Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Cannes Reviews

The indispensable Greencine Daily has the roundup of all reviews of all major films screened in this year's festival.

It seems to be glory days for Romanian cinema. After last year's smash hit The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, this time it is Golden Palm itself for 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. Reading the reviews it seems everybody already knew it would win.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Canon of Future

via complete review, submissions for a literary canon of the future. Very disappointing overall but it gave me an excuse to think about my favourite contemporary (say, of the last 25 years) novels. This is what I came up with. (I know, some of them are already part of the established canon but anyway). In order:

1. The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald: Sebald is perhaps my favourite modern European writer and this is my personal favourite. The other three The Emigrants, Vertigo and Austerlitz are masterpieces too.

2. Extinction by Thomas Bernhard:
I have actually not finished it yet, around 100 pages were stil left when I set it aside for future reading. I wanted to read some other writers but I think I am still stuck in Austria. I have to get out of there soon too. Difficult to read but an undisputed masterpiece.

3. The Melancholy of Resistance by Laszlo Krasznahorkai: It won the prestigious "Dispatches from Zembla Book of the Year" award a few months ago. Need I say more?

4. The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq: People don't like him and his recent books got comparatively tepid responses too but this one is a masterpiece.

5. Atonement by Ian McEwan:
Just to clear the misconception that I like only bleak and nihilistic books (like the previous four) here is one very conventional romance/melodrama which I like very much. I am hoping the new Hollywood movie is good too.

Runners Up: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Two Films From Russia

Two wonderful Russian films I saw recently. They were both made in the late fifties, a period of de-Stalinization in Russia, when the artistic controls were loosened a bit, after decades of social realist films which valorized the red army and the great leader. These two films do not really shed the romanticised patriotism completely but rather their main emphasis is on the personal and subjective experience of the war. They are also very inventive in visual terms, specially The Cranes are Flying. It has some really virtuoso camerawork and editing. In one scene the girl and the boy are climbing the spiral staircase and the camera follows both of them in one long unbroken shot. It creates a dizzying effect. There are many similar scenes where camera approximates the subjective emotional states of the characters. There are a couple of crowd scenes which are amazing too. The girl is frantically searching for her fiancee in the crowd just before he is sent off to the war and the camera tracks her face closely, again in a long take. The same scene is repeated at the end on a railway station when the troops have returned from the war.

Ballad of a Soldier is less inventive visually but makes it up for an even more powerful melodrama and generosity of spirit and sentiment (the good, honest kind). In fact it starts off with what seemed like a parade of cliches. Handsome boy at the front, meets Beautiful girl on way, chaste love affair ensues, lonely mother waiting for him at home, noble souls all around who suffer only to become even nobler (one of the great themes of nineteenth century Russian literature), the spare and beautiful Russian landscape, almost like a textbook illustration of the "Mother Russia" stereotype, something you'd think Woody Allen will have nice time parodying. And yet in the end I was feeling lachrymose like I haven't felt in a long time after watching a movie. (I have to admit I am generally a little biased in favour of the Russians. What a tragic country, what a poor suffering lot!)

In short, both really marvellous and moving films. It is almost like putting life back in the overexploited conventional humanism genre.

Wolfgang Koeppen: The Hothouse

Journalist and author Timothy Garton Ash enthused about Germany in a recent essay on the Oscar winning film The Lives of Others saying that, "No nation has been more brilliant, more persistent, and more innovative in the investigation, communication, and representation—the re-presentation, and re-re-presentation—of its own past evils." I was reminded of these words while reading The Hothouse by German novelist Wolfgang Koeppen. It is a little difficult to summarise but there is no mistaking the accusation underlying the disjointed and disconnected montage of images, thoughts and sense impressions which form the bulk of the book i.e. Germany after the war was in a hurry to "move on." Blinded by the "economic miracle" of the post war boom and the contingencies of a nascent cold war realpolitik, the Germans had enveloped themselves in a collective act of willful amnesia.

At the start of the novel Keetenheuve, the middle aged politician and a member of the Bundestag (the German parliament) has just arrived in Bonn to attend a party meeting. His wife has died recently and he seems to be deeply depressed and grieving, even though his relationship with his wife were not so good. He sees the meeting as a final chance to do something for the country and for himself; a way of finally doing something about the "mild futility of his existence." He doesn't succeed in doing anything about it though. Over the course of the next two days the novel charts the process of his mental collapse and psychological dissolution. He feels alienated among the politicians who are more interested in their respective career than real politics. Nobody is interested in mourning the past, everybody is in a hurry to move on and start afresh. He is further oppressed by the willful blindness of everybody to the continuation of the Nazi legacy. He feels the presence of a "Nazi idiom" in the design of the new buildings representing the so-called new Germany. The wheels of the train remind him of Wagner. There are many other similar references to Nazism throughout the novel. It is clear that he is transposing his inner life on to his surroundings and that the basic problem is that of psychology, rather than politics. What he wants is some kind of collective mourning for the past. This inability to mourn, as Freud suggested too in his essay "Mourning and Melancholia," can result in serious psychological consequences. An indeed the novel ends in as gloomy manner as it can be imagined.

This need for "collective mourning" was a theme that W.G. Sebald also returned to again and again in his novels. In his essay "On the Natural History of Destruction" he explicitly criticised the post-war Trummerliteratur literary movement ("literature of the ruins") for its failure to tackle, or indeed in perpetuating the collective amnesia about the recent past. In the essay he was talking specifically about the German victims of allied firebombings of German cities but in his fiction too, he always returns to this theme again and again, and most often victims of Germans. Michael Hofmann in his introduction says that this (and his other two novels on the same subject) were not received favourably by the mainstream literary establishment which was in the favour of "new start" and "clean slate" school of writing. Koeppen lived long but wrote very little mainly as a result of this. Though later he was eulogised by Gunter Grass and Marcel Reich-Ranicki as one of the greatest of post-war German writers. (In fact in Ranicki's autobiography the chapter on Koeppen stands out conspicuously because he rarely has anything nice to say about any of his contemporary authors.)

The Hothouse is often very difficult to follow. It is written in the style of an unbroken stream of consciousness and the disjointed, fragmented prose style takes some time getting into. There were also many references to German politics and culture which escaped me at many places. And as my summary above would have indicated, it is also very, very gloomy. In fact it is downright claustrophobic and oppressive. Reading these German books I was also thinking about how much unhappiness these Germans have brought into this world, both for themselves and for others. But that's a subject for another post. A couple of reviews from the new york times and TLS. There is also a nice introduction by Michael Hofmann who also translated it.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Leni Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl's new biography got lots of press coverage recently. The latest new york review of books has an essay by Ian Buruma about her life and work.

Among many other reviews the best was the one by Clive James in New York Times Book Review. He also makes this interesting point:

Susan Sontag later made a serious mistake in arguing that “Olympia” was entirely steeped in fascist worship of the beautiful body. But it’s nature that worships the beautiful body. Fascism is natural. That’s what’s wrong with it: it’s nothing else.

The Susan Sontag essay that he is referring to is also available online. And so is an interesting exchange with Adrienne Rich about feminism and fascism.

I have also been curious about the seven hour German film Hitler, A Film From Germany by Hans Jurgen Syberberg ever since I read her essay. (Available to subscribers only here.) It is very strange very few people seem to have seen it and is not even available on DVD and doesn't even seem to a part of any film canon. Just reading the essay, it seems peppered with hyperbole (not unusual, she was very fond of making grand statements in her essays.) She says things like "Syberberg is the first film director since Godard who really matters" and this:

The film tries to say everything. Syberberg belongs to the race of creators like Wagner, Artaud, CĂ©line, the late Joyce, whose work annihilates other work. All are artists of endless speaking, endless melody—a voice that goes on and on. (Beckett would belong to this race too were it not for some inhibitory force—sanity? elegance? good manners? less energy? deeper despair?) Syberberg's unprecedented ambition in Hitler, A Film from Germany is on another scale than anything one has seen on film. It is work that demands a special kind of attention and partisanship; and invites being reflected upon, reseen. The more one recognizes of its stylistic references and lore, the more the film vibrates. Syberberg's film belongs in the category of noble master-pieces which ask for fealty and can compel it. After seeing Hitler, A Film from Germany, there is Syberberg's film—and then there are the other films one admires. (Not too many these days, alas.) As was said ruefully of Wagner, he spoils our tolerance for the others.

Milan Kundera: The Curtain

Just finished reading Milan Kundera's book length essay on the history of novel The Curtain. It is a wonderful tour through the history of ideas as reflected in the changing art form of the novel. He avoids the mandarin approach that plagues most of the critical books on the subject and yet he makes the topics accessible without really oversimplify the subject matter, something non-specialist readers, like myself, will really appreciate.

Kundera's canon is predictable. He starts with the comic romp of Rabelais, Cervantes and Sterne and then moves to the psychological realism of Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and finally the modern writers like Kafka, Musil and Broch who took fiction away from "fascination with the psychological (the exploration of character) and brought it toward existential analysis (the analysis of situations that shed light on major aspects of the human condition)."

I specially liked the way he defended Musil and Broch (a writer I am not familiar with) and their brand of "novelistic thinking":

To emphasize: novelistic thinking, as Broch and Musil brought it into the aesthetic of the modern novel, has nothing to do with the thinking of a scientist or a philosopher; I would even say it is purposely a-philosophic, even anti-philosophic, that is to say fiercely independent of any system of pre-conceived ideas; it does not judge; it does not proclaim truths; it questions, it marvels, it plumbs; its form is highly diverse; metaphoric, ironic, hypothetic, hyperbolic, aphoristic, droll, provocative, fanciful,; and mainly it never leaves the magic circle of its characters' lives; those lives feed it and justify it.

Reading the book also set me thinking about why most of the contemporary novels, specially in the anglo-american world, leave me a little cold. Most of the writers seem to be blissfully ignorant of the long historical tradition of the novel and the history of ideas that this tradition represents. It was as if writing was just about finding the right word and inventing a fancy new syntax. There is also this hostility towards the comic and the grotesque (which Kundera bemoans too) and towards the "novelistic thinking" of Musil and his ilk, in many contemporary writers, who take themselves seriously. There is also this too much fascination with the psychological realism, the kind the common reading public apparently prefers too, which I find is harmful and a main cause of homogenity of much of the contemporary literary fiction. Where are the descendants of Cervantes and Swift (two of my personal favourites), Rabelais and Sterne? Salman Rushdie, yes, but someone I don't like I don't know why. Thomas Pynchon? David Foster Wallace? Sorry, have read neither of them. (Any other names btw?) Anyway, this book is really good. I have to find some time for Broch and Gombrowicz now. Complete Review links to lot of reviews of the book.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

I don't follow sports. I don't hate it, I am just indifferent. As a kid I was never good at anything when it came to sports but then I never felt like trying either. In fact one of the most recurring memories of my childhood is of my mother admonishing me almost every evening to "behave like a boy" and "go out and play" (she obviously never read any gender theory) which I ultimately did, but always reluctantly. Now that I have grown up, I have also found some serious reasons to distance myself from sports, specially mass sports, which are nothing but sublimation of the ancient and barbaric instincts of tribalism and war and aggression. Even more reprehensible are other things like crowd hysteria, the shameless emotionalism of fans and supporters, the sheer irrationality of the whole spectacle! It also reminds me of a hilarious sequence in the novel The Man Without Qualities. The novel's hero Ulrich says, he decided to discontinue the project of "the pursuit of greatness" (don't remember the exact words) as his life's goal ever since he came across a newspaper article referring to 'A Racehorse of Genius'.

Anyway, before all the irate fans start hurling abuses on the blog, I will come right down to the subject. I really wanted to see this experimental documentary ever since I heard of it, during last year's Cannes film festival, where it was first shown. The concept itself sounds fantastic. The two video installation artists along with their acclaimed cameraman Darius Khondji (Wong Kar-wai's new cinematographer) set up 17 (very) high definition video cameras to track Zidane over the course of one single game. So for the entire one and half hours it is only Zidane and more Zidane on screen. The images from different perspectives are intercut masterfully. We see his face, his body, his hands, his feet, sometimes with ball but most of the time without it. In fact the whole thing first of all is a real triumph of editing. The sound effects alternate between that of crowd in the stadium, the internal soundscape of Zidane himself--grunting, sometimes mumbling but generally just silent with audible breathing and a evocative melancholy score. Sometimes we get to read Zidane's thoughts about the game and his life as subtitles. This is easily the best part of the film. Rest of the time we just see him from every single angle possible. As the subtitle says it is truly a "portrait" in a very literal sense. If it can be compared as a work of art, which it no doubt definitely is, it can only be compared to those medieval religious iconographies. It specially works in his case because he is gifted with a great personality. His complete opaque face hides everything beneath making it mysterious and interesting to look at. Even when he is with the ball, it feels as if he is doing some duty, as if playing was what he was fated to do, as if he has no choice but to do what he is doing. I am totally sure this concept wouldn't have worked with other football superstars like Beckham or Ronaldo (both of whom incidentally play in this match too.)

In short it is not just a wonderful concept piece but also an enjoyable and riveting work of art. I just wish there was more of Zidane's thoughts and the beautiful music score. It would have been even better then. This is also I think more suited for video installations rather than a full-fledged movie. As a movie it may feel repetitive to some viewers. Needless to say, indispensable for all football fans. Fans of Zidane in particular must have seen it already. For more information, articles from Guardian/Observer and Sight and Sound.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia

Short film by the Czech avant-garde filmmaker Jan Svankmajer. A 10 minute crash course in modern Czech history. Even otherwise it is amusing. Some background here.

Youtube seems to have plenty of his short films. An old post on Conspirators of Pleasure here.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Gay Penguins

For a change something about a children's book. This is no ordinary book though. Just a few weeks back it was named "the most challenged book of 2006" by the American Library Association mainly because of its portrayal of homosexuality. Today's Guardian has an article on it too. It is about two male penguins living as a couple raising a baby penguin. I saw the book on the return desk of the library and remembered reading about it sometime so I thought I will pick it up. I am glad I did. It is very nice and amusing little book. I have no doubt kids would love it.

It is a very short book, just around 20 pages. The pictures are amusing and text fits very well with the images. I personally thought it was perfect for the age-group it was intended for (4-8). After all most of the prejudices, sexual, religious or racial, are ingrained in us early in the childhood. In that sense this book is a wonderful way of introducing the young kids to same sex family. For those who haven't seen the book, this is how homosexuality is explained in the book. The texts are interspersed with different images of the two happy penguins:

Two Penguins in the penguin house were a little bit different. One was named Roy, and other was named Silo. Roy and Silo were both boys. But they did everything together.

They bowed to each other.

And walked together.

They sang to each other.

And swam together.

Whenever Roy went, Silo went too.

They didn't spend much time with the girl penguins, and the girl penguins didn't spend much time with them. Instead, Roy and Silo wound their necks around each other. Their keeper Mr Gramzay noticed the two penguins and thought to himself, "They must be in love"

I was surprised to read at the end of the book that the story is in fact true. There really are two penguins in New York City's Central Park Zoo who raised a baby penguin together! Well another reason to visit central park again. I wanted to go there ever since I saw Angels in America, specially the title sequence (central park is at the end)

Another post on a picture book with a scene showing lesbianism (meant only for adults though) here.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Protocols of Zion

A rather disappointing documentary on an increasingly important topic. It has enough that will alarm even the most indifferent of viewers but ultimately it is just too rambling and scattershot to make any genuine contribution to the debate surrounding the resurgence of anti-semitism (also called New Anti-semitism) in most parts of the world, specially in the middle east, after 9-11. The rumour that the world trade center attacks were orchestrated by Israelis and that no jews died in the attacks is common in the arab world. Even the mainstream media believes and propagates this propaganda in the muslim world. Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a classic conspiracy theory text of anti-semitic propaganda, is a bestseller in Iran. The president himself presides on a conference of lunatics specialising in holocaust-denial.

Most of the footage and interviews shown in the film are truly frightening and to ignore them as works of a lunatic fringe will be a serious mistake. Having said that, the film doesn't really get into really troubled waters, i.e. in what ways the radical left wing critics of American foreign policy and Zionism are contributing to the rise of anti-semitism and how the paranoia of Israel and jewish groups in America isn't helping matters either. There was a major controversy recently when the talk of the reputed historian Tony Judt was cancelled after some backstage heavy handed manipulation by the anti-defamation league. In this age of multiculturalism, nothing could be more anachronistic than the political ideology of Zionism. Nobody with a sense of history will deny its historical justification and the right of Israel to exist but the question is how should we see it now. There is also this bizarre and persistent claim of the ubiquitous and omnipotent nature of the so called "Jewish Lobby" in american foreign policy. Now I am not calling these people anti-semites, this is perhaps just a careless use of language.

What I find personally problematic is the thin line that separates rational criticism of a belief system (poitical or religious or both) and a slander against a people i.e racism. For example when I put one of the Danish cartoons on the blog, was I being a racist or just ridiculing people who believe they are going to get virgins in heaven if they blow themselves up. Similarly when I call Hindus superstitious idiots and idolaters am I criticising the essentially reactionary nature of organized Hinduism or actually slandering the Hindu community or the great tolerant and enlightened Hindu tradition? I personally think I did all this in good faith, based on the simple assumption that all organized religions are founts of hatred and irrationality and religious belief is by its very nature a political act and so there is every reason to link racism and fascism to religion.

The case of the critics of Israel is similar. Most of them are definitely not racists but their careless use of language only gives fodder to the real racists and bigots. Wikipedia has a fantastic article on new antisemitism. I myself don't know much on the subject of Israel-Palestine or even the history of Zionism. In fact only a couple of days back I was reading about Theodor Herzl and the founding of the international Zionist movement in the wonderful book Wittgenstein's Vienna. It is a very fascinating and interesting subject. It sheds a lot of light on contemporary debates about cultural assimilation too. The most straightforward conclusion is also the most pessimistic one, that true cultural assimilation will remain a pipe-dream. I will post about it later.

What, Haven't Heard of Saint-Beuve?

What a great way to start the day! This is Time magazine's film critic Richard Schickel making a complete fool of himself:

Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities.

I have little interest in the blogs vs. mainstream media debates but I found this particular rant a little interesting mainly because he mentions the name of Saint-Beuve:
But instead, let's think about what reviewing ought to be. For example, French critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, a name not much bruited in the blogosphere, I'll warrant. In the middle of the 19th century, his reviews appeared every Monday for 28 years. He was a humane, tolerant and relentlessly curious man who once summarized his method in two words: "Just characterization."

Whoa! I feel so great now. I did mention Saint-Beuve on this blog. Only once if I remember. (I am too embarrassed to link to it now. It was something related to Proust and the characters of Bergotte and Monsieur de Norpois in his novel.) So I am admitted to the holy elitist circles frequented by Richard Schickel and his ilk after all!

Seriously what an idiot. I wonder how many reviews he wrote last year which initiated "informed dialogue" that he is talking about. I don't know if it was he or his other illustrious colleague at Time Richard Corliss who praised Devdas because of the "fabulous frocks" and "the beautiful people who fill them." That's the kind of film criticism that these supposed disciples of Saint-Beuve would like more of.

Link via House Next Door and a hilarious quick response here.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Suicide in Vienna

from Wittgenstein's Vienna by Janik and Toulmin, an account of a few Viennese celebrities who committed suicide during the early years of twentienth century:

"If the Habsburg Empire's national, racial, social, diplomatic and sexual problems were as grave as we have suggested, the Empire's suicide rate should have been correspondingly high. The list of prominent Austrians who were to die by their own hands is, in fact, both long and distinguished. It includes Ludwig Boltzmann, the father of statistical thermodynamics; Otto Mahler, the brother of the composer, who was not lacking in musical talent himself; Georg Trakl, a lyric poet whose talents have been rarely surpassed in the German language; Otto Weininger, whose book Sex and Character had made him a cause celebre, only a few months before his suicide in the house where Beethoven died; Eduard van der Null, who was unable to bear the criticism that was leveled upon the Imperial Opera House he designed; Alfred Redl, whose story has already been told; and no less than three of the Ludwig Wittgenstein's own elder brothers. Perhaps the most bizarre case is that of General Baron Franz von Uchatius, the designer of the 8-cm. and 9-cm. cannon. His crowning achievement was to have been the gigantic 28-cm. field piece; but, when the weapon was tested, the barrel split, and a few days later Uchatius was found dead in his arsenal, having cut his own throat. Even the Imperial-and-Royal house was not spared. In 1889, at his lodge in Mayerling, Crown Prince Rudolf took his life and that of the woman he loved, Baroness Maria Vetsera, in circumstances that were more lurid than romantic. These were few of the men for whom Vienna, the City of Dreams, had become a city of nightmares past further bearing."

Arthur Schnitzler, the Viennese writer, brilliantly captures the suicidal mindsets of the common people in his stories like Fraulein Else and Lieutenant Gustl (both small masterpieces.) (In fact, one of his daughters committed suicide too in situations similar to what he wrote years earlier in the novella Fraulein Else.)

Apparently things haven't improved at all even after so many years. At least that's what one gathers from reading recent Austrian literature. Most famous of them is of course Thomas Bernhard. Almost all of his characters invariably make a visit to the famous Steinof Asylum and who perhaps don't commit suicide only because they have found someone who will listen to their rants and report it to the readers! I am also reminded of Michael Haneke's truly frightening and unnerving (and very unfunny unlike Thomas Bernhard) debut The Seventh Continent. The way Haneke charts a Viennese family's slow path to self-destruction makes it one of the most difficult-to-watch films ever.

A self-critical tendency in writers is very common. In fact in a way, that is the primary job of the writer -- to remain dissatisfied with himself and the society he or she is part of. But even by that standard Austrian writers are in an entirely different league. The viciousness and fierceness of loathing and contempt for their country and countrymen that these writers muster make them somewhat unique among all national literatures. They even have a special term for it -- they call it "anti-heimat literature." Thomas Bernhard (or at least his characters) doesn't just hate his countrymen, he even hates the Austrian landscapes. For him even the Austrian air is poisonous! The Austrian tourism department must be happy that these writers are not so famous. If one has nothing but the accounts by Musil, Kraus, Bernhard, Bachmann, Jelinek and others one will be totally convinced that if there is a hell on earth it is Austria!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Angels in America

I just finished reading Tony Kushner's two part play Angels in America and also saw the six hour TV film directed by Mike Nichols and adapted by Kushner himself. I had only heard its praises, the play won the pulitzer and the Tony award and the HBO miniseries won a host of emmy and golden globes, including almost all of the acting prizes. In this case at least all the attention and all the prizes are completely deserved, it is a brilliant work of art. Actually, more than that, it is also an important work of art, something more people should see and think about.

The subtitle of the play, "A gay fantasia on national themes," summaries it better than anything else. It is set in mid eighties, the early years of the AIDS crisis, when homosexuals felt that they had been singled out by the disease as if as an act of damnation. This is the central theme of play which he explores in many different ways, the so called eclipse of God, God's abandonment of his creation? Kushner's gay-centric eschatology gives a new twist and new perspective on the religious ideas about apocalypse and millennialism. Everything in the play is filled with apocalyptic gloom and premillennial despair, but everything is also so over the top that it is again not your regular hand wringing of the end of the world and stuff. It is original.

It is also a "fantasia" -- there are characters with names like "Aleskii Antediluvianovich Prelapsarianov." The elderly Jewish male rabbi is played by a female actor - in this case by Meryl Streep. One character goes to Antartica for a vacation because she is obsessed with the depleting Ozone layer. Same actors play multiple different roles. The dialogues are highly non-naturalistic too. One of the main characters justifies abandoning his lover who is dying of AIDS by saying that he can't but follow the "neo-Hegelian positivist sense of constant historical progress towards happiness or perfection or something" and that he can't "incorporate sickness into his sense of how things are supposed to go." There are also scenes in which Angels break through the ceiling to inform the man dying from AIDS that he is a prophet! In another scene, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the communist spy who was unfairly executed in the McCarthyite witch-hunt, returns from the dead to pray Kaddish to the lawyer who was responsible for the unjust judgment. The lawyer character Roy Cohn, played with a demonic panache by Al Pacino, is actually based on a real-life character. I didn't know that. Difficult to believe that there really was someone like him, power-hungry, racist, bigot, hypocrite, Reaganite, self-hating homosexual and self-hating Jew. It is completely to Pacino's credit that he makes this character enormously interesting, even sympathetic and funny at times.

I wasn't too impressed with parts of the story where Kushner deals with homosexual life-experiences in particular terms. All those coming out of the closet, walking out on a lover, walking out of marriage may have felt revolutionary when the play was written but now it is more or less commonplace. It is also a failure of the TV film that Nichols turns all this almost into a regular soap-opera. But still whenever you hear the long monologues you realize it is not the regular stuff. What impressed me most of Kushner's grasp of American history and politics. There is Tocqueville and there is Hegel and there are so many other people. At the end it is a powerful and stinging critique of deep-rooted conservatism in American politics and a rousing, inspiring call for progress, in all areas of human affairs. A more humane and inclusive progress. In fact the play ends with a character saying that Gorbachev is the greatest political thinker since Lenin and that perestroika is exactly what he means by progress, the Hegelian dialectical progress of history. I wonder what Kushner thinks of it now.

The play is too huge and it has so many things to talk about that I can't really do it on a blog. Even whatever I wrote above, I now realize, doesn't make a lot of sense. I will just end by giving it a very enthusiastic recommendation. I wonder why films like Brokeback Mountain got such praise when there was a recent precedent like Angels in America. Read the play, get the DVD. Few better ways to spend six hours of your day. Two reviews here and here. There is even a reading guide.

And the wonderful title sequence...

Friday, May 18, 2007

Lenin or Hitler

First, Slavoj Zizek's misreading of two recent German films dealing with the legacy of East German communism: Good Bye Lenin! and The Lives of Others. I didn't particularly liked the first one. I thought the concept was great but the film itself was sentimental and too eager to please. Something which reinforces political misconceptions rather than question them. Specially in this context I found this comment a little strange:

To put it quite brutally, while Ostalgie is widely practiced in today’s Germany without causing ethical problems, one (for the time being, at least) cannot imagine publicly practicing a Nazi nostalgia: “Good Bye Hitler” instead of “Good Bye Lenin.” Doesn’t this bear witness to the fact that we are still aware of the emancipatory potential in Communism, which, distorted and thwarted as it was, was thoroughly missing in Fascism? The quasi-metaphysical epiphany toward the film’s end (when the mother, on her first walk outside the apartment, finds herself face-to-face with a Lenin-statue carried by the helicopter, whose outstretched hand seems to address her directly) is thus to be taken more seriously than it may appear.

Watching the film nothing was more obvious than the irony in the title! In fact if anything the film is a critique of these nostalgic tendencies that Zizek is talking of. No one in the right mind will compare Lenin with Hitler, or Nazism with communism, but that isn't the same thing... (Also don't miss his interesting if still bizarre reading of homosexual subtext in The Lives of Others)

In other (great) news my second favourite living film director Michael Haneke is working on a costume drama set in the last days of Austro-Hungarian empire (that's my current favourite historical subject too). Whoppeeeee! I wonder what it is about. I couldn't resist putting his photograph here. Kinda frightening the way he is staring and the calmness on his face.

Germans vs. Greeks

Who will win? Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein or Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Heraclitus? Check this out, funniest thing I have come across in a long while...

link from Vidya.

'Start pushing', passengers asked

Apologies for the recent lull in the blogging activity. Regular programming should resume over the weekend. Meanwhile an amusing newsreport from the place where I come from.

Another related news report, a few months older, here. I am feeling very homesick after reading it, specially for the trains in Bihar.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Lives of Others

The latest new york review of books has an article by journalist and author Timothy Garton Ash about the German film The Lives of Others, which won the Oscar for the best foreign film this year. Garton Ash himself had a "file" for himself in the archives of the Stasi, the secret police of the East German government. He writes about the political and historical background of the film in detail.

I liked it a lot too. I thought it was a powerful and moving film, certainly one of the best of the last year, I was happy that it won the Oscar, though I would have been equally happy had it gone to Pan's Labyrinth.

The only problem I had was the sequence in the middle, which is at the centre of the narrative, where the Stasi office Weisler finds himself spiritually transformed when he comes across a piece of Piano Sonata and Brecht's poetry. Now nobody will deny that great works of art have the power to move us and can help us make that leap of faith and get us close to that authentic being essential for any ethical behaviour in difficult circumstances. What we should be sceptic about is to universalize this notion. To confuse aesthetics with ethics is not just naive, sentimental and wrong but also deeply ahistorical. Even the elementary history of art is enough to conclude that the relationship between the two, aesthetics and ethics, is far more complicated. I don't think they are mutually exclusive realms, as perhaps Kierkegaad said, but something we should be suspect of specially now that the dark twentieth century is behind us.

Having said that I don't think the film itself universalizes this notion at all, even though indirectly it does encourage the viewers to do the same with carefully constructed thriller plot. The whole credit should go to the extra-ordinary presence of the actor Ulrich Muhe in the role of the Stasi officer. (Fans of Austrian director Michael Haneke will recognize him from his astonishing turns in director's early films like Funny Games and The Castle.) From the very first scene we realize that the impassive face hides a profoundly tortured soul and when the key sequences come in it doesn't feel manipulative at all.

Another aspect of the film which we should be sceptic about before universalizing is the charge of moral relativism. Claims like, there is no good or bad there is only "gray" or there are no victims or victimizers only "human beings" may sound like advanced ethical propositions, while most often they are just cynical recourse to hide from genuine and difficult thinking. This is the same banality of evil territory, which as I had mentioned before, we should be careful treading. (Do check out some of the comments on this topic on the last post about Hitler.) Also interesting to read is this article about how the film was received in Germany. Overall it is an excellent film. The career of the young director, with the colourful aristrocratic name Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, will definitely be worth following (it is his debut).

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Fascism Alert

Indian readers might already be aware, but just to spread the word. Police in Gujarat have arrested an Art student for painting images which the right-wing Hindutva party didn't like. Space Bar has details about protests planned in different parts of India.

Only today I was reading about the history of the so-called "degenerate art" and it all sounds so alarmingly familiar.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Woody Allen

Opening scene from Love and Death, one of my favourite comedies ever.

Another nice scene here and some memorable quotes here.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Explaining Hitler

When asked if there was any meaning in the Holocaust, historian Raul Hilberg is said to have replied, "I hope not." This is from a man who has spent almost his entire life studying that single event in history! (He is the author of three volume The Destruction of European Jews which is considered a standard reference work on the subject.) This apparent paradox is also the main running theme of Ron Rosenbaum's excellent book Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil. We have to search for answers and yet resist the false consolations that those answers may provide.

Holocaust can be a bewildering subject for a beginner (such as myself). And I am not just talking of its unavoidable lugubriousness of the subject which can take an emotional toll. Intellectually too there are just too many books, too many interpretations, too many theories. Even if one has time, energy and motivation, a serious and systematic study on one's own is impossible. In this respect Rosenbaum's book fits the need of a good overview and a work of synthesis very well. It is written in the form of an extended reportage, so Rosenbaum doesn't just recount all the theories but rather he goes to meet all the scholars and experts on the subject personally, he muses and speculates on their psychological motives, sometimes even spars with them, at other times expresses his doubts and then moves on to the next subject. Behind every theory and explanation he invariably sees some need to extract meaning or consolation and in this way he casts doubt on everything.

Modern trends in historiography have invariably minimized the role of individual agency in historical affairs, instead they are more interested in abstract socio-cultural-environmental forces which shape individual and collective destiny. In other words they are more interested in the "system" rather than specific human beings. Rosenbaum resists this school of thinking arguing that it minimizes Hitler's role and responsibility for what happened. In historian's terminology this is called the "functionalist" school. At the opposite side is the "intentionalist" school which says that the initiative for the Holocaust came from above, i.e. from Hitler. (Wikipedia has more details.)

Even within the two schools there are multitudes of theories. For example, what was the source of Hitler's anti-semitism? There are a host of wild speculations, all unverifiable of course. Most of them are popular only because they are sensational and prurient in nature. Unfortunately a major part of the book is concerned with these pseudo-historical and psychosexual nonsense. I won't get into all that here. The other question about when Hitler decided on the "final solution" is equally controversial. The dominant view is that he decided on the exact course of action late into the world war. Did he even give exact orders? Another controversial question because no document with Hitler's authorization of the program exists. Other Hitler questions are equally intractable. Was he consciously evil? Or was he convinced of his moral and intellectual rectitude? Again most historians and philosophers take the later view, in line with the thinking about evil in western philosophy.

Rosenbaum doesn't like it but most of the serious and important work on the subject has happened in the functionalist camp. No one really believes in the "No Hitler No Holocaust" theory anymore. And the debate there is considerably more bitter too. Was it the thousand years of Christian anti-semitism? Was there something specific about the German culture and history that turned ordinary anti-semitism into an "eliminationist anti-semitism," as Daniel Goldhagen, author of the controversial bestseller Hitler's Willing Executioners claims? Were bureaucrats like Adolf Eichmann just morally indifferent careerists or were they motivated by a specific hate? In other words was it a case of "the banality of evil" as Hannah Arendt claimed? Rosenbaum dismisses such glib pronouncements, justifiably so I think. Rather disappointingly he doesn't get into the famous "Historian's Dispute" -- the debate among the German historians about Holocast, spurred by right wing historians who claimed that Nazism was a response to Bolshevism, which was equally worse evil. (Wikipedia link here.)

There are many other questions like: was Holocaust unique or was it just another genocide? Again no consensus. Or what does holocaust say about the existence of God and the problem of evil? How do theologians respond to it? There is apparently an entire branch of theology dedicated to this topic called Holocaust theology. It is a fascinating topic and also very painful to read about how people of faith think about the event. There is also a bizarre section where George Steiner talks of the Jewish "invention of conscience" and "the blackmail of transcendence" by three of the most famous Jews in history -- Moses, Jesus and Karl Marx. All these ideas he gives to the fictional Hitler in his novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. Hitler in the book also says that jews invented the concept of "master race." Well in that sense every religion is a racist ideology, and indeed they invariably are.

There are also so many other things in the book which I didn't mention in the summary above. It is quite thick actually almost 700 pages. Though I would personally have preferred a more sober, academic and concise survey but his journalistic freewheeling style also makes this book somewhat a pageturner, though in the end also very depressing. Some more details in other reviews here and here.

The Battle of Algiers

Guardian has a list of "top foreign films" as selected by its readers. The word "foreign" is also defined accordingly. English language is mainstream, everything else is foreign. Anyway, I was a little annoyed, if not surprised, to see films at number 1 and 2. Both utterly soppy, if also harmless, films. And then there is no Antonioni anywhere! Arrrgh!!

I was also very glad to see The Battle of Algiers in the top 10 which I saw some time back and which is absolutely awesome. The Guardian has a review on the occasion of re-release. (Another more detailed article here.)

Most of the recent reviews of the film talk about its continued "relevance" specially in the context of war in Iraq. And indeed it is actually shocking to see it and realize that it is almost half a century old. Asymmetric warfare, use of torture to extract information, state terrorism, using Islam and religious identity as anti-colonial resistance, everything is there.

Having said that I was myself not very convinced with the parallels that other reviewers have drawn. I find it depressing the way religious fundamentalists, along with many radical commentators in the west, have appropriated anti-colonialist idioms and vocabulary in recent times and it has resulted in lots of confusion.

Incidentally today India is celebrating the so-called "first war of independence" and it is surprising to see such nationalist fervour generated over a movement which was essentially regressive, reactionary, revanchist and which was fuelled more by petty personal grievances against the British and which was devoid of any overarching progressive socio-cultural vision. I am not sorry that the uprising failed. Indian independence movement did become a progressive ideological movement, though still somewhat elitist, later and in this sense it is somewhat unique among the anti-colonial movements.

Also worth reading is this very strange article by William Dalrymple where he is arguing about the "relevance" of 1857 uprising using some really dubious analogies. Specially this:

"The Forward Policy soon developed an evangelical flavour. The new conservatives wished to impose not only British laws but also western values on India. The country would be not only ruled but redeemed. Local laws which offended Christian sensibilities were abrogated - the burning of widows, for instance, was banned."

British stopped Indians from Burning their widows! Horrors! How oppressive and racist!! Just notice the unironical use of "western values." Strange logic of multiculturalism indeed.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Goodbye Cat

from Mark Twain's comments about "The Awful German Language"

"A dog is "der Hund"; a woman is "die Frau"; a horse is "das Pferd"; now you put that dog in the genitive case, and is he the same dog he was before? No, sir; he is "des Hundes"; put him in the dative case and what is he? Why, he is "dem Hund." Now you snatch him into the accusative case and how is it with him? Why, he is "den Hunden." But suppose he happens to be twins and you have to pluralize him- what then? Why, they'll swat that twin dog around through the 4 cases until he'll think he's an entire international dog-show all in is own person. I don't like dogs, but I wouldn't treat a dog like that- I wouldn't even treat a borrowed dog that way. Well, it's just the same with a cat. They start her in at the nominative singular in good health and fair to look upon, and they sweat her through all the 4 cases and the 16 the's and when she limps out through the accusative plural you wouldn't recognize her for the same being. Yes, sir, once the German language gets hold of a cat, it's goodbye cat. That's about the amount of it."

Some selected quotes here.

Monday, May 07, 2007

On Tadeusz Borowski

This is a detail from Bird's Hell, a work by the German expressionist painter Max Beckmann. It is featured on the cover of Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, a collection of stories, or rather fictional memoirs, set in Auschwitz. Neither the horror of the image nor the brutal title can prepare one for what is inside. Reading, writing and thinking about holocaust is always extremely difficult, but even by that standard this book presents something different altogether.

Borowski was a Polish gentile and a member of the Polish resistance against the Nazi occupation. In 1943, when he was 21, he was arrested along with his fiancee and was sent to Auschwitz. He survived because he was made a Kapo (a lower administrative official), one of the privileged cogs in the vast machine of extermination. Also by the time he arrived there, the gassing of non-Jews had ceased at Auschwitz. All the stories in the volume are narrated in first person, presumably based on himself. They read more like autobiographical fragments or snapshots of nightmare visions and less like full-fledged narrative. Often most of the story is just a snapshot of conversations that these privileged guards have between themselves and with other prisoners, both in the labour camp and those who are going to die. There is no psychology, no philosophy, no reflection, there are occasionally a few startling phrases but otherwise it is just brute facts, honest, lacerating and simple.

After the war Borowski returned to Poland, married his fiancee (who had also survived) and later joined the communist party and started writing political tracts for them. It soon proved too much for him and in a cruel twist of fate he took his own life by inhaling gas from the gas oven. He was only 29. Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet and Nobel laureate, wrote about Borowski in his book The Captive Mind. The character "Beta" was actually Borowski in real life. In his portrait Milosz points to Borowski's selling out for shallow ideological goals as the main reason for suicide which might well be the case. But after reading these stories it is not difficult to imagine the fate of whoever wrote them. They are all filled not really with Survivor's guilt but rather survivor's rage, and extreme rage at that. It is a rage against the fundamental "will to life", against hope and against so called human values. The stories seem to suggest that it is these which are at the root of the Hobbesian moral anarchy that he witnessed at Auschwitz, not among the victimizers (they are mostly in the background) but rather among the victims themselves. Holocaust is generally seen as presenting a "limit-case" (to use a mathematical terminology) for different aesthetic, ethical and philosophical theories... in other words it is place where theories break down and traditional categories collapse. These stories here do show how.

I didn't mention anything about the individual stories because I didn't know what to make of or even how to read them in particular terms.

Sign and Sight reprints a translation of a German review of his story collection. Wikipedia has more information, it also links to his translated poetry. One of them here:

Night Over Birkenau

Night again. Again the grim sky closes
circling like a vulture over the dead silence.
Like a crouching beast over the camp
the moon sets, pale as a corpse.

And like a shield abandoned in battle,
blue Orion- lost among the stars.
The transports growl in darkness
and the eyes of the crematorium blaze.

It's steamy, stifling. Sleep is a stone.
My breath rattles in my throat.
This lead foot crushing my chest
is the silence of three million dead.

Night, night without end. No dawn comes.
My eyes are poisoned from sleep.
Like God's judgement on the corpse of the earth,
fog descends over Birkenau.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Dispatches Turns 2!

Yesterday was the second birthday of Dispatches from Zembla. Thank you all for coming here! Special thank you to those who read my amateurish posts and left comments!

I look back at last two years of the blog and I realize, not without a little despair, that nothing has really happened in my life, except that I have managed to read a few books, watch a few movies and write a few blog posts (actually quite a few!). People have stopped asking me on Fridays what I am going to do on weekends, because I always say, "Oh nothing much, just stay at home, read a few things. Cook. Sleep. And may be Blog." I feel like Ulrich in The Man Without Qualities, a man who is on "vacation from life," or even Hans Castorp (whose condition is slightly better than Ulrich) going about daily life as if vacationing on Der Zauberberg thinking about useless abstractions... I feel more at peace with myself now than when I started this blog but I am also more hopelessly stuck in inaction and passivity. Anyway, identifying with the heroes of two greatest German novels isn't too bad I guess :)

I don't know what people really think of this blog, specially the anonymous visitors. Is this blog too Eurocentric? Do I consciously choose "obscure" topics to write about? Why is there such a glaring mismatch between the "high-brow" subjects and my own comments which are often amateurish, rehashed and regurgitated? Regular readers of the blog must wonder about these things. To all these my only answer is that I treat blogging just as "learning in public." I am not an expert on any of these subjects, I am only a beginner, blogging just helps make this learning process a little more systematic than what it would be normally. And the best of all is you get to meet similar-minded people who often know more than you or at least have opinions which are different from yours, all of which make blogging an even more fruitful learning experience. So thank you again for visiting, reading and leaving comments.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Author of Himself: Marcel Reich-Ranicki

An autobiography of a book reviewer sounds inconceivable but this is no ordinary autobiography. The back cover claims that more than half a million hardback copies of this book were sold in Germany and that it was "no. 1 bestseller for 53 consecutive weeks." Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the polish-jewish literary critic, is obviously a very popular figure in Germany. He is also loathed vigorously, mostly by resentful authors. He has the reputation (unjustified he says) of being a "literary executioner." One of his collection of book reviews is called "Nothing but Drubbings." His enemy list contains who's who of modern German literature. He once appeared on the cover (it was actually a montage) of the Speigel magazine literally tearing apart a Gunter Grass novel. Elsewhere the Austrian writer Peter Handke portrayed him as a "barking and slobbering 'leader of the pack' in whom 'there was something damned' and whose 'killer lust' had been further enhanced by the ghetto." Another writer Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, called for a machine gun to mow him down, and the poet Christa Reinig wrote fantasies about his death from cancer. There was also a book by Martin Walser called Death of a Critic, a satirical narrative about an author murdering a reviewer. It was highly controversial because of accusations of anti-semitism. He is also accused of being power-hungry, dogmatic, conservative and prone to exaggerations and simplifications in his reviews (he hosts a very popular TV show.) He relates all these charges and stories and tries to answer them with a remarkable good humour. It really makes for a very entertaining reading. And I am not even familiar with all the authors he talks about in the book. I have barely heard of names like Max Frisch, Wolfgang Koeppen, Walter Jens and many others.

MRR was born in Poland to Jewish parents. The family emigrated to Berlin in the late twenties where he grew up and had his early education. The first section of the book where he describes his introduction to the "land of culture" are the best. He seems to remember every single book he read, every single play he attended and not just names, his detailed impressions of every single performance. He even remembers his school assignments (his essay on Georg Buchner ran to three pages)! It is a riveting account. Soon however dark clouds gather. He is first denied a place in the university because he was Jew and soon is deported back to Poland.

Soon after Germany invades Poland and all the Jews of Warsaw are sent to the ghetto. His account of the life in the Warsaw ghetto where he found work in the Jewish council as a german translator is equally riveting. There is also a moving portrait of Adam Czerniakow, the head of the Jewish coucil in the Ghetto in whose office he worked. (There is also a very moving account of Czerniakow's life in the documentary Shoah where Raul Hilberg comments on his diaries.) In the ghetto he also meets the woman who was to remain by his side for the rest of his life. They soon marry in haste because he had a job and as a result he gets the "life number" which meant that he wouldn't be the first to be sent to Treblinka. Soon the deportations start and his parents are sent to the gas chambers. The last words Tosia, his wife, hears from his mother were, "Look after Marcel." He himself alongwith his wife manages to escape after the ghetto uprising and finds himself sheltered by a working class family on the outskirts of Warsaw. The head of the family named Bolek is given to drunken ravings. In one of his Vodka induced ravings he says, ""Adolf Hitler, the most powerful man in Europe, has decreed: these two people here shall die. And I, a small typesetter from Warsaw, have decided: they shall live." They work for him in the basement which is actually a hole in the ground and MRR keeps him entertained by telling stories from literary classics of Shakespeare, Goethe and Kleist. Bolek remains indifferent to the plight of Hamlet or Werther but is moved by the stories of King Lear and Prince of Homburg. After almost two years the Red Army finally arrives on the Polish border and they are finally liberated. Sounds like the stuff for a novel? Well, Gunter Grass fictionalized this story in his novel Diary of a Snail (I haven't read it).

Times Literary Supplement called this book "an unforgettable work of Holocaust literature" which to me sounds like an over-praise. It is very well written but is also a very straight-forward narrative. He touches on the painful paradox of the coexistence of German barbarism and the sublime German culture but never really comes to term with it. He says his fatherland is nether Poland nor Germany, it is German Literature. He never really goes into the complex questions that historians of Germany have been grappling with. How far German culture is to be blamed for what happened? Was it just a work of a few criminal barbarians or was it a more organic result of German cultural history? He never really goes into these things. Which is a pity, because he is at such a vantage position to answer these questions.

There is a brief section in the middle about his life in post-war communist Poland where he worked as a spy, yes a Spy in the London Polish consulate, but is soon disillusioned by the restrictions imposed on him by the communist party and manages to escape to west Germany. His rise there from a lowly book reviewer to the literary editor of FAZ, the most powerful literary position in Germany, is meteoric. The long third section is virtually a parade of who's who of post-war German intellectual history. Gunter Grass, Adorno, Elias Canetti, Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachmann, Brecht, and so many others, they are all there. He relates anecdotes, shares his opinions and reflects on the relationships he had with all the writers, almost all of which eventually soured in the end. This section is an extremely fascinating guide to the history modern german literature, told from a very unique point of view.

Overall I was slightly disappointed with it because he mostly skirted things I was personally more interested it. One of these as I mentioned above is the issue of how far should one hold German culture to be culpable for anti-semitism and Nazism. Other issues like German-Jewish relations in post-war Germany or the questions of German guilt are also, if not completely absent, are almost always treated as an aside. He does mention these things but only in bits and pieces, here and there. He never tackles these head-on. In the last chapter he writes about the historikerstreit ("historian's dispute") but then just stops at expressing his disappointment at the whole affair and saying that he was particularly pained because of the involvement of Joachim Fest, an editor at FAZ and a personal friend for many years. He evidently disapproves of these right wing historians who played a major role in the dispute but doesn't discuss what kind of relationship should jews have with Germany, or what whould the new German nationalism look like or what Holocaust means for contemporary Germany.

Still I think these are minor quibbles. In short it is a marvellous account of a truly remarkable life. Must read for anyone interested in modern German history and literature. Some reviews I could find: The Observer and two reviews from TLS here and here.

Empire Histories

Arts and Letters Daily points to a long profile of Niall Ferguson, British historian who has written revisionist accounts of the British Empire. He argues that the Empire was overall a successful, liberal and benevolent enterprise and that America should learn its lessons and follow the same footsteps.

Not everybody agrees of course. Here are two articles that I always wanted to link to. Johann Hari, the wonderful young British columnist, cuts him to size here and Priyamvada Gopal, an academic at the Cambridge University responds here. Both are shrill but very entertaining and enlightening.

There was a review by Hari in last week's New Republic of a book by another revisionist historian. Another nice hatchet-job! (The author calls the review "despicable and cowardly" in his letter to the new republic.) Hari's website is also worth browsing, just for a sample, his execution of Ayn Rand.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Austrian Literature Blogs

While browsing yesterday I came across this wonderful collection of blogs about the turn of century Austrian culture and literature. Check the links on the right sidebar. There are lots of links to different blog posts on Musil, Schnitzler, Hofmmansthal and others.

I found this post on Man Without Qualities a little amusing. She calls it "superfluous", says she was "extremely bored" with it and that the hero Ulrich was "basically the same throughout the novel." "He began by not knowing what he wanted to do and ended the same way." hmmm, that doesn't sound too good, does it? It is quite true actually. I was desperately hoping for some solution of this problem of not knowing what to do too, some way of escaping from this "hovering life" as Musil calls it, but it seems there is no solution. I didn't quite finish the book, a few hundred pages were still left (I did read eleven hundred of them though) but the sexual-mystical stuff was getting a little too vague for me. I had to return the book back to the library anyway because I had kept it for so long. Will pick it up again sometime. It is also a little disappointing that not much of secondary literature about Musil is available in English. In my own rather smallish neighbourhood library there are shelves and shelves of books on Thomas Mann but not a single one on Musil.

There are also a few posts on the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut. I saw it again a few months back after reading the Arthur Schnitzler story Traumnovelle ("Dream Story") on which it is based and found it even worse than what I had remembered it to be. It is embarrassingly bad. The incomplete post should be somewhere in the drafts, will try to post it soon. The Schnitzler story itself is weaker than his other more famous works like Fraulein Else and Lieutenant Gustl which are both small masterpieces.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

German Intellectuals

Via complete review, a list of "top 10 German intellectuals" (whatever that means). The new Pope is at the top.

Two observations. First, surprising that there are so many writers (schriftsteller) on the list. No scientists, economists or other specialists. Second, I wonder which culture is more parochial, German or the Anglo-american? Because none of them are really well-known outside Germany.

By the way, I am in the middle of Marcel Reich-Ranicki's memoir The Author of Himself. He is at number five in the above list. The book is very good. Will write about it once I am done.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Plug for Lukas Moodysson

Antonia's post on Rammstein ("wunderbar amerika") reminded me of the Swedish film Lilja 4-Ever which has "Mein Herz Brennt," a song composed and performed by the same band, as one of its main theme songs. Youtube has the complete song with video clippings from the film. The words of the song are based on some German lullaby meant for children. Translated lyrics here. (You may not want to see the whole video because it is quite long and reveals many details of the story.)

I don't want to write much about it, just say that it is extremely painful to watch. I particularly remember one scene towards the end which is so blatantly and outrageously sentimental and manipulative, but it is the absolute power of Moodysson's direction and painfully honest performance by the young Russian actress that you just can't dismiss it, even though it feels like the film itself is daring you to do so. That Rammstein song acquires new and painful meaning at the film's end. Anyway, just a few link to some reviews. Guardian calls it "A dark masterpiece: a vivisectional experiment in horror and despair" and village voice proclaims it to be "the season's most piercingly feel-bad movie." (Scroll down for the review.) An unusually serious Anthony Lane in the new yorker waxes lyrical and is also very good. Really worth reading even if you haven't seen the film. It also contains a scene which is a kind-of homage to Robert Bresson's brutal masterpiece Mouchette, with which it actually shares a lot, even though Bresson's is as usual much more austere and stately.

Incidentally youtube also has the entire video of Fucking Amal (also known as Show me Love), Lukas Moodysson's first film. It is also a very nice romantic film about two young girls falling in love! In case you have problems with the Swedish language, you will have to follow this transcript.