So, it’s December now and I thought that this would be a year (like most) which would pass on without me having to cry about watching a movie and lie about not crying about it later.
Like how most grown men do.
But I was proven wrong, like how most grown men are (often).
So, I had read Slaughterhouse-5, sometime just after I could squeeze in a membership in a decent library to which I could cycle to.
Usually, people who do read books, talk about reading slaughterhouse-five in college. Others would have had a passing glimpse of the Cat’s Cradle cover, those folks ended up with an MBA.
Nowadays, people look at you as a genius if you remember that if you merely remember the author and the book title. They might even give you a prize for it.
So it goes.
Nevertheless, nothing ever prepared me (even reading Slaughterhouse-five) for Bob Weide’s documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. Otherwise, I would have carried a box of tissues with me.
The tears came not only because of the realization of the fact this was a thoughtful, cheerful and wonderful documentary on arguably America’s greatest man of letters of the 20th century.
Ok side note:
how to determine if you are really reading the greatest author of your generation?
Answer: If your parents have heard of him/her; then better throw the book away, far away.
Side note ends.
The tears came because, it is possible to lead a fruitful life by a man of letters (as this documentary shows).
Vonnegut Jr, died in 2007, he was eighty-four and he had retired ten years earlier. He regarded life very seriously and hence wrote funny novels about it.
The tears came because, any career length feature about Vonnegut would have simply been awe-inspiring.
But this doc which was forty years in the making where the writer-director is himself a character (a trait Bob inherits from Vonnegut) and makes it another great film about family, friendship, loneliness and the struggle of the creative process.
Just like Simla Special.
Ok, that was supposed to have been my punchline.
So, do yourself a favor and use the weekend to watch Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time.
Like most of the movies that matter, this is not on any OTT that you maybe paying precious money on.
That’s life, spending on all the wrong things, when all the right things are for free.
Simla Special can be watched for free on YouTube.
If you don’t know how to get hold of a copy of Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, you are using the internet wrong.
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.
I pray to the uninitiated to go watch Citizen Kane and I pray to the Movie God that they be allowed to see the movie without having to think about the weight that Kane carries and enjoy it in all its brilliance.
I am just going to believe that Citizen Kane released the day before yesterday. That’s it. Here I am writing about it with the same misguided enthusiasm that I have whenever I write about a new release.
The castle’s not a welcome sight, a very dark place, a palace possibly going to waste, seen better days? Doesn’t seem so, it seems it was quite hopeless from the start, unsettling in ways that sometimes open spaces can be. There’s also the sign, “no trespassing”.
Somewhere deep in this castle lies Kane,at least he seemed to have seen better days? Or is he too like his castle, unsettling and doomed to be depressed always. That’s the feeling I get, as the only light in the castle goes out.
And a snow globe gently glides down the bed and shatters.
Life is not a snow globe
A house in winter, captured as the snow rains, set for eternity. But life is not this captured mountain scene in a snow globe, nor does it rain snow always, nor can it be controlled and enclosed within a glass dome.
Someone should have told Kane that, maybe they did, but would he have listened?
Who was Charles Foster Kane?
The castle, Xanadu, a monument to himself, unfinished. Ah yes, I can see where my discomfort comes from, a monument for yourself, now that seems pretty sad.
Consider the narrative of Citizen Kane.The story’s been sullied by multiple narrators, all of whom are suspect and been wronged by Kane at some point. Heck, even the “News on the march” segment (which is basically the whole movie in 10 mins even before the movie begins) cannot be trusted, for example, it shows him at once a friend to the workers and the other time a cold capitalist.
But what sort of a man was this Mr Kane?
Orson Welles’ genius is that he keeps posing the same question all through the movie, who was this Charles Foster Kane?
Was he a mountain child wishing only to play in the snow all day?
No but he also liked taking over loss making newspapers and building an empire, so was he interested in the news?
Or was he interested in the business of news?
Did he marry for love? Or did he hope to find love in the President’s niece?
Did he really love opera? Or did he just build an opera house because he can?
Yes cannot be the answer for all of these questions, but what is affirmative is that a man or a woman is not wholly knowable, definitely not from the impressions that they have left behind.
These residuals are simply not enough to truly like or hate Kane. Any additional information only deepens the mystery, leaving us with no answer to what sort of a man Kane is. It’s not the question we should be pursuing.
Welles himself hints at the answer, towards the end, when one of the many reporters tasked with finding out what Rosebud was, says one word can never sum up a man.
What could Citizen Kane be about?
I, like the reporters in this movie, could spend years trying to know what was in Kane’s mind and not care about what’s hiding in plain sight.
To me, Citizen Kane is about: desire leads to suffering.
Let’s look at this way.
Kane desires the Inquirer to be the most read newspaper but he also desires to be appreciated by the editorial of the serious folks at ‘Chronicle’, his suffering here is he loses his only friend to this contradiction.
Kane desires more people to love him, runs for governor, doesn’t make it because of his affair with a ‘singer, his over estimation blinds him and he suffers a severe damage, never to fully recover again.
Kane desires to be seen as a patron of the art, again pushing through, trying to make a non singer shine, suffers more damage and loses his only personal connection.
Kane desires to build the most prized private collection of arts in the whole world, and no one wants to live with him in it.
If there is one thing that the movie keeps establishing is this.
It’s not about the unknowable persona of Kane but that even the most fulfilling desires are not so fulfilling.And where do we go from there?
Welles doesn’t cast Kane as a villain or a hero, but a sad figure of history who achieved so much and still so little, it is an optimistic tale on what a person can achieve in a lifetime, but it is also a cautionary tale.
Citizen Kane asks us to choose your desires wisely, because we must be willing to suffer for it. Kane’s early fortune in the mines made it possible that he could afford to take all the suffering that life put in his way (honestly he added most of the suffering himself) but not all of us are blessed with a choice of businesses to run and a personal treasury.
Kane probably thought that happiness and satisfaction can be got from being successful, being popular and being loved. To his credit he pursued all of it with his talent and charm.
But it’s not a very happy ending, alone filled with memories or maybe I am reading too much and leaning into some imaginary rule that allots more weightage to how a person died than how a person lived.
I wonder from where the citizen part of “Citizen Kane” came through, probably it is from the notion of the American Dream, a broad affirmation of what America stands for, a land where an individual can live a richer and fuller life when they reach the best of their abilities. Kane did that, he did reach the pinnacle of what was possible for him, it maybe made him richer, but not fuller.
Forget Rosebud it’s an imagined mystery made eternal on screen, but the suffering is real.
PS: The Sight & Sound Magazine has been publishing the greatest 10 films of all time list, spaced by a decade since 1952. Citizen Kane was on top of the list from 1962 to 2002, only to be replaced by Vertigo, a movie about a singular obsession and how that too leads to suffering.
PPS: I pray the knowledgeable to forgive this amateur, there has been a lot written and said about Citizen Kane, while mine may not add anything to it, I hope it does not scar the reader’s memory or spoil any existing scholarship.
I am not a motorsports enthusiast, heck I am not even a sports enthusiast but the sports film, Ford vs Ferrari is one of the most impactful films I have seen this year.
James Mangold’s film is a product of conviction and evident proof that the only way to win over the audience is through good story and great characters and not by pandering to them. When done well this approach brings in even those who are not remotely interested in the space that you are making the movie in. ( Me and sports)
I don’t think, I emphasised the previous paragraph to much effect; what I meant to say is that making a good film starts by having complete disregard to the expectations that your audience might have.
“Oh right, this is one of those sports films and the movie ends with the winning moment”
No it doesn’t.
But it plays on the existing sports movie template and makes it better.
Make it better.
Ford vs Ferrari is a movie about optimisation. It’s not what movies are usually about, especially Tamil movies, in which we take the broadest of canvasses to tell the shallowest of stories. Optimisation begins where specialisation deepens. Ford v Ferrari is about making fast cars, faster.
Bit by bit, Ken Miles(Christian Bale in a soon to be multi-nominated performance), our hero is trying to make things better. As a race car driver he is in search of an elusive perfect lap. Every race win, in this movie (and there are many) ends with a feeling of how he could actually have done it better, while the world watches in awe as Ken Miles breaks his own lap record.
The search for excellence is a solitary game, it is a search that does not end with a pat on the back or the roaring sound of applause or admittance from peers. The search for excellence is in fact a never ending search.
James Mangold takes the much seen sports drama arc which has the rebellious maverick- the considerate mentor- the conniving and unreasonable corporate into a drama about artisanal passion where the race (although shot with great precision ) gives way to the characters.
Competing with respect
In any other movie, Henry Ford II ( Tracy Letts is brilliant) would be the corporate monster, a villain who derives pleasure in killing competition like boutique car mechanics. No, but here, underneath layers of tailored suit is an entrepreneur trying to do good by his grandfather’s legacy. Mangold and his writers treat characters with respect, even the stock characters.
Also in the movie is the relationship between designer Carroll Shelby( Matt Damon, too in a soon to be multi-nominated performance) and driver Ken Miles- a friendship so relatable when they have hands on each other’s shoulders talking about chassis and brakes, but not so much when they really try to spell it out.
Nevertheless, Ford v Ferrari takes a close second place in my imaginary best films on friendship contest in 2019. That honor, as on date firmly rests with Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood.
For Mangold and his crew, I do what Enzo Ferrari does, with his hat, at the end of the race.
That Tarantino taught himself movie making from behind the desk at a video store is the stuff of legend. In Chennai, it is not uncommon to have friends who due to compulsions of engaging with popular culture have a tee shirt which proudly says “ I never went to film school. I went to films” or some such Tarantino quote.
Tarantino is the real life story of the fringe becoming mainstream, the director who launched the career of numerous disciples, the director who within a short time had an ‘esque’ added to his name. The director who has his quotes on t shirts in Chennai.
It’s what he became.But let’s come back to the first fact, as a video store clerk- he saw every type of film. Often in the transference of his coolness, the reason for his coolness is omitted.He saw every type of film.
Has there been any Tarantino conversation without the generous movie name-dropping? To think of it, his tee shirt makes perfect sense, he really figured out how to make movies by just watching a ton of movies- a certified movie nut with unconditional love.
He just didn’t stream the AFI top 100 to become what he did become(relevant in our time of curated lists and general entitlement of everyone seeking the ‘best’).
Tarantino went to work, consuming films of all types and sizes, without any notion of preconceived taste.His passion extends beyond just viewing them but to track down and remember every filmmaker. The resultant is a wholly unique person with an extremely specific movie taste.
Specific to the extent of keeping a close watch on how he will be remembered (the 9th film by Quentin Tarantino is how Once Upon A Time…is marketed), his movies are combos- the ones on a food menu which arrive quick, valuable and consists of enticing items from different pages in the same menu. Each preceding film was a genre version of what Tarantino cooked up.
But Once Upon A Time is different…it is still a heady mix of genres, it still moves to an assorted pop soundtrack and radio commercials, it does have an obliqueness to violence but this is really Tarantino’s way of giving it back (love) to his industry.
Although at the same time it is not the “love letter” or the nostalgia driven look of Hollywood- it is authentic but not rose tinted. It is a film about time, a word that features in the title.
A passage of time, 1969 seems to be year of closure of many things Old Hollywood- the slowing of the studio system- the decline of a certain sort of heroism.
A man’s man would be ridiculed in our ‘woke’ times, but their careers seem to have ended a long time ago. I can never imagine an ‘environmentally’ aware hero like Leonardo taking up anything remotely similar to Bounty Law ( the TV series that Rick Dalton, his character plays in this movie).
Tarantino feels for Rick Dalton & his driver-companion Cliff Booth (Dalton himself is based on many leading TV men of the 50s and 60s who lost their way, without a break, mostly forgotten by history) but he is not tied down by the weight of historical accuracy. He wants them to get that one break, that one lucky break which could change a sagging career.
At the other end of the story is a young Sharon Tate, who at the time represented the Hollywood to come, young with life, till it was horrifically taken away from her. Tarantino cares for her too, doesn’t really care for history. One of the best moments come from Tate getting to watch her on screen in the ‘The Wrecking Crew’. A rather ‘asinine’ film, as Tarantino himself put it while guesting on a podcast. It isn’t regarded as a classic film but means so much to Sharon Tate, thus proving that any movie could make deep impact in a person’s life, irrespective of how it has been ‘regarded’ by society (especially critics).
The ending, which is sure to shock many, but unlike the catharsis of killing Hitler in Inglorious Basterds, this comes from a sweet place of good intentions and confidence. The way he juxtaposes fact and fiction in a way that only reminded me of Monty Python’s Life of Brian- a film that follows the parallel lives of the Christ and a commoner.
Clearly my favourite Tarantino and definitely the most re-watchable , a movie where I could endear myself to his brashness.
He knows his stuff, this is his subject, he seems to be having the most fun when without any care following his characters to see where they go-forgetting lines, feeding dogs, folding clothes, watching movies and generally raising hell in the Hollywood of 1969.