Tuesday, May 28, 2013

IN FRONT OF THE CANDELABRA

It was a lot of things that escalated the hopes. That it was about Liberace. That it had Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in it. That Steven Soderbergh directed it. That it was announced to be his last project. And finally following all the fanfare when BEHIND THE CANDELABRA actually broke out onto the TV screens this week, the sparkling HBO movie plagued with predictability, was slightly disappointing as a package.  
The film was no doubt a celebration of the persona that Liberace was. You get an idea of the personal life that this enormous celebrity lead, his loves, his obsessions, his weaknesses and so on and so forth. But it all comes across as a tad too familiar. One had seen every part of it, one place or the other; the larger than life superstar, his assumption of a perpetual giver, celebrity seclusion, the grip that money has on the lives of especially the filthy rich and a wide spectrum of other glitz –n-glamour aspects including the horrors of plastic surgery, all done with panache (which wouldn’t have been difficult to somebody as style-obsessed as Academy Awar winning Soderbergh). But the fact that it’s all very tastefully executed doesn’t keep the film’s novelty afloat at any point. Not the good production design, not the commendable costumes and not the great make up manages to achieve it.
 
 
 
 
Besides everything else, BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, based on the book by the same name written by Scott Thorson, Liberace’s real life lover and live-in partner (played by Matt Damon) could boast of two stellar performances, that of Douglas as Liberace and Damon as his young lover dragged into the quagmire that their relationship turns out to be. Even though the chemistry between them were hugely lacking, the casting of these two talented men is undoubtedly the only thing new about the entire project. While Matt Damon made a departure from his trademark action image with the sensitive lover of Liberace, pushed to self-destructive limits of paranoia, Michael Douglas as the "flaming queen" is every bit convincing as the charismatic and perverse mentor who is responsible for the same. The impeccable impersonation of Liberace could easily be one of Douglas’ best on-screen portrayals to date. Rob Lowe in a slight supporting role also makes a mark.
 
With predictability as the nemesis in a glaring shape, Soderbergh should probably stop pretending surprised already at the point that the film had no producers initially and it ended on TV first. The reason perhaps was not just the sexuality, as he still prefers to believe. It’s very upsetting when a well-made movie is not compelling enough. BEHIND THE CANDELABRA is certainly the one to watch if you are not crazy about the idea of what-will-happen-next. Was this the last one for real, Mr Soderbergh? 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

SINCE THERE WAS BLOOD EVERYWHERE

Or
THE OVERKILL

Undoubtedly he is a master storyteller and the greatest writer of all time. He tops the list of best-selling authors and has written world’s most-widely published books.  He is also listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the most number of screen adaptations by a single author. William Shakespeare is a true genius beyond debate. So when numero uno like that descends to exploitative standards with a pulp fiction, it calls for alarm, ‘exploitative’ being the operative word, even though it was one of those works written very early in his career.

On various occasions referred to by critics as “a heap of rubbish”, “a howler”, “a poetic atrocity” and “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written”, TITUS ANDRONICUS is one of William Shakespeare’s most attacked play given the morbid subject matter, excessive display of graphic violence and mind-numbing barbarity besides other things. Anybody who has read Titus will agree that the gore in it run riot washing the words red, the resulting circus comparable to splatter films of the likes of Evil Dead that features unbelievable sum of violence, more often than not, crossing the line from horror to comedy.


As a crude work of a blessed prodigy, Titus Andronicus did certainly amuse me with its obvious likenesses to 60s’ exploitation films with lavish number of killings, a few severed heads and hands, a rape followed by mutilation and a cannibalistic climax that ends in bloodbath.
The story of Titus is fictitious and it plentifully adapts plot elements from Ovid’s Metamorphosis and Seneca’s Thyestes, and it travels to the aforementioned gory end through mindless, often juvenile, tit-for-tats. But was “blood” all the reason for the ceaseless assault on this work by the Bard of Avon? 
Plays like Richard III, Macbeth and King Lear had a lot of blood spills too. All his other tragedies have a fair share of blood flowing on the stage, although they don’t go out of control like in this case. Shakespeare has frequently used violence for its entertainment value. Violence was also used as a medium to communicate the passions of some of his greater characters like Macbeth and Hamlet. But the insensitive Titus, on the other hand thrives on violence, executioner style. In the beginning, he kills the eldest son of his war prisoner Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, to avenge the deaths of his sons in the war. Then he kills one of his own sons in a brawl that follows his decision to submit his daughter to the new evil emperor. Then he cut and bake the heads of two of Tamora’s surviving sons into a pie (to avenge the rape of his daughter Lavinia who was also carved of tongue and hands) and feeds it to an oblivious Tamora. Then he kills her and Lavinia as well, to "save her from the shame of rape". He would have done lots more had he not been offed right there. But this is just the extent of blood that the protagonist spills. Bestiality is omnipresent in the background, and everybody hack everybody else and there also includes the hanging of an infant, if all those grown-ups’ corpses strewn around were not enough.
It is perhaps the callous and barbarous nature of the characters in Titus that weighs down on the fundamental value of the play, or it’s the other way around; the bloody nature of their actions shroud the inner essence of these characters hence burdening the quality of the play. But the account of what resulted is capable of embarrassing slasher movies like I spit on your grave, Cannibal Holocaust and Blood Feast all put together. If not for a few scholars who found reasons to believe in the play, it would have long gone down in flames of time.

I suppose that this shocking lack of quality also had a major part to play in the controversy surrounding the authorship of TITUS ANDRONICUS, a debate that’s still going on. Many believe that Shakespeare was not the actual author of this badly written play. Many others believe that he co-wrote the play with some other playwright (George Peele being the main candidate). Many also believe that he revised and powder-puffed for the stage an already existing play. And all of them separately have evidences to prove their respective argument. But I believe that most part of this dispute was intended at saving Shakespeare’s reputation.
Anyway, the majority now believe that Shakespeare was involved with the final work in one way or the other. Chapter closed.
Titus was known to be a very popular play in its day despite all that blood flowing through it. Apparently violence was very much in fashion back in the day. As time passed, the play was viewed as “too old fashioned” and completely fell out of favor during the romantic Victorian era. But deliberating a little on the events of the play, one sadly realizes how significant and relevant the “implausible” violence depicted in it is, in today’s world. From ample coverage of today’s terrorism and attacks, if we cannot understand the insensitivity portrayed in Titus, I’m afraid nobody from any other time could have. It must have been realizing it’s bearing in the world we live in today, that Julie Taymore made a film adaptation called TITUS with Antony Hopkins and Jessica Lange playing Titus and Tamara respectively. But the movie met with mixed reviews. People who were witnessing the play for the first time in her film called it “good-looking but crazy”. Serving that old wine in the new bottle did not really work since that wine wasn’t good anyways.
As a last word, you really have to read the play to know for yourself as to why it couldn’t catch up to the reputation of the rest of the Shakespearean canon and why TITUS ANDRONICUS will always be remembered as the one that missed the boat.

(Curtain-call)

Monday, May 6, 2013

THE GOD WHISPERERS’ ITCH

Suddenly the crowd parts and a gust of red soars towards the shrine, and the form of a rattling fearful figure with an overwhelming headgear, a frilly outfit and an intricate yet cruel face paint topped with a pair of metal fangs looms into the unsteady light of flambeaux. The manifestation bows before the deity in calm deference and slowly begins a routine that looks like possessed dancing. 
The incessant percussion and the shrill oboe whistle weaves a labyrinth engulfing the night inside the psychedelic spell. The crowd is hypnotized by every step of that bloke inside the extravagant crimson getup. He is intermittently leaping onto the heavyset wooden pedestal set in front of the shrine spiritedly plying a sword in the air. He is also hollering loud chants in between.
The routine gains tempo and the steps get more and more vigorous and overpowering. The performance lasts for about a half hour. Now the drummers have settled, and the apotheosis is seated on the pedestal, and a bustle of crowd swarm around him for blessings. It’s like a calm after the storm. You are gradually freed from a state that has controlled you up until then and you regain your devices. 
We, people of Malabar, piously call them Theyyam, a local variant of the word Daivam (meaning God) in Malayalam. Theyyam dance, chant, bless and even heal. There are said to be about 400 odd types of this genus. Some walk on blazing coal, and some others bite heads off of live flapping roosters. For those who haven’t lived first-hand the complexities of this ritual art experience before; it could be as unsettling as a Tarantino shootout, as thrilling as a Kubrick suspense and as dizzying as a Wong Kar-wai stop-motion, all rolled into one loud aggressive riff of Thrash Metal. There is no end to the showmanship!

In these parts of Kerala, since several thousand years ago, Gods, Goddesses and heroes from history and local myth are believed to manifest to, and act through human media, and believers strengthen their fellowship with them by means of ritual routines of these impersonations called Theyyam. 

That the performers are exclusively from a certain lower sect of the knotty caste system of Kerala, and that they undergo severe mental, physical and spiritual trainings to be able to don the desired avatar are all much talked about facts about this folk art which is still kept alive by people’s beliefs as well as an unaffected appreciation for this art form. But what had bewildered me the most since childhood about this drama of worship is the solemnity of the mental state the performer floats in during the routine, when he sidekicks a pile of fire and gains inhuman strength to sways under a 600 pound crown. But as I grew up, although the key question remained unaddressed, I learned more about the essence behind the cult. And the key fact that the performer “become” the deity and is not possessed by them was an eye opener. So when he is blessing, he is blessing as the deity, not bearing the deity. Unlike popular belief, no spirits enter the performer, period.
Understandably, the process of “becoming” God from Man is exceptionally complex and gradual. It begins the very moment he starts wearing the make up and the costume. This could take hours given the intricacies of the face paint.
Then comes the second stage, where he is seated in front of the shrine and is annexed with the most important part of the guise- the headdress or mudi (meaning hair).
The third step is where the actual “becoming” takes place. He looks into a small hand held mirror where he sees not his own reflection but of the divine being that stares back at him. Here the final “crossing of the line” takes place and the performer slips into the “other” state of consciousness. In this constitution, he effortlessly fire walk and split live birds into two, all maintaining the rhythm of the dance. But when this “other” state is not supposed to be any kind of possession state contrary to prevailing myths, the frame of mind and the capacity (as deity) of the performer still is shrouded as classified information.

Is he in a trained mental state, inspired by Method acting? Where the actor experiences life in the fiction of the story? Where he lives the character in life, “becoming” the character and react “honestly” as the character? (Here the character is the God, Goddess or the local hero.) And in that case, is his “blessing” a part of the spiritual ecstasy he whirls in? Is it in its true sense, “drama” of worship?
Answers from the horse’s mouth to a question of metaphysics “What is it like?” to be a performer did not quite explain much about his own experience. “It’s difficult to describe,” he says, “It’s a condition where the elevated state of the mind balances with the practical rhythm of the dance.” As to where man ends and God begins still seemed obscured by the sense of imposed mystery. Perhaps that is important and that’s what actually works. He says he is absolutely aware of his surroundings and never is pushed to a state where he forgets the technique of dance. Personally, I can't help but think, how much ever little it may be, some technique like Stanislavski's and Strasberg's Method Acting definitely has a hand in it.

But the effectiveness of this process while relating to a character remembering from one's personal experiences when the character is out-of-the-world or divine is to be reviewed. It would be too vague to assume such a character and act in the light of merely personal memory and individual perception. This is where, I assume, the imaginative excesses of the creator-gurus of this art form come into the curriculum of training, that each artist undergo in the process of becoming the deity. Perhaps the Stella Adler technique of method acting also gains relevance here. The result coupled with the powerful costume design and the ceremonial rites backed with the performer's prescribed discipline becomes the final awe-inspiring enactment that also manages to successfully satiate the spiritual yearnings of the devotees. The long preparations and the routine of penance also adds on to the gravity of the method wherein one makes oneself, rather than others, believe the assumptions of the character.

Everything said and done, it has to be understood that belief is basically at the epicenter of the Theyyam cult. That is what is the higher purpose of this ritual folk art form over its significance as performance. Detaching belief, the spiritual implication of it is debatable… like everything else. 
But the experience of being a part of a Theyyam performance is one of a kind, and it better enter your bucket list quick. Kerala is not just about Kathakali, snake boats and backwaters. You will know better if you leave sooner. There you go! Chop-chop!

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