Thursday, January 03, 2008

In Tamil Nadu

Chennai is hot as blazes and punishingly muggy but it's good to be reunited with my parents, whom I only see once every couple of years. Every afternoon we stir out for a walk on the beach when the sea breeze picks up but otherwise we mostly stay indoors. We've been watching lots of classic Bollywood, Keaton and Ozu, 2-3 films a day. Having nearly forsaken Bollywood cinema when I moved to the States over 20 years ago, I've had a small epiphany reconnecting with it in the last few months. It's a vast cinema, rich and strange, worthy of serious, careful attention (not to mention joyous cinephilic appreciation) but I don't see a huge amount of it out there, either in print or on the Net, at least in comparison to that other large cinema, Hollywood. One of my resolutions this year is to write more about Indian cinema, looking at it through at least two key lenses: (1) film form; and (2) as social/cultural artifacts. There are so many pleasures and treasures here, waiting to be rediscovered, to be thought about and talked about...

* * *

Lots of good reading to catch up on:

-- Some year-end list-posts: Acquarello; Darren; Filmbrain; Listening Ear; Mubarak; and Zach.

-- Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell's post "Happy birthday, classical cinema!" includes a best-films-of-1917 list.

-- The 2007 Village Weekly/LA Weekly Film Poll and the critics' ballots.

-- Mark your calendars for two upcoming blog-a-thons: Contemplative Cinema 2 at Unspoken Cinema, Jan 6-13; and Val Lewton at Michael Guillen's The Evening Class, running the week of Jan 14.

-- Dave Kehr on Harry Langdon in the NYT.

* * *

Adrian's new column at De Filmkrant refers to blog posts by Sandrine Marques, Mubarak, and Zach, and discusses comparative iconography, "finding the similarities and tracing the evolution of a pictorial motif, a style of composition or an arrangement of colours across works, periods, nations":

Art history, as it is classically and sometimes too conventionally practiced, has its trap: the literal-minded emphasis on direct 'influence': which style influenced another, which artist studied and emulated another. Of course, many filmmakers have indeed been directly inspired by paintings and other artworks, handing reproductions to their cinematographers and production designers.

With 'Décadrages' ('deframings'), the 1985 book by French critic-screenwriter-director Pascal Bonitzer, however, another approach to tracing the relation between art and cinema was born: in the best Warburgian spirit, it is not about explicit influences or borrowings, but more mysterious and unconscious echoes, resonances, transmissions, 'eternal returns' of certain gestures, shapes, visual ideas - The subsequent critical work of Jacques Aumont, Alain Bergala and Nicole Brenez has traced many tantalising 'networks' between images that the old-school iconographers would probably have never allowed.

Whatever theoretical or methodological approach is used, one thing is certain: the critic who wishes to compare visual instances and forms needs to have a 'good eye', and an even better visual memory - even a 'photographic memory'! And the Internet has proved to be a fertile ground for a renewed 'iconophilia' ranging across art, cinema, still photography, advertising imagery - particularly in the copyright-indifferent blogosphere.

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A page of Michael Sicinski reviews including I'm Not There, Black Book, The Band's Visit, Quiet City, and No Country for Old Men. Here's an excerpt from the write-up on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly:

I've never been quite sure how to feel about Julien Schnabel. Hailing as I do from the Marx / Barthes / Foucault / October side of the art history world, I was sort of coached to loathe the guy, since his neo-Expressionist canvases and macho posturing and most-favored-nation status in the Saatchi Collection and his bon vivant persona all marked him out as the enemy. ("Go study Barbara Kruger photocollages like a good boy!") And while I did find more than a few of Schnabel's paintings almost comically overbearing ("Portrait of God," anyone? "Muhammad Ali"?), I also quite enjoyed their chutzpah a lot of the time. Their swagger was refreshing in an anti-aesthetic age, they displayed an often misunderstood sense of humor, and the broken-crockery textures struck me as a logically impoverished, look-ma American answer to various forms of European refinement, from classical Italian frescoes to the contemporaneous Teutonicisms of Anselm Kiefer. Of all the 80s art stars, it makes sense that only Schnabel has really succeeded as a film director (observe the sad crash-and-burns of Cindy Sherman, David Salle, and Robert Longo), but it's odd that his three films have been so utterly pedestrian and undistinguished, as though the film medium were nothing more than a convenient way to sell nominally visual storytelling to the high-middlebrow masses. Although Diving Bell is his most formally ambitious film, in certain ways it's also his most conservative, surveying modernist terrain in order to claim it for hackneyed narrative and received wisdom.

Tamil Nadu map: from here.


Blogger shahn said...

i'm really looking forward to your writings on indian cinema!
happy new year

January 03, 2008 11:52 AM  
Blogger Sachin G. said...

Hey Girish,

have you ever been to Pondicherry? One regret I have is not being there. I am curious to see how much French inflence can still be found there.

January 03, 2008 3:02 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

Chennai sounds like Miami Beach, but without all the riff raff. Have a good time!

January 03, 2008 10:05 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Shahn, Sachin & Peter!

Sachin, I've never been to Pondicherry. But I remember a (possibly apocryphal) story from university days that the reason Western skin mags like Playboy and Penthouse were called "pondies" in India had to do with their being smuggled in by Westerners through Pondicherry...

Though I'm Tamil and was born in Madras/Chennai, I grew up all over India and never in Tamil Nadu, and feel like a bit of a stranger here. Oddly, I feel a greater connection to Hindi and Bengali culture than I do to Tamil culture.

January 04, 2008 9:59 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Jonathan Rosenbaum's end-of-the-year piece at the Chicago Reader.

January 04, 2008 10:17 AM  
Blogger Ed Howard said...

That Sicinski piece on Diving Bell is very interesting and thought-provoking, even though ultimately I don't agree with it in the least (as my own recent review should make clear). I disagree most vociferously with the idea that the film falls into the trap of a conventional "uplift" story -- this is precisely the kind of film that Schnabel is not making, and with this kind of material it's a great tribute to his skill that he never makes this feel like a Hallmark movie-of-the-week. In fact, Schnabel systematically mutes the actual narrative in favor of a more subjective presentation of Bauby's experiences, even when the film shifts from first-person to third-person. This review makes it sound like the film consists of an opening forty minutes of abstract Brakhage-like visuals, followed by another hour-plus of traditional narrative. But in fact the division between the two is not so clear. Even in the opening section, Schnabel includes something of a narrative perspective to locate these visuals within a story, while the later parts of the film continue to privilege Bauby's subjective experience via periodic returns to the first-person POV and the insertion of dream material or symbolic images from Bauby's mind. This isn't merely the co-option of Brakhagian visuals to a traditional narrative, but a genuinely original work in which narrative coexists with abstract thought.

January 04, 2008 3:10 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi there, Ed. I haven't seen Diving Bell yet but will when it comes to town. The thing I admire about Michael's reviewing is how much I learn from it even when/if I disagree with his evaluation of a film. (I've seen none of Schnabel's films, actually.)

I'm pacing about vampirically in the middle of the night (still jet-lagged). Here is some reading:
-- End-of-the-year lists at Dan's place, and Film Journey (Doug Cummings and Robert Koehler).
-- via David Hudson: DVD of the year poll (with lists) at DVD Beaver.
-- The Siren on "Code Nostalgia."
-- Flickhead reports on an upcoming TCM screening of Preminger's Skidoo.

January 04, 2008 5:11 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Also, a nice end-of-year post at Dave Kehr's.

January 04, 2008 5:25 PM  
Blogger Sachin G. said...

Actually Girish, now that you mention it, I do remember hearing that term a long time ago. But I never understood it and dismissed it as one of those Hindi words that found a way into common usage despite not having any purposeful meaning. Maybe there was a meaning afterall :)

Even though I have visited the south before, Pondicherry was always a big unknown until a few years ago. That was when I saw a Bollywood movie shot entirely there (Jism). The movie was nothing worth raving about but the sights left me curious. For example, seeing French street names and the Euro like settings got my interest. It looked to have a different feel from Goa.

But shamefully, I am a bit behind the times. Apparently, Pondicherry was renamed to Puducherry in 2006.

January 04, 2008 7:12 PM  
Anonymous Doug said...

I have a great image of you now, Girish, walking along the beach. Enjoy your stay well! (And it sounds as though you are.)

January 04, 2008 9:21 PM  
Blogger Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks for posting the links to the yearender lists. I'm really glad that many Filipino films got mentioned. Cheers!

January 04, 2008 11:47 PM  
Blogger jmac said...

Happy New Year, Girish!

I would LOVE to see a video of India from you!


January 05, 2008 2:49 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi, everyone.

Jen, a very happy new year to you too!

I don't own a video camera (or even a camera-phone) but I wish I'd brought one to India: the eyes and ears are continuously flooded with 'sensations' everywhere you turn! I've told my parents that I'd like to visit them every Christmas from now on, so perhaps I can come video-prepared next year...

January 05, 2008 9:19 PM  
Blogger girish said...

New release additions to the Netflix queue today: Daryl Duke's Payday (yay); Smiley Face (Gregg Araki); Big Bang Juvenile (Takashi Miike); and Sunshine (Danny Boyle).

At SF360: B. Ruby Rich on the films of Emile de Antonio.

January 06, 2008 9:10 AM  
Anonymous jim emerson said...

Happy new year, Girish. I'm just getting out from under a bash with the flu. (I was bashed by it, not the other way around.)

I just looked up the population of Chennai and was surprised to find that, with a population of over 4 million, it's bigger by far than Brooklyn or Manhattan!

January 07, 2008 11:33 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Happy New Year, Jim--I'm sorry to hear about your bout with the flu!

Indeed, Chennai is large, the 4th largest city in India. (The top 5, population-wise, are Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore.) The roads haven't increased much in size/capacity but the number of vehicles must've grown many-fold in the last 15 years. It's nerve-wracking to sit in the back seat and watch my dad negotiate the traffic like some brash, reckless (but nimble) Jehu. (I usually bring some reading and dare not raise my head for fear of a nervous breakdown.) Manhattan traffic is Serenity itself by comparison...!

January 08, 2008 8:50 AM  

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