Thursday, July 31, 2008


an extract from Being and Time (from what I could gather, Heidegger is talking about something similar to the idea of "memento mori" - awareness of death, or "the potentiality of being" to use his phrase, as something which is the key to authentic existence and also since it is the "ownmost", or most individual, potentiality, it is also the key to human identity. In the sense that no one can die for any one else. Each of us have to die our "own" deaths.)


Being-toward-death is the anticipation of a potentiality-of-being of that being whose kind of being is anticipation itself. In the anticipatory revealing of this potentiality-of-being, Da-sein discloses itself to itself with regard to its most extreme possibility. But to project oneself upon one's ownmost potentiality of being means to be able to understand oneself in the being of the being thus revealed: to exist. Anticipation shows itself as the possibility of understanding one's ownmost and extreme potentiality-of-being, that is, as the possibility of authentic existence. Its ontological constitution must be made visible by setting forth the concrete structure of anticipation of death. How is the phenomenal definition of this structure to be accomplished? Evidently by defining the characteristics of anticipatory disclosure which must belong to it so that it can become the pure understanding of the ownmost nonrelational possibility not-to-be-bypassed which is certain and, as such, indefinite. We must remember that understanding oneself in the potentiality-of-being that reveals itself in the project.

Death is the ownmost possibility of Da-sein. Being toward it discloses to Da-sein its ownmost potentiality-of-being in whic hit is concerned about the being of Da-sein absolutely. Here the fact can become evident to Da-sein that in the eminent possibility of itself it is torn away from the they, that is, anticipation can always already have torn itself away from the they. The understanding of this "ability," however, first reveals its factical lostness in the everydayness of the they-self.

Elliott Gould

Dennis Lim has a brief profile of actor Elliott Gould in the new york times on occasion of a short retrospective of his films at the BAM cinemathek.

Jim Hoberman also wrote an excellent essay last year in village voice mainly focusing on his Jewish identity. An amusing detail from his life - he got a chance to work with Bergman in 1971 when he got the leading role in The Touch but the experience proved to be so intense for him that he went into a virtual hibernation for a couple of years and almost wrecked his fledgling career. Surprisingly the film has been unavailable on dvd or general distribution. The retro is screening it but unfortunately it is on a weekday.

I really really love him in The Long Goodbye which I think is one of the most memorable and iconic performances of the 70s Hollywood cinema. I agree with Hoberman's astute observation where he compares him in this film to Jeal-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. The Long Goodbye literally oozes style but it is also totally spontaneous and completely devoid of any arty pretentiousness. It also has what must surely be the greatest performance by a cat in the movies. The opening scene in which he tries to feed the cat is a small masterpiece on its own.

Philosophy & Bachelorhood

An interesting essay which explores the cultural history of bachelorhood and examines why so many great minds of western civilization never tied the knot. There are a few dubious examples in the list it has though, like Proust, who was gay and also a few who though never married, did lead a colourful life when it came to relationship with women, like Sartre. The essay has this tongue-in-cheek comment by George Steiner:

“The name of Socrates' wife has passed into the language as that of an ignorant shrew. Philosophy is an unworldly, abstruse, often egomaniacal obsession. The body is an enemy to absolute logic or metaphysical speculation. The thinker inhabits fictions of purity, of reasoned propositions as sharp as white light. Marriage is about roughage, bills, garbage disposal, and noise. There is something vulgar, almost absurd, in the notion of a Mrs. Plato or a Mme. Descartes, or of Wittgenstein on a honeymoon.”

A feminist blog at Salon is not very happy about all this.

link via bookforum

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Suddenly, Last Summer

Suddenly, Last Summer has to be one of the most bizarre films to come out of classic Hollywood. To be honest the strangeness belongs entirely to the original play by Tennessee Williams which I have not read yet but will definitely do so soon. The film adaptation by Joseph L. Manckiewicz, as befits his reputation, is quite straightforward and flat cinematically but even then it remains an unforgettable experience. I was not at all surprised to learn that it had lots of censorship problems but even after all the cuts it manages to touch a lot of shocking and taboo topics and goes quite some way beyond the acceptable limits of what "normal" and mainstream movies are supposed to be about.

The film basically contains two long monologues with brief scenes in between. Elizabeth Taylor plays Catherine who seems to go insane after witnessing the death of his cousin Sebastian during their European vacation. Sebastian's mother Mrs Venable, played by Katharine Hepburn, is trying to cover up the truth about the horrible circumstances of his death by persuading a young doctor, played by a very ill-looking Montgomomery Clift, to lobotomise Catherine. In the end Catherine under the influence of a truth-serum tells the shocking story of what really happened "Suddenly Last Summer".

The film, as I said, effectively contains two long monologues delivered by both the lead actresses. I sometimes wonder why more films don't use this device of monologue since it offers so many poetic possibilities. I can't think of any director after Bergman and Fassbinder who used monologues effectively. (Not surprisingly they both had successful parallel career in theatre.) In the first monologue Katherine Hepburn recounts a trip she took with his son to the Galapagos islands where they both saw with their own eyes the horrible sight of flesh eating birds devouring the just-born turtles. This cruelty of nature convinces Sebastian that he has finally seen the "face of God," a cruel, psychopathic God. He is shown to have strong nihilistic strain in his personality and disturbingly the film links it to his artistic vocation of poetry and his homosexuality. To him love is just a facade under which people use and exploit each other. He doesn't even spare his own mother and cousin from this.

Gore Vidal who co-wrote the screenplay with Williams has been one of the most prominent gay rights activist in America and it is actually interesting to see it as a mockery of society's homophobia by exaggerating the portrayal of homosexual character by turning him into a faceless voiceless paedophile, with a cold and monstrous heart. Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor are as expected both very good, though they do ham it up good at a couple of places. The final scene in which Taylor screams for "help" comes off as ridiculously over the top and so does the first scene in which Hepburn enters the stage through a bizarre elevator. I don't think any of these is their faults though. Overall I found it quite unsettling, something that is hard to shake off easily. Specially admirable since it was a mainstream success, garnering a few Oscar nominations, including a couple for the two leads.

Fight Club

Slate has a nice video essay by Dennis Lim about the evolution of fight and action scenes in cinema. His comments accompanying the clips are really interesting. I share his disapproval of much of the contemporary action genre which is either too dominated by CGI effects or else too randomly chopped up and spliced together, the ultimate aim of which is to create a feeling of sensory panic in the audience (the feeling of, "what was it I just saw?") and worse, to stun their critical faculties into submission. These directors have obviously never heard of Eisenstein and his theories of Montage. Compared to these films the early and mid eighties feel like the golden age of blockbuster action movies (Terminator et al.) I think (and as he also notes in his essay) this MTV aesthetic works well in the recent Bourne films because the visual incoherence ties in very well with the subjective state of the protagonist, who has lost his bearing in reality. And of course, one of the best uses of non-linear editing to create expressionistic effects is in boxing scenes of Raging Bull. Lim should have also included the classic Samurai films which have very elegantly choreographed fight scenes. Besides the famous ones by Kurosawa there is also Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri the sword fight scenes of which had me completely floored. Also the clip from Cronenberg's Eastern Promises seems to be truncated. For the entire scene click here. (Caution: Extreme gore and partial male nudity). It goes way too far, though I doubt about it being the "platonic ideal of fight scenes" as Lim claims.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Leopard

I don't have much to say about Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s classic novel The Leopard except that it left me a little disappointed. I will just point to this essay in bookforum, though I hardly agree with its ecstatic praise. At places Lampedusa reminded me of Stendhal (in The Red and the Black) specially in the way he is able to see-through the insincerities and self-delusions of his characters, specially when it comes to their religious beliefs and their obsessions with social rank, and the elaborate self-justifications they invent to explain their behavior and action to themselves. Unfortunately most of the rest of the book feels like a dull plod through a conventional historical-realist fiction. I have also been losing interest recently in the conventional realist fiction with its linear, cause and effect narrative so that may be another reason why I was somewhat bored with the book.

Lampedusa doesn't have anything revolutionary or even really perceptive to say about the nature of historical progress or politics in the modern world either. He seemed to me somewhat of a conventional aristocratic cynic and worse, even somewhat of a snob and elitist. He believed that aristocracy was anyway doomed, primarily because a longing for doom and oblivion was present in the aristocratic class itself, perhaps at a subconscious level. (As Burt Lancaster in one of the key lines in Visconti's film says, "our sensuality is nothing but a desire for oblivion"). As for the question of justice and equality and the idea of historical progress, he (through his central character) is extremely pessimistic. In some ways the prince thinks that democracy will be worse for the people because the ruling class will anyway continue to exploit them, only now they will have the justification that they are acting in the name of the will of the people.

Visconti's film is very sensuous and beautiful (at a surface level) but ultimately quite disappointing as well, specially because Visconti was an ardent Marxist himself and one expected some real political discussions and insights from the film. He was also, like Lampedusa, a member of the aristocracy, in fact one of the richest families in Europe. Still the famous ballroom scene really justifies everything. I don't think there is anything quite like it in the movies. In the book it is barely noticeable. I also don't understand why Visconti chose to prune the entire last section of the book because that is unarguably the most powerful section of the book. In the film Lancaster's death is implied but in the book we not only see him really dying but Lampedusa fast forwards us many years to see some more destruction and ruin that passage of time has wrought. We see both Concetta and Angelica as now old and dying, with Lampedusa hinting that they both lived a life full of unhappiness and suffering, thus proving that the pessimistic forebodings of the prince were justified and things only get worse with time. The novel ends with a panache too, informing the sad and bitter fate of the dog who was beloved of prince.

For a much better and much more powerful and stirring treatment of a similar subject, I will recommed Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March. It is far darker and much more pessimistic take on historical progress but it avoids this aphoristic and unearned pessimism that Lampedusa shows. (The difference is quite clear in the author's backgrounds as well - a homeless jew from central Europe on one hand and an aristocratic dandy on the other hand.) Incidentally this year is 50th anniversary of its publication. A journalistic article in new york times explores some interesting background history behind the publication of the book. Another article takes you on a tour of Sicily with the book serving as a guide.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Susan Sontag on Isabelle Huppert

Nothing special really. It is actually adapated from an address she gave at a function to celebrate Huppert's work (more details at the bottom). It was short so I thought let's copy it here, since it doesn't seem to be available on the internet. It is taken from the book Isabelle Huppert: Woman of Many Faces which I had briefly mentioned before.


I grew up in the American provinces, in the American Southwest. And when I was a child, thinking of growing up and where I wanted to live, I couldn't decide whether I wanted to live in New York or Paris. Those were the two ideas of paradise for me. I luckily got to do both for large periods of my life. I do live in New York, but I certainly consider Paris my second city. I have spent a huge amount of my adult life there, and it's been my pleasure to think of France and French culture and, perhaps more actively than any other part of French culture, French cinema as central to my life...

Isabelle Huppert ... is an actor of unlimited ability, with what looks like already a very long career, a career I consider to be, at most, at midpoint - a body of work and a talent from which we can expect anything in the future, anything and everything.

I would like to mention five attributes of this great actor that make her such a formidable and exemplary presence. I mention them in no particular order, although the very fact that I must give them in a certain order perhaps betrays a certain partly indefensible personal bias. So I will list these five characteristics that I think make for a kind of total artist, a total artist in the most admirable sense.

The first quality that I would mention is beauty. That's not usually the first thing that one mentions, but I think I have an ancient Greek rather than a Christian view of beauty. I think beauty is a virtue - that's a pagan view, not a Christian view, but for me beauty is a virtue. And this is a person who exemplifies and extraordinary physical beauty, something that matters to us a lot in actors, and a lot more than sometimes we are willing to acknowledge consciously.

Then of course, number two: There's something called talent, and what is talent? Talent is above all, expressiveness, eloquence, the capacity for expressiveness.

Third - I say this is in no particular order and yet I can't, as I say, help feeling that some sort of perverse order in involved in the fact that I list them in the way that I do. After beauty, talent or expressiveness, the third I would call intelligence. Intelligence is not a quality that one thinks is necessarily present in a creative constellation. In fact it's very often said you don't have to be intelligent to be a great artist or a great actor. I think great actors are extremely intelligent and I have never met a more intelligent actor, a more intelligent person who is an actor, than Isabelle Huppert.

Fourth: I would mention her fearlessness as an artist, as an actor. And by fearlessness I also mean something very strong. I mean something that contains a large element of ferocity, avidity, appetite, availability, risk taking - a tremendous amount of risk taking.

And last, what may seem to be the opposite pole of the first virtue I mentioned, beauty: her integrity. Her integrity as an artist and - this I can testify as someone who knows her as a friend - her integrity as a human being. So it is an honour and pleasure to have the occasion to express my love and affection, admiration, for this great artist, for this great actor.

Adapted from a presentation at the French Institute/Alliance Francaise's Trophee des Arts Gala honouring Isabelle Huppert, New York, November 5, 2003.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Greatest Russians?

LA Times has an editorial about a Russian popularity poll which is trying to decide the greatest Russian of all time. It is also lamenting the fact that two leading contenders for the prize right now are Stalin and Czar Nicholas II...

The site for the poll is in Russian but for those who don't know Russian it will be interesting to find out the names just from the picture..

I could figure out only the following (in order):

Alexander Blok
Mikhail Bulgakov
Yuri Gagarin
Nikolai Gogol
Fyodor Dostoevsky
Catherine the Great
Boris Yeltsin
Ivan the Terrible
Mikhail Lermontov
Czar Nicholas II
Peter the Great
Alexander Pushkin
Leo Tolstoy
Ivan Turgenev
Nikita Khrushchev
Anton Chekhov

I guess I shouldn't be calling myself a Russophile anymore!

Anyway I was looking for Trotsky or Gorbachev but can't find them anywhere! Also Nabokov is certainly not there.


RSB points to this hilariously pedantic letter that one of the reviewers of The Times sent to the subeditors who had the effrontery of removing an indefinite article in one of his sentences in the review. I am guessing it was some kind of a restaurant review!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


There is a nice personal essay by Jenny Diski on Sleep in the new london review of books. I also learned this new word - hypnogogia (or hypnagogia according to wikipedia), which means the state of being in the twilight zone between sleep and wakefulness. There is a beautiful description of this state of hypnogagia in the beginning of Swann's Way. (It can be read here). Really, it is when you are in that twilight zone you wonder why people lament and bewail about the pain of sleeping alone!

Anyway here is Diski describing the same:

Inexpert though I am in all other fields, I am a connoisseur of sleep. Actually, my speciality is not sleep itself, but the hinterland of sleep, the point of entry to unconsciousness. One of my earliest memories of sensual pleasure (though there must have been earlier, watery ones) is of lying on my stomach in bed, the bedtime story told, lights out (not the hall, leave the door open, no, more than that), the eiderdown heavy and over my head, my face in the pillow, adjusted so that I had just enough air to breathe. I recall how acutely aware I was of being perfectly physically comfortable, as heimlich as I ever had been or ever would be, and no small part of the comfort was the delicious prospect of falling slowly into sleep. Drifting off. Moving off, away, out of mindfulness. Leaving behind. Relaxing into hypnagogia (a condition I may always have known about and desired, if not been able to name), anticipating the blurring of consciousness.

Monday, July 21, 2008


Anybody knows which is the second city in the video (after the bridge and before St. Louis)?

À nos amours

Superficially and thematically Maurice Pialat's A nos amours resembles any number of French films which explore the sexual awakening of precocious young women. In fact it is such a recurring subject that it almost seems like an entire subgenre of french cinema itself. Contrary to what one normally expects (in line with "teen movies" that Hollywood makes) these are not youthful films at all - they don't look forward into the future with a sense of possibilities, possibilities of adventures and knowledge that comes from sexual experience. Rather, the tone in these films is almost Miltonic - sexual knowledge leading to the fall and the despair resulting from the loss of the prelapsarian paradise. I don't want to imply that these are conservative films or in any way support social conservatism or taboos. In most of the cases they are extremely frank and sometimes downright brutal and direct, as in this case. Sex in these films is seen as a source of psychological alienation - the mind-body problem that is one of the keys to the human condition. Erich Rohmer is probably the most accomplished thinker and director on this subject in french cinema. His "Moral Tales" (specifically Claire's Knee, My Night at Maud's and The Collector) explore almost every aspect of this subject and feel like making almost the final statement on it.

More recently, Catherine Breillat has used the same prototype to deliver assaults on the institution of heterosexual relationship. She sees sexual awakening not as a loss of innocence and the feeling of "one-ness" but rather an intiation of women into a world of brutality, exploitation and nothingness which to her are intrinsic elements of any female experience of heterosexual romance. Daft, of course, but an interesting view nevertheless. Specially when you see scenes like one in which her lead actress mournfully intones "I'm a hole", all the time holding her lover's organ in her hands. I do think she is quite an interesting fimmaker even if much too often, she is too intellectual, too doctrinaire and too strident to be taken really seriously. Though I think Fat Girl is a major masterpiece, one of the key texts of feminist cinema. Interestingly the criterion DVD of A nos amours contains a brief appreciative interview of Breillat, who was actually one of Pialat's protegees. (She worked as one of co-screenwriters and directorial assistant in one of his films).

Coming back to the film, it does lend itself to all these readings but ultimately the film still feels very elusive. The simple plot is about an adolescent girl, played by an astonishingly good (and maddeningly sexy) Sandrine Bonnaire, who goes on a sexual rampage in order to escape from her dysfunctional family. There is something perverse in the way Pialat shows her relationship with her family members, not just her father, played by Pialat himself, but also her mother and her elder brother who all seem to be jealous of her, because of her budding sexuality and often react with abrupt violence. She in turn refuses to have sex with the nice-looking, if rather effete, boy who she is in love with and arbitrarily breaks-up with him. She then promiscuously sleeps with any number of boys, who are all much more macho-looking, who come in her way. In a memorable and actually pretty disturbing scene she responds to the "thank you" of one of those boys by saying "You're welcome. It's free." The film sustains this tone of bitterness for its entire length, ending with a haunting freeze frame (again a recurring feature in french films). She feels certain that she will never be happy anymore in her life and her last chance of happiness was the time she spent with her boyfriend in the alps (before all the sex stuff came in between) again invoking that Miltonic theme. In fact the title of the film also underscores the same. (It means "for our loves" in English.)

The family scenes are shot in a very naturalistic style, without any hint of dramatisation, because of which the sudden eruption of violence feel all the more painful. Pialat has been compared to Cassavetes and it is easy to see why. I can understand the motivation of using this style of film-making and the immediacy and unmediated intensity it brings but still I personally feel a bit remote from this school of film making. I would much rather have Bergman (Scenes from a Marriage) or Fassbinder. I don't agree that dramatizing devices necessarily distance the viewers and lessen the emotional impact of a scene. In fact they give viewers space where they can think for themselves and then feel. Most of the interviews and commentaries on the disc emphasise the fact that the film was highly improvised and one of the main intentions of Pialat was to dissolve the artificial barrier between the actor as a person and the character that he or she plays in the film. The scene where the father talks about the "missing dimple" was not in the script and the talk genuinely seems to have taken Bonnaire by surprise and it shows in the scene. There is something mysterious in that scene which wouldn't have been there if it were pre-planned and rehearsed - the idea of the unique and unrepeatable moment that still photographers and even documentary film makers always try to capture on film.

As I said, Sandrine Bonnaire is extraordinary in the film. In fact I was feeling jealous myself all the time too! I had seen her in Claude Chabrol's La Ceremonie before and she was excellent in that as well (though probably eclipsed by Isabelle Huppert who has the more flambuoyant part in it) but really she is in a class of her own in this film. I was actually shocked to learn that she was only 15 when she did it. I mean she doesn't really look 15 from any angle but more than that it is difficult to imagine such a young actor having access to such complexities of inner life with all its difficult and mysterious emotions. She doesn't really try too hard and as a matter of fact more credit goes to Pialat and her style of film making that makes it look all so effortless and natural but it is still impossible to imagine the film without her presence. She reminded me of young Sissy Spacek, who was probably much older but looked very young, when she acted those classic 70s films with Mallick, De Palma and Altman. And also, of course, of young Isabelle Huppert but the film wouldn't have been the same with any of these actresses. It is impossible to describe in words what really happens on her face, as she sizes up and down a good looking boy through her gaze or stares into the space mysteriously. You just have to see it yourself.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Klaus Nomi

I hadn't even heard of his name before today. This song is featured in Maurice Pialat's A Nos Amours, more on that later. (The lyrics here. While watching the film, I thought the song was in German!)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Miss Julie

I saw this 1951 Swedish film last Saturday. It is an adaptation of the Strindberg's classic play of the same name, perhaps his most famous and certainly the most often performed. I found it visually captivating and emotionally affecting, mainly due to its director Alf Sjoberg's visually inventive style and superb and stirring performances by the two leads. Notwithstanding its obvious artistry, most casual viewers will still be offended (and justifiably so) by Strindberg's politics, not only of gender but also of class, but that would be a somewhat shallow reaction. I think a more intellectually stimulating way to respond to it will be to see it as an expression of Strindberg's ideology of negation, rather than simple misogynistic and reactionary fantasies and ravings of a bitterly pessimistic man and in that sense it provides a lot of thought-provoking ideas to both feminist and socialist-progressive critics.

First a few words about the contents of the play. It is a tragedy in one act. The whole play is set in the kitchen of a manor house in the countryside. Outside the servants of the house and the general public are celebrating the midsummer eve by singing, dancing and drinking. Inside the kitchen there rages the age-old battle of the sexes btween the two lead characters - Miss Julie, the daughter of the house and Jean the valet. Miss Julie is taught by her evil feminist mother to hate all men which is a problem for her because she lusts for sex and secretly longs for degradation, specially on this midsummer eve, when she has been acting "wild." She has also recently broken off her engagement because she treated her fiancee as a dog (literally so). Jean on the other hand is bitterly self-conscious of his social-status, having grown-up on a life-time of abuse and humiliation. He has big ideas about becoming a man of wealth and stature but like Miss Julie, slavery is so deep-rooted in his soul that just the voice of his master is enough to make him forget all his grand ideas and turn him into a meek dog. The two meet, one looking to degrade herself and the other looking up (in one scene both tell their dreams accordingly in explicit terms) and ultimately everything ends in a tragedy, but only after Strindberg has poured as much of his bitterness as he could in the mutual violent recriminations of the two. (By the way what is it with the sadistic directors and the poor canaries? Fassbinder murdered one in his Berlin Alexanderplatz too. Thankfully both happen offscreen and are staged, or at least I hope so.)

The play is restricted to just one space but film manages to break it open into outside and it becomes really beautiful. I don't know how the midsummer nights in nordic countries feel like but it looks wonderful on the screen. Sjoberg also tranforms the monologues of the play into actual action in the film, some of them very inventively. It reminded me of what Bergman did in Wild Strawberries. It is similar here, Miss Julie imagines the possibilities of some action and we actually see her in the foreground as the action as she imagines it unfolds in the background. The dream sequences are also imaginatively shot.

As I said, the politics of the play and the film may alienate a lot of fair-minded viewers. Strindberg's basic point is undeniable though. Feminism (actually it is a particular variety, mostly in Strindberg's imagination) can leave women alienated from their true, authentic selves - as constituted by their desires, instincts and psycho-sexual proclivities - and so can result in despair and tragedy like what happened to Miss Julie. It is actually true for any other ideological system as well. Strindberg is only wrong in what he thinks is feminism. Real feminism (like in Simone de Beauvoir for example) is not about conforming to some ideal, whether of subservient female, a lesbian or a manhating harpy, but rather finding and creating one's own identity and purusing it with full autonomy and freedom. Thought in this way it is actually a solution for alienation and despair. Also, anybody who is acquainted with the notion of "false consciousness" will see in automatised slavery of Jean an expression of the same. Strindberg, unlike Marxists and other progressive critics, is too pessimistic to believe that anything can ever be done for these people.

In short a thought-provoking, gripping and capivating film. It won quite a few awards in its time, including the grand prize at the Cannes film festival, but is not so well known these days, at least outside Sweded where it is considered a classic. It might be because Bergman has crowded out most of Swedish cultural output in the outside world. Incidentally Sjoberg also directed Torment in 1944 which was Bergman's first screenplay. I saw it recently too and found it quite good - characteristically dark and bleak, though also youthful.

50 Best Translations

The Translators Association of the Society of Authors (good to know that something like this exists) has shortlisted what it considers 50 best English translations published in the last 50 years. The list is here and it definitely looks very interesting.

Some gripes: First it makes absolutely no sense to club poetry, fiction and non-fiction together. Second, it is not clear what exact criteria they chose. Was it the quality of the original or the excellence of translation itself? Also, no idea what Proust or Tolstoy are doing on the list. It isn't as if the new translations have radically altered the way English readers saw either of these two writers. And in Proust's case it is not even the new Penguin translation (done by a group of writers and translators including Lydia Davis), it is the old version by Terence Kilmartin who built up on the work done by CK Scott Moncrieff. Also, Thomas Bernhard's Woodcutters has a newer version by David McClintock. I wonder if the earlier version (Cutting Timber) was better, as the list seems to indicate, and if it was then why did they bother to translate it again? The newer title definitely sounds much better and the book is a complete riot. As for Sebald, I like the translations by Michael Hulse of his earlier novels more than Austerlitz but that may be more to do with original works rather than translations.

One translator that I feel should get more recognition is George Szirtes for his work on Laszlo Krasznahorkai's The Melancholy of Resistance (and also War and War). Hungarian is already a difficult language to translate from and if one combines that with Krasznahorkai's baroque sentences which go on and on for many pages, it makes his achievement all the more incredible. I don't think he has done many translations though. He is known primarily as an English poet so that might be one reason for his exclusion. I have heard he is working on Satantango, which I am eagerly looking forward to read. Hope it comes out soon.

link via complete-review

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


New York Times has a report on an upcoming auction of Fernando Pessoa's private papers and the resulting distress felt by Portuguese intellectuals and general public at the prospect of those papers leaving the country.

The article contains some interesting comments. Like this one

Jerónimo Pizarro is the young Pessoa scholar whom the heirs have allowed to photograph the papers they have. “Pessoa’s like a shadow, an invisible man,” he said. “He wrote about being the center of a center where there was nothing.”

or this from Jose Saramago's The History of the Siege of Lisbon (which I need to read alongwith The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, another saramago novel based on another one of Pessoa's heteronyms)

“Raimundo Silva,” Mr. Saramago writes, “thought to himself, in the manner of Fernando Pessoa, If I smoked, I should now light a cigarette, watching the river, thinking how vague and uncertain everything is, but, not smoking, I should simply think that everything is truly uncertain and vague, without a cigarette, even though the cigarette, were I to smoke it, would in itself express the uncertainty and vagueness of things, like smoke itself, were I to smoke.”

And finally some from Pessoa himself (or rather from Bernardo Soares). From The Book of Disquiet...

I've always rejected being understood. To be understood is to prostitute oneself. I prefer to be taken seriously for what I'm not, remaining humanly unknown, with naturalness and all due respect.

Nothing would bother me more than if they found me strange at the office. I like to revel in the irony that they don't find me at all strange. I like the hair shirt of being being regarded by them as their equal. I like the crucifixion of being considered no different. There are martyrdoms more subtle than those recorded for the saints and hermits. There are torments of our mental awareness as there are of the body and of desire. And in the former, as in the latter, there's a certain sensuality....

Also this one... I think I had copied it on the blog before too but just in case. I find it very funny and very sad (like he says himself).

[But] as an ironic spectator of myself, I've never lost interest in seeing what life brings. And since I now know beforehand that every vague hope will end in disillusion, I have the special delight of already enjoying the disillusion with the hope, like the bitter with the sweet that makes the sweet sweeter by way of contrast. I'm a sullen strategist who, having never won a battle, has learned to derive pleasure from mapping out the details of his inevitable retreat on the eve of each new engagement.

My destiny, which has pursued me like a malevolent creature , is to be able to desire only what I know I'll never get. If I see the nubile figure of a girl in the street and imagine for the slightest moment, however nonchalantly, what it would be like if she were mine, it's a dead certainty that ten steps past my dream she'll meet the man who's obviously her husband or lover. A romantic would make tragedy out of this; a stranger to the situation would see it as a comedy; I, however, mix the two things, since I'm romantic in myself and a stranger to myself, and turn to page to yet another irony.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg's 1970 classic Performance is the kind of film which divides the critical opinion to the extremes. Richard Schickel in Time called it "the most disgusting, the most completely worthless film I have seen since I began reviewing" and the cranky critic John Simon thought it was "indescribably sleazy, self-indulgent and meretricious." At the same time estimable British film critic Colin MacCabe considers it "the greatest British film ever made." (All quotes from this review of Colin MacCabe's book on the film from the BFI classics series.) I personally thought it was awful but in a totally sui-generis way. In fact it is the kind of awful film we can't have enough of, specially in these times when we get only generic kind of awful films. Even the so-called artistic films feel generic and predictable.

In the first half of the film we follow the daily routine of an ultra-violent young gangster and a thug Chas (James Fox in an extremely impressive and solid role) as he goes on his regular work of beating and shooting people. After he disobeys one of the orders he is himself very brutally roughed up and when he kills off one of his assailants he is forced to flee from both the police and the boss. He finds shelter in the apartment of a has-been rock star played by Mick Jagger (who like the film itself defines his own category of awfulness) and his two female concubines. It is very hard to summarize what happens in the second half of the film, although it is advisable that one should take some psychedelic drugs or at least be a little high to really appreciate all the mind-bending stuff that goes on.

I won't hazard a guess as to what really happens and what it all means actually but at a general level it is pretty obvious. As the title clearly indicates the film is about the idea of human identity as a performance. Who one is, is really all about impersonation and role playing and this includes one's gendered identity too. This was also one of the main elements of counterculture ethos. The idea that one has to shed one's socially imposed identity and search for a new self, taking help from sex and drugs on the way. Further, the film seems to point out a line of continuity between the public persona of a gangster and a rock star, and by analogy between creativity and violence. "The only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness" as one of the key lines of the film has it.

The film is full of references to other art-forms. Borges seems to the pre-eminent deity of the film. His portrait appears at a key moment in the film as a bullet goes through it. Cammell also mentioned that idea of the film came from reading Vladimir Nabokov's Despair. In any case, the idea of psychological double, identity crisis and identity switching is not so uncommon in films or literature. The most famous of all might be Bergman's Persona. I also love Robert Altman's 3 Women which is similarly mind-bending exercise in identity switching.

What gives Performace its special status is the accuracy and intimacy with which it captures the look and feel of the "swinging London." These people wake up to a good casual threesome sex. Soon after the girl injects some drug into her bottom as nonchalantly as if she were taking morning tea. In one scene all three are in the bath tub and Jagger asks the two girls to smell his hair and see if it needs washing! I don't know, I had my anthropological eye open that's what kept me going in a serious way.

It was also the first film in which Roeg used his trademark cut-up technique of extreme non-linear editing. It is extremely effective here, much more than it is in his later films (I have seen only Don't Look Now and Bad Timing). I sometimes wonder why this hasn't become so common, specially since it is such a powerful and effective way to represent subjectivity, stream of consciousness and a process of thought in cinema. When in fact films do use it they make it look more a like a music video or an advertising commercial. Mainstream narrative cinema still unfortunately seems to be stuck in the linear cause and effect sort of editing.

As expected the film feature a truly avant-garde musical score composed by fantastically named Jack Nitzsche. Mick Jagger also sings a song called "Memo from Turner". It is a pretty strange song, and it gets even stranger in the film. The set-design, specially in the second half is also excellent. The background is full of references to surrealistic paintings and other art works, most of which will require many repeat viewings to actually pin down.

In short, Performance is a thoroughly unique (and depending on context questionable) experience. Definitely deserves a wider renown, much beyond its cult reputation. Senses of Cinema has an article on Donald Cammell which also has some insightful remarks about the film. Cammell's career never really took off and he tragically took his own life in 1996 at the age of 62. Nicholas Roeg went on to make a bunch of classics, which though mostly reviled and lambasted by establishment critics have managed to garner cult reputation. Jim Hoberman also has some interesting things to say about the film.

Celine: Conversations with Professor Y

I found Celine's Journey to the End of the Night extremely disappointing specially because I had wanted to read it for such a long time. (I had mentioned it briefly here.) I thought may be I didn't pay enough attention and was impatient, and so I decided to pick up another one of his books. Death on the Installment Plan is another of his famous work but Conversations with Professor Y sounded more amusing (and it was very short too) so I picked it up.

The book is indeed a very amusing little literary oddity. It will make sense only in the light of story of Celine's career after the second world war. In short, after his first two books, Journey to the End of the Night and Death on Installment Plan were published to great critical acclaim (and also shock and bewilderment) he undertook to write a series of quasi-political pamphlets, which were violently anti-semitic, anti-Russian and anti-communist. The language he used was so extreme that even the fascist establishment in France shunned away from him and his writings. At the end of the war, with the looming defeat of the occupation forces, and fearing vengeful and retributory justice he ran off to Denmark where he was soon imprisoned and had to serve a jail sentence for more than a year. Only a few years later the French government granted him an amnesty and he returned to France. By that time the reading public and the literary establishment had either completely forgotten him and his early works or were actively hostile to it.

Goaded by his publishers, he then wrote Conversations With Professor Y in order to put forward his side of the story. It is however far from being a work of mea culpa - there are no signs of remorse or desire for atonement anywhere in the book. Instead it is totally the opposite - an egomaniacal self-portrait full of delusions of grandeur. He for example says that he has killed off the traditional novel and traditional novelists with his "little technique." Everything he says is undercut by a tone of self-mockery and self-deprecatory humour which though being often hilarious still makes him look like a sort of creep in the end.

As the title makes it clear the book is a fictionalized interview of Celine with the eponymous Professor. It is however Celine's version of what happened during the conversations. The professor always remains in the background and he hardly gets a chance to speak or ask any real questions. Most of it is either Celine's monologues or else his speculations about the reactions of his interviewer. Half way through the novel the professor turns out to be someone else but nothing else really happens. This is all just a collection of Celine's thoughts on literature and the official French literary establishment and as expected he has pretty strong views and opinions on everything. One main motif of the monologues is what he calls his "little technique" - the way he reproduces the cadences and intensity of oral language in his writing and the "emotive" style of writing that results from it. As he says in Journey, Mind creates lies and only visceral emotional experiences can be spontaneous, authentic and so true. Everything else is just falsehood and lies. The official mode of literary language with stiffness and deliberate sentence constructions, he finds dull, banal and sterile. He also explains why there is so much of "I" in his novels (without which lyricism is not possible he says), why he doesn't like ideas in novels and why there are so many "three dots" in his writings! Most of it is very hilarious and easy to read. The interviewer for example has to go pee but Celine continues to hold forth and chides him for not paying attention. He is also very self-conscious of number of pages of interviews he has given. In between all this he pours scorn on officially celebrated literary figures like Romain Rolland or Francois Mauriac. There is not much of misanthropy here. The rants are much more good humoured here than Journey to the End of the Night. It is only the context of his biography that gives all this an ugly subtext.

The book has an excellent and very informative introduction by Stanford Luce who also translated it. This is short and amusing read though it may be of interest only to Celine fans. There is a brief review of the book at the complete review. Finally a brief extract from the book which will give a flavour of the writing. (Frankly, I was a bit giddy with all the ellipsis and exclamation marks after I finished it in one sitting.)


"Don't worry!...Don't be afraid! Politics is anger!...and anger, Professor Y, is a mortal sin! Remember! an angry man runs off at the mouth! all the furies charge after him! tear him to shreds! that's justice! for me, Professor Y, you know? they won't catch me at it again! not for a kingdom! Never!"

"What do you say about a little philosophical debate?...are you up to it?...a debate, let us say for example, on the mutations of progress through the transformations of the Self?..."

"Oh, my dear Professor Y, I'm willing to respect you and all...but I'll tell you flat out: I'm against it!...I have no ideas, myself! not a one! there's nothing more vulgar, more common, more disgusting than ideas! libraries are loaded with them! and every sidewalk cafe!...the impotent are bloated with ideas!...and philosophers!...that's their trade turning out ideas!...they dazzle youth with ideas! they play the pimp!...and youth ie ever ready, as you know, Professor, to gobble up anything to go ooh! and ah! by the numbers! how those pimps have an easy job of it! the passionate years of youth are spent on getting a hard on and gargling ideaaas!...philosophies, if you prefer!...yes sir, philosophies! youth loves sham just as young dogs love those sticks, like bones, that we throw and they run afer! they race forward, yipping away, wasting their time, that's the main thing! just look around at all the imposters endlessly playing their games, tossing their little sticks, their empty philosopher sticks...and youth moaning in ecstasy, trembling with delight! grateful!...the pimps know what it takes! ideaaas, and still more ideaaas! syntheses! and cerebral mutations!...toasted with port! with port, every time! and symbolic logic! wonnnderful!...the hollower they are, the more youth can lap them up, gorge themselves! everything they find in those hollow little sticks...ideaaas!...playthings! now you, Professor Y, may I say with no intent to outrage, you've got the breezer of an intelligent man! a dialectician even! hang out with youth, of course! I bet you stuff their little noggins! you live off of them, don't you, off of youth! how you must adore youth!...their impatience, presumption, idleness!'re probably a casuist even! am I right?...probably can out-casuist Abelard! you're in fashion!"

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Strindberg on Feminism

Some amusement for a quiet Saturday afternoon. August Strindberg on "the woman question", from his preface to "Miss Julie". I love the way he explains everything "mathematically"!

"I say Miss Julie is a modern character not because the man-hating half-woman has not always existed but because she has now been brought into the open, has taken the stage, and is making a noise about herself. Victim of a superstition (one that has seized even stronger minds) that woman, that stunted form of human being, standing with man, the lord of creation, the creator of culture, is meant to be the equal of man or could ever possibly be, she involves herself in an absurd struggle with him in which she falls. Absurd because a stunted form, subject to the laws of propagation, will always be born stunted and can never catch up with the one who has the lead. As follows: A (the man) and B (the woman) start from the same point C, A with a speed of let us say 100 and B with a speed of 60. When will B overtake A? Answer: never. Neither with the help of equal education or equal voting rights - nor by universal disarmament and temperance societies - any more than two parallel lines can ever meet. The half-woman is a type that forces itself on others, selling itself for power, medals, recognition, diplomas, as formerly it sold itself for money. It represents degeneration. It is not a strong species for it does not maintain itself, but unfortunately it propagates its misery in the following generation. Degenerate men unconsciously select their mates from among these half-women, so that they breed and spread, producing creatures of indeterminate sex to whom life is a torture, but who fortunately are overcome eventually either by a hostile reality, or by the uncontrolled breaking loose of their repressed instincts, or else by their frustration in not being able to compete with the male sex. It is a tragic type, offering us the spectacle of a desperate fight against nature; a tragic legacy of romanticism, which is now being dissipated by naturalism - a movement that seeks only happiness, and for that strong and healthy species are required."

Friday, July 11, 2008

Betty Friedan: The Feminine Mystique

Catching up with feminism 101... Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique is not nearly even half as intimidating as The Second Sex which is more an encyclopaedia than a straight-forward feminist tract. It is actually a work of reportage with occasional rhetoic, written in a journalistic style about ideas which have become commonplace since its publication, even though the cultural diagnosis that she presents in the book still remains more or less applicable to our present day world.

Like Simone de Beauvoir her main focus in the book is existential too - the idea that the patriarchal culture denies women the opportunity to find their own identities as autonomous human beings and instead imprisons them with a deliberately constructed ideal of femininity, to which they must aspire if they hope for any self-fulfillment. Most of the book is about what really constitutes this ideal and how it is constructed and imposed on women. The most obvious ideal is that of happy and efficient suburban housewife. From her voluminous readings of women's magazines she unearths lots of details about what really goes on behind this figure of stereotype suburban housewife. Most of it is very funny and amusing and occasionally it is poignant too when she talks about "the problem that has no name" - the ever present anxiety and threat of boredom which forces them to find more and more housework, just as fillers. Some housewives may take exception to this. She even says that the housework is never too much, even when done manually and the reason they feel physically tired has psychological reasons. This is all somewhat predictable and well-known though occasionally she does point out more interesting details. She for example says that american society as a whole was much more progressive in 20s and 30s and women's magazines then were much more outward looking and interested in world affairs than the 50s. She also gives examples from the films, which will be obvious to anyone who has seen those classics of "women's films" (Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo and others.)

She takes on some academic topics later on like anthropology where she discusses the ideas of margaret mead and more importantly psychoanalysis and blatantly prejudiced theories and speculations of Freud which had an enormous influence in the way people thought about sex in the 20th century and which consequently did so much harm to the woman's liberation movement. Men are mostly conspicuous by their absence. Instead she lays the blame on "culture", that is the network of social and political institutions, consumerism, the media and the culture industry. I liked this aspect of book - the way she eschews gendered psychologization (looking for misogynist instinct in male psychology for instance). It also keeps the book from becoming irrelevant to contemporary readers because the cultural issues are the same as they were forty years ago. The institutionalized infantilization of adult women continues apace. The dominant discourse in the media aimed at women is still the same -- sex and shopping can solve all of life's problems!

There are a couple of questions which I think are important but which Friedan and other feminists, specially those who lament on the "opt-out" phenomenon (women leaving career and job to be housewives), never tackle. First the idea that the outside world and a life of career can be as stifling and identity-denying, if not more, as being a housewife. I think the point is to be financially self-dependent and also that women should go out in the world and struggle for themselves, even if they ultimately fail, and shouldn't be content with a sheltered life in a dollhouse marriage, both of which are absolutely valid I think. Also, even in comparatively liberated and modernized societies there is still this implicit assumption that the man has to be the primary breadwinner and even if a woman has a job, her earning is always seen as an extra. There is also this condescending attitude that women should work only because they would otherwise get bored sitting at home cooking and knitting. It is a much more difficult problem because the underlying prejudices are so strong. Men generally find women more intelligent and more academically qualified than themselves intimidating and conversely women look down upon such men with scorn. This is also the reason why there are so few women in science, engineering and on wall street and conversely so few men studying literature and art history.

This book is more of a historical interest and mostly dispensable if one has been reading the occasional op-eds on the subject. Simone de Beauvoir's book is however indispensable, absolutely mandatory on all book-shelves. I think it is a major intellectual scandal of our time that we don't yet have an authoritative English translation of this book.

The first chapter of the book "The Problem that has no name" is available here

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Literary Adaptation Quiz

Not that interesting but worth a try...

I knew a few and guessed a few others and scored 8. Was wrong on the last two.

You scored 8 out of a possible 10

Semi-literate. OK, so you've seen a few movies, and you've read a few books. But admit it, when you saw Great Expectations in WH Smith's you thought it was a tie-in to the Gwyneth movie. Just for a second

Javier Marias on Tourism

Over at the The New Republic Spanish novelist Javier Marias delivers a a short rant on the phenomenon of vulgar tourism.

Needless to say, these tourists are not interested in seeing anything; they are merely concerned with taking stupid photos on their stupid cell phones just so they can come out with the most stupid phrase of our times: "I've been there." The only possible response to such a statement is: "So? So what if you've been there? It is of no consequence whatsoever. Nowadays, even the most idiotic person can go anywhere. Traveling to `must-see' places vulgarizes, rather than enhances, a person's character."
As expected the article attracts lots of irate commenters at the bottom.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

List - Half yearly top 10

More listmania. Since it is already July I thought let's make a list of 10 favourite films of the year so far. More often than not catching up with the classics becomes a somewhat predictable experience, specially when you have already read about the films in question. It is not necessarily about the plot but in more general terms... the element of surprise is often missing. (Really, I should have seen most of these when I was a kid.) So while making the list I concentrated on films which took me by surprise. Last week I saw Jean Renoir's The River, which was beautiful in a very top 10-ish way, but not different or any more than what I had expected it to be. That's why it is not on this list.

Annyway here it goes...

1. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls)
2. Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk)
3. Cria Cuervos (Carlos Saura)
4. Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi)
5. The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann)
6. Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger)
7. Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
8. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Mikio Naruse)
9. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
10. A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan)

Some Notes on Antonin Artaud

I am not really familiar with theatrical theory but I recently picked up and read Antonin Artaud's essay collection and theatre manifesto The Theatre and its Double since I keep coming across his name at so many places again and again. I found it baffling and somewhat obscure but still some random and disjointed thoughts provoked by the book... (Susan Sontag's essay on Artaud is typically brilliant and provocative and can be read as a very good introduction to his work. She calls him "one of the great, daring mapmakers of consciousness in extremis.")

The Theate and Its Double contains two key ideas, both interlinked. Artaud is extremely critical of the dominant mode of psychological realism in theatre and linked to this is the way theatre is kept subservient to written text. At one place he laments that French actors only know how to talk, they don't know how to scream! He thinks that by using a straight-forward mode of representation theatre serves to reinforce and validate the existing and normative reality of the spectator which is exactly opposite of what theatre should do, that is, shatter the fundamental basis of that normative reality. Theatre should be like a plague, he says, or hunger! This he thinks can only be done when the theatre aims at the subconscious and at the visceral level. He calls it "theatre of cruelty." He says that he was convinced of this idea when he saw a staging of Balinese theatre. The "oriental theatre", he explains, is able to tap into something mythic and deeper than its mondern, western counterpart because it relies on anti-realist aesthetic and its mode of representation is abstract, symbolic and driven by rituals and gesture rather than language.

Is it true that non-verbal arts have greater potential of providing tranformative and visceral experiences? I do think so. There is also another confusion that I wanted to mention now that the topic of Artaud has come up. I have seen his name mentioned in some articles defending ultra-violent horror films. While it is true that some horror films do provide visceral experience and can also provoke a complete shattering of existing reality in spectator's minds but most of them either just trade in commodified images of cruelty or else in straight-forward representation of the experience of pain, in which case their premise remains that of psychological realism. None of these two can really be called "cinema of cruelty."

A very good example of Artaudian aesthetic in cinema will be the astonishing epilogue of Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz. The slaughterhouse sequence of Fassbinder's In a Year of 13 Moons should also be seen through an Artaudian framework. In fact Fassbinder was a great fan of Artaud (along with Brecht). His film Despair is dedicated to him. Some of Pasolini's tirades on modernity and rationality also have their precedents in Artaud. I haven't seen his film Salo but that would be a good example of "cinema of cruelty" as well.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Michael Cunningham: The Hours

Reading this novel by Michael Cunningham felt a little redundant after having seen the (excellent) film adaptation, specially when you realize that there are so many other books left unread and waiting to be picked up but I have found that, generally speaking, reading the book and watching the film enriches the experience of both. You begin to think what would a suitable visual analogue for some abstract idea expressed through words in the novel would look like on screen and conversely how can a mood created by a complex mise-en-scene (editing, music, composition, set-design, acting etc) be transformed into words on the page and can they ever have the same effect or even are they supposed to have the same effect? Is one medium more cerebral and distant than the other? It makes you think about the formal aspects of both artistic media.

Coming back to the book, I think the screenplay was able to capture almost all the details of the story in the book and if there are more details in the book they don't necessarily change our conception of the characters in the movie. One significant alteration was in the Laura Brown section of the story. In the book her depression and incipient madness comes across as more of that of a poet who hasn't yet found words and a voice of her own. In the film her character is much more generic - housewife with angst, direct out of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (another book I finished reading recently). Julianne Moore of course is astonishing in the role and it never really becomes a cliche. In fact I believe it is the strongest of the three sections, at least in the film.

There is also one more serious problem which is there in both the book and film. Cunningham is obviously trying to impersonate Virginia Woolf and write his own "Mrs Dalloway" but his novel is not a work of "woman's fiction" at all, not in the sense of what Woolf meant in her essay A Room of One's Own and indeed when she wrote "Mrs Dalloway". In The Hours there are sections in which we get access to the interior voice of Clarissa but most of the time we are watching her from the outside. It is sympathetic and understanding gaze, a gaze that never denies the complexity and depth of the subject but it is still a gaze. There is one major scene which makes the difference between Woolf's and Cunningham's novel clear. In Mrs Dalloway the character of Peter is shown through Clarissa's perspective and it is he who breaks down in front of her but in Cunningham's novel Louis (Peter's stand-in is now the lover of Richard) watches Clarissa as she breaks down in the kitchen ("I seem to be unraveling," she says).

I also had another major problem with the film which is there in the book too: that is, the way the character of Viriginia Woolf is imagined and described. I haven't read any of her biographies or letters, notes etc so I don't know how accurate or "true" those recreations and speculations about her thoughts really are. But even if they are from her diaries and notes and the real life incidents, still in the end it is too much rationalisation and demystification, something that can never fully explain where "Mrs Dalloway" came from. There are also lots of cliched sequences (like the one involving the dead bird) which felt awkward to me. I am also curious if she ever really said that line about how the poets and visionaries must die so that the rest of us can continue living. I guess, if it were a normal character it would have been okay with me but those thoughts were a little too simplistic and somewhat cliched to be coming out from Woolf's mind. Then again, it is perfectly possible that they are from her notes and diaries. Cunnigham lists a number of volumes of secondary literature on Woolf in his "note on sources" in the end. It is certainly a very well researched book. The New York section particularly is very rich in clues for those who remember Mrs Dalloway very well and have read it deeply and attentively. I need to read it again but one particular detail amused me very much. In Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway sees a face in the car window and thinks she might be the queen or the prime minister (or some important political figure, I forget which one exactly) and in Cunnigham's novel Clarissa sees a movie star and thinks it might be either Meryl Streep or Vanessa Redgrave. Yes, Cunningham had the film adaptation already in his mind, complete with who is going to play who!

This is, in the end, a very fine novel... a nice companion piece to Mrs Dalloway and also to the excellent film. I can't say if it deserved the Pulitzer or if it is a "modern classic" as one of the quotes on the back cover proudly exclaims. I personally doubt both. Also, am I the only one who finds this style of writing in present tense annoying and pretentious? It is there is so many contemporary novels. It really puts me off.

And finally to end, a morbid passage from the book:

"Yes, Clarissa thinks, it's time for the day to be over. We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep - it's as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of the windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we're very fortunate, by time itself. There's just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds or expectations, to burst open and give us everything we've ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more."

Sunday, July 06, 2008

William Holden Retrospective

The Lincoln Center Film Society is celebrating the career of Hollywood "Golden Boy" William Holden. There is a nice article at the museum of moving image website too which explains what made him a little different from his contemporary actors, even those who specialised in playing unlikable leading men and anti-heroes, like Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas (Ace in the Hole), Montgomery Clift (The Heiress, A Place in the Sun).

Such is the nature of our intimate, carking, rueful relationship with William Holden, on the surface one of the Hollywood century's typical all-purpose leading men, but beneath it the keeper of poisoned secrets, and a living embodiment of America's postwar self-doubt and idealistic failure. He seethed with disappointment as a persona, and we all knew what he meant. Holden was the anti-Duke, an avatar of hopelessness, shrouded in the smiling physique of an all-American boyo. For every high school football star turned pot-bellied gym teacher, every prom queen turned food-stamp mom, and every good-hearted B student turned Cracker Barrel waiter, Holden was the walking, talking, growling truth, in a sea of showbiz lies.

He played lots of normal characters too but I guess the "Joe Gillis" persona from Sunset Blvd is what has stuck with him.

I haven't seen a lot of his films yet, specially The Wild Bunch one of his most famous films.

Here is a video report on the retrospective...

Saturday, July 05, 2008

"physiological phenomenology of unending desolation"

That's the phrase of the day even though I don't really understand what it means exactly. It is from Susan Sontag's essay on Antonin Artaud, titled Approaching Artaud (collected in Under the Sign of Saturn).

"The language that Artaud uses is profoundly contradictory. His imagery is materialistic (making the mind into a thing or object ), but his demand on the mind amounts to the purest philosophical idealism. He refuses to consider consciousness except as a process. Yet it is the process character of consciousness, its unseizability and flux, that he experiences as hell. "The real pain," says Artaud, "is to feel one's thought shift within oneself."

The consequence of Artaud's verdict upon himself, his conviction of his chronic alienation from his own consciousness, is that his mental deficit becomes, directly or indirectly, the dominant, inexhaustible subject of his writings. Some of Artaud's accounts of his Passion of thought are almost too painful to read. He elaborates little on his emotions, panic, confusion, rage, dread. His gift was not for psychological understanding (which, not being good at it, he dismissed as trivial) but for a more original mode of description, a kind of physiological phenomenology of his unending desolation. Artaud's claim in The Nerve Meter that no one has ever so accurately charted his "intimate" self is not an exaggeration. Nowhere in the entire history of writing in the first person is there as tireless and detailed a record of the microstructure of mental pain."

Friday, July 04, 2008

Paul Schrader

I have been exploring Paul Schrader's website which collects his critical writings on cinema written over more than two decades. I don't understand why he didn't use a more straightforward website design. It is quite inconvenient as it is now.

Anyway, his much discussed article on film canon is also there. More than the list of the films at the end, it is the preceding discussion about the history and the necessity of artistic canons and criteria of judgment that is more interesting, both of which are essential to counter the growing fanboy culture in film appreciation, with its uncritical allegiance to personalities, genres or even national cinemas.

New York Times also has a short article on his 1985 film Mishima which has just been released on DVD by criterion. I haven't seen it but I am a big fan of its score (composed by Philip Glass)... Here is an extract.

In a Year of Thirteen Moons Discussion

Academic film criticism generally goes over my head but I found this long discussion on youtube about Fassbinder's In a Year with Thirteen Moons really excellent, specially the comments by Thomas Elsaesser.

In a year with thirteen moons is the most personal and the most intense of all his films. I didn't really like it when I first saw it but that was more because I tuned myself off while watching, as a self-protecting move! As this review in new york times says, "Without adequate preparation, the uninitiated movie patron might think he was having a nightmare about a nightmare." I think I am more well-prepared for it now, after having seen Berlin Alexanderplatz which deals with similar subjects and similar metaphors in a (comparatively) more understated manner. Like in Berlin Alexanderplatz there is an extraordinary monologue in Thirteen Moons about how suicide is an act of affirmation, because it is a negation of the negation (which is life itself or rather the will to live). Also in Berlin Alexanderplatz the slaughterhouse scenes are more stylized and Fassbinder gives them an obvious religious (Christian) resonance something which is not there in thirteen moons, at least not at an explicit level but it is definitely possible to read it that way. In fact Elsaesser says that it is an example of a "Christological narrative" and also that the skin flaying in the slaughterhouse sequence reminds him of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel painting, which depicts an artist as a self-flayer. Lots of high-falutin stuff...

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Mono no Aware

I was reading some articles about Ozu and came across this Japanese phrase - "mono no aware", which means something like "the pathos of things". There is an article on Japanese aesthetics on stanford encyclopedia of philosophy which talks about it and other concepts in more detail. Of course this is not something unique to Japanese culture or a Japanese way of looking at the world, it may actually be the most universal human experience of all but still it is nice to have a phrase or a concept dedicated to it.

There is also latin phrase "Lachrymae Rerum" which means the same thing (the tears of things in this case.) My personal favourite though is the German word Weltschmerz ("world pain") or the pain of "being in the world".

There are some other interesting things in the article on Japanese aesthetics too. I specially liked the concept of wabi which means austere and minimalistic beauty - beauty but with moderation. "Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, at the moon only when it is cloudless?”" No, he answers, bare branches can be as beautiful. This concept is quite applicable to Ozu's films as well.

The aesthetic idea behind Ikebana (Japanese art of flower arrangement) didn't convince me though.

"There is something curiously deceptive, from the Buddhist viewpoint of the impermanence of all things, about plants, which, by sinking roots into the earth and lacking locomotion, assume an appearance of being especially “at home” wherever they are. In severing the flowers from their roots, Nishitani suggests, and placing them in an alcove, one is letting them show themselves as they truly are: as absolutely rootless as every other being in this world of radical impermanence."

This didn't make sense to me - biologically, aesthetically, ethically or any other way flower-cutting seems to me unjustifiable.