Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 10:25 am 
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SUBIR BANERJEE AS APU IN PATHER PANCHALI

The world restored

The three 1955-59 Ray debut films, acknowledged masterpieces, have been miraculously restored to be shown in theaters in May and following of 2015, and available on Criterion Collection DVD's. It wasn't easy. Chunks of the original prints were destroyed in a fire in 1993. The Academy Film Archive saved what remained for twenty years, and that was revived and rejuvenated and scanned in 4K resolution by L'Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna. The BFI, Harvard, and Janus Films provided fine grain substitutes for the parts that could not be used. Attention was taken not to over-restore, to keep the look of the originals, but they quite possibly still appear more pristine, and have less flicker or flutter, than they even did when the films first came out.

The best short piece I've found about the Apu Trilogy and Ray's emergence as one of the world's great cinema artists is in Pauline Kael's review of Devi for KPFA radio in 1962, which is reprinted in the mammoth anthology of her writings For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies (1994). When Ray made the first film, where Apu is a little boy, he had never directed a film before, his cinematographer had never shot one, the composer of the score, Ravi Shankar, was unknown, and the actors had never acted, except for Chunibala Devi, who plays the aged auntie, a once-experienced actress, now eighty, toothless, and bent, and retrieved from a brothel, where she was then living. Ray did not know about provincial rural life. He had to rely on the eponymous novel by Bengali author Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay that he was adapting, and what he learned from going to the village and observing.

The three films, Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955), Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959), set in Bengal in the 1920's, focus on three very different moments it the life of the protagonist, Apu, and as Pauline Kael notes, are each in a different style, which shows Ray learning and changing but also adapting to the protean material. As she notes, people sometimes disapprove of the films after the first because they speed up, and don't have the dreamy, one-with-nature feel of Pather Panchali. And after Apu, they criticized Ray's later films for being smaller, less sweeping. Of course the conclusion that Ray fell off as he went on is foolish. But in the Apu Trilogy he does achieve the magic and freshness of the supremely gifted beginner, and this can be considered one of the all-time great cinematic bildingsromans. People speak of being swept away for days from a viewing, or being moved to tears just from the thought of the trilogy. There's something hypnotic about it, and the rich humanism, influenced by Ray's friend who encouraged him to make films, Jean Renoir, and Vitorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief, which was a major influence, is palpably life-enhancing, even for the most confirmed misanthropist.

For all that, Pather Panchali has its longeurs, and while its last sequence may seem almost manipulative, it tends to seem meandering and aimless. Its beauty is that it flows with the rhythm of life and the seasons and has no starts and stops one can point to. The roar of a train, the flicker of bugs on shimmering water, kittens stumbling into their first steps, an old lady sinking into herself and dying, have the same value and the same beauty. But being schooled to watch conventional movies, one may find this landscape difficult to navigate. Cinematically maybe the strongest imporession of Pather Panchali of of movement, followed by the rapidly panning camera: of sunlight and shadow peeking through the woodsy, rambling little village with skinny trees and bushes heavily hung with vines, and meandering paths among these, and little Apu running, running and skipping through it. He already seems on his way. An exciting sequence, the first one Ray shot, shows Apu and his sister Durga (Uma Das Gupta) running through tall grasses glowing with bright sunlight to a clearing where the train shoots past. Later when Durga is seriously ill just as the monsoon season begins, she promises Apu that after she gets well they'll go back to watch the train again. But she does not get well, and we see Apu spruced up, his hair combed, with a package and an umbrella in hand, standing by himself, ready to go. The first film doesn't seem "about" Apu yet. It's more about his suffering mother, his ineffectual father, his family's poverty, the struggle to survive. But Apu is threaded skillfully through those woodsy outdoors shots, so his spirit runs through the film like a river.

Pather Panchali (Bengali পথের পাঁচালী, Song of the Little Road), 125 mins., was released in India 26 August 1955 , and was shown at Cannes in 1956, where it won the Best Human Document award and was nominated for the Palme d'Or. Theatrical rerelease in the US 22 September 1958. Screened for this review in the new 2015 4K digital restoration, where it is being shown at various venues. These were made by Janus Films and the Criterion Collection in collaboration with the Academy Film Archive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the British Film Institute, and L'Immagine Ritrovata at the Cineteca di Bologna. The new prints are showing at venues all over the US, starting 8 May 2015 at Film Forum in NYC. Also showing at Landmark theaters in the San Francisco Bay area in June.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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