Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Adventures of Mark Twain [dir. Will Vinton]

I have to shamefacedly say that although I have liked most of what I have read of Mark Twain, the actual amount of stuff I've read is pitiful – some of his famous adventure stories (the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn novels, and The Prince and The Pauper) and some of his short satirical pieces. I suspect most of the general public is like that, they've heard of Twain and possibly gather his several quotable sayings to impress at social gatherings, but not read a good deal by him (as goes for George Orwell who in popular perception has written nothing apart from Animal Farm and 1984). Will Vinton, the man who made this wonderful Clay-mated film, is unlikely to fall in this category, having gone to such lengths to pay tribute to the author.

The Adventures of Mark Twain is a sort of meta-fiction based on Twain's “association” with Halley's comet (his birth and death were remarkably coincident with sightings of the comet and in his lifetime he even predicted his demise with the words I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.). Twain in the film actively sets out to meet his celestial brother in a tricked-out dirigible (stripped of the fantastic overtones it implies a fatalistic, perhaps even suicidal frame of mind) and tagging along for his journey as stowaways are Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Becky Thatcher (who Twain in the film describes as reminding him of his late wife “that same combination of innocence and sand”).

In this framework, Vinton references several of Twain's works (the biggest chunk reserved for a humorous interpretation of the Adam and Eve story) and even constructs many scenes around delivering those aforementioned quotable sayings. I can't say I recognize the source of a lot of these references but they do sound like things that the author would have said or written. Not unsurprisingly, the film doesn't have a single strong dramatic trajectory, but is more a meandering journey with a series of little stops. This is not a slur against the material, it generally works pretty well, and invests the central character with a depth not obvious from his popular image. This is most significantly observed in the film's allusions to Twain's last book The Mysterious Stranger – here an angel named “Satan” holds forth unchallenged on the pointlessness of civilization's belief in a benevolent God. This section stands apart from the other sequences of the film in how obviously sinister and nihilistic it is, and has the potential to give nightmares to children of unwary parents.

Literary leanings aside, the film is a fine watch, and a spectacular example of the Claymation process. In the hands of skilled artists with solid vision, it displays far more personality and palpable emotional impact than the computer generated animation we see so much of these days. You will notice that the screens from the film look pretty but in motion the impact is far greater. Even without knowing anything about its titular character you will find an abundance of charm that in itself makes The Adventures of Mark Twain a worthy journey.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

[dir. Mani Kaul]

I suppose by now most people that know me well know of my love-hate (actually I wouldn't say love) relationship with most of the late Mani Kaul's films. The man had some chops – his themes were not conventional, he had an eye for lighting and shot composition, and he could use music in a very evocative way. But he was a twat, too full of his own artistic importance and what an antithesis he was going to be to traditional narrative-oriented Indian cinema – one of the joys of reading Satyajit Ray's essay collection Our Films, Their Films was his contemptuous dismissal of Kaul's film-making style as “anemic”.
Most of the Mani Kaul films I saw were on the Doordarshan channel (yes, yes, in those old days when TV wasn't all Sari and Sins). Luckily enough the first one I caught was Nazar, which I remember being fairly intrigued by (especially Piyush Shah's images set to classical music) even though it wasn't breezy viewing. I will be revisiting it soon to see how my interest holds up. Later on, I slogged through Uski Roti (not even sure now if I saw it in full, because I was plain zombified by the experience) and Duvidha (more on this ahead). I was also “privileged” to see Beyond The Cloud Door, his "masterful" contribution to the shorts compilation Erotic Tales, at Mumbai's New Excelsior cinema. Despite Anu Agarwal's Tittu Ahluwalia act, most of the crowd gathered there was swearing at the dullness and incomprehensibility of the proceedings and I could not blame them. Sadly, I haven't seen any of his documentaries, I suspect the form is a lot more suited to his style.
Anyway, back to Duvidha, which I saw today on the NFDC Mani Kaul 3-movie set. In my first viewing on DD, I thought the film was an interesting ghost story done in a terribly dull manner. Consider the plot: When a young man leaves his wife on business immediately after the wedding ceremony for an interval of several years, a yaksha impersonates him and consorts with the wife (after telling her the truth). What happens when the young man returns? Who is her real husband? Very interesting folk tale with a powerful and timeless moral dilemma, like a Girish Karnad play. But dash it if Kaul doesn't aim to deliberately undermine the dramatic potential with his confirmed anemic approach. In Kaul's version, the characters are reduced to ciphers, their ethical dilemmas mere murmurs. It's not even in the name of realism, I've seen real people immensely more animated and emotional than the actors in this film. It's in my view a fake aesthetic designed to appeal to people that believe in the snob value of such esoteric examples of artistic expression.
That said, my second viewing was a better experience, mainly because of the better conditions of the viewing. Thanks to the clean-up job done by NFDC on this release, the mumble-mumble of the soundtrack is a lot more comprehensible and the sound design can be appreciated. It doesn't change my impressions of the film a huge deal but I am less bitter about it now. I suppose the image is better than what it used to be: It's still very soft and like with the Mirch Masala release, there's a problem with blown whites. You might find that you need to dial the brightness of your screen a few notches below usual to make the display easier on your eye and better appreciate the shadowy compositions.
I'll probably update this post with more impressions as and when I watch the other films in the set.