my review: barbie movie

saw the barbie movie by greta gerwig today. full house with joyous applause at the end. here are some thoughts. the movie is trippy but doesn’t go all the way. it’s not ‘everything everywhere all at once’ by any means. there is some pseudo feminist talk, but the film’s not committed to it. it’s hard not to see the entire enterprise as a huge marketing ploy with staggering merch opportunities. i mean barbie is still being sold, so it’s not some kind of nostalgic look at or PC reframing of the past. the film is hilarious in parts (thank u ryan gosling and kate mckinnon) but also awkwardly ennuyeux and disconnected. for example, we could have done without the mattel storyline entirely (what a waste of will ferell’s talents). enjoyed america ferrera and hope to see her more, in leading roles.

my review: cold war

cold war is based on pawel pawlikowski’s own parents and their stormy relationship. in fact, the main characters have the same names as his mother and father.

the narrative of the film is polished, airtight, condensed — scenes are whittled down to their essence. for example, much of what happens to zula and wiktor when they’re apart remains off camera and is cut out of the film.

it is a fleeting, repeatedly interrupted romance that collides against broader political agitation. the lovers have to constantly move across borders, across the iron curtain itself, to be with each other. everything feels delicate and risky, close to imploding.
although the political conflicts that push the two lovers together and then apart, are squeezed out of the frame, their presence is felt strongly. there is constant dialogue between the story and the geopolitical changes that surround it.

music too enfolds them, brings them together, separates them, and evolves over time with them.

the film’s cinematography is stunning – a shimmering black and white, the contrast so rich that the black in the footage feels like velvet. the characters seem to push against this purity.

the boxy, 4:3 aspect ratio, might be a tribute to older films and a bygone historical era, but it also produces a sense of enclosure.

the love story at the center of the film is shaped by passion, insecurity and disappointment. when both characters meet in paris, one would have thought that all their problems would be solved. but i liked how we see a different side of immigration — the difficulty of leaving home and losing a part of oneself.

we witness a more nuanced difference between communism and individualism. in paris, wiktor has to master the art of commerce, selling and branding, whereas in communist poland, it’s more about ingratiating and appeasing people in power.
in spite of the film’s tight narrative control, it is open to interpretation. although it’s rooted in ideas about art, truth, love and politics, these themes are mostly suggested. they are not clarified or resolved. it’s almost like the film is some kind of gorgeously tragic metaphor.

my review: un coeur en hiver

how to describe ‘un coeur en hiver’? it’s an elegant film about a love triangle and although it is filled with wonderful music (ravel and debussy) it is not a spectacle of swelling passions. rather it takes its cue from western classical music, unfolding within a balanced composition, with organization and sangfroid. perhaps it emulates stephane, the enigmatic character at the heart of the film, played beautifully by daniel auteuil. an instrument maker who excels at delicate, complex work, he is reticent and ambivalent. perhaps this is what attracts camille, a gifted violinist who is dating stephane’s business partner maxime. not only do they both seem to express their emotions through their work, but she also desires his professional approval.

when camille gathers the courage to articulate her feelings, stephane rejects her. he tells her about his manipulative seduction which was meant to get back at maxime. stephane’s description of his relationship with maxime is surprising. it seems to be a substanceless, symbiotic partnership that he refuses to call friendship.

stephane’s words are hard to believe. perhaps he is also lying to himself. when he visits the apartment maxime and camille plan to share together, he is visibly shaken. therefore, a cold premeditated ploy seems unlikely.

there are many ways to understand stephane’s rebuff. did camille disturb the perfect synchronization between him and maxime? was stephane wary of disturbing the equilibrium in his own life, arranged meticulously like the furniture and tools in his workshop? or does he find it impossible to make a decision? his willpower at the end of the film, when he performs a difficult but compassionate act, seems to belie such passivity or indecision.

in some interviews, the director, claude sautet, has compared stephane to iago (the famous antagonist in shakespeare’s othello). but that comparison does not ring true. stephane is hardly a psychopath. just un coeur en hiver.

my review: taste of cherry

rewatched abbas kiarostami’s ‘taste of cherry’ after many years and enjoyed it much more this time. the premise of the film is a bit absurd and persnickety, but it should be understood as a folktale rather than a precise representation of reality. i was mesmerized by the conversations between mr badii (the main character) and the passengers in his car, who all react differently to mr badii’s appeal. each character is played to perfection: the nervous young soldier, the seminarist who relies on religious texts for steadiness, and finally the older taxidermist (the film’s most richly sketched character) who radiates compassion and uses his own life along with poetry, song and humor to change mr badii’s mind. he’s the only one who accepts mr badii’s unusual (ungodly?) request.

kiarostami chooses to focus on the periphery rather than on what is at the center. the soldier is a kurd and mr badii reminds him of kurdish strength and resilience in the face of persecution. the seminarist is an afghan refugee who talks about war and dislocation. finally, the taxidermist is an azarbaijani turk. all minorities. all on the margins, not at the center of society. a subtle way to provide political context and address issues that would otherwise be censored.

the film is shot in the outskirts of tehran where there is new construction. we are constantly immersed (buried?) in the dust and noise produced by bulldozers and dump trucks. we are on the outside (where everything shifts and is unsettled), not in the innermost sanctum of the city.

kiarostami’s enthusiasm for cars is on display, much like in ‘ten,’ ‘certified copy’ and the ‘kokar trilogy.’ there is something intimate about placing the camera inside a car.

the end of the film is genius. it reminded me of cezanne — his use of thick brushstrokes and flat shapes, his reinvention of perspective, the unpainted corners and pencil outlines in his work, all make the tools of his trade visible. similarly, kiarostami reveals himself, his film crew, and the cameras, shotgun mics, boom poles, and megaphones which make filmmaking possible. it allows us to take a step back and hope for a more cheerful ending to ‘taste of cherry.’

my review: joyland

finally saw joyland, the pakistani film that has taken international festivals and audiences by storm. it’s an unflinching study of the quiet horrors of heteropatriarchy – its rigid roles and antiquated hierarchies (that revolve around ridiculous notions of masculinity), its antilife rules and strictures, claustrophobia and mendacity.

yet with its vibrant ensemble cast, snappy writing, and intimate cinematography, the film is also filled with flashes of love, hope and human connection. it shows people who are desperately lost but also the grit and audacity it takes to have sovereignty over one’s life and body.

it’s a heartbreaking reminder that all of us need to be seen. even those of us who seem to be the strongest, the most reliable and least demanding, can break delicately once they become invisible.

nick cave at the goog

everyone has seen nick cave’s famous soundsuits, but did u know he designed his first suit out of twigs after rodney king was violently beaten by police in 1991?

he has created more than 500 suits since. they have grown alongside his practice, evolving from a form of protective layer (that covers/hides the body) to an expression of confidence and exuberance pushing the limits of visibility.

in his work, cave uses everyday, found objects and racist memorabilia. he doesn’t believe that this history should be erased. he repurposes such ‘relics’ – taking them out of circulation and giving them new meaning.

it’s difficult to look at these objects. for example, the awful spittoon at the center of ‘sea sick’ does in fact induce nausea.

his mixed media sculptures look like soft fur, but in reality the patterns are painted on short, sharp wire fragments. the designs represent a layered cartography of cataclysmic weather patterns on top of brain scans of young black people suffering from ptsd as a result of gun violence.

that’s the remarkable thing about cave’s work – his art is harsh, abrasive, and contains an incredibly violent history, but it’s also gorgeous. at first glance, his work seems simple, joyous, full of color, sparkles and flowers, but it is also unsettling, complex, disturbing.

there was a line written on one of the walls at the goog which hit me hard. it said something like:

if we can turn junk into art, what grace can we extend to people who are most devalued by society?

my review: agua by pina bausch

so finally, here is my review of pina bausch’s “agua,” which i just saw at BAM. apart from the beauty of her dance language, which i find mesmerizing, there are some issues with this work.

created during a residency in brazil in 2001, agua is supposed to be a refraction of the “landscapes, sounds, movements, and music she encountered into a color-saturated fantasy.”

yet the film projections that act as backdrop to and inspiration for bausch’s choreographed dances are too facile, too superficial. thundering waterfalls, swaying palm trees, jaguars and monkeys in the jungle, along with gigantic amazonian plants and exotic birds all come together to exoticize without the benefit of a more complex, political encounter.

even more problematic is footage of young men from the favelas lost in intense drumming and nude indigenous people swimming seamlessly in rivers, used as background or wallpaper. it reminded me of the colonial gaze that’s evident throughout “out of africa,” where faraway landscapes merge with the flora, fauna, and othered bodies of african people to create a vivid contrast against which white european stories can unfurl.

although bausch’s dancers are famously diverse (ethnically but also in terms of height, body type, and skill set), her work is still quintessentially european and so is her gaze in this piece.

the scenes she creates embody stereotypical touristy images of white people on vacation in a tropical country: people in swimsuits with funny beach towels lounging at a resort, hanging out, getting drunk, having a water fight (in a country where potable water is scarce), having sex outdoors, and dancing the night away.

as thomas hahn has written in his excellent critique, « Agua » : Pina, le Brésil et le réel:

Les images de nature paradisiaque, de tourisme de plaisance, d’ivresse en lounge, et autres fêtes d’une classe aisée dans Agua révèlent aujourd’hui à quel point cette pièce passe à côté de la réalité du pays. Agua est l’œuvre la plus superficielle de Pina Bausch. En 2001 on a pu apercevoir, avec beaucoup de bonne volonté, un semblant d’ironie ? Aujourd‘hui, cela ne tient plus.

pina bausch: a new dance language

pina bausch created a new dance language. u can see its syntax in the fractured phrases and speech elements she configured in her work, held together by a logical structure, with extensions, explorations, and repetitions. modern dance itself developed against the codified tenets of ballet and its male-dominated companies, but pina pushed the genre further, combining dance with theatre, art and music, and completely transforming the european dance landscape.

pina has been criticized for the acts of brutality and humiliation found in her work, and for creating a “theatre of dejection” that embraces the pornography of pain. i can see it both ways.

i understand that she’s reflecting the world we live in by creating rigid gender binaries – women in colorful slip dresses, long hair flowing wildly, and men in suits or slacks with bare torsos. since gender consists of repeated, performative acts (according to judith butler) and depends on “fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and discursive means,” bausch is simply establishing the acts that mark someone as “man” or “woman.” many times, the men are aggressive, manipulative, menacing, or mere props to climb on or be carried by.

the women are softer, non-confrontational but strong and athletic. many scenes have the intensity of ritual sacrifice. sometimes the women and men indulge in a dance of mechanical symbiosis, like pulleys and belts that fit and turn together.

there is a “hysterical” woman who rages and screams and wants what’s impossible. many of these ideas (including sexual harassment, frustration and madness) were present in agua, even if they were presented as humorous rather than troubling. there is always a layer of discomfort underneath.

but i can also see how recycling misogyny/violence without presenting an alternative world, can seem to normalize, magnify, and even promote it. more about agua specifically in next post.

my review: a woman under the influence

‘a woman under the influence’ is absolute genius. the writing and direction by john cassavetes is seamless, compacted, organic. gena rowlands, who is at the center of the film, is fearless and original – an erratic woman on the verge of a mental breakdown. she finds an equal partner in peter falk who delivers a surprising performance as her violent, temperamental husband. he misreads her unfailingly, and all he can do when he gets frustrated is to yell or strike. she on the other hand, resorts to over the top, neurotic behavior. it’s as if they lack the social vocabulary to express themselves and communicate with each other.

it’s also that mental health was seen quite differently in the 60s and 70s. same time frame as ‘one flew over the cuckoo’s nest’ when electroshock therapy was common.

the kids are incredible. their scenes with rowlands beautiful, filled with immense tenderness and intimacy.

i was shocked to find out later that the film is 2 hr 26 min long. one is so caught up in the chaos onscreen, that time flies. as it often does in real life.

adania shibli in lahore

back at the lahore literary festival. wonderful to hear palestinian writer adania shibli talk about her stunning book, minor detail. not sure about the panel – she was paired with william sieghart, a british entrepreneur, publisher and philanthropist, who kept talking about the ‘conflict’ and how dialogue can solve all problems.

so glad adania addressed the use of language and her issues with the word conflict. it’s colonialism, she said. she explained how language can become complicit in a crime, how it can disappear it, and that there is no dearth of dialogue between palestinians and israelis – there is constant contact but it’s a certain kind of interaction, based on power differentials, where palestinians are forced to confront and challenge power structures day in, day out.

adania spoke about her love for the arabic language, how playful, free, and open it is. how important it is to palestinians. ‘adab’ in arabic means both literature and ethics. she also spoke about translation and how it’s essential, even in english, to create a scarred language with a memory of arabic.

finally, she talked a lot about narration and silences. the impossibility of narrating. the linear structure (beginning, middle, end) is not accessible to palestinians, therefore she can only imitate coherence. it’s better to accept silence rather than put words in someone’s mouth. we come to language from two sides of silence – both the reader and writer engage with language in silence.

my favorite session so far.

decision to leave

on the flight from JFK to dubai, i saw ‘decision to leave.’ beautifully crafted by park chan-wook, it’s a slippery film, hard to pin down or categorize. it’s romance, mystery, crime, and detective story. it’s about obsessions, repetitions, imaginings, watching and being watched, recordings, replays, metaphors, poetry, death, murder, desire, and fantasy. it slides back and forth in time and space, even in language and translation (chinese and korean). an evasive, fatalistic, seductive film that takes its time (2 hours 18 min). makes me long for richer, more challenging and inventive filmmaking and storytelling than what we see celebrated in the US.

my review: triangle of sadness

saw ‘triangle of sadness’ by ruben ostlund, then went back and watched ‘the square’ again. will rewatch ‘force majeure’ as well. what a brilliant, hilarious, provocative filmmaker. have been thinking about his work and how to encapsulate it. he likes to invert or complicate what is ‘normal.’ he strips away western society’s veneer of civilization, exposes its violent vulgar core, and pokes holes in what is considered the social contract.

he does this stylistically as well, by inserting sounds and visual disturbances in his scenes (an elevator door that keeps closing in the middle of an intense convo, baby cries during a marketing pitch, chairs crashing to the ground while a couple confront each other after an awkward one-night stand, etc).

he reaches for some of the mightiest, most glittery symbols of high culture (modern art, fashion, even winter sports), roots them out from their aesthetic safe place, and reveals the social rot, money, privilege, and absurdity they engender.

his films are always set in exclusive, elitist contexts – a bougie ski resort, a contemporary art museum, a luxury yacht – where the rich and beautiful prance and prevaricate about their wealth. a russian capitalist who quotes ronald reagan, a cute old couple who’ve made their fortune as arms dealers, a museum curator who is proudly liberal but couldn’t cut it without the privileges he wields, art collectors and aristos who remain paralyzed in the face of an assault on one of their own, how power hierarchies can be flipped like a switch, how the elite are completely bereft of survival skills, ideas of masculinity, the marginalization of people of color, horrors of the service industry, capitalism and homelessness, capitalism and art, beauty as trade and industry, the list goes on.

there’s always so much to unpack.

Scene from Triangle of Sadness

Farha on Netflix

i finally watched ‘farha,’ a film by jordanian director darin sallam, on netflix last night. i knew that it’s a film about the nakba (or the catastrophe) in which more than 700,000 palestinians were forcibly expelled from palestine in 1948, to make room for the jewish-supremacist state of israel.

i also knew that the israeli government has been applying pressure on netflix to censor/remove the film from their library. a bit funny considering the heretofore love affair between israel and netflix. you can read about it in belén fernández’s excellent piece ‘netflix and israel: a special relationship’ in which she shows how “netflix has been willingly subsumed into the israeli hasbara industry.”

the nakba is a vast and important episode in human history, yet sallam’s approach is small, specific, and spare. the story is told through the eyes of a 14-year old girl who becomes an unwitting witness to shocking atrocities committed by israeli soldiers. as we spend most of the film seeing the world through farha’s eyes, we too are called to witness and testify.

the experience transforms farha – gone are her dreams of studying in the city and investing her life in her community. the nakba was meant to destroy palestinian society, very deliberately, one bureaucratic and military step at a time, over multiple decades and generations.

israel’s war on ‘farha’ is enraging. not only because palestinians might be some of the few people in the world who are not allowed to tell the stories of their own dispossession and ethnic cleansing, but also because the facts of what we see in the film are not new. the terror (including theft, rape and massacres) wielded against palestinians during the nakba is well-known and well-documented, including testimonies by israeli soldiers who carried it out.

u’d have to live under a rock not to have heard of the deir yassin massacre, for example. many parts of tel aviv itself are built on depopulated palestinian villages.

in any case, the bots are out in huge numbers trying to sabotage farha’s ratings, so pls watch the film, ‘love’ it on netflix (two hearts), make an imdb account, give the film 10 stars, go to the film on google and letterboxd and give it 5 stars. write a review if u like.

let’s make sure we see more stories by and about the oppressed and their histories, and less state propaganda packaged as art. we can make a difference.

the prime of miss jean brodie

watched ‘the prime of miss jean brodie’ again last night, with the magnificent maggie smith. this film, made in 1969, always shocks me on account of its boldness and contemporary relevance. the characters, including the titular jean brodie, are deeply flawed, their trespasses unsettling, the emotional tenor of the film (novel by muriel spark) is ambiguous, everything painted in grey, without the comfort and predictability of black and white. in short, it’s a fearless portrayal of life with all its contradictions and unsavory realities (including the allure of fascism). i remember a teacher somewhat like that in high school, back in islamabad. it was an all girls school. i was never in her orbit but she created some commotion in our midst, before being let go.