The German poet Georg Heym (1887-1912), just like his other contempory Georg, Georg Trakl, is considered (perhaps retrospectively) as belonging to the German Expressionist art movement. I was browsing through an anthology and was specially struck by these two poems. I like the first one specially. It is a wonderful evocation of an apocalyptic nightmare. It is also interesting to read this side by side the similar expressionist paintings of the period by Kandinsky, Kirchner, Munch, Beckmann and others. All obsessed with disease and death, the hopelessness and despair of city-life and everything painted on apocalyptic canvasses, alongwith willful exaggerations and distortions. A short review by Michael Hoffmann here. I had copied a couple of poems by Trakl earlier.
The people on the streets draw up and stare,
While overhead huge portents cross the sky;
Round fanglike towers threating comets flare,
Death-bearing, fiery-snouted where they fly.
On every roof astrologers abound,
Enormous tubes thrust heavenward; there are
Magicians springing up from underground,
Aslant in darkness, conjuring to a star.
Through night great hordes of suicides are hurled,
Men seeking on their way the selves they've lost;
Crook-backed they haunt all corners of the world,
And with their arms for brooms they sweep the dust.
They are as dust, keep but a little while;
And as they move their hair drops out. They run,
To hasten their slow dying. Then they fall,
And in the open fields lie prone,
But twitch a little still. Beasts of the field
Stand blindly round them, prod with horns
Their sprawling bodies till at last they yield,
Lie buried by the sagebrush, by the thorns.
But all the seas are stopped. Among the waves
The ships hang rotting, scattered, beyond hope.
No current through the water moves,
And all the courts of heaven are locked up.
Trees do not change, the seasons do not change.
Enclosed in dead finality each stands,
And over broken roads lets frigid range
Its palmless thousand-fingered hands.
The dying man sits up as if to stand,
Just one more word a moment since he cries,
All at once he's gone. Can life so end?
And crushed to fragments are his glassy eyes.
The secret shadows thicken, darkness breaks;
Behind the speechless doors dreams watch and creep.
Burdened by light of dawn the man that wakes
Must rub from grayish eyelids leaden sleep.
Translated by Christopher Middleton
Why do you come, White Moths...
Why do you come, white moths, so oft to me?
Souls of the dea, why do you flutter so oft
Upon my hand; your wingbeat often
Leaven then a tiny trace of ashes.
You who are dwelling near urns, in a place where dreams repose
Stooped in eternal shade, in the dim expanse
As on the vaults of tombs the bats
That nightly whir away in the tumult.
I oft hear in my sleep the vampires's yaps;
They sound as if the somber moon were laughing.
And I see deep in empty caverns
The candles of the homeless shadows.
What is all life? The brief flare-up of torchlights
Ringed by distorted frights out of black darkness
And some of them come close already
And with thin hands reach for the flames.
What is all life? Small vessel in abysses
Of sea forgotten. Dreadful rigid skies.
Or as at night across bare fields lost moonlight
Meanders till it disappears.
Woe unto him who once saw someone dying,
When in the calmness of cool autumn death
Unseen stepped up to the sick one's moist bed
And bade him pass away, while like the whistling
And rattling of a rusty organ pipe
His throat exhaled its last breath with a wheeze.
Woe to such witnesses. They bear forever
The pallid flower of a leaden horror.
Who will unlock the lands beyond our death
And who the gate of the gigantic rune.
What do the dying see that makes them roll
The blind white of their eyes so terribly.
Translated by Reinhold Grimm
Friday, August 31, 2007
The German poet Georg Heym (1887-1912), just like his other contempory Georg, Georg Trakl, is considered (perhaps retrospectively) as belonging to the German Expressionist art movement. I was browsing through an anthology and was specially struck by these two poems. I like the first one specially. It is a wonderful evocation of an apocalyptic nightmare. It is also interesting to read this side by side the similar expressionist paintings of the period by Kandinsky, Kirchner, Munch, Beckmann and others. All obsessed with disease and death, the hopelessness and despair of city-life and everything painted on apocalyptic canvasses, alongwith willful exaggerations and distortions. A short review by Michael Hoffmann here. I had copied a couple of poems by Trakl earlier.
Thursday, August 30, 2007
Some Thomas Bernhard enthusiasm from author Claire Messud on NPR, who, she says, liberated her from the anxiety of satisfying her readers in her own writings. As it turns out, her husband, the eminent literary critic James Wood, isn't a great fan of his writings. He called him, in the context of a review of the same novel The Loser, "a drastically limited artist." (Link here. Scroll down for a screenshot titled "The Axeman of Austria." Love the title though.)
Also worth reading, a great profile of another guru of long-sentences, the Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago in the new york times magazine.
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
I have been reading Juan Goytisolo's Count Julian. Very difficult and challenging to read but also very compelling and occasionally even funny. Fans of Thomas Bernhard should immediately get hold of this book. This is another great contribution to the literature of anti-patriotism (in the sense of active hatred of one's country and not just hatred of patriotism). And like Bernhard he has his own way with punctuation and sentence construction too. (He doesn't believe in full stops for one thing.)
I will probably have more to say about the book once I finish it. For now here's a great interview of the author which discusses this particular book. Very helpful actually because I really couldn't figure out what was going on even after reading the first fifty pages. In particular I found this interesting. Emphasis mine:
JO: In your own work, I find that the moment of breaking with tradition is fundamental to an essential reformulation of your creative endeavor. What importance do new critical ideas have in this process? To what extent do you think that an awareness of critical theory can affect the formal nature of a work of fiction?
JG: All creative work is indissolubly linked to the exercise of a critical faculty. Count Julian is, simultaneously, a work of fiction and a work of criticism, which defies deliberately a tyrannical conception of genre. The old-fashioned novel (with "round" characters developed psychologically, with its verisimilitude and its "realism," etc.) no longer interests me, and I don't think that I will write such any more (which does not mean that I renounce those I published earlier). The only kind of literature which interests me at the moment is that which lies outside the labels of "novel," "essay," "poem," etc. When I wrote my essay on Blanco White, I also included in it my own autobiography. I have appropriated Blanco White into my own myth. In Count Julian I simply proposed to create a text which would allow for diverse levels of reading. My approach is the natural result of a series of critical reflections based, in part, on my reading of the Russian formalists, Benveniste, Jakobson, the Prague Circle, etc. A writer who is unaware of the movements in poetics and linguistics seems to me an anachronism in today's world. The writer cannot abandon himself simply to inspiration, and feign innocence vis a vis language, because language is never innocent.
I was also surprised to find two very well-written, well-informed and comprehensive profiles in The New York Times and The Guardian. He is a very interesting figure even outside his books.
And now that we are here some quotes from the blurb of the book:
"Goytisolo's Count Julian is to Spain what Joyce's Leopold Bloom is to Ireland, and what Malcolm Lowry's Consul in Under the Volcano is to Mexico. I am fully aware of the dangerous implications of comparing this work to such masterpieces; but Count Julian strikes me as fully worthy of such comparison."
- Le Nouvel Observateur
"In the long tradition of Spanish heterodoxy, Count Julian is the moment in which rational criticism becomes the pawn of mockery, and mockery turns into a poetic invention."
"The most moving of Goytisolo's works, and also the one most full of despair...The book is a crime of passion...an attempt at purification through fire. An epic work, to be read and reread."
-Mario Vargas Llosa, Le Monde
Also an extract which will perhaps make sense in the context of the Joyce comparison above with its mixture of scatological detail and verbal invention. Here's a description of a man urinating:
you reread it several times as you stand there with your legs apart, not daring to venture into this yawning, Cyclopean cavern, unbuttoning your fly: freeing the lowest buttons of the restraint of the decorous buttonhole holding them in bondage and groping about in effort to determine the precise position of the indispensable instrument: called upon, alas, to perform its most vulgar and simplest functions: brought out into the open at last: defenseless and flaccid: possessed of all the tender vulnerability of of your child poets: a state of affairs that obliges you to lift it delicately with your fingers: and once in position aiming it at the Elysian domain three feet or so away: it proves reluctant at first, like a willful, badly spoiled crown prince: but finally obeying, manfully and forcefully: haughtily pumping out the yellow fluid until an anxious, plaintive voice reaches your ears from shadowy depths below, and an infernal shade, whom you have greatly discomfited as it crouches there in a humiliating and painful posture, calls up in an incredibly urbane tone of voice: hey up there, watch what you're doing, I'm down here below you!
Monday, August 27, 2007
Saw The Bourne Ultimatum yesterday. Quite good but may be because I was feeling slothful and gloomy (as always) it was like someone forcing you out of bed when you just want to have a few minutes more of your sleep. Or may be I have just been watching too many soporific movies recently with stately silence and long-takes, I was nauseous with all the time and space destroying camera work soon after the film began. Within the first five minutes itself the film takes you to Moscow, New York City, Berlin, London and god knows where else. I was reading some reviews where people complained about the jerky hand-held camera but I think this is exactly what grips you in even if you are trying to feign disinterest and boredom. Another instance where this hand-held, off-kilter composition and discontinuity was used to very good result was in last year's The Constant Gardener, specially in the flashback sequences which are so effective in showing that Ralph Fiennes is not really remembering the past, he is actually hallucinating. Perfect illustration of how (involuntary) memory transcends the boundaries of time and space. Great example of how a normal thriller can become so interesting just by choosing the right filming technique.
Two other things I really liked about the film. First, the way it eschews all intellectual pretentions. It is just plain, "Run Bourne Run." Even though the basic premise had great potential but the film wisely stays clear of trying to make any important points. Otherwise now I could have written lines like, the film brilliantly shows how at the beginning of the twenty first century, technology has supplanted the self, and how human identity is under attack by the forces of global surveillance. But no, all this will be a little too much, and for the good. The second thing, Bourne's interest in his female co-star remains platonic throughout. They don't even kiss! All the while I was thinking there was a potential great sex-scene somewhere, where Bourne sublimates his grief and and finds his soul through a deep erotic union, but no nothing like that ever happens.
Not really related but too interesting to be left out. This post on comment is free "defending the rights of men with moustaches" reminded me of something that I came across recently. John Ruskin, the great English art critic and a major influence on Marcel Proust and Mahatma Gandhi, was so shocked and appalled after seeing his wife's pubic hair on the wedding night that he refused to consummate their marriage! I was trying to find some more information on it, I found some informative links here and here. Both articles confirm the Ruskin story. The great art-critic that he was, he obviously never got a chance to see this painting. (Warning: Explicit image, but tastefully done.)
Posted by Alok at 7:06 pm
Sunday, August 26, 2007
Unlike many book-lovers I am not a book fetishist but two book covers which caught my attention recently. Also two books I have read/been reading recently.
First one cuts really close to the bone. From the outside cool and composed as if posing for a photo and from the inside all messed up really bad inside the head.
Second one is a book I am still in the middle of and it doesn't look like as if I will be able to finish reading it soon. It is not very easy to read. More on it later when I am done. For now an article about the book on the occasion of the fiftieth death anniversary of Malcolm Lowry (which was actually last month). Also has this interesting information:
When Under the Volcano appeared some of its thunder was stolen by a novel called The Lost Weekend, which was subsequently filmed with Ray Milland in the leading role. Lowry was profoundly upset by this unfortunate coincidence - his life was ruled by coincidences, both fatal and benevolent - but the two books had little in common. Serving as more than just a warning of the perils of addiction, alcohol abuse in Lowry's book signifies human failure on a cosmic level. The consciousness-changing powers of mescal perform a function that is simultaneously transgressive and illuminating, analogous to the desperate (and doomed) heatings and mixings of the alchemists: "The agonies of the drunkard," wrote Lowry, "find their most accurate poetic analogue in the agonies of the mystic who has abused his powers."
Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend is a devastating portrait of alcoholism, almost Dostoevskian in its willingness to plunge new depths of human misery and indignity. It ends on an optimistic note but only after it has taken you on a terrifying and deeply unsettling tour of moral and spiritual hell. Lowry however makes a very interesting distinction specially with that analogy of the mystic who has abused his powers. It is obvious in the book, alcoholism is just a ruse, as the blurb says it is the "elemental forces" which are intent on destroying the man's soul.
Haven't seen the film but the new criterion DVD looks really cool.
Saturday, August 25, 2007
Inspired by this list, 25 of my favourite non-English language films. (One restriction - only one representation per director allowed)
1. L'avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni)
2. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman)
3. Ordet (Carl Dreyer)
4. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Bunuel)
5. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu)
6. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo)
7. Mouchette (Robert Bresson)
8. The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice)
9. M (Fritz Lang)
10. Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard)
11. Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini)
12. Bicycle Thief (Vittorio de Sica)
13. Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini)
14. Hiroshima mon Amour (Alain Resnais)
15. Playtime (Jacques Tati)
16. Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi)
17. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa)
18. The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci)
19. Aparajito (Satyajit Ray)
20. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
21. Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky)
22. Woman in the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara)
23. Ashes and Diamonds (Andrezj Wajda)
24. The Last Laugh (F. W. Murnau)
24. Loves of a Blonde (Milos Forman)
25. Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville)
I have been reading The Magic Mountain on and off for the last few weeks. I had read it once a couple of years back but had to skip a few chapters and even though I managed to reach the end, my reading itself remained very shallow. It was for this reason that when I saw this book (in a very attractive hardcover edition) on the library shelf and started browsing I couldn't remember much of what was inside, except perhaps for a few speeches by Signor Settembrini.
This book in particular deals with a subject that alternately fascinates me and makes me deeply uncomfortable, the subject of physical illness. This is, of course, I think true for everybody. Much as we would like to deny, someday we will have to identify ourselves as the citizen of the kingdom of the sick, (to borrow the expression from Susan Sontag's classic essay on the subject). In almost every page of the book, there is this disease being used in a new way to point to some hitherto unseen and unnoticed aspect of human existence.
Susan Sontag in her essay rails against the uses of Illness as Metaphor, of all kinds, whether good or evil. In particular tuberculosis which was believed to be sickness of passion, afflicting only those who were hyper-sensitive and too passionate for their own good. It was sentimentalized and romanticized. Wan, pale, weary and consumptive look was thought to be "interesting", specially for people who believed they were gifted with some artistic temperament. She was herself diagnosed with cancer when she was writing it and she found a lot of parallelism in the way cancer was being used as a metaphor, even though most of the meanings associated with cancer are completely converse to those of tuberculosis.
Now as I was reading Magic Mountain I was repeatedly drawn to Susan Sontag's angry commentary on the subject. She actually herself says in her essay that Thomas Mann's fiction is a storehouse of the early-twentieth century metaphorical thinking about the disease (not exact words). I am also not surprised that she doesn't go into any detail into Magic Mountain's treatment of illness as a metaphor because then it would have weakened her thesis. The book makes one rethink and reevaluate one's own thinking about the disease in many different ways. One of the main threads in the book is this ironic self-conscious commentary on the subject of romantic and philosophical myths surrounding disease, or TB in particular. Whether it is romanticized illness or the literal, slow and steady physical humiliation associated with any wasting disease Mann has always a lot to say on the topic.
I had previously excerpted a few of my favourite passages from the "Research" chapter where the origin of life itself is compared to an outbreak of illness, this time infecting matter. The other common and related thread in the book is the idea of love, or rather erotic love (or just "Eros") as a sickness of the soul. As the inhouse psychologist at the sanatorium Dr. Krokowski says, "Any symptom of illness was a masked form of love in action, and illness was merely love transformed." In the same lecture Hans Castorp's thoughts drift towards the Russian woman Madam Chauchat's hand and her dress. He feels strongly attracted to her but she is a consumptive...
Granted, there was a very definite reason why women were allowed to dress in that exhilarating, magical way, without at the same time offending propriety. It all had to do with the next generation, the propagation of the human species, yes indeed. But what happened if the woman was sick deep inside, so that she was not at all suited for motherhood - what then? Was there any point in her wearing gossamer sleeves so that men would be curious about her body - about her diseased body?
He then compares this feeling to the similar feelings he had for a young boy when he was in school thus underscoring the essential "irrationality" (again the metaphor of illness) beneath all erotic relationship. I am not going any deeper into this subject now, may be some time later...
It is very interesting to read this book keeping in mind this whole debate about what kinds of metaphors should be permitted around illness because the book most of all is an examination of these myths surrounding the disease.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
After an unprecedented, and still unparalleled, run with one critical hit after another in the whole decade of the sixties Godard abruptly said goodbye to mainstream filmmaking. Mainstream by his standards of course. For him the political films were not just those which had a political message or agenda but those which were made politically-- films which were made and distributed independent of commercial structures and obligations. Weekend was the last of Godard's sixties films to get a general release. Most of his subsequent work was in experimental video, often done in close collaboration with other directors.
Tout va Bien (Everything's All Right) belongs to the same period but is quite accessible. It starts off brilliantly with an offscreen conversation between two people about why one needs stars to get financing for a film. After we see Yves Montand and Jane Fonda, that is fulfilling the first criteria, the conversation goes on about why stars are not enough, we need a romantic story too. Then the absolutely hilarious homage to Godard's own Contempt (it was actually Jean-Pierre Gorin's script). Montand basically lists parts of her body that he loves, to which she asks "so you love me totally?" In turn she does to same to him too, "I love your forehead, I love your shoulders, I love your balls(!!)." To which he says "so you love me totally?" It was really very funny. The conversation doesn't end at this mutual declaration of "total" love. It's a movie after all, we need some drama too! So bingo! We get Jane Fonda screaming "fucking male chauvinist" and slamming the door in the face of Montand!
Now that all the standard movie things are over and done with, you know, beautiful people falling in love, having problems etc, we get to the actual subject of the film, which as an intertitle helpfully announces, "the state of the class struggle in France four years after May 68." The rest of the film is an agit-prop farce about a workers' strike in a sausage factory. Jane Fonda arrives there as an American radio journalist and Montand as a filmmaker. After that we just get a tableau of scenes staged on the Brechtian set. In between different characters make speeches to the camera. The factory owner, the official union leader, workers, everybody gets a chance to speak to the camera about their thoughts, theories and plans. We get lectures on alienation, exploitation, social change, monopolistic concentration of capital, organized labour, consumerism, role of intellectual in class struggle etc. Difficult to summarise here but suffice to say that textbook-ish they may be but the way Godard presents them keeps the whole thing always fresh and interesting.
The criterion DVD also contains a separate feature titled "Letter to Jane" in which we get an hour long lecture by Godard on the topic of a still photograph of Jane Fonda talking to ordinary Vienamese (featured above). Fonda is very good in the film too, Godard uses her self-conscious political image very well. And with her strange hairstyle which she brought over from the movie Klute (she is astonishing in that film by the way and I absolutely loved her in it) with hair falling over the face from all sides you can't but not look at her whenever she is on screen. And yes don't miss the scene where she holds a picture of an erect male organ to Yves Montand's face! Another appreciation of the political Jane Fonda by Jim Hoberman here.
Sometime back I read where someone was calling Godard's revolutionary romanticism "quaint" but as I was watching this film I couldn't help but keep wondering about how little things have changed and yet why we don't have anyone even remotely like him currently working in cinema. Ours is a world in which policy-makers and economists claim that one has to necessarily choose between working in a sweatshop and dying of starvation. There is no third way! And yet we don't have anything like Tout va Bien doing the same thing. There is no Godard!
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
The latest new yorker has a nice essay on Shelley by Adam Kirsch. As I was reading it I just wanted to bookmark links to other essays by Kirsch here on the blog. I think he is one of the finest young literary reviewers and essayists around, at least among the people writing for the mainstream magazines and newspapers. His essays for the new yorker here and his columns on diverse literary and non-so-literary subjects for the new york sun, where he is also the literary editor, here. His essay on Martin Heidegger -Hannah Arendt letters is also worth reading. I am quite clueless about the subject but it seems he is not a big fan of modern, experimental poetry. An article in the nation takes him to task on this account.
Posted by Alok at 8:43 pm
Famous Urdu writer Qurratulain Hyder died a few days back. I can't find any obituary on the internet but a news report on bbc here.
I have read parts of River of Fire (the English translation of Aag ka Dariya). It was there in our college library. I did struggle with it for some time but couldn't finish it in end and left after being awed by her erudition and also the scope and ambition on display in the book. One needs to be an expert in Indian history to really get hold of all her references and allusions. What I gathered from my own limited reading of the book was that she wanted to show the continuity in Indian culture and history right from its origins thousands of years ago to the present, modern age. In this way I think she challenges other interpretations of Indian history which find breaks, specially the most pernicious of them all which divided India into hindu, muslim and british epochs (the original orientalist classic by James Mill). I am saying this all in retrospect and from my memory, at that time it didn't make much sense and I have never got a chance the read the book again.
The book is available in the US through the excellent New Directions Publishers. Amazon link here.
A review from times literary supplement here and another from complete review, which understandably finds it "sometimes obscure." Extracts from the book available at Google Books.
Pankaj Mishra has this to say about it:
Qurratulain Hyder, who shares Chugtai's North Indian Muslim background, wrote, while she was still a teenager, what is considered one of the best novels about the partition of India. A later best-selling novel, Aag Ka Dariya (originally published in Urdu in 1959, and recently translated by the author as River of Fire), has a magisterial ambition and technical resourcefulness rarely seen before in Urdu fiction. River of Fire traces the history of India from the achievements of the classical age in the fourth century BC through the Muslim- and British-dominated centuries to the tragedy of the post-partition years. The two main characters, Gautam and Kamal, whose names don't change but who play different roles, live through these historical periods as Buddhist monk and Central Asian conqueror, North Indian aristocrat and Bengali intellectual. Hyder employs diverse genres—letters, chronicles, parables, journals—to present her melancholy vision of the corrosions of time.
In confidently writing about India's Buddhist and Hindu past, Hyder, a Muslim by birth, also provides an example of the secular literary culture of the subcontinent that has largely remained untainted by sectarian tensions.
I am a big fan of "melancholy vision of the corrosions of time" but I don't remember feeling it while reading the book. I should definitely take it up sometime again soon.
Monday, August 20, 2007
Another long movie watching session this Saturday. Museum of Modern Art is holding a retrospective of little seen films of prolific French director Claude Chabrol, well known for his cerebral psychological thrillers. I was in two minds about going initially but finally decided to go since I had nothing else to do other than (re-)reading The Magic Mountain (not as boring as I found it the first time). The three films on show were all initially made for television and are minor works in every sense. The village voice article has some details.
I have really liked the other Chabrol films that I have seen. It has been a long time since but I remember being frustrated by the endings, the way he refused to get into his character's motivations and psychology and his distanced, cold approach towards the story but may be it was because of this only that his films get under your skin and continue to itch for long, even after you may have disliked them initially. My favourite Chabrol films (I think these are only ones I have seen):
La Femme Infidele
Une Affaire de Femmes
I also love the two actresses who are most associated with him. Stephane Audran, who was also his wife for some time, is in the first three and Isabelle Huppert is in next three. They are both very good though I have always found Audran's feline sexuality essentially comic. As if she is just going to break into a laughter in the midst of look-how-cool-and-sexy-I-am routine. May be it is The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie effect. (She is great in that too.)
The most interesting of the three films on show at the moma was an adaptation of a Henry James story The Bench of Desolation. (It deserves a few stars just for the title!) The emotional terrain of the story will be familiar to readers of Chekhov. The same gentle melancholy, weary resignation towards hostile external forces, the same weakness of the spirit, all inexorably leading towards slow death of all hope, desire and life itself. Coming back home the first thing I did was to find more about the story. Now Henry James has always been a writer I am already prepared to admire and love even before reading him. I have read only two small works of his -- the astonishing ghost story The Turn of the Screw (very highly recommended) and The Aspern Papers which is a small masterpiece too. These two are really small works, not even hundred pages I think but are really tough to read. James doesn't write a sentence, he constructs them.
And now I am trying to read The Bench of Desolation and find this opening sentence. (The story is here)
She had practically, he believed, conveyed the intimation, the horrid, brutal, vulgar menace, in the course of their last dreadful conversation, when, for whatever was left him of pluck or confidence – confidence in what he would fain have called a little more aggressively the strength of his position – he had judged best not to take it up. But this time there was no question of not understanding, or of pretending he didn’t; the ugly, the awful words, ruthlessly formed by her lips, were like the fingers of a hand that she might have thrust into her pocket for extraction of the monstrous object that would serve best for – what should he call it? – a gage of battle.
I am already tired after the first paragraph.
Posted by Alok at 7:52 pm
Saturday, August 18, 2007
Friday, August 17, 2007
Along with The Man Without Qualities and Italo Svevo's Zeno's Conscience, Contempt is the best novel I have read all this year so far. Like the other two this also deserves a place in the standard canon of European modernist literature (or at least deserves more mainstream success). It may not be as inventive as Joyce, Kafka or Woolf but like the other two it has profound and important things to say about how the modern world works and also about what has changed and what has been lost, perhaps forever.
It also shares some of the style of the other two. There is not much of a plot and very few events happen over the course of the story. The concern is not to tell a story but to take a situation and explore and analyse it from all possible angles. Instead of action or drama what we get is a series of essays about emotional states of the main character(s). (Musil even explicitly calls this style "essayism" in his book.)
I am finding it difficult to describe the book. It is basically narrated by a struggling screenwriter who is trying to understand why his wife suddenly became so indifferent to him, even came to despise him and feel "contempt" for him, and how their relationship broke down all of a sudden. In the course of his self-introspection we learn that the trouble started when he accepted a screenwriting job for a popular film producer. He was man of artistic ideals and wanted to do something in the theatre but to please his wife he bought an apartment and to pay off the loan he is now forced to accept this job even if it means serious compromise with his artistic principles. He only agonizes over this decision because his wife never tells him why she suddenly doesn't love him any more. He tries to think of different situations and how she could have interpreted what happened. One time he allowed the producer to take his wife in his car and while he himself took another car. So he thinks perhaps she thinks that he is prostituting her to gain favours from the rich and powerful man. We never learn if it is indeed this that is in wife's mind but it shows narrator's own self-hatred and "contempt" that he feels for himself that is perhaps reflected in his relationship with his wife. Much of the book is an analysis of this melancholy, the way he grieves over the love which is now dead, all written in the most rational and understated prose, which only serves to heighten the effect in the end.
There is also an absolutely brilliant sub-plot. The film producer's next project is a film adaptation of the Odyssey and obviously he wants to make it a film of spectacle. He asks the narrator to write the screenplay with the German director Rheingold who will eventually direct the adaptation. Now this German director isn't interested in spectacle at all. He is of course a German so unlike the sunny Italians, he is more interested in the darker interior terrain of human consciousness than in the external world of seas and mountains that constitute much of Homer's world. He says Odyssey is actually about "conjugal repugnance" and provides psychoanalytic interpretations of Ulysses' actions. He says unlike in the ancient world we can't take Ulysses' intentions at the face value. Molteni protests at this interpretation but only because he sees that this new interpretation reflects his own predicament and his own relationship with his wife. He longs for the original Odyssey but he knows that it is impossible...
And Homer had wished to represent a sea just like this, beneath a similar sky, along a similar coast, with characters that resembled this landscape and had about them an ancient simplicity, its agreeable moderation. Everything was here, and there was nothing else. And now Rheingold wanting to make this bright and luminous world, enlivened by the winds, glowing with sunshine, populated by quick-witted, lively beings, into a kind of dark, visceral recess, bereft of colour and form, sunless, airless: the subconscious mind of Ulysses. And so the Odyssey was no longer that marvelous adventure, the discovery of the Mediterranean, in humanity's fantastic infancy, but had become the interior drama of a modern man entangled in the contradictions of a psychosis.
He even says that what Rheingold is trying to do has already been done by Joyce. Joyce turned those great heroes into alienated, morose and neurotic losers.
"Well," I continued passionately, "Joyce also interpreted the Odyssey in the modern manner...and he went much father than you do, my dear Rheingold, in the job of modernization--that is of debasement, of degradation, of profanation. He made Ulysses a cuckold, an Onanist, an idler, a capricious, incompetent creature...and Penelope a retired whore. Aeolus became a newspaper editor, the descent into the infernal regions the funeral of boon-companion, Circe a visit to the brothel, and the return to Ithaca the return home at dead of the night through the streets of Dublin, with a stop or two on the way to piss in the dark corner. But at least Joyce had the discernment not to bring in the Mediterranean, the sea, the sun, the sky, the unexplored lands of antiquity. He placed the whole story in the muddy streets of a northern city, in taverns and brothels, in bedrooms and lavatories. No sunshine, no sea, no sky...everything modern, in other words debased, degraded, reduced to our own miserable stature."
Godard's film adaptation is much more aggressive on the theme of commercialism of the modern world. The book is far more subtle but even then the reader can't miss it. At the end it is clear that it is mainly the financial, commercial structures of the modern world which imprison human beings and make it impossible for him to live in harmony with his own nature, producing alienation and neurosis in the process, resulting in breakdown of relationships and contributing to general unhappiness.
Will probably write about Godard's film too sometime. Meanwhile the book goes highly recommended from my side. Absolutely essential reading...
A few words about this interesting, if a little too bizarre character from Austria. Otto Weininger was some kind of a celebrity in the fin de siecle Vienna. His fame rests on two things, that he committed suicide at the age of twenty three in the apartment where Beethoven had died and the other because of his theoretical-speculative work on human sexuality called Sex and Character which he had published not long before he took his own life. (For a list of celebrity suicides in fin de siecle Vienna see an earlier post.)
Now this Sex and Character treatise is one strange work. It is considered some kind of a classic of misogyny and anti-semitism. Most of his arguments on the surface look too bizarre but on closer inspection they are just versions of extreme genetic determinism, strains of which are actually quite popular in contemporary thinking about sexuality too. Basically he says the masculine and feminine are two "characters" and he means that in the Platonic sense, that they are ideals, eternal and unchanging. And these characters in turn are fully determined by biology. He of course doesn't have a clue about genetics but invents some pseudo-scientific theories to support his speculations. Anyway so what are these masculine-feminine ideas according to him? He says that the feminine is all sensuality, chaos, desire and decay. Women don't possess any consciousness and are just a bundle of raw sensations. The direct implication is that any idea of female dignity or female emancipation is nothing but a joke since they can never be autonomous subjects. In contrast the masculine idea means seeking of truth and striving for genius. The female in this sense is the destructive force in history, a negation, which men have to resist if they want to attain genius. He doesn't just stop here. He extends the same arguments to jews as well and delivers a rant against them as well.
I make it sound like he was just a crank but apparently he was not. He was a major cultural figure and an influence on many intellectual luminaries. One of his greatest fans was none other than Wittgenstein who was always recommending Weininger's book to his friends. Other members of his fan club included Karl Kraus, August Strindberg and Sigmund Freud (who had a lot of reservations but still found him interesting). None of these people are really known for their effusive gynaephilia but still. More interesting influence was on Joyce who, as I read somewhere, based the characters of the Bloom couple on Weininger's analysis. So Molly Bloom is just a bundle of sensations with no consciousness, no thread the bind together all those sensory experiences. Clarisse in The Man Without Qualities is another such character. (In fact it is true for most of the literary portraits of decadent female sexuality.) Also in Italo Svevo's comic masterpiece, which I recently read, one of the characters, a romantic rival of the narrator actually, tells the narrator that one should always have a copy of Weininger's book handy when one is chasing women!
Most of the information above comes from the classic account of fin de siecle cultural history of Vienna, Wittgenstein in Vienna by Janik and Toulmin. It all sounds quite bizarre and irrelevant to boot but Janik and Toulmin present a very interesting analysis. They try to place his ideas about sexuality within the general intellectual debate taking place in Vienna at that time. Karl Kraus, the famous satirist and media critic (some kind of a proto-blogger), was railing against the artificiality, faux-literariness and pompousness in the language of the newspaper and contemporary writings in general. Similarly Adolf Loos, who is considered the father of modern architecture, wrote a manifesto revealingly titled "Ornamentation and Crime." Many intellectuals and thinkers at that time were rebelling against what they perceived as the decadent aestheticism of the older generation. This is also the idea behind the whole modernist movement which emphasised a functional design based on rational principles. (Form should follow the function etc). Janik and Toulmin claim that Weininger's attack on femininity should be seen in this light as a work of culture criticism, and not as ravings of a deluded misogynist. Seen in this light a lot of his arguments start making sense though still his association of shallowness and sensuality with the female sex is unfortunate. A more gender-neutral term of the character type would surely make the whole thing much more palatable. Complete Review has some information about a book on Weininger.
Posted by Alok at 9:57 pm
Thursday, August 16, 2007
Not the best way to see it for the first time but for those who have already seen it and want to see it again. Takashi Miike's Audition, easily one of the finest horror films of recent times (rest is on youtube side bar):
A fantastic introduction from Dennis Lim: "Whatever else it may be—a cold-sweat nightmare of male sexual anxiety, a mocking explication of Eros and Thanatos, the best-disguised psychotronic splatter flick in recent memory—Takashi Miike's Audition is first and foremost a lethally poised Venus flytrap of a movie. (If you wish to preserve the purity of the trauma, read no further.) Audition opens as a placid, mournful romantic drama. Rivulets of dread seep in on cue, and the film seems to be heading for a boo-gotcha Grand Guignol pileup. But it doesn't merely morph; after simmering for an eternity, it derails, with spectacular, psychotic force, bulldozing its way toward an almost unwatchable theater of cruelty." It is not that bad actually. Anyway link to the piece de resistance scene towards the end. Of course it is a spoiler.
Posted by Alok at 6:10 pm
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
This is another very good article on Russian intellectual history (via arts and letters daily):
"Isaiah Berlin declared that Russia possessed "thinkers, but not eminent philosophers." Chamberlain rightly blames his singular prestige for the notion that all such thinkers amounted to mere "magi of the steppes." To be sure, she notes, Russian philosophy largely eschews systematic approaches. And Pyotr Chaadaev (1794-1856) famously deemed Russians "rather careless about what was true and what was false." But Russian philosophy also displays distinctive assets along its anti-Cartesian, pro-Pascalian path.
It's always engagé, fiercely concerned with the communal welfare of Russia, even as it favors the individual's personal dignity and autonomy. Russian philosophy's chief problem is "how to reconcile individuality with selflessness." It is notoriously nonacademic, doable by novelists, journalists, or priests. It ponders the "good" or "rounded" person, how he or she ought to live, and resembles a kind of moral calling or "springboard to immediate practical action" on the part of justice-seekers who believe in "adapting truth to hope." (Chamberlain argues that this bent continued till the end of the Soviet Union.) No wonder Czar Nicholas I ordered all philosophy departments shut down in 1826.
At its core, as in Dostoyevsky's novels, Russian philosophy skews counter-Enlightenment and idealist, looking like "a branch of German philosophy" in its infatuation with Kant and Hegel. It's highly skeptical of an instrumentalist, technocrat approach to life that scants emotion and spontaneity. (Berdyaev ordained rationalism "the original sin of almost all European philosophy.") In a peculiarly Russian way, it anticipates the ever-present possibility of chaos in human life. Moreover, it's congenitally unable to separate itself from Orthodox Christian mysticism, except when it swings the opposite way to Western, utopian, scientific reason (which played out in both the liberal humanism of Alexander Herzen and Lenin's ruthless police state). It is always impassioned about ideas, as in Belinsky's famous rebuke of Turgenev, reproduced in Tom Stoppard's play The Coast of Utopia: "We haven't yet solved the problem of God, and you want to eat!""
Posted by Alok at 3:00 pm
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Yet another article by Mishra. This time in the Guardian lamenting "the death of small town India." Resonating specially for those who like me grew up in one of those small north Indian towns. Patna is technically a capital but it fits in the profile Mishra paints very well too. He has actually turned this into a cliche by repeatedly writing the same thing over and over again. I was relieved not to see a reference to Edmund Wilson in this piece. (Mishra is suddenly everywhere, New Yorker, Harpers, New York Review of Books, London Review of Books each of them recently ran an essay by him on either India or China. All saying almost the same thing in the tone of same cautious pessimism as if writing a self-conscious counterpoint to the gung-ho articles in The Economist or Business Week or other magazines.)
The Guardian has a number of articles on India marking the Independence Day. The one on Bangalore by Ian Jack is particularly worth reading. That's another city I know well.
Posted by Alok at 11:16 pm
Sunday, August 12, 2007
I think the name of Italian novelist Alberto Moravia is more familiar to film-buffs rather than fiction readers. Two of the finest European art films from the sixties (or at least two of the finest European art films in colour), Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist were based on his novels. I spent most of the day today reading his slender masterpiece of a novel Contempt. It is really very impressive. I am still not done yet. Will probably write in detail when I am finished. Watching the film I always thought Godard invented most of the stuff on his own but now after having read the book the film seems to be a very faithful adaptation. There is even a character of the German director who is said to have made "colossal films" in pre-Hitler Germany but then the narrator adds his caveat that he was "nowhere in the league of Pabsts and Langs." (In the film Fritz Lang plays himself i.e. character of the German director!).
I will probably write more about it when I am done reading. For now I found an interesting essay on his works, specially this provocative comment:
"More important, Moravia's novels offer a bracing counterpoint to today's soft-hearted and -headed fiction. Moravia sees fiction as a form of knowledge: his aesthetic suggests a creative cross between a doctor and a mechanic, with the abstractness of a metaphysician tossed in. Moravia's suave pitilessness—his self-conscious variation on the mercilessness ofMaupassant—runs counter to contemporary preferences for feeling rather than thinking, and to the associated belief that the imagination should primarily serve as an instrument of sympathy rather than scrutiny. The neglect of Moravia has as much to do with the peculiar philosophical strengths of his withdrawn perspective—particularly its fascination with the growing similarities between the human and the mechanistic—as with the usual vagaries of fashion, though they are crucial.
Moravia's mercilessness challenges the current Anglo-American rage for a more empathic, emotional brand of narrative. Chekhov's short stories are now fashionable among American writers. (James Wood, Elizabeth Hardwick, Richard Ford, and Cynthia Ozick have all penned recent appreciations.) In part, this enthusiasm is based on Chekhov's wryly sympathetic observation of the unpredictability of life. For British critic V. S. Pritchett, Chekhov saw human existence as "breaking and running like a chain of raindrops upon the window. Now the drops run and pool together, presently they part, slide off on their own and momentarily catch the light in some new, fragile and vanishing pattern." Contemporary American taste runs to fiction whose patterns attempt to capture the fleeting perceptions of spontaneity, the effervescent signs of human freedom.
In contrast, Moravia's fiction mistrusts pattern, no matter how transient. The mind internalizes the perceptual expectations and habits of an increasingly commercialized and mechanized society. Moravia's plots and characters are ambivalent about repetition; half-heartedly, they treasure the pleasures of the familiar, the joys of routine. Moravia uses sensuality to explore the individual's response to the leveling political and technological pressures of modernity: sex offers a convenient intersection of nature and automation, instinct and habit, the public and private, fetish and freedom. Thus the most striking aspect of Moravia's fiction isn't its once-daring sexual focus but the cool calculated way it looks at love—or the lack of it—in the modern world."
The NYT book review has an interesting review about a very interesting subject - the origin and evolution of human language. An increasing number of scientists now believe that language may not be something that is unique to human beings. Even more interesting (and more controversial) are the claims that syntax ("generative grammar") may not be essential for thought. This goes counter to the standard orthodox Chomskyan model of linguistics. The book looks interesting since it claims to be an introduction to this very intriguing and controversial subject. Another review here.
Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct is a classic work on the subject, as perfect an introduction as can be for laymen and beginners. It is one of my favourite popular science books. He makes the same claims for evolutionary origin of language too while still being deferential to Chomsky all the time. (The best part of the book is his absolutely hilarious put-downss of self-proclaimed language-pundits and "grammar mavens" like William Safire)
Also interesting the wikipedia entry for "colourless green ideas sleep furiously". Apparently there was some poetry contest held to challenge Chomsky's claim. Very interesting, even if it is all very confusing too.
Posted by Alok at 6:33 pm
Saturday, August 11, 2007
A few words about the picture-book Isabelle Huppert: Woman of Many Faces a cheap copy of which I came across and promptly bought last week. I had once been to exhibition which I think featured the same photographs a couple of years back and saw a couple of movies too at the film festival dedicated to her work. The book in addition to the photographs also collects essays and short appreciations by Elfriede Jelinek, Susan Sontag, Patrice Chereau, the French film director and Serge Toubiana, film scholar and the editor of Cahiers du Cinema. The essays are very brief but quite insightful at places. All of them repeatedly insist on one quality of the photographs: the "absence" of the subject. How she is there in the photographs and yet she is not there and how the photographers face up to this challenge. Toubiana says:
Her energy and strength are sometimes concealed behind a sort of melancholy, opacity, or neutrality--an absence, or a dream of being elsewhere. It is this crack that the greatest photographers have been able to capture, with her complicity. When she comes to let herself go in front of the lens, it is in fact she who is taking control, she who is watching us. [....] To be present in order not to be: That is what this actress seems to be telling us, by constantly playing with appearance and its mechanical repetition.
Susan Sontag lists five qualities that she likes in her: beauty, which she clarifies that she means the Greek beauty rather than the Christian (didn't really understand what she means here, I thought the Christians stole the idea from the Greeks) and also talent for expressive and eloquence, intelligence, fearlessness and integrity, which is again linked to Beauty.
The photographs are great of course. A common theme is indeed what the commentators identify -- absence. This is actually a paradoxical trait in an actress, the ability to hide and also to show, to be frighteningly intense and yet icily detached at the same time. It also works on screen because she chooses roles where she can exploit this same paradox. (It is most obviously in The Piano Teacher.) This is also the reason why the Madame Bovary character played by her becomes a different character than the one in the book. (And to me a more interesting one too. I am not saying anything about the overall adaptation in general.)
Most of her photographs also prominently highlight the frail figure and specially the pale and freckled skin that is her trademark. Sometimes the makeup hides it but it generally remains as it is. It is perhaps again the "absence" factor which de-eroticises most of her photographs, even the ones in which she is without clothes. (There are only a couple.) It is as if she were challenging and then defeating the voyeuristic intrusion of the camera. Overall a very fine collection. Recommended viewing for her fans.
This is a nice profile from village voice and more overview of her work from sight and sound.
Thursday, August 09, 2007
Raul Hilberg, one of the most eminent Holocaust historians, died a few days back. An obituary from the London Times and another report from sign and sight.
Only a few months back I read an abridged version of The Destruction of European Jews and also his short autobiography The Politics of Memory. I had written about the later on the blog some time back (link here, scroll down). The holocaust book is quite tough to read even in the short abridged version and not for the obvious reason. If anyone had any doubt about history being an empirical and scientific subject one should check this book. There are charts, figures, tables galore in the book. The victims and and the victimisers both remain hidden behind the numbers. Instead what we get is a detailed account of bureaucracy, who reported to him, who gave orders to whom, the numerous time tables, how the whole mind-bogglingly complex operation was executed in even more mind-bogglingly efficient fashion. (His academic background was not history but political theory and public administration. His area of specialisation before he embarked on the project was the structure and history of the Prussian bureaucracy). It was actually the whole point. It was precisely the way real human beings lost themselves in the maze of bureaucracy that made possible their transformation into both, (often willing) victims and also oppressors. If it sounds similar to the more famous thesis of Hannah Arendt it is because she used his book as a primary source for her reportage on the Eichmann trial.
I was very surprised (and slightly disappointed too) by his autobiography. I was expecting some cathartic account of how he came to devote his whole life on one subject but instead it is a bitter account of his struggle for academic recognition. He was extremely unpopular with the Jewish establishment mainly for insisting that there were no Jewish heroes in the Holocaust and extremely critical account of zionists and jewish political figures during the war. His own academic career remained less than stellar though he belatedly came to be recognized as one of the founders of the academic discipline of holocaust studies. I was also hoping to find out his views Germany and Austria (he was born in Vienna) in his autobiography but he doesn't really elaborate on the subject though he says that he respects most of the younger generation of German historians.
Wikipedia entry with more links here. And don't miss his interviews in Claude Lanzmann's Shoah too. One clip here.
Something that might be of interest to the readers of the blog: a list of 50 greatest sex scenes in films ever. Haven't browsed the entire list but it looks slightly hollywood-centric. But overall a good eclectic collection.
1. Don't Look Now (Dir: Nicholas Roeg, 1973)
2. A History of Violence (Dir: David Cronenberg, 2005)
3. Mulholland Dr. (Dir: David Lynch, 2001)
4. Risky Business (Dir: Paul Brickman, 1983)
5. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Dir: Philip Kaufmann, 1988)
Haven't seen number 4 and 5 yet but my favourite of all is number three -- good sapphic sex (actually it is quite tame) followed by a trip to club silencio. I am also glad to see the wonderful little film Secretary being recognized. It is at number 8.
Posted by Alok at 5:32 pm
Wednesday, August 08, 2007
कुछ पाठक पूछ रहे थे कि जब मैं हिंदी में लिख लेता हूँ तो और क्यों नहीं लिखता? एक वजह तो ये कि हिंदी टाईप करने में थोड़ी दिक्कत होती है, लेकिन थोडा सोचने पर ये बस बहाना मालूम होता है। वास्तव में हिंदी में लिखने और सोचने कि आदत चली गयी है। हिंदी पट्टी को छोडे हुए बरसों बीत गए, और अब अगर हिंदी में बातचीत करता भी हूँ, तो कभी कुछ भी गम्भीर और अर्थपूर्ण बातचीत नही होती है। उसके लिए हमेशा अंग्रेजी का ही सहारा लेना होता है। इसके कारण हिंदी पर पकड़ धीरे धीरे कमजोर होती जा रही है। अब अगर एक साधारण सा लेख या कोई छोटी सी समीक्षा लिखने को बैठूं तो समझ नही आता कि क्या लिखूं। वही बात अगर अंग्रेजी में कहनी हो कहीं कोई दिक्कत नही होती, शब्द अपने आप मिलते जाते है, वाक्य विन्यास के बारे में भी सोचने की जरूरत महसूस नही होती।
मुझे हमेशा लगता है की भाषाई दरिद्रता ना सिर्फ वैचारिक बल्कि आत्मिक दरिद्रता को भी दर्शाती है। जितनी क्षीण आपकी भाषा होगी उतने ही क्षीण आपके विचार और आपकी संवेदनाएं। भाषा ही वो चीज है जो दिमाग में कुलबुलाते हुए विचारों को एक ठोस आकार देती है। इसके बिना सारे विचार बस साबुन के बुलबुले की भांति हैं, आये और गए। उनका आपके व्यक्तित्व या आपकी आत्मा पर कोई प्रभाव नही पड़ेगा। यहाँ एक बात स्पष्ट कर दूं कि भाषा ज्ञान से मेरा मतलब पर्यटकों वाली हाय हेलो भाषा से नहीं है, वो आप दो दिनों में किसी मनुअल को पढ़कर सीख जायेंगे। मैं बात कर रह हूँ, अपने विचार और भावनाओं को व्यक्त करने की समर्थता के बारे में। साधारण बातचीत और इस भाषा में काफी अंतर है।
एक और बात हम द्विभाषीय लोगों के बारे में। व्लादिमीर नाबोकोव अपनी आत्मकथा स्पीक, मेमोरी में लिखतें हैं कि जब वे बर्लिन में निर्वासित जीवन व्यतीत कर रहे थे तो उन्होने जानबूझ कर जर्मन भाषा नही सीखी क्योंकि उन्हें लगता ता कि नयी भाषा शायद उन्हें उनकी प्रियतम रूसी भाषा से कहीं दूर ना कर दे। ये ऐसा की मानों रूसी भाषा भाषा ना हुई, बल्कि एक प्रेमिका हो गयी! (उन्हें जर्मन भाषा ज्यादा पसंद भी नही थी, हालांकि उन्हें इतना ज्ञान जरूर था जिससे वो काफ्का के अनुवादकों पर तीखी टिप्पणी कर सकते थे।) बाद में भी उन्होने अंग्रेजी भाषा को तभी अपनाया जब अमेरिका में आजीविका का कोई और दूसरा सहारा ना था।
अब मुझे लगता है कि जब ऐसे महान भाषा विशारद (उनकी त्रिभाषीय प्रतिष्ठा पर कोई शंका नही कर सकता) जब भाषा के मामले में इतनी असुरक्षा महसूस कर सकते हैं तो फिर साधारण प्राणी जिन्हें भाषा सीखने के लिए बरसों अभ्यास करना पड़ा, वो क्या करें? मुझे अंग्रेजी भाषा कोई कम प्रिय नहीं है, पर क्या दोनों भाषाओं पर एक गम्भीर पकड़ संभव है? उत्तर तो अवश्य हाँ ही होगा बस दोनों भाषाओं पर उचित समय देने की जरूरत है।
Posted by Alok at 7:16 pm
Tuesday, August 07, 2007
This is a nice essay on Crash. Academic in tone and slightly bombastic in places (end of western culture etc) but quite insightful overall. It basically analyses the film through the sociological theories of alienation in consumerist ("advanced capitalist") societies. The essay also tries to place the film within the road-movie genre and also with general theories of apocalypticism.
"In Cronenberg's Crash, however, none of these previous models or paradigms have any real application. Something of a departure for Cronenberg, Crash is a film whose apocalypticism is conservative, rather than regenerative. This is a film in which the symbiosis and dispersal of Self produce a terminal, degenerative state of isolation and estrangement. In effect, the destruction in Crash is neither magical, nor sacrificial, nor regenerative, but pure suicidal immolation in the failure of collective philosophies. The protagonists of Crash lack any sustaining faith in mythical or spiritual belief systems previously supplying consensus to society. The film's apocalyptic spirit is profoundly secular and pessimistic, reflecting the postmodern refusal of both sacred and ideological conceptions of reality, depicting a culture totally cut off from its mythic past. Crash is a film about the impulses of western consciousness toward the worship of catastrophe and self-annihilation. It is a disaster story, though with none of the frantic, panicky overtones of the usual disaster story, since the catastrophe needed to provoke revelation never comes......
A movie about the end of the historical road, Cronenberg's Crash is set on the downward edge of the historical cycle. The film explores the contradictions of a decadent capitalist system out of control, as well as the psychological consequences of this superproductive consumer society. These consequences include not only the failure of the imagination and the descent into barbarism, obsession, pathology, and collective rage suggested by Adams, but also the forceful desire to tear society apart, to "throw stones at the Crystal Palace," as Dostoyevsky puts it. As a consequence, the destroyed commodity becomes part of a nostalgic reliquary for lost ritual and consensus built around shared myth and language systems. In Crash, the particular commodity facing ritualized destruction is that most symbolic artifact of American consumer culture-that wasteful, aggressive, violent totem of western civilization: the car."
In other news the DVD of Inland Empire is getting released this week. Village Voice has an interview with David Lynch, another specialist in the darker side of human affairs. One comment: "I don’t necessarily love rotting bodies, but . . . the textures are wonderful.” I am, of course, very curious about "other things that happened" too.
Posted by Alok at 10:57 pm
मेरा ब्लौग कुछ ज्यादा ही गम्भीर है (बिल्कुल मेरी तरह)। परिवर्तन के तौर पर एक प्यारा सा गीत। (ये भी बताने के लिए कि बौलीवुड से मुझे उतनी घृणा नही जितना कि शायद मेरा ब्लौग पढने से प्रतीत होता हो)।
और हाँ, आपके पास अगर थोड़ा खाली समय हो तो ये हिंदी कहानी अवश्य पढिये, जिसपर ये फिल्म मूलतः आधारित है। कहानी मुझे अत्यंत प्रिय है।
Posted by Alok at 6:12 pm
Pankaj Mishra gives a crash course in the history of Indian partition in the latest New Yorker.
Politically, too, British rule in India was deeply conservative, limiting Indian access to higher education, industry, and the civil service. Writing in the New York Tribune in the mid-nineteenth century, Karl Marx predicted that British colonials would prove to be the “unconscious tool” of a “social revolution” in a subcontinent stagnating under “Oriental despotism.” As it turned out, the British, while restricting an educated middle class, empowered a multitude of petty Oriental despots. (In 1947, there were five hundred and sixty-five of these feudatories, often called maharajas, running states as large as Belgium and as small as Central Park.)
Posted by Alok at 11:37 am
Sunday, August 05, 2007
I am a big fan of David Cronenberg's work. He is one of the few genuine auteurs working in cinema today who also has achieved a good deal of mainstream success and acclaim. I had somehow missed watching his most controversial film Crash all this while. I finally caught up with it last weekend at the museum of modern art where it was screened as a part of an exhibition of works related to artistic explorations of new technologies and media. (Link to the online exhibition here. Caution: bizarre colour scheme and site design.) The auditorium was as usual packed though a lot of people did walk out in the first fifteen minutes or so. Mostly elderly ladies I think, all lifetime members of the museum, who had no idea what was in store for them.
Even in the context of a highly controversial filmography Crash stands out. It was denounced by a London critic as "beyond the bounds of depravity." Ted Turner, who owned the company which produced the film said that only "warped minds" would like it and did his best to wreck its north american release. It was released only after a one year delay with an NC-17 rating. And all this after it received great acclaim at the cannes film festival where it was awarded a special jury prize for "originality, audacity and daring." Cahiers du Cinema also selected it as the best film of the year.
It is without doubt an original, audacious and important work of art. It raises very serious questions about the way we live now, questions which are only getting more and more important with the passage of time. The film has a very bare and minimal plot. It is based on a novel of the same name by J.G. Ballard which I have not read. It is basically about a group of people who find themselves sexually aroused by orchestrating and participating in car crashes. It is as if all sexual contact between people were mediated through cars. The narrative structure follows the standard pornography aesthetic. It is just a tableau of one sex scene after another punctuated by the actors speaking their lines as if under some sort of trance or hypnosis. It all sounds too bizarre to make any sense but its audacity lies in following this vision to the limit and still managing to make it interesting, intriguing and unsettling.
It is first of all an eloquent portrait of the culture of eroticisation that we see all around, specially in the west. A culture in which every opportunity seems to be potentially exploitable for a sensory experience. A culture which sexualises inanimate objects (I am reminded of the recent brouhaha over a recently released cell phone) and makes them an extension of body itself, a body as far as it is defined by sexual desire. In fact the only thing advertisers and product designers these days have to do is to find some way to wrap their products in inventive sexual metaphors and imageries and their job is done. It doesn't matter what function the product is supposed to serve and how efficient and effective it is. The film itself is quite vague and hermetic (one of its major weakness in my opinion) but I think this is what Cronenberg means when he says he is interested in "potential extensions of bodies through technological means" (not exact words.) I am also tempted to namecheck Karl Marx who identified "commodity fetishism" as one of the important elements of capitalist society, or any society built around the concept of private propery. Here the focus is only on sexual relationship but it is true for any social relationships. They are all centred around the values placed on privately owned commodities. Ballard has also acknowledged the influence of french thinker Jean Baudrillard who in turn had elaborated on Marx's theory and technology's role in altering human experience of reality. I have only bare-bones knowledge of these topics but the film surely has a lot to say about these things.
The film is not without its flaws however. One of the main ones is, as I mentioned before, its hermeticism and vagueness. Cronenberg is reluctant to give an explanation. His approach is too clinical, too detached - it is as if he were observing some bizarre species and their bizarre behaviour through a microscope! He isn't interested in theorising or explaining. He doesn't even provide enough context, which makes it seem rather timid in the end. Were these people always like this? What really went wrong? Who is responsible? Can anything be done now? The film doesn't even go to these places where you can ask these questions.
As is usual with Cronenberg when it comes to the technique and details everything is absolutely first class. Specially the cinematography by Peter Suschitsky and the score by Howard Shore. They both create a brilliant atmosphere and mood which is sustained throughout. In short, an important film. It may be graphic, disturbing, even sickening, but it will also make you think about important things. One of those rare sex films NOT meant for adolescents.
Saturday, August 04, 2007
Two wonderful excerpts from The Magic Mountain. They are both from the chapter called "Research." These are actually Hans Castorp's thoughts as reads some biology books. It is a fantastic analysis and interpretation of what a scientific-materialist view of life really means. I specially love the second one... (may not be advisable if you are having a depressing weekend)
What was life, really? It was warmth, the warmth produced by instability attempting to preserve form, a fever of matter that accompanies the ceaseless dissolution and renewal of protein molecules, themselves transient in their complex and intricate construction. It was the existence of what, in actuality, has no inherent ability to exist, but only balances with sweet, painful precariousness on one point of existence in the midst of this feverish, interwoven process of decay and repair. It was not matter, it was not spirit. It was something in between the two, a phenomenon borne by matter, like the rainbow above a waterfall, like a flame. But although it was not material, it was sensual to the point of lust and revulsion, it was matter shamelessly sensitive to stimuli within and without - existence in its lewd form. It was a secret, sensate stirring in the chaste chill of space. It was furtive, lascivious, sordid - nourishment sucked in and excreted, an exhalation of carbon dioxide and other foul impurities of a mysterious origin and nature. Out of overcompensation for its own instability, yet governed by its own inherent laws of formation, a bloated concoction of water, protein, salt, and fats - what we call flesh - ran riot, unfolded, and took shape, achieving form, ideality, beauty, and yet all the while was the quintessence of sensuality and desire. This form and this beauty were not derived from the spirit, as in works of poetry and music, nor derived from some neutral material both consumed by spirit and innocently embodying it, as it is the case with the form and beauty of the visual arts. Rather, they were derived from and perfected by substances awakened to lust via means unknown, by decomposing and composing organic matter itself, by reeking flesh.
So much for pathology, the study of disease, with an emphasis on bodily pain, which at the same time was an emphasis on the body, an emphasis on its pleasures - disease was life's lascivious form. And for its part, what was life? Was it perhaps only an infectious disease of matter - just as the so-called spontaneous generation of matter was perhaps only an illness, a cancerous stimulation of the immaterial? The first step toward evil, toward lust and death, was doubtless taken when, as the result of a tickle by some unknown incursion spirit increased in density for the first time, creating a pathologically rank growth of tissue that formed, half in pleasure, half in defense, as the prelude to matter, the transition from the immaterial to the material. This was creation's true Fall, its Original Sin. The second spontaneous generation, the birth of the organic form from the inorganic, was only the sad progression of corporeality into consciousness, just as disease in an organism was the intoxicating enhancement and crude accentuation of its own corporeality. Life was only the next step along the reckless path of spirit turned disreputable, matter blushing in reflex, both sensitive and receptive to whatever had awakened it.
Friday, August 03, 2007
I had heard the praises of soundtrack and cinematography of this film before but watching it last night exceeded all my high expectations. Now I feel even worse for missing its big screen revival last year.
The basic story is a standard noir template - that of lovers conspiring to kill the husband only to find themselves trapped by the irony of a malignant fate which leads them to their inevitable doom (so elegantly captured by the title in this case.) The story has three separate sections which only occasionally overlap. (In fact the two lovers never meet at all in the film!) First the murderer who finds himself trapped in an elevator after the crime, then the woman, played by a stunning Jeanne Moureau, thinking herself abandoned by her lover walks on the night-time Parisian streets almost in a trance, talking to herself and overwhelmed with desire and grief, and finally a bunch of teenage delinquents who run off with the hero's car which adds to some suspense and plot confusion. This is perhaps the weakest section of the film. The petty criminals and their hyper-romanticism made me think of Godard but that only made it look ineffective. Ineffective also were half-hearted attempts to bring in politics - french involvement in Algeria and Vietnam and the German occupation in the second world war. I read some reviews which comapared the elevator section of the story to Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (on which Malle worked as an assistant director) which seemed to me an absurd overpraise.
The highlight of the film is of course the Jeanne Moreau section. Specially the way she is photographed only using the natural night time street lights. Every flicker of light, every contour of a shadow, and every expression on her face is sharply visible and it adds to the extraordinary atmosphere and mood. Add to that the iconic trumpet soundtrack by Miles Davis, underscoring her melancholy yearnings, it all makes an unforgettable impression. In fact I was thinking if Malle had made an entire film just out of Jeanne Moureau walking on champs elysees to the tunes of Miles Davis, it could have still been a riveting film. It might even have been a better film!
In the interviews on the DVD extras Moureau recalls how liberated she felt acting in this film because she didn't have to wear a thick make-up or act under the glare of excessive artificial lighting which was de rigeur at the time specially for her because of her unconventional looks. This approach of shooting on real street locations using only available lighting wasn't as common as it became later after the new wavers took on the reins. It is in fact also called a precursor of the new wave film movement. The dvd also contains lots of information about Miles Davis. As it turned out the film score is considered to be a very important work in the history and evolution of Miles Davis' work and in history of Jazz in general. Some of it didn't make much sense to me, illiterate as I am in these technical, theoretical matters but the sound of the music itself is heavenly.
The trailer here. Contains part of the soundtrack too:
Thursday, August 02, 2007
Film forum has put together a series of classic hollywood noirs set in the new york city. This weekend I managed to see three of them. Sweet Smell of Success, The Woman in the Window and Laura. I had seen Laura before but I saw the other two for the first time. Just a few brief notes... (an article from the new york times here)
Sweet Smell of Success on the surface looks an atypical film-noir. There are no guns and no murders in the film, no detective in the raincoat and hat walking down the dark city streets. But that's not to say the film is not violent. Just that its violence moral and emotional. Presumably based on some real-life character, it tells the story of a powerful new york columnist J.J. Hunsecker, played by Burt Lancaster, who uses his influence and popularity to make and break careers, and his poodle a publicity manager played by Tony Curtis who would descend to any depth to get a good deal for his client from J.J. The best part of the film is its writing. It is full of crackling dialogues, most of it sounds unreal and strange because both the characters speak the bombastic language of newspaper columns. Though at places I felt the writing was a little too extreme, not justifiable by the information we have about the characters. It is hard to understand how only ambition and desire for success and careerism can drive someone to such depths of moral self-degradation as the Tony Curtis sinks down to. I have no problems with misanthropy but at places it just felt like shrill, raging and completely irrational. The film, specially the Curtis character reminded me of Billy Wilder's The Apartment which has a (kind-of) similar story. Their the misanthropy feels more natural, even though it has a happy ending (though I think it is happy only in name.) I was thinking what Wilder could have done to the story. It certainly fails to reach that level of general social criticism and the way we live now as The Apartment succeeds in doing. Still a very impressive film overall.
Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window has the same cast as Scarlet Street which Lang made a year after, in almost similar roles too. Edward G. Robinson, the wonderful character actor, plays the hapless, pitiful, lonely middle aged man yearning for some youthful adventure. Joan Bennett is the standard femme fatale, at least that's what it appears initially though in the end it is much more complex. There is even the sleazy smooth-talking villain Dan Dureya (who reminded me of our very own Prem Chopra!). One day just after he has dropped off his family at the grand central station for a long holiday, the middle aged professor finds himself transfixed by a portrait of a female figure in the shop window. He meets some of his fellow middle-aged friends and discuss the dangers of transgression and the inevitability of old age. In the night he again stops at the window to stare at the painting and what does he see? Well, the woman herself. Soon he gets himself invited to her house and even sooner finds himself involved in murder and blackmail.
I won't reveal the ending but it is absolutely delicious. It in a way reminded me of F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh. A happy ending which can be seen in purely ambiguous terms and which only increases the irony. The original script had a darker and brutal ending and Lang had to change it to fit some censor guidelines. I read somewhere that he was quite happy with the change and it shows too. It keeps the comic underpinning of the rest of the story intact and in no way diminishes the theme of an all-powerful malignant fate plotting the downfall of the tragic hero that Lang and other film noir experts so excelled at portraying on screen. It was loved by the audiences at the film forum too. It received a big applause in the end. A great classic!
In terms of style, the latest feature documentary about the Iraq War to have come out in the theatres, No End in Sight is quite conventional. Just a dozen or so talking-heads mixed with news footage and occasional commentary. Its approach however is a little different from other documentaries about the war (I have seen only one - Iraq in Fragments). It doesn't get into the subject of the life of ordinary Iraqis before or after the war, the sights and sounds on the ground as it were. Neither it is a polemical or ideological attack on the Bush administration and its foreign policy. This is not to say that it is not effective, it is devastating expose alright but the focus is limited entirely to the strategic mistakes the Bush administration did in the first few months after the ouster of Saddam Hussein from Baghdad. Although Ferguson doesn't explicitly state his own position on the justification of the war, it is not hard to guess that like many strategic analysts (he is a fellow of some washington think tank too) he believed the invasion was justified and that his only gripe is with the bungled mismanagement of the aftermath. It is as if the documentary was meant to be shown for the future budding strategists. "Let's learn from our mistakes. We will not repeat them when we attack the next country on the list" -- that's what I thought the film was basically saying. (At one point the narrator even points that the war has left the country short of funds and resources for a possible military "engagement" with Iran which is a greater threat and a more hostile country.)
Even though it lacked any political perspective in terms of just plain facts it was really an educational two hours spent. To be honest I stopped following the news about the war long back. But I think even those who were uptodate with the latest wouldn't have known such facts like for example, the traffic management of Baghdad was handed over to a fresh graduate of the georgetown university! Or the callous way the administration allowed the Iraqi museum to be destroyed and looted. Some of the relics housed by the museum belonged to the oldest human civilization on earth. There are many such small facts which coalesce into a devastating whole, all underscoring the arrogance and hubris of people who planned the whole thing.
It is precisely this attitude of hubris and contempt towards the Iraqis (more than oil grab or lasting military occupation) that establishes parallels with the imperialist projects of the past. I think in principle the idea of humanitarian intervention and universal human rights is a very honourable one but you just need to see a few press conferences of Donald Rumsfeld (the documentary contains clips from plenty of those) to convince yourself that concepts like universal law and political ethics were the last things on their minds when they were planning the whole thing. This is one major flaw of the film. Getting all the details wrong was only a proximate cause of the failure, the ultimate cause was the dishonest intention with which they went into the war at the first place. If they really had cared for human rights and democracy and the will of the Iraqi people all this could have been avoided.
Some reviews here and a trailer:
Wednesday, August 01, 2007
The comments on the previous post reminded me of this article in the TLS I had read sometime back. It is actually a review of a book of cultural history titled The History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture. It is very informative about how the attitudes towards the act have changed over time in the western societies. I don't know if there can ever be a discipline of suicidology, that we can find general theories in sociology, psychoanalysis and other disciplines which can ever convincingly explain the act in general terms. The final act will always be mysterious and deeply private decision, always dependent on particular circumstances surrounding the individual. Though I wish we had some way of predicting, so many lives could be saved then. My personal position is against suicide (my only gripe is with joie de vivre) I also support all sorts of chemical interventions if it helps people live a "normal" and productive life.
I also think that suicide should be discussed and talked about in more open terms. There certainly should be no feelings of guilt and secrecy about it. If one can think about suicide just as an intellectual problem, the chances are he or she will never act on the impulse (although suicidal poets are again an exception. They openly talk of suicide and dying as art and then commit suicide as well.) As the review also concludes:
The trouble with history is that it keeps on repeating itself. Georges Minois's History of Suicide would depress the reader past bearing, if it didn't exasperate. Thank heavens for that. Like the persecution therapy prescribed by Stendhal, exasperation can stir up the instinct of self-preservation.
(The Stendhal observation comes from his book "On Love" (earlier post here) where he prescribes the cultivation of an imaginary persecution complex as a way of dealing with suicidal tendencies borne out of unrequited love. It would then trigger an animalistic self-preservation instinct. Sounds very reasonable.)
Posted by Alok at 6:27 pm
A few weeks back this story in the new york times caught my attention. Video artist, popular blogger and a culural commentator Theresa Duncan committed suicide in her Manhattan apartment. A few days later her boyfriend, an up and coming young arist himself, whose work has been exhibited at the museum of modern art, went missing too. He was last seen on a beach going into the sea. His body was found and idenitfied only a couple of weeks later, that is now. The new york times report here. There is also a report in today's washington post.
Suicides are unsettling in ways other kinds of deaths are not. There are of course explanations but they only explain the suicidal state of mind. What leads one to the actual act remains a mystery.
Even more mysterious I think is the suicide of the artists and in general of people who live the life of the mind because I always like to think that when it comes to the mind and thought there are always possibilities, infinite and endless. The melancholia, feelings of disaffection and isolation and indifference to joie de vivre are easy to understand but that doesn't explain the act itself, the finality, irreversibility and the certitude of it. What makes them think that they have reached the limits? That they can't go on?
Posted by Alok at 10:08 am