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Pixar’s Wall E will be a film, in time to come, looked at like Murnau’s Sunrise. A film marking the medium at a definitive peak before transitioning into what it will become next.

In many ways the filmmakers hint at this. The 2001 references are there for those who know them, but more pointedly Pixar is presenting their star baby.  It’s a wonderful, thrilling moment that many didn’t see coming; they’ll marvel as the film grows in stature as the decades pass.  The opening dystopian sequence, and Wall E‘s ride into space, will stay in the memories of those who watch for years.

One can see when Animation’s theme sombers and when the visuals begin to overwhelm the story that they’re wading in treacherous waters for live-action filmmakers. There’s an eerie feeling seeing real footage in Wall E, as if it’s the gimmick now.

There’s a debate that questions whether authentically-realistic animation can or will overtake live-action film in years to come.  Wall-E shows this discussion is worthwhile.  Roger Deakins’ participation in supervising the lensing of the film should definitely raise an eyebrow or both.  (Joel & Ethan?)

In a sense the filmmakers threw everything in the pot here, like Allen did in Annie Hall. Leaving people to marvel at all the wonderful things bubbling slightly below the surface.  But Pixar, as smart as they are, moves forward while looking backwards. The fact that silent comedies play an integral part of the construction (staging, acting techniques, & gimmicks) is a two-folded comment.  We must remember that Malick while creating his new language in cinema also stopped to watch Chaplin’s The Immigrant in Days of Heaven.  That film also owing much to the poetic language of silent cinema.

If anything Wall-E shows that, at this moment, to make a masterpiece in Hollywood means you must go through Kubrick.  PT Anderson seems to have understood this as well.

I commend Pixar’s achievement and look eagerly for more.

As a new form of cinema continues to unfold it’s important to recognize new voices emerging on the horizon. My initial post dealt with members of El Nuevo Canon (The New Wave), three Chilean(-American) directors slowly making their mark on the world stage.

One of the members, Alejandro Fernández Almendras, is currently directing his first feature-film, Huacho, in Chile; so it would be an opportune time to take a closer look at his short film, Along Came The Rain (11mins)which screened at the Berlin Film Festival, Rotterdam, and won the Casa de Americas prize in the Version Española short film competitionas no doubt Fernández will be spoken about with much more regularity soon.

I’d also like to take an extended look at this film for rarely is the general audience given an opportunity to see those shorts shown at prestigious festivals around the world, nor are they often written about. And seldom are these shorts catapulting directors into feature-filmmaking discussed until, if ever, they’ve created a significant oeuvre deeming their early work worthy of analysis. I’d like to break with this tradition.

2008. Alejandro Fernandez Almendras (middle) wins Sundance/NHK International Filmmaker Award for Huacho screenplay. Check in mouth: $10,000. Jeronimo Rodriquez (left). Bruno Betatti (right; producer)

Along Came The Rain is a day in the life of an elderly, provincial couple living in rural Chile. They arise to their daily tasks, work, and are visited by their daughter & grandson at the end of the day.

Exquisitely photographed with natural light (35mm) it’s atmospheric without being idyllic. It opens on a dramatic cluster of tree branches set against the blue-red dawn. A roster crows far off. Fernández holds the shot long enough to establish the film’s pace, which is tempered.

He establishes the couple and shows them leaving for the day’s work.

Through a gate we watch them walk into the distance. Here Fernández makes excellent use of the extended take. As he holds the shot, the couple engages in a conversation, our eye eventually moves past the almost brazen composition (left/right) and into the naturalism of the piece taking place in the center.

The wife reminds the husband he should dry their mattress outside (instead of in the house) & inquires about the digging of his the stream. He replies the work is going slowly.

They go their separate ways.

She milks the cows while her husband tends to the fields.

Later she grabs a chicken from the field.

Back in the kitchen she strains the milk.

As she does we tilt up and hear the sound of a car passing. She looks out.

She adds ingredients to the milk and later (jump cut) pulls the steamed chicken out of the pot.

She pulls it over to a bowl and pucks it.

She washes up after cleaning the chicken. The wind blowing the trees behind her.

Back in the kitchen she makes cheese.

Later she stands outside. We hear a horse clop by (it’s never shown).

The couple sits at the table eating breakfast. The woman inquires about the passing car. It turns out her regular ride to the highway has left early. The husband suggests taking Nicole’s horse cart. But, as we know, that’s passed as well. She’ll have to wait for Mr. Juan to leave.

The couple is soft-spoken and unrushed. They discuss who’s passed their home and like an urban couple discusses topical events in a newspaper.

Again Fernández places the couple within an internal frame, this time the kitchen walls, limiting the amount of space they inhabit.

The next shot the woman gets into Mr. Juan’s car. In the car they discuss the progress of her husband’s stream. Mr. Juan politely mentions he should take it easy and wait for help.

The upscale car and its idling-sound, which almost seems alien, disrupts our provincial setting for the first time, and we immediately come to terms that this is a contemporary film; there is a world beyond our elderly protagonists.

She’s dropped off along the highway, cars violently whip past.

A wider shot reveals a basket at her feet.

She waves a white scarf at the passing traffic. The cars continue to past.

A car finally stops. It’s a woman on her way to the city, it seems. She’s in a nice car and her makeup pops out at us. The elderly woman tells her the cheese will be good and creamy, due to the weather.

The juxtaposition of the women (economically & socially) is extremely tangible yet there’s mutual respect radiating both ways. A poignant sequence displaying Fernández’s adept study and sensibility of characters.

On her way home Nicole’s horse cart comes along. She gets on.

They ride back into the countryside. Again Fernández utilizes the long take, forcing us to reassess compositions and, again, look deeper within the frame.

With camera hovering slightly above the ground, and brush in the lower-left foreground, the cart makes its way into the distance until stopping parallel to the store (the Coca-Cola painted shed on the right).

We hear the woman exchange greetings with the store clerk and ask for cookies and Coca-Cola.

The day is coming to a close, the husband digs at his stream…

…then walks home. (Brush in the foreground, creating layers of perspective.)

At home the couple sits and waits in silence. The table set for dinner. The daughter is running late. The woman asks if they should starting eating but the man suggests waiting a little longer. He comments that it’s raining again. Raindrops patter against the house.

The daughter arrives. The bus broke down so they had to walk. She greets her mother and father.

The women converse in the background and after greetings the grandson walks straight over to the television turning it on (it’s never shown). The women’s discussion contends with the television noise and for the first time language (which to this point has been so basic) is rendered almost indecipherable.

The sharp white television light flickers on the fixated face of the child creating unnatural shadows against the wall.

The final shot holds on the grandfather. He stares at the screen with no expression, as if seeing nothing.

The use of multiple stills here hopefully suggests that beyond a quick glance there is rich, if not calculated, storytelling at work here contradicting a seemingly minimal structure. The use of sound, implying action outside the frame, is imperative and Fernández relies on an astute viewer to pick up on his cues.

What really makes the film tick is its ‘natural actors’. People who without a doubt live this life. There’s a way they move, speak, and look out at the world that can’t be acted. Fernández (and members of El Nuevo Canon) is working in a style of cinema (like the Italian neo-realists, the Iranians, Lisandro Alonso, and more) where reality and fiction are ambiguously and beautifully juxtaposed.

Rarely does Fernández pan or tilt his camera, he almost never cuts within a scene, so the majority of the film plays out in single takes. Each shot must tell it’s own succinct story before an elliptical cuts propel us forward in time.

There’s also a delicacy in Fernández’s depiction of modern world. It’s not a baleful force coming to sweep away his protagonists but an enviable, if not melancholy, fact of life. Similar to the mode found at the end of an Ozu or Mizoguchi film.

Along Came The Rain is a polished, compact short and on its small and intimate scale it recalls Ermanno Olmi’s masterpiece Il Posto in it’s constant oscillation between young & old, rich and poor, town and city. The simplest and perhaps most poignant of narrative concerns. Fernández also shows this duality by emphasizing the constantly shifting weather, sunny than rainy, back and forth…hence the title.

I’ll restrain from delving into how the film could be read against the vast political reshaping of South America mainly because Luis says it much more elegantly. But one can’t help but recall Ford’s famously framed character who also couldn’t cross the threshold….

I wish Alejandro all the luck with his feature.

 

Kunal Mehra & his cinematographer Aron Noll

HermyBerg: First I want to say thank you for taking the time to talk to me, Kunal. This is a wonderful opportunity.

Kunal Mehra: Pleasure’s mine. Glad that it all worked out.

HermyBerg: I wanted to start by saying I think you made a really excellent film here.
A film I hope others will be able to see soon.

Kunal Mehra: Thanks! It’s always nice to meet people who took a liking to the film.

HermyBerg: First I want to start broadly with how you found your lead actor Josh Boyle.

Kunal Mehra: Craigslist is the word.

HermyBerg: Ha!

Kunal Mehra: I had put up audition calls for pretty much everything – cast/crew/catering/producer – on CL and believe it or not, found pretty much 95% of the cast/crew on there.

HermyBerg: That’s interesting.

Kunal Mehra
: It took me a while to find the character for Philippe, though. I had it narrowed down to 3 actors and I spent quite a lot of time just informally chatting with them, trying to get a sense of how their persona in real life is like.
Josh seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

HermyBerg: I agree. And your cinematographer Aron Noll?

Kunal Mehra: Craigslist. I had put up an ad on CL a few years ago for a film that I never really made. Aron responded to that ad and even though I never made that film, we kept in touch, so when I wanted a DP for TWBWIW, I got in touch with Aron right away. Thankfully enough all the scheduling worked out and he was on board.

HermyBerg: And what camera did you shoot with?

Kunal Mehra: Panasonic DVX100. Probably more detail than you asked for, but we started shooting with dvx100a (which is what Aron owned). The next day, one of the crew members offered to lend us his brand new dvx100b (which had 16:9 anamorphic mode) for the shoot. We shot with that for a week before a freak accident happened in which a bicyclist tripped over the camera and totaled it. I paid the crew member for that camera and rented another 100b from a local store for the rest of the shoot.

HermyBerg: Now that’s a story. Ouch.

Kunal Mehra: Yeah… it was painful. Ironically, I had insurance for everything other than equipment. C’est La Vie.

HermyBerg: Smart man. So What is your background? Where did you grow up? Go to school?

Kunal Mehra: I grew up in India in a small town (Aurangabad) that’s about 200 miles east of Bombay. My undergrad was in electronics and after a brief internship in Singapore, I moved to Cincinnati, Ohio for my Masters in computers in August 2000. A couple of years and some celestial alignments later, I found myself in the rainy Pacific Northwest in Portland, Oregon, working for Intel, which is where I’m working as of now.

HermyBerg: And your influential filmmakers and/or films?

Kunal Mehra: It’s hard to pin influences down on any one artist since, in my opinion, the creative process is continuously being nurtured as one observes and learns, with influences and inspiration abounding all around us and seeping into our consciousness without our being necessarily conscious of it. That being said, if I had to take names: the intoxicating pessimism of Bergman, the keen insight and sheer prolificness of Fassbinder, the Zen’ism of Ozu, the surrealism of Tarkovsky, the stark and ascetic minimalism of Bresson, the fluidity and humanness of Renoir and more recently, the keen eye of Hou Hsiao-Hsien.

When it comes to films: I would definitely put Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman and Bela Tarr’s Satantango as a couple of direct influences on the writing/editing of TWBWIW. Other indelible works: Fassbinder’s Why does Herr R. Run Amok, Herzog’s Aguirre, Bresson’s Gentle Woman, Karoly Makk’s Another Way, Sokhurov’s Mother & Son and Confessions, Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Imamura’s Ballad of Narayama, Jean Vigo’s L’ Atalante.

the keen eye of Hou Hsiao-Hsien

HermyBerg: You mentioned to me earlier that you originally began this story not as a screenplay but as personal writings. When did it start becoming a screenplay?

Kunal Mehra: Yeah… it started off as just a bunch of random notes and observations about no one in particular. I had no intention whatsoever of turning it into a screenplay, least of all of actually making the film myself (I would have to be truly mad to make a film, after all). These notes gradually built up over the course of 8-10 months. I don’t recall there being any one particular moment of epiphany where I decided that I’ll convert it to a screenplay. I guess at some point I came to the realization that I had seen way too many movies and was getting itchy to make one myself. As it turned out, I seemed to have about 50-60 pages worth of random notes that could perhaps be put into a screenplay…

HermyBerg: So prior to these notes you weren’t considering a filmmaking path? At least not as an alternative to your computer work?

Kunal Mehra: I wasn’t. I had taken a few elementary courses in filmmaking at the local film center but nothing serious. I was/am however very lucky to have a great movie rental store in town (as a plug in for them, here’s the name: Movie Madness) and I was constantly inundating myself with titles from their collection. I owe them a lot for having such a fantastic collection. It definitely helped broaden my view of cinema (I come from India where 3 hour long song-and-dance Bollywood movies are the norm and any shot longer than 10 seconds has to have sex or violence in it).

HermyBerg: Nothing wrong with a little Sholay!

Kunal Mehra: Ha! to be honest, I haven’t seen it. I’ve never confessed it to any Indian friends before though, or I would be ostracized.

HermyBerg: How long did it take to shoot TWBWIW?

Kunal Mehra: Since I love dates and specifics…I kind-of started working on the script in June 2005 and was writing sporadically (and not necessarily with the idea of converting my writings into a film script) for the next year or so. I didn’t really have a ‘firm’ script until July 2006. We started pre-production in July of ’06. Shooting started in October and lasted 18 days. Post-production took about 6 months (the video edit was done here in Portland and the sound design/engineering in New York) and the DVDs finally came out in July 2007. So I guess to succinctly answer your question, it took about 2 years.

HermyBerg: The film has a wonderful surrealistic feeling, wonderful colors, and a firmly established mood. Can you speak about this quality? How much of this was thought out?

Kunal Mehra: Thanks for the kind words. I kind-of had an idea at the back of my head that this was to be a movie that had to have strong elements of geography in it. It was essential that there be a link, preferably as strong as possible, between the rhythm of the city and the life of Philippe. And we were blessed with incredibly good weather (considering the time of the year), so there were definitely those fortuitous shots that weren’t scripted but simply made their way into the film because they were too good to be passed up on. Luckily the 2 key production/post-production folks – DP and the editor – were both on the same page with me when it came to the style of shooting and editing – that helped immensely.

HermyBerg: There are some memorable shots: Philippe lying down under the trees, Philippe walking out of his home, the glow of the restaurant where he runs into his ex-girlfriend, the wide shots of the city…I thought this was all fully realized.

Kunal Mehra: For the most part, yes, these were in the script. What wasn’t in the script is things like yellow autumn leaves falling from a tree as he stands under it or the light of the magic hour when he’s walking by the pond (towards the end of the film). It was/is my hope that these seemingly mundane shots would help reinforce a sense of locality and also unity (unity of Philippe’s life with that of his environment, a sort of meshing together of the physical with the emotional until we reach a point where the two are inextricably linked).

HermyBerg: I think you achieved that. I’d like to get into that more a little later.
One more question about the photography. What are one or two of your favorite shots?
Personally I love the shot of Philippe and Jeanne walking away from the train station skipping, it’s burned in my mind. (Funny, to think of it now, that may be the lightest moment of the film, hahaha!)

Kunal Mehra: Yeah, it was a hard call to decide whether or not to keep that shot in the final edit. We decided to stick with it. Like you say, it’s probably the only outwardly-cheerful shot in the film. My favorite shot (if I can be presumptuous enough to have one) would be that of Philippe eating his soup/bread dinner on that little table of his. I wanted it to resemble a painting, specifically, Vermeer’s Milkmaid.

The simplicity and asceticism of that painting is what I had in mind for that shot. It’s leagues away from that painting, but that was the inspiration behind the shot. It took us quite a while to get the composition right (and poor Philippe quite a lot of bagels and soup)

HermyBerg: Kunal, you made a 3-hour film. A film, and being honest here, isn’t the fasted paced film ever made. This is extremely ambitious. (Or maybe not) Did you know it was going to be this length?

Kunal Mehra: Ha! I knew this was coming. I knew the film was going to be long, but I didn’t anticipate it to be 3 hours long.

HermyBerg: Very funny!

Kunal Mehra: As the edit of the film progressed, both me and my editor (David Bryant) were seemingly entranced by the rhythm and pace that the film seemed to be taking on, independently of us. After a while, I think it distanced itself from us and started its own protozoic existence and I felt it would be a shame to intrude upon it. Obviously, making a 3 hr long debut film with not a lot of car chases/dialogue/sex/blood can be (and probably is) akin to harakiri and I guess I was ambitious (or naive?) enough to take that chance.

HermyBerg: I agree, in the end, I think you realize the extended length is necessary to get you, legitimately, into the mindset of where Philippe is going.

Kunal Mehra: True..and that’s a huge gamble.

HermyBerg: Very quickly, is there anything of note you’d like to add about your working relationship with Bryant [editor]? Was he on the set with you at all?

Kunal Mehra: David was on set once to meet with the script sup and to say hello to everyone. I’ve had a great relationship with him. We have quite a lot of cinematic tastes in common and that definitely helped sculpt this film in the direction I had envisioned.

HermyBerg: Could you name a few of these “cinematic tastes”?

Kunal Mehra: For starters, in my CL ‘seeking for an editor’ ad, I had (casually) mentioned Bresson and Bergman. When he replied to that ad, he said that the mention of Bresson was what drove him to contact me. When we met the first time for coffee, I had emailed him a synopsis of the script the night before. His first comment was that this reminds me of Jeanne Dielman. That was the definitive click.

HermyBerg: Now I want to go specifically to the film. The scene that struck me, that showed I was dealing with a real talent is early in the film (one I look at specifically in my review) when Philippe returns home from work, lies in bed, drinks from his thermos, gets up, slowly and carefully folds his blanket, removes the sheets, and take them to the ironing board. He then proceeds to iron, iron, iron, methodically. When done he puts the sheets back on the bed, lies back in bed. He straightens the bed, lies down for a moment, the goes to the restroom, puts on his coat, and leaves. All in all, about 11mins of mundane domesticity.

It’s a scene that established, for me:
1) who Philippe is
2) what type of film this was going to be and
3) what type of director you are.

It’s a beautifully conceived. Break it down for us. I’m curious to know how this scene came about, you’re thoughts on it. I’ve saw only one other film in 2007 that made my ears perk up like this and that was Jose Luis Guerin’s In The City of Slyvia, which also reinterprets the extended sequence. Am I wrong to think this is one of the defining scenes of the film?

Kunal Mehra: I haven’t seen the film you mention. I’ll have to check it out next time at the rental store. Regarding the ironing scene – the primary motivation for that was to introduce the viewer into Philippe’s life. Not just show them, but take their hand and lead them into his life. There’s ample room in that scene to ruthlessly cut pretty much every shot to about 1/4th of its existing duration but would that get me to that hypnotic voyeuristic state that I had envisioned? Quite likely not. I remember when I was searching for a sound engineer, I took a rough cut of the DVD to one engineer who worked on a bunch of Gus Van Sant’s films. He’s a video editor as well and he said that while he really liked the composition and theme, I was lingering way too long on each shot. About 5 seconds into each shot, he’d click his fingers and say cut. I have a lot of respect (and admiration) for him but that was when I knew I didn’t want to work with him as a sound engineer. One of the best compliments I’ve received on that scene is (perhaps unexpectedly) from a friend’s 5 year old. We were watching the movie together and about 20 secs into the ironing scene he says “Is there someone in the room watching Philippe?” That told me I hadn’t screwed up with that scene. It’s an admittedly uncomfortable scene to watch – there’s not a lot of ‘stuff’ happening but really, in my honest opinion, there is a lot of ‘stuff’ happening.

HermyBerg: I’m glad you didn’t work with that sound engineer. It really is a make-or-break scene for the viewer. If someone ‘understands’ what you’re after then I think they’ll be open to go on this amazing, if not somber, sojourn with Philippe.

Kunal Mehra: Yeah…and I think that is probably where most festival screeners toss my film into the reject bin. If they ever get that far, that is.

HermyBerg: Their loss. More specifically about the character Philippe. Paul Scrhader in ‘Transcendental Style in Film’ writes, “Bresson’s characters, “even in their more extreme confidences, never reveal anything but their mystery—like God himself.” I think this is true of Philippe. He’s sort of a blank canvas yet you reveal him to us through his actions. Slowly repeated actions. Talk about this.

Robert Bresson

Kunal Mehra: Before the filming, Josh and I had a long talk over tea about the acting style. I lent him my copy of Bresson’s ‘Notes on the Cinematographer’ and watched Four Nights of a Dreamer with him. I would definitely agree with Scrhader. Pretty much all of Bresson’s characters are (seemingly) inactive, frozen or unresponsive. I think that can come across two ways – either it can distance the viewer and make them uninterested in the actor’s actions or it can make the viewer question the actor’s unusual stoicism. Why isn’t he crying? Why doesn’t he ever look happy? Can’t he just smile once? After a certain point, the viewer realizes that these answers are really not going to come from the commonly associated clues (facial reactions, actions) but that she’ll have to search for them elsewhere…somewhere hidden and elusive. She’ll have to work for her gratification. I think that it is in this searching that one of film’s true unique redeeming qualities is to be found. It makes the life of the director challenging and exciting: you can’t just show him breaking down. You’ve got to circumnavigate around the tears and find another way to show the angst; and it makes the life of the viewer hard, and eventually, hopefully rewarding: she has to think gasp while watching the movie and search for her own clues.

In fact, in the phone scene towards the end (where he’s talking with the late night caller), he eventually breaks down. That wasn’t scripted. He didn’t tell me he was going to do that and just did it. We were all watching from outside the room and were completely overwhelmed by the intensity of his emotions. We did a retake of that scene w/o him crying and eventually decided that the first take was better. That was one point where I deviated from Bresson’s style. But I felt that it was sort-of justified given that the film was nearing climax and his breakdown was perhaps a culmination of all that pent-up stoicism. Maybe.

HermyBerg: Such a powerful scene. I think one of the keys to The Wind Blows Where It Will, which you find relevant in Bresson, and something the Dardennes explicitly stress as a road to spirituality, if you will, is the use, or exploration of, repetition. Do you think this is a valid assessment? And if so, why do you think this serves as a gateway to this secret language of cinema?

Kunal Mehra: I read somewhere (can’t remember where and the exact term used to describe it) but this filmmaker was talking about zero-limit filmmaking. Essentially, what he/she was saying was that if you proceed with a repetitive shot/scene for longer than normal, after a while you get hypnotized by it and sort-of reach a state of absolute-zero temperature – where atoms are frozen and light is halted and, wonderfully examined. Of course, you’ve got to choose your shots wisely but I think there’s some validity in that school of thought. The one scene that stands out in my mind is from Tarr’s Satantango, the old obese man struggling to get out of his chair to pick up his medicines (I think). He takes about one or two excruciating minutes just to get out of his chair. Those 2 minutes do nothing to further the plot of the film, per se, but in terms of the state of your mind, they do wonders. As for extending it to the realm of spirituality: I think that once you reach a point of stability and equilibrium, the mind is essentially unhindered and can extend itself in any direction you want to channel it to. Tarkovsky does that with extended surreal shots. The shot of the train-trolley in Stalker (as the 3 men are moving towards the zone) comes to mind.

HermyBerg: Yes. I think you’re onto something here. We’re conditioned in a way to think of cinematic shots in short bursts, so when something extends past its time-constraint it transforms into something quite different. And we either reject or embrace it.

Kunal Mehra: Most often, it is (unfortunately) rejected…courtesy MTV.

HermyBerg: I agree but I don’t think MTV is our main adversary anymore. It’s everywhere and its conditioned. From the web, to shortened newscasts/stories, to the rapidity of technological growth; we live in a society engendering the idea fast is good. No, fast = life.

Kunal Mehra: True. I don’t own a TV but I know what you mean. Fast rapid action cuts are the symptom of more than just dwindling attention spans. I think it’s a sign of the state of life we often (inadvertently) find ourselves in – a state where an attitude of retrospection/reflection is nowhere as cool as one of instant gratification and thought-terminating cliches, as Robert Lifton put it. I mean I like Ministry as much as Mahler but I think there’s a sacred place that needs to be reserved for these retrospective attitudes.

HermyBerg: Along this line of reasoning the filmmaking-approach you’ve taken, which, for argument sake, we’ll call contemplative, has a variety of manifestations around the globe, as I know you’re aware of. Yet here in America it really hasn’t caught on. It almost works in direct opposite of what we’re thought to think is Cinema. It’s encouraging to see a young American director take this route but do you think in the end it hurts you because there isn’t a large audience to see your work? I think this film would be viewed very differently outside the country.

Kunal Mehra: You’re spot-on. It definitely is a gamble (in terms of the running time and the style/theme) and I realized this pretty much immediately after the DVDs came out and I started sending it out to fests.

Not so surprisingly, it was turned down at all American fests. I was at an informal talk with the local film fest’s programming director and he basically said that unless it’s Lawrence of Arabia, they’re pretty much guaranteed not to be programming a 3 hr long feature. Perhaps less surprisingly enough, it was turned down at European fests as well. I emailed one of them asking if they could give me a reason for the rejection. They cited the length as the primary cause for rejection.

HermyBerg: That must be frustrating. I’m sure we could go to any of these fests and find thousands of “feel-good,” “chic,” “in” films that really speak nothing about society, humanity, or even artistry. They offer up a quick laugh or cute amusement but rarely a lasting quality. And sadly the wider audience isn’t aware that there are other choices. Have you considered reducing the length? (Something I would be saddened to see)

Kunal Mehra: It is frustrating. I’ve toyed with the idea of making it more ‘palatable’, which essentially means cutting the poor thing down to something like 100 mins. It’s not out of the realm of possibility right now but I’m trying my best to stick with this version for now and see how it’s received outside of the fest circuit.

HermyBerg: This conversation has turned to the darker side of producing a film like yours. To stay in the rigmarole a bit I’d like to ask you about the philosophical underpinnings of the film.

Kunal Mehra: …one has to be in tune with the dark side as well.

Pastor Tomas & Marta (schoolteacher) in Bergman’s Winter Light

HermyBerg: In your director’s statement you mention Winter Light as an influence on your thinking and quote Kierkegaard as saying “faith is nothing without an undercurrent of self-doubt running through it.”

Camus wrote “dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering.”

I’ve rarely seen such a portrayal of individual isolation and pain. How do you view Philippe’s descent? And is it a lesson to us to have faith in something, if not just simply, our own selves? Ironically I find this an optimistic statement that works against the final outcome.

Kunal Mehra: That’s a great Camus quote. For me, Philippe’s descent is an inward spiral and yes, like you said, a loss of faith in himself as well. Clearly, he has choices in his life that could easily have altered the trajectory of his existence. Why he doesn’t choose to act upon those choices is his individual decision and one that is strongly influenced by his lack of self-faith. But faith, if it is flagging, can be rejuvenated and nurtured and this is something that he still chooses to avoid doing. Maybe because he believes in a greater peace in the ‘afterlife’, or maybe because he has perhaps stubbornly decided that it’s not going to come to anything. Or maybe, like you say in the Camus quote, he recognized the uselessness of suffering, especially suffering steeped in an existence that isn’t composed of what is traditionally viewed as a “happy” life – friends, partner, stability etc.

That’s one reason why I wanted to emphasize the seemingly repetitive/monotonous nature of his existence. It’s a lot harder to have faith in yourself if you don’t really have the support of friends/family and are isolated amongst your own rituals and solitary existence.

HermyBerg: One thing Philippe seemingly has is a faith in music. Can you speak a bit about the importance of music (in this case classical music) to Philippe and to the film itself? I know this is a fairly broad question. As much as the final phone call scene is an awkward situation the music elevates it, makes it work, taking Philippe to that emotional place.

Kunal Mehra: I wanted music to be used very sparsely, if at all. It definitely plays a huge part in his life. I view it as a sort of an anchor holding him stable and helping him weather the rough parts.

HermyBerg: That’s how I saw it. Along with his sculpting.

Kunal Mehra: I also wanted to stay away from any non-diegetic music. It’s very tempting to use it but I felt that it would adulterate the sanctity and honesty of his existence. Yes..the sculpting as well. Particularly the repetitive stubbornness which drives him to obsessively continue on the same piece of sculpture.

HermyBerg: So what’s next for you, Kunal? Another film?

Kunal Mehra: As soon as I have funding, I’ll be on the set.

HermyBerg: You have something written?

Kunal Mehra: In the works…this time however, I’m writing with the conscious intention of making a film. It’s hard to write a script witout having a budget in mind but at least the skeleton can be built.

HermyBerg: Do you envision working in the same style?

Kunal Mehra: Not necessarily..I would like to think that I want to be able to experiment with different themes and styles while retaining my core beliefs.

HermyBerg: Lastly how can someone curious to see your film see it?

Kunal Mehra: Email me at WindBlowsWhereItWill@gmail.com. That’s probably the best option at this point. Of course, if the film gets distribution/exhibition, I’ll keep my website updated.

HermyBerg: Well, thank you for your time, Kunal, and for making a brave film that I hope will be more widely seen as time goes by.

Kunal Mehra: My pleasure.

The Wind Blows Where It Will directed by Portland, Oregon, based director Kunal Mehra is rigidly constructed film, running slightly over three-hours, which demands the viewer’s attention. Holding fastidiously to a Bressonian austereness and its own wrought-out languidness TWBWIW, in the end, reaches a deep and resonant poignancy.

It’s a remarkably simple story. Philippe, a solitary young man, works in a small office selling blinds. He’s in a long distance relationship with Jeanne. She comes for a visit and tells Philippe she wants to breakup; no real explanation is given. Thus Philippe, already a quiet soul, must learn to live truly on his own; their rupture serving as an impetus to his silent and spiritual unraveling.

In essence TWBWIW is a intense character study and Mehra with monk-like patience trains his camera on the recondite Philippe excavating his internal struggle like a surgeon. The world Philippe inhabits is extremely minimal with a distinctive pace and mood. Mehra’s strength lies in his ability to slow to that pace, to listen the silences, to take the slow breathes, and reveal a depth of character rarely seen.

Look how he presents Philippe at the beginning of the film:

In the twilight hour he walks home from work.

Along the street he stops to admire some autumnal trees…

…he lies down beneath the trees. The wind blows the leaves and as we share this moment with Philippe.

He finally gets up and heads home.

In his apartment he turns on the lights, places down some flowers, and removes his coat.

He then takes in flowers into the living room and places them in a vase. He smells them.

Returning to the bedroom he lies down.

After a while Philippe gets up and removes the blanket.

Carefully folding it up.

Then he removes the sheets.

In the corner of the room he unfolds the ironing board.

He places the sheet on the board and begins to iron.

Back and forth, back and forth he irons…

After a while he finishes…

…and returns to the bed, placing the sheet back on.

He makes the rest of the bed, smoothing it into creaselessness.

He now places two pillows on the bed.

Once satisfied with the bed he opens his valise and pulls out a bottle of wine.

He goes into the kitchen and places the wine in the cupboard.

Back in the bedroom he lies down again.

A moment passes and he turns on some classical music.

His feet move to the music.

After a moment he switches off the music but continues to lie in bed.

He turns on his side, leaving most of the frame now empty. Mehra holds on this image of Philippe’s back and hand for a while.

When he gets up he heads into the bathroom…

…he checks himself in the mirror and combs his hair.

Back in the bedroom he puts back on his coat and heads out.

This sequence, devoid of dialog, runs approximately eleven minutes functioning on barren images animated by very simple actions. The stills above hardly do it justice (and possibly detracts from the intricate pacing established). There’s a literary quality to this sequence. For in this sustained observation we move past the images, which are easily deciphered, into an internal intimacy that’s seen through his mechanical actions. This is the case throughout. We learn that Philippe speaks loudest in the most quiet of moments.

Mehra is also tampering with temporally. For example, when Philippe and Jeanne return home from the train station Jeanne is cold to Philippe. (PilgrimAkimbo does an excellent job describing their meeting).

Once in his pajamas Philippe enters the kitchen and pulls two glasses from the cupboard.

Then pulls down the wine.

He pours one glass.

Just as he begin to pour the second glass Jeanne stops him (appearing screen-left).

Jeanne: “No, pour one for yourself if you want. I’ll be asleep in five minutes.”

She pour a glass a tap water. Philippe stands silent. Drinks her water than exits. Philippe, disappointed, pours the wine down the sink.

He rinses out the glasses and places them back in the cupboard.

He then pours a glass of water for himself.

He stands alone.

This scene is analogous to how the entire film works: built-up, piece-by-piece, action by action (without forgetting previous scenes that preceded) to a devastating end. Jeanne’s response not only undercuts the romantic implications but also undermines the laborious efforts Philippe puts into the relationship, down to the wrinkles in the sheets. Mehra consciously shapes how time works in his film, which could mistakenly be read as tedious, but there’s genuine thought behind his methods.

Once Jeanne is out of the picture we’re not simply left with Philippe. He does meet up with a friend, runs into an old flame, and even takes another girl home, but it all seems to be happening at a distance, in a waking life. We find the true Philippe home alone smelling his flowers, listening to music, or standing beneath leaf-falling trees.

It’s safe to say Philippe is obsessed with Jeanne. He sees her places she’s not and at home labors over a unfinished sculpture of her face with an eerie gentleness. At its core TWBWIW is about where you put your faith, and if that’s challenged how do you coupe?

To be sure there are minutes in TWBWIW which pass in silences that are both palpable and piercing. And in such scenes, once succumbing to their rhythm, settling in the listlessness, your mind isn’t so much processing or analyzing the images as it is simply responding to the subtle movements of light, to the heartbreaking gentleness of the piece. Rarely has a film tested with such boldness the boundaries of quietude and boredom (I use that term not in a derogatory sense) in order to reveal the true wounds of solitude. Like reading Dostoevsky or Proust you wade through the waters and when something happens, even the tiniest of events, it takes on astronomical importance.

Does it pay off in the end? Yes. The last couple of scenes validate everything that has come before and resonate with deep emotion. Mehra has definitely taken a risk making a film of this length and in this style but he succeeds. Not a simple achievement, especially from a first-time director. I will not write here that TWBWIW is flawless but its merits without question outweigh its drawbacks. It certainly should be seen more widely.

Contemplative cinema hasn’t made much headway in American films so it’s admirable to see a young director willing to take a large leap into the unknown. TWBWIW may just be one of the most relevant American debuts I’ve seen in quite a while.

In his indispensable book “Figures Traced In Light” David Bordwell takes an in-depth look at cinematic staging, its evolution and variations, seen through four directors: Feuillade, Mizoguchi, Angelopoulos, and Hou. In that vein I plan to use my ‘Cinema Studies’ to also look at this understated stylistic approach to filmmaking. For this study we’ll look at Preston Sturges’ 1941 screwball comedy The Lady Eve.

A brief summary up to the point of study: Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) aka Hopsie is heir to an ale (not beer, “there’s a difference”) fortune. Returning to New York after spending a year in the Amazon studying snakes Hopsie is on a cruise liner home. He quickly falls in love and becomes betrothed to an oil tycoon’s daughter, Jean (Barbara Stanwyck). Unbeknownst to him Jean is actually part of a professional card-sharking con-team.

Our scene of study runs 2:14 with roughly ninety percent taking place in a single shot.

The day after his proposal Hopsie waits to meet Jean on the deck. He leans leisurely on the rail and whistles to himself.

Lady Eve 1

He strolls casually to the right and back, the camera dollies with him.

Lady Eve 2

Sturges sets the mood: vivacious, commodious. People pass by cheerily, breakfasters eat and chat, children are heard playing off-screen.

From the door in the background Hopsie’s confidant/right-hand-man Muggsy and the ship’s purser approach.

fonda-a3-deck.png

They fill the right side of the frame and direct their attention towards Hopsie.

Lady Eve 3

Lady Eve 4

Muggsy expresses concern that Hopsie is being had by a “a gang of sharpies.” He then grabs the envelope the purser is holding explaining there’s evidence inside to prove his theory. Muggsy exits.

Grabbing Envelope

Muggsy exits

The camera pushes in closer to form a two-shot of the purser and Hopsie. The purser suggests that if Hopsie hasn’t lost any money to not look in the envelope.

Purser/Hopsie

Hopsie assures the purser he has not lost any money and hands the envelope back.

Perplexed as to why Hopsie hasn’t been swindled the purser suggests “they might be aiming for higher game.” He then asks a pointed question:

Love?

“What’s it got to do with you?,” the offended Hopsie fires back.

“Look at the photograph and I’ll take the consequences. Good morning, sir.” With that the purser exits leaving us alone again with Hopsie.

purser leaving

Hopsie shrugs off the implication, opens the envelope, and pulls out a photo.

looking at photo

We cut to an insert of the photo; a jarring cut that moves from a medium-wide shot to an extreme CU. (We half-expect the photo to start moving)

The photo is of Jean, her father, and their third man.

A musical cue also corresponds to the cut. . . ominous sounding horns, building.

the photo

We cut back to the wide, Hopsie still does not understand. The music continues to climb towards a climax. He flips the photo over.

flipping over

We cut to another insert: the back of the photo. As a viewer we don’t have to read the words to know what’s written. But Sturges still has to express the gravity of this moment from Hopsie’s point-of-view. . .

back of photo

. . .he does it ever so elegantly by slowly-slowly dissolving, for 10 seconds, from the written text into a CU of Hopsie.

fade down1

Note: this is not the wide shot in which the whole scene has played out in, this is a close-up emphasizing this particular moment. The music crescendos and slips into a somber tune.

fade down2

Sturges then jump cuts from the CU back to the wide. Hopsie takes his time, carefully placing the photograph back into the envelope, as if tucking away his love for Jean. All the while his mind racing.

putting away

putting away2

He turns and peers back for a moment.

turning

Then listlessly makes his way towards the door.

walking away

Sturges holds the wide (rack focusing as he moves into the background) until Hopsie is clearly through the door.

Through the door

By holding on the wide shot, as he makes his way into background, Hopsie, from our perspective, becomes smaller within the frame, visually becoming a diminutive character. (A technique Welles and Toland thoroughly explore the same year while making Citizen Kane).

By the end of this scene the mood is completely inversed from whence it began. The sounds of the children can still be heard but their mirth now adds to the hollowing out of the scene.

When one thinks of Sturges one thinks of high-fueled comedy, rapier wit, and screwball antics; The Lady Eve is no exception. Yet in the midst of all the rambunctiousness is this beautifully directed scene that could compare to something we’d find in Wyler or Welles picture. Using the minimal of camera set-ups (a wide and brief CU) and two inserts Sturges navigates us through a complex set of emotions with a deft touch. And by working mainly off the wide when he does employ a close-up or slow dissolve we’re witness to the powerful intrinsic qualities of each. Both techniques are used so haphazardly now that they’ve become ubiquitous and undervalued.

The subtlety of cinematic staging can reveal a complex subset of cinematic traits (movement within the frame, shifting eyelines, the play of perspective) that one could argue derive from the very roots of what cinema is and always has been . . . an art of observation.

Looking once more at our study one can see how Sturges invisibly directs this scene. He begins with an lofty-wideness of frame, allowing the character breathing room as he paces; soon other characters enter and exit, and as they do we slowly tighten in on Hopsie; we’re shown the photo/text (the main purpose of the scene) transition to a numb dissolve into Hopsie’s disheartened face; he then exits the scene a defeated man (shrinking by the step). The whole sequence quietly inches forward, the exit of characters allowing Sturges to creep clandestinely towards his climax. He quietly manipulates our subconscious emotions through subtle visual cues, creating a visual tension, done without an over-abundance of editing or unnecessary camera set-ups. Even without sound I believe most of what transpires here could be understood.

This is a extremely simple example, yet excellent study-piece, on how thought-out cinematic staging continues to challenge the barrage of ‘intensified continuity‘ filmmaking, so effervescent today, by offering a wealth of complexity while using the minimum of tools.

More on this to come.

Paraguayan Hammock (2006)

hammock

The sun rises slowly on a shot of two trees, the ground covered in leaves. A dog barks incessantly somewhere in the distance. After a while an elderly couple wanders out from the woods behind. The woman constructs a hammock and they sit (see picture above, this is the shot in which much of the film plays out). Their conversation meanders from the weather, the dog, food, health problems, to “the war,” and their son who has left to fight that war.

As the story unfolds (told through a few other static shots, always from a distant position) our grip on reality slips. We realize that on this isolated farm time has become an enigma, shuttling back and forth like the hammock on which they sit. The couple’s conversation (presented via-voice-over) blankets shots of the old man harvesting, the woman sitting beside a stove, the man sitting outside their home, etc. The woman vaguely recalls someone telling her her son has died in battle, but the person doesn’t give the right middle-name for her to fully believe.

Has the son actually died in war? Is the mother disillusioning herself? And when did the son actually leave? How long has he been gone? Is the war over? Has it been over for quite some time?

These questions merge into obfuscation as night falls. It begins to rain. The couple, effete from their mental-rummaging, reach a breaking point as the darkness engulfs them; cognizant of their fragile morality.  They pack up the hammock and enter the dark-dark woods as the rain patters on . . . most likely to repeat this scene until their son returns or death whisks them away.

A beautiful minimalist experience by first-time director Paz Encina. In Guarani with subtitles.

question everythingquestion everything

Today’s DemocracyNow! broadcast featured a intense discussion with Philip Zelikow (executive director of the 9/11 Commission), Robert Wendrum (NBC investigative reporter), and Michael Rathner (Center for Constitutional Rights) discussing allegations made by Philip Shenon in his book “The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation” that roughly 25% of the 9/11 Commission Report’s footnotes where taken from information obtained by tortured detainees.

From the getgo the DNow! team went after Zelikow in asking if anyone on the 9/11 commission, during their multiple meetings with high-level officials (i.e. George Tenant, then head of the C.I.A.), asked, out right, if questioned detainees were tortured. Zelikow admitted he did not ask but quickly stated that he wasn’t the person pushing the issue with Tenant (it was his bosses). “Did they ask Tenant were the people tortured?,” Goodwin replied. To his knowledge he did’nt know. He admited the commission did have serious concerns on how information was obtained but did not press the issue.

Since the report’s release at least four ‘combatants’ have come forward claiming they were tortured not, as the CIA calls it, participants in “high level interrogation techniques.” So again we have public records tainted by false or forced testimonies.

The interview then waded into murkier areas of the commission’s activities. Shenon claims Zelikow had a conversation with his secretary in which he told her not to keep phone logs of his White House calls. She blew the whistle. Goodman-Gonzalez also addressed concerns that Zelikow pressured his staff to “whitewash” any negative information that could come out about Condoleezza Rice (an old friend of Zelikow’s) and President Bush (who was then running for re-election). Zelikow stiff armed the allegations but didn’t flat out deny them, h’mm. After several more pointed questions Zelikow became defensive stating that while on the commission he was battering ram for the right (Safire attacked him frequently in the Times) and now feels “attacked” by the other side.

Good.

This sort of reporting is exactly what’s needed in order to root out constant inconsistencies, biases, contradictions, and flat out falsities prepackaged and presented to the public on a regular basis. It is sad to see such an important issue such as this played out on a small stage: page six of newspapers, on public assess radio, or in the “blogasphere.” Why not in the national media? Least we forget that the 9/11 Commission Report was a national best seller in 2004? (Where’s that Frey outrage?)

Higher-level officials—who we should never forget are public servants—must be consistently subjected to direct and probing questions in order to root out the truth and to prevent “spin.” The media’s soft-balling has inevitably created an imaginary line that delineates what should and shouldn’t be addressed publicly or ever.

This issue about the 9/11 commission report reaches far beyond footnotes to the very core of American morally and how we conduct our business. Some of these same detainees the CIA have now admitted to torturing (or “legally” waterboarding) and then destroyed the evidence tapes.

waterboarding

Rarely does the mainstream media cross this imaginary line which can be chalked up to self-censorship. Where are the real images of war? What are the exact budgets of our military and CIA spending? Where are the rest of the torture photos? What about our secret gulags?

As heated as the presidential primaries are getting much of the public, the media, and the “major” candidates are functioning in a dream world. Real issues are not being addressed because real questions are rarely asked.

I’d like to hear a candidate speak directly to the enormous loss of innocent Iraqi/Afghan lives. Or what seriously needs to be done to reduce our dependence on foreign oil? Which should be a multifaceted answer that encompasses not only foreign policy but also a revisioning our national infrastructure.

Why do we considered ourselves a benevolent country when it comes to nuclear armament/use and not others? (Who dropped the only “bombs” in human existence?) As we move further into the 21st century functioning in this quixotic never-never land can only lead us down a dangerous path. Reality must be faced.

I commend Amy Goodman & Juan Gonzalez for consistently asking the right questions.

goodman Gonzales

To be fair: Zelikow did state that “we have given the public all the information we can so people can write the stories today asking these questions. And we laid it all out for people to examine, including our citations and our concerns.” The CIA’s failure to answer many of the commission’s questions is now the subject of criminal investigation.

Watch or listen the interview here.