Saturday, March 31, 2007

Three Documentaries

Three excellent documentaries I saw recently. All highly recommended.

Touching the Void: Touching the void tells the real life story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two Brits in their early twenties, who go on a mountaineering expedition in the Peruvian Andes. The 6344 metres high Siula Grande mountain has never been climbed before and the two men want to make a name for themselves. After three and half days of continuous climbing they both make it up to the summit but on the way down Joe meets with an accident and fractures his leg. Simon tries to bring his friend down with him initially but after some further mishaps has to take the painful decision of cutting the rope and making his way back down alone. The real story starts from here about how Joe survives against all odds even after having "touched the void", i.e came face-to-face with death. It could easily have become one of those cheesy stories about how inspiration and the will to succeed against all odds leads to success etc but it does not mainly because it is so awesomely shot. The story is narrated entirely through the voices of the (real) Joe and Simpson and their third partner who was in-charge of the base camp. The rest of the film is a dramatic reconstruction of the actual events. And what a reconstruction it is! If you have seen films like Cliffhanger or Vertical Limit and think you have seen enough, wait till you see this one. Also the struggle and ordeal that Simon goes through, virtually crawling his way back to the base of the mountain, it makes one think afresh as to where does this will t0 survive come from? What is this elemental force that keeps him going against such insurmountable odds? Did he have something special psychologically? Must have been. That's why not all of us become mountaineers. Some reviews of the film here.

One Day in September: The Munich Olympics terrorist attack was in news last year because of the controversy surrounding the Steven Spielberg film Munich. Spielberg's film also had a brilliant reconstruction of what happened in Munich but the rest of the film was very naive, simplistic and cliched. This documentary is not really a reconstruction but is made entirely of actually footages from the tragic event. Michael Douglas in his sonorous voice provides the sparse commentary but rest of the time it is the events which speak for themselves directly. There is also a remarkable interview with one of the survivors of the Black September terrorist group responsible for the attacks. He performs the usual role of providing the other side of the story. There are also interviews of the German officials in charge of the negotiation and the rescue operation. Overall the Germans come out very bad in the end for the ineptness they showed. It is shocking to see how ridiculously ill prepared they were. There is also an interview with the wife of one of the murdered member of the Israeli team. It is all fused together so brilliantly that it is difficult to take your eyes off screen for even a second. It is relentless and horrifying and suspenseful, even though one already knows how the whole thing will end in advance. Like Touching the Void, this film was also directed by Kevin McDonald, who obviously looks like a very important filmmaking talent on the strength of just these two films. It also won the Oscar for the best documentary film in 2000. The Wikipedia page of the film here.

Into the Arms of Stranger: On the eve of the second world war a remarkable rescue operation called Kindertransport saved the lives of over ten thousand Jewish children by taking them away from their homes in Central Europe and Germany to England, where they lived in foster homes and orphanages. A major part of the documentary is about the men and women, now in their sixties and seventies, telling their experiences of leaving home at such an age and landing up in an alien country. Judi Dench provides the necessary narration with her usual crispness. It is remarkable, the clarity and enthusiasm with which all of them tell their painful stories. A few of them were even reunited with their parents after the war but most of them were not so lucky. They knew the terrible truth about what had happened to their parents soon after the war ended. It is also tragic to think how many more lives could have saved. Only children were allowed because the British government thought that they wouldn't be of considerable burden to the national economy! And even then they had to go through lots of bureaucratic hassles. A similar proposal to bring children to US was quashed by the senate because they felt that the children belonged to their parents and they couldn't allow children to come on their own. It won the Oscar for the Best Documentary film too. This is the wikipedia page.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Karl Kraus Links

A detailed background essay on Karl Kraus, the Viennese satirist, by Clive James.

Kraus is another Austrian I want to read. This looks good too.

"Save the Sari"

Don't know if it is a hoax, but it sounds really bizarre. Shashi Tharoor, the man in running for the top post of United Nations (but who lost), has this rant about Indian women not preferring to wear Sari anymore (link to the dreaded TOI website):

So why has this masterpiece of feminine attire begun fading from our streets? On recent visits home to India I have begun to notice fewer and fewer saris in our public places, and practically none in the workplace. The salwar kameez, the trouser and even the Western dress-suit have begun to supplant it everywhere. And this is not just a northern phenomenon, the result of the increasing dominance of our culture by Punjabi-ised folk who think nothing of giving masculine names to their daughters.
The last line had me in splits. Anyway, is there a more wasteful and irrational dress than Sari? I don't think so. As perfect an example of "conspicuous leisure" as it can get.

Link via Emma who also has a wonderful response.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Some Aphorisms by Musil

from this original review in Time. I remember reading only the second one.

"Every age in which everything was permissible had made those living in it unhappy."

"One can actually say in advance that the progress that is really made will always be precisely what nobody wanted."

"[The] whole era ... had newly developed a strong religious tendency, not as the result of any religious destiny, but merely, as it seems, out of a feminine and irritable rebellion against money, knowledge and calculation, to all of which it passionately succumbed."

"Truth is not a crystal one can put in one's pocket, but an infinite fluid into which one falls headlong."

"Writing, like the pearl, is a disease."

This is another review from the same magazine. Surprising to see Time review this book. William Gass in his essay has this to say about the original American reception of The Man without Qualities.
In the United States, not noted for much acumen concerning matters of literary quality, the initial English translation was greeted with an animosity which cannot be ascribed to simple philistinism. As Christian Rogowski reports, Musil was described as an "almost intolerably bad writer," "a sort of jet-powered literary no-good," his style exhibited "a rather bumbling mass of Teutonic metaphysics." The Times Literary Supplement's favorable reception of the translation in London was judged to be part of a literary hoax.

The Namesake

I was a little apprehensive about watching it thinking it would just be another middlebrow and eager to please and satisfy movies about Indian immigrant experiences. I haven't read the Jhumpa Lahiri book either thinking the same thing. In a way the film is indeed nothing but predictable and tells you nothing that you don't already know but it is not boring and is even moving at places, mainly because of the acting of Tabu and Irfan Khan. It was also a wise decision on the part of writer/director to keep the parents at the centre of the narrative, thus saving us from all the cliche-mongering about cultural confusion and identity crisis.

In fact towards the end I was paying more attention to the books than the characters and I found some glaring anachronisms। Okay, not so glaring ones! The new Pevear-Volkhonsky translation of Collected Tales of Gogol which is featured prominently in the film wasn't even published in 1995, that's when Ashoke gifts the book to his son. Even after that he says that it took more than four months for the book to arrive after ordering! Who is he kidding? Or perhaps it was supposed to show the emotional blackmailing going on between the father and the son. Another book, Reading Chekhov by Janet Malcolm was likewise only published in 2001, years after Ashima gifts the book to her husband! In one other scene Ashoke is reading Crime and Punishment (this I am not sure) and that is, thank God, an old penguin classics edition. Also the bohemian Bengali beauty (with a phd in french literature!) reads Stendhal's obscure novel Armance. (Any film which namechecks two of my favourite writers, Gogol and Stendhal, deserves some praise!) There is also Bonjour Tristesse mentioned somewhere earlier. I have to now read these two novels.

Also I found it surprising that someone could remain so unassimilated even after living for such a long time in America. Why is Tabu always wearing a Sari throughout, at home, outside everywhere even on a picnic? The same with those colourful Kurtas that Irfan Khan wears. The film is set mostly in the eighties, when the cultural shock must have been greater than now, but even then I think it was an artificial choice only meant to create an effect. I don't want to complain much because she is very nice in the film. Overall a nice film, I was feeling a little homesick myself after watching it.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Philosophy Lessons

via this space a nice BBC documentary about the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. I knew about his involvement with Nazism but didn't know the extent of it. Also has footage of his (in)famous hut at the Todtnauberg mountain.

There are also nice documentaries on Nietzsche and Sartre.

Friday, March 23, 2007

More on Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften

The Man Without Qualities is surely one of greatest titles for a novel ever. The original German, Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften, sounds even better, with its harsh music so typical of the German language. I like this title because it manages to capture all the grave ideas discussed in the book even when it itself is so simple and direct. I had earlier posted an excerpt which throws some light on the title of the novel. Basically Musil is alluding to the scientific (i.e. modern) ways of looking at things and defining them. It is alright to define, say water, in terms of its physical and chemical qualities -- its smell, colour or its behaviour in a chemical reaction. You can chart all the qualities of water on a paper and you will get water in the end. But what if one follows the same process with a human being? We will then ultimate end with a man without qualities or even worse, qualities without a man. In a way Musil is repeating what Nietzsche had already said, about the "death of god" and also the idea of soul and personal identity but reading Musil is in a way more harrowing and also exhilarating (not that I have read Nietzsche) because one gets to know what it really means to live in a world without absolutes and with the knowledge of the hollowness one feels inside oneself.

Musil also takes over from Nietzsche and goes beyond. He interpolates his ideas into the domains of interpersonal relationships, sexual desires, social and political institutions and finds the same hollowness everywhere. Through the character of Arnheim Musil paints a hilarious caricature of Capitalism and financial institutions, which in a way is not far from reality. Without a moral core, or a conscience at the centre of things, they are more or less systems of loot, injustice and exploitation. Of course there are legal systems in place which ensure that these things do not happen or at least they are in limits but the entire legal system itself is based on shaky foundations. Our ideas about human intentionality and personal responsibilty require radical redefinitions in the light of the idea of "man without qualities". There are passages in the novel about a sex-murderer named Moosbrugger which analyses in detail what do law and justice mean in this post-Nietzschean world, in which the Kantian absolutes (that the Hero's father believes in) have been shown to be illusions and lies. It is not that people aren't aware of these things but they often invent pompous abstractions and delude themselves. In a way he also shows why such an essential concept and a word like "soul" has become so meaningless in our contemporary culture, with our own shares of Arnheim and other charlatans and hypocrites and spiritual peddlers like him.

Another aspect of the novel which struck me, and I have mentioned it before too, is the total absence of the feeling of nostalgia over the passing of the old order. Ulrich, the novel's hero, for example finds the idea of god "embarrassing", an idea I am sure the narrator feels sympathetic towards too. Another noteworthy thing is the scorn Musil heaps on the austro-hungarian empire, or at least its symbols -- military, bureaucracy and aristocracy. I was even more shocked because I had read Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March a few months back and my idea of the the austro-hungarian empire was still based on that book. Now after having read the first volume of MwQ, Roth's book feels like a bloodbath of sentimentality (I still love that book very much though.) Musil knows that old stability and order was based on lies and falsehoods and there is no choice but to give way to its collapse and move forward. Anything incompatible with science, that longing for childish faith just won't do anymore. It is also noteworthy that unlike his fellow modernists, most notably Eliot perhaps who reached the same conclusions after similar cultural diagnosis, he is not ready to succumb to the easy temptations of preservations of culture and order through Fascism. He is even more critical of such easy solutions. In fact reading this book one is awed at the prophetic insight he had into where Europe was heading towards. He knew everything, saw everything and he also understood everything. He is bitterly (sometimes in a good humoured way too) critical of any idea that smacks of nationalism, militarism, conservatism, cultural chauvinism and fascism.

There are many more things to say about the book, most notably its extreme form and structure and also the way Musil portrays the female consciousness from the inside. I think it must be one of the most extreme cases, it is way beyond what even Tolstoy, Flaubert or even Henry James could do with their female characters. (I might be wrong here, I am interested in what more learned readers, feminists and literary critics think about it. I have read that in second volume the character of Agathe is even more complete and detailed.) I am now on my way into the second volume. More posts on the book will continue.

Previous posts on the book here and here.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

हिंदी वाला पोस्ट

अनुराग जी याद दिला रहे थे कि एक सप्ताह होने को आया और अभी तक हिंदी में कुछ भी नहीं? मैंने कहा कि मैं अभी विषय कि तलाश में हूँ, कुछ सूझने पर जरूर लिखूंगा। अभी तक तो कुछ सूझा नहीं लेकिन सोचा कि अभ्यास करने में कोई हर्ज नही।

मैं ये भी सोच रहा था कि भाषाओं का ज्ञान और उनपे पकड़ कितना महत्वपूर्ण है। मुझे कभी कभी थोडा दुःख होता है कि जो दो भाषाएँ मैं जानता हूँ उनमे भी मुझे कभी कभी दिक्कत महसूस होती है। यहाँ तो सारा समय अंग्रेंजी पढने में ही बीतता है। अब तो धीरे धीरे हिंदी भी अपरिचित भाषा लगने लगी है। अभी ऐसा लग रहा है कि जैसे अंग्रेजी में सोच रहा हूँ और उसका हिंदी में अनुवाद कर रहा हूँ। खैर अभी भी हालत उतनी बुरी नही हुई है। अब तो हिंदी में लिखना भी कितना आसान हो गया है। अब बस कुछ हिंदी कि किताबें चाहिऐ, उधर भी शायद ब्लौग्स किताबों की कमी पूरी कर दें। (हाँ, मैं बौलीवुड कि फ़िल्में देख सकता हूँ, लेकिन मुझे उनसे अत्यंत चिढ है। ये एक पोस्ट का विषय हो सकता है। मैंने नोट कर लिया है।)

इस मौक़े पर मैं एक और स्पष्टीकरण देना चाहूँगा। हालांकि इस ब्लोग पर मैंने हमेशा पश्चिमी साहित्य और फिल्मों के बारे में ही लिखा है, लेकिन इसका ये कतई मतलब नहीं है कि मुझे भारतीय संस्कृति और भाषाओं से कोई लगाव नहीं है। मुझे बस उन कुएँ के मेढकों से अत्यन्त चिढ है जिन्हें दूसरी संस्कृति और सभ्यताओं में कोई रूचि नही अथवा जिनके मन में उनके लिए कोई जिज्ञासा नही। मैं इसलिये भी विभिन्न भाषाओं कि जानकारी को महत्वपूर्ण मानता हूँ, सिर्फ जानकारी ही नही बल्कि गम्भीर ज्ञान। उनके बिना हम सब बस उन कुएँ के मेढकों के समान हैं। मैं ये नही कह रहा कि मैं कोई साहित्य-विशारद हूँ। मैंने हिंदी के बारे में ज्यादा नही लिखा है क्योंकि जब से गम्भीर साहित्य कि थोड़ी बहुत समझ हुई है तबसे हिंदी-भाषी प्रदेशों से दूर रहा हूँ। इस कमी को पूरी करने के मैं निरंतर प्रयासरत हू, मौका मिलने पर हिंदी भाषा और साहित्य के बारे में भी जरूर लिखूंगा। इसी नोट पर यह टिप्पणी समाप्त करता हूँ।

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

I ♥ Huckabees

I love this film and I love this trailer too...

In case you haven't seen it, the film tackles, among other things, the problems related to urban sprawl, environmentalism, corporate culture, consumerism, existentialism, Nietzsche, Kafka, nihilism, Buddhism, Sartre, third world slave labor, advertising, objectification of women, oil crisis, post 9-11 world etc., and everything mixed with just the right amount of good humoured despair. Haven't seen it in a long time, I will try to see it again sometime.

Two articles in village voice and offscreen.

Affirmation of Life

This is very nice summary of the problem of nihilism. I found it on the back-cover of The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism. Nothing new but elegantly summarized:

For Reginster, Nietzsche's central motivating problem is the problem of nihilism, a problem caused by the "death of God." His argument then dissects nihilism into two distinct problems: on the one hand, the problem of disorientation, the sense we have that our highest values lack metaphysical grounding or justification; and, on the other, the problem of despair, our sense that our highest values are unrealizable in this world. Reginster argues that the nihilism of disorientation has to be faced and answered before one can grapple with (or indeed be seized by) despair. It is only when we have restored to ourselves a sense of the worth of these values, by some successful answer to the problem of disorientation, that we can feel the full force of the problem of despair. The problem of disorientation, Reginster then argues, is successfully solved by Nietzsche through his doctrine of perspectivism, understood as the idea that all our reasons are contingent. Nietzsche argues that the existence of contingent perspectives is a necessary condition for any practical reasoning, and therefore cannot possibly spell the downfall of our aspirations to find reasons. Reginster then turns to the despair problem, showing the depth of Nietzsche's engagement with Schopenhauer's pessimism. Offering the most philosophically serious and interesting discussion of Schopenhauer I have seen in the literature, he then argues that the doctrine of the Will to Power is Nietzsche's response. Instead of seeking satisfaction, Nietzsche argues, we basically seek the overcoming of resistance. If this is so, we ought to will the continued existence of suffering (understood as the effect of resistance to our will), so that we have struggles still to win.

This is also one of the central subjects explored in The Man Without Qualities (Nietzsche was a major influence on Musil, in fact, Nietzsche and his ideas are explicitly discussed at many times in the book.) Musil is also trying to do the same thing -- search for a new ground and a new way of looking at the world and ourselves which is not based on falsehoods and illusions and which also satisfy all the cravings which make us human. He is also brilliant at capturing this "problem of disorientation" through his psychological essays and portraits.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Sex-scene from Man Without Qualities

Finally I am done with the first volume of The Man Without Qualities. It is obviously an extraordinary book. When I picked it up, I hadn't thought that I would read it this far and now after reading more than 700 pages I am ready to plunge into the next volume too and to read through the unfinished drafts and manuscripts and alternate endings (another thousand pages).

Anyway, I will try to write a summary of the first volume with my own personal impressions sometime later. For now here is a (loooong) extract from towards the end of the book. I am going to return the book back to the library so I thought I should copy something here. It can be read without much context too. Basically Ulrich is the main character in the novel, the titular man without qualities. He is very sharp and has an ironic and detached attitude to everything around him. He is also irresistibly attractive to women! Gerda on the other hand is a minor character, a girl in her early twenties and sexually immature. It is basically an analysis of PCGA (Pre-Coital Guilt Attack). Okay, I made that up. But I bet there is some term like that in pyschiatry. Also a good illustration for the mind-body problem.

Here it is:


[But]Ulrich had put his arm around her again because, knowing that he had something important to do since hearing the news about Arnheim, he first had to finish this episode with Gerda. He was not at all reconciled to having to go through everything the situation called for, but he immediately put the rejected arm around her again, this time in the wordless language which, without force, states more firmly than words can do that any further resistance is useless. Gerda felt the virility of that arm all the way down her spine. She had lowered her head, with her eyes fixed on her lap as though it held, gathered as in an apron, all the thoughts that would help her to reach that "human understanding" with Ulrich before anything could be allowed to happen as a crowning act. But she felt her face looking duller and more vacuous by the moment until, like an empty husk, it finally floated upward, with her eyes directly below the eyes of the seducer.

He bent down and covered this face with ruthless kisses that stir the flesh. Gerda straightened up as if she had no will of her own and let herself be led the ten steps or so to Ulrich's bedroom, leaning heavily on his as though she were wounded or sick. Her feet moved, one ahead of the other, as if she had nothing to do with it, even though she did not let herself be dragged along but went of her own accord. Such an inner void despite all that excitement was something Gerda had never known before; it was as if all the blood had been drained from her; she was freezing, yet in passing a mirror that seemed to reflect her image from a great distance she could see that her face was a coppery red, with flecks of white. Suddenly, as in a street accident when the eye is hypersensitive to the whole scene, she took in the man's bedroom with all its details. It came to her that, had she been wiser and more calculating, she might have moved in as Ulrich's wife. It would have made her very happy, but she was groping for words to say that she was not out for any advantage and had come only to give herself to him; yet the words did not come, and she told herself that this had to happen, and opened the collar of her dress.

Ulrich had released her. He could not bring himself to help undress her like a fond lover and stood apart, flinging off his own clothes. Gerda saw the man's tall, straight body, powerfully poised between violence and beauty. Panic-stricken, she noticed that her own body, still standing there in her underthings, was covered with gooseflesh. Again she groped for words that might help her, that might her less of a miserable figure where she stood. She longed to say something that would turn Ulrich into her lover in a way she vaguely imagined as dissolving in infinite sweetness, something one could achieve without having to do what she was about to do, something as blissful as it was indefinable. For an instant she saw herself standing with him in a field of candles growing out of the earth, row upon row to infinity, like so many pansies, all bursting into flame at her feet on signal. But as she could not utter a single word of all this, she went on feeling painfully unattractive and miserable, her arms trembling, unable to finish undressing; she had to clamp her bloodless lips together to keep them from twitching weirdly without a sound.

At this point Ulrich, who saw her agony and realized that the whole struggle up to now might come to nothing, went over to her and slipped off her shoulder straps. Gerda slip into bed like boy. For an instant Ulrich saw a naked adolescent in motion; it affected him no more, sexually, that the sudden blinking of a fish. He guessed that Gerda had made up her mind to get it over with because it was too late to get out of it, and he had never yet perceived as clearly as in the instant he followed her into bed how much the passionate intrusion into another body is a sequel to child's liking for secret and forbidden hiding places. His hands encountered the girl's skin, still bristling with fear, and he felt frightened too, instead of attracted. This body, already flabby while still unripe, repelled him; it made no sense to do what he was doing, and he would have liked nothing better than to escape from this bed, so that he had to call to mind everything he could think of that would help him to see it through. In frantic haste he summoned up all the usual reasons people find nowadays to justify their acting without sincerity, or faith, or scruple, or satisfaction; and in abandoning himself to this effort he found, not, of course, any feeling of love, but a half-crazy anticipation of something like a massacre, a sex-murder or, if there is such a thing, a lustful suicide, inspired by the demons of the void who lurk behind all of life's images. This reminded him of his brawl with the hoodlums that night he met Bonadea, and he decided to be quicker this time. But now something awful happened. Gerda had been gathering up all her inner resources to alchemize them into willpower with which to resist the shameful terror she was suffering, as though she were facing her execution; but the instant she felt Ulrich beside her, so strangely naked, his hands on her bare skin, her body flung off all her will. Even while somewhere deep inside she still felt a friendship beyond words for him, a trembling, tender longing to put her arms around him, kiss his hair, follow his voice to its source with her lips; and imagined that to touch his real self would make her melt like a fragment of snow on warm hand--but it would have to be Ulrich she knew, dressed as usual, as appeared in the familiar setting of her parental home, not this naked stranger whose hostility she sensed and who did not take her sacrifice seriously even as he gave her no time to think what she was doing--Gerda suddenly heard herself screaming. Like a little cloud, a soap bubble, a scream hung in the air, and others followed, little screams expelled from her chest as though she were wrestling with something, a whimpering from which cries of ee-ee bubbled and floated off, from lips that grimaced and twisted and were wet as if with deadly lust. She wanted to jump up, but she couldn't move. Her eyes would not would not obey her and kept sending out signals without permission. Gerda was pleading to be let off, like a child facing some punishment or being taken to the doctor, who cannot go one step farther because it is being torn and convulsed by its own shrieks of terror. Her hands were up over her breasts, and she was menacing Ulrich with her nails while frantically pressing her long thighs together. This revolt of her body against herself was frightful. She perceived it with utmost clarity as a kind of theatre, but she was also the audience sitting alone and desolate in the dark auditorium and could do nothing to prepare her fate from being acted out before her, in a screaming frenzy; nothing to keep herself from taking the lead in the performance.

Ulrich stared in horror into the tiny pupils of her veiled eyes, with their strangely unbending gaze, and watched, aghast, those weird motions, in which desire and taboo, the soul and the soulless, were indescribably intertwined. His eye caught a fleeting glimpse of her pale fair skin and the short black hairs that shaded into red where they grew more densely. It occurred to him that he was facing a fit of hysteria, and he had no idea how to handle it. He was afraid that these horribly distressing screams might get even louder, and remembered that such a fit might be stopped by an angry shout or even by a sudden, vicious slap. Then he thought that this horror might have been avoided somehow led him to think that a younger man might persist in going further with Gerda even in these circumstances. "That might be a way of getting her over it," he thought, "perhaps it's a mistake to give in to her, now that the silly goose has let herself in too deep." He did nothing of the sort; it was only that such irritable thoughts kept zigzagging through his mind while he was instinctively whispering an uninterrupted stream of comforting words, promising not to do anything to her, assuring her that nothing had really happened, asking her to forgive him, at the same time that all his words, swept up like chaff in his loathing of the scene she was making, seemed to him so absurd and undignified that he had to fight off a temptation to grab an armful of pillows to press on her mouth and choke off these shrieks that wouldn't stop.

At long last her fit began to wear off and her body quieted down. Her eyes brimming with tears, she sat up in her bed, her little breasts drooping slackly from a body not yet under mind's full control. Ulrich took a deep breath, again overcome with repugnance at the inhuman, merely physical aspects of the experience. Gerda was regaining normal consciousness; something bloomed in her eyes, like her eyes, like the first actual awakening after the eyes have been open for some time, and she stared blankly ahead for a second, then noticed that she was sitting up stark naked and glanced at Ulrich; the blood came back in great waves back to her face. Ulrich couldn't think of anything better to do than whisper the same reassurances to her again; he put his arm around her shoulder, drew her to his chest, and told her to think nothing of it. Gerda found herself back in the situation that had driven her to hysteria, but now everything looked strangely pale and forlorn: the tumbled bed, her nude bed in the arms of a man intently whispering to her, the feelings that had brought her to this. She was fully aware of what it all meant, but she also knew that something horrible had happened, something she would rather not focus on, and while she could tell that Ulrich's voice sounded more tender all it meant was that he regarded her as a sick person, but it was he who had made her sick! Still, it no longer mattered; all she wanted was to be gone from this place, to get away without having to say a word.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Inland Empire Re-viewing

Saw Inland Empire for the second time yesterday. I think it can be classified as a work of feminist surrealism (or surrealist feminism). It basically is "about" (and I use the word very loosely) women (or perhaps a single woman) having nightmares about being a whore. It is not really an original idea. (The Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler's novella Fraulein Else, which I read recently, tells the story of a young teenaged girl, told in the form of an unbroken monologue, who suffers a nervous breakdown thinking that she has turned into a whore when she is just following the rules and orders of her parents and people around her.) There are also a couple of separate nightmares which are not really connected with the whore-nightmare but are the same in terms of the basic idea. The adultery sub-plot of film-within-a-film is basically a reworking of standard adultery narratives, which shows how far the stacks are laid against women as compared to men when it comes to the whole adultery business. Also the violent monologue is again the woman's subconscious speaking out -- all the latent resentments against her lover/husband/client coming out with extreme brute force. I should have copied out some of the dialogues. It is actually very funny. IMDB has only a couple:

Nikki: When the police came and they asked what happened, I told them "He's reaping what he's been sowing, that's what." They said "Fucker been sowing some pretty heavy shit."

Nikki: Bam! I Kicked him straight in the balls so hard they go crawling into his brain for refuge - he went down like a two dollar whore.

Such a shame, Dern wasn't even nominated for an Oscar!

The Polish sequences can also be fitted in the same basic narrative. Violence, Abuse, Adultery etc. Okay, talking rabbits? I don't really know about that. Who is the girl crying watching the TV? Not really sure. And there are so many other things too. Will have to wait for the DVD to come.

David Lynch Spoof

Nice David Lynch parody. Make sure the sound is on and preferably high, also mandatory for Lynch's movies.

And the introduction to Twin Peaks TV series, it is wonderful...

And the "Tibet scene" from the first season. May not make sense to people who haven't seen but still quite good... Also a nice illustration of how Lynch makes fun of the traditional detective Genre with its emphasis on logic and rationalism...

Friday, March 16, 2007

Peter Handke: A Journey to the Rivers

Update: Antonia has a response on her blog. Check it out.

Note well: This is absolutely not a case of "I accuse." I feel compelled only to justice. Or perhaps even only to questioning?, to raising doubts.

This is Peter Handke doubting his way through his Journey to the Rivers, his controversial essay-cum-travelogue. (Not that I think any sensible person would compare him to Zola!) Also note the strange punctuation, even questioning is being questioned here!

Frankly the book left me utterly underwhelmed. Now I don't know much about Balkan history and what really happened there in the nineties but it is entirely plausible and even obvious that journalists and western observers were one-sided in their reportage. Also the way Serbia was compared to Germany or Milosevic to Hitler, it was again obvious that journalists were indulging in lazy shortcuts, so that they don't have to do the difficult and painstaking tasks of real analysis. So in this situation if a major writer takes up the task of reportage, it should be more than welcome. It's a pity then that Handke does such an incompetent job of it. First of he starts by abusing everybody in the press. He calls FAZ "a serb swallowing rag", hurls insults and makes fun of its editors, ridicules Spiegel by inventing puns on its name (it means mirror in English.) He is even harsher on French media and commentators. He says he used to like Le Monde once but now it has become "a demagogic snoop sheet," driven by "a lust for death." He doesn't like Bernard Henri Levi and Andre Glucksmann either. He calls them "new philosophers." He similarly invents adjectives for american reporters, even the noble prize winning poet Joseph Brodsky is not spared from his invectives.

After he is done with all the abusing and insulting he sets out on a trip to Yugoslavia. He doesn't go to war zones of course. He visits Belgrade, goes on to the banks of river Danube and wonders why can't he find any paranoia amongst the people? Why is there no sign of bombing? Of war mafia? Why is there so much peace and calm? He doesn't really question Srebrenica massacre but wonders how it could have happened and what was the motivation:
Why such a thousandfold slughtering? What was the motivation? For what purpose? And why, instead of an investigation into the causes ("psychopaths" doesn't suffice), again nothing but the sale of the naked, lascivious, market-driven facts and supposed facts? [Italics in original]

The last line explains the basic problem why Handke is so unsuitable for the task of presenting the Serbian side of the story -- his antipathy to "facts". There are no attempts at historical contextualization, no data supplied, no arguments given, just Mr. Doubt doubting everything, smelling media conspiracy in every single assertion but never supplying any argument from his side.

Also his lyrical descriptions of what he perceives as a bucolic paradise are very strange and unusual. You will feel he is describing things but only later you will understand that he is just describing his own impressions. He doesn't try to weave those impressions into a narrative or a sustained argument either, he just leaves them loose, fragmented and disconnected, completely bereft of any emotion or thought, thus leaving it open to question about how he really wants the reader to interpret it. Even his descriptions are mostly vague, as befits Mr. Doubt I guess.

For example these sample lines:
And now the Drina, broad, wintry black-green, steadily flowing mountain water that appeared still darker, even somber through the snow haze over both banks. A slow walk over the bridge, the librarian, the native, ready, it seemed, to turn back with each step, with an anxiety in his eyes close to naked fear. At the center, between the two countries, then, a kind of lantern was fastened to the rail, improvised and yet like a shrine at a Buddhist river, in my imagination a receptacle for candles, to hold a watch candle for the night. But when opened, the supposed lantern contained nothing but ashes, was prickly with cigarette butts.

Don't know what to do with the "the buddhist shrine" or "candles"! The entire book is filled with such passages.

In short, AVOID! I think Mr. Doubt should write more fiction rather than dabbling in reportage and politics. Or at least allow us to read his reportage as a piece of fiction and shut up about the press and the media.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Pale Fire or Silvery Light?

Excuse: Kubla Khan's post about Pale Fire.

Isn't this cover amazing? It is one of the most beautiful looking books ever.

Some extracts, just to clear some mysteries about the title of the novel. In case you don't know about the novel the wikipedia link is here. Yes that's where the title of the blog comes from.


Excerpted Poem by John Shade and the Commentary by Charles Kinbote.

And while this lasted all I had to do
Was close my eyes to reproduce the leaves,
Or indoor scene, or trophies of the eaves.

Lines 39-40: Was close my eyes, etc.

These lines are represented in the drafts by a variant reading:

39 .............and home would haste my thieves,
40 The sun with stolen ice, the moon with leaves

One cannot help recalling a passage in Timon of Athens (Act IV, Scene 3) where the misanthrope talks to the three marauders. Having no library in the desolate log cabin where I live like Timon in his cave, I am compelled for the purpose of quick citation to retranslate this passage into English prose from a Zemblan poetical version of Timon which, I hope, sufficiently approximates the text, or is at least faithful to its spirit*:

The sun is a thief: she lures the sea
and robs it. The moon is a thief:
he steals his silvery light from the sun.
The sea is a thief: it dissolves the moon.

For a prudent appraisal of Conmal’s translations of Shakespeare’s works, see note to line 962.

Dim Gulf was my first book (free verse);
Night Rote Came next;
then Hebe’s Cup, my final float
In that damp carnival, for now I term
Everything "Poems," and no longer squirm.
(But this transparent thingum does require
Some moondrop title. Help me, Will! Pale Fire.)

Line 962: Help me, Will. Pale Fire.

Paraphrased, this evidently means: Let me look in Shakespeare for something I might use for a title. And the find is "pale fire." But in which of the Bard’s works did our poet cull it? My readers must make their own research. All I have with me is a tiny vest pocket edition of Timon of Athens — in Zemblan! It certainly contains nothing that could be regarded as an equivalent of "pale fire" (if it had, my luck would have been a statistical monster).

*Original Shakespeare has the following:

The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surges resolves
The moon into salt tears;

Note how the Zemblan translator changes the gender of the Sun and the Moon. Such fun at the cost of a poor translator!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Juicy Literary News

The Independent has a nice and detailed report on the long feud between between two latin American literary greats, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. There was some news a couple of months ago saying that they have made up and that Llosa was going to write a foreword to the new edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude but things are not so simple it seems. The article also has some juicy details:

Mario had an eye for the ladies. First, at the age of just 19, he married his uncle's sister-in-law, Julia, who was 13 years his senior. The marriage was not a success, save that it gave the young author the subject for his barely disguised autobiographical work Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. The year after they divorced, Mario married his first cousin Patricia, with whom he has three children.

But Mario strayed. He fell in love with a beautiful Swedish air stewardess whom he met while travelling. He left his wife and moved to Stockholm.

Distraught, his wife Patricia went to see her husband's best friend, Gabriel. After discussing the matter with his wife, Mercedes, he advised Patricia to divorce Mario. And then he consoled her. No one else quite knows what form this consolation took.

According to sources close to the Colombian, he told her that she should leave her husband, if he returned," Saldivar writes.

Other sources close to the Peruvian say that on the same night, Marquez committed the worst (or best) kind of treason towards his friend Vargas Llosa. But eventually Mario returned to his wife, who told him of Gabriel's advice to her, and of his consolation.

The Times has another report with a great headline, "Two giants of literature, one black eye and 30 years of silence."

In case you are curious about the "black eye" in question, Bhupinder has a picture of a beaming Marquez. Another photo, this time glum, here.

links via complete review which also says that Llosa is working on a new pornographic novel. He has written a couple in the past too, In Praise of Stepmother and its sequel The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto. I have read the former and it is quite good.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

पहला हिंदी पोस्ट ( चिट्ठा? )

इसे बस एक प्रयोग समझिये। मुझे मालूम नहीं था कि हिंदी में लिखना इतना आसान होगा। देखा तो था, पर कोशिश कभी नहीं की। अब सप्ताह में एक बार तो कम से कम लम्बा सा पोस्ट लिखने का प्रयास करूँगा।

Monday, March 12, 2007

Abbas Kiarostami's Short Films

The celebrated Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami actually started his career making short educational films for the "department of cultural development of children and young people" in the mid seventies and continued after the revolution too. A sample of these short films were shown at the ongoing retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The government department's name may vaguely sound Orwellian but the films, almost all of them, were very witty, humane and endlessly fascinating and insightful. Most of these shorts in fact were greeted with loud applause from the audiences. And the attendance was quite good too in all the screenings that I went to.

In a way these films are perfect and ideal introductions to his work as a whole because his full length feature films may confound even the most sympathetic of viewers at first viewing. These short films also use similar devices as his later feature films, like talkative characters engaging in long dialogues, an interest in the mundane and everyday reality, the use of offscreen dialogues, the alienating interventions from behind the camera or his use of repetition which frustrates the forward flow of narrative but at the same time also manages to capture a sense of reality and the complexity beneath it. Another very important aspect of his work is the way he avoids giving fancy (or complex) psychological motives to his characters. Even when the subject is philosophical as in The Taste of Cherry (which is about suicide) there are no grandiloquent debates about meaning of life and yet it is extremely powerful and effective. These people that Kiarostami films may not have read philosophy books but their problems and their understanding of their problems is no less complex because of this. They have their own home grown metaphors and analogies and they do have a good understanding of these complex and mysterious questions, so what if they don't know the meaning of those complex and fancy concepts.

After all this if one asks what his films are about, I would say they are about the art of observing, or rather, art of observing through a camera. And it is a proof of his artistry that after watching his films you realize how complex, unobvious, even morally and politically significant can the seemingly simple act of observing potentially be. His two didactic short films Colours and How to Make Use of Leisure Time wittily capture this everyday-ness and yet an essentially complex nature of reality all around us. In the first a singing voice of the narrator describes different colours by associating them with familiar objects. The other film shows how children can make use of their leisure time by painting old doors and furniture. They are both quite funny and also revealing in the way they capture the childlike enthusiasm and freshness of perception of the mundane reality all around us that we lose because of habit as we grow up. I think I am making it sound like a cliche--beauty in everyday reality--but the film avoids it completely. It is quite irreverent in a way. Another short film Toothache meant for the children instructs them about dental hygiene. A young boy, who has a family history of dental troubles (both his father and grandfather lost their teeth early in their adulthood!) is too lazy to brush his teeth regularly. Soon he starts suffering from Toothache. There is one sequence when the teacher in the school is taking students' attendance and for a long time we see every kid responding with their hands up one after the another, it feels so long, and when the teacher announces the name of the boy there is no response. He has gone to visit the dentist! It is again something that one finds in his later movies, he doesn't hurry through a scene. It feels like submitting to the real time in which the events in "reality" unfold.

Another of these shorts illustrates this unfolding of reality in real time even better. A man is with a repaired punctured tire is looking to hitch a ride on a highway. What we get to see is a sequence of one vehicle after the other for what seems to be a long time. Each time we feel that okay, this one will stop and the man will get a ride but no, none of them stop. He helps a man with unloading at the opposite side of the road in the hope of gaining a favour (the film is dialogue-less) but apparently the man is going in the opposite direction. Finally the stranded man decides to take things in his own control and starts rolling the tire by pushing and nudging it through the winding roads of the hilly area. What follows is another long and seemingly interminable sequence in which we follow the man and his tire hurtling fast ahead of him. On the way we see him sweating, taking off his jacket, combing his hair, we fear that tire may fall down in the valley and worry if he will ever reach his destination. But reach he does in the end. He feels victorious and so do the audiences who clap after fifteen minutes of this spectacle. And yes, the short is called Solution No. 1 :) Another short Orderly or Disorderly illustrates which is efficient, an orderly way of doing things or disorderly? It is again the familiar Kiarostami territory of film within a film. We see clapboxes before each scene and we see offscreen voices of the cameraman who fears that things might be taking too much time in the "disorderly" sequences (a bunch of children getting on a bus) or worries about why it is so difficult to film orderly scenes (scenes of an orderly traffic!) Fellow Citizen again is another familiar territory for Kiarostami regulars. In it a traffic policemen is trying to stop people from getting into a no-vehicle zone without much result to show though. The problem: he engages in arguments and counter-arguments with people who have a million excuses for not following the rules. It is repetition carried to an extreme. I didn't count but I am sure there must have almost more than thirty people that the traffic man would have interacted with, some of them at the same time!

Two of my personal favourites were also two of most conventional (as compared to others) films in the selection. In The Chorus an old man uses his hearing aid to shut off the noise from the outer world -- the people bickering on the street, the noise from the traffic etc. There is also a construction work going on near his house which is again creating lot of noise so the poor old man has again taken off his hearing aid and peacefully doing his stuff in his room. In the meanwhile his granddaughter has returned from school and is ringing the bell, knocking at the door, shouting from below. But the grandfather is oblivious of his surrounding. Soon a crowd of children gather below and they all start shouting together at the top of their voices. Again the shouting goes on for so long that it becomes suspenseful and very amusing! Will the old man ever hear children's voices? If so when? Finally the grandfather does hear something and gets suspicious and looks down from the window. Final shot: his smiling face through the window followed by a big applause from the audience. I clapped too!

The Wedding Suit was the only full length (slightly less than an hour long) feature film in the selection and it was certainly one of the best. I think it is right up there with his later films that he made in the nineties. A young boy works as an apprentice in a tailoring shop. Two of his friends want to borrow a suit, which is scheduled to be delivered the next day, for one night. One of them wants to impress a girlfriend and another wants to go to a magic show. The suit itself is meant for an upper class boy of the same age as the three of them. Most of the film is about how the three boys argue with each other and how he is finally persuaded to hand over the suit to him. The way Kiarostami handles dialogues is again riveting. It never feels pre-written and yet it is all so tightly woven that it is difficult to imagine that the exchange is happening on camera! One of them does finally get the suit for one night, just that we don't know whether the suit will be returned in the right condition. It is extremely insightful and thoroughly unsentimental look at the life of deprived young children, how they struggle for small pleasures and sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. It is a wonderful little masterpiece.

All in all, I can't recommend these shorts highly enough, I hope they get a wider audience that they deserve for they not only will help understand Kiarostami's later works better but are also exceptional in their own right. At least I hope they get released as extras on the DVDs of major films.

This is the link to the schedule of the retrospective. Wikipedia has an extensive article with lots of links at the bottom.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Disquiet Thoughts

I have been reading Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa's brilliant diary The Book of Disquiet. It is really very good. So many disquiet thoughts... and some are amusing too in their own melancholy way like this one...

However, as an ironic spectator of myself, I have never lost my interest in observing life. And now, knowing beforehand that each tentative hope will be crushed, I suffer in the special pleasure of enjoying the disillusion together with the pain, a bittersweetness in which the sweetness predominates, I am a sombre strategist who has lost every battle and now, on the eve of each new engagement, draws up the details of the fatal retreat, savouring the plan as he does so.

That fate of being unable to desire without knowing beforehand that I will not be granted my desire, has pursued me like some malign creature. Whenever I see the figure of a young girl in the street and just for a moment wonder, however idly, how it would be if she were mine, every time just ten paces on from my daydream, that girl meets a man who is obviously her husband or her lover. A romantic would make a tragedy of this, a stranger comedy; I, however, mix the two things, for I am both a romantic and a stranger to myself, and I simply turn the page to enjoy the next irony.


Another very busy Saturday. I was at the MoMA again. I saw Abbas Kiarostami's Through the Olive Trees, the anthology film Tickets, Roberto Rossellini's Voyage to Italy and then met the mysterious Cheshire Cat and then we both went to BAM to see the Japanese film Pigs and Battleships. Tiring yes, but good!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Strange World

French trailer of Inland Empire. It is nicer and slightly longer than the official American version.

btw, this guardian blog is asking what it is about? I am going to see it again this weekend. Will take notes this time.

Some (Elementary) Thoughts about Realism

Sometime back I came across this old review written by James Wood of a novel by American novelist and critic William Gass and was struck by the opening paragraph:

William Gass is the philosopher-novelist who wants to scramble our p's and q's. For many years, in both essays and novels, he has fought what he sees as the unthinking realism of American fiction. Instead of the blank essences of traditional fiction, he wants the subtle absences of the nouveau roman: instead of characters, he organizes his fictions around ''symbolic centers''; instead of the architecture of plot, he attends to the fabric of form; instead of the management of reality, he prefers to liberate the sentence. The writer's task is not to make the reader believe in a world: Gass has argued that ''one of the most petty of human desires is the desire to be believed, on the one hand, and the will to belief, on the other.'' The writer's task, as he sees it, is to stimulate disbelief, to tickle the reader's alienation.
Wood then goes on to criticize this viewpoint in his review and even finds contradictions in Gass's own novel under review. (Wood's essay on W G Sebald, another "experimental" writer, also touches on these issues but in a much more sympathetic and detailed manner.) I haven't read any formal literary criticism or philosophy, where it must be an old debate, but that's exactly what I feel, specially these days, when I pick up a novel. I find both "will to belief" and "desire to be believed" totally pointless and soon get bored if I see a writer doing the same. This is not to say that I like fantasies, in fact, this will to belief is even more prominent there. I am sure there are fantasy writers who work by "stimulating disbelief" and "tickling the reader's alienation" but I think there are not many. I am just not well read enough so I will not generalize there.

Not that I have a problem with the entire genre of Realism but I look for hints of self-awareness and self-conscious voice in the novel, even if it is a realistic novel. And my favourite nineteenth century realistic novels like Dead Souls or The Red and the Black indeed do this. Towards the end of The Red and the Black for example, when things are getting really excited (it is an extremely racy story, full of surprises and romantic intrigues), Stendhal inserts a chapter on local politics of French society and then apologises to readers saying that (I am quoting from memory) "Politics in a novel fits exactly like a gunshot would in the middle of an Opera concert"! This is also the reason why I love the digressive and essayistic novels like Don Quixote or Tristram Shandy. I haven't read Rabelais or Tom Jones yet but I think I will like them too. Again this is not to say that conventional realist writers like Flaubert, Tolstoy or Chekhov aren't any less great because they worked with "real" characters or "believable" narrative. They are great because they did so much else than just that.

There are also a whole bunch of postmodernist writers in the Anglo-American world who resist that "desire to be believed" but somehow I haven't yet warmed up to them. They demand too much effort and I am not sure of the returns. (I am mainly thinking about Thomas Pynchon here none of whose books I have managed to read for long.) I have read Rushdie (Midnight's Children), in some ways Pynchon's disciple, but with immense boredom and irritation. Somehow their fascination with historical and cultural "facts" and over-abundance of proper nouns in their books bore me to death. In comparison I like the continental writers (like Thomas Bernhard) much more. Somehow I like their detachment and alienation from the contemporary world. Or perhaps it is just that I can't stand too many references to popular culture. I have myself very little clue about what is happening there.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Wayward Cloud

The Taiwanese film director Tsai Ming-Liang has one of the most recognizable style in the whole of contemporary cinema. Not just the style but also in his subjects, themes, characters and settings he doesn't veer much. His powerful and disquieting studies of urban anomie and melancholia hark back to Antonioni's films in the sixties, only that after seeing his films, you realize that perhaps the sickness of the soul that Antonioni diagnosed so eloquently has grown even worse with time. In fact watching The Wayward Cloud, specially its ending, makes one feel like reaching a cul-de-sac, an impasse, a (literal) dead-end.

The Wayward Cloud is some kind of a sequel to Tsai's earlier What Time is it There? (perhaps his best work) but one need not have seen it to appreciate it. In fact Tsai's whole oeuvre is so obsessively consistent that it seems like he is making the same film over and over again and if you see one film after the another you will notice many intertextual references and other striking symbolisms which you would definitely have missed the first time around. Even the watermelons in this film don't just appear out of nowhere. They were right there in his first film too! And so is his fascination with water. In fact if you haven't seen his other films his use of these symbols will appear heavy-handed and a little too explicit.

Coming back to the film, In What Time is it There? a young Taiwanese watchseller sells his personal dual time watch to a girl who is leaving for Paris and then gets obsessed with her, specially with the Paris time zone and starts setting every watch he can come across to the same time zone. Meanwhile the girl wanders around in the parks, subways and cafe of Paris feeling lonely and isolated. Now in this film the girl has returned back from Paris and taken an apartment just next to the boy who has now taken a new job of acting in pornographic films. In fact the films are being shot with a minimal crew right in his apartment. They soon meet and develop a hesitant, tentative and mostly silent relationship without the girl knowing about his profession. In the meanwhile Taiwan is under a severe heat wave and water has become costlier than water melons, which is all a ruse (and of course another symbol, "no water=no love=no life") for Tsai to invent imaginative uses of the fruit all with sexual connotations. (Notice the obvious metonymic use as a male organ above and a female organ below.) It all doesn't end happily though. She soon learns the truth in a shocking sequence which is also the last scene of the film. (I won't reveal what happens, though I myself knew about it.)

The most obvious way to see this film is to see it as an attack on pornography. But that will be too easy. Porn might be an easy target but Tsai is perceptive enough to realize that it is only a symptom not a cause. It is the disease of inarticulation and emptiness that finds itself reflected in the business of pornography. Though I was hoping a more explicit attack on the culture of commodification that is ubiquitous in advanced capitalist societies. Porn, if you see closely, is not really about sex and sexual fulfillment but rather about economics and market. You create a market, create a demand and then supply and the cycle continues. Porn is just an extreme example. The whole culture industry of entertainment thrives on commodification of human desires and human personality. There are hints about these too in the film. The main events are also punctuated by increasingly absurd, abrupt and imaginary musical interludes (though to an experienced consumer of Bollywood films like me, it felt just nostalgic.) These song and dance sequences are perhaps meant to deflate the traditional representations of romantic love. There are songs of longing and loneliness, and then songs about lovers squabbling with each other, all meant to show how artificial and empty these sentiments are as represented. So ultimately as means of sexual communication one will have either these songs or the hard core porn, both artificial and false, there is no third way. It is obviously an extreme position, which is surely not supposed to be defended but rather to be thought and argued about. Not surprisingly Tsai doesn't offer any solution at all. In fact the ending is so extreme that he perhaps feels there is no solution at all!

I have now seen all of Tsai's films except for his latest I Don't Want to Sleep Alone. I have liked all of them a lot except for The River (which has another shocker of an ending) and this. Somehow in these films I felt he was being too negative, not that I have a problem with negation (I think it is an important thing to do, something art should do more of) but rather his style is more suited for understatement and indirection. The confrontational approach of the last scene in effect overwhelms the entire film. In the end you just remember the last act. Which is a shame because the earlier parts are no less eloquent in their own way. In case you are planning to watch it, it contains a lot of explicit pornographic scenes. All in all, not a very healthy and nice way to spend late Saturday evening, specially if you are already feeling lonely!

This is another review. It has mostly been panned by critics. Very poor rating on Rotten Tomatoes too. I myself will remain non-committal.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Peter Handke, Culled!

Looking to continue the "Crazy Austrians Reading Project," I visited the nice little neigbourhood community library that I go to this evening looking for books by Peter Handke. The online catalog search showed a number of results but when I looked for them on the shelves I could locate only one, My Year in a No-man's bay (a hefty volume). When I asked the kindly old lady at the information desk she turned pale. Apparently, since the books hadn't been checked out in I don't know how many years, they had taken them out of circulation! In fact I felt a little bad afterwards because she was insistent that she would order the books from the sister libraries or else enter a new purchase order. I said not to worry, I have enough books to read already and may be I will start with the No-man's Bay book. Also they have some non-fiction books by Handke, one of them called A Journey to the Rivers about his travels through Serbia. Handke was in news last year for attending the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic. He has in the past expressed his support for the cause of Serbian nationalism too. I don't know much about the recent history of the Balkans. This book should be interesting too.

Reading has been slow for the last two weeks. Busy with the movies and in general lazing around (Still with The Man without Qualities, about hundred pages still left from the first volume). I was at the Museum of Modern Art yesterday. I spent the entire morning staring at works by Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper and so many others that I had never heard of before. There was one by Klimt (another Austrian) too! The best was a bunch a German expressionists none of whom I had heard of before. This is a very nice interactive website about the collection. In the afternoon I saw a collection of short (and a few longer) films by the celebrated Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. Will post something about the films sometime, meanwhile you can read this wiki page if you haven't. It has more information than one would ever need! And as if four hours of Kiarostami was not enough I went to Anthology Film Archives in the evening to watch The Wayward Cloud directed by another widely celebrated contemporary director Tsai Ming-Liang. I liked it quite a bit but with a few reservations and doubts. I will post in detail sometime later.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

David Lynch Exhibition

BBC has reports from the exhibition of David Lynch's visual works currently on in Paris here and here.

The Guardian has a more detailed report here. The above photograph taken from the telegraph.

On the topic of David Lynch, here is a review of Lost Highway Opera (which I didn't attend). Austrian nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek wrote the libretto. I wonder what it is!

Thursday, March 01, 2007


Teorema (Theorem), the Italian film directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, is one of the most confounding films I have seen in a long while. I really don't know what it all really means even after seeing it for a second time. It is strange and unusual not just in what it wants to say but also in how it goes about doing it.

The main story itself is very strange. An upper class family is visited by a mysterious stranger and soon after the visit everyone in the family is thrown into some kind of a spiritual crisis by uncontrollable yearnings for the stranger. The Husband, the wife, the son, the daughter, and even the maid, everybody wants to sleep with him. It helps that the visitor (he is never named throughout the film) is played by an actor (Terence Stamp) of uncommon masculine beauty. I had never seen, or even heard of him before. Anyway, soon after seducing everybody in the family the visitor leaves as strangely as he had arrived. The rest of film tells how each of the characters are profoundly affected by the experience. The son becomes an artist and starts painting as if followed by some powerful inner force. The daughter becomes catatonic after she measures the ground where the visitor sat with a measuring tape and runs helter-skelter signifying I don't know what and has to be admitted to hospital. The maid acquires spiritual powers and starts performing miracles. The mother becomes a nymphomaniac and starts picking up strange men on streets for sex and the father, after handing over his factory to the worker's collective ends up in a desert howling into nothingness!

First of all I don't know what the title means. May be a right theorem for living life? It is specially startling in the way it proposes connections between sexuality, politics and religion. The bourgeois respectable life that the family members live have alienated them from themselves and it is only after a contact with an outsider, a symbol of some divine, mysterious truth that they are able to come out of their shells and recognize what really lies within their selves. In other words, they discover their "souls"! Pasolini seems to say that sexual repression, materialism and selfishness all stem from basic inauthenticity that lies at the center of everything. Pasolini was himself a complicated figure. Besides being a filmmaker he was Marxist activist, a published poet, a homosexual, an atheist and extremely interested in religion. It comes as no surprise that he is able to see connections between these apparently incompatible ideologies and ways of looking at the life and the world.

Even more than the content, it is the style of the film that makes a powerful impression. It is defiantly non-naturalistic in its tone, texture, narrative, or the way it uses dialogue and background music. It invites ridicule and catcalls of pretentiousness and yet resists them successfully because it is so extreme and again so defiantly non-naturalistic. There is scene in which maid in her spiritual ferment ascends in the air and Pasolini films in such matter-of-fact way that even if you laugh it is not a laughter of dismissal but of understanding. Same is with many shots of the crotch of the visitor or with the scene in which a weird postman comes with a mail about the arrival of the visitor, waving his hands like wings as if impersonating an angel. There are very few dialogues and there is an alarming speech about philosophy of art. Also, interestingly the film was awarded some prize by some (obviously enlightened) catholic group but when the catcalls from the uncomprehending and puritan section grew louder they had to rescind. I think this is a great film about religion, not necessarily about christianity but religion and spirituality in general. And coming from someone who is generally hostile to religion it is really a high praise indeed! It is refreshing to see a film which takes a lot of risks and is able to tackle complicated subjects and great ideas with such confidence and aplomb.

This is a comprehensive article on the film. It contains lots of stills too.