Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Andhra Prawn Fry or Royalla Vepudu

Andhra Prawn Fry (Royalla Vepudu)
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2013
All Rights Reserved
India is a country with an extremely diverse cuisine.  There are many regions, and each region specializes in dishes highly evolved according to available ingredients.  This is hardly surprising given the versatile cooking techniques and the ingenuity of combining flavors to shape a unique dish.  

In the coastal regions of the state of Andhra Pradesh, seafood doesn’t fall short on the menus.  The aquatic prosperity of Andhra can be attributed to its abundant water supply from the delta of the Godavari and Krishna rivers along with the great Bay of Bengal.  

The sea is home to innumerable forms of life.  Thru the years of its history man has learned to use its resources for his survival and has depended on the sea’s generosity.  From the vast array of aquatic products that can be harvested from the sea, prawn or shrimp are considered one of the most valuable.  

An early morning visit to the fish markets in Andhra proves the best possible choice in the bounty of the sea  as well as the catch from inland rivers, reservoirs, lakes, and southern backwaters.  Fishermen bring their catch for sale on the spot, for transporting around India, or for quick freezing for international shipping.
Boats have come ashore as the sun rises in coastal Andhra
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2013
All Rights Reserved

The cuisine of Andhra is one of the spiciest of all Indian cuisines and it represents a culinary joy combining spices, meats and seafood of which all are abundant.  It is exotic, rich and aromatic, and when prawns come into the kitchens of expert cooks it is a delight to the senses and the soul.  

Indian cooks, especially in the coastal communities have many recipes along with plenty of imagination for improvisation with only a few ingredients.  As with all seafood recipes from anywhere in the world, Indian recipes rely on ultra-fresh seafood.  

Following is one of Andhra’s most exotic recipes for prawns: Royalla Vepudu or commonly known as Andhra style prawn fry.  With plenty of spice its for those who prefer robustly flavored dishes or for those who have a flare for  a dish that will tickle the senses all at once.  Andhra style prawn fry is excellent in flavor and with its delicate aroma, its one of the jewels of indian seafood.  This dish can be served with rice or enjoyed as an appetizer paired with a medium body craft beer such as IPA, Bock or Ale, or even a very chilled favorite Lager.  

Andhra Prawn Fry
(Royalla Vepudu)

Preparation 10 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
4 Servings


500 gms prawns, peeled and deveined
1 1/2” ginger 
3 green chiles
1 1/2 tsp of red chile powder
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
1 tbsp lemon juice or yoghurt
3 finely minced garlic cloves
2 medium, finely slices onions  
1/2 tsp fennel seed powder
15-20 curry leaves
2 tbsp grated coconut
1/2 tsp fenugreek powder (optional)
1tsp coriander powder
1 1/2 tbsp garam masala powder
1  tbsp cooking oil
salt to taste
Fishermen at a coastal market in Andhra Pradesh, India
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz
© 2013 All Rights Reserved

Method of Preparation

Grind the ginger and green chiles to form a paste.  

Marinate the prawns in the ginger and chile paste along with 3/4 tsp chile powder, turmeric powder, lemon   juice or yoghurt, and salt for 10 minutes.

Cook the prawns in just enough oil to lightly coat the pawn for 6 to 8 minutes.  Remove from heat and drain any excess liquid.

Heat oil in a pan, add minced garlic cloves and sauté for half a minute.  Add sliced onions, fennel seed powder and curry leaves and sauté for approximately 7 to 8 minutes until the onions are caremelized. 

Add the cooked prawns, coconut, the remainder of the chile powder, fenugreek powder, coriander powder, and garam masala powder.  Dry stir fry for 3 minutes over medium high heat.  Season with salt and turn off heat.  Serve immediately.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Kartik Trivedi - A Rare Interview With The Classical Composer & Artist

Maestro Kartik Trivedi
Classical Composer and Artist
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2013 All Rights Reserved

For many, classical Indian Raga music and visual art are two different things.  But for Maestro Kartik Trivedi they are inseparable, one and the same, as he has delicately explored with his very own unique sound and impressionist paintings all with the touch of his fingertips on the piano keys and with a paintbrush.

Kartik Trivedi is a living legend from the Northwestern state of Gujarat, in India.  He is considered one of the most fascinating contemporary artists of our time.  As an accomplished classical pianist, composer, and painter he has been honored with innumerable awards and accolades around the world. 

Few artists accomplish so much in their lifetime and his history is nothing short of incredible.  Maestro Trivedi granted me an afternoon for a very personal and rare interview.  I am honored to share with you a rare insight into his personal world, his art and his music.

Leticia Alaniz: Welcome Maestro Kartik Trivedi.  What was your childhood like and whom was your biggest influence?

Trivedi: I was born in a small village called Lunsar on December 10th, 1937.  I remember a quiet and peaceful childhood and as early as age five I began drawing.  My father named Shri Laxmishanker Nanjibhai Trivedi, was the head school master and a fine water color painter.  He nurtured in me my visual creativity.  My mother named Sharada, was a folk singer and she was my first and most important influence in music.  She taught me the fundamentals of folk and Raga music.  Here were the beginnings of my humble life and career in fine arts.  

When I was a child, my natural surroundings were also very encouraging.  There was a very beautiful and fine lake nearby and a shrine that my mother used to take me to called 'Shri Mataji Divine'.  I used to sketch there for hours and I used a newspaper in the beginning, because I didn't have drawing paper.

Oil on Canvas by Kartik Trivedi
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2013 All Rights Reserved
When I was six years old I entered a statewide art competition and won first place.  I was the number one painter and that was a very big encouragement for me at the time.  And then as time goes by, my father got transferred from one place to another, and that in a way allowed me to learn different cultural aspects.  I was very happy that I had the opportunity to meet different types of people and learn about their customs and their music.   

Leticia Alaniz:  Did you have a piano at home?

Trivedi:  I did not have a piano at home.  I was introduced to a keyboard instrument when I was ten years old called a harmonium.  It has the same keyboard as a piano but it sounds like an organ.  So I was able to learn scales just like if it was a piano.

Leticia Alaniz:  You have lived in the US many years, what year did you come?

Trivedi:  I came to America in 1967.  I went to a school, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio and there was a very beautiful student center, and on the second floor there was a Steinway grand piano.  At night I used to go there to practice and I found lots of students interested and they would all sit around the piano and listen to me play.  I was encouraged a lot and they said, "Why don't you give a concert?  We like your music very much".   After That I had learned how to sing north Indian classical music which I play known as Hindustani music.    

Leticia Alaniz:  How did you start incorporating the piano into Ragas and into that style of classical music?  

Trivedi:  When I was in India I used to play a flute called bansuri, and I had learned how to sing classical musicals and I learned how to play the sarod, an indian stringed instrument.  When I was experimenting I found out that it is possible that someone can play the complete form of Raga music on the piano.  In my days we had maybe three or four musicians interested that were experimenting with the sound of the piano.  

I use the second pedal to sustain the sound and the third pedal to elevate the sound so it almost sounds like the sound of the sarod.  It depends on how you strike the note. And after you strike the note, one is expected to create  some kind of appropriate environment so that the Raga can sound in a most appropriate way.  

Leticia Alaniz: You're one of the few artists that has been playing this type of music around the world. Maestro Ravi Shankar was one of the first whom introduced classical indian music to the western world and in particular to the US.  Are you in any way compared to him or are you asked questions?  

Trivedi: I have a lot of respect for the late Maestro Ravi Shankar.  He is a very great composer and a very great sitar player.  I used to listen to the great sarod composers as well and when I was living in Santa Clara, I decided to study a masters degree in world music at the San Jose State University.  I worked with many great music teachers which highly influenced me into learning more.  At that time my main instrument was the piano.  Today, I have my own piano which is a german piano made by Schulz Piano Company and it is already about 115 years old!  

Leticia Alaniz:  And it still sounds good!

Trivedi:  Oh, very beautiful!  It has a beautiful sound and I just love that sound!  In America for some time I played piano in Indian restaurants.  I would play somewhere in the corner and not disturb the patrons.  

Leticia Alaniz:  You went from playing in restaurants to playing at the world famous Carnegie Hall!  Tell us more about that.

Trivedi: I performed at Carnegie Recital Hall in New York City.  I performed in the first half, I opened the concert.  And the second half, my teacher played with the sound of the sarod.  The sound of sarod is always there because the sarod always attracted me so much.  And then I also performed at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.  

Leticia Alaniz:  No small feat!  

Trivedi:  You may not believe this but when I gave a concert at The Lincoln Center, the New York Times printed my photograph on a music page and you know, I have a very old bow tie, I loved to wear that bow tie.  I have kept that bow tie as a memento.  But my friends tell me that I look very funky! 

Leticia Alaniz: An artist is an artist!  

Trivedi: I just love that funky look!  I have a three piece suit which is now like a four piece… but that's alright…

Oil on Canvas by Kartik Trivedi
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2013 All Rights Reserved
Leticia Alaniz:  An artist dresses as he must dress…  (we laughed a lot)

Leticia Alaniz:  I want to ask you about your paintings… Your art is considered very impressionistic and beautiful.  What inspires you?

Trivedi:  When I was in high school in Gujarat, at that time I had the opportunity to see the books on French and American impressionism.  From the very beginning I liked pastel colors and somehow the different sense of composition at the same time, the choppy brushstrokes and all that, you know.  The colors were so fantastic and the analyses of sunlight and light in general.  So I liked that and I immediately started working in an impressionist style.  

When I came to America, I was stationed in Cleveland, Ohio and not to far away from my apartment there is a very great and famous museum, The Cleveland Museum of Art, and that is where I saw the originals.  Until 1967 I had never seen an original.  

I used to lecture inside the museum for adult education.  I would take a group of 10, 20, or 30 people and would take them from one gallery to another gallery.  At that time I was studying to receive a MA degree in Art History from Case Western Reserve University.  My first degree is in the area of Economics and Political history that I received form Gujarat State University.  As You call Texas State we have Gujarat State which is a very developed state culturally and economically.  

I had a lot of student friends that studied art history in my lectures and they told me about Kent, Ohio.  I heard about the University and so I went there and I received a MFA, Master of Fine Arts in paintings.  At that time I was a very fine, a very good impressionist painter and I just continued to experiment in that particular style.  

Leticia Alaniz:  What painters do you consider your most influential?  

Trivedi:  One, which I would like to mention is Claude Monet.  I used to teach Claude Monet's paintings.  I taught art history classes and later art appreciation.  We analyzed and talked about different styles of paintings, cubism, impressionism, post impressionism, renaissance, baroque and all of those..

Leticia Alaniz:  In your own art work, what subject is what you paint the most?

Trivedi:  My style of painting is impressionist.  But I also paint in a very native style, a very decorative Indian style of art.  In 1960, while still living in India, I won a national recognition award.  My work was highly appreciated.  That in a way encouraged me a lot.  At that time I was working near a college near the Arabian Sea, near the seashore so I painted my surroundings.  

Leticia Alaniz: Do you incorporate mostly nature and landscapes, portrait or religious motifs?

Trivedi:  I do paint portraits, but mostly I call myself a landscape painter.  I love landscapes so much!

Leticia Alaniz:  And Speaking of portraits, I know of a very famous one that is hanging in Buckingham Palace.  

Trivedi:  Yes well you see, my few friends from London, England called me and they said that quite a few artists from all over the world have presented their paintings about the special occasion, the marriage of Lady Di and and Prince Charles.  And I wanted to do something and I found some photographs of the entire wedding procession, so I decided to do a special painting of the marriage procession.  I received a very, very nice response, it was a great honor.  Prince Charles' secretary wrote me a very fine personal letter saying that they all loved my work.  Of course that encouraged me.  

After that I did a special painting for late President of France François Mitterand and he liked my work very much and today as I understand, the painting has been sent to The National Cultural Heritage museum of France.  I feel happy, I say Voilå!  But very good, ¡Muchas Gracias!  Eternally thank you!  

Leticia Alaniz:  I understand that your paintings are also hanging in the house of late President Ronald Reagan and also with Bill Clinton, among many others. 

Trivedi:  Yes that's true!  I did a special painting for late President Ronald Reagan.  The subject is called, "Welcome Home".  When the 52 hostages came back from Iran, there was a very big procession.  In the back you see the senate building, the congressional building in Washington DC and there was so much happiness everywhere.  So I studied a couple of photographs then did a special painting.  President Ronald Reagan liked it and Nancy Reagan also liked it very much.  Another painting that I did is called "Spring Melody".  The paintings had an impressionistic touch.  A lady from California called me and told me that my paintings were put on display at the presidential library in California which is near somewhere in the Los Angeles area.  I am so happy!  A poor artist like me can do little good things in this world.  

Leticia Alaniz:  You're an amazing artist!   

Trivedi:  President Bill Clinton's painting was, "Autumn in Chicago".  I think that event was also very well covered by CNN News.  

Leticia Alaniz:  Did you get to present the painting personally?   

Trivedi:  Yes!  I met him personally!  There is a book written about me and it's called Kartik Trivedi, Contemporary Impressionist, that is the title.  That was printed in New York City and this was many many years ago.  So I presented him the book and we took a photograph and he was very kind, and he said, "I will carry the book", and so he was carrying the book with him.  An he also wrote me a very nice thanks letter.  I feel very happy and I thank him and thank everybody, those who arranged it.  And the painting I think they said they liked it.  

I presented a second painting to President Bill Clinton when there was a very big parade in New York City.  It was when the American Army came back from, let's see, from where?  Saddam Hussein's country, what is that called?  Oh my mind!  

Leticia Alaniz: Iraq, Desert Storm.

Trivedi:  Yes!  That was a very big parade.  You remind me because I may be talking wrong, I get lost!  So whenever everybody is ready I'm ready…  

Camerman Tony Quinn:  We're ready…

Leticia Alaniz:  We are rolling, but this is good…

Oil on Canvas by Kartik Trivedi
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2013 All Rights Reserved
Trivedi:  When the American Army came back from Iraq I presented a painting to President Bill Clinton and Lady Clinton.  There was a very fantastic parade that I attended and did some drawings.  There were so many very fine and big American flags hanging everywhere.  That was a very wonderful subject for a painter like me, other people have also painted this subject, and so I painted that and they liked it.  This painting is also at the Presidential Art Collection a the White House.  

These are some of the things that I like.  You see, this is so funny… When I did my first painting for President Ronald Reagan, he was a very kind person to me and he used to write letters to me and I used to read, and you know the postman used to come all the way to the second floor of my apartment.  He would knock on the door and say, "Mr. Trivedi, you open the door, I have something for you!"  And I said, "Oh my god, I don't know what that could be."  But he said, "Mr. President has written you a personal letter!"  I would tell him, "I have a can of soda for you!"  And he was always so happy to get a can of soda.  You see, before President Reagan wrote me a letter, that was always a question.  Everybody used to ask me, "Is there anybody who knows you?"  And my Indian background taught me one thing, "Yeah, my god knows me", but it wasn't helping me at all.  So I had a couple of xerox copies made and then I would say, "Yeah, yeah, Mr. President knows me!"  So I would tell my friends sit down, have some tea or coffee.  It was a very interesting and funny thing.  

Suddenly, I would do another painting.  I made one when I was in Santa Clara, California, and I took a painting all the way to the White House and it was wonderful.  I enjoy doing special paintings for dignitaries, a religious leader or a great musician, a writer, or a playwright, actors, actresses.  You see, I'm a painter, I'm a teacher, I was a teacher, but now I retired I think since January 2011.  So now I play piano.

Leticia Alaniz:  You retired form teaching but not from painting…

Trivedi:  No, no, I still paint.  Recently I have written a book and I came to Dallas city because I heard that the people of Dallas city are very friendly and very generous and very loving and caring, so since the last two or three weeks, I'm experiencing their love and care and all that.  I would like to come back to Dallas some day.  

Leticia Alaniz:  You are always welcome.

Trivedi:  Thank you!  Hardly you cannot find such wonderful people anywhere else.  Music has been very much a part of my soul.  Can I talk something about my mystical experience?  

Leticia Alaniz:  Oh yes, of course!

Trivedi:  This is a most true story…  This was 1975 and I was living in Bedford, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.  One day in the morning it must have been around 4:00 or 4:30.  And a very, big, golden light… I saw a golden light, someone woke me up, I was still in the bed, and the background was the white wall of my apartment, that golden light spoke to me, the language is English, and said that at one point in time I was a very famous musician in Germany.  And they said we have reserved your german house, you are in heaven, it is filled with music.  And after my death, they will take me back to my German house which has a very grand piano.  The golden light talked to me and said that we are going to take you back to music.   And the thing was so personal, so special.  

Leticia Alaniz:  It sounds like it.  So spiritual!  

Trivedi:  Yeah, why would anybody care to come from heaven, without appointment or anything in the early morning and wake me up and say, "Hi…Hey you, I want to talk to you!"  At the time, I had to have eight graduation units of the 96 I needed to graduate with a MFA, so eight units I took in music and I made a presentation.  This was music I know, this much I can play, this much I can talk and they liked it very much.  And they also gave me a scholarship.  They said, "Yeah, you are very good".  So, eventually after that I fell down and broke my fingers and took care of my fingers.  I moved to Santa Clara and I went to San Jose University and told them my story.  "I said, look I want to study music."  They said, "What do you do?"  I said, "I'm an art instructor."  So they asked me to come for an interview.  They looked at my credentials and they encouraged me to study music.  If I want to go back to 1975, I would say that the golden light was burning fire.  

Leticia Alaniz:  Well I don't think that was just a golden light because here we have proof of your recordings.  It was a dream for you, but it is a reality for your fans and those whom appreciate fine music.  Tell us about this.  

Trivedi:  The Raga Impressions!  You know I'm an impressionist painter, and when I look at the keyboard of a piano, I think, why can't I create a painting.. you see each key on a piano keyboard has a special color.  I look at the entire keyboard like there are so many colors there.  So striking a piano key in such a way, so it should create an impressionist brush stroke.  So the basic idea is, can I do that, can I be allowed to do that, and lots of great musicians say, yes it's very possible and also very acceptable because you are still working within the classical discipline.  So within the classical discipline, I play classical hindustani music.  I get a tabla player which is a pair of indian drums, and we practice and I try to create the entire mood, the Raga mood that is.  So in The Raga Impressions there is a complete presentation in a most traditional,  classical way.  But then in some cases I am running of it and creating and impressionist feeling of a Raga.  It shouldn't be very difficult to understand, that is what I'm trying to do.  Something very light, very much just searching for a light, in a most lighter way.  

Leticia Alaniz:  The cover to this collection of Ragas is absolutely beautiful and it is also one of your paintings.  Will you play one of your Raga pieces for us?  

Trivedi:  Yeah, I certainly would.  Thank you, thank you very much for asking me!  Let me tell you one thing.  I play very much in a traditional style.  You know, our classical Indian music is very monophonic, at a time you touch one note.  Western classical music is a form of compound sound which we call polyphonic.  I will do two small pieces for you and your audience.  One will be very traditional, I will try to play like a sarod.   The other piece which I will play in a Raga, at that time I created a very special romantic feeling.  My work got very much influenced by Chopin and Franz Liszt, and one I like a lot Schubert.  Here is a piano, my favorite instrument because I like the sound and it is the discipline that I belong to.  I'm a historian of hindustani music and in my studies in the classroom and outside the classroom, I love Frederick Chopin's trait, I'll do a little bit of that for you.  Remind me if forget, there is something that is not in our tradition, a heavy imposition and the introduction of the polyphonic system.  So then, I'm a student.  I'm trying to create a totally new music.  

Leticia Alaniz:  It's all unique and original.  Everything that I have heard of yours is unique.  I have never heard anything so amazing like this because there are many artists whom record a specific style but yours is totally unique. 

Kartik Trivedi & Leticia Alaniz
Trivedi:  Thank you, I appreciate your good comments and as you know a good comment always helps the artist.  A bad comment can kill the artist.  People get so much joy out of it, ahh I killed him man!  Stop!  help him, help that poor guy or poor girl!  So we need a lot of encouragement and a lot of good things around us.  By the way, soft drinks always help me, getting lost into my little world of art and music.  Sometimes one can goes inside my system, and I feel oh my god, I'm on the ninth cloud, it could be even the tenth cloud who knows!  

Leticia Alaniz:  Let's hear you play a little bit.    

Trivedi:  First what I will do is play a small Raga, then I will talk a little bit, then a polyphonic piece.

Leticia Alaniz: This is a mystical experience!   

Trivedi:  Yes, very mystical!  Oh! I'm gonna get you!  I like the sound of piano so much.

Leticia Alaniz:  Yeah, so do I…  What is this piece you're going to play for us?  

Trivedi:  It is a very traditional classical raga a Noon Raga, it is a noon melody, and I will play in a very traditional style like an instrumental solo.  Next I would like to do a special piece for you and your audience in a western polyphonic sound which is basically in a pentatonic scale.  

Leticia Alaniz:  Thank you very much for playing two beautiful pieces for me.  It has been an immense honor and pleasure to meet you and I thank you for your time and I appreciate you coming out for this very special interview.   

Trivedi:  I feel very honored to be interviewed by you and I just don't know how to say thanks, thanks a million!  

Leticia Alaniz:  It has been all my pleasure and I thank you.  May you have a long life.  

Trivedi:  Muchas gracias señorita. I hope I didn't goof too much today... 

Maestro Kartikbhai as he is respectfully called in Gujarat culture, is an artist whom had a dream since his early childhood.  Since his humble beginnings he worked hard to become an accomplished musician, composer and painter.  He has an enviable personality that flourishes with grace and comedy and if you look carefully it is exposed onto his music and paintings.  With sincerity and dedication he has lived a life of accomplishments holding four Masters degrees in Economics/Political History from Gujarat State University in India, Master in Art History from Case Western Reserve University, Master of Fine Arts from Kent University, and a Master in World Music from San Jose State University.

His piano compositions are deeply moving, mesmerizing, and emotional and they convey his message through one's body, mind, and soul.  It is music that cannot be placed in one single category.  It is a loving marriage of classical indian hindustani music and western classical.  He is a living legend, a rare musician.

Note: This is a transcript of an interview that was filmed live and unscripted.  A special appreciation for cameramen Tony Quinn and Joe Rodriguez of JR Media Group International, Yogi Patel of Pratham USA, Mihir Patel, Prerna Bohre, and David Roziere for providing the location for filming.  

Please Join for an Art Exhibition & Piano Concert By Kartik Trivedi.  
Sunday, March 24th 2013
At Windsor, 7750 LBJ Frwy. Dallas, TX 75251
Art Exhibition: 12 pm - 7 pm
Music:      5 pm - 7 pm

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Film Noir - A Definition

The Big Combo (1955)
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
film noir
/ˌfilm ˈnwär/

  1. A style or genre of motion picture marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, menace, and cynical malevolent characters in a sleazy setting and an ominous atmosphere that is   conveyed by shadowy, low-key photography and foreboding background music.   
  2. A film of this genre.

A dark street in the early morning hours, splashed with a sudden downpour.  Lamps form haloes of light in the murk.  In a walk-up room, filled with the intermittent flashing of a neon sign from across the street, a man is waiting to murder or to be murdered… the specific ambience of film noir, a world of darkness and violence, with a central figure whose motives are usually greed, lust and ambition, whose world is filled with fear, reached its fullest realization in the nineteen forties.  A genre deeply rooted in the nineteenth century's vein of romanticism developed through U.F.A, the principal film studio in Germany and the murky fog-filled atmosphere of pre-war French movies, flowered in Hollywood as the great German or Austrian expatriates - Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder - arrived and were allowed more and more freedom to unleash their fantasies on the captive audience.  Here is a world where it is always night, always foggy or wet, filled with gunshots and sobs, where men wear turned-down brims on their hats and women loom in fur coats, glamorous gowns, perfect lipstick, and guns thrust deep into their pockets.  

Humphrey Bogart in the Maltese Falcon
Directed by John Huston (1941)
It was during the summer of 1946 that French moviegoers discovered a new type of American film.  Five movies flashed one after the other across Parisian screens, movies which shared a strange and violent tone, tinged with a unique eroticism: John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, Otto Preminger's Laura, Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet, Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, and Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window.  During the Nazi occupation of France, US films were not allowed in France and so the summer of 1946 was the first opportunity for French audiences to see these US World War II era movies.  

Long cut off from the United States, with little news of Hollywood production during the war, living on the memory of Wyler, of Ford, and Capra, French critics could not fully absorb this sudden revelation.  Other films followed: Frank Tuttle's This Gun for Hire, Robert Siodmak's The Killers, Robert Montgomery's The Lady in the Lake, Charles Vidor's Gilda, and Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep imposed the concept of film noir on moviegoers.  A new series of "dark film" had emerged in the history of cinema.  

A series can be defined as a group of motion pictures from one country sharing certain traits (style, atmosphere, subject matter…) strongly enough to mark them unequivocally and to give them, over time, an unmistakable character.  Moreover they all reach a peak, that is, a moment of purest expression.  Afterwards they slowly fade and disappear leaving traces and informal sequels in other genres.  

The history of film is, in large part, a history of film cycles.  There are, of course, certain titles that resist classification:  Orson Welles' Citizen Cane or Clifford Odets' None but For The Lonely Heart are among these.  Often a remarkable film cannot be classified because it is the first in a new movement and the observer lacks the necessary perspective.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was unclassifiable before it engendered the German expressionist style of cinema "Caligarism."  It is a style that included both the horror genre as well as the film noir movement.  

Since the start of the talkies, one could cite many examples:  in the Unites States, social realism, gangster films; in Germany, the farces from 1930 to 1933 which inspired a like movement in American comedy, in the USSR films dedicated to the October Revolution; in France the realism of Marcel Carné, Jean Renoir, and Julien Duvivier.  

The existence over the last few years of a "série noir" in Hollywood is obvious.  Defining it's essential traits is another matter.  Some of the film noir qualities are nightmarish, weird, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel.  In some titles, the cruelty of some bizarre behavior is preeminent.  Often the noir aspect of a film is linked to a character, a scene, or a setting.  The Set-up is a good documentary on boxing: it becomes a film noir in the sequence when scores are settled by a savage beating in a blind alley.  Rope directed by Alfred Hitchcock is a psychological melodrama which attaches itself to film noir through its intriguing sadism.  

Film Noir is french for "black film".  It is the presence of crime which gives film noir its most constant characteristic "The dynamism of violent death" as said by the famous film critic  Nino Frank whom first coined the term film noir.  Blackmail, accusation, theft, or drug trafficking set the stage for a narrative where life and death are at stake.  Sordidly or bizarrely, death always comes at the end of a tortured journey.  In every sense of the word a noir film is a film of death.  

Since 1946 Hollywood had exported a score of films to France which have as their main themes criminal inquiries supposedly based on actual cases.  In fact, a title card or a narrator often alert the viewer at the start of the film that this is a true story which took place in such and such a time at such and such a place.  The shots on the screen faithfully reconstruct the start of the process: a call to the homicide bureau, the discovery of a body.  Sometimes it may be a seemingly inconsequential incident or some report from a neighborhood police that sets events in motion.  Then comes the tedious "leg" work by the cops: the careful but fruitless searches, ineffective surveillance, and futile decoys.  Finally there is a glimmer, some object found, a witness, which leads to a climatic chase and uncovering a den of cutthroats.  Film noir is from within, from the point of view of the criminals.  

The documentary-style picture examines from without, from the point of view of the police official.  In features such as The Naked City, the action begins after the criminal act, and their murderers, their minions, and other accomplices move across the screen only to be followed, marked, interrogated, chased, and killed. Police investigators are traditionally portrayed as righteous men, brave and incorruptible.  The "police documentary" is more accurately a glorification of the police.  

Cary Grant & Ingrid Bergman in
Notorious (1946) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
This is not the case for the noir series.  If police are featured, they are rotten - sometimes often murderers themselves as in Otto Preminger's Fallen Angel or Where the Sidewalk Ends.  At minimum, they let themselves get sucked into the criminal mechanism.  As a result of this screenwriters have frequently fallen back on the private detective.  It would have been too controversial always to impugn American police officials.  The private detective is midway between lawful society and the underworld, walking on the brink, sometimes unscrupulous but putting only himself at risk, fulfilling the requirements of his own code and the genre as well.  As if to counterbalance this, the actual law breakers are more or less sympathetic figures.  The narrative is manipulated so that at times the moviegoer sympathizes and identifies with the criminals.  

As for the ambiguous protagonist, he is often more mature and not too handsome.  Humphrey Bogart typifies him.  He is also an inglorious victim whom may suffer appalling abuse, before the happy ending.  He is often masochistic, even self-immolating, one whom makes his own trouble.  At times he is a passive hero who allows himself to be dragged across the line into the gray area between legal and criminal behaviour, such as Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai.

Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep (1946)
Directed by Howard Hawks
Finally, there is ambiguity surrounding the woman: the femme fatale who is fatal for herself.  Frustrated and deviant, half predator, half prey, detached yet ensnared, she falls victim to her own traps.  This new type of woman, manipulative and evasive, as hard bitten as her environment, ready to shake down or to trade shots with anyone--and probably frigid--has put her mark on noir eroticism, which may be at times nothing more than violence eroticized.  The female protagonist is being depraved, she is murderous, doped-up or drunk.  She is a mysterious flawed human with character imperfections and makes use of her hypnotic seductive sensuality.  Her charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations.  The phrase is french for "deadly woman".  The femme fatale is often described as having power akin to an enchantress, seductress, vampire, witch, or demon, having some power over men.  

In the film noir genre lighting was perfected and used on a grand scale with such techniques as high-contrast, revealing certain characters in bright, almost washed out light, while casting others in almost total shadow.  Low angle camera setups were used to make the subject seem taller and more powerful.  Deep focus, which was a new technology at the time, was employed lavishly allowing the camera to maintain in focus objects and characters in the both the background and foreground in the same shot.  Film Noir cinematographers were masters of light and darkness.  Hungarian-born John Alton is one of the most recognized and celebrated cinematographers for setting the stage for the stylizing of such films as The Big ComboHe walked By Night, and Talk about a Stranger.  Many cinematographers mirrored his style and craftsmanship but none ever came close to his careful use of chiaroscuro, the powerful striking contrast of light (chiaro) with the elements of dark (oscuro).  One thing these disparate films have in common is the beautiful crisp black and white photography.  Unlike most cameramen of his time, Alton used very little grayscale, noting, "the most beautiful photography is in low key with rich blacks."  He was an artist whom liked working in the dark.  Other major cinematographers during this classic period included John F. Seitz who shot Billy Wilder masterpieces Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd. and Burnett Guffey whom worked at Colombia Pictures shooting titles such as The Reckless Moment, In a Lovely Place and Scandal Sheet.

All the components of film noir yield the same result: disorienting the spectator, who can no longer find the familiar reference points.  The moviegoer is being presented a less severe version of the underworld, with likable killers and corrupt cops.  Good and evil go hand in hand to the point of being indistinguishable.  Robbers become ordinary guys: they have kids, love women, and just want to go home again as in the The Asphalt Jungle.  The victim seems as guilty as the hit man, who is just doing his job.  The moral center is completely skewed and in the end the chaos goes "beyond all limits."  


Panorama Du Film Noir Américain. 1941-1953 (French)
Raymond Borde and ´Etienne Chaumeton

Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style 
Edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini

Special appreciation and recognition to Monsier Freddy Buache
Secretary-general of the Cinématheque of Lausanne, Switzerland

Thursday, January 24, 2013

John Huston - Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)

John Huston had big ideas for this film in what at first seems like it will be a quiet film about infidelity, but instead it is full of bizarre surprises that drains the characters in every possible manner.  The film deserves to be brought out of the vaults and given a good dusting to allow for new audiences to appreciate the many qualities in this cinematic piece.  This is the type of film that can divide audiences with mixed opinions.

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
The screenplay was carefully adapted from the novel by the same name written by American author Carson McCullers.  When the novel was first published in 1941, it was not well recieved.  Perhaps it was because of the wicked content of the novel that dealt with repressed homosexuality in the deep conservative south on an army base.  This is a subject of hush, hush as it was a huge taboo back then and it was not openly talked about.  After its publication the novel caused some embarrassment at Fort Benning (Columbus, Georgia) when people speculated about the source of McCullers' strange gothic tale.

Any good director will try to tackle a subject that provides juicy characters that are all but imperfect with many failures, obsessions, desires and secrets that are strictly taboo.   That is exactly what intrigued the legendary director as he journeyed into the dark creepy world of six central characters and began the story with music that sets the tone for the entire film in classic dramatic fashion.  The screenplay follows the original McCullers story faithfully and without compromise.

Marlon Brando & Elizabeth Taylor in
Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
The story begins with Major Penderton played by the great Marlon Brando and his wife Leonora played by Elizabeth Taylor.  They live their dreadful and bitter marriage on an army base in the deep south.  Their grotesque behavior towards one another is established almost immediatley.  Major Penderton is a repressed man hiding behind a façade of machismo.  He gives lectures about leadership and courage to the soldiers at the camp, while his repressed homosexuality begins to emerge.  His distorted speeches represent a twisted attempt to be what he is not.  His wife Leonora, a domineering, emasculating female bored to death of living on the camp and not getting any attention from her husband satisfies herself unapologetically with lovers.  So domineering is her character that the mere symbolism of her riding a white beautiful strong stallion and carrying a whip is enough to make anyone cringe at the sight of her craving for male attention in its most brutal form.

Other central characters are Lieutenant Colonel Morris Langdon (Brian Keith) and his neurotic, sick and fragile wife Alison (Julie Harris), the Langdon's effeminate Filipino houseboy Anacleto (Zorro David) and a mysterious soldier, Private Williams (Robert Forster).

Marlon Brando & Elizabeth Taylor in
Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
From the first scene with Leonora, the viewer is well aware of her extramarital affair with Langdon, as well as her strong bond with her horse, Firebird.  Private Williams also has a strong bond with all the horses on the stable and a perverse fixation on Leonora.  Such is his fixation that he is often seen peeping into her window at night or worse!  He is seen riding Leonora's horses naked and even sneaking into her bedroom while she is sleeping, going thru her feminine things and caressing her lingerie.

Leonora takes advantage of her husbands impotent, latent homosexual tendencies and never misses an opportunity to ridicule his masculine failings.  He displaces his hostility by one day taking Leonora's horse Firebird and riding wildly into the woods, but he falls off and is dragged a distance by the horse.  He then angrily and brutally beats the horse.  Williams, while out riding naked, finds the horse and brings it back to the stable to tend its wounds. Penderton becomes infatuated with Williams and starts to follow him around the camp. Upon finding out about her horse, Leonora in retaliation humiliates her husband by interrupting her own party and repeatedly striking him on the face with her riding whip.

In the closing scene of this bizarre tale, one night Penderton looks out of his window to find Williams outside his house. He thinks that Williams has picked up his subtle signals and is coming to see him, but instead watches Williams enter his wife's room. Penderton becomes jealous and angry that Williams is not there to see him and he decides to shoot him dead.
Legendary Film Director John Huston
Artistically, John Huston's original aim was to use a style of photography that mutes almost all of the color out of color film in the process, then finishing with a golden tone leaving in mostly reds and pinks and stark stand out colors of blue or green.  There are no dream sequences in the film but the entire film has a dream like quality.

"Reflections in a Golden Eye" transcends the southern gothic genre and offers the viewer a strange and perverse world of guarded inner torments and repressed passions.  The grotesque and misfit get no more sympathy than the bewildered healthy animals who live with them.  That's what makes this film work.  It is a bit on the psycho side yet amusing for all its dark, crazy, wicked characters.

Memorable Lines:

Brando: "I'll kill you! I swear I'll kill you!  Don't do it!"
Taylor: "Have you ever been collared and dragged out into the street and thrashed by a naked woman?"

Reflections in a Golden Eye was released in 1967

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Salaam Bombay!

Mira Nair directed one of my all- time favorite Indian films: Salaam Bombay! (1988) which is considered one of the top foreign films ever made.  Few Indian films reach western audiences the way Salaam Bombay! touched the hearts of many in a raw look into a small slice of life of a child played by Shafiq Syed in a city of millions.  There's so much to discuss on this genuine gem of a film centered on the unfortunate adventure of an 11-year-old boy named Krishna who ends up alone in the big city of Bombay now known as Mumbai.  Krishna lives with his mother and older brother whom constantly bullies him.  One day he gets very angry at his brother after being bullied and he sets fire on his brother's motorbike.  To punish him, his mother tells him he has to pay for the ruined motorbike and that he will have to work hard.  She takes him to a traveling circus and abandons him there telling him not to return home until he has earned 500 rupees or the equivalent of little over $7 dollars.  The boy eagerly begs for work at the circus and he's taken on.  As expected, the circus boss takes advantage of him and overworks him without pay.  One day the boss sends him to run an errand and when he returns, the traveling circus has packed up and left him behind with nowhere to go.  Alone and without the money to repay for the motorbike, he decides to take what little money he had and buys a ticket at the train station to travel to the nearest city, Bombay (Mumbai).  

Shafiq Syed in the role of Chaipau in
Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay!
Upon arrival, he's robbed of his meager possessions by other homeless kids.  He follows them into the dangerous red light district where he meets and befriends Chillum, a street-smart sixteen-year-old drug pusher and addict.  The streets in this old district are not only dangerous, they're dreadful and sad, where hundreds of children live and die on the streets, many at the hands of traffickers and abusers.  At this point, Chillum gives Krishna a new name, Chaipau.  Chaipau knows Chillum is not to be trusted but he has nobody else whom he can turn to and feels even a little bit safer in his company.  Soon Chillum helps Chaipau get a job as a runner (chaiwallah) selling tea (chai).  His job is to run up and down flights of stairs with trays of tea to a community in several buildings where he discovers a dark and savage underworld of drugs, prostitution, sweatshops, and poverty.  Chaipau sleeps anywhere he can in an abandoned building and he works hard saving everything he earns.  He hides all his money behind a brick where he thinks he can keep it safe.  He has only one goal in mind and that's to return home with the 500 rupees.  
Chaipau carries on for what seems like months with big dreams of earning enough money to return back home to his mother.  One day, Chillum convinces him to tell him where his secret hiding place is and that he will help him return home.  Chaipau, innocently believes him.  But Chillum betrays him and steals all the money leaving Chaipau with nothing and a heartbreaking feeling of hopelessness after working for such a long time.
As the narrative of the film continues, the audience develops a sense of pain along with the boy, yet the director's clever treatment of the film demonstrates how cruel a big city can be to a small boy.  He encounters countless abusive incidents from the tea (chai) vendor until one day a positive light sheds hope on him to cope with his loneliness and fear.  He meets a young girl of sixteen named Manju who lives with a Madam that runs a brothel.  Sadly, the Madam has plans of an age-old custom of selling the young girl's virginity to the highest bidder.  Chaipau wants to help Manju of her miserable and sad fate so he plans to help her run away.  It will be an extremely difficult escape so he pours gasoline in the room where Manju sleeps and sets the place on fire escaping out into the streets with Manju.   
Filmmaker Mira Nair
Mira Nair's gritty treatment of the film lends itself to the telling of the story in a docudrama style allowing for full bright colors photographing the sights and sounds in all of its naturalness.  The film is so real and raw, that it provokes many emotions in the viewer.   It offers a touch of fable much like beloved Charles Dickens' story Oliver Twist.  The director mixes realism, poverty and merciless satire as a way to describe the effects of harsh, brutal day to day worries of a small but highly intelligent boy.  Child labor exists in many parts of the world and India is not unique to these circumstances.  Chaipau endures a miserable existence and escapes into the streets carving out a chance for a better life along with other children in the streets of Bombay.  He is an innocent child trapped in a world where his only options seem to be working as a tea boy.  From this unpromising setting, however, a fairy tale also emerges. In the midst of corruption and degradation, the essentially innocent Chaipau remains pure-hearted; he steers away from evil when those around him give in to it, and in proper fairy-tale fashion, he eventually receives his reward.  On the way to this happy ending, Nair explores the kind of life an orphan, outcast boy could expect to lead in the largest industrialized city in India.  It is a film that raises concerns.  Is there hope for the children?  What will be their fate?  
Leticia Alaniz and Mira Nair
Salaam Bombay! is in Hindi and it is beautifully photographed by American cinematographer Sandi Sissel.  
A chai wallah (tea) runner in a crowded market in India.  
The small clay bowls are used to serve the tea.
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2008 All Rights Reserved 
The following is a poem paying tribute to Salaam Bombay! by: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
All day I carry glasses of tea
down streets full of holes or feet
waiting to trip me.  Above summer is singing
the feathers of black pigeons
that circle and circle. Gopi carries a knife
with a twisted snake handle.
Each time a glass breaks
Chacha cuts my pay. 

Dark windows.
Women with satin eyes calling me. The tea
thick and sweet in its rippling brown skin.
Downstairs pimps play cards
all day. I take a sip from each glass
when no one is watching.

Broken-horned cow, chewing garbage
in the alley where we sleep.
Rain soaks my yellow shirt, turns the tea to salt. 
The cinnamon smell
of women's brown bodies.
When you can't stand any more.
the pavement is soft enough.
I am hiding my money behind a loose brick
in the bridge-wall.
First thing to learn: melt into pavement
when you hear police vans.

Sometimes my skin
doesn't want
to hold in all these bones.
Chillum sells hashish
to tourists by India Gate.
It pulls you out of your body, flings you
into the sun. The night Gopi mugged the old man
he bought us all
parathas at Bansi's Corner Cafe. 

Footsteps follow me, a muffled cough.
My soles are turning to stone. I must
lie down. The night-dust is warm as Shiva's ashes. 
When I have five hundred rupees
I can go back
to my mother in Bijapur.
Till I fall asleep I watch
that fierce glistening,
the sky full of scars.