[The powerful finale from Greed, my favorite film]

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Black Swan - The Degeneration in Pursuit of Dreams

(A very long piece ahead. The review contains a fair few spoilers to express regarding the points I think Aronofsky tries to make)

I didn't think much of Black Swan immediately after I had watched it. The more I thought about it though, the more I understood it and started appreciating it. Black Swan is about what artists go through, mostly emotionally and internally to create art. It is a psychological piece with great depth and is multi-layered.

In the second scene, we get a peak into the life of Nina Sayers played by Portman. She wakes up and gets in her routine of exercises. There is an innocence about her in her dedication and sincerity to her art. Not much seems wrong with her. We, as a society, appreciate people who are devoted to their art/profession, particularly those who manage to succeed. However, we do not realize what goes into creating hard work which also results in success.

The success part is indispensable. In the Gita, it is written that one should keep doing one's job without caring for the result. However, in life, you tend to up the stakes so much that you cannot live without success. Nina's mother says to her that she should be selected as she has been there long enough and is 'the most dedicated dancer in the company'. It obviously highlights that time is running out on Nina (and thus the obvious pressures of that). However, it also looks at the crux of the proeblem. Success is not always in your hand or dependent on how dedicated you are or how hard you work or even how talented you are. Ability is a prerequisite of success and you can hone your talent and become the best in the world. However, even if you are the best in the world (it is a highly subjective thing I might add, there is no unanimous 'best', it is some thing which is dynamic and highly subjective), you need opportunities and the people in power need to provide you with that opportunity.

Nina talks about having dreamt the previous night that she was dancing the White Swan. She even remembers the steps she danced in the dream and says it was a different choreography. This is what her life is all about. It is the ONLY thing her life is about. From time immemorial she has dreamt of being perfect.

It is very symbolic and poignant that she dreamt of being the White Swan and not the Black Swan. From her childhood, she has dreamt of being a great ballerina and what draws her to it are the good (white) aspects. It is an outsider's view when you are a child and dreams are formed. At that stage, you don't know about the bad (black) aspects. As Cassell, playing the director of the show tells Nina, she plays the white swan very well but it the part of the black swan which she has to play well.

From that innocent childhood of dreams and ambition, Nina eventually turns into a black swan. In all the psychological assault which Nina takes, she doesn't lose focus of her dream. While she is dying in the last scene, she is joyous that she has finally achieved what she has strived for all her life - perfection in her art.

All through the movie, we see the insecurity an artist has. Earlier, Nina wants to get the part. When she gets it, she is constantly worried some one will take it away from her. The first thought which comes to her mind when she wakes up from sleep is that the part may not remain with her. Even between acts in the final performance, she hallucinates that Lily (played by Kunis) is getting ready and will snatch the part of the black swan from her. She imagines that she has kills Lily. It is again symbolic - when you are the Swan Queen, you kill many such Lily's.

There are other artists shown. Beth (played by Ryder) has seen the baton pass and we see what an artist who is past the glory days go through. A performer like a ballerina or a sports person has a very small prime life. All through life from a very young age, you try to learn one thing and you know nothing else. A lot of times, you don't even reach the stage of huge success. This is why these people dread retiring and want to carry on as long as they possibly can. You saw Michael Jordan do it and now Schumacher is doing it. No one really wants to retire as they don't know to do any thing else.

I once met a former Indian test cricketer who wasn't very successful at the international level. He told me with deep regret that he never gave importance to studies and would advice every one to finish their studies. He was playing domestic cricket at the time which gave him very measly sums but in a few years, he wouldn't be getting even that given that he hadn't really learned any thing all his life. You see even successful people like Portman and now some one like Emma Watson give priority to their education which is a very wise decision.

There is lot of sexual scenes in the film which has caused intriguing debates about whether female sexuality was potrayed in a manner which is essentially voyueristic and in a manner which is essentially gratification for the male audiences. There is also the view points regarding sexual repression. I really don't think the sexual scenes were about the sexual aspects at all.

Firstly, Cassell exploits Nina sexually in the film. He kisses her without consent, gropes her and forces himself on her more than once. I don't think he did it for the sake of getting any great performance out of Nina at all. Also, it is not some thing you can justify as it is essentially sexual abuse which is a crime. It is reprehensible and should be condemned in the strongest words.

A lot has been made about Cassell telling Nina to touch herself a little. I don't think he told it with any great plan of creating artistic performances from Nina. It might have been a small fantasy of his which he uttered out aloud and not much more. Nina though, to perfect the art, is willing to try every thing. When she is masturbating, she envisions her mother sitting on the chair and is petrified. At another time in the tub, she sees a horrific face emerge. These are signs that she may not really want to do these acts and may even want not to do them but does them as Cassell has told her and she believes it might improve her art. It is another step from the white to the black. The taking of drugs, the lesbian scenes are all extension of going to the dark side. Nina, for all it is worth, is straight. There is no indication that she has lesbian inclinations but she wants to keep Lily happy and is willing to do any thing for it. That she wants to keep Lily happy would show that she is at a heightened state of insecurity - at this stage the natural reaction is to try and keep every thing calm and every one around you pleased and not to ruffle them even in the slightest.

Lily of course never did have any lesbian action with Nina as it is evident from the next day when Nina confronts Lily. Lily is depicting an artist at an extremely innocent and initial stage of the degradation of the artist in the film. She is some one who looks up to Nina. When Nina gives a great performance, she goes to Nina's room and personally congratulates her. She is genuinely delighted. She wants to be a great ballerina like Nina but hasn't been exposed to the darker aspects of the art yet.Of course, as she wants to be a great ballerina, she is already trapped in the wormhole and it is a matter of time before she gets completely sucked in.

The character of Nina's mother is also a statement on another aspect of an artist's life. Nina's mother is a former ballerina who wasn't successful. She is a pyschological mess and has planted her dreams in Nina. She gives idealistic garbage talk to Nina which raise expectations which she knows are far away from reality. She tells Nina that she should be selected as she is the most dedicated dancer in the company. You see the scene where she reacts very weirdly when Lily comes to her flat to talk with Nina. She first tell's Lily that Nina is not home and then constantly tells Nina to come back to the flat as it is late and she ought to sleep. In frustration, Nina takes off from the flat. She tells her mother at one stage that she is an adult now and no longer a child. We don't see Nina having any friends or a social life in the film. She has essentially been cut off from the world by her mother from early childhood. She hasn't really had a child hood. The parts where it is shown that the mother is stopping Nina from going for practices is an imagination of Nina according to me. By that stage, Nina is consumed by her dream and she thinks the whole world, including her mother, is against her. She essentially finds herself alone, fighting a solo battle. The way the character of the mother is structured in the first half of the film, she wouldn't behave in a manner to stop Nina from playing the White Swan. That it is imagination is strengthened by the fact that she never really does manage to stop her. Even when she locks the door, Nina magically finds the keys and is free.

There is a lot of physical aspects too which are very interesting. A portion of Nina's back is always tearing apart and blood is coming out of it. Her nails keep breaking with more bloody scenes. She is breaking up emotionally and she sees it though a breaking up of her body. When you look at Nina's face all through the film, it is strangely stressed and neurotic. It is as if she is in a state of constant heightened tension. Amazingly potrayed through the images and the performance of Portman.

When you are insecure, nervous and fearful, you imagine the worst. Nina imagining her legs breaking is a reflection of that. It is also probably because of constant physical pain that she fears it because of the physical assault her body has been put through all of Nina's life. Close ups of the feet balanced on the toes while dancing are shown a few times. She is also shown going to the doctor who examines her ankles. This are just brief moments where the physical aspects of the perils of art are shown. This is examined in a lot more detail in The Wrestler. The careers are over by the time you are 30-40 depending upon your art. Artists and performers destroy their body by that time though and are in pain all through their lives. I remember an interview with India's most successful test bowler with Harsha Bhogle after a successful tour of Australia. Bhogle asked Kumble enthusiastically how long he would play. Kumble said that his shoulders hurt every day because of constantly bowling and he cannot carry on for too long. That was a pretty sad. What is sadder is that Kumble is still continuing in the Indian Premier League a fair few years after that interview. Not begrudging him playing (and he is doing well) as a sportsperson's life is short and the more you can extend it, the more money you can make in that short span, the better it is for them.

Coming back to Black Swan, it is a very tragic piece and commentary on the pyschological transformation an artist goes through while seeking that elusive glory. It is true not only about artists but is true in any field. A lot of people lose a sense of the larger picture in pursuit of the goals they set themselves. A lot of people live with a false sense that the world revolves around them. While dedication and hard work to achieve a goal is great, you have to enjoy the process. Life is all about cherishing each moment you have in this world. It is not about living in constant emotional turmoil. Can one achieve huge success without losing one self in life or in art (specifically as this movie is about art)? It is a tricky one but first you have to decide whether you want to lose yourself in pursuit of your dreams or not.

The more I keep thinking about the film, I keep coming up with more points and facets. The film's greatness keeps increasing. This is a film which touches on a lot of points and has a lot of depth and layers. It is a masterpiece. 9/10.

PS - I didn't really talk any thing about the haunting, disturbing and great score, the direction or the masterful way in which the film is made. It is a work of masterful craftsmanship from the point of view of film making. Even if you don't like the film at all, you can't take way that from Aronofsky.

Monday, December 20, 2010


Not a lot of movies shock me. So I was quite surprised the unsettling impact Dogtooth had on me. A father locks up his 3 children who are in their late teens - early twenties in a large house and they have stayed there all their lives.

The three children are told lies of various degrees. Living totally isolated from the world and in a manufactured universe, they do not react like normal people would. The lack of awareness and exposure makes for very interesting scenarios and reactions.
The film can be pondered upon on several levels. For instance, governments never really tell their people any thing close to the whole truth. Thoughts on these lines - the harms caused by leaving people in the dark are the obvious things one can take back from the movie.

I am very interested in the alternate viewpoint of the parents though. They genuinely thought exposing the children to the world would be harmful for them. While that is not some thing one can possibly agree with, there are some positives which do come out of it in my opinion. For instance, when one of the girls who has never having been exposed to popular culture, dances (see video on youtube here), she creates some thing unique. As she has not seen any thing before, she is not influences by any thing and creates her own style. That is a positive in my mind.

This is film which is close to a masterpiece. When the film had released, it was panned in The New York Times and received an average review from Roger Ebert.  I am quite pleased then, that it is slowly getting appreciation and is ending up in a few best of the year lists as well. This is a must watch according to me. 8.5/10.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Uttam Kumar Film Festival

From The Telegraph India -

Uttam Cinema Utsav organised by Nandan and Bengali Film Lovers Society in association with Tapan Sinha Foundation. Noted film personalities will be present on the occasion. Satyajit Ray’s Nayak will be screened as the inaugural film in a week-long festival of films, starring Uttam Kumar.
Pretty excited about this. Should be awesome watching the best films of the actor Uttam Kumar.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Two Excellent French Contemporary Films

Both the films were on my 21st Century TSP list and I watched them sequentially by co-incidence.


Thriller-drama putting across the message that the deeds of our past may come to haunt us any time in the future, you never know. This is a film about conscience and explores how people often forget the small yet significant deeds they have done in the past which may have changed some one else's life drastically. The protagonist earlier never feels any thing on his conscience but is made to feel a burden on it by the end of the movie in a very dramatic way. 7.5/10.

Summer Hours

I absolutely love this movie. It is about how modern day life is splitting families apart. Three siblings now live in three different countries. The mother might pass away soon and what to do of the family heirlooms and house is a question which needs addressing. The grand children don't feel particularly attached to the heirlooms as they show no interest in the paintings. The last two sequences of the film sum it up. In one, the caretaker of the family house is bidding her own son goodbye and awaits meeting him in next September summing up how life is in the modern world. In the last scene, grandchild mulls over her grandma with her boyfriend in a particular place where the grandma used to come with her boyfriend. This is a movie which pans generations and is about the 21st century way of life where families are families no more. Criterion has released a disk of the film in March, 2010 and I urge you to see this one. It is an absolute masterpiece. 9/10

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ordet - Perfect

Ordet is a movie about faith. It really questions the faith we have to the extremest measures possible. Men and women of various levels of faith are shown for instance there is the man and wife, the man being a non believer while the wife is a believer 100%. Then there is the father who hopes he has faith but doesn't know because he is again, tested extremely because of his mentally ill son.

The movie seemed ok for the better half but I wasn't getting the concept of faith totally which Dreyer was trying to put across. Some where around the mid point of the movie, I would have thought I would give this movie a rating of around 5. It slowly shifted to 8 as the movie treaded along. Fifteen minutes after I had watched the movie, I finally got the concept exactly as the director was trying to put across and the movie seemed perfect to me.

It is a great piece of art. I don't think it is possible to depict the concept of faith any better than this movie has done and thus I give it a rating of 10/10. This movie is timeless.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Road To Sangam - Best Gandhi Film I have seen

*this review contains no spoilers*

I went to watch Road to Sangam only knowing that it was a film with a connection with Gandhi and had won some awards. What transpired on the screen in the next 135 minutes changed my perception of Gandhi and changed me as a person. I am some one who did not regard Gandhi in the high esteem a lot of people regard him in. He, to me, was some one who was adamant and threatened the nation with his blackmails which were carried out promptly by his followers. What I did not understand was that it was the power of Gandhi's thoughts which made people act the way they did. It had reason, it had logic.

Coming to the film. We are given a rationale and the film makes a strong case for it. You almost start believing in the thinking behind it. Then, there is a slow process of change which is so slow and gradual. It is not some thing which happens right away or through a flash bulb of genius. It is realization in process. The way the change is shown is convincing enough for some one to believe in the Gandhian principle.

The film has many layers to it. It is a film which asks 'what defines Karma'. It is a film about holding upright the faith Gandhi showed in the muslims of India. It is a film about how a person be it a muslim or a person of any religion (or even an agnostic or atheist for that matter) should behave. That's the bigger picture.

Then the film touches on tough subjects like partition and the role of an Indian muslim. Many layers and subjects touched, all given due space.

Paresh Rawal is excellent in the role of a man who works based on logic and is principled at the same time. I can't think of a better actor to carry out the role. The part of a muslim from the state of Uttar Pradesh, perfect with the local accent, who has his own little mannerisms and characteristics is played perfectly. The facial expressions are not exaggerated. The lines are spoken with a calm balance about them, exactly how the character would say it.

The pace of the movie is neither fast, nor slow. It has it's own rhythm and flows rather than moves. The cinematography is excellent with aspects of small town India (the city Allahabad in this case) shown. There are panoramic views and then there is attention to detail. A man making aloo tikki is shown for instance to capture the flavour of the chaat which is so popular in small town India.

Coming to Gandhi films, I have seen quite a few. Gandhi was a great biographical sketch. Gandhi My Father shows the flaws of Gandhi - the father of his son. Lage Raho Munnabhai which was so popular tries to explain the Gandhi way of thinking and does a fair job of it. It has the bollywood masala mixed in it, was perfectly marketed and was a huge success. Gandhigiri became a trend. Sardar, again starring Paresh Rawal (as Sardar Patel), paints Gandhi as a principled, yet stubborn man whose will might have cost India There are umpteenth movies which are presented as documentaries on Gandhi, most of which are holistic. No movie portrays Gandhism, like Road To Sangam does. At least none I have seen.

The show I went for was almost canceled as only one other person showed up at the ticket counter. In the end, just five of us came to watch the movie which they did screen thankfully. One engineer who had studied from Allahabad itself remarked that Gandhism is dead as no one turned up for this movie. I remarked that Munnabhai was a huge success. So it is a marketing flaw and lack of funds which meant audiences didn't come to watch this film. There is another aspect to it. It isn't a masala flick like many other bollywood flicks or like Munnabhai. It is not boring in any way, mind.

I give the movie a perfect 10/10. Don't think it could have been made better.