Monday, January 16, 2006

Repast

I was raised on Bollywood cinema and one reason I watch very little of it today is that I developed a bias against it at some point. Ours was a humble middle-class Indian home: a small glass of milk was rationed to us kids each morning; we owned no stereo, just a small radio that we all huddled around; and my dad home-made our class notebooks from scrap paper each term. The day was spent in vigilance of every rupee in our pockets; though millions lived below the poverty line (and we didn’t), we weren’t that far off from the edge. Bollywood movies never showed us our own reality; they swept us into faraway non-existent realms. I enjoyed this at first, then started taking umbrage (“Are our day-to-day lives so unimportant and wretched that filmmakers don’t want to go anywhere near them?”). So, when I encountered the anti-escapist Indian "New Cinema" of Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal as a teen, it was like stumbling into a pool of water in the Sahara.

Naruse’s Repast (1951) moves me because of the insistent way in which he focuses on the petty details of “balancing the domestic books” that each day demanded in a household like our own. Naruse accords money the miserable respect it deserves. Bills change hands in close-up; people lend and borrow specific, carefully recorded amounts; salaries are discussed in unblushing detail; and a wife stares at a sheaf of unaccounted-for yen notes sticking out of her husband’s pocket as he sleeps after a long night of drinking.

These may seem like banal, uninteresting details but I could relate to the paramount importance they held in our own home, and their too-rare appearance in movies has always puzzled me. In India, the days of our lives were spent maintaining the delicate balance of solvency. When I moved to the States and went to a supermarket for the first time, I was stunned that I could actually buy a gigantic gallon of milk for a dollar eighty-nine — no more rations. It’s this feeling for the import of money in our daily lives (something separate from greed and acquisitiveness) that Naruse seems to have a keen appreciation of.

Repast (a.k.a. A Married Life) is told from the point of view of an unhappy wife trapped in a marriage to a dull and uninterested man. (Since the woman is, you know, Setsuko Hara, the husband’s indifference is baffling). His coquettish runaway niece arrives to stay with them and shakes things up a bit — when asked what kind of occupation she has in mind for herself, she politely announces that she wants to be a stripper. As time passes, the wife gradually considers leaving her husband.

There’s a lot more going on in this film than money, so let me point out a few other aspects. The film opens with a black screen and a terrific epigraph (I’m a sucker for those) from the writer of the original novel, Fumiko Hayashi: “I like the simple lives of simple men and women in the limitless universe.” Before I had seen a single image, the film had me by the lapels. There is a superb essay on Naruse in Phillip Lopate’s eclectic collection Totally Tenderly Tragically (the title comes from a profession of love Michel Piccoli makes to Brigitte Bardot in Contempt). Lopate says:

One of the charms of Naruse’s art is his earned pessimism. It takes for granted that life is unhappy; therefore, we can relax in the possession of sadness, acquiesce from the start to the fate of disenchantment, the only suspense being which details Naruse will use to bring it about. In American films and novels, it often takes the characters three-fourths of the plot to win through to the insight of unhappiness, whining and kicking all the way. We can see it as a trade-off: American art has a dynamism and energy generated by its optimism, Japanese art a serenity and grace by its acceptance of the persistence of suffering.

I caught the film in the company of the Siren and there’s a shockingly familiar street procession scene towards the end that made us both exclaim, “Voyage To Italy!”, but Rossellini didn’t make his film until two years later. After the curtain went down, the Siren went home to relieve her babysitter and, contemplating the long dark drive home from Toronto to the States, I almost decided to ditch the second film of the evening and hit the road. So glad I didn’t — it was a beaut. But I should save that for next time.

34 Comments:

Blogger girish said...

NancyRae, for years a believer in me before I believed in myself (thank you), is also (bless her heart) a loyal reader and champion of this here blog. She had a strong and hilarious reaction to Showgirls, which I just had to share:

“Sorry, Girish, but I have to agree with the Siren.

The film does have some redeeming qualities but not enough to overcome the rampant misogyny, abysmal acting, inane script, ridiculous storyline and the batallion of anger-filled, grace-free, talentless, emotionally vacant characters -- who dance.

I put it on my calendar to visit Showgirls again -- in
2016.”

Thanks, NR, for permission to reprint.

January 16, 2006 12:02 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Agree 100% with the Siren.
For me, Shelley Winters = Charlotte Haze.

I just opened up Lolita at random and found this line about Charlotte:
"She was like a musician who may be an odious vulgarian in ordinary life, devoid of tact and taste; but who will hear a false note in music with diabolical accuracy of judgment."

January 16, 2006 12:04 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I do watch Bollywood cinema, but I favor old, black-and-white period films, like Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, etc.

January 16, 2006 12:07 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Great post by Zach: Circumnavigating The Cinema.
And here's a nice response from David.

January 16, 2006 12:19 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, while I'm unfamiliar with Naruse, I greatly enjoyed reading this post. I also admire Lopate's writing on film; the book you mention is a must-have, and his essay on Contempt is perhaps my favorite piece on the film (which, by the way, happens to be my favorite Godard film).

January 16, 2006 12:34 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael-- Re: Contempt, I feel the same way on both counts!
And I also love the hour-long conversation between Godard and Lang (beautifully titled "The Dinosaur And The Baby") on the Criterion DVD--I'm a big admirer of both.

January 16, 2006 12:48 PM  
Blogger girish said...

And, Michael, thanks for the wealth of links in your last post.

January 16, 2006 12:50 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

My pleasure, Girish.

And ditto on that Criterion feature with Godard and Lang (their edition of Contempt is one of their best, I think).

January 16, 2006 1:54 PM  
Anonymous Darren said...

Nice post, Girish. This was part of Quandt's Naruse retrospective, I assume? He's a filmmaker I'd love to explore. Hopefully the retrospective will lead to some DVDs.

"Naruse accords money the miserable respect it deserves."

This is a pet interest of mine. L'Argent is the classic example, I guess, but I admire the few Laurent Cantet films I've seen for the same reason. Those real, visible exchanges of money demystify the determining processes of economics in ways that narrative (whether as a melodrama or satire or thriller or whatever) too often elides.

January 16, 2006 2:20 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Darren--Yeah, it's actually season 2 of the retrospective, and this was the opening screening on Friday. I also discovered that a few films will play at George Eastman House in Rochester, which is about an hour away, so I'd like to at least catch a couple of the big 'uns there (Floating Clouds, Flowing, etc). And DVD would be very nice.
Nice point about Cantet, I had forgotten.
I remember Haneke's Benny's Video spending some time on transactions too.

January 16, 2006 2:30 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Regarding money & transactions, we must mention Abel Ferrara!

I missed Repast, Girish, but I'll do my best to catch it next time it screens. Great read.

January 16, 2006 3:02 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Zach, I watched Ferrara's New Rose Hotel a year ago, loved the first hour, and was baffled by the last half-hour. Recently, I discovered your paper about it, and the film is making better sense to me now. I need to re-visit it in light of this new perspective I may be acquiring about it.
And the fact that I picked up Brad Stevens' book on Ferrara, which looks deliciously good.

January 16, 2006 3:06 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

I'd love to write more on NRH in the future. The paper I wrote on it a year ago is a little embarrassing to me now, but helped me work out some ideas tremendously.

(Oh, and speaking of classic Bollywood, this afternoon I just watched Barsaat ... whoa!)

January 16, 2006 3:17 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah, Barsaat. With Nargis.
You have solid Bollywood taste.
And a wide field of vision (Brakhage, Tarr, yakuza film, Raj Kapoor in the span of four days).
My local Indian grocery store has been carrying 2-in-1 DVD's: eg Raj Kapoor's Aah and Aag on one disc for $10, a steal.

January 16, 2006 5:04 PM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

ROFL at NancyRae, especially the kicker line. Glad to have at one least rampaging dissenter on my side.

Ah, I am still having trouble gathering my thoughts about Naruse! and I feel bad writing about him because his movies are so damn RARE. It's a screaming pity they are so seldom shown. But you nail one thing I always notice in his films, the unblushing treatment of money and its importance in our lives. When American movies bring up money, it is usually to dismiss it. Naruse gives us no such pretty illusions.

BTW, by all means catch Flowing. Naruse has some of the best endings I have ever seen, but the final sequence of Flowing left me agape.

January 16, 2006 5:15 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I will pass the Siren's word on to NancyRae. :-)

January 16, 2006 5:18 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Dave Kehr:
"...And so narrative features become a strange balancing act, between the overall sluggishness of a three hour narrative and the hyperkineticism of individual sequences, which become a way of keeping the audience alert and responsive during the most dragged out scenes (the giant slug attack in “Kong,” the endless exchange of furtive, flirty looks between the ranch hands at the beginning of “Brokeback”). One leaves many of these films (and “The New World,” a serious work of art for all of its faults, is a major exception) feeling both bored and exhausted, beaten down by the endless repetition but whipped up by the frenzied rush of sensations (aural, of course, as well as visual)."

January 16, 2006 5:39 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

I stand by the comment I left on Kehr's blog. When Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth was released in America in the 70's, half an hour was hacked out by either the producer or the distributor -- and it worked to the benefit of the picture. (That was the version that got all the positive reviews in the U.S.) It used to be one of my favorites. Now it's only available in the uncut director's version and is a droning bore.

January 16, 2006 8:42 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I saw it on VHS in the 80s. Liked it. I suspect it wasn't the long version.

January 16, 2006 8:53 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I saw the shorter version too, and guessed that a lot had been cut, then looked it up and found out that I was right. Parts of it had me puzzled, wondering what I'd missed.

Re: Kehr's post, I thought that Jackson's version was bloated (especially in the middle: spiders, now sucky things, now giant vampire crickets, next up: some mummies, the blob, and a cranky clown who's no good at twisting balloons into animal shapes). But Jackson at least has a command of film language, whereas some directors think that all that's required to make something compelling is to cut every two seconds, keep moving the camera around, and show some rain reflections in the streets. Examples of film "ungrammaticisms" are all over the place, even scattered in otherwise decent directors' work (like in Burton's first Batman--I've watched the film a few times and still think the angles are all wrong on the bit near the end where the grappling thing shoots out to either side and Batman makes his Daring Rescue). I think a lot of them are not stylistic devices so much as ignorance, a hyperkinetic assault on the senses serving to hide the complete lack of anything of substance. Which is fine, for popcorn films, but less fine if you care about cinema as art.

Comparing it to music, it would be like a band coming along deciding that The Ramones were sell-outs because they knew three chords; this hypothetical band will "keep it real" by learning only one.

And now I feel like a very old man. "Get off my grass, ya kids!"

January 16, 2006 10:43 PM  
Blogger Dipanjan said...

Last Friday I was lucky to catch Nicholas Ray's directorial debut They live by night, shown as part of the ongoing SF film noir festival. Part of what impacted me the most was the ubiquitous physical presence of money and its huge impact on each action and motivation. The numerous close-ups of the bag full of cash robbed from the bank, detailed discussion of terms and conditions for each cash transaction, an eager expectation for that cash and the pure joy at the sight of it beautifully capture the import of money in a deflation.

Though they have very little in common, They live by night reminded me of the other night film by the other Ray. In Aranyer Din Ratri , Satyajit seems to be particularly interested in one trapping of the modern life which the friends can not burn as casually as the old newspaper - money. Shekhar's gambling and his dependence on Ashim for money, Ashim's confident handling of all monetary transactions including his bribing of the caretaker, tribal Duli's plea for work in exchange of some money, Hari wrongly accusing the servant for stealing his wallet and striking him, Hari's proposal to take Duli to Calcutta where she can make a lot of money and finally Aparna hinting at the potential for a future relation with Ashim by writing her telephone number on a rupee bill - all seem to underline that we can no longer easily run away from money or the lack of it.

January 16, 2006 10:51 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I think a lot of them are not stylistic devices so much as ignorance, a hyperkinetic assault on the senses serving to hide the complete lack of anything of substance.

... which is really two complaints in one, and makes me wonder if the two tend to go hand in hand or if I tend to dismiss hyperkinetic films in general. I think not; I love the rapid cuts in City of God and Requiem for a Dream; I think what I'm getting at (clumsily) is that the editorial flashiness often strikes me as ignorance rather than choice, and that I notice it most when it's hand in hand with a personal shallowness: in the kinds of films where the characters are pawns, and improbably things happen because they lengthen the chase, lead to a gory predictable death, or end in a big explosion. Which is a purely anecdotal observation that I couldn't back up with any sort of data. And might all be because I'm annoyed at the story and so I pay more attention to the storytelling method.

January 16, 2006 10:52 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa, I know it sounds shameful but I haven't seen a thing by Jackson except Heavenly Creatures, which I liked, and that was ten years ago. It's the length of his films I find daunting; I know it's not a great excuse.
I love the '33 Kong: lean, mean and full of nuance.

Dipanjan, Thanks for jogging my memory.
I love both the Rays you mention, but it's been a few years since I saw them. The first is a loose remake of Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once (1937), which is itself obsessed with monetary deprivation and a feeling of doom: Lang seals the lovers' fate right from the start.
Yes, Aranyer Din Ratri ("Days And Nights In The Forest") is a fantastic film, one of my faves by him. I saw a beautiful print a few years ago, was intoxicated by the film for a week, and then its details slipped away from me. And I never did take any notes, which I regret, since it's so incredibly rare to come by.

January 16, 2006 11:01 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Nothing shameful in it. I think Heavenly Creatures is my favorite Jackson film, though I've seen it only once--there's a real sense of inexorable tragedy in it.

The Frighteners is good funny/scary fun, but slight.

As for the LOTR films, they're not everyone's cup of tea. The first one bored me a bit; I thought the second one was fascinating; and I wished the third was about 30 minutes shorter (all that would come out of the end, I think, enraging Tolkien fans, but it does drag on). As a trilogy, they struck me as technically skillful but a bit dry, and very predictable. I don't regret seeing them but I don't think I've ever recommended them to anyone either.

January 16, 2006 11:09 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I saw the three hour version of Betty Blue and am not sure if it significantly better than the two hour version I saw in 1986. In response to Girish's mention of watching Bollywood films, I am still waiting for his top ten list or "essential" list of Bollywood films, as well as a list of the more serious stuff.

January 16, 2006 11:25 PM  
Anonymous dvd said...

I really like that Kehr article (especially the exclusion of The New World from the list of exhaustive films.

For the record, as Tuwa suggested, I think there's nothing wrong with rapid cutting, just as there's nothing wrong with voice-over narration; a filmmaker just has to know how - and when - to use them.

January 16, 2006 11:36 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter, it'll be hard for me to do a Bollywood list anytime soon because I haven't seen many of these great films in years, decades even. Perhaps one thing I can do is occasionally start writing about individual classic Bollywood films that Netflix (or other mail-order services) carry. This way, if the reader's curiosity is piqued, he/she might be able to check out the film.

The same goes for Indian New Cinema directors: Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, etc. There's an excellent Adoor film called Shadow Kill that's at Netflix that I would recommend highly. Maybe I should do a post about it, though Acquarello already has. But a little redundancy may not hurt. It's a film that would be a good entry point into this stream of socially conscious Indian cinema.

David--I've been enjoying Kehr's blog. My appreciation of him as a critic has really risen because of it. He roams futher and freer on the blog than in print (not surprising, given his somewhat-circumscribing DVD gig at the Times).

January 16, 2006 11:47 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

FWIW, Filipino critic Noel Vera has a list with extensive commentary about his own 'Bollywood 10.'

January 17, 2006 8:41 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Zach. Great reading.

January 17, 2006 9:33 AM  
Anonymous jmac said...

Beautiful, writing, G. Very poetic.

January 17, 2006 12:15 PM  
Blogger girish said...

J., You're too kind.

January 17, 2006 12:22 PM  
Blogger Mubarak Ali said...

All this talk of classic Bollywood cinema is making me want to get back to catching up with Hindi films (rented from my local Bollywood video store).

Girish, you might already be familiar with the small poll Rediff carried out last year when they asked a few Indian filmmakers to list their ten favourite films. Some very interesting (if rare) titles get mentioned. Here's the link: http://specials.rediff.com/movies/ibest05.htm

January 18, 2006 12:12 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I noticed that Fred Camper was added to the links. It's been almost thirty years since I last saw him, but I use to know Fred when he was a Ph.D. candidate at NYU's Cinema Studies Department.

January 18, 2006 7:44 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Mubarak, thank you for that. I had never seen it before.
Peter, I found Camper in the little gold mine of Zach's back room.

January 18, 2006 8:20 AM  

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