Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Great Mexican Filmmakers

I'm currently working on a zine entitled "An Introduction to Mexican Cinema" for an upcoming art exhibit at Hibbleton Gallery.  In one of the chapters of the zine, I focus on 15 great Mexican directors of the past century.  Here they are, with brief bios...

1.) Salvador Toscano Barragon (1872 – 1947) was Mexico's first filmmaker, who also opened his country’s first public movie theatre in 1897.   He was mainly a documentary filmmaker whose chief subject was the Mexican Revolution.  In 1950, his daughter Carmen took many scenes of his Mexican revolutionary documentary films and released it under the title Memorias de un Mexicano (Memoirs of a Mexican).

Salvador Toscano Barragon

2.) Sergei Eisenstein (1898 – 1948) was actually a Soviet Russian director known mostly for his silent films Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) who traveled to Mexico in 1931 and made ¡Que viva México!, one of the great masterpieces of world cinema, in which nearly every shot is a revelation in the possibilities of photography. Made at the height of the European avant-garde’s fascination with Mexico (Surrealism’s founder André Breton considered Mexico the incarnation of Surrealism, for example), ¡Que viva México! is a wildly creative documentary-fantasy about Mexican culture and politics (from pre-Conquest civilization to the Mexican revolution) inspired by Diego Rivera’s meeting of Sergei Eisenstein, whose avant-garde cinema he compared to his own work as a painter in the service of the Mexican revolution.

Sergei Eisenstein

3.) Fernando de Fuentes (1894-1958) has been called the John Ford of Mexican cinema. He is most known for his Revolution Trilogy, a masterpiece of early sound film which examined the turbulent Mexican Revolution (a conflict not well-understood by many Americans) from different perspectives: from rich landowners to Zapatistas to federal troops to those who rode with revolutionary Pancho Villa. Aside from their technical innovations, what makes these films significant is their attempt to de-mythologize the Revolution, to show its complexity and tragedy. The three films of the Revolution Trilogy are (in order): Prisionero Trece (Prisoner 13), El Compadre Mendoza, and Vamonos Con Pancho Villa! (Let’s Go With Pancho Villa!), made between 1933-1936.

Fernando de Fuentes

4.) Emilio Fernandez (1904-1986) was the preeminent director of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema (in the 1940s and 1950s).  Perhaps his greatest film was Maria Candelaria, a work of stunning lyrical beauty about an indigenous woman in Xochimilco.  It became the first Mexican film to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix (now known as the Palme d’Or), the first Latin American film to do so. Inspired to create a uniquely Mexican cinema after seeing Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva México! (1931), Fernández’s work with the great cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (who went on to work with Luis Bunuel) captured the graceful beauty of Mexico’s landscapes and indigenous people like no one had before.  Other notable films by Fernandez include Flor Silvestre (1943), Rio Escondido (1947), and Enamorada (1947).

Emilio Fernandez

5.) Miguel M. Delgado is best known as the favorite director of Golden Age Mexican movie star Cantinflas, a comedian who has been compared to Charlie Chaplin.  Notable Cantinflas films directed by Delgado include The Unknown Policeman (1941) and The Three Musketeers (1942), which was entered into the 1946 Cannes International Film Festival.  Throughout his long and prolific career, Delgado directed 139 films, 33 of which starred Cantinflas.

Miguel M. Delgado

6.) Luis Bunuel was a Spanish filmmaker who first made a name for himself with the surrealist masterpiece Un Chien Andalou (1929), a collaboration with Salvador Dalí that changed cinema forever (and inspired the Pixies song “Debaser”).  Bunuel spent over 20 years making films in Mexico, including Los Olvidados (1950), about slum children in Mexico City, Simon Of The Desert (1965), about the common early Christian practice of living in solitude on the top of giant pillars, Nazarín (1959), which likewise investigates what it means to be truly alone with God; and whether living like Christ is in fact the highest manifestation of surrealism, The Exterminating Angel (1962), about a dinner party where guests discover it is impossible to leave the room even though nothing is stopping them, and Viridiana (1961) which re-imagines the Last Supper as a gathering of drunk beggars.

Portrait of Luis Bunuel by Salvador Dali

7.) Alejandro Jodorowsky (born 1929) is actually Chilean, but he has made significant contributions to Mexican cinema.  His work is filled with violently surreal images and a hybrid blend of mysticism and religious provocation. In 1967 he directed his first feature film, the surrealist Fando y Lis, which caused a huge scandal in Mexico, eventually being banned.  His next film, the “acid western” El Topo (1970), became a hit on the midnight movie circuit in the United States, considered as the first-ever midnight cult film, garnering high praise from John Lennon, which led to Jodorowsky being provided with $1 million to finance his next film. The result was The Holy Mountain (1973), a surrealist exploration of western esoterism.  Disagreements with the film's distributor led to both The Holy Mountain and El Topo failing to gain widespread distribution, although both have since become classics on the underground film circuit.

Alejandro Jodorowsky

8.) Felipe Cazals (born 1937) is considered one of the most representative film directors of his generation. His masterworks Las Inocentes (1986), Las Poquianchis (1976), El Apando (1976) and Canoa (1976), make him one of the most creative and socially conscious filmmakers in the history of Latin-American movies. Canoa was entered into the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Silver Bear Prize. His 1973 film Aquellos Anos was entered into the Moscow International Film Festival where it won a Special Prize.

Felipe Cazals

9.) Jaime Humberto Hermosillo (born 1942)  One of the few openly gay Mexican directors, Hermosillo creates films which explore the complexities of middle-class Mexican values and sexual diversity.  He found great success with Doña Herlinda y Su Hijo (1985), a comedy about a mother of a gay doctor who manipulates her son, his male lover and his fiancée to fulfill her desire of becoming a grandmother. Homosexual themes in Hermosillo's films can be found in Matinee, El Cumpleaños del Perro, and Las apariencias engañan (1978). Hermosillo has also been an explorer of film language.  La Tarea is one of the most complex exercises in film style in recent years (the film consists of one long shot, from the POV of a camcorder).  He worked with author Gabriel Garcia Marquez on Mary My Dearest in 1979 and The Summer of Miss Forbes in 1988.  Hermosillo currently teaches film-making at the University of Guadalajara and has recently collaborated with his students on various projects.

Jaime Humberto Hermosillo

10) Alfonso Arau (born 1932) is probably best known for his 1992 film Like Water for Chocolate (adapted from the novel written by Laura Esquivel), which employs Latin American magical realism to tell a story about a family, and the changes wrought by the Mexican Revolution.   In 1973, Arau acted in and directed Calzonzin Inspector,  a humorous political critique, aimed squarely at the then ruling political party (the PRI), at a time when freedom of speech in politics was highly restricted.    Arau acted in other notable films like El rincón de las vírgenes ("The Virgins' Corner"), and Tivoli.   He has also acted in some Hollywood films like The Wild Bunch, The Three Amigos, and Romancing the Stone.

Alfonso Arau

11.) Alfonso Cuaron (born 1961) is the first Mexican director to win an Academy Award for Best Directing.  His first successful film was Solo Con Tu Pareja (1991), a sex comedy about “yuppies” and AIDS.  His 2001 film Y Tu Mama Tambien was a provocative and controversial road comedy about two sexually obsessed teenagers who take an extended road trip with an attractive married woman in her late twenties. The film's open portrayal of sexuality and frank humor, as well as the politically and socially relevant asides, made the film an international hit and a major success with critics.  He has also directed English-language Hollywood films like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men, and Gravity.

Alfonso Cuaron

12.) Maria Novaro (born 1951) was amongst the first generation of female filmmakers to graduate from film school in Mexico.  Her films often feature women embarking on journeys of self-discovery, exploring themes of motherhood, female friendship and absent males, with protagonists turning to fellow women for help and guidance.  Her first feature film Lola (1989) tells the story of a woman  abandoned by her daughters father who is confronted with isolation and hopelessness in the vastness of Mexico City.  Her second feature, Danzon (1991), won her international acclaim, as she portrayed the  strict gender codes and procedures of traditional Mexican dance hall culture.   Her films El Jardin del Eden (1994) and Sin Dejar Huella (2000) mix ideas of borderlands, intertwined lives, and the quest for identity.  Novaro has said that the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Ingmar Bergman inspired her narrative style, particularly the way she sees her films as poetry and not dramaturgy.

Maria Novaro

13.) Guillermo del Toro (born 1964).   Del Toro's work is characterised by a strong connection to fairy tales and horror, infused with visual or poetic beauty.  He is known for his use of insectile and religious imagery, the themes of Catholicism and celebrating imperfection, underworld and clockwork motifs, and practical special effects.  His first feature film was Cronos (1993), a modern vampire story set in Mexico City.  Two of his most critically acclaimed films are set in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, under the authoritarian rule of Francisco Franco: The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth.  Del Toro views the horror genre as inherently political, explaining, "Much like fairy tales, there are two facets of horror. One is pro-institution, which is the most reprehensible type of fairy tale: Don't wander into the woods, and always obey your parents. The other type of fairy tale is completely anarchic and antiestablishment."  These days, Del Toro is a director of major Hollywood blockbusters like Hellboy and Pacific Rim.

Guillermo Del Toro

14.) Luis Estrada (born 1962) is known for his stinging satire of contemporary Mexican politics and society.  His first feature, Herod’s Law (1999), a satire of political corruption in Mexico and the long-ruling PRI Party, was notably the first Mexican film to criticize PRI explicitly by name.  It won the Ariel Award for Best Picture from the Mexican Academy of Film. His second film, A Wonderful World continued the theme of satire of then-president Vicente Fox and his neo-liberal economic policies.  This was followed by El Infierno (2010), a satire about the Mexican Drug War.  His most recent film, The Perfect Dictatorship (2014) is a comedy about the corrupt marriage of corporate media and political power.  Luis Estrada has been called “the conscience of contemporary Mexico.”

Luis Estrada

15.) Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (born 1963) is the first Mexican-born director to have won the the best director award at the Cannes International Film Festival.  His first feature film Amores Perros (1999), which explored society in Mexico City via three intertwining stories, won the Critics Award at Cannes. His third film Babel (2005) was set in four countries across three continents, and in 4 different languages. For this film, González Iñárritu received the Best Director Award at Cannes.  In 2007, González Iñárritu became the first Mexican director to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director.   His first three films (Amores perros, 21 Grams and Babel) have been called his "Death Trilogy."  His most recent film, Birdman, won the Academy Award for best picture this year.

Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu

An Introduction to Indian Cinema

For the upcoming art show this Friday at Hibbleton Gallery, my friend Steve Elkins and I are collaborating on the creation of two new zines.  One of them is called "An Introduction to Indian Cinema."  Here's the excellent introduction to the zine, written by Steve...

One of my aims in curating the Hibbleton Film Series is not only to bring underappreciated films from around the world to Fullerton, but to examine how cinema is used as a mirror in various cultures to cultivate a sense of national identity.  What does it mean to be American?  What does it mean to be Slovakian, or Iranian?  Over 100 years of global experiments in cinema have shown precisely how complex this is.  Especially in India.  How does a nation with over 1600 languages, and tens of thousands of religions, see itself through the lens of cinema?  How does it utilize its tremendous machinery to freeze-frame a sense of self and community that can arguably be called “we.”*  

I decided to program a month of films about India by foreigners, followed by a month of non-Bollywood cinema from India.  My hope was that this would provide a multi-layered perspective from the outside looking in and the inside looking out.  We began with "Phantom India" (1969), an epic 6-hour masterpiece by Louis Malle, whose work was one of the major inspirations for the French New Wave.  Malle wrestles with the major difficulties of understanding India through Western logic or languages.  “Only 2% of Indians speak English, the official language after colonization,” Malle says at the opening of the film.  “This 2% talks a lot, in the name of all the rest…In learning English, they also learned to think as our civilization does.  Their words about their country were ordered by Western symbols and logic.  I’d heard them all before.  I recognized them as my own.  Tattered ideas, worn-out phrases, like Nietzsche’s birds, so exhausted from flying that one can catch them in one’s hand.”  Attempting to explore India's complex social fabric without preconceived ideas or conscious efforts to organize reality, Malle uncovers India as a place that has completely reimagined what it means to be human, who we are, what we once were, and the expanded possibilities of what we could be in the future.  "Words are useless between us.  The image is our only connection," Malle continues.  "We may not understand these people, but we’re instinctively connected to them, sharing their link with nature.  Letting ourselves go in their presence, we feel as if we’ve rediscovered something we’d lost.”   

Still frame from Louis Malle's Phantom India.

For example, Malle tracks down the closest living examples of ancient humanity left on the planet (including the Bondo tribe of Orissa and the Toda in the mountains of Tamil Nadu) whose languages have nothing to do with other Indian languages, who have never waged war or made laws, living instead in an egalitarian society without leaders, that is vegetarian despite never taking up agriculture. Malle also examines why Christianity never made much progress in India, despite the fact the Church dates its history in India back to the visit of the apostle Thomas in 52 AD, and why India is the only country in the world that has never persecuted its Jewish population.  In my mind, "Phantom India" is not only one of the greatest films ever made on the subject of culture, but also a profound philosophical investigation into the nature of perception, the cinema, and the most accurate portrayal I've seen of what India is actually like. 

Thanks to a friend at the National Film Board of Canada, I was able to show the documentary "SHIPBREAKERS" (2004, never before available in the US), about Alang, India, where most of the world's largest ships are run into the shore and torn apart by human ant colonies of 35,000 men with little more than their bare hands.  At least one worker dies a day (sometimes hundreds at a time) from explosions, falling steel, asbestos, malaria, or plummeting into the ocean.  The Red Cross (which set up a clinic here) cannot find doctors or nurses willing to go.  This is where most of the US Navy's ships are sent to die, to deliberately avoid the laws of the Environmental Protection Agency at home which "provides an opportunity for the Department of Defense to maximize the return to the U.S. Treasury" (according to a written statement by the Navy).

Shipbreakers in Alang, India.

Another night was devoted to the documentary "Born Into Brothels," in which Zana Briski, a New York City photographer, moves into the red light district of Calcutta to document the lives of the women there.  She decides to put cameras in the hands of the children who are born and raised in the brothels and give them photography workshops, not only to see that world through their eyes, but to give them the chance to find beauty in their own perceptions.  When she discovers how powerfully it transforms their view of themselves and the world around them, Briski goes on to develop photography workshops in marginalized communities around the world, working with Israeli and Palestinian children to better understand each other's lives in Jerusalem's Old City, Haitian child domestic servants, and children living in garbage-collecting communities in Cairo.  

Born into Brothels.

We closed the first month with "Gandhi" (1982), Richard Attenborough's dramatization of the life of Mohandas Gandhi (played by Ben Kingsley), who overthrew the world's largest empire through radical commitment to non-violence. The film provided context for the following week's presentation of films from the silent and early "sound" eras of Indian cinema, many of which were engaged in an ambitious project:  the possibility of locating national identity in establishing peace between India's proliferation of religious groups, especially Hindus and Muslims.  This enormity of this task (which was taken quite seriously), was described well by poet Octavio Paz, who became Mexico’s ambassador to India in 1962:  "The presence of the strictest and most extreme form of monotheism alongside the richest and most varied polytheism is, more than a historical paradox, a deep wound.  Between Islam and Hinduism there is not only an opposition, but an incompatibility... Music was one of the things that united the two communities.  Exactly the opposite occurred with architecture and painting.  Compare Ellora with the Taj Mahal, or the frescoes of Ajanta with Mughal miniatures.  These are not distinct artistic styles, but rather two different visions of the world.” 


Finding common ground through cinema was compounded by the fact that Hindus and Muslims have a very different relationship to viewing images.  Hindu cinema, largely defined by visualizing the stories of its gods, becomes a sacred space for those watching it because of the Hindu notion of “darshan”: that seeing a depiction of a deity is virtually the same as making actual contact with that deity.  India is perhaps the only place in the world where religious ceremonies are performed around cinema screens and television sets as if the deities themselves are present on screen.  Major movie stars to have temples built for them, where they are worshipped as though they were the gods they played in a film.  For Muslims, on the other hand, there are absolute prohibitions on the depiction of God and his Prophets, which led to a completely new genre of “Islamicate” films seeking to depict the presence of the divine through and social and cultural life, as in the work of the great Muslim director Mehboob Khan (1906 - 64).  Here cinema becomes sacred for an opposing reason, along the lines of Jean-Luc Godard’s observation that cinema is the miracle that enables us to “watch what one can’t see.”  Interestingly, both Hindu and Muslim cinema developed through the Zoroastrians in India.  Parsi theater had long developed special effects that was augmented by trick photography to evoke the presence of the divine in the cinema of both faiths.  

India’s film industry is the largest in the world, yet aside from the work of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, even its most commercial films are virtually unknown in the Americas.  Even less is known here about the world’s second largest film industry, which is not Hollywood as many believe, but “Nollywood,” the cinema of Nigeria.  Hopefully this zine will give you a good place to start.   

Director Satyajit Ray.

[Footnote to the first paragraph]
*In his book Mourning The Nation:  Indian Cinema In The Wake Of Partition, Bhaskar Sarkar puts it this way:  "Scholars have sought to wean us off the mythopoesis of the nation as primordial, essential, natural.  As a result, we now know that the nation is a cultural artifact:  an 'imagined community' that rests on the myth of “horizontal comradeship” among its members; an 'ideological form' that presupposes the continuity of a national subject across centuries; one of many 'invented traditions' that political elites have deployed to legitimize their power in the face of revolutionary and democratic challenges.  Nationhood leads to the inevitable erasure of difference.” 

Monday, June 29, 2015

An Introduction to Mexican Cinema

I'm currently working on a zine for an upcoming exhibit this Friday at Hibbleton Gallery, which is a retrospective of the films we've explored at our weekly film series.  This zine is called "An Introduction to Mexican Cinema."  Here's the introduction I wrote to the zine, in which I discuss the challenges (and rewards) of finding classic Mexican films.  The research that went into this zine also forms the basis for our upcoming Mexican Cinema series at Hibbleton...

With the exception of a handful of films that have become international hits, the cinema of Mexico is not well-known by many Americans.  Indeed, before doing research for this zine (and an upcoming film series at Hibbleton Gallery), Mexican cinema was not well-known to me.  This is a strange state of affairs, considering Mexico is our neighbor.  While reading Carl J. Mora’s Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society (a standard text on the topic), I began compiling a list of films to check out.  By the time I finished the book, my list included over 100 films!

The next step was to find these films and begin watching them.  This proved to be a difficult, laborious (and expensive!) task.  I scoured Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon for these films, and mostly came up empty-handed.  Classic Mexican cinema is hugely under-represented on these online viewing platforms.  To give just one example, Maria Caldelaria, considered by some to be the greatest Mexican film ever made, winner of the Grand Prize at the Cannes International Film Festival, is not available to watch online with English subtitles. 

Frustrated but not defeated, I began to take a different approach.  Having exhausted the “instant watch” game, I began ordering actual DVDs online.  I got Maria Candelaria, several Cantinflas movies (sort of the Mexican Charlie Chaplin), lots of great stuff.  However, when the first batch arrived in the mail, most did not have English subtitles!  This was going to be harder than I thought.

Not one to give up easily, especially when I become obsessed with something I think is important, I continued searching, finding a handful of DVDs online, some used.  Each time I found and watched a classic Mexican film, I felt privy to some secret knowledge.  The difficulty of the task made small victories more rewarding.  It was like mining for gold.

I enlisted the help of a tech-savvy friend to scour the interwebs for torrents and downloads of films that were simply unavailable anywhere else (which is the case for much Mexican cinema).  Slowly, very slowly, I began to amass a small collection of films, and began watching them.  There are still huge gaps in what I was able to find.  (I challenge you to find a copy of Felipe Cazals’ Canoa!)

I’m not sure why classic Mexican cinema is so hard to find in the U.S.  My hope is that companies like The Criterion Collection will release more of these films.  Until that day, American movie buffs are being seriously culturally impoverished.  Watching Mexican cinema has opened windows of insight into our neighbor to the south—its culture, politics, music, and our entwined histories.  The goal of this zine (and each zine in our growing World Cinema Zine Library) is to shine a light onto the deep well that is Mexican cinema.  Seek out these films, savor them, and be enlightened, mis amigos!

Still frame from Maria Candelaria.

Friday, June 26, 2015

“Will he tell his own crimes?”: Native American Oratory

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature, in which I read through The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and report on what I learn.

One important genre of Native American literature is oratory, that is, speeches given upon important occasions.  The Norton Anthology of American Literature gives a couple examples of such oratory, given by two different chiefs, on the occasion of white expansion into Native lands in the west, in accordance with “Manifest Destiny”.  As you might imagine, these speeches are profoundly heartbreaking, and speak directly to some of America’s great national sins—the death and displacement of millions of Native Americans.  The first speech was given by Cochise (1812-1874), a chief of the Apaches in the southwest.  I have included a fragment of his speech, which eloquently states his concerns…

“The great people that welcomed you with acts of kindness to this land are now but a feeble band that fly before your soldiers as the deer before the hunter, and must all perish if this war continues.  I have come to you, not from any love for you or for your great father in Washington, or from any regard for his or your wishes, but as a conquered chief, to try to save alive the few people that still remain to me.  I am the last of my family, a family that for very many years have been the leaders of this people, and on me depends their future, whether they shall utterly vanish from the land or that a small remnant remain for a few years to see the sun rise over these mountains, their home.  I here pledge my word, a word that has never been broken, that if your great father will set aside a part of my own country, where I and my little band can live, we will remain at peace with your people forever.  If from his abundance he will give food for my women and children, whose protectors his soldiers have killed, with blankets to cover their nakedness, I will receive them with gratitude.  If not, I will do my best to feed and clothe them, in peace with the white man.  I have spoken.”


The second speech is by Charlot (1831-1900), a chief of the Flathead Indians, who lived in the Pacific northwest.  Like the Apaches, and, well, pretty much all native tribes, his people were forced to leave their native ancestral lands, and (adding insult to injury), to pay taxes to the federal government.  Here are some fragments of a speech given in 1876:

“Yes, my people, the white man wants us to pay him—pay him for our own—for the things we have from our God and our forefathers; for things he never owned, and never gave us.  What law or right is that?  What shame or what charity? … He has filled graves with our bones…his course is destruction; he spoils what the Spirit who gave us this country made beautiful and clean.  But that is not enough; he wants us to pay him besides his enslaving our country.  Yes, and our people, besides, that degradation of a tribe who never were his enemies.  What is he?  Who sent him here?  We were happy when he first came; since then we often saw him, always heard him and of him.  We first thought he came from the light; but he comes like the dusk of the evening now, not like the dawn of the morning.  He comes like a day that has passed, and night enters our future with him.  To take and to lie should be burnt on his forehead, as he burns the sides of my stolen horses with his own name…Now, because he lied, and because he yet lies, without friendship, manhood, justice, or charity, he wants us to give him money—pay him more.  When shall he be satisfied?…The white man fathers this doom—yes, this curse on us and on the few that may yet see a few years more…his meanness ropes his charity…Why thus?…Yet they say we are not good.  Will he tell his own crimes?  No, no; his crimes to us are left untold.”


Thursday, June 25, 2015

Ambrose Bierce: Death and Transcendence

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature, in which I read through The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and report on what I learn.

Ambrose Bierce (born in 1842) led a fascinating life.  Born in Ohio to devoutly religious parents, he had only one year of formal schooling at a Kentucky military academy.  At age 19, he enlisted in the Union Army and fought for the north during the Civil War, surviving such bloody battles as Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Franklin (He was wounded twice and captured once).  His civil war experiences would have a profound effect on his later literary career.

Ambrose Bierce, American author.

After the war, he worked for the Treasury Department confiscating rebel property, a job that gave him great sympathy for his “enemy.”  In 1866, he moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a journalist for over 20 years.  In California, Bierce befriended other western literary talents like Mark Twain and Bret Harte.  His column (“The Prattler”) in William Randloph Hearst’s newspaper The San Francisco Sunday Examiner allowed him to develop his unique writing style, which combined gallows humor and bitter satire.  In 1913, late in life, he disappeared into Revolutionary Mexico, and his death remains a mystery.

Bierce never wrote a novel.  His preferred literary medium was the short story, for which he is regarded as a master.  His most famous published book is Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, which deals mainly with his Civil War experiences.  Recurring themes in his stories are war, death, horror, madness, ghosts, and fear—all shot through with profound irony.  Bierce was a pioneer of “gallows humor,” and his best short stories, according to The Norton Anthology of American Literarture, “like Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway after him, converted the disordered experience of war into resonant and dramatic fictional revelations.”

Bierce’s most well-known story is called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”  It’s a story told from the point of view of a southern planter and slaveowner named Peyton Farquhar, who is captured by northern troops during the Civil War, and is set to be hanged from Owl Creek bridge in Alabama.  Just before he is hanged, Peyton’s senses become heightened.  He hears “a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil.”  It is the ticking of his watch.

When he is pushed from the bridge, the rope breaks and Peyton falls into the water below.  As he struggles for air and swims desperately to safety, dodging his captors’ bullets, he experiences profound moments of transcendence, as if his proximity to death has given him a newfound appreciation for life.  This beautiful passage describes his sensations:

“He was in full possession of his physical senses.  They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert.  Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived.  He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck.  He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf—saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the gray spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig.  He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass.  The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon-flies’ wings, the strokes of the water-spiders’ legs, like oars which had lifted their boat—all these made audible music.”

 As Peyton finds his way to the shore of the creek, away from his executioners’ bullets, he is like a man reborn:

“He wept with delight.  He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it.  It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble.  The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms.  A strange, roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of aeolian harps.”

He runs through the forest, all the way back home, where he sees his wife.  Just before embracing her, “he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence!”  As it turns out, this whole experience of escape happened in the split second before his death.  Time and space were slowed and amplified.  The story ends, “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge.”

This shock ending is typical of Bierce, and gives the story an added intensity—something about the thin line between life and death, and the moment of illumination, like a religious experience, between these two states.  It’s also significant that Bierce portrays a sympathetic southern character.  This story, like many others he wrote, is not about politics.  It is about human experiences that transcend the mundane and artificial constructions of society.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

50 Classics of Indian Cinema

I'm currently working on a series of zines which give mini-histories of the cinema of different countries.  This is a collaboration with my friend Steve Elkins, with whom I host weekly film nights at Hibbleton Gallery.  I've just done some research on the history of Indian cinema, a very deep well of many classic films.  I've decided to share a list of 50 important Indian films, spanning about 100 years.  Check em out...

1.) Raja Harischandra (1913) directed by Dadasaheb Phalke.  Silent. First Indian feature film.  About the life of Lord Krishna.  Includes impressive special effects.

Scene from Raja Harischandra.

2.) Alam Ara (“The Ornament of the World”) directed by Ardeshir Irani (1931).  First Indian sound film.  Musical fantasy.

3.) Awara (“Vagabond”)  (1951) directed by Raj Kapoor.  About a homeless man, includes comedy, music, and social commentary.

4.) Do Bigha Zamin (“Two Thirds of an Acre of Land”) directed by Bimal Roy (1953).  Social criticism, about a poor farmer’s struggle to retain his meager plot of land.

5.) Pather Panchali (“Song of the Little Road”) directed by Satyajit Ray (1955). The first of Ray’s Apu Trilogy.  About a Bengali family struggling to make ends meet, as seen through the eyes of a young boy.  No musical numbers.

6.) Shree 420 ("Mr. 420") directed by Raj Kapoor (1955).  About a college-bound young man who discovers the social inequalities of Bombay.

7.) Aparajito (“The Unvanquished”) directed by Satyajit Ray (1957).  Second of the Apu Trilogy, follows the central character of Pather Panchali.

8.) Mother India (1957) directed by Mehboob Khan.  A national epic, called India’s Gone With the Wind.  Blend of Soviet-style social realism, melodrama, comedy, and music.  About an Indian peasant woman who suffers social injustice while trying to raise her two sons.

9.) Pyaasa (“Thirsty”) directed by Guru Dutt (1957).  About an impoverished, misunderstood poet who is disowned by his family but ultimately finds triumph in his art.

10.) Ajantrik (“The Mechanical Man”) directed by Ritwik Ghatak (1957).  About a Bengali taxi driver’s relationship with his automobile, which is also a main character in the story.

11.) The Music Room (1958) directed by Satyajit Ray.  About the erosion of an aristocratic family thanks to its music-obsessed patriarch, who continues to throw decadent concerts while his mansion crumbles around him.

12.) Kaagaz ke Phool (“Paper Flowers”) directed by Guru Dutt (1959).  About a film director who suffers disgrace and a crumbling marriage.

13.) Sujata (“Well Born”) directed by Bimal Roy (1959).  Social criticism of the caste system, about a romance between a Brahmin young man and an untouchable woman.

14.) Apu Sansar (“The World of Apu”) directed by Satyajit Ray (1959).  Third film of the Apu Trilogy.  Together these films form the core of Ray’s artistic project: the humanist, respectful portrayal of the lives of ordinary people, far from the escapism of Bollywood.

15.) Chaudhvin ka Chaud (“Full Moon”) directed by M. Sadiq (1960).  Addresses Hindu-Muslim tensions through a love triangle story.

16.) Mughal-e-Azam (“The Emperor of the Mughals”) directed by K. Asif (1960).  Evokes the glories of the Mughal era.  Worth seeing for its magnificent musical numbers alone, it carries with it the aura of ancient love stories and poetry, a time when lovers communicated in suggestive verse and the subtlest touch implied the most intense eroticism.

17.) Devi (“The Goddess”) directed by Satyajit Ray (1960).  About the conflict between tradition and modernity.  About a village girl believed by her father to be an incarnation of the goddess Kali and worshipped by the local villagers, who is dying inside from the desire to live a normal life.

18.) The Cloud-Capped Star (1960) directed by Ritwik Ghatak.  Part of a trilogy of films dealing with the aftermath of the Partition of Bengal during the Partition of India in 1947, and the refugees coping with it.

19.) Sahbib, Bibi air Ghulam (“The Master, The Wife, and The Slave”) directed by Albrar Alvi (1962).  Haunting romance set during the decline of the Bengali aristocracy.

20.) Charulata (“The Lonely Wife”) directed by Satyajit Ray (1964).  Examines the role of women in a changing society, based on a Rabindranath Tagore novel set in the late 19th century about a neglected wife.

21.) Gumnaam (“Unknown”) directed by Raja Nawathe (1965) .  A groovy haunted-house mystery featuring lots of rock n’ roll.

22.) Bhuvan Shome (1969) directed by Mrinal Sen.  Realistic story about the middle class, made by a committed Marxist.

23.) Pakeezah (“Pure”) directed by Kamal Amrohi (1972).  About a high class courtesan’s desire for a mysterious man who leaves her a love note on a train.

24.) A River Called Titas (1973) directed by Ritwik Ghatak.  Explores the lives of fishermen on the bank of the Titas River in Bangladesh.

25.) Sholay (“Embers”) directed by Ramesh Sippy and starring Amitabh Bachchan (1975).  A “curry western” featuring rugged outdoor scenery, a revenge plot, and action sequences like a thrilling train robbery.

26.) Manthan (“The Churning”) directed by Shyam Benegal (1976)   Film funded by the dairy farmers whose story it tells.  Other films by Benegal, including Ankur (1973), Nishant (1975), and Bhumika (1977), formed a quartet of films that put him at the forefront of a 1970s New Wave movement in India. Other notable films of this movement include G. Aravindan’s Kanchana Sita (1977), and Mani Kaul’s A Day’s Bread (1970).

27.) The Chess Players (1977) directed by Satyajit Ray.  About aristocratic apathy.  Set in 1856, its two main charters play endless games of chess while the British take over India.

28.) The Ritual (1977) directed by Girish Kasaravalli.  Set in the Karnataka Province in southwestern India, the film uses searing black and white images to create a powerful indictment of the caste system’s treatment of women.

29.) Umrao Jaan (1981) directed by Muzaffar Ali.  Based on a classic tale of star-crossed lovers in 19th century Lucknow, includes traditional dance and music.

30.) 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981) directed by Aparna Sen.  About the friendship between a lonely English teacher, a former student, and her fiancé.

31.) The Rat Trap (1981) directed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan.  Set in the southern state of Kerala, about an anti-hero unable to adapt to social change who represents a dying feudal class desperately clinging to outmoded ways.

32.) Genesis (1986) directed by Mrinal Sen.  Quasi-religious fable.

33.) Salaam Bombay! (1988) directed by Mira Nair.  International hit.  A portrait of Bombay through the eyes of street kids.

34.) The crime films of Ram Gopal Varma: Shiva (1990), Rangeela (1995),  Satya (1998), and Company (2002).  Dramatize the seedy underbelly of organized crime in Bombay.

35.) Mississippi Masala (1991) directed by Mira Nair.  About an Indian family living in Nigeria who are forced to relocate to the American south because of political unrest.  The daughter strikes up a relationship with a local African-American man (played by Denzel Washington), brining up her own family’s prejudices and those of the locals as well.

36.) 1942: A Love Story (1993) directed by  Vidhu Vinod Chopra.  About religious and cultural strife during the turbulent 1940s.

37.) Bandit Queen (1994) directed by Shekhar Kapur.  Based on the true story of the folk heroine Phoolan Devi, a low-caste woman who was married at age eleven, raped by the police when she tried to escape her husband, and ran off to become the most notorious bandit in northern India.

38.) Bombay (1995) directed by Mani Ratnam.  Addresses Hindu-Muslim tensions through the story of a Hindu man and a Muslim woman who marry and move to Bombay to escape the wrath of their families, only to find themselves caught up in the 1993 riots.

39.) The Making of the Mahatma (1996) directed by Shyam Benegal.  About Mahatma Gandhi’s years in South Africa, where he studied what he called the twenty-one forms of truth, which he would later use to lead India out from under British rule.

40.) Fire (1996) directed by Deepa Mehta.  About a lesbian relationship, and the general oppression of women at the hands of religious orthodoxy.  First part of a trilogy.

41.) Earth (1998) directed by Deepa Mehta.  Follows the fates of several families of differing religions during the rise of violent religious intolerance after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

42.) Taal (“Rhythm”) directed by Subhash Gai (1999).  A romance, and a classic example of Bollywood’s subtle yet intense eroticism.  Because kissing and nudity is forbidden, sexual energy is expressed in subtler ways—like two characters drinking from the same Coke bottle.

43.) Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000) directed by Rajiv Menon.  Tamil-language adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, set in India, with music by A.R. Rahman.

44.) Mission Kashmir (2000) directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra.  Story of the intertwined lives of a police officer trying to quell Muslim violence in Kashmir and an aspiring suicide bomber.

45.) Monsoon Wedding (2001) directed by Mira Nair.  About the stresses within an upper-class New Delhi family before and during and arranged marriage ceremony linking their daughter to a non-resident Indian from Texas.

46.) Lagaan (“Land Tax”) directed by Ashutosh Gowariker (2001).  Set in colonial India, about villagers’ rebellion against British land tax, featuring an epic cricket match.  Nominated for Oscar for best foreign language film.

47.) Shadow Kill (2002) directed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan.  Religion, politics, and human frailty are all embodied in the main character, an executioner who spends his time dreading when he will be called upon to do his job.

48.) Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002) directed by Aparna Sen.  A Hindu woman and a Muslim man form a bond on a bus that is attacked by terrorists.

49.) Water (2005) directed by Deepa Mehta.  Third film in trilogy.  Concerns the plight of widows under Hindu religious doctrine.

50.) The Namesake (2006) directed by Mira Nair.  Based on the novel by acclaimed writer Jhumpa Lahiri, it tells the story of an Indian family living in New York, and the adult son’s struggle to balance his desire to adapt with his parents traditional ways.