has lived through millennia and epochs on this earth. Yes, he is none other than the beloved history professor they have gathered around.
Till the last reel, I kept wondering if it was indeed a clever ruse by the man to create intelligible sections for a story he intends to write, in turn reflective of the fertile imagination of the original writer’s work which inspired this adaptation. The cast is perfectly attuned to changes in moods and overall even narrating a synopsis or detailed information about this film can evoke the same kindred feeling of arresting attentions. It’s intelligent storytelling that calls for a suspension of disbelief and by extension multiple interpretations even when its core is crystal clear. Charismatic is the word for it. Also given its setting and conversational tone, has anyone ever thought about turning into a successful play? I guess it will capture more audiences in that capacity as well.
THE WAY BACK (2020)
This Ben Affleck starrer from 2020 is one of those rare instances when cinema’s attempt to grasp the pitfalls of alcoholism or any such self-destructive behaviour arising out of immeasurable personal pain actually made an impact; also because it was done with no pretence or jingoistic messaging. This is one ordinary man’s journey made palpable by its central performance where the intersection between the zeal to change fortunes and the sting of a loved one’s untimely death is inextricably linked together.
THE WAY BACK builds empathy for the man and by making him dive back into the field of sports that once was his only calling card, it traces a line of redemption as also the wounds of parental indifference that feeds our psychological background, hence suggesting the festering pain that made him abandon his vocation years ago. Its prominent thrust is on Affleck coaching a group of kids from struggling backgrounds to shine as basketball pros and have a shot at something beyond the meagre lives cut out for them. It’s about him returning to the school that once hailed his abilities on the court. Sports is a metaphor for life’s ups and downs and that is recognised beautifully by this screen treatment.
In the end, the team’s triumphs clash with the coach’s absence and stint in rehab and it is presented without overlapping the two strands and by putting the onus on him for recovery in a positive environment, backed by people close to him. That’s the ambivalent trajectory that keeps it hopeful and unlike other generic feel-good works. It rests triumphs of the human spirit on one’s own reawakening.
HELL OR HIGH WATER(2016)
This Neo- Western by David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan pleasantly reminded me of the Coen Brothers’ depth of interpreting Wild West tropes in works like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and the brilliantly sombre and humorous THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS.
HELL OR HIGH WATER presents a panorama of human resources in a Texas that may seem to belong to the retro era but is in the here and now; where limited populace has practically made its cities ghost towns, caught up in a time warp, with older citizens attempting to stay afloat in the torrid landscape, like the waitress serving at the restaurant for 40 plus years or the retiring police chief ( Jeff Bridges) pursuing the case of two brothers ( Chris Pine and Ben Foster) twisting codes of law to save their last surviving piece of land.
In this still male- dominated scenario, they are like the cowboys of yore, still attempting to make sense of the place they call home. HELL OR HIGH WATER supplies melancholy, nostalgia, history to their predicaments and in Bridges’ complex characterisation, an honourable but deeply flawed man governed by racial stereotypes for his colleague( played by an excellent Gil Birmingham); the latter bears weight of generations on his shoulders and sparks an intellectual dialogue about the foundation of nations and society in general. It finds passages of contemplative conversations to make its point and does it with grace.
Ultimately, the tragedy of Foster’s death and the final meeting between Pine and Bridges play out as the pre-empted conclusions they were meant to be, as an alternative seems to be missing for all of them. HELL OR HIGH WATER is photographed expertly and edited with just the right rhythm to complement its tale of a present caught in the crosshairs of the past.
HALLE BERRY FILMOGRAPHY
A veritable icon who broke through racial constructs, melding natural beauty with a gifted screen presence sculpted and refined through 30 years and a variety of films in her arsenal, HALLE BERRY endures.
She mixes an unusual sense of focus and maternal core with her distinctive emotional gravity on THE CALL as a committed 911 operator determined to rescue a kidnapped girl (Abigail Breslin) through her communicative skills alone, as a mother battling anti-social elements, police apathy and ticking time bomb of a challenge for the sake of her six year old son’s life in KIDNAP and in KINGS, is a foster mother coming to grips with the African-American consciousness unraveling in 1992 Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. In a verite style of filmmaking emphasising the commonplace with life-changing vignettes, reminiscent of the communal tempers of Sandra Cisneros’ THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET, the film is relevant and effective at capturing the chaos of irrational racial discrimination and police brutality offset by interpersonal relationships. Berry is individually sturdy as ever and no matter what the box office returns are, all three grip me as standalone works and companion pieces showcasing her 2010s filmography.
For her all-time standouts, watch MONSTER’S BALL, LOSING ISAIAH, THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE, INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE, THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD and GOTHIKA. Reserve a place then for the recent updates to her body of work.