Thursday, December 29, 2005

Annoyed and Pissed Off

I don't know if it is just the end of the year blues or something more serious, I have been feeling extremely annoyed, angry and pissed off with everything for the past few weeks. I am trying to "inhale positive energy"* wherever I can but I think they are in short supply these days or perhaps I send out too many negative vibes to people who spread positive energy all around, which might well be the case.

So imagine my anger and the depth of my helplessness when I read something like this. The first atrocity (now, I am all for freedom of thought and choice, even for the stupid people but...), Richard Corliss, the film critic for Time selects Bhansali's Black as one of the best films of the year. Next comes another, far more mind-numbingly tragic atrocity. A stupid asshole of a journalist goes to Bhansali and asks him, "sanjay, kaisa lag reha hai?" to which our Sanjay modestly replies, "main kya kahoon"! I felt so sick, I almost puked on my keyboard.

Corliss had earlier selected Devdas as his number one film of the year expressing particular fondness for the "fabulous frocks and the people who fill them" while adding the fact that when it played at the Cannes film festival earlier that year, he was the only international critic who stayed till the last minute, many of whom were masochistic enough to sit through the nine-minute rape scene and worse acts of violence in the French shock-merchant Gaspar Noe's Irrerversible (which is, by the way, as abominable as anything Bhansali has ever made, but far more inventive). Derek Malcolm saw through all this at the same festival and pronounced it to be "a pretty silly three hours worth of romance, song and dance, and utterly tasteless - if luxuriant - production design. Not fit to lick the boots of Lagaan."

My problems with Black are simple enough. It uses the plight of a blind-mute girl and an ailing old man to tug at viewer's heart-strings and extract cheap emotional response from its viewer without enlightening him about human condition, about love, about bonds that keep two people together or makes one dependent on another human being or even how should disabled and terminally ill people be treated. It was kind of an unreal special-effect movie meant for audiences who like to shed a few tears to clear their lachrymal tract and then feel-good about having got their money's worth (paisa-wasool movie). Anthony Lane in his New Yorker review of 2046 called Wong Kar-wai's style, "visual dictatorship". I wonder what he would have to say of Bhansali's style. Wong's dictatorial style at least forces you to see things from a new perspective, although it remains strictly his perspective (to which I don't have any problem) not like Bhansali; whose idea of a good visual design is to mug the senses, and not to stimulate them. He has himself admitted to this in an interview. And then he had the gall to say that he was inspired by Kieslowski to make Black. Fucking asshole. Give me the camp and kitsch of the incestuous clan of Chopras and Johars anytime than these mindless fucks of these phony bastards who call themselves artists.

A few readers have complained that I never write about Indian movies here. Well, here is my token bollywood post. Happy now?

*Over to Anurag who will explain everything about positive and negative energies.

P.S. I have never used swear words in any of my posts, that is until today. But then, I have never written about Bollywood before.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Best Books of Fiction I Read This Year

I was trying to compile a top 10 list of films that I saw this year but then balked at the idea, after I realised what a huge enterprise that would be. I saw films beginning from January at a rate that would drive any normal person nuts. Most of them were old classics, mostly from Europe. I didn't see many "new" films released in the year although I have tried to make up for it in the last two months. What I didn't do this year was to read a lot of books. But whatever I read was all invariably brilliant. Here's a list of those books:

  1. Hunger by Knut Hamsun: By turns funny and harrowing, this portrait of a young struggling writer slowly losing grips on his mind and reality is unlike anything I have read in a long while. Its like an experimental, avant-garde version of Crime and Punishment, only that there is no crime and no punishment in it but in its feverish evocation of the inner life a tormented character it surpasses even Dostoevsky.
  2. Youth by J M Coetzee: Although far more clinical and objective in its approach, this is no less harrowing than Hunger in its depiction of the portrait of an artist as a young man. In this largely autobiographical tale, Coetzee tells the story of a young computer programmer working to make his ends meet in harsh winters of London. Our hero reads Rilke and Pound, watches the movies of Antonioni and Bergman and in the nights, longs painfully for a female muse who will spark off the artistic fire in him. Nothing like that ever happens of course and the novel ends without any catharsis or closure or any kind of hope in future. This may sound bleak and indeed it is but in its enthralling depiction of the life of the mind, Youth also is remarkably uplifting by showing that art indeed always triumphs over the misery of life.
  3. The Red and the Black by Stendhal: This story of a young and scheming yet romantic and naive social climber who would do anything to get ahead in a society filled with hypocrites, was the biggest literary entertainment of the year for me. There are a few dull pages towards the end, which would be of interest only to students of French history and society in the eighteenth century but overall it is a gripping tale full of romance and intrigue, all served with a most vicious irony and dark humour. I was reading the reviews of Woody Allen's latest film Match Point and the story looks remarkably similar to this book although I suspect the film ends differently.
  4. The Rings of Saturn by W G Sebald: I didn't know whether to put this book under fiction or non-fiction but since the effects it produced in me are generally associated with imaginative fiction--all very mysterious, very difficult to put in words--a mixture of sadness, loneliness and the feeling of being transported to a different time-space realm, I call it a work of fiction even though it is, at least on surface, a book of facts. I had written about the book earlier here. In fact it was my first post on this blog.
  5. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov: I had just finished reading the book when I started this blog in May this year, that's where the 'Zembla' in the title comes from. This story of a mad literary critic, who thinks he is the exiled king of Zembla, the distant northern land, writing 200 page annotation on the 999 line eponymous poem by his friend John Shade, is often hilarious, frequently inscrutable (because of its obscure literary allusions, at least for literary newbies like me) but is always insightful about how literature works. And that poem...brilliant, dark and very funny!
There were few other books too. Immortality by Milan Kundera, Some plays by Ibsen including the classic A Doll's House, Sebald's Vertigo, a few short stories by Nabokov including the brilliant Admiralty Spire, Mario Vargas Llosa's Who Killed Palomino Molero?. Everything was uniformally brilliant. Great entertainment and great education from each single one of them.

That's pretty much all that I read this year in fiction. I wrote about the non-fiction books here.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Best Film of the Year?

I am a little surprised to see David Cronenberg's A History of Violence as the year's best film on so many top 10 lists of the year. It is a comprehensive winner in the Village Voice annual poll of critics (which is very comprehensive) far ahead of 2046 which is a distant number 2. Cronenberg also scores big as the best director of the year. I saw the film when it came out in general release a few months ago and I was thrilled and disappointed at the same time after watching the film.

The film starts off brilliantly with a shockingly violent scene. One child is shot (point blank, though off screen) and another wakes up screaming from her nightmares to be told by her dad, "there are no such things as monsters"! There are a few brilliantly staged, and unlike that opening scene, strangely cathartic scenes of violence. Cathartic perhaps because they are enacted by the hero and his son against cold-blooded killers, evil mobsters and school bullies. There are two sex scenes which are terrifically well done and which fit brilliantly into the thematic patterns that the film explores. Then there are the sensational perfomances by Viggo Mortensen (where was he all this time?) and Mario Bello as the lead couple and a terrifying cameo by Ed Harris.

After all this the final half hour of the film, when Cronenberg takes the cliched hollywood line with cardboard character of an evil mobster boss delivering one quip after the another lightens the tone of the film which nearly destroyed the experience of the watching the film for me. (There were even a few in the audience who laughed at some of the scenes which irritated the hell out of me.) The silent dinner scene in the end somewhat redeems the whole affair but I wish Cronenberg would have stuck to the Michael Haneke line by keeping the film cold and humourless throughout. I don't think it was a mainstream box office success anyway.

Here is another meta-list of year's best films. History scores big here too.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

David Lynch's Short Films

Although it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to summarise any of the three short films by Lynch that I saw today but I will try (and it is true for any surrealistic and abstract work of art, they exist precisely because conventional language fails to convey or even approximate what those works of art want to convey). Anyway, the first film The Alphabet, which is about five minutes long, starts with an animation with English alphabets appearing on screen in some random way and then the capital 'A' gives birth to small 'a' which then metamorphoses into a human figure. Not some regular human form but a surrealistic kind of human form direct out of those famous paintings which disfigure and distort human face and organs. Then all the alphabets enter the brain of the human figure and then there is some blood and a female voice tells us that 'remember we are dealing with a human form'. I wish I could say something profound like--'the film is about the mysteries of language and central role that it plays in human existence' but I will leave all that intellectual talk for now! Honestly it didn't make any sense to me :)

The second short, The Amputee, is more straight-forward and so least interesting of the all three. A young woman with both her legs amputated is writing a letter and reminiscing about some of her friends. A nurse comes and does her bandage and dresses her wounds but the girl doesn't pay any attention to it at all. She just goes on writing the letter. Again no idea what the short was about!

The third film, the longest, the most interesting and the most coherent (comparatively speaking) of the all three is The Grandmother. A lonely young boy, who is abused by his parents plants a seed in his bed from which his grandmother grows (!). Boy has some nice time with her grandmother after that she perhaps dies after whistling loudly(!). The boy implores his parents to help his grandmother but they don't listen and whisk him away. He then meets up his grandmother in the grave yard.

In a nutshell the shorts are harmless intellectual exercises but unless you are a Lynch completist or a passionate student of surrealism, it is better to remain content with Lynch's Eraserhead. It contains all his experimental and thematic concerns that are on display in these shorts.

A brief introduction to some of these films is on this excellent website.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Knut Hamsun's Hunger

Knut Hamsun's Hunger is the best book of fiction I have read all this year (I didn't read much, but whatever!). It is a harrowing, hallucinatory and often quite absurdly funny journey into the psyche of a young struggling writer who is slowly losing grips on his own mind.

There is a comprehensive article on the life and works of Hamsun in the latest New Yorker. Hamsun led a very interesting life. After being awarded the Nobel prize in literature, he very curiously became a Nazi supporter and remained one till the very end when he was eventually declared insane. It begs belief as to how could someone who wrote something like Hunger be like that. The article clarifies some of the things and clears many misconceptions about his life. The full piece here.

This slightly older article by James Wood in the London Review of Books is also worth reading.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

This blog is not being updated as regularly as I would like it to be. The reason is that either I am too busy and too tired, which is most of the time these days, or whenever I have free time, which is not happening very often, I am too annoyed and vexed with everything to have a single coherent thought in my head.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Machuca: A New Film from Chile

I haven't seen many films from Latin America. Perhaps City of God (from Brazil) and Amores Perros (from Mexico) are the only two films that I have seen. And yes, I saw Luis Bunuel's Los Olvidados last week but more on that later. There was this film called The Holy Girl from Argentina which created lots of waves early this year (which I missed) and I am on a look out for the films by Carlos Reygadas, none of whose films I have seen yet. I also missed on The Motorcycle Diaries, but hopefully I will get my hands on the DVD very soon. Anyway, this evening I caught up with a new film from Chile called Machuca, which is Chile's official submission to this year's oscars and apparently was the highest grossing film of this year there.

The film tells a very moving story of two young boys Gonzalo and Pedro (the Machuca of the title) in the backdrop of the one of the most tragic events in Chile's modern history, when the democratically elected left wing government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in a coup d'etat by the right wing military dictator Pinochet. Allende was later murdered. In the civil war that followed, thousands of political dissidents were killed and thousands more "disappeared". The film uses the historical events just as a backdrop to tell the story of the friendships that the kids forge despite their class barriers (one of them is rich and the other poor). The film also tries to portray the social realities in Chile prior to the civil war and succeeds admirably in doing that.

There are a few subplots which work very well and are finely woven into the main narrative. Specially the character of the idealistic principal-priest of the Gonzalo's school who wants to give the poor children living in shanty towns equal opportunities by extending scholarships to them (that's how Pedro and Gonzalo come together). In fact the film is dedicated to a real-life figure on which the director modeled that character. There is a very effective scene towards the end of the film when the priest is humiliated by the military generals and shown the door. The other subplot involves the teen girl who lives in the neighbourhood of Pedro and earns her living selling flags in the street demonstrations. She is fiery, angry and very political. She hates rich "snobs", but one of them, Gonzalo gets romantically involved with her which pays tragic dividends towards the end of the film in the tragic denouement when the military takes over everything. There is also a very touching, "kissing" scene with the two boys and the girl.

What I liked best about the film was that even though it was using a child's point of view to show the political horrors, it never romanticised the idea of childhood innocence and thus avoided those easy cliches about idyllic and innocent childhood and horrors of adult world. In fact as this review in The New York Times very rightly notes:

Its point is not to settle scores or reopen old wounds, but rather to explore, after a long period of repression, the possibility of grief. The youthful condition it evokes most strongly is not innocence but impotence - the discovery that you are powerless to protect the people you care about from harm, and also powerless to protect yourself against the shame of your own failure.
It sums up the film very well. Overall an evening very well spent. It left me feeling very sad and hopeless but then, I can exchange any number of stupid and senseless pleasures for this kind of sadness! It's pity that films like these, which educate us, enlighten us and move us, don't get much media coverage in news papers which are more obsessed with movies about comic books and giant apes!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

What to do with a book after reading it?

Well, it depends on which book are we talking of! Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post has this article in which he says, he finally "discovered" the novels of John Grisham this year. That after, delivering this judgment on the state of contemporary literature, that is of the artistic, high-brow variety:

By contrast, the "literary" fiction being written in this country nowadays strikes me as so jejune, self-absorbed and lifeless that I am just about unable to read it, much less pass fair judgment on it.

I am not an expert on on what is being written these days and where, but John Grisham...? Really?

I remember that extremely funny scene in Houellebecq's Platform where the narrator puts one of Grisham's books (if I remember correctly it was The Firm) to good use. After relieving himself of the erotic tension using his hands, okay let's just say it, after jerking off, he ponders: "I ejaculated between two pages with a groan of satisfaction. They were going to stick together; didn'’t matter, it wasn'’t the kind of book you read twice."

I was literally rolling on the floor laughing at this ;) I wonder if John Grisham ever read it.

Some very funny and insightful reviews of Platform: Julian Barnes in The New Yorker and one in The Village Voice.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Houellebecq Again

An excellent and hilarious profile of Houellebecq in The London Sunday Times:

And Houellebecq is also an important commodity: he fuels debate, sells books and, as the streets of Paris and Toulon burn, he is the only exportable writer in a once vaingloriously cultural nation with a view on modern unrest; post-Marxist, anti-Freud, he sees not fury about injustice but an ugly, predatory appetite for sex, pleasure and luxury goods. As literary events go, we have Harry Potter; France has Houellebecq's post-apocalyptic orgies. We have schoolchildren fighting dragons; they have their leading author chasing the dragon and unafraid to admit it.

Can't stop laughing at that Harry Potter reference!

Thursday, December 01, 2005


Great essay on Wordsworth in The New Yorker.

That reminds me of my new year's resolution -- stop throwing names around and start reading poetry. Not some selected lines from the internet but the full collected works. Start with all the romantic poets first -- the unholy trinity of Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley and then move on to Blake, Byron, Goethe and Schiller, who were, I think, not as stupid as the earlier three. And then write a long essay on why the dictatorship of the heart is the worst evil in this world, even worse than neo-liberal capitalism. Even publish a self-help manual about how to live without romantic longing. Hmmm. That sounds good! Now back to work.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Michael Haneke's Cache (Hidden)

One film I have been eagerly waiting to see is Michael Haneke's Cache. It was shown in competition in this year's Cannes film festival, where it won the best director prize for Haneke and along with Cronenberg's A History of Violence(which I saw last month and which is a great film, although slightly disappointing and "mainstream" by Cronenberg's standards), was surely the most talked about film there. Haneke is the current bash-the-bourgeois film maker of Europe, a mantle he seems to have inherited from the likes of Bunuel, only that his mood is very Teutonic, always glum and totally humourless (very unlike Bunuel). Actually, Haneke has said publicly somewhere that he would never ever make a comedy!

Anyway, Film Comment has a long article on his latest film. It disses one of my favourite contemporary film maker on its way to lionize Haneke (Lars von Trier makes "political cartoons"!). Nevertheless, it is a good summary of his career so far and tries to place his latest film in the context of recent political developments in the west.

Since his first theatrical feature in 1989, The Seventh Continent, German-born Michael Haneke has dispensed post-9/11 visions of violent, benumbed swatches of middle-class society on the brink of dissolution. Four years and numerous debacles after the onset of our apocalyptic era, it is increasingly clear that in our heads—as, for the most part, comfortable, educated, anxious urbanites who also constitute the prime audience for Euro art cinema —we inhabit the same unremittingly bleak, paranoid landscape within which Haneke conducts his nasty business. It is a place we would call home only under duress. Hidden (Cache), his latest and arguably most accomplished provocation, revolves around central characters and a plot predicament that —despite being set in an unnamed French city —feels terrifyingly familiar. That's the operative word, terrifying.

The whole article here.
A good account of Haneke's career and his past films can be found here. Senses of Cinema profile here.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Another Lars von Trier Interview

Perhaps this picture will do something to this sedative and unromantic blog! Anyway, I remember reading in one of his earlier interviews, when asked about his religious inspiration in making Breaking the Waves, Lars von Trier replied that he was not necessarily religious much less a devout Christian and that he was merely rebelling against his upbringing which was millitantly anti-religious because his parents were avowed communists and atheists. In his home everything was permitted except "feelings, religion and enjoyment". He clarifies few things in this interview too. He now says he is taking a socialist line and fighting neo-liberal capitlalism through his films.

SPIEGEL: Do you want to fight against this neo-capitalism through filmmaking?

Trier: That would be naive but, with this film, I am fighting for the values which I learned in my family. I wanted to make a film which my parents, especially my mother who was a committed socialist, would have liked.

SPIEGEL: Your mother is still the measure of all things?

Trier: Yes, although she died several years ago -- or perhaps she remains central because of her death. When she was still alive I rebelled against her. I made "Breaking the Waves" mainly to annoy her and I succeeded. When she saw it she shouted at me. She couldn't stand it that a woman sacrificed herself for a man in it. Yet if sentimentality exists can we condemn it? You have to throw yourself into this feeling head-on and see what happens. Only in this way can you explore human nature.

The whole interview here

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Books I Read This Year

Last two years I have been on a reading spree. I managed to read on an average one book every week and that included any thing that I could lay my hands on, Literature, Science, Arts, Religion, Politics, Current Affairs, Economics, Cinema. This year however was quite different. I spent more time catching up with all those European movies that I had missed watching in film societies and festivals. And I spent most of the rest of the time reading their reviews on the internet. For some reason that I can not fathom now, I also spent a lot of time this year just staring in the blankness through my window in the room, doing nothing, not even thinking anything. This is slowly becoming a habit now. I have started to prefer sitting idle than sitting with a book folded over my face, as I used to do earlier. Hopefully this will change soon.

This exercise should have been better last year when I read more books with more variety but in any case here is the list of non-fiction books I read this year. Will write about the fiction list later.

Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov: I was trying not to make a top ten list. It still is not; but couldn't resist naming my book of the year. And it is absolutely no contest whatsoever. The book of the year is definitely Speak, Memory, the autobiography of Nabokov. I have rarely felt this sad and this exhilarated at the same time after reading a book (last time it was when I had read Swann's Way). Reading the account of Nabokov's first love, which he lost like everything else of his childhood and adolescence, in a chapter left me paralysed with sadness. His account of his attempts to string together words to form a poem in Russian and then his struggle as an emigre writer in Germany and France contains some of the best prose descriptions I have ever read. I wrote about the book in my humble capacity here. Can't recommend the book highly enough.

The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins:A very technical book, very unlike your regular Steven Pinker or even Dawkins's own classic, The Selfish Gene, but eye-opening nevertheless. Like The Selfish Gene, this book also makes you see the world and yourself in a new light. Dawkins's defence of his earlier book against his confused critics and the afterword by Daniel Dennett are alone worth the price of the book.

The Logic of Scientific Discovery by Karl Popper: The most high-brow book of the year which I read, or actually not read. This book was so high-brow that I could finish only the first two chapters of it and left the book totally exhausted. I have often been appalled by the general ignorance of how science works even among educated and enlightened people and I thought reading this book would give me some good insights with which I can argue on behalf of science in a more intellectual and rigorous sort of way. But I guess, this particular book was enough for that purpose, which I read last year.

The Roaring Nineties by Joseph Stiglitz: A very informative account of how those capitalist crooks looted innocent people's money in that free-for-all age, the nineties. Much better than his previous and more widely celebrated work, Globalization and its Discontents.

Rosebud : The Story of Orson Welles by David Thomson: A rather irritatingly written book which didn't enlighten me about Welles's work in any special way (which is what I demand from an artist's biography). If you like smart-assy journalistic writing you may like this book. I didn't find any value in reading it whatsoever.

A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes: Not sure if I understood what Barthes's aims were in writing this book, but as the title says it's a good account of the "language" of love, how trivial words and concepts acquire new meanings and become complex, imbued as they become with the subjective experience of being in love. In fact, I don't have the book right now, otherwise I could have written down a few excerpts from the book. They are funny and quite enlightening (enlightening as in to those who have been through all the crap of "romantic love"!).

Love by Stendhal: Now this was one book I really liked. Stendhal knew how to balance the cool, analytical and "scientific" side of his personality with the swooningly romantic side. The result is this book. Very amusing and very enlightening again. I wrote about the book here.

Why We Love? by Helen Fisher: Now in hindsight it appears, I spent too much time trying to understand love this year! Bad decision! This book wasn't that good. Fisher is an anthropologist and this book is a scientific and physiological account of the symptoms of romantic love. Yeah, this book treats love as a disease and quite rightly so! I wrote a post after reading this book here.

Will write about the fiction books later.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

From Korea to Bollywood

The shameless folks at the Bollywood copy cat department are at it again. Only this time it is not a Hollywood film but a film from Korea. Yes, Sanjay Gupta, who earlier brought Reservoir Dogs to the Indian shores (in his rather lamentable "Kaante"), is now planning to do the same with Oldboy, the subject of my previous post. In the hindi version, which is called Zinda Sanjay Dutt plays the hapless abductee and John Abraham plays his tormentor and nemesis. I am told that Gupta has spared us songs and dances this time, no not even item songs!

In a sense this is good. Interested people will come to know that there is a vibrant film industry in Korea and it is sometimes worthwhile to get a feel of what is coming out from there. What I am mystified about is how close Gupta can take the story to the original. Not that I doubt Sanjay Dutt's acting capacity, but even achieving half of what the Oldboy's hero did, will be a very big achievement indeed. One thing is sure, Dutt is not going to eat a live octopus for a film! I am sure too that the twist in the Indian version will be different. The original will be too outre for the audiences of regular Bollywood films.

Check out the trailers of Zinda here. Even the trailer is copied! Original here.

Sunday, November 20, 2005


Finally saw this Korean movie this weekend at the docfilms. I had been waiting for it since the last one year, ever since it won the grand jury prize at last year's Cannes Film festival. I could have seen it on DVD but somehow kept deferring. May be because of the wait or perhaps I was expecting too much, I didn't find the film all that great. It is spectacular and immensely entertaining but certainly not a masterpiece as I was led to believe after reading ecstatic reviews and its great reception at Cannes last year.

If you don't know already, the story is about a middle-aged man named Oh Dae-Su who is taken prisoner and held captive there for fifteen years in a seedy looking hotel room, by some anonymous person who bears some mysterious grudge with him. After he is released, he gets to meet his captor but also gets five days to find out the reason why he was kidnapped. I won't reveal the plot, because that's where most of the pleasure of watching this film comes from. The way director Park Chan-wook divulges plot information is surely masterful and it has quite a disorienting effect on the viewer who never knows which direction the story will turn to or what the truth behind the character is.

As is perhaps already well known, the film is extremely violent. There are scenes of brutal torture and Park has a special penchant for the tooth and the tongue other than regular parts of the body which take most of the blows. There is also an incredible scene with an octopus which will surely drive all animal rights activists furious (btw, do octopuses come under their purview?). Although I found one brief sex scene towards the end of the film, which was very innovative and tenderly done (it involves a hand-held mirror).

The best part of the film is as I said earlier, the way plot twists and turns. Even though there are lots of loopholes and a few subplots sound totally implausible, the mastery with which Park handles the narrative more than makes up for it. The amazing production design and the MTV commercial style camera work reminded me of David Fincher, specially Fight Club, which definitely looks like its artistic predecessor.

Some reviewers claim to read Oldboy as a Jacobean revenge tragedy filtered through contemporary pop-culture idioms and imageries, but I thought it was reading a little too much into the film. The film does try to reach some depth and insight about what it is that drives men towards vengeance and what are its moral and spiritual costs but overall the effect is quite shallow. All those existentialist voice overs just don't add up. But if the surface is so artistically designed, who cares for depth!

Friday, November 18, 2005

Swallows or Snails?

The latest edition of The New York Review of Books has an essay on Proust by Andre Aciman. He begins by classifying novelists into two categories - Swallows and Snails:

We'll say there are two kinds of novelists: the snail and the swallow. The swallow is quick, agile, and able to speed across long, tireless stretches. Nothing a swallow does goes wrong; mistaken turns are instantly corrected, bad weather is put to good use, and poor judgment can be tweaked just enough to look like a flash of genius. In the implacable assembly line of prose, nothing is ever wasted or thrown away. By contrast, the snail is slow, deliberate, fussy, cramped. Swallows travel and seek out the world; the snail burrows into itself. The swallow acts; the snail retracts, guesses, speculates. A swallow chugs life down the way whales take in water, plankton and all, while the snail ingests choice bits down a multichambered spiral, where its appetite, like its vision, is eternally whorled. Balzac, Dickens, and Fielding are swallows, even Tolstoy.

I am not sure, if I understand what he means. But later, he says Proust, Gogol and Stendhal come under the category of snails. Well, that pretty much decides for me, as to which camp I belong to!

Some Random Links

Lars von Trier answers some questions in his typical style.

The End of literary theory?

The eternal debate. Does God exist?

Most people who believe in God assume their belief to be pretty reasonable. “Perhaps God’s existence can’t be conclusively proved,” they’ll say, “but it’s a fairly sensible thing to believe—far more sensible than, say, belief in fairies or Santa Claus.” But are they right?

Why don't we have someone like him in India? He will surely have an easier time exposing all the frauds and fakers!

This looks like an interesting book. Even though I have never heard of most of the celebrities the book talks about
The Dictionary of National Celebrity is one of the most reassuring books published in years, for it demonstrates that even now, when Madonna's face stares from every magazine rack, it is still possible to distance yourself from the 21st-century dungheap and genuinely despise the things you are writing about.

And finally, an interesting rant on girls gone wild. No, that's not about the famous video series. Click on the link to know more. If you are interested in the topic, here is something more.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

"God lives elsewhere"

The president and the prime minister of this so called "secular" country inaugurate an opulent and ostentatious temple. As if we don't have enough temples already! It is shameful. Tehelka has an angry editorial by Amit Sengupta:

So how much space does god need to call it his home? How many crores does god want us to spend on him so that he can possess a swanky, sprawling mansion which dominates the skyline? So what will god do in this huge expanse, move from room to room? Looking for what, inner peace, outer silence, inner silence, bitter truth? Or will he play golf or ride a horse and gaze at the distances of the private property he possesses, till the eye can see, like landlord-princes in old European paintings? Is god terribly afraid of darkness? Does he suffer from insomnia? Is he a sleepwalker? If not, why does he need hundreds of jazzed up lights all night in a city so starkly short of power and in a nuclear power country where half the population still don't have electricity (or enough to eat, below that mythical poverty line)? So why does god need this rolling-in-wealth real estate?

While it is not wrong to criticise the construction of temples on utilitarian grounds, as Sengupta does, still I think there are sufficient reasons to hate temples on artistic and aesthetic grounds as well. These temples, specially the modern ones, are the most fertile grounds for that horrendous evil called Kitsch. I have never understood what kind of feeling those showy and shallow designs or those hideously corny statues are supposed to evoke. I almost always cringe in embarrassment at such stupid, crude and sentimental display of pieties.

P.S. More on Kitsch from Wikipedia here. If you are wondering why I called Kitsch a horrendous evil, then read Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He explains the nature and origin of Kitsch really well.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Some Thoughts on Antonioni's The Passenger

The films of Michelangelo Antonioni are generally admired more than they are loved, which is quite understandable given how radical and out of the convention his style is. His films lack almost everything that we generally associate with conventional cinema -- plot, or even a story, fully fledged characters, narrative resolution, emotional catharsis etc. Nothing much happens in his films, except perhaps in the minds of his confused and lost characters.

His films are a just a collection of beautifully shot and composed images whose purpose is not to tell a story but to convey a vague sense of mood and feeling. The Passenger, the latest Antonioni film that I have seen is no different. Although at the surface it does have a plot. Jack Nicholson plays a burnt-out TV journalist who is making a documentary in Saharan African country ravaged by some civil war. Like most of Antonioni's characters he is stuck in life. In fact quite literally so, as we see in the beginning of the film his vehicle stuck in the desert sand. So when he finds out that there is a dead body in the next room in his hotel, he impusively decides to switch his identity with the dead man. But soon he finds that he is being pursued by a hostile bunch of people.

As I have summarized it, this sounds like some spy thriller of some kind. But if it is at all a spy thriller, then it is thriller told in extreme slow motion! And the ending is so baffling and irritating, irritating as in to those who expect the film to be some mystery. I also couldn't imagine that a character, played by no less than Jack Nicholson himself (who was at the peak of his career at that time, just after Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), could die like that. Yes, Jack Nicholson dies in the end, most probably is assassinated but we never see how. We don't even see his dead body or his face. It is as if he just disappears from the screen. Just like the last few minutes of L'Eclisse.

Of course, I knew what was coming, having seen some of Antonioni's films earlier (and loved them too) and greatly enjoyed the experience. Jack Nicholson is perfect in the role. He is smart, witty and understated and his acting appears totally effortless. Maria Schneider (the girl from the Last Tango in Paris) acts well too. But in case you are expecting some buttery delight, there are no sex scenes in the film, but there is always a feeling of a languorous sexuality whenever she is on screen which works very well with the overall mood. And of course, as is typical of Antonioni's films, the landscapes are captured beautifully throughout. In fact early on in the film, Jack Nicholson character remarks, surveying the lifeless desert landscape in front of him, that he "prefers men to landscapes". I could imagine Antonioni chuckling silently at this thought. He surely finds landscapes far more interesting than people, even when they have faces and personalities of Monica Vitti or Jack Nicholson.

One of the scenes in the film that I really liked and which is coming back to me again and again is when Maria Schneider asks Jack Nicholson what is he escaping from. And then he tells her to turn back in the car and see for herself. She then jumps up from the seat waving her hand but soon she gets very pensive when she sees what they are leaving behind. Its a totally empty, long stretch of road. Completely empty and lifeless. It is as if it is emptiness itself. It is beuatifully shot and very evocative.

We all perhaps want to escape, escape from our routine life, life of a comfortable job, life of easy pleasures, life of banalities and shallowness. Even though we don't know where to escape to. But as this film teaches, there is just no escaping from. At least it is incorrect to assume that someone else's life is better than ours. The feeling of emptiness is not something that is associated with a particular person or a mode of life, but rather it is far deeper. It is perhaps a characteristic of life itself, specially in these modern times. Antonioni understood this better than any other filmmaker, that's what makes him one of the greatest artists of modern times. Overall it is a must see for all Antonioni fans. It is not his best work but it is far better than an average European art film. And to those who don't know anything of Antonioni, I will just ask them to go with an open mind. In fact as widely open as possible :)

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Lolita Updates

The Village Voice is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year and incidentally this year is also the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Lolita, one of my all time favourite books. Voice has published some selected reviews from its archives and one of them is that of Lolita. Not surprisingly given the time when it was published, it is not very flattering. The reviewer calls it the "most artificial book I've ever read". He then admits that there are a few funny pages, some of which are "delicately Joycean". But then in the end it is all "too many and too much"!

Some celebratory reviews (contemporary, alas!) are here and here

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Enemies of Truth

One of the things that often irritates me, is when otherwise intelligent and sensible people attack science and rationalism. People who claim that scientific method has no monopoly over truth (as if there is any other way to verify and falsify statements) and that individual opinions are more important and imposing one's version of truth (since they don't believe in the possibility of objective knowledge) on another is infringement of his or her basic freedom. Democracy and liberalism have reached such a stage that people have started equating science and its claims for finding universal and objective truth, with authoritarianism. One of the results of this trend is that people believe in astrology, feng-shui, crystal balls, tarot cards, angel visits, conspiracy theories, voodoo, etc. not to say the nostrums prescribed by the so called management gurus and other such charlatans, without losing any sense of self-respect.

Now, it is pardonable for ordinary people, after all most of them are stupid. But what about intellectuals, who legitimise this nonsense with their fashionable theories? Intellectuals who ridicule science and its claims for being the sole source of objective knowledge? It is with this background that I want to publicize a website which is perhaps not very well known. It is called Butterflies and Wheels. It's tagline is "fighting fashionable nonsense". It's main targets are the intellectuals from the literary and critical theory gang, specially the postmodernists and psychoanalysts (devotees of Freud and Lacan). People who always remind us of the dark forces of language, class, culture, gender, subconscious, power, desire etc. and how these always subvert and cloud our rational faculties, so that rationalism itself becomes merely a theoretical construct and scientific objectivity a total sham. What bunkum!

Take a look at the fashionable dictionary. This is the best introduction to the woolly-headed thinking of these people. Also how to argue like a fashionable intellectual. This is really side-splittingly funny. Of special interest would be the articles about issues currently in focus. I don't want to link everything. Go and explore the website yourself. It is an intellectual treasure trove. By the way, if you are intrigued about the name of the website, that is also explained there.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

David Lynch, Pervert or Priest?

What a delightful title for a book this is and quite an apt one, given the subject! I haven't read the book but some excerpts from the book are available on Google Print. Here is what the author says in the preface:

When I began viewing his features, I found each film the same: one long Manichaean screed delivered by a wacky evangelical. Lynch's zealotry was so pervasive that after my view-a-thon I could not look at any of his work--randomly in fragments, or through entire films--without identifying his moralistic slant toward mythological ideals of goodness, charity and benevolence threatened by forces of evil, calamity and violence. I was convinced that the moral frame in Lynch's work, so archetypically judgmental, condemnatory and culturally monological, would surely cause commentators to qualify Lynch's status (as a cult film hero of the bizarre) with his "calling" as a puritanical preacher, albeit one with a penchant for pornography

I had never thought of this before, and it is strange because it is so obvious! I always thought Lynch was a progressive liberal showing how hypocritical and total sham our lives of bourgeois normalcy are. How false and deceptive the appearances are and how they hide and imprison our real selves (specially our sexual selves, which almost always results in violence and perversion), more in the tradition of Luis Bunuel, only more in tune with the pop-culture and counterculture hipsterism. Like Bunuel, he shows us the possibilities of the anarchic freedom but what is important is that, unlike his predecessor, Lynch is a stern moralizer too. He doesn't just shows, he also condemns and passes judgments at what he shows. He is a voyeur and a pervert but he is also genuinely horrified at what he sees. None of this is of course a negative criticism against his work, which is without doubt the greatest among those of contemporary filmmakers.

I also found out that one of the leading lights of the lit-crit and theory brigade Slavoj Zizek (who writes obscure books on Lenin and Lacan) has written a short tract on Lynch's Lost Highway. One of the users has this insightful comment on Amazon:
[Zizek]finally hails Lost Highway as an example of what movies can become in the future, a sort of hypertexed jungle of possibilities and superimposed realities, where the viewer can control (or believe they can control) the outcome of the film.

Saturday, November 05, 2005


His latest book has come out and as always, there are a few very interesting reviews. Most of them criticise him for repeating what he did in his earlier books, indulging in scatter-shot misanthropy but they are always full of hilarious quotes and bleak insights from the book.

Here are a few reviews I found of his latest book.

A profile from The Guardian
The Sunday Times
Profile from The Sunday Times
The Guardian
The Observer

If you don't know about his career and his previous books, here is his entry on the Guardian authors page.

And yes, he lost out this year's Goncourt's prize to some author from Belgium! Just in case if any one cares!

Jack Nicholson on Antonioni

It's a sign of Nicholson's affection for Antonioni that the actor, who couldn't be bothered with doing interviews when he was up for an Academy Award for "About Schmidt," spent 90 minutes recounting his friendship with the legendary filmmaker. "He's been like a father figure to me," he said. "I worked with him because I wanted to be a film director and I thought I could learn from a master. He's one of the few people I know that I ever really listened to."

Full story here

Friday, November 04, 2005

Philip Lopate on L'avventura

Philip Lopate has some interesting insights* into one of my all-time favourite films:

It was the movie I had been preparing for, for it came at the right time in my development. As a child, I had wanted only action movies. Dialogues and story set-ups bored me; I waited for that moment when the knife was hurled through the air. My awakening in adolescence to the art of film consisted precisely in overcoming this impatience. Over-compensating, perhaps, I now loved a cinema that dawdled; that lingered. Antonioni had a way of following characters with a pan shot, letting them exit and keeping the camera on the depopulated landscape. With his detachment from the human drama and his tactful spying on objects and backgrounds, he forced me to disengage as well, and to concentrate on the purity of his technique. Of course the story held me, too, with its bitter world-weary disillusioned tone. The adolescent wants to touch the bottom, to know the worst. His soul craves sardonic disenchantment.

My soul craves disenchantment too. Does that mean I am still an adolescent? :)

Previous post on L'Eclisse here.

*From Google Print of his book Getting Personal: Selected Writings

Thursday, November 03, 2005

More on Love and Something Interesting on Google Print

No, it isn't Valentine's day or any other stupid love fest but I was little intrigued and amused by something and thought I should write about it here. I was looking for some information (scroll down or click here) and went to the new Google Print to look for it. I typed in a few key words and Google indeed threw some very interesting books. And then here I was, reading through all the dense paragraphs of books with titles as "The Semiotics of Human Desire" or "Love in the Western World", that I noticed two google ads sitting rather inconspicuously at the bottom of the pages. There were both I suppose by the branches of the same company. One of them offered me to teach "How To Make The Woman Of Your Dreams Fall In Love With You" and the other one, with the website name, offered similar lessons to women as in, "Want A Boyfriend To Love? Learn What Men Really Want and How To Find & Attract Lasting Love and affection". So much for my intellectual pretensions! And so much for Goethe, Stendhal and Barthes and their theories of love! Now, I surely must go to sleep.

By the way, if you are interested the websites here they are:

Stendhal, Love and More

I had a written a short post on Stendhal's On Love a few months back. In it I had promised to write about The Red and The Black (which I had not finished at that time) and also about the various "stages" and "types" of love that Stendhal describes in his book. Of course, I never got a chance to write about any of these. I was reminded of this when I saw the search entries which bring people on the internet to my blog. Most of those search keywords were "Stendhal", "stages of love" , "kinds of love". Someone was even looking for a biography of Methilde Dembowski!

Well, all those visitors, who came looking for either scholarly information or just some solace for their love-lorn souls, must have been disappointed with what I wrote there. It was a poor summary and a hurried cut-paste job. Now, I am not going to write a scholarly critique here on the history and philosophy of love or something, but if you are looking for simple facts, here they are.

Stendhal distinguishes between four kinds of love. First is the sympathy-love (or amour-gout, love of tastes). This is love, which is based on shared predilections in culture, background and tastes. Stendhal didn't think there was anything wrong with this kind of love but he found it artistically and psychologically very uninteresting. And indeed it is quite boring. No wonder then that most of the successful relationships are based on this kind of love! The second and third kind of love, he enumerated were vanity-love and sensual love. These are not even loves, they are self-interest and guile disguised as something noble. Be it love in order to feel good about oneself (what a beautiful girlfriend I have and how jealous must it make my friends!) or love based on purely physical attraction, Stendhal found both these kinds of love not only uninteresting but morally reprehensible too. Sadly he found the most common form of love practiced in his society was indeed of these kinds.

What he was interested in both personally and as an artist however, was the fourth kind of love, passion-love, or as he called it, "love generated in the mind". He waxes lyrical about this kind of love and gives a few psychologically acute insights into the mind of someone in that state. (By the way, there is a beautiful word limerence which is used to describe this state of being in love). I don't remember any lines and I don't have the book with me right now so can't give any excerpts.

In the last chapter of his book, Stendhal does a comparative study of two famous prototypes in romantic literature, Don Juan the famous womanizer and libertine and Werther, Goethe's tender and tragic hero, who literally dies of unrequited love. No prizes for guessing whose side Stendhal takes! What he argues is that while Don Juan's physical satisfactions might be many, and Werther's few or none, the latter must nevertheless be considered "happier" (of course, not in the literal sense) because of the triumphs of his imagination - joys of realities fashioned by his desires. He sees, feels and experiences things which ordinary mortals don't or can't. Okay, I know what will you say. He commits suicide in end. But more on that later!.

Now that I have summarised the types of love, let's move on to the seven stages of falling in love. But wait, this post has already become too big, it is already late in the night and I don't even remember exactly what those seven stages are. So as I always say, more on that later!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Banville on Saturday

Here is the famous review published in The New York Review of Books in which Banville tore apart one of the most talked about books of the year, Ian McEwan's Saturday. He ridicules McEwan by calling him a "story-teller" (of the fairy-tale variety) and calls his book "dismayingly bad":

Saturday is a dismayingly bad book. The numerous set pieces—brain operations, squash game, the encounters with Baxter, etc.—are hinged together with the subtlety of a child's Erector Set. The characters too, for all the nuzzling and cuddling and punching and manhandling in which they are made to indulge, drift in their separate spheres, together but never touching, like the dim stars of a lost galaxy. The politics of the book is banal, of the sort that is to be heard at any middle-class Saturday-night dinner party, before the talk moves on to property prices and recipes for fish stew.

And here's an interesting exchange on the review with John Sutherland (he was the chief judge of this year's booker prize which Banville eventually won). McEwan's book wasn't even shortlisted.

Booker Winner Full of Windy Abstractions!

Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times finds John Banville's The Sea, which won this year's booker prize last month, "stilted, claustrophobic and numbingly pretentious". Further she says that the book is filled with "windy, self-indulgent abstractions" and that it was "chilly, desiccated and pompously written". She also gives some choicest examples of those "abstractions":

[Banville]He describes a thunderstorm as a "spectacular display of Valhallan petulance" and a youthful crush as a "storm of passion" that left "the frail wings" of his emotions "burned and blasted by love's relentless flame."

She also furnishes a list of words, none of which I am proud to say, I have ever come across ("leporine," "strangury," "perpetuance," "finical," "flocculent," "anthropic," "Avrilaceous," "anaglypta", "assegais", "crepitant," "velutinous").

I can understand her criticism. Language like this does attract reader's attention to itself rather than what it is meant to describe and in the process often alienates the reader from the subject matter of the book. But sometimes, as in Nabokov's best works, linguistic playfulness does play an important role. Often they are meant to create an abstraction. Often alienting oneself from the immediacy of feelings and emotions is the goal of the writer and linguistic abstractions like these do help in that. I have not read any of Banville's books so can't say what his aim was in using those words though.

Kakutani also says that Banville, in his novels, has often attempted to "wed Joyce to Nabokov to Wim Wenders". Wim Wenders? What is he doing with Joyce and Nabokov? Later she claims that the narrator of the novel sounds like "an annoying Peter Handke character on a bad day". Now, Wenders and Handke worked together on Wings of Angels. But what has that got to do with Banville's novel?

Here is a profile which has a round-up of the debate over the booker prize from the same edition of the book review.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Antonioni's The Passenger

Michelangelo Antonioni's rarely seen masterpiece The Passenger starring Jack Nicholson, has just been revived in a new print with a director's cut. If everything goes well, I should be able to catch the screening next week when it opens at the music box theatre. For now here are some interesting articles I found on the film (yes, I have a bad habit of reading about the film before I go to see it).

An interesting article in Cinema-Scope has lots of details on the history of the film and its critical reception at the time of its release. What caught my eye however was this enlightening comment:

Antonioni'’s “thriller” is not merely dissimilar to Hitchcock: it can be read-—and this is reinforced with every viewing-—as the most elaborate critique of HitchcockÂ’s shallowness that any director has ever made.

Indeed. And why only Hitchcok thrillers, Antonioni's films are a critique of the shallowness of all films which rely on narrative resolution to drive their point across. The way he did away with narrative, psychological determinism (that moth-eaten concept inherited from the realist novel of the nineteenth century) was nothing but revolutionary. Antonioni in this respect is "modern" auteur in true sense of the word.

The Passenger, even though it had Jack Nicholson in the lead, has long been out of circulation. Quite paradoxically it was Nicholson himself who owned the rights of the film. Koehler in the same article explains this:
What caused this unexpected, delayed timing to meet up with current events? According to Nicholson's attorney Ken Kleinberg, the actor had long wanted to purchase the worldwide rights to a film he loved as an art collector might; if he wasn'’t able to hang it on a wall, he could at least protect the film from potential corporate skullduggery and exercise some control over its proper exhibition.
And as Manhola Dargis in The New York Times says, and I echo her feelings, "how delightful for Mr. Nicholson and how maddening for the rest of us who, for years, could watch "The Passenger" only on a crummy-looking home video." In my case I have not seen it even on video.

Here is Jim Hoberman from Village Voice and here is a review from New York Observer which succintly summarizes Antonioni's point, perhaps ironically (not an easy task by any means!):
The point of The Passenger (and Mr. Antonioni'’s psychic philosophy) is that life is not worth living. Trade in your own for a different model and you'’ll only discover that nobody else'’s life is worth living, either.

In case you are interested in something contrarian, Andrew O'Hehir of Salon thinks that Antonioni's philosophy is "sophomoric" and the only influence L'Avventura had, was on fashion photography. Arrrgh!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

More on Nirmal Verma

I remember reading an article by Rajendra Yadav, the editor of the very prestigious Hindi literary magazine Hans and a writer of significant repute himself, where he criticized Nirmal Verma for what he thought was his soft hindutva. I don't remember the exact line of his argument now, but the basic point was that Verma and some other writers like Shailesh Matiyani, with their soft-hindutva and spiritual mumbo-jumbo are helping the sangh-parivar by giving the Hindu revivalist movement a good name. I remembered this essay as I was looking up on Internet to find something to read about Nirmal Verma. I found this interview on Hindu Vivek Kendra (a site dedicated to Hindu revivalism). On asked about how Indian and European cultures are different he says:

On the basis of three sets of relationships: those of time, nature and self (atman). We were under a severe negative attack from Western civilisation. Nature for them is an object to be appropriated, because man is at the centre of the universe. And Time is measured by them in fragments of past, present and future. The past is overcome by the present, which in turn takes you to the future. Even for Max Mueller, India's "past was glorious" but its present merely a ghostly remnant of the past, and the future depended on its Europeanising itself.

Although he forgets that the western scientific tradition also produced Galileo and Darwin who demolished the Christian anthropocentrism. But overall, I think this is a valid argument but I could understand the problems people like Rajendra Yadav or even myself have when he says this about secularism and western civilizaztion:
Because of this concept of Dharma, there was no divide between the religious or spiritual, and the secular or civic life. This division began in Europe with the rupture with divinity during the Renaissance. The divine stayed with the church, and the civic with the society, which placed man centrestage. That may have led to the glory of the Renaissance but its ultimate consequence was also the ego-centred view of man in Nazi ideology.

I am fully aware of the ongoing debate on the secular versus the spiritual. But indian civilisation had an integrated approach to sansara or lok (this world) and the spiritual, parlok (the other world). Dharma is the harbinger of all our transactions in both, this world and beyond. This was the most important concept of Gandhism. Gandhi never used the word secular when talking of Hindu-Muslim unity. The religious and the secular were not separate but a confluence that nourished Indian civilisation.

This is just plain wrong. First, saying that the Nazi ideology had its roots in enlightenment rationalism and second resorting to obfuscation, that somehow secular and spiritual can be merged together. It is this kind of fallacious thinking that has enabled politicians to play politics in the name of secularism in India. What I don't understand is that in his stories and novels there is no writer, even among those who write in English, I find more "European" than him! No wonder people like Yadav were furious.

On a more positive note I found another interview on the same site, where he defends Rushdie's freedom of speech. As against Khushwant Singh who gives some really lame and sorry excuses. I also didn't know that Khushwant Singh (himself a writer of an almost-porn novel) advised the Indian publishers not to publish Rushdie's book! Talk about irony!

And here is a nice article by the noted literary critic Vishnu Khare from Frontline when Verma got the Jnanpith award a few years back. He sums up Nirmal Verma's themes very well:
Nature, especially hilly or northern European grass, flowers and trees, rains and monsoon clouds, sunshine, moonlight, tender animals, circuit houses, dak bungalows, civil lines, servants' quarters, aging colonial houses, Western cities such as Prague, Vienna and London, convents, churches, hospitals, town squares, walks and gardens, restaurants and concert halls, sausages, beer, chianti and cognac, Chopin and Mozart - all these populate his short stories and novels. Love, separation, abortion, divorce, alienation, lack of dialogue and mutual understanding between most intimate relations, nostalgia, guilt and repentance over unnamed things done and undone, secrets and mysteries and horror of relationships and psyche, mental masochism and sadism, death wish, death and the conjuring up and eternal presence of the dead, all enveloped in brooding, pitying tenderness, are Nirmal Verma's recurring themes.

Doesn't look like a healthy list? But then who needs sugary ideas in this age of Coelhos, Dan Browns and those predator self-help gurus? I, for one, will do well with some bitter medicine. Too bad, I don't have any of his books here in Zembla!

Previous post here.

Nirmal Verma Passes Away

Nirmal Verma, one of the most famous of the modern Hindi writers, passed away yesterday. Although I don't consider myself very well read in Hindi (not that I am well read in any language) but I have read most of Verma's short stories and at least one of his novels (Lal Tin ki Chhat). His most famous story Parinde, which broke new grounds in form and heralded the nayi kahani movement, is still one of my all time personal favourites, in any language, even after 12-13 years when I first read it. I still remember the cold, foggy day, much as the weather in the story, when I finished the story completely overwhelmed with a most mysterious sadness. It was not the kind of sadness I associated with reading a sad book -- the kind of sadness, that just goes away or fades as soon as you close the book. Perhaps it was just something that I was too young to understand then because the story tackled the quintessential adult themes of death, human disconnection, memory, loss and regret. But even though I didn't understand all the finer motivations of the three main characters, they remained with me for long and I continued to worry about their fates. Did Lathika eventually marry again or did she leave the school and the hilly town? If yes, where did she go? Did Mr. Hubert eventually die of tuberculosis? What about Dr. Mukherjee? Did he change his mind or did he a get a chance to go back to his home?

In fact these feelings still return when I read the story and I read it at least once every year. But now, more enlightened as I am, I can understand why this was considered to be a revolutionary story in the modern Hindi literature. It must have broken almost all the literary conventions of the time. There were no farmers in his story, nor was any social reformism. There were no rapturous evocations of rural landscapes, nor any gushing over the triumph of the proletariat (or human spirit in general). Instead of looking outside at the society, Verma looked inside, into the consciousness of his characters and raised those eternal questions which plague our sorry existence on this earth, regardless of our class or gender. What are we doing here on this earth? Where are we going? Are we just like those migratory birds of the title of the story? He also did away with the elements of plot and caricature and instead focused on the ways in which those characters introspect themselves to find out answers to those questions.

And perhaps the most important convention he broke was the idea that a storywriter is basically a storyteller. Verma didn't want to just tell a story (an easy and entirely futile thing to do), he aimed to evoke a complex mood and feeling, things we generally associate with poetry or music, certainly not with prose. Curiously Verma did it without resorting to any overtly "poetic" language or creating innovative imageries. His prose is a model of simplicity and restraint. The best example of this writing is again in the story Parinde where Verma describes the effect of Music in the scene where Mr. Hubert plays Schubert on his piano and how it affects everybody in the dark room. It is simply marvelous. I don’t have the book with me right now so I can not provide any excerpts.

In these ways and the others, Verma is generally credited with bringing modern and European sensibilities to the Hindi literature and thus widening its horizons beyond what the progressive and social realist tradition had straitjacketed it into. He was 76 and his best work was behind him but even then his death does leave me very sad. At least with people like him Death does appear to be grossly unjust.
Here is something more.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Happy Atheist?

Yes why not? One of the strangest stereotypes is that of a melancholy atheist. If someone doesn't believe in God, ipso fact he believes that life has no purpose. He sees darkness and emptiness everywhere, inside and outside. Love, family, friendship have no value whatsoever for him. He spends all of his time through the dark nights of his soul, totally immersed in himself, doing endless solitary introspection and painful self-analysis. He breaks his head (and occasionally even gives soul-stirring speeches and monologues like they do in Bergman's films and Dostoevsky's novels) over the mysteries of human suffering, spiritual emptiness and futility of salvation!

I guess this might be true for those fictional characters but not all of us atheists who live in the real world and go through the grind of daily life worry about "larger" implications of the absence of God. Perhaps we just don't have enough time to do it even if we want to! Anyway, a practical atheist (let's coin this new phrase) knows that it is not necessary to invoke God and religious scriptures, everytime we question the morality of decisions that we make. He knows that Ivan Karamazov's dictum that "if God is not there everything is permitted" is only of theoretical interest. He knows that concept of morality is a priori and doesn't need a set of commandments or some black magic to rest on.

A practical atheist also knows that nothing awaits us after death (just forget about Aftermath for a while!) and that's the precise reason why we should make most of what we have in this life, which is the only one we have got and use every opportunity to explore and know things and die more enlightened than we were born. Also, be as close to people, who you really love or who really care about you, as possible and cherish all the moments and memories when they are gone or else leave some memories of your own in case you depart first! Isn't the knowledge of the unpredictability of the life of your loved ones even a greater motivation to love them more when they are alive. And isn't the knowledge of one's own mortality the greatest motivation to live a more observant and meaningful life, open to all sensations, feelings and thoughts as they occur? You don't need to have read Proust to understand this but this is one of the most important themes of his great Book. It's the knowledge of an unpredictable and certain death that motivates some of our most noble instincts, specially our artistic ones. It certainly motivated Proust to write his novel and the last volume where the narrator realizes his true vocation in life after all the disappointments that life has thrown in his way, is one of most soul stirring episodes in the novel. Okay, Proustian digression. Back to atheism!

So, a practical atheist also knows that a belief in love and friendship does not require a belief in extra-temporal, extra-material things. I think it is here that the stereotype is the strongest. An atheist is generally considered a loser, a smug one at that, who is a loner because he can't find a girl friend or worse he lost faith because his girl dumped him, or some such stupid thing. People forget that love, friendship and the general feelings of human connection have nothing whatsoever to do with a belief in benevolent God. In fact, love and friendship for an atheist have deeper and more lasting value because he doesn't harbour any illusions about it. It is not an all-powerful God or some such cosmic force which brings us together but we ourselves, driven by our need to be with someone who understands us and who we understand that brings and keeps us together. Relationships based on this realistic understanding of mutual benefit invariably last longer and are always much more meaningful and productive.

Okay, did I leave anything, which an atheist should feel sad about? Of course, there are many things in this world to be sad about but the absence of God is certainly not one of them. And next time Mr. Karamazov makes his famous pronouncement ask him to drive in the wrong lane and park in the no-parking zone or just take him to the screening of Woody Allen's Love and Death!

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist

To me, Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris symbolizes the worst excesses of European art cinema of the sixties and the seventies. Actually the film itself acknowledges it, with an element of self-parody specially in the way the new wave filmmaker character was written and portrayed in it. It is the kind of cinema where style is used, not to uncover secret meanings of things, but as a facade to hide the void that lies beneath the surface. The filmmaker thinks what a great filmmaker he is, the cinematographer thinks what a great cinematographer he is and the actor is not far behind. He thinks he is the greatest actor of them all. And perhaps all this is true for Last Tango in Paris. But film is a collaborative medium and if the final product of the collective endeavors has to make some sense, everybody involved in the film has to find the right balance, the right tone. In Last Tango in Paris this balance was not there. That's why it became a big mess (comparatively speaking, it still is a great film by the way). In the film The Conformist (Il Conformista), which he made just before Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci found the right balance. Perhaps that's what makes it such an effective political drama. And not just that, it works as a pretty effective musical love story and a moral, cautionary tale in the old style. And I have just come out of the screening completely mesmerised by it.

The film is about the life and times a young philosophy professor Marcello from Rome, who wants to live a "normal" life. And to do this he joins the fascist party as soon as Mussolini comes to power. He also marries a silly, petty-bourgeois girl, with petty ambitions ("bed and kitchen, that's all") because that's the "most normal thing to do". But there are darker things behind this pursuit of normalcy. Marcello wants to escape from his messy past (homosexual seduction and murder) and his own emotioal and sexual identity. He is also disappointed with the decadence of his parents' generation which has left his father in a mental asylum and his mother a morphine addict. As a result he finds himself isolated from his fellow human beings and just so that he can "belong", he dedicates himself to the obsessive quest for the average and the mediocre which he calls "being normal". And since this is just the goal fascism had, he naturally finds that the right place to be is in the fascist party with its firm emphasis on deindividualization of the masses and denial of emotional realities.

Marcello soon gets an assignment to kill his former philosophy professor (there's short discussion of Plato's Allegory of the Cave, brilliantly staged by the director and the cameraman), who has now turned a radical Marxist, living an exiled life in Paris. In Paris things get more and more messed up as Marcello falls in love with the bisexual wife of the professor. There are convoluted flashbacks into Marcello's past and the film ends with a devastatingly ironic climax which gives ample chance for Jean-Paul Trintignant (who plays Marcello) to display his acting abilities. Trintignant is same guy who shined in the role of the old judge in Kieslowski's Red. Here too he is utterly brilliant and much of credit for the success of the film should go to him given how believable he makes the complex motivations of the character to the audience.

What I liked best, apart from the usual stuff about the fabulous cinematography, highly stylized and innovative production design and a hauntingly evocative soundtrack, was how Bertolucci analyses the nature and origins of fascism. He thinks that it is not the political and economic reality that fashion a fascist man (although they do contribute) but it is the psychosexual dysfunction that somehow gets transformed into a fascist rhetoric. And also that fascism is not something macho or aggressive but on the other hand it is cowardice and passiveness. It is fear of following one's true instincts and acknowledging the emotional realities of one's self that lead men to the dark pits of fascism.

Okay, even if all this intellectual talk bores you, I can assure the film won't. It's so lush and so visually arresting that most of the contemporary films positively look like home made videos after this. In short an essential watching for all aficionados of European art films, and those who are not will be persuaded after this. And to end with the same note this is the film which symbolizes all that was best in the European art films of sixties and seventies. Don't miss it if you get a chance.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Aftermath: A Short Film by Nacho Cerda

Last Saturday-Sunday I was at the horror movie marathon. Apart from accomplishing the brave feat of watching one horror film after another for twenty four hours continuously, I also achieved something else. I found the answer to many questions -- questions such as which is most sickening film you have seen? most frightening? most horrifying? Or what was your most unpleasant experience in a movie theatre? The answer to all these questions is without doubt--the screening of the short film Aftermath by the Spanish filmmaker Nacho Cerda. And as anyone even mildly sane, who is lucky (or unlucky, depending on the perspective) enough to watch the movie will attest, this was an experience like no other.

The film begins as if it were some music video. We see a mutilated body of a dog with camera gradually receding so that we get to know that it is a dead dog only when the camera reaches a certain distance. We also get to know, through soms stylistic cross cutting that a woman has died in an accident (perhaps with the dog). Then we see one of the doctors handing over the locket with the cross, which belonged to the dead woman, to her grieving relatives. The next twenty minutes or so is set entirely in the autopsy room, in which we first see with clinical detail, how an autopsy is done. So far the film didn't do much for me, but there were occasional flashes of the eyes of the coroner and I knew that the worse was yet to come. And come it did. The coroner turns out to be evil psychopath who mutilates the dead body of the woman and does other unsayable things. It is not completely graphic but when it is suggested it becomes even more horrifying than when it is shown. After the gruelling ten minutes or so the film ends with a scene that packs such mighty wallop to the heart and the mind and to all the delicate human sensibilities that it left me paralyzed not just with horror but also a very deep sadness.

And did I foget to mention, when all of this is happening on screen, Mozart's famous Requiem plays in the background (I knew about it only later. Okay, I am an ignorant philistine). Finally, the most important question that anyone might ask: What was the point of the film and more importantly, was it a work of art? Although I thought differently when I finished the film, now I think the film did have a larger philosophical point and it indeed was a work of art. Actually the film is a part of a trilogy of films about death, the first and the last being The Awakening and Genesis respectively. And I guess if I had seen the other two I could have appreciated it more. But even then I found it very interesting, both thematically and stylistically. There is some innovative and very effective camera work, lighting and editing, specially in the begninning and the end of the film. And as far as the themes are concerned, it asks one simple question, if death is indeed the end why do we find the violation of a dead body repulsive? Why does it affect us so much when the dead body itself does not feel any pain? After all a dead body is just like any other perishable matter, right? No, wrong! And the film proves it. Death is not the is definitely not the end. Now whether we should feel good about it, is a different question altogether!

If you are curious to know more, here is something and here is something more.

Religion Bashing Updates

I found this thought provoking extract from a book by someone called Robert Winston on The Guardian. The book is about the God-question and tries to answer it using Darwin's theory. What caught my eye was this quote by Dawkins (by the way, who can discuss evolution and religion without invoking his name) explaining the evolutionary costs of religious belief:

Religious behaviour in bipedal apes occupies large quantities of time. It devours huge resources. A medieval cathedral consumed hundreds of man-centuries in its building. Sacred music and devotional paintings largely monopolised medieval and Renaissance talent. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people have died, often accepting torture first, for loyalty to one religion against a scarcely distinguishable alternative. Devout people have died for their gods, killed for them, fasted for them, endured whipping, undertaken a lifetime of celibacy, and sworn themselves to asocial silence for the sake of religion.

Religion does appear to be a misadaptation of monstrous proportions if we take all facts into account, but in the hunter-gatherer societies, where most of our innate instincts developed, religious belief did offer a lot of comparative advantages -- like a sense of community and togetherness, illusion of control over things which are obviously beyond human control (like weather or untimely death) through rituals etc. The article explains these and other reasons of the adaptation of religious belief pretty well. What it doesn't do is to evaluate the worth of this adaptation in the context of modern life. Which is what should be main focus of any such writing.

In any case read the whole thing.

And if you haven't yet read it, don't miss this classic essay by Dawkins where he explains why religion is a "virus of the mind". And since we are on the topic of viruses why not expand the argument to deadlier proportions. Yeah, faith is a virus comparable to smallpox, and even AIDS!

Previous religion bashing posts:1,2,3,4,5 and most interestingly this.

I hope some infections get cured after reading all this!

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Horror Movie Marathon

So finally went to the horror movie marathon. And what an experience! I thought I will just pass out today morning, completely zonked out. I realised my limits this morning and I will surely take note of this before planning to do any thing like this in future. But one thing surprised me. The attendance. I was expecting it to be some small affair with a group of zombies and horror nerds but it was actually a massive gathering with lots of "normal" looking people in attendance too. Although I didn't find any Indian face in the crowd. Other than films there was costume competition (Edward Scissorhands won), a burlesque horror carnival and fashion show and some live rock music played by some band called "Mucus".

Anyway, here's a brief write-up on some of the films. Sorry, if things don't make much sense, for obvious reasons!

The show started with the silent German classic of 1920's, Nosferatu ("A symphony of horror"). The most interesting part of the screening was the live organ music that accompanied the screening. The music box theatre has a music box in the auditorium and a rather professional sounding organ player plays it before the screening of the film. Anyway, the film was great although it would surely have been of more interest to film students than casual horror fans! I enjoyed it. The print was good and the live music effect was something new too.

The next film was Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse which started off pretty well and now that I think of it, even ended pretty well (I love apocalypse!) but in the middle I lost interest. I will write about the film in detail in some other post. It even had some social message as well - as in how technology and latest innovations in the means of communication are utterly useless in the face of human disconnection and solitude, which runs really, really deep. But as I said, more on that later.

The most important film of the night, which pretty much sealed everything, was Nacho Cerda's Aftermath (no links from this blog to this film, I refuse to defile my blog). This was a short, spanish film (although it had no dialogues) and easily the most sickening and frightening film I have seen. The film wasn't cheap, on the other hand the production design,camera work, special effects were rather brilliant and it did make some larger, philosophical point (it's some kind of Bunuel for the generation of horror-punks), but it's definitely not something I will recommend to even the most devoted horror-geek. The film is banned in many countries and rightly so. I am not going to tell you what the film was about and would sincerely advise you not to google or read about it anywhere and if at all you do so, please desist from renting the dvd. Please.

There were many other attractions too. One was made for TV film called Incidents from On and Off the Road which I really liked. Then there were countless trailers of B-movies from 60's and 70's and several short films by Chicago filmmakers. One of them was even present in person to attend the screening of a film that he made in London in early 70's. The film was reasonably good (it's called Death Line) and I liked it even though it had cannibalism and sentimentality (two things I don't like, even in horror movies!).

And then there was David Cronenberg's Scanners. But it started around 2 in the morning and by the time the first head exploded I was completely jaded and zonked. And Aftermath had spoilt the mood anyway. So I just slept through the last half-hour of Scanners and the whole of the next film. In the last film (I think it was some cheap film produced by Dario Argento) I was just waiting for dawn to break so that I could catch the first train back home. Which I eventually did. And now in the evening when I have slept through the entire day, I feel not much better than last night. Totally Sick and Alone.

Monday Evening Update: I feel better now. I have already forgotten most of the details of Aftermath. Feelings of despair and disconnection are going away too.