Weekend Film Recommendation: Pather Panchali [Song of the Little Road] (1955)

Originally trained as a visual designer, Satyajit Ray is regarded in Indian cinema history as one of its greatest directors, and as the auteur responsible for creating the first domestic film to acquire success abroad. That film, which is the first of both Ray’s career and of a trilogy named after its protagonist “Apu,” is Pather Panchali [Song of the Little Road] (1955).

While the sequels deal with Apu’s life as an adolescent and then as a young adult, Pather Panchali centers on Apu’s birth and early childhood. Born to a penurious family in rural Bengal, the father Harihar (played by Kanu Banerjee) is a scholar, poet, and priest who is perennially trying to scrounge together some money to repair the family home, feed the children (Apu is accompanied by an older sister named Durga, played exquisitely by Uma Dasgupta), and purchase new clothes for his wife Sarbajaya.

Screen shot 2015-06-26 at 01.10.05

Although the trilogy is named after Apu and follows his life over multiple decades, it is his mother Sarbajaya, played by Karuna Banerjee, who is really the focal point for Pather Panchali. At the beginning of the film, she is the proud guardian of the homestead, delegating responsibilities and keeping the children fed. Even though she is understandably hurt when she overhears her neighbors gossiping unflatteringly about her parenting, Sarbajaya is a composed and dignified woman. As the story progresses, however, and the family’s poverty deepens, it’s through her quiet frustrations and increasingly exasperated efforts to pawn belongings that we notice the growing intensity of the family’s despair, and the gradual weakening of the formidable determination she showed when we first met her. Apu’s upbringing is thus told through his relationship with his mother, who—although always loving— is over-bearing, stern, and disciplinary.

Sarbajaya’s efforts to keep Apu on the straight and narrow are repeatedly flummoxed by Harihar’s cousin, the elderly Indir (played by Chunibala Devi). To Sarbajaya, Indir is a complete pest: she encourages the children to misbehave, she completely over-stays her welcome, and she has an unsettling fondness for morbid folk-tunes that enervate Sarbajaya’s spirits. All the same, Indir has an unusual charm. Her meditations on death and life border on insincere attention-seeking, but in her absence the other characters learn that Indir has the most to teach.

Apu’s outlet for childish mischief is his relationship with his older sister Durga, who shares with Apu her curiosity about the daily locomotive that passes near their home. Ray’s fawning representation of the train and the associated industrialization of India synchronized with Nehru’s platform of non-alignment, as Pather Panchali evokes a welcoming of new-ness and a readiness to participate in the new world of industrial advance and technological progress. The congruity between Ray’s thematic delivery and Nehru’s political agenda secured not only the funds necessary to complete filming, courtesy of the West Bengal government, but it also earned Nehru’s endorsement when Ray took the film abroad to Cannes.

Screen shot 2015-06-26 at 01.12.06

Rather than assigning a leitmotif to each character, Ravi Shankar’s soundtrack assigns a classical raga that corresponds to each emotion or impression conveyed over the course of the film. The music sometimes follows the mood of the film, and at other times it leads the audience’s impression. The pace obeys none of the forms that modern movie-going audiences have come to expect, and so some may find the film slow and even possibly tedious, especially during the first half. But Pather Panchali rewards patience, as the story gathers weight and Ray’s vision becomes clear.

Rather than post a trailer, here’s a clip of Apu and Durga playing in the rain that gives a flavor of the film’s mood.

Stuff you couldn’t make up dept.

The ill-loved Confederate flag flies in deluded pride at the South Carolina state capitol.

A Confederate flag flies outside the South Carolina State House in Columbia

Attached to its flagpost by chains.

Image by Reuters, h/t Daily Kos.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Night Train to Munich

4000033_bb_Night-Train-To-Munich

Last week, I recommended The Lady Vanishes, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic tale of suspense and romance. This week, I recommend a quasi-sequel made without The Master, who had by then decamped to Hollywood: 1940′s Night Train to Munich.

Released two years after The Lady Vanishes, the film features the same female lead (Margaret Lockwood), the same scriptwriters (Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat), the same setting (a European train journey taken on the brink of war), and even two of the same supporting characters (Charters and Caldicott). The director this time around, Carol Reed, was clearly to some extent aping Hitchcock’s style, but Reed’s distinctive touches are in evidence throughout.

The world had gotten much darker between the making of the two films, and Night Train to Munich reflects that by having more suspense and less humor than The Lady Vanishes. The film opens grimly with the people of Prague being terrorized by the arrival of German storm troopers. Professor Bomasch (James Harcourt), whose scientific expertise can aid the war effort, must flee the Nazis without his daughter (Lockwood), who is subsequently interned in a concentration camp. She is befriended there by a handsome, idealistic Czech national (Paul Henried, then called Paul von Hernried, in a strong performance that almost surely led to him being cast later as Victor Laszlo in Casablanca). The two flee to London and reunite with Professor Bomasch, but he and his daughter are almost immediately kidnapped back again to Germany! Enter a brave, resourceful spy (Rex Harrison!!!) who goes undercover in Germany to rescue the Professor and the lovely daughter whom he clearly fancies.

Relative to The Lady Vanishes, the major disadvantage of Night Train to Munich is that it doesn’t give the talented Lockwood enough to do beyond looking lovely and in peril. On the other hand, that omission gives more screen time to Rex Harrison, in a remarkable example of off-beat casting working shockingly well. Sir Rex, who would later be credible as Dr. Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins, carries off a Nazi uniform with panache. The ease with which he infiltrates Nazi headquarters through sheer bravado is one of the film’s many funny observations about bureaucracies: Everyone thinks that someone else must have authorized this unknown German officer’s mission, so they don’t question him for fear of angering a superior somewhere else in the organization.

The film took advantage of Charters and Caldicott’s (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) reputation as comic, out of touch Englishmen. Initially, they are played for laughs, but in a key scene they are humiliated by a German officer and realize that the time for joking is past and they must become engaged in the fight. They then perform bravely in the struggle against the Germans, who have clearly underestimated them. All of this was no doubt a resonant message for British audiences in 1940.

After a series of Hitchcock-level plot contrivances, the film concludes with a nail-biting closing act in which our heroes try to escape using a cable car across a Swiss gorge. What the climax lacks in realism (those 15 shot pistols only run out of bullets when it would be maximally agonizing to do so) it more than makes up for in thrills. I also loved the final shot of the key bad guy (whose identity I will not reveal) which is sympathetically done. It’s a moment that shows how Reed’s artistic sensibility was different than Hitchcock’s, and establishes that despite being to some extent an homage to Hitch, this superb movie is at the same time very much Reed’s own.

Although not quite in the same class as The Lady Vanishes, Night Train to Munich is an exciting and enjoyable film. If you have the stamina for a double feature, it’s tremendous fun to watch it back to back with the movie that inspired it.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of our prior recommendations.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Lady Vanishes

the-lady-vanishes-4

This week and next I will be recommending two linked films made in Britain by different, tremendously talented directors. The first was made by the magnificent Alfred Hitchcock as the British phase of his career was winding down: 1938′s The Lady Vanishes.

For the first 25 minutes, the movie is a light-hearted romantic comedy featuring an utterly charming Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave as, respectively, a wealthy American heiress bound for a loveless marriage with a penurious but titled aristo and a footloose music scholar manqué who clearly has some growing up to do. That they will fall in love is never in doubt, but murder and intrigue intrude as they make a train journey across the fictional central European country of Mandrika. An elderly, kindly, British-as-Sunday-roast governess named Miss Froy (Dame Mae Whitty, effortlessly fine) is at the center of events. After our heroine is coshed on the head by a falling flower pot, Miss Froy befriends her. But soon Miss Froy vanishes without trace and everyone denies that she ever existed! As in so many other films of this sort, the central character must struggle with whether her fears are real or are imagined (as everyone around her keeps saying).

As you might guess from the above description, the plot contrivances in this film are many, even by Hitchcockian standards. Most notably, if you watch the final few scenes carefully, you may wonder why the film wasn’t titled “The gun-toting bad guy vanishes”. But Hitchcock was aiming for a romp, not a piece of cinéma vérité, and a tremendously entertaining romp it is. Even some of the wonderful visual effects seem as much intended to invoke mirth as tension (e.g., the opening miniature shot). Screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat (who also scripted a similar RBC recommendation Green for Danger) produced a pearl of a script, with laugh out loud humor, cleverly constructed comic bits and suspenseful situations, cute late 1930s style sexual innuendo and some lovely character sketches.

the lady vanishes19
The most famous of the latter are Caldicott and Charters. Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford were born to play the parts of the two cricket-obsessed, faintly barmy Englishmen abroad and they just about made a career of it from here on out, both in movies and television. Their timing is on the same level as Bob and Ray, but their sensibility is unmistakably English (not British mind you, English). It’s a testament to the actors and the writers that they were able to create characters that audiences could laugh at even though they were themselves being mocked to some extent (Decades later, The Simpsons would pull off the same trick on American television).

Hitchcock fans argue over whether this film or my previous recommendation The 39 Steps represents his best British work. I tend toward the latter by an eyelash, but why choose when both hold up so well three-quarters of a century after they were made? If you like one, you will like the other as the plot elements are similar and in both cases, the heroes have none of the darker shades that Hitchcock favored more as he aged (For example, consider the Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant characters in Notorious). Lockwood and Redgrave are uncomplicated young people who are brave, smart, funny and in love.

The Lady Vanishes was such a success that the same writing team and a number of the actors were reunited to make another movie of the same sort, this time directed by Carol Reed. More on that movie next week.

The Lady Vanishes is in the public domain, and I post here for your enjoyment a perfectly nice print from The Internet Archive. The Criterion Collection version, available for purchase, looks even better and also includes some wonderful extras.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Rubber

You probably never gave it a moment’s thought. But all great films, without exception, contain an important element of ‘no reason.’ You know why? Because life itself is made up of tons of ‘no reason.’

As a car slowly drives toward the camera, it knocks over a dozen chairs placed in its path before it comes to a halt. Lieutenant Chad (played by Stephen Spinella) steps out of the trunk, approaches the audience, and in the very first scene he reveals the punchline and purpose of the film you’re about to watch. This, he tells us, is an “ode to ‘no reason.’” This weekend’s film recommendation is Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber (2010).

Screen shot 2015-04-23 at 23.35.56

Continue Reading…

More on how museums [under]use their collections

Virginia Postrel (who has engaged the question, “shouldn’t museum holdings be where people can see them?” in the past)  riffs on my Democracy article in Bloomberg View; there was a podcast on Russ Roberts’ EconTalk last month. I’m not sure why this issue seems to ring bells in right-wing circles, but I like the idea that the sort of people likely to turn up at museum trustee meetings are coming upon it.  Maybe they will start to ask the kind of questions tough-minded captains of industry are supposed to be good at, like “how do you expect to run this operation properly if your balance sheet leaves out most of your assets?”

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Day of the Jackal

Fred Zinnemann adapts Frederick Forsyth’s thriller The Day of the Jackal (1973) in the weekend film recommendation that closes this month’s series of conspiracy-themed movies.

The story opens with a re-telling of the failed attempt to assassinate Charles de Gaulle by the OAS, a far-right group angered by Algerian independence. In frustration and desperation, the remaining OAS leadership reconvenes in Vienna to devise a new plan to take care of unfinished business. They hire an anonymous hitman, played by Edward Fox, known only by the codename “The Jackal.” The Jackal has the impossible combination of being both irrepressibly suave while also being deliberately forgettable; he can induce cooperation and compliance from anyone he chooses, but he can also fade into obscurity when circumstances demand. His suitability for the job makes him eminently worth the half million dollars he charges the OAS leadership to kill de Gaulle… “considering I’m handing you France,” he nonchalantly persuades them, “I wouldn’t call that expensive.” Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

IVBPolitical paranoia month continues with my recommendation of a film that is at once a sci-fi chiller, a B-movie classic and an utterly unnerving destruction of any ability you may have to trust the people around you. It’s the legendary original adaptation of Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Made for peanuts in 1956, the film tells the story of a seemingly peaceful small California town where nothing ever happens. In the only starring role of his career, Kevin McCarthy plays town doctor Miles Bennell, who begins encountering a number of patients claiming that their loved ones are no longer who they used to be. They look exactly the same, but something’s not quite right about them. Dr. Bennell offers these worriers the standard reassurances about learning to relax, getting enough shut eye etc. It seems to work at first. The people who were once complaining soon become every bit as pleasant and vacant-looking as the loved ones they were so recently fretting over. Indeed, it is amazing how much better people feel when they just…go…to…sleep.

As strange events compound, Dr. Bennell and the woman he loves (Dana Wynter) realize that a sinister force is rapidly taking over the community and it’s almost impossible to tell who is afflicted and who is not. When they discover the extraterrestrial source of the change in the townspeople, they realize that their own lives are in danger and that it will be hard to convince anyone in the wider world that what they have seen is more than a figment of their imaginations.

My Name is Julia Ross (soon to be recommended here at RBC) is often cited as the prototype of a fine film made on a low budget; this B-movie is another sterling example of cinematic brilliance on the cheap. The only real expenses of consequence were the then ground breaking special effects. The town in which the movie was filmed — Sierra Madre — was used in its natural form; there are no fancy sets. Director Don Siegel went on to significant cinematic fame but the cast are unknowns and character actors who stayed unknowns and character actors. Producer Walter Wenger was an established figure in Hollywood, but his career was almost over when he made this movie. But none of that matters: This is grade A entertainment, loaded with suspense, shocks and solid performances.

IVB2The meaning of the story has been much debated over the years. Some have seen it as a parable about the dangers of Communist infiltration. Others see it as a warning about conformity in the era of McCarthy. I never met Jack Finney, but I know some of his close friends and members of his family. When asked, they describe him as a New Deal liberal and no one’s Red baiter. They don’t think he wrote the story as political allegory but simply as a good story.

You can certainly enjoy this nail-biter as Finney thought of it: A good story. But it also will resonate with you emotionally if ever you have been in a situation where you felt that everyone but you was in on a joke you hadn’t been told or where you felt persecuted for being different. The most disturbing thing about the film is how banal and pleasant the enemies are. Like the worst of the world’s villains, they don’t see themselves as evil. Rather, they think they are doing everyone else a favor by bringing them under their tent.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers deserves its reputation as a classic film. Don’t miss it!

p.s. Carolyn Jones who has the second female lead part here, went on to play Morticia on television’s The Addams Family.

p.p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Defence of the Realm

defence-of-the-realm-promo-16RBC’s political paranoia movie month jumps the pond this week to recommend a taut British conspiracy tale set on Fleet Street: David Drury’s 1986 thriller Defence of the Realm. The film embodies left-wing paranoia of the Thatcher years, with its deep scepticism of nuclear weapons, the US-British alliance and grey men in dark suits secretly controlling society from their Whitehall back offices and private gentleman’s clubs.

The story begins somewhat obliquely, with two juvenile delinquents fleeing the police until they come to a British airbase used by the American military (Presumably RAF Lakenheath, hint hint). One of them clambers over the fence, triggering an unexplained event that leads to an evacuation. An investigation is announced by Dennis Markham, MP, who is played by RBC favorite Ian Bannen (we have praised his work here, here, here and here). But before Markham can pursue his enquiry, he is forced to resign over a Profumo-esque sex scandal. Coincidence? Brash young investigative journalist Nick Mullen (Gabriel Byrne) begins to pull at the threads of the story, despite the warnings of his cagy if boozy senior colleague (Denholm Elliott). Pretty soon, Nick becomes aware that powerful forces do not want the truth to come out and will do anything to keep it quiet.

The movie’s perspective is pretty bleak and in that sense one could consider it a British cousin of last week’s recommendation The Parallax View. Byrne, with his dark looks and demeanor, is almost a physical expression of the film’s outlook, which is only further enhanced by the moody cinematography and music.

In addition to its suspenseful and exciting moments, this film has two towering virtues. The first is the performance of Elliott, who steals the movie as a wiser, sadder journalist with a core of integrity. It’s as good as anything this fine actor has carried off in his impressive career. The movie’s other principal pleasure is its evocation of a now-vanished Fleet Street culture, with heavy drinking at lunch, late nights at the office, and some peculiar and charming traditions (e.g., the scene where an ink-stained wretch’s retirement is marked by the sound of pounding printing blocks).

defenceThis isn’t a perfect movie. Greta Scacchi, in the sort of role that seemed intended to have critics say “See she’s not just a sex symbol, she can really act!”, is in fact pretty flat as Markham’s assistant and there is zero chemistry between her and Byrne. Also, some viewers may find the film too confusing or downbeat at least some of the time.

That said, Defence of the Realm is a worthy entry into the political paranoia genre that improves with repeated viewing. It will not make you trust your government more, but it will command your attention and keep you on the edge of your seat.

A final trivial note on the film: Prior to the big showdown with nefarious forces, Byrne walks through the same club library in which Daniel Craig and Michael Gambon made a drug deal in prior RBC recommendation, Layer Cake, which is also the room where I wrote that recommendation and this one too.

p.s. As of this writing, this movie is available for free instant video to Amazon Prime subscribers.

p.p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Parallax View

ParallaxView
Our month of the cinema of conspiracies and political paranoia continues this week at RBC (Johann kicked it off last week with the disturbing and powerful Conspiracy). The horrifying assassinations of the 1960s generated countless conspiracy theories that continued to rattle about in the 1970s, particularly after Watergate further damaged the public’s faith in once-respected institutions. During this period, Alan J. Pakula was arguably the film maker who most effectively translated the public’s anxieties onto the screen. The two best known of his “paranoia triology” are the Oscar winners Klute and All the President’s Men. This week’s film recommendation is the less commonly recalled but very fine member of the troika: 1974′s unnerving The Parallax View.

The film’s opening sequence, set at the top of Seattle’s space needle, grabs viewers by the throat. What seems a banal political event suddenly turns violent, and through a series of rapid cuts the audience is as disoriented as the terrified characters on screen as they wonder what exactly they just saw. In the ensuing months, many of the witnesses come to premature ends, leading raffish journalist Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) to investigate, against the advice of his hard-headed, fatherly editor (Hume Cronyn, effortlessly at home in his role). Frady discovers that a mysterious corporation is recruiting sociopathic killers, and he goes undercover to investigate them. He seems to be making progress in infiltrating the nefarious cartel, but is he really just walking into the web of a hungry spider who is spinning all the strands?

The Parallax View provides moments of high suspense and also carries off well that essential of paranoia films: The exchanges between the lead character and the trusted friend who thinks the “conspiracy” is all imagined (Nice touch: Cronyn’s office is crammed with memorabilia from his work with the Boy Scouts). The performances are believable throughout, which helps the film survive its more credibility-straining moments.

The late Gordon Willis, one of the most respected cinematographers of the 1970s, gives the film a distinctive look appropriate to its tone. There are many long, lonely shots taken far from the action, along with Willis’ signature fondness for shadows. The opening and closing shots, of government investigatory commissions proclaiming “nothing to see here, move along, there’s no conspiracy” as the camera moves in and out, ultimately arriving at a dark, distorted anamorphic image, are perfect bookends for the film. Combined with the movie’s minimalist use of sound, Willis’ superb work suffuses the movie with a sense of unease.

The film is not without shortcomings. As in some other Pakula films (e.g., Consenting Adults), certain plot elements can’t survive strict logical scrutiny. How is it that second-rate journalist Joe Frady can drive like a NASCAR champion and fight like James Bond? Why doesn’t he ever have deadlines at his newspaper and why, beyond the needs of the script, does his editor keep handing him piles of cash to pursue his story? Another potential weakness: Joe Frady is not that appealing of a person, so if you really don’t like Warren Beatty as a star, you may not feel much sympathy for the protagonist.

Flaws notwithstanding, Parallax View is an effective, disturbing piece of cinema. Its perspective is ultimately gloomy, but that doesn’t diminish its entertainment value or emotional impact one iota. This is a movie that stays with you, like a microphone the CIA has attached to your cell phone.

p.s. For those of you who are not old enough to remember and therefore might find one key scene of this film unbelievable: In the 1970s, you really could board an airplane without a ticket and check luggage onto a flight on which you were not yourself a passenger. Also, there was good service in coach. Really.