Monday, January 29, 2007

Gazing at Venus

Peter O'Toole's Oscar nomination pushed Venus into the limelight at the weekend. I was a little surprised to see a clutch of young people at the back of the cinema when we went to see the film on Saturday. Noisy during the ads and trailers the young audience was quiet through the film. I wonder what they made of it? Since the film caused problems for the middle aged and the late middle aged, it can't have been easy for them.

I confess that I enjoyed this film much more than I was expecting. For the first half I laughed (out loud on several occasions) and then just after halfway I began to weep and continued in an emotional state to the end.

The amazing thing is that so many reviewers seem to have problems with the representations of sexuality in this film. Bradshaw refers to "quasi sex", Kermode said they didn't really deal with sex (i.e. compared to The Mother, another Hanif Kureishi/Roger Michel collaboration). The usually reliable Philip French was disgusted and the even more reliable Jonathan Romney in the Independent on Sunday ducked the issue by reviewing something else. Unfortunately, I haven't noticed any reviews by women yet. Let's face it -- this movie is all about sex and for an audience that recognises this, it is intensely erotic. The Peter O'Toole character is an old man with prostate problems, resulting in a catheter and impotence, but he still has sexual desire and circumstance sets up a relationship with a young Yorkshirewoman (terrific performance by Jodie Whittaker) – a working class lass with beauty and some naivete, uncouth but naturally beautiful, vital and healthy. What follows is a classic sexual encounter between two people each with a power over the other, but also with a longing for emotional contact.

I'll let Bradshaw and co into a secret, sex doesn't have to involve penetration or even physical contact. As someone once said, the most potent sexual organ is the brain. Conversations can be sexual, looking (scopophilia -- this is cinema for heavens sake!) can be sexual. In fact, Venus does go a little beyond this and when O'Toole lifts Jessie's long hair and kisses her neck it's devastating. Hanif Kureishi explains the background to all of this in his article in the Guardian's Saturday Review of 26 January. His inspiration was the work of the Japanese novelist Tanizaki Junichiro who wrote extensively about the sexual desire of older men, particularly in the short novel, Diary of a Mad Old Man (1961). Kureishi explains that he read the novella several times and then "wrote round it", taking the central idea as inspiration. Here is Kureishi on Tanizaki and desire:

"Desire is the devil in Tanizaki, a torment you can never escape or fulfil, except temporarily. Yet without it there is inertia, emptiness, routine. On top of this, particularly as people age and there is less novelty available to them, desire is only sustained by others, by jealousy, rivalry, secrecy and human obstacles. Relief is only ever a reprieve, and the characters are forced towards extinction by their never-ending desire. Tanizaki is not an experimentalist himself; he is a straightforward writer, not a modernist. But his characters' lives become experimental once they engage with what they really want, once they realise they cannot escape their sexuality. Self-knowledge is impossible, foolish even; all you can do is try to follow your body."

I think Kureishi is justified in pointing to other Japanese novels and films as dealing with older people's fears and desires in much more interesting ways than many youth-obsessed Western texts. Philip French actually recognises the connection (perhaps accidentally?) but berates Kureishi and Michel for not being like Ozu and offering a 'humane' study of old age like Tokyo Story. Tokyo Story is indeed wonderful, but is only one of many works by Ozu and several other Japanese directors that represent interesting (and sexual) older men (and yes, it tends to be older men and younger women in the ones I have seen). As more of the work of Ozu, Mizoguchi and others slowly becomes available, I hope to find more time to watch it.

Could this film be used with 16-19 year-olds? I'm not sure, but it certainly offers a text against which to assess the centrality of the male gaze. The whole narrative is about looking and being looked at and although the old man looks at the young girl, this isn't just the powerful looking at the the powerless. One scene at the Royal Court shows O'Toole enjoying watching the girl who is staring at the stage, shocked and fascinated by the characters (young women of her own age) engaged in a 'realistic' argument.

One last point on Venus -- the print looked dreadful. I couldn't work out if it was deliberately gloomy and murky or whether it was badly projected (Vue, Leeds Light). I did note that the image was too big for the screen and a subsequent discussion with a projectionist suggested that the Vue screen had an underpowered projector with insufficient illumination for the screen size. I confess that I did think the screen was too big for the cinema -- usually, it is the other way round.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Guru Mani Ratnam

What a joy to catch the new Mani Ratnam film in the cinema, only tempered by the thought that this film -- from India's premier director -- didn't get reviewed in the UK press. Partly this was because the distributor probably didn't offer a press screening, but even so, you would expect the reviewers of the broadsheets to look out for Mani's films.

It was enjoyable and it's an important film in terms of the story and the performances from Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwaria Rai, but I have to admit that as a Mani Ratnam film it's slightly disappointing lacking some of the sheer bravura of earlier films. I also thought the songs were less memorable. I've looked at several Indian reviews of the film and I'm with the bulk of them. Mani Ratnam often suffers from being too commercial for the cinephiles and too serious for the popular audience (some of yesterday afternoon's tiny audience left before the end). But this could be construed as demonstrating that it is the audience and the industry who need to catch up. I think that Mani may indeed be the Indian director who makes the film that finally breaks Hindi Cinema in American multiplexes (which would be ironic for a Tamil director).

The importance of the story lies in its approach to the history of Indian capitalism. It draws on the career of
Dhirubhai Ambani, founder of Reliance Industries, and offers a picture of how business was conducted before the relatively recent 'liberalisation' of the Indian economy. There is a a discourse of social class running through the film with the central character Gurubhai Desai appealing as a 'villager from Gujerat' for the support of ordinary shareholders rather than the upper middle-class who previously controlled Indian business. My companion at the screening, who has worked in the international petrochemical business, commented that he didn't think such a story could have been told in India until the last few years. Whilst the film works well to expose the corruption and bribery that went on, it also works well as a melodrama of surrogate fathers and sons. There are, however, several plot holes in the melodrama and some characters seem to simply disappear.

There is a detailed entry on the film at Wikipedia and early signs are that it has done very well in India and in North America and Australia. In the UK it ranked 15th on a 44 screen opening with a screen average of over $7,000 (Screen International).

It would be good if someone released Mani Ratnam's earlier work on DVD in the UK. (I was intrigued to see that Time Magazine included Nayakan (1987) on a list of 'all-time' Top 100 films.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Awards season

The Golden Globes, the run-up to the Oscars – an interesting exercise in how the industry ('the business' according to yesterday's Guardian) is feeling about itself, the whole process is still annoying in terms of what gets recognised and what doesn't.

People I meet on courses or at events often ask me what I think about this or that film and they seem surprised that I haven't seen such an important film. I'm not sure if this is true for everyone who teaches film, but I certainly don't get to the cinema as often as I would like (lack of organisation, probably) and when I do get to a screening, it's often a film I've booked or I'm considering booking for a course. Although I do often see films for work, I do enjoy seeing films just for fun, but then I choose very carefully. The more hype a film receives, the less I am likely to see it, unless something specific in the promotion (or word of mouth) attracts me. In 2006 I saw just over a film a week at the cinema. Here is the list of titles, leaving out multiple screeenings of the films I used on events:

The Departed, Red Road, Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, The Host (S. Korea), Shanghai Dreams (China), Ghost World, A History of Violence, Princess Mononoke, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, Man Push Cart, The History Boys, American Psycho, Love + Hate, Tsotsi, Three Times (Taiwan), Tickets, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, The Last Picture Show, Brokeback Mountain, Hi-Lo Country, Volver, Innocent Voices, Kiss Me Deadly, The River (Renoir), The Bad Sleep Well (Kurosawa), Twilight Samurai, An Actor's Revenge (Japan), 36, Down in the Valley, Inside Man, Untold Scandal (S. Korea), Taxi Driver, Confetti, Life is to Whistle (Cuba), The Waiting List (Cuba), Omkara (India), Miami Vice, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Superman Returns, Marie Antoinette, Shaun of the Dead, La Haine, Sweet Sixteen, Crash, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Hidden, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Intimacy, Memories of Murder (S. Korea), My Sassy Girl (South Korea) Nowhere to Hide (S. Korea), Le Doulos, Les Armees des Ombres, Paisa, Dirty Pretty Things, Edward Scissorhands, The Notorious Bettie Page, Walk the Line, A Cock & Bull Story

Out of these, there was only one that wasn't worth the bother – Confetti. From the rest, I can select some possible award winners from this year's releases:

Best debut picture: Red Road for its intensity and roller coaster last third and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada for being the best Peckinpah-style movie since Sam went (would be good if the same director and writer tackled Cormac McCarthy's border stories)

Best re-release: Les Armees des Ombres (see my earlier blog entry)

Most enjoyable: Volver

Most adventurous direction: Children of Men – lots of holes in the story, but a brave and technically skilful rendition of the UK in 20 years time with good performances.

Most unjustly ignored in the UK: The Host – the best action film I've seen, a mammoth blockbuster in East Asia, its shunning by UK audiences is shaming.

Most over-rated film: Hidden – supposedly the favourite film for discussion around the dinner tables of North London. Certainly a well-made film with good performances and a couple of stunning moments, but I sense an emptiness where it purports to be saying something profound.

Best picture: Pan's Labyrinth. A wholly deserved triumph for Guillermo del Toro – perhaps someone will now re-release The Devil's Backbone on 35mm, since it disappeared soon after its first outing.

2007 has started well and A Prairie Home Companion was hugely enjoyable and a fitting send-off for Robert Altman.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Something worth watching on television?

I've almost given up on mainstream television. Apart from Match of the Day there isn't much that I'll try hard to watch. The last show that I really looked forward to was Victoria Wood's adaptation of Nella Last's wartime diaries (which didn't disappoint). I did enjoy Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect and I'm looking forward to the second series of Life on Mars, but I'm most interested in the start of Ugly Betty on Channel 4 on Friday.

Ugly Betty has been one of the few new shows to make an impact on ABC in the US in Autumn 2006. It's the first American attempt to create a telenovela. The telenovela is a uniquely Latin American televisual form that has successfully sold around the world (except, so far, in the UK). I've not watched one beyond a few minutes, but I've been aware of their fascination for audiences in countries I've visited. Pitched midway between a serial (i.e. a literary adaptation spread over several episodes) and a continuous serial (i.e. a soap), telenovelas typically run for a couple of years but then the narrative reaches a conclusion. Ugly Betty is based on a Columbian telenovela, Yo soy Betty, la fea, which ran from 1999-2001 with 169 episodes. Fantastically popular in Latin America, the show was remade in Mexico and then by Disney (Touchstone). The US version is listed as 60 mins per episode (less the ad breaks), but IMDB lists both 30 mins and 45 mins for the running time in Mexico. It's a Cinderella story about the 'plain' girl who goes to work for a fashion magazine. Channel 4 is advertising it as a comedy, but I suspect it is much more. It has (in the UK) been discussed in terms of the recent hit film The Devil Wears Prada, but of course its story predates the film.

Betty is played by America Ferrera, who began her career as the lead in Real Women Have Curves, an HBO film that won awards at Sundance in 2002 and launched America's career as one of the new young Latina stars in the US. I've enjoyed using Real Women with students and that's partly why I'm looking forward to the telenovela. The Mexican star Salma Hayek, who has been used (and misused?) by Hollywood appears in the first few episodes of Ugly Betty (at first as an actor in the telenovela that the Suarez family watches at home) and as an executive producer she was instrumental in the casting of America Ferrera (see the abc website for a video chatshow segment of Hayek and Ferrera). There seem to be other Hispanic-Americans also involved in the show and I'm intrigued to see how far Hollywood will go in embracing Hispanic culture for mainstream television. Hayek makes the point about the melodrama of the telenovelas -- can't wait.

I hope the show is a hit in the UK and draws a different demographic mix to Channel 4. The Wikipedia entries on the show are very detailed and useful for any classroom work.