Monday, November 1, 2021

Federico Fellini: Dazzlingly Suffocating Spectacle of Soul

 Any art form is, first and foremost, about communication. It needs to communicate its appeal and its emotions. It is not always a simple process as the appeal of any art form in itself is not a very tangible or linear phenomenon. A work of art can appeal for its structural congruity – the way internal consistency of the pieces weaves a magic or the allure may emerge from the force of its argument, story, emotions or simply by audacious use of the instruments of the art form such paint, celluloid, images or anything to realize unforeseen possibilities of communicating joy or an idea. Communication, once again, is not only in the hands of originator of the art. In ultimate analysis, it is an alchemy of the sender and receptor and everything in between. Audience is also co-creator of the art. How can it be otherwise in something as symbiotic as the artist and her audience? Communication, to take the point further, need not be easy or very clear in the first instance itself. In fact, keeping the art somewhat opaque and allowing the audiences to add layer of meaning has been a time-honored trope of artistic world. Significant part of meaning formation takes place on the side of the receiver – a la Rashomon. Much of the mystique and allure of ‘artistic’ film makers lies in the scope they give to audience to exercise their interpretation of their art. Still, it is about communicating the message, brilliance, emotions and joy.

There is, from all available experience, some undefinable, nebulous boundary for all the mass consumed arts, beyond which the degeneration of art form into something less joyful (joy does not always accrue from happiness, beauty or decency. Agony and pain can also be redemptive enough to be a source of artistic joy) starts. Extravagance of spectacle is a value in itself but not beyond a point where it loses the beating heat of communicating joy.  A provocative over-emphasis on grotesque, spectacular and excessive is needed to make an artistic statement forcefully. Sex, violence, ugliness or sheer breath-taking beauty have been used to jolt the audience form inertia of habitual numb unaroused state and prep them up to imbibe the joy being presented. These tropes, these moments become the signpost or thumbnail for the work of art. “Felliniesque” became a well-established adjective not because of its timidness but because of its almost obscene bravado.


Federico Fellini the Italian Maestro, created a style unique to him and created a repertoire of pure magic in his realized works like La Strada (1954), Nights of Cabiria (1957), "La Dolce Vita" (1960), "8 1/2" (1963), "Juliet of the Spirits" (1965)  and to a certain extent,  "Amarcord" (1974). He won multiple Oscars for his films. These supreme masterpieces bear testimony to Fellini’s raw talent, his mastery over the medium of cinema. He could create, and more importantly, communicate the most esoteric and opaque recesses of human soul visually. He brought alive, guilt, ennui, lust, ugly darkness of human existence alive very vividly and viscerally on screen. Communication, the key ingredient of artistic appeal was intact and Fellini, like an orchestra conductor, took his audience to the depths and peaks of joy and sorrow and gave them not only a peek but a front row seat to the dark abyss of despair and boredom in the most enthrallingly vivacious manner. His provocative use of imagery was serving its purpose by accentuating the joy, message and purpose of the great movies. It was establishing a brand too. Not for nothing Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg frolicking in Trevi Fountain in Rome is such an iconic image from La Dolce Vita. Excess creates personality and brand. Art itself is defines as ‘sweet excesses.’  Qualification of excess as ‘sweet’ is telling.


Communication need not be confused with just ‘idea’ which Pauline Kael debunked in her review of 8 ½. Idea, Kael wrote, is a word used as a substitute for much wider ensemble of attribute to be an artist. Just having an idea is no guarantee of being inspired or skilled enough to create a realized product of art. Another great critic, Ebert, has found idea as a poor yardstick for testing a movie. He says “a filmmaker who prefers ideas to images will never advance above the second rank because he is fighting the nature of his art. The printed word is ideal for ideas; film is made for images, and images are best when they are free to evoke many associations and are not linked to narrowly defined purposes.” Both the great critics are bang on. Ebert while freeing movie images from the burden of ‘narrowly defined purposes’ has not freed the medium from ‘evoking many associations’. Communication of joy remains important howsoever exalted a place is granted to the visual grandeur of a movie.


Late works of Fellini are true examples of deterioration of monumental talent. His admirers turned into a waiting bunch of expectant connoisseurs erupting into celebration just by the glimpse and whiff of greatness in the works which were quickly losing their joyous heart. This yearning to detect greatness out of nostalgia can be seen even in one of the most clear-eyed film journalist of our times, A. O Scott of The New York Times when he wrote about ‘Fellini Satyricon’, a lush, bravura and for most of its length an excessively dehumanizing movie which stays in the note of joyless grotesque for too long.  “Once you've shaken off expectations of coherence or relevance” Scott wrote, “you can marvel at the scale of Fellini's folly. Using the most advanced technology at his disposal, he attempted nothing less than the abolition of nearly two millenniums of Western civilization -- Christianity, sexual morality, domestic order, aesthetic modesty. By the movie's end, intoxicated by poetry, color and the episodic rhythms of his endless, pointless story, you may find yourself wishing he had succeeded.” In many other cases even this scope of “marveling at the scale of folly” was not possible. The sweet spot of extravagance of imagery and communication of joy dissipated. Visual flourish was serving a hardened heart deprived of sympathy for humanity.  Grotesque, in many cases, turned into value in itself, instead of serving as compassionate vehicle to portray the pathos of everyday living. Craft and flourish stopped being subservient to art.


I stand somewhere in the middle ground as an admirer of Fellini. Apart from the Six masterpieces, I am willing to say that ‘Amarcord’ and ‘Fellini Satyricon’ ‘Fellini Roma’ are replete with great images and Fellini’s forceful film-making shines through. I don’t understand Kael’s coldness towards La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ . I could easily be mesmerized by the visual excesses, witty phantasmagoria, and extravagant imagery of these two films. To me, the sympathy, pathos and joy of these films was very clear. These two films standing on the cusp of his early neo realistic training (brilliantly realized in La Strada) and later full blossoming of ‘Felliniesque’ are his most accessible movies, that conveyed their agonies and joys in the most exquisite manner. La Strada (1954), says Ebert, perhaps the most accessible interpreter of Fellini, and, for that matter, any thing cinema, wrote “The movie is the bridge between the postwar Italian neorealism which shaped Fellini, and the fanciful autobiographical extravaganzas which followed. It is fashionable to call it his best work - to see the rest of his career as a long slide into self-indulgence. I don't see it that way. I think "La Strada" is part of a process of discovery that led to the masterpieces "La Dolce Vita" (1960), "8 1/2" (1963) and "Amarcord" (1974), and to the bewitching films he made in between, like "Juliet of the Spirits" (1965) and "Fellini's Roma" (1972). "La Strada" is the first film that can be called entirely "Felliniesque."”  The Film features many devices that became his trade mark, Circus, man hanging between sky and earth, community feasts and religious and feminine motifs.


My favorites are "La Dolce Vita" (1960), "8 1/2" (1963)  movies that satisfy so many urges ranging from euro-trash indulgences, pop philosophical sturdiness, lyrical extravaganza of life which clearly can be taken at its face value as carnival or as a curtain for boredom, ennui and purposelessness. Literary and sexual impotency in the movies are intriguing and exhilarating without becoming a drag. Writer’s or director’s block was never so seductive. That passive but redolent receptacle of sensuality – Marcello Mastroianni making the indignity and pointlessness of lust and longing so sexy. Pauline Kael was repulsed by that, perhaps she saw the seeds of future debasement of this lush talent. Still, to me, these are pure masterpieces. I am a sucker for Kunderasque European sensibilities. These Films along with Nights of Cabiria (1957), Most of them got him Oscar for best Foreign Movie, are sufficient to cement his name somewhere near the very top auteur pantheon.  

The path is very common. When basic craft and talent for creating a unique imprimatur remains intact in these great talents while discipline and feel for emotions or some such key ingredient get evaporated. A genius of Fellini’s caliber or for that matter, Hitchcock can create a basic piece of art even in their sleep. Basic film making is almost like muscular memory for such people and they keep on using that for a long time beyond the expiry date their exhilarating superlative apogee. Blurring of boundaries between extravagant beauty of first-rate imagination and mania has been played out too often in the history of cinema. “A grandiosity of intention amounting to hubris” as one critic had pointed out once.


Grand scale of his film or extravagance of production values are still minor manifestations of what has sometimes been called putrefaction of Fellini’s talent. More concerning was hardening of his heart towards humanity. His chief source of preparing his audience for whatever dense message he wanted to convey, became increasingly reliant on human ugliness. This went beyond satirizing humanity to make a point. This, increasingly became too instrumental, too cold-hearted and too useless for any cinematic communication. Even in Amarcord, one of the ‘better’ offering and feted attempts from the master, the humor mostly bordered on ugly grotesque with abundance of scatological and largely obscene. Gorging of large amount of food in a community setting has been a leitmotif of Fellini movies. La Strada or even the patrician dining of La Dolce Vita had these banquets serving the mood and message of the story. Gradually, this community dining with vociferous conversation kept on appearing in films, devoid of their idyllic intimacy and filmic utility, increasingly unfunny and dirty just to heighten the atmosphere of disgust to no real purpose. Lyrical core of such devices was lost to the cacophony of hyperbolic ugliness. You can transcend all purposes in the quest for art for art’s sake but purpose of cinematic communication needs to remain.

Pauline Kael has attributed the tendency to his international success. She saw this in 8 ½ something with which it is difficult to agree as 8 ½ is so well structured and its ingredients so well utilized. However,  she did prove prescient, this has to be given to the pugnacious and perceptive critic, even if we may not agree with her assessment of the great Fellini films of early years. She wrote “8½ suggests some of Fellini’s problems as a director, but they are not so fantastic nor so psychoanalytic as the ones he parades. A major one is the grubby, disheartening economic problem that probably affects Fellini in an intensified form precisely because of the commercial success of La Dolce Vita and the business hopes it raised. A movie director has two “worst” enemies: commercial failure and commercial success. After a failure, he has a difficult time raising money for his next film; after a success, his next must be bigger and “better.” She continues “8½ does indeed make a spectacle of the spirit: what else can you do with spirit when you’re expected to turn out masterpieces?”  Avoiding this slippery slope required a serious courage to play beyond the tropes of formula success and continuous reinvention by the master. Fellini chose to double down on his strength of flourish to the point that they became liabilities.


As Fellini is too important a film maker to be approached from wrong direction as missing his true genius will be too great a loss for anyone interested in Cinema, I would like to conclude with the brilliant summation of the NewYorker’ Anthony Lane, who wrote on 100 years of Fellini in January 2020 “No wonder these late movies feel so hermetic. We may be charmed and dazzled, but often we can’t breathe. That is why, if I had to introduce a novice to Fellini, I’d suggest a big-screen showing of “I Vitelloni” (1953)—an early film, breezy and inconsequential, about a bunch of aimless pals in a Rimini-like town. Somehow, the younger Fellini strikes me as sadder and wiser than the all-powerful magus he would eventually become. (Maybe Ariel knows more than Prospero ever will.) The movie is sparsely plotted and blessed with fresh air; a typical day finds the vitelloni down at the misty beach, in coats and scarves, staring out to sea, like castaways hoping for a ship. And the ship, of course, sails on.”


Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The Brooding Bond


Till Casino Royale (2006), arguably the best of the Bond repertoire and the epoch defining introduction of Daniel Craig to the iconic franchise, every Bond movie was a conservative exercise in the brand management. Conservative brand management is risk averse and tries to cling to the proven box office ingredients, something we Indians see every few years when a Rajnikant or Salman Khan starer appears. This has a potential of resulting into something that every artist must fear- self parody. Furthermore, audience taste moves and if a brand is too self-absorbed and risk averse, chances are that there will come a time when it will have to fight for the audience instead of just relying on the fan base. With Craig, Bond franchise has taken a clever and now, after four films, a successful turn to infuse new life into a somewhat stagnating franchise. 


Craig brought a seriousness to the role which is a huge relief from an oddly condescending air of his predecessors towards the character that gave them their most recognizable celluloid moments. They always brought a degree of amused aloofness to the character of James Bond which had already lost much of its Ian Fleming roughness in the hands of the franchise owners. Not that this aloofness was creating something less appetizing, their casual interpretation added a mischievous rakishness to James Bond which landed sheen to his gentleman predator persona. Still, in the new millennium, it was apparent that the character wanted more serious attention than the halfhearted distracted efforts of the great actors who were treating the role as a lucrative but light side assignment. Not all aloofness was condescension, it was interpretation also. Still, this left James Bond craving for a degree of earnestness and Daniel Craig era provided that in ample proportion. 


This was a much needed change, However, this is not to take away anything. from a great run of Pierce Bronson as perhaps the most dapper and suave of Bond who rescued the Bond from the comic goofiness and now inappropriate sensibilities with regard to race and gender. Here, again, mischievous take of Roger Moore is not being derided. He brought out the character from its early uncertainties after Connery and kept the franchise flying with panache and twinkle. They did the best given the sensibilities of their time and parameters of cool, high taste and cinematic narrative. By the time Daniel Craig was being considered for the role, auteurs like Tarantino, Nolan and party had changed the DNA of how cinematic hyperbole was to be enjoyed. Silky patrician gentlemanly charms were working but not enough to bring the young audience to the theaters and angst and sadness had trumped the playful banter as the main trope of enticing the contemporary audience. Narrative had shifted away from the 007 formula. Now the brand needed re-invention, not just conservative management. 


Case in point is Marvel-DC superheroes, how they changed in the new millennium. It may be argued that James Bond also developed as indestructible superhero sans cape and tights. That apart, superheroes were taken from their adolescent comic world and converted into angst ridden individuals saddled with great sadness of loss and loneliness.  New York Times veteran critic wondered “I suppose, the deeper questions bubble up. Is revenge the only possible motive for large-scale movie heroism these days? Does every hero, whether Batman or Jason Bourne, need to be so sad?” These characters were humanized by sadness, love angle, revenge story, backstory of loss and redemption or simply by upping the darkness quotient. ‘Dark Knight Rises’ is a highly successful and explicit example. Entire Marvel and DC world went into that very lucrative direction. Apart from the darkness and sorrow, this system had developed a system of interlinked stories – a universe. Characters had back stories and fandom was roused into crazed frenzy by the esoteric and geeky nature of knowledge of these universes. This continues with increasingly complex storylines continuing years after years. Bond’s world had some stable marker like ‘M’ ‘Q’ and Moneypenny but the films were discrete entities. This all changed with Casino Royale in Craig era. The films are centered on the 007 James Bond and he has been given every trope to humanize him - by love angle, revenge story, backstory of loss and redemption or simply by upping the darkness quotient. His darkness is clear in his cruelty and violent nature. He is vulnerable to feelings and has a Batmansque backstory. He is orphan, father figure killed in mysterious circumstances, has a tragic love story and is prone to melancholic brooding. All the four Bond Movies, and the fifth also, appear to be a part of series. In fact, most of them started from the point where the previous installment ended. This Harry Potter like serialized peeling of the inner and outer world of James Bond is new and has been accepted over a period of 15 odd years since Casino Royale.  


Daniel Craig has proven himself to be a perfect vessel for the restructuring of the venerated and money-spinning brand. Peter Travers of Rolling Stones gives a huge thumbs up to Daniel Craig for the reinvention exercise. He writes “Craig reinvigorates a fagged-out franchise that’s been laying on bigger stunts and sillier gadgets to disguise the fact that it’s run out of ideas. And he does it with an actor’s skill, an athlete’s grace and a dangerous glint that puts you on notice that Bond, James Bond, is back in business.”  Ebert wrote “Daniel Craig makes a superb Bond: Leaner, more taciturn, less sex-obsessed, able to be hurt in body and soul, not giving a damn if his martini is shaken or stirred. That doesn't make him the "best" Bond, because I've long since given up playing that pointless ranking game; Sean Connery was first to plant the flag, and that's that. But Daniel Craig is bloody damned great as Bond, in a movie that creates a new reality for the character.”


Villains are very powerful in these recent Bond films but they are not cartoonish megalomaniacs. There aspirations have very human roots.  Le Chiffre is running from his dangerous clients, Silva is suffering from what he himself called ‘Mommy issues’ and Blofeld’s chief source of botheration is very personal brotherly angle. So there, we have a very different propulsive tension to these recent stories than the earlier larger than life comic villains. The impact is a darker and rather relatable plot. 



It has not always been a smooth ride. Fans and fanatics are usually cut from the same cloth. There was deriding uproar in the initial phase, even a website came up claiming Craig is not Bond. Pierce Bronson, that sexy smooth magnet with easy attraction and capable of pulling loyalty in buckets, was a tough act to follow. Manohla Dargis of New York Times wrote “In time Mr. Connery’s conception of the character softened, as did the series itself, and both Roger Moore and Mr. Brosnan portrayed the spy as something of a gentleman playboy. That probably helps explain why some Bond fanatics have objected so violently to Mr. Craig, who fits Fleming’s description of the character as appearing “ironical, brutal and cold” better than any actor since Mr. Connery. Mr. Craig’s Bond looks as if he has renewed his license to kill.”



That apart, it wasn’t easy to temper with James Bond, who had become more of an attitude than a character, marked by smooth mischief, indestructible charisma and total control over the surroundings. One of the most perceptive critics, Roger Ebert welcomed Casino Royale with open arms as did most of the key critics of the time. However, he was not so convinced with poorly realized ‘Quantum of Solace’, Craig’s second outing as Bond. A disappointed Ebert (one of the most generous critic) lamented “Daniel Craig can play suave and he can be funny and Brits are born doing double entendre. Craig is a fine actor. Here they lock him down. I repeat: James Bond is not an action hero! Leave the action to your Jason Bournes. This is a swampy old world. The deeper we sink in, the more we need James Bond to stand above it.” After “Quantum of Solace,” Critic A O Scott was very clear when he said “I prefer mine with a dash of mischief.” Me? I liked Quantum a lot.  The best representative quote of apprehensions of admirers is by Mick LaSalle of San Francisco Chronicle, he writes “Skyfall is a different kind of Bond movie, one that works just fine on its own terms, but a steady diet of this might kill the franchise. One "Skyfall" is enough.” This difficult initial phase is over now. There is no better way to express that relief than using Ebert once again when he said “Just as Christopher Nolan gave rebirth to the Batman movies in "The Dark Knight," here is James Bond lifted up, dusted off, set back on his feet and ready for another 50 years.”


All said and done, despite all the hosanna over the realigning of the sensibilities of the brand with the changing mores, charm of the series is in its history and the emotional investment of the fans in the franchise. These recent movies are good films -intense and entertaining. However, without the banner of James Bond, without the dance of shadows of great previous Bonds with all their excesses, condescension, absence of cultural and political correctness, glamour, gadget and glitz and, above all, thin realism, they are just that – some good movies and they are dime a dozen. James Bond is a pop culture milestone. All great Bonds are mainly recognized by their Bond persona despite their huge and rich repertoire outside the Bondverse. Therefore, it is a happy thing that the experiment of reinventing of the brand is an out and out success. Cheers to that with some down to earth drink.  

-Dhiraj Singh


Monday, December 2, 2019

Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time In Hollywood: A Brat Grows Up

Narrative moves, parameters of crackling youthful iconoclastic cinema change and yesterday’s revolutionaries become today’s establishment. In short, the world changes. This is, perhaps, the greatest fear of any enfant terrible of an art form, as his stock in trade is shock of novelty. He has berated the ‘brats’ of yesteryears for selling out, losing the spark or for simply getting old. The enfant terrible reaches a point in his creative journey where he starts seeing progression as getting old and prefers to cling to his initial bravura and blazing rebellious streak. Trying out emerging or even existing, somewhat, mature themes   feels like a betrayal to the initial creative eruption that froze into highly appreciated and lucrative stylistic and thematic patterns. There are many who are able to make the transition and keep on contributing to the medium over a long fruitful career. Woody Allen, Polanski, Coppola, Sidney Lumet and Clint Eastwood come to mind very easily. However, Quentin Tarantino finds growing up dicey and has been very vocal about the dangers of getting old in his creative thinking. This, combined with his well publicized retirement plans, has given rise to fears of an untimely truncation of a promising second innings by a hugely talented artist. In his latest offering ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’, to a great relief of many, Quentin Tarantino has shown signs of accepting his “transition from youthful and celebrated provocateur to elder auteur.” Encouragingly and revealingly, this movie has been called his most autobiographical and intimate. 

This acceptance can’t be easy for a highly, vocal and articulate person like Quentin Tarantino, who likes to convey his passions very publicly and very forcefully. A big part of his appeal are his youthful arrogance and a noisily professed nerdy enthusiasm for cinema trivia along with a general intensely passionate stance towards cinema as an art form. He is very aggressive about his ardour for cinema. He revels in his self perception as the ultimate fanboy of cinema. As happens with the card carrying, chest thumping enthusiast, he championed and went bonkers over a very narrow type of cinema which shaped him from his childhood and got concretized during his days a video library employee. As what he was championing was not counted among the more posh pleasures of cinema, he developed a sort of militant fervour of an ideologue of the low brow cinema. An aggressive stance developed which was made tolerable only by his unquestionable talent. Quentin Tarantino has been a force of nature, a truly epoch defining director. He came with a template that totally defied traditional thought patterns with its astonishing originality. He embarked on the mission of delivering “popular films with real artistic ambition”. In one of my earlier write ups, it was mentioned that he gets his directorial rush by messing with his beloved genres. His creativity takes its initial impulse from the set points of certainties that any genre provides. However, this creativity gains its momentum from making an intervention into these rigidities and redefining them to tell a story where genre props are, in a big part, used to showcase director’s visual, creative and chromatic panache. His use of underlying structures and conventions of genres is intelligent foraging of a very sleek director who enjoys telling a good story. His edgy style was a new delight for cinema lovers. His crisp profane but profound dialogues, movie trivia references were all product of an unprecedentedly fecund mind that thrived on the thrill of the new that was steeped in the history and clichés. This pristine and primal cry of raw talent became a value in itself. Tarantino can be excused from thinking any shift from this initial unapologetic and urgent celebration of panache and wit as a slide into something ‘geriatric’. 

In one of those youthful affirmations of centrality of freshness of the creative spark, Quentin Tarantino spoke at length about virile, edgy and compelling film-making. Keith Phillip in Slate magazine has presented this very clearly . “A lot of the [’70s] movie brats have gotten old and it shows in their work, and I don’t want that...And I’m not picking on them because you go back 100 years and directors don’t get better as they get older,” he told Entertainment Weekly in a 2004 interview. “As you get older your interests change, you have older interests. Not everything has to be so visceral or kinetic. If I say Martin Scorsese’s movies are getting kind of geriatric and everything, he can say, F— you, man! I’m doing what I want to do, I’m following my muse, and he’s 100 percent right.”  Speaking to the Telegraph in 2010, he further elaborated  “I don’t want to make old geriatric colostomy bag movies. I want to make hard-d–k movies and I want them all to come from the same place as Reservoir Dogs; from the same artist, from the same man.” When one watches ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’, one realizes that Quentin Tarantino is wiser and has overcome many of his hang ups in his craft if not in his uttering. The film sees many resolutions that experience and age bring as many strand fall in place with the inexorable march of time.

Tarantino has said “most of us don’t talk about the plot in our lives whereas in movies, people talk a lot about plot, in real lives we talk all around the things, we talk bullshit”. This insight, and the belief that the genres have tremendous opportunity to mess around, have created many magical moments in his films such as supremely articulate and talkative henchmen and drug peddlers, long monologues, entertaining repartee leading to jolting graphic violence. He can be relied upon to take a period movie and using it as a vehicle of subversion and a tale of ending of eras as he did in ‘Hollywood’. What was new in the latest Tarantino movie was that the characters were talking a lot about the plot. And the director was not averse to the interiority of the characters and the film. There is much external dazzle in ‘Hollywood’. Youtube has many a great compilations of the beautiful moments of the film.  The movie is replete with references, and takes place in the tinsel town, a territory where someone like Quentin Tarantino would go berserk, and he did. The period details are lovingly elaborate, name dropping, trivia love and other fetishes (foot fetish included) are indulged into with impunity. Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds,  Hateful Eight or any of his previous film, is not shy of lingering on the inner world of its characters. Insecurities, pathologies or simple inner joy of the characters is accorded a clear and sympathetic gaze. Gimmickry or technical bravura is abundant and endearing but it is subservient to the inner turmoil. He, throughout his career, has relentlessly found a way of making the inner emotions secondary to the external chutzpah. Issues, emotions and inner dialogue often got diluted in the dazzling array of technical virtuosity, blood splatters, feverish devotion to the genre references or to simply clever dialogues. In ‘Hollywood’ Quentin Tarantino determinedly guides our attention to the inner world of the characters. In a scene, Where actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is struggling with fading fame and inevitable faltering and self pity, manages to deliver a great scene and feels redeemed. The scene is full of external panache of dialogues and set design topped by ostentatious acting. However, Tarantino manages to cut through all that and what we take from the scene is the redeemed actor and his tear filled grateful eyes fully conveying his inner satisfaction. In the same sequence (most of the movie revolves on four days leading to the day of Manson Murders) Sharon Tate, played sublimely by Margot Robbie, goes for an outing and watches her own movie in a cinema hall. A lot of cinema references and pretentious demonstration of trivia enthusiasm went into the scene. Still, what we remember is giggling Tate enjoying people’s appreciation conveying, with heart breaking directness, her happy and joyful soul. Again, every scene of Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, never more magnetic) is a celebration of his gorgeous presence and charms. However, every scene is equally dedicated to establishing him as a man of code, loyal friend and above all an unencumbered life force devoid of ego and too much planning. When his nonchalant violence comes to fore, his inner credentials as capable warrior are established fully beforehand. Here his external beauty is never a distraction from his role and core. There is a scene where he goes shirtless while fixing the antenna. The scene exists for a very long time just to capture the charisma of Brad Pitt and insouciant earthy charms of Tate. The scene establishes the essence of the idyllic world soon to be shattered   and, as on cue, enters Charles Manson, upping the dread quotient many times. 
While in films like Reservoir Dogs, pulp fiction, Hateful Eight or  Django Unchained, one would enjoy long excursions into philosophy laced with incongruently sophisticated language (remember the master class in menace by Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa in the opening scene where he comes looking to hunt Jews given shelter by a farmer in Inglorius Basterds). In ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ we see much less of those meandering detours. There are lengthy dialogues for sure, but they don’t really wander too far off from the theme. A book talks to the fading star about the chimera of fame, Penthouse Mansion party is used to establish the era and also for explaining  the web of relationship by someone no less than Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis). Sequence on Italian Westerns is not allowed to shift focus from the happenings of Hollywood in 1969. In short, ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ despite being a quintessential Tarantino movie is a very different creature. It is invested in itself, willing to slow down, ready to look deeper inward and above all not afraid to be a bit of traditionally solid movie. 

Despite, Quentin Tarantino’s insistence for not going beyond 10th movie (no clarity on whether this is his last) and his insecurities about protecting his filmography from going geriatric, one feels assured by his trajectory of growth in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’. His too public pronouncements and bravado may keep him in a defiantly obstinate posture of an adolescent rebel but hopefully, he realizes the difference between ‘growth’ and ‘geriatric’. If ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is any indication, we are in for a very long and rich cinematic journey from this immensely talented film maker.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Fleabag: Heartbreakingly funny

Fleabag, a two season BBC  drama, achieves greatness by subordinating its all too ostentatious brilliance to the core task of story-telling. It is no mean feat, when the show is overflowing with talented actors, scene-stealers all. List of individually dazzling elements is long, snappy lines, great acting, great use of turning to the audience - opening of the fourth wall (deployed with great felicity by Kevin Spacey in House of Cards) and tight editing (all episodes are below 30 min in 6 episode a season series). All these can easily turn into self-serving  clever ploys attracting attention to their elegance and distracting from the inherent story line. Instead, what happens is that those maddening tempo scenes, those fourth wall tricks, those relentlessly funny repartee, compulsive humour trip, overwrought mania, imposition of intimate, flash backs are all breathing and stopping to create the whiplash of the intended impact marked for that point in the story of grieving girl who is trying to make sense of her needs, her guilt and her desires while making a life in London while relating to her family in a uniquely complicated way. Her success and failure is beside the point but it is one hilarious journey of glorious chaos, heartbreaks and shocking poignancy.  In the second season the father, at a particularly taxing dinner, asks the Fleabag (many  characters have not been given names and Amazon subtitles has done a marvellous job of giving nick names like Hot Priest, Arsehole guy, Hot Misogynist etc) "not being naughty",  the banter between the father and the daughter goes breezily and she says "it doesn't matter". In that simple moment we understand the growth, costs and damage that has taken place. The girl who was marked as difficult presence and managed to ruin many a situation without intending to be such a wrecking force, finds herself not giving a damn. The aforementioned elements were serving the story. 

Bad girl stories with shocking vocabulary is dime a dozen but very few rise above mush and pretentious display of some ideological points. Fleabag retains understated intelligence despite being over the top in deploying its arsenal. Fleabag, the heroine is vivacious and intelligent but she never goes for cheap cutesy points. Her issues, her exposition of those issues and her understanding is so deep and so lived in that they are saved from the horrific destiny of eyelash flattering cute crap. She remains gorgeous and real. In one of the many sex scenes where she keeps on talking to us, she tellingly says "stay sexy, always stay sexy". And we understand that she is in sync with the banality of it all. She is worried that she is not a good feminist but that too is used to convey her fierce independence. When she tells the character of Kirstin Scott Thomas that people are shit, Thomas character depicted as successful woman businessman awardee that understands the infantile ghettoizing nature of such awards but still comes to take that, tells her “people are all we have got.” At many levels, wisdom of the show is a joy in itself.

When the first scene of the series involves a "spot of sodomy", it is easy to fall pray to the easy allure of titillating debauchery specially when it comes from gorgeously profane mouth of an attractive girl. The show maintains its relationship with the profane throughout but never allows it to stink and overpower the lilting momentum of the consummate story telling. Sex says not sells here. 

There are some good series or movies involving intelligent men also. Sometimes deliciously debauch and sometimes just debauch Californication comes to mind. Much of Woody Allen starrer  are good example. Though in later appearances Woody Allen suffered from the tendency of being rather too aware of his cleverness. Happens with the best of them. Self-caricature is a difficult boogie to shake off. Fleabag is spot on being clever without taking it too seriously.

The series is a high point of this year's TV offerings. The description of the show on Amazon is to the point " a dry-witted woman, known only as Fleabag, has no filter as she navigates life and love in London while trying to cope with tragedy. The angry, grief-riddled woman tries to heal while rejecting anyone who tries to help her, but Fleabag continues to keep up her bravado through it all. Comic actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge stars as the titular character on the series, which is based on Waller-Bridge's 2013 one-woman show of the same name." Centrality of Phoebe is well earned and she delivers a stunning performance-layered and brave. However, great performances are commonplace in this superlative show. Apart from the main protagonist, there is  great ensemble cast of solid names of British TV and stage. Andrew Scott (Moriarty in Cumberbatch's Sherlock.), Olivia Colman, Bill Paterson, Sian Clifford are all superb as expected. 

At another level, the show is matter of great satisfaction. We are beginning to sense the deterioration caused by algorithm driven offerings of the streaming services. It is becoming difficult to commit to a series as tropes are too clear, inherent grammar too obvious to veteran viewers. BBC gave three great miniseries recently, taut Bodyguard and Collateral and, now, Fleabag. In last few years the best ‘cinematic’ work has happened on television. The format of TV series has attracted best of the minds (Fargo, 24, Sopranos,  Breaking Bad, Mad Man, True Detective the list is endless)and much of the budget also. It is important that we keep on seeing such satisfying fructification of the effort as this great series.