Thursday, December 8, 2016

Captain Kirk

Two months ago, in an article for The Huffington Post, Kirk Douglas wrote, “My 100th birthday is exactly one month and one day after the next presidential election. I’d like to celebrate it by blowing out the candles on my cake, then whistling ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’” One hopes that Douglas – a lifelong liberal – would have recovered from the US election result by the time 9 December comes around, and will allow himself a fond look back at what has been an extraordinary career.

He made his screen debut in 1946, opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and never seemed to look back. Unlike established stars like Cary Grant and John Wayne, whose screen personae were fixed in the minds of the public, Douglas was tougher to slot: he was a boxer in Champion (1949); a cynical newspaperman in Ace in The Hole (1951); an archetypal Hollywood wheeler-dealer in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952); Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956); an upright colonel in Paths of Glory (1957). Outspoken and wilful, he was instrumental in breaking the Hollywood blacklist: as co-producer of Spartacus (1960), he saw to it that Dalton Trumbo (who’d been writing for years under a pseudonym) got a screenwriting credit, which paved the way for other discarded Reds to return to the Hollywood mainstream.

Spartacus sealed his popular image as a rugged action star, but Douglas rarely gravitated towards un-ironic heroics in his films. As he noted in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, he portrayed more than his fair share of heavies, but his real talent lay in suggesting that even his protagonists were a few drinks and a bad breakup away from violent implosion or explosion. He could have easily built a career out of his singular glowers and sneers. Instead, he used his scenery-chewing like a smokescreen, the bluster barely able to hide the emotional nakedness.

As the man turns 100, we raise our glasses to Spartacus, to Chuck Tatum, and to these five scenes made indelible by Douglas’ presence:

Meeting Whit 

In Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, Kirk Douglas was handed one of the most effective introductory scenes in the noir canon. By the time we lay eyes on Whit, 11 minutes in, he’s been established as a man not to be messed with – ‘a big op’, in the words of the Robert Mitchum’s doomy hero, former private detective Jeff. In flashback, we see the two of them meet for the first time. Whit hires Jeff to find his girlfriend, who shot him and made off with 400 thousand dollars.

Most actors – especially those acting in their second film, as Douglas was – would have played Whit as overtly menacing, and the scene would probably still have worked. Whether some instinct told Douglas to resist this, or whether it was Tourneur’s idea to have Whit be mild-voiced, even genial, is anyone’s guess. At any rate, from his first line – “Smoke a cigarette, Joe,” to a hyperventilating henchman – Douglas is a study in offhand cool, perhaps taking a cue from the Zen-like presence of Mitchum across the table. The only time he allows his face to darken is when he says “I won’t touch her” – a canny choice by the actor that tells us all we need to know about Whit.

Hollywood or bust

In the opening minutes of Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1951), movie star Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) all dodge calls from their once-collaborator, studio head Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas). When the three of them are brought together by a producer, we’re told, in a flashback that lasts most of the film, about their respective relationships with – and eventual break from – Shields.

A key scene in the film is the one in which the casually ruthlessness of Shields’ ambition is laid bare. Fred, his collaborator from the start, waits nervously outside a financier’s office while Shields applies for funding for their new movie. Suddenly, Shields bursts through the door, delighted – they have the million dollars they were looking for. He’s so excited, chattering about what they could do with the money, that he doesn’t notice his friend’s face darken when he lets it slip that Fred has been replaced by an established director.

As Fred protests, there’s an immediate change in Douglas’ demeanour; his face, animated a few seconds ago, becomes impassive. His voice, too, drops an octave as he says, “Fred, I’d rather hurt you now than kill you off forever.” In this moment, we feel both the burning ambition and cold calculation of Shields. It’s quite something to watch this scene and be reminded of Michael Douglas, Kirk’s son, deploying a similarly devastating poker-face years later in Wall Street.

Rick falls apart

One of the underappreciated aspects of Douglas’ screen-acting is how often he belied his rugged image and showed weakness – physical, emotional or spiritual – in his onscreen roles. He was drunk and intriguingly unsure in his debut, The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers, and equally drunk and emotionally turbulent four years later, in Michael Curtiz’s Young Man with a Horn. In the 1950 film, Douglas plays Rick Martin, a character based on real-life jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. It’s an uneven film, beautifully photographed and scored but also shrill and puzzling if you can’t figure out that Rick’s wife, played by Lauren Bacall, is supposed to be gay (films at the time couldn’t explicitly say this, which makes Douglas and Bacall’s scenes together very strange).

At the end of the film, Rick is wandering the streets of New York. His wife has walked out on him, his mentor is dead, he’s flubbed a recording session and now he’s drunk and falling apart. In a black jacket and partially unbuttoned white shirt, Douglas walks around in a daze, bumping into passers-by, getting into a fight, buying a beat-up horn. It’s not what most would consider heavy-duty acting, but when I think of Douglas and the film, this is what I remember. It’s a reminder that, so often, what we think of as ‘performance’ is actually the sum total of lighting, camerawork, shot selection, music and a dozen other big and small decisions, almost none of which are in the hands of the actor.

Cowboy blues

As Jerry Goldsmith’s score sweetens into a wistful lilt, the woman hears the clip-clop of hooves, sets aside her cooking and hurriedly washes her hands. She turns around just as he enters. The look they share in that instant has their entire backstory: affection, compromise, regret, loneliness. “Hi,” he says, face creasing into a grin. “Hi,” she replies, with a hint of a smile. “Welcome home.”

The film is David Miller’s Lonely Are the Brave (1962), a modern-day Western in which Douglas plays an outlaw of sorts – not a criminal, just someone unsuited to the restrictions of modern life. The woman is his best friend’s wife; they were in love once, but it never worked out. It’s a simple scene – she makes him breakfast, he tells her that her husband is fine – but Douglas and Gena Rowlands play it with such feeling that you can feel the weight of the years.

The last action hero

Along with George Miller’s The Man from Snowy River, The Fury represents the best of late-period Douglas. In this 1978 film by Brian De Palma, he plays Peter Sandza, an ex-CIA agent who survives an assassination attempt and resurfaces years later in search of his telekinetic son, who’s been kidnapped by a shadowy intelligence organisation. Pursued by his son’s captors, he takes two bumbling beat cops (one of whom is played, hilariously, by Dennis Franz, future NYPD Blue star) hostage and commandeers their vehicle. De Palma, master of the elaborate chase, wasn’t fond of cars, a possible reason why the sequence is played mostly for laughs.

De Palma gave impetus to several fledgling actors – John Travolta, Robert De Niro, Margot Kidder – in his early films, but this was the first time he worked with a huge star. And Douglas is very much the old-school pro in the film, and in this scene. He deadpans through most of it, which only serves to make the panic of his co-passengers more hilarious; his sideways glance when one of them says, belatedly, “Somebody’s after you, is that it?”, is a minor classic). Few actors over 60 would have consented to ending a big action sequence with their pants around their ankles. That Douglas does this without looking ridiculous is testament to his willingness to subvert his own virile image, and to his belief in his own star quality.

This piece appeared online in Mint On Sunday.

Friday, December 2, 2016

A la la landmark

Minutes into La La Land, we were picking our jaws off the floor.

There hasn’t been a purer distillation all year of why we go to the movies, and why cinema isn’t ready to be replaced by home viewing, than the opening sequence of Damien Chazelle’s new film. It opens with a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway. As the camera pans along the gridlock, we hear the sounds of radio stations, hip hop and salsa and R&B. This chaotic soundscape is interrupted by a sound of a young woman singing. Another motorist picks up the tune, then another. People get out of their cars and dance. In a matter of minutes, the freeway is hosting a musical number for the ages.

Even edited, this would have been a spectacular sequence, but Chazelle elects to shoot it in a breathless single take. It must have taken weeks of planning and rehearsal to nail all the individual and group movements—some close to acrobatic—and weave them into a flowing, ecstatic whole. Linus Sandgren’s spectacularly mobile camera tilts, pans, dips, races: this must have been what German film-maker F.W. Murnau was dreaming of in the 1920s when he spoke of an “unchained camera”. The song is an up-tempo, Latin-infused number called "Another Day of Sun", and people were pa-pa-pumming it while leaving the theatre.

This sequence might remind some of West Side Story because of the way it marries location shooting and dance, but Chazelle found inspiration in another musical from the same era. In an interview with Variety, La La Land composer Justin Hurwitz spoke about how they “wanted to have a big production number that really pulled you into the world”. He mentions the opening sequence of Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, which creates a jazzy musical number out of two trucks and a barge, before seguing into a vibrant bit of group choreography.

Demy’s influence on La La Land is visible throughout. He was the swooniest of the French New Wave directors, his films full of bright colours and witty nods to Hollywood musicals. La La Land borrows his palette—especially those pastel shades—and his signature sound, forged in collaboration with the great Michel Legrand. In the same Variety interview, Hurwitz mentions the French composer’s ability to combine a jazz rhythm section with a full-blown orchestra and end up with something danceable. Legrand probably wouldn’t mind being cited as the inspiration for tunes as perfectly constructed as City of Stars or A Lovely Night.

Chazelle first came to wider notice when Whiplash, a film about a young jazz drummer and his martinet of a teacher that he wrote and directed, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014. It went on to become an unprecedented hit, garnering five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and winning three (Editing, Sound Design and Supporting Actor). Few are aware that this wasn’t Chazelle’s first film, or his first stab at reviving the musical genre. His directorial debut came in 2009 with Guy And Madeline on a Park Bench, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Like Miles Teller’s drummer in Whiplash and Ryan Gosling’s traditionalist pianist in La La Land, it had a jazz musician protagonist: a trumpet player named Guy.

Guy And Madeline began as Chazelle’s thesis film at Harvard. And it feels like a first film, shot on grainy 16 mm stock and showing the strong influence of another debut film, John Cassavetes’ landmark 1959 independent film Shadows. Yet, parts of it also seem like a dry run for both his subsequent films. The jumpy editing and hand-held camerawork would be used to greater dramatic effect in Whiplash. But it’s also a bona fide musical, with tap dancing and characters breaking into song. Hurwitz’s score, like his one for La La Land, is equal parts jazz and classic Hollywood symphony. There’s even a musical number done in one long, unbroken shot.

La La Land is set in present-day Los Angeles, but you get the sense that the central characters would have preferred to belong to an earlier era. The Gosling character, Sebastian, loves Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell and wants to open a club where people can hear “pure” jazz. The actor Mia, played by Emma Stone, seems to hark back to a time when people who came to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune were discovered performing one-person plays rather than, say, off a YouTube short. The film’s enthusiasm for jazz “as it used to be” is matched by its nostalgia for studio-era Hollywood (the flip side of this could be David Lynch’s 2001 film Mulholland Drive, which has a similar dreamlike air but is pessimistic about Hollywood’s intentions). The coffee shop Mia works at is across the road from the window Bogart and Bergman looked out of in Casablanca. Sebastian can’t believe she hasn’t seen Rebel Without A Cause; they go for a screening, then head to the Griffith Observatory, the setting for one of Rebel’s memorable scenes.

Inevitably, there is tribute paid to the great Hollywood musicals. "A Lovely Night", an old-timey bantering duet shot in one take, has Gosling and Stone doing their best Astaire-Rogers. At one point, Gosling even hangs from a lamp post like Gene Kelly in Singin’ In The Rain. And as the film progresses and Sebastian and Mia begin to measure the size of their dreams against their ambitions, there are also echoes of sombre musicals like A Star Is Born and Meet Me In St Louis.

Not that you have to catch any of these references to enjoy La La Land. There’s nothing cerebral about the boisterous poolside dance that ends "Someone in the Crowd", or the dazzling camera move during the same song in which you’re looking up at the sky one moment, down at the ground the next. Neither is it difficult for a lay viewer to recognize the ache underlying the charm of Gosling and Stone. When they say they don’t make movies like this anymore, they aren’t talking about musicals—they mean movies that give unironic pleasure, that draw spontaneous whoops from jaded viewers, and leave one light-footed and tingling when they’re done.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Dead Zindagi: Review

In Dear Zindagi, Shah Rukh Khan plays Jehangir Khan (“Call me Jug”), a Goan psychiatrist who helps the mildly disaffected Kaira (Alia Bhatt) with her problems. His analysis is a bit fortune cookie-ish (“Don’t let the past blackmail your present to ruin a beautiful future”), but does that really matter? If there’s one thing we ought to be able to agree upon, it’s that none of us would mind Khan as our analyst. Who wouldn’t want her story listened to with that famous Shah Rukh concentration, her worries alleviated by that self-deprecating chuckle?

One of the heartening things about Gauri Shinde’s film—her second after the well-received English Vinglish in 2012—is its insistence that seeing a shrink isn’t something out of the ordinary. Kaira isn’t seeking help because she’s depressed or is hearing voices—she’s just having trouble sleeping. Over Skype, she tells her worried house help to think of Jug as a dimaag ka doctor, one you can tell your problems to. In a more heated moment, she asks her family why it’s acceptable to say that you’re visiting a doctor but not a mental health specialist. It’s a small blow, but the thousands of people seeking psychiatric help across India will probably be grateful for a film that articulates these very basic truths.

Dear Zindagi takes its time depositing its protagonist on the couch. In the film’s opening stretch, which unfolds in Mumbai, we find out that Kaira’s cheating on her boyfriend, Sid (Angad Bedi), with a colleague, Raghu (Kunal Kapoor), who loves her but whom she keeps at arm’s length. Freeing herself of both relationships, she heads to Goa and gets tangled up in equally fraught tug-of-war with her overly concerned parents. It’s not often you see a sexually liberated, commitment-phobic, parent-averse female character in a Hindi film. It’s almost as if the film’s inviting judgement; when Jug asks Kaira about her boyfriends, she immediately snaps, accusing him of mentally slut-shaming her (Khan’s pained reaction is one of his best moments in the film).

Despite a few nicely worked-out traumas, there isn’t much that disturbs Dear Zindagi’s placid surface. I can understand the urge to present Kaira—a cinematographer at the start of her career—as more than competent, but having her advise a director on how to reshoot his final scene, and his actually welcoming the suggestion is so far-fetched it’s almost science fiction. There’s a token gay character, whose only significant scene seems to exist to show how chill Kaira is. Goa looks as pretty and boring as a picture postcard. Laxman Utekar’s cinematography is glossy and impersonal, Amit Trivedi’s music inoffensive and over-used.

At times, I found myself wishing the film would flail about more. A relevant point of comparison might be Kapoor & Sons—another Dharma production about family secrets, one which didn’t allow its picturesque setting or devastatingly pretty cast get in the way of ugly confrontation. Dear Zindagi has one such explosion, but it’s awkwardly written and exists more as an excuse for Alia to be able to do a big shout-y scene. Shinde tries a couple of new-Bollywood tricks—interrupting songs with short scenes, for instance—but there’s little to quicken the pulse, let alone set it racing. And some of the choices are just plain silly, like the character who says “Lebanese” when he means “lesbian”, or the scene in which Kaira, angry with Raghu, breaks bottles of ragu.

Amid all this, Bhatt thrives. As always, it’s the little choices she makes within scenes—fiddling with the furniture, twitching her lip—that render her such a compelling actor. Shah Rukh Khan bears down with starry charm on the role of Jug, but his mountaineer anecdote just can’t compare with his co-star talking about herself in disguised third person earlier in the scene. Bhatt has a rare ability to make the emotional decisions of her characters look as if they spontaneously occurred to her. In other words, she gives the impression she’s winging it, which makes even the most ordinary scenes she’s in terribly exciting.

This review appeared in Mint.