Sunday, September 30, 2007

Two Literary Excerpts

Some existential panic to enliven the Sunday evening.

This from the opening paragraph of Ferdydurke by Witold Gombrowicz:

Tuesday morning I awoke at that pale and lifeless hour when night is almost gone but dawn has not yet come into its own. Awakened suddenly, I wanted to take a taxi and dash to the railroad station, thinking I was due to leave, when in the next minute, I realized to my chagrin that no train was waiting for me at the station, that no hour had stuck. I lay in the murky light where my body, unbearably frightened, crushed my spirit with fear, and my spirit crushed my body, whose tiniest fibers cringed in apprehension that nothing would ever happen, nothing ever change, that nothing would ever come to pass, and whatever I undertook, nothing, but nothing, would ever come out of it. It was the dread of nonexistence, the terror of extinction, it was the angst of nonlife, the fear of unreality, a biological scream of all my cells in the face of an inner disintegration when all would be blown to pieces and scattered to the winds. It was the fear of unseemly pettiness and mediocrity, the fright of distraction, panic at fragmentation, the dread of rape from within and of rape that was threatening me from without -- but most important, there was something on my heels at all times, something that I would call a sense of inner, intermolecular mockery and derision, an inbred superlaugh of my bodily parts and the analogous parts of my spirit, all running wild.

And this from Javier Marias in Dark Back of Time. About the perception of time in children (and "certain women"):

"It's over now, there, there, it's all over," mothers often say to their children to calm them after a fright or a nightmare or some other woe, lending disproportionate importance to the present, almost as if to declare, "That which is not here now has never been." Perhaps it's understandable, intuition or memory tells us that for children the present is so strong every moment seems eternal and excludes whatever is not there in it, whatever is past or future, which is why children find it so hard to bear even the slightest setback or reversal, they believe them to be definitive; they see no more than the now they live embedded in, so if they're hungry or thirsty or need to pee they cannot wait, they fly into a rage if there's nothing to be done but get to a cafe or home to solve the enormous disruption, that's how they experience any delay, even if it's only two minutes long, they don't know what a minute is, or an hour or a day, they don't know what time is, they don't understand that in fact it consists in just that, in passing and being lost, in its own passage and loss to the point of sometimes becoming impossible to remember. I've seen the same impatience or incomprehension of the passage of time in certain women, rarely in men, men seem to rely more on the future, and some of them even know that the future exists only to become the past.

Taming Thomas Bernhard?

I came across this a little while back, thought I will link it here alongwith an excerpt from Extinction. The Austrian embassy using a somewhat misleading quote from Thomas Bernhard, there is something really funny about it.

Bernhard is actually very popular in Austria and the German speaking world. In his will he famously prohibited the staging of any of his plays in Austria ("in whatever way the state defines itself") after his death but this didn't stop his admirers from arranging to have his plays staged in the neighbouring Czech republic and going there. More details here. A more detailed article in the TLS gives an overview of his reception and rise in popularity after his death. It also talks of an exhibition of his private papers.

In case someone is wondering what the ruckus is all about, a sample excerpt from Extinction:

I recalled that only a few days before this unbearably tasteless funeral I had said to Gambetti, Just to think of Austria, a country that's disfigured, degenerate, and done for, is enough to make you vomit, to say nothing of the utterly degenerate state, whose vulgarity and baseness are unparalleled not only in Europe but in the rest of the world -- a state that has for decades been run by unprincipled, degenerate, brainless governments, and a people that's been mutilated beyond recognition by these unprincipled, degenerate and brainless governments. First by the vulgar, vicious National Socialist regime, then by the no less vulgar, vicious and criminal pseudosocialism that succeeded it. I had told Gambetti on the Pincio, as I now recalled, standing by the open grave. The destruction and annihilation of our country has been encompassed by National Socialism and pseudosocialism, aided and abetted by Austrian Catholicism, which has always cast its blight upon Austria. Today Austria is a country governed by unscrupulous profiteers belonging to parties devoid of all conscience. In the last few centuries, Gambetti, Austria has been cheated of everything and had all its sense knocked out of it by Catholicism, National Socialism and pseudosocialism. In the Austria of today, Gambetti, vulgarity is the watchword, baseness the motive, and mendacity the key. Every morning when we wake up we ought to be utterly ashamed of today's Austria. Time and again I tell myself that we love Austria but hate the Austrian state, Gambetti. Whether we are in Rome or anywhere else in the world, Austria no longer concerns us. Wherever you go in Austria today you are surrounded by lies. Wherever you look, you find only mendacity. Whoever you talk to, you're talking to a liar, Gambetti, I said, as I now recalled, standing by the open grave. This ridiculous country and this ridiculous state are basically not worth thinking about, and to think about them is just a waste of time. But woe betide anyone in this country who isn't blind, I said, who isn't deaf, and still has his wits about him! To be an Austrian today is a death sentence, and all Austrians are subject to this death sentence, I had said, as I now recalled, standing by the open grave. Everything Austrian is characterless, I said. Whenever one comes back to Austria, one feel dirty, I thought, standing by the open grave.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Thomas Bernhard: Extinction

George Steiner in his introduction to Thomas Bernhard's Correction complains that in his later writings Bernhard succumbed to "a monotone of hate (hate for Austria, for modern man, for the soiled materiality of being)." I think it is a very accurate description for Extinction (and indeed most of his other work too) which was the last novel he published before he died in 1989. A monotone of hate is a good phrase and even though Steiner uses it (slightly) disapprovingly I don't understand why it must be so. A novel by its very nature need not always be polyphonic. Also negation in itself doesn't mean nihilism. Hate and negation are ways of affirmation too. Specially after all the horrors of the twentieth century, what we need is negation, a relentless negation, unmitigated by any sentimentality or respect for conventions. This is reason why the affirmation of values as practiced by the conventional novel often feels completely anachronistic and sentimental, even when the writing itself is accomplished. (This is even more so after you have just finished a Thomas Bernhard novel.) I don't think there is a greater exponent of this type of literature, a literature of negation, than Thomas Bernhard along with perhaps Samuel Beckett (though I have so far been unable to really get into his novels).

Neither the content nor the style of Extinction will be unfamiliar to the reader of other Bernhard novels. It is also written in the form of a reported monologue. In this case the narrator is a professor of German named Murau who lives in Rome in a self-imposed exile from Austria. The whole novel of around 350 pages is basically just two unbroken and unparagraphed monologues. All told by Murau to his student Gambetti. So every utterance is followed by "I told Gambetti". Sometimes he just thinks so in that case it is "I thought" or "I told myself." Only in the first and the last sentence of the book we realize that Murau's monologue itself is being reported by a third person. (That's also where we learn his name.) There is also a small twist that we come to know only in the end. Murau reveals that he is suffering from some fatal heart ailment and only in the last sentence the third person narrator who is reporting Murau's monologue informs that he died on such and such date. In this sense the whole monologue itself feels like a negation of the ultimate negation (death). (Negation of the negation, I am told, is a Hegelian phrase by the way.) There is also another element of self-reflexivity in the narration. At couple of places Murau says that he wants to write a book which will "extinguish" everything that he writes about and will name it "Extinction." In that sense the book is about his own extinction.

So what is his monologue all about? Difficult to summarise here. It all starts with the telegram he receives informing him of the death in car accident of his parents and elder brother. But with Bernhard and his unrelenting negation, this is no occasion of sentimentality and sadness. Murau uses it as a pretext for launching his diatribe against his family, the life in the country estate, which to him meant slow spiritual death, the philstinism, smugness, shallowness and hypocrisy that forced him to flee that place which he says saved his life. His family of course is treated as a typical Austrian species so his invective is directed against the whole of Austria too at the same time. His two remaining sisters Caecilia and Amalia get a good dose of invective too. There are a few figures he admires however. His uncle Georg who, like him, fled from the country estate. Then there is a poet friend named Maria (based on Ingeborg Bachmann) who he says is the greatest poet of Austria and who like him lives in self-imposed exile in Rome. There is a roman-catholic bishop who is having an affair with his mother, or so he thinks. Murau is divided about him. He grudgingly admires him at a few places but otherwise mocks him too. In general he uses "catholic" as a term of abuse. For example "Austria is a catholic country" means it is quite bad. He often uses it in conjunction with "national socialist."

The book is of course full of hilarious rants. You won't know when he has left one topic and moved to another, everything told in as exaggerated a manner as possible ("Goethe is the foremost intellectual quack of Germany," he says at one place). He himself comments on his own style:

"I've always found gratification in my fanatical faith in exaggeration, I told Gambetti. On occasion I transform this fanatical faith in exaggeration into an art, when it offers the only way out of my mental misery, my spiritual malaise. I've cultivated the art of exaggeration to such a pitch that I can call myself the greatest exponent of the art that I know of. I know of none greater. No one has carried the art of exaggeration to such extremes, I told Gambetti, and if I were suddenly asked to say what I really was, secretly, I'd have to say that I was the greatest artist I knew in the field of exaggeration."

Of course one can't say if he is exaggerating here too!

In short it is an absolutely fantastic book. If you are not familiar this is probably the best book to start reading him. If you are already familiar with his work, you will no doubt agree about the addictiveness of his style. I have so far read The Loser, Wittgenstein's Nephew, Old Masters, Frost and half of Correction. This is by far my favourite of all. The Loser is very bleak and Old Masters is the funniest, this book has both in a good balance. I will probably copy a few excerpts from the book sometime later. For now a sample excerpt -- the gaping void. (Again it is the negation of the idea of retrievability of past common in so much of nostalgic and sentimental literature.)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Katha Pollitt Reviews (and a feminist rant)

Katha Pollitt's new essay collection has got some interesting reviews in New York Times and LA Times. One essay in particular in which she talks of webstalking her ex-boyfriend after he left her for another woman. The essay is available here. (If you like the New Yorker format you can check here.) In one of her other essays she also writes of feeling inadequate and guilty of not pleasing her boyfriend adequately (sexually) and joining Marxist study groups with the sole aim of impressing him. Quite understandably her critics and admirers are aghast at what they call, such shameless display of self-abasement. "Watching a feminist I've admired my entire life dissolve into a whingeing puddle in her late 50s is painful," LA Times says.

I haven't read other essays but that webstalking essay looked pretty harmless and inconsequential to me. Occasional bouts of masochistic self-humiliation in public are good for health I think, specially when you have to live with such feminist label (and its completely unjust connotations) all your life.

Now on this topic, don't miss this breathtaking feminist diatribe/manifesto. (via)

Update: An article in Salon takes her critics to task - "Political columnist Katha Pollitt has been vilified for airing her romantic dirty laundry. What's wrong with serious women writers exposing their soft underbellies to the world?"

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Dostoevsky, Visconti (and Bhansali)

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's new film Saawariya is reportedly based on a story by Dostoevsky. I have nothing to say about the film and I am not very excited about its release either. Other than the usual complaints, it will no doubt add yet another episode in the long tradition of endogamy that has become a peculiar tradition of Bollywood. (Both the leads are sons and daughters of yesteryear's stars.)

Anyway a few words about the short story in question. It is one of his early works and would be quite obscure had it not been adapted by two of Europe's greatest film directors - Robert Bresson and Luchino Visconti. (That must surely be where Bhansali got his idea from too in the first place.) I haven't seen Bresson's film which is called Four Nights of a Dreamer but did see Visconti's La Notti Bianche (White Nights) with Marcello Mastroianni in the lead a while back. A few words about the film later.

Coming to the Dostoevsky's story, it is called White Nights with the subtitle informing what it is about - "A sentimental love story from the diary of a dreamer." White Nights of the title refers to the twilight nights in the summers of St. Petersberg. (I am not well informed on these astronomical matters so I will just point to the wikipedia article.) The story is told through the diary of the narrator and is set in these four consecutive nights. The narrator of the story, who remains unnamed throughout, is a character type who will be familiar to readers of Dostoevsky - a hyper self-conscious dreamer and a romantic who is also painfully aware of his own ridiculousness. (At one point in novel he thinks he is behaving like the hero of some two-penny "Russian society novel.") In this he is yet another example of superfluous man. On one of his routine lonely wanderings through the streets of St. Petersburg he runs into an equally lonely and desperate young girl. They soon strike up a tentative friendship based on mutual understanding. (There is a bravura monologue in the "second night" chapter where he explains why he is uncomfortable having any visitors - a fantastic portrait of an alienated soul.) The narrator naturally sees a glimmer of hope but the girl explains to him that she is actually waiting for her lover (played by the great Salman Khan in the Bhansali film) who left her a year ago promising to come back again if his business deal or something goes fine in Moscow. The day of meeting has already passed and he hasn't yet showed up. There is a suspense in the story - whether he will come back or not and some familiar cliches of love triangle - before it ends on a slightly lachrymose note. It is a subject that Dostoevsky returned back to later, in his more well-known masterpiece "Notes from Underground." It makes you a little uncomfortable once you realize that the nice young hero would turn into someone like the underground man with the passage of time.

Visconti's film is a faithful adaptation of the story, thought it enhances the dreaminess and romanticism of the story with the lighting and the way sets are designed. He also changes the setting to winter and adds a character of the prostitute (played by the great Rani Mukherjee in the Bhansali film I think, another evidence that it is not perhaps a direct adaptation but rather a copy). Mastrioanni and the actress who plays the girl are both very good. It is also an interesting film in Visconti's own career. He was one of the pioneers of Italian neo-realism and made his name by directing gritty and stark melodramas about working class people like Ossessione and La Terra Trema. This film also tries to capture the life of the working class people but the style here is radically different. One can't call it artificial though, only its approach to cinematic truth is different. Visconti later went on to make Senso (which Martin Scorsese likes very much) and The Leopard, none of which I have seen yet.

The film misses one vital element of the story - the alienating effect of the city life, specially the effect of such an "artificial city" as St. Petersburg (as the Underground Man calls it). In his writings Dostoevsky anticipated a lot of themes and subjects of modernist European literature - specially their treatment of city life and how romanticism and excessive self-consciousness turns so easily into psychosis in the modern industrial and post-industrial cities. This particular story is nowhere near Notes from Underground but it does point in the same direction. I was hoping the Visconti film would get into these subjects too but it is instead more concerned with the romantic drama of the two principals.

You can read the whole story in the translation by Constance Garnett here. It is also available in this collection by modern library. More information about La Notti Bianche here.

Two of my other favourite Italian films with Notte in the title - La Notte by Antonioni and Le Notti di Cabiria by Fellini.

Obligatory Post on Cricket

I just realised that out of almost 700 posts on the blog in the last couple of years I haven't mentioned cricket even once. So I thought may be if there ever was a time, it is this. I was also surprised to see this picture on the main page of the new york times today. It has disappeared now. The full report here. (Includes this amusing observation - "Athleticism has never been associated with Indian cricket, nor with Indians in general, and that has been a chip on the shoulder of Indian manhood.") Never been a cricket fan, or indeed any sports fan. I find the whole idea completely alien to my physical and mental constitution. Specially these team sports, which I find totally irrational and barbaric. It is not surprising why it features so prominently in our culture though. Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class has a classic analysis of this phenomenon of sports symbolising "an arrested development in man's moral nature." But I doubt many sports fans would like it. A previous post on sports - my thoughts about the Zidane documentary.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


An interesting exchange in the new york review of books about Austrian literature, specially lack of interest in theatre and problems of translation in general. I found this specially worth highlighting:

One of the presumptions behind globalization is that every work of narrative and dramatic art can be immediately and profitably translated into every language. All my own work on translation (see particularly my book Translating Style) suggests that for some authors the context of the original language and society remains supremely important and makes international comprehension unlikely. I would not describe this as "provincialism" if only because such writers address at the very least a national audience. I certainly would not see it as negative, but rather as something to savor, a guarantee that culture has not become uniform and monolithic. It does however present serious problems for those who award international prizes for literature.

Indeed, as readers it is our responsibility to look for specific elements and particularities of culture in the book and give them the importance they deserve. This is just one way to resist the normative forces of globalization. Thomas Bernhard is not provincial because he wrote plays for a specific Austrian audience. It is the readers who won't read Heldenplatz thinking that it is of no concern to them because they don't live there. (I don't think the play has been translated into English.)

Another great Austrian consistently celebrated on the blog, Michael Haneke, gets a full page profile treatment in the new york times magazine. I didn't like the accompanying audio commentary by A.O. Scott that much. He made similar points in an article some time back too. (Though I love the title of the piece - "The Discreet Masochism of the Bourgeoisie")

MOMA is holding a retrospective of his films next month. It includes his never before released films that he made for Austrian and German TV. I am particularly intrigued by his adaptations of Ingeborg Bachmann and Joseph Roth. More details here.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Victor Sjostrom: The Wind

Along with F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, Victor Sjostrom's 1924 film The Wind is considered to be the last great films of the silent era. I haven't seen Sunrise yet but got a chance to see The Wind yesterday at the moma.

Sjostrom (also transliterated as Seastrom) was a Swedish filmmaker who worked in Hollywood for a few years in the twenties. (He is more familiar perhaps for playing the old man in Bergman's Wild Strawberries.) With its portrayal of extreme emotional states with extreme landscapes and settings in the background, it does feel like a work of someone with a Scandinavian sensibility. Only this time it is not the winter, it is the exact opposite - it is windy, sandy, stormy desert. Lillian Gish plays Letty who in the beginning of the film travels to the west to live with her cousin. She is very feminine and very fragile - both emotionally and physically and "the dominion of the winds" soon starts to take a toll on her psyche. She is forced to choose one of the brutish suitors for marriage and settle for a life of domesticity in that harsh environment. Things go from bad to worse but the film has a very unexpected happy ending. I was not surprised to read that in the original version the Gish character goes insane in the end and walks off into the desert in the night. Obviously it was too much for the audiences to take. Even with the tacked-on ending the film successfully conveys the basic feelings of what it means for sensitive souls to live in harsh environments.

The real star of the film is of course The Wind itself. It is an awe-inspiring, at times uncomfortably so, sensory experience. At the end I felt like dusting off my shirt and my hair too - such was the effect of the sand and wind. Of course it all works only because the force and the brutality of the wind is contrasted with the sensitivity and fragility of the girl, vividly portrayed by Lillian Gish. She is present in every single frame of the film and even the wind is actually shown from her perspective, which actually makes it more believable (I don't think there is any place in America quite like that). It was great to see her back to back in The Night of the Hunter too. She has an absolutely fantastic screen presence and it doesn't matter whether the character she plays is vulnerable or strong. The character played by her in The Night is actually in complete contrast. The moment she comes in the frame you know everything will be alright. She says lines like, "I am force for the good in the world, and I know it" or "I am tree with many branches." I have actually not seen any of her works with D.W. Griffith (I know, a major gap in film history) but will definitely check them soon. Too many things to do... More details about the film on senses of cinema.

Orson Welles Documentary

With all the discussions about Orson Welles on the blog here is an excellent documentary, specially focusing on the last few years of his life. It is in German with English subtitles.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Night of the Hunter Screening

If you are around don't miss the screening of The Night of the Hunter at the museum of modern art tomorrow in the afternoon. If nothing goes wrong I will probably be there. That will make it my most-watched film ever breaking the previous record held by DDLJ (three times). I am of course talking about watching in a theatre, not on TV or DVD.

Now that I am on the topic, a few words about the bfi classics book on the film written by Simon Callow which I read recently. Callow is the author of well-received biographical studies of Charles Laughton and Orson Welles which makes him well-placed to write a book on the film, since it famously remained the first and the last directorial effort of Laughton. It also took Welles' overheated expressionist style to new extremes and in completely new directions. (Stanley Cortez, the cinematographer of the film, had earlier worked with Welles on The Magnificent Ambersons, which actually I have not yet seen.)

The book is slightly disappointing because it doesn't really say much about the utterly singular style of the film, at least not much that is not already known. How did German Expressionism, Biblical allegory, Grimm fairy tales, Orson Welles, film noir and folkloric rural Americana come together in the same film? It does try to find its origins in the life and career of two main actors behind the film - Charles Laughton and James Agee who adapted the screenplay from the original novel by Davis Grubb. But like most of the biographical studies the stylistic choices are never convincingly explained.

The book in the end scores where it recounts the interesting production history, specially the pre-production. James Agee was an acclaimed writer and film critic but had a limited script writing experience. He had collaborated with John Huston on the script for The African Queen. When he got a chance to work on the script for this film he was already struggling with alcoholism. When he was done he ended up with a 350 page unfilmable mammoth. As the legend goes the producer of the film Paul Gregory, who was a good friend of Laughton and had difficult relationship with Agee, said that he threw the script back to him and Laughton had to rewrite the entire script on his own from scratch. This Callow says is not true. It is true that the script that Agee wrote was highly overwritten and had a lot more than what could be put into a feature film but it was finally the script that was made into the film. From his stage work Laughton had a long experience of script-editing and he used this experience to whittle down the script to a manageable size. For a long time the first draft of the script was thought to have been lost, but was discovered a couple of years back and it confirmed what Callow says in the book. (Callow wrote this book before the discovery of the draft.) Callow also excerpts a moving correspondence between Agee and Laughton. After Agee perhaps realized his folly he wrote to Laughton asking him to remove his name from the film's credit sequence and acknowledging the extra work that Laughton had to do on the script. Agee was in the last stages of his alcoholism. He would soon die of complications related to alcohol abuse a few months before the film was released. The film's credit sequence retained his name. (It is in sharp contrast to other controversies regarding the authorship of the film in which principals fight for their share of the fame. Most prominent and long-lasting perhaps being that of the authorship of Citizen Kane.)

The book praises Laughton's talents profusely. Callow says he was that rare type, an actor who was also a great creative artist. He also highlights his relationship with the official church (he was extremely hostile to it), his struggles with his own homosexuality and his love of children. He wanted to become a father but his wife refused to have any children after she discovered his homosexuality. He spent much of his later life lecturing children on classic literature and mythology, some of that went into the character of Lillian Gish too. Callow also briefly discusses the careers of Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish and Shelley Winters. Mitchum, I have always thought, was far luckier than he was talented. He is, of course, extra ordinary in this film. And so is the entire supporting cast. Even when the acting is a little awkward, as is the case with the young girl playing Pearl, it looks more like a bad and awkward nightmare, which it actually is. He also talks about the haunting music score by Walter Schumann, which is superlative too. I wish he had discussed the individual scenes in more detail like the haunting scene inside the lake or the boat-scene with the two kids, or the strange Caligari-sque set-design. He touches on all these topics but doesn't say anything new or special.

Recently a lot of archival material including the initial rushes and outtakes about the film have been discovered and it is being preserved in film museums. Fans of the film have been clamouring and petitioning for a DVD release with all the new material but so far it remains out of sight. It is available on a bare-bones dvd which is better than nothing at all but it remains beyond debate and argument that it is one film which deserves a very special treatment. A review of the book from the complete review with more links at the bottom. An interview with Paul Gregory with a nice picture of Laughton here.

Books Tag

In response to a tag from flowerville...

I did this tag when I had started the blog (I can't find the link now, may be it disappeared?) but since I have read so much (by my own standards of course) in the last couple of years I thought I will put an updated list of favourite books.

Total number of books owned

Not many actually. I have this nice habit of buying a book only when I have read at least of few of those which I bought earlier. Still I had around 300 books in Bangalore when I came here. I am a little worried about their fate now but I think I will be going back to India sometime soon (not to take care of the books of course!!). I haven't bought too many books here. May be around 20. There is a nice little library just next to where I live and it is quite good. Even if they don't have something I am looking for (Pedro Paramo, Montano's Malady two books on top of my current to-read list) they always have plenty of other books to read.

Last book bought

That was quite long time back. It was the picture book Isabelle Huppert: A Woman of Many Faces. I am far from a star-struck movie-lover but she is different. The book is good but it could have been better. I was actually intrigued by the introductions written by Elfriede Jelinek, Susan Sontag and Serge Toubiana but I found them wanting, rehearsing the same old ideas if not resorting to downright cliches. I had written about the book here.

Last book read

Readers of the blog already know. I generally always write about the books I am reading. All Souls by Javier Marias was a hugely entertaining read. I am also almost done with Dark Back of Time which is its "sequel" and a (slightly) bizarre fictional commentary on the earlier book. I love these books with a mandarin sensibility and a geeky sense of humour. These two books fit that type very well. (This is also one of the reasons why I love Nabokov who I think is one of Marias' idols too.)

I am also in the middle of Thomas Bernhard's Extinction which is another complete riot full of "relentless word massacre" on every page (as Kubla calls it). There is a wonderful portrait of Ingeborg Bachmann in the book too. Good to see he admires somone too. Come to think of it, he admires Wittgenstein, his nephew and Glenn Gould too. I will write about in detail later.

Five books that mean a lot to you

In contrast to the last tag I will limit myself to books I have read recently (in the last one year or so). So no Proust, no Kafka and none of the great Russian Masters. No Don Quixote, No Speak, Memory either.

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil: I have still not been able to get to the drafts and fragments section but the 1200 pages before that were already more than I could handle. This is the book which redeemed (at least for me) that much-abused word called "soul" (I think the German word will be geist which means spirit). There are also deep discussions about the scientific worldview, materialism, sexual desire, consciousness and what it means to live in the "modern" world. This book will alter the way you think about these things and more.

Collected works of Heinrich von Kleist & Georg Buchner: Two masters from Germany with really dark and fierce imagination and very modern sensibilities. I particularly liked Michael Kohlhaas, The Marquise of O and The Earthquake in Chile by Kleist and Lenz and Woyzeck by Buchner.

The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald: Another book of thoughtful melancholy and mourning. A breathtaking meditation on Death and Destruction as a law of nature.

The Loser by Thomas Bernhard: Another master from Austria. An utterly original prose stylist with an equally unique voice and sensibility.

Zeno's Conscience by Italo Svevo: Too many gloomy Germans? This is a gloomy book too but is also hysterically funny. More intellectual version of Woody Allen perhaps.

The Melancholy of Resistance by Laszlo Krasznahorkai: Still in Central Europe, this time in modern Hungary. I guess it is too much melancholy on my list but with a title like this the book is already a classic. The resistance in the title is the resistance against decay and dissolution, in other words the resistance agaisnt the law of nature. That's why it is melancholy of resistance.

All the people on my sidebar and people who comment on the blog - consider yourself tagged. If you have done the tag before consider updating it with your recent reads.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Two Films by Abraham Polonsky

Abraham Polonsky was one of the many talented screenwriters and directors who were blacklisted during the McCarthyite witchhunts for suspected "un-American activities" in the fifties. Anthology Film Archives has been celebrating his brief career the last couple of weeks. I saw Force of Evil at the anthology which was both written and directed by him and then saw Body and Soul on dvd which was made a couple of years earlier and to which he contributed only as a screenwriter. Village Voice and Slant have detailed reports about the retrospective. I will just add my two cents here.

Body and Soul
follows the career of young boxer played by John Garfield who rises from his jewish ghetto background to become a prizefighter and a money machine. If you are familiar with those boxing movies, you already know the deal. The mobsters and match-fixers soon come in, the hero starts making one moral compromise after another until it is already too late, or may be there is still some chance left to redeem oneself in one last climactic fight.

It is brutal and bleak, even though it has a (kind-of) happy ending. The story is structured in a very innovative manner. Garfield just before his final fight in which he has agreed to take a fall in return of money goes into a reverie and starts reminiscing his past and the entire film is told in flashback. It makes the similar scene in Pulp Fiction with Bruce Willis waking from his dream look like a homage to this film. Elsewhere, Martin Scorsese has named this film as one of the influences on his own classic of Boxing film Raging Bull too. It has similar boxing scenes, though less sophisticated, full of point of view shots, camera in between the boxers fighting in the ring. (Scene from Raging Bull here, not for the faint-hearted.) It is certainly a great classic of the Boxing movie genre. Another excellent film, equally brutal and bleak, though not that well known is The Set-up directed by Robert Wise. It is another favourite of Martin Scorsese.

Force of Evil

Film-noirs are in general extremely pessimistic about human nature but they are always too sophisticated to indulge into "good and evil," "hero and villain" variety of moral essentialism. Nobody is essentially good and nobody is likewise essentially evil. What they lack is not goodness but agency and freedom. The people in noirs have to make tough choices and they are almost never strong enough to do that.

Joe is a typical noir hero in that sense. He works as a lawyer for lottery racket kingpin. They together hatch a plan to defraud smaller lottery companies and establish a monopoly and make quick bucks in the process. The problem is that Joe's elder brother, who sacrificed his life so that he could get a good education, runs one of those smaller business. He and the people he employs in his illegal company (including the girl Joe falls in love with and who tries to save him) are shown to be good-hearted guys who were forced to make morally compromised choices because of the circumstances. Joe asks him to take the money and get out of the business but he refuses. Family melodrama and tragedy soon ensue. In the end Joe realises the moral gutter that he has found himself in but then it is already too late.

The only complaint I had with the film, and it is true for many of the Hollywood films of that era, is that it is too short. It is not even eighty minutes long! Specially when you have such poetic and biting dialogues in almost every single scene you are left hungry for more in the end. In one of the scenes Joe painfully protests after his brother has refused his offer, "To reach out, to take it, that's human, that's natural. But to get your pleasure from not taking. From cheating yourself deliberately like my brother did today, from not getting, from not taking. Don't you see what a black thing that is for a man to do? How it is to hate yourself, your brother, to make him feel that he's guilty, that I'm guilty. Just to live and be guilty." And also in Body and Soul after the gangster threatens the hero, he replies in resignation, "What you gonna do? Kill me? Everybody dies!" A good article about the film here. A profile of Polonsky from Senses of Cinema here.

Also related the HUAC and blacklisting there is a fantastic overview of the controversy surrounding the awarding of life time achievement Oscar to Elia Kazan. It is quite long, part two and three are also there on the same site, scroll down for the link. Polonsky could have had a career like Kazan too, had he agreed to name names for the committee like Kazan did. Instead he agreed to let them curtail his highly promising career. On the evidence of these two films, there is absolutely no doubt that he was a man of uncommon talents and it was a great loss for Hollywood. Jim Hoberman's commentary on the Kazan controversy is also worth reading and so is his essay on On the Waterfront. Interestingly these two films anticipated a lot, in everything subject, characters or style, of On the Waterfront which came only after five-six years.

Thomas Bernhard on Photography

Some entertainment from Thomas Bernhard. It is actually his narrator Murau in Extinction. (The Penguin edition of the book has a photograph on the cover which looks strangely like the one he talks about in the book and one of which actually prompted this rant. I wonder whose photograph is this. I have a different edition of the book with a rather drab cover.)

"Basically I detest photographs, and it has never occurred to me to take any, except for the ones taken in London and Sankt Wolfgang, and another that I took in Cannes. I have never owned a camera. I despise people who are forever taking pictures and go around with cameras hanging from their necks, always on the lookout for a subject, snapping anything and everything, however silly. All the time they have nothing in their heads but portraying themselves, in the most distasteful manner, though they are quite oblivious of this. What they capture in their photos is a perversely distorted world that has nothing to do with the real world except this perverse distortion, for which they themselves are responsible. Photography is a vulgar addiction that is gradually taking hold of the whole of humanity, which is not only enamored of such distortion and perversion but completely sold on them, and will in due course, given the proliferation of photography, take the distorted and perverted world of the photograph to be the only real one. Practitioners of of photography are guilty of one of the worst crimes it is possible to commit--of turning nature into a grotesque. The people in their photographs are nothing but pathetic dolls, disfigured beyond recognition, staring in alarm into the pitiless lens, brainless and repellent. Photography is a base passion that has taken hold of every continent and every section of the population, a sickness that afflicts the whole of humanity and is no longer curable. The inventor of the photographic art was the inventor of the most inhumane of all arts. To him we owe the ultimate distortion of nature and the human beings who form part of it, the reduction of human beings to perverse caricatures--his and theirs. I have yet to see a photograph that shows a normal person, a true and genuine person, just as I have yet to see one that gives a true and genuine representation of nature. Photography is the greatest disaster of the twentieth century. Nothing has ever sickened me so much as looking at photographs..."

It goes on for some more...

Also, you can see him speaking and reading from his book on This Space.

Hungarian Literature...

A nice review of the recently reissued Hungarian novel Sunflower by Gyula Krudy in the los angeles times. Sounds very entertaining:

The innocent Eveline loves Kálmán, gambler and hound dog, who sponges off her and other women, with whom he repeatedly betrays her. Andor Álmos, a lonely country gentleman, loves her and dies for her -- though when she weeps over his corpse he comes back to life. Álmos' mother (also named Eveline) has lost three husbands, the first two in duels and the third because she vowed to sleep with him only if he promised to kill himself afterward. Mr. Pistoli, an aging Don Juan, sent three wives to the insane asylum; one night they all escape and turn up for a farewell foursome. When Miss Maszkerádi, a brassy feminist, reverts to men, she sleeps with Pistoli; the pleasure kills him, apparently permanently. Eveline and Álmos consider marrying and settling down to a passionless life in birch country. That's it.

I am always looking for more books set in the Austro-Hungarian empire so I will definitely look out for this one. Some more details from complete review.

I have read quite a few Hungarian novels in the last year. The novel that impressed me most of all was The Melancholy of Resistance by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. I have written about my enthusiasm for it many times before too and also my dismay that it is still quite obscure. I had similar feelings with its film adaptation Werckmeister Harmonies too though comparatively Bela Tarr is quite well-received and famous among the arthouse crowd.

Other good Hungarian books I have read:

Embers by Sandor Marai: Love, mystery and melancholy... all set against the backdrop (again) of the Habsbug monarchy. Marai's other novel The Rebels came out in translation too which sounded similar. Brief post on Embers here.

Kaddish for an Unborn Child and Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz: Two short and haunting books dealing with holocaust experience and its aftermath. I specially loved the Kaddish book with its long senteces and its relentless negation. I have to find some time for Liquidation too. Small note about Kaddish here.

War and War by Laszlo Krasznahorkai: Not as good as Melancholy but still the chapter length long sentences are exhilarating. The historical digressions get boring after a while but the main narrative remains engaging throughout.

Authors on the to-read list: Peter Nadas, who according to Susan Sontag is the Hungarian Proust, and also Peter Esterhazy.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Germans in Hollywood

Apropos of the recent discussions on the blog about the American career of Fritz Lang and German influence on American Film Noirs (check out the comment sections of this, this and this) I recently came across this seemingly encyclopaedic website called The German Hollywood Connection about all kinds of information about Germans who have worked in Hollywood. Of course they use "Germans" a little freely, to include the central Europeans and people from the former Austro-Hungarian empire too. Specially interesting their separate page on noir. The left sidebar contains links to alphabetic listing. (It is quite encyclopaedic actually, they have included even Leonardo DiCaprio because his mother is a German and he speaks German too.) The still above has a German connection too but only at the story level (I think). I love the shot and I love the film. That's why it is there.

Now that I am on the topic of Germans in Hollywood, I always wanted to plug this post about the acting career of Peter Lorre aka Ladislav Lowenstein (a Hungarian actually) on the house next door blog. He was one classic scene stealer. There is even a nice Peter Lorre song:

When I grow up, I want to be Peter Lorre,
I want to snivel and sneer in a nasal whine.
I want to cring and curse, and maybe threaten worse --
(in Lorre Voice)
-- And if that doesn't work, I've got a laugh that'll petrify your spine!

A few of those nasal snivelling scenes on youtube -

"You Imbecile, You bloated Idiot!" from The Maltese Falcon (*Spoiler Scene*)

"You despise me, don't you?" from Casablanca

and my favourite, the hilarious Dr. Einstein from Arsenic and Old Lace though in this scene Cary Grant steals the show.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Notable Reviews

A few interesting articles in this week's new york times book review.

There is an essay on "the canon wars" which gives a good summary and an overview of the heated debate on the topic. I have read Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American mind which impressed me very much when I read it (a couple of years back), at least the parts I could understand, but I guess if I read it now, I might not find its hysterical arguments about how Nietzsche, Relativism, Heidegger, Multiculturalism, Feminism, Youth Culture (rock music!), and yes, Democracy, are destroying American universities and culture all that agreeable. I actually read his other book Love and Friendship too which said pretty much the same thing. Egalitarian political movements like Feminism, with their obsession with individual rights, have turned love into a contractual relation. Etc. Instead of worrying about exploitation, oppression and inequality we should read Plato, Stendhal, Shakespeare, Austen to understand what love means and how it has transformed over time. There is also a reading list related to the debate. Bloom was a good friend of Saul Bellow whose novel Ravelstein is based on his life (I have not read it).

I think this whole debate about which author to include and which to leave is rather pointless. The focus should be to find a way to do something about the way the whole arts and humanities discipline is getting marginalised to give more space to engineering, law, finance and other such disciplines and the concomitant proliferation of the "high-IQ morons" (to use a phrase from Martin Amis) - people who are highly efficient and highly successful in what they do but are hopelessly shallow and lack even the most basic cultural, intellectual and spiritual values in their lives. That's the real crisis of culture and not why more people read Toni Morrison than Plato or Sophocles.

Yet another book on religion and politics. This time it looks a little more sophisticated. There is a very long essay adapted from the book which I haven't yet read but which looks interesting.

Also on the cover of the magazine a review of the novel The Indian Clerk based on the lives of Ramanujan and Hardy. One mathematician I want to read about is Alan Turing. Not his contribution to computational theory (that I think I already know more than my brain can manage) but rather his personal/inner life.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Javier Marias: All Souls

I am on a literary tour of Spain these days. After Juan Goytisolo now it is the turn of Javier Marias. Unlike Goytisolo I have been hearing his name and reading the reviews of his books for quite some time but I got around to reading him only now. Apparently in continental Europe he is a major literary star and many of his books have scaled the bestseller charts. His books have been regularly reviewed in major english language magazines and newspapers too.

In the eighties Marias spent a couple of years in Oxford as a visiting lecturer in the Spanish department there. He wrote this book based on his experience there. Now that I have said this, he actually wrote another book called Dark Back of Time, which I have been reading too, exactly for readers like me who look for some biographical grounding in fiction. Anyway let's just say that the narrator, who may or may not be Marias himself, lives in Oxford and like his fellow academics is basically a good-for-nothing. In Oxford he says "being is much more important than doing or even acting."

"In Oxford just being requires such concentration and patience, such energy to battle against the natural lethargy of the spirit, that it would be too much to expect its inhabitants actually to stir themselves, especially in public, although in the breaks between classes some of my colleagues did make a point of rushing from once place to another just to create the impression of being in a state of the most constant and extreme haste and bustle."

Well be that as it may, as the novel shows being itself can be very interesting and very funny too if the people are colourful enough. There is actually no central thread in the book. It is just a fragmented and loosely connected collection of brief portraits of colourful figures and some really hilarious (and a few sombre) set-pieces. And by colourful I really mean colourful. We get to meet a bunch of aging homosexuals, ex-spies, (seems in retrospect be a self-conscious commentary on the famous Cambridge spies and homosexuals), experts on interrogation of defectors from Soviet Union, an economist whose expertise is the cider tax in sixteenth century England, an eccentric couple who run a second hand book store, plump rustic girls in the neighbourhood pub, a representative of the international Arthur Machen society, a dog with three legs, an obscure writer John Gawsworth who was awarded the kingship of an island but who died in utter destitution, and a host of others. The narrator also gets involved in a romantic affair with a married woman which actually forms the bulk of the novel.

The tone and the style of the book, as befits the subject, is that of a high-brow and inventive satire. The narrator is himself an outsider, a continental, and one of his jobs in Oxford seems to be recording and commenting on the mores of Oxford academics, as if he were a trained anthropologist. Most of the time it is self-satire too though it is always full of affection and sympathy towards everybody. There is not even a hint of bitterness and anger. Some people may feel the book to be slight and without a serious point but I think that would be a mistake. Its seriousness lies not in its content but the way language is used to negotiate fiction and reality. The book has a few photographs too which like in W.G. Sebald's books tease the readers by confusing them about the nature of fiction and reality. (Marias and Sebald admired each other's works.) The tone, the style and the wordplays also reminded me of Nabokov, many of whose narrators are academics and are similarly unreliable and inventive too. He was similarly a master of high-brow satire too, though he preferred the label "parody" because he considered satire to be a didactic and hence a sub-literary art. (Nabokov's Pnin, which this book reminded me of, is actually one of my favourite academic novel i.e. a novel about academics.) In fact Nabokov himself makes a few appearances in the book as Vladimir Vladimirovich.

Marias actually wrote "a sequel" (rather a fictional-commentary) to All Souls which was published in English as Dark Back of Time (a phrase taken from All Souls). I am currently half way through it and it is an absolute masterpiece. It has a seriousness which seems to be missing from All Souls, at least on surface. If All Souls reminded me of Pnin, then Dark Back of Time is Pale Fire. I will write about it when I am done with it. For now a nice profile of Marias from The Guardian.

Two Films by Fritz Lang

Ministry of Fear

Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear is based on the Graham Greene novel of the same name. It is very entertaining and like many other films noir by Fritz Lang, visually ravishing, almost text-bookish in its style and look, but in the end I found it slightly disappointing. It is neither The Third Man, which was also written by Graham Greene, nor Scarlet Street or The Woman in the Window two films Lang would direct just after this. Still it is quite worthwhile overall.

The film is set in Britain during the early years of second world war. Ray Milland, who was extremely good in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend and Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, is just out of an asylum when the film starts. (We get to know why he was there only later in the film.) Eager and excited about the prospects of getting back to the regular life and society, he drifts into an innocent looking village fair near to the railway station. Before long and before he can realise what is happening, he has actually run into a deadly ring of war secrets, clandestine Nazis, double crosses and murders.

The basic Langian (and film noir) theme is present throughout - the malignant and hostile impersonal forces intent on crushing the will and spirit of the hero who tries to resist but is ultimately defeated. Only that in this case the ending is a happy one. A lot of other such films have happy endings too but in those cases the psychological trauma that the characters go through is always too much so that the happy ending is happy only nominally. Another reason why the film fails is that the central Ray Milland character remains quite shallow throughout, even with the subplot about the reason why he was admitted to the asylum. Still the film holds one's attention because of its visual design (as exemplified in the shot above). There is a bizarre seance scene which makes a really impressive use of chiaroscuro lighting. There is also a shootout scene in the dark where we see just the tiny hole in door through which the bullet has hit the intended victim. Pretty good overall. A more detailed appreciation from noir of the week here.


Unlike Ministry of Fear you can't accuse of Fritz Lang's Fury of getting all sweet and happy and entertaining in the end. It is harrowing and a harsh little tale of an innocent man trapped for a crime he never committed. (Again the idea of malignant impersonal forces scheming an innocent man's physical and spiritual downfall.) The hardworking, working class man played by Spencer Tracy is accused and imprisoned for a crime he never committed (the interrogation is truly Kafkaesque) just when he has saved enough money to get married to his long-suffering sweetheart. Before he can stand to trial in court a local mob attacks the police station and sets it to fire. He miraculously escapes but he is profoundly changed by the experience. He now wants vengeance himself. He pretends to be dead so that the townsmen who attacked the jail in order to kill him can be punished for murder. After some riveting melodrama he lets himself persuaded by the pleas of his fiancee and confesses in front of the court just before the court is about to give the final judgment. (Interestingly a documentary footage, which was actually the same scene we saw earlier in the film, is used as an evidence in the court to indict the defendants.)

In its subject and even the documentary-like style it anticipates Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man, which is similarly harrowing and very harsh. (The final scene with Vera Miles in the asylum is unforgettable.) There is a similar scene in this film in which Tracy wanders alone and aimlessly on the dark and desolate streets, which come to signify his own spiritual death. In this film Tracy and his fiancee do embrace in the court and walk off in the end but Lang leaves us in no doubt that they are both psychologically and emotionally scarred for life.

It is also worth noting that this the first film that Lang made in America. He had first hand experience of the mob-psychology and its far reaching moral and political significance and it is that experience that he brought from Germany that gives the film a feeling of authenticity and contributes to its overall effect. An interesting essay which compares it to Chaplin's Modern Times.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Taxi Driver Documentary

"Someday a real rain will come..."

Nice documentary about the making of Taxi Driver. Other parts are on youtube, just click on the video and check the sidebar.

On Translation, Thomas Bernhard and Objectification

Found this very interesting website which has some interesting information about the process of literary translation. One in particular this "workshop" about translating Juan Goytisolo. Peter Bush has translated most of his recent works including his autobiography. I was extremely impressed by Count Julian which I read recently and which I found very stylish, rich and innovative in the use of language. It was translated by Helen Lane. There are also other interesting articles about english subtitling of Pedro Almodovar's Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown and translating Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet. Other articles on the sidebar also look interesting. Actually this website is run by British Centre for Literary Translation which was founded by W.G. Sebald, who was also its director.

It is unfortunate that translators in general don't get the recognition and praise that they deserve. On the contrary they are almost always criticised - either for being too literal or else attempting to "improve" on the original, if they try to be creative. I don't think any history of Modern literature can be written without at least mentioning the names of Constance Garnett, C.K. Scott-Moncrieff, Willa and Edwin Muir, Helen T. Lowe-Porter, Gregory Rabassa, Ralph Manheim and so many others. It is also a shame and a cause of a major cultural gap that in general non-European languages, or actually anything outside French, German or Spanish, haven't been able to attract the translators to match these people. Czech, Polish and Hungarian books are often translated into English via intermediate languages, mostly German and French!


In his review of a new collection of essays by Orhan Pamuk, British writer Tibor Fischer says that Pamuk has forced him to reconsider his opinion of Thomas Bernhard who he otherwise finds "excruciatingly dull." Some time back he had expressed similar feelings for the works of Laszlo Krasznahorkai ("hard going") and Bela Tarr ("soporofic"). Though I must says I did find his comment about Tarr's style a little amusing:

When Tarr starts a pan, you know you have time to go out of the auditorium: you can have a piss, eat a hotdog, do the lottery, make a phone call, and when you go back in, the pan won't have finished.



Some entertaining debate on comment is free. This post about how women are complicit in the way men objectify them has male commenters frothing at the mouth with righteous anger and schadenfreude. I just spent a long time going through all the comments. Really entertaining and a bit sad too. One of them defines objectification as, "the extraction of surplus value from images of flesh." I think it actually also nails down the root issue. The whole pornography, objectification in media thing, is not really about sex or gender it is about capitalism and market which is always finding new commodities for transaction, even when it comes to human body and sexual desire. I am not justifying it, in fact I completely agree that the way pornography has become so normal and mainstream is on the balance harmful to society and personal relations. But we have to first acknowledge the demand-supply dialectic alongwith the reifying forces of market before we do something about the problem. Just reiterating the same old thing about how men are sexist or women are shallow will not achieve anything. Another entertaining debate on this post defending female promiscuity covers the same ground.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

DDLJ in German

This is a really wonderful German dubbing of DDLJ. They have not only matched the lip movements but also the voices and everything else in fact (can't say anything about the exact German though). The whole film is available on youtube. I am copying the one which contains my favourite scene from the film. It starts around after seven minutes in the video, specially where he says, "nein, Ich werde nicht kommen"

The full song is here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Five films about sexual awakening

Films about growing up and sexual awakening are dime a dozen. Most of them however are mired in the worst kind of sentimentality and are full of stupid cliches, which is a shame because it is such a fascinating subject for artistic exploration. The end of innocence, the onset of puberty and the feelings of melancholy, dread, excitement, loneliness and pleasure that come with it. This is the time when we realise, though almost always in retrospect, that something is lost forever in the irreversible march of time. The inner life gradually becomes more and more mysterious and isolated from the outside world and the way in which we perceive the world around us changes drastically, affected as it gets by a heightened subjectivity.

The films that follow explore this subject with respect that it deserves. They are also some of my favourites of all time. It is also interesting that most of these films derive their imageries, metaphors and situations from classic fairy tales. The number 1, 3 and 4 are themselves structured like a fairy tale (with Blue Velvet even making a direct allusion to The Wizard of Oz) and number 2 uses the tale of frankenstein as a narrative device. It is not hard to understand why this must be so. Fairy tales, before they were turned into harmless entertainments by kiddie television, were filled with real dread, menace and danger, some of them even bursting with explicit sexual metaphors - like the story of little red riding hood. Genre-wise all these films can also be classified into horror films, though relying only on mood, atmosphere and an unspoken and suggestive menace. (Last year's Spanish-Mexican film Pan's Labyrinth went some way to fill this gap in our cultural consciousness. It should have been there too in this list. I was actually trying to highlight films which have for some reason not gain popularity and familiarity that they deserve. Except for the number one which is already a part of popular film canon, the other four are not so famous.) So here it goes...

1. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, USA, 1986):Jeffrey is a very curious young fellow. He already has a nice innocent blond girlfriend but what fascinates him is the mysterious brunette in the neighbourhood with really dark secrets. The film is one long sexually charged frightening nightmare, the kind which you want both to keep dreaming and to end at the same time. The tone is often parodistic, though it is always too strange, too bizarre and filled with dread to be really funny or ludicrous. It is in fact an ironic and self-conscious commentary on the exact same subject, the dark corners and alleyways that sexual knowledge can lead one into and the innocence that struggles to survive once you find yourself in that subconscious underground. In the film Jeffrey manages to destroy the monster and gets reunited with her innocent blond girlfriend (with sweet sentimental music in the background) in the end, showing perhaps that the innocent love has survived the dark nightmare but then everything is little too sweet to be really true.

2. The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, Spain, 1973): This is not really about sexual awakening but it has to be there on any such list. It is an extraordinary portrait of the haunted and desolate inner life of a child. The film is about two young girls, the younger five and her elder sister who is few years older, growing up in rural Spain after the devastation of the civil war. The young girl sees the original James Whale's Frankenstein and is fascinated, and not afraid, by the story of the monster and the little girl in the film. Her sister is much too precocious and feeds her feverish imagination even further with some invented tall tales about a haunted house and real life monsters. The true horrors of the outside world soon intrude into her already haunter inner life, confusing her further and taking it further into the realm of her imagination.

Actually there are allusions to sexuality too. The elder sister in one scene accidentally cuts her finger and then smears the blood on her lips. Later in another scene she feigns death to frighten her little sister. They both in a way already know the main themes of adult life, sexuality and death, but they have only a subconscious inkling of what these are. The two young girls are truly extraordinary, specially Ana Torrent who plays the young girl. I was shocked to see her all grown up (she even smokes!) in the documentary featured on the fantastic double disc criterion dvd. (When I saw Pan's Labyrinth I was surprised to find so many parallels on so many levels. I later read in an interview that Guillermo del Toro himself acknowledged this film as an influence and a benchmark.) Also if you are in new york in October don't miss the screening at the museum of modern art. It is being shown as a part of the retrospective of films from Spain made under the Franco dictatorship. It is gloriously beautiful and deserves to be seen on the full screen. In any case the excellent criterion dvd shouldn't be hard to get. For more details links to a few reviews here.

3. Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, France, 2005): A residential school for young girl dark inside the woods. Young girls arrive the school mysteriously, unclothed, in coffins through underground tunnel.At the school all they study is ballet and biology, actually only the evolution and the life cycle of butterflies. As they grow up they are assigned hair-ribbons of different colours each different for different age-group. They are not allowed to leave the school or meet people from outside. One girl succeeds in running away but she is never heard of again. There is a regular ballet competition in which some women from outside choose a younger girl to take into the outside world. Else they have to wait for the completion of the final stage of training upon which they board a mysterious train and reach the real world, that is ours. The film ends with the girl frolicing in a public fountain while the water erupts orgasmically.

What is all this supposed to mean? This is a real headscratcher of a film with so many mysteries that will keep you occupied for days after you have seen it. The basic idea however is simple enough and it is quite provocative. Hadzihalilovic seems to be suggesting that a girl's journey of sexual maturation is also a journey from prelapsarian innocence to debauched and sullied whoredom. Girls are being raised only to perform their roles as biologically determined sexual beings. This is not a radical idea. Many feminist parables such as Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale use the same idea but the film is way more fascinating and mysterious than anything I have read or seen on this subject. The credit for that of course goes to the technical aspects, specially the visual and aural design of the film, which is even more astonishing because it is her debut film. (She had assisted and worked as editor on films of fellow french provocateur Gaspar Noe, who is also her real-life partner.) The highlight of the film is the incessant drone and buzz soundtrack, which is somewhat a David Lynch trademark. The lighting, set design, the atmospheric mood of sexual dread and the sensuousness of imagery, all of these are Lynchian too. I am not of course saying that it is unoriginal or derivative in any way. In fact it is actually the opposite - a startlingly original film. There is even a bizarre scene in which girls perform in a dark mysterious theatre which reminded me of club silencio from Mulholland Drive. More details about the film from sight and sound. More reviews here.

4. Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weier, Australia, 1975): Another film set in an all girls residential school. Only this time the period and place is explicitly identified -- 1900 in rural Australia.A group of girls go on a picnic trip on Valentine's day to the Hanging Rock near their school. While others luxuriate in the summer sun three virginal girls and their teacher mysteriously disappear after they go exploring the rocks on the mountain. Nobody, including the audience, ever finds out what really happened. Though the film itself does leave a lot of clues which will ensure that you keep thinking about it long after it has ended. Like Innocence this is all about mood and atmosphere too. This time it is extraordinarily sunny, warm and filled with wide open spaces. The best part of the film is the initial sequence where the girls walk through the rocks. It is similar to the long sequence in L'Avventura, only this time the images and the landscapes of elongated vertical rocks and cavities therein are awash in sexual menace, evoking familiar themes of sexual knowledge and associated dread, fascination and horror. In one of the interviews Lucile Hadzihalilovic cited this film as an influence which also gives a lot of clues into meanings of both these films. One viewing is certainly not enough for either of these films. You definitely need to see both more than once.

5. Fat Girl aka À ma soeur! (Catherine Breillat, France, 2001): Perfect film for a grumpy valentine's day. Like I said earlier I feel extremely irritated with films which treat the subject in a trivial and shallow fashion and exploit it for cheap and easy laughs or sentimental manipulation. Fat Girl (I prefer the original french title "For My Sister") avoids all of these. In fact it goes a little too far in the opposite direction. It is a brutal assault on the romantic idea of "losing the virginity" which so obsesses young people everywhere and which is so shamelessly exploited by commercial hollywood filmmakers. There is also a long sequence, the central set-piece actually, which will raise everybody's consciousness when it comes to penetrative sexuality (it sounds funny but I am actually serious). Breillat makes a real mince-meat of prevalent romantic discourse and their celebration of female virginity and male machismo. It certainly raised my consciousness about these things. Though I would be more interested in what women think of it. It will certainly enrage some section of feminists though perhaps others will welcome it. It is actually quite gruesome in its portrayal of sex and violence (which it takes to mean the same thing) and its polemic approach may not appeal to everybody but it is certainly an intelligent film on an important and sensitive subject. It is also very witty. I can never forget the scene where the younger sister is playacting with her imaginary lover and after hearing his complaints about her promiscuity says that she says, "I am not a soap-bar you know"! Also don't miss the macabre lines from a poem she sings on the beach.

Long post. I was thinking of just writing a couple of lines for each of these films. I have anyway written about most of these before on the blog too, sometimes more than once. You can use the search tool on the top to search. Earlier posts link to reviews and essays about the articles. In any case you can always search on google and wikipedia. They are all great films and my favourites and they all come highly recommended from me.


An angry article in wall street journal about how political correctness is destroying American civic institutions.

Privileged, rowdy white jocks at an elite, Southern college, a poor, young black stripper, and an alleged rape: It was a juicy, made-for-the-media story of race, class and sex, and it was told and retold for months with a ferocious, moralistic intensity.

Probably she has never heard of the crying wolf story. Don't read WSJ, got the link from arts and letters daily.

In New York Times a profile of Jodie Foster by Manohla Dargis. Another case of a great actress stuck in dumb films. There is also a slide show about her new film with an audio commentary from Dargis. I wasn't really interested in her new film The Brave One but Dargis is comparing it to Taxi Driver!

And speaking of that an article in the guardian despairing about the same subject:
Flicking through the newspapers yesterday I was stopped in my tracks by an image of the new Vanity Fair cover. This shows Nicole Kidman - two-time Oscar nominee, one-time winner - with a military cap on her head and an open-mouthed expression. Said expression is, I guess, supposed to be a Monroe-esque pout, but just makes her look (though it pains me to say it) completely bloody vacant. Beneath this vacuous visage, for no apparent reason, she is holding her shirt open to expose her white, bra-clad breasts. There is something strangely passionless and perfunctory about the pose - as though, off camera, a doctor has just shown up and told her it's time for an impromptu mammary examination. (Or, indeed, the magazine editor has just told her she is off the cover unless she gets on with it and gets 'em out.) "Nicole Kidman Bares All" screams the coverline.

Never read Vanity Fair either but the description piqued my interest and I googled for the cover. Safe for work, it is pretty tame actually and it does fit the description about routine mammary examination. Other pictures in the slideshow are worth looking however.

Sunday, September 09, 2007


William Friedkin's controversial 1980 film Cruising is getting released on DVD. It is also showing in theatres in limited engagement. I caught hold of one such screening today. (It was pretty lonely, there were only three-four people in the theatre.) Specially given its widespread notoriety and the presence of an A-list star, I was surprised that I hadn't even heard of it until recently. The details about the controversy surrounding the original release of the film are very well described in this article from village voice. Basically the gay community was up in arms against the film for its portrayal of the underground gay subculture of extreme sex specially in the way the film promoted, or so they thought, the idea that it was a part of the mainstream gay life in new york. Also the serial killer on the prowl narrative engendered suspicion that the film was trying to draw parallels between "transgressive" sexuality and murder.

Now after having seen the film I personally don't think any of these claims of homophobia against the film are justified in any way. It may be unjustifiably maligned and overlooked but it is also no masterpiece which is a shame because the original idea is potentially quite explosive. With a bit of intelligence and sensitivity on the part of the writer-director it could have easily entered into the territory of classic urban-horror genre, exemplified by Taxi Driver. With a bit of effort it could also have said a lot of interesting and meaningful things about gender panic and masculine identity. It does hover around all these subjects but never really goes deeper.

The basic plot follows the standard police-procedural, serial-killer narrative. A serial killer is on the loose in the new york city gay community. To hunt down the killer Al Pacino, who resembles the killer's victims, is sent as an undercover cop who pretends to be looking for sex in bars and cruising locations. With time as he spends his time in the infernal bars his own psyche starts to disintegrate. In the end he finds out who the killer is but then it is perhaps too late. The film ends on a surprising, ambiguous and deeply troubling note.

The charges of homophobia are not that difficult to dismiss. In fact the film is quite perceptive in identifying the collective sexual panic and resulting state sponsored violence and persecution of the gay community. There is also a very subtle performance by Al Pacino showing his own confusion about gender identity as he ventures out in the world which he has never been to before. There is also a subplot in which he befriends his young sensitive gay neighbour, an aspiring playwright who serves as a counterpoint to his vacuous and inert girlfriend.

The problems with the film are not political but artistic. It is definitely far from being a failure even in that area, but it sure doesn't deliver on the initial premise. The flaws become clearer when one starts comparing it with Taxi Driver. Unlike that film here the point of view is always detached and distanced. As a result whole thing looks objective and "authentic" which it surely is not. It also leaves very little room for Al Pacino to improvise and portray his own confusion and panic. He keeps saying, "it's affecting me" but we never see or feel how. As a result the final revelation isn't as disturbing as it could probably have been. It could also have avoided problems with the gay people if it had limited itself to the subjective point of view of the protagonist. Surely Taxi Driver had far more homophobic rants! (One scene as a reminder, one of my favourites too.)

Even with all these flaws the film is still very interesting to watch. Grim, unpleasant, depressing and deeply unsettling and troubling like few mainstream hollywood movies are. There is a lot of interesting commentary on the internet about the film though most of them discuss politics more than the film itself. Two nice articles here and here.

I Was Born. But...

Ozu's silent film I was born, but... may not exactly be in the same class as his late string of masterpieces like Tokyo Story or Late Spring but it is still an important early achievement. The film shows how early in his career he had already found his subject and style. Also unlike his later films it is pretty damn funny. I hadn't laughed so much in a movie theatre in some time. And just when everybody had their guards down with all the comedy in typical Ozu style the film also shows the darker side of things and breaks your heart.

The film is about two kid brothers who have just moved to a suburb because their father wants to live closer to his boss. He thinks he can influence his boss in this way much easily and gain promotions and favours in the office. The two kids have lots of problems with the local bullies and much of the film is about how they find ways to get around, ingratiate and dominate the other kids. One of those neighbourhood kids is the son of their father's boss and just when the brothers have become the absolute boss of the neighbourhood they are invited to a weekend party at the boss's house. There at a home-movie screening they see their father indulging in obsequious antics to please his boss and their self-esteem and more importantly the respect they had for their father is shattered. The father tries to explain the ways of the world to them but the kids refuse to understand and more family drama ensues.

Though the tone of the film remains comic, even slapstick, throughout; it ultimately ends with a feeling of sadness. In one of the scenes towards the end after being provoked into a self-reflection by the incidents with the kids, the father confesses his fears and anxieties to his wife saying if they will also grow up to be losers like him.

More details about the film here and here. The scene where the kids see their father playing joker for his boss here.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

News from Venice

Lust, Caution has won the golden lion... The entire list here

Film schedule is very crowded this season. Village Voice has a short guide.