Thursday, February 10, 2011

Snow Stories IV

Fargo (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1996, USA)

I confess: I watched Fargo (Academy Award nominee for Best Picture and Best Director, Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay) quite late in life. Three years ago, in fact, at home, on DVD, with a very close friend who was watching it for the third time. When it ended, this friend remarked, "you know, when you wake up every morning and see only snow all around you - miles and miles of white - it must drive you to do crazy things." I'm certain he isn't alone in feeling that way, and it comes as no surprise that extreme winter conditions are often used by writers and filmmakers as the setting for dark, twisted and disturbing stories. So often, that it takes a writer and filmmaker of great distinction to extract this scenario from the clutches of cliché and sculpt out of it an original, compelling piece of art. Fargo is a murder mystery. But in the hands of the brothers Coen, Fargo is a twisted, delightfully dark comedy.

The snow in Fargo is not the kind of vile, treacherous character that it is in Frozen River. It is not the vengeful killer of Yol, or the murderous psycho of The Shining. The snow, in Fargo, is a watcher. A calm, quiet, observer, but one that passes judgment, and lets its opinion be known. It is a passive, but important presence that watches as Jean, in her pajamas, and with a sack over her head, runs through the snowy woods like a blind, scared animal, while her kidnappers, Gaear and Carl watch her with amusement. When Gaear and Carl kill the state trooper, the terrain carefully holds his body in its snowy palm, waiting for the police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, Academy Award for Best Actress) to arrive and take a look at it. Ah, you're here, Marge. Look, I kept the evidence intact for you, now let's look at it together, shall we? We get a close up shot - the trooper's skin now frozen blue, the blood dripping down his face now crystallised. In what it observes, and in what it knows, the snow has the same amount of information as we do. It wouldn't be entirely inaccurate to say that the snow, in Fargo, stands in for us, the audience: when Gaear and Carl murder the trooper and the couple that was driving by, the only ones watching are the landscape and the audience. We know what the landscape does, and what Marge doesn't. And quite like the landscape, we are voiceless observers who cannot share this vital information with her.

However, the snow is more than just a passive member of the audience. It is also a sly trickster who chooses its victims based on what seems like a commonly accepted standard of moral judgment. When Carl learns that the bag he took from Wade - Jean's father - contains a million dollars, he decides to hide it from Gaear, by burying it in the snow. (Like the rest of the film, the attention to detail with the cinematography in this shot is delightful. Roger Deakins uses shallow focus so we can see Carl kneeling in the snow, burying the bag, while around him, all we see is white. To the right is a fence, but we can make out just enough of it to know how far behind him it extends. The fact that the fence is out of focus adds to the illusion of the vastness of his surroundings.) Immediately after this, of course, Gaear, unaware of the hidden money, kills Carl. We know that the million dollars are now lost forever, quietly claimed by the snow, in a dark, twisted execution of justice.

Fargo does not tap into the violent, destructive, soul-crushing and deadly characteristics of snow the way several other films do - no, that would be too obvious for the Coen brothers. Fargo shows us how the snow can be sly and calculating, quietly laughing at us, into the cold, silvery night.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Snow Stories III

Frozen River (Courtney Hunt, 2008, USA)

There are parts of this world where even the slightly weak-hearted among us would fear to tread. There are parts of this world that the genteel scarcely interact with, that the most enlightened among us do not even know exist. Courtney Hunt's Frozen River (Academy Award Nominee for Best Original Screenplay) walks the treacherous line between the known world of gentility and its Other. Hunt sets her story in a part of a country where the security forces in the employ of the government do not dare. A part of the world with terrain so vicious, it is hard to tell where the earth beneath your feet ends, and purgatory begins. The frozen river, from the title of the film, is this treacherous line between Earth and Purgatory, treacherous not only literally, but also in the last shred of hope it offers Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo, Academy Award nominee for Best Actress), a desperate mother of two boys, trying to put away enough money for the down payment on a double-wide mobile home.

Ray Eddy lives in the harshest depths of upstate New York, close to a Mohawk Reservation and the US - Canada border. We see her for the very first time, emerging from her inadequate mobile home, in a blue and black puffer jacket, the skin on her face dry and scabby where it has been bitten by the cold. Her face is wan, dreary, and tired. There are several things we get to know about her life to which we can attribute her weary disposition - she has two sons, and she can't afford to feed them anything more than popcorn and Tang. Her mobile home is about the only sign of civillization visible in the miles of frozen whiteness around her, and it is not nearly enough to protect her family from the unrelenting cold. Her wastrel husband has disappeared with the money she had been putting away for a bigger, better mobile home. Eddy's face, however, isn't merely a face that won't smile - it's a face that can't smile. It is a face whose muscles have become so used to the snowy winds that blow out from the frozen crevices of purgatory, they have learnt not to move. And her face is just the beginning.

Forsaken by the institutions put in place to help people like herself, Eddy takes to smuggling illegal immigrants across the US - Canada border in her car, driving across the frozen St. Lawrence River, for a sum of $1200. Banking on the relative safety from security forces as long as she stays within the Reservation, Eddy drives through the endless expanse of wintry nights, risking her own life as well as the lives of her passengers. On one occasion, Eddy takes a duffel bag from a young Pakistani couple she is transporting, and throws it out into the freezing night, afraid it might contain explosives. It is only after Eddy unloads her passengers that she realizes the duffel bag, lying several miles behind them on the river's frozen skin, contains the couple's new-born child. Undaunted by this incident, Eddy decides to make one last trip, following which she believes she can buy her new mobile home. Unfortunately, the frozen river also chooses this last trip to give way, trapping Eddy and her passengers on the cracking ice, waiting to be arrested.

The terrain, in Frozen River, is almost sentient. Eddy's problems arise from her desperate need for a better home, one that can stand guard between her family and the punishing cold. When she takes to driving illegal immigrants across the frozen river, it is as though the cold invites her, tempts her, quite like the Devil himself. It seduces her, makes her believe that it will hold steady, solid, as she does what she needs to do, only to pull the ground from beneath her feet in that very last lap, just as she reaches out for the finish line. The frozen river is not only a literal representation of the treacherousness of wintry terrain, but also a metaphor for that dangerous, blurry middle ground between Earth and Purgatory, where you cannot tell solid ground from frozen water, and where your fate is held in the icy hands of a force you cannot control.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Snow Stories II

Yol (Yilmaz Guney, 1982, Turkey)

Yilmaz Guney spent several of his active years in various Turkish prisons, and it's hardly surprising, therefore, that one of his most acclaimed films was made by his assistant Serif Goren while Guney was serving a sentence, and is about prisoners on a week-long furlough. One of the prisoners in Yol (which, in Turkish, means 'road', or 'path') is Seyit Ali, who returns home only to find that his wife has turned into a prostitute, and it is the opinion of the larger, extended family that Seyit Ali should kill her. Unable to stand up to his family, but also unwilling to kill his wife – either out of lingering affection for her, or out of good conscience - Seyit Ali decides to take his wife along with him on his journey back, assuring his relatives that he will kill her.

Thus begins an epic journey across the wintry, punishing Anatolian plateau. Seyit Ali and his wife need to cross the unbelievable expanse of this plateau on foot, and all there is, as far as their eyes – and ours – can see, is snow. Monochromatic, silent, beautiful, threatening, deadly snow. As the ruthless wind blows more and more snow into their faces, we see Seyit Ali's wife lose her strength. Unwilling to leave her there to die, he carries her on his back, as he continues to walk into the endless expanse of white. Guney spares us no details – the inadequacy of their garments as they constantly wrap them tighter around themselves, fighting the wind's fury, the lines on Seyit Ali's face, where the icy wind slashes across his skin like knives, and the colour draining from Ali's wife's face, all make us almost physically aware of the painful cold. What we can never know, however, and only imagine, is that final moment when the cold clenches its grip over the couple – the moment when Ali's wife dies of the cold. The irony is cruel – Ali's family had ordered his wife to be killed, and while he did not want to kill her, he also could not stand up to his family. As she slowly succumb to cold right before his eyes, he has no choice but to watch it happen, and be with her until she dies. Yol is a narrative that ties together three different stories, and while each of these is heart-wrenching in its own way, the scene where Seyit Ali leaves his wife's lifeless body in the snow and walks away from it, while the wind covers it with snow, is the film's most poignant, beautiful, and cruel.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Class and Colonialism in Chile

Sebastian Silva's The Maid (2009) is a delightful film that deals with a serious subject: class differences in modern-day Chile. Having grown up in India, the film rang especially true to me. Here's my review on Postcolonial Networks: Thinking of class in postcolonial societies: Sebastian Silva’s The Maid (2009).

Snow Stories - I

I haven't stepped out since the day of the blizzard, and that was a couple of days back. I convinced the boyfriend that it was a good idea to rent a car and drive about 30 minutes to get gourmet hot dogs. The snow had just started to come down, and the wind was still just stirring. So with all the arrogance that spending five winters in Chicago had given me, I decided that a snow day just wasn't enough to keep me from gourmet hot dogs. (As to why the boyfriend went along with this foolish enterprise is beyond me.) So out we went, in a rented car, driving an hour an forty minutes to get to the hot dog place, only to find that it was closed. Snow-day holiday, hallelujah. Of course, by this time, it was no longer just "snow-day," and bitterly, grudgingly, I had to admit that in my five midwestern winters, I had never seen anything like this. I do not have a count of the number of cars we saw on the way back, stuck in the snow. Why, there was a bus too, one of the longer ones, with a vestibule in the middle - bent at a right angle at the vestibule, its wheels buried almost completely in the snow. There was an eerie quality to that bus, standing bent at the side of the road, with its lights switched off and no one inside. The suggestion of emptiness - even death - in the deep blackness of its interiors, and the stillness of its submission to the snow that was creeping up its tires and clenching its fingers over its exterior, was cinematic.

"The Shining," I said, as we drove past this bus. I said it without stopping to ponder why the film had come to my mind. But I think it was because the scene made me think of films where the snow is so important to the narrative. Important, not just in generating the right mood, or providing the cue for symbolism, but in a way that goes far beyond that. Citizen Kane (1941, and no, I will not add a link to "Citizen Kane," because if you really need to look it up, why, fie upon you!) uses snow to great dramatic effect. That scene right at the beginning - one that has generated a frenzy of academic research - where Kane's mother signs him off to his future benefactor, is a great example. The little boy Kane's sled, Rosebud (yes, I just gave it away. Like I said, if you don't already know Citizen Kane...) is a theme that follows us right to the end, and the presence of snow globes constantly take us back to the moment in his childhood, the moment when he loses everything. Even so, snow, in Citizen Kane, is merely an element of mise-en-scene that catalyzes narrative events. When I thought of The Shining, I was actually thinking of films where the snow is more than just a catalyst. Some films manage to elevate an element of the mise-en-scene to a point where it is no longer just the background for the story, but a living, growing, evolving part of the narrative. Snow, in these films, is more than just setting: it is a character. An active participant who drives the narrative; a character who, like all the other characters, starts out as flat, but grows into a well-rounded, capricious, malicious, willful and scheming character who can actually cause things to happen. Few films manage to do this, and starting today, I will present a list of some of my favourites among them, in no particular order. Here's the first for this week:

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980, USA)
But obviously. The Shining isn't The Shining without the crazy twin girls, Shelley Duvall's stunning face that suggests helplessness and a mad will to survive - both at the same time - and Danny Torrance's finger-friend, Tony, saying "Red Rum" in a voice that still gives me the chills. But The Shining would also never be The Shining without the cold, white winter tightening its grip on Jack Torrance's being. The winter is a metaphor for Jack - as it silently creeps deeper and deeper into the tiny, invisible cracks in the walls of the Overlook Hotel, the insanity creeps into the recesses of Jack's brain, eventually taking over completely. It is the snow that causes the phone lines to be disconnected, leaving Wendy, Danny and Jack completely isolated in the hotel. And if the winter is a metaphor for Jack, the maze in the final sequence of the film is a veritable metaphor for his brain. As Wendy tries her best to reach the snowcat in time to rescue her son, it is really up to Danny to outsmart his father, who is chasing him through the maze in the snow. No matter how fast or far Danny runs, Jack will catch up with him, because of Danny's telltale footprints in the snow. If Danny is to outsmart Jack, he has to outsmart the snow - for it isn't just Jack, but also the snow, who is out to get Danny. It is as cruel as Jack himself, but more evil, in its lack of madness. In running backwards in the snow, Danny manages not only to outsmart his murderous father, but also the snow itself.
The penultimate scene, where we see Jack Torrance's head above the snow within which his body is buried, is such a testament to the grip the snow has on the narrative. We are soon to find out that Jack Torrance has been at the Overlook Hotel before. Like a season, he returned, and may return again. Just like the snow, which shows up every year, cold, cruel and relentless.