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Archive for February, 2011

The image of horseback riders stirring up clouds of dust in the foreground of giant ochre megaliths that mark their presence in a vast expanse of red desert are seldom seen or even imagined in this day and age of high speed car chases and sophisticated nuclear thingamajigs. But watching John Ford’s 1956 film, The Searchers, brings back to light a time where the unconquered American frontier gave the seeker the magnificent beauty of the unforgiving desert, and brought with it adventure, thrill, and peril.

Although the characters in the movie are unquestionably the fabrications of a man who understood the appeal of the American filmgoer of the 50’s, the story brings a tale of human conflict and struggle for survival into the forefront. Starring the legendary John Wayne (who I saw for the first time in this movie) as the maverick hero Ethan Edwards, and Jeffery Hunter as his stubborn sidekick Marty Pawley, the movie tells the story of the two frontier men who travel the vast expanse of the desert in search of Ethan Edward’s kidnapped niece, who also happens to be Pawley’s kid sister. The movie combined action, suspense, drama, comedy, and a dose of racial prejudice to have made it a big hit among theatergoers of the 50’s. For a person like me, the movie, 55 years into its conception, was a relatively slow paced, yet interesting glimpse into a not so distant past.

The story revolves around a linear narrative that show John Wayne’s character, along with his sidekick, seeking out the trail of a tribe of Comanche Indians who kidnapped Debbie, his niece. Unfolding over a time of around 8 to 10 years, the movie shows the two men attempt to uncover the whereabouts of the Indian tribe led by the fierce chief, Scar. The movie showcases a menagerie of interesting characters that range from the intimidating stature of Scar to the obnoxious, rocking chair obsessed dolt of a man, Mose Harper. Each character brings in a unique element to the story, making it adventurous, thrilling, and funny, sometimes all at the same time. In the end, the hero prevails, bringing his abducted niece to her parents and concluding the story with Wayne’s legendary bravado.

The Western genre is inextricably tied to the environment in which its story unfolds. Unlike the many cityscapes and enclosed environments we see in many of today’s movies, the Western is sustained by the vibrant energy of nature. Variety Magazine’s Ron Holloway undoubtedly has a keen eye for observing the role of the big red desert in movie, and its presence which makes the movie what it is. The Searchers, like many Westerns, takes place in the arid and dusty deserts of the American West, and a significant portion of the story portrays the immense expanse of that imposing landscape. The long shot is used extensively throughout the movie, and is complemented with the tracking shot, which makes it possible for the filmmaker to capture the vastness of the arid desert while bringing the viewer closer to the arduous journey of the central characters. The flashback technique is used to explain a portion of the adventure as the story continues to unfold as a letter is read. It is also an interesting tool which the director uses to connect the supporting actors and thereby creating the subplot that leads to the comical wedding night punch up between Marty and his lover’s new suitor, Charlie. The score of the movie plays a very important role in creating the ambience and mood of the scenes, especially in the long segments where the characters trek through the desert. I thought it was interesting to observe how much different the movie would have been if not for the soundtrack. Personally, I don’t think I would have the tolerance to bear watching a group of middle aged men plod through an endless desert for what seems like eons, if not for a musical score that played in the background that established an emotional connection with the viewer and the characters of the movie.

Ethan and Marty trudging on.

The movie is an interesting throwback to the past. Not only does it bring back to light the customs of antiquity such as female subservience and good old racial discrimination, it also shows a time where men and women conducted themselves with a formality that many people in today’s world would find ridiculous. The movie also gives an insight into the level of literacy of these swashbuckling, trigger happy, horse riding, champions of the silver screen and shows that education was interchangeable with pistols and bullets, making the viewer appreciate the relatively nonviolent standards of our age. What I thought was more interesting though, was how the niece, Debbie, seemed to personify the conflict between the Indians and the Whites. While she, at the time of her escape, had embraced the Indian lifestyle, she was nevertheless taken back by Wayne and his jolly men, evoking the sense of a primal struggle for survival and adaptation.

Overall, I wasn’t very impressed by the movie. I maintain my view, as I have in my previous reviews, that the movie would have been a very appealing and exciting feature for moviegoers of the 50’s. But, John Ford, I’m sorry to say that although countless many people, presumably pretty old in age, would cheer your name like that of Jesus Christ in a church in rural Kansas, but I can only give you credit on the basis that you’re considered by the hotshots in the film industry to be a pretty big deal in cinema. Either way, I’m glad that I watched this movie because any experience; good, bad, mediocre, all have a lesson in them to learn from, and I feel that The Searchers was no exception to that golden rule.

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Documentaries, especially when they are good, give you a kind of strange aftertaste that I cannot really describe in a single word. This feeling is something that would linger in your system especially if you’re not someone familiar to the medium of documentary. It is a curious feeling that couples the initial hesitation or apprehension you had of watching 2 hours of uninteresting, special effects and action less information before you actually watched it, with the feeling of persuasion and intensified emotion you have after watching the feature. Come to think of it, I think the proper word to call that feeling is “ambivalence.” How do I know about this feeling you may ask. I used to be someone who didn’t pay much attention to documentaries until about 3 years ago, until I came across the documentary “Zeitgeist: The Movie”, that left me shell-shocked, just the way The Panama Deception would have left many people who watched it filled with disgust and distrust towards the Government of the United States. I am sure, that after watching this documentary, that initial misguided prejudice people would have of watching what many would think is a mind numbingly boring feature of some senile old people talking about some issue would gradually disappear and blossom into a feeling of deeper curiosity about the world and a silent but strong appreciation of the documentary medium of filmmaking.

The Panama Deception, virtually unheard of today, is an Oscar winning 1992 documentary by a filmmaker named Barbara Trent that attempts to reveal the atrocities committed by the hands of a deceptive United States government headed by that old snake of a president (yes, you will most likely guess correct), George Herbert Walker Bush, in Panama in 1989. Accompanied by the visceral images of a desecrated humanity in the hands of gun toting mercenaries we call the American soldier, The Panama Deception tells the little known story of the invasion of Panama by the United States that rendered thousands of innocent civilians dead in an ocean of mindless carnage and butchery for the sinister motives of power and profit.

The story begins with an introduction to the history behind Panama – US relations, and the role of the Panama Canal in that bilateral liaison. Trent educates the viewer about a controversial history of coercion and profoundly unethical exploitation of Panama by the US since the beginning of the twentieth century that has been (very effectively) glossed over by the goons of the mainstream US media. Progressing to explain how the CIA managed to maneuver the Panamanian government and other Southern American nations by installing puppet regimes for America’s benefit, the filmmaker shows the reactionary attitude of Bush and his cronies in the Pentagon when General Manuel Noriega, the once CIA backed Panamanian General, takes Panama towards a different direction, against the best interests of the sinister machinations of the American government. The deception the film speaks of is centered on how the US government (George H.W. Bush and his profiteering chums in this case) managed to artificially engineer American sentiment against Panama by using the mainstream media, US defense institutions, and good ol’ scare tactics in order to legitimize an inhuman campaign of violence in the name of profit and power. The invasion of Panama massacred thousands of civilians and left the Central American nation helpless in the hands of sophisticated American military technology and brainwashed American mercenaries. The irony of the whole incident was how ordinary Americans were left oblivious to the carnage caused by their government while the rest of the world cried out in protest of the infamy of this mindless brutality.

A blindfolded Panamanian being questioned by a US Soldier; possibly before being murdered.

As you can clearly discern, the film made a strong impression on me. So persuasive was its story and so compelling were its images of humanity in desolation, it is very likely that even the most patriotic American would be utterly disgusted and humiliated to call him or herself an American after watching this movie. The film’s success in creating that powerful feeling of revulsion and shock can be directly attributed to the skilful editing that very effectively juxtaposed the contrasting images of destruction, pain, and sorrow of the Panamanians with the cold indifference, and sometimes humorous justifications of the invasion by the US officials being interviewed. The narration of the documentary establishes a clear continuity of the story and is appropriately accompanied by complimenting images that engage the viewer in its compelling narrative. The use of montage editing to establish evidence, such as the many newspaper headlines and (propagandist) TV news reports would evoke strong emotions in the hearts and minds of the viewer while establishing a high degree of trust in the filmmaker and her story. Some voice over testimonies of the atrocities, as Emanuel Levy of Variety magazine correctly notes, were faulty, uncoordinated, and could have been edited better to make a bigger impact on the audience. But these deficiencies take a back seat to the powerful images and moving interviews in the film.

Overall, the film made a strong impression on me. But after watching more recent documentaries in the Zeitgeist series, I am hardly surprised by the message of the film. The covert atrocities of the US government are nothing new to me, and I urge anyone reading this blog post to follow this movie up by watching the Zeitgeist documentaries, which will undoubtedly create (and trust me on this) a much bigger impact on you than The Panama Deception. I’m sorry to be such an incendiary, but Americans; your government is lying to you and has been feeding you utter claptrap in the forms of media, pop culture, and economics for the last 90 years. You can wake up if you want to, or live in the bliss of ignorance while thousands of millions of people elsewhere in the world burn and languish in the aftermath of your country’s inhuman atrocities.

Yes. George H.W. IS Davy Jones!

PS: 9/11 . . . Was an inside job.

Don’t trust me? Watch what I recommended and have your minds changed.

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“Citizen Kane”.

The words ring with some kind of eerie familiarity even though its memory has been blurred by the passing of 60 years to this day. But this acclaimed cinematic achievement is all but dead as its character and timelessness resonates to this day to give even the most demanding auteur a true treat, 60 years after its conception.

Ok. Enough with the fancy rhetoric. Auteur I may not be, but as a film enthusiast, I can confidently say that Orson Welles’ masterpiece definitely made an impression in me for its visceral style of storytelling. Citizen Kane may not be the most exciting film to watch in this day and age, but the crisp and defined visual presentation of this motion picture, with its strong performances gave me an idea as to why this movie was considered by many, including the prestigious American Film Institute and Robert Hanks of The Independent (who isn’t as awesome as the AFI, but needs to be cited for a valid class grade), as the best movie of all time.

Orson Welles directs and portrays the story of Charles Foster Kane; a rags to riches character who, from being purchased from his destitute parents at a very early age, forms a newspaper empire at the outset of yellow journalism. The story is rendered as a collection of memories of multiple characters. Some may argue that it was but a vivid mental image of the journalist Jerry Thomson, but the point is that it was portrayed as, technically speaking, a flashback. Thomson sets out to decode the mysterious last word of Charles Foster Kane; “Rosebud”, which remains as a mystery even after the conclusion of the movie. If you were I, you’d figure out that the word “Rosebud” was simply a plot device quite similar to the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction and the microfilm laden antique statuette in North by Northwest. In the process of deciphering the mystery of this last word, Thomson takes the viewer through the story of “Charlie” Kane who, starting his business with pure, virtuous intent, turns out to be a power hungry, all consuming monster of a man who successfully manages to alienate himself into a silent, dark corner in his world of riches.

A confident Charles Kane, just before he went bust

The movie was, as I mentioned earlier, of a very distinctive visual style, probably owing to its extensive use of deep focus cinematography. In fact, Citizen Kane was the pioneer of this technique of filming, and employed it to great effect throughout the film, connecting the viewer to all aspects of the images that played out during the story. The film entirely relies on the dialogue and exchanges of its characters, and was played out very effectively using its sharp dialogue and most importantly, the medium two shot, and an uncommon point of view shot pointing up from below the character. These elements combined together with the musical score, held the film’s tense overtone well and contributed heavily to the intensity of the interplay between the characters. The director also cleverly employs close up shots to create distinctive point of view images. The various moments where the shot cuts into a point of view showing a letter, and close up’s of faces occasionally to intensify the emotion of the moment, are effectively used in the continuation of the story. Montage editing can also be seen in many points of the movie such as the scene where all the newspapers in New York carries the headline of the “Traction Trust” being exposed in the beginning of the film, and Kane’s dialogue(s) with his first wife.

An element that deserves a special mention is the lighting. The movie’s dark undertone is mainly created through the effective balance of dark and light, and is well suited to its black and white medium as it creates, rightly, a very sinister feeling in the mind of the viewer. The film uses the effect of kick lights and creates a silhouette effect, especially when the image accommodates Thomson, the reporter (who, by the way, is hardly visible throughout the movie and constantly moves around in the shadows . . . Metaphor of some kind?). Fill lights with key lights that illuminate the faces of characters to build up emotion are also used to great effect. The lighting creates room for many interpretations of the images, and is especially relevant in the scene where Kane discloses his “declaration of principles” in the sinister shadow of his new office, possibly foreshadowing his imminent disaster.

All in all, Citizen Kane was a good movie. Like I mentioned in my North by Northwest post, movies such as these should be viewed with an awareness of historical context to be fully appreciated. Being a person who’s been watching old movies for a few years now, I’m glad that I finally managed to watch Citizen Kane and tick it off from my “to-watch” list.

Oh… And if you thought Orson Welles kinda looked like Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone from the Godfather, say aye!

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