Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Marx Family Saga

I was extremely impressed by Juan Goytisolo's Count Julian when I read it last year even though parts of it went over my head. The Marx Family Saga is written in a similar defiantly experimental style which is designed to test even the most adventurous reader's patience and annoy those who look for conventional narrative and characters in a novel. The narrator of the novel, who is addressed as "you" throughout, is writing a biographical novel about Marx and his wife Jenny but it is actually a hodge-podge of imagined details from Marx's daily family life, anachronisms, random sounding diatribes and hazy connections between Marxist theory and the politics of the modern world - failed states, disaster of communism, the so-called end of history and ideology, triumph of consumer capitalism etc. It is all as anarchic as it can possibly be. Naturally the author-narrator has problems with his publisher (named "Mr. Faulkner") and his hired consultant who is intent on giving him advice about how to write fiction which is to put in lots of "Facts", write psychological profiles, move people's hearts, in short write a Dickensian epic about poverty and struggle. (Dickens and Balzac, or rather their imitators, are summoned for special ridicule throughout the novel.) So that is a parallel thread that runs throughout the novel, other than the anarchic glimpses into Marx's family life.

His manuscript (actually same as what we are reading) is exactly opposite of his publisher's idea of what a novel should be. As he says:

"the text you put before me is a mere succession of sketches, plans, outlines, notes, doodles and drafts
(would he use up the list from the Dictionary of Synonyms sitting on his table in order to ram his point home?)
no organising thread, no plot, the reader loses his way in a sea of contradictory data and ridiculous anachronisms! whenever he comes across a story, you make sure you knock him off course and bring him back to the start, to zero, to nothingness! do you have any objections to what I'm saying? "

or a little later giving him an example from Dickens:

"publisher: the world of David Copperfield, extreme poverty, changes of fortune, strategies for survival! collecting money, scrounging off Engels, legacies from friends and relatives, the inheritance of Carolina von Westphalen and, finally, from Marx's mother! What a merry-go-round of action, goods and chattels! a mixture of real-life dramas and coincidences to delight your readers! if you kept strictly to that you'd even have material for an excellent television adaptation, an international super co-production."

Apart from his publisher he also gets long commentaries from a feminist critic named Ms. Lewin-Strauss who subjects Marx to a critical scrutiny because of how he treated his wife and daughters and the way the narrator himself is oblivious of all the implications of the this aspect of Marx's personal history to his overall political vision. This part is really a delight to read.

A lot of it will make sense only to those who are familiar with details of Marx's life and times because most of it is a parody and "abuse" of those facts. From what I could gather the main idea of the book is that the truth of fiction is in direct opposition to the truth of facts because only in the former we can have individuality and freedom. To Goytisolo writing pseudo-Dickensian epics is a betrayal of writer's vision.

AS the excerpts above might have shown this is an unusual book even in the way it looks. There are strange typographical details, arbitrary paragraph breaks, no full-stops, no speech quotes. His sentences don't begin and they do not end either. Everything is a mess, and deliberate so. Still I missed the way he used colon in Count Julian and more importantly the breathless intensity and bitterness of that book are absent too (Mario Vargas Llosa called that book "a crime of passion") which made it a rather disappointing read. The complete review however gives it an "A+" rating which is their highest. As with Count Julian, reading it is a lot of work, specially for ill-informed readers, which might be one reason why I didn't really enjoy it.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Meet Me in St Louis

Filling up the gap in my film history education, as I haven't seen even the most famous and classic movie musicals which everyone else seems to have. This 1944 film by Vincent Minnelli looks to me the most typical and generic of not only musicals but also those movies in which everything ends happily ever after just right at the time of Christmas.

As I said in my post on The Bandwagon, criticising these films feels pointless, and worse, almost like kicking a puppy, however irritatingly cute. Meet me in St Louis makes a case for regionalistic identity and the value of family and community ties - though it doesn't really take this theme of big city vs small town life too far. The songs are all wonderful though there aren't as many I would have liked. I specially loved the "The Boy Next Door" and "The Trolley Song". The title tune is also great, something that will keep you humming long after you have seen it.

Unlike in regular musicals most of the songs are not part of the narrative and they don't forward the plot, on the other hand they halt the narrative by making us aware of the inner feelings and mood of the character, which normal dialogues wouldn't have been able to do. Unlike The Bandwagon this is also much more conventional in visual design - there are no graceful camera movements or dissolves or things like that. It is mostly static with characters just standing and singing.

It is not all happy ending however. There is a little girl who is alarmingly obsessed with death, though ultimately her artificial cuteness offsets any dramatic import that those scenes might have had. There is however one scene in which she "kills" her ice statues after realizing that she wouldn't be able to take them with her when she leaves St. Louis which is genuinely powerful. Overall a good wholesome entertainment something I should have seen when I was a kid.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Day of Wrath

Jim Hoberman in Village Voice on what must be one of the greatest films ever made - Carl Th. Dreyer's Day of Wrath. I was stumped though at a gratuitous reference to Iran. I mean it is not wrong and at worst it is debatable but it still felt out place.

He also talks about Vampyr which has been recently released on DVD by criterion. Something that will interest trivia buffs: Sybille Schmitz who starred in the film was the real-life model and inspiration for Fassbinder's Veronika Voss, a painful film about a painful life.

On Competition and Suicide

Just out of the blue...

I think Competition is the single most powerful engine of dehumanization in the modern world - this idea that people can be reduced to their skills, and that we can measure the worth of their skills in quantifiable terms and then rank them accordingly feels like an affront to me and yet what can we do if we want to survive, other than to acquiesce to all this Darwinian struggle? Competition drains out all the life and humanity from people.

I was also thinking about Fassbinder's film In a year of thirteen moons for some reason (even though I haven't seen it recently) specially the question whether Suicide is an act of affirmation (saying YES) or an act of negation (saying NO). Fassbinder thinks it is the former and I seem to agree or else if it is a negation of a negation, which is ultimately same as affirmation. Life to me feels like an act of constant resistance - resistance against this impulse to say yes, ultimately futile but that doesn't matter. The Melancholy of Resistance - that's life.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Robert Altman: Tanner '88

I spent most of last weekend watching the mini-series Tanner '88 and its sequel Tanner on Tanner both directed by Robert Altman and written by "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau. Overall eight hours pretty well spent. I think these two will serve as excellent companion pieces to Altman's classic Nashville - all together they are like a mini-course in American politics, media and culture. Besides being educational, it is also hugely entertaining even for those like myself who are not really keen and attentive followers of nuts and bolts of American politics.

The basic idea of the series was quite revolutionary at that time though it has become very familiar now, in this age of ubiquitous reality TV. They created a fake democratic presidential candidate Jack Tanner, played marvelously by Michael Murphy who also played a similar role in Nashville, complete with a past career etc, gave him a fake campaign management team and sent him on a real (as in really real) campaign trail where he meets and greets real people and real politicians and public figures. The main theme of the series is that there is no (okay, make it very little) reality or authenticity in American democracy or politics. And for this same exact reason, Altman seems to remind us, a reality TV show can capture the essence of the American democratic process because there is very little reality in reality TV either! It is also a fabrication, it is all about image!

What makes it so interesting and engrossing is that the series shows this process by which a normal human being gets transformed into an image created by TV and media. We are introduced to Jack Tanner as a professor with a PhD and his campaign slogan is an obvious joke: "For Real". Soon we see a random sample of people disapproving of the promotional video which prompts his team to do a video critique and do alterations which will be more in line with people's expectations and opinions. Like for example, he can't hold a baby properly (ruining a photo-op) so his staffers bring in a fake baby so that he can train himself. He goes to some self-help pseudo-Yoga institute where he gets to learn how to never get tense and lose his cool by controlling his abdominal muscles and on and on.

Jack Tanner is just one of the huge cast of characters and in typical Altman fashion even the most secondary characters get chances to shine in front of the camera at some point or the other. Other than Tanner we have his chain-smoking hyper-energetic chief campaign manager "T.J. Cavanaugh" played wonderfully by Pamela Reed. Her assistant is a little ditzy, and a bit dim female staff who has many funny moments. His daughter is again a hyper-energetic politically idealistic teenager who is always getting her dad into trouble, like getting him arrested in an anti-apartheid protest. There are usual bunch of journalists all portrayed in typical Altman-esque fashion - in short they are all wonderful. Their polyphonic banter and chaotic tos and fros reveals more about human character that even a well-written monologue won't be able to do. There are lots of scenes in the series which are memorable. One of my favourite is when Tanner's Dad, an army man, raises a toast to his son's wedding (a shotgun wedding to be particular but I won't reveal the details here). Another wonderful scene in which Tanner breaks into a monologue about "the favourite Beatle". Yet another memorable and powerful scene is when he visits Detroit and listens to a rap performance about urban decay and street violence. It is really spine-chilling. Youtube doesn't seem to have the clip.

Of course one needs to know all the names to fully appreciate all the jokes: Mike and Kitty Dukakis, Gary Hart, Gloria Steinem, Phyllis Schlaffy but in an in-joke Studs Terkel says that he supports Jack Tanner because he is the only candidate who knows the name of some obscure labour leader (I have already forgotten the name) indicating that even the American public and people in active politics also don't know all the finer aspects of the politics so may be it is okay to see it from a point of view of ignorance. In another joke, one of the guys on his staff says that he would like to marry Gloria Steinem just by looking at her picture on TV without knowing who she is (a feminist critical of the institution of marriage)!

Tanner on Tanner the sequel which came 16 years later keeps all the good things from the original show and ups the ante on drama and self-reflexivity even higher. His daughter Alex Tanner is now an activist documentary film maker who is planning to make a documentary on his father's presidential run in '88. After a disastrous screening at the "rough cut festival" and getting an advice from Robert Redford himself (for real) she follows her dad to the ongoing democratic convention to record his interviews with his colleagues asking them to reminisce about what the 88 campaign really meant to them. She has an absolutely hilarious three way confrontation with Alex Kerry, daugher of John Kerry and a documentary film maker in real life, and Ronald Reagan Jr which is really just one of many great moments in the film. This is also much more self-reflexive than the original show. Everybody seems to have a video camera. There are documentary film makers who are making documentaries about documentary film makers. There is a student who is following Alex to make a film for his class project etc etc. As Martin Scorsese, in a hilarious cameo, exasperatedly says in the beginning "Everybody is making pictures these days!" Cynthia Nixon in the role of Alex just steals the show as it is much more focused on her character than the original which was much looser. Besides politics Tanner on Tanner works as a satire of documentary film making itself too.

Altman in the interview says that it is the most creative work he has ever done which may or may not be true but it is without doubt a very complex and fascinating piece of work which at the same time is also illuminating and also entertaining and that is really a lot. More details from these articles in Slate and New Yorker

Viennese Miscellany

Paul has just been back from a trip to Austria and has been blogging about his experiences. His blogs are full of a lot of useful and erudite links, so I thought I will just bookmark it here. For starters : an article on Musil's diaries.

"Robert Musil was a truculent citizen of a vanished empire. Old Austria may have been defunct after 1918 but in Musil's excoriating imagination it lived on with perhaps even more hectic exuberance than it once had lived. This was not due to nostalgia on his part. To those who questioned him, he spoke of his homeland as of a world that had utterly ceased to exist (post-Habsburg Austria not, apparently, deserving mention--though Musil did argue against the Anschluss). One of his admiring interlocutors, the Swiss historian and diplomat Carl J. Burckhardt, who met Musil in Geneva at the beginning of World War Two, quickly realized that he, and other well-wishers like himself, "had no real inkling of the Double Monarchy that Musil carried in his heart." Burckhardt found it "spooky" (unheimlich) to hear Musil converse of Austria, in its "astounding depth and breadth," as "of something dead." In another sense, however, "Old Austria" remained alive only as long as Musil's magnum opus, the gigantic novel The Man without Qualities, remained unfinished.(1) This, in fact, rather than any practical or technical exigency, seems to me the profounder reason as to why Musil could never manage to bring his great work to completion. To conclude the novel was to screw the coffinlid definitively into place on the world it had summoned up. "

Satantango Extract

I have been eagerly waiting for the English translation of Laszlo Krasznahorkai's Satantango. I was surprised (and impressed) to see that Almost Island, an Indian literary webzine, has published an exclusive translated extract from the book. I looked around a little and saw that George Szirtes who has translated Krasznahorkai's The Melancholy of Resistance and War and War, and who is also a poet, is on the editorial board of the magazine. I really hope this comes out soon and may be in this case the book will take less time to read than what it takes to watch the film based on it (7 Hours).

I have been proselytizing for The Melancholy of Resistance ever since I read it a couple of years back. It is really one of the most brilliant and stunning contemporary novels that I have read. It also won the Dispatches from Zembla book of the year award in 2006!

Update: There is also an essay by Italian critic Claudio Magris (pdf link or if you like clicking while reading, here), who has written a lot on Central European literature and culture including on some of my favourite novelists - Musil, Roth, Svevo and others but his essays are not readily available in English. His book Danube, a Central european cultural history cum travel book, has been on my to-read list for a long time. (Link Via Space Bar)

I had earlier linked to an article on Satantango by Tim Wilkinson, who has translated Imre Kertesz, on the Hungarian literature website.

Monday, August 25, 2008

I'm Not There

It is often said that becoming an artist or a poet is the same as finding a "voice," which is seen as the key to authenticity, to who one is, the true self but what if one keeps reinventing the self? And after all isn't that what being in the world ultimately means? Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, the best and certainly the most interesting American film of last year, poses these and many other questions and makes you think about them too. The only problem, or actually more accurately an impediment, is that Haynes assumes an extensive familiarity with Dylan's work and career (and not so much his personal life) and also wider American cultural history in general. Those who are not steeped in these matters will find themselves baffled by the film, as I certainly was when I saw it last year. The new two-disc special edition DVD comes to rescue with a nice commentary and supplementary materials which to some extent provide the much needed footnotes to the film.

As probably everybody knows this is not a dramatization of Bob Dylan's life. It is more like an advanced level critical essay on his work - part biographical yes, but more a work of cultural criticism. We see many different aspects of the idea of Bob Dylan. We see him as Rimbaud explicating his philosophy of self and language by answering questions in some kind of court room trial. The title of film, though taken directly from one of his songs, also seems to make a reference to the oft-quoted line by Rimbaud - "I is someone else", which in other words means that the moment you conceptualize your self as an abstraction you are already alienated from that idea. By casting Bob Dylan in this light Haynes himself acknowledges the limitations of any straightforwardly "factual" way of approaching him. So in other narratives which run in parallel throughout the film, Haynes tries to capture the various facets of "idea" of Dylan as constructed by his fans and admirers, the idea as an amalgamation of his influences, the idea as a spontaneous outcome of a specific subculture in a specific time and place. He also delves into his personal life but again more interested in a generalized idea. Played by Heath Ledger, it is actually the weakest section of the film for obvious reasons since it feels so far removed from his "work". I was also baffled by the "Billy the Kid" section and I am also not familiar with the Sam Peckinpah film in which Dylan acted so may be that's one reason.

As noted elsewhere also the best part is the one played by Cate Blanchett - the celebrity prophet, the so-called "voice of the generation", hounded by reporters and fans. It is also the most inspired section in visual terms. Haynes pays homage to 8 1/2, which actually enriches it thematically besides making it look absolutely ravishing. Haynes also says that he was making references to Godard's 60s films in the Heath Ledger section but I couldn't really appreciate it. He also says that he cast Charlotte Gainsbourg because she looked like the "kind" of woman which would have interested Dylan - again making it clear that the film is not interested in character but rather an idea or abstraction.

I had a couple of complaints or rather doubts about the film. First, Haynes makes absolutely no reference to Dylan's "real" ethnic roots. I understand the idea here is to show him rejecting any passively imposed identity and create and invent new ones for himself but it would have made more sense to show what he was really escaping from or rejecting. I find it specially intriguing because being a Jew he belonged to an ethnic minority in America. Without this his conversion to christianity and his later "religious" phase (you have to always use quotes talking about this film!) doesn't make a lot of sense. The other complaint is about the songs. With someone as imaginative and intelligent as Haynes at the helm I expected some sharp interpretations of his songs. As it is now, there is only one sequence which comes close to doing it - the sequence where Cate Blanchett sings about the mysterious "Mr. Jones". This is probably the best scene in the film too. (It can be seen here. The original is here.) In one other case however Haynes almost spoils a great song (contains mild nudity).

Overall this is not only a fascinating film but also demanding and very intellectually engaging. For those who are new or unfamiliar with Dylan it will inspire them to take a trip to the library or a bookstore and get a volume of one of those critical cultural and historical studies inspired by his work (I haven't done it yet) and there is no greater proof of the success of the film. This is also I think a major step forward for Haynes in what already looks like a very important body of work in contemporary American cinema. Both Safe and Far From Heaven are major and important masterworks and Velvet Goldmine was great too. I have been looking to get my hand on "Poison" and some of his early experimental medium length films but haven't been able to so far.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The War of the End of the World

Does anybody know what the image on the cover of this book means in the context of Christian narratives about the end of the world? The wikipedia article on Eschatology doesn't have anything. (I didn't read it fully, I just searched for "dog"). May be it is just a generic picture with dog as devil fighting the angel (of death?) but it does seem much more specific than that or may be it is not related to all this at all. The edition I read from had a different, much more abstract cover with a vulture in the sky and an abstracted and bleak landscape below littered with skulls. Anyway, I was thinking about this book after this discussion about Mario Vargas Llosa and the Latin American novel on Madhuri's blog. This is my personal favourite of his novels and I think it is a must-read for anyone interested in latin american culture, politics and history. At over 600 pages it is also a huge novel but at the same time a complete page-turner too.

A few words about the novel now that I am at it. Some people complain that it is rather simple and straightforward in style and and that Vargas Llosa eschews experimentation which has become one of the hallmarks of the latin american novel (and I am not talking about the awful and rather condescending tag of "magical realism" here). I will be the last person to defend stylistic conservatism but in this case the form of the novel is determined by what Vargas Llosa was aiming to achieve - that is, to represent a real historical event in all its complexity and the multitude of often contradictory voices without privileging one over the other. This is in fact a great example of what the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin called the "polyphonic novel," and it is specially important for Vargas Llosa to follow this idiom because it is such a politically charged subject that it could have easily become a propagandist work if handled in any other way.

The novel fictionalizes a real event from Brazil's modern history - the war of Canudos which took place in the late nineteenth century which was also one of the events which came to define modern Brazilian national identity by providing it with a legitimacy both against the monarchist forces and the provincial power centres. In Vargas Llosa's hands this story also becomes emblematic of violent entrances into modernity that many other third world countries went through too - the rise of the modern nation state and all the violence that it necessarily entailed.

The story that Vargas Llosa tells is extremely complex and cast incredibly huge and in fact I have forgotten lots of details in the last 4-5 years but surprisingly a lot of this book has stayed with me all this time. The main thread of the novel is about the rise to power of the central character (even though he always remains mysterious and in the background) Antonio the Counselor, a priest and a preacher, who thinks that the modern democratic and secularized republic which has overthrown the Christian monarchy is not only a repudiation of Christian teachings but in fact an agent of Satan and the harbinger of the end of the world. His cult is actually one of the many millenialist cults which arose from time to time in medieval Europe too, which also gives Llosa a chance to link this particular event to a larger current of history itself, not just religious but also modern Utopian political beliefs which were similarly propelled by similar messianism. The Counselor attracts a massive following consisting of bunch of colourful characters - bandits, prostitutes, beggars, circus freaks, in general poor, desperate and starving people of the region and also a European anarchist who sees in Counselor's utopian pursuit a reflection of his own ideological thinking. Of course it all ends badly and Vargas Llosa doesn't spare any of the details of the brutal and violent fate that most of these characters meet in the end.

What makes it so successful and powerful is, as I said above, its polyphonic complexity. Llosa was himself going through an ideological transformation at that time after having publicly broken off from the leftist movement but he never lets ideological bias colour his judgement at any place. He presents each of the characters on every side of the political spectrum with their own indirect interior monologues so that the reader himself can judge and think about their actions or else what happens to them. In the end a powerful feeling of despair does remain - the feeling of the essential senselessness and meaninglessness of history, the idea that history is just a sequence of calamities with no purpose at all, other than senseless violence itself. I don't think that this bleak and extremely pessimistic vision of history with its anti-Utopianism is the only valid reading of the novel. Like any complex and authentic work of art this leaves room open for multiple different interpretations. The book is actually dedicated to Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha who wrote the first account of the war based on his first hand experiences called Rebellion in the Backlands. It is considered an important literary work in its own right though it is not as famous in the English speaking world. There is a character of a journalist in the novel which seems to be modeled after him. In a rather plain and transparently metaphorical way Llosa makes him myopic - implying that even though he is able to see the events clearly he still misses the larger philosophical meaning of what happens. This is also a statement by Llosa justifying his own work as a novelist too. There are truths that only a novelist can find, truths that will always escape journalists and historians no matter how diligent, sincere and honest they may be. In short it is a huge novel but every bit worth the time and effort.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Set-up

Robert Wise's 1949 bleak and brutal film noir The Set-up is one of the best boxing films ever made. I was actually very surprised to learn that it was actually adapted from a narrative poem! Arts and Letters Daily now points me to a long essay on Joseph Moncure March, the poet and screenwriter who wrote it, which discusses this poem in great detail. It is also available on a very nice DVD with commentary by Martin Scorsese who speaks about its influence on his own work and also its very innovative narrative style - the story is told in (almost) real time. Actually the film is bookended by shots of a clock which actually shows the total time elapsed which is almost the same as the total length of the film itself. This is also one of Robert Ryan's greatest performances which makes you wish he had got more lead roles to play. In my opinion he was way ahead of actors and regular noir-leads like Robert Mitchum, Dana Andrews or Glenn Ford.

Otto Weininger

There is a very informative profile in Nextbook of the fascinating (and totally nutty) fin de siecle Viennese writer and thinker Otto Weininger, author of the notorious classic of misogyny and anti-semitism Sex and Character. I had mentioned him before here. This in particular cracked me up, he rather reluctantly concedes that women are not "animals or plants"...

It is when Weininger turns fully to the subject of Woman that the book begins its long slide into extremism. He proclaims Woman to be nullity itself: incapable of reason, creativity, or spiritual aspiration; sexually insatiable (“under the spell of the phallus”); psychologically incoherent, desiring nothing more than her own subordination to man—“a hollow vessel covered for a while in makeup and whitewash.” Although in a later chapter Weininger concedes that women are not “animals or plants,” but in fact “human beings,” they qualify for this distinction only in the most rudimentary, basely biological way. In a passage devoted to acknowledging the “meanness and inanity” that may appear in individual men, he nonetheless concludes that “the most superior woman is still infinitely inferior to the most inferior men.”

Link via complete review which has some more links.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Robert Altman: California Split

As a recent Robert Altman convert I have been trying to see as many of his films as I can. He had an almost incredible run of artistic (if not always commercial) success in the 70s. This 1974 film suffers in comparison a little but that is only because other films like McCabe and Mrs Miller, MASH, Images, Nashville, The Long Goodbye and Thieves Like Us are all such great masterpieces. I will try to write down about these films soon too when I get time and a chance to re-watch them which I think is necessary because his style is so rich and complex that even the most attentive and active viewer can't grasp and follow everything in just one viewing alone.

First, because of his oft-mentioned soundtrack design which incorporates multiple narrative voices at the same time. Altman doesn't distinguish or privilege one from the other, it is not as if there is something in the background running only for an effect and atmosphere. The viewer has to actively choose and decide what to listen to. Similarly his ever mobile camera preempts traditional audience expectations because we are never sure about who the real protagonist is in any particular scene. One character might be speaking and before he or she even completes the camera moves away from him or her and some other background track comes into focus. He is truly a great experimental film maker but his experimentation never comes across as gimmicky and are never meant to alienate the audience, on the other hand they inspire the audiences to do a lot of hard work of their own.

Coming to California Split the film follows two Gambling addicts Will, a magazine editor played by George Segal, and Charlie, played by Elliott Gould doing the same inspired mumbling-to-self routine which he perfected to sublime heights in The Long Goodbye, as they tour the poker, gambling, racing and betting centers looking for money to win and lose. Charlie is just a layabout who lives with a couple of prostitutes, one of them played by Gwen Welles who was painfully vulnerable in Nashville as a talentless singer who is forced to do a striptease to get a singing break and plays a similar role here. The other actress Ann Prentiss is quite good too though they both have only a few scenes. Will and Charlie strike up a friendship at the beginning because they feel that their companionship brings luck to each other. The film just follows a few parallel narratives in the lives of these four characters the main of which follows Will as he struggles with his financial obligations. He finally decides to make a final and major killing in the small gambling town of Reno and ropes in Charlie to go with him but his success there leaves him with a feeling of crushing emptiness and on that note the film ends.

It is not that hard to notice that Altman wants us to see Gambling as a metaphor for life itself and specially life as defined by all the decisions we make and in that specially the life lived in America. He was himself a compulsive and recovering gambler and though his criticism is never harsh or categorical but it is still very powerful in the end. He sees it as a means of escape from "real life", the life defined by purposeful action and personal responsibility, without which there can be no real meaning to life and no genuine or lasting happiness. I personally know very little about card games (and nothing about Poker) and so I got a bit bored at places but he thankfully never overdoes it in the film, though still giving a fantastically detailed, even documentary-like, tour of this particular subculture in America. In short not as great as Altman's best but quite close... An article on the film here

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Senselessness is the eighth novel by Salvadoran writer Horacio Castllanos Moya but first to be translated into English and having now read it I am hoping that his publisher and translator are already working to bring out his other works in English for it is truly a remarkable and a very original book.

As has been noted in other reviews Moya is a great admirer of Thomas Bernhard and the prose style in the book feels like a conscious homage to him, specially in the way his sentences go on to great lengths and certain phrases are repeated as if in a musical refrain, which in effect manages to capture a state of mind which is breaking apart and going under the weight of its own consciousness. Other than that, Bernhard's peculiar style of narration also achieves this strange intermingling of "voices" and this suits Moya's subject in the book too.

The unnamed narrator of Senselessness, who is living in exile in a neighbouring country, has taken up the burdensome job from the catholic church of proofreading and editing 1,100 pages of confessions, testimonies and evidences of massacres of the native population and other atrocities perpetrated by the army. He soon finds himself falling under the spell of the strange poetics of the horror stories in the first person testimonies in the report: "I am not all complete in the mind" says one and at other place another voice laments, "The houses they were sad because no people were inside them..." He notes these down in his personal notebook and obsesses about the "sonority" and "curious syntactic constructions", comparing them to the poetry of Cesar Vallejo who tried to incorporate indigenous voices into his poetry too. He also decides not to share one of these fragments with his employer and colleague because he thinks (and this underscores what I think is the main theme of the book too) that they "might see me as a deluded literati seeking poetry where there were only brutal denunciations of crimes against humanity ... that he would think that I was a simple stylist who wasn't paying any attention to the content of the report."

This is only half of the novel. The other parallel narrative track follows his growing paranoia as he distrusts both the church and the military, which still employs one of the perpetrators of the atrocities, in fact as a senior officer even. He is also a compulsive drinker and is obsessed with sex. All of this result in some strange humour which is all the more unsettling because it feels so out of place. Still there is one "sex-scene" which is really one of the most comical things I have read in a long time. I still don't exactly know what to make of this part of the novel but the remarkable end does put a perspective to all the paranoiac ravings that preceded it.

Lastly, and this may be a potential spoiler, the book reminded me of Francisco Goldman's The Art of Political Murder (Review from new york times here) which was widely reviewed last year and which talks of a very similar incident in Guatemala. I haven't read the book but it seemed Moya is using the same real life incident as a starting point for this book. Of the few reviews I read of the book, none of them have mentioned it.

In the end, neither the Thomas Bernhard homage nor the real life connection take anything away from it or diminish Moya's achievement in any way. It is one of the most unusual and original books I have read in quite some time. Also, I wish they had kept the original Spanish cover of the book. It wonderfully captures what is inside.

Update: This article talks about the background in detail and also mentions the truth and reconciliation commission in Guatemala which inspired this book.

Also, among other reviews I liked this one in the village voice. Another enthusiastic (and exhortatory) review from Kubla.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Oblomov's Dream

An extract from one of my favourite books Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov. (The whole book is available here, though I recommend picking up a regular copy.)

"WE find ourselves transported to a land where neither sea nor mountains nor crags nor precipices nor lonely forests exist--where, in short, there exists nothing grand or wild or immense.

Of what advantage, indeed, is the grand, the immense? The ocean depresses the soul of man, and at the sight of its boundless expanse of billows--an expanse whereon the weary eye is allowed no resting-place from the uniformity of the picture--the heart of man grows troubled within him, and he derives no solace from the roaring and mad rolling of the waves. Ever since the world began, those waves have sung the same dim, enigmatical song. Ever since the world began, they have voiced but the querulous lament of a monster which, everlastingly doomed to torment, utters a chorus of shrill, malicious cries. On the shores of the sea no bird warbles; only the silent gulls, like lost spirits, flit wearily along its margin, or circle over its surface. In the presence of that turmoil of nature the roar even of the wildest beast sounds weak, and the voice of man becomes wholly overwhelmed. Yes, beside it man's form looks so small and fragile that it is swallowed up amid the myriad details of the gigantic picture. That alone may be why contemplation of the ocean depresses man's soul. During periods, also, of calm and immobility his spirit derives no comfort from the spectacle; for in the scarcely perceptible oscillation of the watery mass he sees ever the slumbering, incomprehensible force which, until recently, has been mocking his proud will and, as it were, submerging his boldest schemes, his most dearly cherished labours and endeavours.

In the same way, mountains and gorges were not created to afford man encouragement, inasmuch as, with their terrible, menacing aspect, they seem to him the fangs and talons of some gigantic wild beast--of a beast which is reaching forth in an effort to devour him. Too vividly they remind him of his own frail build; too painfully they cause him to go in fear for his life. And over the summits of those crags and precipices the heavens look so remote and unattainable that they seem to have become removed out of the ken of humanity.

Not so that peaceful corner of the earth upon which our hero, in his slumber, opened his eyes. There, on the contrary, the heavens seemed to hug the earth--not in order that they might the better aim their thunderbolts, but in order that they might the closer enfold it in a loving embrace. In fact, they hovered low in order that, like a sheltering, paternal roof, they might guard this chosen corner of the earth from every adversity. Meanwhile the sun shone warm and bright during half the year, and, withdrawing, did so so slowly and reluctantly that it seemed ever to be turning back for one more look at the beloved spot, as though wishing to give it one more bright, warm day before the approaching weather of autumn. Also the hills of that spot were no more than reduced models of the terrible mountains which, in other localities, rear themselves to aff right the imagination. Rather, they resembled the gentle slopes down which one may roll in sport, or where one may sit and gaze dreamily at the declining sun. Below them, toying and frisking, ran a stream. In one place it discharged itself into a broad pool, in another it hurried along in a narrow thread, in a third it slackened its pace to a sudden mood of reverie, and, barely gliding over the stones, threw out on either side small rivulets whereof the gentle burbling seemed to invite sleep. Everywhere the vicinity of this corner of the earth presented a series of landscape studies and cheerful, smiling vistas. The sandy, shelving bank of the stream, a small copse which descended from the summit of that bank to the water, a winding ravine of which the depths were penetrated by a rill, a plantation of birch-trees--all these things seemed purposely to be fitted into one another, and to have been drawn by the hand of a master. Both the troubled heart and the heart which has never known care might have yearned to hide themselves in this forgotten corner of the world, and to live its life of ineffable happiness. Everything promised a quiet existence which should last until the grey hairs were come, and thereafter a death so gradual as almost to resemble the approach of sleep. "


This is featured in Max Ophuls' Letter from an Unknown Woman, briefly mentioned before here. Wikipedia has some more technical information.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Jim Thompson: Disappointed!

Just finished reading Jim Thompson's crime classic The Killer Inside Me. I found it rather disappointing, specially after reading all the comments on the blurb. One of them says that "if Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich would come together in an ungodly union, the result would be Jim Thompson." The other calls him "hardboiled Dante" and "dimestore Dostoevsky" and proclaims, "read Thompson and take a tour of hell." No less figure than Stanley Kubrick himself says that the book is "probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered." Thompson also wrote the screenplay of The Killing and Paths of Glory, two of his best films in my opinion.

As must be evident from the blog, I don't get to read genre-fiction at all. It is not really a matter of bias, snobbery or any such thing. There are just too many other books to read which feel more "essential" and more deserving of the limited time and effort that I have to spent on reading. (I really need to read Henry James for example.)

I think there are two problems which I have with these kinds of books. The first is that they are full of dialogues and superficial action, which somehow makes for a tedious reading. I start thinking that I should rather be watching a movie, which is a much more economical, powerful and effective medium when it comes to depicting these elements of storytelling. For example I am a huge fan of the Poirot TV series (with David Suchet) but the Agatha Christie books don't excite me at all. Many of these classic crime novels were adapted into great classic movies (like Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, Midred Pierce) which I love very much, though again I don't feel excited enough to pick up the original books.

The other reason is that the book didn't really feel "dark" enough to me, specially after reading all those quotes on the blurb, and this is linked to the reason I mentioned above. There is too much reliance on external action and superficial behaviour and not enough ideas or introspective probing into the dark unconscious, and worse of all the flat and functional language devoid of all style. Specially for someone who has already read Dostoevsky, Robert Musil, Celine, Thomas Bernhard, Michel Houellebecq, Thompson's world will feel entirely made up and totally artificial - some sort of kiddie nihilism full of affectation. You just have to compare it with "Stavrogin's Confession" chapter from The Possessed or even Notes from Underground or the chapter from The Man Without Qualities in which Musil introduces the psychopathic serial killer Moosbrugger or in Confusions of Young Torless where Torless analyses the ethical issues of sadistic torture of one his classmates. All these are much more disturbing because they capture the workings of the warped minds and in some way shows them to be "understandable", which is the reason why reading them is so much more unsettling.

A good article on film adaptations of Jim Thompson's novels from the moving image website. I have only seen Bertrand Tavernier's Coup de Torchon, loosely based on his novel Pop. 1280, which is absolutely brilliant. Very dark, disturbing and even funny in a farcical way.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Great Silence

I don't like "Spaghetti Westerns" that much but this 1968 film The Great Silence by Sergio Corbucci really won me over, mainly on account of the shockingly bleak ending which is guaranteed to leave anyone gaping in horror and stunned disbelief. Sergio Leone's films and other revisionist westerns are also pessimistic but they are still centred around a more or less conventional masculine hero representing good who ultimately triumphs over evil, even though the films often acknowledge the moral and spiritual costs of revenge and violence. In Corbucci's world good however (or even moderately decent) has absolutely no chance of survival against evil and any kind of human decency always turns out to be a fatal and mortal weakness.

In the film Klaus Kinski plays a brutal and sadistic "bounty-hunter" named Loco who along with his minions is murdering petty outlaws to collect the reward which the law has placed on their heads. After one of his latest rounds of killings, the wife of one of his victims vows to take revenge and asks "the great silence" played by Jean-Louis Trintignant for help. He is introduced as a mythical, almost God-like figure, with one character claiming that he is called "silence" because wherever he goes "the silence of death follows." The real story turns out to be more prosaic and brutal. Basically when he was a kid one of those evil bounty-hunters murdered his parents and so that he wouldn't be able to speak as a witness they cut his throat and made him mute. So he has a personal grudge against Loco and the stage is set for the final confrontation but everything doesn't go as expected.

Corbucci's visual style is messy and nowhere near as elgant as Sergio Leone's, specially in the way the gunfight scenes are edited and spliced together. In great westerns these scenes come out as if elegantly choreographed but here it is mostly a mess. He however more than makes up for it by shooting the snow-covered landscapes in a very evocative manner. There are also some beautiful shots of mirrors and reflections.

The best part of the film however, and which makes the ending so powerful, is the score by Ennio Morricone. It must surely rank with one of his best (which admittedly will be much more than quite a few). It is not what one expects from a score for a western but it works beautifully all the more because of it. Unfortunately Kinski's voice is dubbed but he is still very good. Some of his closeups and his cold blue eyes send shivers down the spine. Trintignant doesn't have a word to say but he is also a very powerful presence in the film. The newcomer african-american actress Vonetta McGee is also quite good and I am guessing that the sex scene between her and Trintignant must also be one of the first to involve to a white hero and a black actress.

Throughout the film Corbucci makes his anarchistic (as opposed to Fascist) political ideas very clear. Unlike regular westerns, or even films like Dirty Harry which is based on the same mythology and character types, law isn't shown to be wimpy and unable to deal with criminals but rather law itself turns out to be the source of criminality and injustice. Throughout the film Loco keeps insisting that he is only following the law which makes him very different from conventional psychopathic villain, in the sense that he represents the "system" itself. In this light the unhappy ending makes even more sense.

The wikipedia article of the film is quite good. Not suprisingly Michael Haneke is a great fan of the ending too. The DVD also contains an alternative happy ending involving what can only be called a deus ex machina. It is ridiculous and funny in way and it seems Corbucci had a lot of fun shooting this alternative sequence.

Ivan Turgenev: Virgin Soil

Virgin Soil was the last and the longest novel that Turgenev wrote. The characters, the political and philosophical ideas, the writing style, the tone, all would be familiar to those who have read his earlier works like Fathers and Sons or Rudin. Like so many heroes in his novels, the protagonist of Virgin Soil Nezhdanov is also a "superfluous man" - an educated and over-sensitive young man, a misfit and an outsider, full of self-doubts and hesitations and torn between two poles of aestheticism and political commitment.

In one of his many melancholic and self-critical confessions in the book Nezhdanov says:

How I loathe this irritability, sensitiveness, impressionable- ness, fastidiousness, inherited from my aristocratic father! What right had he to bring me into this world, endowed with qualities quite unsuited to the sphere in which I must live? To create a bird and throw it in the water? An aesthetic amidst filth! A democrat, a lover of the people, yet the very smell of their filthy vodka makes me feel sick!

It is as if he is "possessed" by the idea of populist socialism, the idea that educated people must go to the russian peasantry and incite them to revolt against the Czarist authority. And yet he feels torn about his political commitment. Everything feels vague to him and he can't decide whether he really believes in "the cause." He despises himself for writing poetry which is what comes most naturally to him. There is a wonderful portrait of Marianna, the girl who falls in love with him and shares his political beliefs but more out of her contempt for the rich aristocratic way of life and conventions of society. Turgenev in a real life supported feminist ideas passionately and it shows in the way he creates these female characters. (He was also a good friend of George Sand, the great nineteenth century feminist novelist, alongwith Flaubert.)

Kubla has already written about this book comparing it with Dostoevsky's The Possessed which is very instructive because it dramatizes similar events but the tone and the style of the two books couldn't be more different. It is also interesting to note that Turgenev wrote this book before revolutionaries were apprehended for inciting revolts among workers and peasants in real-life. It was almost like a case of life imitating art. Dostoevsky's novel in contrast was written after the Nechaev affair. He distorts many of the revolutionaries characters, heaping contempt on them and ridiculing their political ideas. Turgenev on the other hand is much more sympathetic and generous even if he is equally pessimistic about their political beliefs.

Like his Fathers and Sons, Virgin Soil was also hugely controversial when it was published. Turgenev faced angry and impatient criticisms from both the left, who felt that he deliberated portrayed Nezhdanov as weak-willed and confused, and the slavophile, Conservative right for obvious reasons since it is obvious from the book that the prevailing status-quo disgusted Turgenev as much as the younger revolutionaries. The epigraph to the book puts the criticisms of the radicals rather succinctly:

"To turn over virgin soil it is necessary to use a deep plough going well into the earth, not a surface plough gliding lightly over the top."--From a Farmer's Notebook.

The reactions to his book in Russia contributed a lot to the bitterness of last few years of Turgenev's life in which he grew more and more pessimistic about Russia's future. Isaiah Berlin's brilliant essay on Turgenev links the reactions to his works to tragic current of russian history itself in which liberal and inclusive political beliefs were crushed and defeated by the extremes.

Some more information in this introduction[pdf] to the nyrb edition of the book

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Who Can Kill a Child?

As is clear from the title, this 1976 Horror film from Spain will not be to everybody's taste. Those who get past this initial hurdle will find themselves subjected to a long and horrific title sequence consisting of newsreel footage from the various horrors of twentieth century, holocaust, riots, famine, war etc showing children suffering, tortured, maimed and killed. I had convinced myself at that point that the film would be a fraud but ultimately it did manage to convince me of its sincerity and seriousness not long after. Many contemporary horror film makers also exploit real life horrors to justify depiction of torture and cruelty on screen (Abu Ghraib has become a familiar real life example) but watching the film itself shows how shameless and craven they are in exploiting those. I can't really pinpoint anything specific and in particular which makes Who Can Kill a Child? different and superior but I could sense a feeling of moral seriousness beneath the images of the film.

The effect of the title sequence remains with the viewer throughout the film and gives what follows a dark and despairing political subtext. The director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador in the interview says that it was his mistake to put the title sequence at the beginning and that he should have kept it for the end but personally I don't think it would have had the same effect as it does now. As the film starts we see a British couple vacationing in coastal Spain. The wife is in fact pregnant, in fact quite heavily so, which makes you wonder what they are really doing traipsing around so far away from home. (The pregnancy of course provides a horrific narrative payoff later in the film.) On their tourist excursion they find themselves on a small, remote island which initially seems to be eerily deserted with only unfriendly children and no adults in sight. They soon learn the horrific truth - children have had enough of the adult violence and it is now the payback time. I won't reveal what happens but it is quite violent (actually feels more violent than it actually is) and has a memorably bleak ending.

The look of the film is quite different from what one expects from a "horror" film - mainly because it is shot in blindingly shiny day light. The real locations are also very well exploited - there is something beautiful, bleak and eerie in that rural coastal landscape which contributes a lot to the resulting dread.

Pregnant women are advised to stay away and also those couples who are thinking about their decision to bring an innocent being into this violent and cruel world. Otherwise recommended to fans of serious and intelligent horror films. Guaranteed to leave you unsettled, even to give you a few nightmares.

Cinephile Games

David Bordwell has a hilarious article on cinephiles and "the games of one-upmanship" they like to play illustrated through sample conversations between "Jules and Jim". Most of us have been on both sides of the conversations, more so in the online world. Of course it is applicable to other fan subcultures too but may be it is a bit more widespread among cinephiles. And moreover unlike those crazy soccer fans at least it never gets violent among cinephiles.

This is for example what he calls "the depth strategy"

Jules: Great movie!

Jim: You said it. I especially liked the scene when the camera tracks sideways, picking up the back of the guy who’ll turn out to be so important at the end.

Jules: Yeah. . . Actually, I didn’t notice that.

Jim: You didn’t? Gosh, that’s the key to the whole movie. It sets up the last scene beautifully. Of course there’s also that killer opening line.

Jules (who doesn’t even remember the opening scene): Yeah, that was really effective.

Jules lost, and Jim knows it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dostoevsky & Terrorism

Adam Kirsch talks about Dostoevsky's novel "Demons" (The Possessed) in New York Sun and wonders if we will ever get anything like it for terrorists of our time. James Wood wrote about the same topic in The Guardian some time back.

It is ironical that Dostoevsky is being discussed in the context of terrorists who are motivated by fundamentalist religious belief when it is actually this religious suspension of the ethical (of course, as interpreted by them) that allows them to free themselves from personal responsibility. As Zizek says:

"More than a century ago, in "The Brothers Karamazov" and other works, Dostoyevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism, arguing in essence that if God doesn't exist, then everything is permitted. The French philosopher André Glucksmann even applied Dostoyevsky's critique of godless nihilism to 9/11, as the title of his book, "Dostoyevsky in Manhattan," suggests.

This argument couldn't have been more wrong: the lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted — at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the "godless" Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism. "

Robert Altman: Images

I came to Robert Altman late but he has now become my favourite modern American film maker. (David Lynch also has a special place in my heart and moreover he belongs to a younger generation.) Interestingly this 1972 venture sees Altman venturing into a territory Lynch would make his own a decade later. In the interview on the DVD Altman says that he first got the idea of the story from watching Bergman's Persona and at first he just had a single scene in his mind - that of a young woman mistaking her husband for a stranger and running off in fright when he tries to kiss her in bed.

The final finished story is difficult to summarize. It basically is a series of episodes over a few days from the life of a young married children's author Cathryn (played brilliantly by Susannah York) who suffers from hallucinatory fantasies about strange phone calls, ghosts of dead former lovers and a friendly neighbour attempting to rape her, as she and her husband have retreated to an eeriely remote place in the hills. This place might itself be part of her imagination since it looks more like a dreamscape. The film was actually shot in Ireland and it looks spectacular as captured by Altman's regular cinematographer if the period Vilmos Zsigmond.

More than Persona the film it reminded me of was Roman Polanski's Repulsion. In Repulsion it was sexual repression and pathological shyness which drives the young girl over the edge, while in this film it is the guilt of a previous extra-marital affair coupled with her own feelings of insecurity which makes her see things which may not be "real." She is afraid and suspicious of her husband's philanderings which makes her imagine phone calls with mysterious female voice informing where her husband might be. She feels guilty and is afraid of her past which makes her see her dead lover in person who she then tries to "kill" for real. One of her neighbours and house-guests tries to seduce her and may be since she is conflicted about her own desire she interprets it as an attempted rape resulting in a grisly scene similar to the one in Repulsion. "Woman having rape fantasies" is something that will make feminists nervous but this is only what I thought of. The film itself is too inconclusive and totally open to other interpretations.

His Persona inspiration is much more obvious in 3 Women. This film suffers a little in comparison because unlike in 3 Women we don't really see Altman's sharp and critical observations about how people talk and behave in the company of others, which is arguably what makes him so special and where his real strengths are. It is far too much introspective and interiorized. It is still much more than just interesting. I specially loved the way he weaves the children's story that Cathryn is writing and which she narrates on the soundtrack. A complex interleaved soundtrack is another Altman signature. Just like in complex deep-focus based mise-en-scene in which the viewer has to consciously decide which part of the frame to look at, in a Altman's film he has to decide which part of the soundtrack he should listen to. He also has this fantastic ability to make actors seem like real people and turn real people into actors. The camera is always moving, there are no lingering close-ups and no iconic shots. Stars or secondary characters all merge together in one background.

As I said before the the outdoor landscape shots are extraordinarily beautiful and evocative. Altman in the interview says that he deliberately kept the place from being specific so that it would have a dream-like quality and he succeeds brilliantly. This wintry, cloudy, fuzzy, somewhat impressionistic quality of the image was there in a lot of his other films of the period (McCabe and Mrs Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us) but this actually exceeds even all those other efforts. I personally love Altman when he is being satirical and critical but this self-consciously "arty" Altman also belongs in the top-tier.

Annals of Crime

Jonathan Raban writes an "In Cold Blood" style reportage about a real-life crime in the latest LRB.

Also somewhat related, from New Yorker, story of a teenage girl who committed suicide over an internet boyfriend who turned out to be a hoax.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Chaos of Melancholy

Haven't put up anything from The Anatomy of Melancholy in a long time so here it is. I love how he starts by "to speak in a word" and then goes on to his regular maniacal sentence full of repetitions and variations:

To speak in a word, there is nothing so vain, absurd, ridiculous, extravagant, impossible, incredible, so monstrous a chimera, so prodigious and strange, such as painters and poets durst not attempt, which they will not really fear, feign, suspect and imagine unto themselves: and that which Lod. Vives said in a jest of a silly country fellow, that killed his ass for drinking up the moon, ut lunam mundo redderet, you may truly say of them in earnest; they will act, conceive all extremes, contrarieties, and contradictions, and that in infinite varieties. Melancholici plane incredibilia sibi persuadent, ut vix omnibus saeculis duo reperti sint, qui idem imaginati sint (Erastus de Lamiis), scarce two of two thousand that concur in the same symptoms. The tower of Babel never yielded such confusion of tongues, as the chaos of melancholy doth variety of symptoms. There is in all melancholy similitudo dissimilis, like men's faces, a disagreeing likeness still; and as in a river we swim in the same place, though not in the same numerical water; as the same instrument affords several lessons, so the same disease yields diversity of symptoms. Which howsoever they be diverse, intricate, and hard to be confined, I will adventure yet in such a vast confusion and generality to bring them into some order; and so descend to particulars.

Previous extracts from the book here.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Isabelle Huppert

Actors who are able to play a wide variety of roles are generally considered more skillful than those who play a similar type of roles, however brilliantly. This is, I concede, not without justification and that's why I think Meryl Streep is a much more skillful actor than Isabelle Huppert. She can be an over-the-top villainous boss in one film (The Devil Wears Prada) and right in the next film can break your heart singing a sentimental ditty about her late "mama" (A Prairie Home Companion). In contrast Huppert through her choice of roles (and more than that her choice of directors) has confined herself to a very specific character type: frosty, distant, irritable, edgy, contemptuous and full of inarticulable pain and despair (just to list a few). As she says in this interview, "But if I do have a stereotype, I am my own stereotype. It's nice to change but you cannot totally give up who you are, even if you have a big temptation to do so." Even when she is doing a different role, like in Francois Ozon's comic farce 8 Women, she is actually in fact doing a self-parody. It won't make sense or be funny to those who are not aware of the "Isabelle Huppert" persona.

In her interviews she is very forthright and clear about her conception of cinema, which is hardline auteurist. She believes that cinema is the expression of director's personality and subjectivity and an actor is just a tool which enables him to realize his vision on screen. She won't agree with it but I think if one takes a look at her body of work she herself comes across as some kind of an auteur, maybe an auteur by proxy because she chooses directors who are close to her own personality. Even her external appearance seems to be remarkably consistent. She does change a few minor things (like hair for example) but she mostly remains the same, most remarkably her pale and ridiculously freckled skin (I can't imagine any other actor who has more freckles on her skin than her). She never hides it under makeup and in fact directors often highlight this aspect of her appearance. As her proud husband in Patrice Chereau's Gabrielle says, "Paleness is one of her attractions."

I think the most important thing that distinguishes her from most other actors, specially female actors, is her absolute refusal to exteriorize emotion and inner feelings. Instead she just gives hints about it through her face, body posture and her voice. It is upto the audience then to think and find out what is going on behind that cold, distant face of hers and it is this which results in a level of engagement deeper than what most actors are able to achieve. It also helps since most of the characters that she plays suffer because of their inability to articulate their inner thoughts and feelings. It is often claimed by feminists that patriarchal cinema aestheticizes female suffering and turns it into a spectacle, in the process objectifying it. (I agree with the aestheticization bit, but I don't believe it necessary objectifies suffering.) She seems to be very conscious of this line of thinking and as a result the suffering female characters that she plays are far from aestheticized. She makes it impossible to feel pity for her characters, that most disposable and easiest of all emotions. Instead she gets deeper into the subconscious of the viewer bypassing the simple emotional identification that most actors aim for. She also avoids the cliched psychologizing that many actors and directors use to create character.

I have seen quite a few of her interviews and indeed it comes as a shock to see her as easygoing and jovial. Though if one looks closely the distance and the feeling of "I'm not really here" is almost always there. In her interviews she also says that she doesn't have any conscious "technique" that she uses. She also says that she never does any kind of research into her roles and the text and the director are the only sources of external information she has and on which she bases her interpretation of the role. The interview was actually in the context of her performance in the play 4:48 Psychosis written by British playwright Sarah Kane. Soon after writing it Kane committed suicide (she was 28). I haven't seen or read the play but it is actually written like a suicide note and performed as a one and half-hour monologue by an actor who has to keep standing at the center of the stage grounded like a tree. Huppert received lot of critical acclaim for performing in this role but when the interviewer asked her if she did any research on why Kane committed suicide and any other reading on suicide she denied doing any of these things. For her it is just the immersion in the text coupled with her imagination that enabled her to get close to something as extreme as the subjectivity of the author in 4:48 Psychosis. I personally find it hard to believe that one can intuitively immerse one's self in such extreme situations but then I really find acting one of the most mysterious of all artistic activities. (Admittedly acting isn't always artistic but with her it is definitely an exception.)

One can really go on and on writing and talking about her. Her oeuvre is simply one of richest of all contemporary actors and provides food for endless intellectual and emotional stimulation. I personally have had quite a few nightmares about her after watching her films, something I can't say about any other actor. I find her very unsettling and very disturbing - almost as if she knows some dark and really terrible truth and is hiding it behind her pale face.

Below is my own top 10 favourite of her films (from the ones I have seen so far):

The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001): She plays an aging and repressed piano teacher who refuses to succumb to the seduction of a young admirer leading to extremely painful consequences. A very disturbing and depressing film, also a masterpiece.

Women's Affairs (Claude Chabrol, 1988): She plays an amateur abortionist in the Nazi occupied France with such chilliness that it sends shivers down your spine.

The Lacemaker (Claude Goretta, 1977): She was never more beautiful than in this film. She plays a young girl hopelessly in love but unable to articulate which is then mistaken for her dullness. Another painful and haunting portrait.

The Ceremony (Claude Chabrol, 1995): For a change she plays a flamboyant character, that of a psychopathic postoffice clerk who conspires to kill a bourgeois family with a murderous maid (played brilliantly by Sandrine Bonnaire in a Huppert-esque role)

Violette (Claude Chabrol, 1978): Based on a real story, she again plays an inarticulate teenager who plots to murder her parents to get money for her lover.

Loulou (Maurice Pialat, 1980): She plays a bourgeois wife who leaves her husband for a loutish man (played by Gerard Depardieu). She is again very beautiful in this film.

Madame Bovary (Claude Chabrol, 1988): Not really successful as a faithful adaptation, ironically because of Huppert's presence. Her Emma Bovary is much too deeper and complicated than the one in Flaubert's book.

Merci Pour le Chocolat (Claude Chabrol, 1999): If the sweetness of Hollywood Chocolat (with Juliette Binoche) had you puking this might be an antidote. Huppert has her own chocolate recipe which includes a dose of poison.

Gabrielle (Patrice Chereau, 2005): "Paleness is one of her attractions." A proud husband's life is shattered when one day her wife decides to leave him and then comes back.

8 Women/I heart huckabees (Francois Ozon/David O. Russell): As my one line summary might have indicated, these are not really what you would consider a "healthy" watching. So for a change these two light-hearted self-parodies.

The catalogue of the museum of modern art has more details about these and her other films. I want to see Malina which is based on the novel by Ingeborg Bachmann.

Some other interviews: from the guardian at the london film festival. A profile from Sight and Sound.

Male Desire: A Cancer Pain?

I was somewhat startled (and then amused) to read this in the review of Elegy in The Guardian:

What the film can't reproduce is the continuous, acrid pain of what male desire often is, thwarted or not: a continuous, day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute pain, almost like a cancer pain.

Lol! I must be undersexed but in my experience it feels mostly like an annoyance, a vague source of distraction and irritation. Like Bunuel I will heave a sigh of relief when I am old and finally free. Somehow it hasn't worked with Roth. He has got only hornier and hornier with age.

Meryl Streep

So I finally saw Mamma Mia! Awful as expected but I went ahead just because Meryl Streep was in it and watching her on screen is never less than interesting. Also nice to see a serious dramatic actress lighten up a little and having just a good time, all the time being very self-aware of the essential inconsequentiality of the whole enterprise.

Apart from that, she gets my vote for the greatest contemporary actress. My other personal favourite would be Isabelle Huppert but she has typecast herself into a very specific set of roles (more on her later). There was a great article by Molly Haskell in film comment a couple of months ago in which she discusses her entire career, her various screen personae and acting style. She has been lucky (and we the audiences have been luckier) that she has been able to get so many great roles late in her career, specially when so much of contemporary mainstream cinema is "tyrannized by the male adolescent demographic," as Haskell puts it. She was brilliant in almost all of her recent films such as The Hours, Angels in America, Adaptation, The Manchurian Candidate, Prime, The Devil Wears Prada or A Prairie Home Companion. As compared to her early successes she seems more natural and less "actress-y" (for example, her turn in Sophie's Choice which I don't like as much as everybody else seems to do.) In fact in films like The Devil Wears Prada and A Prairie Home Companion she is sp natural that it feels she is almost sleepwalking through the role. It is also what enables her to do Mamma Mia!, she doesn't want to "prove" anything right now. As Haskell says:

"She’s proving now, in the freedom and prosperity of a spectacularly attractive late middle age, that she can do effortless as well as strenuous, ensemble as well as star, enjoy rather than hide behind her talent. More than that, it’s as if audiences who’d been lulled into a catatonia of admiration or vexation were forced to wake up and take notice of the dazzling dexterity and audacity of this woman who’s amassed a body of work that’s phenomenal any way you look at it, but especially at a time and in a filmmaking climate tyrannized by the male adolescent demographic. From 1977 to 2007, three decades in which a Hollywood was busy merchandising global franchises and blockbusters and independent cinema was proving its cojones, Meryl Streep made 44 mostly high profile films. And, to borrow the anthem of Shirley MacLaine who plays her mother in Postcards from the Edge (90), “she’s still here”—not just here, but on her own terms, not Hollywood’s. "

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Cult of Suffering

More random excerpts for now. This is from "The artist as an exemplary sufferer," Susan Sontag's essay on Italian writer Cesare Pavese.

"Everyone knows that we have a different, much more emphatic view of love between the sexes than the ancient Greeks and the Orientals, and that the modern view of love is an extension of the spirit of Christianity, in however attenuated and secularized a form. But the cult of love is not, as Rougemont claims, a Christian heresy. Christianity is, from its inception (Paul), the romantic religion. The cult of love in the West is an aspect of the cult of suffering - suffering as the supreme token of seriousness (the paradigm of the Cross). We do not find among the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and the Orientals the same value placed on love because we do not find there the same positive value placed on suffering. Suffering was not the hallmark of seriousness; rather, seriousness was measured by one's ability to evade or transcend the penalty the suffering, by one's ability to achieve tranquility and equilibrium. In contrast, the sensibility we have inherited identifies spirituality and seriousness with turbulence, suffering, passion. For two thousand years, among Christians and Jews, it has been spiritually fashionable to be in pain. This is not love which we overvalue, but suffering - more precisely, the spiritual merits and benefits of suffering.

The modern contribution to this Christian sensibility has been to discover the making of works of art and the venture of sexual love as the two most exquisite sources of suffering. It is this that we look for in a writer's diary, and which Pavese provides in disquieting abundance."

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


Lots of obituaries everywhere, almost all saying very similar things. A representative one in the new york times, which has a comment which had me stumped. David Remnick (current editor of New Yorker and author of "Lenin's Tomb") defending him against charges of anti-semitism says that his mother-in-law was Jewish and so were "not a few of his friends"!!

I have only read his "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" and although I didn't read it long ago, all I am able to remember of it now is the the way it ends: "Just one of the 3,653 days of his sentence, from bell to bell. The extra three days were for leap years." I do hope to read his other books some time too. Two other books set in Stalin's Russia which are on my perennial to-read list are Victor Serge's The Case of Comrade Tulayev and Vasilly Grossman's Life and Fate.

Lenin's Tomb comments on some of the unsavoury aspects of his politics, including the fact that he said some nice things about the Franco dictatorship.

The Garden Culture

A short extract from Zygmunt Bauman's Modernity and the Holocaust (briefly mentioned here.)

"[This] is a gardener's vision, projected upon a world-size screen. The thoughts, feelings, dreams and drives of the designers of the perfect world are familiar to every gardener worth his name, though perhaps on a somewhat smaller scale. Some gardeners hate the weeds that spoil their design - that ugliness in the midst of beauty, litter in the midst of serene order. Some others are quite unemotional about them: just a problem to be solved, an extra job to be done. Not that it makes a difference to the weeds; both gardeners exterminate them. If asked or given a chance to pause and ponder, both would agree; weeds must die not so much because of what they are, as because of what the beautiful, orderly garden ought to be.

Modern culture is a garden culture. It defines itself as the design for an ideal life and a perfect arrangement of human conditions. It constructs its own identity out of distrust of nature. In fact, it defines itself and nature, and the distinction between them, through an endemic distrust of spontaneity and its longing for a better, and necessarily artificial, order. Apart from the overall plan, the artificial order of the garden needs tools and raw materials. It also needs defence - against the unrelenting danger of what is, obviously, a disorder. The order, first conceived of as a design, determines what is a tool, what is a raw material, what is useless, what is irrelevant, what is harmful, what is a weed or a pest. It classifies all elements of the universe by their relation to itself. This relation is the only meaning it grants them and tolerates - and the only justification of the gardener's actions, as differentiated as athe relations themselves. From the point of view of the design all actions are instrumental, while all the objects of action are either facilities or hindrances.
Modern genocide, like modern culture in general, is a gardener's job."

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Ek Akela...

There has been nothing about Bollywood on the blog in a long time so here it goes. This is the part of Bollywood I like and care about...

French Crime Wave

Film Forum has put together a terrific looking retrospective of classic French crime films. Their web page as usual is worth bookmarking. New York Times has a brief article about it. Also another one in village voice.

I have seen most of the famous ones. Two films I would really love to see on big screen are Eyes Without a Face and Wages of Fear. In homeviewing one doesn't get the feeling of being chained to the seats which is absolutely essential to experience these two.

Friday, August 01, 2008


William Wyler's 1936 drama about the dissolution of a wealthy American couple's marriage is one of his best efforts, may be only slightly below The Letter, Best Years of Our Lives or The Heiress (of the ones that I have seen). It is refreshingly mature and unsentimental in tackling a host of subjects and themes - American provincial life, European vs American culture, snobbery, gender, aging etc.

Walter Huston plays the title character, an auto mogul, who after selling his business, decides to go on a European tour with his wife Fran, played by Ruth Chatterston (who is very impressive in the role). In Europe they both realize that they want different things from life, though in their own ways they both are uncomfortable with the onset of old age. Fran gets herself involved with a bunch of rich and faded aristocrat type men but all her affairs come to nothing. Many of these scenes very subtly criticise European mores, it portrays these people as if they were still just pretending to believe in Old Europe. Fran's final lover is an Austrian aristocrat but has actually lost all his wealth and on top of that he is a hopeless mama's boy!

She also soon gets impatient with her husband's provincial and stubbornly "American" way of life, which as the film presents it, is much more "authentic" and devoid of hypocrisy. It doesn't however trumpet the triumphalism of American culture or even get self-righteous about it. It would have been tempting to turn the wife into a villain but Wyler manages to avoid that. He shows that their marriage, though outwardly successful, has been dull and lifeless all along, specially for Fran who has spent her entire life living as a model provincial wife. There is also a subplot involving Mary Astor who plays a seemingly happy widow with whom Dodsworth tries to imagine a life of meaning and adventure.

Huston deservedly got an Oscar nomination for the role. He is really pitch-perfect for the part and so is Ruth Chatterston in the role of the wife. We can see how subtly they are transformed from self-confident, happy, even smugly satisfied to dejected, anxious and fearful old couple. One of the better romantic dramas of classic hollywood.