Dead Ringer – An Underrated 60’s Thriller with Few Campy Twists

                                             The instant critical and commercial success of Robert Aldrich’s “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” (1962) more or less gave birth to a new sub-genre. “Baby Jane” was about two faded, sibling actresses (played by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford), residing in a decaying Hollywood mansion. The film tracks the downward spiral of Jane’s mental health as pent-up guilt and antagonisms take over. Despite being a psychological thriller, “Baby Jane” had quite a few thematic similarities to Billy Wilder’s ever-green classic “Sunset Blvd.” (1950). The incredible success of this film brought back many other older actresses to silver-screen for similar projects. Black comedy, revenge, and melodrama became the significant elements of these films, and colloquially the sub-genre was termed as ‘Psycho-biddy’.

                                           However, the interest for such thrillers (criminally insane women with a glamorous past) fizzled out in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Critics who were fed up with this kind of narrative nicknamed the genre “hag horror” & “hagsploitation". In 1964, Bette Davis re-united with director Robert Aldrich for “Hush ….Hush, Sweet Charlotte”, touted to be a follow-up for “Baby Jane”. Aldrich marvelously used the Southern Gothic atmosphere to concoct a superior thriller. In the same year, Bette Davis also starred in a much under-rated Hitchcockian thriller “Dead Ringer” (1964), directed by Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo in “Casablanca”). After the success of “Baby Jane”, a Warner Bros. ad is said to have stated that “Nobody's as good as Bette when she's bad”. And, in “Dead Ringer” Davis is doubly menacing as she plays the role of identical twin sisters Edith and Margaret.

                                      The poster for “Dead Ringer” features Bette Davis’ eye merging with an image of a skull, although this isn’t a campy horror film. The acting and script are impressively subtle, when compared with similar thrillers of that era. Edith Phillips reunites with her estranged twin sister Margaret DeLorca at the funeral of Margaret’s wealthy husband, Frank, who is said to be died of heart-attack. Edith has come to the funeral because she has loved Frank and hates Margaret for seducing him away from her. Soon, Edith learns (through an information provided by family chauffeur) that eighteen years before, her sister has faked a pregnancy to get hold of Frank’s rich life-style. Edith owns a small cocktail lounge, and lives upstairs in a decrepit one-room apartment.

                                    Edith doesn’t make enough in her business to even pay rent for the place. She is loved by Sergeant Jim Hobbson (Karl Malden), but Edith is fed-up with her onerous life and is clearly disturbed by the past acts of deceitful Margaret. Instantly, Edith concocts a plan to steal back the life, she should have lived with Frank. She calls Margaret and states that she knows everything about her ‘pregnancy’. Margaret arrives in Edith’s place to smooth-out things. But, Edith has a suicide note ready, and kills Margaret. She assumes her wealthy sister’s identity and travels to the huge mansion. The large part of the narrative showcases how Edith tries to fool her twin sister’s patrician friends. Edith also gradually realizes that she is in a very complicated & dangerous situation and that she was happier in the former life.

                                     Director Paul Henreid was a television director and he made episodes of ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’. Considering the very low budget & rapid shooting phase, director Henreid has impeccably brought the brooding sense of dread, which is must for good psychological thrillers. Albert Beich’s script that is full of twists and turns has also aided in keeping the viewers engaged. The great part of suspense in “Dead Ringer” lies in the way Edith confronts people, whom Margaret knew intimately. She is afraid that the household staff might notice some changes in their employer’s demeanor. She has to remain detached as Sergeant Hobbson regrets that he hasn’t shown enough love to stop the suicide. But, Edith’s final bigger test lies with the arrival of despicable character, Tony Collins (Peter Lawford) and his relationship with deceased Margaret only make her to yearn for the old, simple life. The script also doesn’t paint the sisters plainly as good and bad.

                                      The plot does possess some campy moments, especially the way Edith stages her fake suicide. However, the film also doesn’t fully belong to the aforementioned ‘psycho-biddy’ genre, since there isn’t much blood and the thriller elements are more subtle rather being gruesome or shocking. Edith’s time inside the decaying mansion (playing board games and meeting for religious sermons) and her discoveries there puts us in a contemplative mindset rather than thrilling us, just for the sake of it. The end twists are a bit predictable, but Edith’s final decision and the way Davis carries her character makes it work on all levels. Of course, the film would have been reduced to a banal cinematic piece, if not for the sheer presence of Bette Davis. Through little alterations in mannerisms and voice, the veteran actress perfectly convinces us that Edith and Margaret are wholly different persons. Davis displays her versatile acting skills in an earlier scene, when the estranged twin sisters fight verbally.

                                   “Dead Ringer” (115 minutes) might have a timeworn plot, but a good script and formidable Bette Davis reins in the psychological implications of impersonation. It is an engaging, old-fashioned Hollywood thriller. 


Pretty Poison – Dark Deeds in a Insipid Small Town

                                                 The overwhelming critical and commercial success of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) made Anthony Perkins (played Norman Bates) as the go-to-guy for playing disturbed young man in Hollywood. He just got typecast for the rest of his career. Tuesday Weld (“The Cincinnati Kid”, “Thief”, “Once Upon a Time in America”) has started her acting career as a child and later in her teenage years and early 20’s was repeatedly chosen over to play the role of a nymphet. By the 1960’s, she was tired of being typecasted like Perkins. They both were casted to play the central characters in Noel Black’s “Pretty Poison” (1968), which was based Stephen Geller’s novel, “She Let him Continue”. The movie posters boasted tag lines like: “Illusions can be Deadly”; “A shook-up story of the up-tight generation”, with Anthony Perkins’ baleful look. Nevertheless, the film manages to flip-flop a viewers’ expectations.

                                            “Pretty Poison” is an oddity and the events portrayed in it might have shocking for that era. The subsequent imitation of the movie or novel’s plot with other unsavory couples would now make us easily guess the trajectory Noel Black’s film travels, but still it holds up well due to engrossing eccentric performances of Perkins and Tuesday Weld. Although the movie was never a main-stream hit, it has gained a sizable cult following, over the years. The film starts with Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) just getting released from mental institution. Dennis’ crime isn’t explained at the time, but he seems to be smart guy with a lot of fantasies. His probation officer Mr. Azanaeur (John Randolph) tells him about a job in lumber factory and warns Dennis: “These fantasies of yours can be dangerous. Now, you lay off that stuff! Believe me; you're going out into a very real and very tough world. It's got no place at all for fantasies.”

                                            But Dennis the daydreamer couldn’t think about life without broad fantasies. Before long, we see Dennis working as a quality-control guy at a lumber mill, in a small Massachusetts town. He watches over a pretty high school girl, going on about her majorette routine. In the chemical plant, he curiously watches and photographs the out-flowing pipes that pour chemical wastes into local waterways. He is listening to Russian broadcasts from his trailer’s short-wave radio. Later, when Dennis meets the same pretty high senior, we get to know what kind of fantasy he is playing on. The girl named Sue Ann Stephanek (Tuesday Weld) lives with her disapproving single mother (Beverly Garland) and seems to have no friends. She believes Dennis when he says that he is CIA agent, working undercover to uncover a communist plot in the small town.

                                         Dennis promises to let her in on his undercover playacting, and Sue Ann is very happy to watch and learn from federal agent. The odd couples also have secret trysts in a place known as ‘make-out valley’. They do make out as Dennis piles lie upon lie, while believes it with a sparking smile. In the mean time, the probation officer threatens Dennis to throw back into institution as he is not neither attending his call nor reporting to him. Eventually, Dennis drafts Sue Ann to join him on his dream mission to sabotage the chemical plant’s waste-pouring pipes. While on the mission, a night watchmen with a gun under his belt, catches Dennis. He is stunned, mulling over the prospect of once again living inside a cell, but suddenly witnesses Sue Ann hitting the watchman at the back of his head with a wrench. She remains gleeful while doing this deed, and innocently asks if the agency would cover her for this. Gradually, from then on, Dennis becomes a mere participant in his own fantasy.

                                         The late 1960’s were the time when morally unpleasing, violent couples made their presence in screen. In 1967 Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” (with Warren Betty and Faye Dunaway) was made and became one of the most controversial crime film of the era (Roger Ebert described it as “Milestone in the history of American Cinema”). Movies like “Kalifornia”, “True Romance”, and “Natural Born Killers” drew inspiration from the exploits of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Although “Pretty Poison” doesn’t have a broad scope or robust script like the 1967 movie, it possesses the same kind of quirky chemistry between the central characters that lends an edgy movie experience.  The late 60’s were the time, when American cinema was going through a transitional period. A load of eccentric independent features arrived, expanding the horizons of realism, violence & sex in American cinema. “Pretty Poison” was just wedged between “Bonnie and Clyde” and what touted to be as an anti-Bonnie and Clyde film, “The Honeymoon Killers”, released in 1969 (it was also the year “Midnight Cowboy", an X-rated film, won Oscar for best picture).   

                                    Director Noel Black includes the typical zooms and few seconds flash-back sequences in “Pretty Poison”, which were the much utilized techniques of that era, although Noel doesn’t film violence in a brutal and pitiless manner, unlike other killer flicks of 60’s. The scenic small town atmosphere and the cynical minor characters of the town somehow seem to have anticipated Lynch’s portrayal of such towns. However, the film wouldn’t have worked if not for the casting of Tuesday Weld. She easily comes off as a white-bread American girl, but her transformation into a blood-lust girl with no troubled conscience is thoroughly convincing. The script is designed to gradually reveal the inversion of Sue Ann’s Dennis’ roles and Weld elegantly takes charge of that driver’s seat.
                                        Anthony Perkins’ superior smirks and smart answers were a joy to watch. He also perfectly displays the confusing emotions as his fantasy and bravado, gives way to spiraling panic situations. There is a little misogynistic message in the end about how beautiful, clean-cut girls end up being the most poisonous and screw up the lives of naive, innocent men. May be we could attribute this message to the jaded cynicism of the American 60’s or as an unforgivable imperfection or look it as a continuation of the movie’s dark central joke. Whatever it is, “Pretty Poison” (89 minutes) worth a watch for its psychological implications and engaging central characters. 


‘X + Y’ aka ‘A Brilliant Young Mind’ – A Compelling Prodigy Drama with few Formulaic Designs

                                            Jeffrey Blitz’s 2002 documentary “Spellbound” was follows eight kids, hailing from different socioeconomic areas with USA, preparing to get into the National Spelling Bee Championship. It is the kind of subject that makes up for a gooey reality-show. But, then Blitz turned kids’ intense preparation into a sublime, suspenseful experience. British film-maker Morgan Matthews’ 2007 BBC documentary “Beautiful Young Minds” was another amazing work that follows a group of young mathematicians, hoping to represent Britain in the International Mathematical Olympiad. The documentary, not just chronicles the back or mind-breaking math camps, but also provides to look into the students’ emotions and feelings, whose intelligence has earned them named like ‘freaks’ and ‘nerds’ in their respective schools (some are diagnosed with Asperger’s). Matthews’ has now made his feature-film debut with a satisfying drama “X + Y” aka “A Brilliant Young Mind” (2014), exploring the same subject he did in his documentary.  

                                              The film’s mathematical prodigy is Nathan Ellis (played by Asa Butterfield), a Yorkshire high-school kid, diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. The protagonist’s characteristics would immediately make cinephiles to think about “Rain Man”, “Goodwill Hunting” & “A Beautiful Mind”. But the central performances and skilful direction makes such comparisons inapt. While, most of the main-stream cinema views Asperger’s syndrome and autism through an outsider’s eye, Matthews earnestly tries to make us feel what the protagonist is feeling (Belgian-Dutch drama “Ben X” also took a similar approach). The film opens with Nathan, getting diagnosed in early childhood with a neuro-development disorder which also bestows him a fascination for number, colors and patterns.

                                             Nathan doesn’t like to be touched; he doesn’t tolerate change and refuses to eat his favorite prawn balls, if it isn’t served in prime numbers. His mom (Sally Hawkins) and dad (Martin McCann) spend every possible minute with Nathan. The boy, aged five, gradually develops a strong bond with this playful father, but one day a car accident takes away his father. Nathan withdraws further into his shell, spending his childhood by solving algebra problems. He has figured out that his mother isn’t as smart as he is and so apart from few basic lines, he never talks much to her. Nathan, however, gets a lonely mentor at school, Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall).

                                             The teacher was once a competitor in International Mathematics Olympiad, but Multiple-Sclerosis disease, self-loathing and marijuana habit has reduced him to be a high-school teacher. Martin quickly realizes Nathan’s abilities and nurtures the boy’s mathematical skills. When Nathan reaches the high school stage, he qualifies for the Mathematics Olympiad’s try-outs, which is to be held in a math-camp in Taiwan. He leaves behind his distressed mother, under the supervision of Richard (Eddie Marsan), Martin’s teacher. On his trip, Nathan meets Zhang Mei (Jo Yang) of the Chinese team and a fellow team-member, Luke (Jake Davies) and both of them make a significant impression in Nathan’s life, making him to question about his own emotions and feelings.
                                          In films like this, there will always be a commercial necessity to showcase some kind of positive note of the syndrome (like the casino sequence in “Rain Man”) and a downside to elicit polarizing emotions from the audiences. Thankfully, the film doesn’t try to use Nathan’s mathematical abilities to provide such brief jubilant chapters. However, the film does try to be blatant tear-jerker towards the end, introducing the same worn-down sentimental trajectory. The central theme of “X + Y” is that love or genuine emotion couldn’t be figured out with an equation or easy solution, although James Graham’s script is a little cheesy, imbuing certain formulaic conventions. The sappiness might have kept the film from entering into the higher echelons of prodigy dramas, but the script does offer some well observed insights (not just on autism) and possesses well-rounded characters.

Spoilers Ahead

                                         Matthews’ experience as documentary film-maker has allowed him to not just concentrate on Nathan, but also on a group of interesting people. Luke is the most-bullied by his team-mates for being immodest and little odd. But, the bullying of Luke is portrayed in a complex manner as the bully, Isaac (Alex Lawther) isn’t a bad guy or a bad winner; Isaac just can’t stand Luke’s ramblings. There is a brilliant scene in the middle, the one where, after failing in the qualifying exam, Luke verbally jousts with Isaac and lets out his feelings. Nathan is just a mere spectator of this conversation, but his distressed face shows that he could understand Luke’s hardened feelings. Nathan, for the first time, understands the expression ‘putting yourself in others’ shoes’.  In another brilliant scene, Luke with blood marks on his hand, talks to a rattled Nathan about how the world would see them, if they are only autistic and not a genius (“It’s all right being weird, as long as you’re gifted. But, if you’re not gifted, then that just leaves weird”). Even the piano-playing, whiz girl Rebecca, who has a very limited time, seems to have fully developed character arc.

                                        Two budding love stories are prominently showcased in the plot: one between Nathan and Zhang Mei; the other between Nathan’s mother and redemption-seeking maths teacher. Both the romances are sweetly handled, although Nathans’ didn’t make a great impact. May be because the Jo Yang, who played Mei, was trying too much to be cute, or else the script just corners her to play such a one-dimensional role. Nevertheless, the mother-son relationship brings up the genuine tear-jerking moment of the film. Sally Hawkins, as the under-appreciated mother with an ever-smiling face, bestows us with another one of her brilliant performances (she was as good as Toni Collette in “Black Balloon”, which was also about a family coping with their autistic son) . It was a spellbinding moment, when she tries to explain what emotional pain is to Nathan through the language of mathematics, and gradually the mother and son embrace one-another, may be for the first time (“When somebody says they love you it means they see something in you they think is worth something... It adds value to you…”). For Asa Butterfield, “X + Y” is the kind of film that would bring him more challenging roles in the future. He infuses his character with enough sensitivity & grace and subtly expresses Nathan’s loneliness and desire to be with the one he loves.

                                        “X+Y” (107 minutes) is a poignant, captivating British drama about an autistic math whiz, experiencing life’s profundities. It seems contrived and sentimental at times, but the splendid performances provide us with an emotionally satisfying move experience. 


“The Confession & State of Siege” – Costa Gavras’ Underrated Gems

                                                The European film-maker Costa-Gavras spent his 20’s in France (after moving from his native Greece in 1951), where a spellbinding cinephile culture and an active leftist politics flourished. Gavras participated in both these movements, and later in the 1960’s amalgamated his passion for arts & cinema with his commitment to expose human-right abuses & abuse of power. In 1969, Gavras gave us “Z”, an emotionally infuriating, thinly fictionalized expose of the political crimes, committed under Greece’s dictatorship. “Z” concocted a perfect framework for modern political thrillers. The wide degree of accolades, the movie received influenced a whole lot of directors around the world to showcase political & ideological injustice within a thriller format.

                                             Although Gavras embraced left-wing politics, there are no simple white and black depictions in his works; he always likes to travel within the complex gray range. “Z” was about brave truth-seekers, fighting against a might right-wing dictatorship, but he surprised all his left-leaning friends by making “The Confession” (aka “L’aveu”) in 1970, which is a condemnation of Stalinist extremists in Czechoslovakia). Gavras was inspired to construct the narrative based on the life of a Czech bureaucrat & Vice-Minister, Artur London, who was arrested by his own party in 1951, and subsequently tortured to confess on a coup he never planned. With “The Confession” and “Z”, Gavras explored the abuse of power and action on both sides of the political spectrum, and then dwelled into the volatile Latin American politics of the late 1960's with “State of Siege” (aka “Etat de Siege”, 1972).

                                           "Etat de Siege" was a fictionalized account of the kidnapping and killing of American official Dan Mitrone in Uruguay (the script was written by Franco Solinas --"Battle of Algiers", "Burn!"). The American account might tell that Mitrone was a decent family man (with seven children) trying to help the officials of a conflicted nation, and brutally killed by the leftists. The other side of account showcases that Mitrone was working for Agency for International Development (USAID), which is simply a cover to teach the Uruguayan law officers on how to use torture against their countries’ dissidents. “State of Siege” had the most balanced approach, when compared to Gavras’ previous works, as the narrative depicted its characters’ trip into the moral middle-ground. Unlike “Z” and like “The Confession”, this film doesn’t lend itself to suspense and action. While Gavras’ previous two films provided some kind of appealing resolution, “State of Siege” portrayed the futility of the conflict, where there are no mutually exclusive possibility.

Interrogation & torture of Anton Ludwik in "The Confession"

                                      Prominent French actor Yves Montand played the primary character in all these three films. His Anton Ludwik in “The Confession” and Philip Michael Santore in “State of Siege” are staunch believers of polarizing political ideals. The two men’s political ideals, however never wavers, even in the prospect of facing brutal torture and death. Montand gives a complex performance in both these films, as a man who believes that his ordeal would soon be over and that he could talk his way through the problem. “The Confession” and “State of Siege” doesn’t much to offer in the form of narrative tension, since earlier or in the middle, we get to know what’s happened to the primary character. There are no last minute expositions or hidden ulterior motives. Costa Gavras is aware of the fact that the political strife in both the films is ideologically muddled, and so he only concentrates on a group of men, who carry out their respective ideology with genuine belief.

Interrogation of Michael Santore in "State of Siege"

                                          The interrogation scenes in both the films is more about forcing the protagonists to confess to their activities rather than trying to obtain valuable information. However, the outcome and way the viewers feel towards these interrogations are totally different. Anton is a victim of gross injustice. The way he is tortured and the final court proceedings forces us to use the term ‘Kafkaesque’. If Anton is caught within a web of lies, Santore is confined within a chamber of truth. Santore’s despicable activities are gradually revealed and there is no question and what he has done. But, still Montand’s fully realized portrayal of the unofficial American diplomat doesn’t turn him into a monster. On a thematic perspective, both the films aren’t trying to bestow us with a dissertation on the conflict; it simply tries to deconstruct the ideological conflict that is only often viewed from a journalistic viewpoint.

Costa-Gavras (left) and Yves Montand

                                         On the outset, “The Confession” and “State of Siege” is outside forces’ intervention on a country’s internal affairs. The intervention sort of brings out the dark side of communism and capitalism. Despite Gavras’ political leanings, these films are just a cry against the inhumanity that resides within both these systems. “The Confession” was deemed as ‘an anti-communist screed’ in many leftist circles, while “State of Siege” agitated both sides of the political divide: one side thought that Gavras’ was little forgiving towards the American foreign policy, whereas the other side felt that Gavras’ has humanized a Latin American terrorist organization (“Tupamaros”). However, the film-maker is gutsy enough to simply look at both sides, without judging. The depiction of Tupamaros in “State of Siege” is the most conflicted as they do not like violence, but only uses it to achieve their goals (rationalizing killing in the name of liberation).

                                        Anton and Michael Santore also seem to be aware of the conflicted situation of their captors’ position. Anton says, “If I have committed these crimes, why appeal to my loyalty? And if I am a good communist, then why I am here?” Santore states to his captor: “If you kill me, it will be an act of cruelty and powerlessness and if you don’t kill me, it will be a sign of weakness.” From an aesthetic point of view, both the films collage various moments to inquire upon the psychology of the characters. The interior sequences sort of resembled and psychological confinement (especially in “L’aveu”) reminisced of sequences in Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows” (1969). The meticulously chosen subjective-camera techniques lend a documentary-like realism and allow the viewers to understand the characters’ ordeals. The lack of heightened dramatics, and the presence of subjective shots (there are also no grand orchestral scores) help us to understand that the periodical outbursts of the characters aren’t the film’s sole perspective. In “State of Siege”, Santore says to Hugo, the rebel/terrorist: “You want to destroy the foundation of our society, the fundamental values of our Christian civilization, and the very existence of the free world." At a earlier point, Hugo states to Santore: “Be it drinking beer, swallowing aspirin, brushing teeth, cooking food in an aluminum pan, turning on a radio, shaving, using refrigerator, or heating a room, every citizen in my country contributes daily to the development of your economy.”

                                         “The Confession” (139 minutes) and “State of Siege” (130 minutes) thoroughly explores the corrupt institutions within two polarizing political ideals, without ever being didactic. It potently depicts the never-ending circularity of political power conflicts. 

A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence – A Carefully Calibrated Take on the Human Condition

                                              Making sense of Swedish film-maker Roy Andersson’s works through words is perhaps impossible. Fifteen years ago he came up with his fragmented, dry absurdist approach (in “Songs from the Second Floor” (2000)) to showcase the ineffable bizarreness of human existence. After “You, the Living” in 2007, Andersson has finished his ‘living trilogy’ with “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” (2014), by offering up a similar series of wonderfully executed, hyper-real vignettes. Andersson has stated in an interview that his ‘primary aim is to lift the visual qualities in film-making so that we can reach the same level as paintings’. So, gazing at an instantly recognizable Andersson shot is somehow similar to watching a great painting, where the static figures are contemplating on existential malaise.

                                              Each of Andersson’s static shots is impeccably built from scratch with both background and foreground in sharp focus. The opening shot of ‘Pigeon’ shows an overweight man, in a museum, closely studying stuffed birds inside glass cases. The shot probably establishes Andersson’s body of work, where he gazes upon his human subjects with a revelatory and anthropological curiosity. Each of the director’s pale-faced characters gradually oscillates between tragedy and comedy as they contemplate on their desiccated modern existence. The beige and grey palette, loosely connected nightmarish scenarios, and blithesome music serves to heighten his serene, fixed shots’ ironic effect. Roy Andersson’s style could easily bore and frustrate an audience who expects a perceivable narrative in a film. They might find it as an incoherent & pretentious piece, masquerading as art form. Well everyone has their own opinion on ‘what makes something art’, but I feel there is a lot to take in Andersson’s frames & characters (myriad of interpretations) – in both metaphorical and concrete sense.

                                              In “A Pigeon…” weirdness unfolds in the foreground: A young tyrannical Swedish king (1692-1718) with his military officers storms inside a local pub and posts bizarre demands on the stunned public; a old deaf man in a basement pub flash backs to 1943, where young men sing in harmony and pay for their drinks by kissing the barmaid; A lonely lieutenant finds everything in his life cancelled or postponed; in a chapter tagged ‘Homo sapiens’, we watch a ensnared primate receiving periodic electric shocks as a woman casually speaks on her mobile; A platoon of white soldiers push African slaves into a giant rotating boiler device for creating a pastime for wealthy aristocrats. But, apart from these marvelously constructed episodes, there really is some sort of a narrative, which involves a pair of fat, pale-faced, aspiring salesmen.

                                             The pair named Jonathan (Holger Andersson) and Sam (Nils Westblom) wander through the film’s vignettes, miserably failing to sell their stock of novelty items. The salesmen with their stone-faces try to sell corny gag items (‘Vampire Teeth’, ‘Laughing Bag’, and ‘Uncle One-Tooth’) to people who have no need for them. Even if they make a sale, they aren’t paid any money. In a deadpan manner, the duo often states their business motto: “We want to help people have fun”. The pair of psychologically depressed men itself become a sad joke, but at some level, we could also empathize with them. We laugh & reflect on the banality of their existence, whose sole aim is just to use comedy to drive off life's despair.

                                             Although, Andersson’s films states that it is about exploring human condition, he isn’t trying to explore myriad of experiences that makes up a human life. His imaginative vignettes, heavily inspired by the theater of the absurd, specifically zeroes in on the isolation & broken-down communication of the modern society. Failing or failed business is a recurrent theme in this trilogy. In “Songs from the Second Floor”, a businessman futilely burns down his shop in the hope of getting insurance. Here, we have salesmen aimlessly stumbling through a sullen city. Despite the fact that Andersson makes his living by making commercials to sell materials, he inherently hates materialism. He subtly links the futility of life to our blatant pursuit of materials. In an interview to UK’s ‘Independent’, Andersson stated this: “In my opinion, in our time, we as humans are moving more and more to being creatures without empathy, because you need to make money through business. So you don’t look at your neighbor as your friend or someone to take care of, you look at him as a potential client.”

                                            Within his mysterious, enigmatic world, the director always brings out something profound or a shocking rumination of human conduct. Themes of bureaucracy and tyranny reflect through Charles XII episode, a man deeply haunted by history. The break down in communication is another significant theme, which is expressed even through the droll activities of the ensemble. “A Pigeon….” is filled with characters that express a set of words without ever believing in them. Apart from the central character’s punchline of “We just want to help people have fun”, couple of other sentence is kept on repeated: “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine”; “Some people get up early for work tomorrow.” All the different characters on phone keep on repeating the first sentence, which sort of depicts our shriveled range of words, even when conversing with our loved ones.In one of the film’s great moment, a very old man in a restaurant tries to contact with the waiter during closing time, stating what he missed out as a human: “I understand one thing. I have been greedy and ungenerous all my life. That’s why I’m unhappy”. Even the ending “But it felt like a Thursday” scene is yet another tragicomic portrayal of failed communication.

                                              Even if the viewer doesn’t care about thematic overtones, Andersson’s visual sense alone gives an exemplary experience. The visuals veer from being outright hilarious to darkly comic to simply shocking. Since Andersson has shot everything on sets (nothing, including the cafes, is shot on location), he brings a degree of intrigue in all those polarizing visuals. The film-maker equally focuses on sheer jaw-dropping images (like the giant, exterminating device) and less significant visuals, which depicts a more mundane side of human behavior (like the girls blowing bubbles from the balcony). For all the stiffness, rigidity, and grim predicaments, Andersson does imbue gentleness & a feeling of compassion to his proceedings.

                                              “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” (101 minutes) is a thoroughly unpredictable tableau of vignettes that evokes deadpan laughs through its exploration of existentialism. Those who aren’t bored by this unique mode of film-making might discover ample moments of beauty that resides within the banality & nefariousness of our mundane modern life. 


Timbutku – An Incisive Look at Religious Terrorism

                                             The word ‘Timbutku’ means a far-away, exotic, and other-worldly place. Timbutku city, situated in Mali, Western Africa, once had that fabled status. The city’s geographical setting made it crossroads for bringing together African, Arabic, and European influences. Around 16th century, the city was renowned for its religious scholarships and trading outposts. As the African continent was plunged into tragedy after tragedy by the Western world, the city of Timbutku too shed its share of blood and gained a lot of overweening, ridiculous ideologies. In 2012, Islamic fundamentalists captured the city (a year later, the counter-assault by French and Malian made the fundamentalists to flee the city). African film-maker Abderrahmane Sissako’s Oscar nominated feature “Timbutku” (2014) is a heartbreaking docu-drama with spectacular visuals that shows the lives of people under the shadows of extremism.

                                            The film’s theme immediately brings to our mind the recent violent acts of religious terrorism in Nigeria, Iraq, and Syria etc. But, Sissako’s sole intention is not to educate & enrage the sophisticated viewer about the atrocities faced by these impoverished souls. He approaches extremism & oppression in West Africa as not some sudden, unexpected intrusion (of course, this is a land that has faced tribal wars for eons). With exacting patience and unforeseen beauty, he showcases fundamentalism as day-to-day burden and without forcing in any personal agendas. Sissako’s novelistic images & perspective are designed to bash all our stereotypes and misconceptions about extremists or the people of Africa.

                                          “Timbutku” isn’t the kind of cinema that skims through various acts of religious extremism through the eyes of an amicable protagonist. It isn’t about oppressed people complaining loudly about sharia law, and most significantly Sissako hasn’t made the Muslims to fall under the three typical categories purported by Western or Hollywood cinema: the good, moderate, and bad. The film’s plot unrolls slowly as we gaze at the unremarkable day-to-day life of people in Northern Mali. A woman is selling fish on the streets; a young boy is herding the cattle; men are praying at a mosque. Despite the presence of armed men patrolling the streets, the city seems to be spinning at a gentle rhythm.

                                          The foreign jihadists shout arbitrary rules (like no music, how women must dress etc) through a mega-phone in different languages. But then, the jihadists are also observed as humanely as the native residents are observed. One of the hard-liners is learning how to drive, and other group of gun-toting men are discussing about their favorite Football teams. But, gradually the central characters come into focus. Cattle herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) lives an idyllic life like his ancestors in a tent with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and adorable daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed).

                                          Kidane likes to play guitar and has the name of one of his eight cows is ‘GPS’. A neighbor boy Issan herds Kidane’s cattle to the nearest watering hole. A disastrous fate comes upon Kidane as his favorite cow GPS is killed by a local fisherman, when it runs at his fishing nets. The enraged Kidane fights and accidentally kills the fisherman, for which he is asked to give 40 cattle to the victim’s family or else to meet death.  And along Kidane’s fate, we also observe at the harsh & severe punishments devised by the jihadists: a woman is given 40 lashes for making music; a man & woman are buried up to their heads and stoned to death.

                                          Sissako seems to be one of the deeply humanistic film-maker. He isn’t exclusively defining his character by single weakness or a ruthless act. Although, the film doesn’t seem to have a protagonist, the director’s genuine beliefs are voice through the local imam. The director never forgets to observe the comic moments that are laced in this grim setting. While he vividly depicts the courageous nature of Muslim women against fundamentalist tyranny, he also views the affiliated Islamic militants as bored young guys, who are also driven by the typical human motivations like power, lust etc. At the same, Sissako, who himself has lived for the past 25 years in France, isn’t trying to depict the people of Mali as exotic beings with generations of passed on knowledge. The men & women are just moving through their harsh life by distracting themselves with cell phones and global pop culture.

                                    On paper, “Timbutku”, may not have much of an engaging plot, but Sissako’s visuals are a beauty to behold. The movie starts with a gazelle sprinting through the desert as jihadists are shooting it from their fast running trucks. One of the men shouts: “Don’t kill it! Tire it”. The statement pretty much presents us the strategy of these fundamentalists. In the next scene, we see the men shooting at tribal masques, disregarding their ancestors’ history and life. These couple of scenes vividly depicts the extremists disregard for local culture and even practicality (as a female fishmonger asks how she could sell fishes by wearing gloves). Sissako and his cinematographer Sofian El Fani creates many such wonderful visual moments, that are also whimsical and at times outright comical.

                                       It is poetic and humorous to watch a group of boys playing a football match with an imaginary ball (football is banned). A boy waits to score a penalty kick, while a donkey ambles across the goal post. In a significant sequence, where Kidane accidentally fires off his gun at the fisherman, there comes an extended wide shot. Kidane thrashes his way to the other end of the shore, while the other man crawls and tries to stand up straight. The pettiness of Kidane’s violence seems far worse as we view it against the backdrop of long-living nature. It is the kind of great moment that is worthy to be compared with the visuals of Terrence Malick or Andrey Zvyagintsev.

                                      “Timbutku” (95 minutes) is an artistic and empathetic look at the endurance & nobility of sub-Saharan civilians. It must be regarded for presenting religious terrorism from a different perspective that is entirely alien to Western-centric worldview. 


Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem – A Indictment on the Sexist, Religious Bureaucracy

                                            Israeli sibling filmmakers, Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elakabetz’s “Gett: The Trial of Vivane Amsalem” (2014) is fully set inside the confines of a courthouse. But “Gett” isn’t like “12 Angry Men” (1957), where men of different backgrounds come together to serve justice. Here, the main character is just trapped in a bureaucratic void, seeking freedom from a loveless marriage. The film is about the insane obstacles a woman faces in order to get divorce in an Israeli court. Matters of matrimony in the country is not decided by civil courts, but by orthodox rabbis. As per these courts, a breakup can only happen when the husband gives his consent. When the husband says ‘no’, women are just convinced or forced to go back. “Gett” refers to the paper authorizing divorce.

                                          “Gett” is not just an indictment of Israel’s faith-based court system; it also perfectly works as a microcosm of women, who are victimized by malignant partriarchial institutions. Similar to Richard Linklater’s “Before Series”, brother/sister film-making team of “Gett” is following the primary couple characters – Viviane & Eliahou aka Elisha – for the last twelve years in three films. Before this film, there was “To Take a Wife” (2004) and “7 Days” (2008). Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) is a Moroccon-born Israeli mother of four, who got married in her teens to a very conservative & cold man Elisha (Simon Abkarian). I haven’t seen or heard about these two previous films before watching “Gett” and it isn’t necessary to watch those movies, because “Gett” gives a more immersive experience, if we are encountering the couple for the first time.

                                          When the film starts in the court room, for the first few minutes Viviane is kept off-screen, while the men discuss about her reasons for getting divorce. Eventually, when we see Viviane’s anguished glares, we know that she just wants out. But, the husband Elisha is too stubborn to give his wife the freedom and let her be happy. The problem for the orthodox judges is that there’s been no physical abuse or infidelity on either side. So, the Rabbis decide to listen to the couples’ friends, neighbors, and relatives to get some perspective for Viviane seeking divorce. However, all the testimonies & arguments often end up judging the anguished woman. Is Viviane too spoiled to appreciate her husband? Does she suffer from mental ailments? And on and on goes the case for five years with Elisha sternly refusing the ‘gett’.

                                          “Gett” wonderfully derives all the drama of what happened in the couples’ 30 year marriage through pondering testimonies and outbursts. The camera, in the first shot itself ignores Viviane’s presence and through that the directors are trying to establish how a woman’s presence or opinion means little in the court. The crummy, claustrophobic, white-walled court room bestows us the trapped feeling Viviane feels in her life. The directors often shoot the judges from a low angel to suggest how imposing and removed these men are. But, the more exciting part is the wonderful point-of-view shots. Elisha and Viviane’s glares are shown in profile shots, indicating how they couldn’t even look at each other. In another scene, a man is summoned to court to confirm Elisha’s empathy & righteous character. But then when the witness addresses 'plaintiff', we get a point of view shot of the man looking at her bare ankles and bright red toenails.

                                       The point-of-view camera angles consciously make us to judge on Viviane. So, the film-makers aren’t just trying to show how easily women are judged inside an Israeli courtroom. As we are watching these pov shots, we the viewers, are also judging her. A central question posed in “Gett” is why does a women want freedom from a pious (but one is unable to show love) husband. Is her demand for freedom is to take off with another, less devout man? At one point, Viviane’s attorney Carmel (Menashe Noy) is accused of being her secret lover. The forlorn POV glances of Carmel towards Viviane are just there to plant seeds of doubt inside the viewer’s mind. If our own inner mind poses such ridiculous questions & doubts, then it means that the film-makers’ has had great success.

                                          As I said earlier, “Gett” isn’t about a random patriarchal society. It is about how women are easily judged, especially when words like ‘freedom’ & ‘privacy’ are uttered from their mouths. Earlier in the film, Viviane wears modest black frocks and her hair is pinned up. But, gradually we see her making bolder fashion choices. I think at this point Viviane is stating that she no longer cares about what men approves, especially when she is already seen as adulteress & wayward for wanting to break from the chains of futile marriage. Ronnie Elkabetz, who plays Viviane, gives a subtle and moving performance. For the most part of, she barely says a word. When witnesses back her she smiles with satisfaction, and when her character is scrutinized, there is a wry smile across her lips. We also see the voiceless, mute panic when the rabbis adjourn the case for another two or three month. Ronit impeccably enacts the outbursts, which brings out all her character’s suppressed pain and disdain.

                                         The last shot is also as interpretive as the first, where the camera focuses on Viviane’s ankles and foot as he once again walks into the courtroom. We don’t know if Viviane’s has eventually attained her freedom, but even she if has it is still a bittersweet ending. Not because of that final promise she gave to Elisha; it’s because that she is been set free by the same bureaucracy that deprives women of freedom. So, in a sense Viviane may never fully use her freedom as her activities would always be scrutinized by watchful eyes. As a viewer, we are also judging Viviane even through this end: We are asking ourselves, whether she is going to keep that promise.

                                          The film is also laced with subtle humorous scenes, especially the one when Viviane’s sister-in law storms the courtroom and talks rapidly to the judges. Despite the different judgmental male characters, “Gett” isn’t the kind of feminist film that says all men are cruel to women, one way or another. In fact all the men in this film are good & religious. But the point, directors trying to showcase is that these two traits doesn’t make a man ‘a good husband’. In the end, when Elisha asks Viviane to promise, we can sympathize with him, because he really loves Viviane but he never knew or was too stubborn to show love.

                                          “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” (116 minutes) is a powerful social commentary on patriarchal justice system and a staggering examination of human relationships. The finely etched characters, their ambiguities, and the layered performances give the film a universal appeal.