City Zero [1988] – An Uncanny Absurdist Discourse on the Soviet Reality


Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension to power in 1985 as the General Secretary of the Communist Party led to the policy of Perestroika, which was an attempt to revitalize Soviet Union economy. Another Gorbachev policy is that of Glasnost, which sought reforms like governmental transparency and freedom of speech. Nevertheless, the policies didn’t rectify the stagnation in economy or decentralize the power, leading to the unforeseen collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Now historians perceive the Brezhnev’s rule (1964-82) as the Era of Stagnation, while perestroika and glasnost period supposed to have seen through the lies and illusions of social stability and economic progress broadcasted by the Soviet high command. The social and political thought of those years (mid to late 1980s) is presented through a fantastical and comically absurd scenario in Karen Shakhnazarov’s City Zero (‘Gorod Zero aka ‘Zerograd’, 1988).


City Zero opens at one hazy, beautiful predawn morning in a deserted railway station with a lone man getting off the train. The man is an engineer from Moscow named Aleksei Varakin (Leonid Filatov). The provincial backwater town is unnamed and Varakin takes up a taxi to the hotel. The gloomy, empty spaces foreshadow the succession of unusual events and the subsequent entrapment of Varakin. As our middle-aged protagonist pays visit to the town’s air-conditioner manufacturing industry to negotiate regarding panel design with the factory director, he comes across a young secretary sitting naked before the typewriter. The woman’s nakedness isn’t noticed by anyone but Varakin. The factory director’s (Armen Dzhigarkhanyan) behavior is also strange as he calls for his chief engineer who has been dead for eight months. Moreover, the meeting ends on an unproductive note. Varakin decides to take the evening train back to Moscow, and visits a restaurant for lunch in which he is the lone diner.

Things get increasingly weird as the waiter brings a cake for dessert which Varakin didn’t order. The cake is the mirror image of Varakin’s head. Suddenly a musical troupe starts playing and the waiter slices up the cake to offer it to his only customer. Varakin refuses to eat and pays off the bill. The waiter warns if he doesn’t eat the cake, the chef might shoot himself. Varakin doesn’t pay attention to this bizarre warning and makes to the door when he hears a gunshot. The chef seems to have shot himself. Varakin is summoned by the police. From then on our hapless hero is caught under the illogical Kafkaesque social system of the place which demands Varakin to never leave the place.


The narrative’s series of bewildering segments includes a jaunt through an underground makeshift museum (that was once a coal mine) of the town’s idealized past. From Troy, Attila the Hun to Gulag and young Stalin, the museum curator highlights (in a deadpan manner) the whole span of Soviet history that's somehow absurdly rewritten to strongly link it to the town. The museum also pays tribute to rock-and-roll, displaying the figures of the first couple in town, who were bold enough to dance to ‘Rock Around the Clock’ (the fates of those two, of course, turned bleak after this incident) during the 1957 youth festival. Furthermore, the museum and later the writer Chugunov (Oleg Basilashvili), head of local writers’ organization, informs Vakarin of an ongoing political feud between members of the Stalinist past and others trying to catch up with the modernity as promised by Western nations. Naturally, the feud only adds to Varakin’s confusion (obviously a symbolic figure representing the Soviet public) and eventually we once again see him alone, adrift in an oar-less boat on a fog-bound river.  

Writer/director Karen Shakhnazarov and his co-writer Aleksandr Borodyanskiy view the shockingly absurd atmosphere as the consequence of constant upheavals in Soviet society. Influenced by ‘Gogolian’ humor and ‘Kafkaesque’ existential despair, director Shakhnazarov vibrantly stages each of Vakarin’s inexplicable troubles without ever depleting the comic energy in the narrative. The writing repeatedly hints at an objective reality, full of pretense and deception. For instance, the subjective perspective of Varakin is often at odds with the collective objectivity: only he is confounded by the naked secretary or the cake that resembles his face or the re-engineered past dispersed throughout the museum. This unsettling as well as preposterous picture of the community certainly offers a definitive comment on Soviet political and cultural upheaval.


Furthermore, the premise offers an exploration of a past and present that’s emptied out of substance or meaning. Each of the enactments, bathed under flashlights and a overstated carnival score, plus the writer’s recollection of the town’s alleged historical significance deems to propagate a sense of deification (from Prince Dmitry Donskoy to rock ‘n’ roll) with zero meaning. If the town’s first rock ‘n’ roll performance (in 1957) carried a message of revolt, the jubilant mood in the present-time rock ‘n’ roll club (of 1980s) looks like a vacuous affair. The beautiful, young woman who danced with Nikolayev (seen in an energetic flashback sequence) visits Varakin at his hotel room, now a heavy woman with coarse features and literally robbed off her voice. She says (her son reads what she writes) Nikolayev has kept the ideals alive. But under the weight of political tyranny and disoriented truths, the ‘ideals’ seems to have worn out.


From a directorial perspective too, Karen Shakhnazarov amplifies the satirical nature of the scenarios (I am looking forward to repeat viewings to unearth many of the aesthetic treatments). Take the scene when Varakin is visited by various members of the town, each entering the room under different pretexts. They drink some beer, share dumplings, and sing a melody. The foundational notions of Soviet socialism comes alive for a brief time, before they all leave the room to pursue after a dubious historical story related to Grand Prince Dmitry Donskoy and an ancient oak tree. The visuals in the very last scene also vibrate with meaning: we see the museum curator gradually switches off the lights adoring the sugary re-enactments, leaving it to darkness (sums up what has to be done with this manufactured falsities) while Varakin drifts off into the mist (the absence of oar in the boat may underlines the atmosphere of hopelessness or uncertainty).

Overall, City Zero (103 minutes) is an engrossing sociopolitical allegory on the waning days of Soviet Union.  

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I Live in Fear [1955] – Akira Kurosawa’s Hauntingly Poetic Drama



Akira Kurosawa’s grim feature I Live in Fear (‘Ikimono no kiroku’, 1955) was the first of the master film-maker's work to comment on the paranoia and fear of nuclear age (the other were ‘Dreams’ & ‘Rhapsody in August’). Made immediately after the completion of Seven Samurai, I Live in Fear was a notable commercial failure for the director. Nevertheless, the film is highly interesting for the way Mr. Kurosawa tackles the politically-minded subject in post-World War II Japan. Though a family melodrama than a piercing study of psychic and social toll of Japan’s nuclear attacks, I Live in Fear is watchable for the master’s astounding visual compositions and Toshiro Mifune’s grandstanding performance as the 70-year-old patriarch (the then 35-year-old actor in an excellent elderly man make-up).


America’s occupation of Japan ended by the year 1952 and a year after that the Korean War commenced. It was labeled as ‘proxy war’ conducted by the two nuclear super powers. By 1954, US started conducting Hydrogen bomb testing in the Pacific that the Japan’s consumption of sea food drastically came down (owing to fear of contamination). With the new H-bombs more powerful than the ones annihilated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the fear for impendingnuclear attacks was very real. Japanese cinema expressed this fear in a metaphorical and entertaining manner in its 1954 block-buster Godzilla (a monster created out of nuclear testing and radiation). ‘I Live in Fear’, on the other hand, isn’t simply an expression of the fear, pertaining to nuclear age, but also tries to showcase the disintegration of one's inner-self due to the suppression of that fear.

The opening credits capture the thriving urban modernity of Tokyo with shots of city’s populace moving through the junctions & streets in a frenzied manner. The story revolves around Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune), a wealthy ageing patriarch who is brought to court by his own family to declare him ‘legally incompetent’. Nakajima runs a foundry company, staffed by faithful workers, and has full control over the assets. Lately, he has grown anxious of the H-bomb and the possibility of atomic holocaust. Enveloped by this mortal terror, Nakajima plans to move his entire family – including two mistresses and their offsprings – to Brazil where he believes they would be safe from the radioactive fallout. Nakajima decides to trade his family business with a Japanese businessman in Brazil for a farm. The old man’s legitimate children, especially the two adult sons, fearing that they would be robbed off their inheritance convince the mother to file a petition in court. When the family court rules against Nakajima, he files an appeal and takes drastic actions to supposedly save his offsprings.

At certain occasions, Akira Kurosawa studies this tale of madness and fear from the perspective of Dr. Harada (Takashi Shimura), a dentist who is one of the members of special counsel appointed by the family court. He and two other men hear Nakajima’s case. Although the ruling declares the patriarch legally incompetent, Dr. Harada is very sympathetic to the old man’s despair and convictions. The doctor feels so guilty about delivering the verdict that he starts reading a book on radioactive fallout. Shimura’s everyman character clearly serves as a window for audience’s entry into the picture (like us Harada is unable to judge Nakajima for his irrational behavior). Moreover, by maintaining a genial on-screen presence, Shimura balances the histronics of Mifune’s acting. Eventually, Dr. Harada’s objective observation serves an important role in perceiving the sour relationship dynamics within the Nakajima family without resorting to excessive melodrama.


Even a lesser work from Akira Kurosawa boasts a kind of unique, understated visual sense that can’t be found in the alleged masterpieces of contemporary film-makers. In I Live in Fear, Kurosawa constructs a world where people have learned to abide by or disregard the existential fear, conjured by the external threats. In one marvelously staged scene, Nakajima vists his mistress and hears the shrieking sound of fighter plane jets (American jet planes patrolled the air over Tokyo even after 1952). Then there’s a flash in the sky. He immediately crouches on the floor, trying to protect his infant son. The young mistress, while calmly doing her chores at the kitchen, watches the old man’s actions with curiosity. It turns out that the flash is just lightning, not the blinding light of a mushroom cloud.   

Kurosawa’s cinematic eye allows Nakajima’s descent into madness do all the talking. There’s something Shakespearean in the way Kurosawa imparts the particulars of Nakajima’s despair into the story, which precedes the legendary director’s later adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Throne of Blood in 1957) and King Lear (Ran in 1985). I have found the film’s final scenes set in insane asylum to be utterly unforgettable. The shot of stairway in the asylum is particularly brilliant (the meaning of this shot was perfectly explained by this essay by Mr. Fred Kaplan).

The decision to cast Toshiro Mifune in the role of elderly man might have raised certain concerns. But Mifune was totally convincing as Nakajima, whose stylized performance is in fact oe of the positive aspect of the film. As always the actor brings a great physicality to the character. His transformation of controlled patriarch holding the family to the frailest of human being is painfully distressing to watch (Mifune is especially great in the moment his character apologizes to the loyal workers).

I Live In Fear

‘I Live in Fear’ isn’t definitely an intensely subjective examination of a paranoid personality, unlike Jeff Nichols’ devastating Take Shelter (2011) or William Friedkin’s shockingly visceral Bug (2006). What Kurosawa grapples with is the idea of insanity and irrational behavior in the nuclear-age. Even though the fear of nuclear holocaust is a distant knowledge for us, we could attune to the film’s central message: how an unrelenting climate of fear ruins human existence.    


Still Life [2013] – A Slightly Mawkish yet Greatly Affecting Portrait of Loneliness and Disconnection



Uberto Pasolini’s contemplative drama on loneliness and alienation, Still Life (2013) opens with the shot of a cemetery, followed by a funeral ceremony attended by a single mourner that includes a refined eulogy, read by the priest. Over the next few somberly framed vignettes, we see the same parochial and calm man, dressed in the same greyed, drab suit, solitarily attending different funerals. But Still Life (2013) isn’t a movie about funeral and death. It’s a gentle drama about finding life. “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?” says the angel in Frank Capra’s classic melodrama It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). Writer/director Pasolini takes a largely meditative approach to examine the empty hollow feeling following a loss, and in turn cherishes life’s value, irrespective of the human foibles and mistakes.

Still Life

Uberto Pasolini, an investment banker and economist, embarked into cinema by taking up the role of producer in the highly acclaimed British drama The Full Monty (1997). He made his directorial debut with sports comedy Machan (2008), which was about Singhalese handball players, invited to a tournament in Bavaria, Germany. Although less-seen, the film perceived the themes of illegal immigration and poverty with sensitivity and lucidity, rarely found in Hollywood movies (made on the same subject). 

Pasolini is the grand nephew of legendary Italian film-maker Luchino Visconti, whose masterpieces The Earth Trembles (1948) and Rocco and his Brothers (1960) centered on immigration. For his second film, Pasolini has chosen the theme of isolation, something that broadly resonates with the western society. Pasolini in an interview (to Cineuropa) states the idea for a film came from the visual of a solitary burial and a London newspaper interview of a Westminster funeral officer. Over the next few months, Pasolini met other funeral officers and gradually molded the character of John May.

Eddie Marsan is the perfect choice for the lead role. He is known for playing violent, demented individuals, the ones that are defined as character roles. Although he has worked with top-notch directors like Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, Mike Leigh, Still Life marks his rare protagonist role. Blessed with a deep, empathetic set of eyes and a dignified smile, Eddie Marsan easily erases our memory of seeing him as the short, crazy guy and makes us embraces this meticulous and brilliant embodiment of John May. Mr. May is a London council officer working for ‘Client Services Department’. His job is to seek out next of kin/friends of the people who have died alone in the London borough of Kennington. 


Most of these deceased people were found by caretakers, neighbors or landlords after complaints of ‘smell’. It would be lot less burden for the council worker to make a rough search and move the status of case to ‘closed’. But Mr. May is a gentle and thorough guy. He doesn’t go over his cases fast, but cares a lot about providing a good funeral. He tries his best to get the living to pay their respects and writes elegant eulogies with carefully chosen words, by going through the deceased’s photo albums and personal mementos. Even if no one cares to attend to the funeral, as is usually the case, Mr. May will.

Mr. May has done this scrupulously for 22 years and one day his thick-skinned boss Pratchett (Andrew Buchan) announces downsizing. May is allowed to close the case at hand, before saying goodbye to his job. His last case is of William Stokes – an old alcoholic who was found weeks after his death. May goes throug the man’s old photographs and finds semblance of joyful past life; a handful of smiling photos of a little girl. He sets out to track down the man’s relatives or the presumed daughter. This task takes him on a journey and infuses glistening colors to John May’s still life. As he searches for Stokes’ past connections, he finds human connection for himself.

Pasolini’s visualization of May’s quotidian life resembles the understated yet extraordinarily captivating works of Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki. Although Pasolini’s themes concerns much with the individual unlike Kaurismaki’s social-realist themes, the rich color designs, elegant compositions, and sly, deadpan humor are close to auteur’s touches of still-life. Much of the brilliant shots in the film are realized as the director subtly finds traces of life in the grim, isolated corners. The creases in a pillow where a head recently rested, photograph of a cat, a finger imprint in a tub of moisturiser are all simple objects, but the weight with which the camera perceives these objects adds poignance and breathes life into the still frames. Marsan and Pasolini have done a commendable job in creating the character of John May with extreme care and painstaking details. 


John’s strive for perfection is often seen through his little gestures: the manner he symmetrically arranges the objects in his work desk  or the way he takes a snack in a commuter train, before gathering the scattered crumbs and depositing them into his empty coffee cup. Even though Pasolini withhelds backstory for Mr. May, it is to Marsan’s credit that we care much about his saintly character, and deeply feel his troubles and disappointments. The narrative does become a too measured and manipulative during its final act. The unabashedly sentimental ending and unsubtle spelling-out of the movie’s moral seems totally out of step with its sedate, reflective style. Despite this mis-step, the lyrical, humanistic tone of the narrative stays intact.

Death is an ultimatum that can’t be revised or rejected. We can’t stop any one from dying, but that doesn’t mean we should stop caring. Still Life (91 minutes) proffers such very familiar message about finding life even in the finality of death. And, it is channeled with great sensitivity and poignance so as to forge a robust emotional connection with the viewers. 

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Garage [2007] – An Emotionally Devastating Drama about a Simple Soul

Sometimes the simple, quieter and thinner films would set out to touch a deep chord within us. Lenny Abrahamson’s soul-crushing Irish film Garage (2007) is one such movie. On the surface, its minimalist narrative deals with the mundane life of a lonely innocuous misfit Josie, a garage attendant in rural Ireland. But through Josie’s solitude, inarticulability, and awkwardness the film offers a piercing portrayal of a mentally challenged individual and how the apathetic rural society, which was itself marginalized or rendered passive by economic depression, tags him with a pariah label. 

Written by Mark O’Halloran, Garage offers a very distressing and contrary view of modern rural life, unlike the old Ealing studio comedies where small-towners band together to win over the hopeless stagnation. The crumbling, shabby man-made structures and the bored, passive inhabitants remain as an unerasable splotch amidst the vast, breathtaking landscape. The narrative may not provide a profound commentary on the poverty and class in rural Ireland, but it perfectly works as a subtle character study, thoroughly invested in taking us through aspects of human experience we may not have given much thought or simply ignored.

Garage

Josie’s plight deeply resonates with us because we may have come across a Josie in our life or we may share some of his traits to fully understand what it means to be treated as an outcast. And, popular Irish comedian Pat Shortt’s performance in the lead role is pitch-perfect. Josie’s life is defined by uncomplicated series of chores. He works at a rundown filing station near a village whose customers are mostly the local ones who either laughs with him or laughs at him. In the initial scenes, Josie’s unremarkable life is showcased with tinge of absurd humor. 

It may give off feeling that it’s a one-note joke about a mentally challenged guy. But the great synergy between writer Halloran and director Abrahamson provides a much deeply textured character that we aren’t able to categorize with mere societal labels. Josie lives in a dingy room behind the station and his daily wages pays for the food and few quids to have cans of beer at the pub. Men in the pub bully him or snigger behind his back, but Josie brushes it off with an awkward laugh. Afflicted by pains in the hip, Josie walks in a distinct manner and he often goes for a walk around the beautiful countryside in the morning. He befriends a horse by giving it few apples. He fancies a woman at local grocery store, Carmel (Anne-Marie Duff) who rebuffs him with ferocity.


Things change when Josie’s boss (John Keogh) employs a 15 year old teenager David (Conor Ryan). Josie is visibly happy to train David to cover the menial tasks of car valet business. David is a quiet, bored guy who has very low expectations about his job and life in the town. His only best friend now seems to focus his attention on his new girlfriend. But David soon warms up to Josie’s genuine and friendly nature. They share a beer after a day of work and for the first time in his life, Josie feels he’s got some real companionship. Despite having the will, innocence and hope the trouble is that life doesn’t go our own way. Ironically, the character’s social isolation and intelligence (or lack thereof) which projected him as harmless endangers or threatens to further degrade his societal position after an 'incident' [‘The town looks after its own’, a truly ironic proclamation]. It all leads to a minimalist, wordless yet a subtly heart-breaking ending.

Garage might be chronicling the emptiness of life in a marginalized society, but Abrahamson’s visuals are rich in detail and loaded with meaning. He observes the prosaic life with an authenticity and expressiveness that it gradually immerses us in the squalid atmosphere. The other interesting element of Abrahamson’s direction is conveying deep emotions through what’s left unsaid or not well-articulated. In fact, the dialogues in Garage aren’t loaded with what we’d like to call as ‘message’. The writer and director are much fascinated in zeroing-in on emotions that couldn’t be verbalized. This choice eschews any of the conventional dramatic elements in the narrative. 


Although Josie’s growing camaraderie with David provides room to turn it into comedy of misfits, both Halloran and Abrahamson earnestly focus on the quietude between them (indeed, silence speaks volumes). One particularly devastating scene towards the end when Josie makes tea for his boss Mr. Gallagher impeccably conveys woeful emotions through things not articulated. We know why Gallagher is there and Josie knows too. But on-screen, we only see Josie fretting over a tea in order to mask the distress deep under the surface. The director also cuts at moments that are totally unanticipated. Rather than encountering significant moments in the film with explicit dialogue or openly emotive manner, the director discards the shot at quietly intense points which happens to linger long in our memory (even within dialogue and sentiment-heavy movies like Frank and Room, director Abrahamson maintains this tactic).

The good thing about Halloran’s writing is his balanced portrayal of small town life which isn’t just delineated by its casual cruelty. There’s a deep layer of sadness affixed to the town dwellers that we do feel for their predicament despite the harsh treatment of Josie. Moreover, since the film is really about humanistic observation of Josie’s unremarkable life, Halloran doesn’t burden the narrative to deal with cliched scenarios of the depressed town. Much crucial to the movie’s elegiac tone is the understated performances of a talented cast. Pat and Conor’s friendship very well developed with a dry sense of humor. Pat Shortt flawlessly builds up the character of Josie, right down to the little details of how he walks, speaks and bears himself around others (uttering ‘Now!’ with a clumsy smile). Both Conor and Pat provide glimpses of their characters’ inner life without doing any of the usual ‘acting’. 

Garage (85 minutes) is a darker and realistic portrayal of life at the margins of contemporary rural society. It employs obscurity and silence in a finely-attuned, instinctual manner that it infuses much depth to a seemingly simple story.


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El Violin [2005] – A Grim & Gripping Tale of a Frail, Elderly Musician

Mexican film-maker Francisco Vargas’ directorial debut El Violin (2005) opens with a disturbingly sad and timeless scenario: villagers, probably on the side of guerrilla forces, are brutally interrogated by military personnel; the opulent black-and-white cinematography plus the distanced, static shot that deliberately obscures the faces of the torturers and the tortured further boosts the tone of timelessness. This prologue ends with a perturbing image of a soldier raping a peasant woman, while in the background naked woman lay on one side and loathsome soldiers consumed by lust stand on the other side.

 It took nearly six years for Vargas to raise the resources necessary for making El Violin (script developed from an earlier short film he made) which although reaped international awards (including ‘Best Actor Award’ at Cannes Festival) had a tough time to find Mexican distributor. Director Guillermo del Toro championed the film and gradually through positive word of mouth El Violin was seen by considerable number of audiences within his native country.


El Violin is set in a nondescript Latin American country (though those who know history can find references to indigenous Mexican peasant revolts in the 1990s), where our octogenarian, one-handed protagonist Don Plutarcho Hidalgo (Angel Tavira) lives peacefully in a mountainous village with his son Genaro (Gerardo Taracena) and grandson Lucio (Mario Garibaldi). Apart from farming duties, Hidalgo and his family earns money as traveling musicians. 

The trio travel to nearby town and while the old man and his son produce beautiful music (Plutarco ties the violin’s bow to his stump), the grandson begs for coins. We could also easily guess the trip serve another purpose for the trio, at least for Plutarco’s son who uses the trips as a cover to extend his rebel activities: smuggling guns and messages to the guerrillas. When the trio is on the way to their village they hear distressing news of military raid.

Genaro gets anxious because his wife and little daughter are still in the village. Furthermore, he is robbed off the chance to smuggle out the ammunition necessary for the guerrillas to make their stand against the soldiers. The irreparable loss pushes the little grandson into melancholia, but Plutarco accompanied by a stolid expression tries his best to allay the boy’s fear and grief. The next day Plutarco buys a mule from a seedy landowner and returns to his village. He says to the troops that he wants to tend to his corn crop. Over the next few days, Plutarco befriends the Captain (Dagoberto Gama) who appreciates the one-handed violinist’s soothing tunes. The Captain even allows Plutarco to inspect his crops, which provides the violinist to smuggle few ammo in the violin case to his son (the ammo are safely buried in the fields). Of course, as one can reckon nothing good can come from such a tricky premise.


El Violin could be criticized for its all-too-neat (noble guerrillas vs savage soldiers) setting, slightly stereotypical depiction, and bit of uneven pacing in the first-half. But the central characters are beautifully written without a single note of falsity. The interplay between the elderly violinist and the music-loving yet sadistic Captain forms the crux of the narrative. Particularly interesting as well as memorable was the violinist’s resolute, dignified last stand against the virulent forces brutally uprooting their lives. 

Writer/director Vargas could have finished his film with a cathartic image of slain soldiers, but Plutarco’s simple declaration that “the music is over” makes a powerful statement on the inhumanity and injustice that’s about to follow. Vargas smartly stays away from rhetoric and lets the piercing gaze of his elderly hero to speak of the human values, shockingly absent in the film's reality.


El Violin is neither a thriller nor a profound character study. It’s a stunning atmospheric tale that understandably overwhelms us with eye-catching black-and-white images, conjured by cinematographers Martin Boege & Oscar Hijuelos. For a work of debut film-maker, the film contains quite a few virtuoso visual moments, including the long tracking shot when Plutarco tells his grandson the story of gods and humans. 


And it is to Vargas credit that the symbolic representation of the musical instrument and music – its recuperative power – never comes off as heavy-handed. Eventually the narrative’s high-point is Angel Tavira’s unforgettable screen presence as the grizzled Don Plutarco. Born in Guerrero, Mexico, to a family of musicians, Mr. Angel has played music throughout his life despite losing a hand in an accident at the age of 13. He passed away on June 2008, and Don Plutarco was his first and last movie role. 

Overall, El Violin (98 minutes) explores the nature of music, familial bond, tradition, and state-sponsored terrorism through bewitching aesthetics and a charismatic protagonist.  


Miracle Mile [1988] – An Outlandish yet Irrefutably Entertaining Thriller



Hollywood’s penchant for staging wide-scale disaster or apocalypse is well known. While the contemporary state-of-the art technologies that showcase annihilation promise pop-corn entertainment, the film-makers forget to add the vital ingredient of disaster cinema: emotional connection. The flattened, stereotypical portrayal of characters are so bad that we begin to pray violent on-screen death for them (and of course all these movies have annoyingly stupid happy ending). But disaster or apocalyptic cult films haven’t always been this worse. American cinema’s fear for The Bomb (at the height of cold war) has provided some of the best apocalyptic standoffs. Films like On the Beach (1959) [despite being an underwhelming novel adaptation], Fail-Safe (1964), Testament (1983) created a subdivision of disaster cinema, projecting Cold War tension and fear of preemptive strike. 

In the same era, Kubrick’s timeless comedy Dr. Strangelove (1964) exposed the fallacies and absurdities of nuclear war. By the early or mid 1980s the Cold War cooled off and nuclear apocalypse threat turned to an archaic subject (Cameron’s Terminator – 1984 – took the theme in different directions replacing urgency and bleak nature of the narrative with fun entertainment). So when Steve De Jarnett’s off-the-wall disaster thriller Miracle Mile released in 1988, it had a very brief theatrical run. Although Mr. Jarnett wrote the script for the film ten years before, it had taken him that much time to stop the studios from stamping on his vision (in 1983 Miracle Mile was in the first position of 10 Best Unproduced Scripts in Hollywood’ list).


Steve De Jarnett who had made two films before Miracle Mile didn’t make another feature film. He directed television episodes in the 1990s, wrote an award-winning fiction and is a visiting professor of Film. The script for Miracle Mile should be studied by aspiring screenwriters who can learn how to maintain an underlying sense of coherence despite diffusing erratic narrative turns and dream logic. Even in 1988, the narrative’s urgency was seen as memory of bygone era. Now the protagonist’s tension looks far-removed and slightly goofy yet the ambiguity and mash-up of genre provides great meaningful entertainment. If you are curious about Miracle Mile after reading its plot in IMDb or Google, it’s better to dive into it before reading detailed reviews (including this one). The fascination in watching this film lies in witnessing how the bizarre scenario unfolds as it gradually descends into a full-scale chaos.

Opening with Tangerine Dream’s ethereal soundtrack, the narrative’s ominous mood is slowly built from the start. The film’s heart is the love story between Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards), a struggling trombonist and Julie (Mare Winnigham), a waitress. The city of Los Angeles itself plays the other important character. Touring Los Angeles’ Natural History Musuem (La Brea Tar Pits), on one boring day Harry meets and captures Julie’s attention by his goofy antics. Fate brings them both to spend the afternoon in the museum. Thirty-year old Harry immediately feels she is the girl of his dreams. 


Later, Julie brings her grandfather Ivan (John Agar) to see Harry play trombone in the jazz band. Harry meets Julie’s grandfather and accidentally meets her grandmother Lucy (Lou Hancock), who hasn’t spoken with her husband for years. Julie agrees to meet Harry later that night at Johnie's Coffee Shop in the Miracle Mile district after she finishes her shift. But fate once again intervenes and this time by stopping Harry from meeting his lover at midnight. When Harry finally wakes up it’s close to 4 a.m. He arrives at Johnnie’s asking Julie’s co-worker for the phone number to apologize. After the unsuccessful phone call, Harry hears the phone ringing in the booth.

He picks it up and a frantic voice at the other end, who thinks he has called his dad, tells Harry that Los Angeles will be Ground Zero in an hour. The frantic voice belongs to a young guy who says he works in a missile silo and conveys certain significant codes. The guy never gets a chance to dial his dad as Harry hears him getting shot by the superiors. Then a burly voice picks up the phone and says, “forget everything you’ve heard and go back to sleep”. Harry is shocked since it seems too real to be a prank. Anyway, he feels the need to alert Julie. And to do that he has to get her address from the waitress inside. On this process, he tells what he just heard to the small crowd inside the shop. Some are panicked and some laugh it out. But the curious gaze of one woman named Landa (Denise Crosby), cloaked in formal business attire and carrying the brick-sized 1980s mobile phone, seems to confirm Harry’s fear. She immediately calls up some government sources and cooks up a air-borne evacuation plan. And, Harry races up through the limited time period to save Julie. But fate and chaos impedes his path.  

Jarnett’s frenzied race against time shares some tonal similarities with Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985). The dreamy, unforeseen textures in the work bring to mind the efficient Joe Dante movies. But Miracle Mile is one of the very few American movies to approach impending disaster on such an intimate level. On the surface, the script has enough theatricality to make up a typical Hollywood film. Nevertheless, despite the unbelievable coincidences and turns of fate, the film works mainly due to its firm emotional core. Moreover, Jarnett never shies away from diving into the unsettling chaotic nature of the scenario. 


The slow-burning energy in the first thirty minutes or so was engaging, but it pretty much stays in the Hollywood territory. The shift happens with the terror-tinged gas station sequence. Up until the point, it looks like a harmless entertainment where the narrative ends with the lovers locking their lips in a peaceful habitat. Alas, the violence at the ‘gas station’ scene changes the equation to sends us on an unanticipated nightmarish path. The performances in key scenes aren’t up to the mark although Jarnett’s visual sucker punches makes up for those flaws.

Mr. Jarnett could have tightened up the script especially towards the end. Yet Miracle Mile would have been only a laughably silly movie if Jarnett didn’t take up the directorial duties. The tonally erratic and weird script would have been definitely chopped up by another director (Jarnett perfectly turns the script’s playfulness into the visuals) . As I mentioned earlier, there’s coherence in terms of emotions felt which instilled within me a sort of readiness to take in the bumpy narrative turns. The full-fledged unrest in the LA streets during early hours of sunrise was the film’s most astoundingly staged sequence. 

The hazy red-tinged color palette sets up the mood for upcoming catastrophe. Furthermore, in one moment at this final stretch, Jarnett showcases the chaos at different plane of actions – from top of the cars, street level and ground or sewer level – to impeccably spread the discomfort (the scene is done on a very limited budget but more effective than many modern CGI works). The resolution to Harry and Julie’s romantic getaway is something one wouldn’t expect from a Hollywood product. The unique and chilling final shot will definitely stay with us for some time.

Overall, Miracle Mile (88 minutes) is a powerful, darkly humorous and an unbelievably odd nuclear-disaster movie. 

Trailer