Robert Benton

Films of Robert Benton:

“Kramer vs. Kramer” - Robert Benton (1979)

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) is considered by many to be an outstanding courtroom drama, and indeed the American Film Institute has ranked the film as the 3rd greatest courtroom drama of all time [1].  But in my view the courtroom does not really lie at the heart of this film, and in fact the legal court procedures do not so much serve as an instrument of justice here, but are instead more an instrument in support of self-discovery.  And it is the subtlety and depth of this discovery, about what it means to love your own child, that makes this a memorable film. 

Certainly, for whatever reasons, the film, which was based on Avery Corman’s novel Kramer vs. Kramer (1977) and adapted for the screen by writer-director Robert Benton, was very well-received in all quarters.  It was a hit at the box office and received five Oscars – for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep), and Best Adapted Screenplay.  And it was nominated for four other Oscars – for Best Supporting Actor (Justin Henry), Best Supporting Actress (Jane Alexander), Best Cinematography (Néstor Almendros), and Best Film Editing (Gerald B. Greenberg).  Cinematographer Néstor Almendros, by the way, was already well-known in Europe for his excellent camera work for Francois Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, and Terence Malick, and it was he who recommended to the producers that Robert Benton, famous for having co-scripted Bonnie and Clyde (1967), be hired to direct Kramer vs. Kramer.

The story of Kramer vs. Kramer concerns and focalizes on a nuclear family in conflict, and one of the things that makes this story special is that all the sides of this conflict are shown with relatively equal sympathy [2].  These are real, complex people, and there are no obvious villains here.   The three family members are:
  • Ted Kramer (played by Dustin Hoffman), an ambitious and hardworking art director for a New York advertising firm. 
  • Joanna Kramer (played by Meryl Streep, in perhaps her first major film role) is Ted’s soft-spoken but frustrated housewife.
  • Billy Kramer (Justin Henry) is the Kramers’ six-year-old son.
As we watch the story about Ted, Joanna, and Billy unfold, we can sympathize with them all and recognize a bit of ourselves in each of them.

The film begins with Joanna sadly kissing Billy goodnight and whispering to her sleepy son that she will always love him.  Then Ted comes home late from the office and excited that he has just been promoted by his firm to take over their biggest advertising account.  He is so preoccupied with this promotion that he barely hears her when she tells him she is leaving him and Billy.  We are given no backstory about what precipitated this shocking announcement, but we can guess.  Joanna, a Smith College alumna, feels neglected by her work-obsessed husband and seeks something more fulfilling in life than just being a stay-at-home housewife.

So right away Ted’s life is thrown into turmoil.  He will immediately have to take over all the parenting responsibilities for Billy while still attending to his overloaded work schedule.  With Joanna now out of the picture, the next hour of the film is devoted to covering the ill-prepared Ted’s assumption of his heretofore neglected fatherly duties.

We can see how much he had left parenting up to Joanna when we watch him hurriedly taking Billy to school and asking him along the way what grade he is in.  Ted also doesn’t know how to maintain an even disciplinary keel in the domestic household.  Sometimes he tries to be Billy’s buddy, as if the two of them are equals; while at other times he loses his temper when the young boy makes relatively innocent mistakes, like accidentally spilling a drink over Ted’s office papers.  Ted is clearly a well-meaning but novice parent, and he is shown making the kinds of mistakes that almost all novice parents tend to make.

But time passes, and over the succeeding months Ted begins little by little to show more patience and loving attention to Billy.  And these segments are the most heartwarming parts of the film, with outstandingly nuanced portrayals showing this coming together by Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry, as Ted and Billy.  One of the best sequences is the one showing Ted carefully and earnestly showing Billy how to ride a bicycle for the first time.  When Billy finally succeeds in cycling on his own without support, Ted is overjoyed. 

Along the way, Ted befriends his wife’s friend Margaret (Jane Alexander), who is also a single parent.  But there is no suggestion of a budding romantic attachment between these two.  They are merely sharing the joys parenthood with each other. One afternoon, though, while they are both watching their kids play in the park, Ted is horrified to see Billy fall from the park’s junglegym and sustain a serious head injury.  He immediately picks him up and runs frantically through the streets in order to get him to a hospital emergency room, where he lovingly caresses him while the doctor gives him emergency treatment.

Meanwhile all this increased devotion to parenting his son, including attending school functions and PTA meetings, is taking a toll on Ted’s demanding workload at the ad agency.  He finds himself arriving late to crucial meetings and generally disappointing his superiors.

Then another complication arises.  After fifteen months of absence, Joanna returns to New York and seeks custody of Billy.  She says she is now cured of her depression, has secured a high-paying job (one that even has a higher annual salary than Ted's), and wants to return to being Billy’s mother.  But Ted has changed during this time, too.  He has become a loving and devoted father, and he is unwilling to give up custody of Billy.  So the eponymous court proceedings are set in motion.

Ted’s fortunes receive another serious setback when he is suddenly fired from his job at the ad agency.  Knowing full well that he has no hope at all of holding onto custody of Billy if he is unemployed, Ted immediately launches an intense and desperate search for a new job, any job, even though it is now in the midst of the Christmas holiday season. 

The viewer’s sympathies may be pulled in different directions at this point.  We have been watching Ted transform into a truly loving father.  But Joanna seems sincerely devoted, too.  And Billy is overjoyed to see his mom again.  We presumably would like to see an outcome that is best for Billy, but what would that be?  We might think that Billy, still only seven years old, needs his mother.  But, after all, she already walked out on him once, and how do we know something like that won’t happen again?

The ensuing court case is arduous and full of acrimony, with intense cross-examinations, but it seems realistic to me.  During the proceedings both Ted and Joanna come to learn things about each other that they never knew during their eight years of marriage.  They come to see each other in a deeper and more appreciative light, and the way these revelations are brought about in court are another strong aspect of the film.

In the end the court magistrate goes along with conventional social attitudes that a young boy needs to be with his mother, and Ted loses the custody case.  Billy is to be handed over to Joanna.  But the film doesn’t end with that verdict, and when the handover is to take place, a more heartfelt arrangement is finally achieved.  No, the film doesn’t succumb to the sentimental notion of Ted and Joanna getting back together again, but it does wind up on a positive note that is likely to satisfy the viewer.
Kramer vs. Kramer is a story about love, but not one about romantic love.  The beauty that is shown here has nothing to do with the glamorous or the erotic.  What is explored here in this film is deep parental and filial love, and it is eloquently portrayed by all the principal performers in this film.  They were all nominated for Oscars (this may have been Dustin Hoffman’s most subtle performance), but, to me, one of the most astonishing performances was that of the young Justin Henry as Billy Kramer.  His emotive performance seemed utterly genuine.  How could such a young boy “know” (or be coached to show) how to act so well?

  1. “AFI's 10 Top 10", Wikipedia, (9 December 2018).  
  2. Roger Ebert, “Kramer vs. Kramer”,, (1 December 1979).   

“Samapti”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Tani Basu (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Samapti” (“The Conclusion”, 1893) is about an independent-minded girl’s resistance to an arranged marriage and her ensuing gradual coming to terms with connubial love.  This story served as the basis for “Samapti”, the 12th and 13th episodes of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with these two episodes having been directed by Tani Basu.  

Tagore’s stories are often about how love struggles within the constraints of a tradition-bound society, and “Samapti” is a good example.  This story was filmed years ago by Satyajit Ray as a substantial segment, “Samapti (The Conclusion)”, of his Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961), which was made to celebrate the centenary of Tagore’s birth.  Ray’s version, which is similar in length to the Basu version under review here and which I have earlier reviewed [1], is certainly an excellent rendition of this story, and I would think it would be very hard to match.  But the Basus’ version, which was scripted by Bijesh Jayarajan, has its own distinctive perspective and is very good, too.

One of the things I like about this version is the dreamlike rendering of the story that is evoked by cinematographer Bappa Mir’s extensive use of slow-motion photography.  This is aptly supplemented by the expressive soundtrack music from Anurag Saikia and Rana Mazumdar.  It is often the case that Film narratives have the character of dreams and vivid memories of the past that have a narrative structure with an emotional tone.  This film’s recurrent use of remembered images and slow-motion sequences emphasizes that emotive quality.

The story of “Samapti” proceeds through four approximate acts.

1.  Apoorva connects with Mrinmayi
The opening sequence of the story is actually shown at the tail end of Episode 11 of this series and shows a young man, Apoorva Chandrat Rai (played by Abhishek Tewari), returning from completing his college studies in Kolkata to his home village.  While walking near a river, he slips and falls down in the mud, heavily soiling his clothes.  His awkward mishap is observed with much mirthful delight by some young onlooking teenagers, the most mockingly derisive of whom is the only girl among them, Mrinmayi (Chitrangada Chakraborty).

When Apoorva arrives at his sumptuous family home, his widowed mother (Savita Prabhune) is overjoyed to see him, and she tells him it is now time for him to get married and that she has already arranged a perfect marriage match for him.  Knowing that her son has to return to Kolkata in a few weeks to take up law school studies,, she has already chosen an imminent “auspicious” day for his wedding.  Being a dutiful son, Apoorva, suppresses his misgivings over such rushed arrangements and agrees to meet the proposed bride, Krishna Ganguly, and her family the next day.

However, when he goes to visit the Ganguly family, he is dismayed to see how reticent and uninteresting the very young Krishna is.  Her passivity is further accentuated when the obstreperous mango thief, Mrinmayi, barges in demanding to play outside (i.e. steal more mangoes) with Krishna’s younger brother.  The contrast between the super-shy Krishna, and the exuberant tomboy, Mrinmayi, couldn’t be greater.  Then when Apoorva wants to return home, he finds that his shoes have been stolen.  Walking home in borrowed slippers, Apoorva is approached by the naughty Mrinmayi, who silently returns the shoes that she had stolen from him.  Before she can run away, though, he grabs her by the wrist, and they exchange a silent eye-to-eye interaction for several seconds.  This is one of those extended slow-motion elements that apparently signify a remembered moment in Apoorva’s life, and it comes up as one of the flash memory images when he is thinking about things later.

When Apoorva returns home, he informs his mother that he rejects Krishna as a marriage partner and instead wants to marry Mrinmayi (whose nickname we soon learn is “Meenu”).  His mother is disappointed that he has chosen such a roughhewn tomboy from a lower-level family, but she goes ahead and makes marriage arrangements with Meenu’s mother.  Meenu has always treasured her freedom and doesn’t want to get shackled into marital servility, but she is forced into accepting it.

2.  The Newlyweds
Meenu glumly submits to the ensuing traditional and sumptuous wedding, but as soon as it is over and she enters her new home, she tears off her wedding jewelry and runs away.  Apoorva finds her in the wild and coaxes her to return home.  But Meenu refuses to join him in the conjugal bed.   Apoorva is all accommodating and asserts to her that he married her because he liked her for who she is.  Meenu tartly responds by asking why it was that nobody asked her whom she likes?  And she coldly adds that she doesn’t like her new husband – “not even one bit”.

Meenu is now a sulking prisoner in Apoorva’s quarters, even though she still refuses to sleep with  him.  However, when Apoorva sees Meenu eagerly reading a warm letter from her father, who works in a remote city and who had been unable to get leave to attend his daughter’s wedding, he offers to take Meenu on a trip to visit  her father.  For the first time since her wedding, Meenu shows delight and smiles at her husband.

As we move to Episode 13 of the series, the two of them go to visit Meenu’s father for three days, where they sleep on the floor in the father’s tiny one-room apartment during their visit.  While there, Meenu for the first time has some cordial domestic interactions with her husband.

3.  A Separation
They return home, but Meenu still rejects the conjugal bed, and she won’t even let the gentle Apoorva kiss her.  So Apoorva, with the deadline approaching for the commencement of his legal studies in Kolkata, consents to leaving Meenu at her mother’s home.  When Meenu asks when she will see him again, he says he will come back to her when she writes to him and summons him. 

With Apoorva away, Meenu starts thinking of him more and missing his gentle ways.  When she hears that Apoorva’s mother is ill, she goes to attend to her.  Little by little, Meenu starts learning what it means to lovingly care for others, and she even starts learning how to cook from Apoorva’s mom.

Finally, Meenu writes a letter to her husband asking him to return to her.  But since she doesn’t know how to address the envelope (she just writes his name and “Kolkata” on it), we can assume he will never get the letter. 

Five months pass, and Meenu doesn’t hear anything from Apoorva.

4.  A Coming Together
Finally, after the five months of stasis, Apoorva’s mother decides to go visit her son in Kolkata, and with a knowing smile she offers to take Meenu along with her.  Meenu jumps at the chance.

When Meenu and Apoorva finally meet up, in Apoorva’s sister’s guest bedroom, there are two wounded egos waiting for the other’s explanation as to why they didn’t write.  Apoorva says he never received Meenu’s letter, and Meenu responds defensively by telling him that he is lying.  Apoorva then tells her that he has always loved her.  But Meenu, still clinging to her adolescent pride and sense of independence, insists again that she doesn’t love him.

But at this point Apoorva has come to know something that we viewers have also been starting to suspect.  He tells her calmly that she is the one who is lying, and he gently kisses her.  And Meenu ultimately accepts his embrace, and with it she comes to her final admission to herself of true love.

This Tagore story, as seen in both its cinematic realizations, reminds me, curiously, of My Fair Lady (1964).  The connection is that in both tales we see an autonomy-loving young woman struggling in the face of a well-meaning man who wants to reshape her in accordance with prevailing social customs.  And in both cases we have some sympathy for each of the contrasting perspectives and hope all along that a harmonious and romantic compromise can be achieved.  Which, of course, is what happens.

Note, however, that this version of Tagore’s “Samapti” has a slightly different feel from Ray’s.  In this instance, Meenu’s shift is not so radical as it is in Ray’s version and is very gradual.  This coloration of gradual acceptance and maturation has a subtlety to it that pulls the viewer in and makes this rendition of the story particularly appealing.

  1. The Film Sufi, “‘Teen Kanya’ - Satyajit Ray (1961)”, The Film Sufi, (8 November 2017).   

“Requiem for the American Dream” - Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott (2015)

Requiem for the American Dream (2015) is a documentary film offering a summary of Noam Chomsky’s current thoughts on what he sees as the dysfunctional American sociopolitical landscape.  Chomsky, of course, is a preeminent American intellectual, famous for both (a) his revolutionary contributions to the academic field of linguistics and (b) his lifelong avocation as political activist and social critic.  Indeed Chomsky’s linguistics work, already attracting attention in the late 1950s, completely recast the field in accordance with his ideas.  Although these ideas have since come under criticism [1], he is probably still the most famous figure in this field in the last century.  However, Chomsky’s fame for the wider American public rests on his relentless activities as a social critic from a leftist liberal perspective.  It is on this plane of Chomsky’s thinking that Requiem for the American Dream is focused.  This film, which was co-directed, co-produced, and co-scripted by Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott, represents a summary compilation of Chomsky’s overall views on these matters.  And since Chomsky is now ninety-years-old, this may well be, as the filmmakers suggest, Chomsky’s final long-form testimony on American social issues.  In further observance of the solemnity of these perhaps final thoughts, they have also been published by Chomsky and the same filmmakers in 2017 in book form, entitled Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power, and with much of the written text repeating verbatim Chomsky’s spoken words from the film [2,3].

When watching this film, it struck me that Chomsky and the filmmakers have been rather clever  in assembling a lot of disparate thoughts of Chomsky into a coherent structure.  The result is a relatively straightforward disquisition based on Chomsky’s “10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power”.  Chomsky’s basic idea is that the wealthy, self-interested elite in the United States have carefully conspired to undermine the basic, originally idealistic, principles of American society so that they can further concentrate wealth and power into the hands of the few.  Underlying this is the image of a malicious cycle of wealth bribing its way into more power, which leads to corrupt legislation that further enriches the wealthy. 

The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power that Chomsky lectures us on are as follows:
1.  Reduce Democracy
The basic goal of the wealthy elite here is to reduce democratic control over the economy and put it in the hands of a few “responsible” people.  Chomsky outlines examples of how this has been done over the years.

2.  Shape Ideology
There has always been concern among the elite about an “excess of democracy”.  So elitist leaders from both the Left and the Right have tried to influence our prevailing ideologies to correct this so-called flaw.  Chomsky specifically criticizes the Trilateral Commission as an organization with an elitist, anti-democratic agenda.

3.  Redesign the Economy
The movement to shift the economy from manufacturing (by off-shoring it) to financialization  has entailed a shift in perspective from long-term interests to short-term profits.  This Chomsky also sees as the outcome of a conspiracy.  In particular he cites economist and former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan’s, celebration of increasing job insecurity in the US.  Overall, redesign of the economy meant increasing deregulation and this led to more economic crashes.

4.  Shift the Burden
By reducing the progressive income tax, there was a dramatic increase in inequality.  This led to a shift in the burden of funding the government from the “plutonomy” to the “precariat “.

5.  Attack Solidarity
The goal here has been to attack social cohesion and instead extol self-interest [3].  Instruments along these lines have been both the increased  privatization of the public commons and the undermining of social security and public-funded education.

6.  Run the Regulators
There has been a huge increase in wealth-funded lobbying that has interfered with the proper public regulation of the economy [4].  Now it seems that with every economic bubble/crash, there is a bailout that redistributes wealth to the rich and increases inequality.  Big business has come to expect and count on crash bailouts from the government.

7.  Engineer Elections
Chomsky feels that the concentration of wealth inevitably leads to the concentration of political power.  He is particularly critical of the 2010 US Supreme Court decision “Citizens United”, which, by declaring that corporations have the same rights as individual citizens, gave them enormous power to influence and manipulate elections.

8.  Keep the Rabble in Line
In order to undermine social cohesion, the elites have long attacked organized labor.  Now only  7% of private-sector jobs are unionized.

9.  Manufacture Consent
There has long been a drive to get people to over-consume via false advertising.  The advertising media lie to the people in order to get them to waste their money.  Now these same techniques are being used to get an uninformed electorate to make irrational choices.  Given the economic decline of print media and the increased concentration of network media, the only people with the resources to run information media for the public are the wealthy elite, who are willing to run these media at a loss in order to achieve their political aims [5].  Again, the concentration of wealth leads to a decline in democratic openness.        

10.  Marginalize the Population
Of course, the goal of the elite is to keep major decision-making from the hands of the people.  One means to this end is to keep the public mired in unfocussed anger and outside of the main decision-making processes.

All along the way of this discourse,  Chomsky speaks in calm, measured terms.  It is clear that he has thought things over very carefully.  However, sometimes he makes, for me, surprising observations.  For example, he points out that Richard Nixon was the last “New Deal” American President [3]:
“In Nixon’s administration, you get the consumer safety legislation (CPSC), safety and health regulations in the workplace (OSHA) and the EPA — the Environmental Protection Agency. Business didn’t like it, of course — they didn’t like the higher taxes, didn’t like the regulation.”
Another interesting observation of Chomsky’s was his claim that freedom of speech is not in the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights.  However, First Amendment of the US Bill of Rights reads
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
And this, to me, contradicts Chomsky’s claim.  Nevertheless, Chomsky’s thoughts on freedom of speech are well developed [6], and he does positively celebrate the fact that, thanks to seminal Supreme Court decisions mostly in the 1960s, no other country’s citizens enjoy the freedom-of-speech protections that American citizens do.

But the overall vision that Chomsky puts forward is certainly bleak.  In particular he doesn’t offer a positive program or set of principles that we should all fight for.  In this connection, I would suggest that his advocacy could be fruitfully supplemented by consideration of the four core principles that I believe underlie successful rational humanist societies and which I call RMDL [7].  The four essential RMDL principles, which must operate in concert, are:
  • Human Rights.  These include freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom to watch and listen, freedom from torture, etc.
  • Open Markets.  There needs to be regulated markets that allow for the open exchange of goods and services across society.  This includes necessarily ensuring there is sufficient wealth equity across society so that there can be widespread, fair exchange.
  • Democracy.  Some form of democracy involving universally inclusive enfranchisement needs to be in place.
  • Rule of Law.  There needs to be a written set of laws that are made known to everyone and that can be changed or adjusted by the actions of a democratically-elected government.
With RMDL in mind, we all need to set about positively rectifying and saving the American Dream [8].

  1. “Universal Grammar, Criticisms”, Wikipedia, (7 August 2018). 
  2. “Requiem for the American Dream (book)”, Wikipedia, (9 October 2018).   
  3. Mark Lilla, “Two Roads for the New French Right”, The New York Review of Books, (20 December 2018).  
  4. Noam Chomsky, “In His New Book, Noam Chomsky Takes a Look at Income Inequality”, Moyers, (11 May 2017).  
  5. Erik Wemple, “The Weekly Standard is gone”, The Washington Post, (14 December 2018).   
  6. Noam Chomsky, “Crimes Again / Freedom of Speech”, Arts & Opinion, Vol. 10, No. 3, (2011).  
  7. See my discussions of RMDL, which can be accessed by clicking on the tag  “RMDL” under the “LABELS” section of this site.   
  8. David Swanson, “Noam Chomsky Wants You to Wake Up From the American Dream”, Alternet, (27 February 2016).   

Jared P. Scott

Films of Jared P. Scott:

Kelly Nyks

Films of Kelly Nyks:

Peter Hutchison

Films of Peter Hutchison:

“Rear Window” - Alfred Hitchcock (1954)

Alfred Hitchcock was not only the “Master of Suspense”, he was also, more generally, a master of cinematic landscapes and storytelling.  He famously could tell a spell-binding story with the action or camera confined to a single room, as he demonstrated with Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder” (1954), and Rear Window (1954).  Probably the finest of these four films is Rear Window, which Hitchcock, himself, considered to be his “most cinematic” work [1].  The film, whose story is based on Cornell Woolrich's 1942 short story "It Had to Be Murder", received four Oscar nominations (Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound), and it is now considered to be a classic [2].  It was ranked 53rd on the British Film Institute’s 2012 Critics’ Poll [3] concerning the all-time greatest films and 48th on the BFI’s 2012 Directors’ Poll [4] concerning the all-time greatest films.

In Rear Window, the camera is confined to the Greenwich Village apartment of a laid-up photojournalist, L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies (played by James Stewart), who, himself, is confined to his quarters by a broken leg he suffered several weeks earlier.  Bored by his immobility, Jeff has nothing to do all day but gaze out of his room’s rear window, which looks out over the back ends of other apartment buildings surrounding a back courtyard.  There is a summer heat wave going on, and since apartment buildings didn’t have air conditioners in those days, most apartment dwellers have their windows and blinds open.  And so Jeff can look out and peer into these peoples’ activities and imagine what their lives are like. 

In the process of Jeff’s relentless surveilling, he appears to uncover a violent murder that one of his back-viewed neighbors seems to have committed, and Jeff’s remote-perspective detective work constitutes the core of this Hitchcock thriller.  But actually, as Claude Chabrol astutely pointed out in an early Cahiers du Cinema review [5], there are three significant and interrelated (because of their common connection to voyeurism) thematic planes to this film:
  • The Thriller – uncovering and dealing with the apparent murder
  • The Romantic Relationship.  Jeff has a beautiful girlfriend, Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly), but his preference of vicarious observation over intimacy, blocks the further development of their relationship.
  • The Narrative Construction of Our Social Worlds.  We all fabricate our understandings of the people with whom we interact based on imagined narratives that we construct.  And our point-of-view in these matters is often quite restricted.  To what extent do these constructed mini-narratives constitute objective reality?
The film begins with a shot from Jeff’s apartment’s rear window that pans around the backs of the various apartments and then pans back into Jeff’s apartment to show Jeff asleep in his wheelchair.  So we can see that the camera’s perspective is not exclusively just Jeff’s point-of-view, but is instead that of the narrative’s “silent witness”, who is like Jeff’s sympathetic companion.  In short order we learn about Jeff’‘s condition and meet the only two people who come to visit him – Stella (played by six-time Oscar nominee Thelma Ritter), who is a garrulous insurance-company-funded nurse, and Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), who is a wealthy-set high fashion model and is Jeff’s adoring girlfriend. 

Jeff (and we with him) spends his time watching his rear-window-viewed neighbors, with whom he is unacquainted and imagining what they are like.  There are several of them, all separately located, who attract his attention and to some of whom he gives his own monikers:
  • “Miss Torso", a showoff dancer,
  • "Miss Lonelyhearts", a single and lonely middle-aged woman who stages pretend private dinners in response to her loneliness,
  • a middle-aged bachelor and sometimes struggling composer-pianist,
  • a newly married couple,
  • a childless couple who dote on their little dog,
  • a sculptress,
  • a traveling jewelry salesman with a nagging, bedridden wife.
Stella criticizes Jeff for being a Peeping Tom, and she also scolds him for not having the determination to marry and settle down with Lisa.  But Jeff defends himself and says that his free lifestyle as an itinerant photojournalist is unsuited to a settled life with Lisa.  Despite Lisa’s undeniable glamor, he insists he is looking for a woman with whom he can share his adventures and who can be his companion on the road. 

Late one evening at 2am, Jeff is awakened from his snoozing by the sound of broken glass and a woman’s scream.  Jeff looks out his window and sees the jewelry salesman, who we will soon learn is named Lars Thorwald (played by Raymond Burr), leaving his apartment and carrying a suitcase.  Thorwald returns a half-hour later and soon departs again with his suitcase.  All told, Thorwald that night makes three trips out somewhere with his suitcase. 

This is all very suspicious for Jeff, and the next day he begins spying on Thorwald’s window using his binoculars and his telephoto camera lens, with which he observes (a) Thorwald packing up his butcher’s knife and handsaw in newspaper and (b) that Thorwald’s wife is now nowhere to be seen.  Jeff now constructs in his mind truly sinister mini-narratives for Thorwald – that the man has killed his wife and cut up her body into pieces.  He expresses his suspicions to Lisa, but she scolds him for letting his imagination get the best of him and for being a Peeping Tom.  Later, though, when they observe Thorwald packing up a trunk, Lisa starts to get suspicious, too. 

Worried that Thorwald will soon depart the scene and disappear, Jeff contacts his old military service buddy, Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), who is now a New York City police detective, and  he tells him to go after Thorwald.  But Doyle dismisses Jeff’s evidence as too circumstantial to warrant serious suspicions about Thorwald.

Meanwhile Jeff observes Thorwald shooing away the childless couple’s little dog from digging in the courtyard’s flowerbed, and he suspects something incriminating is buried there.  Soon the dog is discovered dead in the courtyard with a broken neck, and Jeff naturally assumes Thorwald is the culprit.  The little dog in this tale could here be considered to be a Hitchcockian MacGuffin – a recurring iconic object that focuses the viewer’s attention and perhaps symbolizes a matter of importance.  In this case, it is never revealed what may have really been buried in that flowerbed, and critics and viewers have been left ever since to speculate what might have been there. 

With more suspicious evidence about Thorwald piling up – this time showing Thorwald packing up his wife’s jewelry – both Lisa and Stella come around to supporting Jeff’s suspicions, and they offer him their feminine-intuition-oriented help.  With Jeff’s assistance in distracting Thorwald by getting him to leave his apartment for a fictitious meetup with a mysterious accuser, Lisa and Stella then go out to dig up the flowerbed where the dog had been digging.  When they find nothing there, though, Lisa then boldly climbs the outside fire escape ladder and acrobatically enters Thorwald’s 2nd-floor apartment through an open window in order to search for further incriminating evidence that will validate Jeff’s proposed narrative about Thorwald.  Seeing Lisa’s resourcefulness and intrepidity in the face of danger, Jeff can’t help but recognize that Lisa is in fact the true life co-adventurer that he has always been looking for.  But will this realization have come too late?  With Thorwald now knowing that he is being spied upon by a neighbor and with the prospect of him returning to his apartment at any moment, we are now in pure thriller mode, as Jeff watches anxiously and helplessly from his window.  The voyeur is about to become entangled in real, life-threatening events.

As things transpire, Thorwald does return to confront and attack Lisa.  The police arrive in the  nick of time to save her from any further mayhem, but she is arrested for vandalizing Thorwald’s apartment.  This leaves Thorwald free to come after Jeff, who is alone and helpless in his apartment.  And this sets up the nail-biting denouement, which you will have to see for yourself.

Viewers who watch this classic film today are sure to reflect on issues raised here that have developed into critical concerns that now threaten our way of life:
  • Voyeurism – today with the omnipresence of Internet-connected social media, many young people are lapsing into voyeuristic passivity, wallowing vicariously in their self-constructed mini-narratives of others and missing out on authentic face-to-face interactions and engagement.
  • Surveillance – the prospect of our being subjected to ubiquitous and continuous surveillance is no longer a futuristic nightmare; it is now about to happen to all of us [6].  This means that our own personal narratives involving our authentic selves engaging with significant others – the complexity and delicacy of which usually require a limited scope (i.e. some privacy) – would become severely, if not fatally, restricted.
In Rear Window these issues were presented in an intriguing and insightful manner that was far ahead of its time.

I might add in passing a comment about Grace Kelly.  Hitchcock was famous for presenting beautiful blondes, not as instances of passionate femininity, but as almost frozen statues of feminine perfection, and these included Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, Grace Kelly, and Tippi Hedren.  Of these, I would say Grace Kelly was, at the same time, the most womanly and the most beautiful.  And her performance here in Rear Window was probably her best.

  1. J. Hoberman, “Out of Sight”, The Village Voice, (18 January 2000).    
  2. Roger Ebert, “Rear Window”, Great Movie,, (20 February 2000).   
  3. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).      
  4. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).     
  5. Claude Chabrol, “Les Choses Sérieuses (Rear Window)”, Cahiers du Cinéma,vol. 8, issue 46, (1 April 1955).  
  6. Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Spiegel & Grau, (2018).   

“Mrinal ki Chitthi”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Tani Basu (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Streer Potro” (“Strir Patra”, “Wife’s Letter” (1914) [1,2])  concerns an age-old problem in traditional societies – the customary suppression within the family household of a woman’s personhood.  This story served as the basis for the 19th  episode, “Mrinal ki Chitthi”, of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode having been directed by Tani Basu

Tagore’s story is about the stifling climate for women in religiously conservative Indian households and how this climate suppresses the most elemental aspects of her existence.  The story is actually in the form of a long letter written by a young woman, Mrinal (played by Amrita Bagchi), to her husband while she is away from Kolkata visiting the Lord Jagannatha temple in Puri.   Since this is the first time she has been separated from her husband in the fifteen years of their marriage, this is the first letter she has written to him.  This filmed version of the story  adopts the same format, beginning with the commencement of the Mrinal’s letter-writing and shifting from time to time into flashbacks concerning past events she is describing.

Early on we see that Mrinal’s married life is relatively arid.  Her husband seems cold and aloof, and he is only interested in her when he needs her to attend to him for things like sewing some buttons on his trousers.  She was married as a child-bride not for her dowry or social status, but for her good looks.  Her mother-in-law had selected Mrinal, who was from a poor family in a remote village, for her son in order to have a pretty ornament in their family and thereby offset the plain appearance of Mrinal’s older sister-in-law.  Any further attributes of Mrinal were of no interest.  When she was first married, she had noone to talk to, and so her only companions turned out to be two cows that were owned by her husband’s family.

But Mrinal was actually very articulate and intelligent.  In order to find a private way to express herself, she took to writing poetry.  However, when her husband came across one of her poetry-filled notebooks, he scolded her and told her that her poetry was rubbish.  He wanted her to only concern herself with her wifely chores.  But Mrinal continued to write poetry in secret anyway.

On another occasion Mrinal’s husband discovered that she had corrected some arithmetical mistakes in the family’s accounting log.  Mrinal smiled and said that since she was skilled in these things, she could offer him some assistance.  But this offer only made her husband angry, and again he insisted that activities in this area were forbidden to women.

When Mrinal became pregnant, she found herself subjected to the traditional prejudice that late-pregnancy women in India are considered “unclean” and are not fit to live with the rest of the household.  So she wound up having to undergo her birthing labor in a shed that was so filthy it probably contributed to the baby’s dying as soon as it was born.  Thus Mrinal was denied the chance of having the one person around her with whom she had a chance to have meaningful interactions and on whom she could bestow her maternal love – her own child.

Finally Mrinal described the time when her older sister-in-law’s niece, Bindu (Jannat Zubair Rahmani) first came to their home one night in the pouring rain.  Bindu, who was an orphan of about thirteen years of age and has been working as a servant for another household, had been severely beaten and scarred by her masters for breaking a vase she had been assigned to clean, and so she had run away.  Despite her sister-in-law’s hesitancy, Mrinal said they would offer Bindu refuge in their home.

Mrinal’s family was not happy with their new resident, though, and they gave Bindu every menial chore they could think of.  They scorned her for her poverty-stricken background and even for having a dark complexion, which was considered lower-class.  And when anything in the household was mislaid for a few minutes, they immediately wrongly presumed that Bindu had stolen it. 

But meanwhile Mrinal was looking after Bindu with maternal affection, and when she saw that Bindu was forced to sleep in the outdoor kitchen shed, she invited the girl to come sleep on a mat in her own bedroom.  Bindu had never been given kindly attention like this before, and she became infatuated with Mrinal’s beauty and tenderness.  In fact the two neglected young women fell into a platonic love for each other, with, for example, Bindu begging for the opportunity to dress and comb Mrinal’s luxurious hair.  Now for a time these women could have meaningful interactions with another person.

But this happiness would not last.  The family was eager to get rid of Bindu without losing face, and they setup an arranged marriage for the girl with a groom they never even took the trouble to meet.  For the family, the only factor of importance was that the impending groom’s family didn’t even require a dowry.  Bindu didn’t want the marriage, because she didn’t want to part from Mrinal.  But Mrinal, much to her later regret, talks Bindu into accepting the marriage proposal, arguing that this may be the best for Bindu’s long-term future.  After all, she points out to Bindu, women don’t have much choice, and the proposing family couldn’t be worse for her than Mrinal’s family, could it?  So Bindu accepts the wedding proposal and goes off to live with the new family.  With the departure of her only companion, Mrinal has to resign herself to renewed loneliness.

However, after a short time, Bindu, looking bloodied and disheveled, reappears before Mrinal and reports that her new husband is insane.  She begs for refuge once again.  Mrinal assures Bindu that she will help her, but Mrinal’s larger family rejects the idea of helping Bindu.  The mother-in-law, brother-in-law, Mrinal’s husband and even the sister-in-law who is Bindu’s own aunt insist that Bindu is now the “property” of her new husband and must be returned to him immediately.  While Mrinal is engaged with vehemently arguing with all of them on Bindu’s behalf, the frightened Bindu sees the handwriting on the wall and runs off again.  Presumably Bindu will be recaptured by her new husband’s family.

Now the story approaches the very recent past, as Mrinal arranges for her pilgrimage to Puri. She convinces her conservative, religious-ritual-minded  husband to let her go to Puri with her brother by arguing that her attendance at the temple will be in order to prey to the gods to let her give birth to another child.  But actually her intent is to run away with Bindu, and for the two of them to flee their oppressive conditions.  She arranges for her resourceful brother to somehow convince Bindu to consent to being spirited away from her new husband and brought to the train station, where she and Bindu will join up and travel together to Puri. 

Mrinal is then shown leaving her home and waiting anxiously in the train station for her brother to bring Bindu.  But when her brother shows up, he brings the agonizing news that Bindu had already committed suicide by setting her clothes on fire.  The only thing that her brother can bring her is the burned fragment of a message that Bindu had written to Mrinal.  Mrinal is shattered by this tragic news. It seemed that the light of her life had been extinguished.  But she goes on alone to Puri and writes the letter to her husband.  Not only is this the first letter she has ever written to him, it will also be the last, she informs him. 

Now, she says, she wants to leave the narrow confines of his home and family and embrace the vast richness of life.  This is something that Bindu had opened up for her, and she feels Bindu’s life had ultimately acquired some meaning by her desperate act of liberation.  To provide further illumination on these thoughts, let me quote Tagore’s own words concerning Mrinal’s thoughts expressed in her letter to her husband about Bindu [2]:
“And I’ve seen also that even though she was a girl, God didn’t abandon her. No matter how much power you might have had over her, there was an end to that power. There’s something larger than this wretched human life. You thought that, by your turn of whim and your custom engraved in stone, you could keep her life crushed under your feet forever, but your feet weren’t powerful enough. Death was stronger. In her death Bindu has become great; she’s not a mere Bengali girl anymore, no more just a female cousin of her father’s nephews, no longer only a lunatic stranger’s deceived wife. Now she is without limits, without end.

 . . .

The day that death’s flute wailed through this girl’s soul and I heard those notes float across the river, I could feel its touch within my chest.

 . . .

The dark veil of your custom had cloaked me completely, but for an instant Bindu came and touched me through a gap in the veil; and by her own death she tore that awful veil to shreds. Today I see there is no longer any need to maintain your family’s dignity or self-pride."
For Mrinal, her relationship with Bindu opened up the opportunity for her to discover life’s richness and her own authentic personhood.

This is a poignant tale that is beautifully told.  Unfortunately, the English subtitling is not up to top standard; but the production is otherwise excellent, with Bappa Mir’s cinematography standing out, as usual.  And the film is further graced by the sensitive performances of Amrita Bagchi and Jannat Zubair Rahmani in the roles of the two leading characters, Mrinal and Bindu, respectively.

  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “A Wife’s Letter”, Part 1 (Prasenjit Gupta, trans.), Translation, Parabaas, (1914/2009).  
  2. Rabindranath Tagore, “A Wife’s Letter”, Part 2 (Prasenjit Gupta, trans.), Translation, Parabaas, (1914/2009).           

“Waaris”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Debatma Mandal (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Sampatti Samarpan”, aka “The Trust Property” [1] (1891-92), is a mordant tale of madness and desolation brought about by overweening greed.  This story served as the basis for the 16th episode, “Waaris”, of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode having been directed by Debatma Mandal

This could almost be considered a horror story, but one that is more focused on the plane of human  feelings rather than on external circumstances.  It begins by showing middle-aged Yagyanath Kundu (played by Rammakant Daayama) laughingly playing with his four-year-old grandson Gokulchandra.  At the same time, Yagyanath is carelessly unmindful of the life-threatening medical condition of his son Vrindavan’s wife in the same household.  A village doctor comes and prescribes some medicine for Vrindavan’s wife, but the selfish and stingy Yagyanath refuses to spend the money on it.  The woman soon passes away, and horrified by his father’s unfeeling behavior, Vrindavan announces to him that he is going to take his son, Gokul, with him and leave the home.  But Yagyanath is unfazed by his son’s departure – it will just mean that he can save some money on his household expenses.  And Yagyanath’s village neighbors, steeped in the traditional customs, are equally unsympathetic towards Vrindavan and think that the son should  not have moved away from his father.  After all, one of them tells Yagyanath, “if your wife dies, you can always get another wife, but you can’t find another father”.  (A similar traditionally misogynist sentiment was expressed in another Tagore story in this series, “Punishment” [2].)

Although Yagyanath is miserly and hardly a good social companion, he misses playing with his little four-year-old grandson Gokul. That’s the one kind of unbalanced relationship he was able to cope with.  Now he is lonely and miserable.  As time passes (which we can discern by the greying of his hair), he becomes a crotchety and eccentric old man, known for his miserly and antisocial ways.  Increasingly he appears to be a lunatic, and he finds himself an object of derision by naughty young village boys, who run by and poke him as he walks down the road.

One day Yagyanath observes among his youthful tormenters a new rascal who seems to be their new leader and who is even more impudent than all the others.  This cheeky boy, Nitai, even boldly comes up to Yagyanath and rips the man’s garment as a rude way of insulting him.  But since the boy is willing to talk to Yagyanath, the lonely man invites him to his home.  Soon Yagyanath  learns that Nitai has away from home, because his father wanted to send him to school.  So Yagyanath invites the impertinent boy to stay with him, and Nitai readily agrees. 

Nitai enjoys being spoiled by Yagyanath, but after awhile he becomes bored and threatens to leave.  Yagyanath panics over the idea of losing his only companion and offers the boy everything he has if he will only stay.  Later a neighbor warns Yagyanath that a man named Damodar Pal has been looking for his runaway son, Nitai, and if the authorities discover the boy at his place he could go to jail.  It is Nitai’s turn to panic now, but Yagyanath assures the boy that this very night he can hide the boy in a place where noone can find him.

Then in the middle of that night, Yagyanath wakes the sleepy boy and ushers him out into the jungle.  He takes Nitai to an abandoned temple and upon entering the main chamber loosens a floorboard, which turns out to be a hidden trapdoor to a secret chamber below.  After the two of them climb down a ladder into the dark, hidden room, Nitai can see pots full of jewels and gold coins.  This is where the miserly Yagyanath has been hiding his great wealth!  And now this will be Nitai’s undiscoverable hiding place.      

But in this connection Yagyanath has a crazed plan.  He madly intends to convert Nitai into a tantric yaksha nature-spirit to guard over his hidden wealth [3].  So he coercively orders the sleepy boy to repeatedly recite a mantra-like declaration that if his grandson, Gokul, or any of Gokul’s heirs, ever appears at the temple and wants the hidden treasure, Nitai  must hand it over to  him.  Nitai is now frightened by these ghostly developments, but he is now in something of a trance and is repeating his mantric declaration over and over.  Then with Nitai still chanting, Yagyanath climbs the ladder and exits the secret chamber.

In the morning, Yagyanath is awakened by his son Vrindavan, whom he hasn’t seen since Vrindavan and Gokul departed his home years ago.  Vrindavan tells him that he is looking for Gokul, who recently ran away from home and who, rumor has it, may now be staying with his grandfather.  He also reveals that, because of Yagyanath’s embarrassingly bad reputation in the area, he had changed his name to Damodar Pal, and he had changed Gokul’s name to Nitai.

With this news – that the naughty boy that he had condemned to be a yaksha in the temple dungeon was actually his beloved grandson Gokul – Yagyanath slips into complete madness.  He absently looks off into space, asking to noone in particular if anyone can hear a child calling.  At this, Vrindavan, in turn, panics and runs off in the wrong direction searching for his lost son.  As the story ends, Yagyanath continues to stew alone in his delirium.

At the close of Tagore’s original story “Sampatti Samarpan”, it is clear that Nitai did not survive his grim imprisonment, but in this filmed episode, “Waaris”, Nitai’s fate, though dire, is left somewhat open.  We are just left to mull over the vengeful trick fate has played on Yagyanath and his demonic scheme. 

Indeed this ironic twist at the end constitutes the appeal of this story, which otherwise suffers from the weakness of having a deranged main character with whom it is difficult to empathize.

  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Trust Property”, Mashi and Other Stories, The Literature Network, (1918).   
  2. The Film Sufi, “‘Punishment’, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Debatma Mandal (2015)”, The Film Sufi, (6 March 2018).  
  3. Malabika Roy, “Chapter - III: Myths, Symbols and Imagery of Tagore’s Short Stories”, The Poetic Counter-point in Rabindranath Tagore's Short Stories : a Critical Study, University of Gauhati, (Guwahati, Assam, India) (PhD, 2011).