Songs of sorrow: James Quandt on Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy.
To mark this momentous occasion, Artforum asked TIFF Cinematheque programmer JAMES QUANDT, who organized a major retrospective of Ray's films for the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, to consider the Apu trilogy's place within the director's work half a century after the films' completion. We are also pleased to present a previously unpublished interview with Ray (the transcript having only recently been unearthed, serendipitously, from our archives) conducted in Calcutta in October 1989 by Artforum publisher ANTHONY KORNER.
SATYAJIT RAY'S APU TRILOGY, comprising Father Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1957), and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959), is a Bengali bildungsroman chronicling the early life of Apu, a boy from an impoverished Brahmin family who moves with his parents from their rural village to the holy city of Benares, then alone to Calcutta, where he attends university, marries, and ends up wandering the countryside after his beloved wife dies in childbirth. Though long celebrated as a summit of the Indian master's neorealist lyricism, the triptych is not as unassuming and transparent as has traditionally been claimed. This was something Jean-Luc Godard seemed to recognize when, near the end of chapter 2A of his magnum opus, Histoire(s) du cinema (1988-98), he inserted into his stuttering montage of clips and images from such films as Robert Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar (1966) and Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter (1955) the last shot of Ray's World of Apu--showing a young, widowed father carrying his wee son on his shoulders as they head into an uncertain future--the very culmination of the trilogy, ultimately superimposing it over Courbet's Origin of the World, 1866. Hirsute vaginas are an obsessive fixture in Godard's cinema, so his choice of the Courbet painting is predictable, but the director's use of the Apu image remains enigmatic. Godard employs the Apu-and-son shot eight times in less than one minute and amplifies its importance with a punning all-caps text. The phrase le monde perdu is soon replaced on-screen by le monde d'apu, which in turn gives way to l'origine du monde, inscribed on that perverse superimposition: a tight composition of the two male heads overlaying a woman's bare, hairy sex, the most notorious close-up in the history of art.
The conflation might intend to incite--Godard's sometimes puerile predilection for puns quarrying the apu cached in pudenda--but as the exegetical industry that exists to decode the Histoire(s) knows, Godard is the most intuitive of film historians, his often baffling juxtapositions disclosing revelatory associations among their constituents. (One thinks of the moment in Aparajito when a professor initiates a lesson on synecdoche and metonymy, explaining that the former is "a figure of speech based on association." His point is lost on Apu, who dozes in class after too many nights working at a printing press, but not on an audience attuned to aesthetic rhetoric.) Godard's inclusion of the Apu image might simply denote another of his late-career acts of contrition: Chapter 2A includes a number of homages to directors Godard once ignored, disrespected, or reviled, and he, like his confreres at the Cahiers du Cinema, always cared much more for Nicholas than for Satyajit Ray. (Truffaut infamously walked out of a screening of Father Panchali, claiming that he did not want to watch a film about Indian peasants eating with their hands, though the Ray trilogy apparently came to influence Truffaut's own autobiographical Antoine Doinel films.)
Perhaps the Brechtian in Godard intuited a naive form of metafiction in the Apu trilogy, which throughout implicates its events with their own making-into-art. Ray increasingly emphasizes the creative process across the three films: The child Apu intently watches a play being performed at a religious festival; years later, the adult Apu views a popular epic in a Calcutta cinema with his wife. Most tellingly, in the final film, from which Godard lifts his image, Apu transforms his own life story into a book, and at one point blurts out, "What is this? Some kind of play or novel?"--a query that, surprisingly, anticipates many such exclamations in Godard's cinema. And Ray's attention to recurrent visual figures--the trilogy casting a modernist, Morandi-like eye on a culture of tiffins and thalis--literalizes the artistic "forms" that Godard so extolled and found absolute in Hitchcock's symbolic objects. (When Apu discovers a pilfered necklace among his dead sister's belongings and tosses it into a pond, the ever-associational Godard might see in the brief parting of surface scum as the pool ingests the evidence a foreshadowing of the swamp swallowing Marion's car in Psycho .) Vessels, from the earthenware jar in which a stolen guava is hidden at the outset of Father Panchali to the little cubist composition of tray, bowl, and cup that Apu's mother carries just before he departs in Aparajito, acquire an abstract patterning, one of the poetic motifs--like the impressionistic shots of water, derived from Jean Renoir--that structure the trilogy.
Godard's deification of Renoir and his Bazinian belief in the redemptive nature of neorealism might also help to explain the Apu image. Ray, who was born into a family of Bengali artists and intellectuals and began his career as a graphic designer in an advertising firm--he illustrated an edition of the Bibhutibhushan Banerjee novel (originally published in 1929) on which Father Fanchali was based--determined to become a director after helping to scout locations for Renoir's The River (1951) and after seeing Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948) during a sojourn in London, the latter film central to Godard's surging, heartfelt paean to Italian Neorealism at the conclusion of chapter 3A of the Histoire(s). (Ray cofounded the Calcutta Film Society in his midtwenties to share his cinephilic passions, another affinity he shares with Godard, "child" of the Cinematheque Francaise.) However, the neorealist designation served both to burden Ray with false expectations and to distort the reception of his work. Many commentators, extrapolating from the trilogy, characterize Ray's cinema as dealing mostly with rural poverty and peasant life, but his subsequent films are often urban and frequently deal with the privileged classes, bourgeois Brahmins, and the Calcutta intelligentsia. Even the financially strapped family in The Big City (1963) has a maid.
Similarly, critics can seem reluctant to acknowledge the artifice and expressionism that often disrupt the trilogy's flowing, quotidian rhythms--"impurities" that the Godard who exalted Rossellini's Neorealist standard Rome, Open City (1945), with its outlandish gay Nazis and classically crosscut episodes of suspense, would probably admire rather than censure. Throughout the three films, Ravi Shankar's music, all thrumming tabla and swirling flute, plays as crucial a role in eliciting emotion as any Michel Legrand score, occasionally veering into stylization, as when Apu's mother collapses, revealing to her long-absent husband that their young daughter has died, her cries replaced on the sound track by the high keening of Shankar's tar shehnai. The documentary-like footage of the Ganges-side ghats at the outset of Aparajito was influenced by Eisenstein (whom Ray, like Godard, revered, comparing the Soviet avant-gardist to Bach), and Ray's mismatching of shots in scale or camera angle, such as the disorienting cut from an overhead long view of depopulated Benares to an intense close-up of the ailing face of Apu's father, seem like intentional disjunctures rather than instances of amateurism. Ray's narrative ellipses are employed for conventional means, contracting time as Apu ages, but sometimes perplex in a way that portends the ambiguities of Hou Hsiao-hsien (whose own autobiographical trilogy would appear to be the progeny of Ray's): When Apu's beleaguered mother--the first of countless suffering women in Ray's cinema--leaves for the countryside after her husband's death, we are led to believe she is following her wealthy employers, only to discover that she is departing for an uncle's household.
Though Ray was not one of those directors who mystically imposed his personality on his material, a criterion for entry into Godard's pantheon, his cinema always expressed its maker's temperament, particularly in tone. It is likely for this reason that Ray later became impatient with the platitudes applied to his cinema: "I am fully aware now, thanks to my Western critics, of the Western traits in my films," the director protested. "They have so often been brought to my notice that I can actually name them: irony, understatement, humour, open endings--It is not as if I find myself saying: Ah, now for a bit of British understatement. The trilogy can be profitably read as a vast adumbration of aspects of Ray's later cinema often ignored in monist readings that concentrate on his Chekhovian subtleties. Apu's sexless "Auntie" in Father Fanchali, indelibly played by the opium-addicted octogenarian actress Chunibala Devi, who was coaxed out of retirement only to treat the scenery like a tasty platter of masoor dal, vividly embodies not only ancient craftiness and voracity with her bent, rutted body, awry eyes, and greedy, toothless grin but also the strains of the gothic and the grotesque in the director's work, which would return, for instance, in the baroque ending of The Music Room (1958) and the macabre ghost story (excised in most prints) of Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961). When Apu hears a demonstration passing in the street as he decamps from university--"Long live the revolution!" someone cries---the critics who scorned Ray as apolitical are given the lie. His bitter, formally experimental Calcutta trilogy, consisting of The Adversary (1970), Company Limited (1971), and The Middleman (1976), would later satirize the "new India" and sympathize with young activists, while his static final triptych, more Ibsen than Chekhov--An Enemy of the People (1989), Branches of the Tree (1990), and The Stranger (1991)--would offer a pessimistic portrait of his corrupt country and its fast-disappearing values of honesty and altruism. The kitsch movie featuring Lord Vishnu and assorted gods and monsters that Apu and his wife watch toward the end of the trilogy hints at Ray's unabashed fondness for populist fare that would later flourish in his popular series of detective and children's films.
Godard's penchant in the Histoire(s) for slow dissolves recalls Ray's editing in the trilogy, which is heavily reliant on fades and lap dissolves--the latter a technique that increased the difficulty of the films' restoration after a fire at Henderson's Film Laboratories in London severely damaged the negatives in 1993--and grows increasingly sophisticated, apparent in two match cuts about an hour into The World of Apu, the first of a fan exchanged between Apu and wife that captures the tender equality of their marriage, the second a formalist segue from a movie screen into the back window of the carriage that takes the couple home from the cinema. (Godard was not above such match cuts; witness the analogical transition between a living-room lamp and a movie-set klieg in his 1982 Passion.) By some miracle, the trilogy's untrained cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, who had only ever shot stills (though he had taken meticulous notes on lighting and camera setups while watching Renoir film The River, for example), produced elegant tracking shots and dollies that contrast interior space--mingy kitchens and courtyards teeming with animals--with the many pathways (forest trails, train tracks, city streets) that evoke Apu's peripatetic existence. Mitra and Ray treat the thresholds between the inner and outer worlds, particularly the courtyard portals where Apu's mother and, later, his granduncle linger disconsolately, with Fordian gravity.
Indeed, Ray shared with Godard a veneration of John Ford; an image of John Wayne in The Searchers (1956) adjoins that of Apu in Histoire(s), which brings us back to that initial mystery. In the rhyming slippage from le monde perdu to le monde d'apu, Godard has discerned that the Apu trilogy is a chronicle of loss. Over its course, as the train whistle that first suggests escape gradually comes to imply absence, death, and the dark allure of suicide, Apu's aunt, sister, father, mother, and wife successively expire. A literalist might read Godard's repeated use of the image of father and son as another of his recent laments that he does not have a family. More likely, by placing the head of Apu's boy, whose delivery has caused the demise of his mother, directly over the vaginal duct in Courbet's painting, the pessimistic Godard seems to have fathomed in Ray's image of hope and reconciliation--Apu finally reunited with his estranged son after five years of wandering--a reminder that the generative and the mortal, the origin of the world and its end, coincide. We are born astride of a grave, but in the world of Apu, the distance from the birth canal to the burial ground diminishes.
The newly restored Apu trilogy opens at Film Forum in New York on May 8 and at Landmark's Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles on May 29, followed by a national release.
JAMES QUANDT IS SENIOR PROGRAMMER AT TIFF CINEMATHEQUE IN TORONTO.
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|Article Type:||Movie review|
|Date:||May 1, 2015|
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