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The centerpiece of this Criterion Collection box set (Eclipse Series #2) is Louis Malle's "Phantom India," a landmark seven episode docu-series made for French television in the 1960s. Malle seeks the India not usually seen by foreigners, the secret temples and dusty byways, the street festivals, the remote tribes and hidden cities full of beggars, mystics, and madmen. Malle's narration (in French) gives information about the country and its people, its hierarchical and complicated caste system, its politics, its tribes, its culture, and its polyglot religious reality. Malle's impressions and observations, given in voice-over, make it a very personal journey into the heart of India. At first you feel how shocked and repelled Malle is by the country, but, as the film flows on at its leisurely pace, it becomes a spiritual journey for him, one that Malle allows you to share through the rhythm of his shooting and editing. Malle tried to capture India's rhythm in how he edited the film, which takes some adjusting to since most of the 363 minutes are shot in long takes that really immerse you in what you are watching, steeping you in its atmosphere. For the most part, Malle eschews British colonial India to discover regions untouched by the West. Alternately glorious and horrific, banal and mesmerizing, the series made me run the emotional gamut, including, I must confess, disgust. Having recently seen Chris Marker's "San Soleil" (another excellent documentary released by Criterion) it seems obvious to me that Marker was influenced by Malle's "Phantom India." At one point in "San Soleil" the narrator says, "Frankly, have you heard of anything stupider than to say to people, as they teach in film school, not to look at the camera?" Malle shoots "Phantom India" in the same spirit, engaging with the country's people, inviting furtive glances, penetrating stares, filming their holiness as well as their degradation not with the cold eye of a clinical observer but with the empathy of a fellow human being.
"Vive Le Tour" is a 19 minute study of the Tour de France. It focuses more on the cyclists struggling to finish the race than on the winners.
"Humain, Trop Humain" is a look inside a French automobile plant. There is hardly any narration or speaking. Malle uses very long, sometimes exasperating takes, of workers doing their job. If you ever wondered what work inside a car plant is like, this is your film. Some might be bored because the film seeks to convey the monotony, the endless repetition, of these jobs.
In "Place de la Republique" Malle stands in a crowded square in Paris and films people at random, asking them questions and eliciting reactions. It's an absorbing study of street life. Malle focuses on the quotidian rather than the extraordinary, on the banal rather then the spectacular, but he gets at the hidden truth of everyday life.
The last two documentaries are delightful observations about America. In "God's Country" Malle travels to a small German-American town deep in the heart of Minnesota. He chronicles life during the 1980s in this small rural community. Almost to a person, these people are Republicans who voted for Reagan, yet, as the Reagan years grind along, we see the increasing poverty and dissatisfaction of these heartlanders. Malle began shooting in 1979 and did not set out to make an anti-Reagan film. But by 1985 the dissatisfaction of the farmers was palpable.
The last docu, "And the Pursuit of Happiness," is a delightful look at immigrants who have come to the United States from all over the world. Malle has a way of getting into people's lives so that you are not watching clinical case histories, or mere subjects, but real people living their lives and talking about their fears, hopes, and dreams. I was surprised to see poet Derek Walcott pop up amid the seemingly endless stream of immigrants. Malle (himself an immigrant) shows what it's like to be a newcomer to the U.S., whether you are an ousted Nicaraguan dictator, a family of Chinese peasants who just got off the plane, or a Cuban exile drinking a "cortadito" outside a popular Cuban restaurant in Miami.