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.