A requiem for a false dream glistens in one of Satyajit Ray’s greatest achievements. Review.
June 19, 2010
THE FALL (dir. Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, 1959)
This rare oddity from neglected Argentine master Leopoldo Torre Nilsson bristles with darkly comedic interludes, subversive outbursts, and perverse displays of childish anarchy. Realized in a shifting vision of sharp contrast black and white photography, “The Fall”immediately tests the limits of discomfort when a beautiful but shy university student named Albertina (Elsa Daniel) rents a room from an invalid woman and her rambunctious four children.
From the very moment Albertina ascends the stairs to the family’s enigmatic domicile in a stunning low angle shot, Torre Nilsson instills a palpable sense of menace into the narrative. The children’s frenetic perspective begins to slowly crawl into Albertina’s subconscious, revealing the insecure core hiding behind her naive exterior. Extreme angles dominate, framing the characters within a constricted and contorted world defined by fear and uncertainty. This warped world of innuendo, trickery, and breaking perception seems to be falling off its axis, leaving a damning critique of adult indifference and selfishness in its wake. Abandonment issues have never been so eerie or unnerving.
THE MUSIC ROOM (dir. Satyajit Ray, 1958)
Restored by Martin Scorsese’s indispensable The Film Foundation, Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece about wealth, arrogance, and artistic exhibition is a measured stunner from start to finish. The story of Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), a rich landowner who wields his dwindling power and influence by staging lavish parties, explores the lengths people will go to sustain a crumbling facade. The three musical interludes are both mesmerizing and deeply tragic, indicative of the power earthly possessions have over the weak-willed.
As Ray’s protagonist slowly descends into madness, searing symbolism erodes the very fabric of the man’s existence. His epic domicile, once anchored by the regal Jalsaghar (Music Room), becomes a cracking shell of his former life, a reminder of his need for extravagance and the consequences of such a selfish philosophy. The final scene in the Jalsaghar is a metaphorical powder-keg, dimming the lights one last time on a man consumed by his own desire to be relevant in the eyes of his countrymen.
FAREWELL (dir. Ditteke Mensink, 2010)
The epic journey of British journalist Lady Grace Drummond-Hay, who was the first woman to fly around the world on a commercial airship (a German Zeppelin), is constructed entirely from archival footage from the 1927 trek. Director Ditteke Mensink overlaps voice-over narration recited from Drummond-Hay’s articles and journal entries which she wrote from the Zeppelin.
The film is undeniably majestic, especially in the first 20 minutes when the Zeppelin takes flight for the first time departing New York City. But Farewell becomes greatly limited by its aesthetic structure, relying entirely on the voice of narrator Poppy Elliot which doesn’t always display the necessary depth or humanity the words deserve. When the film should be at it’s most hauntingly lyrical, it’s repetitive imagery and cloying sound effects create a very monotonous feel. Still, there are ample soaring moments where the scope of the journey finally comes into focus and the bittersweet memories of a woman in transition are deeply felt.
THE TILLMAN STORY (dir. Amir Bar-Lev, 2010)
The most conventional documentary I’ve seen so far, and this expose on the tragic death and mythification of Pat Tillman turns out to be the least engaging. Narrated by Josh Brolin, “The Tillman Story” gets consumed by an uneven structure, jumping aimlessly from necessary background on Tillman’s time as pro football player, his decision to enlist with the Army Rangers, and the deep cover up the Army perpetrated after his death by friendly fire.
While the story itself is essential to the modern dilemma of war propaganda and governmental manipulation, the film never achieves a distinctive approach to unwrapping the layers of information and deception. Interviews with The Tillman family, friends, and fellow soldiers are loosely tied by themes of friendship, loyalty, and disappointment, and they never connect into a the damning mosaic the filmmakers obviously desires it to be. But director Amir Bar-Lev has the difficult task of fighting an already futile battle with a now absent Bush administration, who could care less than ever about Tillman the man, son, and husband. The lack of a resolute denouement becomes problematic from a narrative perspective, but it speaks volumes about the stalemate between governmental perception and public reality hounding our country today.
It’s amazing how each film within Satyajit’s Ray’s Apu Trilogy has it’s own tone and pace. Each accords itself to where Apu is in his life: the childhood lyricism of Pather Panchali, the hard realism of Aparajito, and finally the romantic devastation of The World of Apu. It is in this final film that Ray uses a more traditional narrative scope, i.e. Apu gets married, Apu loses wife, Apu feels sorry for himself, Apu returns a changed man. But none of this feels traditional, or melodramatic, or pat. Ray has given the viewer so much back-story, a lifetime of subtext to take into account, that Apu’s reactions/decisions make perfect sense. He’s never made the right choice the first time around, whether it be his disregard for his mother in Aparajito or his breakdown in The World of Apu, but this complexity is what makes him human. In The World of Apu, his ideology changes so many times, even more so than in Aparajito. At the beginning, Apu rides high on the idea of writing a novel about his life, flexing his individuality and creativity. Then he falls in love, then he loses that love. Apu is Ray’s ping pong ball in expressing the back and forth, push pull relationship of life, and this dichotomy makes The Apu Trilogy one of the most humane and crucial parts of film history. Without a shred of violence, false pretense, or self indulgence, Ray reveals more about Apu than we can see at first glance. For the first time in The World of Apu, the motif of the train has gone completely audible, the screaming of the whistle heard but not seen. When the dynamic story shift finally hits, the train becomes physical again, both what carries Apu’s wife away from him the final time and also a means for Apu to attempt suicide. It’s as if Ray is telling us we can never escape the physical and spiritual components that have played such an important role in our development. Apu is often flanked by an endless backdrop, a train in the distance, or vast cityscapes that confuse and explicitly reveal his psychology. In one breathtaking shot, Apu is caught between the smoke of the train and the smoke of the coal burning fire his wife has just built. It’s a brilliant foreshadowing to the complications his life is about to experience, and it’s just one of the many times Ray uses visuals to compliment Apu’s thinking. The World of Apu is indeed more literal and classic than the previous films, but it’s style fits this particular segment in Apu’s life. The film ends on a two-shot of Apu and his son, an image that fills the screen and completes the cycle Ray has explored. Unlike the countless long shots of Apu by himself, this ending dares to show how the mistakes, the successes, the trials and tribulations of a life, can finally lead you back home toward happiness.
The opening image of Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito is a P.O.V. long shot of a vast river, forest, and sky, all seen from inside a moving train crossing a long bridge. As we’ve seen in the beginning installment of Ray’s Apu Trilogy Pather Panchali, the train serves as the key motif and parallel for Apu’s progression from the fantasy and whimsey of childhood to the complex shades of adulthood. But Ray’s opening immediately separates Aparajito from it’s predecessor, namely in it’s position of camera placement. In Pather, Apu and his sister Durga only see the train from the outside. It’s a mythic and iconic image, one seen coming from an unknown beginning and toward a mysterious destination. In Aparajito, the POV is positioned inside the train, a stunning shift in point of view for Apu as a character. We later know that this association is valid when Apu begins taking the train back and forth between his countryside home where his mother resides and Calcutta, where he’s studying in college. It’s these long trips by train that Ravi Shankar’s score really becomes the cornerstone of Ray’s film. Shankar’s haunting sitar seems to be Apu’s conscious, driving him one way then another. While the traumatic experiences of Pather Panchali seem to affect his parents more than Apu directly, the tragedies hit him square in the face throughout Aparajito. During Ray’s middle film, Apu becomes responsible, irresponsible, worldly, arrogant, unselfish, and insecure. Apu’s experiencing many feelings, like any other young adult, and his decisions will lay the foundation for what kind of person he will become. Aparajito is the ultimate teenager/parent film, showing how each reacts to the changing nature of the family dynamic. Along with the visual image of the train, a complimentary theme is sacrifice, both what Apu’s mother Sarbojaya gives up for his betterment and what Apu himself loses in the process. But Ray’s most masterful touch his obsession with momentum, that unseen force that propels both Apu and his family’s life forward. Aparajito shows another pertinent segment in this fascinating tale of growth, but with a harrowing attention to the darker realms of sacrifice and loss so often sugarcoated in standard Hollywood fare.
The beginning installment of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy only gets better the second time around. Pather Panchali focuses on it’s young hero’s childhood heartaches and joys with a sublime and lyrical eye. Ray does not begin with Apu, but brilliantly sets up the family before he’s born. We see older sister Durga stealing fruit from a neighbor, pregnant mother Sarbojaya dealing with poverty, hunger, and social pressures, and husband Hari often absent working to make ends meet. Then Apu is born, a glorious family occasion shared with Auntie Indir and the rest of the community. Ray then shifts years ahead, Durga a young woman and Apu a young boy. Brother and sister play, discover, and fight with each other, go to school, all without much care to the turning tides of adult worries shared by mother and father. In one particularly stunning sequence, Apu and Durga fight over tinsel, then run through the tall grass of the Indian countryside chasing each other, finally ending up witnessing a tower locomotive passing by with life-changing force. The whimsey of childhood is confronted by the seriousness of adulthood, the prime theme circling through Ray’s vision. Apu, while aware of the changing nature of his family structure, has little to do with it’s direct development because of his age. His family exists as a sum of it’s parts, and Apu’s role is small but crucially important. His parents, while conflicted over a number of difficult situations, never lose sight of the most important element of family, which remains survival. Ray’s camera roams through the thick underbrush and over the stone temples, immediately cementing his focus as Apu’s POV. This simplicity in scope does not mean simple in nature or theme, and Pather Panchali devotes itself to establishing Apu’s complex realization of self and family. It’s one of the greatest films on loyalty, both to your roots and to memories of childhood. Pather Panchali also marks a masterful beginning to what many think is the most important trilogy of all time.