Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Short Notes On Some Winners of Golden Palm

Last weekend the Collective Chaos film society had organized a mini-festival of five films which had won Golden Palms at the Cannes Film Festival in previous years. One of them was The Tin Drum, of which I wrote about here.

First, two really boring and rather uninteresting films. Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha was a disappointingly shallow epic story about Samurai warlords in medieval Japan. When a powerful warlord dies in one of his wars, a poor thief, who is his double, is asked to impersonate him. The thief finds it difficult in the beginning and clashes with the "spirit" of the warlord but eventually gets into his new role. Kurosawa attempts to give the narrative some depth by getting into the philosophical questions about what really constitutes human identity and things like that but his efforts in that direction remain essentially half-hearted. And at around three hours, it really tests your patience. Btw, I was surprised to see the names of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas in the list of the executive producers of the film. Was this the Hollywood movie Kurosawa trying to make? Perhaps that would explain the shallow spectacle part.

Another boring film was the (former) Yugoslavian film Underground directed by Emir Kusturica. The film recreates the entire Balkan history, from the second world war to the eventual dissolution of Yugoslavia into small states, using really outlandish fantasy narrative. I had seen the film before and I had no desire to sit through all the childish sequences again. The film does make you feel at the end as if you have seen an entire life time of those bunch of characters but Kusturica is so busy creating those fantastical set-pieces that he neglects actual historical events which underpin the narrative. So after the film you are as clueless about the history of the Balkan states as you were before. There are a few funny moments but they never work as a part of the whole. I ran out in the middle of the film.

Now two interesting, if still boring, films. Lars von Trier plumbs new heights of melodrama and absurdity in his Golden Palm winning Dancer in the Dark. In my opinion this is von Trier's weakest film (of all that I have seen so far). Perhaps the Cannes jury were undoing the damage they did in previous years by awarding genuine masterpieces like Breaking the Waves and Europa second rung prizes. But still I liked the song sequences specially when Bjork croons, "I've seen it all"! At least the deconstruction of the musical genre, although childish and simplistic, was interesting. Anyway the film ends tragically, which redeems many of its shortcomings (at least to me)! That's what persuaded me to sit for the second time for the film :)

The best of the lot was undoubtedly Abbas Kiarostami's A Taste of Cherry. I was seeing it the second time too and I was just floored by its simplicity. This film manages to raise big metaphysical questions without sounding pretentious for a moment. For more check out this essay on the film.

This weekend it is the set of three Guru Dutt's films. I have seen them all, but never on the big screen. Should be good hopefully.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Elfriede Jelinek's Lust: Random Thoughts

Finally finished reading Lust. It took quite an effort to do that. Both at the level of form and that of content the book is a challenge to read. Now at the end of it all, I must say I was slightly disappointed with the book. I like what Jelinek is trying to do in the book and also how she goes about doing it, but the book seemed more like a hurried rant built of trenchantly aphoristic asides, a rambling and incoherent essay on the war of the sexes told in a stream of consciousness style which never coalesces into a structured whole. It is also extremely repetitive. Same scene of rape and violence get repeated over and over like some tune in a musical piece. Perhaps that's what the Nobel academy meant when they pointed "musical flow of voices and counter-voices" in their prize citation!

Now I have absolutely no problem with novels written with a political agenda. I am not too fond of the philosophy of "art for art's sake", which as someone once said is the "philosophy of the well fed". I like books with "messages". I also don't look for story or plot in a novel, nor "psychologically well rounded" characters. I am entirely okay with political propaganda, it should just be written in a stylish and evocative prose and should be passionately argued.

I am also not a sentimental, romantic or a lovey-dovey kind of person and I am okay, in fact I whole-heartedly welcome it, when someone treats topics like sex, romance or love as subjects of political investigations and exposes fascist undercurrents, rampant hypocrisy and dishonesty beneath these supposedly noble feelings. Love as an instrument to exercise power and control? Bring it on, I say!

So it is in this context that I found Lust slightly disappointing. The book tells the "story", if it can be called that, of a Director of a paper mill who is also called "the man" who treats his employees with the same violent impunity as he treats his wife at home. The book is basically an endless series of violent and explicit rape scenes written in a cynical and evocative style. All these rape scenes are interspersed with cynical asides on how the director runs his paper mill. That is, like a true fascist autocrat. Perhaps Jelinek thinks that this gangster capitalism is the true capitalism. It is not hard to imagine why she will call bullshit if you give her a copy of Capitalism and Freedom! Or perhaps she is just trying to draw a symmetry between capitalism and marriage as they are both founded on the notion of private property, or that is what she thinks. After all these rapes the wife meets another man and has another series of brutal sexual encounters. Well, what do you expect? He is after all a man! She also has a kid but he is dirty little fascist himself who is always thinking of me-me-me and asking for presents. Even the woman is not exempt from Jelinek's contempt. She flays her for her preoccupation with her looks and perhaps for her stupidity which makes her believe the "romantic nothings" with which men exploit her body.

In the Jelinek-land all sexual relationships (or is it just the heterosexual ones?) are inherently relationship of unequals and lend themselves naturally to fascistic power play. She also doesn't think very highly, to put it mildly, of romance and related feelings. I-Love-You's for her are just "awkward nothings" that the man "slobbers into the warm earhole" of the woman while he "batters her hole between her legs". Shocked by the language? then sample this, taken randomly from the book (caution very strong language!):

The pallid bags of her breasts sag on her ribcage. Only one man and one child have ever made use of them. The Man back home ever bakes his daily impetuous daily bread anew. If your breasts hang right down on the table at dinner you can get an operation. They were made for the child and for the Man and for the child in the Man. Their owner is still writhing in her excreted fluid. Her bones and hinges are rattling with cold. Michael, racing down the slope, chomps at her privates and clutches and tugs at her dugs. Any moment now God-given sap will rise in his stem, his cup will overflow. Hurry up, stuff that prick in its designated slot, no loitering. You can hear her shrieks , you can see the whites of her eyes, what are you waiting for?

Or just a paragraph later and you can understand why one of the members of the nobel academy resigned protesting against awarding the prize to Jelinek calling her work, "whingeing, unenjoyable, violent pornography" :

The young man is suddenly alarmed at the totality with which he can spend himself without being spent. Again and again he reappears from within the woman only to bury his little bird in the box again. He's now licked Gerti from top to toe. His tongue is still tart with the taste of her piss. Next her face. The woman snaps at him and bites. It hurts, but it's a language animals understand. He grabs her head, still by the hair, pulls it up off the floor and slams it back where he first found it. Gerti splays her mouth wide open and Michael's penis gives it a thorough go...The novelty of this has worn off, unfortunately, since he did it the same way last time...An endless chain of repetitions, less appealing every time because the electronic media and melodies have accustomed us to having something new home-delivered every day...

What I liked about the book was the way in which Jelinek plays with words, it does create a slightly weird, jolting effect in the reader. But overall the book disappoints because it is extremely repetitive. She could have made her points more powerfully in an essay of few pages and it would have been more effective. But anyway I am glad I read the book, just because I had never come across anything like it before. So why should one read this book? Well, other than the curiosity value, if you are feeling desperate because of unfulfilled romantic and sexual cravings, it can offer some consolation! Also if you are pissed off with all those chick flicks and romances and think that these are seriously damaging the worldview of young and naive people, you can read it as an antidote. Also if you are a manhating feminist battling in the war of sexes you can use this book as a source of ammunition! Or like me, if you think that revelling in negativity, hatred and full-throttled cynicism and misanthropy is a nice way to spend the weekend, this book will have plenty to offer.

An article from the nobel prize site here and a profile from The Times of London

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Tin Drum

The Tin Drum, the German novel by the Nobel prize winner Gunter Grass, is one of my all time favourite novels. It features one of the most extraordinary first-person narrators ever -- the "dwarf" Oskar Matzerath who recounts his story from a mental asylum. His narrative voice is what gives the novel its strange artistic power. It is darkly satirical and also fantastical, as if it were some kind of a grotesque fairy tale. But fairy tale it certainly is not. Rather, it is actually a dark tale of indictment of the role of German society and of ordinary men and women in the rise of National Socialism and their easy forgetfulness of their guilty past in the post-war economic miracle.

Okay, all of this because I watched the Volker Schlondorff's film adaptation of the novel last evening. The good folks at collective chaos film society are organising a short festival of films which have won Golden Palms at the Cannes film festival (so more posts are in the offing). I had seen the film before but I didn't remember all the details from the book or the film so went ahead.

The film is a very faithful adaptation of the book, although it handles only one half and in doing that it already clocks almost two and half hours of running time. Now making a faithful adaptation in this case in not as straightforward as it would seem because the book relies on so many over-the-top set pieces. Schlondorff's literalist approach to all those Rabelaisian scenes actually works in this case. So we see in the first scene of the film, how the narrator's mother was conceived in a potato field when his grandmother hid his to-be grandfather inside her "four skirts"! Although we never learn of the smell of rotten butter which is ubiquitous in the book. Or the scene where Oskar recounts his experience of coming out of his mother's womb or where he is made to drink the "evil soup" or the "muff diving" scene with the young Oscar (okay, in this case it is more vivid than in the book!). And the secret about the white powder is not revealed even in the film. Whatever it is, the scenes are quite erotic. And yes the most powerful scene involving eels and a horse's head. Cautionary warning here: If you are enthusiastic about eels or are ignorant of where they come from, don't read the book or watch the movie!

The film is of course a commendable piece of work but I think it would work better as an effective companion piece to the book rather than in independent work. Which is I think, exactly what a literary adaptation should aim to achieve.

This is a short essay on the film. Posters and stills from the film here.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Elfriede Jelinek's Lust: Some Quotes from the Blurb

Lust is a German novel written by the recent Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek. I picked up the book reading the quotes on the book's blurb. Here are some of those, I just had to buy the book after reading these!

'Elfriede Jelinek's Lust is an unrelenting look at the bleak correspondence between marriage, capitalism and sex. Every sentence slams home a truth so trenchant that it's difficult to read Lust in large doses. An almost unbelievably confrontational and blunt writer, Jelinek dares her reader to wince and turn away from these pages: it's testimony to her witchy skill that one can't...' Voice Literary Supplement

'A thorough rubbishing of romantic love, Lust is intricately written with a tumbling pace, sustained and effective wordplay and plenty of sharp, cynical authorial observation. More than good.' List

'Sport, capitalism, male penetrative sexuality, bourgeois consumerism, the family--are pilloried in between the ceaseless rapes, buggeries and other adventures. Extraordinarily well written, with many brilliant turns of phrase, this remains in my mind the most disturbing European novel I have read this year.' New Statesman

'An angry, distasteful but compelling examination of marriage as a sexual war zone.' The Sunday Times

'In Lust you can hear the axe falling. No wonder every page hurts' The Guardian

'An extraordinary, violent book...Lust is the unmasking of of sex -- all "innocence of privacy" -- as power' The Observer

So this is what it is. The Will to Power is the key to unlocking reality. Specially the reality about sexual relationships. Although when it comes to sex, I am personally more drawn to Schopenhauerian view of sexual desire as a manifestation of the malignant will behind the suffering of life than the Nietzschean Will to Power. I sometimes think what a bunch of losers these two guys were (and I am sure Jelinek is one too) and I should rather read about the conquests of Don Juan and Casanova or the memoirs of Fanny Hill or watch a good porn movie rather than spend time on Lust. Okay, will do those things after I am done with the book!

Bono is having a hard time defending Nike and Gap at Comment is Free. Its a long series of rants against Bono and the evils of corporations in the comment section. Check it out here.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Conspiracy of the Idiots

One of the things that annoys me most with people is their sheer credulity. Do we grow more credulous and less sceptical as we grow up? Most of us certainly do, if the popularity of these utterly stupid conspiracy theories are anything to be believed. I mean I can understand Da Vinci Code, it is a work of fiction but what about the theories about 9-11. Just take a look at this wikipedia entry dedicated to the conspiracy theories surrounding 9-11.

Is it just the information glut that is fuelling this thing? When forwarding emails or publishing on the internet or sending smses has become totally free, the junk and the authentic have both been democratized (such is the leveling power of internet!) to a common level. So when you ask some idiot of the proof of his theory he will promptly send you a link to a shady website or forward you a chain mail. While internet has certainly fuelled the trend, I think there is an inherent predisposition in human nature towards believing in these conspiracy theories. It is just extremely difficult to digest for people that extraordinary events can be caused by perfectly ordinary reasons. Or perhaps this is just somekind of reverse scepticism. We distrust our governments, mainstream media, political figures and other authorities in our system so much that any information coming out of them becomes ipso facto suspect. I personally think it is the most important reason.

Michael Shermer, the sceptic extraordinaire, debunks some of the theories in Scientific American.

And this is Shermer's manifesto for scientific scepticism. Really worth reading.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Triumph of Human Spirit or Triumph of a Cliche?

Slate has an article on the new Hollywood film United 93 by columnist and writer Ron Rosenbaum. He raises a few excellent points in it:

Could it be that the three films are a symptom of our addiction to fables of redemptive uplift that shield us from the true dimensions of the tragedy? Redemptive uplift: It's the official religion of the media, anyway. There must be a silver lining; it's always darkest before the dawn; the human spirit will triumph over evil; there must be a pony.

That's always been the subtextual spiritual narrative of media catastrophe coverage: terrible human tragedy, but something good always can be found in it to affirm faith and hope and make us feel better. Plucky, ordinary human beings find a way to rise above the disaster. Man must prevail. The human spirit is resilient, unconquerable. Did I mention there must be a pony?

Now I have nothing against hope, optimism or faith in the future but the way the culture industry and media package these things as products and sell them to unsuspecting masses who eagerly devour the "message" and generally feel good about themselves and the world -- it just troubles me. This particular film might have some artistic value but it sure is being packaged and marketed as the "feel-good 9-11 movie". Rosenbaum gives some examples from interviews and press releases related to the film and proves this point.

What a shame it is that "triumph of human spirit" has become such a dishonest cliche! It is perhaps better if the subject is completely fictional but to use historical events like 9-11 or worse, Holocaust to drive home such banal message is just plain unethical, just plain wrong. I mentioned Holocaust because it is perhaps the most "profitable" historical event in this sense. Incidentally I remember reading an article by Rosenbaum titled something like Chaplin and Benigni: The Arrogance of Clowns in which he lambasted such movies like The Great Dictator and Life is Beautiful. It was an excellent and very provocative read. I can't find the article on the net now.

Godard in his film In Praise of Love raises similar questions. In the film a couple of Americans representing "Spielberg and Associates" visit an elderly French couple who fought on the side of French resistance in the second world war to "buy their story" and make a Hollywood movie about it, starring Juliette Binoche, no less perhaps indicating another instance how another "artifact" of European high-art is being appropriated by the monster of Hollywood popular culture.

I was also thinking whether a genuine tragedy is indeed possible in any art form in this age. I really don't think so, at least not in Hollywood or anything related to popular culture. Such is our need for hope and faith and such is the power of the ubiquitous culture industry! This is perhaps the real "death of tragedy" critics and philosophers talk about.

Not having seen United 93, I really don't know how "Hollywoodian" the film is but I am not very hopeful or enthusiastic about watching it. I hope I am proven wrong when I get a chance to watch it.

Friday, May 19, 2006

A Good Lawyer's Wife

The Korean film A Good Lawyer's Wife is as racy as its poster on the right would suggest. What the poster doesn't show is how painful and how funny the film is. It is basically a black comedy (and it could hardly get blacker than this) about the discontents of family and marital life in upper middle class Korean society, almost in the same vein as American Beauty, although considerably more hard hitting, perhaps even funnier. It is certainly not for faint hearted audiences, it depicts scenes of sexual discontent and frustration, illness, death and dissolution of relationship with such brutal frankness that it becomes literally painful to go on watching it, even when you laugh or are aroused by individual scenes. I was reminded of another American black comedy, Todd Solondz's Happiness which was perhaps more painful to watch but which more or less failed because of extreme and posturing misanthropy on part of Solondz. Im Sang-soo, the director of this Korean film, obviously cares for his characters and never passes any moral judgments unlike Solondz.

Moon Soo-ri, the amazing actress who plays the wife of the title is a former dance teacher who has now accepted a life of domesticity. With her husband busy at work or with his mistress, she has to take care of the entire family--her adopted son who has just come to know about the fact of his adoption, her father-in-law who is dying of liver failure after an entire life of alcoholism. Also the sex between husband-wife is tepid enough, in fact so tepid that she masturbates after doing it and worries whether she is losing her capacity to have orgasms! There is also an important subplot of an emotionally unstable teenager stalking her. Soon a family tragedy happens (shown in such an absurd and even a comic way that it is to be seen to be believed) and everything hurtles relentlessly downward after that.

What is remarkable about the film is how it avoids becoming another sentimental melodrama about the collapse of a family. The absurd and blackly comic tone works in a fantastic way, and unlike Happiness (which had a similar tone) you actually care for the characters because they remain human throughout precisely because of their shortcomings and inability to channel their desires in meaningful ways. Also a few words of praise for Moon Soo-ri who plays the character of wife... This must have been an extremely difficult role, she has to not only shed all her clothes but also all her emotional protective shell. It is simply unbelievable how utterly natural and effortless she makes those painful scenes by her totally unself-conscious acting.

In short, A Good Lawyer's Wife is the best Korean film I have seen so far. Not for the squeamish or prudes, this is a family soap-opera which truly rocks.

Some Links:
IMDB entry of the film.
Filmbrain's review (Unlike him the movie didn't make me cry although I did avert my eyes in at least one scene and tried to think of something else other than what was on screen!)
A review from the DVDTimes website

P.S.It was a nice surprise to see Moon Soo-ri reading a Korean translation of Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things (it has the same cover as in English) in a scene, with even the subtitles informing what the book was. I wonder what it was supposed to mean!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


John Updike reviews Michel Houellebecq's latest novel in New Yorker and doesn't like it.

A much better essay on the book was published in TLS sometime back. Check it out here. Worth reading and it is a good introduction to his work too. Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles is one of my favourite contemporary novels. It has this to say about that novel:

It starts from the premiss that in our post-faith, commodity-rich culture, personal gratification has become the highest good. The pursuit of pleasure prioritizes the self and, in the process, promotes separation and dispersal. As a result, society has reverted to its fragmented, pre-civilized form and is filled with unlinked, unfulfilled, unhappy egos, the elementary particles and unconnected atoms of the title. The novel explores the implications of this diagnosis through the lives of two brothers. Bruno succumbs to his inability to make meaningful connections, while Michel, a philosophically minded microbiologist, develops genetic theories which, in the century following his death, lead to the systematic removal of the destructive human traits of selfishness and violence. Genetic engineering and cloning offer the only way of eluding the barbarity to which economic materialism, the sexual free market, the sidelining of emotional needs, extreme liberalism and sloppy moral values are herding us.

I have linked to it before but it is worth reading again. The Times profile of Houellebecq.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Another Worthless Horror Movie

I don't consider myself a horror movie fan. Amongst all genres it has perhaps the worst signal to noise ratio. For every genuinely good horror movie there are tons which are just plain crap, shamelessly pandering to stupid teenagers and their adult manifestations. The fanboy mentality that generally grows around a horror director doesn't help matters either. One of those cases is the Japanese cult film maker Takashi Miike. I remember being completely floored by his classic Audition when I had seen it a few years back. It still remains perhaps the favourite horror movie of all time for me. After Audition I tried a few of his other movies, none of which replicated its successes, at least for me.

Miike was in news a couple of months back, and I am not talking of the subscribers of the fangoria magazine here. It came in mainstream newspapers. The American cable channel Showtime had commissioned a series called Masters of Horror in which they asked some renowned horror filmamakers to make one hour long independent episodes for the TV series. Some of the episodes created lots of buzz. One of them being the satirical Homecoming in which zombies of US soldiers in Iraq come home to vote in the presidential election. It predictably pissed off the conservative press in the US. Anyway, so Miike was also assigned one of the episodes to direct but when he handed over the final product the series producers developed a fright and refused to air it. So I was generally browsing and came across the bit torrent file of the episode and even though I didn't really want to see it, my curiosity got the better of me. Now after seeing it I realize it was a wastage of time and bandwidth both. It is disgusting (in a bad, unartistic sort of way) and a shoddy piece of work. It made me seriously think how he could make such technical brilliance of Audition look so effortless. Perhaps it was just a fluke.

Imprint basically tells the story of an American who goes to a brothel on an Island to find her long lost love. There he meets a deformed prostitute who tells him the horrific story of what happened to his love, alongwith her own life story. Basically it is like Memoirs of a Geisha plus torture, pedophilia, incest, aborted fetuses, floating corpses of pregnant women etc. Thoroughly unpleasant all the way. Perhaps it was the English language that created problems because it is difficult to explain such hammy acting by the actor playing the role of the American. It was just plain ridiculous. The rest of the cast was good although Japanese people speaking in English definitely struck a discordant note. Subtitles would have worked better perhaps.

One of the main problem I have with most of the horror movies is the way they rely just on horrific images to create the effect. Whereas the true lasting horror comes when you situate those images in a context and invest your characters with real emotional resources. That's where films like Audition succeed and those like Imprint fail. Some social, emotional context would have really helped the movie. As it is now, it is strictly meant for people who equate horror with the depiction of taboo images on screen. See it through your fingers and then forget all about it when the movie ends!

Some links for curious souls: Audition as I said is very highly recommended. Don't read about it if you plan to see it. It is one of those genuinely alarming movies. It manages to combine the best of Lynch, Cronenberg and Polanski, and believe me it is not a hyperbole.
News entry about the canceling of the show.
The IMDb entry of the episode.
And Miike's entry on the wikipedia.
More information about the series.
This PDF file has a fine survey of the history of the genre.

Monday, May 15, 2006

From Enduring Love

Within twenty minutes I had drifted into the desired state, the high-walled infinite prison of directed thought. It doesn't always happen to me, and I was grateful that night. I didn't have to defend myself against the usual flotsam, the scraps of recent memory, the takens of things-not-done, or ghostly wrecks of sexual longing. My beach was clean.

I am off to work now and my goal for today is to spend at least one hour in this state, free from regrets of the past, free from the fears and anxieties for the future, floating weightlessly in the constant present. And I love that phrase, "ghostly wrecks of sexual longing"... so no leering at pretty women in office too! :)

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

I spent the entire day today reading Ian McEwan's brilliant novel Enduring Love. I recently finished reading his latest novel Saturday and was itching to read his other books (next in line is his booker winning Amsterdam). It is a gripping, suspenseful novel which is also a fascinating exploration of conflicts of ideas related to science, faith and love.

The novel's protagonist Joe Rose is a man of science, a hard-boiled rationalist and reductionist. He tries to explain everything around him in terms of physics, chemistry and biology of things. In the beginning of the novel he is attending a picnic with his wife Clarissa who is an expert on romanticism in literature and doing some research on Keats's life. Together they witness a bizarre and tragic balloon accident after which the novel turns into a story of sexual obsession. One other witness of the accident Jed Parry is a deluded erotomaniac who gets obsessed with Joe and starts stalking him when his advances are spurned. He is also some kind of a Jesus freak who has found some very personal ideas about God and religion based entirely on emotion and subjective feeling. Gradually the stalking takes an emotional toll on the rationalist hero and fissures appear in the relationship between Joe and Clarissa. It is interesting how McEwan develops tension with the three main characters who together represent science, arts/romanticism and irrational faith.

McEwan uses these three characters not just to propel the plot or to create suspense but also to explore the nature of rationality and its (supposed) antipathy towards faith, love, madness (McEwan thinks that these are the same or at least different only in scale). More importantly he shows that this conflict or antipathy is not there just inside the pages of philosophy books but rather these are deeply ingrained in our psyche and our inherent nature. This is not an original idea but he situates this theoretical conflict within the context of fiction and makes it startling by his gift of psychological realism. He also tries to show that human rationality is a highly contingent form of rationality, far removed from the textbook version. Rather than being rational we have got an infinite capacity for self delusion and retrospective rationalization.

McEwan is obviously enamoured with science and its possibilities and also its limitations vis-a-vis our nature. There are long passages in the book which seem to be taken direct out of some book on Evolution and human nature, only it is beautifully written. For example this passage about our ability for endless self-deception:

I felt a familiar disappointment. No one could agree on anything. We lived in a mist of half-shared, unreliable perception, and our sense data came warped by a prism of desire and belief, which tilted our memories too. We saw and remembered in our own favour and we persuaded ourselves along the way. Pitiless objectivity, especially about ourselves, was always a doomed social strategy. We're descended from the indignant, passionate tellers of half-truths who in order to convince others, simultaneously convinced themselves. Over generations success had winnowed us out, with success came our defect, carved deep in the genes like ruts in a cart track--when it didn't suit us we couldn't agree on what was in front of us. Believing is seeing. That's why there are divorces, border disputes and wars, and why this statue of Virgin Mary weeps blood, and that one of Ganesh drinks milk. And that was why metaphysics and science were such courageous enterprises, such startling inventions, bigger than the wheel, bigger than agriculture, human artifacts set right against the grain of human nature. Disinterested truth. But it couldn't save us from ourselves, the ruts were too deep. There could be no private redemption in objectivity.

Some links: An article from Slate. Interview with McEwan about the book. Details about his life and career so far here.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Happiness and Amoeba!

Have been (slightly) busy but actually far more confused, so blogging has taken a back seat. Perhaps things will continue like this for a while now.

Just a random, rambling entry (provoked by V's comment on the last post)...

I had an interesting conversation with my flat mate this morning about the "scientific detachment" that I always claim to have towards everything in life, something like "my relationship with this world is exactly that of what would be between a scientist and his specimen" or "I am an anthropologist from some other planet. Other people and their happiness etc for me are just subjects of study, a way of gaining knowledge" or "my job is to see and to understand as an impartial observer, with absolutely no stakes and absolutely no desire to participate in the proceedings".

Of course this is all as stupid as it sounds. I am still attached to so many things (and thank god for that) like family, (few) friends, career etc but yes I have gotten over so many other things... Like money (to an extent, minimum required for a respectable bourgeois life) and more importantly, the omnipresent, the bane of modern life, the status anxiety. Jealousy or envy just doesn't bother me at all. Other people's success or happiness, professional, spiritual, material, romantic, sexual (I am being honest here!)...any kind, just doesn't do anything to me. Stories of those so called successful people (you know, the types who grow from humble backgrounds to become an investment banker) just bore me to death.

I think I am reasonably detached from my surroundings to have a scientific approach towards life and live with it comfortably but it is only sometimes that things get hazy and messed up and that's when it is the time to see "inside" as V asked me to do. Okay, so off to do some introspection now. Bye!

Simply to See

The British philosopher John Gray ends his book Straw Dogs with this line:

Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal can not do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?

I don't want purpose in life. I don't even want peace. But just one thing -- can life be a little less confusing? Can someone tell me how things really work here, in this world?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Dispatches Turns One!

This blog turned one last Friday!

Around 200 posts in a year. Not so bad.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Michael Haneke's Code Unknown

Michael Haneke's Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys is a profound look at the questions of communication (or the difficulty, perhaps even impossibility of), xenophobia, isolation and breakdown of community in modern, post-industrial societies. The concept is somewhat similar to the last year's hit Hollywood film Crash (it was released in the year 2000) but rest assured, it is not hard to guess why it didn't get anywhere near to winning any Oscars. It is a difficult film to watch, in not only the difficult questions it raises or its bleak dissection of contemporary society, but also because of the structure of the film itself. Like his other films Funny Games and Cache, Haneke makes sure that audiences know that they are watching a movie, that is, it is a representation of reality and not the reality itself. Each of the scenes is shot in one take, some long others short, and each ends abruptly, sometimes even before the dialogue ends, to a blank screen. There is absolutely no illusion of continuity, that we generally expect from a movie. Also the lead character, played with her usual brilliance by Juliette Binoche, is an actress who is acting in thriller film. There are a few scenes from the movie within the movie and Haneke shows in those scenes how easy it is to provide what audiences want -- thrills and chills. In the rest of the film he makes sure that audiences don't get any of these conventional satisfactions!

I won't attempt to write a comprehensive summary or review of the film. You can read some of them here. The sight and sound magazine also has a long summary of the film. I will just say that after watching it Crash would feel like a kiddie movie.

Just some stray thoughts. The film begins with a pantomime game being played by children. One girl makes a body/facial gesture and other kids guess what that gesture could be. Some of the guesses are, "Alone", "Sadness", "Imprisoned", "Hiding Place", "Bad Conscience". To each of these guesses the girl answers No but perhaps we the audience know better. It is all these emotions that the film that we are going to see will be about. This is a perfect introduction to the film.

Also the first regular scene of the film is a masterly long take (almost ten minutes) in which the camera tracks as the character played by Binoche talks to her brother in law. In it we see how a black man is victimised when he comes to avenge the insult to a woman beggar (who we later know is an illegal immigrant). As if to balance this scene (blacks are victims and white people are victimisers), we later see an arab youth gratuitously taunting Juliette Binoche about her race, class and gender. It is an extremely powerful and unnerving scene and I won't spoil it by describing it here. You just have to see it. Also the seen, with the collage of still photographs, first from the war scenes in Kosovo and then faces belonging to different race, culture and nationalities while the narrator recounts his experiences in Kosovo and Kabul, is quite eerie. I didn't know what to make of it. Reminded me of Godard's In Praise of Love.

Interestingly I was also reading Amartya Sen's collection of essays, The Argumentative Indian(which is brilliant by the way) this weekend. After watching Code Unknown, Sen's ideas and historical judgments looked hopelessly naive and optimistic to me. I know, I am being unfair to both Haneke and Amartya Sen when I say this. They are both looking at the same things from two different angles. While the situation in multicultural cities of Europe isn't something that we can be optimistic about, it can never be denied that we still have a long tradition of inter-community dialogue and communication and it is not impossible to continue the same tradition of heterodoxy and openness even in this age. I don't know, if it is naive to believe that human beings can transcend the barriers of class, race, nationality, religion, gender, age or just plain psychological fear, uncertainty, paranoia and anxiety and reach out to other human beings. Perhaps it is naive.

I had earlier written about Cache, Funny Games and Seventh Continent. (Yes, I am a big fan of Michael Haneke!)

A long essay on Haneke which discusses Code Unknown, Funny Games and The Piano Teacher.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Fat Girl by Catherine Breillat

Fat Girl is a French film directed by Catherine Breillat, who according to the New York Times is, "France's most impassioned correspondent covering the war between the sexes". Actually the original French title of the film is A Ma Souer, which would translate to "To My Sister". And as this title suggests the film is about two teenage sisters and their sexual awakening. The story, about the two girls' quest for love and sex, on the surface seems picked up from a typical coming-of-age film or even a chick flick but nothing would be farther from truth. Breillat's earlier film had a massively ironic title of "Romance". There was little romance there but plenty of unsimulated sex, all shown in clinical and deeroticised manner and as if all of it was not enough there were a few scenes direct from the gynaecology room towards the end. I don't have any particular problems with sex, specially if it comes wrapped in some intellectual mumbo-jumbo but the film was extremely pedantic and many dialogues and situations were just plain silly. One of the scenes was where the girl muses her Sartrean musings aloud while holding her boyfriend's penis in her hand (something like, "I am a hole, I disappear in proportion to the dick inside me"). Fat Girl isn't that explicit, but still it is as brutal and confrontational as Romance, perhaps even more. Also while not as pedantic as Romance, Breillat makes it clear that it is not a "realistic" film and the aim of the film is less to tell a story than to drive home an agenda, a polemic against the traditional notions of romance.

I won't say any more about the film. You can read about it in Salon or New York Times

I was reading Breillat's interview provided in the DVD booklet. She makes this provocative, perhaps even absurd, statement. (May not make sense to those who haven't seen the film):

They [Girls] have been brought up to be receptive to sentimentality, not to opportunistic desire. They themselves have this same desire, but they deny it in the name of "sentimental ethics". It is a social factor that throws everything off. On one hand, one could argue that the rapist is the most sympathetic male character in the film. He is the only one who presents himself as he really is. He doesn't make any romantic promise. There's almost more respect and more love in this final scene than in the previous ones. This is true of the film, not of the reality of rape.

Hmmm. I thought, I knew which was worse, dishonest and manipulative (aren't they all?) seduction or an honest (yes, aren't they all?) rape! Or perhaps illusions aren't that useless after all. The illusion of having gifted some pleasure to someone she loved must have soothed away Elena's pain in the earlier scene of anal sex. The only thing is to keep these romantic illusions intact... I am sure it isn't that difficult!

Also in the interview she mentions that she copied the Anais's gesture of holding her rapist in her hands from Robert Bresson's Mouchette which had a similar scene. Now after having seen the film, at least by association, the rape scene takes some deeper philosophical meaning. Although I think it would be a serious folly to compare it with Mouchette which is truly a sublime masterpiece.

The film, though not entertaining or even erotic despite being drenched from top to bottom in sex, is worth watching for the difficult questions it raises. All the characters and situations are still buzzing in my head and refuse to let go. And yes I didn't say anything about the truly morbid song sung by the Fat Girl in the film... It is something like, "I have taken out my heart and placed it on the windowsill, If crows come and peck at this raw meat, let them do that" (something like that)... and in the beginning she sings another song, again something like, "I am bored in the day, I am bored in the night, I will be bored even after I die, I need a body, I need a man, or even a woman, even animal, or even a werewolf"... (again not exact lines)

More on it some other time.

Entry of the film on Rotten Tomatoes website.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Loves of a Blonde

Loves of a Blonde is a Czech film directed by Milos Forman. Forman later moved to Hollywood where he made such Oscar winning films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It is a very simple and spare film but it captures the feelings of romantic disappointment and life's injustices very eloquently. I was reminded of Fellini's Nights of Cabiria after watching it. Only it is funnier, quirkier and as the still above would attest, quite sexier too!

Some informative articles about Czech cinema of the sixties (also called the Czech new wave) here and here. I think this is the only Czech film I have seen so far.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go

Few other contemporary novelists understand the feelings of regret and loss better than Kazuo Ishiguro and he confirms this in his latest novel Never Let Me Go. It was published and nominated for the Booker prize last year but I managed to get around to reading it only last weekend. The novel is great but it never reaches the sublime heights of the earlier Ishiguro's masterpiece The Remains of the Day. Those who are familiar with Ishiguro's style will find nothing new in this novel. The same understatement of emotional aspects of drama, elision at crucial narrative moments and the narrator's almost pathological fear of exoposing one's true self to the reader by means of convoluted and digressive story telling. Perhaps it was this familiarity that left me somewhat unmoved at the end of the novel, although the ending here is even more downbeat than his earlier books.

The novel tells the story of a school meant for human clones who are being raised as organ donors. The narrator is a thirty-one year old Kathy H. who is reminiscing about her days at her childhood school Hailsham and specially her relationships with two of her friends Tommy and Ruth. The novel also recounts her attempts to confront the truth of her own existence and that of her friends (which turns out to be quite horrible).

I thought the novel was quite good. It makes some powerful points about the importance of love and friendship, the brevity and fragility of human existence and the inevitability of the feelings of regret and loss while confronting memories of times gone by. The language and the style, although on surface extremely emotionless and spare, is highly evocative. But still I finished the novel with a slight sense of frustration. Never in the book I felt that Ishiguro was even cursorily interested in the science and ethics of cloning. I mean, I understand that the novel is a kind of allegory and those superficial things are not as important but still the cloning aspect just seemed like added from the outside just to make the novel "different". There was this aspect about artistic instinct and creativity being used to prove the existence of soul. It seemed easy and tired as an idea or thematic construcy. Perhaps Ishiguro meant it to be only a narrative and plot device. Also it was hard to believe how the clones have the exact and entire emotional make-up of a normal human being but what they don't have is a basic self-preservation instinct. or, perhaps Ishiguro was trying to make some point about the benign acceptance of the fact of the finitude of human existence. Very fatalist and very sad!

Pick up the book if interested in a nice melancholy weekend :)

Reviews from Slate and London Times.

Complete Review page of the book.

Kazuo Ishiguro's page on the contemporary writers website.