Monday, 20 June 2011

The Discreet Charm of The Narrative

Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie holds the promise of a "proper" (classical) narrative throughout its length but doggedly fails in keeping it. Here is a film that pretends to head for the centre, all the while running off into tangents. It is almost as if Bunuel is trying his best to control his surreal urges and make a conventional, conformist narrative feature; but yields repeatedly to his playful, naughty side.

Gone is the sort of openly rebellious, distinctly surreal imagery that populated his early work (Un Chien Andalou or L'Age D'Or). There is an air of naturalism and realism in the proceedings: hints that this film may follow the cause-and-effect logic of classical narrative. We see one of the characters - a high-ranking diplomat - smuggle cocaine in his luggage. A lady promises a priest that she'll narrate the story of her faith to him. Bunuel throws around these nuggets with exquisite care. He has the diplomat explain in detail how he managed to smuggle the stuff in. But there's no follow-up. It appears the director has lost interest in the sort of conventional film his handiwork is headed towards, so he turns his attention to another little incident, follows the narrative thread for a while, and diverts his attention yet again.

The running gag of the film is that a group of high-class socialites sit down to dinner several times but never actually finish it. Bunuel's own little joke is luring his viewers into believing that Discreet Charm is a conventional narrative. Like his protagonists, we never get finished with the "story" - our dinner. It eludes us before a normative conclusion can be reached.

Discreet Charm is as much a critique of complacent, disengaged entertainment (the sort that Hollywood has always readily served up) as it is a hilarious parody of bourgeois manners (with some typical Bunuel targets thrown in for good measure - bureaucratic, military and religious). At a restaurant, the three ladies of this film ask for all sorts of beverages - tea, coffee, water - but the waiter informs them that none is available. Nothing in Bunuel's film is readymade for easy consumption.

One sequence in the film is shown thrice, being the last as well. It has the motley group of socialites walking endlessly through an empty field. Bunuel's parting statement is cheerfully nihilistic - coming from nowhere, going nowhere. It is a wonder a film so mischievous and rebellious in its opposition to Hollywood's values of filmmaking won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Reflections of life in cinema #2

Blasphemy and the holy cows of religion:
While browsing through a wikipedia entry on well-known cases of blasphemy, I came across this particularly interesting scenario where Gillian Gibbons, a British lady teaching in Sudan, was tried on charges of naming a teddy bear "Muhammad" in class. Yes, you read that right.

It turned out there was a boy named Muhammad in class; and she had named the teddy after him, not the Messiah. Which should have effectively buried the case. It didn't. The charges brought against her were "insulting religion, inciting hatred, sexual harassment, racism, prostitution and showing contempt for religious beliefs". Pretty much logical thinking, isn't it?

It's of course further debatable what exactly is wrong with naming things after the Prophet. Where exactly is that a slur? People name their children after personal idols or icons, and that is always a mark of showing respect. Mind you, this is still argued from the POV of a rational believer. For an atheist, the whole idea of arguing and bickering over, and creating rules about an artificial human construct - God - seems like absurdity squared. One, the whole thing is obviously a hoax - meant to give you a false sense of security and order when there is none. Two, you have self-appointed guardians who set rigid rules and guidelines to ascertain the existence and propagation of this deceptive idea.

Contemptuous sermons at several mosques drove around 10,000 people in Khartoum, armed with swords and machetes, to form processions and ask for immediate execution of Gibbons. All for naming a silly teddy bear "Muhammad". Makes me wonder what a truly harsh critic of organised religion must be facing in these overbearingly conservative societies.

Monty Python and their attitude towards religion:

One feels, as Kubrick did while adapting the straight thriller Fail Safe to Dr. Strangelove, that certain aspects of human existence are so bleak and despairing that the only possible way of staying calm and opining in a rational manner is to make fun of it. Kubrick's vision of a nuclear apocalypse thrives on a complementary relationship between the degrees of humour and bleakness. The teddy bear incident infuriates me so much that I find citing the frivolous Monty Python sketches the best way to deflect the irrational strains of anger (since blind religion itself feeds on the gaps in rationale).

The Pythons were, of course, no strangers to making fun of religion. Life of Brian satirised the irrational religious fervour, containing among other things a scene where a mob kills a man because he believes the common man Brian not be a messiah. Brian himself doesn't!

What however seems most relevant is the witch-burning sequence in Holy Grail. A group of villagers take a suspected "witch" to a village headman seeking his approval to burn her. In a characteristically Python-esque way, Bedevere (the village headman) establishes "logically" how the woman really is a witch. In a world where a woman can be tried for naming teddy bears (charged with "inciting... sexual harassment, racism and prostitution" among other things), one can easily be proved to be a witch because she weighs equal to a duck on a faulty balance. Reality, as ever, trumps fiction in its capacity to bewilder.