Friday, November 26, 2004

Jawaharlal Nehru used to be fond of saying that behind every Indian, there lay 5000 years of history and continuity. (He even made an attempt to chronicle those in his Discovery of India). Behind every one of us - inside us, even - are the efforts of all those who are dead. We are the products of history and it marches on taking us with it - as passive observationists or as quiet activists. William Condon's biopic of Alfred Kinsey is a great movie - as a movie, as a narrative, as a story of science and scientist (and I won't even begin to contrast it with the dishonesty of A Beautiful Mind) and above all things - in giving us a sense of history, of the giants, on whose shoulders, so to speak, we all stand. It is also tremendously moving and true to Kinsey himself. Like Kinsey and his scientific work, it is non-judgemental, presenting his research, his obsessions, his evangelical zeal to separate sex from morality, his indignation with "morality masquerading as fact" and also his more troubling tendencies (which included having his research assistants sleep with each other and their spouses).

All the rights we take so much for granted now - the right to use contraceptives during sex, the decrimnalization of pre-marital, extra-marital, oral sex and anal sex, the implied right to privacy that forbids authority from policing the private lives of its citizens, the debunking of all the old wives tales about masturbation, sex education in schools - are all related, in some way to the publication of the Kinsey report. The gay rights movement owes much to him - but then so do we all. (Interestingly Kinsey's book was published in 1948, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of disorders in 1973 but it was only in 2003 that sodomy laws were struck down by the Supreme Court).

Which in a roundabout way, brings me back to the movie itself. Condon, who wrote the movie from Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's biography of Kinsey, has found the perfect form for a biopic on Kinsey - the question-and-answer interview. The movie opens with Kinsey instructing his reseach assistants on the art of interviewing the subjects for their sexual histories. As his researchers ply him with question after question and as he answers, the movie cuts back and forth between the interview and Kinsey's life. The structure, which seems clunky even as I write about it, works brilliantly in the movie. Somewhere along the way, the cutting back to the interview stops but the movie is so fluid, that I forget where exactly and we continue along a linear trajectory as Kinsey's life unfolds before us. Condon is true to Kinsey himself, he presents the man as-is, warts and all, in just the way Kinsey encouraged his assistants to document human sexual history without being judgemental. (Condon vividly shows the best-case worst-case dichotomy that I talked about before during Kinsey's chilling interview with a paedophile, Kenneth Braun, when his research assistant walks out, unable to suspend judgement, while Kinsey doggedly soldiers on with the interview.) But movie is grateful to Kinsey, grateful because he spoke out against social hypocrisy, because his criticism of morality disguised as facts is valid even today, because he was instrumental in improving life itself for all of us.

In a lovely interview that closes the movie (and which moved me to tears), Lynn Redgrave as a woman who has found happiness with another woman, tells him "You saved my life, sir" and it is hard not to agree whole-heartedly. He most certainly did.

Postscript: I realized that I hadn't written a word about the actors. Words, in this case, are pitiful to describe the superlative acting all around but I mmust say that Liam Neeson, Laura Linney and Peter Sarsgaard are all fabulous. Linney, who can shine even in an outstandingly bad movie like The Life of David Gale, is lovely; Neeson is dogged, committed, and understated; while Sarsgaard, with his reptilian face, keeps proving again and again what a great actor he is. Give them all awards, I say. :)

Saturday, November 20, 2004

I am not that much of a sucker for animation films - not that I don't enjoy them but the standard format of such pictures - a hero, with his loyal sidekick, fights the villains and wins the love of his life - gets a little boring at times. Animation films that I've loved are rare - The Triplets of Belleville, Waking Life, Ice Age (this one came closest to being generic but heaven knows why, it just brought , a lump to my throat - especially in its remarkably poignant scenes where the woolly mammoth voiced by Ray Romano contemplates his family's and consequently his own extinction). Another film - one that never quite leaves my mind - was Brad Bird's lovely adaptation of Ted Hughes book about the Iron Giant. Now Bird has made another one called the Incredibles, which is, frankly, incredible.

The fundamental premise is simple: What if superheroes, besides their powers, are just like us? - and the Incredibles are indeed just like any other family. They love, bicker, fight, and enjoy. There are other things no less striking. Whatever be their powers, all the superheroes seem to be uniformly respectful of authority (i.e. the government and the judiciary). They did not revolt even as the Government and the ungrateful citizenry banished them into oblivion (when indeed, considering their powers, they could have). They do not seem to have any feelings of superiority - and indeed besides being resentful at the thought of being disallowed to do what they do best - they aren't snobs. So far, so good.

The points that the film does not dwell on, however, prove to be more than a little disturbing. The Incredibles is, at it's heart, a political movie. Consider the situation it brings up. The superheroes of the world have become a liability because of a blase ungrateful public (in an awesome riff, the commuters on a train who would otherwise have fallen to their deaths merely escape with injuries and then sue the superhero for those.). They are therefore banished - to live lives of obscurity and forbidden to practise their trade (which is basically saving the world from the bad guys). As I mentioned before, that they do not even think of revolting is heartening. As is the fact that they are susceptible to the same laws as everyone else.

It is in comparing The Incredibles to Bryan Singer's Xmen franchise and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series that we can see some clear differences. InX-men, the human race feels threatened by the mutants among them. But there's a crucial difference. In the Xmen world, anyone, mutant or nonmutant, could beget mutant children. X2, in fact, had a touching "coming out" scene - where a mutant boy comes out to his parents and his siblings, who react with bewilderment, confusion and even with outright hostility. In The Incredibles, on the other hand, one can only infer that the superheroes are a class (or a caste) unto themselves, that their "superness", by itself, is passed down generations. The eponymous family, in fact, is the quintessential super family - Dad, Mom, daughter, son and even the baby. Bird's screenplay doesn't talk about the "bad" supers - i.e. superheroes who use their powers for their own selfish good. Our superheroes are all assumed to be good - they probably have a goodness gene that complements their super gene.

Contrast this also with J. K. Rowlings Muggle world and you'll see how radically different The Incredibles is. Rowlings' fantasy world is composed of wizards and Muggles. Yet Rowlings is careful in making the boundary between these worlds fluid; Hermione Granger, for instance, is born to Muggle parents while both Ron and Harry come from "proper" wizard families;Harry's mother was born to a Muggle family; even Lord Voldemort has a Muggle father. The wizard world is also experiencing a backlash against the Mudbloods (a typically Rowling name for people like Hermione, born to Muggle parents), a backlash that Professor Dumbledore (and by implication Rowling herself) dissaproves of because, one can only assume, it is abhorrent to their liberal priciples. Rowling's fantasy world has been constructed with careful attention to details such as these. Bird, on the other hand, has not thought about the troubling aspects that his movie only hints at.

But he redeems himself in the way he has created the villain of the movie. Called Syndrome, this character of the arch-villain is the most interesting aspect of the Incredibles. Syndrome (he called himself IncrediBoy when he was young and hero-worshipped Mr Incredible) is *not* a superhero. He is a gifted kid, capable of making great gizmos and gadgets but his fervent desire is to be a super. Since superdom is inherited and not earned, that's clearly impossible. But Syndrome manages, by the sheer force of his ingenuity, to even outdo the superheroes he so admires. He is also an egalitarian by instinct - his aim, as he claims, is to make a world where "everyone is a super". I must confess I felt a twinge of sympathy for Syndrome. As voiced by Jason Lee (whatever happened to him after Almost Famous?), it's clear that what motivates Syndrome is a hunger for the recognition of his powers - powers that he has honed to perfection and also a desire to overcome the cards life has dealt him. But as the movie makes clear, superdom is about being human and about wanting to help others, come what may. Syndrome's desire for recognition, ultimately proves to be his down-fall. Had he not lacked humanity, the movie argues, he would have been greater than any super he ever knew. Amen to that.

ps: Here's a link to an article in the NYT on the Incredibles. I must have missed it before