Monday, December 31, 2007

Feminism and Films

I have been reading Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. It is overall a pretty good account of film history seen through a feminist perspective, though in the end a little disappointing for a couple of reasons. First, because the book is structured linearly, with chapters divided into decades (20s, 30s etc.), along with one chapter each devoted to the genre of "Women's Film" and European films, Haskell repeatedly makes the same point over and over again each time taking a new film as an example. This gets tedious after a while, specially if you haven't seen the films. (I skipped over most of 20s and 30s chapters because I have hardly seen anything from those two decades). The second problem is the content and criticism itself. Her approach is resolutely empirical, avoiding any theorising and her insights are mostly sociological (of the popular sort). While I don't particularly care for theoretical jargons and even less for Freudian cliches, her conclusions are often just plain obvious. Avoiding theory also means that the book lacks any specific framework, except perhaps the most obvious one that of exposing the latent sexism in the way women are represented in film, as a result the book is very anarchic in structure and difficult to summarise as I am finding now that I am trying to do it.

There is a misconception that thinking about films in analytical terms, specially about gender related issues, diminishes the "magic" or enjoyment of the films. After all who wants to spoil everything when love is in the air by bringing in politics? As I was reading Haskell's commentaries I was reminded again and again how wrong it is to think like that (not that I needed any convincing in that regard). Thinking of these things actually enriches the experience of watching the films. I was specially interested in reading about Katherine Hepburn, my favourite Hollywood actress from the Golden Age (very closely followed by Barbara Stanwyck). In most of her romantic comedies she starts off as a smart, witty, sarcastic, arrogant and of course funny as hell and then slowly she reveals her "needy" side, is forced to normalize herself for love. Haskell says this about her at one place in the book:

And even in the hands of a sympathetic director like George Stevens or Cukor or Hawks, there was a cutting edge to her parts as written, a kind of ruthless, upper-class eccentricity, that was more a revenge on, than an expression of, her personality. In Woman of the Year, her cosmopolitan political reporter is pitted against Spencer Tracy's no-nonsense, boys-in-the-backroom sports reporter. Their enchanting interplay (this was their first film together) creates a sense of complementary natures and equality which is gradually eroded, then cruelly and dishonestly shattered, as Hepburn's "weaknesses" - her drive, her lack of interest in creating a home and family - are belabored and blackened while Tracy's faults - his philistinism, his "old-fashioned" American values - are softened and colored as virtues by comparison. In The Philadelphia Story, she is attacked from all sides for her supposed coldness, of which there is not a shred of evidence. This is the furtive revenge of mediocrity on excellence; she is being convicted merely for being a superior creature.

An interesting contrast is The African Queen in which it is Bogart who has to adjust his emotional registers as demanded by Hepburn and it is she who is in control throughout the film. Incidentally Haskell doesn't like Huston at all, who she says isn't a misogynist but just not interested in women at all. She finds something very offensive in the portrait of Claire Trevor character in Key Largo, the way she is humiliated by the Edward Robinson's gangster but I thought it was obvious that Huston's sympathies are with her. Anyway, not surprisingly she prefers Howard Hawks more than Huston.

I also wanted to single out a few of her criticisms which I found a little unfair. She disappointingly mentions that most of the "new hollywood" directors like Scorsese, Coppola and others in the 70s were only interested in male subjects. Women characters were either totally absent or else marginalized to peripheries. Of course it is undeniable but it is equally true that most of these films also offered a penetrating critique of conventional masculinities by linking it to violence, oppression, irrationality and injustice. Films like Raging Bull or Taxi Driver have more to say about gender politics than any conventional woman's film. There were of course some glorious exceptions as well like Altman's great whatsit 3 Women or Alan Pakula's Klute, with Jane Fonda in a sensational turn as a smart and thinking prostitute.

The other aspect which I find unconvincing in many of these feminist criticisms is that films about misogyny are often confused with misogynist films. It is interesting that when they are writing about the same issues in Hitchcock's films they are very sensitive about the psychological context of the character. They understand how Hitchcock's camera aligns itself explicitly with the masculine gaze and women always occupy the object positions in his films, and as a result the female characters most often lack autonomy because they are creations of male subjectivity, specially his sexual fears and insecurities. Vertigo and Rear Window are two perfect examples which allow these kinds of feminist readings. But when it comes to other directors she is not as sensitive or generous. Brian de Palma for example is dismissed by Haskell without any fuss. So is David Lynch, my own personal favourite whose films have so much to say about sexuality and its role in shaping identity. Actually the last chapter was added for a new edition of the book and it clearly doesn't fit with the rest of the book. It felt as if she had already made up her mind that we are witnessing the absolute nadir when it comes to the representation of women in Hollywood films. (That was in late eighties).

Manohla Dargis in her review of "There Will Be Blood" recently pointed out, "Like most of the finest American directors working now, Mr. Anderson makes little on-screen time for women." (There are no female characters in the entire film!) It is true most of the interesting directors like those of the "new hollywood" of the 70s aren't interested in making women's films at all. Todd Haynes is an exception whose Safe and Far From Heaven, itself an homage to one of the greatest woman's film of all time, are both glorious. It might also be because of division of labour between films and TV soaps when it comes to gender. It is just a thesis though...

It is of course a vast and a complicated topic. I have already rambled enough. I wanted to write more about the works of David Lynch and also Haskell's discussion of European films but more on that later.

End of the Year

First of all Happy New Year to all the readers. Most of you must be thinking what kind of a jobless loser would write 365 posts in a year. (A lot are links and copy-paste posts but still). And what is he doing posting Fassbinder links on the New Year's eve? Well...

This year was a good year for me in the sense that nothing bad really happened, which now that I think about it, means that nothing interesting really happened. I spent the entire year living by the negative principle, saying a big fat NO to everything, and in the process relegating "life" itself to the margins. I know one can't live an entire life in this pseudo-Vanaprastha mode and also that the ordinary, idiotic and messy problems of personal and professional life that living in the reality necessarily entails will not go away by just ignoring them. I am a little pessimistic about the next year on this account but as the saying goes, we will cross the bridge when we get there. For now the dispatches will continue.

Links

Some interesting links:

An essay by Ian Buruma on Berlin Alexanderplatz (both the film and the novel) in the latest new york review of books.

Claire Messud reviews J M Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year. Her better half reviewed the same book a while back in the new yorker.

A profile-essay on Harold Pinter and his play Homecoming.

I hadn't even heard of Sweeney Todd before Tim Burton decided to make a movie out of it. Some catching up via this old article in the new yorker

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Otto Preminger


Film Forum is organizing a retrospective of Otto Preminger's films. There is a brief article in New York Times. He is not as widely celebrated as Hitchcock, Wilder or Lang but he certainly belongs in the same company.

Laura and Anatomy of a Murder are two of my personal favourites of his films. Laura one of the finest examples of Hollywood film-noir and Anatomy of a Murder is one of the finest court-room dramas, despite its really archaic sexual politics. In fact like the above three mentioned directors, his films should also provide ample fodder for feminist film critics. I haven't seen it in quite some time. More on it if I get to see it sometime again soon. Early this year I also saw Angel Face, Advise and Consent and The Man With a Golden Arm too which are all great as well, specially Advise and Consent which is in a way another court-room drama.

There Will Be Blood


It has already been declared the best film of the year (see here) and subjected to so many ecstatic reviews that it feels futile to add anything of my own, specially when one is not so enthusiastic (partly because I went with such huge expectations). It is actually not surprising why critics have gone all ga-ga over it. I wanted to write an essay myself on the topic of something like, "American Character as a mixture of Capitalism and Religious zealotry", even though the film left me with a raging headache and I didn't particularly enjoy it or was moved by it. I was waiting for grand dramatic scenes or scenes with emotional payoffs or some spectacular violence but it never came. The last scene has some of it but it is more of an anti-climax. It is actually to Anderson's credit that he rigorously avoids all such emotionalism, sentimentality and the familiar narrative tropes of humanistic character studies, otherwise it could have easily become another cliched and oft-repeated tragedy of a "lonely-capitalist", a message-film about the evils of greed and untrammeled ambition. In fact the whole film seemed to be explicitly designed in such a way as to avoid such simplistic reductionism, though in the end it is nothing but that only, which was why it left me disappointed. (The headache was probably because of the weird, dissonant and jarring musical score of the film, certainly one of the strangest I have heard in recent films. It does feel overused though probably the film wouldn't have been the same without it.)

Friday, December 28, 2007

Three Hollywood Classics

Some Hollywood classics that I saw for the first time recently...

The Informer (John Ford, 1935): John Ford received the first of his four best director Oscars for this 1935 film. The Informer of the title is a man named Gypo Nolan who betrays one of his friends, who works for the Irish Republican Army, to the police in return of a small monetary reward. The whole film tracks just a few hours in his life on one fog-bound night on the streets of Dublin as he disintegrates emotionally, struck by his guilty conscience and struggling and failing to come to terms with the crime he committed. Gypo as played by British actor Victor McLaglen (who won an Oscar for this role as well) comes across as a brutish clown, who acts only on impulse, without giving it any rational thought, of which he is obviously not capable of. It is to Ford's and the writer's credit, and the main element in the success of the film, that they emphasise this aspect of his character and as a result the character of Gypo is humanised and his final fall in the end becomes a tragedy, which resonates deeply long after the film has ended. This is by all accounts one of Ford's best films, even within a career crowded with great classics. The film could have been a great classic just for its sympathetic character study but what really makes it a masterpiece is its visual style. It very clearly shows the links between the American crime films and film noirs of 1940s and the German expressionistic silents of the twenties. The first ten or so minutes are without any dialogues and the story is told purely in visual terms. Also, like in many expressionist films shadow and fog play a vital part in externalising the dark and tormented subjectivities of the characters of the story. In fact the way it uses fog is absolutely stunning. Some shots even look like parodies (Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog for example), specially quite a few scenes in which Ford shows the shadows before the characters enter the frame. Or the shot where the camera tracks the poster drifting on the streets. There are also wonderful tracking shots which shows the influence of Murnau. Film history aside, it is quite simply a marvelous and a deeply haunting film, not to be missed.

How Green Was My Valley (John Ford, 1941): Ford has often been accused of sentimentality, a very "masculine" kind of sentimentality by some critics. They probably must have been thinking of this film. It is sentimental no doubt but the sentiments are well-placed, natural and honest, they never come across as made-up. Ford really makes us believe that these people are good people, people with lofty and noble sentiments and then shows how these sentiments don't really have a chance against the vagaries of fate and the passage of time. The film is the story of a hard-working family set in a mining village in Wales as it tries to struggle with one crisis after another. Ford is also sometimes criticised for his conservatism, traditionalism and political quietism but watching this film made me realize how wrong this really is. He does celebrate traditions, religious values, the institution of the family, the role of the patriarch (even when showing its weakness) but is fairly explicit in its condemnation of the institutional religion for example and elsewhere showing that those old traditional values don't take us too far in this modern fast-changing world. In the end it also comes across as being on the side of workers who attempt to unionize and struggle for their rights. It is not The Grapes of Wrath by any means but still, in the context what Hollywood was at that time, this film is quite radical in its political views. This may not be in the top-tier of John Ford Classics but comes quite close.

The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, 1943): Two cowboys, one of them played by Henry Fonda, walk into a ghostly town and find themselves embroiled in a mob which has decided to dispense instant justice to the killers of a local rancher. After some searching they find three innocent people and decide to hang them on the spot only on the basis of flimsy suspicions. The producers of the film at the twentieth century fox thought that the downbeat subject matter of the film wouldn't go down well with the audiences and they were proved right. It was made only when Fonda himself insisted on being part of the project since it was a subject close to his heart. Incidentally he doesn't have much to do in this role though as always he shines in even the small scenes. The last scene of him reading the dead man's letter about what law should be and what conscience is, is unforgettable and we don't even see Fonda's face! We just see his lips moving, it is all his nasal and husky voice and the depth that he brings to those words that make you feel that those words have really touched his soul and they are coming from deep inside. More than Fonda it is Dana Andrews who steals the show in a small but important role as one of the victims of the mob. The film also has a powerful subplot about an army man, who actually leads the posse, trying to teach his "timid" son what manhood really is by showing him the abuse of power. It also becomes a powerful critique of masculinity, which is not very typical in the western genre. It is not that the film is sentimental about gender though, there is woman in the mob too, certainly one of the most vicious and cruel one. The low-budget of the film and the fact that most of the events take place at night, both are responsible for deeply atmospheric nature of the visual design of the film. One of the main factors why it has remained a great classic after all these years.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Italian Cinema


I don't know what Eva Green is doing on a cover of a book on Italian cinema but it sure looks good. Bertolucci was of course born in Italy but that's probably the only Italian connection the film has. The book itself, which is authored by Mary Wood who teaches film studies at the University of London, is very boring and dull. Its main focus is the financial aspects of film making, namely how the existing production, distribution and marketing mechanisms and infrastructure decide which kinds of films are made and which succeed in finding an audience and becoming part of mainstream, either artistic or popular. She uses the career of Francesco Rosi as an example and then discusses in tedious detail how he secured finances for each of his films from various sources including international co-productions. "No student of cinema can afford to ignore the industrial realities of film-making, least of all in the Italian context", she says in the introduction to the book. That might be the case but personally it doesn't interest me much. What I was looking for was a good introduction to Italian culture and society and the socio-political issues as they are represented in the films. On that front it didn't have anything new to say. She barely gets into the changing role of Church, the rise and decline of the influence of the Communist party, barely touches the problem of Mafia and I don't think even mentions the name of Silvio Berlusconi anywhere. There is a stand-alone chapter on gender representation which is comparatively interesting.

One chapter towards the end in which she discusses "visual style and cinematic space" in Italian cinema is interesting though. It is also one of the main aspects of Italian films that interests me a lot - their innovative and very expressive use of mise en scene and the attendant use of tracking shots rather than fast cutting to tell the story. It has of course its roots in the neo-realist films with their on location shooting, use of medium length shots, avoiding close-ups etc but later the same technique was used in many different and much more experimental ways, most notably in films of Antonioni, Rosi and Bertolucci. Rossellini used the same technique even when his subjects, milieu and concerns changed over time.

The concept of a national cinema itself has become an anachronism in our current increasingly globalised world, specially in Europe which is becoming more and more post-nationalistic. Whatever there is to "Italian-ness" it is preserved as a theme-park meant only as a showcase for the tourists. The concept of a national identity doesn't have much to say about how people live now. So may be that Eva Green picture on the cover is after all not that inappropriate.

Best Translations of the Year?

Over at Three Percent there is a reader poll on for deciding the best translation of the year. I have read only one on the list - Montano's Malady by Enrique Vila-Matas.

I was going through the list of books I read this year again and realized that out of around 35 fiction books that I read only two were originally published in the English language - The End of the Affair and the novella The Third Man, both by Graham Greene. I found both of them readable but just that. Avoidable if you have seen the film-versions, both of which are great. Besides that about half of the books on my list are translated from German. I was thinking about my reading choices and realized that it was more a case of one book leading to another rather than any conscious effort on my part to read books from a particular historical period or a specific region. It probably results in a skewed reading list but then one is not really deciding any literary prize or promoting world literature through the blog or anything.

On the same note, my list gets a mention on this German language literary blog too, where I get called a "Bucher-Gourmand"! (Scroll down to #107)

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Italian Movie Clips

First two minutes are specially nice. The clips are from Rome Open City, Umberto D., Bicycle Thief, La Dolce Vita, Voyage to Italy and others which I haven't seen or probably don't remember. I don't know about the music though.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Year in Reading

This year has been quite good reading-wise. I read so many Great Books and I also managed to blog a lot (for whatever it was worth). I was thinking of making a top 10 list when I was starting but instead I think what I finally came up with was a list of all the books I read this year. I will not link to my old posts (feeling too lazy and also too self-conscious) but needless to say, I am glad I spent so much time in the company of these books and the great minds who wrote them.

Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities, The Confusions of Young Torless I spent most the year feeling like Ulrich and Torless - serenely disengaged from "reality", on a kind of "vacation from life" of my own. It is rare that you come across a book at just the right point of time which taps into something deeply private happening inside you and these two books did just that.

Thomas Bernhard: Extinction, Woodcutters, Old Masters Another Austrian master - great lessons on how to live a life by a negative principle. Plus Old Masters gave me more number of laughs than any other book this year.

Italo Svevo: Zeno's Conscience A very funny portrait of a man struggling under the weight of the terrible burden of his own self-consciousness.

Alberto Moravia: Contempt, Conjugal Love Another Italian charting the same "burden of consciousness" territory. I specially loved Contempt, an almost horror-story about the sudden death of love. It is actually very different from the Godard film, which is of course great as well.

The Book of Disquiet: Fernando Pessoa More self-consciousnes, refusal (or failure?) to act and participate in the world. If listening to the voices inside your head is your idea of a good evening pastime, this is the book for you.

Imre Kertesz: Kaddish for an Unborn Child, Liquidation Two relentlessly bleak and experimental short works from the Hungarian nobel laureate. My only complaint was that the books were too short.

Ingeborg Bachmann: Malina, The Requiem for Fanny Goldman, The Book of Franza More Austrian bleakness, this time with a feminist twist. Malina specially was fascinating and very strange. I had trouble getting into it in the beginning, both because of the extremity of its vision and also its radically experimental style but reading a few reviews and essays made me see what was really going on inside the book.

Arthur Schnitzler: Selected Works More death, madness and sex from another Austrain great. My favourite of all his short narratives was the extraordinary "Fraulein Else", an account of a nervous breakdown of a young girl told entirely in one unbroken internal monologue sustained over more than a hundred pages. "Lieutenant Gustl" is written in a similar style and much shorter though no less dark. Reading "Dream Story" also made me realize what a ridiculous disaster Kubrick's last film Eyes Wide Shut really is, which is based on this story.

Heinrich von Kleist: Selected Works The Marquise of O., Michael Kohlhaas and The Earthquake in Chile - all dark fairy tales (sort of) and very well-told.

Georg Buchner: Selected Works More madness from Germany. Woyzeck is probably my favourite of all modern plays. Lenz is another great narrative about a mind going to pieces.

Joseph Roth: Selected Works Joseph Roth's dark, death-obsessed masterpiece "The Radetzky March" was one of my favourite books of last year. This year I read a few of his shorter works and found the same profoundly melancholic sensibility in these as well, though on a much smaller scale. My favourite of all was "Rebellion" and the short story "The Emperor's Tomb". Michael Haneke's TV adapation of Rebellion was magnificent too.

Frank Wedekind: Selected Works More madness, suicides and all-around mayhem in these plays by Wedekind. His play Spring Awakening has suddenly become very famous because of the musical which won many awards this year. I saw G W Pabst's Pandora's Box this year too, which is tame as well, as compared to the play but a great classic nevertheless. Now if only I can find an English translation of the short story which was the basis of the sensational French film "Innocence" directed by Lucille H.

Rainer Maria Rilke: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge More gloom and death-obsessed thoughts. It is not the good, authentic and personal life, it is actually a good, authentic and personal death that one should strive and hope for. I probably have to read it again sometime. Parts of it went above my head and I wasn't able to concentrate.

Jens Peter Jacobsen: Niels Lyhne More gloom, heartbreak and assorted musings on the subject of the utter futility of life, love and other human endeavours, only this time it is from Denmark. It will make a good double bill with The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Shchedrin: The Golovyov Family The Russian gloom is probably my own personal favourite. The Golovyov Family is a very good example of this unique type.

Juan Goytisolo: Count Julian A poisoned hate letter to Spain written with an extraodinary exuberance and style.

Enrique Vila-Matas: Montano's Malady Literature-sickness.

Javier Marias: All Souls, Dark Back of Time: Two very clever books about, hmmm, I can't really say, but very entertaining nevertheless both of them.

The Hothouse: Wolfgang Koeppen Yet another gloomy book about a lost soul in the post-war Germany.

Ivan Turgenev: Selected Works A lot of heartbreak and a lot of politics as well. I read Rudin, On the Eve and Virgin Soil this year. All were great though somewhat conventional.

Tadeusz Borowski: This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen So much self-disgust and rage against the will to live. It didn't make any sense to me reading it as an autonomous piece of literary work but as a portrait of a sensitive mind struggling and failing to come to terms with holocaust it is unlike anything I have read. Czeslaw Milosz's The Captive Mind has a portrait of Borowski too though he gives his suicide a political interpretation.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai: War and War A disappointment, specially as compared to his masterpiece The Melancholy of Resistance, but the bleak humour and some of the long sentences (every chapter in the book is one sentence) were really good.

Stanislaw Lem: Solaris Read it again this year. This time keeping in mind that all the mumbo-jumbo is actually meant to be read as a parody.

Gunter Grass: Crabwalk Readable and quite interesting in its analysis of the legacy of German crimes in the second world war.

Graham Greene: The End of the Affair, The Third Man I prefer the movies, both of which are my favourites.

Poetry
Next year I plan to read more poetry and a bit more systematically. Collected Poems with notes and introductions and so on. This year I did spend some time reading the following poets:

Chales Baudelaire: The Flowes of Evil and Other Selected Poems

Pier Paolo Pasolini: Selected Poems

A E Housman: Selected Poems including The Shropshire Lad. I also read bits and pieces of Tom Stoppard's play The Invention of Love. More on this later.

Rilke: Duino Elegies & Selected Poems (The essays and notes were very helpful)

Non-fiction

May be it was because of the same feeling of complete disengagment, I didn't feel like reading too much non-fiction this year. Most of the time I was looking for good reviews, essays and secondary literature about the fiction books I read. Still some highlights:

Ruth Kluger: Still Alive Ruth Kluger's memoir is easily the standout book of the year, probably the finest book on Holocaust that I have read so far. It is far from a conventional memoir, it is less about the events and the history and more about how to think about what really happened. She writes about her childhood in Vienna, then life in Auschwitz with her mother and then her struggle to start a new life again in America. What makes this story so different is the way she keeps trying to question the ways to think, write and remember the traumas of the past. The highlight of the book though is the unsentimental, frankly bizarre, portrait of a mother-daughter relationship. This book was actually published in German in the early nineties but the English translation (actually a rewriting by the author herself) came only after many years because she had agreed to not publish it in English as long as her mother was alive because she was so furious by what her daughter had written about her in the book.

I actually spent a lot of time early this year reading about the Holocaust. Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem is a classic work of reportage and history. The German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki's memoir The Author of Himself is brilliant in the first half in which he talks about the artistic scene in Germany just before the Nazis took over and then the life in the Warsaw ghetto. The latter section in which he talks about the German authors and his life as a critic is a little disappointing though still entertaining - it reads more like a gossipy column. He never really gets down to questioning his relationship, as a Polish Jew and a Holocaust survivor, with the German culture and literature, at least not beyond the obvious platitudes. Ron Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler is a handy guide for navigating the minefield of Holocaust historiography though very annoying in its journalistic style and repetition. Better overviews are found in Peter Novick's Holocaust in American Life about the political uses of Holocaust in Amercian politics, specially in its relationship with Israel and The Hitler of History by John Lukacs which is a very solid philosophical overview of the subject. I read the abridged version of Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of European Jews too, which was a little too nuts-and-boltish for me and also his memoir The Politics of Memory. A lot of bitterness, not that much towards Germany, as much as because of the troubles he had to face to get his book published and politically motivated criticisms levelled against him.

Wittgenstein's Vienna by Janik and Toulmin offered a fascinating overview of the intellectual world of turn of century Vienna. I tried reading the biography of Wittgenstein too but couldn't get much further. Rudiger Safranski's excellent biography of Heidegger suffered the same fate. I will surely take up both of them in the next year.

Milan Kundera's essay on the history of European novel The Curtain was enlightening though it left me hankering for more than just clever metaphors and turns of phrases.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Golovlyov Family

Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin's The Golovlyov Family has been called "the gloomiest novel in all Russian literature" by D. S Mirsky, who wrote the first scholarly history of Russian Literature. It certainly is a very dark and uncompromising work, even a shocking and disturbing at places. Stylistically it is very similar to Gogol's Dead Souls. In fact some of the caricatures and portraitures specially of the landowners are derived directly from Gogol's classic. What Shchedrin adds of his own is the Swiftian rage and his extreme vision of human beings completely dehumanized by mindless traditions, social institutions, shallow religious nonsense and just plain unthinking ignorance.

Such is the overall negativity of the book that from a realistic perspective the story and the characters sound a little unconvincing. James Wood in his introduction notes it as well:

"At times The Golovyov Family seems less a novel than a satirical onslaught. Its relentlessness has the exhaustiveness not of a search for the truth so much as the prosecution of a case. Its characters are vivid blots of essence, carriers of the same single vice. Indeed, Shchedrin would seem to enjoy shocking the reader by annulling the novel's traditional task, that of the patient exploration, and elucidation, of private motives and reasons as they are played out in relation to a common condition. Instead, he gives us his sealed monsters, people whom we cannot explore since they are shut off from the moral world."

Not the kind of book one should read at a nice time like this when everybody is supposed to have some fun but certainly it deserves a place on the reading lists of everybody interested in the nineteenth century Russian Literature.

James Wood's introduction in pdf format is available here.

Sweeney Todd


So much misanthropy at the Christmas time! What's happening? A couple of weeks back it was No Country for Old Men. Now it is Sweeney Todd and next week it is There Will be Blood! I did see the first two and liked both of them, though with a few reservations. The nihilism and bleakness of No Country for Old Men was a little two smartass to be really horrifying. On top of that their condescending attitude to their characters in the "funny" scenes really put me off.

Sweeny Todd is much more enjoyable in comparison. It doesn't have any of those pretentious voice-overs about evil in the world (I am sure it must have worked in Cormac McCarthy's book which I have not read but in the film it comes off as very pretentious). Instead there is just good old misanthropy, plain and simple. Watching it I was thinking about the parallels to Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera with which it shares the overall tone. Obviously it suffers when you start comparing. Jim Hoberman in his review also points to the parallels:

"Staged as though to encompass the entire Industrial Revolution, Sondheim's discordant and lyrical Sweeney Todd was a metaphor in search of its meaning—was it a work of social protest or a revenge tragedy? A study of abnormal pathology or a joke played upon the audience?

Burton's expertly trimmed adaptation tilts decisively toward the last possibility. He solves the problem, in part, by ignoring the play's various subtexts. The original ending is softened, albeit without diluting Sondheim's dark humor. No Greek tragedy, this Hollywood Sweeney is a fun creepy-crawly."

The film fails to exploit both the tragic potential of the characters and also the socio-political context. Bereft of these, the film just remains a very quirky and macabre entertainment. Still a good entertainment for the Christmas time.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Book of the Year: The Man Without Qualities


Still working on the list of books I read this year but number 1 was quite easy to decide. The Man Without Qualities has a forbidding reputation, mainly because of its length and the "difficulty" of ideas it tries to explore and also the fact that it remained unfinished. This book is in every sense a lebenswerk, Musil spent more than twenty years of his life writing it, and when death took him by surprise he still hadn't finished it. Some people are put off by the idea of the absence of closure, specially if the book is such a long one, but reading the novel makes it clear that there could have never have been an ending, at least not in the conventional sense. The book is itself about an impasse, about people and in fact the whole civilization finding itself up against a wall, with no way forward and tries to analyse why and how this came about. This is also the reason why the book has no conventional narrative to speak of - it is not a cross-generational saga about cycle of life, there are no "days-went-by" "winter-followed-summer" kind of linear story-telling. Geometrically if the narrative of a conventional realist novel feels like a straight line then MwQ would be a point, or may be a small circle. There are also no characters in the book you can identify at a surface level, first because there is very little description of their external behaviour, their looks, mannerism, ways of dressing etc and second, because they just belong to a different age. (Unless of course you are the kind of person who likes to gift or receive Complete Works of Nietzsche as a wedding present!) The people in the book belong to a completely different intellectual climate, radically different to our own. Many of these characters are actually based on real-life figures. Ulrich is of course an idealized self-portrait, the character of Arnheim was based the Jewish Foreign Minister of Weimar republic Walter Rathenau who was later assassinated by right-wing thugs, Walter & Clarisse (the Nietzsche couple) are both based on childhood friends of Musil. Diotima herself is modeled after a well-known Viennese society hostess which Musil used to frequent.

Rejection of narrative, well-rounded characters alongwith an absence of major events are only a few aspects of book's difficulty and its innovative style. Much more important is its language itself which is consciously "un-literary." There are no descriptions of nature, the hustle bustle of city life, nothing about weather. In fact it is only in the opening paragraph that we learn about the weather and the way Musil describes it, by taking it to satirical extremes, makes it clear what he thinks about such descriptive language. (I had excerpted it here alongwith an excellent podcast.) Seen from this perspective the length of the book feels even more daunting because it is so unlike the baggy monsters of so much of contemporary fiction, which routinely get called "epic" and "ambitious." So what is inside the book if not a story, events or descriptive language? It is actually written in the style of personal, speculative essay on social, cultural and philosophical questions. The book actually has a chapter which describes in detail what this "essayistic" style of writing really means. It is writing as thinking, writing as solving a problem. Ulrich is after all a professional mathematician. The key according to Musil is tentativeness, scepticism and irony and this is very difficult to achieve in a conventional realist writing, which is based on exact definitions and assertions. The speculative essayistic style also enables Musil to write about individual subjectivity without relinquishing the scientific-analytic position, which is itself the main subject of the book and which also makes it different from other modernist works of its time.

As for the actual philosophical content of the book, I did find it baffling initially since I am not well-read in philosophy, systematically or otherwise. The main philosophical spirit behind the book is Nietzsche but a good understanding of Plato, German philosophy in general and philosophy of science will also help in understanding all the discussions in the book. Ulrich, like Musil himself, is a thinker of Nietzschean bent. He doesn't long for a world of order, a world of false values and false meanings and false "qualities" imposed upon one's self by the outside world. He welcomes the destruction of all these as an opportunity for regeneration, of discovering new meanings and values which are consistent with his scientific worldview. It is true that we can no longer be sure of what is real and what is not but it also means that we now have a sense of "possible" rather than being imprisoned with just a sense of the "real." It means freedom and possibility of rediscovery and knowledge. Although towards the end, the book does get very confusing as Ulrich gets more and more depressed and turns inward alongwith his sister Agathe and frankly it didn't make a lot of sense to me and I was lost somewhere inside it. It was there too that I stopped reading it.

Not many know this but the book is actually very funny. It is essentially a work of satire. Musil's portrait of the Austrian bureaucracy will be familiar to any reader of Kafka. Kafka wasn't making it all up, the whole thing was really as byzantine and ridiculous as he had dreamed in his nightmarish fictions. Even funnier is his portrait of the intellectual class. Paul Arnheim, who is the main villain of the book though a very sympathetic one, wants to achieve "a union of soul and economics." Ulrich himself is a satirical self-portrait of the author. Diotima, like her Platonic namesake and philosopher of Love, is always talking about soul, spirit and the Great Idea even when she is thinking about the act of adultery, which she of course thinks in largely ethical and metaphysical terms. Musil makes her sound like someone out of a Woody Allen movie - think Diane Keaton in Love and Death. It is hilarious and written in a satirical manner but it is actually also a painful and touching portrait of excessive self-consciousness resulting in inaction and confusion. Alongwith Ulrich, Diotima is probably my favourite character in the book. The book actually has a sterling cast of female characters, though some would say that they are all creatures of male fantasies in the sense that they are all highly eroticised and are always discussed in sexual contexts. Funny and erotic, I think I have made a convincing case for the book!

Some personal thoughts about the book before I end the rambling post. The Man Without Qualities tapped into something that has been troubling me for a long time - how to reconcile a deeply ingrained rational and scientific attitude, even to the point of alienating self from the experience of life in the world, with a complete (or at least growing) lack of interest in the external world. Taking refuge in a purely private life is of course the result of not being able to act or take any decisions or make any sense of the confusions that living in the world entails but what is to be done? I have been thinking about the same thing most of the year ever since I read the book, and not surprisingly it is echoed in quite a few other books I read too. The Man Without Qualities didn't offer me any solutions or answers but it did made me realize that the problem is much more serious one. Will the impasse continue in the next year too? I hope not, but probably it will. May be I will reread the book then.

The Antichrist of the indie sensibility

I don't have any opinion on the subject, but this article on Celine Dion made my day:

Dion is the Antichrist of the indie sensibility, an overemoting schmaltz-bot who has somehow managed to convert the ethos of Wal-Mart into sine waves and broadcast them, at kidney-rupturingly high volume, directly into our internal soulPods. A book pondering the aesthetics of CĂ©line risks going wrong in about 3,000 different ways. Most obviously, it could degenerate into one of those irritating hipster projects of strategic kitsch-retrieval, an ironic exercise in taste as anti-taste in which an uncool phenomenon is hoisted onto a pedestal of cool simply as a display of contrarian muscle power.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Year in Movies: Some Highlights

I didn't really keep track of the current releases this year. When I did occasionally go out, I mostly found myself in the repertory houses and retrospectives. Out of the current releases only one film makes it to my list of surprises and highlights of the year list (at number 9). Rest all I either saw on DVD or in a few cases as big-screen revivals.

1. Twin Peaks: David Lynch and Mark Frost's TV series turns all the conventions of soap opera and detective genre upside down. It is funny, frightening, moving, romantic, macabre, dreamy and bizarre (of course), often all at the same time - in short it is quintessentially Lynchian. Watching it is like, to use the words spoken by Donna in the series, is having a most terrible nightmare but a nightmare you don't want to wake up from. A perfect introduction to the work of one of the greatest and most singular artists of our time. I had seen around half of the whole series a couple of years back but the new complete DVD set, which includes the two hour pilot in both American and European versions, is a complete revelation.

2. The Threepenny Opera & Pandora's Box by G W Pabst: Two great classics of German cinema get the DVD treatment they deserve. The two-disc criterion DVD editions are like mini-courses in film history, on top of that you can marvel at the wonders of digital restoration as well. I loved Threepenny Opera much more than Pandora's Box which is visually flat and gets into the act only in the final scenes. But as bonus it has Louise Brooks!

3. Films of Pier Paolo Pasolini: This year was also my introduction to the works of the great Italian film director, writer, poet and public intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini. The first thing you notice in his film is his sensibility, which is truly unique and belongs only to him. What took me completely by surprise in particular was his attitude towards religion. It will be very interesting to contrast the expression of religious sensibility in his films with those by Dreyer, Bresson, Bergman or Bunuel. My favourite of all his films is Teorema, a haunting and startling work which risks with appearing ridiculous and is not afraid of Big Ideas. Other films like Accattone, Mamma Roma and specially The Gospel According to St. Matthew are all masterpieces as well. I found his later films The Hawks and the Sparrows, The Decameron and Oedipus Rex extremely baffling and I haven't yet made up my mind about them. The only this is that all these films have remained with me ever since I saw them. Unfortunately most of his films are not available in good DVD editions. Only Mamma Roma is available on the criterion DVD in an excellent transfer.

4. Post-neorealist Italian films: Some great discoveries of the year - Pietro Germi (Divorce Italian Style, Seduced and Abandoned), Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano, Christ Stopped at Eboli, Hands over the City), Marco Bellochio (Fists in the Pocket), Ermanno Olmi (Il Posto) & Mario Monicelli (Big Deal on Madonna Street). I specially loved Divorce Italian Style, one of the most hiliarious and biting satires ever made with a memorable turn by Marcello Mastroianni who is so good in it that he eclipses his work in the films of Fellini and Antonioni where he played the roles of suave, sophisticated and polished charmer. Olmi's Il Posto is an Antonioni-style critique of modern industrial society. It also has more warmth which is missing in Antonioni which makes it all the more bleak and sad. Marco Bellochio's blistering debut Fists in the Pocket delivers some real stinging body-blows to the institution of family. It will probably not be to everybody's tastes, even Bunuel was reportedly horrified by its blasphemy, but it is a courageous and unique film nevertheless.

5. Roberto Rossellini: I had previously seen only Rome Open City. This year I was able to explore his other works too. My personal favourite of all was The Flowers of St. Francis. There are no grave and convoluted discussions of theological matters in this film but it probably says more about religion than films which have those. Paisan is probably the greatest achievement of neorealist cinema. I didn't like Germany Year Zero that much. His films with Ingrid Bergman are undeservedly obscure. I saw two of them, Stromboli and Voyage to Italy which are both brilliant portraits of inner spiritual torment and psychological confusion thus proving that he was just as good in capturing inner psychological states in film as he was with the external reality. Martin Scorsese's documentary on Italian cinema, My Voyage to Italy offers a brilliant introduction to Rossellini's works.

6. Val Lewton horror films: I have already written about my admiration of these films in recent weeks. So I will not repeat them again. All nine films in the collection are my favourites, some probably more than the other but all are essential must-watch.

7. Hollywood film noirs/crime films: I have been addicted to these black and white films for some time now. So much so that I now feel cheated with happy endings! The list will get very long but special mention must be made of Fritz Lang's films specially Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window, Fury and You Live Only Once. Other memorable films I saw this year - Night and the City (Jules Dassin), They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray), Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller), Kiss me Deadly (Robert Aldrich), Angel Face (Otto Preminger), Force of Evil, Body and Soul (Abraham Polonsky), Side Street (Anthony Mann) and so many others, too many to mention here.

8. Berlin Alexanderplatz: An almost unbearably bleak and emotionally exhausting work. This is a vision of world as hell and life as a punishment. It was probably the most demanding thing I saw all this year. Compared to this seven hours of Satantango felt like a walk in the park.

9. Pan's Labyrinth: Now if someone asks me why I fall asleep watching LOTR and spider man movies I can say, it is because they are not like Pan's Labyrinth!

10. Angels in America: Third TV series on the list? What's happening? Mike Nichols' adaptation of Tony Kushner's play is a major triumph, certainly one of the most important American films of recent years. I was surprised by all the critical brouhaha surrounding Brokeback Mountain (which takes almost three hours to show that homosexuals have feelings like other people too!) when Angels of America had already set a very high benchmark in portrayal of homosexuality on screen. Purists will complain, and not without reason, that Nichols downplays the intellectual-Brechtian aspects of the play. Meryl Streep plays three different characters in the play including one of a male rabbi but she is so "good" in a conventional way and under so much make up that you will probably not realize she is the same Meryl Streep who is playing Ethel Rosenberg and the mormon mother of a homosexual son in the same play, which defeats the basic purpose of the making same actor play different roles, which is to consciously point out the aritifice involved in acting and convey a feeling of alienation and distance in the audience. But even after all these criticisms, even at a conventional level, the miniseries is just awesome. Streep and Al Pacino are both as expected simply astonishing but it is actually the cast of young and unknown actors which makes the whole show so mesmerising. Specially Mary Louise-Parker and Jeffrey Wright who both won many awards that year. As a TV-phobic person, it was specially heartening, and indeed chastening, to think that something of this quality and so much depth ever came on mainstream TV.

"Wrong Geometries in The Third Man"

There is a fantastic essay on The Third Man in the latest issue of film magazine Rouge:

Few films are as closely identified with a city as The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949) is with Vienna. Over the years, seemingly endless journalistic, academic, and cinephilic attention has been devoted to the physical locations used in the film. To the present day, guided tours take visitors through the squares, onto the Ferris wheel and even into the sewers that Carol Reed’s film transformed into icons of the city. This analysis provides a counterpoint to the popular fascination with The Third Man’s locations, focusing instead on how the film diverges from its setting, and how it abstracts and reorientates the city’s spaces. The specific site of divergence explored is that of the line.

The same issue has an essay on David Lynch too, which will probably make more sense if one has seen his paintings and artworks.

Greencine daily has more links.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Val Lewton Documentary

Last week I saw the new documentary about the film producer Val Lewton called Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows. It is written and directed by Kent Jones, well-known film critic and the editor of Film Comment and is narrated and produced by Martin Scorsese. (Martin Scorsese is all praises for these films in his documentary My Personal Journey Through American Movies too. He specially singles out I Walked With a Zombie and The Seventh Victim.) Given such big names, I was expecting much more but in the end it was actually a disappointment. The documentary successfully makes a convincing case of the producer as an auteur - specially finding evidence of his melancholic temperament (it even speculates that it was something "Russian" in origin) as it found expression in the movies he produced. Unlike regular producers he was involved in every aspect of the production, most notably the script though he never took credit except in a few circumstances in which he agreed to the use of a pseudonym. He was actually a very well-read man. His job when was working as an editorial assistant to David O. Selznick was to ensure that the screenplays and the production design were historically and culturally accurate. His breadth of knowledge of other cultures and history is evident in some of his films that came later - like The Body Snatcher which was based on a Robert Luis Stevenson story which was itself based on a true story of a doctor taking help of professional killers for finding cadavers meant for dissection. Bedlam and Isle of the Dead have authentic historical context to their stories as well.

Regarding the question of the contribution of director Jacques Tourneur, it is generally acknowledged that while the three films directed by Tourneur - Cat People, The Leopard Man and I Walked With a Zombie - have something mysterious and dreamlike which other films don't have but when it comes to visual style and thematics all the nine films hold up very well together and in many different ways come out as works of a single creative force. It might be the case that Lewton and Tourneur created a prototype which the other directors just imitated and used, even when the stories were very different. I actually loved all the nine films in the canon - probably The Curse of the Cat People, which is a truly imaginative and sympathetic portrait of childhood loneliness and terror, and The Seventh Victim, eerie, bleak, strange and well-ahead of its time in its representation of suicidal despair and death - more than others from the non-Tourneur set.

An excellent short essay on Lewton and his films here. It explains what I love about these films:

"THE MAYHEM in Lewton's movies is never rigged. Every victim, however flawed, is missed and mourned for. Every life has value, every madman is a tragedy and pity always matches the possibility for horror. Watching the decline of Captain Stone, or the Greek general Karloff plays in Isle of the Dead, you can think, Oh, what a noble mind is here overthrown. "

It is precisely this feeling of mournfulness and tragedy I find lacking in most movies of the genre and few which have this are some of my favourites. There has been a recent revival in the horror genre, mainly originating in Japan, which inspired some hope, though it seems it has already devolved into cliches and readymade tropes (girl with hair over her face? Yawn!). But still a few films from the recent cycle rank with the best like Dark Water (Hideo Nakata), Audition (Takashi Miike) or the Korean film A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jie-Woon).

The Decline of Reading

Yet another article on the decline of books, this time in The New Yorker.

For a change the article does go into some interesting topics like whether and if it indeed does then in what way reading affects the way people perceive and interpret reality. While I agree and sympathise with all the lamentations on the subject, we shouldn't forget the fact that while reading can enrich our imagination and help us find meaning in our experience, it can also alienate us from reality and ourselves if we lose the critical awareness of how it works. So it is actually a special kind of reading, a critical reading, that we should try to promote. I don't think written language and books will ever go away but it is likely they will appear more and more like powerpoint presentations in future or else just a string of buzzwords and ready-made expressions and cliches, in other words, some version of newspeak. Actually as anyone who has worked in a corporate environment knows, the newspeak age is already here.

In the same issue of New Yorker there is a review of J.M. Coetzee's new novel Diary of a Bad Year by James Wood. Some good exercise for linguistic-cognitive areas of brain there.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Calamity of Yesterday

"We are not merely more weary because of yesterday. We are other, no longer what we were before the calamity of yesterday."

-Beckett in his essay on Proust. (Strictly for people who know the meaning of the word "Being.")

More Beckettian (and Proustian) wisdom from Anthony Cronin excerpted from his book Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist:

So much for the past. As for the future, "Lazily considered in anticipation and on the haze of our smug will to live, our pernicious and incurable optimism, it seems exempt from the bitterness of fatality." But advance into the future is really a continuous process of disillusionment. Even when we get what we want, "We are disappointed by the nullity of what we are pleased to call attainment", the principal reason being that what we attain was desired by the person we were, not by the person we have become when we attain it. The subject which desires a particular object has died, perhaps many times, on the way and "For subject B to be disappointed by the banality of an object chosen by subject A is as illogical as to expect one's hunger to be dissipated by the spectacle of uncle eating his dinner."

The common state of humanity is suffering and if our sensibility were not dulled by habit we would feel it to an almost unbearable extent. Habit "paralyses our attention, drugs those handmaidens of perception whose cooperation is not absolutely essential." When the protective screen of habit is pierced the results are almost intolerable. Fortunately habit quickly re-establishes, for, as Proust says, "Of all human plants, Habit requires the least fostering and is the first to appear on the seeming desolation of the most barren rock." Nevertheless there will be brief periods when habit and its boredoms will be dispersed, when we will have to adapt and form new habits. We do this very rapidly, but "The periods of transition that separate consecutive adaptations...represent the perilous zones in the life of the individual, dangerous, precarious, painful, mysterious and fertile, when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

I Walked With a Zombie


Last couple of weeks I have been watching the horror films produced by Val Lewton for the RKO studios. I have now seen all nine of them and I loved each one of them though probably I liked I Walked With a Zombie more than others. I don't know but this certainly qualifies for the greatest film ever made with the worst possible title! It is said to be a reworking of Jane Eyre, and indeed basic plot is very similar but watching it I was reminded more of Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (which Lewton had also worked on when he was the editorial assistant to David O. Selznick). The strange and oneiric quality of the images and the story is much more sustained here than it is in Rebecca.

The story is centered around Betsy, a nurse who has come to a Carribean Island named St. Sebastian to tend to the catatonic wife of a local plantation owner Mr. Holland. She soon finds herself falling for the Byronic charms of her employer, and in the process uncovers dark and troubled secrets of the family involving Holland's half-brother Wesley and their mother. The film leaves the cause of the wife's condition ambiguous - it both invites us to believe in voodoo and at the same time dispels any such notion or attempt to do the same. The film also has a rich subtext about slavery and racism in the Carribean Islands and seems to draw parallels between the oppression of women in the patriarchal culture and parallel victimization and exploitation of blacks in the plantations.

The central set-piece of the film in which Betsy takes Jessica to the voodoo temple at night through the sugar-cane fields in the night is deservedly famous. As you watch the sequence on screen you feel like screaming bravo and encore. It is just so beautifully shot. Along with perhaps other Jacques Tourneur films for Val Lewton, this must be the best ever example of high-contrast night-time chiaroscuro cinematography. (Other possible contenders would probably be Robert Krasker in The Third Man or Stanley Cortez's work in The Night of the Hunter.) It is very appropriate that one of the books on Tourneur is title The Cinema of Nightfall (authored by Chris Fujiwara). Watching these films it feels like Lewton and Tourneur are trying to tell the entire story just through the patterns of shadows on the wall and character's faces.

There is a lot available on the internet about these films. I will just link to this nice collection of screenplays of all these films. The following dialogue is from one of the opening scenes of I Walked With a Zombie:

BETSY'S VOICE
I smelled the spicy smells coming from the islands -- I looked at those great glowing stars -- and I felt the warm wind on my cheeks and I breathed deep and every bit of me inside myself said, "How beautiful --"

The CAMERA DRAWS BACK to SHOW a tall, masculine figure leaning against the foremast, behind Betsy. This is Paul Holland. As we see him, we hear his voice.

HOLLAND
It is not beautiful.

BETSY
(surprised but smiling)
You read my thoughts, Mr. Holland.

HOLLAND
It's easy enough to read the thoughts of a newcomer. Everything seems beautiful because you don't understand. Those flying fish -- they are not leaping for joy. They're jumping in terror. Bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water -- it takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies. It's the glitter of putrescence. There's no beauty here -- it's death and decay.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Twin Peaks


I have finally decided on the new year gift that I am going to give myself - it is the new "definitive gold box" DVD set of Twin Peaks. I had seen the first season and a few episodes from the second a couple of years back and I was expecting only to familiarize myself with things I had forgotten, which as it turned out, was not much - I remembered everything, from the fish in the percolator to the flashlight dance of "Louise Dombrowski" but apart from the story line and the characters this new DVD has been a complete revelation in the sense that it shows how visually (and aurally) innovative the show was. It looks, sounds and feels completely different from what I remembered from my first experience, which is actually to say that it looks, sounds and feels exactly like a David Lynch film. The red curtains are redder, the conifer trees ("douglas firs" to be exact) billowing in the dark are much more eerie and evocative, the woodwork in the background set everywhere looks fantastic like never before, the hissing and buzzing sounds in the dark and the stirring chords from Angelo Badalementi's sentimental yet strange tracks keep reverberating inside long after you have finished watching it.

There is so much on internet about Twin Peaks already that I don't want to spread the clutter further. (A good entry point is the wikipedia.) Just wanted to add to what I mentioned in the earlier about some of the criticisms leveled against his work specially its "postmodernist" aspect and his use of pastiche. Twin Peaks is actually a very self-conscious soap-opera, that is a soap-opera which knows that it is a soap opera. There is even a in-house soap opera which is very popular in Twin Peaks called "The Invention of Love" which features prominently in the background in the first season of the show. Twin Peaks has all the intrigues, plot-reversals, surprises and emotionalism of any typical soap but it notches up all of these a few steps higher and in the process it achieves a sort of defamiliarization (by making it consciously known that what we are watching is a work of artifice which follows the convention of a soap-opera, but at the same times it achieves this effect without ever giving away a basic and genuine emotional engagement with the plot or the characters. Besides soap-opera there is of course a hilarious parody of the detective genre, specially those of the rationalist and deductive bent. You will never be able to read Sherlock Holmes boasting about his deductive technique after savouring Agent Cooper's Tibetan method- "I awoke from the same dream realizing that I had subconsciously gained knowledge of a deductive technique involving mind-body coordination operating hand in hand with the deepest level of intuition." This also makes me wonder what would Sherlock Holmes do in a place like Twin Peaks?

Some in-depth articles and essays here.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Translating Russian Literature

I accidentally came upon this old new yorker article by David Remnick about translations of Russian literature which I remembered reading with great interest, and so I thought I will link it here. It is actually a profile of the translator couple Larissa Volkhonsky and Richard Pevear whose translations of the great Russian masters of the nineteenth century have met with great critical acclaim in recent years. I have read only Constance Garnett and the various translators in the penguin classics series but I do hope to get to their versions when I plan to re-read those classics. Of course War and Peace is left unfinished. Herzen's memoirs and Goncharov are also on my immediate to-read list but I don't think they have translated either of these yet.

Speaking of War and Peace and translations of Russian literature there was an excellent series of posts and discussions on the new york times' book blog. Most of these comments are also worth reading in full.

History of Anti-Americanism

An excellent essay on the literary history of European anti-Americanism (Via three percent). It is quite long but really worth reading in full. It is actually an English translation of an original essay in Danish.

Meanwhile, don't expect articles about Europhobia in American media. Instead, we get this inanity in the Time magazine. I am surprised why someone would bother trying to answer the charges but that didn't stop Bernard-Henri Levy claiming that "American talk of the death of French culture says more about them than us."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Threepenny Opera

As I was looking through some of the lists of best DVD releases of the year, I was disappointed not to see the criterion edition of G W Pabst's 1931 classic The Threepenny Opera. It is certainly one of the most important DVD releases of the year and should be on any one's list. For a long period of time it was available only in bad prints and worse, the original negatives of the film were thought to be destroyed, until last year when it was restored in Germany. This DVD is in turn taken from that restoration and it looks and sounds absolutely stunning. It has already become my favourite German film from that era, along with perhaps Fritz Lang's M.

The film has a very long, complicated and interesting production history. The original Threepenny Opera, the musical theatre written by Brecht with music by Kurt Weill, was a sensational hit in Berlin, and later all over Europe, when it premiered in the late twenties. G W Pabst acquired the rights of the film but by that time Brecht had revised his own play to make it even more didactic and politically incendiary. Pabst and his writer Bela Balazs had their own ideas about how the play should look like on screen and it differed drastically from what Brecht had in mind. They not only left out a lot of scenes and changed the sequences but also completely rejected Brecht's stage treatment of the play. Brecht was furious and he sued Pabst and his producers which he ultimately lost. Most probably Brecht never saw the finished film. He took it as another instance of the perfidy of the capitalist culture and the fate of artists in modern consumer society - an example of how a work of art is processed to make it fit for mass consumption and entertainment. Yet as the two scholars on the commentary track, and indeed many scholars elsewhere, show how completely unfair and even preposterous Brecht's complaints really were. In fact, in the beginning of the commentary track when the scholar-duo Eric Rentschler and David Barthrick announce that they teach German Studies, Film Studies and Theatre at Harvard and Cornell respectively I began to expect another deluge of jargons (like the scholars on the Pandora's Box commentary track who claim to have "worked" on the film from more than twenty five years) but they do a really great job in rubbishing Brecht's criticism and at the same time convincing that it is indeed basically a "Brechtian" work, if not in obvious style then at least in its intention and final effect.

Brecht of course condemned all theatre which was based on make-believe and unreflective and emotional involvement of audiences in the plot and characters. In order to deny the audiences any kind of direct involvement with what is happening on stage - acting, set design, lighting, dialogues - everything had to be designed and written in such a way to remind the audiences that what they are watching is really a work of artifice and not to trick them into believing the simulacrum is real. Now on the surface Pabst's Threepenny Opera does seem to reject this Brechtian notion of audience estrangement mainly because of its "realistic" and large-scale studio sets and the expressive camera movement which is as far removed from the static mise-en-scene of theatre as it can be. (The Cinematographer of the film was Fritz Arno Wagner, responsible for some of the most iconic images of German cinema like Max Schrek in Nosferatu and Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang's M.) In the film the realistic sets actually create a distancing effect because the staging of scenes and the acting is anything but realistic. Many actors actually came from the original production and they understood the basics of a Brechtian acting style. The film also keeps the revised ending that Brecht had written in which the underworld criminal, the capitalist and the police officer all come together to run a bank in order to steal people's money "honestly." It is not surprising that the Nazi's didn't like this film and had it banned. Politically the message of the film is that of despair and pessimism. Just after the coming together of the rich, the powerful and the criminal, Pabst shows a group of poor beggars after their unsuccessful march to the queen disappearing into the darkness with Kurt Weill's music swelling on the background.

The best part of the film, in my opinion, remains the music and the songs. Unfortunately Pabst could only incorporate eight of the original 20+ songs into the story but all of them are really memorable and are used brilliantly. Besides the marvellous Mack the Knife, in which the street singer recounts and illustrates a bunch of hideous unsolved crimes committed by Macheath, there is Polly singing why he had to reject every offer of romance and settle with someone unromantic, also the pirate song sung by Jenny in which she dreams of terrible revenge on everybody. There is also Macheath and Tiger Brown reminiscing about their good old days of imperial adventurism in India. (Brecht's secretary Elizabeth Hauptmann, whose original translation of the English play The Beggar's Opera formed the basis of the text, took the song from Kipling.)

There is a lot more than can be said about the film but more of that later. Suffice to say that it is a vital, important and endlessly fascinating and provocative masterpiece. A very good article about the film here. Also, a review of the DVD and an article on the criterion site which goes in detail about the background history of the origin of the play.

Sight & Sound Top 10

Sight & Sound's year end best film poll is available online. Also, pdf file which has a list of individual choices by different critics. I have seen only three - Inland Empire, which I saw two times last year, The Lives of Others which was excellent and Eastern Promises which I didn't like at all, despite a jaw-droppingly unbelievable fight scene. I haven't been able to keep up with the current releases this year but easily the best of the lot was Pan's Labyrinth, which is technically last year's film.

Speaking of Lynch, a couple of recent articles about Eraserhead in New York Sun and New York Times.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Confusions of Young Torless

Robert Musil's The Confusions of Young Torless begins with this epigraph from French writer Marice Maeterlinck:

"As soon as we put something into words, we devalue it in a strange way. We think we have plunged into the depths of the abyss, and when we return to the surface the drop of water on our pale fingertips no longer resembles the sea from which it comes. We delude ourselves that we have discovered a wonderful treasure trove, and when we return to the light of day we find that we have brought back only false stones and shards of glass; and yet the treasure goes on glimmering in the dark, unaltered."

It captures the central subject of the book very well - a deep and fundamental incommensurability between the external, objective world captured by the words and the inner world of subjective experience. This is precisly the source of the "confusions" of the adolescent hero of the novel too. Torless is studying a military boarding school somewhere on the eastern outskirts of Austro-Hungarian empire. He feels terribly homesick, specially missing his mother and spends all his time brooding about philosophical problems - mostly related to his inability to understand or make sense of his experience in purely rationalistic and analytical terms. He visits the local friendly prostitute Bozena but finds that his sexuality (he is probably homosexual) is much too deeper, darker and unsettling than that of his friends and peers. For one thing, he can't understand why he has to remain a boy forever - again pointing to the same incommensurability between Gender as an objective construct and the gender that is rooted in subjectivity.

When poor Torless is confused in all these matters he finds himself embroiled in some strange and disturbing situations with two of his friends Reiting and Beineberg who have been physically and sexually torturing and abusing one of their classmates Basini who they caught stealing and who is under their debt. Torless, as is his temperament, gets into the role of the scientific observer trying to understand and analyse what is really happening inside him as he watches Basini's degradation and thinks about what it all means. Most readings of the book actually only focus on this section, even though it doesn't really cover all the book. It is true, it is a remarkably prescient and indeed very disturbing and frightening portrait of the origins of Fascism. Both Reiting and Beineberg justify their actions in very distortred-Nietzschean and proto-Nazi theories. Like many other Central European and German intellectuals of his time Musil was also deeply aware of the impending crisis of European civilization which was soon to manifest into war, destruction and barbarism. His analysis also makes it clear that it was not just an abrupt historical accident but rather there was a historical continuity - this time the whole civilization was in moral confusion, not just an adolescent in a remote boarding school.

The most fascinating aspect of the book is where Torless broods about mathematical problems and the questions they raise about the nature and perception of reality. I think philosophers of mathematics or actually even those who have a basic knowledge of mathematics will find some of his ideas a little perplexing. For example he thinks that imaginary and irrational numbers have no referent in the "real" world - which is definitely not true. In fact the first exercise when one is introduced to the concept of irrational numbers in junior high school is to represent them on a number line! The concept of Infinity and imaginary numbers are confounding only because of their naming. Still the basic idea of those passages is clear enough - that the relationship between mathematical abstractions and the external world of "things" is not quite straightforward. I don't really understand these things myself but it is not hard to get to what Musil is trying to say - again the same incommensurability between thought and experience. (The whole Mathematics and reality thing reminded me of Wittgenstein, which I did try my best to read but couldn't get past even the basics.)

All in all, a very deep and profound work. It is very short, just around 150 pages, but packed with some really dense passages and convoluted thoughts and analysis. Like Ulrich, Torless is also a partial self-portrait. In fact one very interesting part of my experience of reading it was to compare both the characters side by side. In the end after suffering an emotional crisis of his own, Torless breaks into a monologue in front of his teachers who have assembled together to question him about the whole affair. He calmly accepts the fact that, "there is something dark in me, something among all my thoughts, something that I cannot measure with thoughts, a life that can't be expressed in words and which is none the less my life..." And then he says this about his future:

"Now that is past. I know that I was indeed mistaken. I'm indeed mistaken. I'm not afraid of anything any more. I know: things are things, and will remain so for ever; and no doubt I will see them now one way, now another. Now with the eyes of reason, now with those other eyes... And I will no longer try to compare the two..."

It comes as something abrupt - this sudden determination on his part to see "things as things" when all the time he has been brooding like a maniac and indeed if one sees Ulrich, who is actually nothing but a grown-up version of Torless, he is grappling with the same problems. Unlike Torless though, he is much too self-conscious and aware and has access to that powerful tool called Irony, as a result he is much more stable psychologically than Torless. (Though he goes through crises of his own as well, resulting from similar causes.) Reading these two books I have felt so close to both these characters, I only wish I had even half of such interesting and deep thoughts in my head.

*******

A few words about the Volker Schlondorff's adaptation of the book, Der Junge Torless, which I saw quite a while back. It is considered a classic of new German cinema and is indeed an excellent film on its own. Of course all the intellectual and philosophical analysis is absent but it makes up for it by creating a powerful sense of atmosphere and mood. So even though we don't hear Torless' brooding thoughts, we can still feel his anguish. The wonderful casting of all the four young characters, who are all great, helps a lot too. Horror-queen Barbara Steele (The Mask of Satan) turns in a magnificent cameo as the prostitute. The music by Hans Werner Henze is very memorable as well. Here is the trailer



Two articles about the film here and here.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

David Lynch Interview

A nice short interview of David Lynch about last year's exhibition of his art works:

Year End Recap - Part 1

As I was trying to compile a list of all the books I read this year, I realised what a great year it has been reading (and blogging and movie watching)-wise. Like Ulrich in The Man Without Qualities I have also been on a "leave from life," or at least as far as it was possible because, well, my situation is quite different from his. All this year I have hovered around the margins, to use another phrase from the book, always looking in from outside, always trying my best to overcome the temptation to participate or get inside, avoid social situations and the awkward "hello" whenever possible. Feelings of anxiety, fear and uncertainty about the future are always there but these are enveloped by a strange peacefulness. It is almost like I have already entered the Vanaprastha stage of life, when man starts preparing for an eventual Sanyas. I know, it is just a temporary phase but it was a nice experiment.

Now coming back to books, I have to also decide and announce the winner of the Third annual "Dispatches from Zembla Book of the Year Award" and unlike last two years it looks like an easy choice this time. For those who were not here in 2005 and last year the previous winners are:

2005: Speak, Memory (Vladimir Nabokov). Runners Up: Hunger (Knut Hamsun), The Rings of Saturn (W.G. Sebald)

2006: The Melancholy of Resistance (Laszlo Krasznahorkai). Runners Up: The Loser, Wittgenstein's Nephew (Both Thomas Bernhard), The Emigrants (W.G.Sebald)

Making a list of great movies I saw will be more difficult (it will easily cross 50) but will try that too. I tried to write or even briefly log whatever I saw here on the blog but still a lot were left.

Bit busy over the weekend (no, not getting out of Vanaprastha yet) so blogging will continue from next week.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Favourite Book Cover of the Year...

I didn't actually finish reading it. Some fifty or so pages were still left before I had to return it back to the library. This is not the kind of book you can read over the weekend. I will pick it up again sometime.



Also see here

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Mack the Knife

I saw G W Pabst's 1931 film version of The Threepenny Opera recently. It is a great classic, absolutely essential-watch in my opinion. More on it later.

I was looking for some clips on youtube but found Louis Armstrong's version of the ballad of Mack the Knife. It is fantastic.



Mack the Knife song as featured in the film here. Also, Lotte Lenja singing her "Pirate Jenny" song from the film here. I was wondering about the mention of Lotte Lenja's name. I found this in wikipedia: "Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, the star of both the original 1928 German production and the 1954 Blitzstein Broadway version, was present in the studio during Armstrong's recording. He spontaneously added her name to the lyrics, which already named several of Macheath's female victims."

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Graham Greene: The Third Man

Graham Greene in his introduction to the novel version of The Third Man says that it was never meant to be read as a story on its own. He wrote it only because he found it impossible to write the screenplay without first writing the story to capture all the moods and atmosphere without which he couldn't imagine the characters or the events and that he himself prefers the film version more because in essence it is "the finished state of the story." He is also effusive in showering praise over Carol Reed, crediting him with many ideas and changes that were made in the film version, most significantly the ending, which he didn't approve at that time but which, he says, have proved "triumphantly right after all these years."

The book is actually quite good, certainly worth reading on its own. One major difference and indeed one of the main weaknesses of the book is the choice of the narrator. The film has an opening monologue by an unnamed narrator, which was later excised in the American release, ("I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm. Constantinople suited me better") but for the rest of the time it stays close to the perspective of Martins, he is in almost every scene of the film. The book however is narrated by Major Calloway, he is a very interesting character no doubt, excellently played by Trevor Howard in the film too but because of this choice the whole structure of the story becomes a little awkward because even here it is Martins who is at the centre of the narrative. He does mention in the beginning that what follows is based on his own investigation and what Martins told him but still it requires a bit of a leap of faith and "trust" in the author-narrator. On the positive side, as a result of this, the book is a bit funnier than the film. Calloway repeatedly heaps scorns and makes fun of Martins who he portrays as a sentimental and naive fool. The book is also peppered with his witty, cynical and hardbitten observations - "I am not a religious man and I am always a little impatient with the fuss that surrounds death" - he says, at the funeral in the opening scene of the book.

There are quite a few changes in the film. Some minor, like the first name of Martins was changed from Rollo to Holly, because first, Joseph Cotten didn't like the name and the second in quite a few scenes Anna confuses Holly with Harry, thus embarrassing and humiliating Martins. Anna's nationality is changed from Hungarian to Czechoslovakian, I didn't understand why. May be it had something to with the producer Alexander Korda who was a Hungarian? More significantly the nationality of Martins is changed to American from British, giving a political edge to the story by turning it, to some extent, into a portrait of American naivete and cluelessness. Because of this the whole subplot of Martins (who is an author of cheap pulp westerns) getting mistaken for Great English author Dexter (which Greene says, he modeled after E M Forster) is not there in the film. The film does however keeps the hilarious literary discussion in which poor Martins is asked questions about the "Crisis of Faith in Modern Man," "the technique of contemporary novel" and that where would he "put James Joyce." The scene in which the Russians try to kidnap Anna was removed from the film because Greene and Reed felt that it could potentially be used as a propaganda tactic in the still nascent cold war and that they didn't want to "move people's political emotions." And the ending scene of course. In the original version, though still ambiguous because no words are spoken, Anna and Martins walk off hand in hand. Reed felt it would be too "cynical" just after the funeral and not in line with the characters. He rewrote the scene with the famous long shot of Anna walking off the frame without even looking at Martins.

One other major aspect of the film missing in the book is the use of German dialogues. In the film since we are shown everything through the perspective of Martins, the German dialogues are never subtitled and at least for those who don't know German, the feeling of bafflement, disorientation and mystery experienced by Martins comes across very easily in those scenes which are actually very important aspects of the story. One of my favourite scene for example is with the kid convincing the people that Martins is the murderer. Or the scenes with Anna's landlady cursing the policeman in her German with her blanket all over herself. The landlady is absent entirely and the kid scene doesn't leave as much impression as in the film.

There are also great descriptions which add to the experience of watching the scenes on screen. For example, this when we see Harry Lime's fingers coming out of the manhole:
"Thirty feet above his head was the manhole, but he wouldn't have the strength to lift it, and even if he had succeeded the police were waiting above. He must have known all that, but he was in great pain, and just as an animal creeps into the dark to die, so I suppose a man makes for the light. He wants to die at home, and the darkness is never home to us."

The celebrated Harry Lime entry scene is there in the book too, almost as it is, though it works better in the film. I will end with Major Calloway's description of Harry Lime. (No wonder why Reed was so insistent on casting Welles in the role! I think the "smooth scoundrel" bit was another of those changes because as portrayed by Welles, Lime is nothing but a "smooth scoundrel")

"Don't picture Harry Lime as a smooth scoundrel. He wasn't that. The picture I have of him on my files is an excellent one: he is caught by a street photographer with his stocky legs apart, big shoulders a little hunched, a belly that has known too much good food for too long, on his face a look of cheerful rascality, a geniality, a recognition that his happiness will make the world's day."