Category Archives: Indie

A Moment’s Bliss

I haven’t written for a while here. So, what have I been doing?

Writing academic papers, drinking, attending classes, sleeping, walking, angsting, wanting to write uncontrollably but unable to, wanting to learn and unlearn, getting bored of what I like, searching for new things to like.

I have seen many films, some old, a few new. I haven’t seen a lot of films too. Sometimes I don’t want to.

So in this post I’d like to talk about Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006). I saw it some months back and I’m writing purely from memory. At times, I just scroll through my list of films and look at them, thinking of how they made me feel when I saw them. On hindsight, some memories are still fresh, while some garbled. I like the garbled ones more.

So my memory of Old Joy is a bit fuzzy. But I still remember the landscapes and the slow enchanting movement of Mark and Kurt’s car to Yo La Tengo’s soundtrack around curving mountain sides. The charm of leaving cities behind, for countrysides and mountains is dear to many of us. Here the changing landscape from city to hills is lyrically captured. Their hope for some time away to clear their heads camping in nature felt familiar and identifiable. The film is patient and in no hurry. Reichardt’s camera is sympathetic to nature and their presence in it, indeed ours as viewers presence in it as well. She is not Herzog, who wants to confront the dangers of nature and man’s unhealthy relationship with it. And there’s a lovely dog Lucy to give them company. She is the same dog in Reichardt’s other film –  Wendy and Lucy. I can still vividly recall the sequence of them crossing a tree log in the forest. After Mark and Kurt have crossed over, there is an oh so gentle pause, as Lucy makes her way across to them. She looks expectantly at the two friends, the camera, at us. You just want to reach out and pet her so much!

Old Joy can be simply surmised as two friends quest to find hidden hot springs and have a bath. That is the solace for Mark’s depression, Kurt’s joblessness and the overall hopelessness of our lives – economic or otherwise. When I went to Manali last year, I lounged around twice in the natural hot springs of Vashist. Watching the two of them lie down in tree trunk bathing tubs, sipping beer and lapsing into a state of nothingness filled me with upto the brim with joy and subtle ecstasy. As they complete their excursion and return to civilization, you are filled with that not so common feeling of bittersweetness, that you managed to escape only for a while, but escape you did.


Poetic Death {Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man}

“Every night and every morn, some to misery are born. Every morn and every night, some are born to sweet delight. Some are born to sweet delight; some are born to endless night.”
– William Blake

Taking off from Easy Rider (1969), which itself is a countercultural twist on the western genre, in that it converts the American highway and the wide wild landscape of the west into a space for bikers instead of white horsemen and Indians, is Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995). It transposes the reddish-brown landscape we have associated with the genre into surreal high contrast black and white. It’s protagonist, Johnny Depp as the namesake of the literary William Blake, is an accountant from Cleveland thrown into a savage country and turned into an assassin by fate – a wanted man, a dead man.

“Why is it that the landscape is moving, but the boat is still?”

Yes, why is it? Jarmusch’s camera captures the landscape from mountains to lush alpine forests as the characters traverse through it on horses. Together with Neil Young’s mystic soundtrack, it is a chase of whose end we know from the beginning. For as the opening title by Henri Michaux suggests, “It is preferable not to travel with a dead man.”  The opening sequence in the train gives us a glimpse of the various forms of landscape that Depp’s character will eventually have to cross again with a foreboding by the train’s fireman – “Look out the window. And doesn’t this remind you of when you were in the boat, and then later than night, you were lying, looking up at the ceiling, and the water in your head was not dissimilar from the landscape.”

Dead Man also touches upon issues of race. The early westerns of John Ford for example depicted the Indian race in America as uncivilized and one that needed to be conquered by the white man. Here, the character called Nobody – an Indian who knows English and has travelled across the seas as an exhibit for his colonial masters talks about mimicking the white man and lauds the poetry of Blake. But they are still “stupid fucking white men” for him. He is nobody – caught between his tribe and the white man’s ways and his words flow in a poetic way like the poet he so admires.    

A fear of contamination and heresy is also reflected by a catholic shopkeeper towards the end as Depp and Nobody buy tobacco at the banks of the river. Thus the film not only comments about the decaying form of the old western, but by making it in black and white much like the old westerns, also adapts it in a unique way. I have always enjoyed spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone for they combine beautiful photography of a mesmerizing landscape and the ever-present question of modernity taking over an older way of life with motifs of trains cutting through untamed lands. Dead Man opens in a similar way – a steam engine chugs along a snowy countryside. William Blake is in a similar position – a modern city man heading into gun country on a train. It is combined with more spiritual questions for a modern man – those of life after death. This is apparent with the ubiquitous presence of skulls and bones – both animal and human, in both the American and the indigenous Indian’s living spaces.                          

The pace of the film is slow and contemplative, very much like Blakes’s poetry. A poet of words combines with a poet of images. The sequence at the end as Depp grows weaker in the Makah tribe’s camp has a mesmerizing quality as the camera movement follows Depp’s headiness. The film is also humourous with secondary characters like Iggy Pop and Billy Bob Thornton, a cannibalistic assassin, a gun-toting businessman and a dead Marshall who looks like a religious icon.

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.”

Jarmusch’s Dead Man is an infinite visual treat with meditative photography, gentle pacing and fine acting. It’s all about a metaphorical death in the dying season of winter that passes on to another life as a dead Blake in a canoe rocks gently over the ocean.   

Further Readings: Mad Poets: William Blake, Jim Jarmusch and Dead Man, Dead Man (Senses of Cinema)

Riding Easy {Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider}

As someone who is a fan of Jack Kerouac, and a fan of all the crazy souls who love and live to be on the road, Easy Rider (1969) is a film that is affecting. Today, on the day of Dennis Hopper’s death, I decided to sit and watch the film, his debut as a director. Hopper won for Best debut at Cannes in that year for the film.

Prepare for a real trip (drugs included) with Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson across America from L.A to New Orleans, through mountains, down rivers, meeting freedom-loving hippies trying to live off the land to the other extreme of conservative white Americans who could hate you for growing your hair.

What is freedom? What is it today – to be free…?

“I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.”

I’m amazed to read online, that Hopper made a film that was almost 5 hours long, and it was edited for over a year and brought to its current size. I enjoyed the way the acid trip sequence was edited, to be able to translate the experience of a trip onto film, is usually a work of art.

The music is great! Good ol’ Steppenwolf, The Byrds, Hendrix and whole lot of others I must listen to. The opening credits cut to Born to be Wild…I don’t think anyone can re-create that magic of Fonda and Hopper on their bikes riding out onto the great U.S Highway…looking for their America. Like a true nature’s child, we were born to be wild, we have climbed so high, no never gonna die….

No, you are never gonna die.

Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)