Monthly Archives: July 2014

HARD TO BE A GOD: The philosophy of shit

Hard to Be a God (film)HARD TO BE A GOD
directed by Aleksei German
Village Voice: ‘Brilliant Russian Film Imagines Humanity Without a Renaissance’

I spent three hours covered in black-and-white mud and shit at HARD TO BE A GOD. Should’ve walked out after one.

It’s based on a 1964 novel that sounds fascinating and philosophically rich. “The novel follows Anton, an undercover operative from the future planet Earth, in his mission on an alien planet, that is populated by human beings, whose society has not advanced beyond the Middle Ages. The novel’s core idea is that human progress throughout the centuries is often cruel and bloody, and that religion and blind faith can be effective tools of oppression, working to destroy the emerging scientific disciplines and enlightenment.” (Wikipedia) Anton, known in the alien world as Don Rumata, comes to realise that although his advanced understanding of society accords him godlike qualities, he is hamstrung by the low beliefs of those around him. What a quandary: to know how to alleviate people’s suffering, to feel obliged to intervene, but to know any intervention can only at best offer temporary relief. The struggle for knowledge and improvement will rage on, punctuated by faeces and entrails, and you are powerless to do anything but watch.

If only the film had stuck more closely to these lines! Instead, the philosophy is virtually absent as German insists on keeping his camera at the level of the sodden, shit-stained dirt. Scenes unfold incoherently as Don Rumata staggers from one set of filthy, snot-ridden characters to another, none of whom is meaningfully distinct from the others — at least, as far as I could tell. German’s shooting style relies heavily on long, unchoreographed takes and features wavering focus, an insistence on close-up rather than wide angle cinematography, and regular, indistinct intrusions into the foreground of the frame by otherwise unseen characters and objects. At no point are any concessions made to an audience’s expectation for plot or character development; it is all base elements, mud and bodily functions and weapons. For three hours, and in black and white for good measure, lest anything capture our attention or imagination.

The point may be that we, the 21st Century audience, are equally powerless observers to the horrors of history. A good point, if so. And I’ll never feel more like I’ve spent three hours in the unenlightened Middle Ages, nor more appreciative of modern conveniences. But the point is laboured, and every element of the film remains out of most viewers’ grasp. The society Don Rumata inhabits is called Arkanar; fitting, as HARD TO BE A GOD is arcane in the extreme.

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PATEMA INVERTED: Bloody kids

Patema InvertedPATEMA INVERTED
directed by Yasuhiro Yoshiura
The Guardian: 3/5

What an idea! Two groups of people, one with their gravity inverted so they walk on the ceiling and have to construct their lives around not falling into the sky. The two groups live in adjacent cities with little awareness of one another, primarily because their respective leaders do everything they can to keep them separate. PATEMA INVERTED brings them into contact through Patema, a teen girl heroine from the underground city with a penchant for unauthorised exploration, and Eiji, a fish-out-of-water in the 1984-esque Earthbound society.

So much potential. So many possible paths to tread, and so many facets of a compelling idea to explore. But while he sustained my interest through the premise, Yoshiura lost me with his characters. Often, just as the world began to draw me in and get my mind turning over, he’d hone back in on Eiji and Patema, stereotypical anime teenagers, alternately sullen and earnest. Their connection begins unconvincingly with youthful stargazing and, once cemented, blinds them to almost anything else. At one point, they reach an incomprehensibly vast city that appears to be deserted, but their focus remains squarely on each other. I wouldn’t mind, but if you’re going to make your film about the characters, then they need to be more captivating than this pair.

The ending is one of PATEMA INVERTED’s more satisfying elements, as it fits the scenario into a wider context and inverts our previous understanding of the characters. But I still left feeling cheated. Why couldn’t they have applied that level of inspiration to the rest of it?

The film I really wanted to see from this scenario would’ve had Eiji and Patema have sex as soon as possible, then focus on their offspring. Would they be able to fly? Would they use their understanding of both societies to bring about peace? Would they be unloved outcasts wherever they went? That would have been really interesting.

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THE LUNCHBOX: Overlaps and folded chapatis

Irrfan Khan in THE LUNCHBOX

(c) Sony Pictures Classics

THE LUNCHBOX
directed by Ritesh Batra
Metacritic: 76

After a note about the high volume of seat ushers and a small bitch about the seat allocation (I was stuck somewhere up the rear right of the Embassy Cinema despite booking my seats quite early), the first of my scribbles about THE LUNCHBOX was one word: ‘hungry’.

It’s not a film about food, exactly, although food is an important part of its subtly expressed message about the fundamental connections between people. But you see food early, and often, and you want to eat it, regardless of whether you’ve just eaten an enormous yum char lunch (as I had). With its combination of tastes and textures and unpretentious presentation, Is there any cuisine more visually appealing than home-cooked Indian?

Similarly appealing are Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan, the housewife (‘Ila’) and salaryman (‘Saajan’) at the centre of THE LUNCHBOX’s straightforward plot of a dabba that repeatedly gets sent to the wrong man. The mistake could be corrected easily, but both Ila and Saajan settle into a note-passing routine that seasons their unfulfilling lives: she with her distracted, near-absent husband, he with his widowed malaise involving little more than cigarettes and government files. Kaur is just fine, and Nawazudin Siddiqui is perfectly pitched between irritating and charming in a supporting role, but you must see this for Khan, one of the great actors of our time. He does so much with so little.

The teeming metropolis that surrounds these characters seems to function more as a delivery device for boosted GDP rather than as a social structure. The man alone in a Himalayan cave for years could never be as lonely as the man in the city who lives alone, works alone, and travels on the packed commuter trains alone. But connections are possible. One of the most striking ways Batra illustrates this is by regularly overlapping sound between scenes — as if the previous scene continues to echo in a character’s head, even if they weren’t in it. They’re all in it together, for better or worse.

By the way, THE LUNCHBOX is set in Mumbai, a city I have visited and loved twice. The opening shot was of a mass of drab suburban railway tracks and the plain apartment blocks that overlook them. It gave me the chills. My impression of the film might therefore have been coloured somewhat favourably, but it is really good.

Read an interview with director Ritesh Batra here.

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