Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Scattered Notes on Super Deluxe: “What Does It All Mean?”

What Does It All Mean? [A Note About the Movie's Much-Celebrated Interconnectedness After Its OTT Release]

Now that Super Deluxe is available online, can someone write about what the allusions and echoes between disparate strands, so consciously and painstakingly constructed, actually amount to? Rewatching different segments only points to more and more consciously laid out elements. (A lot of them visually in the backdrop and/or as ambient sound. There are some echoes in similarity of scenarios/situations but they aren't baffling and produces *some* effect.) I find the reading that "you viewer might be tempted to interconnect these arbitrary incidents but no, these are mere accidents" more than a bit humourless for a film that formally invests in designing and constructing the overlaps. I'm myself convinced that's not Kumararaja's idea (though I remain baffled as to why he plays out these plotty allusions then!) and more curious about discussions on how the film coheres into a commentary on sex, taboo, faith or what have you,... that leans towards any philosophical position.

[Another round of exchange with @alokranj]

@alokranj: This from that ending monologue is one of the keys: 

"Understanding patterns, reasoning, and rationalizing
moved humans to the next level in evolution. But when we started connecting unrelated events, and concocted meanings, beliefs and religions were born."

So just like in the real world, the events we just saw over the last couple of hours were random, unconnected and meaningless in themselves but it is up to us to ascribe connections & meanings on to them. Also the idea of sex as the key to the essential mystery (and hence the beauty) of life and also the tentative and partial nature of truth & morality are also alluded to in that monologue. That last 10 minute is a masterclass in editing, writing, filmmaking.

@equanimus: Oh yeah, I'm also referring to the bit about "connecting unrelated events" in the monologue, as to how the whole film reflects on it. We already debated what to make of things said at the ending here: (I hope I don't belabour the same arguments again which I'm sure will make you regret responding here!) I'm in agreement with the point that the film suggests "it is up to us to ascribe connections & meanings on to them." But would perhaps add that it is in some ways just a tautological statement.

What's perplexing is the extent of formal investment in creating these overlaps in the artwork, sound and so on. Of course, the medium is everything and I wouldn't question artists going to obsessive levels to realise things. But if the idea is that "I as the storyteller have placed *only a 'not unusual' level* of overlap in these events but you as a viewer might go overboard," I find that a nonexistent distinction and the premise a bit amusing. Especially for a film (even if not otherwise plot-heavy) whose key strokes rely on actual twists (most of it fairly early in the film but some later as well; diamonds inside statues? the only bad guy is killed after all?!). As opposed to portraying something more internal to the characters. I don't mean more monologues and such but simply where the characters are not stuck with plot situations to deal with till the end. And a film which explicitly designs/places all these elements. Isn't the good old suggestion that the storyteller/filmmaker is like god in his/her universe (and the filmmakers having some storytelling fun with this) simply the truer position to take here?

But yes, (coming to your second point) the idea of sexuality as the key in all these strands, much differently as they play out, is a compelling dimension, and what kept me glued till the ending. (The contrast of the absurdly frivoulous and strange story of the boys to the utterly grave situations in other strands is particularly effective.) The startling ending is one of the film's high moments and undeniably charming. But, in my viewing, it is also a heady turn to dazzle us, more pleasurable than meaningful. What was also really disappointing was the many broadish things said, often not cohering with everything we've seen until then and in some bits not even within the monologue. To my mind, (at the risk of coming off as the dull long-faced person in the room who can't have fun) only more issues emerge. Let me expand on some of the complaints I previously made about philosophical ideas being glib, not cohering and such.

Firstly, "the tentative and partial nature of truth": Surely, what we see in the film is much more of perversions of some people harming/torturing others than people judging/ostracising people based on morality? Stated differently, it's not like bad things we witness happen because of misplaced moralities? Sure, some characters use it as justification but the distinction between people who harm and not is very clear within the film! Berlin or Leela's son are not simply ostracising Vaembu or Leela but are out to 'sinning' even if one sticks to the oldest of moral traditions! OTOH, other characters who are affected in some way simply find their way to accepting things. And (this is apparent only in subsequent viewings) even the reflection "In a world where so much good exists..." sits awkwardly in the universe of this story. I'd argue, the implausible happy endings (the film intends them to be that way, not my characterisation) and the pleasant music just segues us into buying this idea. What's otherwise the unusual good we have witnessed till then?!

And what makes this "10000 feet view" philosophizing even accessible/palatable to contemporary ethical discourse/today's liberal viewers (whom I don't mean to skewer at all here) is that there's a clear indictment of some things that are so current and immediate; and of those who don't let others live and overstep their time here by imposing arbitrary (and sometimes convenient) moral codes on people around them. All this is par for the course for a liberal film today, but going about the "yin and yang" unity of good and evil et al. is a roundabout way to assert something as straightforward as this.

And what do we make of the lines just before this? "In a way, this colossal universe exists only for you" It comes off like a mis-rendering of nondualism for contemporary individualist/hedonist world. (It's not a subtitle issue of "in your view" becoming "for you." In Tamil, it's even clearer: "ஆக, இந்த அண்டசராசரம் அனைத்துமே உன்னொருவனக்காகத் தான் படைக்கப்பட்டிருக்கு.") Isn't the underlying idea here of "living life to the fullest" minimally at loggerheads with the idea of "live and let others live" platitude we see above?

Which brings me to the "we are all one" bit. Isn't this played out like we all were always meant to be in a universal harmony, all parts of a universal whole, and out of our lack of understanding the universe and ourselves, we stage struggles and conflicts within ourselves? To be fair, here it's just a passing reference; even if this was put forth very seriously and rigorously, I'd still have a philosophical disagreement. But it's a telling indication of how many "nice to hear" things get mixed up here. My own view (pardon the dropping of quotes) aligns with the view Slavoj Zizek puts forth here, superbly questioning this idea:

@alokranj: Very illuminating. I specially liked your point about the contrast between how serious the portrayal of evil was as compared to the feebleness of philosophising about perspectives, prejudices & truth. In the monologue there is also a line about good and evil like day and night but ultimately being the same. This is a sticky territory, but a lot of religious and mystical philosophy does say the same thing. I don't agree with it but I find it interesting to think about.

I wanted to ask you something - can you tell me what is written in tamil on the advertisement outside of the porn theatre (just when the three kids enter it) - it is about 10 minute to the ending. The advertisement is about "super deluxe" icecream. There is something written in Tamil on the board.

There is  also a super deluxe signboard where the alien girl is talking about the oneness of everything.

@equanimus: Yeah, the tag line for the ice cream brand. It is "கடைசி துளி வரை இன்பமே" (just double-checked). Roughly translates to "Pleasure until the last drop."

@alokranj: thanks, wonder if there is any sexual double entendre implied here😛😛

@equanimus: No doubt about that.😀

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Scattered Notes on Super Deluxe: Follow-up Exchanges Part 2

[Exchange with @alokranj]

@equanimus: To clarify, my remark about the film's glibness was not related to the jokey/tongue-in-cheek treatment (which as @alokranj says is there only in the initial scenes; well, even here, one can see the Mysskin-written portion stands apart!) but about the glibness in the philosophical ideas explored. I do otherwise think the films aims for something higher (than tongue-in-cheek/ironic distance style) in general and esp as it progresses, like I noted in my 1st post (a very hurried and haphazard note, I might add). I do think the film is far more ambitious than and purposeful than Aaranya Kaandam, which surprised me. But I had serious reservations about how it plays out, which I thought was muddled up. That's kinda the point I was trying to make in that post. Resumed my conversation with @complicateur with a couple of more posts above which are even more unwieldy and go into various questions in a dull way.

@alokranj: on glib philosophizing: if you boil everything down to the final monologue/voice-over narration you could argue that it is glib or unearned though even there I would protest otherwise. To me this idea that despite all the randomness, chaos, amorality, senselessness and suffering, we must still hold back the final judgment on Life, it is not glib at all because the stories actually make you think about it without insisting on it one way or the another.

I saw this film as a very sincere and thoughtful aesthetic engagement with amorality and nihilism. That is why I said that comparing it with Tarantino/Pulp Fiction (talk about glibness!) is doing it a disservice. You could actually argue this about his earlier work Aaranya Kandam, but even that now acquires a lot of weight and contextual meaning in the context of "Super Deluxe" if you think of the earlier film as another episode in a bigger narrative.

@equanimus: Yes, my arguments are:

one, it's simply unearned considering how things play out in the stories. The only story that touches upon randomness is actually the most flippant (and in my view, the most effective) one: the story of the boys. The other stories don't dwell enough on senseless in what comes off as stories with plotty beats, and very comforting ones at that. There isn't a portrait of "what life can give to people after all the suffering" per se.

Two, the ideas explored don't actually cohere. Mysskin's questions about the meaning of life and god stand on the one hand while the film spends much of its time exploring how people grapple with sexuality in a very prosaic, day-to-day sense. What can we make of Mugil-Vaembu story for instance? They get along after some "he says, she says" exchange that goes along the lines of "that's all there's to life, isn't it? it's that simple etc."

Three (maybe kinda tied to the previous two), I thought the idea that "Life itself is that mystery/joy" was itself glib in the way it was rendered - considering how base and manufactured some of the suffering is (should I say "causal"? :-)), I thought it more or less degenerates (inadvertently or otherwise) just asking people to look at the big picture and take it easy. This is where I think the film inadvertently follows the commonplace line of just surrendering yourself to god.

Having said all this, I agree with you about the boldness of the film's ending and how captivating it is. I do recall feeling it was a thrilling way to end the film.

@alokranj: In the boys' narrative, what did you think of the "alien"? Were you thrown off by it? Kumararaja and the writers take a huge risk there and lot depends whether you allow yourself to remain in the story after that episode.

@equanimus: Oh that worked for me completely, the story also had a bit of broader dreamlike treatment prior to the twist too. I agree it was a risk but then it works precisely because the film brings the alien as if to 'enlighten' the boys as opposed to bring about some abrupt resolution.

I even wonder if many people are hung up on the meaning of the alien simply because they think it ought to have done more! (Not condescending but I think the larger Tamil audiences aren't used to a deliberate surreal style unless done with a sleight of hand leading them to it.)

@alokranj: That's good to know. I also thought if the film stressed a dream-like, surreal treatment a little more, if it cranked up "Lynchian" aspect of a day gone really weird trope through lighting, set design etc, it would have worked even better

@equanimus: True. Like I said, I found the boys' story to be the most effective for this reason. Maybe even the other stories are meant to be like that but at least I didn't receive them that way.

@alokranj: In my 20s I thought surrendering yourself to God was easy and commonplace thing to do. Now in my 30s I think that surrendering yourself to nihilism is the easier option to take ;) May be in my 40s I will finally regain my lost faith ;)

@equanimus: :-) But seriously, I'm sure you'd agree it's not a binary "this or that." And my point of "considering how base and manufactured some of the suffering is" would apply to surrendering in general, whether to god or nihilism. :-) I'd also seriously question if the aloof cool of Kumararaja (let's just say, in his previous film Aaranya Kaandam for us to have a somewhat common ground :-)) has to be accounted for as nihilism proper. There's a great deal of "everyone's liberty to have fun, etc." in the overall stance against moralism as well. I get how you read the film's question about the meaning of life, God in Arputham's story but just clarifying that, in my view, he doesn't come off as either seriously nihilistic or wrestling with nihilism. :-)

@alokranj: On "Super Deluxe" I wrote a blog about some thought pointers. Too lazy to write a proper essay or a review

@equanimus: Thanks for sharing your Super Deluxe blog-post, skimmed through some parts a while back. Will read fully. One thing I'd reiterate as my impression about the film is that it is intent on being more meaningful/purposeful as a whole and eschews immediate visceral effects of a tight narrative (a distinction Baradwaj R also made in his review comparing this to Kumararaja's previous film). It is unusual even in the best of Tamil films (while we are at Maanagaram). It's a very offbeat/arthouse cinema sort of move on Kumararaja's part but I didn't think the film succeeded at all venturing into this. Nalan Kumarasamy, one of the co-writers, spoke highly of the level of game Kumararaja is playing and so on. After seeing the film and wondering how exactly the story of the falling man VJS tells in the film's trailer fit into the film's scheme, I recalled how Nalan Kumarasamy's 1st film Soodhu Kavvum in fact has a really thoughtful portrait of 'a man unfazed.' I even toyed with the idea of writing down something arguing Nalan Kumarasamy is in fact the one who played that game exceedingly well in his 1st film. :D

@equanimus: Just finished reading it. I agree with pretty much everything you've said here in terms of how one ought to approach art. Not to belabour my case - but where I differ is, I think the film has only a few tantalizing bits that encourages reflection on life, suffering, sexuality.

@alokranj: I wrote about some of our differences (I think) on "Super Deluxe" in the third section of the blog post. If something is said in an ironic way, or within a jokey or tongue in cheek context, it doesn't necessary undervalue its seriousness.

@equanimus: Oh my issue was not at all about serious stuff said in a jokey or tongue-in-cheek context. But that the ideas don't really cohere. The very reason I was compelled to look for serious meaning in a film that is anything but solemn was because I took all the jokes seriously!

@alokranj: That monologue in the trailer is actually a very good example. It can be a joke, it can also be a serious idea about how to live life facing certain death. Both of these meanings can co-exist fine with each other, one doesn't undermine the other.

@equanimus: Indeed, I don't think I've questioned that at all. The very film exists on the idea that it can coexist on entirely different planes (and that much was clear even from the trailer), right? My earlire point was about how it resonates well only with the story of the boys. And about the portrait of unfazed, the point was, at a personal level (i.e. not so much an artistic assessment; but then at a deeper level, it is that too, isn't? :-)), I relate far more to a (different) strain of philosophy manifest in Soodhu Kavvum (which btw is as jokey as it gets!).

@alokranj: on incoherence, one clue is in the title itself. like a super deluxe bus or a hotel room it is packed with a little too much knick knack. Not everything will fit or cohere together :)

@equanimus: :-) Well, for me, at least 2 of the stories didn't work on that plane at all, and it also seemed like (don't mean it literally) the film dwelt on them the most. In the 3rd story, Arputham's conundrum itself seemed to occur in the margins while it primarily comes off as a father and a son unable to come to terms with a facet of Leela's sexuality. What happens in these stories make us reflect on the story of the boys who're just trying to watch porn one fine day. This strand worked for me as I mentioned earlier. The doctor's monologue serves to sign off with this reflection. (Just stating all these things as a single train of thought to clarify I'm with you on all this.) But this is where the ideas - let's also add the alien's pronouncements that we are all one, to the mix now! - don't really cohere in any meaningful way with what emerge from the other strands. What's the suffering that makes us reflect on life in the 2 stories that involve Berlin? Except in the sense of good and bad coexisting as Yin and Yang (which I suppose won't qualify as a thought-provoking perspective). Arputham's question on faith in the face of adversity also seems short-changed in a very prosaic kind of closure. Now that I have said so much, I'll also go out on a limb and say that, the disparate ideas aside, I believe the overarching view the film put forth is how the world is/we are all one, even the bad-good distinctions we make are but different manifestations of the 'whole us', we are all amid the unending chain of life, sexuality is an essential part of it, and so on. (Trying my best to give a fair articulation. :D)

And by all this, I also mean to say that I don't see the question and affirmation of "why should we carry forward life despite suffering?" that you see in the film. What I see is an affirmation that "life is a super deluxe bus that has all these disparate things and while they're in and of themselves or as one thing giving way to another, mere occurrences devoid of any larger meaning. But life-at-large itself is the perennial mystery/joy/meaning that drives us."

Scattered Notes on Super Deluxe: Follow-up Exchanges Part 1

[In response to @complicateur]

"people or principle" question சரியா நினைவில்ல. :-) Are you talking about how we as the audience expect the movie to impose certain turns in the situation of characters based on their actions, and the movie actually doesn't? I'm not sure if this film could be characterised as one making this move? After all, 2 of the strands are so dramatic and are of "what are the odds?" variety in the first place. The Leela story coasts along expected lines (not a complaint, just saying it's more about what the characters go through). the Vaembu story on the other hand starts with assuming a really grave situation (via the extreme contrivance that they decide to assume the role of murderers) and there's really no surprise in terms of offsetting our expectations. We expect things to go from bad to worse while we root for them and they eventually survive. And that's pretty much what happens. My point is, the moment you've parallel strands, the audience already expects them to collide and impinge on one another in interesting ways. Here, the oddity (in a simple-minded sense) was that it doesn't even collide all that much and nor is there (i.e. I was unable to find) a broader commentary on how life just chugs along with random mundane events with little sense of justice. A happy closure is brought about in a typical way for all the individual strands. The story of the boys is the one that is attuned to the "fuck it dude, let's go bowling" ethos, esp in the way the film sketches Gaaji as a particularly equanimous presence, but it's weak because their situation is selfconsciously blown out of proportions from the start, unlike the other two.
On Gaaji, oh yeah, I didn't find his character sketch as a whole, impressive at all. But it seemed to me the film does try to privilege his vantage point by having specific moments that suggest he has greater clarity and சமநிலை. Anyway, I highlighted this because it felt like Kumararaja was invested more in this seemingly frivolous story than the other ones. In this story, one could say things take absurd turns but the characters chug along without much success but also without any grave outcomes. What else is actually random as opposed to designed, (in the other strands) is what I was trying to ask. I didn't get your point about the film not taking any position or attempt to show just chaotic things happening.
[Btw, I was also going to mention an example of a character sketched as cool in the face of adversity in above reply, but seems you weren't really talking about that. Mentioning it anyway though I'd say this movie doesn't warrant any comparison at all: Das from Soodhu Kavvum.]

Yes, to begin with, I don't see the point in digging into these overlapping elements/presences in the different narratives. I'd gladly join the conversation on the Easter eggs if the film as such and its overarching worldview is captivating enough. (Otherwise it merely shows how carefully constructed each moment/image is, which is as it is evident the way Kumararaja has built the film's universe.) I'm curious to hear about more such Easter eggs from a film geek perspective.

[But let me also add that a lot of the connections drawn already seem exaggerated and/or arbitrary. E.g. if Berlin was indeed Thooyavan's father, the film should have left more traces than it actually does. Like most people, when I first heard of this, I wondered if the offscreen voice was anything like Bagavathi Perumal's distinct voice. Incidentally, in my second watch, I felt the voice didn't sound like Bagavathi Perumal and was a bit like it was emerging from a closed space. But then that was a bit similar to how the Berlin character sounds later when he enquires a neighbour about Mugil/Vaembu. Just adding my bit to the mess!]

I'd have liked to write at length about the levels at which I thought the film goes for greater meaning and offers some kind of a piercing commentary and the limits it encounters therein. But I haven't been able to find time to put together my thoughts in a structured piece. Anyway, let me jot down some of these fragments to continue the conversation.

It seems the film tries to alleviate if not cancel the anxiety around human sexuality. Here are some moves in this direction: Leela disarmingly positioning herself as just Leela, Leela's son Soori and his friend laughing off the slur instead of prohibiting it, Mugil-Vaembu striking a rapport at the end without having to reconcile her affair in any particular way, Gaaji seeing "things for what it is" and not going through or put through a guilt-trip. Raasukkutti not being affected by her biological father being a transwoman is implicitly about sexuality but it's not part of the son's gaze, so this probably stands out. I didn't think all of these things are actually very effective in the film but I think it'd be fair to say the film's general impulse lies in this direction and the Manushya Puthiran's (the doctor's) monologue from the porn film, tries to tie these things together in a similar vein. But I'd question - are things that simple? Is it really about people taking it easy and things will be fine? Next to ending one's life, sure, but does the film point to a different horizon other than telling we all and especially those affected should take it easy? How different it is anyway from surrendering oneself to god anyway? Especially the bit about Soori and his friend (Mohan?) laughing it off was egregious because Mohan explicitly invokes the difference between Soori and him when (they talk about how porn stars too have kids and be regular mothers and so on) the former asks "நீ அப்படி நெனச்சுப்பியா டா?" I thought this kind of closure was too pat. It is as if our internal turmoils are too insignificant but this is something we have to work our way out by, well, developing a thick skin. Vaembu also goes through the motions similarly with Mugil. Mugil keeps referring to her morning incident in a jokey way throughout the film and the idea is, well, if she doesn't take it hard, it's all cool! I thought the treatment of this sub-story was too silly beyond a point. (And what annoys me here is how some critics say people around us think like Mugil and the filmmaker has showed how we think and by not punishing Vaembu he has taken her side. I reject this frame of reference. Yes, it is true that Tamil cinema doesn't usually venture beyond generic women characters and the few times it does show a woman having extramarital sex, there can be a good deal of hyperventilation. But why is this the bar? I'd say it becomes important to imagine the scenario authentically *and* free the man and the woman. Here, we only see them on and off, and mostly by way of plot progression and some cutesy "he says, she says" scenes! And Mugil's general reaction to the situation borders on just plain silly. Compare this to, say, how Michael in Iraivi responds - "ஒரு மாதிரி இருக்குதுடி" - about him not knowing what happened when he wasn't around (simple as the moment is; and we know what happened, etc.).

Regarding Gaaji, I thought the film positions him differently at multiple places, though I didn't think it was a congruous portrait by any stretch. Initially, he seems relatively unfazed by some hindrances at faces but that (and his character) gets muddled up in the scheme of every boy getting his chance to be funny/crack a joke. But later, it becomes more distinct. He faces up to the situation when Idi Amin decides to thrash him (even the latter is a bit impressed). He's the one who sees the alien for what it/he/she/they is/are, which again impresses the alien. He (one of the two, a la "இந்த ரெண்டு காஜில எந்த காஜி எங்க காஜி?") also gets to do a bit of commentary on the doctor in the porn they're about to watch!

Anyway, this is a minor point and it's not like Gaaji's character resonated with me as a congruous one. But regarding his comment being xenophobic, might this not be a bit of a strong judgement? After all, we're talking about Kumararaja where people say all sorts of outrageous stuff. There's quite a bit of stuff about aunties and other people in ஆரண்ய காண்டம், not all of them are seriously critiqued or even rejected though there's some bit of that as well. Even on "சேட்டு", there's this hilarious line in ஓரம் போ (assuming it was his line, etc.): "தாயும் புள்ளையானாலும் வாயும் வயிறும் வேறன்னு ஒரு பழமொழி இருக்குல்ல. அதை மொதல்ல சொன்னதே ஒரு சேட்டு தான்."

But having read and listened to your thoughts about the film's amoral universe, it seems you considered the entire film and all the characters specifically in the light of the "problematic" things that show up in the film, in the sense of "what happens to people who do/say problematic/plain bad things?" I didn't see the film that way. In fact, I thought the film made fairly conventional choices almost everywhere. Vaembu has extramarital sex but it's short-circuited by having the guy dead! The boy's rage at his mother is undercut by him getting injured and his mother giving her all to save him. When Shilpa returns, those who have no direct stake in the immediate family react in the worst possible way but not the immediate ones. (In a film like Varuthapadatha Vaalibar Sangam or Petta, this choice might work as it attempts to critique how the casteist folks around push the parent/spouse/child to a corner. Here one'd think the problem is more intimate.) As I said earlier, the only story that is more abstract and not going along predictable lines is, well, the unruffled story of the boys where nothing bad really happens nor you expect it to. This is incidentally why I don't understand the criticism people have about the appearance of the alien! The strangeness itself is what is good about it. It's not like it's there as a contrivance to solve anything. What happens there? The boys get the money. Are we really saying it's the alien that makes it possible? Aren't there myriad conventional ways in which they could have got the money they wanted?

I found Mysskin's scenario sort of exploring philosophical question of faith also to be fairly prosaic if not conventional. The outcome of his breaking the statue, seemed oddly rushed. For one, because of the film's tone, you don't doubt for a moment that the boy is going to live so it doesn't come off as a saviour per se. And the film doesn't build up enough at all about how they need an impossible amount of money to save him. It looks like all the time Leela and co. are up to something and they're almost there. Even before he finally breaks, his friend comes to his place with some money by selling off his vehicle. The kind of money needs typically associated with hidden diamonds and what they need here seem like entirely different things! I don't mean this as a criticism but just registering the sense I got when I saw the film (both times).

Also, another really conventional choice that I want to carefully put forth: rape in mainstream cinema serves as a trope for revenge/vigilante narratives, which new age/liberal filmmakers are wary of and avoid/try comment on. Here it just seemed wrong that there are 2 scenes set up in a very similar way and the one with the traditionally attractive heroine is averted (stated differently, her crying and pleading come off as a 'familiar' appeal if I may put it that way, as if to pretty much necessitate the deus ex machina). This a very delicate point, I am obviously not at all suggesting it'd have worked if the film remained a 'truly amoral universe' all through (Berlin's prolonged presence as it is didn't work for me at all). But again, just want to register that this came off as a very conventional choice.

[And to be clear, here, I'm not criticising the film's politics per se, in terms of how it treats its trans character and so on. (Not distancing myself from such criticisms really but I also such criticisms are sometimes misplaced when the consideration is purely about "what happened to the character at the end?") My point is particularly about how the film treats the threat of rape differently in 2 similar sequences in the film.— equanimus (@equanimus)

Well, my point was not that we shouldn't probe what happens in the narrative, but the backdrop details that are being found don't seem to change the narrative in our eyes in any way. I don't get why everyone is even talking about cause and effect in the first place, when in the film, it's just 2 moments (one of which unfortunately is placed just as a flashback insert). I'm not saying there should have been more (or less for that matter) but it's not clear to me what the presences of these elements/echoes actually mean. About the question of why should the TV fall there, I don't get why there should be an explanation beyond the idea of having a cool coinciding moment Kumararaja seems to have gone for. :-) Even the logic that "the movie has to end" requires a playful meta angle or something.

Oh, sure, the film is clearly self-conscious of its artifice, its filmy universe. I meant a specific kind of playful angle like "so now we have to come to the end, isn't it?" which I don't think is there. "If the threat to Vaembu had not been averted" Vaembu is portrayed as a nice person all along, which is what really matters. Honestly I don't get the point about possible readings that the film works towards averting. Films end on a happy note and has drastic/bad things happening in between all the time, that in itself won't be meta, would it?

Ha ha, I return to my earlier point - I think I just didn't look at the film in this specific frame of reference: as specifically about "what scenarios it pushes its characters into for their actions?" In this kind of plotty narrative, something or the other happens all the time. If your point/reading is that the film ensures it doesn't leave room for any simplistic interpretations of "this happens to this person because...", I do kinda see where you're getting at. (Except things don't happen that randomly either.)

[Exchange with @tifoskrishna]

@tifosikrishna: "Philosophical ideas don't cohere" - agreed, but to set up a premise to let us reflect in such morally complex questions is a task in itself. And all the effort/investment was worth it only because of the way movie ended. I liked Dasavatharam for the same reason.

@equanimus: I'd question if the film actually dwelt on the questions (complex or otherwise) it raises. If I were to be a bit more uncharitable, I'd say the film's tongue-in-cheek approach and the overall message of "take it easy, you're insignificant" allows it to say stuff that can't be critiqued seriously because, well, one'd then be taking oneself too seriously! (But to be fair, I wouldn't level this charge on the movie itself, as I'm still curious what the film's sincere position is, but for this kind of a movie, the discussions can go in that direction. :-))P.S.: This is btw why I'm also (as yet) inclined to talk only about the formal and narrative aspects of the film and not its politics or some other weighty considerations like that.

Scattered Notes on Super Deluxe

[Initial post]

Scattered thoughts on Super Deluxe...

My primary issue with Aaranya Kaandam, Kumararaja's much celebrated first film, was that its stab at depicting a hip worldview was rather facile. I enjoyed watching it but its reflective turns weren't compelling or especially thoughtful. The film was a triumph in style but its allure lied in consciously departing from mainstream Tamil/Indian cinema and thoroughly inheriting the storytelling approach of interlocked pulpy stories. Ultimately, I found it more than a little derivative of a very specific genre of arthouse crime films that had come into vogue in international film circuit.

So, with Super Deluxe, I was keen to see if Kumararaja is going to do another round of chic in much the same way. While I didn't have doubts about Kumararaja's hip standing apart in the context of Tamil cinema, I was also wondering if it was genuinely more difficult to pull off "too cool for school" now than then (2011).

In that respect, Kumararaja has thoroughly upped the ante in treatment, the deliberate arthouse/formalist treatment is far more purposeful here than Aaranya Kaandam. The film is 'messy' in the sense that it's all over the place and only some parts work. But it must be said the film demands a certain level of investment throughout from the viewers.

But as it goes for greater meaning, not only do the seams begin to show, I felt the film doesn't strike the notes of pure 'pleasure of the text' either. There is quite a bit of meandering (I for one didn't quite get in what sense the disparate strands are connected at all...) and doesn't hit the entertainment mark of the aloof kind as much as it wants - I especially didn't like the element of Tarantino-ness on display here via the character of Berlin. (By which I also mean to say I don't like Tarantino in the first place when he does those torturous segments from a distance.) The philosophical ideas explored/sketched here too are quite glib (similar to Aaranya Kaandam) but they also don't really cohere.

In summary, there's a stronger auteurist turn here than a standard genre exercise. I was compelled to take much of it seriously (will likely see it again if I get the time) but things just didn't add up.

Also, sincere question to those who have seen the movie: was the abrupt intrusion of TV into one of the narratives a captivating moment for you? It worked at some level as a cool way to connect 2 of the stories, but pretty much knowing something had to happen, it just seemed par for the course. I heard one comment about the newness in letting the following action happen a while later (in the film's timeline) in another story. I must confess it didn't seem strikingly inventive to me. Doesn't this sort of stuff happen all the time in a Guy Ritchie universe which multiple Tamil films (Aaranya Kaandam included) have drawn inspiration from in last 10 years or so? But then I tried to think of an actual example and couldn't spot any. So, FWIW, it does seem unique in a purely formal sense.

As in a scene will have ripple effects which we don't necessarily see? Isn't this interconnectedness itself often an exaggerated storytelling device than something that's actually true to life? BR talked about how this is a commentary on random coincidences and not a karmic intervention, which I didn't quite understand. How is this different from a deus ex machina? But to be fair (noted in follow-up tweet), it does look like there hasn't been a similar moment in Tamil cinema.

And I'd also reiterate that I'm not complaining about the deus ex machina. Indeed I'd have thought there'll be more of those to tie the strands together. Just this one instance in fact came off as less than what would pass as normal in these stories!

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Scattered Notes on Super Deluxe - tweets collated

Saturday, January 20, 2018

A 2017 Tamil films' list

Favourite films

மாநகரம்: pitch-perfect is the word. An exercise in style without a false beat. What's most remarkable about the film is it is slick *and* tonally serious. The plot interlocking here is obviously derivative of Guy Ritchie and the like but it's interesting how Lokesh Kanagaraj wants his film to be more serious and gritty that ultimately aligns the work more with the best of contemporary Tamil cinema than any of the tongue-in-cheek/ironic distance that usually characterizes such derivative works and Guy Ritchie's own filmography. The film also decidedly stops short of becoming a truly grim portrait of the urban landscape (for all the violence in the film, nobody dies! incidentally the director has also talked about how this was a conscious choice...) or a deeper exploration of the proverbial "what's the right thing for an individual to do?" à la Mysskin. But there's often a lurking sense of this question and the film cleverly opts to only point to it rather than dwell on it for its own running time. In other words, the entertainment/thrill of the film's yarn relies on the very violence the film means to decry. But I'd argue the film, to its credit, offers a specific (interesting if sketchy) perspective on violence through one of its lead characters (a very effective Sundeep Kishan). This character clearly (as if to mirror the film's own impulse) emerges as the more forceful/compelling figure in the film than the other lead (Sri's casting here seems a nod to his role in ஓநாயும் ஆட்டுக்குட்டியும் playing a character in a somewhat similar helpless good Samaritan role, though that film is otherwise set in a universe of a very different worldview).

குரங்கு பொம்மை: exceptionally well directed film. This is a film of interiors, all of them so well realised and shot, brilliantly demonstrating how cinematic a film can be even when you're not shooting in real exterior locations (the latter is without doubt something many Tamil filmmakers since காதல் have excelled at). All the turns the film takes are not effective (some of them come off as rather prosaic) but even in that respect, I appreciated the film's earnest attempt to imbue its story with a sense of wider meaning (as opposed to solely into being clever in tying its yarn together).

Interesting but have some/quite a few reservations

தீரன்: அதிகாரம் ஒன்று
Does one thing and does it well. H. Vinoth's project is to imagine an action thriller out of a real life criminal case/investigation. The film has it both ways by making us aware of the broader social context in which the crimes/criminals occur (primarily in just 2 animation segments) and at the same time refuses to let that come in the way of fashioning a straightforward police actioner. The Bawaria gang is villainized in very obvious terms but I liked how the film also in some ways undercuts this by acknowledging that  they exist outside of the broader system/nation-state that has marginalized them (primarily via dialogue but also in the way the gang is depicted from a distance not fully accessible to us except as demonic eruptions); and more importantly by showing, even if only fleetingly, the colonialist nature of the conflict - in the way it depicts the overall operation as one of a modern well-equipped governmental force encountering a primitive group that is much less equipped but also 'untamed' for that very reason and systematically eliminating them (the return of the repressed, if you will).

mishmash of multiple ideas, some work, some don't

8 தோட்டாக்கள்: at its best when it is a gritty urban landscape story, less effective and limited when it becomes something else wherein the Mysskin-esque melodrama/sadness and the Hollywood-friendly "heart of darkness" (à la 1 man's descent into pure darkness) seem awkwardly sandwiched, cutting off each other's effectiveness.

(Acclaimed films) I found quite boring and overrated:
ஒரு கிடாயின் கருணை மனு

Monday, January 08, 2018

A quick and rough note on வேலைக்காரன்

Found வேலைக்காரன் quite effective. (There, I said it.) Still wondering why it hasn't received even a minimal praise or attention from discerning film-viewing circles...

The movie does tend to get verbose (and the director very much so in his interviews!) and and adds way more scenarios/incidents by way of plot than it needs - to that extent, it's a film of excess and it'd have been better and tauter if it had dwelt on just 1 narrative strand for more time and kept out some of the other narrative strands. But I liked that the film constantly strives to be imaginative, and when it works, it bristles with ideas both in terms of political imagination and (more importantly) storytelling style.

Some elements/ideas/strands that I found interesting if modest (in some cases, even somewhat confused):
  • We'll come to the politics of the film in a bit but I suspect one of the reasons this film is not receiving attention among the critics is because it's seeped in mainstream form and conventions. It's to Mohan Raja's credit that the film never mistakes serious purpose for a need to be dull and long-faced (never mind how the director seems to give himself a short shrift in this regard in interviews where he emphasises more on having a message than telling an interesting story). It strives to fold its purpose in a story arc, in the scenarios it invents, employing squarely mainstream storytelling idioms. The staging is all masala in a way that is first of all refreshing and also at times gives the film an edge/potency. Some moments/arcs that are worth mentioning:
    • The dramatic framing of Arivu (Sivakarthikeyan) taking a vow to transition from being a fool on Apr 1 to a worker proper on May 1, for instance, is beautifully done.
    • (Some other reviewers have highlighted this scene.) The scene that involves a live commentary of a local gang fight is again mounted with a sense of drama that has become all too rare. Consider the number of things that you learn as the scene progresses. This is when it's also revealed Arivu considers Kasi annan his chief nemesis. Even the visual of every individual appearing as Kasi has a meaning, as that's how Arivu sees the problematic, as not an individual issue but one of the "winning idea."
    • The scene in the 2nd half where Aadhi a.k.a. Adhiban Madhav (Fahadh Faasil nicely doing his thing) burns down 2 days of stock the workers have produced. We see Aadhi and Arivu rush to the place but at the site, they slow down having a measured dialogue of sorts as if they are witnessing the immediate proceedings from a distance, the products Arivu and co. have built being wasted on fire and other workers in panic trying to escape the fire and/or save the stock for sale, finding their way out, etc.
  • I was more than once reminded of Rajkumar Hirani even if Mohan Raja is never nearly as seamless in pitch as Hirani is, not to forget the latter's wonderful humour. But I'd add here that Hirani's own ideas can sometimes be bloated e.g. in a film like Lage Raho Munnabhai. Incidentally, I think வேலைக்காரன் probably owes a bit to that film in particular. After seeing the film, I realised the FM radio connection of course - it's used as a plot device too in a very similar way - not only for lead characters to reach out to the wider public but also for the principal characters to indirectly have their own conversations in public. But I must add I mean the Hirani influence as a general remark - even the way the film has multiple supporting characters gaining importance in unexpected ways and having their own closures, etc. I particularly liked the visual of Kasi (Prakash Raj), and Kasthuri (Sneha, in a role and segment that's just rushed), the former a local don who served as the hunting dog for his corporate bosses and the latter one of their victims, stranded together and sharing the same pedestal (and yes, in true masala logic, they're in the hospital!), as ultimately victims in their own respects.
Now to the film's politics.
  • First, the representation of the underclass or working class - I'm sure there were some offensive or insensitive bits (that betray the film's outsider gaze) but it's remarkable how the film squarely privileges the working class as the authentic agents of change. In this film's logic, the well-to-do middle class is thoroughly colonized if not complicit (unwashed masses, as it were!), political change if any has to emerge from the working class. This is refreshing amidst the tiresome spate of movies where we see iconoclasts from educated upper middle class rising to some occasion or the other and invariably recoiling back to their cocoons after blaming "dirty politicians" for everything! At some points, it seems this is even placed as a burden of the working class - the analogy between gangsters who kill for money and worker class in the bottom rung of corporate system begged for a more nuanced portrait, the casual equivalence drawn between the two was a glaring overstep - but it must be said that this is a rare film which privileges the worker class in very interesting ways.
  • That brings me to the next point - the onus here is not on the 'moral superiority' of the worker class and the film never degenerates to 'goodness!' i.e. a vague plea from 'a few good people' to an amorphous group (Corporate top rung in this film) to be more humane. This is a trope that even the seemingly political films so easily resort to - the likes of ஜோக்கர் and அறம் come to mind (the former is obviously crafted with care and hits the aesthetic registers a lot more than the latter but I found both of them very blunt in terms of their politics) . The film's hero deploys the very ideas of the system's functioning against itself. But I'm not talking about just that. The very premise of the story arc is based on the assumption that the sociopolitical space is an ever-contingent one with all participating groups bound to it (may I use the word 'interpellated'?) and one open for radical changes. This is exactly what most of the seemingly rousing but ultimately cynical movies miss when they offer little more than a 'berating' of the world we live in (call out politicians or the unwashed masses/people at large for voting them in!). The film keeps the motives of its protagonist simple and targeted and is the first to recognizes that too.
  • The film is dead serious about the fast food industry killing all of us. The film is at its weakest when it goes on about the worst ill-effects of consumer economy but I was very surprised by how it leaps from this (a standard-issue film dealing with some corporate misconduct killing off kids, etc.) to rattling off about modes of production and then to the enormous stakes workers have in the functioning of this economy itself and the system at large. I mean, really, weren't the more thoughtful films suggesting 'returning to mother nature' as the answer?
  • This is what enables the film to fearlessly (some would say doltishly) go the whole hog from disparate, even divergent, strands of consumer activism and underclass social emancipation to full-blooded communism. I for one was charmed by the rousing 'எழு வேலைக்காரா இன்றே!' at all as the film ends.
TBD: If I have something more to add, will just keep adding here. :)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Monday, July 30, 2007

R.I.P., Ingmar Bergman

Bergman is no more. (Link via India Uncut.) Check out Ingmar Bergman Face to Face, the official site run by Ingmar Bergman Foundation; it has a lot of those wonderful images that Bergman captured in film.