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.