Friday, June 30, 2006

On Religion, Biology and Geography

Caution: Rambling post ahead...

Two recent incidents have turned a great religion like Hinduism (no seriously, I am not making fun) into a laughing stock. First the Amarnath episode. I have always found it ridiculous that such natural phenomena like the formation of a stalactite inside a cave results in a holy pilgrimage just because the resulting ice structure resembles a "Linga" in its shape. I am surprised and bewildered at how this hoax of a religion continues to prosper. I know any faith requires a leap over the barriers of reason but it is just so childish and plain ridiculous. Now this year, apparently because of global warming or some other climate change the process of stalactite formation didn't happen naturally so the temple authorities made an artificial structure. Obviously they didn't want to part with the lucrative offerings that they get from the stupid and gullible devotees. Because accept it or not, the temple is another of those capitalist enterprises--providing services (fraudulent of course) and charging money.

The other incident happened down south. Some south Indian actress claims that she not only entered the Sabarimala temple but also touched the idol. Now women, impure as their bodies are, are not allowed inside the temple. Touching the idol would be even a more serious blasphemy since the God in question is a bachelor and a hermit.

Now some general bile. I don't understand why do we need to keep carrying the baggage of our tribal ignorance and continue with such stupid superstitions and idolatry. If at all you want to use human organs as symbols of fertility please use testes and ovary which at least makes some scientific sense. Penis and vagina are insignificant organs (okay okay, scientifically speaking of course!) and play a marginal role in the whole reproductive system.

And why don't these religious people understand that much as the menstrual cycle corresponds to the lunar cycle (by the way, did you know menstruation and moon have the same etymological roots?) there is no evil cosmic force behind it. It is just the result of a biochemical process undelying the process of ovulation. How does it being pure or impure come into picture?

And what is this about the importance of Brahmacharya? As if we had some sperm container of a fixed capacity inside our body! As for lust, I understand it creates some problems but the solution is to do something about it and be done with it. Anyway, lust has always been unfairly stigmatised in our society. I am thinking of writing something on "Lust in Western Thought". Let me find something about it.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Some Hindi Books and a Poem by Amitabh Bachchan

Vacation over and I am back from the ancient city of Pataliputra (link to Wikipedia entry. Has this great line, "In spite of the very bad press, Patna has a moderate crime rate." Hmmm.) Anyway, it was a regular home visit. Attended a cousin sister's marriage. And for those who were worried(!) my own marital status is not changing anytime soon!

Now for the main thing. I was reading lots of Hindi books at home. And since the online world contains so little information about Hindi literature (I am sure it is true for other Indian languages too) I thought I should add something to the blogosphere. More detailed posts will follow.

Will start with a book which both shocked and disappointed me. Rahul Sankrityayan was one of the most important and widely travelled scholars of his time. He spent most of his life travelling to far off places, learning different languages, collecting manuscripts and translating them into Hindi and other languages. His most important contribution was to the study of ancient and medieval Buddhist literature. He went to Tibet and spent many years there, mastering the Pali language and translating ancient Buddhist texts into Hindi and English. He was also known as Mahapandit (the great scholar). Now the shock and the disappointment part. I was reading his biography (actually it should be called hagiography) of Stalin and was shocked to see the level of ignorance and muddle headed propaganda in the book. It doesn't come as a surprise that his main sources are the "official" histories, interviews, memoirs and other documents published in the Russian language (he was obviously an expert in Russian too). He paints the portrait of Stalin as Mahamanav. He skirts and sweeps issues like the horrors of multiple famines, gulag, Hitler-Stalin pact etc under the carpet. He extols the ingenious five-year plans, the rapid industrialisation, Soviet Union's remarkable progress on the journey towards a classless society. Most of this praise is interspersed with merciless invectives towards the capitalists, Trostykites, Mensheviks, the Nomenklatura, the Kulaks and other enemies of the proletariat and the Soviet Union. I was surprised because I hadn't expected such language from a scholar, specially from someone who was known for his literary sensibilities. In the foreword to this book he mentions his desire to pen similar biographies of other "Mahapurush" like Marx, Lenin and Mao Tse-tung too. A look at his works informed me that he indeed wrote all of these, all within a year!

Anyway, all of this is written in a really high-falutin (in a nice way) and fluent Hindi and I read the whole book just for its prose. Also, I think the general euphoria was kind of understandable given the time when he wrote the book, Stalin had just died and the historic Khruschev speech, after which the official communist line tried to distance itself from Stalin, was still a few years ahead. Earlier I had picked up his Volga se Ganga Tak, the book for which he is most widely known. The book recounts the story of the Aryan Migration in a novelistic manner. I didn't finish the book because I soon got bored with it. (It was many years ago.) I was looking for it this time at home but couldn't find it. Anyway here is the wiki entry and here is another article about his life and works.

Peeli Chatri Wali Ladki
by Uday Prakash is one of the most widely discussed Hindi stories (it is actually a novella) of the last few years. I hadn't read anything by Uday Prakash before and it was a nice surprise. I look forward to reading more of his work. It is a very intriguing story with lots of surprises. I will write in detail about it later. Incidentally I later came to know that an English translation of the story won the international PEN award last year for best translation into English. The English version is called The Girl with a Golden Parasol. The award sounds justified. I would have definitely called it "yellow umbrella" which sounds a little too banal! Some information about Uday Prakash here.

I also read an anthology of modern (as in "modernist") short stories and was pleasantly surprised to discover a few stories and writers which I had not read before. One of them was Mannu Bhandari whose story Yehi Sach hai (this is the truth) is a delightful account of a love triangle. The summary would sound banal. It is actually about a young girl in her mid-twenties who is unable to decide which one of her loves has "the truth". The one who dumped her years ago when she was a teenager, who she meets again and her old feelings are reignited or her current boyfriend? The story is told in a series of diary entries and offers brilliant insights into the mind of the girl and explores the problems of indecision and uncertainty that goes with every romantic relationships, at least for people who are a little too self-aware of their feelings and character, like that girl in the story. Easily one of my favourite love stories ever. I later came to know that the story was made into a Hindi film Rajnigandha. I think I have seen it but don't remember anything about it. Anyway, I don't think any film can capture the introspective tone and inner struggles of the mind as well as a written story.

I then jumped onto her story collection and found another gem titled Stree Subodhini (roughly, Lessons or Wisdom for Women) there. It is a hilarious first-person account by a woman who is now in her early forties about a love affair that she had when she was young with her middle-aged and married boss, who also writes (guess) romantic poems! It is very funny and is brilliantly insightful about how our ideas about gender roles come into conflict with any idealized notions of love or romance. It is a brilliant put-down of romance, that too without being cynical, rhetorical, dry or smartassy. It is very funny and very playful. Certainly a lesson all young women should learn. Hahaha!

Then there was this massive autobiography of the great Hindi poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan. It is in four volumes and I read bits and pieces from all fours. It is indeed beautifully written, very honest without being either a self-advertisement or self-flagellant. It is a gentle, unintellectual yet insightful about issues of literature and life and very touching at various moments. Actually, I have never liked his most famous poem Madhushala (The Tavern. Or is it The Pub? Or The Bar?), whose romanticism I always find a little too naive and youthful (ahem!) for my tastes. Bachchan discusses (and manages to defend too) Madhushala and other poems of the same period, which were all about the praise of life of escape into love and alcohol, very well. He wrote Madhushala at the peak of the nationalist struggle in the mid thirties. Gandhiji was predictably very pissed off with him because of this. What I was actually looking for was the episode of the death of his first wife Shyama and as expected it was really very well done. Bachchan was extremely attached and devoted to his wife and after her death he went into an inconsolable creative stupor which lasted few years. After that he wrote his best poems (my opinion of course). Nisha Nimantran (Invitation to Night, or is it Night's Invitation?), Aakur Antar, Ekant Sangeet and a few others. He also wrote poems about moving on and getting on with life despite losses like Jo Beet Gayi So Baat Gayi and Need ka Nirman Fir (which is also the title of one of the autobiography volumes). He soon met a sikh girl named Teji Suri and promptly fell in love. They got married couple of years afterwards and soon Amitabh and Ajitabh were born. This episode is also very interesting. Bachchan and Teji Suri meet at a common friend's house and request is made to Bachchan for a poem recital. He chooses one of his poems which express cynicism about love, titled Kya Karoon Samvednayein Lekar Tumhari ? (what do I do with your sentiments?). They were obviously attracted to each other from before but soon after the poem they were both in tears and they knew they were in love. I am making it sound childish and cheesy but you have to read the book (Need ka Nirman Fir, the second volume) to get the real thing. It works there, I assure you!

Okay so now coming to what I promised in the title of the blog. A poem by Amitabh Bachchan. The final volume also contains the episode of Amitabh battling for his life after he was injured while shooting for Coolie. While recovering at the Breach Candy Hospital in Bombay Amitabh scribbles the following lines in his notebook. His father translates those lines in Hindi. The Hindi version follows (in non-standard transliteration of course)

Breach Candy Hospital
ICU Room No. 1, Bombay
29th August 1982



Granite ugly rocks
Turbulent mud-laden sea-
Dark frightening clouds hovering above-


Whiteness, purity
Clean sheets, soft pillows
Gentle care, soft words
And my agony-

--Amitabh Bachchan


Upar mandrate, darpate
Andhiyala chhate se badal
Neeche, kali kathor bhaddi chattano per
Uchhal, matmaili jaladhi-tarangon ki kreeda


Sab ujjwal, shuddh, saaf
Chadar safed, komal takiye,
Dheeme-dheeme swar se sinchit
Mamtamay sari dekh-rekh
Au' meri ekaki peeda

With the connection between "
jaladhi-tarangon ki kreeda" and "Aur meri ekaki peeda" the Hindi translation works better in expressing a feeling of contrast between "outside" and "inside" than the English version by Bachchan Jr. Thats what I think. It is also comforting to know that even Amitabh feels lonely when in pain, that too when millions were ready to do anything for him. Anyway here's a link to Wiki entry of Harivansh Rai Bachchan.

I think this post has already become a little too long. I wanted to write about Yashpal, Phanishwarnath Renu, Nirmal Verma, Krishna Sobti and others too but all those for later posts.

Friday, June 16, 2006

On Vacation

I am off on vacation from tomorrow. I am planning to keep it internet-free. So no posts for a couple of weeks. Bye.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Short Notes on a Few European Films Seen Last Week

I have been watching a hell lot of movies in the last few weeks. The film society has gotten really active and there is a European (mostly French though) film festival going on too. I have been to back-to-back screenings before but this time I am just feeling too tired. Perhaps it was because of this that I found most of the movies disappointing (even the "difficult", "arty" types which I automatically would have called a masterpiece!). Here are some of the more prominent ones which disappointed me.

1. Ulysses' Gaze by Theo Angelopoulos: I had seen Eternity and a Day by Angelopoulos earlier which was so bad in its perceived self-importance that it was literally embarassing to watch. It shamelessly traded in those typical art-house cliches -- those Tarkovskian long takes, fog, melancholy people reciting bad poetry etc. (Jim Hoberman cuts it down to size in the village voice really well. worth reading.) Ulysses' Gaze is not so bad. It still looks like a derivative of Tarkovsky, specially The Mirror. The movie puports to tell the entire twentieth century history of Greece and the entire middle Europe. Just like Tarkovsky Angelopoulos adopts a "poetic" style over a more realistic documentary approach. It was perhaps just my ignorance of history which got me disinterested soon with the events being portrayed on the screen. After that it was just an endless wait for the end credits to roll, a wait which lasted almost three hours. I think the film does make some serious point about things like history, collective memory and the role of artist in turbulent times but it never convinced me to put an extra effort to decipher all the different strands and images, so pompous was its tone. The main thing which irritated me, and which differentiates him from Tarkovsky, is that Angelopoulos latches on the elements of emotional drama in the overall narrative. His style is more suited for a sustained mood throughout rather than for providing emotional jolts to the reader. For example, no one ever cries in a Tarkovsky film whereas there are many scenes where characters break down in this film, all embarassing to watch. Erland Joesephson who starred in some of Tarkovsky's later films is present here too. I had no clue why Harvey Keitel was cast though. The role was so against the type. Link to Rotten Tomatoes reviews.

2. Songs from the Second Floor: Songs from the Second Floor is a surrealist Swedish film which won the grand jury prize at the 2001 Cannes film festival. Like all surrealist films it doesn't have a plot or a conventional narrative. There are just fragmented and independent set pieces and sight gags which ultimately do cohere into a whole in a thematic sort of way. And at the end of it all, the film does make a few powerful points about the collapse of the capitalist society, which in the film's vision means collapsing stock market, endless traffic jams and business executives taking a self-flagellating procession on the street. A couple of episodes do stand out. After a businees of selling crucifixes fails (and we see a big dump of christ paraphernalia in the junkyard), another character tells the businessman, "how could any one have made money from that crucified loser?". That was I thought very funny. Also a comment on how religion has been turned into a commodity being sold and bought in the spiritual marketplace. There are also many other such funny scenes. An erstwhile poet who is now in a mental asylum, his dad who has burned his own furniture company, a ghost wandering since the second world war, another ghost who had some financial troubles. Overall I admired the film but at the end of it all it left me significantly underwhelmed. Perhaps I wasn't paying the attention that it deserved. Link to Reviews here.

3. The Barbarian Invasions by Denys Arcand: Okay, this isn't from Europe but from Quebec Canada, but it is in French. It also won the academy award for best foreign film in 2003. I am a big fan of the dying-with-regret-and-disappointment genre of films (like Bergman's Wild Strawberries) and I loved this one too. It is about how the people from the sexual liberation generation, brought up on politics of radicalism, end up with disappointment and regret at the end of it all. It is brillianty written and acted piece of drama and the grim humour was fantastic too. There were a few sentimental and manipulative scenes and Arcand's politics of defeatist conservatism, his philistine anti-intellectualism and a naive sense of history softened my enthusisasm a little bit. But otherwise an excellent entertainment. Link to reviews here.

4. Lemming: A beautiful and smart french couple are living a happy and contented life, that is, until the husband's boss and his strange wife come to dinner to their place. The dinner soon turns into a scene of bizarre confrontation. In the meanwhile the wife finds a live lemming in her kitchen sink and soon irrationality takes over and the film moves into a David Lynch territory. I found the symbolism a bit heavy-handed, if not obvious and they didn't reveal much about the themes or character much either. I know, sexual desire and insecurity can work in mysterious and powerful ways and it is often strong enough to alter one's perspective and sense of reality. The idea was good, the actors were great too but overall it doesn't work out very well. Link to more reviews.

There were a few more movies. But this post has already become too long. Later, or never.

Susan Sontag on The Melancholy of Resistance

I was looking for some information on the Hungarian novelist Krasznahorkai and his book The Melancholy of Resistance (what a delightful title!) and came across this praise for the book from Susan Sontag:

"An inexorable, visionary book by the contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse who inspires comparison with Gogol and Melville. Krasznahorkai's novel is both an anatomy of desolation, desolation at its most appalling, and a stirring manual of resistance to desolation - through inwardness."

I don't know if it is on the blurb of the book, but for me it is enough to convince of book's greatness !

Although after reading more about it, the book really looks a little too highbrow for me. As cheshire cat also informed in the comments to the previous post, Krasznahorkai doesn't believe in paragraphs and I also learned that the first sentence of the novel is one hundred seventy four words long!

A post on the book on Waggish blog and an article on the Bela Tarr movie adaptation in Sight and Sound

Monday, June 12, 2006

Damnation by Bela Tarr

I first heard of the avant garde Hungarian film director Bela Tarr early this year when his mammoth masterpiece (it runs over seven hours) Satantango was being shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The New York Times had an ecstatic write up about the film and somewhere else the MOMA screening was called the "cultural event of the year". I was intrigued after reading about the film and his other work. So, I was naturally very excited when our film society decided to show Damnation this Friday and after seeing it, I don't hesitate a bit to call it a Masterpiece (yes, with the capital 'M').

This article in Kinoeye website has an excellent overview of Tarr's career so far. It also has this following plot summary of the film (although the film is essentially experimental, it also has a fairly conventional, if pared down, plot):

Damnation is close to being a genre film in its story of love and betrayal, a theme that Tarr has described as being very simple, —even "primitive." Karrer lives a withdrawn life in a mining community where his evenings all end up in the Titanik bar. He is offered a smuggling job by the bar's owner but passes it on to Sebestyn, husband of the singer at the bar. In Sebestyn's absence, Karrer and the wife sleep together and Karrer seeks a lasting relationship. He considers denouncing Sebestyn to the police. On Sebestyn's return, there is a confrontation between the two men and the bar owner takes the woman to his car, where they have sex. The next day, Karrer denounces them all. In the final scene, Karrer approaches a waste tip in the pouring rain where he confronts a barking dog. Getting down onto his hands and knees, he barks at it until it is forced into retreat.

What is most remarkable about the film is its style. It is shot in long, really long takes with the camera always tracking in extremely slow motion. And what exactly does the camera capture? Well, it is very difficult to say in words. Suffice to say that the end feeling is of relentless despair, defeat and irredeemable gloom. In fact Tarr's pessimism is so deep and his sense of futility is so profound that the film overall doesn't depress at all. Rather, it makes your own sadness look petty, boring and unartistic! There are few dialogues in the film but whenever some one speaks, it is some apocalytic aphorism. At one point Karrer confesses that "nothing scares him more than children with their bright eyes and cute little faces, because they swindle mankind into going on with this charade and condemn us all to an eternity of horror." A little later, in the same scene he muses, "if it made any sense to speak at all". Moreover, he is disgusted by the will to survive that animals, including human beings, show and condemns love as "that pathetic clinging"!

It is really very difficult to write anything about this film. It is incredibly rich in visual detail and it is not easy to reduce its subject matter to few thematic issues either. By the way, this was also one of the favourite films of Susan Sontag, the great American critic, who championed Tarr's films in her essays and lectures calling them, "some of the very few heroic violations of cinematic norms of our times".

I will just point to some articles on the net. Other than the kinoeye article, here is an overview by Jonathan Rosenbaum and a capsule review of the film here. Another review from the Guardian website (from where I took the quotes) here. Link to Tarr's interviews here and here.

I can't wait to get my hands on Werckmeister Harmonies and Satantango. The later though is still unreleased on DVD.

Friday, June 09, 2006

In which I try to explain why I like Antonioni in pseudo-intellectual terms

My fanboyish ejaculations on Antonioni's films a couple of posts earlier drew startled responses from a couple of friends (Bhaya and Anurag, this is for you!). They felt that it deviated from the norms of pseudo-intellectual pretentions that this blog generally displays. And after all, being a pseudo-intellectual, how can you just "like" something without giving a proper theoretical justification or dropping a few names, preferably from the western tradition? Also, my saying that I like depressed and beautiful women was found to be shockingly childish. So this post is an exercise in damage control, an attempt to restore the reputation of being a pseudo-intellectual. In what follows I explain why I like Antonioni (specially those three films, L'Avventura, La Notte and L'Eclisse) in a very pseudo-intellectualish way of course:

First, depressed beautiful women. Let me put it this way. I love the portrayal of a profound sexual melancholy in Antonioni's films, in his female characters specially. Sexual melancholy, as in, when you are feeling completely isolated, disconnected and alienated from your surroundings and yet deeply long for a serious erotic union with the Other. Or, in less pretentious terms, you are feeling sad, alone and horny all at the same time. Antonioni connects sexual desire with a general anxiety and uncertainty that the characters feel about everything and which gradually eats away at their souls. No wonder that Monica Vitti after being depressed in all these three films finally reaches mental asylum in Red Desert, which is a continuation of the trilogy.

Second, getting away from the classical concerns of character or narrative. Antonioni took narrative cinema away from straight storytelling, towards a realm where he could explore ideas in a more direct manner. People looking for narrative closure and clean-cut explanations for character behavior will be disappointed with his films. What is important there, is the "mood", which Antonioni creates and sustains by employing very stylish camera work and scene compositions. And through this he explores the ideas in a purely visual manner. But what exactly are those ideas? Feelings of radical alienation and disconnection from the surroundings and from other human beings, that have become an inevitable part of modern urban life, find a potent expression in his films and specially in the face of Monica Vitti and Jeanne Moreau. His films are a critique of the idea of modernity and document the costs of material prosperity in terms of wasted human lives and potential for genuine happiness and fulfillment. The most common symbol he chooses to show this is that of modern architecture. All those empty buildings, which in their weird geometric shapes, just seem to be completely devoid of any human element whatsoever. As if the world itself is trying to reject humanity. The same is for the emptied streets on which Monica Vitti spends most of the time just walking aimlessly. It's the streets and roads which have deserted human beings, not the other way round.

Third, his concern with the mise-en-scene and scene composition. Antonioni was perhaps the most stylish filmmaker of his generation. What is most remarkable is how he composes his scenes specially how he chooses what to put in background and what in foreground. Normally, in a scene the protagonist will occupy the centre of the frame and the entire focus will be on him with the background there only to supply the context, or as in Hollywood films, to make the scene look "beautiful" (in the most cliched way of course). In Antonioni's films the background is a character in itself, sometimes even more important than the protagonists in front of them. For example, in that brilliant island sequence of L'Avventura, it is that landscape which occupies most of the frame, with the characters there only in corners, or else, shot in such long shots as to make their personality relatively unimportant as compared to those landscapes. It creates a weird disorienting effect in the viewer. Also remarkable is the scene where Claudia and Sandro make love in an open field. It is shot in such an unconventional style, that just by watching the sex scene, you get the idea that it is an empty sexual connection, one that is not going to last.

Fourth, cinema of absence. What troubles many people when watching these films is why do the characters just walk and walk on those empty streets? Why are the buildings always vacant? And in general, why is there so much of open space everywhere? I think it is a very radical idea, the idea that you can comment on something by NOT showing something where it was expected. It is in this context that the brilliant ending of L'Eclisse makes sense. The two lovers in the end promise to meet once again to continue their affair but looking at their faces and the way they utter those words, it becomes clear that it is an empty promise after all. What follows is a long (seven minutes) sequence of silent shots of the place and its neighbourhood where they were supposed to meet. It is by the emptiness in those spaces that we find out that the spark of love has indeed died and that it is truly THE END in every sense of the term. The final scene is that of a street lamp which resembles an eclipse, perhaps signifying an apocalypse or the end of the world itself.

Fifth, cinema of silence. There is a general tendency in people that when there is no sound coming from the screen they shut down their sensory perceptions. That's the reason why background score is so ubiquitous in Hollywood movies, or for that matter any cinema which relies solely on "action". In contrast, Antonioni's cinema is a cinema of thoughts, moods and ideas. What makes these films even more masterful is that Antonioni relies solely on visual style. Dialogues can never get you inside the head of the character, specially when the characters in question are feeling alienated, that's why there are so many silent scenes and even when someone speaks something it does nothing to propel the plot forward. So on the surface you get the feeling that "nothing is happening" but it is inside the head of those characters that things are happening which is like it is in the real world too.

Sixth, the impossibility of love in the modern world. These three films are some of the most eloquent essays on the phenomenon of the breakdown in human relationships, specially in the advanced and modern societies. What makes these films so disquieting and despairing is that Antonioni doesn't treat it as a problem which has anything to do with the individuals in question but rather treats it just as a symptom, a symbol signifying a far deeper malaise in the society. It is in this context that the final reconciliatory scene (or is it?) in L'Avventura makes sense.In modern societies we have done away with the moorings of tradition, family, religion or community but haven't replaced them with anything substantial. Eros in itself isn't powerful enough a force to keep people together, that's what Antonioni suggests. In a remarkable scene in L'Eclisse towards the end, sensing that her relationship with her stockbroker boyfriend is going to end Vittoria says, "I wished I didn't love you or I loved you much more". It is this uncertainty towards everything which has crept in our consciousness, because we have forsaken the certainties, false of course, of religion or tradition, that is creating havoc in our lives, ultimately leading to unhappiness, ennui and anxiety.

Finally Antonioni's influence. Antonioni was easily the most stylish and radically innovative filmmakers of his generation and it his style and thematic questions that concern most of the great filmmakers currently working, specially those exploring the phenomenon of alienation and urban isolation and dislocation like Michael Haneke, Wong Kar-wai, Tsai Ming-liang and others. They all trace their pedigree to Antonioni. He has been responsible for freeing narrative cinema from the pre-modern shackles of conventional storytelling and brought cinema back to the level of literature (well, almost) of its time.

Anyway if you are in New York, don't miss the Antonioni retrospective which is on at the BAM cinematheque all this week. Details here. I can only imagine what kind of experience it would be to watch L'avventura on the big screen for the first time. I had earlier linked to the articles about the retrospective in NYT and Village Voice.

I had earlier written a post on L'Eclisse. You can find it here.

International Film Week in Bangalore

It might sound incredible but it is happening. A bunch of award winning French and other European films are getting released here in Bangalore just like commercial films -- in the film theatres, not on some dvd projection or any esoteric film society. And not only that, the film festival will also tour smaller towns in Karnataka like Hubli, Mysore, Belgaum and Mangalore. This news report has more details about the event. It also says that people behind it are planning to take it to (gasp) Patna, my home town!! Anyway, whoever are the people behind it, I can only say, more power to them! I hope it becomes a regular event.

I was at the inaugural ceremony and the screening of last year's Golden Palm winner L'Enfant yesterday. It's a brilliant film, totally deserving of all awards and the critical acclaim it has received. Although it has been compared with Robert Bresson's Pickpocket (to which it is an obvious homage), the film is not as abstract as its predecessor. It works very well at the surface level too. It is a fast paced thriller (it even has a chase sequence) and an affecting emotional drama. It is also magnificently acted, something you won't find in Pickpocket. Towards the end, it rather alarmingly moves into the "triumph of human spirit" and "easy redemption" territory but it all works out very well in this case.

It was a very satisfying experience overall. And yes, I was sitting in the row next to Girish Kasaravalli (the director of award winning films like Ghatashraddha and Dweepa) who was quiet all throughout! On the stage it was the commercial Kannada cinema all the way. A really slovenly looking "film star" (and a politician too) Ambarish was the chief guest. Did he come right out of a film set, playing some drunkard or something? Also another star of yesteryears Vishnuvardhan (the promotional booklet called him "Abhinaya Bhargava") was given some life time achievement award.

Anyway, I am looking forward to watching The Barbarian Invasions, The Beat That My Heart Skipped and other movies in the coming days. Hectic days ahead ;)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Love in the Western World

I have got hold of a very interesting book called Love in the Western World by some Swiss writer named Denis de Rougemont. It was originally published in French. I had heard of this book first in one of Woody Allen's films (was it Crimes and Misdemeanors?) and when I saw an old copy in a used book store, I picked it up. Now, I know, reading all these books about love is not going to do anything to change my life, which remains profoundly single, but I find Love to be a very interesting natural phenomenon which deserves to be understood in scientific, detached and objective manner(!!).

This book is actually a cultural history of romantic love in the western civilization. Yes, its cliched, vulgar and baser manifestations (Valentines day, Bollywood, Chick lit et al ) are surely products of culture or rather, of the capitalist system. I have read only a few chapters so far but I don't really agree with its central idea, and I don't think it is true either, the idea that romantic love as we know it today was an invention of the western culture, in particular the medieval lyric poets (also known as troubadours) who wrote songs about courtly love. Rougemont also claims that it was troubadours' idealization of passionate love that changed the social system, which was earlier based on arranged marriages. Marriage in noble classes was considered on opportunity to increase wealth and improve social standing (much the same as we have in our country prevalent even now). He also tries to explain the fascination adultery had for western writers and poets and tries to connect it all to one theory.

I don't think the idea of romantic love is a cultural construction. It is very definitely a human universal, that is it springs from basic human nature. It is also widely accepted by the currently fashionable branch of evolutionary psychology. We had for example, in our Eastern culture, an honourable share of poets who sang praises of love too. In fact there is whole genre (Shringar Rasa) dedicated to the celebration of love. Although there was very little psychology involved, most of these poems either objectified women and celebrated the beauty of their organs or otherwise confused it with religious ideals. But yes, the idea of conflating marriage and romance has been missing. That might be because of the deep-rooted feudal mentality which treats women as private property, sadly still so widely prevalent in our culture.

Will write about it when I finish the book, although it is a little difficult to read. It seems Rougemont had read all those books present in the Don Quixote's library! There are so many references to medieval literature and myths of which I know nothing about.


Michelangelo Antonioni is one of my favourite film directors. His "trilogy" of L'Avventura, La Notte and L'Eclisse are three of my favourite European films. I can watch them over and over again and never get bored. Yes, I just love those beautiful and depressed women. Depression has never looked sexier after these films :)

The New York Times has a nice, short article on the occasion of a retrospective of his films currently being shown in new york. Here.

And this is a nice article on his movie The Passenger which has just been released on DVD.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Decline of Eros (?)

First, sorry for the faux-academic title of the post. I wrote it one sleepless night sometime last week and don't want to reread or edit it now. Long post and may not make enough sense!

I have been reading some gender and feminism related posts on the blogosphere and coupled with Elfriede Jelinek's Lust, some of whose phrases and sentences have stuck in my thoughts, have set me thinking about these things--in particular a book which I read a few months back, at least parts of it. The book was Love and Friendship by the University of Chicago professor and an eminent conservative intellectual Allan Bloom. Bloom is famous for his iconoclastic manifesto of cultural conservatism, The Closing of the American Mind in which he lambasted lots of currently fashionable "isms" without caring for political correctness. He was also a close friend of American Nobel laureate Saul Bellow and role model for the eponymous character of his novel Ravesltein.

Love and Friendship is basically another conservative polemic against trends in contemporary culture but unlike most conservative rants it is quite sophisticated and shows deep learning and understanding of the entire western tradition of the author. The basic argument in the book is that egalitarianism and its various manifestations like individualism, feminism etc. have gone a little too far. And he traces the problems of isolation and atomism of the bourgeois society to this. He claims that these isms have devalued the role of Eros (as in its classical meaning) as the basis of human connection. He argues that we live in a world where love and friendship are withering away. Scientific reductionism and related materialist philosophies have reduced eros to sex. In particular he rounds up Freud and Kinsey (who claimed that sexual practices normally considered deviant were common is American society) as suspects and gives them both a thorough dressing down. He perhaps wasn't familiar with the currently fashionable breed of evolutionary psychologists, who are much more sophisticated in their methodologies and claims, but reach essentially the same conclusions, at least at an abstract level, namely, all our noble feelings, emotions etc. which form the basis of any romantic connection have an essentially functional role, which is to propagate our genes in the gene pool of the next generation. Some of these emotional behavior seem anachronistic in the current culture, but that is only because these behaviors were adapted during the hunter-gatherer periods. Bloom, of course, finds all these reductionist attitudes to Eros loathsome. He makes the traditional humanist claim, that is, we are different and superior to animals. So sex in human beings, coupled as it is with thought and imagination, becomes far more complex than pure animal lust. It gets transformed into Eros and becomes the basis of a profound connection between two human beings.

Bloom then advises us to turn to great writers and thinkers of the western tradition to understand this phenomenon. The book is actually a long critical study of Rousseau's Emile, Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Flaubert's Madame Bovary in the light of understanding how Eros works and how our understanding of this has changed over the course of history. There is also a very long discussion of Plato's Symposium and how ancients viewed Eros. There are also very learned expositions of Shakespeare's plays, which I didn't read, unfamiliar as I was with the plays in question (Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra et al).

All of this was okay with me, although I do think he slightly misreads the doctrine of reductionism. To reduce something to understandable small units is not to devalue the complexity of the original whole. Mystery and beauty, be it of love or any other natural phenomenon (for that is what it is), shouldn't be based on ignorance of how it works. Understanding the optics of how a rainbow is formed should not, and indeed does not, devalue its beauty.

What brought me thinking about the book was what Bloom had to say about feminism and contemporary trends in thinking about gender. He, rightly, treats gender as a fact of nature, which is entirely okay, but is extremely sceptical of our attempts to transcend this fact through political means (which is what feminism is all about). But he doesn't cite the usual conservative argument ("it is utopian, it will never work"). Moving human relationships to a gender-neutral territory, just like in so many other areas, is one of the ideals of feminism and I think it is a very worthwhile ideal. But he calls such attempts, exercises in "pathologically misguided moralism" which turns "such longing [for the beautiful] into a sin against the high goal of making everyone feel good, of overcoming nature in the name of equality", adding that, "love of the beautiful may be the last and finest sacrifice to radical egalitarianism". He lambasts and ridicules feminist aims, for example, Male and female are no longer to be reciprocal terms, and male habit of supposedly forcing women into such reciprocity is what must go. And because of this "misguided moralism" what used to be understood as modes of courtship are now seen as modes of male intimidation and preying on the weaknesses and anxieties of women. He then moves on the Nietzsche and his pessimistic philosophy that all human relations, and specially the sexual ones, follow from one motivational principle in man, the Will to Power. Everything is power relationships, crude power, the will to dominate, to have things one's own way. This is what turns love into a power struggle and romantic relationships into contractual matters to be litigated. In fact Bloom bemoans how pseudo-scientific words like "relationships" and "commitment" have highjacked the original lovers' discourse. Also related is the demonization of male lust which is seen as an oppresive force (as in Jelinek's book) from which women must be protected and set free.

The best part of the book was where he traces the history of Eros (or Romance) in literature. Specially in the discussion of The Red and the Black and Madame Bovary, two of my favourite novels. (I haven't read Anna Karenina or Rousseau's book and find Pride and Prejudice very boring). Stendhal masterfully showed the hypocrisy behind any act of courtship. Julien Sorel uses the language of war to make his moves against the "enemies" and finally "conquers" them. So much for nobel feelings of love. And Flaubert, he pretty much made sure that no one could use the word romantic and be honest at the same time. And in the twientieth century literature it was as if there was race for who had the most terrible things to say about human condition and surely the word "romantic" itself became a term of abuse, supposed to mean "naive and stupid fool".

So now what do I think? I think, there is some substance to the claim that divorcing sex from the platonic ideals of human connectedness, the goals of sexual liberation, has resulted in the loss of something which is something very human. This also explains why pornography has become so mainstream and even respectable, at least something that is not frowned upon and in modern contemporary society which is so full of sexual opportunities, individuals still remain disonnected, like isolated atoms completely adrift. (Btw, there is a brilliant and utterly horrific portrait of this phenomenon in Michel Houellebecq's novel The Elementary Particles.)

What I don't agree with are his claims about egalitarianism, individualism or feminism. I think the recognition of individual rights has been a matter of great progress, even though it has meant the interference of law and state into the private world of human relationships and redefinition of those relationships in legal terminologies. Also I think the transcending of gender in the name of the higher goal of equality is a very worthwhile goal. We have achieved it to a large extent in so many sectors of life and I don't think why human relationships should remain exempt. Surely Eros or the longing for the beautiful can't be the only basis of love. There can be so many other gender-neutral things which can supplant the conventional Eros. And giving your body to earn other's trust and respect (isn't that what it is?) anyway sounds a little too primitive to me!

But yes having said this, I think Bloom was getting a little paranoid about the whole thing. The radical feminism, individualism and demonization of male desire is still not mainstream. The courtship rituals continue as usual, women continue to aspire to become more and more beautiful, often at the cost of great personal discomfort, to attract male attention and gain an upper hand in the game of courtship (what would Stendhal have thought?). Most women still derive their world view from Mars and Venus type books rather than breaking their head over what people like Nietzsche, Derrida or Jelinek had to say. And I don't see things changing at all. I personally would like things to change towards a more egalitarian society but I don't see the current status-quo as a cause of despair either.

Horror and Respectability Deficit!!

A book review article on Horror fiction in the latest New York Times Book Review starts with this hilarious paragraph:

BECAUSE most right-thinking — i.e., literate, educated, professional-type — people consider horror fiction repulsive, juvenile or plain stupid, it's probably a good idea for me to acknowledge from the start that the genre's respectability deficit is fully deserved and even fundamental to its nature. The emotion horror stories strive to evoke — fear — is one that civilized folks are inclined to think of as low, primitive, animal. And it is, just like hunger, thirst and sexual desire. These are impulses that in most religious and many intellectual traditions derive value only from being controlled in the pursuit of piety or reason or whatever higher ideal of human behavior you happen to aspire to. Horror is, it's fair to say, pretty determinedly nonaspirational, which is perhaps why it appeals so strongly to teenagers, slackers and fatalists, and hardly at all to normal, functioning adults, who are busy keeping the more pressing everyday anxieties — disease, financial ruin, loss of love — at bay and who may fail to see the benefit of adding vampires and zombies and poltergeists to the list.

The rest of the article is quite good and insightful too.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Ian McEwan's Amsterdam

My McEwan binge continues. This is his third novel I have read in the last month! It was easier to read than the others, unlike Atonement its scope is very limited and it doesn't dabble in the clash of grand ideas like Enduring Love or Saturday. It is also a very slim book, it took me just a few hours to read the whole thing. The subject matter is grim as usual--the basic plot is about a euthanasia pact (assisted suicide will be more apt)--but the touch is always slight and tinged with humour, of the black variety of course. It is also a witty satire on, well, lots of different things. The best of which is the insight into the mind a really vain artist full of delusions of grandeur. The music composer Clive has no trouble thinking of himself as "genius". And McEwan has this to say explaining his dubious moral behaviour and how they justify pleading a special case on account of being "artists":

These types - novelists were by far the worst - managed to convince friends and families that not only their working hours, but every nap and stroll, every fit of silence, depression and drunkenness bore the exculpatory ticket of high intent.

And the best is how he portrays the inner working of a newspaper office. This is the editor addressing his team:

It's time we ran more regular columns. They're cheap, and everyone else is doing them. You know, we hire someone of low to medium intelligence, possibly female, to write about, well, nothing much. You've seen the sort of thing. Goes to a party and can't remember someone's name. Twelve hundred words.

Ha! Do the TOI editors (or whatever they call those people there) think the same about Shobha De I wonder! Hahaha!!

Complete Review page of the book here.

And the Bravest Actress Award goes to... of my favourites, Naomi Watts. According to news reports, she has been signed up for lead roles in Michael Haneke and David Cronenberg's next projects. Two filmmakers responsible for some of the most disturbing and violent films of recent times. Also two filmmakers who take themselves seriously and deservedly so. I was slightly disappointed to learn that Haneke is remaking his own German thriller Funny Games. I hope the new American version is different because I don't know if Funny Games can be improved in any sense. It is already as nasty as it can get. Cronenberg's next project, titles Eastern Promises, sounds equally dark. It is a story about illegal sex trafficking and prostitution in underground London. Viggo Mortensen is playing the other lead role. I hope Watts shines in both of the movies and so do the two directors. It was such a shame that Watts was ignored for her performance in David Lynch's Mulholland Dr.

Link to the news item.