“The Go-Between” - Joseph Losey (1971)

There is something brilliant about Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1971), even though, as I will discuss, the film has some flaws.  Based on L. P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between (1953), the film was the third and last pairing of director Losey and scriptwriter Harold Pinter, following The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967).  Although those two earlier collaborations resulted in outstanding films, The Go-Between is, to me, the best of the three.  

Perhaps because the film largely concerns the coming-of-age struggles of a young boy in a class-dominated society, the film seems to have been more appreciated in Europe than in America [1,2,3]. There it won the Grand Prix (aka the Palme d’Or) at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, and it was nominated for an astonishing twelve British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Awards – Best Film, Best Direction, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor (2 people), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Soundtrack, and Most Promising Newcomer.  One person who wasn’t nominated but who should have been was Michel Legrand, whose haunting piano-based score is a key contributing feature to the film’s moody greatness.

Although I said the film concerns the coming-of-age struggles of a young boy, this is not just a coming-of-age story.  The boy’s perspective serves as a lens on a number of personal and social themes, including 
  • the impact of lasting memories
  • the nature and value of gentility
  • the distinctions between love and romantic passion – and the role sex plays in these feelings
  • the degree to which femininity and womanhood both empowered and enslaved women in traditional upperclass British society.
And anyway, in this story the boy never does satisfactorily come of age.

The story of The Go-Between begins with a sermonic statement:
    "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
Then it opens in around 1900 showing twelve-year-old Leo Colston (sensitively played by Dominic Guard) having come as a summer guest to Brandham Hall, the wealthy family estate of his school friend, Marcus Maudsley (Richard Gibson), in Norfolk, England.  Leo comes from less wealthy family circumstances, and he struggles to live up to the proud presumptuousness of his rich classmate and his family.  However, Leo is cordially made to feel welcome by some members of the family circle – Marcus’s genteel mother, Mrs. Maudsley (Margaret Leighton); Marcus’s beautiful older sister, Marian (Julie Christie); and Hugh (Edward Fox), who as Viscount Trimingham is the owner of the estate.

Probably as a defense mechanism to the bullying rampant in English boarding schools, Leo has become known in school as someone who can cast magical curses on those who bully him.  Leo’s curses and incantations seem to have constituted a significant element in the novel, but here in the film, although they are occasionally shown, they don’t amount to much, and they are only a distraction [3].  So their inclusion is one of the film’s weaknesses.

Another weakness is occasioned by brief and cryptic flash-forwards (the first one of which appears early on in the film) to a time some fifty years later, showing an elderly man (Michael Redgrave), who we will eventually learn is the aged Leo Colston, coming to visit Brandham Hall.  The viewer can guess this is a flash-forward by the 1950-ish automobile shown in the shot, but its significance is initially unclear.  There are about a dozen of these flash-forwards interspersed throughout the film, and only at the end will their meaning be cleared up.  (At that point the viewer might come to the conclusion that the entire film up to this point has actually been an extended flashback into the past.)  This flash-forward/flashback mechanism was a significant narrative element in the novel, but it doesn’t work well in the film [1,2,3].  The flash-forwards here in the film are too sketchy and only a source of confusion early on.

Anyway, as the story proceeds, Marcus soon comes down with the measles, and so Leo has lost his only playmate at Brandham Hall.  Looking for ways to distract himself, Leo now wanders over to play in the haystack at the neighboring Black Farm, where he meets the tenant farmer there, Ted Burgess (Alan Bates).  Ted is a roughhewn member of the working class, whose unpolished manner contrasts markedly with that of the high-class crowd over at Brandham Hall. 
  
After Ted attends to Leo’s skinned knee, which was injured in a fall off the haystack, the two of them become friendly, and Ted asks Leo to carry a secret written message of his to Marian.  Not knowing what the message might contain, Leo willingly and clandestinely delivers the message to Marian.  Soon Leo becomes the “secret postman” for Marian and Ted, repeatedly delivering confidential messages between the two young adults, who, because of class distinctions, do not publicly socialize with each other.  So Leo is their go-between.

One person Marian does sometimes socialize with is Hugh, who is a dashing young gentleman but whose face was severely scarred earlier in the Boer conflict.  Leo likes both Hugh and Ted, but he gradually suspects something special is going on between Marian and Ted, and the rest of the family is not supposed to know about it.  This is disturbing for Leo, because he clearly has a crush on Marian.  On occasions when he is alone with Ted, the naive Leo keeps asking him what it is that goes on between men and women in secret.  Couching his inquisitiveness, he asks Ted how it came to be that one of his horses came to have a foal.  Ted evasively responds that the mare had engaged in “spooning” with another horse, but he doesn’t explain what ‘spooning’ is.

Eventually, Marcus recovers from the measles, and they all attend a cricket match involving local participants.  In the match Ted is clearly the star batsman, repeatedly knocking bowler Hugh’s pitches for boundaries and sixes, and Leo surprisingly makes a spectacular catch of a ball hit by Ted.  Afterwards in the clubhouse, both Ted and Leo sing songs for the collected participants, and Leo is feeling more and more like an accepted member of this social group.

But afterwards, Marcus tells Leo a secret: his sister Marian is engaged to be married to Hugh.  This news disturbs Leo, and he separately tells both Marian and Ted, without explanation, that he wants to stop being their secret postman.  This doesn’t go down well with Marian and Ted, and they both express their anger with Leo.

Leo is still puzzled about romantic passions, and one day he now asks Hugh to explain a story that Leo had read about two men who fought a duel over one of the men’s wife.  But, Leo tells Hugh, he himself suspects that it was actually the wife who was at fault.  Hugh responds solemnly that
        “nothing is ever a lady’s fault”.
Leo later also overhears a guarded conversation between Hugh and Marian’s father (Michael Gough) that seems to indicate, to the viewer, that they know something is going on between Ted and Marian.  The polite solution to this problem, according to Hugh, is to have Ted go off and join the army.  When Leo goes to say his goodbye to Ted, he asks him if he will really join the army.  Ted resignedly answers that he will do that if that is what Marian wants.  These are indications that in those days, the feminine ideal not only restricted women, it impose its restrictions on men, too.

And when Leo goes to say his goodbye to Marian, he asks her, “Why don’t you marry Ted?”  But she only glumly responds, “I can’t”.  Not fully understanding, Leo then asks her, “But why are you marrying Hugh?” And Marian tearfully replies, “Because I must.”  This is a moving articulation of the coercive social forces at play in this story, and the way they can have tragic consequences.

Finally, there is Leo’s 13th birthday party held at the estate, and Marian has said she is visiting family friend Nanny Robson and will arrive a little later, at 6pm.  When it starts raining and the family, seeking to provide Marian with safe transport home, learn that Marian is not to be found at Nanny Robson home, Mrs. Maudsley grabs Leo and says the two of them must go to where she suspects Marian must be.  They rush over to Black Farm and find Marian and Ted making love in one of the stalls.  We are left to mostly imagine what transpires next, but we do see that this untimely exposure did lead to Ted’s suicide.

The concluding scene is an exercise in grim resignation.  It moves the viewer to the flash-forward time-period fifty years later.  Marian meets with Leo and learns that Leo, traumatized by what happened fifty years earlier, has led a dry, shriveled life as a lifelong bachelor.  He could never overcome the feelings of guilt and horror that arose from the events with which he was connected back then when he was on the verge of adolescence.  Marian tells him that her husband, Hugh, and her son had died long ago, but that her young grandson, who physically resembles Ted Burgess, is still alive.  And she tells Leo that she has one last message for him to deliver to her grandson.  Tell  him everything, she says, especially tell him who his real grandfather was and tell him about the joyous love she had shared with that man.

Overall, and despite the two flaws I mentioned earlier, The Go-Between is a brilliant and thought-provoking piece.  It gets better upon repeated viewings.  In fact I would say that the decision on the part of Losey and Pinter to de-emphasize the plot elements associated with those aforementioned flaws, i.e the flash-forwards and Leo’s ritualistic curses, and instead just concentrate on Leo’s anguished existential experiences was the right one.  That’s what we remember about this film. 

In addition, I feel that the camera work and editing are outstanding, and the acting performances across the board are superb.  Special kudos are due to Dominic Guard whose delicate and emotive portrayal of the young Leo Colston is particularly good.  But perhaps the most crucial contribution to the film’s greatness is, as I suggested above, Michel Legrand’s piano-based score.  It establishes and sustains a mood of intense feeling that provides an emotional coloring lying at the heart of this film.  Leo was the go-between but he missed out on the precious and all-too-brief moments of life to which he was only a dimly comprehending vehicle. Legrand’s music and Losey’s direction expressionistically conjure up these feelings in an inimitable way.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Roger Ebert, “The Go-Between”, RogerEbert.com, (1 January 1971).   
  2. Tony Mastroianni, “‘Go-Between’ May Be Classic”, Cleveland Press. (23 December 1971).   
  3. Christopher C. Hudgins, “Harold Pinter’s The Go-Between: The Courage To Be”, Cycnos,  14 (1), (June 2008).   

Joseph Losey

Films of Joseph Losey:

“Last Year at Marienbad” - Alain Resnais (1961)

Alain Resnais’s second feature film, Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année Dernière à Marienbad, 1961), was so spectacularly innovative that it became a landmark in the history of cinema [1,2].  There has always been widespread critical discussion not only on the film’s ultimate meaning but even on just what it was about [1,2,3,4].  Nevertheless, the film won the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice Film Festival, and it is ranked in the British Film Institute’s Directors’ poll as one of the “100 Greatest Films of All Time” [5]. 

Resnais was already known as a respected and innovative film director, having made the famous documentary Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard, 1955) and his even more highly acclaimed  feature, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959).  In fact both Resnais and Last Year at Marienbad’s script-writer, Alain Robbe-Grillet, were considered to be members of the French intellectual avant-garde of the late 1950s.  Resnais was loosely associated with the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) film movement (which included the likes of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol).  And Robbe-Grillet was associated with the Nouvelle Roman (New Novel) movement (which included the likes of Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, Marguerite Duras, Julio Cortázar, and Italo Calvino).  So with such an intellectual pedigree behind Last Year at Marienbad, critics could expect a challenge, and that’s what they got. 

The story of Last Year at Marienbad is concerned with an extended encounter between an unnamed man and woman who are staying at an elaborate Baroque hotel that has been fashioned from some palatial aristocratic estate.  The man tries to convince the woman that they had met the previous year and had fallen in love and that they had agreed to meet again at this hotel in order to run away together.  But the woman politely tells this man that she has no recollection of ever having met him, much less of ever having agreed to meet him again here this year. 

Because of the intimate nature of their extended conversation’s subject matter, the man has to meet the woman at various opportune moments and circumstances when they can talk privately; so their conversation is fragmented.  Complicating the man’s problems further is the fact that the woman he desires appears to already have a romantic partner, who may or may not be her husband.  So in order to discuss things further, I will refer to the three unnamed characters in this story by the names that were used to reference them in the screenplay:
  • “X” (played by Giorgio Albertazzi) is the man seeking to reconnect with the woman he allegedly met last year.
  • “A” (Delphine Seyrig) is the woman sought by X.
  • “M” (Sacha Pitoëff) is the alleged husband of A.
Note that this story, which consists mostly of X’s account of what allegedly happened in the past and which constitutes the bulk of what the film shows us, is anything but straightforward.  Much of it is presented in a dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness manner that suggests that the viewer is privy to the sometimes confused imaginings of the main character.  This interiorized effect is further accentuated by the persistent, almost funereal, organ music (by Francis Seyrig, Delphine Seyrig’s brother) in the background. 

The story begins with long tracking shots down mostly vacant corridors of the Baroque hotel, while a disjointed and repetitive voice-over describes recollections of a mostly suffocating social atmosphere there.  Eventually the camera tracks up to door of a chamber inside of which a theatrical play is being presented to the seated hotel guests.  In the narrative scheme of the remembered events of this story, the performance of this play takes place at the end, when X may be in the act of running away with A.  Anyway, it is referred to early on, and the play the guests are shown watching here, titled Rosmer, is probably a version of Henrik Ibsen’s play Rosmersholmz, a drama about memory and guilt.  But an astute viewer may notice that a placard on the room door advertising Rosmer says it is written by “Niala Sianser”, which is this film’s director’s name spelled backwards.  Such is the malleability of objective reality in this tale.

Afterwards, the hotel guests are shown in the lounge standing in clusters and seemingly chatting, but they are in almost (but not quite) frozen in static positions, as if these are images from X’s memory.  Gradually we move to scenes showing X with A, first dancing with her in a hotel lounge and later talking with her somewhere apart from others.  He is trying to convince her that they met here last year – or perhaps, he says, they met at Frederiksbad, Karlstadt, Marienbad, or Baden-Salsa.  So it is clear that his own memory is not perfect.  In any case, he insists, the two of them fell in love back then, but A had told him to wait for a year before they would be free to run away together.  But A demurely continues to insist that she doesn’t remember X at all.

The rest of the film continues along the lines of this extended conversation, with some interspersed scenes showing occasional interactions with M, who is A’s presumed partner.  M is an austere, somewhat forbidding character who contrasts markedly with X.  While X represents romantic exceptionalism, M represents uncompromising, rule-following rigidity.  M likes to engage in target-practice shooting games with his gun and in the stick-drawing table game of nim, at which he never loses.

Note that as the film proceeds, the viewer may begin to have questions concerning the reality of what he or she is seeing:
  • Is the story of what X claims happened between himself and A one year ago a figment of his imagination?
     
  • Is what is happening “now” also a figment of X’s imagination?
There is conflicting evidence in this regard.  X and A are sometimes shown conversing on the patio outside the hotel next to a statue of mythical figures.  But the background garden seen behind this statue is markedly different for different scenes of this conversation.  And although the focalization of the film is mostly on X, there are a few sometimes contradictory shots and scenes shown at which X was not present.  In one bedroom scene, the otherwise dour and taciturn M professes his love for A.  And there is also even one shot in which M is shown shooting and killing A.  So how “real” is what is being presented in those shots?

At the end of the film, supposedly during the performance of the play Rosmer, X and A meet at an appointed time and place in the hotel and apparently depart together, at last.  Or do they?  It’s not clear. 

Given these ambiguities, there have been various critical interpretations of Last Year at Marienbad.  And these different opinions may be associated with questions concerning who was the real author of Marienbad, Robbe–Grillet or Resnais?  Robbe-Grillet originally submitted a detailed shooting script and storyboard for the film.  But he was not present for the shooting of the film, and Resnais introduced some changes, including the use of the interiorizing organ music.  In any case these two creators probably had some conflicting perspectives [6].
“According to Resnais, Robbe-Grillet used to insist that it was he who wrote Marienbad, without question, and that Resnais's filming of it was a betrayal—but that since he found it very beautiful he did not blame him for it.” [1]   
So there have been a number of planes of interpretation.  Here are a few.

Memory and Narrative
It is true that most all of our memories are narrative constructions.  And these involve a selection of supposedly factual details that fit into the narratives we construct.  So the film can be considered to be a creative exploration of this aspect of “reality” [3].
“Resnais’ film may be a study in the workings of memory, but not necessarily memory as guarantor of history and truth. Marienbad may also be about memory as power, false memory masquerading as history.”
Socio-political
Since Resnais’s earlier films featured an emphasis on mass social empathy, it would likely cause some critics to look in this direction.  So some people view the film as showing a decadent pre-War European culture (represented by M) that was oblivious of the social issues that were threatening it.  The whole film is then seen as a parody of such escapism [3,7].

Romanticism vs. Classicism
To some extent X represents Romanticism and M represents Classicism.  This contrast is sometimes discussed in the context of comparisons between English Gardens (Romanticism ) and French Gardens (Classicism).  And the Baroque hotel’s surrounding French Gardens offer a visual reminder of this contrast.

Male vs. Female  
To some extent A may represent an embodiment of the eternal female mystery to X [3].  It is interesting that the female character, A, is said to have been the product of Resnais, while the two male characters, X and M, are said to have been products or Robbe-Grillet [8].

But then there are also some critics who just love to be immersed in the mesmerizing narrative flow of Last Year at Marienbad, without giving analytical thought to the film’s ultimate meaning [2,9,10,11,12].  Even Robbe-Grillet, himself, observed in the introduction to the published screenplay of the film [1]:
"(E)ither the spectator will try to reconstitute some 'Cartesian' scheme — the most linear, the most rational he can devise — and this spectator will certainly find the film difficult if not incomprehensible; or else the spectator will let himself be carried along by the extraordinary images in front of him…and to this spectator, the film will seem the easiest he has ever seen: a film addressed exclusively to his sensibility, to his faculties of sight, hearing, feeling."
And similarly, critic Roger Ebert remarked [2]:
"Viewing the film again, I expected to have a cerebral experience, to see a film more fun to talk about than to watch. What I was not prepared for was the voluptuous quality of 'Marienbad', its command of tone and mood, its hypnotic way of drawing us into its puzzle, its austere visual beauty. Yes, it involves a story that remains a mystery, even to the characters themselves. But one would not want to know the answer to this mystery. Storybooks with happy endings are for children. Adults know that stories keep on unfolding, repeating, turning back on themselves, on and on until that end that no story can evade.”
And that is more or less the way that I look at Last Year at Marienbad, too.  It is truly a hypnotic cinematic dream.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. “Last Year at Marienbad”, Wikipedia, (10 May 2020).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “Last Year at Marienbad”, RogerEbert.com, (30 May 1999).   
  3. Darragh O’Donoghue, “L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad)”. Senses of Cinema, (October 2004).   
  4. Jonas Mekas, “Movie Journal”, The Village Voice, (15 March 1962).   
  5. “Directors’ top 100", Sight & Sound, British Film Institute”, (2012).  
  6. Mark Polizzotti, “Last Year at Marienbad: Which Year at Where?”, The Criterion Collection, (22 June 2009).   
  7. Richard Brody, “DVD of the Week: Last Year at Marienbad”, The New Yorker, (19 March 2011).   
  8. Luc Lagier, Dans le Labyrinthe de Marienbad, (In the Labyrinthe of Marienbad), [film], (2008).
  9. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Last Year at Marienbad”, Chicago Reader, (n.d.).   
  10. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The Greatest Film Ever Made?”, Chicago Reader, (1 May 2008).   
  11. Edward Copeland, “No explanations for the inexplicable  Why do we feel the need to force meaning upon magic?”, Edward Copeland's Tangents, (7 March 2012).  
  12. Edward Copeland, “What's so funny about critics, taste and Marienbad?”, Edward Copeland's Tangents, (11 March 2012).   

“Nayakan” - Mani Ratnam (1987)

Nayakan (aka Nayagan, 1987) is an immensely popular South Indian gangster film, which, despite having been filmed in the minority Tamil language, is considered to be one of the most popular Indian films ever made [1,2].  Indeed, TIME magazine even ranked Nayakan on its universal list of "All-Time 100 Best Films" (2005) [3,4].  However, Nayakan is not very well-known in the West, and, unfortunately for those seeking a suitably subtitled version, currently available prints of the film are not of good quality [5,6]. 

For the Indian masses who have seen the film, Nayakan probably stands as the Indian version of The Godfather (1972) [6,7].  However, I would say the film could perhaps just as well be likened to some of Martin Scorsese’s gangster epics, such as Casino (1995) or The Irishman (2019).  In any case, what we essentially have here in Nayakan is the life story of a notorious Indian mafia don’s rise to power and subsequent struggles.  The film was written and directed by Mani Ratnam, but it is loosely based on the real life of notorious Bombay gangster Varadarajan Mudaliar.

However, Nayakan’s immense popularity must be due to more than just being an account of a notorious gangster.  It must have special virtues with regard to its narrative themes and/or production values.  With regard to narrative themes and in comparison to earlier gangster films, one might ask whether the key underlying theme in this film is about:
  • the intricate machinations of mob life;
  • a charismatic leader who overcame all odds and inspired his followers;
  • the necessity for the rule of law;
  • morality.
With respect to the first two of those narrative themes, I would say, no, they are not covered.  The machinations of gangster rule are assumed, but they are left in the background.  And though some people might disagree with me on the second point, I would say that the main character in the film seems remarkably laidback and oftentimes passive.  Note that the main character, Sakthivel "Velu" Naicker, is played by popular Tamil actor Kamal Haasan, who also starred in the Indian silent movie Pushpak (1987).  Although many people seem to like Haasan, to me, he is far from charismatic. 

As for the value of the rule of law, there is indeed a key argument about that topic relatively late in the piece, but that does not seem to be a pervasive issue, especially given how corrupt the police are in this film.  That leaves us with the final thematic possibility, that of morality.  But morality only comes into play in this film if you accept the dubious claim that revenge is a moral action.  Indeed much of the action in the film is driven by revenge, so much so in fact that we can say that Nayakan is permeated with revenge, and we can regard it as essentially a revenge film.  To highlight this observation, I will identify vengeance-fuelled elements by “[R]” in the discussion below about the film’s story.

Moreover, Nayakan’s production values are something of a mixed bag.  The cinematography by P. C. Sreeram is expressionistically emphatic all the way.  There are many hand-held moving-camera shots that convey a disruptive, uncertain feeling to what is happening.  These are intermixed with lots of lots of closeups, overhead shots, and high- and low-angle shots, many of them in relative darkness, that further empathize the dramatic tenor.  I particularly liked the several extended scenes, including dance numbers, that were shot in a driving rainstorm.  Overall, the cinematography is provocative but effective. 

The film’s editing by B. Lenin and V. T. Vijayan, though, is not so successful.  There are some pointless axis-crossing cuts, and the narrative flow is disjointed.  When I watched the film, I felt like I was looking at a scrapbook.  And the film’s music by Ilaiyaraaja is disappointing, too [6].  The jazzy soundtrack doesn’t go with the images presented and is constantly distracting.

The story of Nayakan is told over four parts.  Note that a key narrative element throughout this tale is that the police are routinely malicious killers and torturers of poor people and almost represent a force of evil.

1.  The Rise of Velu
At the outset, Sakthivel Naicker, who looks to be about ten-years-old, is beaten by police in search of his father, who is an opposition union leader.  After the police find and kill his father [R], Sakthivel stabs the police inspector [R], after which the young boy runs off to Bombay (Mumbai). These are the first of many acts of revenge  depicted in the film.  In Bombay’s Dharavi slums, Sakthivel finds refuge with a kind-hearted smuggler, Hussain, who becomes his surrogate father. 

Years later, the now-grownup Sakthivel (now played by Kamal Haasan) watches the police maliciously hose-down poor people in his neighbourhood, and when he doesn’t run away, he is taken in and tortured by the police [R].

On another occasion, Sakthivel asks his step-father if smuggling isn’t morally wrong.  Hussain responds that “nothing is bad if it helps others”, and he implies that his smuggling helps poor people.  This becomes Sakthivel’s catch-phrase, and he adopts a Robin-Hood-like policy of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.  And so as things develop, Sakthivel becomes an aggressive partner to Hussain’s smuggling activities.  During this time Sakthivel’s friend Selva (Janagaraj) takes him to a whorehouse.  There he is attracted to a teenage schoolgirl, Neela (Saranya Ponvannan), who is working there temporarily as a prostitute. 

Soon, though, other smugglers become jealous of Sakthivel’s aggressive actions, and they arrange for corrupt police inspector Kelkar (Pradeep Shakthi) to arrest Sakthivel’s step-father and have him killed in jail [R] so that it looks like a suicide.  When Sakthivel hears of this, he murders Kelkar in a lengthy and violent three-minute fistfight [R].  The poor Tamilians who saw this battle support Sakthivel and subsequently refuse to testify against him.  They regard him as a hero and now call him “Velu”. 

Afterwards, Velu goes to Kelkar’s home and decides to take care of the support for the man’s family, which consists of his wife and a young mentally retarded son Ajit.  Even Kelkar's widow doesn’t blame Velu, because she knew that her husband's immorality resulted in his death.

Later a new landowner comes to tear down a Dharavi slum in order to construct a new building, and he orders the eviction of the slum tenants.  So Velu leads a group armed with clubs to destroy landowner’s wealthy house in another lengthy violent scene [R].

Eventually Velu marries Neela, and the film features some intimate bedroom scenes (which I found a little surprising for a mass-market Indian film).

2.   The Emergence of a Don
Years have passed, and Velu and Neela now have two pre-teen children, a son Surya and a daughter Charumati. 

Velu now goes to meet the top gangsters in town, which include the Reddy brothers, and he tells them that if he can pull off big heist in the harbor (which the Reddys have failed at), then the harbor should “belong” to him.  There is then a lengthy scene, featuring music and dancing, showing the successful heist.  In response to this, the Reddys vow to kill Velu and his family [R].  Later there is a violent hit job that results in Neela’s death [R], and in response Velu kills the Reddys [R].

3.  A Reckoning
Years have passed, and Velu is now a greying, admired don.  Surya (Nizhalgal Ravi) and Charumati (Karthika) are now young adults, and somewhat  to Velu’s discomfort, Surya shows interest in emulating his father’s gangster ways.   However, soon a policeman comes to Velu seeking justice, i.e. revenge [R].  His daughter was sexually molested by an upperclass boy who is above the law, and the policeman wants the boy to be punished.  Velu sends Selva out to torture the boy [R], and Charumati happens to see it.  So she confronts Velu in what amounts to the most interesting exchange in the film.

Charumati asks Velu, who are you to play God?  But Velu merely answers that the authorities can’t be trusted to deliver correct punishment [R].  Later the same policeman comes to report to Velu that one of Velu’s own men is ready to testify against Velu concerning the torture incident.  Surya vows that he will “take care of him”, but in the event, Surya is killed in an accidental explosion. Afterwards, Charumati accuses her father of being responsible for the deaths of both her mother and her brother, and she renounces him and leaves home for good.

4.  Closing Down
Years later, a new assistant police commissioner, Patil (M. Nassar), is appointed, and he vows to put an end to the gangster activity in Mumbai.  He preemptively confiscates the private ambulances that Velu had been using to service the neglected Dharavi slums [R], and he jails Selva.  Velu goes to Patil’s home to see if he can talk to him, but when he arrives while Patil is out, he is shocked to discover that Patil’s wife is his daughter Charumati.  She explains to her father that she married the police officer in order to atone for her sins (of having been a member of Velu’s family).

Patil soon secures an arrest warrant for Velu, and he proceeds to carry out a ruthlessly brutal campaign in search of his target.  But the people of Dharavi are loyal to Velu, whom they regard as a hero, and they refuse to disclose his whereabouts.  During these police investigations, however, the now-adult, and still mentally retarded, Ajit Kelkar learns finally that Velu was responsible for his father’s death years ago. 

Seeing the poor people of Dharavi's undeserved suffering from the relentless police brutality, Velu surrenders himself to Patil.  Patil, however, is awed by how much the people support Velu, and fearful of a violenet civil backlash, he comes to Velu’s cell begging him to mollify his angry supporters.  It as if there are two equally contending groups seeking civil authority here – the police and the mob headed by Velu – and Patil is finally reaching out for some sort of peace treaty.  Velu agrees to try to calm the people down.

Just before entering the trial chamber, Velu meets for the first time his grandson, the son of Charumati.  The boy asks Velu if he is a good person or a bad person, and after reflection, Velu says, “I don’t know”.

Then the trial takes place, and because none of the citizens will testify against Velu, he is acquitted of the charges against him.  The people outside the courtroom are jubilant when they hear the verdict.  However, when Velu comes outside to join them, he is murdered by Ajit in revenge for his father’s death [R].

So is there a moral to this story of Nayakan?  If there is, I didn’t see it.  All we are shown in this sombre tale are two equally malicious forces – the mobster gang and the police – each perpetually driven by unprincipled revenge.  There could be no satisfying outcome under these circumstances.  The two leaders of these forces – Velu and (symbolically) Patil – are far from inspiring, whether looked at from a narrative, moral, or dramatic perspective.  As I mentioned above, Kamal Haasan’s relentlessly blank and deadpanned countenance in the role of Velu leaves a dramatic hole in this story that is never filled.

Far more satisfying is the film’s atmospheric cinematography, with its many darkened and heavy-rain-filled scenes.  They transport the viewer into a grim, revenge-fuelled wold from which there is no seeming escape.
★★★
 
Notes:
  1. “Nayakan”, Wikipedia, (3 May 2020).   
  2. “Critical reception”, "Nayakan", Wikipedia, (2 May 2020).    
  3. “All-TIME 100 Movies”, TIME, (12 February 2005).    
  4. Richard Corliss, “Nayakan”, TIME, (14 January 2010).   
  5. Heather Wilson, “Nayakan (1987)”, Cinema Chaat, (27 October 2013).   
  6. James Berardinelli, “Nayagan (India, 1987)”, REELVIEWS, (24 August 2019).   
  7. Kumuthan Maderya,. "Slumgod Millionaire: On 'Nayakan', the Godfather of Indian Gangster Films", PopMatters, (3 November 2017).   

Mani Ratnam

Films of Mani Ratnam:

“Planet of the Humans” - Jeff Gibbs (2019)

Planet of the Humans (2019) is an environmental documentary film that takes an aggressively contrarian stance towards “green energy”, and for this reason it is likely to generate considerable controversy.  And since the film was recently (for Earth Day, 2020) made temporarily freely available on YouTube [1], it will probably draw a large viewing audience.  

Many viewers might find the film’s negative stance towards green energy to be surprising, since its executive producer was well-known and customarily progressive/leftist documentary filmmaker Michael Moore.  But we should probably keep in mind that this is not solely Moore’s film – it was written, directed, and edited by Jeff Gibbs and co-produced by Gibbs and Ozzie Zehner.  Indeed, based on a subsequent YouTube-available self-serving discussion on the part of the filmmakers [2], I get the feeling that this movie is mostly a product of Gibbs and Zehner.

In general, I felt that the film was relatively disorganized, but it did feature three main themes:
  • Criticism of green energy in general.  This is mostly in opposition to Wind, Water, and Solar (WWS) power (where the water power is primarily via hydroelectricity generation).
      
  • Criticism of biofuels (produced from biomass).  These are mostly plant-based products that are used to produce fuels in the form of woodchips, pellets, etc.
     
  • Criticism of technology in general
1.  Criticism of Green Energy
The film begins with its scathing criticisms of renewable energy practices, particularly with respect to two of the most popular forms of renewable energy – wind and solar power.  The arguments seem to follow those of producer Ozzie Zehner, who some time ago published a book Green Illusions (2012) that denounced the practices and prospects of green energy [3].  Zehner and this film complain that green energy is (a) inefficient, (b) requires the pollution-inducing mining of rare materials, and (c) is inextricably dependent on fossil fuels anyway. 

However, Zehner’s and this film’s arguments on this score are largely outdated and false.  I won’t go into the details here, but I refer you to these references for more specific information [4,5,6,7].  I think the critical responses in these references should be convincing enough for you to reject the main arguments on this subject made by Gibbs and Zehner in this film.  There is a further issue in this regard, which I will discuss below.

2.  Criticism of biofuels
The second half of the film constitutes an attack on biofuels and on some environmentalists who have endorsed the development of biofuels.  Biofuels, such as woodchips, wood pellets, and palm oil, are carbon-burning fuels that are harvested from plants that have been specifically sequestered and harvested for fuel purposes.  Biofuel proponents have argued that they are a form of renewable energy, because the carbon in the CO2 that is created when they are burned can later be reabsorbed from the atmosphere by new growing plants.  This reabsorption process could take decades, even centuries, and so this is hardly a pathway for sustainable energy resourcing.  And of course there are other concerns, too: 
  • the production of biofuels uses up land that could be devoted to food production, and 
  • the burning of biofuels contributes to air pollution and global-warming processes.
Most environmentalists therefore renounce the use of biofuels as a suitable option for future energy development, and I am in general agreement with this film’s critical stance towards biofuels.  But I still have two issues with the way thing are presented concerning biofuels in Planet of the Humans.  For one thing, the filmmakers spend a lot of muckracking effort criticizing environmentalist figures like Bill McKibben, Al Gore, and the Sierra Club for endorsing and profiting from biofuel production organizations.  To me the venomous tone in this connection just distracts one from the larger issues, and anyway, I don’t believe these targeted environmentalist figures now endorse biofuels [4].  Another problem here is that Planet of the Humans conflates biofuels with WWS in order to condemn all renewable energy.  The reality is that indeed biofuels are harmful, while WWS energy sources are hugely beneficial.  The film misleads the viewer here.

3.  Criticism of technology in general
The third theme, which underlies much of the film’s presentation, concerns the anti-technology stance on the part of the filmmakers.  There is a wide spectrum of views concerning the ultimate effects of technology on humanity.  At one end of the spectrum are those who see technology as the ultimate benefactor and savior of mankind.  People at this end, when asked how to address our future energy needs, advocate a massive effort to construct and install a fleet of huge solar-power-collecting satellites that would orbit the earth [8].  But we need to be aware that caution is needed in connection with technology’s sometimes blind interference with complex natural processes, which some scientists speculate has brought about problems like the coronavirus pandemic [9].  So there are people at the other end of the technology-supporting spectrum, i.e. the anti-technology end, who are fearful of all forms of technology.  Some of them even want to reduce the world’s population to a tenth of its current size and have people live locally off the land.  Gibbs and Zehner seem to be near that extreme anti-technology end of the spectrum, and this colors their very pessimistic expectations about human prospects and the predations of modern capitalism.  For them, current efforts in renewable and green energy are inevitably doomed, and our future is dim. 

So all three of these themes in the film contain elements that can mislead the viewer.  But there is another matter in connection with the first theme (criticism of green energy) that deserves further mention.  If one is going to discuss the feasibility of widespread green energy, then he or she must address the work of Professor Mark Jacobson and his research team at Stanford University.  Jacobson and his coworkers have made studies detailing how WWS green energy can be used to economically and safely satisfy 100% of our energy needs [10,11,12,13,14].  These studies take account of electric grid stability, pollution, and safety, and they have detailed how each of the 50 states in the United States as well as more than 140 countries can individually and profitably adopt WWS energy to supply all their energy needs.  Although, of course, there would be initial construction costs, Jacobson’s schemes, if implemented, would lead to vast savings of resources, money, and human lives.  And I believe Jacobson’s plans to deploy WWS green energy would even entail less land usage than is currently used by the fossil fuel industry.

Professor Jacobson has supplied detailed responses to questions concerning his proposed schemes for 100% green energy, and I am sure he would have responded to questions that Gibbs and Zehner may have had, too.  In fact any film that discusses green energy in the context of Jacobson’s work would be interesting to see.  But Planet of the Humans makes no mention of Jacobson’s work, and for this reason alone, it disqualifies the film from serious consideration.  Although Planet of the Humans has managed tp receive some positive reviews in the mainstream media [15], I don’t recommend the film to you, and, for me, the film will not do anything for Michael Moore’s reputation.
½

Notes:
  1.  “Michael Moore Presents: Planet of the Humans | Full Documentary | Directed by Jeff Gibbs”, YouTube, (21 April 2020).   
  2. “‘Planet of the Humans’ Earth Day Live Stream w/ Michael Moore, Jeff Gibbs & Ozzie Zehner”, YouTube, (22 April 2020). 
  3. Ozzie Zehner, Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism, (ISBN 978-0-8032-3775-9), The University of Nebraska Press, (2012).
  4. Timothy Wallis, "Skepticism Is Healthy, but Planet of the Humans Is Toxic - A Critical Review", Films For Action, (23 April 2020).     (see also: https://votetosurvive.org/skepticism-is-healthy-but-planet-of-the-humans-is-toxic/)
  5. Tom Zeller Jr., “Ozzie Zehner’s ‘Green Illusions’ Ruffles Feathers”, HuffPost, (27 July 2012, 6 December 2017).  
  6. Josh Fox, “Meet the New Flack for Oil and Gas: Michael Moore”, The Nation, (30 April 2020).  
  7. Oliver Milman, “Climate experts call for 'dangerous' Michael Moore film to be taken down”, The Guardian, (28 April 2020).   
  8. “Space-based solar power”, Wikipedia, (24 April 2020).   
  9. Damian Carrington, “Halt destruction of nature or suffer even worse pandemics, say world’s top scientists”, The Guardian, (27 Apr 2020).  
  10. Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi, Mary A. Cameron, Indu Priya Manogaran, Yanbo Shu, and Anna-Katharina von Krauland, “Impacts of Green New Deal Energy Plans on Grid Stability, Costs, Jobs, Health, and Climate in 143 Countries”, One Earth, (2019).   
  11. Kashyap Vyas, “Is Mark Jacobson’s Plan to Use 100% Renewable Energy Feasible?”, Interesting Engineering, (22 January 2019).   
  12. Michael Barnard, “100% WWS Part 1: Jacobson’s New Study Displaces 99.7% Fossil Energy With Massive Savings”, CleanTechnica, (20 December 2019).   
  13. Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi, Zack A.F. Bauer, Savannah C. Goodman, William E. Chapman, Mary A. Cameron, Cedric Bozonnat, Liat Chobadi, Hailey A. Clonts, Peter Enevoldsen, Jenny R. Erwin, Simone N. Fobi, Owen K. Goldstrom, Eleanor M. Hennessy, Jingyi Liu, Jonathan Lo, Clayton B. Meyer, Sean B. Morris, Kevin R. Moy, Patrick L. O’Neill, Ivalin Petkov, Stephanie Redfern, Robin Schucker, Michael A. Sontag, Jingfan Wang, Eric Weiner, and Alexander S. Yachanin, “100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water, and Sunlight All-Sector Energy Roadmaps for 139 Countries of the World”, Joule 1, Elsevier Inc., pp. 108–121, (6 September 2017).   
  14. Mark Ruffalo, Marco Krapels, and Mark Jacobson, “Our 100% Clean Energy Vision”, The Solutions Project, (2020).   
  15. Peter Bradshaw, “Planet of the Humans review – contrarian eco-doc from the Michael Moore stable”, The Guardian, (22 April 2020).   

Jeff Gibbs

Films of Jeff Gibbs: