Tuesday, November 25, 2014
      ( 6:48 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

What does it mean for a larger than life character to be transgender while not being a transgender stereotype? 2014's High Heel (하이힐, literally "High Heel" but marketed by the trans-insensitive and grammatically awkward title in the west Man On High Heels) is about a legendary cop, renowned by gangsters and colleagues alike for prowess in martial arts and a cool demeanour interpreted as the epitome of masculinity. But Yoon Ji-wook, while physically male, and presenting as male for most of the film, is in fact a woman. This isn't a realistic depiction of a cop in South Korea struggling with gender dysphoria. It's more as though Indiana Jones or James Bond were transgender which is certainly an interesting proposition for a film. And it provides fertile ground for a noir quality in the story. While the film treads somewhat cautiously, mindful of its potentially conservative audience, the film never denies the reality of Yoon Ji-wook's nature as a woman and we're clearly meant to root for her to create a new life as a woman, even as the action scenes when she's dragged back into presenting as male are truly exciting and impressively choreographed.

It could be argued that the movie's portrayal of starkly defined gender roles is more curious than its position on gender dysphoria. As Yoon is advised in various aspects of her transformation, she's told it will be difficult for her to make money--for some reason no-one suggests the possibility of Yoon remaining a cop and, indeed, there aren't any women among Yoon's coworkers.

There is the screaming and ranting police chief, one of many familiar cop movie cliches the film consciously indulges in. And it's interesting how well Yoon's story fits into the noir mould, her trouble not unlike Robert Mitchum's in Out of the Past or Ingrid Bergman's in Notorious as her attempt to assert a life for herself is repeatedly sabotaged by friends, enemies, and her own feelings of inescapable doom.

Cha Seung-won's performance as Yoon is truly beautiful and one of the primary reasons the movie works as well as it does. As an elder transgender woman, Bada (Lee Yong-nyeo), advises Yoon, she notes that before seeking hormone treatment Yoon had chosen a very traditionally masculine lifestyle and Bada herself reveals she had been a marine--Bada notes it's not unusual for someone experiencing gender dysphoria to run as far as possible from the truth in this manner. But even being the most feared gang fighter in South Korea doesn't ease Yoon's torment, whose scar covered chest isn't the sign of former fights, as the gangsters who've seen it presume, but Yoon's self-cutting motivated by self-disgust.

The subtlety of Seung-won's performance is great. Cold and tightly controlled when confronting her foes, she seems to relax in an almost imperceptible but unmistakable way when she dresses as a woman and is treated as one.


Monday, November 24, 2014
      ( 1:29 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

One normally thinks of economic problems when thinking of government collapse but 2014's The Rover focuses on the moral void, the absence of communally agreed upon ideas of right and wrong and punishment. It's a good, rather cruel film, sort of a jazz riff on Of Mice and Men, taking the basic melodies--themes and characters--and creating variations on them.

Ten years after what's simply called "the collapse", Eric (Guy Pearce) wanders the hot, dusty landscape of Australia. One day his car is stolen by a few wounded men on the run and for most of the film Eric is trying to get his car back. It's his white rabbit and his motives are almost as arbitrary as Alice's--even though he quickly acquires another vehicle, one senses his single minded focus on getting his car back is related to a desperate need to find a motive of some kind, any kind, however small to cling to.

He meets Rey (Robert Pattinson), the brother of one of the men who stole his car, apparently abandoned by that brother in the escape from militia. Eric doesn't trust anyone and barely seems capable of having a complete conversation but something about Rey's simple heartedness draws Eric out and we learn more about him. Eric, for his primary trouble being a sense of a fundamentally meaningless universe, has a very strict sense of morality which seems to appeal to Rey. When Rey accidentally kills an innocent person and tells Eric he feels bad about it, Eric tells him he should feel bad. Eric provides for Rey the thing Eric finds sorely lacking in the world, a moral authority. Like Lennie in Of Mice and Men, Rey is the one capable of creating a dream for the two of them while Eric, like George, is burdened with always having to see reality for what it is.

It's nicely shot, conveying the emptiness of dystopian landscape and making use of Australia's almost inevitably cinematic landscape. The performances are good, even Pattinson's.

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Sunday, November 23, 2014
      ( 2:09 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

This is the most brilliant piece of anime I've seen in a long time. Go watch it now. It's designed to loop endlessly, which is why it's not on YouTube. Come back and read the rest of this entry if you like.

It should come as no surprise it's from Studio Khara, Hideaki Anno's new studio, and not just because of all the Evangelion references in the video. Also because it is, like Evangelion, simultaneously a wonderfully cruel satire of modern anime but also a celebration of the artform. It's the young man's obsession with women's bodies and a fear of confronting the humanity of women, while at the same time being a celebration of physical beauty and the instinctual compulsion to intimacy that seems fated for a cycle of disaster and loneliness. This eight minute video packs in a hell of a lot. It's both striking and hypnotic.

In a way, it feels like a follow up to the 1983 video Anno and his cohorts made for the Japanese Comic Convention Dai-Con which was a showcase of things popular in nerd culture at the time, featuring a scantily clad young woman fighting various battles with cameos from characters and ships from Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Godzilla, and Marvel and DC Comics.

The new video was created for Anime Expo in Japan and reflects how depictions and uses of sexuality in anime have changed. There was plenty of beautiful naked women coupled with strange alien violence in 1980s anime, but there's a sort of stifling tranquillisation about anime now. A desperate clinging to empty conversation in slice-of-life anime where women are as harmless as domesticated cats. Most modern anime seems to objectify women and lobotomise them of sexual desire. But Anno and his fellow former GAINAX artists have always insisted on celebrating fan service while simultaneously making women human.

To-day I also read the new Sirenia Digest which contains Caitlin's new story "THE GREEN ABYSS" which, in addition to being, as I told her, a demonstration of her "ability to convey a poetic, emotional intimacy with folded time," it also references male crabs being castrated by parasites in order to impregnate them so this has been a good day for depictions of weird, dangerous sex. And the story's really lovely, I should add.


Saturday, November 22, 2014
      ( 2:02 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

Well, the first season of Star Wars: Rebels has concluded and not nearly as many characters died as I would have liked. It hasn't been bad. Sometimes it's nice pulpy fun and the two episodes written by Henry Gilroy, "Rise of the Old Masters" and "Empire Day" were genuinely good. Gilroy seems to have an instinct for story telling, of following the thought patterns of a human viewer to create interesting moments to follow up others. His episodes have that "anything can happen" feel that so many of the best Clone Wars episodes had.

I think I've said before the fundamental problem with Rebels so far is Disney trying to pander to the original trilogy fans. There's the danger in losing the young audience that's grown up with the prequels, but even more than that, Rebels feels more creatively constrained. In a way, the unpopularity of the prequels served Clone Wars in that I think it give the writers freedom to deviate and improve on prequel ideas while Rebels is basically trying to plant roses in granite.

But it occurred to me to-day while watching the finale that maybe what bothers me the most is the rather conscious male-ness of Rebels. Clone Wars was filled with great female characters--Asajj Ventress, Luminara, and, of course, Ahsoka Tano. The only two female characters so far on Rebels, Hera and Sabine, are defined in the show by their relationships with the male characters--Sabine as Ezra's potential love interest and Hera as a mother figure, a more backgrounded counterpart to Kanan as Ezra's father figure.

And this, too, seems as though it might be playing to an original trilogy format as much as it is Disney trying to make a more concerted sales pitch to the little boy demographic--the original trilogy centring on a male character and a father/son relationship.

I'm reminded of the outcry over the lack of Princess Leia toys planned by Disney to be aimed at girls. But since Disney seems to be backtracking a bit, and since Greg Weisman, who wrote most of the first season of Rebels, is leaving, I'm vaguely hoping for better in the second season.

Speaking of stories about father/son relationships, and since it feels weird not to talk about Doctor Who on Saturday, I listened to The Holy Terror, a 2000 Sixth Doctor audio play written by Robert Shearman, who would go on to write the Ninth Doctor television episode "Dalek". The Holy Terror is a surprisingly transgressive and dark piece of writing, its satirical tone recalling the Douglas Adams era of the series. It concerns a planet where a somewhat medieval society--who use guns for ceremonial purposes--consciously worship one man as a god and then kill him when his successor becomes god. The first half is sort of grimly funny and feels sort of tongue in cheek until the last bit provides a nightmarish explanation for the bizarrely callous behaviour of the people.

The play is my first exposure to Frobisher, a companion of the Sixth and Seventh Doctor that was introduced in one of the many Doctor Who books. He's a talking penguin, which put me off at first, but then, I figured, I warmed up to K-9 eventually so I kept listening. He's actually a being who's able to take any form he likes and for some reason prefers to look like a penguin. He's also American and a private detective. But voiced by Robert Jezek, he was at least more entertaining than Colin Baker. This audio play would have been close to genius if it were a Fourth Doctor story.


Friday, November 21, 2014
      ( 11:49 AM ) posted by Setsuled  

This grasshopper jumped onto my sleeve while I was walking yesterday.

He crawled up onto my chest--here he is between tie and suspender:

I finally had to gently nudge him at which point he jumped back down into the grass. I feel like he had an important message he couldn't convey.

By the way, as might be obvious, I've started catching up on 2014 films so I can rank them on New Years, as usual. If anyone has a movie from this year they'd like to recommend, feel free. I usually try to take samplings from several countries so if you're from some place other than the U.S. I'm particularly interested in hearing about what films were the best in your neck of the woods.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014
      ( 5:59 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

There's a New York City in the winter where a virtuous canine god looks like a horse and where the Devil and his servants walk the streets in corporeal form. An orphaned thief named Peter Lake grows up in a world like this in 2014's A Winter's Tale which, despite its dumb as rocks trailers, is a good fantasy film. Filled with crisp, pretty visuals and an engaging plot.

I had no desire to see the film. The trailers I'd seen made it look so intensely bad, like Notting Hill meets Love, Actually via Wayne Wang. And the reviews for the film seem to encourage the impression given by the trailer--it now holds a 13% on Rotten Tomatoes. I wouldn't have given the film a second thought--and considering it lost thirty million dollars at the box office, I guess most people didn't--until I read this blog entry by Neil Gaiman:

I really, really enjoyed it. Akiva took a huge, sprawling novel that spans over a hundred years and took the elements he needed from it to tell the story he had to tell. He made it small, of necessity. It's a fantasy movie, with demons and angels and a flying horse: it contains a noble burglar, a beautiful dying pianist, an absolutely terrifying Russell Crowe, Will Smith stealing scenes as Lucifer, and New York, New York all the way.

And Gaiman specifically mentions that the trailer gives the wrong impression of the film. So I felt sort of honour bound to see it and I'm glad I did.

First of all, I think most of the reviews were written after only a viewing of the trailer. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone calling the film "preposterous" is itself sort of preposterous. It's like giving a negative review to Lord of the Rings because Gandalf is shown using magic.

The movie is also not, as several reviews assert, incoherent. Peter (Colin Ferrell) is born to immigrant parents in 1916 who are denied entry into the United States due to their infectious disease. So, as they're departing Ellis Island, they place baby Peter in a small boat. He's discovered and raised by a demon named Pearly (Russell Crowe). Peter runs with Pearly's gang until he's a young man and he finds he doesn't have a taste for killing.

He's aided in his escape from the gang by the sudden appearance of a white horse who can sprout wings and fly when it wants to. It soon leads Peter to a beautiful young woman, dying of consumption. So far, pretty easy to comprehend, right?

I think maybe the trouble the movie's having is we don't see fantasy movies like this much anymore--movies with magic in contemporary settings. They were big in the 80s, when the book Winter's Tale is based on was published. Movies like Splash, Big, Gremlins, or to some extent The Neverending Story or Time Bandits. Nowadays, fantasy tends to be pretty sharply demarcated in the mainstream--if it's fantasy and not mediaeval, it'd better have a superhero in it. I would put this down to modern cynicism and it's partly why television is allowed to be more creative now than film. Certainly I doubt director Akiva Goldsman, for whom Winter's Tale was his début film, will have an easy time making a movie again.

The movie does have a line I heard in the trailer that I still think is stupid--when Peter, who becomes immortal for reasons made clear in the film (despite what some reviews say), meets Jennifer Connelly's character, he says, "I've had no memory for as long as I can remember." But that's not such a big crime, especially since the movie avoids so many familiar, modern beats. It feels like a genuine story, not something cobbled together in board meetings. A nice thing to get absorbed in on the couch with a hot drink.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014
      ( 6:04 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

It turns out the evil faerie sorceress isn't so bad. We learned it this year in Disney's Maleficent, a live action version of Disney's 1959 animated Sleeping Beauty where Maleficent, the villain of that story, is reconceptualised as the heroine. Visually nice, though not as striking or as strangely beautiful as the 1959 film, the primary virtue is Angelina Jolie's performance in the title role. I wish she'd been allowed to be bad but the movie's story about a woman finding her strength again after a terrible violation is good.

A few reviews point to a scene where a young Maleficent's wings are cut off by her lover while she sleeps as being a metaphor for rape. Jolie's startling, painful cries when she wakes and discovers the loss are certainly evocative of terrible grief and a sense of profound betrayal.

For most of the film, Jolie gives an icy, restrained performance similar to the one given by Eleanor Audley in the original film. Dealing with the lifelong reminder in the form of physical mutilation certainly explains why Maleficent might be emotionally frozen over.

I don't quite understand why Jolie, unlike Audley, puts on an English accent, though. This is the fourth Angelina Jolie movie I've seen--after Beowulf, Tomb Raider, and Hackers--Hackers being the only movie I've seen where she uses her normal American accent. But I think the reason for the accent here is a general perception now that everyone in mediaeval fantasy worlds must sound like they're from the British Isles, a perception that really began with Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings adaptation, where I thought it was appropriate because the accents come through so strongly in the text. But there's really nothing particularly English about this film.

The film also takes a page from the Lord of the Rings films' opening history lesson montage as a woman who sounds a lot like Cate Blanchett tells us about how the human kingdom of people with Irish accents are trying to conquer the moors, a word the filmmakers apparently believe means "forest lagoon".

Maybe not as embarrassing as the creators of World of Warcraft apparently thinking "shire" means "village" but pretty close. To-day, the moors, to-morrow the tundra! Just think of it.

It's never made very clear but I think the humans want the moors because there are thousands of precious gems just sitting in rivers and streams running through the area. There are also various kinds of faeries, most of whom look like the cheap ceramic sculptures you see at the shopping mall.

Not the most innovative creature designs for a Disney movie. The extensive cgi environments clashing with the green screened actors also give the film a Star Wars prequel feel but Maleficent really shines with its costumes. Obviously they owe the original film for the fantastic design of Maleficent's gown and horned coif but I enjoyed the little variations on it, like a snakeskin version of the coif.

The good faeries, named Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather in the 1959 film have for some reason been renamed Knotgrass, Thistlewit, and Flittle. One of the primary flaws in the 1959 film is that it focuses far too much on these three due to Walt Disney's belief that children would have an easier time identifying with these friendly maternal characters. Strangely, this idea seems to be reborn in the new film's focus on Maleficent as a surrogate mother of Aurora.

It's a really funny idea--the good faeries do such a lousy job taking care of King Stefan's baby that Maleficent is forced to step in just to make sure the child lives long enough for the curse to come to fruition. The curse being the closest thing Maleficent does in this film to actually being a villain, though in this version, instead of giving Aurora a death sentence that has to be mitigated by Merryweather's magic--changing it from death to sleep--Maleficent only curses her to sleep after pricking her finger on the spinning wheel. Rather big of her, really, after King Stefan raped her and the human kingdom's continued, unprovoked assaults on the "moors".

Instead of having every spinning wheel in the kingdom destroyed as he did in the 1959 film, Stefan just has them all stashed in the castle dungeon in big piles. I guess so they can all be returned after Aurora's in the clear? I would think everyone would've gotten used to using drop spindles by then.

All the child actors in the film are uniformly bad, particularly Eleanor Worthington Cox as the prepubescent Aurora from whose annoying fake giggles the film dissolves as she grows into Elle Fanning delivering more lifelike giggles. The version of Merryweather in this version gives her the "gift" of never being blue, sad, for her whole life, which is about as annoying as you might think, as capable an actress as Elle Fanning is.

Though people who've seen Magic Magic know there's an even more talented woman playing this film's version of Fauna, the green faerie--Juno Temple. It's a shame she isn't getting juicier roles but she is good as comic relief here.

I've always wondered why Fauna was the green faerie and Flora was the red faerie, you'd think it'd be the other way around.

James Newton Howard's score of course pales in comparison to the Tchaikovsky ballet music adapted for the 1959 film. But Lana Del Rey does do a nice, drowsy version of "Once Upon a Dream" over the end credits, a song I've always liked.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014
      ( 7:07 PM ) posted by Setsuled  
I dreamt last night I still worked at Pick N Save, a discount retail store I worked at fourteen years ago (it's been renamed Big Lots). Except the store was contained within an endless grid, in all directions--north, south, east, west, up, down--of cheap, run down apartments. And only one sector had a bathroom and whenever anyone needed to go he or she had to go this specific cluster of rooms with really small corridors. For some reason it was always crowded with angry obese people.

Posting rather late to-day--I got home before five o'clock but it occurred to me I wanted to post a specific screenshot from an episode of Twin Peaks and I remembered the Blu-Ray writer I'd gotten for my computer months ago and hadn't gotten around to actually hooking in. So I figured I'd roll up my sleeves and take a screenshot from my legally purchased Blu-Ray instead of going the faster route of simply downloading the video from a torrent site.

Little did I know the tangled labyrinth I'd set foot in.

The hardware was the easy part. The screws were too big for the holes but I had some smaller spare screws in a nearby drawer. No, the hard part is apparently the movie industry doesn't want you playing Blu-Rays on computers. I tried it in Media Player, Media Player Classic, VLC, even iTunes. No dice. I googled and found there's supposedly a way to get VLC to play Blu-Rays--I installed a cfg and a dll file into specific folders following identical instructions on various forums and sites. These instructions all had at least twenty comments saying this doesn't, in the end, actually work--which I can confirm. It doesn't work. Because all Blu-Rays are encrypted.

Now, you can get a trial version of something called Aurora Blu-Ray Media which puts a big watermark in the middle of the video and doesn't use the Blu-Ray's native menu. The full version costs thirty dollars.

Finally I just googled, "How to play Blu-Ray on PC." Google had these instructions in a box above the search results:

To do this:
Install MakeMKV as described in our original Blu-ray how-to.
Insert your Blu-ray disc. ...
Fire up MakeMKV and head to File > Open Disc and choose your Blu-ray drive. ...
When it's done, just double click on the resulting file and it will play in VLC.

Which I'm in the process of doing right now--that is, ripping the entire disk to an mkv file, which is a video file. I'm also downloading it at the same time just out of curiosity, just to see which goes faster.

So why the hell is this so difficult? Are they trying to prevent people from ripping movies? Most people seem to watch movies through streaming services now which of course can be ripped from--I've never done it but my impression is that it's a lot easier than ripping from a disk. Mainly this seems to be a plan to marginalise Blu-Ray and DVD as a format--I'm working with Windows 7, I hear it's even worse on Windows 8 which doesn't even support DVD playback.

Hmm. Looks like MakeMKV is going to take a total of thirty two minutes to rip the Blu-Ray--it's currently showing seven minutes remaining--while the torrent I'm downloading is going to take another hour and a half--that's downloading at around 400kb/s, I'm not sure how big the file is since I just selected the episode I wanted to get a screenshot from from a 76 gigabyte torrent. Though if it were a more popular file, like the latest episode of Doctor Who, for instance, the torrent would unquestionably be the faster route.

And I have to think that just maybe the industry would see less threat from piracy if watching movies legally were at least half as easy as it is illegally . . . Ah, my mkv is ready. At long last, the screenshot:

You can tell episode eleven is directed by David Lynch because of shots like this, a long take of a group of people that seems like it was meant for a big screen--or Blu-Ray--where you can see all the tiny details of people's faces. Episodes not directed by Lynch tend to use a lot more close-ups and have a very TV feel.

That's the last Lynch directed episode before the long season two drought. I usually skip right to the final episode from here but having the Blu-Ray makes me feel vaguely obligated to watch the in between episodes. They have their moments, I guess. Though I don't know if I can put up with the torture of James' relationship with the blonde femme fatale type again or Dale and Annie's gag inducing sugar sweet courtship. Cooper had a naughty streak at the beginning and you could see it in his flirtations with Audrey . . . ah, but I've lamented all this before.

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Monday, November 17, 2014
      ( 5:41 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

The mind and the heart, in the world of fiction, are typically considered to be two separate things and stories are often written about the conflict between the two--and generally the right path is the path of the heart. Christopher Nolan's 2014 film Interstellar is this kind of story, and it's a true Science Fiction film--and it's so nice to see one nowadays--about a mission to find a new planet for the human race while Earth is in its death throes. It's been compared to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey quite a lot and there are no small number of homages in the film. Though in a way, the message of the film is almost the exact opposite of 2001 and, oddly enough, Interstellar is fundamentally a more conservative story. As a result, the final act of the film feels much smaller in scope but that doesn't change the fact that it has a lot of beauty and intelligence.

I kept thinking of a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo as I watched Interstellar. Madeleine telling Scottie her dream foretelling her death--a dark corridor where she knows she'll die when she gets to the end of it. Scottie says, "If I could just find a key . . . the beginning and I could put it together," and Madeleine says bitterly, almost sarcastically, "So you can explain it away?" There's a term going around the Internet--I guess it's a couple years old now--"mansplaining" which refers to the tendency some men exhibit to explain things to women even when the woman in question clearly knows more about the subject than the man. I have observed men do this to men and women--though I've observed women do this too, I should say. Possibly men do it more often--I suspect there's only anecdotal evidence.

In any case, Interstellar is extremely traditional when it comes to gender behaviour--the men want to explain, the men want to take violent assertive action while the women insist on the existence of ghosts, insist on an inherent power to love that science hasn't identified yet. When Chris Carter created the X-Files and made Mulder the believer and Scully the skeptic, it was exactly this convention he was reacting against. But Interstellar is the sort of story that contemplates those two ends coming full circle and meeting--the wisdom of the heart turning out to have a completely rational explanation and the most rational men turning out to be psychopaths.

Though, if you follow that logic, both men and women are on the "mind" side ultimately but maybe I'm going astray in following logic. Nonetheless, one of the key differences between Interstellar and 2001 is that Interstellar explains just about everything while 2001 leaves a lot to mystery, to interpretation. Interstellar becomes more like a detective movie with a puzzle to be solved while 2001 is a more accurate portrait of how it might feel to encounter things beyond our conception.

There's an anime series called Gunbuster--Top o Nerae--which might well have been another influence on Interstellar. Like Gunbuster, a lot of the drama in Interstellar revolves around Einstein's theory of relativity, relative time--how time is distorted for those who travel closer to the speed of light or close to a black hole, how time is slowed down for those people so that one hour for them may be several years on Earth. Like in Gunbuster, this provides an essential element to the young female protagonist's relationship with her father. Considering how much Neon Genesis Evangelion clearly influenced Pacific Rim (despite Guillermo del Toro's denials) I'm wondering if we're seeing the Hideaki Anno influence on western cinema come to roost.

Though the conclusion to Gunbuster isn't quite as tidy as Interstellar, both are sentimental in their ways. Though I'll be damned if the big "Welcome Home" sign in Gunbuster doesn't get me every single time so I guess I can't really blame people who find the conclusion to Interstellar effective. It wasn't quite my cup of tea and I found myself wishing Stanley Kubrick would come back from the dead and start making movies again. But Interstellar looks great, has some nice action sequences, and performances from McConaughey, Hathaway, and Michael Caine were really good. I particularly liked Caine reciting Dylon Thomas.


Sunday, November 16, 2014
      ( 4:10 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

In America, she's a circus freak, in Europe, she was a goddess. Max Ophul's 1955 film Lola Montes frames its story of the real life sexually adventurous Bavarian countess from Ireland with a fictional depiction of the woman selling her story to an American circus where a ringmaster played by Peter Ustinov narrates her escapades as she walks the tight rope, dances, and struggles to hold back tears. It's an unmistakable, and effective, satire of the morality that would condemn and devalue the woman whom the film doesn't fail to show was magnificently beautiful.

It helps to have the beautiful Martine Carol in the role and the story's further aided by gorgeous costumes, sets, and locations. As Lola, in mock indignation at her figure being insulted, rips her bodice for the King of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook), the scene cuts a servant outside being told to fetch a needle and thread. A long sequence of servants rushing about the breathtakingly opulent palace is simultaneously a genuine exhibition of the beauty of the place and a tease to the audience as anybody watching the movie at this point is going to be thinking about what Lola and the king are doing together while her dress is off and not murals and statues, however gorgeous.

Walbrook plays the king almost precisely like his ballet impresario from The Red Shoes, skilled a seemingly off-hand but deeply calculated authority. But he's only one of a series of lovers for Lola that also includes Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg).

Her story begins on a passenger ship where he mother sends her to sleep with strangers for the first time in a dormitory so that her mother can be alone with a lover. Shortly after, Lola fails to marry a baron her mother intended to set her up with, instead impulsively proposing to her father's adjutant, who ends up cheating on her. She leaves him and now a pattern of capricious love affairs has been set. Though by the time she meets the King of Bavaria she seems exhausted and ready to settle down. Her spiritual fatigue and bitter disappointment over the failure of this relationship is reflected in the physical illness for which her doctor begs she be allowed to perform her high dive into a trampoline with a safety net.

But she doesn't seem to regret her hedonistic way of life. She seems more crushed by the change in tone from her audience regarding her nature which she takes no shame in--from rapturous adoration to patronising and cynical voyeurism.


Saturday, November 15, 2014
      ( 4:26 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

There's an aesthetic to feudalism, to king and serf social contracts, that's seductive like religion. Not just from a compulsion to ascribe order to the universe, but simply in the idea of some people living in beauty and luxury, being closer to divinity than the common people. 1962's Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (The Master, the Mistress, and the Slave) mourns the death of such a world which seemed as though it would be replaced by something inferior, certainly uglier. Though it portrays the basic humanity of the people supposedly given divine right to rule as integral to the downfall of the system. Considered a classic of Bollywood cinema, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam of course features great songs, dances, and beautiful costumes. But perhaps the film's greatest assets are its two female leads, Meena Kumari and Waheeda Rehman, and dark, ghostly cinematography by V.K. Murthy.

Made just ten years before her death at the age of thirty nine, the film casts Kumari as the Bibi, the Mistress/Queen/madame of the title, Chhoti Bahu, who, as a ploy to keep her husband from spending all his time at the brothel, takes up drinking despite the fact that it's not the sort of thing a good orthodox Hindu woman does. Her alcoholism and the carelessness of the men in her family in business dealings erode the beauty of their mansion. We see the British not only bringing soldiers to be vulgar and disruptive in the marketplace but also introducing cut-throat capitalism.

In the middle of this is Bhoothnath (Guru Dutt), who is introduced as an older, wealthy and westernised gentleman wandering the ruins of the old mansion. Most of the movie is told through his flashback as he remembers his time as a servant there. Also the producer of the film--and, apparently, some argue the uncredited director--Dutt's sad eyed performance as the meek serf in new, squeaking British style leather shoes, recalls Emmett Kelly or Charlie Chaplin. In one of the most impressive musical numbers, he hides behind a curtain and watches one of the ruling brothers of the house being entertained by dancers and a singer. The singer is fully lit while the dancers are dark silhouettes.

Dutt's humble, low key performance as the servant and confidant of Chhoti Bahu is endearing and his awkward, adolescent sensitive arguments with the irritable Jaba (Waheeda Rehman), daughter of the owner of the Sindoor factory where he works, are equally endearing.

Kumari was the poet in real life but it's Rehman's character we see writing poetry in the film while Dutt looks on, hiding absurdly behind a newspaper in her doorway. Rehman's performance is much fiercer and maybe easier for a modern audience to identify with than Chhoti Bahu's rapid decent into alcoholism being put down to the frailty of women.

The Wikipedia entry says the film was shut out of the Oscars with a letter from the Academy stating that "a woman who drinks was not a permissible taboo in their culture." There's no source cited and certainly it doesn't make sense considering Susan Hayward was nominated for Best Actress in 1947 for playing an alcoholic. I think it's more likely a western prejudice against Bollywood that kept it out of the running for an Oscar. Even within the Indian film industry, it seems like there's a lack of respect for Bollywood reflected in the difficulty in acquiring decent copies of films from even just ten years ago. I was amazed to have finally found a copy of something as old as Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam but what I found was obviously cropped into a 16:10 aspect ratio from 4:3 and bore a constant red watermark of some company called Ultra in the upper left-hand corner--DVDs are released with watermarks often and no attempt was apparently made to clean up or restore footage on what is considered one of the greatest films of its country of origin.

It was an obvious VHS transfer and the murkiness in an odd way added to the spookiness of its visuals. The climax of the film, involving a night time assault inter-cut with shots of owls in trees, has an unexpectedly but very effective supernatural quality as things which could not be directly addressed due to censor restrictions are conveyed in a sinister, dreamlike fashion.

Ultra has the entire film on YouTube where it's cropped even further to fit a 16:9 aspect ratio. Here's Meena Kumari in one of the musical numbers (Geeta Dutt is her dubbed singer):

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