Friday, March 31, 2006

Thanks and Goodbye!

No, Dispatches from Zembla is not shutting down. I am just leaving for India this weekend and the blog will not get updated for, may be, a few weeks. The dispatches should resume after a longish short-break.

Still a few months short of first birthday, but it seems like a long time. Don't worry, I will not go into the masturbatory mode and recount my experiences of the past year. Just a note to say thank you for visiting and reading, to you all! And Goodbye!!

Funny Review Dept.

Comment is Free has a nice round of reviews that the new Basic Instinct film has got. It is quite funny. Ah! I have such fond memories of the first film. I wonder if they still have those "morning shows" !

And yes, I missed this review of V for Vendetta in New York Times which starts with, "Thumb suckers of the world unite, the most hotly anticipated film of the, er, week, V for Vendetta, has arrived,!". ROFL!

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Surprise!! A New Study Finds that Economists are the Most Ruthless People

A post on the comment is free website.

It is surprising how few people, at least the arm-chair types, know that Adam Smith wrote a book called Theory of Moral Sentiments. If you talk to these Ayn Rand groupies (which is their idea of a "philosopher") about sentiments, morality and virtue you will be denounced as a sissy and logically challenged, while they continue with their utterly horrible caricature of human agency. It really bugs me!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

What Do Billionaires Want?

Nice article in Slate on the Forbes's list of billionaires. Quite funny and sarcastic.

Some people automatically associate great wealth with evil, and they deserve the ridicule they get in Forbes and country-club bars everywhere. But the automatic association of great wealth with virtue is equally fatuous. It's probably true that most billionaires have acquired their wealth in ways that make life better for the rest of us. Among American billionaires, the top of the list is dominated by computers, Wal-Mart, and Mars bars: all mixed blessings, perhaps, but blessings nevertheless.

This capitalist being virtous part reminds me of a post titled, "Why Ayn Rand is an Idiot!", which is in the draft for long. Will write about it when I get some time.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Comment Is Free

Guardian's new blog site, comment is free, is already a few weeks old and it looks fantastic. The posts and the comments are of really high quality. If you are bored reading pointless blogs or pompous newspaper op-eds, read these posts and the responses. Must keep the writers on their toes!

I have commented on a few posts too but then stopped after seeing how ridiculous and stupid my comments looked. And so many posts where I didn't even know if I had absolutely any opinion at all! The world is getting really complex. Too much is happening and there is too little time to be bothered about, say, the latest election results in Belarus or Chile or the nitty-gritties of anti-semitic politics. And perhaps most importantly, we are living a more and more solipsistic and self-centered lives. Think small and think of immediate is now the motto and the guiding principle. Ahh whatever! Just visit the blog and get the comments going. I wish some Indian news paper starts this too sometime soon.

P.S. Found one post where I had an opinion. Still, my comments are the stupidest in the entire thread :(

Update: Some funny comments on the post:
"I'm no philosopher - hence the need for help - but I have a few questions:"

Two questions. Two is not "a few" in Western hard liberal number systems.

First question:

"a) why do people think an understanding of rationality which is over 200 years old is useful now? As Ree said to Bronner why do we want to resurrect bits of our intellectual history?"

Good question. The better alternative would be to abandon any discussion of what people used to think. What time scale would be appropriate? What people thought 2000 years ago? 200 years? 20 years? 20 minutes? 20 seconds? I'll go for 20 minutes else I won't be able to finish this posting.

Second question:

"And b) more generally, what is it about the Enlightenment that people are now taking it off the shelf to polish up and put forward as their political and intellectual credentials? "

Another good question. Um, now let me think..... That's a hard one..... There must be something.... Just one small thing ......

No, can't think of anything. Nothing that's happened in the last 20 minutes anyway.

Now where's that sheep? Time I slit its throat and splashed some wine around, or else we'll get another cold, damp spring and a lousy harvest. You know how it is.


"Enlighten me" you ask.
Happy to oblige. You know the expression used to refer to people who are a bit unhinged - "a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic"? Well, in your case the level of lunacy you've achieved here is akin to arriving for said picnic, opening hamper and finding not only that there's a couple of sandwiches gone astray but indeed there's nothing at all, save a couple of napkins and a mouldy apple core. Somebody's scoffed the lot - swiped the wine and everything. Then it starts raining and you have to go home.

Other articles in response to this, here and here.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Stanislaw Lem

The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem died yesterday. A short news report from AP. I haven't read any of his books but Solaris, the Russian film directed by Tarkovsky which was based on his book, is one of my all time favourites. Will try to get the book sometime.

A great article on his life and work.

His official site looks great too.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

"God Shaped Hole"

Madhur at Kulcharatee has written an excellent post about his love-sick (literally!) friend. Check it out here and here. Really well worth reading.

I think there must be some medicine which sets the dopamine and serotonin levels to normal or in other words, that cures people of "love". I wonder...but there should be, if there isn't already.


Dardenne brothers' L'Enfant, which won the Golden Palm this year at the Cannes film festival, is finally getting released here. NYT has a fantastic review of the film , specially this paragraph:

Why make a film about Bruno? The same might be asked about Raskolnikov. Like Robert Bresson, whose "Pickpocket" informs "L'Enfant" and is itself a loose reworking of "Crime and Punishment", the Dardennes are not interested in passing judgment on a grievously flawed character; that's why God and Hollywood were invented. Since there is no moral ambiguity in the act of selling another human being, there would be no point in such judgment, other than to indulge in some self-satisfied finger-wagging. Rather, what interests the Dardennes — what invests their work with such terrific urgency — is not only how Bruno became the kind of man who would sell a child as casually as a slab of beef, but also whether a man like this, having committed such a repellent offense, can find redemption.

The R-word (not "repellent", the other one) generally makes me a little queasy but I know it worked in Pickpocket and I hope it works in this film too. Dardenne Brothers' Rosetta has been long on my to-see list but so far I haven't seen any film by them.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The End of History and the Last Man

The neo-con gang has been getting lots of bad press these days, even by their standards. One of their star ideologues Francis Fukuyama, he of the "End of History" fame, has now deserted their camp and has been calling his earlier friends and fellow-travellers "Leninists" and other such bad names. I was at the book store just the other day and I saw the cover of Fukuyama's new book, in stark black, almost reminding of the other famous black book.

I remember picking up the End of History book many years ago at my college library thinking it to be a book about apocalypse or the end of the world or something. I was very disappointed then that the book turned out, not to be about those interesting things but was instead full of rather boring and dense ideas (and at that time I had no clue who Hegel was or what the word "dialectics" meant, actually I still don't). The central idea being that, now that the Berlin wall has fallen we can all live in peace. Everywhere now it will be democracy, prosperity and harmony and of course, capitalism. This has been the destiny of mankind all along and now it is time to fulfill it. I got bored as hell just by thinking about it. Thank God, the theory proved to be ridiculously wrong. People still kill each other for stupid reasons and doubtlessly will go to war for defending equally ridiculous things. If given free choice some people would rather live under a theocratic tyranny and religious law instead of choosing "liberal democracy" and capitalism. There are still young girls in western countries who will fight for their "rights" to cover themselves in shapeless tents (or "jilbab") just because their religion tells them to do so. Such naive optimism! I never picked up the book again and I don't think I will ever.

There are some other end of history theories. Marx, of course, believed that Capitalism with its inherent contradictions will collapse one day and pave the way for a classless society where people wouldn't need to specialise and which would give them freedom "to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, breed cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I like, without ever becoming a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critic." Actually, I like this idea very much but like all utopian ideas, I don't think it is going to work out very well. Adam Smith was right, Marx was wrong. There is no getting away from specialisation and the chains of labour.

The scientists also ponder on this thing but then they take it to extreme and focus on the end of the world itself. There is still a lot of debate among theoretical physicists about whether the world will end in infernal fire or deathly chill. But one thing they all agree on...the scenario of that happening is just too remote. This Slate article has more details if you are interested.

Yeah, I know all know all this sounds too dense and boring. So here comes the funniest theory, and not surprisingly, it is from religion. The Christians believe that when the end of the world comes, and the born-again types think that the time has already come, Jesus will come back to save the believers and take them to heaven from where, as this rather cheeky Economist article says, "they will have the best seats in the house as the unsaved perish in a series of spectacular fires, wars, plagues and earthquakes." I really like this theory. Great dramatic potential! Just check out what Bergman did with it in The Seventh Seal. What a great movie! (I don't know if there is any eschatological tradition in the Hindu thought, or perhaps we are skeptical of the existence of material world itself (Maya) thus preempting the questions of creation and destruction?)*

All of this is too theoretical. For all practical purposes and specially for people like us, who are living a life of comparative affluence in the west, free of material needs and are typing away ridiculous things on their keywords in the middle of the night, like I am doing now, just because they have got an internet connection and have nothing else to do, the end of history has already arrived. And Nietzsche knew this more than a hundred years ago. No, it is not the "Ubermensch", it is the theory of "the last man". In Thus Spake Zarathustra Nietzsche says:

"I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves.

Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself. Behold, I show you the last man.

'What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?' thus asks the last man, and blinks.

The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea; the last man lives longest.

'We have invented happiness,'say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one's neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth...

One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion.

No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.

'Formerly, all the world was mad,' say the most refined, and they blink...

One has one's little pleasure for the day and one's little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health.

'We have invented happiness,' say the last men, and they blink."

Yes, the time that Nietzsche was talking of has come. And the despicable men are no one else but pathetic people like me and you, who are jobless enough to read and write ridiculous things like this. I depise thee will all vehemence, the last man!

Endnote: I can not express in words the kind of intense longing I feel every morning just after I wake up for an apocalypse and doom. How I wish a comet would strike the earth and boom...everything will end in an instant. But I know it is not going to happen and then with a heavy heart start my day, every freaking day! And this is what I pray before I go to sleep: O Dear Almighty! If not a comet strike, at least send some horrible disease on our way which wipes off the entire human species quickly and end this meaningless drama (which signifies nothing anyway). Spare the plants and other animals. Let them live as they choose. But Human Beings don't deserve this luxury of existence. They don't.

P.S. I wanted to write a meaningful post about the war in iraq and american foreign policy but got sidetracked. Now I must go to sleep. Will write some pompous stuff about foreign policy later.

*I remember now. Hinduism has this trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh who are creator, preserver and destroyer respectively. and there is some stuff in the rig veda too about the creation of the universe. so there.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Thirty Years of The Selfish Gene

"We are survival machines, robot vehicles, blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes" - Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene is one of my all time favourite books. If I have to name one book which has influenced me the most in the way I look at myself and the world, that will be this book (followed perhaps by Kafka). It is almost seven-eight years since I read the book but I still remember how it affected me. I was never a believer in soul, immortality, God or some mumbo-jumbo about divinely ordained purpose but my disbelief in these things was more of indifference and disinterest. Selfish Gene showed me that you can explain life and the world in purely materialist (or physicalist) terms and provided a powerful demonstration of how reductionist thinking works. In doing so it allowed me to feel intellectually fulfilled, if not happier with myself or the life. After reading the book everything started making a lot of sense, because the book essentially forces you to shift your perspective with which we view the world. It does this by bringing the genes (or to be more descriptive, the replicators ) to the forefront and makes us see the world from their point of view rather than that from the organism's, which is essentially relegated to the level of of vehicles, whose only "purpose" is to carry as many versions of those replicators as possible to the next generation.

On the surface it will appear that this philosophy of life robs us of meaning, purpose and mystery which we use to sustain ourselves but it merely substitutes it with a different set of meanings and purpose, which are not incompatible with the truth. It just reminds me of scene from the Spike Jonze-Charlie Kaufmann movie Adaptation where the orchid guy, played by Chris Cooper, is narrating the story of life to Nicholas Cage. He says:

what's so wonderful is that every one of these flowers has a specific relationship with the insect that pollinates it. There's a certain orchid that looks exactly like a certain insect so the insect is drawn to this flower, its double, its soul mate, and wants nothing more than to make love to it. And after the insect flies off, spots another soul-mate flower and makes love to it, thus pollinating it. And neither the flower nor the insect will ever understand the significance of their lovemaking. I mean, how could they know that because of their little dance the world lives? But it does. By simply doing what they're designed to do, something large and magnificent happens. In this sense they show us how to live - how the only barometer you have is your heart. How, when you spot your flower, you can't let anything get in your way.
Yes, we just follow our instincts and the story of life just keeps going on because of that!

The Edge celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of the book with comments by Daniel Dennett, Ian McEwan, Matt Ridley and others. You can listen to the mp3 of the talk too.

Earlier I had written about Dawkins's documentary The Root of All Evil? here.

Peter Lorre

A few days back while browsing at a bookstore my eyes caught up with a massive new biography of the German Hungarian actor Peter Lorre, famous for his big bulging eyes and eccentric personality. I didn't buy the book, just looked at the pictures and put it back. I was a little surprised to see the book -- it had more than 200 pages of references and notes and the whole thing was mind boggling, considering he played so few lead roles, specially after he moved to Hollywood. Lorre's most famous screen role is, of course, the Fritz Lang masterpiece M in which he plays a serial killer who preys on children. His monologue at the end of the film is a masterpiece of theatrical acting. He also played small but memorable roles in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. I remembered the book because I wanted to point to this review of the Lorre book in the London Review of Books. There was also a very interesting article on Lorre by last year's nobel laureate Elifriede Jelinek in film comment a few months back, which is not available online. For more Lorre mug shots click this google image search link.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

"That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling can preserve an individual beyond the grave; that all the labors of all the ages, all the devotion, all the aspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins - all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand."

-- Bertrand Russell

Funny Review Dept.

Philip French in The Guardian on the latest Pink Panther:

Shaun Levy's The Pink Panther wasn't shown to the press for reasons that soon became apparent when I saw it at a public performance. Two people (20 per cent of the audience) laughed; one was Chinese, the other, whom I couldn't see, might have been an escaped hyena.


Amused, Slightly !!

First the supreme court says that sexual abstinence is sufficient ground for a divorce.

Then, for a third year in a row, a physicist is awarded the templeton prize. It is perhaps the most lucrative prize in the world, even more than a nobel and is awarded for "progress in research and discoveries about spiritual realities".

And finally a British Sardar has written what seems like a Houellebecq-style novel about sex-tourism. Fantastic cover that one!

Okay, these aren't amusing really, but whatever!

Friday, March 17, 2006


This is a reminder of how isolated a life I have been living all this while. I was reading this Economist survey of Chicago and realized how little I knew of this city, its history, people, geography, culture and economy, even after spending almost a year here and now it is time to go back. The only thing that I have done here is to search out obscure places to watch obscure movies or roam around in those lonely parks or stare into the Michigan lake. Sigh! But then as Proust says, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes". Ah well, some consolation! But what if I didn't even get new eyes?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Pretentious Crap or Masterpieces ? -- Part 1

Claire Denis's The Intruder(L'Intrus) has been called "a tactile tone poem", "a masterpiece of free association", full of "poetic energy" and all sorts of hyperbolic things. If you thought Mulholland Dr. was "difficult" or wanting to "understand" a film means "what really happened" to you, don't even go near this. This review in The Village Voice says that the film is "a direct line from her [Claire Denis's] unconscious to yours." Bummer! I should have known this before watching it. I could have been more open to all those mysterious voices which were trying to reach me! Also worth reading are the reviews from NYT, salon and Film Comment

Some viewers seem bothered that they can't sort out the real from the delirium and the memories from the prophecies in The Intruder. But would anyone demand that of an epic poem?


My own reaction was mostly like this reviewer from The Guardian
I'm still scratching my head over this one, but the itch is mostly pleasant.

But still $9.50 for a pleasant itching sensation seems a little too much!

Claire Denis's notorious cannibalism-as-a-metaphor-for-love film, Trouble Every Day has been long on my list but I will think twice now. If you haven't heard of TED you can read a few things here and here.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Two Ridiculous Horror Movies

The first one The Exorcism of Emily Rose is actually a religious propaganda disguised as a horror movie. If not for scares, you should see this film to get a good handle on the contemporary American culture. A culture which wastes so much of its time and resources of public discourse to debating non-debates like Evolutions vs. Intelligent Design. The film sees itself as making some provocative and eloquent statement against the tyranny of facts and the freedom to hold beliefs even against evidence in the name of "respect" and "tolerance" but comes across as merely dull, silly, insipid and thoroughly stupid. Do read this Slate review by David Edelstein. He makes a nice mincemeat of the film.

Emily Rose at least had some points to make about contemporary social and political context in which debates about religion and faith operate but the makers of other horror movie, Hostel, would have none of it. I have no clue why would someone like Quentin Tarantino associate his name with this kind of irredeemable crap. The film does go well beyond the generally accepted limit in depicting violence and torture but all of that was thoroughly pointless. I know the backers of the film will say, "that was the whole point"! To which I will say, good for you and enjoy your torture. I would rather hit my head against the wall for ninety minutes than subject myself to this crap. Sigh! This is why I always try to avoid watching films with friends and other people. David Edelstein has another article on this new found love of American cinema for torture and violence.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Stanley Kubrick's The Killing

Saw this classic film noir by Stanley Kubrick last night, on big screen. The character types, plot and narrative tropes are from standard film noir and heist movies. What is extra, though, is the brilliant use of flashbacks to show parallel action in the great heist sequence. It makes you really think about the use of 'time' in how shots are sequenced. Films like Pulp Fiction will look less innovative after you have seen this film.

It also has some really brilliant dialogues. Here is the archetypical tough-guy-with-tougher-luck hero admonishing the femme fatale:

Johnny Clay: Alright sister, that's a mighty pretty head you got on your shoulders. You want to keep it there or start carrying it around in your hands?
Sherry Peatty: Maybe we could compromise and put it on your shoulder. I think that'd be nice, don't you?

You might have to see the film at least twice to really appreciate the wizardry of the writer and the filmmaker and be prepared for a truly anti-climactic and utterly heartbreaking climax at the end.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Classics of Tomorrow?

This article in The Guardian asks the question, which films released in the last year can potentially enter the canon or be remembered and loved ten, twenty years from now. I think Michael Haneke, David Cronenberg and Wong Kar-wai all came out with great films last year and I loved them all. Even if the individual films do not stand the test of time, there is no doubt that their whole oeuvre will certainly do and if not for anything else, these films will be remembered for being associated with their respective auteurs.

Also, a few years back Guardian came out with a list of most important contemporary filmmakers based on the poll of their resident film critics. Except for a couple of names in the top ten, it is pretty well judged (my opinion of course and I haven't seen a few on the list at all). You can find out the list here.

In the same vein here is my own list of filmmakers who I like to keep track of (at this point in time) and impatiently look forward to their next works:

1. Michael Haneke: I have lost lots of my innocence, naivety and optimism (of whatever little that was left) because of watching his films, so far five of them. But I am all the more thankful to him because of that. With Cache, Haneke is now at the peak of his career. It is worth waiting for whatever he is upto next. I had written earlier on Funny Games, The Seventh Continent and Cache.

2. David Lynch: I am waiting desperately to see Inland Empire which should open later this year. This reminds me, I should try to get hold of Twin Peaks season 2 before I leave for India. Previous posts on Lynch here and here.

3. David Cronenberg:
Another dark maestro. He is making a horror movie about a plastic surgeon next. It is already giving me shivers. The bad/good news is that no one is willing to finance his film after reading his script! An adaptation of Martin Amis's misanthropic and apocalyptic London Fields is also in the works. Whatever it is, if it is a film by Cronenberg, that means not to be missed at any cost. Previous post on A History of Violence.

4. Lars von Trier:
I missed his latest Maderlay. One more reason why I should hate my life and my job and of course people too. It was in theatres here only for one week and before I could find time it just vanished.

5. Wong Kar-wai:
The list was getting too dark, bleak and misanthropic. So here comes Wong Kar-wai with his les affaires de coeur. Although even his films are suffused with a deep sadness and speak less about the pleasures of romance than they do about the impossibility of genuine, lasting connection between human beings in the modern world, specially in the big, impersonal cities. But whatever, at least his films have glorious music and lots of beautiful people and at least there is no violence (not of the haneke, cronenberg variety at least). Previous post on 2046 here.

P.S. Now that I am praising Haneke. I wanted to point to this entry in the culture vulture blog of the guardian. Apparently Time Out London revised their movie rating system to accommodate Cache. They gave it six out of five and then revised the scale upwards to six on the grounds of perhaps inflation and devaluation! Too many good movies?

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Before I Forget...

Daniel Dennett finally replies to the review of his book in the new york times book review. The latest edition also contains a reply by Leon Wieseltier who authored the original review. Check out the letter and the response here. It is not as elaborate or something and it seems that they are fighting off at tangents! The book review also features an overview of the debate in the blogosphere. My blog doesn't feature in it. Damn!

For a more elaborate discussion on the role of science and faith in the modern world, click here. Dennett discusses his book with Richard Swinburne who is a professor of the philosophy of religion at the Oxford University. It is a little heavy and long but worth battling through (okay, I haven't read it yet myself).

And this on the feel-bad endings in literature:

It is not the mere happiness or unhappiness of fiction that grips us, but the questions it asks, the people and situations it creates, the complexity of emotions it stirs.
We should not demand that a last line makes us either happy or sad, but thoughtful; it is this that ensures great literature lives, happily, ever after.
How true!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Real Root of All Evil

[ref. Blank Noise Project]

Now that everybody is writing about it here is my own two cents on the topic of sexual harassment. Like many men writing about this on their blogs, I have little clue about what sexual harassment really is. The closest I have come to sexually harassing women is staring at them, that too from a distance and in most cases, to the best of my ability, I have tried to be as discreet as possible. But yet to all the women I have stared in my life, here is what I have to say: it was a stare of admiration and not some way of exerting power or making you feel bad about being a woman. If it was anything else, I am deeply sorry!

Okay, now that the prelude is over, the main thing. The British philosopher John Stuart Mill wanted to abolish sexual desire on the grounds that it is responsible for so much of violence, suffering, misery and discontent in our lives. And if you just think, how much of our intellectual, emotional and physical resources go into feeding this monster of sexual desire! How sad it is to see Human Beings, who are supposed to be the paragon of all animals, infantilised and turned into slavering puppies just to gratify their sexual needs. How good it would be to find a non-sexual way to propagate our genes. The French writer Michel Houellebecq makes the same arguments in his books, most powerfully in The Elementary Particles. But of course we all know this is not going to be. This is how we are designed by the evolution. But the question is why? Why do we need these insanely complex reproductive and sexual impulses? Why do we need two genders? Why did evolution connect sexual desire to reproduction? Well the tragic answer is because it is in the interest of our selfish genes. The desire to propagate our genes is not the proximate reason that guides our behavior. Our genes force us to first mate, so that they can propagate their own copies. After all we are just vehicles for those replicator. Aren't we?

This is also what the German philosopher Schopenhauer called the "Will to Live". It is this malign and malevolent force that keeps us alive even when we know that the world is essentially evil and the life is vile, futile and full of only pointless pain and suffering. It also makes us invent illusions and abstractions like "love" with which we try to hide our basest impulses from ourselves. He also said that the only recourse left is to negate this will to live, to lose oneself in artistic contemplation and withdraw from the material world. I know this is asking a little too much from testoterone sodden teenagers, who whistle and leer at women on streets, that they start reading Schopenhauer but whatever : dudes, at least try to understand. It is your selfish genes which make you do this. Don't fall into their trap. Ahhh! What a sorry state of affairs. By God, I am already feeling too depressed!

*I hope people don't think I am ranting against sex just because I am not getting any!
**this post on the excellent blog The Proper Study of Mankind has more details on the evolutionary theories explaining the origins of sex.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Do They Really F@#$ You Up?

The English poet Philip Larkin in a famous poem said, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do." I always thought he was being very harsh. Parents generally do their best in bringing up their children but all this generally amounts not much to what the child actually grows up to be. Then I read Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate and was confirmed in my beliefs. In his book he discussed and pointed out debates in the developmental psychology academic community regarding the effect of parents vis-a-vis other factors, specially peer-group interaction, on the overall psychological build-up and growth of children. Most of the scientific evidence so far points to the theory that parents have little or even absolutely no effect in directly influencing the psychological make up of the child. Other than passing off their genes, which of course determines child's inherent nature, they can't do much.

I have always found the over-enthusiastic parenting style extremely misguided, even pitiful. I am a firm believer in the hands-off approach. The job of a parent should be primarily protecting the children from harm, both physical or emotional, and to act as a support figure rather than treating the minds of their children as Blank Slates and worse, as their own fiefdom or property and attempting to scribble on to it whatever their idea of the person they want their child to grow up into. It also helps when parents torture themselves with life-long guilt when their children don't grow up into what they had wanted them to be, as perhaps happens in most of the cases. Parents will save so much of their heart-burn owing to the anxiety and guilt if they really believed in this theory!

All of this because I wanted to point to this review of a new book called No Two Alike by Judith Rich Harris on the subject of human personality and its origins. I remembered her name from Pinker's chapter on parenting in The Blank Slate. She had published the book called, The Nurture Assumption in the nineties which became very controversial because she championed the aforementioned ideas much against the prevailing academic orthodoxies, and despite the fact that she didn't have any university degree. You can check out her home page here. It contains lots of articles and reviews of her earlier famous book. And of course the best is this book by Pinker himself.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Michael Haneke's Funny Games

Michael Haneke's Funny Games is less of a horror-thriller than a meta-cinematic, post-modern distillation of the cliches and the conventions of the genre. It is more like a theoretical, critical essay on representation of violence in cinema. Sounds dull and dour? Well, it is not. It is also a brilliantly executed thriller in itself, expertly staged and handsomely acted, with a taut narrative and sharp dialogues, which keeps you on the edge for the entire length of the film, while at the same time consciously denying all the pleasures or thrills that are generally expected from a horror-thriller at every step of the way.

The plot is deceptively simple. A pair of smooth talking, young twenty-somethings break into a house of a bourgeois couple who are vacationing in their lakeside countryhouse and systematically start to torture them physically and emotionally. But as they say, the devil is in the details. When the husband asks the killers why they are doing this, one of them starts telling the story about how the other had a terrible childhood, committed incest and and became a queer and a psychopath and the other starts crying only to break into a laughter after the story ends. Thus mocking theirs and ours need for pyschological explanations that we expect from a thriller. Not that pyschological explanations for violent behavior don't exist but rather it enables the viewer to turn into a voyeur by making it easy for him to distance himself from the perpretator of the violence. I also thought the incest angle was perhaps a sly reference to Hitchcock's Psycho. The torturer also offers some other "explanations" and offers the couple and the viewers to choose one, best of which was "ennui, world-weariness and the terrible void of existence"! Somewhere else, Haneke shows a close-up of a knife thus adding a sense of foreboding in the audience that the knife will play a crucial role in the narrative but when it comes to that, it is completely offscreen. Also notable is the fact that although the film is infamous for being extremely violent, none of the violence occurs onscreen. We are even spared the close-ups. There is also a remarkable scene [SPOILER] in which the wife gets a chance to pick up a gun and shoots one of the guys. But then the other one takes a remote and "rewinds" to the scene and then takes the film to a different, more brutal ending. This is the most cruel mockery of our need for those thriller type "wow-moments" in a film that I have ever seen. I am sure after watching this scene your whole experience of watching a thriller would change forever.

In short, although definitely very heavy going and strictly for adult and mature sensibilities (the whole thing is a profoundly disturbing affair), this is a remarkable and rewarding viewing experience. Some reviews and links: Jim Hoberman in Village Voice calls Cronenberg's A History of Violence, "a successful version of Michael Haneke's audience-bashing Funny Games", with which I couldn't disagree more. If there was a element of self-critique and self-reflexivity in Violence I completely missed it. To me it was exactly the kind of violent film that it is supposed to deplore. The pleasures of the film are strictly conventional -- "good guys shoot bad guys in style after they are cornered and the audience claps". Other critics accuse Haneke of being self-righteous, preachy and manipulative but I think in doing so they forget that the film is not a realistic representational movie but more of an abstract, theoretical essay. The characters are types and tropes used by the filmmaker to drive home a point, something that any writer of a rhetorical essay does. Also there are other critics who say that Haneke, in his critique of conventional horror-thriller movies, is underestimating the audience's capabilities of differentiating between fiction and reality, which I think is a more complex question. Does fictional depiction of suffering make us more sympathetic (as Picasso claimed while justifying his painting of Guernica) or does it desensitise and makes us indifferent of the real pain and suffering? To which the answer definitely is: it depends. Depends on the motive of the artist and the audience. Surely the senseless consumption of empty thrills and chills that are the staple of hollywood have the potential to turn us into emotional zombies. And to which films like Funny Games are supposed to act as a corrective. Some critical and laudatory articles on the film are here, here and here.

Previous posts on The Seventh Continent and Cache.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Feel Good, Feel Bad

The Guardian reports on a survey for the World Book Day which showed, not surprisingly, that a majority of readers crave happy, feel-good endings in their novels. And similarly readers want some feel-bad endings to be changed too. High on the list of those endings are those of Tess of D'Urbervilles, 1984 and Wuthering Heights. I haven't read Tess yet but hopefully this will remind me to pick it up along with Jude the Obscure soon. 1984 is certainly exquisitely bleak and a long-time favourite. Another classic which has a fantastic feel-bad ending is Flaubert's Madame Bovary. When I had read the book a few years ago I was bored by most parts, not that the novel was boring but that I had no idea of who Flaubert was and what was he trying to achieve in the novel. I read it as just another story. But even then the ending left me stirred, not just with sorrow and pity but also with outrage. After all the horrors--[SPOILER]--the horrible suicide and death of Emma, then the death of her husband, the little girl being sent to the mill to earn a living, the novel ends with the information that Homais, a thoroughly vicious caricature, the epitome of self-interest, greed and shallowness being awarded the Legion of Honour!

Among the recent novels, one novel instantly comes to mind -- Atomised by Michel Houellebecq. It is relentlessly dark and misanthropic -- full of pessmistic philosophizing and intense loathing. Its idea of the improvement of the human condition is simple -- abolish the human species itself. And--[Another SPOILER]--that's what happens in the end (one of the heroes is a scientist working on the possibility of asexual clones of human beings). It is a good book to read if you are feeling lonely or horny. It will cure you of all sexual and emotional longings!

Other feel bad books. Animal Farm by Orwell is heartbreaking. Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground is feel-bad from the first line itself ("I am a sick man! I am a spiteful man"). Most of Kafka's stories and the novel The Trial have feel bad endings too, but they are a little too weird to be counted with regular feel-bad books. Celine's Journey to the End of the Night is considered a nihilistic/feel-bad classic but it is lying on my bed unread for a long time now. Can't think of any more books.


Nice article on Fellini. It is a book review of a new Fellini biography. It has this nice quote by Pauline Kael on La Dolce Vita:

[La Dolce Vita was] like poking your head into a sack of fertilizer and then becoming indignant that you're covered with excrement. The aim, the scale, the pretensions, the message are too big for the subject matter: tabloid sensationalism and upper-class apathy and corruption. Fellini is shocked and horrified--like the indignant housewives who can't get enough details of Elizabeth Taylor's newest outrage, and think she should be banned from the screen. I don't think he's simply exploiting the incidents and crimes and orgies of modern Rome in the manner of a Hollywood biblical spectacle, but La Dolce Vita is a sort of Ben-Hur for the more, but not very much more, sophisticated.

I have seen four films by Fellini -- La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2 -- I liked them all (in that order). Somehow my enthusiasm for him dimmed after some time and I never got around to seeing I Vitelloni and Amarcord which I have read are good too.

Also this short note on La Dolce Vita from Village Voice.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Blue Velvet Redux

Something that is keeping me excited these days. Blue Velvet is getting revived in a new print and is coming to my place in a couple of weeks. Village Voice has a brief article by filmmaker Guy Maddin and New York Times pitches in too.

"Blue Velvet," which delighted many and repelled many others in 1986, is likely to evoke roughly the same mixture of reactions today, and 20 years from now, and on and on. There's no assimilating its dark-and-light vision, no explaining its real mysteries, and no handy term to categorize it: not "hip" (as might have been said back in the day), and certainly not "edgy" (as canny marketers have trained us to say since). Why are there movies like "Blue Velvet"? Because the world is strange, and the strangeness never goes away.

One of the many hilarious scences in last year's The Squid and the Whale was when Walt (the elder son) goes to see Blue Velvet on a date with his girlfriend, that too with his father who had suggested him the movie in the first place! All three see with deadpan face, when a naked (not "nude", mind you!) Isabella Rosselini screams in anguish, "he put his disease in me"! It was genuinely funny and I also knew I didn't want to be in Walt's shoes, however badly I wanted to see it on big screen. This is one film you definitely would want to see alone :)

Morning Readings

So what's going to happen to George W Bush? Will the gorillas cheer him on? Will the gibbons curl their lips? Will the brow-antlered deer sneer? Will the chimps make rude noises? Will the owls hoot? Will the lions yawn and the giraffes bat their beautiful eyelashes? Will the crocs recognise a kindred soul? Will the quails give thanks that Bush isn't travelling with Dick Cheney, his hunting partner with the notoriously bad aim? Will the CEOs agree?

Arundhati Roy on Bush's visit in The Hindu. (Delhi's Old Fort, where Bush is going to give his speech, houses a zoo. That's where all the animals in the paragraph come from!)

Also this article in The New Yorker (via Arts and Letters Daily)on the general unhappiness and discontentment which plague most of our lives and why it has an evolutionary significance.
We have been hardwired to emphasize the negative, and, for most of human history, there has been a lot of the negative to emphasize.

In the book How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker explains the same thing in great detail. Mood disorders and mild depression aren't something new. Even our hunter-gatherer ancestors suffered from it. In fact it was these disorders that made them preferentially fit in the population, by making them alert, self-conscious, cautious and hesitant and that's the reason why the gene for mood disorder became widespread in entire population. It's a very nice theory and explains a lot of things. Also general mood disorders and clinical depression shouldn't be confused. The later is a medical condition and is quite destructive. Freud makes a good distinction between the two in his essay Mourning and Melancholia. I was trying to find the essay on the internet but instead found out this course description at harvard university. Great course description and a nice list of books :)