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Bombay Velvet: Ellipses and Environment

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 15, 2015

Originally published at Mad About Moviez.

Delightful, completely irrelevant, note about circumstance: I went into this movie completely uninitiated; all I knew that there was a new Anurag Kashyap movie coming out some time around now, and that it had Karan Johar. The plan was concocted over drinks at Irish House in Kala Ghoda, and we went to Regal because it was the closest theatre whose prices didn’t leave the insides of our noses sore; for the longest time I was wondering where I had seen the intersection in the movie before. (If this doesn’t make sense to you, I suggest that you resist the urge to find out and let it hit you while watching the movie.)

bombay-velvet-stills-anushka-sharma-singing-songMany Hindi movies have a bit in which there’s a song being sung and we are shown wheelings and dealings relevant to the story. These sorts of scenes have a particular grammar, rather different from normal film grammar. A patron of the dance bar is approached by a lackey; the patron goes out the back entrance and finds his arch-nemesis standing there; the arch-nemesis raises a gun; inside, the former’s right-hand man walks out of the bathroom, looks around, his eyes rest on a particular spot, presumably where the patron was sitting earlier, and then he continues to enjoy the dancing. In this short sequence, we’ve been very efficiently, and effectively, told a story of betrayal and murder. Bombay Velvet is a movie told almost entirely in this grammar – every cause is connected to its effect by ellipses, and it shouldn’t be hard to fill them in.* Apart from being a purposeful and awesome choice on Mr Kashyap’s part, it’s also absurdly hard to keep up; many movies use it for short sequences but it’s incredibly hard to tell a whole story engagingly and well in this style – I was waiting for a lot of the running time for the set-up to end and the story to start, since I just did not imagine that he was doing this for anything beyond set-up.

This style is not strictly new for Mr Kashyap; he’s always been weirdly fond of his ellipses. In Gulaal, the last movie of his that I enjoyed, Raj and Kiran meet and exchange slightly lingering gazes, after which the story chugs on for a while till: they both turn up in a post-coital scene. I thought these sorts of things in Gulaal were very much a weakness, since the movie’s effect hinges on our identification with Raj and in this we are being cruelly yanked out of our involvement in his emotional evolution.

But what is new in Bombay Velvet is that this ellipsis-ising is an integral part of Mr Kashyap’s vision (it doesn’t always work, I’m obligated to inform you, since I’m calling this a review; now, more interesting things). It has three, somewhat different, effects, and they add up nicely to make Bombay Velvet ultimately be some sort of ballad, told in a style that is a hodgepodge of old-timey (American) gangster movies, Bollywood, the sound of tapori slang, and… whatever the type of song is that the movie keeps on calling jazz.**

First, it allows the movie to feed off the rhythms of these songs. There’s a fundamental difference between prose and poetry; it’s the intuition behind the differences between the words ‘prosaic’ and poetic.’ The prosaic is more mundane not because it necessarily deals with more mundane things (unless you think bug-headed women are more mundane than daffodils), but because it deals with them in the mindset we use to deal with mundanity – it’s involved in the details, it’s important for the whole to work that the jigsaw puzzle is completed to the extent that the missing pieces don’t jump out and viscerally affect you. The poetic, on the other hand, is about the mind; details are beside the point, either irrelevant or left as an exercise to the reader. The long and short of all this being that, because he’s ellipsis-ising everything here, Mr Kashyap can let the movie feel like a song, borrowing rhythm and flow from the songs intricately threaded through the narrative.

Another, possibly more important, effect is that Bombay Velvet is a story told, not lived. By not showing you the details of its character’s lives or their transformations, we have no emotional anchor to feel with, no one we feel like we know (I suspect that this was what led one of the people with me to call it ‘so fragmented,’ despite the fact that it has a very distinct and linear narrative). The characters are not so much developed as stated, with them behaving in qualitatively new ways even very late into the movie; two and a half hours in, in a pivotal scene, Anushka Sharma’s Rosie asks Ranbir Singh’s Johnny to make a choice, and I for one had no clue what he would say. This sort of thing is usually a sign of weakness in the telling, a failure of proper character development, and no doubt many people reacted negatively to this. In this case, however, it’s no such thing. It’s completely irrelevant that we don’t know Johnny at all, since this is a story about Johnny, not the story of Johnny.

And why are we interested in a story that’s merely about Johnny? What creates the emotional and dramatic stakes that involve us in the movie? Why, in the climax, did I emotionally, viscerally, tie my good cheer to a particular outcome (with relevant spoiler alert, more on this in footnote***)?

Ranbir-Kapoor-Bombay-VelvetThat brings us to the third, and possibly most important, effect of the ellipses. This story about Johnny Balraj is really a story about the world which includes Johnny Balraj living this story, and therefore about colonialism. Okay, that’s a lot of things to say in one sentence. Let’s go through it more slowly.

Consider the opening sequence (I may have misremembered, but the precise truth of the following is not that important). Raveena Tandon is singing to a club. Then, we flash back to 1949 with a train pulling into a station in Mumbai. A kid and his mom get off, with the kid briefly pausing to survey the fresh new environs. Cut to, another kid is picking an Englishman’s pocket, and then we see that the earlier kid is watching him and his mom, barely audible, is begging for work. Cut to, the pickpocket is being beaten up, hopelessly outnumbered, and the other kid jumps into the fray with barely a moment of hesitation. Cut to, the kids introducing themselves to each other. And so on.

What do we get out of this? What we don’t get is a sense of identification, or for that matter affection, for these kids. They exist, and we’re being told about them. I think, and you may disagree here, that what we get is a sense of world, and a sense of destiny. We’re first told that the kid getting of the train is walking into the world with the club, implicitly leading us to believe that he will end up there. Then, we’re shown that this is a world where little kids pick English pockets, immigrant women beg for work and kids beat each other up. This is literally the flow of information, apart from the fact that we are being shown the reactions of the first kid.

And, throughout its running time, the movie keeps an eye trained at the world around these characters. We are always shown, from the stand-up’s mouth, or by quick cutaways to newspapers and rallies, or even by the plot machinations, that Johnny’s story is merely part of something much bigger than him.

And it’s here, finally, that the specifics of the story make an appearance. The central conflict of the movie is that Balraj wants respect and power, and the world constantly denies him it. He behaves in such a gutsy manner to get it that multiple people give him the opportunity to do bigger and bigger things. This all leads to him trying to mug Karan Johar’s Kaizad Khambatta with a hand posing as a gun, and Kaizad renaming him and making him the owner of the club Bombay Velvet. And then, Johnny Balraj – as he’s now called – helps him and his friends get a huge construction on the freshly reclaimed Nariman point and Backbay going. He wants his share of the profits; Kaizad and co find this funny. And thus begins a feud, in which Johnny has nothing but a hot head, his best friend (Satyadeep Misra’s awesome Chiman) and determination, and Kaizad has the whole system on his side.

Now, a couple of historical notes. A large part of the motivation for the founding of the Indian National Congress was that rich, well-educated Indians had a ceiling; they couldn’t go higher than a certain position in any organisation. And, Gandhi made the Indians following him help in medical care during the Boer war, because he strongly felt that the British were very much a positive influence on the world.

At various points in Bombay Velvet, people tell Johnny, Kaizad’s been so good to you that he took you from a street rat to the owner of the biggest and most exclusive club in the city, why do you insist on gettting more frm him. Johnny, meanwhile, believes that his services should be rewarded, independently of earlier rewards for earlier services.

Yes, Johnny is a freedom fighter, being oppressed by the brown Babus that replaced the white ones in 1947; and, in the most significant fact of all, he never gives up the name given to him by the brown Babus.

* A tangential reference to fnording political articles feels apposite, even though the similarity is but superficial.

**I asked my friendly neighbourhood musically knowledgeable person if this was actually jazz, and he agrees with my (far less trustworthy) opinion that there’s only a smattering of jazz-y-ness in it. I still liked the songs, though. (Update: I like them less after listening to them on youtube; likely the movie fed a lot into my liking the songs. I emphasise, however, that the extent of my enjoyment of them is logically unconnected to my perception of whether they are jazz)

*** [SPOILER ALERT] Rosie lives! Compared to my feelings about this, I don’t give a shit about Yossarian. I think this is because she’s the innocent woman just trying to live her life stuck in the middle of these larger-than-life tectonic shifts, which means she’s basically a symbol for us.

Posted in Kashyap, Anurag, Movie Reviews, Movies | Leave a Comment »

Why the Author Didn’t Die

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 14, 2015

Somewhat pedictably, I once had a younger brother who went to his grandfather and said, “We aren’t having a surprise party tonight.” He, of course, was flabbergasted when we shouted at him for it.

Not quite as predictably, the auteur theory of film criticism has had its detractors almost since its inception. Really, no one sensible actually subscribes to it now. After all, no one actually believes that Scorsese is a Catholic filmmaker or that Bergman was engaged with his faith or that Richard Linklater likes hearing people talk.

I’m not much of a subscriber to the term “auteur,” but Carruth earns it as writer-producer-director-cinematographer-editor-composer-star. He reveals images that can be coldly clinical or a sun-dappled gold, put together in cleanly severed, occasionally overlapping bits to an insidiously affecting soundtrack.
Melissa Starker

Okay, let’s stop. There’s obviously something going on here. Critics don’t want to be auteurists, but they seem overwhelmingly to default into that mode of speaking. Really, pretty much every review out there talks about the movie in terms of what the director wants to do, or what the director likes to do, or something else about the director.

The questions here, obviously, are why they don’t want to be auteurist, and why they talk as if they are anyway.

One reason for the first is, no doubt, something that happened among literary critics eighty or so years ago: new criticism. It was a movement that started by analysing poems as ‘self-contained objects;’ among its many facets was a rejection of the poet’s explanation of the poem as gospel. Or, as a friend put it when I told him about this essay, “do you really want to go around shipping paintings with explaining artists attached?” But, while I’ve seen arguments won and lost by someone invoking ‘the intentional fallacy,’ I’m yet to see a literature reviewer (in venues that can be called reasonably mainstream for an interested outsider, a spectrum from which I’m picking all my film reviewer quotes as well) start a sentence with “I’m no auteurist but…” In fact, most happily talk about the author’s vision. So, I have trouble ascribing it as the most important reason for the existence of such sentiments among reviewers of film.

The main reason, I believe, is implied in that above quote: movies involve a lot pf people; to say that it all comes from the director’s head is… a bit naive. Giving it to Jim Emerson,

Any movie is a highly evolved and complex synthetic organism, the result of weeks or years of labor, and the product of chance and circumstance as well as artistic vision. By the time it reaches its final form in the marketplace (only to be superseded by the further revised DVD version a few months later), it has been through countless evolutionary phases, the result of thousands upon thousands of conscious and unconscious decisions by hundreds upon hundreds of people. In some cases, there’s an Intelligent Designer at work (usually the director, but sometimes the producer or the writer or an actor or studio executives, and generally a combination of them all), but even the greatest filmmakers are hardly omniscient or infallible.

Now, neither do I want to dip my toe into a decades-old debate among professional philosophers, nor do I want to talk about correct ways to split the blame; what I do want to do is ask why people speak like films spring from the intentions of auteurs when their stated beliefs don’t really allow it – why the hell they enjoy committing two intellectual sins in the way they go about their jobs.

And not always at the same time. Simon Abrams in his review of the latest X-Men film (I just opened the review at the top of the site) performing one and then the other (emphasis mine):

Singer’s assured grip on his characters is what makes his X-Men movies the best of the bunch. He’s exceptionally good at pacing and realizing set pieces like Magneto’s prison break or the first fight between the Sentinels and the future X-Men. The film also takes time out to wink at viewers, as when Wolverine, now without a metal skeleton, lets out a confused sigh of relief as he quietly passes through a metal detector.

For the answer, let’s talk about this card game I play a lot called ‘Literature.’ It’s a game where the deck is split into sets, and each team tries to collect as many sets as possible, by asking specific members of the opposing team for specific cards; the most important rules are, you can’t ask for a card unless you have a card of the same set in your hand and you can’t lie about whether you have a card you’ve been asked for. So, the only completely certain piece of information you’re giving the opposite team is, I have a card in this set and this teammate of yours does or doesn’t. But, the people in my card-playing group often score whole sets after hearing two or three cards being asked from the other team (the sets are of six or seven cards each). How?

In the 1946 article ‘The Intentional Fallacy,’ Aubrey Beardsley and William K Wimsatt make an argument that is (very) roughly this: hearing a sentence doesn’t give you definitive proof of the utterer’s intention, because there exist misunderstandings and randomly and arbitrarily generated sentences and ambiguous sentences, and so it’s a mistake to think that the most fundamental property of a piece of writing or an utterance is the intention of its author. While many specifics of the argument and the exact proposition being argued changed over time, Beardsley mostly stuck to something like this skeleton throughout his life.*

The analogy is obvious. Hearing a person ask for a card doesn’t give you definitive proof about anything except that they have a card in that set and whether the askee has it, and so it’s a mistake to ascribe to the opponent particular reasons for having asked that particular card – and it’s even stupider to make inferences from the ascribing of the reason. But, as I’ve said, we do perform such mistaken reasoning and we bet on it being correct, and (even if I say so myself) we don’t come out of it looking like complete idiots.

Hell, if Beardsley and Wimsatt’s article were taken too seriously, it would have been a mistake for us to have shouted at my little cousin, even if he’d told our grandfather that there was a surprise party.

It’s fairly trivial for most of us not to extend the argument all the way to the third case. And, at least for me personally, it was somewhat harder to stop it before the second; I spent years worrying that any statement that was even slightly suspect was reverse psychology but then it could also be reverse reverse psychology and but then why not add any arbitrary numbers of reverses to it and… HOW DO I STOP MY CLASSMATES FROM PLAYING PRANKS ON ME? It is a lot harder, I think, to explicitly prohibit it from the first case – especially since it does apply there.

I mean, obviously right? Well, the generally insightfful Film Crit Hulk has a few choice words for you:


Okay, let’s stop again, and contemplate what happens if we outlaw the idea of intention when talking about art. The first thing that happens is that thematic analysis becomes boring; while we can say ‘this movie dealt with these themes,’ we cannot say ‘this movie took this stand on that problem.’ The second thing that happens is, we either lose all concept of quality or end up in an unreasonably narrow one, depending on what you replace aesthetic unity with.

Now, modus ponens or modus tollens? I could go on about this for a thousand or so words and still not reach a definite conclusion. Roughly I’d say I prefer modus tollens, because a lot more things make a lot more sense that way. But there’s no reason to get into that, because I have a much more convincing argument that clarifies the issue and what I believe is one word being used for two different but related things.

See, why did my grandfather figure out there was a party? In short, to some approximation, he asked himself why his grandson would even bother telling him there was no party if there was in fact none.

Similarly, how do we figure out things in literature the card game? We ask ourselves why the asker is asking for that particular card. Some answers just make a lot more sense and explain more facts about the asker’s behaviour, and so we take them to be the ‘correct’ answers.

And if my cousin or the card-asker told me that his intention was something else, I wouldn’t care (unless they suppplemented with some extra information previously unknown). My answer is still better, because it explains more things (unless the extra information shifts the balance). As you can see, I hope, there are two things here hiding under the word ‘intention.’ There’s the intention, and there’s the answer to the question “why this, then?”

This generalises to all interactions; when we say we’ve come to know a person, we mean that from zir behaviour we’ve abstracted out a model of why ze does things, and that model is reasonably accurate and detailed. The reason we identify the model in our heads with the person in question is that we are aiming to make the model mimic the person, and the reason we can identify them is that our models actually do output the right behaviour some reasonable fraction of the time for situations not too far from normality.

Now, the solution to the whole issue of intention should be easy to state. As a reviewer, it is interesting to me to make a model of what the piece of art wants to communicate in my head; then, I just talk about why the model is outputting such things, except I phrase it in terms like ‘the movie wants to do this and that’ because it’s less effort and I assume everyone elses accepts this phrasing. The director/writer/artist is but a convenient anchor for this model, since we are much more comfortable ascribing intention to a person than to an inanimate object.

And this also makes clear the extent to which the intentional fallacy is a fallacy: you can’t cite an author to prove that someone’s reading is wrong, unless you’re willing to either ship paintings with artists attached to make sure that inferred intention doesn’t diverge from authorial intention or decide that communication doesn’t really ever happen.

*It seems traditional to associate Beardsley rather than Wimsatt to the idea, and I’ll follow that here.
Secondly, it seems worth noting that, despite the fact that I’m going to make a whole bunch of statements, I’m not necessarily contradicting Beardsley; in fact, the only thing I definitely know about how far he intended his arguments to go is that it changed over time as various people replied to him with various degrees of convincingness.

Posted in Philosophical Ruminations | Leave a Comment »

Sin City 2: In Which Joseph Gordon-Levitt Smells too Nice

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 14, 2015

Originally published at Mad About Moviez.

I strongly believe that sequels of genre movies are best reviewed by people who appreciate the original, and ar not dumbfounded by the existence of a sequel in the first place. This is because every movie has its particular charms, and sequels prefer to dig themselves deeper into the pleasure-niche so as to attract the audience it already attracted, except more strongly. Sometimes it works, and you have Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End, clearly the best movie in the trilogy and also the most hated by critics who didn’t think very highly of the first two. Other times, not so much, and you have The Dark Knight Rises, widely agreed among fans of The Dark Knight to be a horrible waste of potential, whereas every writer I read who didn’t like TDK thought this was significantly better. So, the question is, am I the right reviewer for Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For?

The answer is, partly. I was extremely impressed by the first movie when I first watched it, but my ardour has rather cooled over time. On the other hand, my lack of excitement of the film is one of ideology, and I continue to think of it as extremely masterful in execution. So, I assume, I can continue to dislike the ideology and still enjoy a good sequel. Which Sin City 2, for the most part, isn’t.

First, the ideological issues with both movies. Noir is a misanthropic genre, no doubt, whose protagonists have a deep-running mistrust of everyone and everything. But what Sin City misses, and what makes noir work well, is that the world of noir isn’t Basin city. The reason Sam Spade doesn’t trust Brigid O’Shaughnessy not because everyone in his life has been horrible, but because he honestly doesn’t know how horrible a person she is. For all he knows, she has a heart of gold. In Sin CIty, no one does. Even friendships are children of convenience and alliance as much as love and the basic human need for companionship (which murderers also have, to be clear).

Sin-City-Eva-Green Now, for this film. The first sign that something was off came in the prologue, when Mickey Rourke’s Marv (protagonist of possibly the most memorable of the stories from the first) is describing his murder of four college kids who… never mind. The sequence is a narration from Marv right after he’s done… and there are shots with his face in close-up and little cars going around illustrating his narration. It’s all very wee. Now, if you feel anything like appreciation for the first film, you’ll understand how wrong it is for me to be able to apply that word to this film. But, let’s not judge the film too much, I think; and also let’s write the rest of this piece in a SIn City-style narration (except, I decide, there’s no point keeping the verbal style).

Then, there’s the first story. It has Joseph Gordon-Levitt standing over Basin city. My brain simultaneously performs fanboyish palpitations and tries to jump out of my head at the incongruity. He likes gambling, it turns out. He goes into Kadey’s bar, the epicentre of Basin city, and goes to the back – to play poker with corrupt mayor Powers Boothe.

Quick cut to the second story, that of Josh Brolin who’s mysteriously contacted by green-eyed ex-flame Eva Green (I do know the names of the characters, but that’s not where the film lives and you know it). He is very bland in the role. And why is there so much colour? What was the point of making a whole woman look colourful, especially if Gordon-Levitt has no feelings for her? The first film worked beautifully on the splash of colour principle – so much so I don’t consider it hilarious that Clive Owen’s shoes were in colour throughout the film. Eyeballing the patterns of colour, my guess is that they couldn’t resist adding a splash here to emphaisse this thematically and a hint there to emphasise that. And then you get an Oldtown (the part of Basin city ruled by the prostitutes) that has so much colour it stinks to high hell. When, clearly, Oldtown should be the dourest and scariest part of the film.

And then somewhere there’s the third story of Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba, who actually sinks into the character) wanting to kill Powers Boothe in revenge for the death of Bruce Willis in the first film. Rodriguez seems to think he can put an emotionally pregnant scene between Alba and Willis’ ghost in the middle of a Sin City movie. Seriously, I wonder – snorting out the last bits of snort stuck in my nose by the laughter -, does he not know how noir works?

And then, we return for no particular reason to Gordon-Levitt’s completely unmemorable story – I feel a jolt of electricity sent up to my brain as I curse myself for forgetting that this story ever began – and I stare in wide-eyed incredulous horror as I see one of the most hare-brained plots ever thought up playing out in front of me.

And then all the stories draw to their endings. Nothing unexpected happens, no one is forced to accept any new fact about the world, and Marv looks extremely happy with all the violence he’s perpetrated in all the stories. The third one’s nice, I guess.

I want to call it a failure, but I get the distinct feeling that it didn’t even try hard enough for the word failure to be justified. It’s the product of a director who knows he has well-written source material and enough effortless competence to make an engaging 90-minute film without trying particularly hard to make it worth watching.

Posted in Miller, Frank, Movie Reviews, Movies, Rodriguez, Robert | Leave a Comment »

Piku: “Bhaskar nahi, Bhaskor!”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 13, 2015

Originally published at Mad About Moviez.

PikuRecently, I’ve been playing this game on facebook – in which I say my favourite thing about the people who ask me to. It is lovely, emotionally draining and cathartic. More relevantly, though, it has become a parade of me asking myself, why am I sad I’m not this person? Why can I not even conceivably be this person? And that is usually my favourite thing about that person; this is not an accident – Elementary‘s Sherlock Holmes agrees with me:

one of the things I’ve gained from our collaboration is a working definition of the word “friendship.” Friendship, I’ve come to believe, is most accurately defined as two people moving towards the best aspects of one another.

Not long after I played this game (well, began playing this game; I still have two people left), I was watching Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi’s Piku.

There’s a scene early on in which Deepika Padukone’s Piku, Amitabh Bachchan’s Bhaskor, and a maid are fighting. The maid is angry because Bhaskor is the most irascible sahib in the history of five distinct worlds, an unrelentingly suspicious crotchety old man. Bhaskor is… um, convinced that she stole the phenyl. And Piku is annoyed as hell that her unbearable arse of a father has scared away yet another maid, and deperately wants the maid to stay on. But, he’s her father dammit! She’ll be damned – damned – if she lets down the side! These conflicting feelings, that drive much of the movie, are both treated with equal legitimacy by Piku; Bhaskor is a person of his own, a fully-formed character, and the Miss Chaturvedi and Mr Sircar will be damned – damned – if they bestow judgement on him (to clarify, I’m not saying the movie portrays him in a positive or even neutral light, just that it lets Bhaskor choose his own light).

I spend a considerable amount of effort steering myself away from serious engagement with people I foresee a lack of compatibility with; I have very little patience for people in general. Which means, if I wrote Bhaskor, he’d be a foil, and strictly that. Not only do I not have the ability to breathe life into any of the character in this movie, let alone Bhaskor, but I also have trouble even feeling that such people are real; ultimately, my favourite thing about Piku is that it couldn’t conceivably have been made by me.

In fact, this goes a lot deeper. And the best way to understand that is via something that Manoj Gopalakrishnan, the founder and director of my improv group (and a professor at my institute), said. Paraphrasing him (liberally), one way – the most common way – to plot a piece of fiction is to plot it, map out the cause and effect and (ideally) insert living breathing characters in the middle of the hurly-burly. Watching Piku, it is very easy to feel like it’s not going much of anywhere (an interesting relation to the same pair’s Vicky Donor whose plot takes so many sharp turns that it was a wonder what a pleasurable watch it was – if you don’t believe me… quick, what was the theme of that movie?).

That’s because these movies are not plotted around plot; it’s just a bunch of characters with certain relattionships being around each other, with the occassional feathery nudge from the writers to change the situation (or, in conspicuously incongruous moments like the one right after the interval of Piku, to dig it out of a hole). At this point the characters would have resistance from the parents? Awesome, now this is a movie about lovers getting their parents to look beyond regional prejudices. At this point the characters would continue to shout at each other about the same things? Awesome, story momentum is for noobs anyway.

This is not how movies are structured. Most movies have a particular theme in mind, a particular arc, and even if they have great characters they find themselves the need to keep the momentum on (this is as true of Godard’s incomprehensible thingies as Action Jackson). So much so, I often consider the central stance of a movie to be the direction of an arc (as opposed to the directions it did not take). These movies, however, while they have arcs, have arcs only as subsidiary things, emergent phenomena of the people and the little nudges.Piku-4

It’s this fact that makes this pair’s work as touching and affecting – and alien to me – as it is. Not only are they people who are intimately familiar with the normal middle class person, not only are they people who can show the sensibilities of their characters (main owner hoon driver nahin, Irrfan Khan, and literally everyone else, repeatedly opines) as mere facts rather than value judgements (an incredibly hard feat, since the inclusion of a scene in a movie is attached to an implicit claim that this is something the makers want you to take notice of), but they are also people who give their characters so much space that they can fill up the screen. It’s not often, after all, that the big B immerses himself into a role and loses his Bachchan-ness; there’s just no way he could have done this movie with the Bachchan-ness intact.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Movies, Shoojit, Sircar | Leave a Comment »

Interstellar: “Gracious.” “No, But Efficient.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 12, 2015

Originally published at Mad About Moviez.

Reportedly, Christopher Nolan walked up to composer Hans Zimmer and gave him a really short story about a father leaving his son for some unspecified reason. Hans Zimmer wrote something in a day, and that’s the music Nolan used for Interstellar, an epic about humanity looking for an extraterrestrial home because of the impending death of the earth and a dad being forced to leave his daughter by his sense of duty. I found this out after the end of the film, and the whole movie I was thinking that it was being made significantly more awesome by the music. There’s nothing better for a movie about space exploration as a lethal taskmaster as well as the frontier of human knowledge than a melancholy and poignant score as opposed to the deep bass thrums Zimmer usually puts in Nolan’s movies.

Now, in less than a week this movie is going to overrun the internet. Everyone in the world is going to tell you how it is the psychologically deepest and most philosophically sophisticated movie ever made. It is not unlikely that you will be one of those people. It’s not. What it is is a darned good blockbuster with a slightly (slightly) non-trivial third-act twist (I actually thought of it, and I’m someone who used to regularly get surprised by the TV show Gossip Girl). This has been true of all of Nolan’s movies (well, the non-trivialities happened at different points in the films), all of whose philosophical trappings are, for lack of a better word, bullshit. This movie, unlike any of the previous ones, didn’t make me want to kill anyone – because this time around we just get Nolan telling a story with minimal bullshit philosophy, at least not more than any other Hollywood blockbuster.

Okay, actually I lied. It is philosophically sophisticated, but none of it is really EXPOSITED as you would expect a Nolan movie to do. There’s this speech in the middle where Anne Hathaway spouts some noxious piss about how love has predictive power – and Matthew McConaughey just says, grow up. There are few other moments in the world of cinema that have ever made me want to hug someone this much.

And, really, it is in the existence of McConaughey’s character that this movie hits its heights. On earth, he is an irascible misanthrope deeply discontent with the duty assigned to him in the new scarcity world that he lives in (if you’re reading this chances are that you’re effectively living in a post-scarcity world, regardless of all the starving people of the world). But, the moment it is presented to him that he needs to save the world he jumps to the opportunity and then does exactly the right thing at every moment*, at one moment even when the right thing to do was completely surprising to me (this never happens). No speeches about emotions, no annoying Holvudine psychology (which proliferates all his earlier movies).

Actually, the lack of Holvudine psychology is something worth dwelling on. There’s this tendency in Hollywood, noticed as early as the 1950s by J D Salinger in Franny and Zooey, to include psychology by deciding psychological facts and then their causes. While it is true that psychological facts are caused, the relation between cause and effect is never as clear as it is in a Hollywood movie or TV show. Nolan films fall prey to this failing, except for, for some reason, this one. McConaughey has a bunch of quirks and failings, but no one ever says it’s because the anti-technology culture of the earth killed his wife. This makes me feel all warm inside.

I don’t want to stop saying how awesome this is, so allow me to devote another paragraph to this: McConaughey plays rationality ubermensch, and no one objects!interstellar-robot

And also the robots are smart and adapt well and are super-cool. But despite that they aren’t considered people for no discernible reason, and I don’t see how everything in this movie couldn’t have just been done by robots.

Achchhaa achchhaa, let’s get back to the rest of the movie. The most important thing to understand about it is that it is a blockbuster at heart, and one shouldn’t try and take it completely seriously. These movies go for broad strokes and simple themes, with generic characters; that’s not a bad thing, but that is a thing that tells you not to take every dialogue it in it as a literal expression of sophisticated philosophy.

To be fair, this is somewhat better in this respect than other blockbusters; it graciously and subtly undercuts the emotional bullshit that it is purportedly pushing in the climax (or, to be more precise, it makes it extremely easy to interpret the climax without positing supernatural forces at work), and its ending is a lovely synecdoche of the never-ending nature of the mission of humanity that is science and exploration.

Another thing: because this is a Nolan movie, there’s going to be discussion about plot holes. While not plot holes per se, these are the egregious mistakes. Non-McConnaughey non-Chastain non-robot characters all have at least one moment of behaving like Hollywood zombies, a pivotal decision depends on people who are experts completely ignoring how black holes work (this fact about how they work is actually mentioned in the movie – I state it in second footnote** if you’re interested), McConnaughey’s character seems to be named Cooper Cooper, spaceship hulls are not just millimetres thick (this annoyed me) and often the equipment and plans are designed pretty badly.*** A lot of things seem scientifically off, but I’m not as sure of those things. After the plot-hole-free nature of Inception I was expecting better. Oh, and the biggest plot hole: sending people instead of just the robots is a stupid waste of resources.

So in conclusion, despite my general dislike of Nolan’s movies I quite enjoyed this (actually, apart from The Dark Knight which was overflowing with bullshit that marvelled at its own cleverness he’s always fun to watch). Don’t take this too seriously, but love the existence of McConnaughey’s character. Enjoy the fact that it’s not in 3D. Have fun. And I’ll hate it in a week after the millionth time I hear about how this is better than anything Kubrick ever did (it’s not even a fraction of the stunning vision that is 2001: A Space Odyssey).

*There’s one moment when he makes an argument that is suspiciously convenient for him, but he’s actually right anyway, and he listens to the others’ objections. And, in this scene, they would clearly have been better doing what he thought was better in the first place; these scientists show an inexcusable inability to make order of magnitude estimates.

** If you are falling into a black hole and I’m watching you from outside, I’ll see your approach to the black hole getting slower and you getting dimmer till the end of eternity; I’ll never see you reach it).

***In particular, no one really thought through plan B.

Posted in Christopher, Movie Reviews, Movies, Nolan | Leave a Comment »

La Jetée: “Nothing sorts out Memories from Ordinary Moments”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 11, 2015

Originally published at Mad About Moviez.

vlcsnap-00005Beginning no 1: There was this woman I’d been flirting with and after lunch our group had to split up, me going somewhere and she somewhere else. Right after we said our good byes, I turned to my friend and said to him, “That smile, dude, that smile. That’s the dream.”

Okay, I didn’t tell him that. But, looking back at that short time, other things come to mind too if I look hard enough, but it is this and two or three other moments that jump to mind. One of the questions La Jetée asks is, what if these were all there was to life? Or more precisely: how much of life do these form, and in what sorts of non-constituent ways do they affect your life?

Beginning no. 2: Much as I loved The Catcher in the Rye, I knew when I read it that Holden Caulfield was in some sense less wise than I. I’d already gone through the phase where phoniness bothered me and got out the other end: the other end was the realisation that people are fundamentally clueless and do whatever they can to get by, and that social norms were basically guidelines. We live in a large world, with many moving parts both visible and invisible, and the set of actions that would be best for intimate little groups of loved ones – what we might call ‘genuineness’ – is very different from those best for this world – this latter set must consist of rigid rules. This is a manifestation of the larger fact that what is good for a group is often bad for individual people (though, by definition, the good of the group is on average good for each member).

Much ink has been spilt about this fact: you can’t turn on star movies for five minutes without the hero giving up the good of the group for a comrade or a loved one. There’s a standard phrase for this: ‘tension between the personal and the political.’

Beginning no. 3: Chris Marker wrote La Jetée, as he describes it, in an almost dreamlike state as a reaction to the interviews he was conducting for his movie Le Joli Mai, which Wikipedia describes thusly: “just after the close of the Algerian War and the Évian Accords, Marker and his camera operator Pierre L’homme shot 55 hours of footage interviewing random people on the streets of Paris. The questions […] range from their personal lives, as well as social and political issues of relevance at that time.”La Jetee 2

The story [super-mega SPOILER alert]: Paris, post-apocalypse. Everyone’s stuck underground, supplies are absurdly short. The scientists have devised a time machine that works, somehow, using memories. Our hero, popularly known in the literature as the man, is picked out because he has in his mind this stark image of a woman’s face from the landing jetty at an airport, from the day in his childhood he saw someone die.

The time machine being a somewhat unpolished thing, he goes back in fits and spurts, jumping in at random points in the woman’s life.* They build a relationship. Then he’s sent to the future, to ask for help, because their existence depends on his time’s survival; the future gives them the required help, and then offers to take him in. He refuses, saying that instead he wants to be sent back to the pre-apocalyptic world. He ends up in the landing jetty at the airport. The woman is there and he runs; and as he runs he sees one of the experimenters pointing a gun at him: that obsession which gave him the ability to come back in time was created by the scientific team.

Tying most of it up: La Jetée is a movie about a man trying to save the world told as a ‘photo-novel,’ a series of stills with voiceover narration and non-diegetic music, apart from one shot: a woman wakes up, sees him, and smiles.

Sometimes, this tension between the personal and political is not so clear: in the largest view (the one I gave) it feels icky – the man was horribly manipulated, after all – but then it gave him great love in his life, but then again it caused his death, but then again he helped save the species.

*An interesting question about this film which I will not even hint at in-flow here is the personality of the woman and the nature of her acceptance of the relationship with him.

Posted in Chris, Marker, Movie Reviews, Movies | Leave a Comment »

The Hundred-Foot Journey: Food Is Memories

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 10, 2015

Originally published at Mad About Moviez.

Plot: The Kadam family of restaurateurs (endearingly patriarched by Om Puri) moves to a little village in France and set up shop right across the road (“it’s a hundred feet, we measured!”) from a single Michelin star-toting restaurant owned by the ‘rarely seen to be in sympathy with anyone’ Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). Hijinks and romances ensue; really, use your imagination. Includes a nubile sous-chef (Charlotte Le Bon) who teaches the young Indian son (Manish Dayal) French cooking in the first steps of his ascent to glory (as defined by the third Michelin star).

Papa Kadam: “Indian cannot be French, and French cannot be Indian!”

Madame Mallory: “I think I just spent all day rubbing those words off your walls.”

I’m rather torn about The Hundred-Foot Journey. In its main thrust it is an entirely wee romcom-y addition to the budding genre about the integration of southeast Asian families into Western countries starring Om Puri as an irascible patriarch; on every other dimension it is a rather non-trivially intelligent movie acutely sensible to the conditions of its world. Originally, I led with a joke about how everyone, unbeknownst to zirself, has always been shipping Om Puri and Helen Mirren (this is true, by the way), but that was clearly doing the film a disservice – which caused me to begin with a tongue-in-cheek summary and one of the film’s most powerful moments (which I won’t bother to explain).

The main thrust of the film is, in case you haven’t yet grokked it, that it’s a romcom. Now, I live for romcoms – or any of the similar genres which consist of people just existing – so I consider that an entirely positive thing. But, here’s the thing, the best romcoms talk about things. The rest, as smiley-weepy as they may make me, are wee. And they don’t even have to be good to not be wee – oddities like Break ke Baad mine non-trivial thematic ground too. This one here, it’s a remarkably well-made romcom; its characters and their motivations and stakes are well-drawn and efficiently exposited, it’s always competently and often beautifully shot, and I was jumping up and down in glee at people deciding to be together. This, make no mistake, is good stuff – no less than you’d expect from Lasse Hallstrom (the director of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) and Steven Knight (writer of Eastern Promises). It, however, is basically wee – to the extent that it thinks that relating food to memories is thematic ground.*

And there’s some actively bad stuff too. Mostly, the first half stinks of the kind of idiotic mysticism that romcoms so love. The film begins with a scene in the market where the young Hassan causes his mother to win a bidding war for sea urchins by smelling the part you’re supposed to eat, because apparently the fisherman is an artist who’ll sell his stuff to… wait for it… the boy who knows. Shortly after, Hassan the youth smells another sea urchin in sea urchin soup while Chawla spouts some arbitrary mysticism about how people like food because there are ghosts in food (and when she began, I thought it was a rant again non=vegetarian food – thus letting me down doubly). This is followed by the Kadams’ car breaking down outside a village because, you know it, ‘brakes break for a reason.’ Fortunately for us and for the film, it soon leaves this sort of stupidity in the dust, only looping back to it selectively at moments of emotional power. Oh, and it really does love its bad jokes – ‘brakes break for a reason,’ anyone? Even though Om Puri can make anything adorable (including the fiim’s funniest moment, which I won’t reveal).

Now for the good stuff. It’s all sideways, for some inscrutable reason.

As Puri and Mirren are fighting their hilariously mundane turf war, we get to see is a clear-eyed development of the integration problem, which recognises all of its participants’ failings and racisms, while all the time maintaining sympathy for all – well, most – of them. This, as well as it is done, is not the best of the film’s qualities.Hundred-Foot Journey 2

That would be its almost lived-in understanding of devoting yourself to creation of something matching a standard external to yourself, a situation that is common to artists and scientists and even uncommonly particular carpenters (well, I meant those particular about furniture, but also Jesus if you insist). As an insomniac whose sleep situation is often considerably worsened by the proliferation of malignant negative signs, I can attest to the fact that this shit just doesn’t leave you alone. When the chance turns up of you improving your craft by going somewhere else, it makes absolutely no sense to say no. When the love of your life is considerably your inferior, it can’t but hang between you two. When you find yourself wearing a gas mask while cooking a fish… obviously you have to, otherwise the sparks will fly in your face!

Oh, and it also understands the joy of food, despite its attempts to fool us into thinking the contrary by talking about ghosts. So much so, I’ve decided it’s a disgrace that I don’t know how to cook an omelette and plan to get down to correcting that deficiency… some time.

And! And! The Music was done by A R Rahman. I had no clue till the name flashed on the screen at the end, and for good reason. I mean, there are a few moments of crystal-clear inspiration but otherwise is rather standard.

*I wept a little bit when Hassan remembers all that he’s left behind in the little village by tasting some (horribly misshapen) naan and sabji,

Posted in Hallström, Lasse, Movie Reviews, Movies | Leave a Comment »

I am Naari, Hear me Roar

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 10, 2015

Earlier published at The Scene, Mad About Moviez and Former People.

If you listen closely, it's a meow.

If you listen closely, it’s a meow.

“[Mrs Ramsay] had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance; finally for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to feel or to find agreeable, something trustful, childlike, reverential; which an old woman could take from a young man without loss of dignity, and woe betide the girl – pray Heaven it was none of her daughters! – who did not feel the worth of it, and all that it implied, to the marrow of her bones.”
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

The first time I remember meeting Mrs Ramsay was, in a sense, at least a year and a half before I read even my first Woolf novel, Mrs Dalloway, when I read Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. And I’ll be honest: it baffled me when I first read it.

The Wikipedia summary of act one of the play is

The play opens at Christmas time as Nora, Torvald’s wife, enters into her home, “thoroughly loving her life and surroundings (Ibsen, 1871, p. 590).” An old-time friend of hers, Mrs. Linde, arrives to her home seeking employment. At the same time, Torvald “has just received news of his most recent job promotion (Ibsen, 1871, p 590).” When Nora learns of her husband’s promotion she instantly and excitedly hires Mrs. Linde. In the meantime, Nora, who is playing the ordinary housewife, is unhappy with her husband and becomes very distraught with him. While conversing, “Mrs. Linde complains about her most difficult past, and Nora mentions that she has had a life in resemblance to Mrs. Linde’s (Ibsen, 1871, 590).”(Emphasis added.)

But before we get to Nora, we should acquaint ourselves with Mrs Bennet. I read Pride and Prejudice a while after Mrs Dalloway, but nevertheless she forms an important precursor to both Nora and Clarissa. One thing Austen is not famous for but is an important element in the book is her judgmentalness towards characters she doesn’t approve of. Probably the character who gets the most flak from her is Mrs Bennet, a tactless housewife whose only aim in life is to get her five daughters married as quickly as possible. Not having read any other books by Austen, I can’t say how common it is, but I’m willing to bet that her acerbic criticism of Mrs Bennet’s narrowness is not a moment of whimsy. Any feminist worth zir salt will tell you exactly why this is a horrible thing to do. Melissa McEwan, in an article about allegations often made against feminists of ‘man-hating,’ wrote,

“There are the stereotypes—oh, the abundant stereotypes!—about women, not me, of course, but other women, those women with their bad driving and their relentless shopping habits and their PMS and their disgusting vanity and their inability to stop talking and their disinterest in Important Things and their trying to trap men and their getting pregnant on purpose and their false rape accusations and their being bitches sluts whores cunts… And I am expected to nod in agreement, and I am nudged and admonished to agree. I am expected to say these things are not true of me, but are true of women (am I seceding from the union?)”

While this is an illustrative quote, it doesn’t really explain the situation: it boils down to the fact that hating people for doing what they are socially conditioned to do is just another aspect of subjugation – freedom involves the freedom to act in socially acceptable ways too (there are much deeper issues here, to do with the criticism of not being aware of the world beyond one’s own nose but there are arguments against that being phrased against women and the associated domestic and cosmetic concerns but not men and the associated concerns about cars and sports and business and being aware of the world beyond one’s own nose in extremely kyriarchial terms etc – it’s a part of what’s encoded in the word ‘femmephobia’ which means hatred of the womanly).

Nora, like Mrs Bennet, starts off the play as an extremely ‘shallow’ (the deep/shallow dichotomy needs to be tackled in a separate piece altogether – but it’s probably not too hard to appreciate the fact that I hate it) woman, living entirely in the sphere of her social life, her relationship with her husband and her housewifely duties; she’s basically a doll, in her doll’s house. The play is about how she breaks out of the doll’s house in her head and then walks out of the doll’s house owned by her husband.

And, despite such a seemingly clear arc, it baffled me till I was reading a collected edition of some of Harold Pinter’s plays. At least two of them (The Birthday Party and The Room) had a housewife figure who, when faced with her domestic idyll giving way to gaping chasms in her path, tried to make it right by pretending nothing was off and trying to convince everyone, through entirely friendly social persuasion, that everything was all right and they should stop acting so fucking messy. Now, this made sense to me: it was a classic story of the abyss staring at someone and that person closing her eyes and trying to jump over it – it’s one of the most fascinating arcs I’ve ever encountered.

What defines all these women –and countless similar characters, including our very own Charulata and every Bollywood mom ever – is a certain brittleness of character. They’ve been trained all their lives to be the emotional and spiritual backbone of their families, the susheel naari, and they’ll do that no matter what, damn those men and their annoying egos. Tropes like a mother desperately searching for her child or acting as an intermediary between a feuding father and offspring sound like clichés even though I for the life of me can’t come up with examples.

Now, the fact that this is how women are often portrayed speaks directly of the prevalence of oppression and is therefore not a good thing (but, to be clear, it is not in itself evidence, though it is part of a larger class of things that is at least motivation for plausibility). However, the other fact is that in most Bollywood movies the moms are not the central characters, and that is a manifestation of misogyny (and other things) too; what is a good thing is that there is a subgenre of narrative art, and often created by men, which tries to use these tropes to at the same time point out the effects of oppression and provide sympathetic portrayals of the women – that is nice.

But, you know, everything I’ve spoken about was created by men; to really take these tendencies as far as they need to go needs women (well, I don’t see any reason it should in principle but in practice women are the only people I’ve seen go the distance on this – this may of course have something to do with the fact that they have probably at times had to actually consider the possibility of being Charulatas).

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is the story of, and from the point of view of, a woman whose intellectual freedom and her awareness of the oppressiveness of the thinking-is-bad-for-women world around her can’t coexist; it causes a fragmentation of her experience (I ought to warn you that that’s just my favourite way of phrasing it), which boils down to her describing herself tearing down the not-too-subtle-symbol-for-oppression wallpaper in the third person.

Clarissa Dalloway is a woman who long ago chose a stodgy, conventional man over an adventurous intellectually open and respectful free spirit whom she loved. One of the best things Mrs Dalloway does is make a deep case to us that that may not have been the right choice but it definitely was a right choice. Yes, she isn’t respected for her not inconsiderable intellectual capabilities, but she chose a certain sort of emotional stability over that, and it’s not as if her intellectual life is dead: beneath her veneer of the party hostess is the woman, the one who carefully picks her guests for a very specific purpose:

“But why should she invite all the dull women in London to her parties?”

“But to go deeper, beneath what people said (and these judgements, how superficial, how fragmentary they are!) in her own mind now, what did it mean to her, this thing she called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom?”

“And yet for her own part, it was too much of an effort. She was not enjoying it. It was too much like being — just anybody, standing there; anybody could do it; yet this anybody she did a little admire, couldn’t help feeling that she had, anyhow, made this happen, that it marked a stage, this post that she felt herself to have become, for oddly enough she had quite forgotten what she looked like, but felt herself a stake driven in at the top of her stairs. Every time she gave a party she had this feeling of being something not herself, and that every one was unreal in one way; much more real in another. It was, she thought, partly their clothes, partly being taken out of their ordinary ways, partly the background; it was possible to say things you couldn’t say anyhow else, things that needed an effort; possible to go much deeper. But not for her; not yet anyhow.”

But, let’s cross 1950 already. What’s the situation like after the feminist movement got a hold? Obviously, the domestic woman is still a prevalent character, as is her brittleness, from The Godfather’s women to Carmela Soprano, from every Bollywood mom ever to the crazy punisher of Ek Hasina Thi, from the bar dancer who doesn’t want her sister to marry a prominent thief to – as a friend entertainingly called the anti-heroine in Maqbool – Lady Maqbool. And, as I’ll explain, the quality of portrayal is not significantly better.

Dibakar Banerjee and Urmi Juvekar’s Shanghai features a cascading set of women who are prompted into action by the deeds and misdeeds of the men in their lives; at its centre is an ultra-rich half-white woman who only pays lip service to the cause of the poor people around her till her boyfriend/teacher is murdered and then goes on an investigation spree for justice (which also solves the problems of the aforementioned poor people), even after finding out that sleeping with his students is a common behaviour for the man.

Or, for a less conflicting example, let’s turn to the well of American TV series. Specifically, Cougar Town, created by Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel. It’s a ‘hangout comedy’ (or whatever they’re calling it nowadays) about a group at whose centre is the intensely motherly Jules Cobb (Courteney Cox); she got pregnant at sixteen and the father couldn’t provide so she raised her kid on her own and now (eighteen years later) she’s a well-off real estate agent. And, you know what, she is usually a fluffy ignorant irascible woman but she commands respect like few other characters I’ve ever seen; ‘hear me roar’ is actually a line she might say when she gets worked up, and she will be taken seriously. And then there’s even more: she’s a depressive. There are whole episodes about her unstoppable downward spiral, and they often contain some of the show’s greatest moments. But it’s as if there’s an on/off switch. Certain episodes will be about her internal life and certain episodes will focus on her exclusively as an anchor for social dynamics; it could have been a great show if the writers had been able to handle these elements with the consistency and respect with which they handle all the others.

“Because my daughter needs me.”

On the other hand, there’s Gilmore Girls, created by Amy Sherman-Palladino (and her husband Daniel Palladino is a non-trivial creative force too). It’s also about a woman, Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) who gets pregnant at sixteen, finds the father inadequate, and begins her own life. The series begins sixteen years after that, and at its centre resides the relationship between Lorelai, her daughter Lorelai urf Rory (Alexis Bledel) and her mother Emily (Kelly Bishop). And it features a massively inclusive world – every side character gets a fully-fledged personality, so much so that the other relationships are almost as important as the central ones.

And at the centre of this network of relationships? Lorelai. Not only is she dangerously close to being defined solely by her relationships, she speaks in an unending stream that makes it easy not to take her seriously. Further, we are introduced to her at the cosiest, happiest period in her life, after she’s finished her rise from maid with baby on back to manager of the inn, when she is free to just sit back and have fun with her daughter (whom she’s really close to).

It could have been very easy to go through this show considering her an unbelievably fun and lovely person, but not necessarily someone to respect and look up to, had it been written by the team of Cougar Town. But it’s not, and so it’s not.

An epicentre for these considerations is the thirteenth episode of the third season, “Dear Emily and Richard,” in which Rory gets stuck alone at the birth of her half-sister and simultaneously we get to see the events surrounding Rory’s birth, though they are already well fleshed-out in conversation. And this episode honestly alters your perception of Lorelai. It’s not as if I didn’t respect her before, but this is an episode where we get to really see the hard, strong core that allowed her to go from a super-rich family to maid to manager. We see how she heard the father’s resigned agreement to marrying her and told him to go away, and ran away from her suffocating home, and how for her her loyalty to her daughter is everything; she may have been a person with a bright future at some point in her life, but now her life is defined by her daughter and her daughter above all else, and that’s neither ‘okay’ nor ‘not okay’ but just is.

We can narrativise all these similarities and the attendant differences in many ways, but that would be an exercise bordering on facility; it’s too easy to impose a conventionally feminist understanding of reclamation of women’s identities and stories but not give any reason other than ‘my narrativisation, based on the examples that I picked explicitly to support it, makes intuitive sense and is therefore right.’ But that doesn’t change the fact that this is a well-established trend, or at least a strain; and it certainly doesn’t change the inherent value of the characters and pieces of art.

Posted in Books, General, Movies, Philosophical Ruminations | Leave a Comment »

Goodbye, Mr Ebert

Posted by Ronak M Soni on April 6, 2013

Originally published at MadAboutMoviez.

A movie is not about what it’s about; it’s about how it’s about it.

As you’ve probably heard, the sweetest old man of American film criticism died yesterday, at the age of seventy-one, due to the jaw cancer he’s had for years, and inspired a great horde of affecting memorials (particularly good are those by Jim Emerson and Andrew O’Hehir).

(In good news, he got to watch the latest Terrence Malick film last week; and in good news for us, he’s written about it.)

To illustrate what sort of a person he was, let us go back to December 2009. Roger Ebert got a mail about a reviewer called Dan Schneider; Schneider had some pretty dismissive things to say about Ebert, mainly based around the assertion that he was a great writer but not much of a critic. Ebert put up the whole letter he’d got, all the pieces in which Schneider had mentioned him, and a short answer on his blog, and asked his commentariat to judge. What Roger said:

Dan Schneider is observant, smart, and makes every effort to be fair. I would agree that I am a more emotion-driven critic than Siskel or Schneider, and indeed many others. My reviews usually include a reflection of how I felt during a film, since film itself is primarily an emotional, not a cerebral, medium. For example, although like most everybody I found “Triumph of the Will” evil, I also lingered on how boring it was. If you’re not comfortable sitting through a film, what can you easily get from it?
I must say I still agree with my opinions as quoted by Schneider, and I conclude he is more analytical and less visceral that I am. Readers find critics who speak to them. What is remarkable about these many words is that Schneider keeps an open mind, approaches each film afresh, and doesn’t always repeat the same judgments. An ideal critic tries to start over again with every review.
There are three things on which we adamantly disagree. (1) I do not have a broader film knowledge than Donald Richie, and Schneider may be the only person who has ever thought so. (2) I disagree with his dismissal of Spielberg. The man who made “E.T.” is not a schlockmeister purveying tripe. (3) The third is Ingrid Bergman, and my “burblings” about her lips. A critic who doesn’t acknowledge the role of her face and presence in a “Casablanca” will, I fear, date just about anybody. Our critical differences I leave to you. I invite you to continue your discussion in the Comments below.

What I said at that time is a much better tribute to the man than I have been able to write today:

I attribute much of my knowledge of film to reading too many of your reviews. In July I was stuck with nothing to do except a computer whose only interesting aspect was its internet connection, and I remembered reading a review by some guy which completely changed my view on The Reader, so I went to his site and read his reviews for 10 days. This did two good things to me: I learned to trust my own emotions (don’t even ask about my history of appreciation, though I should say I was regularly put too much on my guard because I realised that I was unable to dislike a movie), and I learned the need to analyse my emotions.

That said, I think that you are horrible at writing negative reviews. Instead of trying to think/write about why you thought Dead Poets’ Society was gimmicky, you just said that it was. In fact, in most of your negative reviews, I don’t see an attempt to understand why you reacted negatively to many of these movies (there are notable exceptions like Fight Club and Memento), rather I see a discourse on what you saw wrong after finding the movie bad. In these cases, even you forget about subjectivity (I see it surfacing many times throughout your oeuvre, more often on the blog).
The Dead Poets’ Society review is like a sore thumb to me because I ended up agreeing with you.
So, I mainly treasure your positive reviews, because you show in them a love of cinema and pure emotion (I am a rather emotional viewer myself). Of course, there’s also insight. (Personal favourites out of your reviews: Ikiru and The Apu trilogy – both reviews had me crying – and Disgrace – just plain beautiful) I come and read one of your reviews every time I find something confusing in a movie, because you take special pains to convey your insights without actually spoiling the movie (this last has influenced me too much, because it makes review-writing so much more fun, and even necessary).

[…] when I look back at my life, I’ll see those ten days in July (yes, this year) as the most significant part of my development. From now on, I’ll just be building on the legacy of that.

He continues to be just such a large presence among my influences. However, that’s more or less about it; I can’t say that my soul has torn its way out of my body because he died, because I didn’t know the guy. But that doesn’t prevent me from taking this opportunity to commemorate a writer of dazzling brilliance and tenderness.

So, in memoriam, some excerpts from his reviews, that show how damned nice and insightful he was, not just simultaneously but inextricably.

La Dolce Vita: This is a movie he cited as the one that most continued to fascinate him, and in some sense his favourite.

Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw “La Dolce Vita” in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom “the sweet life” represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello’s world; Chicago’s North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello’s age.
When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was 10 years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him. And when I saw the movie right after Mastroianni died, I thought that Fellini and Marcello had taken a moment of discovery and made it immortal. There may be no such thing as the sweet life. But it is necessary to find that out for yourself.


There is a moment at the end when old and new hang in the balance. The wounded Sanjuro no longer has his sword, but we have seen him practicing with a knife — skewering a bit of paper as it flutters around a room. He faces Unosuke, the gunman. Without revealing precisely what happens between them, let me ask you to consider the moment when Unosuke aims his pistol at Sanjuro. It may be loaded, it may not be. Sanjuro cannot be absolutely sure. He is free to move away or to disarm Unosuke, but instead he sits perfectly motionless, prepared to accept whatever comes. This, it strikes me, is the act of a samurai aware that his time has passed and accepting with perfect equanimity whatever the new age has to offer.

Annie Hall:

This is a movie that establishes its tone by constantly switching between tones: The switches reflect the restless mind of the filmmaker, turning away from the apparent subject of a scene to find the angle that reveals the joke. “Annie Hall” is a movie about a man who is always looking for the loopholes in perfection. Who can turn everything into a joke, and wishes he couldn’t.

The Apu Trilogy:

I watched “The Apu trilogy” recently over a period of three nights, and found my thoughts returning to it during the days. It is about a time, place and culture far removed from our own, and yet it connects directly and deeply with our human feelings. It is like a prayer, affirming that this is what the cinema can be, no matter how far in our cynicism we may stray.

Best films of the noughties: Notice how little his list has to do with any others you saw, and yet how each movie deserves to be on the list.

On watching The Godfather with the Wachowski brothers(now the Wachowski siblings):

One thing he noticed in “The Godfather,” he said, was how director Francis Ford Coppola filmed the moment when Michael finds the gun in the restroom and pauses before returning to the restaurant to commit murder for the first time.
“Michael stops, runs his hands through his hair, stares at the door and prepares his mind,” Larry said. “Coppola does that moment as a high-angle shot from behind. Any other director would have moved around for a close-up. It’s so much better the way he does it. We’re forced to think about what’s ahead of him that he’s walking into, not just look at a shot of his face.”
“I can see the whole camera crew jammed up there next to the ceiling in the john,” Andy said. Everyone laughed. It occurred to me that the scene might have been shot using a studio set. But why bring it up? They knew that.

The Departed: Ebert, a devout Catholic, felt an almost spiritual connection to Scorsese’s work, praising him from the moment he saw his first movie. This is nowhere more apparent than here.

It is intriguing to wonder what Scorsese saw in the Hong Kong movie that inspired him to make the second remake of his career (after “Cape Fear“). I think he instantly recognized that this story, at a buried level, brought two sides of his art and psyche into equal focus. We know that he, too, was fascinated by gangsters. In making so many films about them, about what he saw and knew growing up in Little Italy, about his insights into their natures, he became, in a way, an informant. I have often thought that many of Scorsese’s critics and admirers do not realize how deeply the Catholic Church of pre-Vatican II could burrow into the subconscious, or in how many ways Scorsese is a Catholic director. This movie is like an examination of conscience, when you stay up all night trying to figure out a way to tell the priest: I know I done wrong, but, oh, Father, what else was I gonna do?


Then there is Malkovich, an actor who is so particular in the details of voice and action. After you see “Disgrace,” you may conclude no other actor could possibly have been cast for the role. He begins as a cold, arrogant, angry man, accustomed to buying his way with his money and intelligence. He is also accustomed to being a white man in South Africa. In no sense does David think of himself as a racist and probably always voted against apartheid. But at least it was always there for him to vote against. Now he undergoes experiences that introduce him to an emerging new South Africa — and no, I don’t mean he undergoes conversion and enlightenment. This isn’t a feel-good parable. I simply mean he understands that something fundamental has shifted, and that is the way things are.

2001: A Space Odyssey:

The genius is not in how much Stanley Kubrick does in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but in how little. This is the work of an artist so sublimely confident that he doesn’t include a single shot simply to keep our attention. He reduces each scene to its essence, and leaves it on screen long enough for us to contemplate it, to inhabit it in our imaginations. Alone among science-fiction movies, “2001” is not concerned with thrilling us, but with inspiring our awe.

And, let’s not forget, when his critical faculties took apart a movie, there was much about it that was awesome too.

The Mummy Returns:

1. The ads give the Rock, the World Wrestling Federation star, equal billing with Fraser. This is bait-and-switch. To call his appearance a “cameo” would be stretching it. He appears briefly at the beginning of the movie, is transmuted into a kind of transparent skeletal wraith and disappears until the end of the film, when he comes back as the dreaded Scorpion King. I am not sure, at the end, if we see the real Rock or merely his face, connected to computer-generated effects (his scorpion is blown up to giant size, which has the unfortunate effect of making him look more like a lobster tail than a scorpion). I continue to believe the Rock has an acting career ahead of him, and after seeing this movie I believe it is still ahead of him.
2. Alex, the kid, adds a lot to the movie by acting just like a kid. I particularly enjoyed it when he was kidnapped by a fearsome adversary of his parents, chained and taken on a long journey, during which he drove his captor crazy by incessantly asking, “Are we there yet?”
3. The dialogue “You have started a chain reaction that could bring about the next Apocalypse” is fascinating. Apparently we missed the first Apocalypse, which does not speak well for it.

Fight Club:

“Fight Club” is the most frankly and cheerfully fascist big-star movie since “Death Wish,” a celebration of violence in which the heroes write themselves a license to drink, smoke, screw and beat one another up. Sometimes, for variety, they beat up themselves. It’s macho porn — the sex movie Hollywood has been moving toward for years, in which eroticism between the sexes is replaced by all-guy locker-room fights. Women, who have had a lifetime of practice at dealing with little-boy posturing, will instinctively see through it; men may get off on the testosterone rush. The fact that it is very well made and has a great first act certainly clouds the issue.

Helena Bonham-Carter creates a feisty chain-smoking hellcat who is probably so angry because none of the guys thinks having sex with her is as much fun as a broken nose.

And, to leave you, an audio-visual reading of one of his best reviews from Kim Morgan and Matt Zoller-Seitz, both themselves bright stars in the internet film critic community:

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S’ip of Theseus

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 9, 2012

Originally published at


Movie: Ship of Theseus

Writers: Anand Gandhi, Pankaj Kumar, Khushboo Rakha

Director: Anand Gandhi

Watched at Mumbai Film Festival 2012

A blind photographer’s boyfriend describes to her the photos she took of a scuffle on a road. This is the editing process, a peaceful homely moment of stillness and love in two ever-moving lives. There’s one in which an auto is passing by and only a hand is visible; he likes it, and says so. The moment transmutes. She hates the accidental in art. A fight begins, which has been sitting on the bylines for a while now.

This is a rare, perhaps the only, moment of emotional truth in Anand Gandhi’s sombre, ambitious Ship of Theseus. What happened here is probably not immediately obvious to everyone, but it is a marvellous exhibition of the irrationality at the centre of every person’s way of living life. There are a couple of quotes that might be appropriate here:

Battle not
with monsters,
lest ye become
a monster.

And if you gaze
into the abyss,
the abyss gazes
also into you.

-Friedrich Nietzche

“In the midst of a line, or with an eyebrow raised in exasperation, [Ricky Gervais] can capture the moment when self-doubt hardens, out of necessity, into self-confidence.”

-Stephanie Zacharek, in her review of The Invention of Lying.

Nietzche was mad for the last ten years of his life, and The Invention of Lying is a dark comedy that has an entirely ambiguous ‘happy’ ending.

Maybe it’s time to give some context to this discussion. Ship of Theseus consists of three stories of people coming across rifts in their worldviews. The first, a blind photographer gets another person’s eyes and finds that she can’t function any longer; the second, a Jain monk needs a liver transplant and therefore medicines which have been tested first on animals; and the third a nice and insular stockbroker living with his activist granny comes across the possibility that his new kidney might be stolen from a poor person (it’s not but he goes on a crusade on the guy’s behalf anyway).*

This is extremely difficult terrain; the problems posed by the need to live well in such a large and interconnected world are deep and nearly impossible to solve, and as a result any given worldview is deeply flawed and people cope by ignoring the existence of Nietzche’s abyss in their worldviews. Well-made stories about people coming face to face with any of their various abysses can take any form from comedy (Wodehouse, especially the Jeeves and Wooster series) to weird fiction (anything by Lovecraft) to tragedy (Hamlet, Othello) to arthouse (The Tree of Life, 8 1/2) to popular TV series (House MD, Gossip Girl), and are always fascinating. Few, however, tackle it with the explicitness of Ship of Theseus.

But many tackle it with the complete ineptitude that Gandhi here shows. These are stories of perturbations deep within souls, and require a deftness of touch and an appreciation for the dark and the darkly funny that this movie just doesn’t have.

Instead of actually understanding these mental states and coming up with a coherent aesthetic scheme to portray them, our man basically puts in lots of good-looking cinematography (and it is good-looking) and even more vacuous bullshit masquerading as ponderous dialogues.

A perfect synechdoche of Gandhi’s skim and fuck it approach is the name and the epigram. The myth of Theseus is a brilliant and complex one, though best remembered for his foray into the labyrinth when he killed the minotaur. So why is the movie called Ship of Theseus? The epigram explains it: he made a really long voyage, and all the parts of his ship must got replaced during it, so was it still the same ship? Here’s an alternative question: he must have also had a lot of alcohol – was any of that alcohol ingested by way of sips or was it all gulps and glugs?

I’ll leave you with something that made me laugh a lot:

*Negative brownie points to anyone who doesn’t figure out how these three are connected.

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