Directors as Actors

There are times when Actors turn Directors and make wonderful movies while casting themselves, but how many times does it happens that a Director gets in the shoes of an Actor for someone else’s movie.

There are some directors who are also good actors and in most cases these artists started their career as actors and then went on to become great directors.

Orson Welles, Clint Eastwood, Ron Howard, Robert Redford and Mel Gibson are a few classic examples.

Another such example is Richard Attenborough, though Attenborough should be considered as a Great Actor first and then a Great Director, but nevertheless a Great Director indeed. I always remember Attenborough as ‘Big X’ the leader of the POWs from ‘The Great Escape’, but at the same time how can I forget the biographical masterpiece that he created on the life of Gandhi.

Richard Attenborough as General Outram in Satyajit Ray's 'The Chess Players'

It quite struck me when I saw the Oscar winning director of Gandhi as General Outram in Satyajit Ray’s ‘The Chess Players’. And I wondered how would it be for a great director to be directed by another great director, how would they discuss the scene, would the director turned actor give any suggestions to the actual director, or would he just play his part, and would these two great director minds be able to work together without any creative differences?

Though I don’t remember many such instances but whenever such an instance has occurred where a great director has acted for another great director, the ultimate product has often come out great.

Martin Scorcese as Vincent Van Gogh in Akira Kurosawa's 'Dreams'

One such fantastic instance is from Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. I didn’t hear much about this film expect that it was based upon actual dreams of director Akira Kurosawa. The film basically comprised of these bizarre short tales (Kurosawa’s dreams) that portrayed not only the Japanese culture and folklore but also global concerns like the nuclear threat. And one of these dreams was called ‘Crows’ and it was about this art student (a character dressed like Kurosawa) who while looking at a painting by Vincent Van Gogh, actually gets inside the painting and meets the artist himself. And I was quite surprised to find Martin Scorsese playing the obsessive Van Gogh; it was fun to watch a great director like Scorsese acting for a legend like Kurosawa and in although a short role nonetheless a fantastic one. I felt Scorsese’s portrayal (though only for a few minutes)  as Vincent Van Gogh was as good as (if not better than)  Kirk Douglas’ Oscar nominated portrayal of the same character from the movie ‘Lust for Life’.

John Huston as Noah Cross in Roman Polanski's 'Chinatown'

I have watched many movies directed by John Huston and my favourite being ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ but never had actually seen him as an actor before. It was Roman Polanski’s masterpiece that actually brought out the revelation for me. And there is absolutely no doubt that John Huston is as effective an actor as he is a director. In fact Robert Towne the screenwriter of the movie even praised him for his portrayal of the villain Noah Cross and this is what he had to say “Huston was, after Nicholson, the second-best-cast actor in the film, and he made the Cross character evil through his charming and courtly performance”

Francois Truffaut as Claude Lacombe in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Close Encounters with the Third Kind’

As an ending note I’d like to mention a couple of more such similar instances which I like (though not as much as Attenborough’s, Scorcese’s or Huston’s) and that are Francois Truffaut playing Claude Lacombe, a UFO scientist in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Close Encounters with the Third Kind’ and Orson Welles playing Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’. And I hope that I get to see more such instances ’cause when two great minds work together, miracles are bound to happen.

Orson Welles as Harry Lime in Carol Reed's 'The Third Man'

Z

Film : Z (1969)
Director : Costa Gavras
Language : French

I loved Costa Gavras’ Missing and I was looking forward to watching his ‘Z’ and I was not at all disappointed. I love political thrillers, ‘All the President’s Men’, ‘Syriana’, ‘The Lives of Others’ are some of my favourites and ‘Z’ has definitely made a space for itself in my favourites list.

Based upon Vasilis Vasilikos’ novel, ‘Z’ is a dramatic and powerful account about the investigation of the assassination of a Greek politician. The film begins with a boring lecture about some agricultural policy whilst the opening credits are shown, but as soon as the lecture is over a police general quickly gives an anti-communist speech and you immediately know what’s in store for you for the rest of the movie. The scene shifts to a preparation of an anti-military, nuclear disarmament rally being planned by the opposition and being attempted to prevent by the ruling government. Yves Montand plays the prominent leftist leader referred in the movie as ‘Z’ who arrives in the city to give a speech in this rally, but as soon as his speech is over he is brutally attacked by the extremists. Well that’s only the first half hour of the movie.

In this right-winged military led country (never revealed which country) the attack is soon given a name of an accident. And when a magistrate and a photo-journalist start digging deeper into the case they reveal that the entire incident was planned by the police department itself but that’s only scratching the surface.

‘Z’ has the perfect cast; the examining magistrate played by Jean-Louis Trintignant is totally authentic, Jacques Perrin who plays the photo-journalist makes his presence felt in every scene he is featured, even though if he is shown standing somewhere in the background taking pictures. Vago and Yago were absolutely perfect as the attackers and Pierre Dux was an ideal cast for the role of General.

The pace of the film is superb; it takes its time to begin with the plot but once the attack takes place, it gets you involved with this massive conspiracy that begins to unravel very frenetically, with loads of characters introduced in every other sequence, funny dialog and confusing jumble of events. ‘Z’ sometimes gives you a feeling of a political documentary whilst sometimes it just surprisingly pulls the carpet from under your feet.

The cinematography is marvelous with the editing that gives a sense of urgency that the film requires. And what really stands out is the music that is so strange and unusual yet fits so perfectly with the film especially during the chases and the critical moments.

Made in 1969 ‘Z’ was not only relevant of it’s times but is equally relevant today. The political scenario shown in ‘Z’ was based on a true event in Greece but it can occur in any country and at any time for ‘Z’ is  not just about Totalitarianism, it is also about corruption and injustice that is prevalent in every society.

The director also stated about this film ‘I made ‘Z’, first because I am Greek-born. Secondly, because I felt I would like to do something. Some people sign petitions, others go to the streets – I do something as a filmmaker.’

Towards the end the message is crystal clear, while the director’s other masterpiece Missing brought tears to my eyes towards the end, the end of ‘Z’ made me choke. The satire is classic and reminded me of the end of ‘Jaane bhi do Yaaron’ though ‘Z’ was made ages before the latter.

Vincent

Film : Vincent (1982)
Director : Tim Burton
Narrator : Vincent Price
Language : English

One of my favourite animated Short Films and I love the way Vincent Price narrates this, as a matter of fact when Vincent was asked what he thought of the short, he said that it was “the most gratifying thing that ever happened. It was immortality – better than a star on Hollywood Boulevard.”

and here’s the poem

Vincent Malloy is seven years old
He’s always polite and does what he’s told
For a boy his age he’s considerate and nice
But he wants to be just like Vincent Price
He doesn’t mind living with his sister, dog and cats
Though he’d rather share a home with spiders and bats
There he could reflect on the horrors he’s invented
And wander dark hallways, alone and tormented
Vincent is nice when his aunt comes to see him
But imagines dipping her in wax for his wax museum
He likes to experiment on his dog, Abercrombie
In the hopes of creating a horrible zombie
So he and his horrible zombie dog
Can go searching for victims in the London Fog
His thoughts though aren’t only of ghoulish crimes
He likes to paint and read to pass some of the times
While other kids read books like, “Go, Jane, Go”
Vincent’s favourite author is Edgar Allen Poe
One night while reading a grusome tale
He read a passage that made him turn pale
Such horrible news he could not survive
For his beautiful wife had been buried alive
He dug out her grave to make sure she was dead
Unaware that her grave was his mother’s flowerbed
His mother sent Vincent off to his room
He knew he’d been banished to the tower of doom
Where he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life
Alone with the portrait of his beautiful wife
All alone and insane, encased in his tomb
Vincent’s mother burst suddenly into the room
She said, “If you want to you can go out and play
It’s sunny outside and a beautiful day!”
Vincent tried to talk, but he just couldn’t speak
The years of isolation had made him quite weak
So he took out some paper and sprawled with a pen,
“I am posessed by this house and can never leave it again!”
His mother said, “You are not posessed and you are not almost dead”
These games that you play are all in your head
You are not Vincent Price you are Vincent Malloy
You are not tormented or insane you are just a young boy
You are seven years old and you are my son
Now I want you to go outside and have some real fun
Her anger, now spent, she walked out through the hall
While Vincent backed slowly against the wall
The room started to sway, to shiver and creak
His horrid insanity had reached it’s peak
He saw Abercrombie his zombie slave
and heard his wife call from beyond the grave
She spoke from her coffin and made ghoulish demands
While, through cracking walls, reached skeleton hands
Every horror in his life that had crept through his dreams
Swept his mad laughter to terrified screams
To escape the madness he reached for the door
But fell limp and lifeless down on the floor
His voice was soft and very slow
As he quoted the raven from Edgar Allen Poe,
“And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted, nevermore.”

Vihir

Film : Vihir – The Well (2009)
Director : Umesh Kulkarni
Language : Marathi

Still water runs deep, well that’s an apt expression when it comes to describing Umesh Kulkarni’s Tour de force “Vihir”.

But before I could say anything about the film, let me make this clear, Vihir is not a typical commercial potboiler and although Vihir is essentially a ‘lost and found’ story it is certainly not in any way synonymous to the renowned Bollywood expression.

Vihir is a coming of age drama about two cousins in their adolescence, Sameer and Nachiket who are also best friends. When Sameer and Nachiket come down to their ancestral home in their village, they often go for a swim in a nearby well. Sameer is an excellent swimmer, while Nachiket requires a wooden buoy which he ties around his waist to keep him afloat and while they swim or troll around the countryside, they talk about life and their perception towards life. While the elder cousin Nachiket speaks about his angst, his dreams, his detachment from family, his petty existence, and the idea of living life with freedom, the younger cousin is often confused at the former’s talks and fears if Nachiket might flee from home. Well Nachiket does sets free, and from there begins (in quite an allegorical manner) the game of hide and seek.

Apart from Nachiket and Sameer, one character that stands witness with its flexible characteristics to each frame is the ever sublime and unfathomable – Water. (And ‘the Well’ being a synecdochical device)

The performances are exemplary as is every character etched from earthy reality. The actors are so natural, you almost feel like landed in their home listening to their conversation in the rustic language that they speak.  The camera moves across the house like a character and while outdoors it is never shy to give a panoramic point of view across the pastoral landscapes of Maharashtra, it is needless to say – the cinematography is impeccably beautiful. The Music creates an atmosphere that fits perfectly in the philosophical universe of Vihir and beautifully fills in the spaces where for minutes there are no dialogues.

Vihir deals with the questions of life and death and creates layers of questions through one’s mind. Vihir will make you nostalgic if you ever visited you ancestral home in vacations, also it’ll take you back to those difficult adolescent days when you tried to make sense of everything around you and yet only found yourself even more confused. Girish Kulkarni (a regular with Umesh Kulkarni who also plays the alcoholic uncle) and Sati Bhave’s tale is a retrospect of those good old days and an introspection on a lot of things about yourself.

Umesh Kulkarni’s Vihir is a must-watch and definitely a movie that stays with you long after you’ve watched it.

Kubrick Glare

The legendary film-maker Stanley Kubrick was a pioneer of a very unique style of cinema. He had a few trademarks that not only made his movies visually stunning but are today known under his name too. One such Kubrick trademark was the Kubrick Glare. It’s a simple camera shot, wherein the close-up is on the character, while the character slightly tilt’s down his or her head and looks up from beneath the lowered eyebrows. And the intensity of the emotions is so easily depicted. The character in such situation is often menacing and more or less insane. Here are a few of my favourite Kubrick Glares.

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In Bruges

Film : In Bruges (2008)
Director : Martin McDonagh
Language : English

Black humour is a term coined by Surrealist theoretician André Breton in 1935, to designate a sub-genre of comedy and satire in which laughter arises from cynicism and skepticism, often about the topic of death.

Bruges is the capital and largest city of the province of West Flanders in the Flemish Region of Belgium. It is located in the northwest of the country and sometimes referred to as “The Venice of the North”.

In Bruges is a movie about two hit men holed up in Bruges who begin to differ on their views of life and death as they become used to local customs.

Martin McDonagh directed this pitch black comedy after he tried his hand at a short movie called ‘Six Shooter’ (equally black considering the humor). In Bruges begins with two London based Irish hit men arriving in Bruges to lay low after a job gone wrong. Ray (a rookie hit-man played by Colin Farrell) and Ken (a veteran played by Brendan Gleeson) go around sightseeing the medieval city while they await instructions from their principled Boss ‘Harry’ (Ralph Fiennes). Ken quite likes Bruges while Ray hates it completely although the reason for Ray’s despondent behavior is the death of an innocent boy whom he had accidentally killed while doing his first job. However Ray begins to overcome his gloom when he meets Chloe (Clémence Poésy), and while Ray is busy punching prim Canadians, thanks to Chloe’s smoking in a restaurant, Ken on the other end finally gets his orders he’s been awaiting from Harry. To his surprise the orders are to kill Ray on the principle that killing a child (even though accidentally) is unforgivable. Ken who has by now developed a liking in Ray is reluctant to do his job but then ‘you got to stick with your principles’. So when he arrives to kill Ray, he sees that Ray is about to commit suicide in order to overcome him guilt. What follows this is a roller-coaster ride through the cobblestone paths of Bruges, involving a dwarf as an important plot element, mocking fat Americans, shooting blanks, with Harry coming down to town, and with some real bang bang and blood, finally leading to a catastrophic climax.

Bruges is really beautiful and so well fitted in the plot that by the time the movie ends you must have done most of the sightseeing, but then don’t miss on the plot as ‘In Bruges’ is a tightly woven tale thanks to the well paced screenplay that eventually got nominated for an Oscar. Farrell and Gleeson are superb (I wasn’t a Colin Farrell fan until I saw this movie) and their conversations are as fascinating as that of Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield of Pulp Fiction. But the real star of In Bruges is Ralph Fiennes who with his foul mouth and a strong cockney accent plays one helluva villain. The dialogue is witty, crude and funny. The satire is classic and the characters are amusing yet so real that despite them being hit-men and gangsters, they’ll definitely gain your sympathy when blood is spilled. The cinematography is brilliant; especially with the medieval architecture in the background it sets the mood right.

All in all a movie that stands out as a wonderfully bizarre experience, certainly as good as the likes of Tarantino and Ritchie if not better.

Sherlock Jr.

Film : Sherlock Jr. (1924)
Director : Buster Keaton
Language : Silent
The only Buster Keaton movie I had seen before Sherlock Jr. was the most popular ‘The General’. I loved his slapstick style and the daredevilry that he exhibited in ‘The General’ and I was so impressed that I immediately ranked him second to Charlie Chaplin in the silent movie genre. But that was before I saw Sherlock Jr.
The plot is simple, a wannabe detective currently working as a film projectionist tries to solve the case of his girlfriend’s father’s stolen watch, but instead he is framed for the theft and all that the hapless projectionist could do is dream about being in a movie as the world’s greatest detective – Sherlock Jr. and solve a case that is similar to his real life.
Once the dream sequence began, I couldn’t help myself gaping at the screen with my mouth wide open thinking all the time – How the hell did he do it? And the answer to that question is only Buster could dream with such brilliant imagination and artistry. The movie stands out for its crisp editing; amazing camera work and astonishing as well as hilarious acrobatics that only Buster Keaton could do (the only other person who could do that kind of stunts is his self-confessed fan Jackie Chan).  Each and every scene in the movie comes out as a remarkably entertaining spectacle, especially the movie in a movie surrealist scene where Buster Keaton enters into the movie screen after being tossed out once by the villain and then the film itself starts playing games with him when he stays on the screen but the sequences keep changing rapidly landing him in different situations for e.g. once he is standing in a busy street and then immediately he is standing on a cliff of a mountain and then right in the middle of two lions. These quick successions will easily leave anyone astonished. The cutting of scenes is so precise and the camera angles so perfect that you’ll actually believe in an illusion where Buster was always in one place and only the scenes around him were changing. Some of the other scenes equally remarkable were the Billiards game where Buster always miraculously misses the explosive Ball no 13, the jump through the window into an old lady costume, the entire motorcycle ride and the run along the top of the train and then coming down from the water spout where Buster actually broke his neck.
In a world when there were no CGI or special effects comes this movie that was so technically advanced and ahead of its time that for every scene that I saw in the movie, there’s only one word that very distinctively  comes to my mind – ASTONISHING!!!