Status quo is under threat again. I might be going back to US shortly. So no blogging will happen for a few weeks, at least before I settle down at the new place. Bye.
Thursday, July 27, 2006
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Just finished watching the brilliant Canadian documentary The Corporation. It is brilliant, sharp, funny, entertaining and ultimately grim examination of what the film calls, "the most dominant institution of our times." And for someone like me, who has never looked up inside any law book in my whole life, it was also very educational and enlightening. For example, I didn't know that in the legal parlance the corporation is viewed just as a normal person with the same rights as any other real person would have. But since it is only a legal abstraction it has no moral responsibilities and is not bound by any moral law. It is this insight that the filmmakers use to compare it to a typical psychopath and find that it indeed displays all the symptoms of a psychopath.
The film is full of facts and is exhaustively researched. It goes into the history of the origins of private ownership and property rights and the origins of the concept of "limited liability." The film has an interesting historical anecdote to tell about the origins of corporate law. There was something called the 14th amendment of the US constitution which was meant to protect the rights of the black slaves who were freed but instead it was used by the clever corporate lawyers to ask protection for corporations. It all sounds slightly bizarre and kafkaesque but thats what it is.
Anyway, the movie then goes on to compile a laundry list of corporate abuses, all done in an extremely entertaining fashion, using vintage advertising, instructional videos and lots of talking heads. Most notably Noam Chomsky (of course) and Milton Friedman, who rubbishes (rightly I think) the idea of corporate social responsibility by saying, "can a building have a social responsibility?" and then says that any kind of social responsibility is against the very idea of why corporation came into existence in the first place, that is to make as much profit as possible for the shareholders. There are also academics and heads of industry giving their views. Most interesting was the CEO of Shell who recounts his experience with a small group of protesters who came to his house with banners proclaiming him a "murderer." He and his wife greet the protesters with a cup of tea and then he says that he is interested in the same things as they are as a person but as a CEO he feels helpless. There is also the head of a company which is the world's largest carpet maker telling how he turned green.
The main point that the filmmakers make is that it is not the persons running the corporation who do the evil deeds but it is rather in the DNA of the corporation itself. It is like a fascist bureaucracy, even a person with a normal moral impulse will feel helpless before the logic of profit making. Of course the classical economics says that the pursuit of profit ultimately results in overall social good, the invisible hand of Adam Smith being responsible for it. But it is applicable only under strict and theoretical assumptions involving well defined property rights. It basically means privatize river, sky, ocean, forests, basically assign ownership to everything and then the "externalities" will disappear automatically. What is interesting is the way corporations relentlessly find ways to "externalise" their costs in newer and newer ways, opening sweatshops in third world companies for example; by employing children and giving them starvation wages. And if you protest you will get a lecture on free trade and "comparative advantage" or by claiming that "it could be worse." -- people would die of starvation if Nike wouldn't have opened its sweatshops there!
Personally the most disturbing part of the documentary was where an advertising executive explains the research that her firm did on what she called "the nag factor" of children. These guys went on to hire professional psychologists and behavioral experts to find better ways to manipulate children's minds so that they could nag their parents into buying their products in a much more effective manner. Also the way it explains how the tyranny of consumerist culture forces us to equate our self-worth to the number of artificially created wants that can be satisfied is just brilliant.
There is lots more in the documentary, about water privatization, seed patenting, media muzzling, military-industrial complex, callous stock-brokers and war profiteers and much much more. It is a fantastic summary of lots of very important debates happening all across the world. In short it is just imperative viewing for everybody.
Some links: Official site here. This looks like a good website about how to protect children from advertising. An article on the film from The Economist magazine here. Finally, the wikipedia entry on Corporation and lots of reading stuff on this organization's website.
Monday, July 24, 2006
It might be because I have seen too many movies about sexual discontent, dysfunctional families, urban anomie and melancholia etc. in the recent past that I found The River by the acclaimed Taiwanese director Tsai Ming Liang extremely underwhelming, even though it is expertly made and packs quite a punch. I think I need to take a break from this sex-is-hell genre of movies now. Two contrasting reviews here and here. I mostly agree with the former.
Friday, July 21, 2006
The collective chaos film society is organising a film festival of South East Asian films this weekend. It gets repeated over the next weekend too. Though I have already seen four out of seven planned, I am excited about watching them again. Specially 2046, one of the best and certainly the sexiest movie I saw the whole of last year and The River by Tsai Ming Liang which I have not seen before. I also quite liked this Thai movie Last Life in the Universe when I saw it last year, a rather "cute" take on suicide, loneliness and love! Will watch it again...
Link to the schedule. If you are in Bangalore, be there!
Thursday, July 20, 2006
To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be place[d] under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.
Posted by Alok at 7:58 pm
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
In an article in the new york times A O Scott muses on the relevance of film critics after two films, The Da Vinci Code and Pirates of the Carribean sequel, which were both universally panned, went on to become highest grossers of the year so far...
So why review them? Why not let the market do its work, let the audience have its fun and occupy ourselves with the arcana — the art — we critics ostensibly prefer? The obvious answer is that art, or at least the kind of pleasure, wonder and surprise we associate with art, often pops out of commerce, and we want to be around to celebrate when it does and to complain when it doesn’t. But the deeper answer is that our love of movies is sometimes expressed as a mistrust of the people who make and sell them, and even of the people who see them. We take entertainment very seriously, which is to say that we don’t go to the movies for fun. Or for money. We do it for you.I think movies are still far more democratic than other cultural media, specially as compared to literature where a very rigid hierarchy is in place. It also explains why the chief film critic of the new york times, a man obviously of some talent and calibre, has to spend his time writing about crap which the people are anyway going to see, regardless of what he says. The most that he can do is to invent a few one liners and make the review funny and amusing (which he does very well, read his reviews of the two movies). More than amusing the reader with elegant phrasings and witty wordplays (Anthony Lane of the new yorker is a master in this genre), the job of a critic should be to provoke the reader, show the reader new ways of looking at things, share some expert information with him and discuss the work with a proper context. If that means limiting the discussion to selected movies, then let be it. Is new york times expected to review each and every book that is released? All those paper back crime and horror books? Why should it be different for movies?
Posted by Alok at 6:21 am
Monday, July 17, 2006
I have been watching movies at a furious pace for the last more than a year. I think on an average it will almost be two-three movies every week. Almost all of them, the so-called "art movies" -- classics and contemporary, narrative or experimental, all kinds, even bollywood (Gangster was good, that was the last one). In that clogged movie going calendar of last year two events stand out very well. They were the anniversary screenings and big screen revivals of Charlers Laughton's The Night of the Hunter and David Lynch's Blue Velvet, which are easily two of the best American movies ever made (my opinion of course).
The Blue Velvet revival has now reached LA and the newspapers and magazines are reprinting their original reviews, essays and interviews about the movie. The all knowing and hard working folks at the green cine daily have collected lots of links in one page here. Really worth reading them all.
Sunday, July 16, 2006
71 Fragments starts by informing us that a young 19 year old student killed three people in a Viennese bank before shooting himself in the head. The film then shows, in exactly 71 disconnected shots (I didn't count), some random vignettes from the life of a bunch of characters and although the sequencing seems random, a narrative does emerge out of all this in the end, which manages to "explain" the freak incident.
Stylistically, it is a precursor to the similar but slightly superior Code Unknown that Haneke made in France. It is a similar tale of criss-crossing narrative, interstitial blackouts separating two scenes, scenes always ending in the middle of a dialogue etc etc. There are also lengthy and repeated media footage about the war in Sarajevo, Somalia and a curious news item about the trial of Michael Jackson on sex abuse charges. It rehearses his favourites theme about how media and TV contribute to social breakdown and individual alienation by providing us a false illusion of being connected with the reality and the world. There is a romanian refugee boy prowling the streets and living off the junk heaps. Then there is a couple who are having trouble with an exceptionally cold and distant girl who they are trying to adopt as a daughter. There is a long scene when a very needy old man just talks and talks to his daughter and grand-daughter on phone. The scene lasts for almost seven continuous minutes (yes I checked it) and it is extremely unnerving to see that old man so desperate to talk. There is another scene when a young man just keeps playing ping-pong with a mechanical ball thrower for what seems like eternity... The scene ends drastically although giving a feeling that he did feel unhinged and broke down after all. After all this the last shooting spree, although senseless and random, starts making sense in an abstract intellectual sort of way.
After the commercial and artistic success of Cache last year, Michael Haneke is at the peak of his career. May be that's the reason why the anthology film archives (full schedule here) in new york are showing a retrospective of his earlier films, which were never released in the US earlier. It is understandable why these films would have an extremely limited commercial appeal. More than the challenging and experimental narrative, it is the tone of these films, which is clinical, dry and forbiddingly intellectual, and the absence of humour, romance, happy endings or banal humanistic messages that will keep the casual audiences away. Their loss, that's what I say!
Short notices of the anthology retrospective from Village Voice, NYT and New York Sun. An essay on the film from the senses of cinema website here.
I had earlier written about Code Unknown, Cache, Funny Games and Seventh Continent. And a few days back about his movie adaptation of Kafka's The Castle.
Saturday, July 15, 2006
France may have lost in the world cup finals but there is enough solace for francophile moviegoers this summer. Of course, you have to be in Manhattan, Chicago or other big American cities to watch these movies. Those misfortunate enough to be living in dark and barbaric corners of the world, please wait for the DVD transfer. Anyway, a slew of French films by noted film directors are all getting released at the same time. First up is Heading South by Laurent Cantet, whose previous efforts Human Resources and Time Out were highly acclaimed dramas (and none of which I have seen so far!) about modern corporate life and class struggle. Heading South is about a middle aged woman, played by the rather weird looking French actress Charlotte Rampling (link to a still), traveling to Haiti in search of sexual fulfillment. The New York Times calls it, "one of the most truthful examinations ever filmed of desire, age and youth." Here's another one of those "trend-watching" articles, that the new york times editors are apparently so fond of, talking to few old and middle aged women who went to the screening.
Also two of the most famous icons of French cinema Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu are coming together again in a film called Changing Times by Andre Techine. The premise looks very interesting -- old lovers are reunited after many years but their love remains unrequited. Here's the review from the new york times. Also a period film Gabrielle based on a Joseph Conrad story directed by Patrice Chereu starring the ever so glorious and often frighteningly intense Isabelle Huppert and a melodrama by Francois Ozon about a young man dying of a terminal illness, Time to Leave. Reviews here and here. A O Scott ends his review of Ozon's film with this paragraph:
We are aware, throughout, that Romain is fundamentally alone, a state he seems to find both terrifying and calming. Occasionally, in memory and in fantasy, he comes face to face with his childhood self, encounters that make him appear a stranger to himself, rather than providing any kind of resolution or understanding. ÂTime to Leave,Â in the end, explains very little, choosing instead to emphasize the essential paradox that an individualÂs life is never complete and always over too soon.
Also, the Taiwanese film Yi Yi is getting released on DVD by criterion. I remember watching it early last year (on what I now come to know as an inferior DVD transfer) and getting a hell lot of bored with it, at least initially. It clocks over three hours of running time and moves very slowly but once it ends it does make you feel as if you haven't seen just the characters or the unfolding of a story but you have seen life itself. It is like reading one of those great and fat nineteenth century novels... The NYT reports on the new criterion transfer. A O Scott claims, "In exchange for three hours of your time, ''Yi Yi'' will give you more life." Heh... not sure about that, check it out for yourself.
Posted by Alok at 7:30 am
I wanted to point to these articles earlier but then forgot. It was about a new book titled "Manliness", written by a Harvard philosophy professor no less, about how the feminist movement and our quest for a gender-neutral society are undermining the great masculine virtues. Though reading the reviews I didn't get a very good idea of what those supposedly great masculine virtues were that the professor was trying to defend!
Anyway, here is Martha Nussbaum, who is a political philosopher herself, writing in the New Republic. It is long but brilliant, very informative and a comprehensive dismissal of Mansfield's arguments. Incidentally, Nussbaum also mentions an incident involving a Chicago White Sox player who manhandled his opponent and was chided by the male commentators for displaying a foolish and rather unmanly behavior. This caught my attention because of the recent Zidane affair. Zidane reportedly defended his actions on TV by saying, "I'm a man above all"! So was he displaying the great masculine virtue of chivalry, being protective towards his womenfolk, willing to use disproportionate retaliatory violence to defend their affronted honour? This whole debate looks to me direct out of Don Quixote and I thought it was settled in that book itself! This code of honour and chivalry thing is a part of the medieval worldview and it should remain there. I am surprised at how Zidane defended his actions using these arguments.
Anyway, here's a hilarious interview of the modern day Quixote, the philosophy professor, out to restore the great masculine virtues in the world:
Q:Yes, but fewer jobs depend on that sort of physical brawn as society becomes more technologically adept. Physical advantages are practically meaningless now that men are no longer hunter-gatherers.
A:I disagree with that.
Q:When was the last time you did something that required physical strength?
A:It's true that nothing in my career requires physical strength, but in my relations with women, yes.
A:Lifting things, opening things. My wife is quite small.
Q:What do you lift?
A:Furniture. Not every night, but routinely.
Lol! I so desperately want to attend this professor's classes!!
Some more funny reviews from NY Times, Weekly Standard and WSJ (the last two unintentional I suppose, given their conservative and anti-feminism bent)...
But yes, having said all this I think I will stand up for one masculine virtue, that of Stoicism. In the name of "sensitivity", "metrosexuality", Oprahesque psycho-babble about emotional self-expression (or actually emotional advertising) and other such dubious ideas, men are being forced to turn into sentimental crybabies, which is very unfortunate. I find few things creepier and more embarrassing than a man shedding tears. My dear fellow men, If you really can't hold it, at least do it in private. I think this world will be a better place if women also behaved the same. Lets all stand up for stoicism!!
Posted by Alok at 12:53 am
Friday, July 14, 2006
Girish has an excellent post on the usage of long takes in cinema.
It is surprising how the long take has become the single most differentiating stylistic device which separates commercial from the art-house movies these days. In fact it has become so mainstream that sometimes it almost feels like a cliche. The last time I felt this was while watching Ulysses's Gaze by Theo Angelopoulous. But yes, I agree, at least theoretically, long takes are far more scrupulous in artistic and moral sense as compared to functional cutting, in the sense that the long take allows the image to do the talking rather than the director or the editor forcing his own meaning on the image. Thus making it more faithful to reality which it seeks to capture.
Also filmbrain has some stills of the sublime Anna Karina from some obscure TV musical of hers. He has even uploaded a video! Also, did you know the North Korean dictator was also a film critic? Filmbrain has more details here.
Posted by Alok at 11:56 pm
A Hero of Our Time is a nineteenth century Russian romantic novel most famous for its portrayal of the Byronic hero (anti-hero?) Pechorin. It is a brilliant psychological analysis of the romantic imagination and offers a subtle moral critique of the romantic movement. I have collected some extracts from the novel which I really liked. These are from a translation I found on the internet (full text here) which looks to me slighty inferior (that is, more literal) than the Penguin Classics version which I had. Wikipedia has more information about the novel.
So here are some of Pechorin's thoughts on Boredom, Love, Women, Unhappiness, Life, Death and other things...
I have an unfortunate character. Whether it is my upbringing that made me like that or God who created me so, I don't know. I know only that if I cause unhappiness to others I myself am no less unhappy. I realize this is poor consolation for them--but the fact remains that it's so. In my early youth after leaving my parents, I plunged into all the pleasures money could buy, and naturally these pleasures grew distasteful to me. Then I went into high society, but soon enough grew tired of it; I fell in love with beautiful society women and was loved by them, but their love only aggravated my imagination and vanity while my heart remained desolate . . . I began to read and to study, but wearied of learning too. I saw that neither fame nor happiness depended on it in the slightest, for the happiest people were the most ignorant, and fame was a matter of luck, to achieve which you only had to be clever. And I grew bored . . . Soon I was transferred to the Caucasus--this was the happiest time of my life. I hoped that boredom would not survive under Chechen bullets--but it's no use. In a month I had become so accustomed to their whine and the breath of death that, to tell the truth, the mosquitoes bothered me more, and life became more boring than ever because I had now lost practically my last hope. When I saw Bela in my quarters, when I held her on my lap and first kissed her raven locks, I foolishly thought she was an angel sent down to me by a compassionate Providence . . . Again I was mistaken: the love of a savage girl is little better than that of a well-born lady. The ignorance and simplicity of the one are as boring as the coquetry of the other. I still love her, if you want to know. I am grateful to her for a few rather blissful moments. I am ready to die for her even, but I am really bored with her . . . I don't know whether I am a fool or a scoundrel, but the fact is that I am to be pitied as much, if not more than she. My soul has been warped by the world, my mind is restless, my heart insatiable--nothing satisfies me. I grow accustomed to sorrow as readily as to joy, and my life becomes emptier from day to day. Only one thing is left for me, and that is to travel. As soon as possible I'll set out--not for Europe, God forbid--but for America, Arabia, India--and maybe I'll die somewhere on the road! Ar least I'm sure that with the help of storms and bad roads this consolation won't soon cease to be a last resort.
My whole life has been a mere chain of sad and futile opposition to the dictates of either heart or reason. The presence of an enthusiast makes me as cold as a midwinter's day, and, I believe, frequent association with a listless phlegmatic would make me an impassioned dreamer.
And yet to possess a young soul that has barely developed is a source of very deep delight. It is like a flower whose richest perfume goes out to meet the first ray of the sun. One must pluck it at that very moment and, after inhaling its perfume to one's heart's content, discard it along the wayside on the chance that someone will pick it up. I sense in myself that insatiable avidity that devours everything in its path. And I regard the sufferings and joys of others merely in relation to myself, as food to sustain my spiritual strength. Passion is no longer capable of robbing me of my sanity. My ambition has been crushed by circumstances, but it has manifested itself in a new form, for ambition is nothing but lust for power, and my greatest pleasure I derive from subordinating everything around me to my will. Is it not both the first token of power and its supreme triumph to inspire in others the emotions of love, devotion and fear? Is it not the sweetest fare for our vanity to be the cause of pain or joy for someone without the least claim thereto? And what is happiness? Pride gratified.
It has always struck me as odd that I had never become the slave of the woman I loved. On the contrary, I've always acquired an invincible sway over their will and heart, without any effort on my part. Why is that? Was it because I've never particularly treasured anything and they've been afraid to let me slip out of their hands for a moment? Or was it the magnetic appeal of a strong personality? Or simply because I've never met a woman with enough strength of character?
I must admit that I don't care for women with a mind of their own--it doesn't suit them!
I thought for a moment and then said, taking on a deeply touched face: "Yes, such has been my lot since childhood. Everyone read signs of non-existent evil traits in my features. But since they were expected to be there, they did make their appearance. Because I was reserved, they said I was sly, so I grew reticent. I was keenly aware of good and evil, but instead of being indulged I was insulted and so I became spiteful. I was sulky while other children were merry and talkative, but though I felt superior to them I was considered inferior. So I grew envious. I was ready to love the whole world, but no one understood me, and I learned to hate. My cheerless youth passed in conflict with myself and society, and fearing ridicule I buried my finest feelings deep in my heart, and there they died. I spoke the truth, but nobody believed me, so I began to practice duplicity. Having come to know society and its mainsprings, I became versed in the art of living and saw how others were happy without that proficiency, enjoying for free the favors I had so painfully striven for. It was then that despair was born in my heart--not the despair that is cured with a pistol, but a cold, impotent desperation, concealed under a polite exterior and a good-natured smile. I became a moral cripple; I had lost one half of my soul, for it had shriveled, dried up and died, and I had cut it off and cast it away, while the other half stirred and lived, adapted to serve every comer. No one noticed this, because no one suspected there had been another half. Now, however, you have awakened memories of it in me, and what I have just done is to read its epitaph to you. Many regard all epitaphs as ridiculous, but I do not, particularly when I remember what rests beneath them. Of course, I am not asking you to share my opinion; if what I have said seems ridiculous to you, please laugh, though I warn you that it will not annoy me in the slightest."
Can it be, thought I, that my sole mission on earth is to destroy the hopes of others? Ever since I began to live and act, fate has somehow associated me with the last act of other people's tragedies, as if without me no one could either die or give way to despair! I have been the inevitable character who comes in at the final act, involuntarily playing the detestable role of the hangman or the traitor. What has been fate's object in all this? Has it destined me to be the author of middle-class tragedies and family romances--or a purveyor of tales for, say, the Reader's Library? Who knows? Are there not many who begin life by aspiring to end it like Alexander the Great, or Lord Byron, and yet remain petty civil servants all their lives?
I am very glad of it, for I love enemies, though not in the Christian way. They amuse me and quicken my pulse. To be always on one's guard, to catch every look and the significance of every word, to guess intentions, foil conspiracies, pretend to be deceived and then to overthrow with a single blow the whole vast edifice of artifice and design raised with so much effort--that is what I call life.
It is hard to convince women of anything--they must be brought to a point where they will convince themselves. The means of supplying evidence by which they finish off their prejudices is highly original, and to get to know their dialectic one must rid the mind of all academic rules of logic. For example, the ordinary method is this:
This man loves me; but I am married; hence, I must not love him.
The feminine method is this:
I must not love him because I am married; but he loves me, and hence . . .
Here follows a pregnant pause, for reason is now dumb, and all the talking is mainly done by the tongue, eyes, and eventually the heart, if there is one.
What if these notes should fall into a woman's hands some day? "Slander!" she will cry indignantly.
Ah, well! If I must die, I must! The world will lose little, and I am weary enough of it all. I am like a man who yawns at a ball and doesn't go home to sleep only because his carriage hasn't come. But now the carriage is here--goodbye
I run through my past life in my mind and involuntarily ask myself: Why have I lived? For what purpose was I born? There must have been a purpose, and certainly fate must have something noble in store for me, for I am conscious of untapped powers within me . . . But I didn't figure out my destination. I allowed myself to be carried away by the temptation of vain and frivolous passions. I emerged from their crucible hard and cold like iron, but gone forever was the ardor of noble aspirations--life's finest flower. How often since then have I played the role of an ax in the hands of fate! Like an instrument of execution I have fallen upon the heads of the condemned, often without malice, always without regret . . . My love has never made anyone happy, for I have never sacrificed anything for those I loved; I have loved only for myself, for my own pleasure. I have striven only to satisfy a strange craving of the heart, greedily absorbing their emotions, their tenderness, their joys and sufferings--and have never been fully satisfied. I have been like the starving man who falls into a stupor from sheer exhaustion and dreams of luxurious foods and sparkling wines--exultingly he shovels in these ephemeral gifts of the imagination, and seems to feel better--but when he awakes the vision is gone . . . and redoubled hunger and despair remain!
"You see, I'm past the age when people die with the names of their beloved on their lips and bequeath a lock of pomaded, or unpomaded, hair to a friend. When I think of imminent and possible death, I think only of myself; some do not even do that. Friends, who will forget me tomorrow, or, worse still, who will weave God knows what fantastic yarns about me; and women, who in the embrace of another man will laugh at me in order that he might not be jealous of the departed--what do I care for them? From life's turmoil I've drawn a few ideas, but no feeling. For a long time now I have been living by my reason, not my heart. I weigh and analyze my own emotions and actions with stern curiosity, but without sympathy. There are two men in me--one lives in the full sense of the word, the other reasons and passes judgment on the first. The first will perhaps take leave of you and the world forever in an hour now; and the second . . . the second? Look, doctor, do you see the three dark figures on the cliff to the right? I believe those are our adversaries." "You see, I'm past the age when people die with the names of their beloved on their lips and bequeath a lock of pomaded, or unpomaded, hair to a friend. When I think of imminent and possible death, I think only of myself; some do not even do that. Friends, who will forget me tomorrow, or, worse still, who will weave God knows what fantastic yarns about me; and women, who in the embrace of another man will laugh at me in order that he might not be jealous of the departed--what do I care for them? From life's turmoil I've drawn a few ideas, but no feeling. For a long time now I have been living by my reason, not my heart. I weigh and analyze my own emotions and actions with stern curiosity, but without sympathy. There are two men in me--one lives in the full sense of the word, the other reasons and passes judgment on the first. The first will perhaps take leave of you and the world forever in an hour now; and the second . . . the second? Look, doctor, do you see the three dark figures on the cliff to the right? I believe those are our adversaries."
It's pleasant for me to know, however, that I can weep! Although the real reason was perhaps frayed nerves, the sleepless night, the two minutes I had stood looking into the muzzle of a pistol, and an empty stomach.
I returned home through the deserted side streets of the settlement. The full moon, red as the lurid glow of a fire, was just coming up over the jagged skyline of the housetops. The stars shone placidly in the dark-blue firmament, and I was amused at the thought that there once were sages who believed the heavenly bodies have a share in our wretched squabbles over a tiny territory or some other imaginary rights. Yet these lamps, which they thought had been lighted only to illuminate their battles and triumphs, still burn with undiminished brilliance, while their passions and hopes have long since died out together with them like a campfire left burning on the fringe of a forest by a careless wayfarer. But what strength of will they drew from the certainty that all the heavens with their numberless inhabitants looked down on them with constant though mute sympathy! Whereas we, their wretched descendents, who roam the earth without convictions or pride, without joys or fear other than the nameless dread that constricts the heart at the thought of the inevitable end, we are no longer capable of great sacrifices either for the good of mankind or even for our personal happiness, since we know that happiness is impossible; and we pass indifferently from one doubt to another just as our forebears floundered from one delusion to another, without the hopes they had and without even that vague but potent sense of joy the soul derives from any struggle with man or destiny . . .
Thursday, July 13, 2006
Part of the essence of Beckett's outlook is to be found here - in the difference between an easily-acquired pessimism that rests content with untroubled scepticism, and a pessimism that is dearly bought and which penetrates to mankind's utter destitution. The former commences and concludes with the concept that nothing is really of any value, the latter is based on exactly the opposite outlook. For what is worthless cannot be degraded. The perception of human degradation - which we have witnessed, perhaps, to a greater extent than any previous generation - is not possible if human values are denied. But the experience becomes all the more painful as the recognition of human dignity deepens. This is the source of inner cleansing, the life force nevertheless, in Beckett's pessimism. It houses a love of mankind that grows in understanding as it plumbs further into the depths of abhorrence, a despair that has to reach the utmost bounds of suffering to discover that compassion has no bounds. From that position, in the realms of annihilation, rises the writing of Samuel Beckett like a miserere from all mankind, its muffled minor key sounding liberation to the oppressed, and comfort to those in need.There is also a nice defence of Shopenhauer, Pascal, Jonathan Swift and other gurus of gloom...
Mankind has drawn more strength from Schopenhauer's bitter well than from Schelling's beatific springs, has been more blessed by Pascal's agonized doubt than by Leibniz's blind rational trust in the best of all possible worlds has reaped - in the field of Irish literature, which has also fed Beckett's writing - a much leaner harvest from the whitewashed clerical pastoral of Oliver Goldsmith than from Dean Swift's vehement denigration of all humankind.
Posted by Alok at 4:51 am
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
David Lynch will receive an honorary Golden Lion this year at the Venice film festival. His latest film Inland Empire will also be premiered there.
The Guardian has a small news report about this here.
This is his first film shot entirely on video and he has said that it will be an experimental and non-narrative film. Ahem...
Posted by Alok at 10:59 am
I am still recovering from the Sunday night heartbreak. Bernard-Henri Levy waxing poetic on the whole Zidane affair isn't helping matters at all. It is actually very funny, and very sad too. Read it at the WSJ site here.
Achilles had his heel. Zidane will have had his--this magnificent and rebellious head that brought him, suddenly, back into the ranks of his human brothers.
I think it is poorly translated but still worth reading.
Posted by Alok at 6:12 am
Those familiar with the Austrian director Michael Haneke's oeuvre wouldn't be surprised to find an adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Castle in his filmography. Just like Kafka, his main concern in his movies is the alienation of man in modern society, though I think they both slightly differ from each other in their diagnosis of the problem. While for Kafka it was the unfathomable bureaucracy and the legal machinery of an all powerful state that led to the feelings of alienation, for Haneke it is the consumerist culture of late capitalist societies based on shallow individualism and self-gratification that is the source of the problem. This is not surprising given how the all powerful state and its attendant bureaucratic structures have withered away in the last few decades and how they have made way for equally, perhaps even more, impersonal and oppressive structures which have become part and parcel of advanced bourgeois and capitalist societies. In Haneke's movies all this is exacerbated with the collusion of the official culture industry - television, media and cinema - which fabricate false realities with false emotions for sale and profit and which in turn alienate people further from their real selves. The best of Haneke's films Code Unknown, The Seventh Continent and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance illustrate this really brilliantly.
Now coming to The Castle, I was initially surprised to see the film. It is an extremely faithful and an exceedingly literal adaptation of Kafka's novel. There is even a voice-over which mimics the authorial voice of the novel at regular intervals, which gives it a sense of being an illustrative companion piece to the novel, which is what it actually is, rather than being an independent work. I am not sure if Haneke wanted it this way, but if at all he did, I think he succeeds very well. Other than the literal story there are other things he captures very well. One thing that intrigues me in Kafka, specially his novels, is the way he uses time and structures his narrative in such a way that we never get a sense of how much time has passed between two scenes. This is what gives his narrative a dream like quality. Just like in a dream the narrative exists outside the bounds of linear time. In fact, there has been a huge debate about the exact chronological ordering of the chapters of The Trial. A recent translation had the orderings altered based on some recently unearthed evidence about the way Kafka himself intended it to be (the book was put together from his manuscripts by his close friend Max Brod and was published posthumously). Anyway, I think Haneke achieves this effect rather well. Every scene in the movie ends with a jump cut to a blank screen, many in the middle of a dialogue and the next scene begins in what seems a rather abrupt manner. This discontinuity evokes the same feelings of reading Kafka's novels.
Also the background and staging of the scenes, though far from being surrealistic, approximate Kafka's description rather well. Haneke achieves it through wonderful use of lighting and framing. It is almost always dark in the movie, not the lights and shadow kind, but like a place where it is always twilight and it is always foggy. The camera never moves, mimicking the detached and neutral narrator of the novel. There are no long range shots of the village as a whole, and we just see houses half submerged in snow. There are no shots of the eponymous castle either, which is fitting no doubt. I think the only mention of the sight of Castle in the novel is in the very first sentence itself, which is itself an speculation because everything is covered with fog and it was already getting dark when K. first reached the village.
The acting, as always in Haneke movies, is uniformly brilliant. Specially Susanne Lothar in the role of Frieda, who was also magnificent in Funny Games. Her sex scenes with K. are just brilliant (just like in the book) and I think it was because of her acting that the role of Frieda becomes more important than what one gleans from a cursory reading of the novel. And because of this Haneke brings out the sexual subtext of the novel and the themes of sexual paranoia and fears of love and commitment, which are such an integral part of the novel, really very well. Also the two jokers, in the role of K.'s assistants, provide some good comic relief, perhaps the only comic moment in the entire Haneke's oeuvre (okay, there is a great funny joke in Cache too now that I remember!).
For those unfamiliar with Kafka's novels the film can actually be very frustrating. It is because the way Kafka structures his narrative which is diametrically opposite to conventional storytelling. The narrative never ever moves forward, every attempt to do so is thwarted by unseen and unexplained forces. The protagonist, and the reader, never achieves any better understanding of his condition in the end more than what he had in the beginning. And everything ends without any conclusion or explanation. The great thing about Kafka is how he subverts traditional story telling techniques and the exactness and precision of his prose which have a strange evocative effect on the reader and which enables him to address grave philosophical issues without ever getting into abstract or vague discussions himself. I think this is exactly what Haneke must have had in mind too. He also focusses on literal aspects of the novel and makes it evocative and suggestive of deeper and complex themes. Finally, I think this is a film which would be of interest mostly to Kafka enthusiasts or those who are taking a course in Kafka studies and need a reading aid to his novel! For others it will just remain a curious art house film.
This DVD Times review has more details and also has a few stills of K., his assistants and Frieda from the movie.
Saturday, July 08, 2006
Marat/Sade is a German play written by Peter Weiss first published in 1963. Actually, the complete title of the play is The Persecution and assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, which must surely be the longest title of any play ever. Jean-Paul Marat was a revolutionary Jacobin, one of the main architects of the French revolution and along with Robespierre, mainly responsible for the violence and the Great Terror that followed the revolution. He was murdered in 1793 by a female royalist supporter Charlotte Corday. The play is a dramatization of the event of his assassination. It was first performed in the early sixties in Germany and it got widespread acclaim after the legendary theatre director Peter Brook adapted it for the New York stage. This is a film version of that stage adaptation directed by Brook himself.
The play is essentially a dramatization of the event of the death of Marat but what makes it intriguing is its setting and its style. The director of the mental asylum at Charenton has decided to use art as a therapy for the inmates and for that he chooses their most distinguished and intellectual inmate Marquis de Sade to write and direct the play. Sade chooses the episode of the death of Marat and directs it with his fellow inmates. So this is basically a play within a play. Stylistically it is far from being conventionally realistic. Influenced by Brechtian ideas, Brook (or de Sade) reminds us in every scene explicitly that what we are watching is an artificial representation, a staged reality, not the reality itself. For example, in a scene where the aristocrats are being guillotined, the actors just pretend to show that their heads are being cut off. Even the guillotine is signified through the sounds the characters make. Then one of them pours down a bucket of red liquid signifying the blood. Every scene is set in the same bathhouse (that was where Marat was murdered in real life too) and no attempt is ever made to make the background realistic. Characters pretend to knock on the door by making a sound, whereas actually they are knocking just in the air. Much like the recent Lars von Trier movies, specially Dogville. No attempts are made to make dialogues realistic too. Much of it is in monologue and expository speeches. There are four vocalists who lend their voices to musical interludes as a chorus.
What is also interesting from the acting point of view is that every actor plays two roles, first of the inmate in the asylum and then the other of the character in the play. The girl playing the role of Charlotte Corday is suffering from melancholia and sleeping sickness and she falls asleep at key moments in the play after which other characters have to whisper to wake her up! The actor who plays Marat similarly has a paranoiac streak. There are also the characters of the director of the asylum who intervenes at key moments when he thinks the play is getting two radical, as in when an ex-priest turned rabble-rousing radical anarchist starts singing praises for Satan. Sade himself intervenes in the play and has conversations about "life and death" with Marat. The acting is uniformly superlative and not in the conventional sense. It is not surprising actually, the troupe is from the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The intellectual ideas explored in the play are too complex to be summarised fruitfully here. It is actually very heavy, it almost feels like a crash course in the history and philosophy of the French revolution. I was reminded of the Albert Camus's book The Rebel (which was equally heavy). Camus has long chapters in his book on de Sade and Jacobin revolutionaries too. Sade is shown as the philosopher of extreme freedom and also a nihilist as opposed to Marat who is a deluded idealist, who has no qualms about violence and is willing to go to any lengths for the cause of revolution. Also in the chorus some very heavy questions are asked about violence, individual freedom, human suffering, role of religion, role of state and many other things (they even get into the questions of private property!). I had to rewind a few scenes to really listen to the dialogues more carefully. I guess, reading the book would have been more fruitful. Overall, the intellectual heaviness apart, I found the movie to be extremely satisfying, radically innovative and a highly provocative work.
Some links: Wikipedia link for the play. And for Marat and Sade too. This is a nice article on the life and career of Peter Weiss. Also contains a short review of stage adaptation of the play in Berlin. The original review of the play from the new york times here and this is what Roger Ebert had to say about the movie. And finally a great article on the surrealist painter and playwright Antonin Artaud some of whose ideas influenced Brook in this adaptation.
Posted by Alok at 1:22 pm
Thursday, July 06, 2006
It is interesting to think how sexual desire brings people close to each other and at the same time also forces them to retreat into their own private and isolated world of secret fantasies and desires. The reason might be anything--social repression, one's own inhibitions, lack of reciprocation from the other. It might also be because of the fact that we generally live by the reality principle rather than the pleasure principle (as Freud says) in the interests of overall order in the society. There is also something in desire that can never be communicated using standard representational medium (like language) which inevitably leads to isolation of the individual consciousness, at least in this particular domain.
I was thinking about all this after watching this bizarre masterpiece Conspirators of Pleasure by the avant-garde surrealist filmmaker from the Czech republic, Jan Svankmajer. Svankmajer is mainly famous for his work in stop motion animation, inspiring such luminaries like Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. The Brothers Quay (none of whose films I have seen yet) also call him their mentor. Conspirators of Pleasure is one of the few full length feature films that he has made in his long career. It is basically a live action film which contains a few sequences of stop motion animation. It is really weird, the way he mixes both.
The film's premise is very simple. It is about six fetishists (three women and three men) who go about enacting their bizarre autoerotic rituals for the entire duration of the film. Their paths criss-cross with each other but they never exchange anything other than a secret glance. The film is dialogueless, although it contains some music which is very innovatively used. The film starts with one Mr. Pivoine, a mild mannered bachelor, visiting a magazine shop and picking up a copy of a porn magazine. He comes home and asks his neighbour, an obese and portly woman, to slaughter a chicken for him which she does with a relish. He then prepares a papier mache of chicken's head by using the feathers of the real chicken and the papers of the porn magazine and using the model of the real dead chicken. He then cuts up an umbrella and makes a bat like wings for himself. But for what purpose? Well, he has secretly made a mannequin doll modeled on his neighbour and he wants to do things to her, like jumping around and throwing a stone (a papier mache again) on her head! Not surprisingly, his neighbour harbours a similar reciprocal murderous lust for him. She has made a similar mannequin of her neighbour which she whips and then drowns it in a bucket of water. Did I mention that these mannequins move in a weird manner when the two human beings interact with them? And also that we get brief glimpse of the male mannequin's penis?
There are more people whose lives criss cross with these two. The magazine vendor, from whom the man bought his porn magazine, is obsessed with a female newsreader. He has made a bizarre contraption with robotic hands which massage and masturbate him while he kisses her on TV! The newsreader in return is living a lonely life of her own. Her husband is busy in the garage with his own assortment of erotic objects, which in his case means cylindrical objects made of fur and needles with which he rubs his naked body. The newsreader's only solace comes from a pair of fish that she keeps in a tub. When the magazine vendor is kissing her on TV, she starts having her own orgasm by having her toes sucked by the pair of fish! Then finally there is this postwoman who makes small balls out of the inside of bread and snorts it up her nose and puts it inside her ears (filling up her "holes"?). She then takes the balls out and sends it in a packet to the newsreader who feeds those to her fish.
It all sounds really absurd and comic. Well, it looks even more absurd and is even funnier in the movie, which is exactly what is Svankmajer's point. Isn't it strange how sexual desire, whose sole purpose from an evolutionary point of view was to force people to mate and beget offsprings, became so complex in case of human beings? When desire gets coupled with imagination...well it is difficult to guess where it will finally go. So finally, what does this all really mean? Other than the standard Freudian interpretation of repression and sublimation of desire, the film also has an overt political undercurrent. The six characters are all engaged in a private and secret rebellion against the structures of repression and are utilizing and channelizing their erotic energy and potential for their own fulfillment and happiness. The title is significant here too. All the six characters exchange sly, knowing glances with each other as if they were some member of the same underground movement! In the end there is a hint too that each of them learns from the other about a new series of erotic rituals. Svankmajer also points out in the final scene the impossibility of acting out those fantastical desires in real, which finally turns the film into a poignant commentary on individual isolation and futility of sexual longing. Also, why progress of civilization and maintenance of order in society (taken from Freud) must mean repressing most of our sexual instincts which are essentially anarchistic and disruptive. He also seems to suggest that true sexual fulfillment is possible only in solitary confinement (haha... that's slightly unfair!).
On the same topic of sexual repression and liberation, I remember listening to an interview with the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. He said that he finds "nothing more miserable today than those people who organize their life in order to enjoy themselves." He was making the point that under the late capitalist society it is not liberating oneself from the shackles of repressive structures that matters, rather it is to free ourselves from the compulsion to satisfy an endless, artificial and irrational set of desires on which our genuine fulfillment depends. This is also the point that the French author Michel Houellebecq makes in his novels. The consumerist and capitalist structures don't find sexual expression subversive, rather they actively encourage it (through media, advertising and other elements of the culture industry) first and then after commodifying it, find ways to sell their products which satisfy those desires. And once these desires are satisfied a new set is invented, commodified, sold and the cycle continues and the capitalist economy prospers... This is also why Svankmajer and other votaries of sexual liberation will surely balk at pornography because most of it has nothing to do with natural sexual expression. Rather these are just commercial enterprises, selling products to satiate artificially created desires. A genuine sexual liberation will only mean, and I think this movie supports it too, the sharpening of one's erotic imagination and channeling (or sublimating) it into some creative enterprise.
In the end credits the film explicitly mentions Luis Bunuel, Max Ernst, Freud and de Sade as its inspirations. All this and my pseudo-commentary shouldn't distract from the fact that it is extremely funny, entertaining and fiercely original work of art. Very highly recommended. Though the subject is sex, the film doesn't contain any nudity. Except perhaps in the title sequence which has a series of pornographic images from some medieval text. Some links: A review from the deep focus magazine here. Another one from the sight and sound magazine here. This is the official Svankmajer site which is very comprehensive although poorly designed (I wonder if it is surrealistic!). And this is an entry about the a retrospective at the film forum. Contains this quote from Anthony Lane of The New Yorker: "The last great obsessive in cinema! The end of a distinguished line that goes back to Orson Welles, Luis Bunuel, and Carl Theodor Dreyer."
Posted by Alok at 4:18 am
Tuesday, July 04, 2006
It is indeed strange how almost every few months these days a new book about Proust is being published and then reviewed with great fanfare. Only last month it was the account of a dinner party that Proust went to, called A Night at the Majestic, that occupied the books pages of the newspapers. It was surprisingly even reviewed in the Indian newspapers, in The Times of India no less! Check it out here. Well it was no ordinary party. Some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century were in attendance. Along with Proust there was Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky and others. The party in question and the meeting of the great minds turned out to be slightly anti-climactic in the end, at least as far as Joyce and Proust were concerned. Joyce and Proust claimed to have never read each other's books and complained of their respective ailments, their head and stomach respectively. As most of the reviews complained, the dinner party occupied a comparatively small space in the book. Most of it was about Proust and his novel. May be that's why the american publishers changed the title to Proust at the Majestic which reflected the contents more clearly. I haven't yet read the book but will do so if I get a chance somewhere. This is a review of the book from the Guardian newspaper.
Now there is a new Proust book which is doing the rounds of books pages. It is called Proust in Love by William Carter, author of a massive Proust biography which was published a few years back to great acclaim. It is about the romantic affairs Proust had and explores his homosexuality and perhaps also tries to explain his book in the light of facts from this domain of his life. It must be an interesting book because perhaps the most complex and engrossing aspects of Proust's masterpiece are his dense and dark insights into the mysterious workings of sexual desire. His philosophy of gender and sexual identity is equally complex. It would always help if you could know how Proust concluded all those things. For example, you would never know without reading Proust's book, what a complex philosophical undertaking it is to run after beautiful women (or beautiful men for that matter haha :))! His analysis of love, specially the painful, unrequited, obsessive and disappointing variety (is there any other type?) is just mindblowing. He definitely exagerates but only to make things clearer. Now after having read Proust (the first few volumes to be precise) I find most of the books about people falling in love childish and immature. Here's a review of the book from The Australian.
The review also informs me about another Proust book which is getting released -- a memoir of Proust's last valet(!). Don't laugh or be surprised. His housekeeper, who attended him when he was on his sick-bed penning his masterpiece, has also published a memoir of her own, which is considered a classic of its kind too. Check out the publisher's page of Celeste Albarete's book Monseiur Proust here. It was also made into a movie titled Celeste(the imdb page here) which I have not seen. I haven't read the book too. Actually the Steppenwolf theatre in Chicago is showing a play based on the book too later this month. Details and show timings here. It is indeed strange how so many books, which would normally be of obscure and almost surely be of marginal interest to non-professionals, are not only published but also discussed at great lengths in popular press. This Village Voice article tries to explain the phenomenon. It also mentions all the recent Proust books. He laments the fact people are more interested in Proust's life (which surprisingly was highly unexceptional) than his work. I myself haven't read any Proust biography so far. The two recent ones by Jean Yves Tadie (originally in french) and other by William Carter were so massive and intimidating that I never went near any of those two. I managed to get an old second-hand edition of a the biography by George Painter (which looks and feels manageable) but never got around to reading it.
Monday, July 03, 2006
I had an absolutely fantastic weekend. As uneventful as it could ever be. My flat mate is on vacation so I was all alone and I loved it (Bhaya, if you want to extend your vacation, please do so:)) . I think the only time I opened my mouth in the entire two days was to answer the cook when she asked which vegetable she should cook. That was all. Other than that it was almost like a maun vrat (vow of silence). No Superman Returns. No Krissh. No calls from or to home. Same for friends. The film society was screening Aparna Sen's films this weekend. I gave both 36 Chowranghee Lane and 15 Park Avenue a miss (I had seen the former before) and went to the screening of Sati on Saturday evening (it was disappointing!). I went in silence and came back without opening my mouth too.
Back home the four football matches were all great. I was really glad England and Brazil both lost, both ridiculously over-inflated and pompous teams. I hope France sends the Portuguese back home too. Their win over the Dutch was really unfair. After watching the France match I remembered the movie (it is actually a video-installation) Zidane: A Twenty First Century Portrait, about which I had read few weeks before, somewhere in the dispatches from the Cannes film festival. I hope I get a chance to see it somewhere. The installation is based on a simple though very original concept. The documentary filmmakers decide to train their camera exclusively on Zidane for the entire course of the match (its real madrid vs something) that is even when he is not near the ball. I won't call myself a footfall fanatic or even a fan but there is something in Zidane's personality and the detached, melancholy air that he exudes that I won't mind seeing him for an hour continuously at all. A report about the film from the guardian newspaper.
Other than that I was busy reading W G Sebald's The Emigrants. I was actually re-reading the book, having read the book in a hurry and without paying much attention before. What an appropriate book to read in such circumstances! Soon after finishing the book, I felt as if I was levitating in the air over my bed and voices inside my head became louder and louder and of course all the thoughts of dead people, who as Sebald says, are always coming back to haunt the living. It is fantastic the way Sebald stands up for the dead, the gone and the forgotten. Truly a brave warrior in the fight against oblivion. A powerful antidote to the (much-popular) philosophy of "living in the present", peddled by the self-helps gurus and other fraudsters and peddlers of fake happiness. But yes, Mourning and Melancholia should have their limits too and it is not advisable from a mental health point of view to read Sebald in large doses! Thats why I shut the book (though I wanted to re-reread some of the passages again) and spent the rest of the evening listening to the soundtrack of Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. The title track is quite good, though Sonu Nigam and Alka Yagnik try a little too hard to make you cry ("Door jaake tum meri yaado mein rehna..." Yuck!!). Still the song is quite good. Other songs are average or even boring. I was also reading about the film and it sounded quite interesting. I think I will go to see it when it gets released.
Posted by Alok at 3:30 am
Sunday, July 02, 2006
...After reading Karan Johar's "director's note" (whatever that is) on his forthcoming film Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. This is what he says:
"There are three kinds of married people in the world. First, whose marriages are arranged. I've never understood that, but I'm sure they know what they're doing. Then there are those who fall in love and marry their soul mates. These few, I believe, are the most fortunate people in the world. And lastly, there are those couples that marry for their parents, for money or play it safe and marry a friend. These are the most unfortunate ones in the world... and they don't even know it. Until one day, riding the fast train of life they run into their soul mate, and are faced with the hardest question of all. What do you do when you meet the love of your life and you're married to someone else? What do you do? What do you do?" - Karan Johar
I really liked the question marks towards the end and I am looking forward to watching the movie and finding out what happens in the film. And anyway, he has also promised this new film is quite "dark" and it is not "all about loving your parents" or "why love happens not once but twice in life."
Posted by Alok at 12:57 pm