Word Cinema: Dark is Mine Monday, 3 May, 2010Posted by ~uh~™ in World Movies.
Tags: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Cuban Cinema, dark cinema, Doordarshan late night movies, drama, French Cinema, French short film, Japanese Cinema, La Rivière du hibou, Los sobrevivientes, Narayama-bushi kô, Robert Enrico, Shohei Imamura, Short Film, The Ballad of Narayama, The Survivors, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, World Cinema
[This post includes a short film of duration around 28 minutes, which I insist you to see at one go. You might find it bit slow, but be patient and watch it till the end. You can thank me later. This post was first published on PFC [link] where the short film is embedded.]
Dark in fine
I was wondering why I have developed this fascination towards dark world cinema (not towards the dark world of cinema though!) and how. When you talk about dark and psychologically disturbing cinema, the greatest references would be from world cinema. During the course of history, every country had its own share of warfare, destruction, economic turmoil, poverty, misanthropy, genocide, exploitation, distorted sexuality, loss and agony which influenced the upbringing of certain people who later turned out to be eminent writers and film makers. Their works showcased their journey of the subconscious, even when they are not deliberate (Polanski, Ghatak). Now categorizing a Director or Country in terms of their genre, portrayal of violence, horror, fantasy and sexuality, disturbing content or overall theme of despondency, would probably be a topic of a different discussion altogether. Mind you, I am talking about the movies which are more psychological and subtle in nature and not the vivid graphic macabre ones. This post is more personal in nature, where I want to share three dark foriegn films which I wanted to forget in the last twenty years, but could not.
My earliest encounter with dark world cinema was through television. During early 90’s, every Saturday (if I remember correctly, the timing was after Pranay Roy’s World This Week) Doordarshan ran a series of late night adult movies from around the world, playing French, Polish, German, Japanese, Italian, Korean cinema with subtitles. Most of these films were award winners in various festivals and compared to those day’s standards, fairly liberally censored for television. We had dearth of rooms at our place, so I used to sleep on the living room. Thankfully, the TV used to be in the same room. Those movies started at 11:30 pm and as far as my memory recalls- a brief synopsis was narrated before start of the movie. Being early days of Doordarshan and the slot being unfavorable, there were minimal advertisements to interrupt the movie’s runtime. Those days TV was not a 24×7 affair; once the movie ended a screen used to show up displaying when would the next karyakram start in the morning and the screen pixelated into ‘zzzz’. I used to switch it of and think about the movie I just saw while sinking into sleep.
I don’t remember the year exactly, but based on the fact that I had started smoking it should be either 90 or 91. I Every Saturday, I used to wait eagerly for the night, turn on the TV, and then with my cigarettes and ashtray. I had to put the sound at very low, so as not to disturb other in the house. The movies being aired in their original language there was little need to follow the dialogues. I kept the volume just sufficient for the background score and the vocal modulations to capture the mood of the dialogue. There was no way to find out which movie will be aired till the movie name was announced and the synopsis was read out. So, there was always a sense of wait and surprise. Those days we did not have the internet, wikipedia or IMDB to learn about those movies. I craved to know more about them but there were no easy way to find out. In 1991, after I joined JU (Jadavpur University) as a student of Architecture, I got in touch with the ‘Film Society’ there. The film society used to screen films of maestros of word cinema during ‘Sanskriti’ the annual fest of the JU . My first encounter with Bergman, Goddard, Kurosawa, Truffaut happened in the multipurpose sports hall or Gandhi Bhavan, squatting on the floor rug or on the steps, while the noisy machine projected the black and white films on the makeshift screen.
Bees Saal Baad
Honestly, 20 years later I don’t remember most of the movie names, except a few. The reason I remember some of the movies, with their plotlines, even some of the scenes is proof enough that they had a pretty long lasting effect on me. All these movies had something in common.
• They had very strong connection with the socio-economic situation of the country which the plot were based on.
• They featured lot of outdoor scenes and used the local weather beautifully to depict the various moods.
• They contained abnormal cruelty by characters that were forced by the situation.
• They were truly unforgettable.
The three movies which stayed with me all these years, are the following-
The Survivors [Los sobrevivientes] (Cuban, 1979)
Director: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea
One of the movies I vividly remember. I have written about it in one of my earlier post, looking for the title. Now that I have discovered the movie, I feel this urge to write about it again, this time not revealing the plot spoilers.
The movie was set on a grand palatial building where an affluent bourgeoisie family lived. The family consisted of ladies and gentlemen of various ages and a very old lady. There was a grand dining hall where all the family members used to dine together over elaborate spread of dishes, which looked like an exotic cuisine. The palace had large garden, huge fields of crop all around and it looked as if everything is eternally bright and happy. Somehow because of some a war or a coup, all servants, farmers and domestic helps fled the property and the food supply stopped suddenly. The family started starving. However, being too stubborn to ask for help from the villagers, they decide to grow crops on their own, but fail miserably. Initially they try having vegetable and leaves collected from the garden and make a meal out of it. As days passed they started looking shabbier, affected with dirt and hunger, but they continued their ritualistic family meals, though much humbled in terms of content and presentation. Gradually their human inhibition starts deteriorating as they started eating dead animals. The old lady, who gradually resembled like a scarecrow, tried to fight the birds from eating away the crops, gets attacked by the bird and succumb to death. It was understood that the inhabitants took advantage of the dead members to have their ‘meals’ in the same dining room. I don’t remember the exact end, but it was one of the dark and creepy satires I ever saw. The dining room scenes, the baroque style decor and their conversations were the key highlights of the movie with intense performances by the actors.
The Survivors is a fine dark satire. I wish they release the DVD of this film soon.
The Ballad of Narayama [ Narayama-bushi kô] (Japanese, 1983)
Director: Shohei Imamura ( also the screenplay writer)
The movie tells about a Japanese village which had a strange custom, to optimize the stringent food supply for the inhabitants of the village. The people of the village, upon reaching the age of 70 had to climb atop a mountain, named Narayama and die of starvation as a part of their traditional ritual. This way, they could save food grains for the younger people and survive the harsh living conditions. I remember to see this film in colour which means it was the 1983 remake by Shohei Imamura of the original 1958 one. The reason I remember this movie is because of its life like portrayal of the brutal weather conditions, human struggle and cruelty. There is a scene where a young guy drags his father up to the mountain top, ties him with vines and rolls her down from the edge, as the old man refuses to be there alone. The agonized scream of the falling father and the rising mist over the mountains were haunting and a strong combination of disturbance and beauty. That scene haunted me for years, so had the thought of aged members starving to death to save for the younger generations, slowly amidst blizzard at the top of a mountain. The main protagonist of the movie a 69 old year old mother, prepares herself for her death – the movie revolves around the central theme.
However the greatest statement of the movie, which I gradually understood over the years were the amalgamation of life, death and sex. Death is life. Older people sacrifice themselves to provide survival for the younger one. Sex is death. In that mountain village sexual encounter was the cause of a birth. Death is life. Unwanted babies were abandoned to die in the snow, so that they can fertilize the soil which can grow food for the living population. Sex is Life. The difference between animals and human, at their very intimate moment tend to merge, as the camera pans from the copulating villager couple to the pair of snakes in the same shot. The film is not for the weak hearted because of certain scenes including live burial of people, repulsive sexual depiction and natural acts of animals. The movie has a heart, yet its non judgmental towards life and its miseries.
Undoubtedly, this is one of the most disturbing and amazing movies I have seen.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge [La Rivière du hibou] ( French, 1962)
Director: Robert Enrico
Now, it would be a crime to discuss the plot points of this movie. It’s just a 28 minute short film. I remember in one of the Sanskriti poster saying ‘Roshomon’ would be shown. All of us gathered to see the much talked about Kurosawa masterpiece and look preferred seats (smokers on the steps and others on the floor). But to our disappointment they announced that before Roshomon, a short film is going to be screened. We had never heard about it and there were cat calls and roars of displeasure from the crowd. However, everyone got settled when the movie started with a scene , where a man was being hanged from a bridge. After 28 mins when the movie ended, I still vividly remember, there was actually pin drop silence at the hall. All we could hear was the noise of the projector for a good amount of time, before everyone stood on their feet and the hall burst with applause. That was the longest applause I have ever heard after any movie. The authorities had to allow a break as everyone wanted to go out and breathe. This, without even a hint of doubt, is the most moving cinema I have ever seen. The movie is practically silent with nil dialogues, but within minutes of it’s start it involves the audience into its visual narration. The entire storytelling is done by the camera !
No more talks- please watch the movie. Request you not to skip of forward, but to be patient till the end and watch the movie AT ONE GO ! I guarantee, at the end, you will be spellbound for some time. This little gem won the award for best short subject at the 1962 Cannes film festival and 1963 Academy Awards and influenced some of the most popular psychologically themed movies like Lost Highway, Jacob’s Ladder, Donnie Darko, Sixth Sense….
[ Those who have seen this short, please refrain discussing the plot spoilers for others’ benefit]
If truly good cinema is what survives the test of time, then these three were my first encounter with good world cinema that subsequently attracted me into the good world of cinema !