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Mystic River: Masterful Writing By Dennis Lehane

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When I first saw the movie Mystic River I was hit by a thunderbolt; Clint Eastwood is so precise in what he wants as a director and two of his actors pulled out performances of their lifetime—Sean Penn as Jimmy Marcus and Tim Robbins as Dave Boyle are electrifying in this superbly-crafted screenplay of a masterful novel by Dennis Lehane.

Sample this opening paragraph of the book: “When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them. It became a permanent character of their clothes, the beds they slept in, the vinyl backs of their car seats. Sean’s kitchen smelled like a Fudgsicle, his bathroom like a Coleman Chew-Chew bar. By the time they were eleven, Sean and Jimmy had developed a hatred of sweets so total that they took their coffee black for the rest of their lives and never ate dessert.”

A blogger I read defined it perfectly by calling it a deceptively-simple start. The whole book is written in this deceptively-simple manner. The fathers of Sean and Jimmy were friends and on Saturdays they would get together at Sean’s place for a beer; and as one beer turned into six, Jimmy and Sean would play in the backyard, sometimes with Dave Boyle, a kid with girl’s wrists and weak eyes.

“Dave Boyle didn’t have a father, just a lot of uncles, and the only reason he was usually there on those Saturdays was because he had this gift for attaching himself to Jimmy like lint; he’d see him leaving his house with his father, show up beside their car, half out of breath, going ‘What’s up, Jimmy?’ with a sad hopefulness.”

Then one day when they were on the kerb of a street and having a friendly fight a strange car pulled up near the sidewalk. One boy got in the car, two did not, and something terrible happened—something that ended their friendship and changed all three boys forever.

Twenty-five years later, Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) is a homicide detective. Jimmy Marcus is an ex-con who owns a corner store. And Dave Boyle is trying to save his marriage and keep his demons at bay.

Dennis Lehane has this almost perfect way of fleshing out his characters just as he keeps the plot moving forward. Jimmy has three daughters and Katie is the eldest one. Katie and a guy called Brendan Harris are in love and have planned to elope the next day. While packing Brendan is thinking about when he met her first just a year ago when he was doing a roofing job for a guy called Bobby.

‘He’d known of her, of course; everyone in the neighbourhood knew of Katie. She was that beautiful. Few people really knew her. Beauty could do that; it scared you off, made you keep your distance. It wasn’t like in the movies where the camera made beauty seem like something that invited you in. In the real world, beauty was like a fence to keep you out, back you off.”

But Katie, man, from the first day she’d come by with Bobby O’Donnell, and then he’d left her at the site while he and his boys tore off across town to conduct some pressing business, left Katie behind like they’d forgot they ever had her—from that very first day, she was so basic and normal; she hung with Brendan as he applied flashing to the roof as if she was just another dude.”

Lehane describes the pace of the day and the mood of the principal characters before the two love birds have decided to fly and get married; leaving behind Buckingham where they grew up and where everyone knows everyone.

“At thirty-six, Jimmy Marcus had come to love the quiet of his Saturday nights. He had no use for loud, packed bars and drunken confessions. Thirteen years since he’d walked out of prison, and he owned a corner store, had a wife and three daughters at home, and believed he’d traded the wired-up boy he’d been for a man who appreciated an even pace to his life—a slowly sipped beer, a morning stroll, the sound of a baseball game on the radio.

When Jimmy was a kid—hell, until he was almost twenty-three—that energy had dictated his every action. And then … then you just learned how to stow it some-place, he guessed. You tucked it away.”

“His eldest daughter, Katie, was in the midst of that process now. Nineteen years old and so, so beautiful, all her hormones on red alert, surging. But lately he’d noticed an air of grace settling in his daughter. He wasn’t sure where it had come from—some girls grew into womanhood gracefully, others remained girls their whole lives—but it was there in Katie all of a sudden, a peacefulness, a serenity even.

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The Timeless Charm Of ‘The Godfather’

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Last month I was writing something or the other almost everyday but I could not post anything between the fifth of January and the 19th; for the better part of this time I did not have my broadband connection as I moved place and was not foresighted enough to put the request for a connection shift in advance.

Another reason was that I could not keep the focus of a post narrow and every now and then a tributary would come out and threaten to become bigger than the river; or branches taking over the tree. So I kept cutting these branches and saving them and towards the end of January I had so many of them that now my blog has enough to survive for three weeks with just a bit of wood polish here and there. One of the branches is an unexplored and new one for me: films and all sorts of things related to films.

Starting the 25th of February for three days Cinedarbaar and Instituto Cervantes are presenting Horror Cine Experience in New Delhi at Instituto Cervantes, Hanuman Road; the entry is free and it opens with ‘The Others’—starring Nicole Kidman. I haven’t seen any of the other movies on the three-day schedule but if they are close to ‘The Others’ then it sounds like an exciting and horrifying time.

At present I am more of a DVD-watcher and visits to the cinemas are rare. I generally look out for thrillers, drama and espionage movies and I rely on the IMDB rankings. If I have to go to the past there are many movies I’ve seen repeatedly following a long-break which comes from having seen them twice or thrice in the days after my having seen them first; The Godfather comes to my mind immediately; it continues to amaze me.

I had read the book a few times before I saw the movie and found both as unique pleasures. The wisdom of the Don, played to perfection by Marlon Brando; and the passing of the Corleone family’s control to the youngest son Michael, played superbly by a young Al Pacino, forms the core of the movie with the violence being the backdrop. James Cann is brilliant as Sonny, the hot-headed eldest son of Don Corleone. The ones who stand out in the support cast are Diane Keaton (Kay Adams), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen) and Richard Castellano (Clemenza).

Michael, who is not involved in the ‘family business’, puts his hand up to kill Sollozo and McCluskey—after the Don is shot and is badly injured but alive and the family decides, after another attempt to kill him at the hospital is foiled by Michael, that the only way forward for them is to take out ‘the Turk’ Sollozo and the Police captain McCluskey. With a painful swollen jaw Michael says that if somehow an arrangement can be made for him to get a gun at the place where they would take him for a meeting then he’ll kill them both. The family manages to find the place at the right time by tapping a police source; as McCluskey was rule-bound to leave his contact details when out of office.

During the chilling build-up Tom Hagen says to Michael, “You shouldn’t let that broken jaw influence you. McCluskey is a stupid man and it was business, not personal.” Michael had not said anything when his elder brother Sonny and the family’s ‘caporegimes’ were having a go at him; but he gives Hagen a reply. “Tom, don’t let anybody kid you. It’s all personal, every bit of business. Every piece of shit every man has to eat every day of his life is personal. They call it business. OK. But it’s personal as hell. You know where I learned that from? My old man. The Godfather. If a bolt of lightning hit a friend of his the old man would take it personal. He took my going into the Marines personal. That’s what makes him great. He takes everything personal… And you know something? Accidents don’t happen to people who take accidents as a personal insult… Damn right, I take that broken jaw personal; damn right, I take Sollozzo trying to kill my father personal.”

Michael then learns the game of trust and deception when he is away in Sicily and then later when he comes back following the death of his brother Sonny. In the company of his father—the Don had formally retired and handed over the family business to Michael—he learns how to run the business of the Corleone family.

“Michael Corleone had taken precautions against every eventuality. His planning was faultless, his security impeccable. He was patient, hoping to use the full year to prepare. But he was not going to get his necessary year because fate itself took a stand against him, and in the most surprising fashion. For it was the Godfather, the great Don himself, who failed Michael Corleone.”

The Don died on a Sunday morning, working on his tomato vines; a task he loved because it brought back memories of his childhood in Sicily 60 years ago. The Sun was hot that day and he suffered a stroke and Michael and some men at the mall gate ran to the garden and carried him to the shade of the patio. With a great effort the Don opened his eyes to see his son once more. He smelled the garden, the yellow shield of light smote his eyes, and he whispered, “Life is so beautiful.” He died surrounded by men, holding the hand of the son he had most loved.

At the funeral Hagen asks Michael if has an idea about how his enemies are going to come after him. Michael tells Hagen that the Don had repeatedly told him that whoever sets up the meeting with Barzini would be the traitor. In essence, the Don teaches Michael that it takes a friend and an enemy collaborating together to bring a man down; in this case, the one to set him up for the other to gun him down. The background score is wonderful and the use of light and darkness has the touch of a genius. The Godfather is Francis Ford Coppola at his best.

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