Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Day 172: Apu

Eating some of my favourite homemade dahl (see a previous blog in the archives for the recipe), with a little broccoli and a touch of mango chutney, whilst listening to a selection of soundtrack pieces from the movies of Indian director Satyajit Ray, I was immediately wafted back, on gentle winds, to my experience of the Ray’s The Apu Trilogy.

The Apu Trilogy (1955-59) consists of three Bengali films - Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apu Sansar (The World of Apu) - made on a shoestring budget by lauded Indian director Satyajit Ray, they are considered, collectively, as one of cinema’s greatest trilogies ever made; not Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Herbie the Love Bug. I saw the three as part of the Sydney Film Festival’s retrospective programme some ten years ago now. Look, I have to be honest and say that I struggled with the first of the films which deals with Apu’s childhod in rural Bengal, but at the end of that first film, thankfully, Apu leaves the family hut for the holy city of Benares, making, in my humble opinion, for a better second and third film.

Film magazines, critics and cognoscenti rave about the Apu Trilogy, as they do the films of Hungarian director Béla Tarr, whose latest offering of the time - The Werckmeister Harmonies - was in the same festival line-up.

The Werckmeister Harmonies was, for me, an almost impenetrable film. Let me quote from another source: “Shot in black and white and composed of only thirty-nine languidly placed shots, the film describes the aimlessness and anomie (personal feeling of lack of social norms) of a small town on the Hungarian plain that falls under the influence of a sinister traveling circus lugging the immense body of a whale in its tow. A young man named Janos tries to keep order in the increasingly restless town even as he begins to lose his faith in the world.”

I could go on and tell me more, but truth is that I feel I’m catapulting myself back to that cinema ten years ago when, for 145 minutes (two and half hours that I won't get back), I had no idea what was going on, from one of those 145 minutes to the next? Yet, the film was a darling of the festival circuit??!!

I must own up and confess here that, whilst I love attending film festivals (if I have the money and time) I increasingly find myself squirming in my seat, restless and agitated at often, what I think of as two hours of “pretty pictures‘ edited together or composed to make what’s then referred to as a “feature film”; a feature film that in all probability will never see the light of day beyond the festival circuit.

I have a suspicion that many films are made or first dreamt of, that never aspire to a general release, knowing that, if lucky, the film can live and breathe, hopping from festival to festival to festival. Who am I to say that’s wrong, who am I to say that all films should have a commercial rather than cultural or artistic imperative? Indeed, I have sat through some magnificent crud at film festivals, just as I have similarly watched some diabolical efforts at my local cinema that should never have got a release. A plague on both their houses.

Just because a film is in a film festival, doesn’t mean that it’s “good”. Like my mini-discussion about the false economy that is the French film industry (two days ago), so I often think that some festival films can be accused of living in a protected environment where they are showered with accolades, awards and plaudits beyond their actual “ability” (if that’s the right word).

Day #172 Tip: Know what you want to make
I have a very clear explanation, to people, of the type of films that I want to write.

At one end of the film-making spectrum (imagine a protractor or semi-circle) you have the art-for-art’s sake film that maybe I’m alluding to, which if released, might play to an empty, darkened cinema, whilst one hundred and eighty degrees away, there is the third or fourth film in whatever the latest gangbusters “Hollywood” “franchise” or abhorrently vile “horror” brand of film is, either of which has had the worthwhile filmic air sucked out of it. Well, plum in the middle of that arc, at about the eighty to one hundred and ten degree mark are the films I aspire to watch and write.

For me, they are the are or were the films of the last golden age of cinema, which was the late 1960’s and the early 1970”s; a time that predates the multiplex. This was when most towns had one cinema and showed the one film and everyone queued up for that one film and tried to, or not to, catch the whisperings of the audience that came out of the screening before: "was it any good?"

These were films that won awards, made their mark at the box office and were hits with critics and audiences alike, from The Graduate, Butch Cassidy, The Way We Were, The Godfather, and Dirty Harry to Jaws, The Exorcist, Love Story, 2001: A Space Odyssey and American Graffiti.

By and large, I’m a three-act, beginning, middle and end, kinda guy; maybe I could be accused of being overly nostalgic and wistful about the past, especially in regards to the cinema? I have no truck with that, you’ll get no argument from me. Film is a broad church, there is room in the congregation for Bratz: the Movie and The Werckmeister Harmonies alike, but I think it helps to know which side of the aisle you’re standing on, NOT, I hasten to add, to TAKE sides or draw up battle lines, but just to work out from which part of the church you like the view best, so that you know where you are with your work. Believe me, it helps.

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