Sunday, December 18, 2011

A California lake and 'An Unfinished Life'

I am writing this from near the Clear Lake in Lake County, California. This part of the world is worth visiting - Clear Lake is a large and quiet mountain lake surrounded by a hilly countryside full of wineyards. This area is north of east of Sonoma county and north of Napa (the well known California wine region). The sunset and sunrise views on the lake alone are worth a thousand bucks.

'An Unfinished Life' is a film about American country life and the associated values. Country life here implies life in the countryside, or rural living , even though that may be a misnomer as rural living in the US is far different than most other places in the world. The cast includes the ever so great Morgan Freeman, an aging Robert Redford, and Jennifer Lopez in a surprisingly unconventional role. I think I read that the director of the film is european - nevertheless the story, cinematography and overall direction blend with each other nicely and give the viewer a good overall package.
For me the most important thread which brings the film together is the value system espoused - it is mostly the same kind of values that you will see in typical Western film. A friend of mine who is an ex-US army man once said something like caring for your friends, hurting your enemy (in another context). I think this applies well to the film. Two examples - the first is the relationship between Einar (Redford) and Mitch (Freeman), which shows the best of what friendship is all about. Mitch has been mauled by a bear and needs constant care and medication.  I'll spare you the details of the plot but some of Mitch's request seem downright ridiculous on the surface (although they have a deeper meaning and it comes out nicely in the film). Even if Einar's first response to them is caustic he gives each request time and thought and eventually completes them. Second, the manner in which the Wyoming town people stick together to help each other talks about that value system. Ultimately even Einar helps Jean (Lopez), his dead son's wife even though he first holds her responsible for his death. Of course sarcasm, good old ribbing and verbal fights are common but when it counts they protect their own.
I would recommend An Unfinished Life to anyone who has not seen it (except those who are not too fond of country life & values and for that matter Western films!).

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Lawless Frontier

The Lawless Frontier is the oldest film I have seen. It was made in 1935 (or 1934 as per IMDb). It is black and white and stars John Wayne, who of course is very young in the film and still has all of his Western cred for which he is well known. In 1935 the United States was (as I understand) just beginning to come out of The Great Depression. And of course the infamous Hitler ruled Germany - am I mistaken or the villain in The Lawless Frontier has a curious resemblence to the Fuhrer (especially the moustache)? The film has some terrific horse chase scenes - caused me to wonder whether those horses were fed well in those days when people were anaemic or were they merely whipped harder for the scenes in the film?! The lead actress Sheila Terry wears pants throughout The Lawless Frontier. And she rides a horse too (or rather several horses). The first woman to fly around the world, Amelia Earhart, used to wear pants. I know that because I once saw several of her photographs at an exhibition in Queens, NY. I hope women wearing pants did not draw as much attention as Amelia seems to draw here!

But I digress.

I am impressed by The Lawless Frontier. For a film that runs just 49 minutes (I hope they had made that standard), the script has surprising twists. Also surprising are the numerous sub-genres - there is drama, suspense, action as well as good 'ol Western theaterics.

I visited the hypothetical State of Jefferson today. The towns of Grenanda, Yreka and Hombrook in Northern California and Ashland in Oregon, and the region around river Klamathon might as well have been straight out of The Lawless Frontier. For miles there is only untouched land, beautiful mountains, valleys and forests. Now I cannot but wonder how crossing all that land must have felt like on a horse or on foot, when the first mass migrants arrived in this region, a mere 110 years before The Lawless Frontier was made.

Mount Shasta
Today evening the mountain had a cloud cover just like this one - A volcano with a halo of its own!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

An old idea

There is something about the 1992 film Unforgiven that I keep coming back to it and yet I am unable to understand what it is in its entirety. It is not the sense of revenge that one might think inspires William Munny's actions towards the end of the film. I think revenge, justice, bravery are only superficial here - even if one is to look at it through the lens of the Western genre. It is something more primordial, something preceding cowboys, sheriffs or the nascent towns of the West. There is an absoluteness of an idea that the character Munny represents. It will be easy to dismiss the idea as simply stubbornness, or borderline madness, or even playing God or Satan or both (especially in the last scene when  he rides away from the town of Big Whiskey on the rainy night). But that simply would be a superficial attempt to understand that idea. Yes, there are aspects of each of those traits in the character and the film. However, to understand this idea one has to go back in human history when right or wrong and the sense of social justice and who carries out that justice (cops and judges and society) was only in its infancy. William Munny is an assassin. He doesn't like killing people (his past murders still haunt him) and he openly confesses that he needed to be heavily drunk to get in that state of being an assassin (he also thinks alcohol and cruelty are vice). Sure presumed injustice was one trigger to get in that state. However as he tells sheriff Little - "deserve has got nothing to do with it", he clearly doesn't do it only for a 'just' outcome. Presumably there are other ways to get justice. William Munny's view of the world is not that it is unjust or wicked or needs to be corrected. I think what he thinks is that the world is uncurable, and damned. And that makes it just like him. For ten years he tried living away from everyone, and yet the world found him and made him realize who he was. The analogy is clear here - the world of women and men will never be cured of what it is. And that is the idea.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Science Fiction Films

I still remember the very first time I saw the 1979 film Alien. I was  a teenager and the lead actress, Sigourney Weaver, the film's story, and its cinematography all just blew me away. Now after having read some science fiction books (Odyssey, Asimov's Foundation trilogy, et al), and more recently, having seen more science fiction films (Matrix trilogy, Abyss, Contact, etc), I still believe that there are only a few things (read one) which can take you on a joyride as good as a well written science fiction story.

I just finished watching the 2010 film Predators. If you remember the first Predator film was released way back in 1987. Even if you are not a Schwarzenegger fan you'll have to admit that the storyline and execution were something really special for that period. I like the fact that over time the Predator sequels have preserved the original properties of the beast/alien. The Predator's protective suit and its physical appearance have remained largely unchanged. This of course gives the alien character a life of its own.

After a long drive today I fixed myself a drink and started watching Predators. I had low expectations for a sequel but I was not disappointed at all. So here is my advise - if you liked the original Predator or for that matter if you play any of first person shooter games on your XBox or PS3, pick up the film DVD and see it. Just stock up on that one thing that is absolutely necessary for both making and appreciating a good science fiction story. Imagination.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Necklace and other stories

I first read Guy De Maupassant in junior high school (I can't remember what grade). The story was called 'The Necklace'. I never forgot the author or the story. It is a true masterpiece and for a short story covers a very broad range of human behaviors. Guy's stories in the collection that I am currently reading have perhaps less of an element of surprise than The Necklace. Also, they are of a very different style than Saki's stories, in which you can almost always expect a twist at the end.
To me Guy De Maupassant's stories like 'Boule de Suif' and 'Two Friends' are an intellectual challenge to the prevalent norms of the age in which they were written. These tales cover ideas like society's bigotry in defining virtue, and the injustice of war, respectively. Best of all they insinuate one to think and decide for oneself. Truly outstanding literature.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Inside the head of an artist...

Isn't it the ultimate form of principal agent relationship, when you can actualize all your overt & covert desires through an artist? Being John Malkovich is a great film.

PS: If you are wondering what the heck is a principal agent relationship, see the Wikipedia page here.