Tag Archives: Filmspotting

The Apu Trilogy

Finally watched all of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy: Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959). Filmspotting’s recent Satyajit Ray marathon compelled me to finally give them a go. The Criterion editions are, no surprise, beautifully rendered. I’d heard of the trilogy first from Image‘s Arts & Faith Top 100 Films list, which I’ve used along with Top 100 lists from AFI and Time magazine as a guide for films to seek out. (At this writing I’ve seen 92 of AFI’s list, 51 of Time, and 47 of Image; we could debate the merits of these lists all day, but they are undeniably handy guides for pursuing quality cinema.)

The movies do revolve around Apu, but his mother Karuna was as much the star of the first two as Apu was. I suspected this was the case after watching Pather Panchali, but her role in Aparajito confirmed it. She’s often exasperated or stressed in her role as a homemaker struggling to provide and care for her two children in rural 1920s Bengal, but moments of delight and grace sneak through as well. Then, as tragedies mount and modernity creeps in, her struggle intensifies just as Apu ages into a bright and aspirational teen. His visits home dwindle along with Karuna’s health; she doesn’t disclose her illness to Apu, nor her despair at his increasing distance.

This culminates in a crushing scene when Apu, on a rare visit home, fades to sleep as Karuna peppers him with questions. “When you earn money, will you arrange treatments for me?” she says. “Apu? Will you, Apu?” No answer. Whether she was expecting answers or just needed to voice her concerns, the look on her face takes a devastating turn through concern, fear, and desperation before arriving at resignation.

Apur Sansar brings the trilogy back under Apu’s domain, following his perambulations as a struggling writer and reluctant evolution as a bridegroom and father. Despite being closer in age to the Apu of Apur Sansar, I was less enveloped in this story than those of the first two movies, but still felt satisfied by the trilogy’s full-circle conclusion.

The lists from Time and Image group all three films together, but I favor the approach Sight & Sound takes on their Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time list, which separates Pather Panchali from the group (just as they rightfully split up The Godfather and The Godfather Part II). Though the second two films fill out the rest of Apu’s story, Pather is the strongest self-contained film, and the story I could most envision returning to again.

Midnight Special

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It’s really a shame Jeff Nichols got bounced in the second round of the Filmspotting Madness directors bracket. Unlike the NCAA tournament, where success is tangible and stats-driven, there is no one way to account for which director is better than the other. Everyone voter is left to his or her own interpretation and taste. The one I’ve used is based on what the Filmspotting guys have put forth: you’re standing in a theater lobby and two films are showing, one from each director. You choose one and the other director’s disappears, his future career extinguished.

Mad love to Scorsese, who gave us Raging Bull and Taxi Driver among other greats, but I’m going with Jeff Nichols. If a sadistic, crisis-inducing challenge like Filmspotting Madness is about the present and future of a director’s work—and to me it is—then I believe myself compelled to choose Nichols, whose small but undeniably strong oeuvre gives me great hope for his future over Scorsese’s, whose will be a lot shorter and less reliably compelling.

So it seems fitting I had the choice this weekend of seeing either Everybody Wants Some!!, the latest from Richard Linklater (another Filmspotting Madness erstwhile contender) and Midnight Special, the latest from Jeff Nichols. A huge fan of Linklater, I knew I’d see Everybody eventually, but I knew I had to see Midnight Special, simply because of Nichols’ name and the little I knew about the film. That’s as good a test as any.

As is often the case Matt Zoller Seitz was spot-on about Midnight Special. He expresses a sort of baffled delight that a movie like this could exist amidst so many other deafening superhero smash fests. Its “marvelous energy” propels its quickly sketched but deeply felt characters through a story that’s as lovingly familiar as it is unique. A boy with otherworldly powers, his loyal father (Michael Shannon) who supposedly kidnapped him from his former apocalyptic cult, and the government agents trying to find him all are in pursuit toward a mysterious yet significant destination.

The first act is something else. Tense, bold, determined. We’re dropped in media res and trusted to keep up. Kudos to Nichols for this choice in structure, but also (I’m assuming) for fighting studio execs to have to preserve it against some origin story filler. The power is in the mystery, in the putting together of the pieces as they’re given.

The film slackens as it goes, however, especially in the scenes that take us away from the boy and his escorts, who have a kind of enraptured determination you could imagine the apostle Paul feeling after seeing the light on the road to Damascus. Nichols seems very aware of that story, given the righteousness he’s imbued in these characters and the mission they’re on. I stayed with the movie throughout, though, because how could I not? From idea to execution, Midnight Special is inspired in every sense: as homage to Spielbergian themes of family and destiny, as a sci-fi fable with the courage of restraint, and as an auteurist vision that doesn’t always shine scene to scene but adds up to something effulgent when it matters.

Nichols couldn’t have found a better muse/avatar than Michael Shannon, whose quiet, self-assured, and focused presence has for me become inseparable from the Nichols films he’s been in, which is all of them. (Shotgun Stories remains his best—find it if you can.) And he’ll be in Loving, Nichols’ next film, coming out this November. Not sure if I’ll have to pick between two great directors again to see it, but he’s got good odds if I do.

From Chicago, A Brooklyn Homage

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It was a pleasure and an honor to attend Filmspotting’s 2015 Wrap Party at the Mayne Stage on January 9. I’ve been an avid listener for a few years, and finally became a regular donor last year, so with that evening off I jumped at the chance to go to a live show.

A few days before the show they emailed attendees to solicit listener picks for Scene of the Year for possible inclusion in the show. I knew there was a chance they’d read my email or put it on the big screen, but didn’t think much of it. Then suddenly, surprisingly, during the Listeners Picks portion of the show Josh called out my name. Oh shit, I thought. Tyler Greene of WBEZ was sprinting upstairs to where I was in the balcony to hand me the mic, and at once my voice was booming out to the sellout crowd.

With no time to formulate my thoughts, I scrambled to remain articulate about my submission, which was from Brooklyn. My answer is at 1:35:00 in episode #569  (though you should listen to the whole thing and subscribe while you’re at it). I got through it well enough, but I wish I’d recalled more of what I’d submitted in writing:

My scene of the year takes place in a small-town Irish dance hall, not five minutes into the exceptional film Brooklyn. Eilis, soon bound for a new life in 1950s America, watches as her friend disappears into the dance crowd with a partner, leaving her alone, on the outside looking in at what will soon be her old life. The camera holds on her face, which betrays a tender bittersweetness that characterizes the whole of John Crowley’s exquisite and humane film. Even while still at home she is homesick, a struggle she will have to endure long after she sails away from Ireland and attempts to forge a new meaning of home.

Anyway, it was a fun night all around. I went alone, but ended up sitting next to two guys with whom I chatted about the year in film. Thanks to the Filmspotting crew and WBEZ for putting on the event, and for manufacturing a podcast that is intelligent, well-rounded, and edited. (Seriously, I can’t overemphasize how wonderful it is that the show is thoughtfully edited and not just a stream of talking.) See you in my iTunes feed.