Tuesday, May 28, 2019

MUBI’s parade of roses

It starts with two intertwined figures, their outlines razor-thin black, the rest of the screen blinding white. Though we’re only shown close-ups, we can tell it’s a man and a woman. Or can we? After the ghostly love scene is done, we hear the woman speak, just offscreen, and the voice is our first clue that what we have seen might not be the heterosexual coupling cinema has conditioned us to expect. She comes into view, asks the man to zip her dress up. “How do I look?" she asks. “Beautiful, Eddy."

Eddy, a trans woman, is the sensual, unstable centre of Funeral Parade Of Roses. Toshio Matsumoto’s film, released in 1969, has since become a cult favourite, both for its depiction of underground queer culture in 1960s Japan and its avant-garde madness. The film revolves around the rivalry of Eddy (played by the androgynous Japanese TV and film star Peter) and the older Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), hostesses at a gay nightclub. “You look exactly like a girl," an interviewer tells the kimono-wearing Leda. “How long have you been a queen?"

Other interviews are conducted on the streets, as if for a documentary. One shy individual responds to a question about how long he’s been a gei bōi—local slang for effeminate homosexual men, which the subtitle translates as queen—with “since last December". Asked if he likes men, he answers, “I like gays, that’s all." He ends by saying he was “born this way".

Funeral Parade Of Roses is only incidentally interested in empowerment, though. Matsumoto’s real aim is anarchy, achieved partly through the film’s subversive content (an orgiastic party; drag queens using the men’s loo) but more through its radical form. The action is interrupted by intertitles, speech bubbles, freeze frames. Eddy crashes into a food vendor on a bicycle and we are assaulted with rapid-fire images of spilt noodles, a woman bleeding on the floor, a creature crawling out of a man’s face. Around the 39-minute mark, there’s an epic “freak-out", a phantasmagoric series of images that goes on for minutes.

The film may have been ahead of its time, but Matsumoto was also tapping into the zeitgeist. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick ended 2001: A Space Odyssey with a freak-out of his own (there’s a long-standing rumour that Kubrick liked Funeral Parade and borrowed from it for A Clockwork Orange). Japanese cinema, too, was churning out deliriously inventive works in those years: Seijun Suzuki’s mind-bending Branded To Kill (1967), Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide (1969), Shūji Terayama’s Throw Away Your Books, Rally In The Streets (1971). The psychedelic movement was cresting in San Francisco. Underground directors like Jack Smith and Andy Warhol and experimentalists like Stan Brakhage were challenging received ideas of film. “All definitions of cinema have been erased. All doors are now open," a young director announces, attributing the quote to “Menas Jokas"—though he means Jonas Mekas, the avant-garde American film-maker.

A month ago, your options would have been buying Funeral Parade Of Roses on Blu-ray (Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series) or praying for it to make an appearance at a film festival near you. This changed at midnight on 6 May, as the film was added to MUBI’s India roster. It will remain accessible to the streaming service’s subscribers for 30 days.

MUBI was started in 2007 by entrepreneur Efe Cakarel, after he found himself in a Tokyo café with high-speed internet but nowhere to stream the kind of cinema he wanted (on that day, Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love). He came up with the idea of an “online cinematheque", a changing roster of hand-picked films that would remain accessible for a limited period. It was initially called The Auteurs but wisely went in for a name change. Today, it has some eight million subscribers.

MUBI is entirely unlike other popular streaming services. Though you subscribe to it the way you would to Netflix or Amazon, there are only 30 titles at any given time. Each day, one film is added, and another leaves the roster. In an age when streaming services are vying to give the consumer as wide a selection as possible, MUBI has resolutely stuck to its curatorial approach. It offers a mix of auteurist and independent cinema, classic Hollywood, experimental and left-of-field choices. “We show titles from studios as well as smaller distributors, sales agents and independent producers, as long as they meet our standard of quality," Cakarel says on email. “Also, we like to show ‘hidden gems’—high-quality films which get overlooked or failed at the box office, but nonetheless are worth watching."

Last year, MUBI announced that it was partnering with Times Bridge, the global investment unit of The Times Group, on an India-specific launch. Cakarel says they are still in the planning stage. “It’s possible we will launch multiple channels to target specific audience segments in India," he writes. “For example, we may launch both a ‘MUBI India’ channel, featuring only Indian content, and a ‘MUBI World’ channel offering primarily English-language Hollywood content, along with some international titles."

You can scroll through the 30 titles on offer on MUBI without having to sign up. At the time of writing this, subscribers in India could watch William A. Wellman’s 1937 comedy Nothing Sacred, three films each by Agnès Varda and Jean-Luc Godard, John Carpenter’s pulp classic They Live and the S&M exploitation film Olga’s House Of Shame. This might sound impossibly eclectic, but if you have been on MUBI for a while, you will know that this is a representative sample.

At ₹500 per month, MUBI is more expensive than Amazon and Hotstar, though less than Netflix. It obviously isn’t a service for everyone: If at least a third of the titles on the roster at any given time don’t interest you, it might not be worth the money. The cost, however, may not intimidate the average viewer as much as the idea of limited choice and placing one’s faith in expert curators, as one does at film festivals.

Yet, consider this: How many films do you actually stream in a month? How many of these are compromises, reruns, comfort food? If you are a serious film enthusiast in India, you already have to contend with a depressing lack of festivals and repertory houses and physical media. Why deny yourself the one good streaming option?

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge. 

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