20th Century Women [2016] – A Reflection on the Pains and Joys of Growing Old

Multimedia artist Mike Mills belongs to the breed of film-makers who scrutinize and fictionalize their personal memories to weave an insightful study of familial connections. Although these are very personal narratives, there’s a genuine authenticity to it which we can relate with or at least understand. Woody Allen and Frederico Fellini are some of the great film-makers who had plundered their past to offer meditative, bittersweet movie experience. Mike Mills’ second feature Beginners (2010) was loosely based on his father (Paul Mills) and now the atypical coming-of-age tale 20th Century Women (2016) is based upon Mike’s mother, who had him at the age of 40 (in 1966). Mike’s father who ‘came out of the closet’ in his 70s didn’t have big presence during his son’s teenage years. His mother, two sisters, and other young women of Mike’s age helped him come to terms with adolescence. 20th Century Women is primarily a tribute to those souls who enabled him to carve his own path and embrace the creative talent. Nevertheless, the film isn’t just about Mike’s character named as Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). It has a decentralized narrative which shifts in perspective to provide a layered character study of the people shaping up 15 year old Jamie’s life.

The movie is set in 1979 Santa Barbara, California, the era of cultural upheavals, sexual revolution, and women’s movement. However, the upper-middle class household of 55 year old single divorced mom Dorothea Fields (Annette Benning) is largely untouched by those cultural forces. Dorothea and her teenage son Jamie seem to have led a calm existence. She thinks she has raised Jamie to be a thinking and caring individual. An indifferent act by the son makes Dorothea wonder how she should ease Jamie’s passage into adulthood. She asks herself ‘does it take a man to raise a man?’ But there’s no man in their life. The middle-aged handyman William (Billy Crudup) is too stiff for Jamie to connect with. So she asks two women in the household to help raise Jamie: a quirky, red-haired photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) renting a room in Dorothea’s big house; and a sexually active 17 year old Julie (Elle Fanning) – Jamie’s childhood friend and chief crush -- who occasionally sneaks into Jamie’s room to sleep and to offer excruciating details of her love life.

Dorothea, who wanted to be a pilot, works as industrial graphic designer. She is a broad-minded woman of the WWII generation. She wants to understand the new cultural forces and the new freedom or responsibilities it brings up. But at the same time she is little skeptical about these changes and wonder if it could threaten her son from becoming a ‘good man’. Twenty four old Abbie is recovering from cervical cancer. She has staunch feminist views, introduces Jamie to Judy Norsigian’s ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ and to punk rock music (Mike confides that Abbie is a composite character of his two elder sisters). The teenager gets a lesson on the frailties of a women’s body, on untidy, free-wheeling dance moves, on how to flirt with girls, etc. It’s a wholly different story with Julie. First of all, Jamie is in love with her, but Julie in order to preserve their unique male-female friendship doesn’t want to have sex with him. But it doesn’t stop her from telling him all the sexual escapades she has had. It turns out that Julie’s mother is a therapist who insists her daughter’s participation in the group sessions, where people open about their sexual lives and other dark emotions. It’s good to have William around as another boarder. He helps with the plumbing and re-models the old house, but the former hippie isn’t fun to be with. Director Mike Mills narrates the movie as if recalling an old memory. So Jamie’s little adventures or lessons move in a free-form manner, similar to the ways we recall an event from bits and pieces of stored memory. Jamie’s perspective is also often punctuated with the subjective perspective of three free-spirited women, who like all the modern women faces multitudinous challenges.

 Director Mike Mills’ background in art school and jobs in graphic design and music videos has had a huge influence in the way he inserts distinct objects or texts into the proceedings. The shot of a burning car to commence the narrative was so interesting (the burning of car may signal the absence of masculinity in the story). The inclusion of stock footage and the strange French New Wave style experiment with colors, although are self-indulgent exercises doesn’t seem too intrusive. I particularly liked the meditative place each narrator occupies, when it comes to commenting on the people standing alongside them or on the rapidly changing social & cultural order. These small contemplative passages give me some space to collect my  own thoughts about the past. We can relate with Jamie’s attempt to explain his mother to others (that she grew up in depression era and World War II). Most of us may have tried to provide such insufficient or simplistic portrait of our parents. Writer/director Mike perfectly understands how superficial it would be if he tries to turn his movie into a portrait of an individual. While he weaves the complex and paradoxical nature of Dorothea, Jamie, Abbie and Julie, Mike never turns it into a rigid portrait of these idiosyncratic personalities. Jamie’s temperamental behavior sort of tries to find a simple definition for these women, but they are much more than a strong matriarch, staunch feminist and promiscuous teenage girl. The same kind of flexible writing goes in the characterization of Mike’s alter ego Jamie aka ‘artfag’.

20th Century Women has some of the fascinating, ever-quotable dialogues among the recent films (“Wondering if you’re happy? That’s a great shortcut to being depressed”, “Men always feel that they have to fix things for women, but they're not doing anything. Some things just can't be fixed. Just be there, somehow that's hard for all of you.”). It must have been a difficult writing process, since a lot of materials (speeches, books, etc) are included to comment on the social milieu, while at the same the writer has to retain authenticity of the characters through the words they speak. Since there’s no conventional structure, the failure to find right balance between quirky elements and genuine emotions could have easily made the films less enjoyable. Mike Mills also allows a lot of improvisation because his films are lot dependent on the excellent ensemble cast. Annette Benning is brilliant as the worried mother, who is open to all possibilities. Whether Dorothea is chain-smoking or checking over stock reports or scrutinizing Julie or Jamie’s gestures, Benning turns her into powerful presence in the narrative. Fanning is just perfect with her unpolished performance and it’s always charming to witness little quirks of Greta Gerwig. The un-self-aware dance moves of Greta were just fascinating to look at (expressing the self’s pain and joy through free-floating body movements).   

Like Dorothea or Jamie, we aren’t neatly separated from the past. Our fictionalized memory or the subjective reality is always influenced by the past. So the movie’s contemplation on the theme of personal identity, love, happiness, freedom, and feminism are as relevant as it was four decades back. Since our world hasn’t risen above casual misogyny, sexual violence or rampant material consumption, the near-void state and (metaphorical) ‘group hugging’ nature of the characters makes a lot of sense. Running for nearly two hours, 20th Century Women is definitely not for those who have an aversion for introspective cinema. For others, it will bestow an insightful and emotionally resonant movie experience. 



Maanagaram [2017] – A Well-Crafted Hyperlink Cinema

The idea of multiple narratives has been used even in the era of Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens. Considering cinema’s unique quality to manipulate space and time, fragmented or multiple narratives has been one of favorite storytelling mode for many influential film-makers. Such films didn’t have a fixed central character. It’s full of parallel, composite plots, connected by mildly or strongly related episodes. Although the origins of these interlinked, composite narrative cinema isn’t perfectly zeroed-in, journalist Alissa Quart coined a term for it: hyper-link cinema. She first used the word in her review of Don Roos’ Happy Endings (2005). The term ‘hyper-link cinema’, however, was popularized through Roger Ebert’s review of Syriana. Usually, in a hyper-link cinema, different characters are introduced as if they inhabit separate narratives, but gradually a chain of events will make their lives more connected with one another. While in the films of Robert Altman, the ‘connecting’ points are subtle and less controlled, the earlier works of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarrittu presents multiple characters, whose predicament is based on one another’s actions.  The constant overlaps in these rigidly controlled cinemas perfectly indicate the complexities of our circumstances and endless conflict in emotions.

Lokesh Kanagaraj’s debut feature Maanagaram (Metropolitan, 2016) is a good, complex interplay of dramatic elements, in the vein of Inarrittu’s hyper-link cinema. The primary advantage of a hyper-link cinema is that it isn’t necessary to weave the traditional protagonist-antagonist characters. The characters could be drenched in shades of grey, whose good or evil choices could be suggested as a product of other’s actions or prevailing social atmosphere. Maanagaram revolves around four diverse characters: a youngster (Shri) from small town, seeking employment in a Chennai BPO since working in the city is considered to be prestigious; a carefree, tough guy (Sundeep Kishan) who woos a well-employed girl; a taxi-driver (Charlie) who has moved to Chennai for the sake of his son’s asthma treatment; and a wannabe criminal (Munishkanth) whose naivety brings loads of despair to a local criminal gang. It’s easy to understand the director’s choice to not name these common men, while naming every small, but vital supporting characters. Maanagaram may look like a metropolitan ‘city-bashing’ movie to overly insist on how things are so sunny in rural, hometown. But the sensible writing doesn’t turn the narrative into one-long condemnation of city life.

Maanagaram is largely a thriller that revolves around a kidnap. A smart, little boy is wrongly kidnapped by bunch of small-time criminals. Except for Munishkanth’s good-for-nothing wannabe gangster characters, the other kidnappers are capable of merciless behavior. They soon find out that the boy is son of city’s prominent bad guy PKP. Before the commencement of kidnapping drama, the three other central characters get interconnected in the tale through coincidences or by being at wrong place at the wrong time. While some may roll their eyes at the increasing number of coincidences in the plot, I was able to accept it, since the coincidences were engaging enough to propel the thriller framework. The single most commendable aspect of the film is its writing. The characters never confirm to a template and their decisions at key junctures keeps on surprising us. Not only the four central characters, even the smaller supporting characters’ are fully fleshed out. In a conventional sense, the smaller roles are just plot devices. But the perfect casting and wonderful writing turns such characters into more than plot devices. I felt the only character that’s merely used as a device is Regina’s ‘beautiful lover’ character; it may be because the romance looks perfunctory with a gaze that’s only focused on her external’ beauty’.

Lokesh maintains the menacing atmosphere till the end, although he undercuts the tension here and there with splendid darkly comic moments. The threat of sudden violence is diffused throughout the proceedings. The climax stand-off scene was masterfully staged as it evokes nervous laughter without undermining the tension of the situation. Unlike the wave of contemporary darkly comic Tamil thrillers, Maanagaram possesses an ideal at its center (aka social message). We may question the neatly packaged nature of this particular ideal. But director Lokesh, apart from using the interlinked narrative for thriller structure, also uses it for gracefully spreading his message. Each character’s helpless state and state of relief is neatly laid out in the parallel threads (for example, when it’s emphasized how the nameless characters involuntarily help each other in the end). While the complex interlinks finally brings a resolution to thrilling set-up, it also doubles up to stress on how ‘no one is an island’ or how ‘our simple humane actions can cause ripple effects in the generally indifferent social milieu’. The cast selection and performances is another great strength for the movie. Sri (Onaayum Aattuluttiyum & Vazhakku En 18/9) once again plays angst-ridden youngster to perfection. From Charlie to Madhusudhan Rao everyone offers a solid performance. Nevertheless, the scene-stealer is Munishkanth with a fantastic comic timing. 


 Maanagaram (137 minutes) is yet another remarkable meaningful entertainer from Tamil cinema. Although one may find flaws with its simple, idealistic message, the narrative doesn’t boast a dull moment. 


The Castle of Purity [1973] – A Haunting Fable about Perverted Ideologies & Institutions

The maverick and seminal Mexican film-maker Arturo Ripstein, son of Mexico’s prominent film producer, was best known for his subversively complex imagery and for exploring daring, timeless themes. The Harvard Film Archive in introducing the cinema of Arturo Ripstein felicitates him as the ‘crucial link between Mexico’s studio era and the new generation of auteurs such as Carlos Reygadas, Guillermo del Toro, etc’. The best works of Mr. Ripstein possesses the power to strongly condemn unchecked masculinity, intolerance, and habitual prejudice. The Castle of Purity (‘El Castillo de la pureza’, 1973) was the director’s first major work (his third feature film), where he had perfectly realized his trademark atmosphere of confinement and the sense of deep melancholia. It’s often referred that Mr. Ripstein was mentored by the renowned Spanish auteur Luis Bunuel (Bunuel stayed in Mexico during his exile from Franco’s fascist rule). Although both the film-makers uncannily blended brutality and unyielding darkness with humanity and compassion, their artistic sensibilities were different. While ‘The Castle of Purity’ has the unsettling, understated surrealism of ‘Exterminating Angel’, Ripstein’s rigorous visual schema and brooding atmosphere has built upon its own profound legacy.

Arturo Ripstein’s 1975 movie ‘The Realm of Fortune’ marked the starting of his long-standing collaboration with the remarkably talented screenwriter Paz Alicia Garciadiego (Bleak Street – 2015 – was their latest work). But, the script for ‘The Castle of Purity’ was co-written by renowned Spanish novelist and poet Jose Emilio Pacheco (he worked with Ripstein in two other films). The title of the movie was taken from Mexican poet and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz's essay on Marchel Duchamp. The Castle of Purity served as the prototype for Greek film-maker Yorgos Lanthimos’ acclaimed drama Dogtooth (2009). It’s about an authoritarian patriarch, who insists to preserve his family’s purity by not allowing them outside their ramshackle mansion. Claudio Brook (The Exterminating Angel, Simon of the Desert) plays the father character named Gabriel Lima. The movie opens 18 years after Gabriel’s decision to isolate his wife and children from the world’s filthy morals. Gabriel’s wife Beatriz (Rita Macedo) haven’t ventured out and often stays in her room, putting on make-up to satisfy the whims of her husband, returning after a day’s work.

The three children (a boy and two girls) were ironically named as Porvenir (future), Utopia, and Voluntad (free will). They have never set a foot outside their well-spaced family domain. The three of them help their father in the manufacture of rat poison, which Gabriel sells to the local shops throughout the city. Apart from the routine work, the children receive dry education classes from Gabriel, who forces them to memorize the words of great philosophers without allowing them to experience the context of those words. Gradually the rigid rules and unflagging oppression of Gabriel is resisted by teenagers Porvenir and Utopia. Gabriel appeals for moral righteousness and rational behavior, while keeping his family in a constant state of terror. Beatriz remains stoic and submissive to her husband’s uncontrollable masculine authority. Although the family members slowly learn to hate their captor Gabriel’s notions, they also simultaneously sympathize with him, waiting to bask in the graceful side of patriarchy. When Gabriel’s carefully constructed world begins to unravel he resorts to violence to maintain his dominance, regardless of the changes in individual psyche.

Spoilers Ahead....


On first glance, The Castle of Purity looks like a very simple allegory about the different repressing institutions humankind created for themselves, the foremost being the family. Gabriel Lima’s strict belief system, his refusal to expose his family to world’s moral contamination, the name of his children, the family’s profession of exterminating rats, and finally Gabriel’s recurring comparisons of rat with humans seems a bit unsubtle. Nevertheless, the film’s profound layers could be discovered in director Ripstein’s formal restraint and impeccable visual schemes. The director brilliantly sets up the sense of confinement in the opening sequence (the film opens and ends with the shot of rusted tin cans), where the camera tracks around the open terrace of the crumbling mansion. The atmosphere, that’s totally contrary to what’s suggested by the title, is full of rat cages, peeling wallpapers, and walls soaked by relentless beating of the rain. In the next sequence of shots as we get acquainted with the family members and their little quirks, Ripstein ironically prods over Gabriel Lima’s twisted sense of moral and spiritual purity.

Ripstein gradually introduces Gabriel’s methods of purification. When Voluntad misbehaves, she is confined to prison cell in the basement (a cage within a cage) to give her some time for contemplating on the wrong deed. Then there’s strict following of vegetarianism and then, of course exercise and education schedules to keep the body and mind fit. The whole schedule is devoid of emotions and even the learning is based on thoughts that are totally alienated to them. When Utopia expresses her desire to see the ocean, she is immediately hushed up by her brother Porvenir. The notion of repressing simple human emotions in order to uphold ‘purity’ leads to unrestrained corruption. The fallacy of Gabriel’s universe lies in his inability to understand that his idealism has turned to a bitter form of control; and in his belief that human condition could be fully freed from moral depravity or the so-called ‘sin’.

In the construction of this enclosed universe, Ripstein palpably creates a sense of entrapment for the viewers (the entrapment is what contaminates each of the family members’ psyches, including Gabriel). All the scenes set inside the house lacks free movement. From the steady pour of rain in the open terrace to the children’s everyday chores, Ripstein makes everything move in a rigid fashion. For example, take the scene when the Beatriz and her three children play in the wet courtyard. The made-up game is full of artificial, awkward movements, and the defeated players are asked to strike a rigid pose, called as ‘statue of death’ and ‘statue of happiness’ (there’s some resemblance between the movements of the children in Dogtooth and Castle of Purity, although both the director’s visual schemes are different) . Ripstein uses rain as the only element of purity. The repeated shot of Utopia and Voluntad enjoying the rain by standing in the spacious patio brings some relief from the stifling environment. Perhaps, the greatest strength of Ripstein’s imagery is his ability to juxtapose certain elements to create profound meaning. Gabriel spies on his sleeping children and wife through the little hole outside their respective rooms. These shots resemble that of the shots of rat cages. The most powerful juxtaposition happens when innocence and indifference are blended together. In one scene, Gabriel asks his youngest daughter Voluntad to test their product on a caged rat. The girl coolly feeds the cat, pulls over a black cloth to cover the cage, waits for few minutes, and finally moves the cloth to confirm the rat’s death. While the child’s posture exudes innocence, her detached action brings upon a unsettling feeling.

Arturo Ripstein is fully empathetic to women’s plight, who is victimized in myriad ways. Gabriel placing the blame entirely on Utopia for acting upon sexual desire reflects the unchallenged belief of patriarchal institutions (religious, political or educational). In what could be seen as smart development, Ripstein doesn’t use the rebellious attitude of eldest son Porevnir as the means to freedom. Rather than going for a cliched ending with a battle of male egos, Ripstein chooses over a much nuanced climax. The true rebellion comes from the women (Utopia throws out a letter and Beatriz wrestles off Gabriel’s weapon). But, despite Gabriel’s failed showdown with the cops, the ending shot questions whether the family would ever free themselves from confined atmosphere. The family head is taken away and the family walks over the street to unlock the door and enter. May be the father’s twisted sense of purity had failed to subjugate the family members, but can they really break away from daily habits that are carried out within a cage. Is it possible for them to live in the outside world or will the crumbling mansion now become a self-imposed cage? Ripstein leaves us with a profound, open question about confinement, familial or other.


The Castle of Purity (108 minutes) is a thought-provoking as well as a distressing portrayal of a volatile patriarch and the effect he brings upon the family placed under his care. Mexican auteur Arturo Ripstein’s singular vision makes this movie a must-watch for art-house movie lovers.  

Loving [2016] – An Understated Depiction of Undeniable Love

Jeff Nichols’ Loving (2016) opens with images of two people – a white male and an African-American woman – sitting together. She says, ‘I’m pregnant’ and we could see the ripples of joyful impact on the guy’s face. The frame widens a little to show the porch of the rural home this couple is sitting in a summer night, grazed by soothing air. If the first scene suggests a sense of place, the next scene conveys the era these lovers are living in. It’s the pre-civil rights movement era (1958), where the love between men and women of different races were seen with irritating side-glances. Director Jeff Nichols always has the knack of immersing viewers into the story without designing any major visual imagery or spelled-out context. He just simply focuses on the character’s unique, deeply personal moments so as to make the genre conventions into something very special. I felt that Nichols’ previous sci-fi movie Midnight Special (2016) to be the weakest film in his oeuvre. Yet, even in that film there are some interesting visual and sound designs, which many Hollywood directors aren’t capable of conjuring. In Midnight Special, Nichols sets up a terrific opening sequence by just using a car blasting through the dark road, armed with a pulsating musical score and impeccable sound design. The same thing happens in Loving: he uses sparse visual details to instantly and deeply root us into the narrative.

‘Loving’ tells the tale of Richard and Mildred Loving, a real-life interracial couple, who took their civil rights case to Supreme Court in order to challenge the State of Virginia’s miscegenation laws (law that enforced racial segregation at the level of marriage). In 1967, US Supreme Court gave a landmark ruling (Loving v. Virginia) that invalidated any state laws for prohibiting marriage between different races. This may be perfect historical movie vehicle to enunciate loud dialogues about American racism, to concoct an award-bait piece, and make few allegorical nods, comparing the 1960s with Trump’s America. Of course, Jeff Nichols is too talented director to make such a cliched drama. He makes sure to weave the story of ‘Lovings’ as the story of gentle heroes, but he entrenches that feeling without the help of big emotional speeches or exaggerated drama. The small, low-key moments showcasing Richard and Mildred’s love generates enough empathy to make us root for their rightful claim.

The narrative begins in a moderately integrated community in the 1950s American South (Virginia). Richard Perry Loving (Joel Edgerton) is romantically involved with Mildred (Ruth Negga) and when she becomes pregnant, he insists on marriage, even if they have to travel to Washington D.C. for the ceremony. One of the last vestiges of the Jim Crow laws prohibited interracial marriage in the state. Richard works in construction crew and buys a plot of land to build a new house for his wife. However, word gets about their marriage and the police break into the couple’s bedroom one night with flashlights to arrest them. The lawyer advises them to take a ‘guilty’ plea. He promises that the judge would suspend prison sentence, if they promise to not return to the state together for 25 years. The couple leaves their respective families, comforting rural land, and job to movie into a cramped space in Washington city. 

Richard and Mildred once again get into trouble with the law, when they both return to the state for Mildred to have her baby. In the next five plus years, the couple lives a strained life with their three little children. Martin Luther King’s historical march gives enough hope for Mildred so as to fight for her own civil rights. She soon gets a call from American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a lawyer named Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll) is sent to work for them (with a promise that they don’t have to pay a cent). Cohen hopes to take the case to Supreme Court. In the mean time, Richard and Mildred move into rural side to stay closer to their families. They are burdened by the weight of the situation, while holding on to the unbridled mutual love.

‘Loving’ largely fascinates us due to its narrative approach and excellent characterization. Joel Edgerton ensures that Richard Loving stays stoic, monosyllabic, yet make him naturally convey his full range of love for Mildred. A tiny moment of Richard sitting by Mildred puts him arm around her or hugging her expresses a lot than the usual convention of righteous dialogues. Edgerton expertly converts his characters’ taciturn behavior into something heartrending. In the hands of lesser director or actor, Richard would have come across as ignorant, submissive Southerner. But Edgerton is able to showcase what are the foremost priorities for Richard: to take care of Mildred and his family. He doesn’t care about the attention they are getting around the nation or about the prejudice shoved at him or that they are about to make a big change in the constitutional law. As he says to Bernard Cohen after declining the invitation to Supreme Court (‘just tell the judge I love my wife’), Richard wants his simple notion of love to survive; he’s not after a grand political victory. Jeff Nichols’ men always remain intense and obsessive enough in their simple quest. The constant scanning of the horizon for anonymous threats is pretty much recurring quality of a Nichols’ protagonist.

The Real and Reel 'Lovings'

Right after Richard and Mildred return to rural household, closer to Virginia, he keeps on looking at the empty path for invisible threats. Mildred’s reaction to the same scenario is entirely different. The camera closely studies her as the arched back (while living in the cramped city apartment) becomes straighter and with a quiet smile she breathes in the buzzing air of vast, rural landscape. Ruth Negga’s Mildred also uses few words to convey depth of her feelings, but boasts a quiet determination which works well in overcoming her husband’s doubt and reluctance. Unlike Richard, she very well knows what the fight and victory in the Supreme Court would mean to the other discriminated individuals. Yet, she doesn’t take grandstanding and her priority is also to ensure that their bond remains the same, victory for the cause or not. May be one might feel that their relationship lacked passion or may find it hard to believe that they never had an argument. It does get too discrete and restrained in order to eschew big dramatic moments or historical lessons. At times, the threat of violence seems more palpable than the suffering endured by the married couples. Nevertheless, I am not sure if little dosage of explosive narrative devices would have helped the story.

Yet another flaw in Jeff Nichols’ direction is when he occasionally panders to Hollywood style of suspense building (for example the accident in Washington or the final courtroom scene). Such devices break the Nichols’ carefully constructed organic way of storytelling. Jeff Nichols’ brilliant directorial skills are more evident when he is observing the characters’ sensitive emotional terrain. He gives a simple, yet effective introduction to lawyer Bernard Cohen: a dangerously optimistic and addicted to showmanship, although he is committed to the cause. Cinematographer Adam Stone, who had shot all of Jeff Nichols’ movies to-date, once again does an excellent job in capturing the Southern flavor and by focusing on the quiet elegance of the central relationship.  


Despite the flawless period detail, ‘Loving’ (123 minutes) is less a civil rights era movie than a heartrending portrayal of true love. The organic narrative flow and astounding central performances makes it stand out among the similar historical American dramas.