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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.

Yojimbo:

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?

Disgrace:

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:

Posted in General, Movies | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

S’ip of Theseus

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 9, 2012

Originally published at madaboutmoviez.com.

 

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.

Posted in Gandhi, Anand, Movie Reviews, Movies | 2 Comments »

Poem Translations – Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 2, 2012

The poems are by Javed Akhtar, from the movie Zindagi na Milegi Dobara, and the translations are by me.

Pighle Neelam Sa

Transliteration:

Pighle neelam sa behta ye sama,
neeli neeli si khamoshiyan,
na kahin hai zameen na kahin aasmaan.

Sarsaraati hui tehniyaan, pattiyaan,
keh raheen hai bas ek tum ho yahan.

Bas main hoon,
meri saansein hain aur meri dhadkanein,
aisi gehraiyaan, aisi tanhaiyaan,
aur main… sirf main.
Apne hone par mujhko yakeen aa gaya.

Translation:

This moment flows like a molten sapphire -
Blue silences sahit -
               nowhere is the ground, nor is anywhere the sky:

The rustling leaves, the whispering branches
        tell me, only you are here

                              - only I am,
        and my breathing and my heart's beating.

Such abysses, such shadows,
                     and me... o, just me!

I have learnt to believe in my own existence.

Zinda Ho Tum

Transliteration:

Dilon me tum apni betabiyaan leke chal rahe ho, to zinda ho tum.
Nazar me khwaabon ki bijliyaan leke chal rahe ho, to zinda ho tum.

Hawa ke jhokon ke jaise aazad rehna seekho,
Tum ek dariya ke jaise lehron mein behna seekho,
Har ek lamhe se tum milo khule apni baahein,
Har ek pal ek naya sama dekhe nigahein.

Jo apni aankhon mein hairaniaan leke chal rahe ho, to zinda ho tum.
Dilon mein tum apni betabian leke chal rahe ho, to zinda ho tum.

Translation:

If you are holding your discontents in your heart,
                            then you are alive.
If you are keeping the lights of your dreams in your sights,
                            Then you are alive.

Learn from the gusts of wind to be free,
and Learn from the river to flow with the waves,
Meet every moment with open arms,
and Every second you'll see before you a new world.

If you are holding your worries in your eyes,
                            then you are alive.
If you are holding your discontents in your heart,
                            then you are alive.

Posted in My Own Fiction, Poetry, Translation | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Breaking Bad

Posted by Ronak M Soni on September 21, 2012

Originally published at madaboutmoviez.com.

Probably useless reading this if you are not familiar with the show.

So, I decided I wanted to chronicle the reasons Breaking Bad went from one of my favourite TV shows to something I consider well-made crap, partly because it’s a case study in how you lose momentum and partly because I don’t think I’ve ever written a proper rant (dismissive pieces about Christopher Nolan’s movies don’t count, since I find the hullaballoo surrounding his movies funny more than anything else).

So, when I first started watching the series I thought it was pretty good but not too good. But this changed in the third episode when Walt has to kill Krazzy-8, the whole decision running with the unearthing of Walt’s sociopathic tendencies*. But, the moment he had done it, something was over; the muck out in the open, and anything that followed would be but a logical progression. The show itself understood this, and shifted half the focus on Jesse, who’s streetwise but really in over his head with Walt. Similarly, it was wise to include and develop a whole host of supporting characters and their transformations.

Now, I was pretty excited about the show till the end of the third season, but the fourth season is so utterly terrible it’s a wonder I got through it (I’m yet to watch the fifth). To tell you why, let me run character by character.

Walt:

As I said, he killed Krazzy-8, and then his arc inevitably kept on losing steam. But, it managed to not completely lose it for three whole seasons. Part of the reason for this is Bryan Cranston’s marvellous performance in which he very effectively juxtaposes the original meek-mannered, house-trained schoolteacher and the sociopath for whom the previous description is a mask. There is much pleasure in watching the one in action under the other.

As many greater minds have noted, Walt’s transformation had much to do with traditional ideas of manliness and the associated misogyny; the belief that a man must provide for his family, must be in control, be always strong, must inflict unwanted sex on his wife, etc. For the first three seasons these tendencies are very much there, and teased out and questioned by the show (but, let’s be honest, not adequately; V Gilligan and co know there is something messed up here but really are not too properly aware of it, and honestly the show could do much better here, but this sort of thing is a flaw I’m usually willing to tolerate to quite an extent – I love Kill Bill, for example, and there’s this to be said about Breaking Bad itself**), but also there’s always the sense of a complex matrix of motives inside Walt. One of the best things this did was tease out the relation between the ‘coldly logical’ and the culture from which such a mindset grows. (Inserting accusing stare towards The Big Bang Theory.)

Then there was the end of the third season, where when Walt tells Mike about his successful ploy for staying alive, he’s completely the badass he always wanted to be. So completely, in fact, that for the whole of the fourth season he’s basically an annoyingly hotheaded and stupider version of Gustavo Fring. But the fact that Cranston’s a pain to watch is logical; I can live with it while being annoyed that there’s no pleasure in watching the protagonist any more.

The real problem here is that it stops being a logical progression for the character (have I stressed enough how important the idea of logical progression and its logistics are to this show?). It’s as if the makers read all the feminist critiques and decided to incorporate it into their show more fully but they don’t have a real understanding of it. Earlier, the tensions were strained out through his son and Hank and the parallels between Hank’s and Walt’s stories. Now, they go at it head-on: give Skyler a more active role (more on that later) and by having Walt retcon.

There are at least two speeches in the whole season (for a show of thirteen episodes a season that relies so heavily on silences, that’s a lot) in which Walt explicitly states his belief in the aforementioned ‘male’ ideals, which completely flattens out all the nuance and desperation of his decisions. Yes, it makes sense that Walt would build such a mythology about himself, but there is a general feeling that this is now the accepted version of Walt (for example, Jesse pretty much says that he was always badass).

To be clear, I’m not furious about it for social justice reasons (I’m too immune to that), but because it completely destroys a great character. As for the other characters, while they are not so utterly destroyed, they are kept in monotonous arcs that don’t tell us anything new about them.

Jesse:

As I said, the show drew much of its steam from Jesse’s dislocation. But then, when he kills Gale at the end of the third season, the writers have effectively written themselves into a narrative dead-end. All that can happen is his slow disintegration (very well-observed and something which made me bear annoying Mr White for three whole episodes without complaining) till something pulls him out, or alternatively till he hits rock-bottom.

But instead of something interesting doing this job, pulling him out becomes part of Gus’s ploy to get rid of Walt. Overall, a good ploy, but a story that works exclusively on the level of events (I can’t count how many well-made movies and well-written books I have abandoned because of this particular malaise): Jesse’s disintegration isn’t righted or taken to its logical end but simply postponed.

Hank:

He learns to be hopeful despite his newfound impotence (he can’t walk for a while). Absolutely nothing we didn’t see or infer from his previous crisis about the shooting and the bombing. Things happen, and we tread over trod ground.

Marie:

Three scenes of her stealing something because of the stress she gets from Hank. “See, we didn’t forget her – we are perfectly capable of giving a shit about our female characters too.” Obviously, every woman is defined solely by her kleptomania.

Walt Jr:

The only vaguely sympathetic character in the show, and – because of being a potential foil to Hank’s and Walt’s idea of manliness – also the most criminally underused (“hey, we put him in so we had the thought and that’s what counts right?”).

Skyler:

This could have been an amazing arc, her coming into her own as a woman and a partner and foil to Walt. Except, you know, the show crams the transformation into a few episodes in a previous season (so sudden that I thought that Anna Gunn had changed physically – lost or put on weight or something – till I realised that was just how hardened Skyler looked), and just had her perform some events. No acclimatisation to new evilness or anything. This is especially sad since she was one of the most well-crafted characters on the show in the early seasons.

Gus:

Watching Giancarlo Esposito play ruthless and logical mafia boss was never anything short of a pleasure, and honestly I was rooting for him to get rid of Walt (have I said that Walt is now just annoying stupid*** Gus?) so that we could watch a show about the machinations of this man’s brain. But no; black man can’t but be an enemy, and can’t but be eventually vanquished.

The only saving grace here was the development of his hate for Tio (the deepest – and only halfway fascinating – exhibition of the season-long theme that you can be possessed in body but not in spirit is Tio’s refusal to look at Gus) and the fact that that last vestige of sentimentality was how Walt got to him.

The camera:

Anyone remember the pleasure of watching wheels roll in close-up, first because it’s a wonderfully refreshing shot and second since it’s a reflection of the fact of process? Those shots have now been plagiarised into dumb crap like hitching a camera onto a spade that Jesse is walking around with. You know, because Breaking Bad is still weird at its core, not the residue from the vapourisation of a perfectly good show (chemistry analogy! Already one step above the title card (which I always found exceedingly dumb)).

*I use the word consideredly, in its meaning of a person whose attitude towards normal codes of conduct is logical followal at best and scornful disregard at worst.

**Because I know I won’t be alone in thinking this, I’ll state that I briefly toyed after reading that article – middle of the second season – that it was an allegory for racism, but… just no.

***But Walt can’t be stupider, because he got to Gus! Well, this was only made possible by the two asymmetries that Walt had to his advantage: that between offense and defense, and that between creator and manager. Inverted, Gus would have got that guy in no time. But, even I’ll admit that his final manipulation of Jesse was worthy of Gus.

Posted in TV | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!

Posted by Ronak M Soni on June 8, 2012

Realising he’s trapped by the police.

Because Shanghai – which I’ve now watched and highly recommend – was coming out this week, I decided to revisit my favourite of Dibakar Banerjee’s films. It turned out to be even better than I remembered.

When you hear that a movie is being made about the life of a thief, you assume that it is either a damning of the thief, a critique of society (“the honest people are the real evil!”) or – if the filmmakers are really awesome – a metaphysical examination of the nature of property. Dibakar Banerjee’s stellar Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! has element s of all these, but one of its basic statements is their rejection.

It’s almost impossible for me to unravel the layers of nuance here and tell you what (I think) Banerjee was going for. Just as an example, take the whole real crimes show which brackets the movie: it seems to be a frame but it’s not, because when was the last time one of these episodes was over two hours long, starred the real criminal (we know Abhay Deol is playing Lucky and not the guy who plays Lucky because of the photo interludes, which are obviously from the show), and had a scene where the anchor complains about the word ‘sansani khez’? (I’ve grown up with that phrase – in exactly this type of show, actually – and take it so much for granted that I don’t have the slightest clue whether it’s one word or two and whether it means sensational or sensational news,) It’s in fact a sub-plot that acts as a simple critique of the role of the media (life is just not sansani khez, damn it) and also a synecdoche of the attitudes of society (notice that these shows at the same time vilify and hero-fy the criminals).

Lucky is above our society, a trailblazer and an outcast, and yet is so only in his own imagination. If it’s possible to fit OLLO into one sentence, that last is probably it. He is not an abstract moral anti-hero who hates his society, but a brilliant, arrogant man who considers himself a level above all those around him; the central conflict of the movie is that no one else agrees. His family considers him a nuisance, his colleagues think of him as a troublesome ‘un who can be profitable if handled right, the world at large thinks of him as a menace, and his girlfriend (Neetu Chandra) considers him just another dude who happens to have a weird career choice.

It’s telling how Lucky fights these perceptions. He tries to appear penitent to his father, impress the older brother with his wealth and power, bribes his younger brother to turn up at his wedding, tries superhuman-seeming stunts for his girlfriend, and treats his colleagues like shit just expecting them to lick his feet anyway; because, respectively, he wants to win his father’s approval, his older brother’s respect, his younger’s love and his girlfriend’s awe, and to him his colleagues are just annoying people who give him shit while he’s doing what he’s great at.

Speaking of his relationships, the juxtaposition between of and above comes out perfectly in his relationship with his girlfriend Sonal; well, it’s seen in many places actually, but it’s easier for me to write about this because I’ve been really learning about the politics of discrimination the past few months. He lives in a deeply sexist society, where a girl is ‘asking for it’ just by being a dancer or wearing a revealing dress. On the surface, he rejects this sexism, fighting violently on the behalf of women where others just say that nothing can be done because the harasser is too powerful a person and winning Sonal’s heart rather than asking her family for her hand; and yet when you really look at it, throughout the movie he often treats her like shit, first stalking her till she falls for him (that she falls for him after that is itself a symptom of society’s sexism and its effect on women), always trying to keep her in awe of his power and manliness and afterwards constantly pushing her aside, abandoning her on camels, whatnot. This is exactly how we’d expect someone who takes the “respecting women as our mothers” part of our culture very seriously indeed: love women but always remember that they aren’t men.

Looking at this essay, you might be forgiven for thinking that OLLO is rather a pessimistic movie. For most of its running time, it is; even though it is almost unrelentingly funny, the jokes usually range from the throwaway moment to the morbid, rarely if ever venturing into the territory of happy. But, it redeems humanity too; yes, it doesn’t pretend to offer a real solution to the various muddles Indian society has got itself into, but there are two scenes at the end of the movie where we are allowed to see the world stripped of it baggage, where we are allowed to see that the trouble here is in the culture not in the people in it.

The first is an extended scene where Lucky cheerily arbitrates the reclamation of property. The police love the guy; there’s both the fact that he’s something of an icon and the fact that he’s very co-operative and charming. There’s one bit here where he meets a couple who doesn’t remember him but whom he remembers: he reminds them how he robbed them, and where to find the stuff he stole. The couple and he take each other’s leave with a respectful Namaste.

The second is with a paan-walla who may or may not know who he is. Maybe he is a man who just thinks this guy is a TV star and is honestly honoured to have him eat paan at his shop, and maybe he knows who Lucky is, and he’s a fan of this icon. But whichever be the case, he is nice in the simplest, most pure fashion possible – an affliction rarely seen in this movie.

Posted in Banerjee, Dibakar, Movie Reviews, Movies | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

“It’s something we are all intimately involved with.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on June 1, 2012

Originally published at madaboutmoviez.com.

Recently, while reading about alternative gender identities like transgenderism and pangenderism, I came across a type of person known in porn circles as a “shemale,” usually a trans-woman who has had breasts grown with estrogen but hasn’t had the surgery to replace the penis with a vagina (less offensive term: gynandromorph). Apparently, there’s a whole sub-genre of porn devoted to gynandromorphs. Now, in the minds of most, this raises an important question: who is turned on by this? Definitely, there is a small subset of humanity for whom they are the ideal sexual partners, or one of a set of equally preferable ones, but I feel safe in assuming that the porn industry isn’t interested in targeting them; if they went down that road, the first milestone would have been porn aimed at women. So, the conclusion is that heterosexual men are turned on by gynandromorphs. But while you are pondering this question, there are more obvious ones, like why are men so often turned on by lesbian sex? For that matter, why are men turned on by women and women by men?

For the last question, we can easily fill in some platitudes about reproductive instinct and whatnot, but the fact remains that, experientially, in our head is a black box that takes certain images and sensations as input and gives feelings of arousal as output. J G Ballard’s book and David Cronenberg’s movie Crash are about people for whom these black boxes have wiring very, very strange to us; they make a gynandromorph fetish look like something you’d be willing to discuss with your mother.

The movie begins with a woman making love to an airplane wing, before she is joined by a man who gives her what the wing can’t: fingers. She is Catherine Ballard (Deborah Kara Unger), wife of movie producer James Ballard (James Spader), who is at that moment having sex with his camerawoman just off set. Later, they compare notes – “did you finish?,” “did she finish?” – before themselves having sex, aroused by the notes.

Cut to James driving. He drops a script, veers into the wrong side of the road, and crashes. The man in the passenger seat shoots into his car and immediately dies. The woman (Holly Hunter), like James himself, was wearing a seatbelt and so is still in place. She shows him her breast.

James wakes up in hospital. Catherine describes the ruins to him, in the tone of dirty talk. There’s a man (Elias Koteas) who seems very interested in his injuries.

James, after months healing, still morbidly fascinated by the experience, visits what’s left of his car and there meets Dr. Helen Remington, the other driver. He gives her a lift, they narrowly avoid another accident, they fuck, she takes him to a staging of the car crash in which James Dean died by Vaughan (Koteas) and a couple of his stunt driver friends – no seat belts, real cars crashing into each other – and they go back to Vaughan’s, where he and one of the drivers (who’s still concussed) start discussing the Jayne Mansfield crash (“we can do the dead dog”).

So, here’s the big secret: Vaughan, Helen and their posse are turned on by car crashes. Vaughan, the ringleader, has a load of words about why that is so – apparently the sexual energy of a crash victim is concentrated into a crash. He very much has the dangerous allure of a cult leader. When James tells Catherine, they have the most passionate sex they’ve had in a while.

The most amazing thing about this movie is not that it depicts such a subculture, but that it depicts it without the slightest hint of judgement. Yes, their blackboxes are oddly wired but they are their personal boxes and none of our business and all Cronenberg does is portray them; pop psychology is completely absent (most of the Holvudine idiocracy would try to add something about childhood molestation or abandonment issues) and the mainstream culture only exists in so far as these guys couldn’t care less about it.

Modern western culture is more tolerant than many others, but it’s still remarkably churlish about sex. Many people have stopped watching this movie because it is too “sick,” but, as Roger Ebert insightfully points out, replace crashes with your favourite fetish and this is pornography.

Another thing we have difficulty with is the value of individual life; in that we wish to rank it highly, but never really do except with our nears and dears. Let me put it this way: how many people here would like to see criminals behind bars (or, better yet, dead)? How many of you have watched and been deeply affected by a gangster movie where there is no black and white only grey? (Note: in real life, there’s almost never black and white.) There’s a story a friend of mine likes to tell people, about how a European traveller found a tribe where there’s a guy whose only purpose in life is to serve as the chief’s chair; the traveller, of course, was shocked, and the tribals amused at his shock. They’ve been taught to believe that there’s a social order that’s more important than they are (and despite our discomfort with this notion, the martyr is a common form of hero in our mythologies).

Where does this tie in with the movie, you ask? Remember the cult whose leader just told the whole cult to drink poison and they did? Well, in the movie, soon after the happenings discussed above, one of the stunt drivers does the Mansfield crash. And dies. And kills god only knows how many innocent bystanders (and a dog). And arouses Vaughan, James and Catherine.

The progress of the movie is similar to a teenager who starts off masturbating to women in bikinis, and then goes into pornography because bikinis don’t do it for him any more, and then… what starts off as better sex with his wife ends up with James putting his penis into a crash victim’s scar (and, for good measure, every time Cronenberg lets us see it before that it looks rather vaginal) turns into climaxing with the crashing of cars turns into Vaughan killing himself by driving off the road and landing on the roof of a bus turns into James crashing Catherine and, when she assures him she’s all right, him saying “Maybe next time” followed by a nice fuck.

The tendency here is to regard these people as damaged somehow; but remember, for you will have to understand and deal with certain truths about your own moral code, whatever such conclusion you come to is yours and yours alone – the movie merely presented the facts of the case, merely put aberration in our faces to make us think things that we really ought not to be proud of.

Posted in Cronenberg, David, Movie Reviews, Movies | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Melancholia

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 24, 2012

Image

The movie takes place not in the real landscape of a country mansion so much as in the mental landscapes occupied by its two main characters.

The first part, ‘Justine,’ portrays Justine — the insane sister — in the rigid, scheduled environs of her sister’s life. Her marriage, out of which she flunks. We have a tendency to think of women like Justine, put off by social pleasantries and large gatherings of society, as damaged. Claire definitely thinks so; like her husband asks, is everybody in her family stark raving mad? Though ostensibly told from Justine’s point of view, the whole hour only aims to cement in us Claire’s worldview. It ends with Justine having broken off her marriage and quitting her job — in Claire’s terms, she has flunked.

The second part, ‘Claire,’ portrays Claire in the uncaring, bleak landscape of Justine’s life — complete with lying well-wishers and soothsaying obnoxious people. The climax of the movie is something we’ve known all along — Claire leaves Justine’s hand, flunks.

One way to take this is as a triumph for the Justine side, for it is a fight make no mistake; after all, human connection (holding hands and dying with dignity) is more important than fitting in with society. I wonder, however. Is it really that much less connected to have an understanding that the world is filled with humans and they need to be taken on their own terms? Claire’s reaction to Justine’s various eccentricities: she’s my sister. Justine’s reaction to Claire wanting some semblance of normalcy for her death: your plan is a piece of shit. The only real point made here is that while for one life makes her draw away into herself, for the other it is death (well, not only life and death: I could ascribe any number of dichotomies to the two situations, but I have particular affection for this one because I like to think of the Melancholia the doomsday planet as an agent of Justine’s psyche). It was probably taken as a matter of course that the first part could “cement in” Claire’s perception, but the second half “supported” Justine’s, because only the majority’s opinion is wrong.

But, the more you look, the more you find that both parts are “cementing in” their own sets of prejudices. And the bridge doesn’t come in the end as resolution but in the very beginning as introduction: its point is merely to call out the existence of the problem, and to point out that it is an insurmountable one. Life — as Justine so helpfully points out — is evil, but then so is death; and when you best hold the kid’s hand is nothing but a property, neither quality nor vice except when made one by the situation.

There is a certain feeble misanthropy to this movie which raises it above and beyond any normal work preaching such things. It cares not that you feel any particular feeling but only that you acknowledge. If you are crying when the planet hits, the movie has missed its mark: what you need to do is watch.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Movies, von Trier, Lars | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Tragedy is That

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 10, 2011

I am he,
Who has, most,
To live with me.

Posted in My Own Fiction, Poetry | 1 Comment »

A New Source of Horror

Posted by Ronak M Soni on August 16, 2011

(Horror is so odd. Not terror, which is what you feel when a bus is rushing down on you or when you are confronted with a phobia of yours, but the deep, vertiginous horror that you feel in the pit of your stomach.

Reading H P Lovecraft a couple of months back and thinking about why exactly we feel such a thing, and why everyone understands what you mean when you talk of this feeling, has taken my thinking into various knots whose existence have fairly changed the way I look at the human intellect and led me to explore deeper the connection between intellect and the body. That’s what I should be writing about rather than this, which a weird fiction aficionado characterises as angst rather than true “cosmic horror,” but I’m too lazy and the subject gets me too confused. Hopefully I can come up with a post about it sometime in the next year or so, but there’s a good chance I won’t be able to.)

The greatest horror is not in the existence of ghosts or murderous trans-human species with tentacles (both of which I feel fill the same role for horror as God does for existential comfort, the idea that something predicated on the same vicissitudes as day-to-day life is worthy of greater emotion than it simply because it is not our everyday life) but in the passing of time itself — the inexorable, half-noticed way in which time jumps scales — coupled with the need to be productive, the constant asking of oneself, “where have I got?”

There are over thirty days in a month, yet a month consists of but four weeks and a week, but of seven days. It is in this ripple-like effect of wasting even one hour of your life wherein lies the horror.

Posted in Philosophical Ruminations | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

“The little girl on the plane/Who turned her doll’s head around/To look at me.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on June 14, 2011

Click to look inside

Undoubtedly the best Salinger I’ve read to date, Franny and Zooey reads like a more sophisticated rewrite of The Catcher in the Rye. The sour-mannered Holden is here replaced by the mild and diminutive Franny Glass and — in another shape — the somewhat peremptory Zooey Glass, the youngest two members of the family which Salinger came to in all his books except Catcher. The vituperative first-person narrative is replaced by a gentle and keenly observant quintessentially American sort of third person voice straining to break free of the chains created by the limitations of language. The rant about phoneys is replaced by a violent and touching discussion of the value of what one may call mystical philosophy*, a discussion whose majority I’m not in any significant manner qualified to understand except in a skimmy way wherein I surmise the concepts from what is said in the book but the rest of which provided a useful supplement to what I’ve read in S Radhakrishnan’s Indian Philosophy.

The first part, Franny, deals with an encounter between Franny and her boyfriend Lane. Lane definitely qualifies as a pompous arse as per last paragraph, and despite her almost frenetic attempts not to, she every so often goes at him fangs bared, and feels sorry about it every time. She’s surrounded by lessers constantly acting like her greaters, and she has resolved to not set the record straight, to be meek in front of these her nemeses. It’s little wonder then that she has a nervous breakdown.

This isn’t just an incoherent scream; there’s a definite catalyst involved, in the form of a pair of books about a farmer who wants to understand what it is to pray unceasingly. He learns that that’s exactly what it is: unceasingly saying to yourself, “Lord Jesus Christ, have Mercy on me.” till the rhythm becomes a part of your heartbeat and you don’t need to do it consciously any more and then you achieve much greater oneness (there’s probably an Alan Moore video or interview somewhere in which he compares this idea, which is actually a pretty common one — long tracts of the Vedas are just repetitions of God names, for example –, with the effect of art). The first part ends with Franny ruining Lane’s mood, then collapsing, coming to and starting the Jesus prayer.

The second part is called Zooey, and illuminates Zooey’s stand on these concerns as opposed to Franny’s. But first, a bit of history. It turns out that Seymour and Buddy, the eldest Glass siblings, already in their twenties during the infancy of these two, supplemented their reading with mystical philosophies. Because these two, on their philosophical odysseys, had bent more and more towards the mystical philosophers; they felt the need to unlearn the differences between things (Radhakrishnan names this as the goal of philosophy as opposed to science, and this is what I use to characterise “mystical philosophy”) and hope that if these ideas are fed into these two from early enough they won’t have as much trouble.

Zooey is a young actor, slightly bitter at Seymour and Buddy for turning him and Franny into freaks. And he says he’s been through what Franny’s going through. And he proceeds to convince Franny that her breakdown is wrong.

In my review of Catcher, I wrote about Holden, “it is in this rejection of what he believes to be half-human that he expresses his true love for humanity.” Here, at first glance, there is no love for humanity. There is relief at the existence of people not covered with the jaded secretions of American society, but that’s about it. And yet… a little bit more thought shows that the purpose of the Fat Lady is to illustrate that there, in fact, is; the hate is reserved for social interactions. (This in fact curiously mirrors and extends what I said in my Catcher review: “The real fact about these phonies is that we all prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet. Some people just prepare more elaborate ones than others, and they can’t always keep it up.” While I say that it’s vile when sometimes some people’s facades slip, Salinger says that facades are by their nature vile.)

Oh, and it’s magnificently important that both of these are actors by calling, and the final resolution is Seymour’s point that the Fat Lady is watching.

Now, while I’ve stressed on the philosophical aspects of the novel, there is another, equally important one, which Buddy desperately wants us to remember:

I know the difference between a mystical story and a love story. I say that my current offering isn’t a mystical story, or a religiously mystifying story, at all. I say it’s a compund, or multiple, love story, pure and complicated.

As I hope my piece has shed some light on, for Salinger, these two types of story are not all that different.He seems to be a man who felt intensely out of place with people, and always remembered that that was the reason he was compelled to pursue wisdom like a madman. If I had to bet either way, I would bet that he hated his endless thirst, that he envied the people around him who could live without this insane drive; that, in other words, he wished he were the Fat Lady, such is his discomfort with this wisdom.

*Though I refer to it as mystical philosophy, it is in no sense of the pulling rabbits out of hats by the grace of God sort. It is in fact a result of very deep consideration of the states of being. I’ll come to why exactly I call it mystical soon.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Salinger, J. D. | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

 
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