THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (Dir. Derek Cianfrance, 2012, US) – Eclipse of the Son [Spoilers ahead!]

I’m still convinced that as Ryan Gosling gets older he’s going to eventually look like Jimmy Stewart; it’s that curvature of his elongated face and dewy eyes. Much has been made of Gosling’s performance in this latest feature from director Derek Cianfrance and it is suggestive to the film. Gosling is a performer who is superb at conveying emotions through effective uses of silence. In fact, Gosling would be perfect in both a western by Sergio Leone as a gunslinger and a shadowy gangster in any Melville’s polar films. In other words, the less dialogue for Gosling, the better. This was proven by a near wordless performance as The Driver in Refn’s 2011 Drive. Gosling takes a similar approach in The Place Beyond The Pines, playing a disaffected and incorporeal young man who finds it insufferable to make a concrete connection between his responsibilities as a father and the demands of adulthood. Gosling plays Luke, a motorcycle stunt driver, who gets his thrills from entertaining crowds of enthusiasts at a travelling funfair. Luke is a drifter with no attachments other than his bike, which he considers to be family. He indulges his solitary existence in the transient, nomadic nature of the travelling funfair. The absence of any kind of family around him points to a potentially tough childhood, which is explored allegorically in the final third. The Place Beyond The Pines is essentially an old fashioned melodrama, framed against familiar social thematics including absent fathers, corruption, power and history. Luke’s story turns out to be the first in a triptych narrative that transforms from an opening tale of desperation into one about class and exploitation. The narrative shift from Luke to Avery Cross, a police officer, played by Bradley Cooper strays into Sidney Lumet territory of corrupt cops but Ciafrance weaves into this overly familiar genre convention, the idea of class. When Cross shoots Luke as a result of a bank robbery that goes awry, the elevation of Cross into a local hero sees him become embroiled with some of the corrupt cops in his precinct. However, it is only later does it become more evident that Cross has a powerful father as a judge and he uses his privileged status to turn in his friends in order to further what turns out to be an ambitious, if not cynically opportunistic, political career. This is one of the more ideologically complicated statements as we witness a perpetual cycle of class struggle and more specifically exploitation in which power and status silence those like Luke who live and die on the margins of a vacant American society.

The final part of the film is arguably when the film falters. Although the central theme of fathers and sons comes to vivid fruition, the casting of the two teenage boys and their characterisation is uninspired to say the least, reminding me of an inept pilot for a new series about disaffected youth in the 1990s. While the presence of Luke is rendered symbolically in the last two parts, it is the character of Romina (Eva Mendes) who provides a narrative bridge in the triptych. Romina, who works as a waitress in a diner, is a social outsider and her ethnicity (likely Mexican) underlines separateness yet she is by far the most dignified of the broken characters we encounter. It is a dignity threatened by the insecurities of the men around her. Given the genre context of the melodrama, if Romina comes to embody an ideal about family then both Luke and Avery are deconstructed as fathers and men who cannot function within the realm of family as the past prevents them from doing so. What this means is that a crisis of masculinity emerges discordantly from the three parts and culminates in a moment at the end, which seeks to articulate a view of fathers and sons predicated on class. What I find disconcerting is when films longer than two hours are automatically labeled with the tag of ‘epic’ when in fact ‘epic’ means something entirely different in film. The epic was and still is considered a useful genre category but now the term has become associated with porridge like cinema of The Avengers kind. What I admire about Ciafrance’s approach is that he takes his time with the storytelling but the way some characters are introduced and not even explored seems to be one of the recent detrimental effects of contemporary TV Drama upon film narrative. What gives this American independent film a certain edge is the masterfully atmospheric score by Mike Patton, which imbues much of the drama with a tone of dread, and uncertainty that recalls the work of Badalamenti for Lynch. Altogether, The Place Beyond The Pines makes for a superior American melodrama. 

NO ONE KILLED JESSICA (Dir. Raj Kumar Gupta, 2010, India) – The Power in Delhi

I had been looking forward to this one given director Raj Kumar Gupta seemed to show some promise with his debut Aamir but like most Hindi films of late this falls short of expectations and in many ways descends into a melodramatic sentiment un-keeping with the first half of the film. Based on what is arguably one of the more controversial murder cases in Delhi involving the indiscriminate slaying of model Jessica Lall by the son a powerful politician, this slickly made dramatisation by UTV Motion Pictures is undoubtedly well intended especially given the pedigree involved. Yet it seems to me a case of a film star hijacking what could have potentially been a far greater film had they agreed to maintain a distance and show some restraint. Of course, I am referring to the unconvincing performance by Rani Mukherjee who whilst dominating the second half of the film in an attempt to underline the media backed campaign for Jessica’s injustice smoother’s any sense of social indignation with a sustained bout of overly pretentious liberalism. The makers of the film should have really kept the focus with the character of Sabrina Lall as actress Vidya Balan excels in the role of the benign sister forced to struggle with the bitter realities of power relations running throughout the entire establishment.

Vidya Balan is currently one of the best actresses of her generation but one does feel the commercial demands placed on stars leads to dubious career choices – both Hey Baby! and Kismet Konnection saw her look uncomfortably out of place in the company of medioctry whilst Ishqiya hinted at a distinct edginess absent from many of the mainstream actors. Both Nutan and perhaps more interestingly Madhabi Mukherjee comes to mind when deliberating over Vidya Balan’s abilities as an actress. She is largely wasted in the second half of the film and one can clearly see a contest was played out between the two main leads in terms of screen time – it is of little surprise Rani comes out on top given her box office prowess but I’m not so sure if this was the right decision. Swearing (with most of it bleeped out for dramatic effect), smoking and a chic bitchiness emerge as superficial traits that mark Meera’s crusading journalist as yet another heroic one dimensional cinematic anecdote. Whilst it may be acceptable to argue that Meera is supposed to be unlikable as the unsavoury politicians that we come across, her presence in the second half of the film literally devalues the credibility and sincerity constructed initially with what is a mildly compelling reconstruction of Jessica’s murder.

Had this taken a more Rashomon approach to narrative storytelling it might have made more of an emotional impact but instead it chooses to adhere to a familiar path in terms of the family melodrama. Perhaps one of the more intriguing aspects of the film sees a twist of cinematic irony ring true when a passive Delhi audience spurred on by the youth activism witnessed in a screening of Rang De Basanti initiate a candlelight vigil to be held as a mark of anger at India Gate. In addition, the media’s role in helping to elevate the injustice of Jessica’s flawed and corrupt trial to a national level poses some serious questions on the relationship between politics and the mass media which on many occasions privileges sensationalism over the much maligned concerns of the oppressed. Another noteworthy ideological proposition is whether or not the media should discard any sense of objectivity and personalise those news stories which are close to certain journalists own ideological agenda. No One Killed Jessica is director Raj Kumar Gupta’s second film and whilst it falls short of his debut, it tries nobly to do justice to the memory of Sabrina Lall – yet another victim of the ruling power elite.

SHREE 420 / MR. 420 (Dir. Raj Kapoor, 1955, India) – Contesting Ideologies


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The title for Raj Kapoor’s 1955 film Shree 420 takes its social inspiration from the Indian Penal Code. Section 420 deals with cases of fraud and cheating yet it’s popularisation by Raj Kapoor has meant it has become ubiquitous with the figure of the con-man or trickster in Indian cinema. It seems as though Coca-Cola first entered the Indian market after the push for modernity and industrialisation as implemented by Nehruite politics in the late forties and early fifties. The history of Coca-Cola in India is a shameful one and it continues to face a barrage of criticisms for its unfair extraction of water, workforce exploitation and use of pesticides in the bottling of drinks. Basically, most of these crimes are characteristic of such a hegemonic multi national corporation like Coca-Cola that relies on brand recognition and promotion to mask its lack of due care for communities and livelihoods of people. Perhaps it is a little hypocritical of film stars like Aamir Khan and other A listers to promulgate messages of social revolution and political intervention in films such as Rang De Basanti (perhaps contested further in Peepli Live) when in reality their own political ideals are compromised by consumerist obligations, endorsing certain brand products and doing so without a hint of remorse.

You’re probably thinking what bearing does Coca-Cola have on a film directed by Raj Kapoor released way back in 1955? Well, interestingly, whilst many of the studio films produced in the 40s and 50s were characterised by their escapist and populist sentiments, residing beneath the subtext was a mass of potentially relevant and contradictory ideological discourses articulating the shared authorial concerns of director Raj Kapoor and writer K.A Abbas. Shree 420 is simplistic in its representation of the conflict between classes and whilst Raj wins out at the end for the common man, throughout the film’s melodramatic narrative, K.A. Abbas offers some subtle ideological commentary on the impact modernity was having on the urban space just as Nehru’s vision for progressive change was accelerating.

When Raj first enters the city of Bombay, his figure is framed by the hoarding of a coca-cola sign which becomes a swipe at consumerism that was beginning to infiltrate the cosmetics of the urban city.

Ideologically, the motif of the Coca-Cola sign reemerges again only moments later when Raj offers a street kid a banana – the juxtaposition between the harsh poverty of the slums and the Utopian fantasising of corporate branding is underlined by the language on display – ‘Delicious’ and ‘Refreshing’ says the sign whilst beneath we are confronted with stark imagery of the dispossessed; a ruthless exposition of Nehru’s idealism.

However, the swipe at Coca-Cola consumerist ideology doesn’t stop right there. Once Raj pawns the award he is carrying with him (a definite nod to Bicycle Thieves), the money which he intends to put to good use is immediately stolen from him when he indulges in a game of cards on the streets. His first encounter with the cynicism and corrupting value of the city is framed with yet another Coca-Cola advertisement on the wall which this time is ironically selling the drink through the word ‘hospitality’.

Later on in the film when Raj finally achieves success, as false and shallow as it is, director Raj Kapoor makes use of a startling subjective point of view with the outstretched hands holding the money. Not only does this shot contrast quite starkly with the rest of the film in terms of its bold and symbolic framing but it repeats a similar vein of expressionism from an earlier film, Awaara. In many ways, like the Coca-Cola brand that craves consumer acknowledgement, so does equally the desire for Raj to acquire social status.

I want to finish with a quote from film academic Robin Wood as I too at times can be very dismissive of mainstream populist cinema as merely entertainment yet lurking beneath some films are a set of contesting ideologies which at times can prove to be radically more challenging than those so called political works of cinema:

‘One of the functions of the concept of entertainment by definition, that which we don’t take seriously, or think about much (It’s only entertainment) is to act as a kind of partial sleep of consciousness. For the filmmakers as well as for the audience, full awareness stops at the level of plot, action, and character, in which the most dangerous and subversive implications can disguise themselves and escape detection. This is why seemingly innocuous genre movies can be far more radical and fundamentally undermining than works of conscious social criticism, which must always concern themselves with the possibility of reforming aspects of a social system whose basic rightness must not be challenged. The old tendency to dismiss the Hollywood cinema as escapist always defined escape merely negatively as escape from, but escape logically must also be escape to. Dreams are also escapes, from the unresolved tensions of our lives into fantasies. Yet the fantasies are not meaningless; they can represent attempts to resolve those tensions in more radical ways than our consciousness can countenance.’

Robin Wood, The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s, from Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York, Columbia University Press, 1986)