Tuesday, April 24, 2012


 “Levon slowly dies”, ended Elton John’s 1971 part-tribute to The Band’s drummer. Death did come slowly to Levon Helm. A few months prior to his demise, it’d been revealed that he was in the final stages of his battle with cancer. He passed away in his sleep, surrounded by his family and friends, on April 19, 2012 at 1.30pm. It was the first death of a Band member that didn’t have the specter of addiction hanging over it. Richard Manuel drank and drank and hung himself one day. Rick Danko died of a drug-induced heart attack.

That Levon died naturally isn’t surprising, for everything the man did was natural. There was no undue effort in his drumming; it was, like so many things the Band did, just right. His singing, too, seemed to be rooted in the Arkansas soil he rose from (he was the only non-Canadian in the group). To hear Helm sing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is to understand why Manuel or Danko, astonishing vocalists both, could not have brought the same weight to bear on this most Southern of American rock songs. Or you could listen to “The Weight” – borne by all three vocalists – and marvel at the carnal joy in his vocalising of “Well Luke my friend/ what about young Anna Lee?”
Helm could be playful (“Rag Mama Rag”), sly (“Yazoo Street Scandal”), humorous (“Up On Cripple Creek”). He sang almost exclusively in the lower register, and lent to everything a rare combination of knowingness and feeling. In a age of drum solos, his playing was spare, unadorned (and influential – just listen to his flat beat in “The Weight”, and then to The Kinks’ “Strangers”). Like all his bandmates except Robbie Robertson, Helm’s solo career never really took off. His legend, though, remained untarnished; at his Midnight Rambles, everyone from Elvis Costello to Allen Toussaint, Hubert Sumlin, Kris Kristofferson and Rickie Lee Jones would turn up to play for free. One hopes his long, bitter feud with Robertson ended with the latter’s hospital visit a few days before his death. An inscription on the tomb of Virgil, the Greek poet, reads “I sang of pastures, countrysides, leaders” – an uncannily good description of the man whose most recognisable song begins with the words “Virgil Caine is my name…”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: DVD Review

It’s been 36 years, but One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is still, to quote of its own lines, absolutely dangerous. MiloŇ° Forman’s film was based on the seminal 1962 novel about one Randle McMurphy, a free-spirited jailbird who’s sent to a mental institution. There, he rebels against the iron rule of the loathsome Nurse Ratched, who preys on her patients’ infirmities, ostensibly to maintain order. The film marked the coming together of several distinct rebel movements: the ’60s counterculture that Ken Kesey, the book’s author, embodied; the rule-breaking ethos of ’70s New Hollywood; and Forman’s own experiences with censorship in Communist Czechoslovakia.
This Ultimate Collector’s Edition comes in the kind of pack that usually changes hands on Diwali. Inside, there’s a booklet, a few postcards and two DVDs, the first of which is the film. The second disc contains outtakes, a look at the current mental healthcare scenario in the US, and a feature-length documentary called Completely Cuckoo. A mix of interviews, archival footage and reminisces – including those of Kesey’s, who disliked the film – Completely Cuckoo is a refreshingly candid making-of feature, enlivened by frequent takeoffs on Forman’s thick Central European accent by cast and crew.   
The film’s journey began when Kirk Douglas, fresh from having played McMurphy on Broadway, met Forman in Prague. Impressed with the young Czech filmmaker, Douglas told him to expect the book in the mail and write back if he was interested. The package never arrived, and Forman assumed the star had forgotten about it (it had actually been confiscated by the customs officials). Back home, Kesey disassociated himself from the project, complaining that while he wanted to make The Cabinet of Doctor Calgari, the producers wanted to make Hogan’s Heroes. Douglas passed the producer’s hat to his son Michael (this was before his acting career took off), who along with co-producer Saul Zaentz brought Forman back into the picture. The trio made one key decision early – they would shoot in a real-life mental hospital.

 In her Oscar acceptance speech for her role as Nurse Ratched, Louise Fletcher thanked Jack Nicholson and the cast for making “being in a mental institution like being in a mental institution”. It was no idle praise. In the documentary, Milos Forman mentions how his aim was to cast faces one wouldn’t forget in a hurry. As it happens, the entire movie is played out in these faces, be it the bug-eyed suspicion of Christopher Lloyd, the animal fear of Brad Dourif, or Danny DeVito’s shy, unnerving smile. And, of course, there’s Nicholson as McMurphy, grinning like the one truly crazy person there, and Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, her reasonable voice at odds with her cold, hard eyes set in a mask of a face. Underscoring everything is the eccentric score by Jack Nitzsche, who, after years of being Phil Spector’s right-hand man, was used to working with the mentally unstable.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Monday, April 9, 2012

That sinking feeling

A piece I did for Time Out on the re-release of Titanic in 3D.

Anyone with basic knowledge of the movie business knows there’s really only one cardinal rule: never bet against James Cameron’s latest venture. It’s fully possible that the theatrical rerun of Titanic in 3D will turn out to be as phenomenally popular and lucrative as the original. But what the hell, here's five reasons why it may not.

1. Let’s be honest. Titanic was an embarrassment. The shift from modern-day deep-sea exploration to period melodrama remains one of the great cinematic lurches of all time. The script of the 1997 movie was filled with zingers like “I figure life’s a gift and I don't intend on wasting it.” The direction was impersonal, as if James Cameron had too much on his mind to pay attention to things like nuance and decent characterisation. Instead, as he did with Avatar 12 years later, the director bet everything on visual effects and a sappy love story. It paid off spectacularly, becoming the highest grossing film till date and winning 11 Oscars. We’re all to blame for that, but 15 years have passed and hopefully everybody is wiser now.

2. Releasing Titanic 3D now is like selling semi-old wine in a spanking new bottle. It hasn’t been allowed to age enough; most of the movie-going public between 25 and 45 has already seen it, many of them on the big screen. Apart from the creaky storytelling or clunky dialogue, we only have the dubious pleasure of seeing the ship fall apart in 3D.

3. Cameron has picked the wrong film from his back catalogue to release in 3D. The obvious choice is Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the still-impressive 1991 film that turned Arnold Schwarzenegger’s expressionless killer from the first Terminator movie into an expressionless guardian angel. The prospect of that film with an extra dimension added is mouth-watering: just imagine Robert Patrick shifting shape in three dimensions, or T-1000’s Harley bouncing towards you after making that incredible jump off the ledge. Even the tagline suggests itself: “I’ll be back…in 3D”.

4. Most of Titanic’s repeat viewers, the ones who helped it become the first movie to gross over a billion dollars, were teenage girls worshipping at the temple of Leonardo DiCaprio. For months after its release, it was impossible to separate the film from the hysteria surrounding its young star. But in the decade and a half that’s passed since, DiCaprio has repeatedly subverted his boyish appeal by going over to the dark side as far as his roles are concerned. Team LDC has most likely switched allegiances to Team Clooney or Team Gosling by now.

5. Some of us still haven’t forgiven James Cameron his celebratory woo-hoos at the Oscars in 1998. Who ends his Oscar acceptance speech by quoting his own film’s line (“I’m the king of the world”)?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Anatomy of a Scene: Metropolitan

By the time it dawns upon Tom that he's in love with Audrey, we're in the last ten minutes of Metropolitan. What's worse, she isn't around. She's left with a friend for the villainous Von Sloneker's beach house, and Tom and Charlie are going crazy at the thought of what might be going on in that den of vice. And sure enough, when they reach there, the friend and Von S are in a state of undress. Audrey, though, is reading a book and looking bored. Tom announces his intentions: he's here to collect Audrey. A scuffle breaks out and Tom pulls a gun; in keeping with the innate civility of the movie, no blood is shed, and the matter is settled in seconds.

We join Audrey and Tom talking on the beach. She is clearly happy that he came all the way to perform a rather unnecessary rescue, but she's committed herself earlier in the movie, and it didn't go well, so it'll be up to Tom this time. They're getting closer - there's a touch of the hair here, a hint of a future meeting there. Audrey decides to take a chance and clear up something important. Van Sloneker had said in parting, "Get outta here and take this flat-chested, goody-goody, pain in the neck", to which Tom had replied, "She's not a goody-goody". That's all very well, but Audrey now wants to know, "Do you really think I'm really flat-chested?" Tom starts by saying he hadn't thought about it, then retracts the statement, finally stating , "You look really great, and that's what's important". As Audrey smiles shyly, Charlie, who's been walking towards them from a distance, comes into focus, and stands over the couple like a priest at the altar. He's been a rival for Audrey's affections, but has grown closer to Tom since, and more importantly, he realises Audrey's just got the reassurance she was looking for. He takes a breath and relaxes his shoulders; if you look carefully, you'll see the ghost of a hope leave him. With a sublimely inscrutable look on his face, he smiles, and the camera cuts away to the otherwise deserted beach. The last scene sees the three of them walking down the road, trying to hitch a ride home.