Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Favourites from the 90s

My 10 favourite films from the 90s. Inspired by this list from an old issue of the film comment magazine.

I should probably have added some commentary defending my choices, but no time folks. Just a few lines in any case. Lynch, Haneke, Tsai and Kiarostami were all at their peaks over the entire decade. It is difficult to choose one over the other for any of these people. They are all my favourites. I wish more American films were like Short Cuts or Safe - trenchant social criticism and steeped in Americana, like the great American films of the 70s. Number 1, well, I only wish there were more directors who were willing to go so far and in the process even risk appearing totally nuts, or even plain foolish. Kieslowski's Three Colours:Red may be better but you get two Irene Jacobs in Veronique, that's why it is there. What else? Naked and Satantango - that's just masochistic miserabilist in me I guess.

1. Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996)
2. Satantango (Bela Tarr, 1994)
3. Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)
4. Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)
5. Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993)
6. The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kiesklowski, 1991)
7. Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997)
8. Vive L'Amour (Tsai Ming-liang, 1994)
9. The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami, 1999)
10. Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995)

Michel Houellebecq's Mommie

There is an extremely nasty portrait of mother's character on Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles (Atomised in British translation). Now his real life mom has come back with her own book about him. Very entertaining report in The Times - Michel Houellebecq in the mother of all book battles:

France's most celebrated and controversial contemporary author could be pushed off his pinnacle following an astonishingly vitriolic attack from a critic with a unique insight into his oeuvre.

She is his mother - and she is threatening to knock his teeth out with her walking stick if he mentions her again in one of his works.

In a book of her own to be published next week, Lucie Ceccaldi depicts the cult writer as an untalented social climber whose ego is only matched by his dishonesty.

“What are these novels where nothing ever happens?” she says.

“This individual, who alas! came out of my tummy, is a liar, an impostor, a parasite and especially, especially, a little upstart ready to do anything for fortune and fame,” Mrs Ceccaldi, 83, writes in L'Innocente, an autobiography.

Also see, Revenge of hippy mum on enfant terrible in The Guardian. Links via complete review.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

On Dangerous Ground

Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground is an excellent noir-melodrama, despite its highly improbable and, well, melodramatic plot. Noir regular Robert Ryan plays a hard-bitten cop whose experience with dealing with criminals and violence has filled him with self-disgust and bitterness. He occasionally goes hysterically violent and brutally roughs up the suspects. While at home he washes his hands as if he were washing off the slime of the real world. Because of his erratic behavior and violent temper he is transferred to an upstate mountainous village to investigate a murder. There he meets a blind girl, played by another noir regular Ida Lupino, who is trying to save her juvenile brother who is a suspect. It is quite over-wrought and schematic but both the actors are so good and Ray's handling of the scenes between them gives it such pathos and emotional urgency that you never feel manipulated into believing in such a wildly improbable scenario. Instead it comes off as very sincere and authentic, and hence powerful.

The film also boasts of a score by Bernhard Hermann which is typically heavy, ominous and full of dread. In fact once in a while, it even threatens to take over the proceedings. The snowy and frozen landscape is extremely well shot with a lot of depth of focus, in effect, making the background part of the character and the story itself.

An exchange between Ryan and his co-worker which sums up the basic theme of the film very well... You don't live with yourself, you live with other people. Indeed! (From IMDB)

Jim Wilson: [yelling] So I get thrown off the force! What kind of job is this, anyway? Garbage, that's all we handle: garbage!
Pop Daly: Don't you know? That's the kind of job it is.
Jim Wilson: You've been doing it for sixteen years; you ought to know. How do you do it? How do you live with yourself?
Pop Daly: I don't! I live with other people. When I go home I don't take this stuff with me, I leave it outside. But you! The way you carry it around with you, you must like it!

Wikipedia also links to a critical contemporary review of the film by Bosley Crowther in the new york times. It shows the same bias against melodrama that I had mentioned earlier. Only in this case it is a very masculine melodrama...

The bovine inauthenticity of everyday life

I love this phrase - the bovine inauthenticity of everyday life. From Terry Eagleton's essay on Slavoj Zizek in TLS.

I have also been reading (trying to actually) Zizek's essay on Tarkovsky.

He had a few interesting and funny things to say about Solaris in his documentary too. One clip from The Pervert's Guide to Cinema here.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Capitalism, Leisure & Blogging

It is pretty obvious actually and will definitely be old hat for sociologists and economists but I have been thinking about how the idea of what constitutes work and leisure has changed in our networked and information-based economy ("post-Fordist" economy). Since it is actually the "intellectual labour" which is getting converted into capital it really doesn't matter whether you are at work or at leisure - you may still be thinking about what happened over the week on the weekends when you are technically enjoying your leisure. On top of that, there is always this expectation that people will choose those leisure activities and hobbies which can help them in being more productive at work. So someone who makes his living by programming will have learning new languages or designing algorithms as one of his hobbies. Even if you don't have a dedicated hobby, you are expected to read up work related books and documents, learn things outside your current job, get a few certifications or even part-time degrees and if you don't you will be left behind in the Darwinian race because everybody else is doing the same.

One more week and it will be three years since I started this blog. It is no mean achievement given how feeble the existential foundations are on which this blog rests. It was when thinking about justification of its existence that I thought it could seen as (a mostly symbolic) resistance against the insidious power of global capitalism in our personal lives that I mentioned earlier. It makes me feel good, specially since the last few weeks I have been getting a bit screwed and being forced to catch up on things that I should have utilized my leisure for. After all you don't want to get yourself nominated for those Darwin awards. Blogging will be a bit erratic in the coming weeks. Lots of uncertainties, fears and doubts...

Philip Glass

Something for quiet Saturday evening. "Opening" from Glassworks by Philip Glass.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Manufacturing Doubt

There is a very good article in Slate about politicisation of scientific research, something which is becoming more and more common, specially in the US.

I am myself a passionate Science partisan but I am dismayed by the way these scientific "experts" have become authority figures when it comes to policy making, which is what is at the root of the problem. It has certainly nothing to do with science - it is instead scientism, a vulgar and discredited ideology which puts scientific conclusions above normative and ethical judgments. With traditional, "hard" sciences (yes that includes Darwinian theory too) it is even okay, since the methodological issues and basic assumptions are pretty much settled but what about fields like global warming or the kind of research which tries to prove that women can't do math or some crap like that? These experts then tell us and the government what should be done!

On a somewhat related note, there are two excellent and somewhat introductory columns by Stanley Fish in the new york times (part two here) about the influence of French philosophy which (among other things) questioned the basic assumptions underlying the scientific worldview.

Susan Sontag on Photography

Some provocative excerpts from Susan Sontag's essay on Photography:

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power. A now notorious first fall into alienation, habituating people to abstract the world into printed words, is supposed to have engendered that surplus of Faustian energy and psychic damage needed to build modern, inorganic societies. But print seems a less treacherous form of leaching out the world, of turning it into a mental object, than photographic images, which provide most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present. What can be read about the world is frankly an interpretation, as are older kinds of flat-surface visual statements, like paintings and drawings, Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it: miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.


A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it—by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. The very activity of taking pictures is soothing. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Lacking other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic—Germans, Japanese, and Americans. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures.

Like guns and cars, cameras are fantasy machines whose use is addictive. However, contrary to the rhetoric of ordinary language and advertising, they are not as lethal as guns and cars. For cars being marketed like guns there is at least this much truth in the hyperbole: except in wartime, cars kill more people than guns do. The camera does not kill, so it seems to be all a bluff—like a man's fantasy of having a gun, knife, or tool between his legs. Still, there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have. To photograph is to turn people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. To photograph someone is a sublimated murder, just as the camera is the sublimation of a gun. Taking pictures is a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.


Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, an approach which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no. Strictly speaking, it is doubtful that a photograph can help us to understand anything. The simple fact of "rendering" a reality doesn't tell us much about that reality. A photograph of the Krupp factory, as Brecht points out, tells us little about this institution. The "reality" of the world is not in its images, but in its functions. Functioning takes place in time, and must be explained in time. Only that which narrates can make us understand.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Stella Dallas

I had wanted to see this 1937 Barbara Stanwyck classic Stella Dallas directed by King Vidor starring ever since I read about it in Molly Haskell's book of feminist film history, From Reverence to Rape. She wasn't very happy about the way male critics and viewers regularly dismissed the "weepie" genre wholesale and often pandered and condescended to them calling them illogical and ridiculous.

Stella Dallas is good but only because of Barbara Stanwyck who is in her elements, as she always is in fact. She actually won her first of four Oscar nominations for this role. She plays a working class girl who manages to find a rich guy to marry but is not able to get away from her background. When her daughter grows up she realizes that she needs to sacrifice all she has if she wants her to go farther in life. I will admit, the final scene with Stanwyck in the rain smiling after witnessing her daughter's marriage from a distance did get to me but ultimately it wasn't anything profound. The film also seemed to be confused about the main issue - whether it was about gender or class. It begins with feminism - even going so far as showing Stella as a negligent or at least unhappy mother - but slowly she becomes a idealistic mother and the film becomes more about class.

Still I think it is worth watching, just for Barbara Stanwyck's performance. Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce gives a very dark and nasty spin to the same sentimental mother-daughter story. King Vidor seems to have quite some reputation among cinephiles and classic buffs but my experience with him has been pretty bad so far. I had earlier seen Duel in the Sun which was hilarious, in a totally unintended way.

Coming back to melodrama, I actually agree with Haskell. There is definitely a tendency in male critics and viewers to dismiss anything which is emotionally overwrought and "hysterical" (itself a category full of prejudice and bias). Letter from an Unknown Woman was a sublime but still it was a "weepie" and in fact now that I am thinking about it, I had to actually defend and justify it to myself against sentimentality and the ridiculousness of its plot. (After all, The out-of-wedlock pregnancy might seem a ridiculous cliche to a male audience but it does resonate deeply with women.) Fassbinder made some pretty good weepies (most of them reworking of Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk and Michael Curtiz). My favourite of all his films is The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Another great recent melodrama and a personal favourite is Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven.

service to the species & personal enjoyment

I know, nobody has anything nice to say about male sexual desire but still, reading it depressed me (and made me laugh!). From The Second Sex:

"The situation under consideration is profoundly different - biologically, socially and psychologically - for man and woman. For a man, the transition from childish sexuality to maturity is relatively simple: erotic pleasure is objectified, desire being directed toward another person instead of being realized within the bounds of self. Erection is the expression of this need; with penis, hands, mouth, with his whole body, a man reaches out toward his partner, but he himself remains at the center of this activity, being, on the whole, the subject as opposed to the objects that he perceives and instruments that he manipulates; he projects himself toward the other without losing his independence; the feminine flesh is for him a prey, and through it he gains access to the qualities he desires, as with any object. To be sure, he does not succeed in taking actual possession of them for himself, but at least he embraces them. The caress, the kiss, imply a partial check; but this check itself is a stimulant and a pleasure. The act of love is completed in the orgasm, its natural outcome. Coition has a definite physiological end and aim; in ejaculation the male rids himself if certain discomforting secretions, he obtains a complete relief, following upon sex excitement, which is unfailingly accompanied with pleasure. In any case, a definite act has been consummated, and the man's body retains its integrity: his service to the species is combined with his personal enjoyment."

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Letter from an Unknown Woman

Max Ophuls' 1948 classic Letter from an Unknown Woman should be the last stop for all connoisseurs of doomed love and extreme fatalism. Actually the film remains exquisite even for those people who are, like me (on bad days at least), suspicious of all the sentimentality that goes with the standard formula. It is actually very hard to write about the film without making it sound ridiculous. There is something very mysterious and magical about it. It is more like a film-version of a piece of music, or actually, an opera.

The film is based on a short story of the same name by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. The whole story is available on the internet though the translation looks questionable. Zweig's novel Beware of Pity is still lying unread on my reading pile. Actually the story lacks the magic of the film. First at the heart of the story is the "unknown woman" herself who is made alive by a terrific Joan Fontaine who is at her best doing her shy and tremulous young girl act. (She played similar roles in two Hitchcock classics too - Rebecca and Suspicion.) And second, and more important, is the brilliant way the film uses music - both diegetic and extra-diegetic - as expected for a story set in Vienna. The music provides the emotional resonance and gives it an "aura" which the story on its own doesn't have. In particular the central theme which uses a composition of Liszt - it's been haunting me ever since I heard it in the film.

I wanted to write some serious things about romanticism, masochism, fatalism and why the film left such a bitter aftertaste in me. But really I don't know what to say...

It seems someone has put the entire movie on youtube. Not the best way to watch it but the first part here.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


I can't tell you what happens at the end of "Inside", the new spectacularly gory horror film from France, because I didn't really see it, at least not all of it. I had my eyes closed and was looking at the ceiling thinking why am I really watching it. I am not specially fond of this genre of "visceral horror" but this one came recommended from "serious" people - it was one of the selections of the "film comment selects" film festival in new york in February early this year. It is definitely an accomplished work, at least if you are sympathetic to the filmmaker's intentions and the film's raison d'etre. It is certainly in a different league than other films like Hostel or Saw or other horror films targeted towards the male adolescent audience - the "if you can't take that you are a pussy" crowd. I have seen only the first in both series, to my extreme irritation and annoyance in both cases.

Anyway, coming back to Inside, the story is set on one Christmas eve in a Parisian suburb. Sarah is still mourning the death of her husband in a car accident four months ago. She is also heavily pregnant with his baby. In fact in the beginning we see her doctor telling her that he will induce the labour next day if everything is normal and asking her to enjoy the "last night of peace". But. It is still early in the night and a mysterious woman (billed on the credits simply as "La Femme" and played by Beatrice Dalle who specialises in the playing all out nutcases) breaks into her house. We soon learn that what she wants is Sarah's baby! She doesn't explain why and I was thinking she was just a nutcase psycho (probably lesbian) driven mad by the overpowering maternal instinct. There is a sort-of revelation in the end which actually makes it more prosaic. Anyway, the main problem is that she hasn't come with any surgical instruments to do the necessary caesarian. She just has that shiny kitchen Scissors and other household items like darning needles and stuff! Sarah has to run not for her baby but for her life. In a weird twist the film makers intercut these cat and mouse scenes between the two women with scenes from the perspective of the baby! A bunch of unfortunate side characters also wind up at Sarah's house giving an excuse for the film makers to show the kind of bloodbath and all out massacre that really pushes the limits.

The main line of defence that the fans of genre have is the Aristotelian one - that is, the films help in catharsis of our subconscious fears - fears of bodily pain and mortality and the fact that our bodies which are vessels of all our hopes, desires, memories, thoughts, feelings, in short our identities and who we are - can be so fragile. Just a small kitchen knife is enough to finish the whole life story! I do think that these are very important questions. Asking and thinking about these is what makes us aware of what it means to be a human. Now not all horror films have this awareness of mortality and death either and those that do, I really love them. It is also not necessary that these themes can be explored only in the context of a horror genre but yes, among the populist genre only horror has the capability of going into these directions.

On the basis of this criteria Inside succeeds only to a limited extent mainly because the film's plot had so many major holes and not all of them related to gynaecological matters. The film makers seemed to be more interested in the colour, texture, viscosity and dynamics (as they spurt) of various bodily fluids. I think it's a shame because it wastes such a wonderful opportunity, not just in making those abstract fears that I talked of earlier "real" but also making some interesting commentary on the representation of pregnant female body on screen. Although it did make me think about some of these issues, but may be that was only me. There is a different sort of "male gaze" at play here. Normally the female body is seen as a site of desire and from that perspective pregnancy becomes something "grotesque" and disruptive. It is like "ewwww" (the film has one nice vomiting scene too) mixed with fears and concerns for her - what will happen if she just slips or trips over, for example? Feminists argue, and very rightly so, that the various secretions and biological processes (including pregancy) of female body have been pathologised by the patriarchy which gives it one excuse to turn women into "other". I don't want to argue too much on film's behalf and may be it was just me reading Simone de Beauvoir but it did make me think about these taboos surrounding the representation of pregnancies on screen. Having said that, it is certainly NOT recommended for pregnant women or even those women who plan to be pregnent in near future.

Some nice comments from village voice ("Say hello to the motherfucking anti-Juno")and house next door (scroll down for both reviews).

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Prairie Home Companion

May be it is what Edward Said called "late style." Robert Altman's last film is completely devoid of the casual cynicism and misanthropy that is characteristic of much of his work. Instead what we get is a warmhearted and generous elegy, a self-evidently valedictory statement (He died not long after it was made). It is easy to see Altman himself contemplating the Last Things as he made the film. What is remarkable is that there is not even a hint of bitterness or even a regret. There is absolutely no sentimentality or narcissistic self-boasting either. "I don't do eulogies," as the master of the ceremonies himself says. Also as another of the character says in the film when one old man, his colleague in the radio show, dies suddenly, "an old man's death is not a tragedy."

At another level it is also about another death - the death of local culture and community with these a mode of life which was based on shared beliefs, values and traditions which the titular community radio show stood for. In our world when everything is contingent on financial realities, shows like these have no reason to exist. In fact the only villain in the film is the businessman from Texas (called "the axeman") who has bought the theatre to convert it into a parking lot. Even for him there is no anger or bitterness though the film does make us expect his demise with anticipatory glee. Death itself is made alluring by embodying it in a figure of a traditional femme fatale in a white trench coat who stalks the backstage of the radio show looking for "victims."

Like in all Altman's films it is impossible to decide who is better than the other. It is as if all actors were part of some ecosystem, each nourishing the other. Even smaller roles get amplified the way Altman shoots the scenes. It is not hard to see why actors loved him so much. It is not an easy way to shoot, all those overlapping dialogues or spontaneous monologues, but with Altman it is as if he had shot it while sleepwalking on the set. It is also full of wonderful folk songs. In fact I had postponed watching it since I thought it was a backstage musical which would bore me but the songs with their own brand of folk wisdom and dry humour were all magnificent. One doesn't even need to be part of that culture (I am certainly very far from there).. there is something very universal in those songs which moved me and also made me smile. This is really a wonderful film. A fitting swansong for a great master artist.

Reader and the Author: Michael Wood on Nabokov

"The author cannot do without the reader, but the reverse is also true - however shadowy and marginal the author's role may seem to have become. When Barthes says it 'will always be impossible', to know who speaks in a Balzac text, he means impossible to know in old-fashioned metaphysical sense: to know for sure and in only one way. On a more modest view, it is possible to name quite precisely the voices we hear in a Balzac text, and Barthes himself, in S/Z, 1970, spends a lot of time doing just that. There is no reason why these voices in their sheer plurality should not be 'Balzac'; indeed it is hard to see how they could not be. We can have as many Balzacs as we like; what we cannot really want is the entire absence of any sort of Balzac, and Barthes, in spite of his polemical flourishes, is not asking us to want it. If there is no imputable direction to a text, no chance of an encounter with a mind other than ours, we cannot read, we can only make private mental doodles on the script in front of us. Even when we assume a mind in the text, we can of course read wrongly; we can get lost. But if there is no imaginable mind in question, no set of needs or specified context, we can't even read wrongly. Or: we might be able to read in a very modest, functional sense, to unscramble a basic meaning, but not be able to act on it or take the meaning any further."

- Michael Wood, The Magician's Doubts


Nabokov, like Flaubert before him, was very aware of ideas of authorship in a work of literature. Flaubert famously held that, "the author in his work must be like God in the universe: present everywhere, and visible nowhere," and Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, as Wood reminds in the book, mockingly takes it further saying, "the artist must be within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails." Wood later observes that these writers and thinkers (not just Flaubert and Joyce but also Eliot, Barthes and Derrida) are "talking strategy, considering ways of seeming to be absent, but only seeming." This form of suppression of the personality "is an ethic for writers, not a description of writing." And the absence that Flaubert and the rest are speaking of is not really absence, either: "To write is not to be absent but to become absent; to be someone and then go away, leaving traces." In other, simpler, words writing not as self-expression but as self-creation. It is not surprising that for his autobiography Nabokov (initially for the first edition) chose the title "Conclusive Evidence" i.e. conclusive evidence of having existed. It is like only in writing the author of the text can come into being, even when the text in question is his autobiography (One of the reasons actually that makes it a great work of art).

Rather disappointingly Wood doesn't discuss these ideas in his chapter on Pale Fire which to me, among other things, is like a case study, a problem statement for testing out these theories of authorship and of writing and reading. May be its because it has already been done to death by so many critics and scholars. He is actually quite good, if a bit conventional, in his elucidation of the various complexities and mysteries of the book. Pale Fire reminds that Eliot's ethic for poets (about escaping from their personality) is equally applicable to readers as well. A self-obsessed narcissistic reader appropriates the text and meaning for his own selfish purposes, which is not much different from stealing. In the novel of course Kinbote literally runs away with the manuscript of the poem! It is Nabokov's skill and artistry that he turns him into a pitiable figure at the same time heaping mockery and scorn for his self-delusions.

Seven Notes in Black

Seven Notes in Black aka Sette note in nero is a wonderful mystery-horror directed by Italian horror specialist Lucio Fulci. Unlike regular films of the genre it is remarkably subdued when it comes to gratuitous violence. A clairvoyant woman, inspired by hallucinatory visions, smashes open a section of wall in her husband's home which she has agreed to renovate and finds a skeleton behind it. As the story progresses all the pieces of the puzzle regarding what her visions might mean start to fit together ending in a really shocking climax... must see for mystery & horror fans.

The movie is available on youtube. Not the ideal way to watch the film but it is actually quite obscure so finding a DVD might be difficult. Part one here and rest are here.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Bette Davis

It was 100th Birth anniversary of Bette Davis last week. New York Times published a fine appreciation of her career and work:

Bette Davis, God knows, could supply some personality. Versatile though she was, she was never an empty-vessel sort of actor like Daniel Day-Lewis. Part of the strange thrill of watching her perform is the tension you feel between the demands of the role and the demands of her outsize self, constantly threatening to breach the boundaries of the character.

In her bad movies, and there are many, you can always sense her impatience with the material she’s been given. She’ll start working her huge eyes a little more, bulging them out for emphasis or hooding them like a snake about to strike. Or she’ll pace restlessly, her clicking heels punctuating every clipped, spit-out line. Or she’ll do something tricky with her (ever-present) cigarette, holding it in an unusual way or stubbing it out abruptly or amusing herself by varying the rhythm of her exhalations. She’s like a kid with too much energy; when she’s bored, she fidgets and colors outside the lines.

It is true for many other Hollywood stars of that period too. Most of them brought their own personality, with their own tics, mannerisms, style and personal experiences, to the roles they played and this is what I think makes them joint-auteurs of the films they made.

That said, I must admit that I don't like her. (My feelings for her arch-rival Joan Crawford are also similar.) In fact my feelings were more extreme but I have been questioning and thinking about these things recently. First, the kind of roles she played - mostly of "screaming, hysterical harpies" as one of the characters says about her in All About Eve - and she played them as if they were extensions of her own personality, are so remote from my own personal temperament, which is cold, aloof, discreet and orderly (at least on the outside) that I generally found it difficult to appreciate the skill and craft that went into her portrayals without being judgmental. There was also, I think, a subconscious gender-bias in my judgment - if a woman's emotional outbursts makes you uncomfortable, label her "hysterical." What made Davis different is that she had no qualms about being perceived as unlikable or difficult. As she says in All About Eve, "Peace and quiet is for the libraries" - she will scream and raise hell and if you don't like her that's your problem.

It is also not just that she played a lot of "bad girl" roles. She is very different from other standard "bad girls" of film noir which makes men (me included) drool - like Rita Hayworth, Jane Greer, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and others (Barbara Stanwyck, my personal favourite "good girl" and "bad girl", doesn't belong there. She is in a different league but more on that later). They are bad but not "messy" and worse, they are not "real" at all. They are mostly creations of male subjectivity with its own mixture of sexual desire, paranoia and fear. A very good example is William Wyler's 1940 classic The Letter which can be technically called a film noir but its Bette Davis' femme fatale is so very different from the standard prototype and not just because she plays the lead role and is at the centre of the story but because she is "real". We don't see her through the eyes of men around her, we see her as she is. It is really a wonderful film with an uncharacteristically subtle performance from her. It is certainly one of her best alongwith All About Eve. That said, I still have to see a lot of her films.

An excellent essay on The Letter by self-styled siren here.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Journey to the End of the Night

I had wanted to read Journey to the End of the Night for a long time but I was very disappointed by it. In fact I had to struggle to finish it. It is true to its bleak and misanthropic reputation but it is also tedious and even sentimental in its own curious way or at least that's how it felt to me. I guess this whole "negation of the negation" business doesn't cut with me anymore. War is bad, Imperialism is bad, Capitalism is bad, socialism is no good either and worst of all in the end it is all pain, suffering and death - basically it all sucks real bad! Yawn!! Actually the scattershot misanthropy of the book is very interesting to read but it is punctuated by long stretches of dialogues and banal descriptions of banal goings on. Frankly Michel Houellebecq does it much better. And I am not even going to the *real* literature of misanthropy - Swift, Dostoevsky, Beckett, Bernhard

I would have rather preferred a book of aphorisms edited out from this book. As Will Self in this New York Times essay says, much of it reads like "La Rochefoucauld on LSD."

One extract from the book:

"I'd pretty well come to the point, the age, you might say, when a man knows what he's losing with every hour that passes. But he hasn't yet built up the wisdom to pull up sharp on the road of time, and anyway, even if you did stop you wouldn't know what to do without the frenzy for going forward that has possessed you and won your admiration ever since you were young. Even now you're not as pleased with your youth as you used to be, but you don't dare admit in public that youth may be nothing more than a hurry to grow old.

In the whole of your absurd past you discover so much that's absurd, so much deceit and credulity, that it might be a good idea to stop being young this minute, to wait for youth to break away from you and pass you by, to watch it going away, receding in the distance, to see all its vanity, run your hand through the empty space it has left behind, take a last look at it, and then start moving, make sure your youth has really gone, and then calmly, all by yourself, cross to the other side of Time to see what people and things really look like."

Some enthusiasm for his other books here

and I love this song:

Alberto Moravia Enthusiasm

Long-ish essay on the great Italian novelist Alberto Moravia (link via bookforum)

It was against this widespread alienation or male di vivere (evil of living) that poet and Nobel Prize winner Eugenio Montale (1896–1981) had also asserted himself, through negativity, as a force of resistance. The humanism of Montale was found in his responses to contingencies that paradoxically arose to illuminate his life and relationships. Moravia too sets out from a radical negativity, but in the domain of prose. This much he has in common with Montale: a stoical and metaphysical curiosity about the nature of existence and the dark conviction that, while only love can repair the brokenness of the world, in actuality this love is more often negated than fulfilled.

Moravia's novel Contempt is a huge personal favourite. I had written about it and his other novella Conjugal Love here and here.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

More Literary Gossip

It seems there is no in-house policy for reviewing biographies at the Literary Review. They were very generous with Naipaul but no so with Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre:

The title, with its reference to Laclos's notorious eighteenth-century study of pimping in high society, tells it all. Sartre, for all his libertarianism, was sexually a cold fish, preferring the initiation of virgins or other exotic conquests to sex with a familiar equal. Beauvoir of course knew this, and developed a lifelong fear that their much-trumpeted union would not survive. Her solution was to provide him with girlfriends whom she could control. Several of them were young lycée pupils of hers, and on more than one occasion there were formal complaints from parents that Mlle de Beauvoir was a sinister influence and probably a lesbian. Of the half-dozen women annexed to 'the family' in this way, one later committed suicide, two became drug-addicts, and another was so permanently traumatised by betrayal and abandonment that Beauvoir, for once, felt pangs of guilt.

It also brings me to another question. Do same sophisticated theories of authorship apply to philosophers as well? Even those who concern themselves with ethics? (Kierkegaard will probably nod YES.)

Monday, April 07, 2008

Nietzsche on Marriage

Nietzsche quoted in Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex: (Yeah I know, not really true for most marriages now but I really liked that last line about "confusion of soul")

To be hurtled by marriage as by a frightful stroke of lightning into reality and knowledge, to discover love and shame in contradiction, to have to feel in regard to a single object ravishment, sacrifice, duty, pity, and terror, because of the unexpected propinquity of God and the beast - here is created a confusion of soul which seeks in vain its equal.

The Second Sex is another mind expanding book I have been reading these days. It is actually less a book and more an encyclopedia. She has, it seems, read everything that is there to be read on the subject - literature, psychology, anthropology, psychoanalysis, history, economics, biology, sociology, sex manuals and of course philosophy too. She is really very harsh on housewives and women with overpowering maternal instincts. She thinks there is absolutely no "transcendence" to be had in housework or bringing up a baby. Actually I was a little depressed after reading her arguments. I have a regular job but there is absolutely nothing "transcendental" about it either. Just like housework it goes entirely in the maintenance of status-quo on top of that I allow myself to be treated as a fungible "resource", albeit a human resource. It is actually a running theme in her book that men have the freedom to fashion their selves by their actions in the world while women are condemned forever to live in "immanence" (at least that's how I understood these terms). I am not denying that men on the whole are in a comparatively better position but this problem of living in unfreedom i.e. being stuck in an identity is gender agnostic and universal.

Four Nabokovs

An extract from The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction by Michael Wood. Even more interesting in the context of all the recent commentary and moral outrage about V.S. Naipaul's biography: (An excellent book by the way. Serious and challenging but entirely free of the clique-ish mentality which mars most academic books. Thanks to Steve for nudging me to pick it up. I have only read the first chapter so far called "The Deaths of the Author". More when I am done with it.)


What does it mean to separate, for whatever reason, the person and the writer, or as Eliot lugubriously puts it, "the man who suffers and the mind which creates"? Who is Nabokov, and how many Nabokovs do we need? [...] I also think we have to be prepared for the ghosts, for the unruliness of the mystery. No lively self will stay buried merely for our critical or conceptual comfort, and there will be times when even the most divided or hypothetical of writers will look undeniably solid and whole.
So how many Nabokovs? Four or five, perhaps, but that's being economical. The man in several persons, and the writer perhaps even more...

1) the historical person whose life has been impeccably told by his biographer Brian Boyd, and whom I glance at occasionally here, but who is not my principal subject.

2) a set (also historical) of attitudes, prejudices, habits, remarks, performances which is highly visible, highly stylized, and which I find dull and narrow, and having almost nothing to do with the writing I admire: Nabokov the mandarin.

3)a (real) person I guess at but who keeps himself pretty well hidden: he is not only tender and observant but also diffident, even scared worried about almost everything the mandarin so airily dismisses. I would think this person was a sentimental invention of my own if Nabokov's texts were not demonstrably so full of him, and if I had any reason to invent him. Given the choice I would prefer another Nabokov in his place - someone less predictably the obverse of the haughty public presence. This diffident, doubting person is the one I think of most often as the author in Barthes' later sense: the textual revenant rather than the face on the dustjacket..

4) identifiable habits of writing and narrating: mannered, intricate, alliterative, allusive, perverse, hilarious, lyrical, sombre, nostalgic, kindly, frivolous, passionate, cruel, cold, stupid, magical, precise, philosophical and unforgettable. Particular clusters of these characteristics are what we identify as Nabokov the author in Swift's sense: the performance on the sheets of paper.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Nabokov Interview

Nabokov and Lionel Trilling discuss Lolita and other assorted stuff in this TV interview - in two parts here and here.

Some of his interviews collected in the very entertaining Strong Opinions are also available online. You have scroll down to the text in English.

George Steiner Interview

A fantastic interview of George Steiner, who surprisingly not only seems quite upbeat but is also very accessible in what he says. Very different to the image of a mandarin given to gloomy pronouncements about the modern world that I had in my mind after reading a few bits and pieces from here and there. Though the part where he lists his lecture topics made me laugh a little.

There is part one on the same site too in which he talks about his personal life. Link via comment on This Space.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Somebody likes V. S. Naipaul

For a change Literary Review has some very nice things to say about the Naipaul biography:

This is an excellent biography which does nothing to diminish one's respect for Sir Vidia and leaves one liking him much more than I had expected - a judgement he might himself dismiss as impertinent.

They have his picture on the mast of the website too. I don't know who the third guy is. Any ideas?

Misanthropic Quote of the Day

"When you stop to examine the way in which our words are formed and uttered, our sentences are hard-put to it to survive the disaster of their slobbery origins. The mechanical effort of conversation is nastier and more complicated than defecation. That corolla of bloated flesh, the mouth, which screws itself up to whistle, which sucks in breath, contorts itself, discharges all manner of viscous sounds across a fetid barrier of decaying teeth—how revolting! Yet that is what we are adjured to sublimate into an ideal. It’s not easy. Since we are nothing but packages of tepid, half-rotted viscera, we shall always have trouble with sentiment. Being in love is nothing, its sticking together that’s difficult. Feces on the other hand make no attempt to endure or grow. On this score we are far more unfortunate than shit; our frenzy to persist in out present state—that’s the unconscionable torture.

Unquestionably we worship nothing more divine than our smell. All our misery comes from wanting at all costs to go on being Tom, Dick, or Harry, year in year out. This body of ours, this disguise put on by common jumping molecules, is in constant revolt against the abominable farce of having to endure. Our molecules, the dears, want o get lost in the universe as fast as they can! It makes them miserable to be nothing but “us,” the jerks of infinity. We’d burst if we had the courage, day after day we come very close to it. The atomic torture we love so is locked up inside us by our pride.”

- Celine, Journey to the End of the Night

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Southland Tales

Richard Kelly's follow-up to his sensational debut Donnie Darko is even more logic resistant than its predecessor. When it premiered at the Cannes film festival last year it was widely ridiculed and booed by critics and audiences. After reading a few reports and reviews it appeared to be the kind of film I would like but now that I have seen it I was a little disappointed by it. But only a little. Parts of it are excellent and very funny satire of contemporary American culture and politics and even though these parts never cohere to become one whole, which is actually part of the plan since the idea is to convey the essential chaos and fragmented and non-teleological nature of contemporary reality, which is absolutely fine, the film is still fitfully insightful about lots of things.

What happens in the film is very difficult to describe. The plot involves a porn actress with visionary pretensions named "Krysta Now" played by Sarah Michelle Gellar who also aspires to become an entrepreneur and a singer. The "Now" in her last name captures the philosophy of instant gratification which is the basic idea underlying pornography, and of course our entertainment industry in general. She also hosts a talk show and discusses violence, politics and argues why "teen Horniness is not a crime" (it is part of the song she sings.) Then there is an amnesiac action hero played "The Rock" who goes around looking blank-faced and at the same time mimicking Arnold Schwarzenegger. There are actually quite a few characters in the film who are suffering from amnesia which is obviously intended to be some kind of cultural commentary. Other characters include an Iraq veteran who keeps reading from the book of revelation about the apocalypse on the voiceover throughout the film and the republican candidates Eliot and Frost (yes, the great poets) who are being blackmailed by a bunch of self-styled terrorists who call themselves "Neo-Marxists". They want a ban on the Big Brother-style company USIDent which keeps an eye on all the citizens over the internet which is being run by a matriarch straight out of The Manchurian Candidate. And yes before all of this, there was a Nuclear attack on America and America is at war with Iraq, Iran, Syria, North Korea and a bunch of other countries.

People who didn't like Donnie Darko will have an even tougher time with this one. The same super-smart kiddie-sensibility is at work here too. Only this time it is not the time travel but contemporary American culture and politics. Still there is lot of stuff about "quantum entanglements" and "space time rift" and in general apocalypse for dummies in this film too. What made Donnie Darko so memorable for me was the main character played with such depth, intelligence and vulnerability by Jake Gyllenhal. There are no such characters in this film. In fact the whole notion of a "character" is out of place within the context of this film. Amnesia is not just a random device in the plot - it is what defines these people. Most actors seem to be aware of their celebrity and pop culture personae and act accordingly, either in line with their image or in contrast to that image.

Image is then what all these people are. The film seems to capture this postmodern sense of reality very well. There is nothing like a foundational reality. It has been completely taken over by manufactured images. Images don't "represent" anything "real", they just refer to other images. Our networked world is nothing but a giant mesh of intertextuality. People who are familiar with the postmdodern theories of media (McLuhan, Baudrillad ) will have more interesting things to say about this film. Kelly is aware of the dark social and political implications of this nihilistic philosophy but doesn't seem to able to put his fingers on the nerve. There is no consistent thread of anger which could bind these disparate threads together as a result his satirical attacks come out as scattershot and blunted as a result. In fact this film reminded me a lot of The Manchurian Candidate which is similarly over the top and bizarre but which has a heart in the centre too, and a sincere anger at the state of the things. There are lot of other references to classic movies too - like the apocalyptic noir classic Kiss Me Deadly by Robert Aldrich and even Mulholland Dr. There is similar "I had a dream last night" scene in the diner in this too. And another in which "Rebekah Del Rio" performs star spangled banner. I also don't think the humour of the film will travel easily. I myself had a lot of problems since I couldn't figure out so many references to contemporary pop culture. On the other hand the scene where a man asks his girlfriend in a deadpan manner, "Do you want to fuck or watch a movie" had me in splits. I can't say about other people.

There is a fantastic essay on the film by Steven Shaviro which goes in depth and discusses its "post-cinematic" form and other postmodernist ideas in the context of this film. Long and slightly highfalutin but worth reading. There is also a very helpful plot summary and a FAQ about the film on Salon.