Frances Ha: to take life with a pinch of salt

Frances_Ha

Quirky, fun and philosophical, Frances Ha is a rare gem in popular cinema. The film charts the friendship and conflict between Frances and her flatmate Sophie, and highlights the life of Frances as a struggling dancer. The black-and-white cinematography creates a strange yet satisfying mood. Instead of relying on dramatic plot or the change of scenes, the film rests on a solid, tender narrative: the intense bonding and competitiveness between the two friends. The girlish intimacy between Frances and Sophie appears slightly awkward at the outset, and it takes some time to warm up to the story. As it unfolds, however, the film gathers momentum, and the complexity of the characters becomes evident. Frances’s naive persistence in life and her lack of self-confidence make her vulnerable, authentic and likeable, while Sophie – who decides to leave the flat and move in with her banker boyfriend in a ‘better neighbourhood’, Tribeca – represents another way of adapting. There is a lot of attention in the making of dialogue, characterisation and pace. Frances’s struggle with her dancing career, friendships, with rentals and bills as one tries to make her way in an expensive city, will no doubt resonate in the hearts of many.

The scene where we see Frances socialising with her middle-class friends – mostly mid-career professionals- is affectionate and hilarious. There is an unmistakable air of pretentiousness going on as each other brags about his or her success in life, and yet Frances’s less-than-glamorous stories, or nearly-ramblings, come across as more endearing and genuine. She is almost embarrassed to admit that she is a dancer, afraid of being judged. When asked about the difficulty of achieving her goal, or her job, she confronts her own fears: by confessing ‘because I don’t really do it.’

One of the most touching moments in the film is when the director of the dance company offers Frances a junior office role, and she decides to turn it down even if she has no better option, fearing it to be a compromise to her dream. The director remarks that she would really like Frances to work more on choreography. Frances said, ‘You make it sound so easy.’ ‘I’m not saying it’s easy.’ Gerwig has delivered the artist’s inner fears with tremendous grace. Her reconciliation with her best friend Sophie, who has also gone through dramatic changes in her life, helps her regain her foothold and confidence. Frances’s life changes direction as she reconsiders her options and fights for what she really wants, caring less the opinion of others.

The script, co-written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, stands out for its unconventional, un-Hollywood treatment, witty dialogue and refreshing soundtrack. The first part of the film might take some time to warm up to, and at times feels a bit awkward, but all in all, it’s an inspiring and thoughtfully produced piece.

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Murakami’s birthday girl

birthday girl‘The Birthday Girl’ is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. Published initially in the Guardian in 2006, Haruki Murakami’s story tells of a girl who made a wish when she was twenty, working her shift in a restaurant.

I loved it when I first read this story, and to tell the truth, a few years had gone past and it has grown on me ever since. I feel that it is about what we really want to make out of life, the spontaneous choices or decisions that somehow made us. The girl refuses to reveal what she wished for. She says only time will tell whether the wish has come true. There is a deliberate contrast between her current and past life. Now a mother and housewife with a seemingly comfortable lifestyle as opposed to the poor waitress who worked her long evening shift on her 20th birthday, the girl tells her tale in an unaffected, self-absorbed tone, and there is no letting on whether she is happy or not. This is precisely the magic of the short story – the briskness of it all, the enigma, the uncertainty as to whether one has attained what one has set out to do. Tobias Hill describes it as the refusal to reveal.

The story speaks to many because it is a question on everyone’s mind: if you were to be granted a wish, what would you wish for? What do you want to do with your life? I find it irresistible, the imagery of ‘the dent’ in the front of their car – that imperfection in life that you have to put up with, that stays no matter what. I am impressed that Murakami can crystallise this idea of helplessness in life in a poetic and cinematic way. I am touched to see many readers ponder about the same puzzle in the narrative. There are various websites and dialogues on this. An example is the wiki dialogue (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_was_the_wish_in_birthday_girl_by_murakami).

Like many others, I identify with his writing a lot, and I always have the image of him writing away at the kitchen table, daily, in the wee hours after his work at the jazz bar in Tokyo. It left me such a strong impression. In spring 2008, when I was in Tokyo, I went to a bar in Ginza, where a friend used to work and manage the bar business. Many Japanese businessmen went to the bar to chill out after work. In that quaint bar there were posh leather sofa chairs and a long, elegant, dimly illuminated bar where the bartender stood and mixed drinks behind the counter. And I had imagined that it would be similar to what Murakami’s life used to be, managing the bar business, working till late, clouded in that lazy music and dim lights. If he had not become a serious writer instead. If he had not gone back home those nights to scribble down what was swimming in his head. According to what Murakami told the papers, when he was 29 he realised he could become a writer.

In the story, I think the girl wished to become a different person.

Now that Norwegian Wood is going to be out soon across London’s cinemas, I have this longing to reread all his books again. That story still kept me thinking on some nights.

Notes on the film The Social Network

Adapted from Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction The Accidental Billionaires, what I really liked about The Social Network is its half cynical account of ambitious Ivy League over-achievers, the postmodern angst syndrome and the sordid post Web 2.0 social reality. Stark and fast-paced, thanks to Sorkin’s West Wing Hollywood style and mind-blowing music score, the narrative shifts between Mark Zuckerberg the billionaire, faced with charges and accusations, and the teenager holed up in his college room in Harvard, spurned by his girlfriend. Serious, silent, full of intensity and wry humour, Jesse Eisenberg does an excellent job bringing to life Facebook founder’s rollercoaster life.

the social network

For me, the most memorable scene was the film’s ending when Zuckerberg sets his hope on re-establishing friendship with Erica, whom he once called bitch, waiting and waiting for her to respond at the other end of Facebook. In his quest to prove himself he has failed to hold on to things that he cares about: love, and friendship with his college best mate Eduardo.

The dialogues have been a let-down, being mostly glib, predictably commercial one-liners. Moreover, I don’t see why the story must start with the teenager’s failure of the relationship. It serves the purpose but it lacks depth and originality. Think of the much more refreshing personal portrait of John Lennon rendered in the film Nowhere Boy, which unravels the singer’s life history in a much less linear way.

The movie reminded me of my recent experience to work with an entrepreneur. He was, as I expected, quick to take me on and to give me free reign with the project scope, daring me to interpret the task. He did not set me a deadline, instead he would hope that I deliver much earlier than he expected, rewarding each quick turnaround. The experience reminded me of that almost unmistakable trait among successful entrepreneurs: the voraciousness and intensity, the out-of-the-box thinking and above all, the courage to jump from one thing to another without taking one’s eye off the goal.

Everyone wants to be Carey Mulligan

Dressed in a navy blue Azzaro evening gown with a sparkly crystal-studded collar, the 24-year-old actress Carey Mulligan dazzled everyone with her first Cannes appearance. Her new cropped haircut shows off her chin, and the look grows on me.

In another photo shoot promoting the premiere of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, she exudes an almost boyish charm in an angular shift dress, punctuated with a smart belt and Roland Mouret platform shoes. She looks more reserved than we might expect, but startlingly chic.

Now everyone wants to be Carey Mulligan. It is easy to love success. In Susan Sarandon’s interview with the actress, Mulligan concedes that she doesn’t want to be known as the face in the poster. She wants interesting parts, and to be in acting, to inhabit other lives. In An Education, what sticks in one’s mind is her haughtiness and opportunism. What escapes some is that she has been steadily working for years. This is not an overnight success stunt.

A few years back she was the face you might have noticed working behind the bar. Where was the A-levels schoolgirl shunned by the top drama schools?

Review on Kogut’s documentary Mutum: childhood in the sertao

I was invited to a film screening of Sandra Kogut’s documentary, ‘Mutum’, which brought much understanding as to how you can disregard rules in any genre and make your own footprints.

kogut

Kogut, a Brazilian by birth and who has traveled widely, succeeded to adopt the novel Campo Geral. Written by Joao Guimaraes Rosa back in the 1960s, the story traces family life in the sertao, the hinderland of Brazil. Thiago, the main protagonist, makes many decisions that will subsequently change the fate not just for himself but for the rest of the family.

Shocking…the fact that this kind of rural poverty does exists…I thought before that if it did, I would have to go really far away from a city like Rio to find it. And I didn’t. – Kogut

I am very inspired by Kogut’s work and her explanation about how she sees and goes about changing rules in the film-making world. Her attempt to blur the boundary between film and fiction is bold and finely executed.

Kogut mentions that the film cast is comprised of villagers and their children who did not have any experience with the cinema, and this actually helps the film as these villagers went about interpreting their roles with a stronger sense of reality, getting caught up with the emotions of the characters, creating a vivid sense of village community. She spent a year with the local farmers, talking to them and understanding how their lives are, getting them to know the story she is going to film. The boy who plays Thiago was invited to film festivals where thousands greeted him. He has never been to a cinema and there he was, the star in Berlin Film Festival. What amazes most is that he is also, despite the film and the fame, still himself, a Brazilian boy who went back to his way of life.

In Brazil, when you say you’re going to the sertao, people tell you it’s impossible to get there because it’s more a state of mind than a place. – Kogut

The power of this documentary lies in its universal appeal. The sertao lies inside us. Happenings in the poor village transcend the confines of a remote location and portray the suffering, joys and tests a child experiences when growing up. The film examines the bondage brought about by family and poverty.

I am also fascinated with the lack of dialogues in the film. It is a world where people interact by actions and tactile understanding. In the film, emotions are embedded in the images and the sensations: downpours in a tropical storm; movements of farm animals; games; farming…

The film experience also helps me resolve an issue I had earlier with story plots. A friend once has shared with me that plot is everything. If you don’t have a strong and startling plot, you win nothing. This film shows that you can find your own way to establish lasting strength of a narrative.

Check out an interview here to know more about Kogut’s film philosophy.

The unhappy Kate Winslet and the course of true love never did run smooth

I was very upset to find out the split of Kate Winslet and her partner Sam Mendes. To me, they resemble what we all want: love life, fame, wealth and family. That personal ambition and family life can go hand in hand. Now we find out the truth, that even Kate has been unhappy in her marriage.

Kate Winslet

What shocks everyone is that two highly successful, committed and intelligent people turn out not to be a good match for each other. They are not Katie Price and Peter Andre; not Tom Cruise. Nicole Kidman or Katie Holmes. They don’t get themselves involved in fleeting affairs or celebrity gossips. Anyone who is or was in a relationship will understand that the course of true love never did run smooth. As Hanif Kureishi said in his talk at Foyles the other day, some day we find ourselves loving someone intensely and hours later people quarrel and hate each other. But despite what knowledge or real-life experience taught us, we continuously try and fail to resolve how relationships fail, even when all the attributes of the individuals seem right, and that two people try hard to live up to the expectations of each other.

We cannot understand how Kate, a star actress with five Oscar nominations and one Best Actress Oscar behind her, could fail to make this work. We do not know why Sam Mendes, widely acclaimed as a director for highly cerebral films – American Beauty, The Road to Perdition, Away We Go, Revolutionary Road – says quit to a 7-year relationship with such a highly intellectual, charming and arguably one of the best actresses in Hollywood.

We missed in reality that success does not guarantee happiness. Success – if it means fame – brings more fame, and money, and often both. But it does not by default lead to happiness. A relationship or marriage works or fails to work solely because of the bond between two persons and their willingness to love and compromise. Attraction and magnetism help, but it is also an element of choice, a life decision, to continue loving and being with someone from day to day. I know nothing about their relationship and the rumours spread by online and offline media are but rumours, and their decision to split can be motivated by a number of reasons, but I can imagine the stress of making things work when both the husband and wife are so well-regarded in their achievements, when there is so much at stake for them in their lives.

For those who have watched Revolutionary Road directed by Sam Mendes (click here), they can see how good Kate’s performance is, playing the role of a distressed middle-class housewife. The role demands it, but for us all, it is sad to feel and remember that the anguish we once watched on the screen could be more deeply rooted than that. I remember watching the film (and also, to some extent, The Reader) and being shocked by the frustrations that seemed to well within her, and I don’t think it’s just the acting that demands it. There is something else that seemed almost forced and unnecessary in her expressions.

The split was announced a week after the Oscar night. They did not try to steal the show. It is far better to focus more on what they have achieved in life, than what they haven’t been able to make through. And who knows, perhaps they can find a more satisfying bond or happiness in the years to come?

Ref: what they said of each other and their relationship (click here).