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Obsession with Order and Rhythm in Hounds of Love

Ben Young’s psychological thriller Hounds of Love (2016) has some interesting aesthetic elements expressed visually in mise-en-scene and cinematography (which are the visual signs of the directorial signature) that consistently weave the psychological fabric of John (Stephen Curry), the randomly murderous husband who suffers a certain form of OCD. John is obsessed with cleanliness and having things in symmetry and perfect order, an obsession that finally lands him in his own doom. The things in his house, especially in the kitchen, are arranged in perfect symmetry or order. More than just an order, the things form a rhythm–similar things put in perfect order, like repeating beats in music. Evelyn (Emma Booth)–John’s wife who, from fear that she would be left behind by her passively abusive husband–acts helplessly subserviently on whatever he tells her to do, including getting herself involved in randomly abducting girls for his sex prey and finally killing them.

Even though it is Evelyn that is actually doing everything to keep the house in perfect symmetry, order and rhythm, her meticulous engagement in these rituals indicates her having become a behavioral extension of her husband, a deep subservience born of the insecurity as a wife she experiences.

This obsessive care for order–a transferred behavior–is seen when she prepares her husband’s breakfast toasts–she arranges them in a perfect line and checks the order repeatedly. This obsession is seen everywhere in the kitchen–the dining table has two knives and two salt containers set out neatly as a pair. The wall in the background has such sets of things. The frame itself is symmetrical. Everything about the house is in perfect rhythm–cigarette butts in an ash tray, the cutlery, the plates, small pieces of works of art.

The cigarette butts ranged in a line form a rhythm.

The cutlery, the jars form a rhythm each of their own that together form a larger rhythm.

The plates, bowls, the jars and the knives on the knife holder form their won respective rhythms in this shot.

The two wolves form a rhythm in this shot.

The legs of the animal, its breasts, and the two children form their own respective rhythms in this shot.

The obsession is to such an extent that the couple’s bodies form a rhythm even when they sleep. In the frame below, the corresponding parts of the couple’s bodies have similar orientations. Even the pillows.

The couple walks in their rooms barefoot. They leave their shoes on the shoe-rack near the door. Every time they put their shoes on the rack, they pay studious care to order and rhythm, as seen in the following instance, one of many in the film.

John’s obsession with cleanliness is also evident in the indulgence attention he pays himself when he shaves himself and narcissistically watches himself in the mirror while Evelyn, as part of her household upkeep, cleans up the blood-stained tissues at the foot of their captive girl’s bed.

John’s cleanliness obsession is to such an extent that he hates it when the captive girl he rapes turns out to be a virgin and blood is all over between her legs smearing him with blood. He stops short, recoils in utter disgust and rushes to the bathroom and showers.

His sexual interest is turned off by the sight of the captive girl in chains wetting her bed. His cannot control himself when he sees his wife’s dog shits in the rooms.

John kicks the dog to death when he finds it in the room and the frightened dog runs into the kitchen to avoid facing him instead of getting out of the house.

Rather than the Young taking recourse to a more direct expository characterization via action and dialogue, all these indirect devices consistently build up the details of character and psychological make-up of John. Importantly, this character trait is developed not in vain–it in fact leads to John’s own doom.

Understated Mystery, the Site of Everything

The human body is an understated mystery, which is even downtoned further by our monotonous familiarity with it. Paradoxically enough, at the same time, humans with their morals, have an enigmatic relationship with the bodies of their own and others. The body in its pure form is considered decent only at some restricted space. The mind and these complex sets of morals meet in the body and nowhere else. The body is the site of everything happening in the world and these happenings can be bracketed within reward and punishment. A calm naked body is not just a calm naked body. It is a mystery with the whole of the universe compressed into its easily measurable bounds, limited in space right before the looking eyes and in time right on the ground beneath and the hills around and the skies above.

The weight of the body is not measured only in pounds or kilograms but also in units of mystery. The human body in its pure form bears the marks and scars of lived life, and it is the most quietly eloquent thing in the world.

When I say the body, it also refers to the dead body, which I am particularly more interested in maybe because a dead body feels like the body of a mystery preserved in is wholeness, a life, sculpted in frozen, petrified time, the nondescript and the intangible having hardened into tangibility yet still too unfathomable for description. That is how a pure, naked dead body feels–cold, hard and stiff, unfeeling, indifferent. Something being no more there, a dead body feels incomplete, making it more mysterious and awful than a living body, which is soft and pliable but hard to handle. Hard to handle. That is why history has witnessed humans trying to gain control over the bodies of their opponents, their enemies–imprisoning them, beating them, weakening them, or even killing them, turning them into dead bodies so that they no more have to undergo the inconveniences of handling recalcitrant bodies.

A Cup of Memory

a cup of memory after ages

Memory serves its master–it selects and discards. Court-room scenes of long-drawn-out legal fights, people in the evenings of their lives who have lived through dramatic twists and turns of events but want to settle now, people who have survived extreme traumas, and also a common person who experienced something good or bad in the early phase of their life that has left a life-long impact on them–they show that we often remember what we want to remember and even create memories. Memory thus can lie to us, seducing us into believing something else than what was really the case, such as a jilted lover remembering good things that did not actually happen. Memory is edited over and over again.

Fun Side of My Tea-making:

I have not had tea in a long time and felt like having a couple of hours ago when I saw that JNU cup. Late-night guy. Turned the gas on and remembered I more often than not turn into a metallurgist when I make tea–smelting the pot on the gas. Tonight too I almost became a metallurgist. I had to pour the water again into the sizzling pot, like dry-frying water after I had already put sugar and tea.

That was the most awfully worst tea I have ever had.

No Man’s Land Woman

The middle-aged “non-local” woman who had been enthusiastically watching me taking photographs of several children, who had happily gathered around the wedding hall as they would do around a church on a Christmas morning or a straw hut on a Holi morning, kept changing places just like the children. No rings on her fingers, no sindoor on her forehead, no dupatta, just a couple of dull bangles on each wrist, and a carefree hairstyle which looked more a natural result of neglect than nurture–uncharacteristic of a married Indian woman. She wore a lungi cloth, not a saree, wrapped around her like a phanek. The children tantalizingly ran away from me when I trained my camera on them but deliberately conspicuously crept up teasingly about me if I had not paid attention to them longer than they felt was good. I love this transparent coyness of children and it was such fun that the children teasingly responded to me that way.

Children from my neighbors in my Kakching neighborhood used to bug me for something or the other. Even when I could fulfill them instantly, I kept drawing it out because I loved the children bugging me, and they knew it. It was like a game. I would make them kites, give them money to buy food of their choice from a nearby store, take them to places, and things like that. I would be so depressed when any child in our group died. Generations of children. Far away from home, I have disappeared from the memory of most people except the children I played with. But now I have a new generation of children in the neighborhood who know me and come to bug me when they are bored.

“Where you come?” The woman asked in broken English.

The context, my experience of people trying to communicate with me in English by means of a dozen or so English words, and my experience as a school English teacher often come to my help at such moments. Initially it had been hard to push aside my post-structuralism, stylistics and syntax as it was deemed necessary in the field, thought at any moment they may creep in through some crack and prove useful.

I looked at her and smiled. Partly because I feel homeless and partly because my philosophy puts me in no specific place on the globe (though they politically chain me down to some floor) (and also because, amusingly I want to my thought to wander aimlessly: how many places I come from–from a hotel in Moreh or somewhere in Lamphalong, Burma, or Kakching (my birth place and home), Imphal, Delhi, mother’s womb, the bride’s home, and so on), I did not reply.

The smile on her face broadened. I raised my camera to my face, and jerking the lens barrel toward her by way of a signal, my turned up my chin and raised my eyebrows a bit wordlessly asking if I can take a photograph of her. She immediately posed, but shyly. There had been some rigidness about her for some time, one that’s akin to what new photograph models wear when they are about to be in front of the camera, some sort of subconscious posing.

I took a shot and then said, “Thank you.”

“Where you come?” She asked again. This time she was in a more relaxed conversational mode.

“Yahan ka hun!” I said in Hindi.

“Kya? Tum India?” It was instantly clear that her Hindi was worse both in pronunciation and grammar than mine that has puzzled a lot of native speakers.

“Hoi, India!” That was a mix of Manipuri and English.

“Ahhhhh!” Her Dravidian mouth released this Kuki-girl cry of surprise. “Nangdi foreigner mallubane.” She spoke better Manipuri than Hindi.

I had been just back from the Namphalong Market beyond the border in Burma and was wearing a broad-brimmed leather hat like the ones you usually see in olden detective movies or westerns (but yes, without much decoration, and I find elaborate decorations and embroidery on wearables stupid), and I had my fully filled bag strapped on my back, and nobody you normally see in Moreh and the Burmba border don’t wear their trousers and shirts the way she saw me in that day.

“Where do you live?” I asked in Manipuri.

“There!” She pointed into a corridor-like alley that opened onto a barbed-wire and rusted corrugated-tin fence fifty feet away and smiled. “Somewhere there.”

She must have read the blankness in my face. There is a stage I experience before confusion–drawing blank, an experience I undergo if the information I am trying to process seems to possess what seems to defy all logic at that stage or if it looks too baffling. So before giving something up as impenetrable and confusing–some sort of nonplussation, I hold on and seek more information. Perhaps a biologically inherited trait.

“You know no man’s land?” That was an explosion–hitting immediately as comedy but cooling down as tragedy. The mention of no man’s land unleashed a hell lot of old memories that made her “there” make sense.

“Yes, I do.” A low, slightly drawn-out undertone of surprise.

“We live there. Mother and me.” She pointed to an elderly woman in a phanek by a hall wall, who I had seen earlier along with the children. Her life was written out there on her sad face. Her weathered withered face that looked apparently perpetually dull creased into a weak but so beautiful and heavy smile that I could not help smiling back. The smile lingered on the daughter’s face too and there was no politics in any of the curves and creases on that face. The world, the globe, spread flat before her, and the barbed-wire border fence was just another man-made structure like the walls of your house.

About eighteen years ago, while I, on a tour into Burma with one of my Burmese-speaking teachers (he looked like a Burmese too),  was crossing the border on foot, I saw several make-shift rag houses along the no man’s land, between the Indian and Burmese fences. They were Nepalese, Biharis and other Aryan and Dravidian ethnic groups from India, whose fate (whatever it was) had deprived them of livelihood and a floor to put their life on in the places people would call theirs. They found a land to live in there along the no man’s land. Nobody disturbed them there. The army on either side of the border did not find them worth their attention. Nobody roused them from their sleep there. They lived in peace there.

The border town of Moreh is a cultural, ethnic and linguistic metropolitan. Lying within the Moreh Police Station and in the jurisdiction of Moreh Judicial Magistrate, the border town of Moreh will often confuse one as to which law the people living here are subject of. Even often their citizenship. There are countless instances of love and marriage across the porous border that the laws of both sides of the border cannot account for. Love spreads its wings across the border, like the rays of the sun across the border as it rises and sets everyday. But these loves don’t live under the same roof. Love unsettles life so much. Love mixed up with the law.

Not so many cross-border uncivil activities by civilians.

“We came here in the early 1980s from Tamil Nadu.” The daughter said.

People move. Humans. Like homeless. From place to place to place. To live somewhere. Some travel thousands of miles to find a piece of land to live on, to build a roof to live under with their loved ones, to put their lives on that floor under the roof, between the four walls in the strong wind. You don’t easily find a foothold in the vacant fields, in the wilds, on the mountains, beside rivers. Nowhere. There will always come somebody to turn you out of there, and so you end up in a no man’s land. Love. So scarce and little in the world.

“I am an AASHA worker.” She said. How wonderful! That’s sort of a social work. Out of that no man’s land.

The sound of the band playing was now too loud for the conversation to go on. The groom procession had arrived. The drums, clarinets and bagpipes were far less loud than the noise they produce in the groom’s wedding procession in northern India. To an outsider to that culture, that noise rises beyond an insane height. Still, as we did not have to shout to continue with the talk, we let it out there.

Later, when things had subsided, I requested the mother for a photograph, and she gave her consent without a word. The lines on her face and the muscles there were eloquent like a poem filled with affects. I photographed her. Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted her daughter’s photograph from my SD card while I was sorting out that day’s photographs later. Regret.

 

Good Acting: Liar’s Face in Fargo

Desperate for money, Oldsmobile salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William Macy) in Fargo (Joel Coen, 1996) has lied to his customer about a tru-coat. The customer displays a fantastic nervous aggression. Look at Jerry’s face when the customer says he lied to him–his looks, his eyes, and how he holds his face. That’s subtle and fantastic acting.

I like the details in the direction, acting and cinematography displayed when Jerry manages to smile at the customer’s wife and the wife returns courtesy when the customer has said he (Jerry) is wasting his time and his wife’s time.

A Few Shots from Fargo (Joel Coen, 1996)

A collaboration of multiple legends–director Joel Coen, cinematographer and DP Roger Deakins, music composer Carter Burwell and sound editor Skip Lievsay, and not the least Ethan Coen who co-wrote the script with his brother Joel, Fargo (1996) is a classic for multiple reasons. Here I will focus more on the visuals, with cursory references to direction and sound.

Take a look at this shot sequence–a tiny scene in the snow.

The story leading to this point is here:

In the winter of 1987, Jerry Lundegaard, the sales manager at an Oldsmobile dealership in Minneapolis, is desperate for money. He floated a $320,000 GMAC loan and collateralized it with nonexistent dealership vehicles and is unable to pay back the loan. On the advice of dealership mechanic and paroled ex-convict Shep Proudfoot, Jerry travels to Fargo, North Dakota and hires small-time cons Gaear Grimsrud and Carl Showalter to kidnap his wife, Jean, and extort a ransom from his wealthy father-in-law and boss, Wade Gustafson, in return for a new car and half of the $80,000 ransom.

Jerry pitches Gustafson a lucrative real estate deal, and he agrees to front $750,000. Jerry considers calling off the kidnapping, but learns that Gustafson plans to make the deal himself, giving Jerry a finder’s fee.

Jerry (William H. Macy) feels pissed off and is exasperated, but he is helpless. William acts excellently here (and throughout the film) but it is not just his excellent acting that makes his helplessness and exasperation so expressive–the cinematography, the direction and the sound go in together to make this effect. The wide, very high angle shot  opens on the snow yard of Wade’s office. We hear Jerry’s footsteps in the snow but he is not yet in the frame–he is absent, and this is significant. When he enters the frame from the bottom of the frame, he is just a negligible dot in the white wide screen and would have been lost but for his movement in the otherwise static scene–the high angle shot compresses his height and the width of the coverage reduces his space to a tiny black dot, accentuating his helpless condition.

Inside the car, Jerry’s back is toward the camera. Sometimes a face is too distracting to show very subtle emotions, and you express it with the back of the actor’s head with the shoulder (as the one in We Were Soldiers (2002) in which the Mel Gibson character is shot weeping from behind). We hear him heaving a sigh in the cold and see the steam from his mouth going out. Accompanied by Carter’s beautiful theme score that somehow gets to our nerves, we sense something is not quite right–the tension is in the air. This back shot is more eloquent than a face shot would have been.

Jerry’s helpless desperation and exasperation is clearly visible in how he scrapes the ice from his frozen car windshield. The speed of his hands and the sound of the scrapers on the ice and the windshield are increasingly more irritating by the millisecond. Jerry then loses self-control and throws the scraper, which he picks up after a while and begins to scrape the ice. This action is covered in a single handheld medium shot which. Then we are back to a high angle shot, not so wide as the former one. The scraping sound is still irritating but a bit less so. Watch it in the clip above–just 01:20 minutes.

Gaear Grimsrud and Carl Showalter had already arrived at Brainerd to kidnap Jerry’s wife. This arrival shot is portentous–in the foreground it has standing on a stone pedestal a big wood-chipper statue with his axe held over one shoulder on one side of he road that runs almost diagonally in the frame. Everything on the left and right of the road is snow. The car drives closer toward us. The hired kidnappers juxtaposed with the axe-wielding wood-chipper statue in the single frame lends some sinister portentous feel to the shot. Take a look–it’s just 7 seconds long.

The scene after Gaear and Carl kidnap Jerry’s wife in which they kill a state trooper and a couple who happens to see Carl (Steve Buscemi) handling the dead trooper from their passing car window is an excellently executed one. The direction, the cinematography, the editing and the sound (especially the train sound and the sound of the last metallic gunshot whose ring lingers into the black screen after the scene). This is a masterpiece, right from the beginning to the end. The scene opens with the ominous close low angle camera tilting from the wood chipper statue (with the light up from below lending it some frightening look) down to its base to cover Gaear and Carl’s car’s red tail lights on the left of the frame as they drive into the darkness in the direction they came from in the above shot. I will not write further about it here. Watch it for yourself–07:19 minutes.

This is superb!

Hounds of Love: Intriguing Opening Scene

The opening shot sequence of Ben Young’s Hounds of Love (2017) has visual clues as to the film’s theme and tone, and also to what the entire film is all about. The audio track also contributes to the build-up, but that being nothing extraordinary, I would keep to the visual side of the scene. I’ve taken here the first 02:36 minutes of the less than three minute long scene and it has 13 shots, and not shot is extraneous.

As the scene fades in, through the symbolic high chicken wire fence we see, in a wide shot, some teenage girls in high skirts playing basketball on a school ground. The camera tracks right at a very high frame rate (i.e., at an extra-slow speed). The shot (Shot 2) that follows is a tight close-up of the breasts of one of the girls, indicating that somebody is watching her. This in hindsight adds sense to the preceding slow motion–somebody (who we don’t yet know) is savoring every bit of the view.

Then another similar close-up of another girl. And then a thigh close-up of yet another girl, followed by a close-up scanning of another or the first girl from her chest down to the knees. Shots 2 through 5 on end. These close-ups powerfully imply that this person’s sexual interest is random–not a planned one, which makes it more dangerous.

Shot 6 is a wide one, which we don’t get instantly because can’t yet get our eyes off the visually dominating girls at the center of the frame. But as the camera pulls back allowing the wispy hair (which is to be of a woman) to enter the frame, we begin to make sense of her position–she is in a car, and in a matter of a few split seconds we scan the bottom line of the frame and discover the dash board and the steering wheel on the right corner. (It’s not America). Before us having time to think and reason, we find our eyes already scanning the screen because (i) the visuals cues in this shot are arranged for this psychological effect and (ii) something is still missing–if the hair we are seeing is of a woman and if she is not a lesbian, who is it watching the girls so lecherously? Moreover, the woman sits on the left, and there must be somebody behind the steering wheel on the right.

Shot 7 has a very tight close-up of woman’s face, dominantly the eyes. This shot is powerful in two sense. First, the woman leans her head against the window frame and her eyes are barely open–a sign of tiredness, boredom and impatience, and evidently she is not interested (it has character implications for the rest of the film), implying that it is not her that has been watching the girls’ bodies, (ii) the face languidly turns away from the camera, leading us to Shot 8.

A tighter close-up of a man’s face, his eyes, Shot 8 contrasts sharply with the preceding shot–here in this shot, the eyes are as keen and energetic as those of a predator lying in wait for a prey.

Shot 9 has the black, out-of-focus head of this man occupying the right half of the frame while most of the left side of the frame is covered by another car and in the squeezed space between them, we see a girl getting on into her car after the game and behind it a girl walking back home. We hear the car engine start. In Shot 10, the car engine hums and the man adjusts the gear.

This watching is so powerfully eerie that the fear of being watched hauntingly overhangs almost every wide shots throughout the film.

In the wide Shot 11, the girl walks on the side of the road on the left and the car enters the frame from the bottom left corner. Shot 12 is from the interior of the car and it feels suffocating–there is something menacing about it. The shot has the woman slightly off-focus looking at the man and then forward while the man’s attention is not diverted. Meanwhile the car now gets there and the woman talks to the girl in kind friendly words. She says the girl can get in and they would drop her.

Shot 13 has the girl get on in the car and thank the couple.

With very little dialogue in it, we get the information–the couple has kidnapped the girl. But the information is incomplete–why do they do this? Clearly the man has sexual reasons, but if that’s all about it, why is his wife in in? How is the relationship between the husband and wife holding? We want to know more, and this drives the plot forward.

There are some other beautiful things about the film’s design. I will write about that in another post.

Some Whispers are Soundless

Birth and death meet in a house and it embraces both of these two ends of life into one great enigma. A grey mix of love that comes across as love tinted with fear or fear tinted with love. Every house has this enigma in its rooms.

Dehradun. A small girl died in this house first as far as we know. She puked blood. Then after a couple of years the man of the house followed his daughter. Soon the elder daughter died too for no apparent reason. Then the son, the eldest child, survived by his wife and their very small daughter. All in front of the mother. Soon the mother also walked the way of the whole family, leaving her daughter-in-law and the small kid. The mother and daughter moved to Delhi, where they are living now, leaving the empty house with silence.

People come and go. Houses remain there, standing, day and night, year after year, as if waiting even when there is nobody to come until somebody demolishes them. Before they return to their origins, some see more births than deaths with their occupants moving to more convenient, if not better, places, while some others see more deaths than births. Number is not always the weight–to us humans, a death casts a long gloomy shadow on three births of our loved ones. Death is more conspicuous because it tears a hole in the chest of life and smuggles our loved ones out through it and the last time we see them, hear them, touch them, is the last time we have with them. Death nullifies life on this side of the grave, and it often empties a house with a few repeated sweeps leaving it to sink in silence and decay amidst the din of the busy world, like the one in the photograph above.

The patio of an old British lady’s mansion. Soon after Independence, she gave the mansion and the estate to the Mussoorie Post Office which though has moved to a new place still owns it. The house is dilapidated now but parts of it still have a couple of antique-maniac occupants.

Abandoned houses always fascinate me. The gloom, sadness, decay and the evident shabby-gentility they are characterized by, the mute memories the rooms are filled with, the soundless whispers of their stories splashed on the damp, faded, mossy walls–I love these ghosts, their haunting.

(Almost) Unknown?

(Almost) Unknown?

A limiting act, violence imposed on the seamless continuum of the world, a name often turns out to be a container for sets of ideas–about things, about people, and even about the apparently unthinkable.

Photographed at a Sahitya Seva Samiti (Manipur) literary event on May 28 2017. It seems like I had seen him before at other literary events. His name unknown to me. Is he a person unknown to me?