Friday, February 23, 2018

Expendables Series- A Well Executed Cliché

Netflix has confirmed this for me.  Suggestions thrown by the streaming site scream that I like certain type of films and, gradually, eclectic nature of that list is fading and a homogenous list of 90s action title or later films with 90s action stars has emerged.  This may be put to self referring nature of the artificial intelligence fuelled algorithm but it has caught one thing bang on – I love a well executed cliché. 

Cliché is Cliché because it is good.  Something, when introduced for the first time is so good that it is repeated so often that it becomes predictable.  This repetition infuses another quality into the equation i.e. accessibility.  As we are witness to so many usage of the cliché that we catch it immediately.  It becomes almost like a muscular memory.  

Considered an anathema for creativity, clichés are considered lazy shortcut as thrill of novelty is often missing in a clichéd atmosphere.  This characteristic makes creation of an entertaining cliché extremely difficult.  It is here that the Expendable series scores. Expendable series is testosterone driven male (though there are females in feisty roles, they are equal fighters but finally all of them end up propping male characters) action sagas.  The series rides on the nostalgia value of action stars of 90s or even earlier (Stallone has been around since 1970 and Harrison Ford since 1960s, the same goes for Arnold Schwarzenegger also).

All these stars, the number kept on increasing – have a solid action filmography and a devoted following among the people, who came of age in those torrid years.  So there is a solid wallop of star power packed in the series.  Many of us will go and spend money to see a new flick, howsoever B grade, for any single one of them separately.  Seeing a multi-starrer is a huge bonus and, for some, unadulterated pleasure.  They are super stars, even in these withered visages.  A concrete link to the best years of many lives.

Star power aside, the series plays very dexterously on clichés of machismo.  The fluid camaraderie of male bonding has been tapped in a very entertaining manner.  Chemistry between these aging superstars rescues the bravado filled casual banter from being ham handed.  The repartee leads to genuine amusement.  This smooth chemistry and intelligent friendly ribbing was exploited with great success in the ‘Ocean’ series also.  In Ocean, George Clooney and Brad Pitt were the anchors with interesting characters around them.  Here we have Stallone and  Jason Statham as the lynchpin of a motley crowd of finely etched characters.  Actors have enough history and restraint to keep their decidedly adolescent talk from falling into childish or corny.  It is quite an achievement to keep things adult in such a hyperbolic locker room environs.

Most of the crowded cast have achieved fairly detailed contours of their intended characters.  There are silent types, there are deranged ones, some are butt of jokes of their friends and there are wise and amused leaders.  They are clearly constructed and their uniqueness contribute to the masculine bonhomie of the films.  These characters are interesting enough to overpower the violence perpetrated by them.  Violence is entertaining background choreography in the wider context of chemistry between these characters.  All of them are solid action heroes and given their background, their self-deprecating references to their age are particularly heart warming.  At one point Stallone, after getting a solid beating, informs his crew in a matter of fact manner ‘I got my ass kicked’, to hearty chuckles.

 Another pleasure of such movies is their locales and authenticity of their props. Africa, Europe, Latin American Islands, customized motorcycles, bars and that airplane are all stuff of dream for young at heart nostalgia junkie.

In final analysis,  The Expendable series is a good binge worthy indulgence which is a guilty pleasure. Not so guilty for someone whose cinematic sensibilities are trained to the highs of earlier day authenticity of action and who is a little jarred of the hyper stylized pretensions to the reality. Crude violence of Expendables framed by the intelligent characterization of every single star is any day preferable.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Moulded by Kisses and Caresses: Warm Flesh of Rodin's Sculpture


When Augustus Rodin’s contemporaries in painting were transcending naturalism to ring in modernity in painting, he was literally chiselling away habits of classicism to push sculpture to modernity. Sculpture, by definition, has a brute materiality about it. This materiality helped prolonging the grand themes of classicism – stability, mythical subjects and a condensed other worldliness – longer than, say, painting or music. It fell on Rodin to bring in movement, fleeting moments, unfinished surfaces, in other words – ‘embrace of ambiguity’ through ‘ a conflicted allegiance to grandiosity and intimacy.’

         Rodin has been labled as grandiose, ostentatious and even corny. His reputation dipped immediately after his death in 1917 when the new breed of sculptor (many of whom worked under him eg.. Maillol, Brancusi, Bourdelle, Pompon etc.) started preferring ‘meaningful Canons of form & Vision’ over Rodin’s searing emotions expressed by hyper detailing. While benefitting from Rodin’s paving of the way from classical themes, they focused their own voices on achieving a less detailed or complicated form, reaching core in a quieter way. Today, however, Rodin stands a undisputed harbinger of modernity in sculpture, often compared to Michelangelo in impact and stature.

Classicism was grand and sure. A realized truth with scriptural certainty. It conveyed a fully formed reality cast in stone. This was called ‘monumentality’ i.e. representation of completeness of a divinity, an era, impact of king, nobleman or a mistress. Rodin who had a ready access to the art of past. Found a potent weapon to subvert the grand tradition. This weapon was doubt. He was lucky to be at the intersection of ‘19th century amplitude’ & ‘20th century doubt’. His equivocation, his insistence on capturing the fleeting moment – a work in progress sensibility brought a rupture. A rupture that is brought forth only by epoch – shaping artists.

His ‘anti-monumentalism’ was a natural corollary of his stubborn rejection of completeness. In ‘Les Bourgeois de Calais’, a depiction of six wealthy citizens of the French town who offered themselves to the attcaking army for execution as a price for safety of their fellow citizens, the moment that Rodin chose to depict was neither the surrender nor the execution (which never took place) but a moment when they were alone after the spark of initial heroism had passed. The art work is not recreating a landmark moment but a void with a promise of movement and uncertainty. Doom, despair and surrender to fate is still a work in progress before getting to its horrible, chaotic finality.

This rejection of completeness reached a new level during his mature years in works like hands or head less torsos. These disembodied works left scope for possibilities. The telos, the final cause remained hidden but, quite clearly, the moving force in this melee of incompleteness. A moving force propelled by entropy and renewal. Robert Hughes found in these incomplete figures ‘expressive power of the non-finito’ and savage force of the human form to express emotion. Hughes wrote “his use of the "partial figure"—the headless striding man, the ecstatically capering figure of Iris, Messenger of the Gods—went beyond such conventions as the body not yet released from its mass of raw stone, or even the broken antique fragment. It was a way of asserting the power of reduction, a demonstration that the expressive power of human form could be so concentrated as to drop, without loss, such usual signifiers of emotion as the head.” Incompleteness is a sure indicator of movement. This kinetic fuel is another hallmark of the break that Rodin effected from stable unmoving glory of classicism. Unfinished conundrum of Iris, Messenger of the Gods or Walking Man and his distinctive musculature created tension in his stones or bronze that signified movement. Talking about the this kinetic appeal in the ‘Walking Man’ Peter Schjendahl of The New Yorker wrote “Walking becomes lurching. The effect is simple, but it electrifies as the sign of an intelligence that comprehends, and can gainfully subvert, the fictive language of figuration in sculpture. You get, in a flash, that Rodin could have played no end of Picasso-like games with givens of the medium, had he been more of a sophisticate.

While his transmogrifying and cross feeding sculpture reminded of Picasso’s inventiveness, his most potent playfield was flesh - the surface. Rodin said “to any artist worthy of the name, all in nature is beautiful, because his eyes, fearlessly accepting all extension truth, read there, as is an open book, all the inner truth”. There he is closest to great British artist Lucian Freud, for whom flesh was ‘mound of feelings’. This fascination with speaking flesh has brought forth a sexual frankness in both Freud’s and Rodin’s work. While Freud kept on working the texture and tone his model’s flesh, Rodin’s surfaces are his most thoroughly finished incompleteness. Gaping sexuality of ‘Iris the Messenger of God’ fascinates more by pulsating coarseness of the texture then its exposed boldness. He achieved a very real surface for his work. His ideal was captured by Paul Gsell. Rodin when talking of Venus de Medici, swooned “It is truly flesh! You would think it moulded by kisses and caresses! You almost expect, when you touch this body, to find it warm”. This ‘warm’ flesh is one more definitive indicator of his subversion of Classicism, a period of idealized surfaces. His reputation for eroticism often bordered on sensational. His quest to recover ‘freedom of instinct’ led to many experimentation which were even termed ‘exploitative’ use of his models. For Rodin there was no visual compromise, he sought to avoid stage effect in his nudes. ‘I know why my drawings have this intensity. It is because I do not intervene. Between nature and paper, I eliminated talent. I do not reason. I simply let myself go.” Like Goya, like Picasso and like Matisse, Rodin exemplifies primal force of nature where talent appears eliminated simply by it all pervasiveness. Rodin is an undisputed master and his absence for last hundred years has made it clear beyond any doubt.          

Dhiraj, 26 Dec, 2017                           

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Breaking Bad: First Among Equals

After all these years, much of the technical superiority of Breaking Bad does not look so unassailable. Breathtaking photography, emotion appropriate editing, use of topography-making the landscape a protagonist, using heartbreakingly normal situations to enact epic questions of humanity and great acting have become rather common and do not count for insurmountable strategic advantage. Great TV in Fargo, The Fall, Luther, True Detective, Orange is the New Black, lately, American Gods etc have amply demonstrated that these aspects, though making for a sustained advantage, are replicable with similar success. Then, what makes series like Breaking Bad a classic, first among equals and account for such high degree of sustained cult popularity coupled with mainstream acclaim?  

Answer to my mind is that none of the other contender have this dense collection of great characters. Each and every character of Breaking Bad is significant enough to have a personality and interesting background story worthy of an independent spin off series- Better Call Saul is one highly rewarding example.  Though Walt and Jesse get most of the screen time and their character ticks are most microscopically presented, but none of the significant characters are peripheral.  Mike, Gustav Frig, Skyler, Hank, Marie, Todd, Lydia or the kids (including the infant-Holly), and, off course, Saul Goodman have been invested with strong personalities. They are all people who make for great partners but never can be relegated to the status of a tool or paid employee. Bit characters like Uncle Jack of Todd or the Vacuum guy, Badger and Skinny Pate have a quality of permanence that carries them through for a very long series spanning over five seasons. Other series too have memorable characters and some of them are permanent fixture of  TV pantheon but Vince Gilligan has created an unprecedented constellation of great characters and placed them in a perfect story. Command over the progression of the story- often tricky in long series, is pitch perfect and creates a narrative which forces the viewers to stay invested in the fates of the characters.

A character grows on the audience in the alchemy of paradox. The character needs to be immediately clear also and it should have an element of surprise – joy of deciphering or unraveling. Gustav Frig is a character that has coiled neatness about him. We know he has more to him than meets the eye. We take delight in discovering his backstory, innate decency, capacity for violence or capacity for revenge. Mike too portrays his reliable solidity immediately but we take pleasure in discovering his languid approach, his softer aspects, his supreme efficiency in what he does. Hank comes as an amiable lout of a detective. His detective skills and uncorruptibility is immediately evident. We love his tenacity and fragilities. Ladies, Skyler, Marie and Lydia have fully developed character arch complete with flaws and undiluted capacity to give. Lydia’s greed, absolute self centeredness and paranoid ambition simply shine through in the limited number of scenes that she had. Todd’s type gets established in efficient strokes and a high functioning sociopath was established in few quick scenes. In short, strong characterization is the main strength of this much awarded show and a quality that can’t be copied very easily.

Other technical virtues, mentioned in the beginning may be easy to copy but their standard in Breaking Bad is nothing short of outstanding. Spare, sparse landscape of New Mexico complements the rugged mood of the topic and creates a neo western aura around the show which serves it well. Photography and editing are elegant and their cleverness contributes and doesn’t distract. Angle shots from inside safe, barrels table top etc add urgency. Close ups, play with depths, wipes are plenty but never come in the way of story telling and only add to the atmosphere.

The mixture of operatic ambition in technical aspects, epic aspirations in latent messages on the one hand and resolute everydayness of the settings worked well for the show. The family, household, neighborhood, office, car wash, dresses, bit characters at gas stations, department stores and look and feel was kept real. Sense of grandeur came from the sweep of story, photography and far reaching changes that the situations brought I the characters. This has a quality of a great literature- almost Shakespearean. 

Even for a binge watch, the show did not lose its story thread and one cannot but marvel at the impeccable continuity and controlled arch of the story. Breaking Bad is compelling television, the best of its kind. It will continue to attract lovers of quality TV for a long time.