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THE TWO JAKES (Dir. Jack Nicholson, 1990, US)

The Two Jakes is less a sequel and more of a flamboyant continuation and expansion of the sun kissed noir universe of Los Angeles that Polanski brought to life in Chinatown. Everyone knows a project of this type had no chance of working without the creative involvement of Robert Towne, Jack Nicholson and Robert Evans, all of whom were reunited. Whereas Chinatown was a subversion of film genre, expressly the traditions of film noir, a resolutely anti-genre piece shot like a European art film, very much like Altman’s The Long Goodbye, The Two Jakes is unashamedly and resolutely a homage to the great riches of Hollywood film noir. It is well documented that Towne’s script for Chinatown went through numerous brutal changes, many of which Towne fought but ultimately could not prevent given Polanski’s authorial control. In many ways, The Two Jakes, is closer to Towne’s original vision of Los Angeles as a sprawling festering wound alluded to in interviews, mapping a broader nexus between oil, land and money, in which an underbelly of corruption and violence continually rises to the surface as a familiar subtext.

What makes The Two Jakes such a worthy successor to Chinatown is arguably the iconographic amplifications of noir and the endlessly pleasurable ways in which pastiche becomes a celebratory enterprise; a pulpy cinematic novel played out in classical film noir encounters. Towne draws the inevitable links back to Mulwray and Cross, framing Gittes as a broken, guilt ridden figure haunted by a murky past of incest and ownership, and who retains his self-righteous contempt for the police and big business. The startling LA art decor production design, dazzling costumes and widescreen cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond are the real stars along with a rich supporting cast made up of Harvey Kietel, Ruben Blades, Eli Wallach. Fatalism remains at the core as does the theme of flawed masculinity, although eclipsed by a perpetual sense of post war trauma. I wonder what Polanski would have made of it all?

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KADAKH (Dir. RAJAT KAPOOR, 2019, India) [spoilers]

There is a dead body in your apartment but you have a plethora of guests arriving for a party to celebrate Diwali very shortly. So what exactly do you do? It is a sinister dilemma faced by somewhat ordinary people going through a tinderbox of emotions. In other words, the perfect Hitchcockian predicament since the extraordinary is often critical to the notion of building suspense, sustaining dramatic tension and reeling in your audience. The first thing that sprung to my mind when watching Rajat Kapoor’s Kadakh, a devilishly scripted black comedy about middle class hypocrisy, was the visual design of the apartment including the costumes and décor, refracted and unified through differing shades of violet (sometimes symbolically associated with reincarnation in terms of Indian culture), infusing the film with an unconventional aesthetic tone. The use of violet also stretches to the autumnal colours which undoubtedly creates a muted colour scheme very much in line with the macabre undertones of Sunil’s (Ranvir Shorey) infidelities. With much of the narrative unfolding within one confined space, the piercing claustrophobic ambience amplifies the atrocious secret that Sunil and Maalti (Mansi Multani) have to conceal while the real time Diwali festivities which are organised around a series of impromptu short conversations between friends and family captures the banal small talk rituals of middle class India with their shallow, stunted aspirations.

As more people arrive at the Diwali party, tensions and rivalries come to the fore, culminating in the gut wrenching moment when the trunk holding the dead body (a certain nod to Hitchcock’s Rope) is dragged into the living room to act as a makeshift table for a game of cards, all of this juxtaposed to the aghast Sunil and Maalti. Both Shorey and Multani are excellent, conveying dread and unease as they precariously navigate the party, trying their best to placate the prickly house guests who in turn have brought their own complicated psychological baggage. When Sunil’s infidelity is finally unmasked by Maalti and openly scolded by his friends for such a betrayal, the admission of the dead body that has been with them the whole time provokes an outcry of revulsion. And although Sunil’s unforgivable crimes are roundly critiqued by his friends, the consensus forged at the end to essentially stage a conspiracy and save face amounts to a discordant analysis of middle class pretence; reputation, privilege and friendship are the values that take precedent. In a masterstroke at the end of the film Rajat succeeds in condensing and staging the emotional landscape of the wounded characters into an audacious single master shot, part tableaux, evoking the Epic cinema of Shahani.

Kadakh continues a consistent and richly diverse series of director-actor collaborations between Rajat Kapoor and Ranvir Shorey beginning with Mixed Doubles in 2006, and is a work that holds its own against brilliant films like Mithya (2008), arguably a key work in the development of Indian independent cinema, and which for some reason is never really talked about enough. In some respects, Rajat manages to get the best out of Shorey in many of the films they have worked on together, nurturing and coercing a darkly comedic vein that in turn demonstrates Rajat’s exceptional capacity to work in the comedy form with an understated elegance that tips into the grotesque with often surreal results.

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Modernism by Other Means: the films of Amit Dutta – Srikanth Srinivasan (Lightcube, 2020)

Srikanth Srinivasan’s (aka JAFB who writes at his legendary site The Seventh Art) first monograph is a great book about Indian cinema. It is a great book about a filmmaker. Srikanth lists himself as a film critic on the jacket of his book, which he rightly is, but this work is very much that of an accomplished and nuanced film scholar, and indeed which has often been the striking characteristic of his eclectic film writings over a period of fifteen years and counting. I still don’t think he gets the credit and attention that he deserves, underlining the cultural discourse in which film writing is narrowly canonized; remaining within tenuous, highfalutin parameters, with much of it tipped into the favour of Anglo-centric feels.

I first came across Srikanth’s work in 2007 when I was starting to use the internet to write about film, at my first site pretentiously titled ‘Ellipsis: The Accents of Cinema’, which is now defunct. Those were the years when film writers would regularly crawl across the internet to leave comments to new posts in the hope of initiating a conversation and dialogue. Sadly, such diligence and commitment came to an end with the rise of social media and expressly Twitter, which kind of ruined what could have potentially been something quite significant in terms of sustaining a connected global cinephilia with the space to let writers develop their own style and forge a readership. Now with Twitter, everyone seems to be barking out the same film rhetoric, much of it lazily recycled and generally lacking nuance.

Anyhow, if you have been following Srikanth’s adventures over the years, which also saw him take a cultural hiatus to France, his interests in experimental Indian film and filmmakers, about which he has written extensively, continues to elucidate a major blind spot when it comes the prevailing film discourse on Indian cinema, which as he notes in his introduction, is inclined towards ‘mainstream and Parallel Cinema’. I necessarily don’t agree with this point as I would reason the scholarly work on Parallel Cinema is in dire need of resuscitation and further study, with much of the focus having shifted to the much feted Indie scene. And although monographs on filmmakers like Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani and Shyam Benegal have been far more forthcoming over the past ten years, the non-linear history of Parallel Cinema remains relatively unexplored. Nonetheless, I would reason Srikanth’s monograph occupies a new space, carving out a critical insight that forges a wider cultural intersectional understanding of Dutta’s work, articulated through the elegant, intellectual and strident analytical prose.

Indeed, Srikanth points to the short shrift that experimental Indian film has been given, something he dually rectifies with what is an accessible, exceptional and detailed investigative reading of director Amit Dutta’s output, arguably one of India’s most important contemporary artists working today, and who in many ways extended the premature iconoclastic creative experiments of Parallel Cinema. Having been made with the co-operation of Dutta is significant. Overcoming the politics of access which often remains as an obstacle when it comes to researching or writing on the histories of alternative Indian cinema is telling in the comprehensive and rigorous approach Srikanth takes, journeying chronologically through Dutta’s work and showing us his evolution as an artist who has worked almost in isolation from the mainstream and relatedly showing a disillusionment with the dubious curatorial choices and agendas of film festivals. It is worth noting the monograph broadens and consolidates the retrospective Srikanth curated on Dutta’s work in 2017.

The formative period at the FTII which forms the basis of the first chapter that looks at Dutta’s early films draws out the connections between oppositional film practices, the ability to experiment at length at a privileged institution and how Dutta’s early inspirations drew heavily on his own experiences and expressly ‘indigenous myths’. Pertinently, Srikanth identifies how the creative manipulations of time and space would become a defining theme in Dutta’s work, crafting a ritualistic and measured tone buoyed by a slow rhythm. As Srikanth works meticulously through Dutta’s films, the lucid prose maps a wider cultural framework that connects the traditions of Indian art to an idea of using film as a self-reflexive prism with which to deconstruct narrative, genre and film style as something autobiographical in nature. And what Srikanth teases out so vividly is how real life artists including painters become a defining concrete and spectral presence in Dutta’s work, a constant return to investigate folk tales and mythology whereby it becomes intrinsic to his mixed media methods of communication and investigation. If anything what Dutta’s output demonstrates is how infantile and possibly regressive much of the so called alternative Indian cinema actually is. And in this respect, Dutta’s work seems almost revolutionary, occupying a futuristic pro-filmic space.

With the chapter on ‘Man’s Woman and Other Stories (2009)’, Srikanth argues for the sociological dimension of Dutta’s work, although somewhat reluctantly because of the lack of overt political engagement throughout his work, a hallmark of many avant-garde artists. Given Srikanth’s extensive and impressive film knowledge and understanding of international cinema, he is able to draw out the wider intertextual connections that can often go amiss, referencing films by Ray, Greenway, Tarkovsky, Resnais etc. and how they inform Dutta’s directorial choices, an aspect of the monograph that anchors itself in the riches of hybridity, fusion and exchange. The broader cine-geography onto which Srikanth maps Dutta’s work reiterates a cultural duality in which internationalism and indigenous practices are part of an Indian art tradition and aesthetic consciousness that stretches back to the 1920s. Undeniably this monograph examines Dutta’s capacity to create new art forms through the prism of experimental filmmaking and thereby the recurring and informed links to Indian art history becomes an essential feature since one could reason Dutta is part of a late new modernism.

Alongside the delineation of key themes (nature and civilization, memory, space) and shifting patterns of working with technology, there is a deep understanding of aesthetics including the pursuit for an organic film style that runs throughout the chapters with astutely exhaustive close textual analysis of key sequences from virtually all of Dutta’s films. The evolution of a new film style ‘free of cinematic influences’ as Srikanth notes becomes an abiding argument that is developed throughout the chapters and contestably emerges as allusive to the way Dutta has constantly metamorphized as an artist. The chapter on ‘The Seventh Walk’, a remarkable project Dutta made in 2013, is in many ways key to the monograph because Srikanth is able to argue why this work is ‘the nearest he has ever come to immersing himself in the natural world’.

Modernism by other means is a fitting title for an artist who is defiantly contemporary, a polymath whom Srikanth understands and probes broadly with a final stretch of the monograph dedicated to non-film output, all of which is decisive in forming a fully rounded and intimate portrait of Dutta. Srikanth Srinivasan’s book on Amit Dutta is an invaluable foundational text for anyone wanting to explore the rich contours of Indian experimental film and is also an indispensable authorial study that opens up a far reaching interrogation and critical awareness of modernity and its relationship with contemporary filmmaking in India today.

https://shop.lightcube.in/Modernism-By-Other-Means

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AMERICAN HEART (Dir. Martin Bell, 1992)

The solitary yet exceptional full length feature by filmmaker Martin Bell is one of the purest attempts at neo-realism in American cinema, effortlessly detailing the painful relationship between a father (Jeff Bridges) and son (Edward Furlong) in the scuzzy underbelly of Seattle. Anchored in what is a characteristically threadbare neorealist plot that finds father and son attempting to save what little they have so they can make a futile escape to Alaska, Bell’s semi-documentary approach tenderly conveys an actuality full of tangible bit players who hang on the fringes, eking out a pitiful livelihood, recalling the antediluvian textures of Huston’s Fat City.

Streetwise (1984), Bell’s remarkable documentary on the lives of teenagers in Seattle, which was in turn inspired by the award winning photography of Mary Ellen Mark, is a template for American Heart, onto which the writers craft something more accessible. Conversely, the inescapable desolation that father and son must confront is realised in their perpetual separation and union, culminating in an unpretentious dénouement that is disarmingly poetic. Co-produced by Bridges in what is probably his best performance, Bell’s film seems to have largely been forgotten about today but deserves rediscovering and resituating as a key work of American independent cinema in the 1990s.