“Aparajito” - Satyajit Ray (1956)

Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956) was the second installment of his highly acclaimed Apu Trilogy, which included Pather Panchali (1955) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959) and was based on the writings of early 20th century Bengali author Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhya. Although the three films trace different segments from the life of the fictional character Apurba Roy (Apu), each of the three Apu Trilogy films can be enjoyed without awareness of or reference to the others.  Nevertheless, some familiarity with the earlier events in Pather Panchali can enrich one’s appreciation of the characters involved in Aparajito, so I will add a few comments.

Much of Pather Panchali covers the period of time when Apu was six years old and his family lived in the Bengali village of Nischindipur. At the end of that story, Apu’s family home has been destroyed by a monsoon storm and his older sister has just died.  So Apu’s father, Hori Roy, who makes his living as Brahman holy man performing sacred rituals, decides to move the family to the holy city of Benares (aka Kashi and now known as Varanasi).  Aparajito begins when Apu is ten years old, and his family has been living in Kashi for several years. 

Both Pather Panchali and Aparajito cover the rich domestic culture of Indian family life, but in different ways.  In Pather Panchali, there are five key characters:
  • Harihar (Hori) Roy, the father
  • Sarbajaya Roy, the mother
  • Apurba (Apu) Roy
  • Durga Roy
  • Indir Thakrun, the old “auntie”
The beauty of Pather Panchali is how the interrelationships among those five family members make up a multi-perspective tapestry that sheds light on the human condition in all its wonder. Of those five characters, four of them (Hori, Apu, Durga, and Indir) are lovably innocent and fun-loving, but for various reasons rather unmindful of the practical needs that must be met for their impoverished family to sustain itself.  This concern falls primarily on the slender shoulders of the mother, Sarbajaya, who anguishes throughout that film about (a) how make ends meet with no money, (b) how to bring up her children properly, and (c) how to maintain a reasonably dignified status within the local community.  But there are still multiple relationships presented in that film that cover not only those practical concerns of how to be successful in the local community but also just how to be.

When we get to Aparajito, Durga and Indir have passed away, and relatively early on, Hori dies, too.  So the relationship focus eventually narrows down to that between Sarbajaya and Apu.  This narrowing down, though, doesn’t impoverish, it enriches – it opens up a dramatic examination of the eternal mother-son relationship, but here in a specifically Indian context.

The story of Aparajito passes through three phases that correspond to the separate locales that Apu finds himself in during his teenage years. 

1  Kashi
In the opening section, the viewer is given a leisurely tour of life and practices in Benares along the banks of the holy Ganges river. People of all sorts come to the riverside ghats, which offer a wide, open staircase down to the river’s holy waters, down which people can descend to bathe and engage in ritualistic acts of purification. Hori’s priestly profession is to sing and recite holy texts for worshipers who have come to these ghats gain seeking this purification. We are reminded when we see these scenes just how unique and amazing is the Indian contribution to world spiritual culture.  Rather than depict and present an angry, guilt-obsessed God who prematurely condemns everyone to eternal damnation (and only then prescribes how one might obtain salvation from this horror), the Indian way is more benign – one must purify oneself before condemning others.  You can see this on the faces of the benevolent practitioners on the ghats, who amiably smile at each other, presumably because they don’t see guilt, but fellow spiritual travelers.

There are a number of interesting cultural aspects to life in Kashi on display in these early scenes. The common people live in crowded apartments compounds, where many people come and go; so custom requires Sarbajaya either to cover herself or demurely retire to another room when in the presence of non-relative adult men. Inside the apartment compound these encounters happen all the time, so she must constantly be ready to withdraw when another man passes by. 

There is a touching moment when Hori brings a fellow and equally poor Brahman priest over to his apartment to share a cup of tea.  He tells Hori that he is saving up money in order to “buy” a wife so that he can have a real life.  In traditional India, one’s social life entirely revolved around the family.  Naturally, Sarbajaya must retire to another room when the friend comes to their apartment, but still she must prepare tea for them. She smiles contentedly behind the curtain when she overhears the guest tell Hori that the tea she prepared is excellent.  Such are the little joys of social life in the big city.

Meanwhile there is no nearby school for Apu to attend in Kashi, so he has become a street kid, playing with other boys in the narrow alleys around his neighborhood. 

The Roy family seems to be doing OK. However, despite the general belief that the waters of the Ganges are purifying and life supporting, it should be kept in mind that those waters are also biochemically polluted. Hori comes down with an illness, and he prescribes his own herbal remedies (this is one facet of his priestly profession) to cure himself. Unfortunately, the remedies don’t work, and Hori collapses the next day and dies shortly thereafter.

2  Mansapota
Now Sarbajaya is left alone with Apu.  They take the long train ride back to Bengal, to the town of Mansapota, and come to live in a house owned by a relative.  Apu is to be trained to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a Brahmin priest, but he chafes at the ritualistic demands of this profession and longs to attend a nearby school with other boys his own age. Sarbajaya relents to his pleading, and Apu begins attending classes at what turns out to be a very British-influenced school dedicated to a Westernized education.

Time passes, and by the time Apu is about 17, he is a top student and is offered a scholarship to study further in the big city of Calcutta (Kolkata). Like most mothers, Sarbajaya is reluctant to let her only treasure leave her for the big city that is some three hours away by train, and they quarrel. But again she eventually lovingly relents and lets Apu have his way.

3  Calcutta
When Apu arrives in Calcutta, he finds an apartment room which to his surprised delight is equipped with electric lighting. He immediately becomes enmeshed in a busy life there, diligently studying science at the college and working in his spare hours at a print shop, and consequently he neglects to write home regularly to his lonely mother. Back in Mansapota neighbors occasionally come to pay social calls on Sarbajaya, but their references to their own family activities only further remind Sarbajaya that her entire family and only meaningful social connection is constituted solely by the ever-absent Apu. 

Apu does pay her a visit on one occasion, and their encounter is touching, with nuances very well portrayed by Ray.  But soon Apu returns to Calcutta and is again embroiled with his life back there. Sarbajaya eventually becomes ill and longs for a visit from Apu, but she is reluctant to jeopardize his studies and force another reluctant visit from him. 

Apu is eventually sent a letter by Sarbajaya’s concerned neighbor friend about his mother’s illness. Though he rushes back to see her, he is too late – she has already died. At the end of the film, Apu is advised to take up the priestly profession in earnest, but Apu refuses.  He turns his back on his old, traditional life, and heads back to Calcutta to pursue his new goals towards modernism.

Overall, Aparajito has the virtue of offering a leisurely look at various aspects of traditional life in India, as well as the contrasting needs and perspectives across the mother-son relationship.  The film doesn’t quite measure up to the greatness of Pather Panchali, primarily because it doesn’t offer the two great narrative sequences – the “Excursion to the Train Sighting” and the “Death of Durga” – which that latter film had and which energized it with compelling dramatic substance. Aparajito relies for its dramatic momentum entirely on the superb performance of Karuna Banerjee in the role of Sarbajaya, which role she had also played in Pather Panchali. Ms. Banerjee’s countenance is so full of suppressed passion and compassion that one could say she would deserve an acting award even if she did not utter a single word.  Her role in Pather Panchali was very important there, too, but here in Aparajito, the complexities of her persona constitute the very core of the film. 

The contrasting outlooks separating Hori (played by Kanu Banerjee, who also reprises his role from Pather Panchali) and Sarbajaya are keys to both Pather Panchali and Aparajito. Hori is mostly optimistic, relaxed, and resigned to his fate. Even when he is critically ill at his very end, he smiles up at Apu and tells him it is OK if he wants to run out and play with his friends. But Sarbajaya is different. While Hori always naively believes in the efficacy of his prescribed home remedies, Sarbajaya remains skeptical. She yearns, but she also doubts and suffers. We feel for her. And over the course of this film, Ray and his cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, expertly compose and weave the story around her looks of longing and love for the boy she knows that she cannot keep forever.

“Pather Panchali” - Satyajit Ray (1955)

One of the greatest of all filmmakers, Satyajit Ray, debuted with a first feature, Pather Panchali (1955), that was so good it ranks as one of the finest films ever made. It is interesting that a number of outstanding filmmakers, including Jean Vigo, Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Terrence Malick, hit their highest levels with their first film outings. In all cases, though, these first-time directors were originally avid and thoughtful students of film, and they were very well cultured in cinema technique before they shot their first scenes.

In Ray’s case he had been thinking about and planning how he would make that first film for many years before he started it.  He came from a cultured Bengali family, and Ray early on showed talents in graphic design, calligraphy, musical composition, and writing.  In his twenties (during the 1940s), Ray worked professionally as a graphic designer, but he developed a passion for films and set his sights on eventually becoming a filmmaker.  For a number of years during this period, he thought about making a film based on Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhya’s famous semi-autobiographical Bengali novel, Pather Panchali (“The Song of the Little Road”, 1929). Ray’s first feature covers the first part of that novel, and two of his subsequent films, Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959) completed the account.  Together the three films on this subject are known as the Apu Trilogy.

I mention all this planning, because when Pather Panchali appeared to Western audiences, it was initially compared to Italian Neorealism films, a documentary-style film genre that was thought to be captured-life in the raw.  But although Ray engaged in experimentation during the filming of Pather Panchali, the film was carefully planned and staged in order to achieve its extraordinarily effective visual and emotional effects.

The story covers the experiences of an impoverished family of four living in a small Indian town. The father, Harihar (aka “Hori”) Roy (Kanu Banerjee), is a Brahman who makes his living by conducting religious rituals. But he has dreams of someday becoming a famous writer. His wife, Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee), struggles to make ends meet with the meager income obtained by the not-very-practical Hori. They have a daughter, Durga, and a son, Apurba (“Apu”). They also have a very elderly female relative, Indir, who the children refer to as “Auntie”, but given the complicated structures of Indian extended families, her precise relationship to the others is not clear.  What goes on in the film is primarily seen from the multiple focalizations of Sarbajaya, Indir, Durga, and Apu.

In the opening sequence of about twenty minutes, we are introduced to the Roy family just prior to the birth of Apu.  Hori talks about his plans to become a great writer, while Sarbajaya complains to  Hori that he doesn’t attend to making an income to provide them with enough food and comfort. Durga, who is about seven or eight years of age, likes to steal fruit from the nearby orchard belonging to the neighboring Mukherjee family, whose matron complains bitterly to Sarbajaya that Durga thus has a poor upbringing. 

Undaunted by such accusations, Durga always passes some of the purloined goods to her beloved “Aunt” Indir, who is hunchbacked and emaciated. In fact throughout the film we see an affinity between the child Durga and the ancient Indir.  Both of them are petty liars and thieves, stealing little scraps of food whenever the opportunity presents itself. But both of them share a joie de vivre – a readiness to be delighted by any new curiosity that comes their way. This is always an endearing trait of the very young and the very old.  And both of them pass away during the course of the story.

It’s worth commenting here that the performance of Chunibala Devi as Indir is extraordinary and one of the most memorable aspects of the film.  She was over eighty years old during the production and died shortly after the film was released, but her wizened visage always lights up the screen with vitality and anticipation throughout the story.  

After Apu is born, the story shifts forward in time about six years later, and his life as a small schoolboy is covered. Durga is still a fruit thief and dispensing the spoils to Indir, but now she is accused of a more serious crime: stealing jewelry from one of the neighbor Mukherjee daughters. Although Durga swears that she is innocent of this particular crime, the accusations again cause Sarbajaya to suffer. Losing face in a small village, which constitutes your entire world of relations and from which there is no escape, is torture for the mother who has no other means of support.

Dignity is one of the major concerns for the elders in this story.  In terms of material possessions, these people have almost nothing.  But Hori dreams of being a respected writer, and  Sarbajaya wants to be free from the scornful wrath of the neighboring Mukherjee housewife.  In fact she is so troubled by the Mukherjee accusations against Durga that she drags the poor girl by her long hair and temporarily casts her out of the door of their household.  And Indir, who is essentially a freeloader on the Roy family, also suffers from the dismissive treatment she receives at the hand of Sarbarjaya. 

The kids, Durga and Apu, on the other hand, just want to have fun.  They long for a few treats from the local sweet-seller, and they are excited by occasional festivals or Jatra performances, which are theatrical shows put on by itinerant performing troupes.

So for the first hour of the film, the pacing is leisurely and somewhat rambling, with small ups and downs punctuated by the occasional village events dictated by the calendar. Satyajit Ray wanted the film to convey that level of random village-life occurrences [1]:
“. . . I  felt that to cast the thing in to a mould of cut-and-dried narrative would be wrong.  The script had to retain some of the rambling quality of the novel, because that in itself contained a clue to the feel of authenticity; life in a poor Bengali village does ramble.”
But then the second half of the film features two key narrative sequences that move the story forward – the excursion to the train sighting and the death of Durga.  Both of them are expertly realized by Ray and constitute the dramatic high points of the film.
1 The Excursion to the Train Sighting
The first such narrative element is a parallel-action sequence featuring Durga and Apu along one track and Indir along another.  After watching the Jatra performance, Apu takes some ornaments from Durga’s toy box and dresses up like one of the performers.  Durga is annoyed by Apu’s cheeky messing around with her few belongings, and they have a spat.  The young Apu, who idolizes his big sister, is terribly disturbed by Durga’s scoldings and doesn’t know what to do.  In a memorable sequence, Durga runs out into the fields, knowing that the worshipful Apu will follow her. She leads him a long way to where the railroad tracks are, and then she waits.  In due time a railroad train (which Apu had never seen) comes hurtling down the tracks – a wonderfully thrilling and almost magical phenomenon for the astonished children. When you see this sequence, you get the feeling of the rapture that these children must have felt at the sight of the train.

In parallel with this action concerning Durga and Apu seeing the train, are shots of Sarbajaya, testily casting Indir out of their household because Indir had caused Sarbajaya to lose more face by accepting a gift from another neighbor.  Indir goes out into a wooded area, sits down, and dies.  As Durga and Apu happily return from their excursion to see the train, they come upon Indir’s dead body.

2 The Death of Durga
The second key narrative element comes after Hori departs on a trip to a rich landlord’s estate with the intention of getting paid for some requested religious rituals.  This expected job turns out to fall through, and Hori goes further away looking for work and not communicating with his wife for months. In his absence, Sarbajaya’s family sinks into desperate circumstances, and she has to hock her dowry cutlery.  But after five months, she finally gets a letter from Hori announcing that he has made some good money and will soon be returning.  Things are looking up.  But the monsoon rains are about to come.

In India the coming monsoons represent change and anticipation.  They will bring a welcome break from the intense summer heat and needed rains for farming.  But the rainstorms can wreak havoc and be destructive, too, so the monsoons combine a promise with a threat.  Ray builds this mood up brilliantly with a lyrical sequence of images and sounds (both diegetic and musical) connoting the season of change and the gathering storm clouds. 

There is a little scene showing Durga performing the Punyipukur brata, which is a Bengali Hindu ritual puja for young girls that prays for fertilizing rain and the fortitude to endure whatever comes.  Then she runs out and meets Apu in the mango orchard by the pond for some fun.  A thunderstorm suddenly comes on, but Durga joyfully wades into the pond and dances in the midst of the downpour. 

However, the drenching gives Durga a chill, and she becomes ill. She is put to bed and attended to by the local doctor, but her illness worsens. As the monsoon winds and rains intensify, battering their little cottage, Sarbajaya sits at Durga’s bedside with a feeling of terror and powerlessness. Before the rains retire, their cottage is destroyed and Durga dies from her fever.
The next day, after being away for many months, Hori returns with money and presents for his family.  Sarbajaya greets him silently but then faintingly cries out over their misfortune, her agony memorably intensified from the soundtrack by the high-pitched sound of the sarange stringed instrument.

Shortly thereafter Hori decides to leave his ruined home and take his family to Benares (now called Varanasi).  Just before their departure, though, Apu discovers to his shock the jewelry beads that Durga had evidently really stolen from the neighbors.  He takes them over to the pond and throws them in the water so that noone will ever know that Durga did steal them.  The final shots show the family sadly departing their village on an oxcart and headed off further on the little road of life.

The sometimes rambling nature of Pather Panchali and its apparently literal and artless expression (many of the actors were nonprofessionals) have led some critics to suppose that the film is an innocent outing of a novice director recording the local color of an Indian village. But this outstanding film is anything but artless, and a study of the cinematography, editing, and overall composition is well worth the effort. 

Ray began filming Pather Panchali in 1952, but his shoestring budget forced a number of delays while he sought additional funds; and the production was only completed three years later.  Although the film was shot mostly in sequence, these delays must have presented concerns, given that two of the key performers were growing children and Chunibala Devi was of frail health.  On top of that, Ray’s cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, was completely inexperienced – at the beginning of the production he was only 21 and had never held a movie camera in his hands before.  Nevertheless, the cinematic expression in the film (both the cinematography and the editing) is extremely good and an important component to the film’s success.  There are constant short tracking and panning shots that maintain the pace of the film. Numerous closeups are interspersed effectively with the medium shots to maintain a visual dynamism throughout.  The film gives the appearance that it was shot entirely on location, but in fact there were some studio scenes that are seamlessly woven into the presentation.

In addition the soundtrack, which includes both the contextual sounds that Ray employed as well as the background musical score, is a crucial component that sonically evokes the changing emotional atmosphere of the film.  The musical score was produced by noted sitar musician Ravi Shankar, and the haunting main musical theme resonates in the mind long after the film is over.

Still, one might ask, what is it that makes this a great film? Is it anything more than a rambling slice-of-life story about impoverished conditions of India (as some Indians I have known have complained)? In my view, what makes it great is the manner in which Ray has woven the stories of five people – Hori, Sarbajaya, Indir, Durga, and Apu – into a single beautiful tapestry. In this respect it  differs from existentialist films, which tend to focalize on the challenging world as seen by a single answer-seeking individual. In Pather Panchali we have the existential perspectives of all five of these people interwoven together.  We can empathize with and understand each of them.  We want them all to find fulfilment, and yet we can see how their action can sometimes frustrate each other.  The film presents to us the complexities of life in all their rhythmic and musical harmonies and dissonances.

  1. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray,  (1971), Indiana University Press, p. 88.

Satyajit Ray

Films of Satyajit Ray:

“Fight Club” - David Fincher (1999)

Fight Club (1999) is a bipolar film that has elicited a bimodal response.  Some people (exclusively men, as far as I can see) love it; others dismiss it as drivel. Though the film was panned by a number of reviewers [1,2,3] and the film was not initially a big box office success, it has a phenomenally high rating at the IMDB Web site. And for some people today, the film remains a coming-of-age testament for an entire generation of thirty-somethings.

The film, directed by David Fincher, starts out with an explosive scene showing a man with a cocked pistol pushed into his mouth, and then the story unwinds into a two-hour flashback describing how this man, who narrates the rest of the tale, got to this extreme life-threatening point. 

Our Narrator (Edward Norton), we learn, is something of a wimpy, middle-class guy working in a soulless corporate environment.  His work at an automotive corporation involves determining, whenever a safety defect is found, whether a mass product recall that would save lives is worth the expense.  With his professional life based on heartless numbers and with no apparent social life, his main personal interest seems to be acquiring the next IKEA furnishing to add to his upscale condo.  It is clear that his life is a bore, and it’s no wonder that he suffers from severe insomnia, where day drifts seamlessly and uneventfully into night.

To treat the insomnia his doctor advises him to see what real suffering is like by attending support groups for those diagnosed with terminal illnesses.  He enthusiastically starts doing this on a daily basis, masquerading as a fellow sufferer at gatherings of people more victimized by life than he is; and these visits do seem to help with the insomnia for awhile.  Though he gets a false sense that he is engaging with people, actually these meetings are basically just joint sessions to express impotence and self-pity.  And soon the hypocrisy of this “therapy” dawns on him, and his insomnia returns.

But later our Narrator hooks up with a guy, Tyler Burden (Brad Pitt), he met on a plane during a business trip, and after some convivial drinks at a bar this odd new friend takes our Narrator outside and asks him to give him a punch. The narrator has to be coaxed to fulfill this weird request, but he goes ahead.  Soon the two of them are engaged in boisterous fisticuffs and loving it.  So commences the “fight club”. 

From here on the film shifts into a male fantasist’s wet dream of masculinity and violence.  The fight club under the charismatic leadership of Tyler Durden (the Narrator is nominally a co-leader, but Durden is in control) grows in popularity as more and more disaffected men are attracted to participate in the bloody one-on-one fights held in the bar’s basement.  Like the Narrator, these men are also captivated by the nervy confidence of the nonconformist Durden, who goes his own way in all things.  Gradually the fight club evolves into a destructive revolutionary organization devoted to “Project Mayhem”, a mission bent on sabotaging the conformist society that has emasculated so many men. 

Eventually things go too far, even for the Narrator, and the action reaches a climax as the long flashback returns to the present and the narrator facing his assailant.  There is a quirky plot twist at the end of the film that appeals to some viewers; but to me this psychological twist is implausible even within the weird logic of this implausible story, and it raises more questions than it answers. 

Rather than going over further details of the story, though, it is best to jump to a consideration of what is the film’s main idea and why it is so popular with some sectors of society. First off, the film is clearly a comedy, but it is a very black comedy, since there is so much savage physical violence going on.  This puts some people off, but other people – mostly young men – revel in the wanton destructiveness of it all. 

The main point here is that men these days are more and more emasculated by our consumption-obsessed advertising-dominated society that has made people into conformist copycats.  In the midst of this materialist frenzy for more and more stuff that we have to buy (e.g. the IKEA furnishings), men have lost their manliness and sense of autonomy.  So without clearly knowing why, many frustrated men are moved to drop out of the rat race.  This has led some reviewers to compare Fight Club with Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which also traced inarticulate young people who were looking for something they couldn’t name but which society couldn’t offer.  But Fight Club is much more abstract than Rebel Without a Cause – it comes equipped with its own theoretical backdrop. 

The fundamental notion behind it all is autonomy – the basic issue of being able to have some effect on the world around you and thereby expressing your own identity.  This urge to express our autonomy is elemental. If you were lucky enough to have grown up in a climate with cold winters, you may remember seeing a thin layer or ice frozen over a puddle on the street when you were very young and feeling the urge to crack the ice with your foot.  This was your harmless expression of (destructively) impacting the world in front of you without there being negative consequences.  You could wreak some minor havoc and get away with it.

When you fight with your fists, it is even more central to your identity.  You are getting down to (and going back to) man’s most primitive and primordial engagement with the world – a violent interaction that engages your most basic instincts and thereby gives you a most elemental sense of autonomy.  Under the circumstances of a fight, you are not passive and impotent you are taking action. In those moments you are fundamentally autonomous, relying on your own body, and therefore you are fully alive

Now you might say, hey, isn’t this what action sports are all about?  What about boxing?  In fact, to be more precise, what about bare-knuckle boxing?  Those activities have been done for a long time and do not represent anything novel.  Yes, but there is a difference here, because the goal in Fight Club is not to win, but simply to engage in some desperate acts of violence.  In sports, you try to win, to achieve a goal, but in Fight Club, you just want to punch.  This is the clarion call of the “I Don’t Care” generation. Men who feel powerless and subservient in the external world (as the Narrator does) can go to the fight club and interact in this primitive way that makes them feel more fundamentally engaged – more alive.

And this is where the homoerotic subtext comes in.  Tyler Durden is everything that the somewhat effeminate Narrator (and the other impotent men drawn to the fight club) are not.  He is spontaneous, wild, and super-confident.  He doesn’t reflect, he acts on impulse.  He wears wild clothes and does weird things whenever he feels like it.  He is the ultimate masculine role model for the Narrator, because he doesn’t care about the things that people in mainstream society are supposed to care about. The Narrator doesn’t want a women, he really wants to be one with Tyler Durden so that he can achieve his masculine fulfillment. In fact it is revealing that there are almost no women characters in this film besides Marla Singer (played nicely by Helena Bonham Carter).  She is the only feminine presence, but she is like an inscrutable Goth phantasm that only haunts the Narrator’s life. 

So thematically, Fight Club does have some kind of tale to tell.  And director David Fincher pulls out all the cinematic stops to present the story at a breakneck speed.  But the problem is that the film tries to bite off more than it can chew and doesn’t deliver.  I will list some of the shortcomings here, which fall in several thematic areas.

  1. A first problem is the fighting, itself, which is unrealistic. If you watch a Tom and Jerry cartoon, the animation is sufficiently unrealistic, that the viewer is comfortably distanced from the physicality of broken flesh. But here in Fight Club the fight scenes are relentlessly bloody and filmed to convey maximal in-your-face brutality. Although in real life these kinds of fights would result in broken bones, permanent injuries, and often death, the guys in the story get up after being bloodied and clobbered in these ferocious fights with smiles on their faces.  So we have unrealistic fighting, but with lots of blood thrown in for . . . what, to make it more realistic?  Anyway, this bloody brawling is still unrealistic, because the "Fight Club" fights don’t present the pain and hostility that are intrinsic to all physical fights.  All it gives us is the blood, and that is apparently supposed to be funny.
  2. When the “Fight Club” evolves into “Project Mayhem”, its zombie-like personnel have become so dominated by Tyler Durden that they evince no autonomy whatsoever.  But the very point of joining “Fight Club” is to express one’s autonomy, so the depiction of their subservience doesn’t make sense in the context of the main storyline.
  3. The plot twist that comes late in the film seems to have been inspired by The Usual Suspects (1995) [4], but it is not nearly as good as the plot twist that occurs in that film, and it doesn’t make sense here.
  4. There was an opportunity with this material to represent and express paranoia (think Shutter Island (2010), for example), but it wasn’t taken up.  Instead, the confessional narrator is more whimsical in the fashion of Hi Fidelity (2000), only without the redeeming treatment of that latter film.
  5. There are odd scenes in the film that make their appearance, leading the viewer to expect some further consequences, and then just vanish and are forgotten.  For example at one point some mafioso figure dramatically interrupts the “Fight Club” operation in the basement and ups the level of savagery.  We expect him to show up later, but he doesn’t.  On another occasion the Narrator and Tyler beat up a Chinese man at a convenience store.  But there doesn’t seem to be any point to this scene, and the humor was lost on me.
Ultimately, the idea of celebrating, or making fun of (take your pick) the “I Don’t Care” attitude of many people in today’s world is the wrong story to tell. The problem is that the malaise afflicting these people is an inability to engage authentically – they continually hold back and look on the scene vicariously. So if this film is going to attack our increasingly vicarious culture, dominated as it is by spectators watching Youtube on their computer tablets, then it needs to attack vicariousness at its core. But Fight Club is, itself, just a vicarious joke.  It simply creates even more of a sense of “I Don’t Care”, rather than addressing the problem of disengagement, the social malady from which these people in the film suffer.  Such a treatment leaves the film as only a nihilistic expression of destructiveness that masks a miserable feeling of impotence.  It’s an insincere comedy that can only amuse the “I Don’t Care” sector.

  1. David Edelstein, “Boys Do Bleed”, Slate, 15 Oct. 1999, http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/1999/10/boys_do_bleed.single.html.
  2. Roger Ebert, “Fight Club”, RogerEbert.com, 15 Oct. 1999, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/fight-club-1999.
  3. Peter Rainer, “Pulling Punches”, New York, 25 Oct. 1999, http://nymag.com/nymetro/movies/reviews/1248/.
  4. The producers of Fight Club originally considered hiring The Usual Suspects’s director, Bryan Singer, to direct their film, before settling on David Fincher.

David Fincher

Films of David Fincher:

“Through a Glass Darkly” - Ingmar Bergman (1961)

Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (1961) ostensibly concerns the descent into madness of a young woman and how it affects the three people closest to her. But underneath that storyline, the film presents a dramatic exploration of a philosophically profound issue – how we all construct a meaningful understanding of the world from the complexities of human experience. A clue to the film’s deeper meaning lies in its title, which is drawn from a passage in the Bible (1 Corinthians 13), in which it is stated that our ability to see the true essence of the world (i.e. God) is obscured as if we were looking “though a glass, darkly.” The film was the first installment of what later came to be known as Berman’s “Trilogy of Faith”, with the succeeding elements being Winter Light (1963) and The Silence (1963).  So naturally the role that God plays in our understanding of the world is also at issue in this film.

The action, which takes place roughly over a twenty-four hour period, is set entirely on Fårö island off Sweden, where Bergman lived and situated four other of his films, and there are only four characters seen on camera:

  • Karin (Harriet Andersson) a young woman who has recently been subjected to electroconvulsive shock therapy to treat her deteriorating mental condition;
  • David (Gunnar Björnstrand), Karin’s widowered  father, who has recently returned from a long stay in Switzerland;
  • Martin (Max von Sydow), Karin’s husband, who is a medical doctor; and
  • Minus (Lars Passgård), Karin’s teenage brother and the son of Martin

With this kind of ensemble theater/cinema on display, where everything depends on the actors creating a meaningful set of interactions between them, one might expect that the director would seek dramatic spontaneity and allow his actors free rein to engage in extemporaneous gestures and movements.  But such an approach is far from what we see here. Every single shot and movement has been carefully composed, dramatically lit, and meticulously choreographed by Bergman and his cinematographer, Sven Nyquist. And yet the acting comes off as entirely natural and realistic. This is particularly the case with Harriet Anderson, whose performance as Karin is magnetic and a key to the film’s success.

Incidentally, while watching Through a Glass Darkly I felt it had a strange affinity with Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly (2009).  So it was interesting for me to learn that Farhadi regards Bergman as his all-time favorite filmmaker [1].

The story of Through a Glass Darkly is centered around Karin’s mental condition and the way her other family members respond to it and try to help her.  Because there are only four personae, the film turns out to be something of a character examination of all four people.

At the opening we see the four people are enjoying a holiday on the island.  And this first segment introduces the characters and presents some basic relationships. David is a writer working on completing a novel.  Martin is a doctor who is concerned with his wife’s mental illness. Minus, who is about seventeen years of age, has awkward relationships with his sister (who is beautiful and too uncomfortably sensuous for his emerging hormones) and his father (who is thought to be “remote” and overly focused on his writing). 

In private, Martin informs David about Karin’s schizophrenia, which is thought likely to be incurable. After dinner, Karin and Minus then perform a theatrical sketch written by Minus to welcome the return of their father, who despite his courteous response, is evidently appropriately offended by the play’s insinuations about the egocentricity of writers and artists. That evening in their bedroom, Martin lovingly pets Karin and then tries to conceal his disappointment when she spurns the gestures and informs him that her illness has quelled her physical desire. 

From this opening segment of about 25 minutes, we get a layout of the characters around Karin.  David is a scientific rationalist and devoted to doing his moral duty.  As the story continues, he is shown to be judicious and moral from an objectivist standpoint [2]. David, the writer, is more reflective and introspective.  He tends to follow his “inner flame”, which leads him to be more selfish than Martin, but as the story unwinds, we also see that his practice of authorial empathy enables him to see a wider perspective.  Minus, the ingenue, is looking to find his own path. 

In the next segment of the film, we are confronted with Karin’s mental situation.  During the night, she is awakened by some bird callings, and goes upstairs to the attic of the little cottage that they are all staying in. There in the vacant room she hears strange voices and sees mysterious lights behind the wallpaper on the walls.  She is having one of her mental episodes, and we viewers must try to make sense of what she sees.  We could, of course, just dismiss her as being “mad”, but that is certainly not the point in this story.  And to elaborate a bit, I will digress for a moment and discuss this general issue of madness.

We all attempt to build workable mental models out of the complex interactions we have with the world, and our models need to be constantly updated in the face of new experiences that don’t conform to our expectations. These models are so basic that we take them for granted. For instance, suppose I see a figure (for example, you) at 9:00:00 pm and then turn my back for a few seconds. When I turn back again at 9:00:10 pm and face that same figure, I take it to be the same agent I had just seen – you again. And when I hear sounds coming from the direction of that figure, I take it to be the voice of that agent (you). We have all become accustomed since our earliest days to putting these things together into coherent models. Of course, we can sometimes be fooled, by ventriloquists for example, but usually our hypothetical models of the things we interact with make sense for us. As we accumulate myriads of experiences, our models require some simplifications, so we construct narratives. I don’t remember every little thing that I saw yesterday, just those things that I assembled into the narratives that I mentally constructed along the way. And sometimes, when there are missing elements in the narrative, I imagine certain events that I think must have taken place in order for the narrative to make sense. Thus I “fill in the blanks” of my narratives where necessary in order to preserve coherency.  We do this all the time when we watch a film, too, filling in the blanks when an editorial cut is made to a new shot or scene.  And all our little mini-models and narratives must fit together into a coherent whole.

Traditionally for many people, new “unexplainable” experiences that couldn’t easily be melded into their models by filling in the blanks in a straightforward way were either ignored or attributed to gods and demons.  For modern rationalists, though, there is a tendency to allay doubts about what we currently don’t understand (inevitably there are always things we don’t fully understand) and to put our faith in reason and science, rather than in a god, as ultimately eventually providing an answer.  But in whatever society one lives in, the individual models of the world tend to be shared and to conform with each other. Thus when I say something in accordance with my models of the world, you interpret what I say in terms of your models of the world, and it usually makes sense.  But not for everyone. 

Some people, those who are often diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia, have fragmented and disjointed models of the world that don’t collectively add up to a coherent view.  They conjure up mysterious agents – gods and demons – to account for experiences that they can’t otherwise understand.  And they fill in the blanks with voices that other people don’t hear and visions of images that other people don’t see.  So they may be diagnosed as “disturbed” or mad. Perhaps some of these mad people are mystics or have heightened powers of perception into an alternative spiritual reality. Whatever is the case, these people are usually outcasts or diagnosed for treatment to help make them "normal" [3]. In Through a Glass Darkly Karin is one of these people with fragmented models, and the three other characters around her struggle to come to terms with what to do and how they can learn from this experience.

As the story proceeds, Martin, the scientific rationalist, doesn’t adjust the way he sees the world. For him, Karin is simply and categorically sick and David is morally corrupt, and that is that. He is sincere and well meaning, but also categorical and judgmental. Martin’s reason-based judgmental approach is illustrated in an exchange he has with Karin:
Karin:  Imagine having a placid, rosy woman to give you children and coffee in bed. Someone big and soft and beautiful. Wouldn’t you like that?

Martin:  It’s you I love.

Karin:  I know but still…

Martin:  I don’t want anyone else.

Karin:  You always say and do the right things and yet it is always wrong.

Martin:  If I do the wrong thing, it’s from love.

Karin:  Those who really love do right by those whom they love.

Martin:  Then you do not love me.

David and Minus are more empathetic and do try to make adjustments in order to relate to and love Karin.

Returning to the film story, after Karen has her episode with the voices behind the wallpaper, she rummages around in David’s desk while he is out and discovers his diary.  In it she reads that David (a) regards her condition as incurable and (b) is horrified by his felt urge to document her inevitable decline in order to serve his fiction writing. This passage exposes the inner nature of David: a person continually trying to recognize and reconcile his conflicting impulses and accordingly adjust his understanding of the world. Later Karin tells Martin about this, and he in turn morally condemns David when the two of them go out fishing. David makes no attempts at self defense and instead offers Martin further evidence of his self-doubts by describing his own failed attempt to commit suicide. Again we are exposed to Martin’s judgments and David’s conflicted introspections. 

While David and Martin are out fishing, Karin and Minus spend some time together ashore.  Karin shows Minus her wallpaper wall and how she converses with mysterious people hidden behind it.  She says that these “other” people are all waiting for someone to come, and Karin believes the person they are waiting for is God.  She also tells Minus that she must make a choice, so she has chosen the “others” over Martin.  But a little while later when Karin recovers herself, she regrets telling Minus these things and gets him to promise not to tell the others about it.

Further on in the afternoon, Karin gets frightened by coming stormy weather and runs away. Minus searches for her and finds her down along the shore inside a wrecked, beached fishing boat. When he enters the ship’s hold and finds her there, she suddenly grabs him, and they apparently have a sexual encounter (the visual evidence is only suggestive here). 

After David and Martin return from their fishing trip, Martin goes to order a rescue unit to come and take Karin to a hospital, while Karin and David open up to each other.  David confides about his own selfish thoughts, and Karin confesses that the mysterious voices she has been hearing have been commanding her to do strange things, including the seduction of Minus.  But now Karin says she has to make a choice between two worlds that don't fit together.  And she has decided that she is prepared to live completely in her ghost world in the mental hospital, provided that they discontinue the shock therapy.

Shortly thereafter, though, Karin has one more episode and goes upstairs to wait for Him to come though the wall. When she looks through the upstairs window and sees the arriving helicopter, she becomes hysterical – taking the helicopter bo be a horrible manifestation of a demonic spider-god [4]. After being calmed down by a tranquilizing shot, she says forlornly, “I have seen God”, and she is taken away.

At the end, David and Minus also open up to each other and have one final, telling conversation. Referring to his traumatic sexual encounter with Karin, Minus moans that “reality burst open”, and when that occurs, “anything can happen”. He doesn’t know how to accommodate this shattering experience with his past understanding. “I can’t live in this world,” he says. Also shaken by these events, David says he also doesn’t have an answer, but he still holds out one hope. 
“It is knowing that love exists for real in the human world. . . I don’t know if love is proof of God’s existence or if love is God himself.”
Taking consolation from those words, Minus says, “Then Karin is surrounded by God, since we love her.”

In the final analysis, though, Karin is not only surrounded by God’s love (in the persons of her family members), but she is also the agent that brings a heightened awareness of and readiness for love to the people around her.  In that respect, she really does correspond to a religious mystic and an agent of God.

In all cases we – whether modernists, madmen, or mystics – are peering through the dark, cloudy glass of this world and making out different things that we see. Sometimes a few of us see truth, others see God, and still others see a spider-god. But there is one kind of experience that we can share and that can connect and anchor us all: love.

  1. Farhadi, Asghar. "DP/30: A Separation, Writer/director Asghar Farhadi", 19 Dec. 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHdcrCh_ES4.
  2. For further discussion frmn the moral standpoint, see Wisniowska, Magdalena, “Becoming Spirit: Morality in Hegel’s Phenomenology and Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly,” Evental Aesthetics 1, no. 2 (2012): 56-80.
  3. For further comments on madness and how it has been treated in modern society, see my review of Shutter Island (2010).
  4. The image of a spider-god is also invoked in Bergman’s Winter Light (1963).

“Winter Light” - Ingmar Bergman (1963)

Ingmar Berman’s Winter Light (1963) is, to me, his bleakest film. It is the second installment, after Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and before The Silence (1963), of what later came to be referred to as his “Trilogy of Faith”. All three of these films are concerned with the longing of people for a distant, silent God to reveal Himself to them. It is a continuation of the knight Antonius Block’s (The Seventh Seal), plea that God not hide in a fog of half-spoken promises.  

Winter Light concerns a Lutheran pastor’s crisis of faith, and Bergman once said that it was his personal favorite among his works.  Indeed the film must have been drawn from his own personal experiences, since Bergman was the son of a Lutheran minister and must have been familiar with the brooding atmosphere depicted in the film. In keeping with the dour seriousness of its subject, the mise en scene is austere and deliberate. The screen time almost matches the diegetic time, since the events depicted take place in a single afternoon, with the focalization on a single player and his interactions with a few principals. Moreover, viewing this kind of Bergman film (there are others along these lines) is something of a challenging experience, because the viewer is not given a clear-cut narrative pathway to follow. Instead we seem only to be given a series of dramatic encounters among a few people of contrasting personalities, and then we are left to see if we can draw some kind of not-very-certain conclusions about their personal and social circumstances.  To be sure, with any story it is up to the reader/viewer to provide much of the narrative construction in his or her own mind.  But with Bergman even more of this internal narrative construction is left to us.

The film opens with a noontime service woodenly ministered by Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Bjornstrand) and given to only about a half-dozen attendees. Among those attending the service are fisherman Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) and his wife Karin (Gunnel Lindblom), as well as a bespectacled lady, Marta Lindblom (Ingrid Thulin), who we later learn has recently been Tomas’s mistress. Tomas shows no sign of human engagement on his face, even to Marta, when he administers the Communion. This slow, deliberate opening ceremony occupies 15 minutes of the 81-minute film and sets the prevailing tone of dry emptiness in response to spiritual seeking.  In fact the Swedish title of Winter Light is Nattvardsgästerna, which ironically means "The Communicants"; but for the most part, meaningful communication is absent here.  We eventually learn that not only is Tomas relatively uncommunicative with people around him; he has lost his contact with, and belief in, God, too.

After that opening service, Jonas and Karin Persson approach Tomas for a pastoral consultation concerning Jonas’s serious state of depression.  He has become obsessed with reports that China is willing to start a nuclear war.  (In truth this was no idle speculation: Mao Zedong asserted from the mid-1950s onwards that a nuclear war of mass annihilation would be to China’s advantage, since China would have enough survivors to rebuild, while Western capitalism would be destroyed.)  Tomas quickly recognizes that Jonas has lost his belief in life and is suicidal.  He reflexively tells Jonas that he should put his faith in God and that he should return for a talk after he escorts Karin home.

But Tomas’s ambivalence towards his professional calling is evident when, alone, he stares up at sculptured crucifix on the alter and says to himself, “what a ridiculous image”.  Then Marta comes up to him.

Marta is a local schoolteacher, and it is evident as she hugs and kisses Tomas in private that she is used to intimacy with him.  But a crucial spiritual difference separates them: while Tomas complains about God’s silence, Marta assures him that He doesn’t even exist.  Before she departs, she urges him to read a letter that she has sent to him.

Tomas goes back to his office to read the letter, but first he pulls out some photographs of his beloved deceased wife, whose death four years earlier had left Tomas emotionally devastated. Then he turns to Marta’s letter. It turns out that Marta pours her heart out to him in the letter in a way that she could not do to his face. To present the letter-reading, Bergman shows Marta reciting it in closeup, directly into the camera for more than six minutes, sincerely and emotionally pleading her case. (Breaking the “fourth wall” by directly gazing into the camera always induces a heightened sense of empathy, and it is effective here.) This is perhaps the most memorable scene in the film, because its attempt at direct communication (which curiously can sometimes be assisted by the veil of a written message) so starkly contrasts with the rest of the film’s depiction of failed and inauthentic interaction.

In her letter Marta starts out by saying she knows that they don’t truly love each other.  For her part, it seems, she is acknowledging that her “love” was self-centered and therefore not true love.  She also painfully acknowledges her own weaknesses and faults, including the disfiguring skin rashes she is sometimes afflicted with and which she knows Tomas finds repugnant.  She tells Tomas that in her frustration with her excruciating sufferings, she finally prayed to the god she didn’t believe in to give her some reason to live, some task in the world that would justify her pain and call on all her strength. And she says that, amazingly, that prayer was actually answered!  She finally came to understand that her mission on this earth was to love Tomas unconditionally and unreservedly. 

Although the delivery of Marta’s letter is moving, Tomas’s reaction seems to be more that of irritation than of sympathy.

When Jonas returns for his consultation, Tomas, rather than reassuring him about the future and to trust God’s plan, opens up to him and confesses his own doubts about even the existence of God. Tomas suggests that there might by some intellectual relief in even knowing finally that “there is no creator, no sustainer of life, no design.” For once Tomas is willing to share his inner thoughts, but this is not the right moment and person with whom to share his philosophical despondency.  Jonas needs help, and Tomas is still wrapped up with is own selfish concerns and not sympathetic to the concerns and needs of those around him.  Jonas departs with a lost look on his face and shortly thereafter commits suicide.

Later, Marta affectionately tries to console Tomas and expresses her yearning to be his wife.  In another memorable moment of the film, Tomas responds by saying he is sick of her.  He had formerly loved his late wife, and now he is dead to human feeling. Then in exasperated tones, he definitively rejects his tearful supplicant:
“The real reason [I won’t marry you] is I don’t want you. . . . I’m tired of your shortsightedness, your clumsy hands, your anxiousness, your timid displays of affection. . . .  Once and for all I have to escape this junkyard of idiotic trivialities.”
For Tomas, it’s all about himself. God has deserted him, personally (at one point he asks rhetorically, “God, why have you forsaken me?”), and he doesn’t care about the pain of others. He dutifully goes to Karin Persson, who is suddenly a pregnant widow with three other children, and perfunctorily informs her of her husband’s death. Then he drives over to another nearby Church in Frostnas, where he is scheduled to give the 3pm service.  

There the church’s crippled sexton asks him a question that from his self-study of the Bible has has been bothering him.  Why does the Passion of Christ put so much emphasis on Jesus’s physical pain, he asks?  Wasn’t the fact that his selfish disciples failed to understand his true message much more painful, on the spiritual level?  Wasn’t the fact that Peter thrice denied Jesus the cause for even greater suffering – even leading Jesus to ask why God had forsaken Him? Tomas just listens.

Finally the service at the Frostnas church is supposed to begin, but there is only one worshiper in attendance – Marta.  The film ends with Tomas commencing with the Mass ceremony, and Marta with her head down in the back row of the church, praying.

One might say that in summary, Winter Light is only a negative presentation all the way.  Tomas, who when he was married had once believed that God is love and love is God, is now (during the film’s action) just an empty shell, merely going through the liturgical motions.  According to that account, there is little narrative movement, and the film is merely a depiction of incidents that expose the inner misery of a lost soul.

But I think Winter Light says more than that.  The key to the film is Marta, a role brilliantly performed by Ingrid Thulin. Marta, the avowed atheist, is shown devoutly praying in the film’s final moments. She is praying for Tomas. Actually Marta is Christlike in this story, with even her rash-damaged hands metaphorically evoking the image of crucified martyrdom. Tomas’s rejection of Marta is like Peter’s denial of Jesus.  So we see that the sexton’s story is reversed. Tomas is not the forsaken one, but the forsaking one. And Marta is the image of compassion, the saint. She feels the hurt, but, even more, she feels the selfless love. It is that final shot of Ingrid Thulin, as Marta, praying with her head down that uplifts the film and makes it worthwhile. And with that love, maybe there is even hope for Tomas.