Posts Tagged ‘What The Movies Taught Me’

Fargo And The Nobokovian World

If I were to equate the third season of Fargo with the world of books or those of an author, it would have to be Vladimir Nabokov. There is a growing playfulness in both works, the prose of the camera much like Nabokov’s own writing is achingly beautiful and yet ever so tight in its construction that there is little beauty captured for the sake of beauty itself. These are the signs of a self-effacing genius that has powered both works. A genius that revels not in the languishing of the eye on the pristine, powdered snow smacked with blood, but would rather spend time toying with the viewer as to how it got there. It begins as it always does with everything going perfectly till a stranger shows up.

But rather than meander on I find Fargo to be like nature and in Nabokov’s own words, “Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colors in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.” The third season of Fargo captures deception in both nature and the art of story-telling itself.

Let me begin with a bit of context, while movies remain a source of entertainment, for most of us, I find them to be a remarkably accurate mirror of the human condition. So let’s take a long, good look at ourselves. This is the fourth piece in the “What the movies taught me” series. You can read the first part here, second one is here and thirs one is here.


 The use of the absence of motive as a device to create suspense

If there is one thing I believe, Fargo (the series) has perfected over three immaculate seasons is how the lack of a motive is perhaps the strongest plot device the thriller genre possesses. There is nothing else that comes close, there is a feeling that is invoked in the viewer when the rule book is tossed out and burnt in front of your eyes, each moment after that is the most important moment, each action after that is the most important action, each scene after that is the climax. That is not to say Fargo has no motive behind the characters, it does but they are of the dullest kind, financial greed, the display of power and love. But it’s the devotion to these motives that surprises the emotionally. Who ever heard of winning a card competition to gather runaway funds? Whoever heard of an accountant saving someone’s ass? David Thewlis is eating throughout the series but he is also shown puking all that he eats, suffering from Bulimia. Thewlis has said,

“The idea is bulimia in his life. He’s a man who is so ultimately in control of seemingly everything, and it’s therefore an expression of the one part of his existence that he’s not in control of, something that at times he loses control of… vulnerability.”

We’ve seen shows where actions are seen as absurd but one where the motivations are just as absurd as the actions there Fargo perhaps stands alone.


The randomness of violence as an existential plot point 

As far as I’ve known and watched cinema, which is quite limited, very few directors or writers get the concept of random violence. It is a dangerous thing to toy with, yet nothing holds a mirror to life in all its complex, chaotic glory as does random violence. It is a powerful blow that shakes the very foundations of our belief in God or a higher power, man’s search for purpose and the meaning behind things. The evident strain in all the Coen brothers work has been to dismantle this rather erroneous notion that everything happens for a reason, that there is quid pro quo, a karmic balance to life and the retribution of our actions always comes due. Their work has been a refreshing challenge to these notions and Fargo carries that legacy forward. The bill does not come due, there are no avenging angels interwoven into the fabric of life itself. The very last scene of the series makes that amply clear, David Thewlis tells the protagonist, that he will walk away from all of this, she tells him he won’t, the camera never reveals what does happen. But I’d like to believe he does. There is a certain amount of childish joy and mirth that Fargo offers to the viewer – there is comical timing built into the actions of violence employed, the means by which it is delivered in the series that are so entertaining. In many ways the idiotic brother is the viewer at certain points, unable to comprehend the machinations of his girlfriend unable to process the violence that has been meted out, all he can manage is the irrepressible chuckle that ensues at the farcical way in which things are done. The invisible hand of coincidence and fate that plays the role of the executioner in such slapstick ways that reality reveals itself to be a jester.

The non-discriminatory nature of choosing victims as story weaving tool

As a viewer, we have been programmed to look for connections. The magician presents a problem, the mind delivers the magic. As viewers, we have always had the Pavlovian response to deaths – how are they related? Who will be next? The payoff is our hypothesis is correct, a bigger payoff is when we are proven wrong. In a certain ironic way, mysteries provide more emotional payload when we unravel them wrongly. In many ways, we want to be fooled. But Fargo takes it to the next level. Here the victims don’t play by those rules, there is not always a death that serves to advance the plot in any way. In one particular surreal scene Nikki ends up in a bowling alley with Ray Weiss (The Wandering Jew) He lets Nikki hold a kitten he’s named Ray, implying that it’s her Ray reincarnated. Her reaction at the possibility of being reunited with her late fiance is dark, tragic and heartwarming at the same time. He asks Nikki to quote a bible verse when she brings the wicked one to justice. He assures her she’ll remember it when the time comes. Fargo has mythological characters bumping to lend a hand, a contemporary eerie version of Peter and the Wolf a musical symphony written for children. In many ways Fargo hammers home the point that death is inconsequential. It takes a hammer and chisel to the exalted pillar we grant to victimhood in the overall narrative of crime and fiction and brings it low.


The impotency of working people as a tool for recruitment by evil

Any good writer or director will tell you the fundamental drama ensues between the shades of grey, an out and out fight between good and evil is of little interest to anyone except for VFX, and special effect junkies, a group to which I also belong. Within the arsenal of recruitment tools that evil holds, Fargo adds a special weapon. A most potent one. Which is the impotency of the working class. Working within the system, the protagonist and her traffic cop bestie are thwarted by idiotic superiors, inefficient colleagues and red tape. There is a scene where David Thewlis pisses into a coffee cup and makes Sy drink it, it is delicious to watch, the brutal assertion of power. I think it’s a brilliant argument to make, join the dark side if you want to get something done, if you actually want to accomplish something, leave your mark on the world. The system that good is always entrenched in is self-serving, it serves no particular individual. Think of it as the Matrix a machine who is only driven by self-perpetuating as its prime and sole motive. But evil is independent, evil does not need approvals. There is a certain freedom it affords to those that are individualistic and all protagonists are individualistic. The seductive appeal of this stance is that at some level all viewers also believe they are individualistic themselves. It’s an insidious tentacle that evil reaches out with and it’s my favourite one so far.


The other worldliness of the setting as an additional cast member

I would be remiss if I did not mention the setting of the series. The environment is always a character in the Fargo series – whether they be aliens, hotel conferences, they are active. The third season has these tiny flourishes automatic, sliding door cameras that don’t work only for the protagonist. The alienation the snow offers its characters. The weather and the storm that forces characters to end up elsewhere, to kill the wrong people. The novel-robot sequence is so well ingrained into the narrative. That for a moment one forgets why it’s there, a self-referential mechanism, a mirror that the show holds up to itself as it remains a mirror for our own societies.

Lastly, there is another tell Fargo has that I quite love, the frustration of dealing with idiots. There is not a single season where that frustration does not play up to hilarious outcomes and dialogue. The incompetency of the individuals that hold up the standard bearer of crime and evil has never been so well articulated; Fargo remains a case in point for the display of humour rooted in reality for this precise reason. Life isn’t easy for those dedicated to evil and crime just as it isn’t for the rest of us.

As Nabokov puts it, “The job of a writer is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.”

 

ALSO MICHAEL STUHLBARG!
MICHAEL STUHLBARG!

AND
MICHEAL STUHLBARG!

– Percy Bharucha

(The author has been previously published in eFiction and eFiction India, Eastlit, Reading Hour, Gratis, The Madras Mag, The Ascent, The Creative Cafe, Invisible Illness, The Writing Cooperative, Bigger Picture, Hundred Naked Words, Be Yourself, Fit Yourself Club, Hopes and Dreams for the Future, Written Tales, Poets Unlimited and The Haven. He writes regularly on Medium and runs a bi-weekly comic strip called The Adult Manual. He also tweets infrequently at  @Sab_Bakwaas_Hai)

Trumbo And The Art Of War

Trumbo achieves what few others have, to fight with the purity of a radical and yet win with the cunning of a rich man. His words not mine. What I find fascinating is the use of irony, in its potent weaponised form.

Let me begin with a bit of context, while movies remain a source of entertainment, for most of us, I find them to be a remarkably accurate mirror of the human condition. So let’s take a long, good look at ourselves. This is the third piece in the What the movies taught me series. You can read the first part here, and second one is here.

I’ll wait for a moment while that cast list hits you. Deep breaths.

Trumbo is a autobiographical based on the life of Dalton Trumbo, a Hollywood screenwriter who is also an active member of the communist party of USA. Trumbo is one of the ten writers who is later subpoenaed under the allegations of furthering communist propaganda through his writings. He is later imprisoned for contempt of Congress and serves eleven months in a Federal Correctional Institution.

But even after his release the Hollywood Blacklist prevents him and several other communists and communist sympathisers from working in the industry. They’re disavowed by the studios and friends alike in the interests of protecting their own careers. Under struggling financial and familial circumstances, a freshly released from prison, publicly avoided Trumbo plots his revenge and the overthrow of the Hollywood Blacklist.

A Great Debate

At the heart of any good movie, I’d like to believe is a great debate. Whether that is internalised within a character or is played out between two or more. So it is too with Trumbo at its core lies a great debate between the idealist Arlen Hird and the rather pragmatic Trumbo. A debate that I find comes as close as possible within my rather limited knowledge of cinematic history, to the nature of victory and the means employed to fight within a democratic system.

There is a scene in the beginning of the movie that sets up the debate for what is to follow.
Hird: “… you know what it is, I don’t trust you … look I know what I am, I want this whole country to be different, top to bottom. If I get what I want, nobody gets their own lake.
Trumbo: “Well that would be a very dull life.”
Hird: “Yeah, for you not for the guys who built this. If I’m wrong, tell me, but ever since I’ve known you. You talk like a radical but you live like a rich guy.”
Trumbo: “That is true.”
Hird: “Well, I don’t know if you’re willing to lose all of this just to do the right thing.”
Trumbo: “Well, I despise martyrdom and I won’t fight for a lost cause. So you’re right I am not willing to lose it all. (points to family) Certainly not them. But I am willing to risk it all. That’s where the radical and the rich guy make a perfect combination. You see the radical, they fight with the purity of Jesus but the rich guy wins with the cunning of Satan.”
Hird: “Oh please, please just shut up…”

A man fighting only for his principles, for his staunch belief in doing the right thing, is willing to risk it all, his finances, his privileged position in society, his career and his family, but what he’s not prepared to do is lose it all. Employing whatever means it takes to keep them. I found this particular scene to be a great character reveal in all its complex layering. It also seems to be a particular form of irony that a man fighting on principle is willing to use the cunning of Satan to simply win. Irony has a major role to play in the movie as we shall further discover.

Trumbo is the thing grey line between characters and heroes written previously, while most are bound, straightjacketed within their archetypes to the point of boredom through countless repetitions. I talk of the Batman archetype, fights evil but won’t cross a line. Characters who will do what it takes to achieve their selfish goals.

Unprincipled ends call for unprincipled means.
Principled ends always call for principled means.

Else the disparity between the means and ends lead to a loss of viewer empathy for the hero’s struggle or an abandoning of belief in his cause. The unprincipled means are always introduced at a point of departure within the character arc. Suddenly the guy you’ve been rooting for, this good guy turns evil forced by circumstance he abandons the very reasons for which he is fighting and we will pity and the hero falls in our graces. Trumbo will have none of that, with his usual pragmatism and verbosity he remains true a businessman fighting for the good.

Result Vs. Ideology

It is a very fine distinction but one I believe merits drawing your attention to. In almost all fights and wars based merely on principle and ideology we have always witnessed the subordination of the result of the war to the dominant ideology that is the cause of it, in terms of a character’s priority.

Fighting the good fight has always been more important than winning the good fight. Tireless martyrs have sacrificed themselves on the altar of righteousness simply because of their stubborn refusal to do what it takes to win, they’d rather do what it takes to be right.
But herein lies the genius of Trumbo while he is a man fighting for principles he’ll be damned if he’ll allows them to interfere with his victory. Sample this scene from the movie:

Arlen: “…Studios, we should sue them…”
Trumbo: “Yes brilliant! Keep losing. Give all your money away to lawyers.”
Arlen: “I’d rather lose for the right reasons.”
Trumbo: “Why! It’s still losing, you lose, I lose, we all lose! Don’t you see that. And the whole goddamn country stays scared and dead…Arlen we can do this, we can beat them, we can win.”
Arlen: “I don’t care if I win.”
Trumbo: “Bullshit, everybody wants to win.”
Arlen: “No you want to win, I want to change things.”
Trumbo: “I want to win so that I can change things.”

I often think that while in these larger than life rebellions against the system, we might see a lot more victories on the side of the good if every man fighting the good fight wasn’t so damn hung up on fighting it the right way.

The answer to that of course isn’t violence but a more insidious way of collapsing the system but showing the hypocrisy or two-facedness of it. Something that I learnt from Trumbo.

The Nature Of Loss
There is no war without loss and every fight has its repercussions, it changes the people who go through it. Also tragedy in some form or another is required for a good plot anyways. Aristotle argued that tragedy cleansed the heart through pity and terror, purging us of our petty concerns and worries by making us aware that there can be nobility in suffering. He called this experience ‘catharsis’.

What is fascinating me for in Trumbo is the nature of the loss he undergoes. Since this is a true story it is stranger and certainly more enchanting than most fiction. While the most cliched way of dealing with tragedy in conflict is to show how the protagonist becomes in one way or another the very thing he is trying to destroy. A cop who becomes corrupt to see justice done, a doctor who falls sick to the very virus he is trying to eradicate, etc. But Trumbo is special the nature of his loss is the dulling of the very faculties that he depends upon for his livelihood, it is a betrayal of his passion for what he loves to do, write. In the context of his life story after being driven away from the big studios, Trumbo finds employment writing the low budget, low brow Kings Brothers. At the same time he has to write under pseudonyms, being unable to collect two Oscars for his ghost written scripts. In the midst of this there is this beautiful scene where Arlen becomes in many ways the voice of his own passion for writing calling for fealty towards it. After Arlen botches a script about an alien bonking a farm girl by filling it with political references, this is the scene as it happens:

Trumbo: “…What the hell were you thinking?”
Arlen: “I was thinking, it’s why I am a writer. To say things that matter. Remember that, I was a reporter. I was nominated for a Pulitzer. I fought in Spain and I know Ernest Hemingway. I actually know him and he knows me. If I walk into a bar in Paris, maybe not my name but I’ll get a wave.
And you, you won the national fucking book award. I mean what are we doing?”

“I mean do you, do you ever miss writing something, forget great just good. I mean you must have ideas still, right?”

Imagine being a portrait painter in Florence, one of the finest, one with the most generous patrons and then to be reduced to a position where you have to paint road signs, the guy who paints those square lines on roads to demarcate lanes, to make a living and even those are being criticised for not being straight enough. The dulling of the senses is a particularly painful experience.

To reduce the very thing that makes one unique, the very thing that is the foundation of one’s self esteem and standing in society to purposefully take a blunt file and file away at it, to reduce it to rather pathetic ordinary standards would require an extraordinary amount of strength.

And yet Trumbo soldiers on, because to him this temporary period of producing garbage is a path to victory.

Irony As A Weapon

Perhaps the most difficult thing in the movie that Trumbo has to encounter is to keep quelling the insistent voice of Arlen which also mirrors to a very large extent some of his own voices that the audience would expect his character to possess. Especially when they decide to write a script for Buddy Ross a producer who has given testimony against them in closed court.

Trumbo: “This is going to be a very big movie and if Buddy gets a good script.”
Arlen: “Which you’re going to give him.”
Trumbo: “No, which I am going to sell him.”
Arlen: “For money, ‘cos that’s why we did all of this, right, it was for the money.

Trumbo: “Why can’t you not see this, if we get one big movie, we can get all the big movies. And this whole rotten thing could collapse on the sheer irony that every unemployable writer is employed.”

What I find brilliant in the scene is the use of Irony as a weapon, perhaps the greatest weapon there is to destroy a system from within. There is no defence it allows for, in its expose of the hypocrisy of injustice in this case.

Since the movie I’ve been thinking of employing irony as a weapon. Using actions that bring about a deliberate, pervasive sentiment of irony so strong that it wins the fight in your favour. That is precisely what Trumbo teaches us.

We’ve heard of “become the change you want to see in the world”. But what Trumbo shows us is becoming, manifesting an irony, changes the world itself.

– Percy Bharucha

(The author has been previously published in eFiction and eFiction India, Eastlit, Reading Hour, Gratis, The Madras Mag, The Ascent, The Creative Cafe, Invisible Illness, The Writing Cooperative, Bigger Picture, Hundred Naked Words, Be Yourself, Fit Yourself Club, Hopes and Dreams for the Future, Written Tales, Poets Unlimited and The Haven. He writes regularly on Medium and runs a bi-weekly comic strip called The Adult Manual. He also tweets infrequently at  @Sab_Bakwaas_Hai)

What The Movies Taught Me – Part II

Posted: October 30, 2017 by moifightclub in cinema
Tags: ,
The lure of a simpler narrative

Why we’re all hoping, we’ll wake up one day in a better story
What the movies taught me – II


Let me begin with a bit of context, while movies remain a source of entertainment, for most of us, I find them to be a remarkably accurate mirror of the human condition. So let’s take a long, good look at ourselves. This is the second piece in the What the movies taught me series. You can read the first post here.


The Dark Tower Copyright MRC, Columbia Pictures

I recently watched The Dark Tower, a science fiction film based on Stephen King’s novel series. While the movie seemed a not-too-out-of-the-ordinary usual action fare, what surprised me was the familiar twinge of jealousy and regret at not being the protagonist. Hoping one day I too would be called forth to a greater quest of world-saving proportions. A feeling that’s pretty commonplace when you walk out of hero-quest movies as I like to call them. An ordinary, everyday human is displaced from his ordinary life and is told he has a higher order purpose, that he and he alone is uniquely gifted to fulfil. And in the balance of which hangs the fate of the entire world/worlds/universes we know of. Which got me thinking that apart from the lure of being a hero why exactly is it that movies of a similar trope have such universal appeal.


THE  LURE  OF  A  SIMPLER  NARRATIVE

I think a lot of what the movie represents is the lure of a simpler narrative. There is something primitively alluring about being a simple kid with a simple, singular objective of destroying an evil sorcerer who has unlimited powers, while your only ally being a grumpy cowboy who’s been poisoned by an alien-monster-scorpion hybrid is rapidly deteriorating while having an endearing addiction to getting high on sugar drinks. Sounds simple enough.

You Can Do It GIFs - Find & Share on GIPHY

Compared to figuring your life out, making rent, working insane hours and the weekends, coming to terms with the fact that there is going to be nothing new or amazing about what you do, dealing with a quarter life crisis, while undergoing therapy for existential problems/impostor syndrome, coming to terms with never being able to find true love- considering giving in to your parents and signing up for that matrimonial site, realising adopting a pet was biting off way more than you could chew, missing staying at home but having your pride, the exhausting act of maintaining a facade of absolute carefreeness and YOLO-ness while silently undergoing bouts of FOMO- being secretly jealous of most of your friends successes and binging on online content every spare moment of the day ‘cos escape. Yeah I’ll take defeating sorcerers any time of the day.


There is an innate amount of freedom in not carrying the weight of determining your own narrative.

Like in the movie Jake Chambers is called to fulfil his destiny. The path is laid out in front of him like a three course dinner. Small monster appetisers in an abandoned amusement park, main course consisting of poached Padick (the Man in Black) and for desert the joy of leaving his old life behind to perform the most important task in the world, protecting the tower. I mean what more could you possibly give an eleven year old apart from a trustworthy mentor, purpose and extraordinary shine. While the rest of us eleven year olds were choosing whether we liked doing math or art, scarcely aware of the long term career ramifications of our choices. I’d give up anything to have a path laid out for me to walk on. It’s hard to question your life or your career choices when your job is literally holding the universe together, keeping it protected from the darkness that surrounds it. The joy of such a singular objective appeals to some part of our reptilian brain that doesn’t revels in the joy of not having to process any complexity for a change. The lens of decision making is devoid of its usual navigation amongst the shady lanes of grey that ordinary adult life requires. Imagine Jake as an adult, all he has to account for is will this attack the tower> kill it, will this protect the tower>protect it as opposed to Jake the adult human going, what could I post on Facebook today to get maximum likes?


THE  APPEAL  OF  THE  SUDDEN  AWAKENING

There is an act of vindicated joy that we all empathise with, when Jake is shown his world is the dream and the mid-world he enters through the portal is his reality. There is that little bit of hope, inside all of us that this can’t be it that finds validation. That our lives cannot be just about doing taxes, choosing stationery supplies and ordering takeout. That somewhere beyond all this mundaneness there is a place where we are needed. A sort of Inception inspired deception that, this is a dream and all we need to do is wake up to realise we were meant for greatness all along. I’ve romanticised it as much as the rest of you guys.

Aww GIFs - Find & Share on GIPHY

“I was right! I always knew I was meant for more than this!”

There is also a certain amount of appeal that the spontaneity of the transformation holds. One moment Jake is in his room doing his “delusional” drawings, the next moment the monsters wearing human skin have come for him and he escapes to Mid-World. There is no gradual change here, the appeal I guess of such sudden transformation is that we believe they it happen to us. Right! We don’t need years of prep for it, there is no waiting time, the next moment the monster-skin-people could come for any of us. There is that deceptive hope that that moment could happen to any of us, because all it takes is a moment for the shift to begin and for the dream to end. The spontaneity of it, is proof of its probability and we begin to anticipate that moment. I’ve certainly started looking for scars behind earlobes.


DEATH  ALWAYS  WINS

Stuff like that always gets you thinking about what you’ve been upto all this while. And rather than course correct or work even harder its totally human to just put your feet up and go, “well I’m still dreaming, they haven’t come for me yet.” It’s just reassuring to know and live with the hope that any moment the dream could end and then, then we shall be truly awake and all of this, all of this will just fall by the wayside, as we embrace who we were truly meant to be, all along. When we shall throw away the cloak of mediocrity that hid our own powers all this while and show to the world who we truly were.

Hero GIFs - Find & Share on GIPHY


After all, the desire to be in a story is all that drives us.
The desire to wake up one day and know that life is the dream.

– Percy Bharucha

(The author has been previously published in eFiction and eFiction India, Eastlit, Reading Hour, Gratis, The Madras Mag, The Ascent, The Creative Cafe, Invisible Illness, The Writing Cooperative, Bigger Picture, Hundred Naked Words, Be Yourself, Fit Yourself Club, Hopes and Dreams for the Future, Written Tales, Poets Unlimited and The Haven. He writes regularly on Medium and runs a bi-weekly comic strip called The Adult Manual. He also tweets infrequently at  @Sab_Bakwaas_Hai)