May 2014 Filed in: Films
A few weeks ago, a friend expressed horror when I didn’t know who Parineeti Chopra was! And then, he went on to gag some other names: Alia Bhatt, Arjun Kapoor, Kangana Ranaut, Ranveer Singh and so on; none of whom I could place. The stench of my ignorance was insufferable!
In a sheepish attempt to redeem myself and obscure expressions of shocked outrage directed at me, I watched a few films I could find on Netflix and Google Play: Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl, Ishaqzaade, Shuddh Desi Romance, Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, Aurangazeb, Band Baaja Baaraat, and Listen...Amaya. (I know to look forward to Alia’s Highway, and Kangana’s Queen).
All these movies are about bold but sleazy juvenile adults with sketchy personal and social convictions, who make godawful choices that get them in trouble, only to resolve them rather unimaginatively! Most of these films are enjoyable to watch because they are all colorful without exception; the characters are charming and relatable; there’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek dialogue; and all the actions are complemented with harmonious soundscapes. They also allow us the luxury of unabashedly judging fictional people with confused morals born of societal guilt (early modern literature stock). For instance, in Shuddh Desi Romance, the protagonists unnecessarily complicate their relationships and inflict problems on themselves because of their own bigoted stupidity and their misgivings about their society. On the other hand, if they just went about their lives as they wanted, to begin with, there wouldn't have even been a story to tell. The story is ultimately about the humor that arises from taking advantage of or creatively circumventing societal guilt.
The most creative parts of the new films point directly to the storyboards and screenplay, and how the filmmakers take advantage of cinema’s unique qualities that make it different from any other storytelling medium and cannot be replicated using any other art form. The films are very self-aware and attempt to impress us by exuding a kind of blustering, ostentatious aura that makes us pay attention to their artful non-story elements over their stock stories.
I like this! I like this for the same reason that I enjoy adaptations and re-makes. I like this for the same reason that I like the not-so-accurate gilded bling-bling in Luhrmann's adaptation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Having read the book, I wasn’t curious about the story, as much as the things that can come alive only in cinema. I like cinema that has the materiality that I can never dream up on my own!
One other thing. Some of the kissing scenes in these new movies I watched have the couples aggressively going at each other like hungry chickens pecking at grain. What is that!?
October 2013 Filed in: Films
My preferred relationship stories are the non-romantic kinds that are born out of exceptional circumstances.
I read that there are five stages to any relationship development. The first stage is acquaintanceship, when two people make first impressions; The second stage is buildup, when they display warm feelings towards each other; The third stage is continuation, when they show commitment to growing the relationship; The fourth stage is deterioration, when boredom and bad feelings lead to a downward spiral; and The fifth stage is termination, when all ties are severed!
I like when relationship stories threaten to enter the fourth stage, but somehow find a way to undo all harm and end on a happy note. It is rarely that one is able to accept another's flaws, or see it as being up to them to make things interesting. I am always looking to find that kind of love in non-romantic relationships both in my life and in stories. Sadly, in my life, Fours seldom turn to Threes. Happily, this movie is a special gem.
(Other recent movies and TV shows that I am thinking of as I write this are: Fan Chan (My Girl); Breaking Bad; and Lonesome Dove)
My favorite type of adaptation is where you take a beautiful jigsaw puzzle and rearrange its pieces to create a new picture that is at once the same as and different than the original intended picture! The Wachowskis do more than that with their adaptation of Cloud Atlas. They take six completely different jigsaw puzzle sets, and combine them into one perfectly interlocked farrago. You can either reassemble the fragments of the different sets in your head into their individual stories, or think of them as a single harmonized unit, where all the sets coalesce to form a continuous whole!
To make such an adaptation, one needs to make sure all the existing puzzle pieces perfectly interlock and tessellate with each other in spite of being rearranged! The shape of each piece in relation to the others is therefore important in order to find the perfect placement!
The six stories in this movie look incompatible, completely opposed in character, like they belong to different worlds. The stories are set in the past, present, future and distant future, in many different places all over the world. The characters too move from story to story, and morph themselves into many other characters, oftentimes even changing gender and race. So your job as the audience is to suss out the differences and commonalities in their different personalities, and place them in context of the larger message that the soul transcends time and space. When you finally see them fit together seamlessly, it becomes clear that every instance in the world is comparable, analogous and homologous with every other!
In the plant world, epiphytes are plants that live on other plants or objects, not as parasites but by gainfully deriving nutrients or support from them! In the phone and tablet world, one might think of mobile apps as epiphytes that depend on the technology they are on to be operative! In Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis create an epiphyte-like narrative structure, where each story impels the other stories forward, as their scenes play out alternately, propagating their motive into each other. In this way, we move forward, while also being kept continually on edge with multiple cliffhangers throughout the movie. The cumulative effect of all this anxious uncertainty, is the equivalent of watching six completely different period-suspense films at once that also have profound philosophies behind them. It is a multitudinous mental exercise! Not to mention, how every story, however fantastical, is in fact disturbingly real.
The movie disintegrated way before that underwear scene! If you have watched the movie, here's a rib-tickling summary that you might enjoy.
Lately I have been reading books about how humans have been obsessed with genetic engineering since 12,000 BC, when plants and animals were domesticated through selective and deliberate breeding. Back then, we were preoccupied with converting wild rye to more domestic varieties, or grey wolves to dogs; Now, we have come as far as being able to accurately predict the whole genome of an unborn baby by sequencing the DNA from the mother’s blood and the father’s saliva; It won’t be much longer before we are able to manipulate our genetic makeup, and correct mutations which cause diseases.
When Star Trek was created in the mid-1960s, we had just come out of a very dark age that coincided with the two world wars; when scientists and politicians in several countries began targeting humans with ‘unfit’ traits, and forbidding them from marrying or procreating. The American Eugenics Society encouraged the creation of a superior human race through selective breeding. They organized public lectures, brought out publications, conducted “fitter family contests” among other things to educate people on the laws of inheritance. Here’s an example of a chart displayed at the 1929 Kansas Free Fair!
Many eugenics policies and programs, such as genetic screening, racial segregation, segregation of 'degenerate' and 'unfit' humans, compulsory sterilization, forced abortions and euthanasia were implemented in several countries, such as America, Brazil, Canada and several European countries (the reasons for and the methods of implementation were different in each country).
32 States in the US had eugenics programs. In North Carolina alone, more than 7600 men, women and children were sterilized, oftentimes against their will, even for reasons such as being 'feebleminded', 'troubled' or 'poor'; and this went on till the mid-1970s! Part of the reason for the sterilization was that abortion was illegal, birth control was not easily available in some places, and giving birth to an unfit child was just not an option! It was not until 2002 that the Governor of North Carolina formerly apologised to the victims, repealed the involuntary sterilization law, and ruled out sterilization for reasons of 'hygiene' and 'convenience'. Even today, a proposal to compensate the victims ($50,000 per person) is being debated, and only a few hundred victims were willing to reveal themselves because of the continuing stigma of being sterilized. Victims in other countries too were reluctant to come forward for the same reason.
Star Trek exemplifies one train of thought on what might have happened if we had continued on that path of racial cleansing. It is a fictional account, but one that has tremendous significance, especially given what was happening in real life during the time the story was conceived. If you watch the TV series, you will realize that every episode touches on one or more contentious real-life issues of that time that are relevant even today; and gives you a lot to reflect on!
Now to put ourselves and the movie in the context of its timeline:
According to the Star Trek timeline, we are somewhere between the Eugenics War of the early 1990s and World War III of the 2050s; The movie takes place 300 years from the Eugenics war, by which times humans have put their savage past behind them and moved on.
Prior to the 1990s, human scientists had been working on improving their race through selective breeding and genetic engineering. In the process, they created superhumans called Augments, with superior physical and mental abilities. What was unanticipated was that the Augments would want to dominate the world. Khan, the most powerful of his kind, appointed himself "absolute ruler" and ruled a quarter of the Earth, and close to 40 countries. His reign was mostly admired, because he was a man of peace, and there were no wars or violence under him, that is, until the humans rose up against the Augments. A huge war broke out, nearly devastating Earth. Most of the Augments were killed, except Khan and 84 others who managed to escape Earth in a sleeper ship, where they remained cryogenically frozen for three hundred years, until the crew of Enterprise discovered them in 2267. The current movie is set in this time period.
Soon after the Augments were deposed, not all was peaceful on Earth. By the 2050s, World War III broke out between various factions still in conflict on earth about genetic engineering, governments controlling military with narcotics and issues of ecoterrorism. All this led to World War III and the resulting nuclear exchange killed 37 million humans, leaving Earth mostly uninhabitable because of radioactivity, supply shortages, and the collapse of most of the major governments. Hundreds and thousands of humans were also mercilessly killed by evil troops to eliminate the spread of radiation sickness, impurities and mutations to future generations.
It took two generations of peace attempts for the post-atomic horror to give way to unified world alliances and end poverty and disease. During the 2060s, a team of engineers built Earth's first warp ship, which drew the attention of a Vulcan ship passing near Earth, who made their first contact with humans, and ushered us into a more peaceful era.
By the early 2100s, Earth was finally rid of poverty, disease, war and hunger. A United Earth Government was formed in 2150; A non-profit economy was developed, and replicators were used to satisfy material needs; although people were no longer obsessed with the accumulation of wealth or possessions. Humans were mostly focussed on enriching themselves in a secular, non-religious environment free of superstitions. A great deal of emphasis was placed on the importance of continued social and personal development, and the rest as we know is history!
Now… in the Reality meets Sci-fi spirit … here's a Spock talks to Spock Prime type video:
April 2013 Filed in: Films
This is the kind of film that allows my thoughts to repose. It’s like what one does before they fall asleep at the end of the day. All the thoughts in the head float about listlessly, too tired to organize themselves, until sleep lulls them into the unconscious, where they morph into dreams and drift into the void. Each sequence in the film is a thought, a scene from a different story that lets on some truth or alludes to some mystery; but before it fully reveals itself, it disappears into the unknown.
It’s a simple story with a linear narrative structure and conventional character arc, and yet, its treatment is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s proposition that we must arrange our waking life the same way we do our dreams. Nothing resembles the freewheeling visions of dreams more than cinema. When cinema was first popularized, it was hyped as the dream factory that allows us to penetrate the world of our repressed unconscious. Filmmakers meant to give meaning to the garbled imagery in our dreams, and further justify our primal and transgressive desires. Dreams became the most common narrative device.
Ergo, Holy Motors, which pays homage to the cinematic medium, begins with the very first films ever made; followed by a scene of “le dormeur” (a sleeper), who wakes up from his sleep but remains in something of a dream state. He unlocks a door with his metallic phallic middle finger, tears open the two-dimensional screen, and breaks into the cinematic world. This alludes to our love for and the transportative powers of cinema. What happens after that, where we can’t tell dream from reality is what Christian Metz, the famous french theorist calls ‘perceptual transference’.
At its simplest, the story is about a day in the life of a seasoned actor. A chauffeur drives him around Paris to his performance locations in a luxurious limousine car packed with costumes. On the way to each location, he reads a brief about the role he is about to perform, and methodically dresses for the part. He then gets out of the limousine, performs his bit, and gets back in the limousine and moves on to the next location. In total, he plays nine different personas, in nine very different projects. In one he plays a homeless old woman, in another a father to an insecure adolescent, then a dying man, a murderous doppelganger, a humanist boy toy making passionate love to woman in a motion-capture suit that eventually reveals itself as a duel between two animated beasts in a visual simulator, a grotesque manikin who role-plays various priapic vignettes with an impassioned model. Each acting gig outdoes the other in outlandishness. Then there are scenes of the actor when he is not performing, which are equally compelling; like one where he bumps into his world-weary ex-lover from the same profession who melodiously expresses her existential angst to him before killing herself.
The film is full of allusions to many art-forms, and filmic genres presented in chronological order from old silent films to science fiction, and themes of life and death from young adulthood to old age and the impermanence of relationships. Some of his roles dawdle between the real and the absurd. Even when you see his larger-than-life persona interacting with the real world, he exhibits a befuddling unworldliness that belongs in some place mythical; And for all that, there isn’t the slightest indication of a camera, film crew, set or stage being present (the chauffeur and limousine seem to symbolically represent the whole production team; In the end the limousines also seem to represent the end the celluloid era).
In a way the lack of cameras around the protagonist draws attention to the artificiality of the scenes more than if they had been present. At the same time their absence presents the antithesis to our views on the perceptive nature of the camera lens. In the film, it also leads to the protagonist’s real identity getting mixed up with the characters he portrays, and therefore the perceptual transference that the audience experiences is also felt by the character! He’s a man whose vocation is clearly consuming him. He looks sapped at the end of each performance, including after impassioned scenes suggesting eros. Every scene is sexually allegorical, blending surrealism with humanism and satire. There’s always the clash between the conscious and the subconscious, the logical and the illogical, the real world and the imagined one, the uncanny and the norm. It is a film caught between 'providing an impression' and 'creating an illusion' of reality! In a way it goes with the larger theme that only in dreams and fiction do we sustain contradiction!
I like avant-garde and experimental films because they occupy the space in the cinematic medium that is unadaptable. You cannot translate experimental films into any other medium because they are not about storytelling, but about celebrating that unique metaphysical quality of the cinematic form that makes it different from any other medium! For instance this film cannot be adapted into a book, a play, or any other form, even though it has a simple narrative structure with a clear beginning, middle and end, and following a chronological time order (morning to night in an actor's life), because the scenes that the filmmaker chose the actor to perform in the film are ostensibly ambiguous and dependent on the atmospheric qualities that can be suggested only cinematically. Every medium has that quality that is so unique to it that it cannot be adapted into another form. For example: non-narrative poetry and stream-of-consciousness writing in literature, movement based abstraction in dance, expressionism in painting....
That being said, what is also remarkable about each of the scenes is that, while they are abstract in the way they were presented, they each seem like scenes that can fit in more conventional stories. There is enough detail in each scene to help us imagine the premise of the larger story that they may fit into. Or, we can think of them as self-contained short stories, since short stories are generally edgy, and oftentimes begin without an exposition, right in the middle of the action, and end abruptly.
In the end, it’s a film like none other, and your read of it will certainly be different from mine!
April 2013 Filed in: Books
The backcover says the book is "A vibrant collection of stories from one of Karnataka's finest storytellers". It is as vibrant as a drowned whelp. It is intentionally and incontrovertibly a dismal book of stories about women who find themselves in unhappy situations. They portray real societal hypocrisies, but are ultimately unedifying, except for the main story Gulabi Talkies, which evokes nostalgia for a simpler time when cinema was a relative novelty that brought with it new hopes and aspirations [until even in that, the author decided to take a flourishing soul that she nurtured till the very end and squeeze it dry].
To be fair to the author, I found myself feeling equally anesthetized, or at least wanting to be, when I read a translated collection of short stories by some telugu authors a few years ago. The formula seems to be to cull some classic women's issues and spin stories around them without trying too hard, except to maybe think up some trenchant statements and choice phrases that will make you squeamish; To put it in their language: in the end, you are left wondering what in the world got you so wet, shaken and quickly dissatisfied.
I still recommend the book because it's a celebrated author, and her works are highly praised by most, so the underlying messages must just be lying deep beyond my reach. In my defense, in every story the author insinuates that the character is thinking deep thoughts, without ever revealing what those thoughts are. This aggravates me as much as when someone says "It's complicated" when they want to brush you off! Two because, if you haven't read this brand of short stories, then you haven't not understood one set of women's writings in the Indian context! Three because, the book did a good job of culling all possible sad stories, so you can use them as reference to reflect on similar experiences in your life. Your truth is sure to be stranger than this fiction. Four because, misery loves company. Tell me you suffered this book too. Five because, I am about to watch the movie adaptation of Gulabi Talkies. Make of that what you will.
Can you tell from reading a book by an anonymous writer if its author is male or female? I would like to believe I can't, only because when I read a book, I want to leave behind our world and get into the world in the book. The author needs to be indeterminate and invisible (except in the case of meta-books, where authors consciously choose to draw attention to themselves). But some suggest that short stories may be a more suitable form for women. I find that sexist. The only way I could read this book was to test my theory out, and imagine that it was written by a man, and see if the conversations would still read the same way. I am happy to report that they left me feeling equally squeamish.
The filmmaker, Patrick Jean says Simpsons is his main inspiration for this film. Oil is the new beer!
Also see his other films on his website. My favorite is Pixels, which is being adapted by Sony Pictures/Columbia for the big screen; it's a much awaited film for those of us born in the 8-bit era.
April 2013 Filed in: Videos
Kumaré is a documentary film about an Indian American who pretends to be a spiritual guru from a fictional village in India. He attracts a retinue of followers who are emotionally fragile from various distressing life experiences, and are looking for comfort and healing. The followers find value in his fabricated teachings inspired by Zen Buddhism, adopt his philosophy and are on the mend. Eventually, he reveals his true self to them and the fact that they were his unwitting guinea pigs, and leaves us to contemplate the message.
This brings me to dwell on the ethical problems of this social experiment, and whether it is okay to mislead vulnerable people to satisfy one's own curiosity about what inspires them to seek spiritual leaders and join a cult; especially given the fact that they invested a lot of their time and faith on this man. Your appreciation for this documentary rests on this question, and the verdict is still out.
I saw a man making his opinion known about the fakeness of spiritual enlightenment at the expense of skewering people's faith, and humiliating already dispirited people seeking help. The filmmaker meant to reveal that a lot of what followers think is coming from spiritual healers is in fact coming from within themselves; His intention may therefore be harmless but this experiment seemed like too high a price to pay just to ratify his personal beliefs; and in fact to no other purpose, even if he felt like he was able to connect to people more deeply as a fake guru than as his real self. It also makes light of the fact that there are spiritual leaders who lead austere and venerable lives that are guided by deep philosophies. Not all of Indian spirituality is commodified even in the West; and the line between being inspired by spiritual leaders and being fixated on them is not always apparent to an observer, as much as it is to the people going through that experience.
On the positive side, I saw a healing process, as people submitted to a spiritual teacher with an open mind and took real action to better their lives. It takes courage to seek help (be it spiritual or medical). If you liken spiritual healers to psychologists or counsellors, would it have been acceptable for this filmmaker to pretend to be a doctor and pull a fast one on his convalescing patients? Also, would this very same experiment have been possible in Hollywood among celebrities who are the biggest evangelists of Eastern spirituality in America. I have a feeling getting them to honor their release forms granting permission to use their footage after they learnt that they were hoodwinked would have been near impossible.
If there was little collateral damage at the end of this experiment, it is a testament to the purity of these people who took this in good spirit (at least most of them); and to Vikram Gandhi's ability to stay in character throughout the process and genuinely connect with them. It was evident that he and his followers saw this as a spiritually fulfilling experience in some way, at least for as long as the facade lasted.
This got me thinking about where Kumaré fits within the different documentary modes that Bill Nichols talks about (See wiki). The filmmaker doesn't spoonfeed us with his thoughts, but the overall rhetoric of the documentary is allusively expository and leads our observations and thoughts in a certain direction. The filmmaker directly interacts with subjects, but because he does so in disguise, as a fictional character in the real world, it is both participative and performative. And as we find ourselves observing the followers and Kumaré's personal growth, it becomes a reflexive experience for both him and us. That is five of the six modes that Nichols talks about; the sixth being the poetic mode, and there is nothing poetic about dupery, especially if there is no poetic justice in the end!
This is a funny Wired talk with the film director, Vikram Gandhi a.k.a. Kumaré on the making of the film.
Scheherazade! How many back-to-back narrow escapes does it take before the audience faints from an overdose of suspense? Luckily, so far, I haven't had to find out, even though Argo came close. The story is based on real life, so I went into it knowing how it was going to end; and in spite of that, the narrative tension in the movie was so intense in the sequences leading up to the end that I was forced to suspend my knowledge of what is to come, and entertain the possibility of the 'other' unpleasant outcome while things were still playing out!
Argo has two things going for it. It is factual as far as the big picture story is concerned, and fictive as far as the plot details are concerned. The details are where the holes in our memory and the window of opportunity for narrative tension reside. And together, the fact (the real story) and the fiction (the movie) share a common 'essence', and trigger the same sentiments and streams of thought.
Since the 2000s, there have been more films based on real events than in all the ninety years of cinema prior to that. I have wondered why this is the case, especially since most of the recent stories are based on incidents that happened prior to the 2000s. This may be because retelling of past stories require big-ticket resources to accurately recreate those ambiences, without which we can't fully immerse ourselves in that world; and given that film budgets too have increased manyfold within this same timeframe, this is now more possible than before. Also, stories of the past naturally permit fictional embellishments because they require us to put ourselves in a world that we don't belong in. And retelling of stories that happened in the past can take advantage of the paradox of suspense, because when we seek a fictional version of the real story over a factual one, we are seeking "half-truths" over "the truth", and depend on them to create the narrative tension. That's how Argo delivers. Ironically, a dialogue in the film says "If I'm doing a fake movie, it's going to be a fake hit". I am of opinion that Ben Affleck made a real movie, and it was a real hit.
For a fuller experience, I suggest watching the film and reading the real story, and interviews of the filmmakers and people involved in this hostage crisis. Here's a start, for those who've watched the film, and those who love spoilers:
Of course, Wiki to Argo and Wiki to the Iran Hostage Crisis
Interview with Argo's screenwriter
Interview with Ben Affleck
Joshua Bearman's Wired write-up on Argo
The real story about the Airport Sequence
Tony Mendez on the True Story
Argo as seen by the hostage survivors
Iran's plans on making it's own Argo
Argo vs. Zero Dark Thirty
The Argo (Lord of Light) Storyboards
Wired has a three-part interview with William Gibson where he talks about a whole lot of things, from how sci-fi speculations about reality are almost always wrong (and how that's a good thing); to the pointless pleasure of learning how to fix antique watches; and the global spread of punk rock in the pre-internet era. Every time I read his interviews (here's another), he kindles my enthusiasm to pursue a hobby, and know a lot about one thing (anything), and at least something about everything. His conversations are always fascinating and can sustain in many living rooms.
In some ways, he shapes some of what I appreciate in popular and counter culture. Like him, I see science-fiction as being rooted in reality; and even when it is not, I like working out at what point it veers off from reality and takes an imaginary, somewhat realistic alternate path; and then I wonder what our lives might have been like if we had taken that path. Sometimes, we correctly speculate a future phenomenon (example 1, example 2), but may not be able to accurately predict the means we used to arrive at that phenomenon, because they don't always follow a linear path or happen by intention. It's like we choose a different right, from many possible rights! And then, even if some of the rights ultimately lead to the same end, the manner in which they do it becomes important and critical to determining the course of the future. It's like how Acetaminophen (paracetamol) and Ibuprofen both relieve pain, but they have two very different mechanisms of action, where in one sends a message to our hypothalamus and increases our threshold to pain, and the other inhibits the release of hormones (prostaglandins) that trigger pain, and encourages endorphins to flow freely and relieve pain. They therefore come with different side effects, which you want to keep in mind when you decide which one might suit your physical makeup. Likewise, the means to arriving at a phenomenon comes with its set of contingent properties, and they in turn trigger other actions, thereby unfolding many new paths that the future can possibly take off in.
Science fiction writers don't usually look to be accurate in their speculation, as much as imagine another reality, with a willingness to entertain the possibility of the impossible (eg: time travel, parallel universes, gene therapy, advanced AI, etc). However, nine times out of ten, my quest to figure out what is real, what will be real, what is speculative, and what is completely made up, ends up revealing how much more outlandish our reality is in comparison with some of the most outlandish science fiction there is! Few authors manage to break away from what has already been done and create new imaginary worlds. On the flip side, few outlandish things in reality seldom reveal themselves to us immediately, and when they do, they don't seem far out anymore. One such example in our real life is virtual reality, our more intangible counterpart-reality, which has allowed us to experience many realistic interactions and other benefits, and sometimes more realistic than in our physical world, but, it still ceases to be considered palpably real. It has a non-real, fictional component to it that is dependent on our imagination, and is therefore cheated of legitimacy. At the same time, it is so useful that we just can't wish it away.
I think of the virtual world's palpability as being analogous to Aerogel, or frozen smoke; the ultralight solid that is 96% air, and so light that if you hold it in your hand, you can barely see it or feel it. When you put a flower on top of the aerogel, the flower appears to have levitated; and if you suspend the aerogel over burner, with the flower on top of it, the flower won't go up in smoke and appears to defy nature! It supports 4000 times its weight, can withstand a direct blast from two pounds of dynamite;
There were online communities, and virtual worlds forty years before people began to reckon with Facebook and Second Life, and speculate how virtual worlds are affecting our lives. Even in the 1970s, people interacted with each other in fictitious worlds, each with their own subculture driven by both players' imaginations and evolving conventions that became solidified as more worlds evolved and more people became invested in them. But, before the mass of millions caught on to it and it was only limited to a mass of thousands, it became more popular in science fiction, so much that many believed it to be a speculation of the future. Even today, we think of virtual worlds as a present-day phenomenon that's still in its early stages, and are trying to understand how it might impact our life. And now this is reality because we don't know any other reality, and because it is a multiple-reality that we don't fully understand, we have extended our existentialist philosophies and world views to it.
In real life, there is a line between work and play that is clearly defined. Unless you are a sportsperson or an entertainer, and in fact, even if you are a sportsperson or an entertainer, a game is not the centre of your existence. However, in the virtual world the line between work and play is imaginary. Notwithstanding our biological needs, we can do almost everything in the virtual world that we can in the physical world, except here all real life implications happen under the pretext of a game, but can impact our lives just as they do in the physical world! We can run businesses that can make or break our economy, enroll in school, join a religious cult, socialize and play. The metaphorical game of life in the physical world is literally the game of life in the virtual world.
Summer Wars depicts how seamlessly integrated the virtual and real worlds have become. It is a visually explosive fictional drama based on reality. Every frame is like a spectacular painting, and it is only in that that it differs from reality; Such eye-candy is unfortunately in short supply in both our real and virtual worlds, but I can speculate that this caliber of aesthetic will soon take over at least our virtual world, for real.
A nitrate film burns at 17,000 feet per second. It produces its own oxygen and can't be put out with water. You can strongroom it to keep it safe, but, what is the point of keeping films locked up?
I think of cinema as a mandala, a visual scripture of time, that is evanescent and finite. The old melts away, often literally, like ninety percent of old films that are now lost forever. The few left too will buckle with age, or will never see an audience because they are being preserved in a temperature-controlled bubble.
Even if films are everlasting, our minds move on. Beautiful art forms within the medium are ritualistically destroyed every decade to give way to new forms. Vaudeville gave way to silent film, silent film to talkies; black and white to color, films to digital, and 2D to 3D. This transitory nature of cinematic mediums symbolizes the fleeting nature of art and life itself;
Luckily, there is no end to man's imagination. It knows no age or era! One may stop transforming cardboard boxes into forts, spaceships and playthings, but one never ceases to transport himself to different worlds. As he grows older, and acquires new abilities, he realizes those worlds in other ways. For a filmmaker, the camera is his cardboard box, a portal to any world that he only has to imagine to bring into existence!
In the early 1900s, cinema was a game with no rules. There was no one to say what was possible or not possible to do. Filmmakers seemed always to want to make the impossible possible. The silent era was not the era when sound synchronization was not possible, or when cinema did not mean itself to ever be sound-synchronized (several silent filmmakers were happy to upgrade or readapt their silent films to sound eventually). It was the era when filmmakers chose to entertain even without synchronized sound, and oftentimes with a live symphonic orchestra accompanying the visuals. “The mighty wurlitzers” could produce every imaginable sound effect, and musicians were as much film celebrities as the filmmakers and actors; And anyone who makes silent films today will tell you that the genre is far from primitive, and requires tremendous imagination to conjure up new and exciting ways to tell stories that are captivating. Silence was a new language, with a vast visual and expressive vocabulary that was evolving as filmmakers began to explore it through their works! Moreover, silent films offer a wide range of storytelling possibilities that can be deep and meaningful, or silly and ridiculous. And when the audiences took that leap of imagination with the filmmakers and accepted the filmic world, cinema became an obsessive new art form!
There was a lot that was being tried in the early 1900s. In fact, 3D films were pioneered and patented by William Friese-Greene in the late1890s, where in two films were projected at the same time to create a 3D illusion when watched through a stereoscope. Harry Fairall made the first commercially successful 3D film in the 1920s; The Lumière brothers used 3D processes to shoot several scenes in their films, including one as early as 1903. Georges Méliès created a camera so that he could shoot on both European and American film reels at the same time, and when used together, both films created a 3D effect. Of course, production costs meant bigger experiments in 3D cinema would have to wait till the 1950s, when it made impressive headway, and several 3D films entertained a sizeable audience!
Even in the early 1900s, filmmakers began to dream of color cinema. In the 1910s, D.W. Griffith used a number of colors to tint each scene in his movies to complement the moods in his scenes, and he later invented a lighting system in which colored lights flashed on different areas of the screen to achieve the desired effect.
And almost simultaneously as the beginnings of cinema, came the use of visual effects and animation. In the 1890s just as cinema was born, Georges Méliès used stop tricks, made time-lapse videos, used dissolves and creative transitions, multiple exposures, and handpainted color. Several others used moving painted backgrounds and miniatures to depict worlds that didn’t exist! In the 1920s, Dziga Vertov was already making visual poetries full of animation and special effects, by manipulating film and transforming reality.
Even as cinema was being born, no one thought it would remain forever silent! So when I see The Artist, I see a charming film that I absolutely love and will watch over and over again. But, while it pays homage to the silent era, like the "simplicity" of good old cinema, and the charming romantic stories, the tragedy that befell silent artists, it does not fully represent the rich realities of that era from a historic point of view; There was nothing simple and innocent, or silent about 1920s cinema!
In fact, when one looks at the way The Artist is shot, one sees that it candidly pays homage to films made over four decades; which is what I enjoyed about it! You see it inspired by Hollywood as a whole, and by everything wonderful that each era has to offer. For instance, it uses the old square-screen format; is shot at 22-frames-per-second to quicken action (which is somewhat accurate of the 1920s, although typically they used a quicker frame rate, until the advent of sound); it has gorgeous art deco sets (which came to Hollywood only in the 1930s and 40s); and the acting, title cards, and music capture the spirit of the 20s era (even though the music used in the film was composed in the late 1930s).
And, if you have seen the old 1920s films, you can tell that this one is not dredged up from that era. The quality of the visuals is implausibly pristine, since it is not shot using black-and-white film but high quality color film from our era; the camera angles, editing and lighting styles are evidently inspired from films in the 30s through 60s. And yet, it all comes together and makes a movie that ultimately pays homage to the late 1920s silent films in a way that both neophytes and buffs can fall in love with! And in not being accurate, it (albeit unintentionally) captures the experimental spirit of the 1920s; which was an era forgiving of deception! When you think of it as a 21st century filmmaker's love letter to the silent era, The Artist is by far the most beautiful love letter a man of the future has written to the past!
February 2013 Filed in: Films
Bugs Bunny: It's true, Doc. I'm a rabbit, alright. Would you like to shoot me now or wait 'til you get home?
Daffy Duck: Shoot him now!!!! Shoot him now!!!!
Bugs Bunny: You keep outta this! He doesn't have to shoot you now!
Daffy Duck: He does so have to shoot me now! (to Doc) I demand that you shoot me now!
I am partial to these switcheroo plots where nothing is as it seems: where fates are reversed; the good reveal themselves as bad or vice versa; the line between reality and fiction blurs and bends and the two swap places!
Martin McDonagh's metafilm is about the misadventures of a man writing a screenplay about seven psychopaths, of which some are fictional, some are inspired by real people, and some inadvertently turn out to be real, including that of his two dog-kidnapping friends. The trio then work together on finishing the screenplay, while also running from a mobster psychopath who is after their lives for stealing his dog; Subsequently, one friend becomes so invested in the film that in wanting to write a climactic shootout ending with all the psychopaths in it, he devises a real-life climatic ending involving the mobster psychopath coming for his dog, and things go to hell, as planned!
It's a matryoshka doll story: a screenplay about writing a screenplay, a spoof about a spoof, a story within a story, and in fact a story about a story that gets mixed up with reality and becomes a spinoff of a story yet to be written. In essence a total Charlie Foxtrot!
There has been a rise of these self-reflexive films in recent times, with filmmakers paying homage to a film genre, but in a less spoofy, more layered and provocative way: like Hugo, The Artist, Harishchandrachi Factory, Super 8, Argo, Tropic Thunder, Adaptation, Barton Fink, The Player and The Seven Psychopaths, of which the last four are centered around scriptwriters. It's like their way of getting back at us for not taking notice of them. They are smack dab in the middle of the story!
February 2013 Filed in: Books
I am participating in the South Asian Women Writers Challenge, and will be reading six South Indian books by women writers and reviewing at least three by the end of this year.
Feel free to recommend both fiction and non-fiction books from the red area; and also participate in the challenge.
Jennifer Lawrence is a terrific actress. I buy into her character in every movie. I see her and I see everything through her, and every other character is worth considering if she thinks so. And the only time I don't see things through Jennifer Lawrence's point of view is when she is not in the scene.
In every movie I have seen of hers, she stands out as an empathetic person who puts loved ones ahead of herself; she is courageous and goes after what she wants even in the face of death or humiliation; she is talented (both physically and mentally) in spite of her upbringing; she is clear-sighted, perceptive and helps us make sense of things even in circumstances bereft of reason. I often find myself empathising with people who seem slightly off only because she likes them or gets them! And everyone behaves differently around her than when they are alone or with other people, suddenly becoming all the more interesting-- take the scene in Silver Linings where she dances with Chris Tucker, or the scene where almost all the characters meet in Bradley Cooper's house after the big fight at the stadium, and there's a parlay between Bradley Cooper's dad and his friend. You see their quirks come to light in the most endearing way as soon as she barges into the scene!
Her thriving spirit always prevails, and I come out of the movie ready to take on the world! But, the world always looks rather cruel.
In order to get the full grasp of her movie, you have to put it in perspective of all her other movies. It's like appreciating how the same glass changes forms as it goes through different phase transitions and comes face to face with various elements and changes in temperature. It's the type of quality that makes an actor an auteur.
When she stands straight, the world looks off-kilter.
February 2013 Filed in: Films
"I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one's mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one's leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form." - Dumbledore
Few movies make me feel uneasy. While I was watching Zero Dark Thirty, the torture and the raid had me in cold sweat; and when I came out of the theatre the narrative of Zero Dark Thirty left me in an ethical quagmire; each of these alone would have been enough to discomfit me, but what got me most is that I associated this movie with reality, and it didn't feel right.
Kathryn Bigelow is good at appealing to our raw and visceral impulses. She has a way of making the fictional aspect of the film virtually transparent. It is as if the story always existed (as presented); her film testifies to its existence (as presented), and it is now available for us to see and understand (as presented).
Her fiction feigns the innocent arrogance of objective fact that is indifferent to our response. And in this way, she entices us to view the film; and because of the way it is presented, where in you are a third-person with access to unfolding 'real' events, you see your reactions and judgments as being either instinctive or filtered through your prejudices. In this way, the film exercises authority over reality, and becomes a reality in its own right, whose verity need not be questioned.
It becomes less important if Bigelow drew the vase or the space around the vase, because only a part of it need be filled for us to complete the whole. But, we can never unsee the whole, and see only the part, and therein lies the dilemma of reality based fiction, and fiction based reality. Whose truth or fiction is the vase, whose is the space around it, and who is to take credit for the whole?
“You may break, you may shatter the vase, if you will, but the scent of the roses will hang round it still.” - Thomas More
January 2013 Filed in: Films
Tarantino's violence is of a particular personality that I happen to like. It's an aesthetic ultra-violence requiring a willing suspension of disbelief so that art and motif can coalesce with chimerical coherence. It is at once real and sensational, and unreal and provocative, and evokes many opposite and extreme emotions simultaneously. I find myself reacting instinctually to the action, and intelligently to the dialogues. It convinces me that the only place for all moral outrage is on cinema, where violence can be converted into beauty!
One way to judge a film would be to imagine it being played in two different scenarios, and see if the filmmakers intention comes in the way of our perception of the film.
In one scenario, Tarantino makes Django Unchained just to cater to his whim. He hires a large crew, orchestrates a carefully crafted blaxploitation spaghetti western film full of stunning cinematography, eclectic music, cathartic action scenes, and frequent laughs! When the film is made, he keeps it to himself, for his late-night viewing and doesn't show it to anyone (this assumes of course, that he has the wherewithal to afford this indulgence). In another scenario, he makes the same film available to the audience.
In the case of the former, his motive being the creation of art and self-gratification, there is less incentive to make a point about slavery, as much as set his story in those slavery times by happenstance or by reason of his fancy! It is purely a creative endeavor by a man who has a thought, a fantasy and grandiose talents, and is wanting to scratch an itch without feeling the need to share or impress!
In the case of the latter, he is more generous. He gratifies himself while also allowing us to indulge in his fantasy and create our own; he gives us our first iconic black hero (a lovelorn slave turned bounty hunter) in a spaghetti western. A black western hero is an unwonted induction made more stark by the fact that it is a western set in a deep southern plantation backdrop; and he uses this setting to make known the holocaust of black slavery from his distinctive, fictional point of view! If these are Tarantino's motives (as he claims they are), then the violence is just a plot device to dragoon us into a frame of mind needed to move the actual story along!
The historic inaccuracies, such as that the Klu Klux Klan was formed at least a decade after the period in which the film was set, or that there is no evidence of real Mandingo fighting, maybe irrelevant as factual history, but are necessary to the story! They are artistic liberties that serve as plot devices to make a point about the slave experience, which in reality was as brutal as the lies that Tarantino fabricated! And that is where he has a whip-hand over historians, in that he is allowed to be blatantly manipulative, and use grandiose falsehoods as tools to weave mysterious threads of truth and tell some form of the real story! But he also intentionally forces us to reflect on the times by sincerely recreating the physical ambience of those plantations! The result is a fine balance of the different tones and stories at play. This is true also for his other purposefully inaccurate, and fittingly misspelled film, Inglourious Basterds!
I wonder what Henri Bergson would have to say about today’s cinema. He had nothing to do with cinema, but even as early as 1906 he anticipated it would influence new ways of thinking about movement. Do you think he could have imagined the likes of Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World when he said that?
I am reminded of a book that I once read on quantum physics called Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of The Universe’s Hidden Dimensions. In that, the author Lisa Randall who is a theoretical physicist speculates that there may be 10 or 11 space-time dimensions in the universe (and for all you know fewer or many more)… and that we experience only four because we are not physiologically designed to see those other dimensions.
Should she be right about there being many more dimensions in the world – and should parallel universes, warped geometry and three-dimensional sinkholes be real – it could change everything! Emboldened by our knowledge, we may even be able to impinge on these hidden dimensions and find ways to experience them. In some ways films like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World attempt (even if unintentionally) to do that! But if it was that easy to imagine and simulate a different world, wouldn’t it be that much easier to also realize it?
In fact, what we are doing in quantum physics now is seeing our world the same way Bergson saw cinema in 1906. We are seeing it with wonder, and even wondering hopelessly about that which cannot be imagined, and then wondering more about what it means that we cannot imagine what we wondered about.
But, unlike my kind of loosey-goosey wondering, Bergson’s speculation about cinema turned out to be more than accurate. In fact more so than I think he could have ever imagined. Moreover, if you think of his speculation in conjunction with his other philosophies on reality and intuition, and creativity and laughter… you have what I think is the perfect fodder for a discussion on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World… or any other nested-fantasy film for that matter.
The film has a lot of merit and is brilliant beyond words can express in just the way the plot unfolded and was visually presented. But, leaving that aside, if you consider the random chain of thoughts it triggers in our mind about the nature of reality alone, it still is a treasure trove of delightful reveries.
The other more obvious conversation that the film provokes is about Fantasy. Now that Fantasy has emerged into its own genre of film, one has to wonder if the word has lost its meaning or at least changed to mean something else. Is Fantasy fantasy if we know what to expect? Is fantasy not the expression of our unconscious that reflects subliminal realms of our minds that have been suppressed or repressed? Can we translate the form, structure and rationality of the world of dreams to the world of reality? And can we fantasize with films, the way we can fantasize in our minds?
Lacan would have us believe that fantasy is our conscious articulation of desire through images and stories… but, I wonder if by giving it a standard structure, we are interfering with the process of narrating our unconscious desire the way it wants to be narrated…
He addresses this dilemma by taking into account the many layers of fantasies between filmmakers and spectators that inadvertently cross-feed each other. For instance… the filmmaker perceives fantasy in a certain way, which may be different from the fantasy he creates for the spectators, which each spectator then perceives and fantasizes in their own way, and feed back to the filmmaker, who then re-interprets the spectators’ fantasies only to find that they may be entirely different from his own… but here too the filmmaker’s interpretation of the spectators’ fantasies may be maligned by his own subconscious desires, so he may never really know what the spectators had imagined… just as the spectators may never know what the filmmaker imagined…
To add to this, imagining is an ongoing process that we have little control over, and happens in our mind alongside other activities (including getting lost in the film and become one with it). Our imagination too changes all the time, which means we may all be fantasizing about the same thing differently at different points in time, and even have several fantasies about the same thing running simultaneously in our minds at once, making it impossible for us to articulate them! Moreover, we tend put ourselves in the minds of several people (the filmmaker, the protagonists, the spectators and so on) while also viewing the film as observers or protagonists, making it impossible to know how our various observations overlap or communicate with each other…
This means each spectator has millions of fantasies and there are millions of spectators for each film, making the number of fantasies as numerous as the number of atoms in the air, which again points back to the analogy about quantum physics.
And still everyone is together in this orgy of fantasies on account of a common pursuit, which is the viewing of the film and exploring our subconscious desires through it (and trying to explore the desires of others). We each speak to our own innermost fantasies and feed it to others who interpret it to satisfy their fantasies and so on and so forth. We can’t tell how our fantasies are triggered and how they translate to others desires, since it all happens within the unconscious mind.
That’s where I began and ended with Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World. I saw myself as the voyeur of the story unfolding in front of me, as well as the voyeur of my own fantasy. And what a colorful and spectacular world it was, and how much there was in it to see and be entertained by.
I read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edward Allan Poe around when I watched the Life of Pi (although I had read the book many years ago), and couldn't help but contemplate the two in tandem. There were many apparent parallels in the two novels, right from the names of the characters and the overarching themes of solitary survival at sea and cannibalism, but they also had their own distinctive qualities, so much that even when the story-lines crisscrossed, the similarities only seemed superficial! The Life of Pi was a tamer and more openly spiritual cousin of the Pym of Nantucket.
In almost every great story about sea voyages gone awry, there is truth mixed with the unspeakable; where humans confront their savage instincts, and one Richard Parker becomes victim to the Custom of the Sea. This is true for both fiction and real life. In real life, back when there were no proper telecommunication facilities, cannibalism used to be accepted as an execrable, but necessary evil, unavoidable in certain circumstances, such as survival at sea. In The Mignonette case, a century ago, three lost crew members chose to eat an unconscious fourth (a Richard Parker), and the only objection raised by the law was that it was done so without drawing straws!
But, in all shipwreck stories, there is also the aspect of nature revealing itself in all its splendor, and making itself look dream-like! It brought the element of magic in magic-realism, as was best showcased in The Life of Pi. When the story was uninterrupted by human presence (besides Pi, who stands witness to this phenomenon), the world seemed ineffably vast and harmonious! There was chaos, there was stillness, and there was a perceivable rhythm to both. The twinkling of the stars was echoed in the bioluminescence of the jellyfish; the reflective water faithfully mirrored the golden sky above; the chaos of waves complimented the wrath of the storm, the fusillade of flying fish paralleled the scurrying of meerkats up the trees; the synchronous movements of critters and beasties matched the intricate anatomy of the woods, which in turn contrasted the tiny boat in a boundless sheet of uninterrupted velvet blue. The roar of the tiger and his continued stare into the abyss complemented the lyrical words of Pi and his nonstop monologues!
How much of it was real, and how much of it was made up, we will never know; just as we will never know which of the two stories was true, and if anything like the floating island really exists in our world! What we do know is what we wanted our unexplored world to look like, and it was delivered!
The human aspect of The Life of Pi came in the form of Pi's soliloquies, which at times left me mentally adrift, and trying to find ground! In being besotted with nature, I may have been distracted from the wonder of God. In the end, I was more happy that Pi found his gastronomical path than his spiritual one!
But just as one man and one tiger learnt to share space on a tiny boat in a fictional story, in real life, we have been witnessing a different result to the battle between tigers and humans sharing the same space. For sometime now, the score has been tipping heavily on the human side, so much that last week, 200 men savagely attacked a "released" tiger and ceremoniously killed it!
Almost all reserves in India have tiger populations in two-digits, and tigers have lost 93% of their range, and yet they seem to come in the way of human settlements. Environmentalists have been working hard to reverse this change and promote nonviolence. Tigers too have been somewhat proactive in changing their ways to thrive in this manscape. For instance, the ones in Sundarbans rarely attack the villages encircling the reserves. In order to provide for themselves in the wild, they have learnt to swim, and sometimes tread deep water for up to three miles to catch their prey. They have also adapted to eating honey from beehives. In other parts, tigers have adopted a nocturnal life and prowl on forest paths only at night when we are asleep. It seems they have done everything short of growing wings. Despite that, on occasion, particularly when food is scare, they polish off local livestock, and rattle our cage!
One begins to wonder if the solution to the riddle about transporting the Tiger, Goat and Grass to the other side holds water in real life. Secretly perhaps, our most desirable solution is to let the goat eat the grass, then feed the goat to the tiger, then eat the tiger, and deliver ourselves in fine fettle to the other side!
Cannibalism hasn't come that easily to tigers as it has to us! They do well playing Richard Parker. I know one tiger that did.
More on Tigers: http://worldwildlife.org/species/tiger
One way to experience the beauty of a chemical element is to make it manifest somehow; like when you strike a match and see phosphorus ignite, or add mercury to a neon tube to make it shine blue, or fill a balloon with helium and release it to the sky.
In The Red Balloon, the balloon has a life of its own; bobbing behind a little Parisian boy who is as enchanted by it as the rest of us. It's a simple story that is narrated with a poetic spareness that is as light, and as rare as helium itself.
There is a shortage of helium on our planet. It is the second most abundant element in the observable universe, but not here. Here, in our neck of the woods, it makes up 0.00052% of the atmosphere, not including some in underground gas pockets, a good chunk of which we pack into our party balloons and ship off to the outer space! It is predicted that all helium on Earth may be depleted in about 40 years. To let that happen would be a betrayal of innocence, just like in the story. The price of helium has already increased 300% in the last few years, and is unavailable in some places (although in some other places, like in Calcutta, helium rides are the things to watch out for)! Some stores have begun to impose a helium balloon limit here, meaning you can buy only six balloons at a time.
As kids, we were each allowed to buy one small pear-shaped helium balloon once a year. It was also the only day that I could most pretend to defy gravity. I could ride the roller coasters and ferris wheels, and sit on dad's shoulders as we strolled through the various stalls and sampled treats. Later in the evening we would let our balloons go and watch them get tinier and tinier till they disappeared out of sight, with the exception of one, whose helium would serve to distort our voices!
Helium to me is about the wonders of childhood, now kept alive through cinema - like the unwavering red sphere in The Red Balloon, the twenty thousand colorful blimps that lifted Carl's house off the ground in Up, the hot air balloon that
Francesca and Casanova used to oppose "the gravitational force of witchcraft" in Casanova, the wizard's balloon that "almost" transported Dorothy back home in The Wizard of Oz! Soon, cinema might be the only way to experience the magic of helium balloons.
I came across a humorous project by an independent director who took scenes from classic films and added little balloon props to them. They are something of an homage to The Red Balloon. Enjoy!
Of course, there is more to Helium than balloons.
Here are some recent articles about the crisis (and its effects on scientific research among other things):
• A ballooning problem: the great helium shortage
• Stop the Parade! Should we be wasting our dwindling supply of helium on floating cartoon characters?
• A Helium Shortage Leads to Fewer Balloons in the Sky
… and a link to a related cause: Balloons Blow… Don't Let Them Go!