Saturday, May 31, 2008

More Zygmunt Bauman

After being completely floored by Bauman's Modernity and the Holocaust, I have been trying to find some of his other works but so far haven't been able to. I specially want to read his book "Liquid Modernity". In the meanwhile I found this short book (actually an essay) by him titled Alone Again: Ethics After Certainty. Most of his ideas aren't particularly new or original, specially to those who are already familiar with writings of, say, Max Weber, Kafka or Hannah Arendt - ideas like the dangers of instrumental and procedural rationality, destruction of identity in rationalized societies, morality as rule following - but still, reading him made me think of all these things in a new way, specially in the way he argues that these have become even more relevant in our times, in fact things have become far worse. His pessimism for the future actually verges on apocalyptic.

There was also a review of a biography of Theodor Adorno, another guru of gloom and despair and a precursor of Bauman, in the latest bookforum. Earlier, Adam Kirsch also wrote a nice review of the same book in new york sun. Bauman is much easier to read, may be it has something to do with his not being German.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Essay on Jelinek

The latest issue of LRB has an excellent essay on Elfriede Jelinek (pretty rare because she generally attracts lot of venom) which also takes a critical look at the recent speculations about Austrian national character in the the light of the cellar incident, most recently in the TLS. She has it seems also written an essay on the subject or may be she just recycled something she had already written in one of her books.

There is also a damning comment about the quality of translation:

Jelinek herself took years to translate Gravity’s Rainbow and it would take a comparable labour of love to translate Gier adequately. As it is, doubtless under tight economic constraints, the publishers have paid for a hit-and-miss, standard, ‘by the page’ translation and the result is a disaster. It’s hard to imagine that Jelinek’s reputation in the English-speaking world will ever recover. It would have been better to have left the novel untranslated.

Reviewers of Greed have met it at best with polite puzzlement, at worst with disdain. Philip Hensher said it was ‘atrocious’. And he was right – Greed is unreadable. But it is not the same book as Gier. What has also been atrocious has been the failure of anyone reviewing it to go back and read the German. One of the favourite ways hostile reviewers have of belittling Jelinek is to call her parochial. But the real parochialism is ours.

Also, I found this intriguing:

While Jelinek has won just about every prize that is open to a writer writing in German, her reception by the defenders of the rights of the ordinary reader has often been venomously negative

Rights of the ordinary reader? I wonder what they are! Is it the right to be entertained?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Stakhanovite zeal or Bartleby despair?

I was reading this review of Laurent Cantet's Time Out by Dennis Lim and found this interesting comment:

You are what you do. The phrase can evoke either Stakhanovite zeal or Bartleby despair.

I, of course, like a lot of other people fall in the later category. (I hope my employers don't read this blog!!) These attitudes have also become far more subtle in our corporatised contemporary culture than what they were in Soviet Union or in Herman Melville's time.

Anyway, the context being that Laurent Cantet's latest film The Class ("Entre Les Murs") won the Golden Palm at this years Cannes film festival. I have seen two of his earlier films and really liked both of them, specially his debut Human Resources. A young business graduate who has specialised in "human resources" comes to work as an intern in a factory - the same factory where his father has worked in his blue-collar job with Stakhanovite zeal all his life - and finds himself involved in the bitter struggle between labour and the management. The film ends with him becoming more aware of his class consciousness and is able to see the real human side of the "case studies" he learnt in his business studies. It is really an amazing and extremely powerful film. It will be a perfect double bill with Fassbinder's Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven, another one of my favourite films which deals with the same subject. Kean Loach's recent Bread and Roses was quite good too. (This reminds me - I need to find a to-see list of films dealing with the subject of working class and labour union dramas.)

His Time Out is pretty excellent too though its diagnosis felt a little incomplete and hesitant to me as compared to Human Resources. It is nevertheless a chilling account of a senior executive in a financial company who was laid off from his job but who invents a fictional job for himself as a consultant for some fancy United Nations firm in Geneva advising on the "emerging markets" in Africa. The whole film is about how he invents one lie after another just to keep up with the appearances till it "times out". It masterfully captures the idea of how inextricably our jobs have become linked with our identities and what it means as we enter into a world which is becoming more and more unstable and precarious financially.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The New David Fincher Film!

The Trailer of David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (in Spanish!). Here is the link to the original story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I have not read it yet, just bookmarking it here. By the way, anybody knows which music is this? It sounds familiar but can't remember where I heard it before.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Spirit of the Beehive & Maurice Maeterlinck

Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive is one of the most beautiful films ever made and as I have mentioned many times here, a huge personal favourite of mine. It is also mystifying and elusive to the extreme. One of the main sources of puzzlement is the mysterious title itself, though it is not that hard to make sense of what it means after you have seen it. Only recently however, I came to know that it makes a reference to a monograph written by French-Belgian nobel laureate Maurice Maeterlinck titled The Life of Bee, which is available on the internet. (It also makes sense because the film makes such clever and potent uses of intertextuality, most obviously to James Whale's classic Frankenstein.) Though written in a nice language, it is not really anything special. The life of all social insects provide a ready-made metaphor for human life itself - specially the aspect that individuals act only on the basis of local and immediate needs and motives without knowing the global outcome of their specialised actions. It is as if they are guided by "the spirit of the beehive" which is nothing but the mysterious life-force, the basic driver of all things.

The wikipedia article on Maeterlinck also has this interesting nugget:

Samuel Goldwyn asked him to produce a few scenarios for film. Only two of Maeterlinck's submissions still exist; Goldwyn didn't use any of his submissions. Maeterlinck had prepared one based on his The Life of a Bee. After reading the first few pages Goldwyn burst out of his office, exclaiming: "My God! The hero is a bee!"

Arthur Schnitzler Enthusiasm

There is an exhibit on for view in London of fin-de-siecle Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler's manuscripts. There is a brief article in The Independent and also a press release. Links via complete review.

I had wanted to write in detail about his story Traumnovelle ("Dream Story") and why I dislike Eyes Wide Shut, its film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick but never got around to doing it. One of these days when I get a chance to see it again I will do that. One of his plays La Ronde was made into a film by Max Ophuls too, which I haven't seen. Schnitzler is quite undeservedly obscure - Fraulein Else and Lieutenant Gustl are both amazing pieces of work. Both are early examples of stories written in the style of an unbroken interior monologue. In the first a young girl has a nervous breakdown when she is asked by her parents to please an old man which will save her family from financial ruin. In the other a young lieutenant in the Austrian army grapples with suicidal thoughts after a "dishonourable" incident. Both are quite short but dark and powerful.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

David Lean: Summertime

David Lean's 1955 film Summertime is a quaint piece of work. Much of it is also sentimental, cliched and full of Touristic aesthetic which mars much of his later work. Okay, that last comment might be a little unfair because the central character played Katharine Hepburn is actually an American tourist visiting that most typical of all tourist destinations - Venice. But still, quite a few times David Lean's camera seems more interested in capturing the cliched surface beauties of Venice rather than exploring the moods and inner feelings of the characters. In the few scenes that he does this, like the scene pictured at the top where she sits alone in the Palazzo while everybody else in the crowd seems to have some companion, are absolutely masterly and are extremely evocative.

Of course most of the credit goes to Katharine Hepburn who is (as always) in her elements playing the kind of she has played so many times in her career. No matter how many times you have see it, it is still magical to see how she portrays the process of falling in love, with all its awkwardness, petty humiliations and beauty and sorrow. It is because of her performance that the thin and stereotypical nature of the plot doesn't really matter. (After all we hardly need another film to tell us how sexy and romantic these Italians are and how hopelessly dull and repressed rest of us!) I love David Lean's early films a lot specially Brief Encounter, which must be somewhere at the top of my favourite romantic films of all time. This isn't in the same league but close enough.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Austrian Literature & Patriarchal Monsters

An interesting and informative essay about Austrian Literature in light of the recent Fritzl case in the TLS. As regular readers of the blog know I love Austrian literature very much but really they give me the creeps too! Ritchie Robertson says:

Fritzl existed in literature before he existed in life. We should attend more carefully to those critical writers – Nestroy, Anzengruber, Nabl, the Canettis, and numerous others – who are too readily dismissed as caricaturists. Their monstrous and grotesque characters, from Gundlhuber to Benedikt Pfaff, actually turn out to embody some of the twisted energies at work in Austrian society.

Surprisingly he doesn't talk about more famous examples in the essay. For example Moosbrugger, the serial killer of prostitutes in The Man Without Qualities or the novels of Ingeborg Bachmann, Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek. It is horrifying even to suggest that the plot, characters and settings of these novels may not all be rhetorical artifices. In Ingeborg Bachmann's Malina for example the narrator dreams of being tortured by her father in a Nazi death-chamber. Elfriede Jelinek's Lust is nothing but 200 pages of rape and abuse.

The abuse of patriarchal authority seems to be one of the running themes in Austrian fiction. It is coupled together with a thoroughly morbid view of sexuality. The essay also talks about the in-famous case of Dora and Freudian psychoanalysis. This also reminds me of Arthur Schnitzler's brilliant novella Fraulein Else - another tale of patriarchal abuse.

The Decline of Gift Giving

A short extract from Minima Moralia by Theodor Adorno. (Very difficult to read and very depressing too but probably worth it. I was just skimming through it randomly. Makes a convincing case of what an impossible task it is to just remain human in this culture of buying and selling. I just wish it were easier to read, may be that is just a sign of resistance against commodification of language? Simple language == commodified language.)

"No exchanges allowed. – Human beings are forgetting how to give gifts. Violations of the exchange-principle have something mad and unbelievable about them; here and there even children size up the gift-giver mistrustfully, as if the gift were only a trick, to sell them a brush or soap. For that, one doles out charity [in English in original], administered well-being, which papers over the visible wounds of society in coordinated fashion. In its organized bustle, the human impulse no longer has any room, indeed even donations to the needy are necessarily connected with the humiliation of delivery, the correct measure, in short through the treatment of the recipient as an object. Even private gift-giving has degenerated into a social function, which one carries out with a reluctant will, with tight control over the pocketbook, a skeptical evaluation of the other and with the most minimal effort. Real gift-giving had its happiness in imagining the happiness of the receiver. It meant choosing, spending time, going out of one’s way, thinking of the other as a subject: the opposite of forgetfulness. Hardly anyone is still capable of this. In the best of cases, they give what they themselves would have wished for, only a few shades of nuance worse. The decline of gift-giving is mirrored in the embarrassing invention of gift articles, which are based on the fact that one no longer knows what one should give, because one no longer really wants to. These goods are as relationless as their purchasers. They were shelf warmers [Ladenhueter] from the first day. Likewise with the right to exchange the gift, which signifies to the receiver: here’s your stuff, do what you want with it, if you don’t like it, I don’t care, get something else if you want. In contrast to the embarrassment of the usual gifts, their pure fungibility still represents something which is more humane, because they at least permit the receiver to give themselves something, which is to be sure simultaneously in absolute contradiction to the gift."

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Joan & Olivia

There is a nice article in The Independent about the sibling rivalry between Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland, both in their nineties now.

I have become a huge fan of Joan Fontaine after watching Letter from an Unknown Woman. She is great in Rebecca and Suspicion too but Letter is in a totally different league. I am not that familiar with her elder sister. The only film of hers that I have seen is William Wyler's The Heiress which I didn't like that much. She is actually quite good in it, in fact she won her second Oscar for this role but the film itself is overly simplistic and even manipulative. I understand it is not fair to criticise a melodrama for being melodramatic, but unlike in a good melodrama the exaggerations, the emotionalism, arbitrary plot reversals etc are not used to challenge viewer's expectations but rather to reinforce pre-existing ideas. All the actors are quite good though, and the film is certainly worth watching. I need to read Henry James' novel Washington Square too, on which it is based.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

"Despite Spinoza"

A nice interview of "America's Brainiest couple". I was wondering about the dedication too... (Related to this, there is passage in the book which I found really funny. She writes about Spinoza's views on sexual jealousy, which are quite vividly described and then speculates whether it was because he himself experienced it sometime but then she says that since his philosophy is all about a priori principles and logical deduction he didn't need any experience!)

Rebecca, the dedication in your Spinoza book reads, "For Steve, despite Spinoza." Can you explain that?

GOLDSTEIN: Spinoza wasn't a great fan of romantic love. He didn't think that the life of reason had any place for romantic love. And Spinoza's methodology is strictly reductive. He tries to prove everything, starting with definitions and axioms. And he has this rigorous proof that romantic love will always end badly.

Does that mean he did not experience romantic love himself?

GOLDSTEIN: He didn't, as far as we know. There are some rumors about his landlady's daughter, who went to another young man when he gave her a pearl necklace. But no, Spinoza's view about love is all directed toward love of truth and God and nature. It's not directed toward another person. To love another person is to want desperately for them to reciprocate. And that's not something we have complete control over. Therefore, it's irrational. He argues that romantic love just increases your fragility and vulnerability and therefore you ought not to do it.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Betraying Spinoza

It is ironic that Spinoza should be selected as one of the subjects for a series of books on Jewish history and culture. The author of the book, Rebecca Goldstein who is a novelist and a philosophy professor, however is fully aware of the ironic nature of the whole project as is evident in the rather clever title of the book itself. In fact it is one the main themes of her book -- how to see Spinoza's thought in the context of Jewish history, even if it means betraying the very spirit of his philosophy.

To him the very idea of Jewish identity or the way Jews saw themselves as chosen people was nothing but superstition and so were the various arbitrary religious laws which formed the bedrock of Jewish community. For his views he was denounced as a heretic and excommunicated from the Jewish community. He didn't believe in any transcendent God either. God to him was nature itself and nature nothing but a sum total of laws, all following rules of logic and derived from a priori principles. As Goldstein puts it:

"It is logic itself, not its rules but its applications -- the vast and infinite system of logical entailments that are not merely abstract, as we usually conceive of them, but rather coated with the substance of being. Reality is ontologically enriched logic. It is a logic that is animated, alive with thought, infinitely aware of its own infinite space. And it is, simultaneously, a logic that is embodied, a logic which generates itself in space, resulting in a material world."

Even more awe-inspiring is his philosophy of ethics. The Ethics, which is generally considered his masterpiece and the most important work is written in the style of Euclid's geometry with mathematical proofs showing what constitutes an ethical behaviour and what doesn't. His vision of personal identity followed the same principles. He was critical of all passive and contingent identities forced upon human beings from outside. According to him, "all the accidents of one's existence, the circumstances into which one was born — including one's family and history, one's racial, religious, cultural, sexual, or national identity — appear as naught." Goldstein argues that this kind of impersonal worldview was an outcome of his reaction to the Jewish experience and particularly the sufferings and tragedies he was witness to as a Jew. He originally belonged to the Marrano Jewish community who had emigrated from the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) to escape the inquisition. It is again ironic, specially from the vantage point of the twentieth century, that Jews prospered under the Muslim rule in Spain and only when Christians regained the control over the peninsula the repression of Jews began. Goldstein obviously knows a great deal of history and much of this section of the book was overwhelming for me, specially because I knew very little of it beforehand.

In our contemporary intellectual culture which is so sceptical and dismissive of reason's claims of being objective and universal, Spinoza's vision of extreme rationalism comes off as breath of fresh air. Spinoza actually is admired by a lot of scientists, or at least the "theoretical" scientists since he believed only in deductive logic. He was Einstein's favourite philosopher for example. When asked if he believed in God, Einstein used to reply that he believed in Spinoza's God i.e. God immanent in the laws of nature. It is also true that in our culture there is too much emotionalism and too much subjectivity, the worst kind of sentimentality is passed off as authentic expressions of one's self. We really do need Spinoza's dose of impersonal asceticism.

Godstein's book is extremely well-written and very useful specially for newbies and beginners like me. I was initially sceptical because of the way she inserted her personal autobiography into the narrative. She basically talks about her Orthodox Jewish education and how her love for Spinoza started after her teacher warned her of arrogance of thought giving Spinoza as an example. It is as if a straight-forward book about Spinoza would be too boring for non-specialist readers and they need it peppered up with memoiristic or, worse, novelistic touches. A few of the later sections where she "imagines" Spinoza's private experience and thoughts are grating to read too. It will be particularly irritating to a true Spinozist, I don't think just the title can excuse it. She has actually written a few novels too so probably she just can't help it. Anyway, she writes very well and she is obviously extremely well-informed too. Overall it is an excellent work. A perfect introduction to a vital and important thinker. For more, her website has some reviews and interviews about the book here.

Sentimentality in Extreme Cinema

The new issue of Jump Cut has an excellent essay on sentimentality in extreme cinema. It discusses two of my favourite contemporary films - Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves and Takashi Miike's Audition.

Link to the complete issue here. Lots of interesting stuff there.

Steven Pinker on Human Dignity

There is a nice article by Steven Pinker in The New Republic about Bioethics and the idea of human dignity. I agree with him that the concept of human dignity is too vague and ultimately useless and also it is extremely worrying that woolly ideas derived from religion are being used by those who are in power to buttress their arguments against scientific research.

Unfortunately Pinker doesn't deal with more substantial criticisms against scientific research, specially in the areas of neurophysics and genetics, about how human autonomy and identity is being undermined by new findings or at least their crude interpretations. Human freedom, uniqueness of human identity (self), and the idea that human beings should be seen as ends in themselves and not as means to some end are all moral imperatives, above and beyond any scientific theory. Ultimately it all boils down the difference between what is and what should be. By venturing into a domain (of what should be) that doesn't belong to them, scientists create unnecessary confusion.

Ayn Rand 101

A hilarious introduction to Ayn Rand's "Philosophy" (basically outline of a course syllabus):

III: “Throw the Bawling Baby Off the Cliff”:

Joys of viewing man as a heroic being with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, where reason alone dictates values and actions and rational self-interest and happiness of the individual always comes first. Discuss.

-- Assignment: Dramatize in a one-act play involving a dying mother and her only son’s need to sell her apartment for money to finance his vacation in Cancun.

via bookforum

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Modernity and the Holocaust

I spent the last sunday reading Zygmunt Bauman's Modernity and the Holocaust. It is an extraordinary, brilliant (and very gloomy) sociological analysis of modern society, taking Holocaust as an extreme example of all its ugliness. Bauman is a Polish philosopher and sociologist who has lived and taught in England for a number of years. I guess, to professional sociologists and philosophers much of what he says will come across as familiar but to me it was a revelatory reading experience, not because his ideas were new but because I had never thought about these in such a systematic manner as he does in the book.

I knew about the arguments about how holocaust must be seen as a peculiarly "modern" phenomenon and not as a temporary outbreak of insanity on a mass scale or an unfortunate recidivism to ancient bestialities present in human nature but I had always been uncomfortable the way rationality and enlightenment was brought into the debate. Reading Bauman's discussion of rationality really disabused me of a lot of falsely-comforting notions I had and really changed the way I looked at the whole thing. I can't summarise the whole argument here but the key to his discussion is the idea of "instrumental rationality". In modern societies, specially within the omnipresent structures of state, bureaucracy, corporates and other institutions, reason is used not to critically evaluate the aims and meanings of any action but rather just to decide the most efficient and optimized way of reaching a goal which is already set by the impersonal structure. It is no longer the "whys" of the action that matters but rather the "hows". Eichmann and his entire team were not motivated by blind hatred. They were all rational creatures, only the rationality was instrumental, not the personal, self-introspective rationality of Kant or Spinoza.

Another idea from the book that struck me was the idea of "goal displacement." In the pre-modern era, the eventual goals of any action were evident but not any more. One can be working on a solution for a mathematical problem and the same solution can be used for building a missile tracking system or deciding on an innovative strategy for speculating on essential commodities in the financial markets. How complicit will the programmer or the mathematician be in this case? The German bureaucrats who made the whole system so efficient worked on the same principle too.

I found the idea of instrumental rationality particularly disturbing because as engineers (and it is true for other professionals also) the only rationality we are taught is the same - instrumental rationality. We are taught to find the best solution to the problem which is always assumed to be already "given". Thinking about "whys" is often discouraged because it results in inefficiencies and wastage. But still without any clear moral imperatives the whys will inevitably lead to some sort of an infinite regression and that's what the main problem is - this search for absolute moral imperatives which can help answer all the whys and we are back again in the Musilian territory...

Lots of rambling and black thoughts. Anyway, I can't recommend Bauman's book highly enough. The Wikipedia entry on him is quite informative with some links at the bottom. Some of his articles on consumerism and post-modern culture are also fantastic.

Procrastination Lit

Just in time! There is a special issue of Slate focusing on procrastination. Of special interest will be this article on the literature of procrastination. Of the writers discussed in the article, I am only familiar with Thomas Bernhard. I am sure there will be lots of other examples too. From Hamlet to Oblomov the dithering hero is quite a recurring archetype in fiction. I like reading about such characters even though it makes me feel really uncomfortable (for obvious reasons, haha!)

My own favourite book about procrastinating will be Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities. I am not too sure if Ulrich can really be called a true procrastinator though. He is pretty sincere and explicit in laying down his reasons for taking a "leave from life" and adopting an attitude of analytical passivity towards the external world. Some of his colleagues in the "collateral campaign" are the real procrastinators though!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Intractable (Personal) Problem

That's the problem of Indecision. What can one do when even a seemingly insignificant decision leaves you completely exhausted, as if your mind were running a worst case algorithm?

I know, it is a big philosophical problem - the problem of how to bring together thought and action. How to make sure that the process of thinking does not alienate. How to be more spontaneous and and at the same time be more authentic, or if that is even possible...

Emmanuel Levinas

An excellent short article on French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in New Humanist. I have barely heard his name but I really liked this summary of his ideas:

"In his 1961 masterpiece Totality and Infinity, Levinas argued that beyond ontology – the basics of existence – is an irreducible ethical sense that arises in us when we come “face to face” with “the Other”. It is experiential, and therefore transcends theorising – it just happens. This Other is always another person, and is always, Levinas says, “absolutely other”, always absolutely inscrutable. We can never objectify, theorise, or reduce the Other to a likeness of one’s self, or to an ontological category. We may meditate insularly on Being, but the Other always comes to us unexpectedly, and calls us out of ourselves and into an ethical confrontation. The unbridgeable gap between us gives rise to a “metaphysical desire” for discourse and reciprocity, which can never be completely fulfilled, but remains all the more powerful for that reason. We may choose to shun the call of the Other or to subject him to our will, but not even by murdering him can we dissolve the infinite gulf between us, and objectify him, as the Nazis attempted to do to European Jewry. And no matter how we may treat the Other, he is always justified in his existence, and speaks to an innate need in us to justify our own existence in his presence, for he is always higher than one’s self, is never subsumed by Being, and always remains outside any totalising mode of thought (such as Nazism). In this sense, the Other is “infinite”."

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Classics Watch Update

Brief notes on a few films I saw recently... (All three five out of five stars, two thumbs up and all that stuff)

The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953): James Stewart's reel life persona is associated with healthy, do-gooder all-American characters but he was also extremely good at playing characters with a darker side, characters with fragile psyche on the verge of a complete breakdown and all of this hidden beneath a phlegmatic exterior. Alfred Hitchcock exploited this dual-nature of his personality very well, most notably in Vertigo. It is also evident in this excellent western directed by Anthony Mann. Stewart plays an embittered man haunted by loss and betrayal who is eager to start a new life by collecting the reward money by capturing an escaped convict and murderer played by an uncharacteristically cheerful Robert Ryan. He is joined by two more characters on the way, who agree to help him in return of the reward money. In the course of their passage through the rockies an unstated attraction develops between Stewart and Janet Leigh who plays an ingenue orphan whose father was an associate of the convict. There are just these five characters in the whole film and the rest is only the rocky landscape. The film is wonderful in the way it captures the psychological warfare between the characters. In fact despite the open landscapes the film feels unbearably claustrophobic, less a western and more a Bergman-esque chamber drama! The end, despite bloodlettings and deaths, is optimistic as we learn beneath the the surface bitterness and nihilism lies a noble heart capable of love and generosity. It is really a wonderful film. In fact it has already become one of my personal favourites of the western genre, up there with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Rio Bravo, The Searchers and The Ox-bow Incident.

Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, 1959): Robert Ryan has already become one of my favourite actors from the classic age. He is back in Robert Wise's heist-cum-docu noir Odds Against Tomorrow, doing what he does best - playing tough and thoroughly embittered man on the brink of complete despair, only this time, venting all his fury in the form of a racist prejudice. The plot is of typical heist genre - a trio of desperate characters decide to come together and pull off a bank job which ultimately goes wrong (as it always does). Major part of the film is devoted to building up the characters and sketching the sheer desperateness of their situation. The actual heist scene takes up just about ten minutes towards the end, even though it all ends in a very climactic way. The film is really wonderfully shot with lots of outdoor and real-location shootings, something which never fails to please me in a black and white film. Robert Ryan is spectacular as he also was in the utterly bleak and brutal boxing drama The Set-up also directed by Wise. Harry Belafonte is okay as his foil, though he does sing a very nice song in the beginning of the film. Also unusual for a hollywood film of that time, the film has a very unusual avant-garde(-ish) jazz as the background score. I think some of Otto Preminger's later films of the same period (like Anatomy of a Murder) had similar scores too.

The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951): More bitterness and emotional brutality in this classic of British cinema which was based on a play of the same name by Terrence Rattigan who also wrote the screenplay. Michael Redgrave gives a heart-rending performance as a classics teacher who is forced into an early retirement by his illness. As his career comes to an end, he tries to come to terms with his sense of failure, not only as a teacher but also as a human being. Although this simple description makes it sound like a sentimental teacher-farewell picture, nothing could be farther from the truth. An emotional turning point in the drama comes when one of his pupils gifts him a translation of Agamemnon by Robert Browning with an inscription in greek calling him a "gentle teacher." The scene in which he breaks down is extremely moving and also very discomforting, because it is handled in such an unsentimental manner (without any operatic surge of music or other melodramatic cliches). If there was any doubt as to whether the director was pulling emotional strings, he is soon told by his callous wife that the boy was acting from a self-interested motive. (The wife is also pitiable character and not really a villain. Her life with him has also been a waste.) He soon gathers himself up but by then he has come to a new self-realization, as a result the end feels a bit reassuring and hopeful. A wonderful classic!

Dictator Novel

The wikipedia entry for The Latin American Dictator Novel has been extensively revised and contains lots of information now. According to the talk page of the entry the revisions were done as a course assignment by students of University of British Columbia. What an excellent idea! Individual entries like the one on Miguel Angel Asturias' The President are also excellent. I didn't quite like it when I read it a few months back but the wikipedia article makes me feel as if I didn't pay enough attention. I had also left Augusto Roa Bastos' I, The Supreme in the middle completely exhausted but the article makes me excited about tackling it again. Surprisingly, my personal favourite of the dictator novels Gabriel Garcia Marquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch is left unattended. However, the entries for Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat and Marquez's other novel The General in his Labyrinth (which I have not read yet) are again extensively revised. Overall I think it is a great example of internet and the collaborative interaction that it enables at its best.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Theodor Fontane: Effi Briest

On the back of Theodor Fontane's Effi Briest there is a quote by Thomas Mann who says that it is one of the five greatest novels ever written. (It doesn't mention the names of other four). There must be something to this claim but I found it to be pretty standard and conventional fare - a typical nineteenth century realist soap opera. Having said that, I do feel that Fontane's obscurity, at least in the English speaking world, is definitely undeserved. I hadn't heard of him until I saw Fassbinder's beautiful film adaptation a couple of years back. I had wanted to read it ever since but it was difficult to even find a copy. In both his style and his sensibility he belongs to the same group as Chekhov and Turgenev. I gather from the introduction to the penguin edition that he is not so obscure in Germany where he is part of standard school curriculum.

The plot of Effi Briest is again modeled on the standard "adultery in fiction" template. At the beginning of the novel we meet Effi, a seventeen year old girl who is charming, effervescent and full of life and excitement so much so that her mother worries about her future when she sees her so happy and joyful! She is soon married off to a successful and good looking man named Baron Geert Von Instetten who is twice her age. He had courted Effi's mother in his youth but was rejected because elder Frau Briest preferred a more successful suitor. Soon after marriage Baron takes Effi to a remote sea-side town on the outskirts of the German empire. Effi finds her new abode lonely and spooky. She thinks the house is haunted by the ghost of "chinaman" who died in the nearby village. She is also alienated from the local society people - she feels irritated by their stupidity, snobbery and provincialism. She even gets tagged as an atheist! After some time, a daughter is born but things don't get any better. In between all this she meets a young womanizer Major Crampas and fails to resist his advances. She doesn't love him and she feels more irritation because she has to hide the affair from everybody. So when Instetten is promoted and transferred to Berlin she heaves a sigh of relief. A few years pass but then Instetten accidentally discovers her letters which she foolishly had kept in the house. He knows that it has been too long and doesn't really feel angry or jealous but since it is what he has to do, he challenges Crampas for a duel and kills him. He then divorces Effi and takes the custody of her daughter. Her parents also reject her, thinking on the same principles of honour and social respectability which take precedence over every other thing.

So far the story proceeds in an extremely low-key style. In fact if you are not paying attention you may even miss some key plot point, like the duel for instance. One of the main characters in the novel is dispatched with barely a couple of lines without any melodramatic fanfare. But then the last section changes the tone a little and it also makes up for the absence of gloom and despair in the beginning, something which has become inextricably associated in my mind with German literature in general. Basically after a few years, Effi obtains permission for a visit from her little daughter, now aged ten. The child is trained by her father to parrot whatever she is told to say, a nightmare of conformity. She barely speaks, and when Effi asks her whether she'll come again, she replies: "Yes, if I'm allowed." Shall they walk in the park together? "Yes, if I'm allowed." "Or we could go to Schilling and eat ice cream, pineapple or vanilla—that used to be my favorite." "Yes, if I'm allowed." This is the final straw for Effi who so far had passively accepted whatever befell her. She breaks down, and from this moment her melancholia in the form of an incipient consumption slowly eats away at her soul until she dies. She is accepted by her parents before her death (and even reunited with her dog) but they still think is it was their fault and whether they gave her too much freedom. She also requests that her maiden name be put on her grave because she didn't honour her married name. One irony after another. Fassbinder is much more ruthless (characteristically so), very unlike in the book which is more subtle but it is equally effective and equally enraging.

I find all the talk about how something is "relevant" to us after all these years extremely boring but can't help but point out the same in the context of this book. The aristocrats and their ritualistic social behavior may have become a thing of history and feminist ideas commonplace but the basic underlying assumption that a woman has to "marry up" is still there. It is assumed that a woman has to find a man who is intellectually (and financially and in age) superior to her. The more degrees she has the smaller her pool of eligible men gets. Because of this there is an inherent inequality in the relationship - the woman has to always look up with respect and more often than not, it is not reciprocated from the other side. In the novel Baron takes a pedagogic interest in Effi. He takes her to a tour of Rome and Venice and lectures her on art history. She feels intimidated with his erudition and knowledge and feels that she has no "principles" of her own. It gets worse when she suffers from hallucinations and fears the ghost in the cellar, which the Baron rejects in an off-handed manner - as ravings of an intellectually inferior mind. It also underscores how her subjectivity is denied to her by the patriarchal figure, at the root of which there is the same problem of lack of respect accorded to her intellectual abilities. Related to this there is also an interesting point that the author of the introductory preface makes. She says that in the novel Fontane is also criticising the Prussian society which saw education and intellectualism (and self-discipline, rigour and self-denial that went with it) as supreme virtues, the very mark of a German identity. Instetten definitely embodies all of these while Effi is pure nature itself, or at least she was before marriage. It is this mingling of two opposite temperaments that led to the eventual tragedy.

I actually prefer the Fassbinder film much more than the novel itself. One main reason is that Fontane is a little too discreet and a little too soft in his critique and it made me feel very impatient, specially in the tedious middle section of the book. He was of course himself a member of the aristocracy and on top of that he was in his seventies when he wrote it. Fassbinder on the other hand is characteristically brutal, ruthless and unsparing in his criticisms and the way he captures the far-too-many ironies in the story. At the same time, he is also too full of compassion and so aware of romantic potentialities of the situations and the characters that it makes the basic story even more poignant. The film is also extremely inventive. Fassbinder uses exact quotations and descriptions from the novel. In most of the scenes an off-screen narrator just reads from the novel devoid of any emotion. He even reads the dialogues, the letters and the monologues from the novel. It makes the film feel static in the beginning but soon it gets you in its own deeply melancholic mood and you never realize the film is so long. Hannah Schygulla is specially luminous in the main role, as are the other regular members of the Fassbinder repertory. Sometimes the inventive staging and framing feel too much but those moments are much too rare. It is really a gem of a film. Fassbinder made quite a few masterpieces, it is definitely one of them. I also love the title of the film:"Fontane Effi Briest or Many People Who Are Aware of Their Own Capabilities and Needs Just Acquiesce to the Prevailing System in Their Thoughts and Deeds Thereby Confirm and Reinforce It." A detailed article on the film here. A contemporary review from the new york times here.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

White Heat

Still catching up with the Hollywood classics. White Heat was also my introduction to James Cagney, and boy, is he something! Many other stars of that era had screen presence as powerful as his but I don't think anybody had an energy like Cagney and this was a from a guy who was nearing fifty when he made it. He is always jumping around, looking borderline funny, always shoving people, shooting indiscriminately and delivering his dialogues in his non-stop crackerjack style. It is just impossible to take your eyes off him whenever he is in the scene and he is in every scene throughout the film.

The story is build around pretty standard gangster formula. The only difference is that the gangster here is shown as a total neurotic, prone to epileptic seizures and as a result probably a total psychopath. Even more bizarre twist is his mother who is a bit screwed up in her head as well. Scenes between mother and son border on camp hilarity but I think it eschews ridiculousness mostly because both actors are so great and convincing. This also makes sense plotwise by hinting that his neurosis and mental troubles may be a result of his relationship with his mother. And then there is also the fact that his father died in a mental institution. I was also reminded of Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas who seemed to copying Cagney. He has an eccentric mom in the movie too (played by Scorsese's real life mom), though not at all a psychotic.

I am not very familiar with the classic gangster movies, most of them made by warner bros in the 30s but from little I have read about them, those movies did have social and political subtext beneath their violence. Gangster was presented as a sort of anti-authoritarian figure, a rebel basically, who took laws into his own hands because they were unjust. He followed his own code of honour and was loyal to his friends and partners. Probably by the time Walsh made White Heat these idioms had already worn off as sentimental cliches. Personally I always have a soft corner for movies which present outlaws as a romantic rebels but I realize that's a sentimental way of looking at things. White Heat is praiseworthy in this respect because it is so unsentimental and realistic in its portrayal of violence and it is incredibly violent specially for its time. I couldn't believe they could show so many cold blooded killings then.

In short it is just an amazing film. James Cagney is a force unto himself, one of a kind. Must see classic!


I picked up Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping after reading the discussion about it at the reading room blog of the new york times. I am finding it hard to concentrate on reading these days because of too many boring distractions (just real life intruding, nothing unusual). This one looked accessible and also from the description it looked like the kind of book I would like, so I picked it up.

The novel is narrated in first person by Ruth who is reminiscing about her childhood upbringing in a small town in American pacific northwest called "Fingerbrook". The town is surrounded by a lake and the way Robinson describes the lake (and the landscape in general) the whole thing becomes very mysterious and unreal (like the photograph on the cover). It may be also be because it is through Ruth's consciousness that we see all these details of everyday life in Fingerbrook. As it happens, Ruth's mother had committed suicide by driving her car off the cliff into the lake. Before that Ruth's (maternal) grandfather had died in a train accident in the same lake. The lake in the scheme of the story becomes a mythical and symbolic presence - representing some sort of unfathomable and mysterious darkness, enveloping the whole town. Ruth and her sister Lucille first come to live with their grandmother but when she also dies (this time it is of simple old age, no accident or suicide) they come under the protection of their aunt Sylvie, who is their mother's sister. She is actually the central character of the novel. Like Ruth she is emotionally damaged too - early experiences of loss and pain have made both of them detached from their surroundings and from the life itself and has made them "transient" (a word which Robinson uses in very interesting way). This tone of detachment comes off beautifully in the the voice in which Ruth narrates the story. It is only in the end we realize that it is the voice of a deeply troubled and unstable consciousness.

These days I am finding it hard to appreciate a book built around only "poetic" writing, the kind of writing which gets called "evocative". The whole book is written in purely descriptive manner. Ruth never tries to explain things to herself, and she never intellectualizes. It is not that I don't like this kind of writing at all, (these days) I just prefer some explicit discussion of ideas, ruminations about conceptual and abstract questions etc. I guess I should be reading philosophy and not fiction but towards the end there is a line which really struck me as something that showed the absence of theoretical explanations as intentional. Ruth says, "Fact explains nothing. On the contrary, it is fact that requires explanation." She is not using the facts of the story to generalize about some abstract idea but she is also not providing an explanation while admitting that an explanation is indeed required. There is something deeply religious about it, which is another subtle them that runs through the book. On the whole, it is definitely worth a look even though personally it passed me by without doing much.

An extract from the book I really liked:

"Of my conception I know only what you know of yours. It occurred in darkness and I was unconsenting. I (and that slenderest word is too gross for the rare thing I was then) walked forever through reachless oblivion, in the mood of one smelling night-blooming flowers, and suddenly - My ravishers left their traces in me, male and female, and over the months I rounded, grew heavy, until the scandal could no longer be concealed and oblivion expelled me. But this I have in common with all my kind. By some bleak alchemy what had been mere unbeing becomes death when life is mingled with it. So they seal the door against our returning."