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cinema Essay

Demented Deranged De Palma

Body Double (1984)

Poor Jake Scully. 

What else could he be, but a failure. 

He is playing a goth vampire in a B-Horror movie called ‘Vampire’s Kiss’, only to realize that he has claustrophobia.

Paralyzed in a coffin. Think about a frozen vampire who cannot come out to terrorize at night, a frightening thought. As if on cue, the set of Vampire’s Kiss catches fire. 

But Jake’s been here before. 

Here meaning under the ever growing shadow of disappointment, after all he’s a struggling actor in LA; rejection and failure are any actor’s constant buddies. With his chin back up and small smile on his pale face, Jake drives home, only to find his partner in bed with someone else. 

She also seemed to enjoy it. The face.

Poor Jake Scully. 

When someone is down, one kind word, even a smile might make the person feel that this is godsend.  But cynical De Palma knows that in the real world unlike the ideal, there is no kind word without malevolence, no smile without a secret and no help without expectation. 

Those who fall for these ‘godsend’ acts, risk lowering themselves into the bottomless pit of irredeemable failures. 

Jake Scully’s face is that of pure failure, the one that you want to slap and bring back to life and shout “don’t trust these guys!” when he accepts a caretaker job in the hills of LA. 

It was Hitchcock, who said something about putting the bomb under the bus and making the audience go mad knowing that it is going to blow-out (pun intended) ,Jake’s serial failure to the path to foolishness is DePalma’s answer to Hitchcock’s bomb under the bus.

We can see what’s going to happen to Jake, but he cannot.

A lot’s been said about De Palma’s Hitchcock obsession (yes he’s also made film with the same name- double title pun here, well done me), yet he goes all the way in this neatly laid down trifecta of a plot which includes the best of Vertigo, Rear Window and Dial M for Murder. 

It almost feels like De Palma having his vengeance on the critics who had dubbed him Hitch minor. Ok here you go, maybe thought De Palma, here’s three suspense classics- watch me put them in a blender. 

Hitch would have probably recognized the cruel intentions (no pun intended here, no reference too) behind the plot, but would have never muddied his hands and knees in the sewer that De Palma bravely (and gleefully) goes into. Slumming it proudly by making a movie about moviemaking which begins at the fringes of Hollywood and descends into pornography. It’s really too much, but never not enjoyable. 

Never not enjoyable- that’s De Palma as a tagline there for you. That could literally be the title of a career retrospective of De Palma, but they made one such and simply called it De Palma, the fools I tell ya.

Coming back to failures.

Failures make the best reflective protagonists and you can never get a better one than a failure in love; here’s Jake Scully in this fancy house in the hills with the rotating bed and when the lights go down his ‘nearest’ shapely neighbour starts to put on a show. 

Stop looking Jake! Stop looking for God’s sake. 

Easier said than done, but look he does.

Maybe it’s love, maybe it’s a fascination, maybe it’s just that he feels he is owed some relaxation after all the effects of failure kick in. When the relaxation kicks in, also does Pino Donaggio’s astral music plays over her routine, Body Double pushes its weight and reputation from being just another erotic thriller to the realms of art. 

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, one who would have thought that De Palma just is the swoop of the camera, he is just the crazy angles and he is just the slow motion- this would have just been that, an erotic thriller from the 80s which probably was given as an alternative when Basic Instinct was under circulation at your local video store. 

But this is De Palma. 

Nothing is generic, nothing is expected and nothing is out of bounds- you would think an attractive neighbour doing a self pleasure routine is going overboard but then comes the shock of the power drill (did he really do that in the 80s?- first time Tarantino-heads ask lol) and then he surprises you with a musical number shot on an X-Rated film set which weirdly asks us to “Relax, don’t do it, when you wanna go do it.” 

While the voyeuristic elements are drawn out of Rear Window, the movie smoothly blends into long stretches of Jake Scully jointly (?) pursuing his neighbour ala Vertigo which rightly feels like a silent film, here too it’s just on camera and with music that De Palma builds the tension. I cannot stress this enough because Jake Scully is a nobody or say the person could be anybody like you (the reader) or me and not the stars like Grace Kelly, Kim Novak or James Stewart about whose life and death we care about. 

It’s a different way to look at filmmaking to reduce the stress of the characters themselves and put more pressure into the visuals (and in effect on the director himself). 

Roger Ebert opens his review of Body Double, calling it an exhilarating exercise in pure filmmaking and all through praises the direction but notices that there is very little point to the film. 

Sorry Roger, bless your soul, the point is that De Palma wished to hoist this story of an everyday failure and construct around it one of the most visually stunning thrillers. 

Psst: Ebert also uses the word construct twice, just saying. Would like to state that when the movie came out, critics were not as charitable as Ebert was and promptly dismissed it. Body Double’s reputation has only grown from then on. 

Maybe I’m reading too much or maybe i’m trying to drill (no pun intended here too) home the point of “filmmaker of failure” too much, but to me this clearly is a “it could happen to you” type film and Hollywood does a lot of “this could happen to you” films, ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances; the you in “it could happen to you” is probably played by Cary Grant whose is heroism personified. 

In contrast, Craig Wasson’s Jake Scully (poor Jake) is emasculated in full technicolor, his helplessness is at the core of his failure and when a person is at their depths and when there is no internal motivation to proceed, nature comes to his aid. 

Nature in the form of women, of course. 

First in the form of Deborah Shelton and then in Melanie Griffith. 

There’s a phrase that people going through shit are familiar with- the dark night of the soul. The seemingly unending period of trials and tribulations that a soul has to go through before it’s communion with the ultimate.

Body Double can be seen as Jake Scully living through his long dark night of the soul (it is not necessarily one night) getting one bad hand dealt to him after another, just when you thought he hit rock bottom, there’s another blow waiting for him in the corner. 

The biggest of them all is when his helplessness couldn’t prevent the death of the woman he thinks he is fascinated with, it’s a double blow at the end when he comes to know that he is in some way responsible for it. 

And this is where it turns. 

Body Double is one of the rare happy ending films from De Palma, maybe because it was too much even for him.

Jake Scully does find himself in the end and illustrates that one can simply stop being a failure by just taking control of their life in order to not only to better oneself but to help others. 

But since there is a deadly director like De Palma calling the shots, the difference between success and failure could be as serious as life and death. 

The end.

Cover image credit: https://www.screenslate.com/articles/body-heatbody-double

Categories
cinema Essay

The Ummanamoonji Acting School

As news trickled in that Samantha had won the award for best performance in an OTT show for Family Man 2 at the Indian Film Festival in Melbourne (yes such things exist and they make their way onto my timeline), I realized the creeping and undying growth of the Ummanamoonji Acting School in recent Indian cinema. This seems to be a problem. 

You might have heard about the Stanislavski school of acting, you might have even heard of Lee Starsberg or Stella Adler- who further developed method acting. Sadly Indian cinema does not have a proper noun led category definition for professional acting. The truth is professional acting itself is not studied or exposed to the audience, except of course the odd toss around of abbreviations like NSD and FTII. 

While we might not have our own ‘method’, the films that we have made have given rise to different schools of acting – there may not be a name to these schools but you will recognize it when you see it, especially in mainstream films.

The Ummanamoonji School is one such, exclusively for Indian heroines. The perfect playground for the Ummanamoonji school is when heroines, at different points in their career – “go serious” hence the name ‘Ummanamoonji’. 

A heroine’s life in mainstream Indian cinema is considerably shorter. From being introduced in their teens as college (or high school) sensations, very few graduate to become blockbuster heroines and even few make it to the level of influencing projects and having their own markets. The life of the Indian mainstream heroine is much like any start-up scene, 90% of them fail. 

Within the short available time, they would need to progress from being launched aside some producer’s son (or some director who insists on ‘fresh talent’) to being paired opposite ‘up and coming heroes’ for a few years before ultimately making that one film with a superstar hero or superstar director. 

If the heroine is lucky, she gets to repeat the same cycle in a neighbouring wood (Kollywood/Tollywood/Sandalwood) but highly unlikely due to many unforeseen factors- a flop affects a heroine more than the hero, while a hit benefits the hero more than the heroine. 

Yes all this is known, but we would like to give a perspective about how less the chance for growth is for heroines and place all this in context before we expand on the Ummanamoonji Acting School. 

As stated before there are unnamed acting schools within the existing mainstream, these acting schools advocate heroine types- kind, cheerful, pet loving yet glamorous type broadly grouped under “bubbly” roles which slowly evolves into the dutiful-kind-supportive yet glamorous type for the senior heroes. 

Generations of writer- directors have used these ‘types’, most of the time not even providing specifics for the heroines to explore-these are not written in character or within the story, as you may have guessed with the survival rate, these roles are replaceable. Highly replaceable. 

Heroines for at least 20 years have adapted themselves to this ‘type’ so much so we don’t look at it as acting, our collective consciousness driven primarily by bad writing tell us,that this is how heroines on screens should be in a big film. Do a little bit of dance, some comedy and act cute when they are not in those four songs. 

Such limited scope. Much improvement needed. 

It’s tough to survive and when you do survive, you go to the Ummanamoonji School. 

Having danced around flowers, pots and background dancers for close to a decade, the survivor heroine naturally gravitates to the ‘serious part’ or as often reported in chennai times as ‘heroine driven roles’. 

The sad fact is that, no one really knows (ok barring few) how to write serious female roles in mainstream films, as usual they do the easier thing of having to substitute a male led film with a heroine- a powerful role. 

And with no frame of reference of their own kind, them heroines have to put up ‘serious’ faces to umm look the part in a serious film. Tada- the Ummanamoonji Acting school. 

They put on a frown for the entire length of the film, they love with a frown, they kick ass with a frown and they mouth punch dialogues with a frown. The writer- directors think of a frown whenever they think of a strong female lead and our actresses follow through. The parts are woefully underwritten that no other emotion can be expressed and they go into a robotic serious face which is often praised as good acting (ahem). Emotion can only expressed on screen if it has its roots on a page. 

Look around it you, the fingerprints of the Ummanamoonji school are everywhere, it’s there in Nayanthara’s Aramm (and many other Nayan films), it’s there in Jyothika’s Pon Magal Vandhal (yikes and others), it’s there in Family Man 2 Samantha (more about this in another post), it’s there in November Story Tamanna and such. You get the story. 

Sometimes it’s not even a heroine led film, but a serious role in a generic hero driven film, the mind thinks up the likes of Sri Divya from Marudhu etc. Other times, these movies are lost in time like Sneha’s Bhavani IPS or Trisha in Paramapadam Vilayattu. 

Before we comment on the quality of the acting school, we wanted to recognize there is one such and the context as to how it evolved, this is in necessarily not a new phenomenon, a sort of Ummanamoonji acting can be seen in P Bharathi Raja’s Pudhumai Penn, which incidentally also has the girl getting brushed on a bus by lecherous man like in Family Man 2. 

The first signifier is the ‘seriousness’ of the role and the second signifier is that the actresses’ seem out of their depth, which is a combination of sketchy writing (root cause) and poor understanding on part of the actor. All this affects the movie, big time and it hurts us that people don’t talk about it enough. 

But you may wonder, that most of these roles that have been mentioned have been embraced by the audience and we even began with the fact that Samantha was feted for Family Man 2, why is this even a problematic acting school then?

The fetes, the praise and the awards for these ‘attempts’ are in reality for the attempt itself- glamorous heroines going against the grain. 

You can notice this even in the reviews, there would be talk about how deglamorized they look and how the insistence of ‘no makeup’ is helping the movie, these thoughts find their way to public discourse as well (which is again a call for better reviewing) . 

To summarize, this praise does not reflect the quality of the performance and is automatically lapped up by the audience because of the lack of discussions on acting quality in the larger society. 

Yes, maybe we are complaining, maybe we should be happy that there are more heroine-led movies than ever in the larger scheme of things. 

But also look at our angle, when things are nascent it is always best to advocate for quality and higher standards- this arai kooval comes from a group which enjoys Alien/ Aliens Kill Bill and Sarah Connor which are standing examples of doing serious female led action the best possible way. 

Maybe we should be looking at writing more in depth parts for women and not just replace genders in mainstream films and maybe only then our heroines can put their hair down, erase the frown and move towards an Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor school of acting- an admirable gurukulam  with inspiring female characters that has resulted in 100% non boring films. 

No no, this is not the look how-Hollywood-is-doing-it type post. We recognize that there is a need for indigenous mainstream Indian heroine films, we are just pointing to successful templates which can be tinkered around with, till our own emerges. 

Templates, adhu dane yellam. 

Yes to female led ‘serious’ and exciting films but less Ummanamoonji in them please. 

Nandri. 

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cinema:tamil

Likeable Wannabeism : Project Agni from Navarasa (2021)

Of all the films in the new Netflix anthology series that I’ve seen (yet to see them all), the only one that does some justice to it’s rasa theme is Karthick Naren’s Project Agni. 

It’s the rasa of wonder and it works for me because it is not an all encompassing wonder theme of something beautiful which is hard to dislike, but a specific wonder that only wannabes experience.

Technically everyone is a wannabe, so the wonder in Project Agni should work for all; but then even those genuinely experience wannabeism are chided for behaving like wannabes and then are forced to lose it to put on the garb of refined taste and culture. Cursed to consume pretentious content for the rest of their lives.

While I have lost my early wannabe animal to growing pains, that animal still lurks and takes more pains when I call out on other peoples wannabeism- like we did when we did the FRS of Mafia, Karthik Naren’s previous film. 

That’s how people drop their wannabe avatars, their curious instincts lost to ex-wannabes constantly telling them so, it is in a way a loss of innocence. 

I am not asking you to embrace wannabeism here, I am well aware of its pitfalls- like not growing an own voice and constantly in awe of any swaying ‘in-thing’. I’m just trying to say that there are levels of wannabeism which are tolerable, when it does not go along for long, when it is really not on the nose- it is likeable wannabeism. 

Likeable Wannabeism is a group of friends (not more than four) sitting in a restaurant talking about the opening scene from Reservoir Dogs (I mean), but of course not for hours but just the right length until one ex-wannabe can groan (predictably) on how Tarantino is overrated (yawn) and then switch on to Scorsese or Antonioni or some such etc. 

Likeable Wannabeism is the goldilocks of Wannabeism and in the realm of cinema, in recent times, it is usually spent in the discussions of films of Kubrick, Nolan, Tarantino. It’s talking about references to and inspirations from, it is looking at important concepts of life, universe and everything through the lens of movies. Obviously it cannot go on for long, because probably your peer group has only seen Inception and the more you go on talking about it, the more they are going to order the main course. 

All I’m saying is, just allow the wannabe their time, don’t call them out on it (always, only when on the nose) and with age and when life happens to them, they too will read the Russian classics, watch Kurosawa movies and listen to Mozart or Beethoven, the generally accepted boring trifecta of books, movies and music or in other words culture. 

But when it is short and snappy, there is nothing like Likeable Wannabeism, it could actually get you noticed, it might actually make the Wannabe an interesting person and not a self suffering movie nerd.

For example, in Project Agni, when Karthick Naren’s short-movie is how we shouldn’t totally chase our obsessions because going too far could lead to tragic consequences and then he name drops a thread from Room 237, the Shining documentary where people almost spend their entire life studying the Kubrick’s movie for meanings to their life and losing it completely: some hair stood on end. 

The connection. The goosebumps. The wonder. 

The wonder that Project Agni goes for is not the general perception of what beauty is or what wonder is, but just speaking to a small subset of movie nerds (not cineastes- urgh what a term) who watch movies not as entertainment or as dinner conversation fodder (although they do end up talking all about movies at dinner- I meant in a non transactional way) or as means to acquire high culture cred but simply as a channel to understand things. Movies as a means to higher purpose. 

It’s why they (movie nerds) go into the details, the set designs, screenplay structures and director interviews- they really want to know what all this is about. Please don’t confuse this with the thala-thalapathy first look poster trailer decoding that things are reduced to on youtube today, what I’m talking about is something in the lines of NerdWriter or Patrick Willems (whose long videos ofc becomes unlikeable Wannabeisms- exactly the point). 

An obsession becomes wonder- when something is figured out and that is the wonder I feel Karthick Naren is going for and he even does some flexes by making the right references and combining genres all within 30 mins while others in Navrasa are not even able to maintain one single mood for ten mins. 

Yes the acting really does help, Arvind Swamy was born to give to exposition dumps and most of the movie is just Arvind Swamy and Prasanna sitting down and talking about the stuff they are obsessed about (another movie nerd attribute of being meta comes to the fore, it’s something we like). And Prasanna is so good that you wonder how good he will be with twice the screen time. 

Also admirable that Karthik Naren chose to go with almost all english dialogue, which the story does demand- try translating ‘subconscious world’ in Tamil and inserting it 25 times in the script, then you’ll know. For some subjects english really works and kudos for Karthik Naren for being himself, it’s a brave thing to be oneself, especially in Kollywood. 

PS

Blue Sattai Maran refused to review the film because it was mostly an English film, maybe this is the solution that the industry has been waiting for to get Maran to stop talking about things he doesn’t understand- just make movies in english, he won’t review. But we would rob the world of much humor.

I know Project Agni won’t appeal to a lot of people, but that is the point of it. We have already killed culture by making it so that it will appeal to all folks. Let this one be.  

So instead of commissioning the usual FRS for Guitar Kambi Mele Nindru, I thought I’ll just write about the stuff I liked. 

Categories
cinema cinema:tamil Essay

On Jayanthi

As news reached that actress Jayanthi had passed on to the great beyond from her home in Bangalore, brought immediate images in the mind’s eye. Here I try and document two of them.

While some may say that the projected screen image is not real and fleeting in real life, it creates indelible impressions. In the case of actress Jayanthi it was not just her face that made these impressions, but also distinctive voice. 

Maybe that’s why in Iru Kodugal (1967), KB chooses to bring to the forefront her voice and only her hands are seen completing a kolam (Irresistible KB being irresistible, opens a movie called Iru Kodugal with a woman drawing lines on the floor). 

He doesn’t stop there, but also goes on to emphasise what the Iru Kodugal is, but it’s also a life lesson I would never forget. 

A puzzle in a magazine acts as a ruse, how to shorten a line without erasing it? 

No one is as quick witted at home as Jayanthi, and she in character easily solves the puzzle by drawing a longer line adjacent. The lesson is simple relativity, while life’s current troubles might seem daunting, it does fade away when compared to oncoming challenges and so it goes. 

Me explaining it won’t make it better, because you have to watch the solution explained in her voice, where the character draws from personal experience and that’s the first Jayanthi thing that came to my mind. 

I am not experienced to write an entire career retrospective as I am unaware to large chunks of her long filmography, but what little I had seen was that she made it a point to indicate that there were more emotions than her characters let on or were forced to express; if it was comedy it came with a tinge of rejection (Ethir Neechal), if it was sincerity it also came with doubt (Velli Vizha) and if it was practical smarts like in Iru Kodugal, it was expressed due to deep personal loss. Fascinating actress, this unique duality (dual+quality?) accentuated by the voice. 

The default memories dialled back naturally to the KB films of the sixties and the seventies, but another much recent memory popped up, that too was a movie opening and that too concerned a voice. 

1994’s Vietnam Colony opens with a fabulous song by someone just credited Jayshri and not with the city of Bombay, an opening song to probably pacify all sentiments of producers to have a mangalakaramana song as the credits rolls, but the director Santhana Bharathi works it into the movie as a ‘paatu class’ song about Saraswathi. 

And who is singing? It’s a late career appearance by Jayanthi, back to expressing dual emotions here being devotion with enough sadness to push the movie plot forward. 

All the sadness that comes when you realize that only 30K have viewed Kaiyil Veenaiai on youtube is washed away when you listen five minute song is listened, it is a true blue Ilayaraaja classic composition that heavily lends credence to the argument “they don’t make them like that anymore”

As Valee slips in gold like 

“un kOyil engum nAdaswarangaL kETkum

an nAdam nenjil undan ninaivai vArkkum”  

I realize that any art serves its purpose by sitting in the memory slots of people, irrespective of the time that it was created, consumed or meant for. As art is remembered, with it those helped create it, will too. 

Farewell Jayanthi, Om Shanthi. 

Categories
cinema cinema:tamil FRS

FRS: JAGAME THANDHIRAM (2021)

So you all know what an FRS is right? Right?    

Disclaimer: We can only begin an FRS, we can never finish it convincingly.

And so we begin, with our invocation against gangsterism

Yes it is a genre of film but we don’t have to like it.

Yes it does seem cool, but all of us here at the FRS are in this endless process of ageing, which automatically means that we are against cool stuff like coloured jackets-wearing-beedi-smoking-at-the-same-time-smirking-gangsters.

Maybe you can sense there is some hate or you can also take the logical reasoning about how when you make gangsterism the main vehicle of your film you can give any reason to justify it, where lies all our problems with gangster movies. Yes it’s a genre and we (FRS writer’s room) don’t have to like it because supposed cinematic greats have an affinity towards it and even to risk earning the wrath of all film bros.

So yes gangsterism is against the law, whatever is the reason.

+101: No Narration. Good call.

<Trivia Thagaval Sponsored by Wikipedia>

The first half (divide as you will this is a direct OTT release) is very much a reworking of ‘A Fistful Of Dollars’ which itself is a remake of Yojimbo, which in turn Kurosawa said might have been inspired by the pulp novels of Dashiell Hammett.

#PulpisGood

</Trivia Thagaval Sponsored by Wikipedia>

It is the story of an outsider who comes to town where two warring gangs compete for control, the smart outsider plays one against each other, of course for personal benefit.

Here the town is London and the man with no name, actually is named Suruli.

-45: In trying to paint the character of Suruli colourfully, the director has forgotten even to sketch the rest of the characters.

Even the most paraded character of London gangster Peter, here played by James Cosmo, who unceremoniously gets added to the list of foreign powers who pose no challenge.

-34: Reinforcement max: movie, characters keep saying that Peter is a racist and white supremacist, while we already got it with his nameplate which reads “WHITE POWER” and random Ku Klux Klan outfit in his room.

His introduction too shows that how immigrants fear him, but somehow Peter is not able to face the problems posed by the gang headed by Sivadoss (Joju George)

-69: Obsession with intros: the first ten minutes of the film is just intros, some with ultra-text splashed on screen ala Tarantino- most movies take time to introduce their characters and that’s not a fault by itself. But in Jagame, with every powerful intro, the acceptability reduces proportionately.

For example, you show Peter as the most powerful gangster in town, but then in the rest of the movie he hardly does anything menacing.

We don’t know anything about his philosophy, every dialogue of his is just reinforcing that he is a xenophobe, which as pointed out, has been already established.

This begs the question, was this really the character that Karthik Subbaraj wanted Al Pacino to play?

+21.9: Reasons: While the idea to make a cross over gangster film needs to be appreciated, the reason to take Suruli from Madurai to London is one of the flimsiest even by Kollywood standards.

+30: Intelligentally Eli: Hero finds out everything including complex smuggling networks about rival gang within one week which other gangsters (who are in the same smuggling business) could not for years

Suruli can start an online course on competitive intelligence; we would surely pay for such things.

-5: But if hero could find out such things, he could have surely been able to find out why Sivadoss’ gang is smuggling gold etc.  

+78: Mahatma Gang Leader:  For a gang leader, Sivadoss is too trusting.

Boss, like your job description to not trust anyone.

-34: Movie proceeds as thus, till it becomes about immigrants and the Tamil Eelam issue.

While there is nothing wrong in trying to address larger issues in films, but maybe if they had been portrayed with more conviction or convincing actors would have helped the cause.

D is an accomplished actor, the transformation Suruli goes through in the film feels more like the character’s ego trip rather than real internal change, we really cannot say more without spoiling the film.

-450: A Host of Issues: If immigration issues are not enough, movies marries another going nowhere plot for speaking against private prisons, the need for identification and living a free life without borders.

Hmm yeah, maybe that’s why every minute of Jagame feels like two minutes.

+23: Cameron-Kanni Spotted: Movie at some point shows a burning merry-go-round which we feel is a reference to Terminator 2: Judgement Day and so we are giving positive points like these.

Yeah like random.

+91.5: Cut to the Combat: It almost feels that the director and crew only wanted to film the final blast everything in our way to the villain’s room shoot-out.

Don’t get us wrong, it’s really done well with slow motion and all that, but it almost seems that the rest of movie, the emotions of characters, are just a ruse(wink wink, nudge nudge)to get us to here.

Well atleast you enjoyed filming that.

Maybe the Thandiram in Jagame Thandiram is to get us to watch 2:40mins of uninspired filmmaking for the last few moments of inspired action, if that was the intention, then we have a winner.

<Winks winks, nudges nudges>

Subam

Team FRS