Sunday, October 09, 2005

Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming

Noah Baumbach’s 1994 début Kicking and Screaming quickly put me into a skeptical mode—the mannered college types, straight from Whit Stillman, minus the sweetness that Stillman brings to his characters, the witty, too witty dialogue, with its multiple layers of irony; it was all too conspicuously indie—but as the movie moved into its final third, I found myself, to my great surprise, blinking back tears. All along, Baumbach had been working, in his own talky way, to a moment of truth, of post-collegiate life and in the movie’s final moments he hits it, undiluted by irony.

Grover and Jane, in only their second meeting are both intoxicated in a “townie” bar and sharing a moment. As Jane prepares to leave, Grover tells her (apparently she has an appointment with a shrink):
He: I just hope we feel the same way after this moment. After the alcohol wears off. You’ll talk to your shrink; I’ll go back to my friends. I just hope we keep this.
A lovely pregnant pause. And then she: It’s not as dramatic as all that. I mean we’ve got some time. Most of our life, in fact. What do you think if we had a proper love-affair—do you think it’ll last?

This line, in a calculatedly mannered flashback (each flashback starts with a freeze-frame of Jane, since we are obviously viewing her through the prism of Grover’s memory), the fact that the audience knows that Grover and Jane will break up, and be miserable without each other, the perfect pause and the lines themselves weave together perfectly. For me, it was a moment of connection. Later on, Grover decides to join Jane in Prague, in a spur-of-the-moment decision, he has a wild monologue with the ticket-clerk, where he pleads with her to give him a ticket, so that later on he can remember this moment as the time he chose to go to Prague; chose, that is, in full living breathing consciousness, in a spectacular moment of being alive. Josh Hamilton delivers the monologue with his eyes literally shining, his face flushed; when he realizes he doesn’t have his passport and the clerk gently suggests that he could go the next day, Grover makes a bitter face; the moment has passed.

The idea that life is a series of moments, when one is alive is not new and Baumbach’s schematic is a little too structured for my liking. Here, for instance, is Michael Cunningham in The Hours.

Yes, Clarissa thinks, it’s time for the day to be over. We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep—it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning, we hope, more than anything for more.

Through some mysterious alchemy, some strange weave of his dialogue and his actors, Noah Baumbach has given this passage a marvelous cinematic expression.

UPDATE: Matt Feeney has an article up on Slate today about Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming and Mr Jealousy. About Kicking and Screaming, he writes something that's remarkably close to what I wrote--about why the film resonated with me. Here's an extract from his piece:

In a recent interview in New York magazine, Noah Baumbach says that his new film, The Squid and the Whale, represents a mature turn in his filmmaking: "I wanted to make more emotional movies that were less about being clever." This seems to be a gentle cut at his first two efforts, Kicking and Screaming (1995) and Mr. Jealousy (1997). Baumbach, not unlike the characters in his films, is being unfair to himself. Sure, these movies have a talky, sophomoric cleverness, and they take on the themes—post-college paralysis, romantic jealousy—that apply most to people in their late 20s. You can see why Baumbach, now 37, might view them as artifacts of a shallower, sillier stage of life. But, like the openly autobiographical Squid, Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy are acutely, almost unbearably, personal and emotional films.

And then:

Maybe Baumbach thinks it's just him, but the fantasy of the spunky beauty with the darling overbite who sits across from you in your creative writing seminar and vivisects your short stories but then later admits that they show real talent and then falls in love with you is pretty much universal among male English majors. Baumbach makes this familiar, almost fantastic, story resonate with several deft touches. While the film's primary action takes place in the limbo of the year after graduation, the romance is told in flashbacks of the previous year, styled in a way that evokes the wistful quality of romantic memory. They begin in black-and-white freeze frame, then take on color, and then roll into slow motion before coming fully alive. Baumbach deepens these squirmy courtship scenes with perfect music. (For a time, I wished I were a filmmaker just so I could put Freedy Johnston's "The Lucky One" in one of my movies, but then Baumbach beat me to it.) The nicest touch, though, was finding Olivia d'Abo for the role of Jane. D'Abo's had a checkered career, heavy on straight-to-video action movies, but Kicking and Screaming shows her to be an inventive and charming comic actress. If you still don't have a face to put to your creative-writing-seminar fantasy, rent Kicking and Screaming.

Read the whole piece; I am going to rent Mr Jealousy soon, I think.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Guilty Pleasures

Matt Feeney has a great article in Slate about his "guilty pleasures"--trashy movies that he loves to watch at home when the multiplex gets too funereal. He includes Double Jeopardy, The Devil's Advocate, Cruel Intentions and Wild Things. I haven't seen Double Jeapordy myself but of the rest of three, the only one that I love is Wild Things, with its double-double-double-double crosses and the steamy sex (Aah, Matt Dillon...). I saw The Devil's Advocate in the cinema-hall back in college and I still haven't come around to the view that the movie actually has a point, beyond the grandstanding Al Pacino and the bland Keanu Reeves.

I enjoyed the beginning of Cruel Intentions when the effiminately handsome Ryan Phillipe and the carnal Sarah Michelle Gellar's characters trade sexually charged barbs (yes, as in incest). But once Reese Witherspoon's sanctimonious virginal goody-two-shoes character enters the scene and the movie throws in its lot with her, and the rakish Phillipe actually falls in love with her (as opposed to simply jumping into bed with his sister and having wild incestous sex), I just lost it altogether. The movie that began as great fun--an adult romp--turns melodramatic and all moral. It bothers me--this siding with the moral virgin. After all, why couldn't the Gellar character, with all her appetites, have triumphed? But no, the Ryan Phillipe character is made to suffer moral pangs and so is the audience, whether it wants to or not. Naah, I hated the way director Roger Kumble turned what should have been a blackly comic sexually charged teen-movie (sort of like Wild Things) into a sob-fest.

Enough ranting. Let me move on to my guilty pleasures--movies that I see time and time again simply because I love them. The pleasure isn't actually "guilty" because most of these movies wouldn't be considered "trash" at all. I have a rather sentimental attachment to them and watch them because--well, because they make me laugh and cry. So, without further ado, here's the list

Moulin Rouge
The Last Days of Disco
Shakespeare in Love
The Opposite of Sex
Far from Heaven

The blandness of FlightPlan

On Sunday I trudged up to the Harkins Centerpoint and saw FlightPlan. Why? No reason, particularly—if I said that kind of stuff, I’d say that we were meant to be, FlightPlan and I—just that it seemed to be going on at that particular time. How was it? Hmmm, that’s a question—how to answer that?--well, to tell you the truth, it was extremely dull. Now that’s the first time I’ve ever called a movie dull (simply dull as opposed to say, horrendous) but it’s very hard to find out exactly what’s wrong with FlightPlan. Certainly it’s been made with a lot of attention and detail; unlike the absolutely horrendous (there!) The Forgotten. Also, like The Forgotten, it has an extremely talented actress at its helm, the angular Jodie Foster (not to mention a very similar plot: the disappearance of a son/daughter). What’s with Foster and all the mother roles she’s so into these days? And what’s with Hollywood and all these mother roles in general? Are we so pre-occupied with the loss of children? And the children, why are they either little ethereal angels or irritating screaming shrews (little Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds)? Does the whole post-industrial world bring out some kind of subliminal anxiety in us, which somehow leads film-makers to imagine these scenarios?

Frankly, I have no idea. Some reviews of the movie I read were upset that the movie completely changed tracks mid-way—instead of being a meditation on grief, it turned into a thriller. You know, I would have agreed with that criticism, except that the movie is equally boring in both tracks – just supremely so as an exercise in grief and moderately so as a thriller. It’s just that as a thriller, there’s still some movement of the camera, something to look forward to—the grieving subplot is completely flat. Flat in the sense that there is no remotely palpable sense of loss, no sense of grief, nothing. The movie is like the bland shiny airplane interior it takes place in—bland and dull.

The problem with these kinds of movies is that I can see exactly how they are pitched. It’s like The Forgotten--“Hey, what’d happen if a child just disappeared? Into the blue?”—and bam, a screenplay is produced. FlightPlan has a better screenplay than Forgotten (it’s co-written by Billy Ray, the writer-director of Shattered Glass). Well, better in the sense that it is fleshed out with no gaping holes. But in a way, the writers’ decision to ground the plot around today’s resonating themes (the mother-child bond saving the passengers of an airplane from a hijack attempt) is their worst; it makes the grief sections of the film utterly pallid and the action sequences incredible—and by that I mean not remotely credible.

What’s left then? The actors? Peter Sarsgaard turns up, looking more like a reptile than ever. But he doesn’t really have much to do and his typical under-acting doesn’t help. Jodie Foster? She’s good—as always—but good doesn’t mean anything in a movie like this. It’s a good dull performance in dull movie.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Benjamin Kunkel's socialism

Why, is Slate reviewing Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision? I may be the only one who believes this but I think Michael Agger’s piece is a rebuttal of A. O. Scott’s Times Magazine piece (“Among the Believers”). Scott’s piece (which I enjoyed, by the way) was on “small” literary journals, ones started by bright young things who, in Scott’s words, “get together to assemble pictures and words into a sensibility -- a voice, a look, an attitude -- that they hope will resonate beyond their immediate circle”. But, by design or not, Kunkel seems to emerge as the hero of the piece:

Benjamin Kunkel's first novel, ''Indecision,'' published last month, concerns a young man living in Manhattan and trying, as the title suggests, to figure out what to do with his life. He has a B.A. in philosophy and an active, if confusing, romantic life; he gets by on a combination of office work and parental subsidy. In his author's affectionate estimation, offered over a beer on a recent evening at a Brooklyn bar, this young man, whose name is Dwight Wilmerding, is ''kind of an idiot.'' Perhaps, but he may also be -- the critical response to ''Indecision'' suggests as much -- an especially representative kind of idiot. His plight, after all, is -- for people of his age and background -- a familiar one: an alienation from his own experience brought about by too much knowledge, too many easy, inconsequential choices, too much self-consciousness. Bred in a culture consecrated to the entitled primacy of the individual, he discovers that he lacks a self, a coherent identity, maybe a soul. He feels that he could be anyone. ''It wasn't very unusual for me to lie awake at night,'' he confesses, ''feeling like a scrap of sociology blown into its designated corner of the world. But knowing the clichés are clichés doesn't help you to escape them. You still have to go on experiencing your experience as if no one else has ever done it.''

In his essay in Slate, Michael Aggers takes up the same line about “lying awake at night”, which probably makes it the most resonating line in the book, a line that resonates with what Aggers calls “college-educated males of a certain questing persuasion”, that is. In Indecision, (which, I should mention, I haven’t actually read), the 28-year-old protagonist, Dwight Wilmerding is searching for gravity—lost in a sea of unbelief, he is searching for belief. Apparently he finds it in socialism, declares himself a “democratic socialist” and lives in Bolivia writing press releases on behalf of the proletariat. The key passage in Agger’s review, for me was this:

For starters, it's striking that Dwight's conversion to socialism takes place in South America. Latin America is a place where socialism has had a long, tangled history and, pace Venezuela, the talk that circulates about the regions these days tends more toward free-trade agreements than Maoist rebels. Kunkel has Dwight nod toward socialism's complications, but he never makes the embrace seem more than a nostalgic pose. It's a moral pleasure to be a socialist (especially if you're living in a capitalist economy): The hard part is to engage socialism as a rigorous, powerful, and fraught ideology. Dwight seems committed to his ethic of anti-consumerism, but what's less clear is how his passion for his cause translates into a viable intellectual framework for improving on the economic policies of our globalized world.

Aggers puts it really well. I’ve been taken to task when I’ve asserted that it is fashionable to be a socialist these days—fashionable because it gives a moral pleasure, especially in a capitalist economy. But engagement with socialism is hard and anti-consumerism is not socialism, for all the way in which people seem to equate it. Neither is socialism as compatible with individualism as people seem to think it is. This makes all the quasi-socialism that I find in my colleagues exactly what I suspect it is: a desire to feel superior to society which somehow somewhere also acts as an impetus to artistic creation while at the same time, actively engaging in a kind of non-engagement, that suits everybody just fine.

Egad! Here is Michiko Kakutani’s (favorable) review of Indecision, where she writes in the vein of Hoden Caulfield. Goodness, Mistress Michiko getting facetious? Halleluiah!! Also a review by Jay Mcinerney.

UPDATE: I was under the mistaken impression that Indecision came out in 2002. The impression has now been dumped.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Serenity - a review

With all the extensive coverage that Serenity got on the blogosphere (see these posts by Dan Drezner: here, here and finally here) and Joss Wheldon’s impeccable TV pedigree (Buffy, Angel), I was a little disappointed with Serenity, Wheldon’s movie version of his short-lived Fox series Firefly. Now to be fair, I have never watched Firefly (although people who did keep raving about it). Yet even as I watched Serenity, I couldn’t help feeling: this stuff would be better on TV. No, let me change that – this stuff would be awesome on TV.

What’s the difference between a movie and TV series? Television episodes are heavy on plot and light on action – clearly no one watches a one-hour episode to watch a 15 minute ship-battle sequence. (Also clearly, TV doesn’t have the budget for that kind of thing). The problem is: Wheldon has no idea of how to shoot a space-ship battle. Serenity’s finale has a whopping 20 minute battle and it is easily the movie’s poorest – not even the editor probably knows what’s going on. (I loved Wheldon’s shots of people swaying because of centrifugal forces, no movie I remember has ever had that!).

What Wheldon knows – and knows damn well – are his genres; in Serenity he fuses the western and the space opera conventions remarkably. The result is a giddy Flash Gordon-like adventure story. Serenity reminded me of the first two Star Wars movies (well, episodes 4 and 5, to be precise) – unaffected and completely enjoyable. The problem with Star Wars was that Lucas got bogged down when he started making episodes 1 to 3. Whereas the early Wars movies were fun for fun’s sake, the prequels got mired in their own symbolism, their attempt to be “serious” rather than fun. It didn’t help, of course, that Lucas is a hideously bad writer. (A friend of mine remarked after seeing the Revenge of the Sith: if the first two prequels felt like dying by crucifixion, then the third one felt like dying by poison!)

Wheldon however writes great dialogue (he plays with genre conventions with his quips, the lines in this movie will probably become legends). In the opening scenes of the movie, the exposition, which probably took an episode or two in Firefly, is brilliantly done, with a minimum of shots and fuss. The problem with Serenity is its plot. The kind of suspense that Serenity generates in the first half, when the psychic River has hallucination after hallucination, premonition after premonition, builds expectations up to a breaking point. But the revelation itself – the thing we have been looking for all the while – is a complete let-down; it could have fitted in right at the end of a Firefly episode.

A dense plot would have made the movie too long, and reduced the time for wham-bam action scenes (and this clearly matters to the studios if they want to get teenagers to watch Serenity). So Wheldon probably took one of his ideas for an episode and used that for the movie, with a few modifications. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work. But, hell, I’m going right out and getting my hands on the Firefly DVD set. If it’s anything like Serenity, that’s one hell of a TV show.

Note: This post by Dan Drezner has a got a lot of links, if you want to read about Serenity.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

On Christopher Hitchens

I wasn’t exactly depressed when I heard that Christopher Hitchens had resigned from the Nation (Read his Washington Post op-ed: So Long, Fellow travelers). His reason? He was horrified by the letters that poured into Nation magazine on the first anniversary of September 11. In his reply to Katha Pollitt’s open letter, Hitchens says:

I'll end where you began. Why would this disagreement necessitate my departure from The Nation? It's a matter of the viscera in some ways, as I told you on the telephone the other day. At public forums in the past several months, debating
with Oliver Stone in one case and with Michael Moore in another, and with several others in between, I have heard witless applause for fatuous debating points and for fatal casuistry, and have realized that I am hearing the magazine's propaganda and attitude being played back to me. It may now seem trite to say that September 11 and other confrontations "changed everything." For me, it didn't so much change everything as reinforce something. I am against aggressive totalitarian states and I am resolutely opposed to religious fanaticism. I am also sickened by any attempt to call these hideous things by other names. Most especially in its horrible elicitation of readers' letters on the anniversary of September 11, The Nation joined the amoral side. It's the customers I want to demoralize, not just the poor editors. I say that they stand for neutralism where no such thing is possible or desirable, and I say the hell with it. I feel much better as a result--though I admit the occasional twinge--and so will you when you take the small but simple step that leaves cynicism and euphemism behind.
Pollitt’s reply:

You've placed yourself quite forthrightly on the side of Bush, Cheney, Perle and Wolfowitz, whose plans to remake the entire Arab world long predate 9/11, and who seem completely unembarrassed by their own shifting rationales for invading Iraq. (Not even they, however, claim it has anything to do with opposing religious fanaticism. That is your own delusion.) These are your new friends, an Administration that supports with mad vigor everything you excoriated in Clinton--capital punishment, the drug war, punitive welfare reform, privatizing the public realm, letting corporations run wild--while pandering to the Christian right, blasting the environment, withdrawing from international agreements from Kyoto to Cairo and remodeling the federal judiciary to resemble a meeting of the John Birch Society. I think I'll stay right here.

So has Hitchens turned neo-conservative? I don’t think so, despite his articles for the Weekly Standard. (In fact, one forgets that the people one now calls neo-conservatives were originally disillusioned liberals). Hitchens’ Fighting Words column in Slate is one I read, simply for its polemical writing and no-holds-barred position. (One cannot imagine, say, Paul Berman, using the same biting tone). With his break from the left, Hitchens put into his work an almost messianic zeal although the no-holds-barred style is virtually guaranteed to win no converts. His writing culminated in a brilliant fusillade against Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 – a movie that I liked and disliked at the same time. After that Hitchens writing has dimmed; his latest column in Slate is a case in point. The case against ANSWER has been made (see this article by David Corn), did Hitchens need to make it again? And did he really have to go gaga about his debate with George Galloway?

I guess I’ll just have to keep watching what happens next.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

On Spielberg and the Mossad assassin

There’s an aspect of commercial film-making that I dislike intensely and it comes up in this article in the New York Times. The subject: Spielberg’s as yet untitled film on the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at Munich 1972. Turns out that Spielberg’s film only opens with the massacre but is mainly about the Israeli retaliation that followed as Mossad painstakingly and calculatedly hunted down and assassinated persons believed to be among the kidnappers.

The Munich episode has already been effectively captured in a documentary that I saw last year – One day in September. One Day, which is narrated by Michael Douglas, recreates an almost second-to-second account of the hostage crisis by inter-cutting actual footage, interviews with officials, onlookers and the relatives of the hostages. It also incorporates interviews with the lone surviving Palestinian hostage-taker, a man who has been in hiding since then and has escaped several Israeli attempts on his life. That documentary was unequivocal in assigning blame – not, however on the moral implications of the Palestinian actions – on West German officials in Munich who were anxious, at all costs to show that they were capable of dealing with the crisis when they clearly were not. Critics have accused One day of being a “thriller” but I thought that the movie was rather detached; in a sense, the makers wanted simply to recreate the nightmare that was Munich 1972. Beyond highlighting the incompetent West German actions, they clearly did not want to get into any kind of discussion on the morality of the parties in question, since any discussion on the Israel-Palestinian takes only seconds to get inflamed. (At Columbia, where I studied, any article on the dispute in the Spectator meant publishing at least four letters subsequent day with a different interpretation of events).

But back to the offending paragraph in the article:

The film, which is being written by the playwright Tony Kushner - it is his first feature screenplay - begins with the killing of 11 Israeli athletes in Munich. But it focuses on the Israeli retaliation: the assassinations, ordered by Prime Minister Golda Meir, of Palestinians identified by Israeli intelligence as terrorists, including some who were not directly implicated in the Olympic massacre. By highlighting such a morally vexing and endlessly debated chapter in Israeli history - one that introduced the still-controversial Israeli tactic now known as targeted killings - Mr. Spielberg could jeopardize his tremendous stature among Jews both in the United States and in Israel.
Yes, it’s called losing stature (the aspect of commercial film-making that I hate). That’s probably why any commercial film-maker will never make a film that engages with politics beyond the superficial. Ridley Scott – a director with magnificent visual skills – made Kingdom of Heaven on the Crusades. Yet his movie is stultifying in its political correctness – both sides are essentially humanists/multiculturalists – and the reason for that is simple: Scott doesn’t want to come across as anti-Christian or anti-Islam. (See David Edelstein’s scathing review in Slate).

Michael Oren (who recently argued in a stimulating New Republic article that the new German film Downfall merely gave Germany and Germans a guilt-free pass) has this to say:

"I don't know how many of them actually had 'troubling doubts' about what they were doing. It's become a stereotype, the guilt-ridden Mossad hit man. You never see guilt-ridden hit men in any other ethnicity. Somehow it's only the Jews. I don't see Dirty Harry feeling guilt-ridden. It's the flip side of the rationally motivated Palestinian terrorist: you can't have a Jew going to exact vengeance and not feel guilt-ridden about it, and you can't have a Palestinian who's operating out of pure evil - it's got to be the result of some trauma."
The guilt-ridden Mossad assassin is also the center-piece of the new Etyan Fox movie Walk on Water. As the film begins, we see Eyal, who comes back after a “job” to find his wife has killed herself. Recovering from a depression, he is given a small assignment. To keep an eye on two visiting German siblings – Axel and Pia – who are the grand-children of an absconding Nazi war-criminal. Assigned as a guide to Axel, Eyal takes a liking to the young man (played in a lovely performance by the German actor Knut Berger). He is confused when he discovers Axel is gay and furious when Axel picks up a young Palestinian in a gay bar. Male bonding is clearly Fox’s forte and Walk on Water sparkles in the Israel scenes. The slender waif-like Burger and the tough Lior Ashkenazi are an attractive couple and the actors sparkle in their scenes together which are lovely and unforced (it’s astonishing how physiognomically similar these two are to Fox’s Yossi and Jagger).

Yet when Eyal is forced to follow Axel back to Germany (in a torturous plot twist), the movie self-destructs spectacularly. The tone turns melodramatic and the narrative turns into an archetypal tale of redemption; clearly not Fox’s best genre. The fault has less to do with Fox’s direction but instead with his use of narrative clichés, so at odds with his naturalistic direction. We know that the tormented Eyal will have to choose – between the human being he is and the killing-machine he has become. We also know that his wife’s suicide had something to do with his “occupation”. Yet the finale is wooden and not remotely convincing.

I should admit at the outset that I have rather a soft spot for Fox (Yossi and Jagger is a little gem of a film in my opinion). His characters are clearly like him: idealistic, passionately political and without an element of irony or cynicism. Walk on Water is only a small misstep for him but I hope he keeps on making his kind of films.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Media bias, church-state separation etc.

A couple of things that I simply mentioned in passing in one of my earlier posts have suddenly acquired a life of their own.

Judge Richard Posner wrote a huge piece in the New York Times Book Review on – well, don’t hold your breath – media bias. Posner’s essay is long and a little unwieldy. Jack Shafer of Slate rips into it here. There are certain things in Posner’s essay that ring false even on first reading. For instance:

The latest, and perhaps gravest, challenge to the journalistic establishment is the blog.
And later:

How can the conventional news media hope to compete? Especially when the competition is not entirely fair. The bloggers are parasitical on the conventional media. They copy the news and opinion generated by the conventional media, often at considerable expense, without picking up any of the tab. The degree of parasitism is striking in the case of those blogs that provide their readers with links to newspaper articles. The links enable the audience to read the articles without buying the newspaper. The legitimate gripe of the conventional media is not that bloggers undermine the overall accuracy of news reporting, but that they are free riders who may in the long run undermine the ability of the conventional media to finance the very reporting on which bloggers depend.

First of all, as Shafer also points out in his article, most people haven’t even heard of blogs. I’m surrounded by fairly internet-friendly group of people – people my age, comfortable with the internet, who think email is indispensable and who use Google as the first resource for finding information – and most of them don’t read blogs. The ones who do know what a blog means sometimes start their personal ones or comment on their friends’ pages but political blogs are still the exclusive realm of political junkies. Most people who read the newspapers (online or paper) normally wouldn’t read the book reviews. It’s the same with political blogs which are too insiderish – I mean who wants to know that Michael Kinsley and Susan Estrich had a fight recently? – and just do not interest people, at least the normal kind (Abnormal ones, like me, on the other hand, love such juicy squabbles).

It is absurd to insist that the readership of the New York Times has decreased because of the internet and the blogs. If anything, the readership has increased. Many more people, who would ordinarily never even have considered buying the New York Times now read it online. And that’s leaving out people outside the US. No? (Of course – the question of how to make internet advertisements work or how to charge these new readers is still open. But I think the market will solve them in due course).

Well – the second article is one by Noah Feldman (of What we owe Iraq) – an extract of his new book (the man churns out books, apparently). Feldman has a solution to the church-state wars: strictly no funding of any religious institutions but let them display symbols all they like. In other words, remain firm on the important issues, give away on the less important ones. Slate, as usual, has a critique.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Wes Craven's Red Eye

I saw the new Wes Craven thriller “Red Eye” yesterday and Rachel McAdams, the young actress is certainly impressive. I looked up McAdams filmography on and apparently, she has had some high-banner movies under her belt including a turn in Mean Girls (which I loved - the movie, not her turn, which was good, not great!) and The Notebook (the trailer was so horrendous that I never quite ventured anywhere near it). I can see why Craven chose McAdams for the role – the girl has a toughness about her, a way of looking directly, arrestingly, at the camera. She’s more than a match for Cillian Murphy, who after Batman Begins, gets to do another creepy role (He is “Jack Rippner” who does “oh, government overthrows, high-profile assassinations, the usual stuff” for a living). And really Murphy is far too creepy for my taste – with those pink lips and blue blue eyes. And this is the actor who first broke into the big scene as an old-fashioned protagonist in Danny Boyle’s 28 days later! Murphy and McAdams are going to go far, methinks.

And the movie? It’s a very well-crafted thriller. Craven can’t quite sustain the tension during the air-plane ride. Instead he looks at the actors in hard close-ups and lets them do their bit. The claustrophobic environs of an airplane are well-captured and I particularly liked the bit inside the restroom. The movie ends with a flourish however, in the kind of scenario that Craven knows inside-out – a slasher with a knife chasing a young nubile girl in a deserted house. Despite seeing the scenario hundreds of times, it’s still astonishing how it still manages to wring you out, when done well.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

On my late coming to the BBC's The Office

When I generally watch a television show on DVD, the temptation to go on watching episode after episode is almost irresistible. I’ve watched shows for hours without stopping in the DVD format (but shows aren’t meant to be watched in this way; I got tired of the OC and Six Feet Under in just twelve and forty episodes respectively J ): Sex and the City, the O.C., Six Feet Under, Friends. But I couldn’t watch more than an episode of The Office, the BBC’s acclaimed sitcom/reality/drama (There are six episodes in each of the two seasons besides a two hour finale). Not because the show’s not any good. But the show’s (brilliantly constructed) combination of excruciating pauses, bad jokes, and social satire is only ingestible in small doses. The Office is probably the only sitcom (but it’s not a sitcom) which is expressly designed not to be funny. It is a little closer to reality tv (but it’s not reality tv) but much less condescending, to its characters, than say your average dating show.

Dana Stevens of Slate calls the Office as “cringe-theater” and the epithet fits it to a T. My own favorite cringe-moments (from the first episode) are the pained expressions that the blonde receptionist Dawn shoots, when manager David (played pitch-perfectly by creator-director Ricky Gervais) makes one of his all-too-frequent conversational (bad) jokes. The Office is a series one admires (for the style, the syntax, the acting, the script – everything!) more than loves – but it is on every level, a classic. Now I’m all set to watch the marathon NBC version on Wednesday (in it’s first season) - lets see how it compares!

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Rushdie and Atheism

Salman Rushdie has an interesting article in the Toronto Star, written with his (characteristic) wit and candor. In response to books published by some scientists who argue that athiesm's hostility to faith is responsible for the rise of creationism in America and that "Not believing in God is no excuse for being virulently anti-religious or naïvely pro-science," Rushdie points out (correctly, I think) that such a gesture can be real only if reciprocated. And clearly, that is not forthcoming. In his words:

Such a truce would have a chance of working only if it were reciprocal — if the world's religions agreed to value the atheist position and to concede its ethical basis, if they respected the discoveries and achievements of modern science, even when these discoveries challenge religious sanctities, and if they agreed that art at its best reveals life's multiple meanings at least as clearly as so-called "revealed" texts.

No such reciprocal arrangement exists, however, nor is there the slightest chance that such an accommodation could ever be reached.
That said, arguments like this are invariably of the I-would-do-it-if-he-could variety; you know, the ones when you want a kid to stop fighting and he won’t do it because he claims the other guy keeps hitting him. Just look at all the arguments whether the American media has a liberal bias or a conservative one. Eric Alterman of the Nation has been screaming himself hoarse about the media’s conservative bias. Paul Krugman keeps saying it time and again in his NYT columns. And Andrew Sullivan, in his blog keeps reiterating the opposite. Me? I take refuge in Daniel Okrent’s NYT column as the public editor. Speaking for the NYT, he says that “the paper is the inevitable product of its staff's experience and worldview, and that its news coverage reflects a generalized acceptance of liberal positions on most social issues”. Amen to that. (And a generalized acceptance of liberal positions is inevitable, no?)

But back to the atheism question. Who is undermining whom? I believe that the so-called resurgence of the religious right is a rear-guard action. No, I don’t mean to minimize its significance. True, it’s a pretty big movement and it won’t be easy. But that’s what it is: the dying gasp of an institution that has been forced inexorably away from public life. Look at the debate raging in Kansas on Intelligent Design. (I wasn’t even aware of the damn thing till some time last year…). I won’t go into the scientific basis for ID (except that it is not falsifiable and hence not scientific). But the very fact that people who support the introduction of ID in schools come from the religious right tells us something. That in order to oppose “godless” evolution, the religious right has come to support a theory that is as far removed from creationism as can be. Except for some vague allusions to a Designer what does ID really have in common with the Book of Genesis? Isn’t it highly significant that the debate in Kansas is on Intelligent Design and not on creationism? We should be rejoicing, not moping!

Once the religious right is seen as a dying force (albeit a powerful one even in its death throes), the question remains: how do we deal with it? For the life of me, I have no idea. As always in a democracy, we could perhaps strike a balance. Stand firm on the issues that are genuinely important (abortion, the study of evolution, church-state separation) and maybe, giving in on the less important ones (such as the public display of the 10 commandments)?.

ps: I was only going to blabber on about movies in this blog. But then I thought - what the hell? Whats the use of having these thoughts if I don't vent 'em? :)

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

In the first twenty-odd minutes of Only Angels Have Wings, director Howard Hawks pulls off a miracle. With barely a shot of a flying plane, or the pilot’s point-of-view, he creates a scene, which in its intensity, is more than a match for any special-effects action extravaganza that I have seen.

A young woman has just arrived in a South American port on her way back to the States. This is the time of the birth of aviation, before the First World War. The port has a small air-base which uses propeller-driven airplanes to ferry cargo to and fro. The hitch? A mountain which needs to be flown over and which often gets obscured by fog. The woman is befriended by two pilots, who’re clearly in need of some feminine company. She takes a fancy to one of them, a handsome all-American type; even his name is Joe. He asks her to have dinner with him; she agrees but he has to make a flight and a thick fog has settled in. He promises her he’ll be back soon and takes off; she stays with the crew and the head of the station. But the fog is too much; he cannot reach his destination; the captain asks him to come back and land; but now the airstrip is almost invisible. The crew on the ground try and give him directions by simply listening for the sound of the engine and using their intuition to judge where he is; Joe almost crashes while landing; the captain asks him to stay up till the fog lifts; Joe says he wants to land; after all, there’s a pretty girl he wants to have dinner with; he tries landing again, crashes and dies.

All of this happens in the first twenty-five minutes and it is breathtakingly orchestrated. In complete and supreme control of his material, Hawks introduces the early days of flight, unsafe, and without the instruments that are so indispensable to flying today; the early pilots, pioneers all, who risked death every time they flew and who did it, for the money, for the adventure, for the sheer joy of flight, who knows why! Best of all, he constructs a scene of a plane crashing with barely an aerial shot, where the reactions of the onlookers take us right into their heads (and hearts) and the tragedy that results feels exactly as it would have felt to someone in the situation: disconcertingly sudden, strangely disorienting, and suffused with the kind of sadness that is known rather than felt.

But Only Angels Have Wings is not a sad film. It is a film with a heart of gold, which knows that its asset is its heart of gold and its belief that adversity brings out the best in men, which tries charmingly to put up a tough exterior, but only so much so that it’s golden heart comes through. Do I sound cynical? If I do, it’s unintentional because I genuinely loved this film. It is a superlative example of populist film-making; a film without pretensions to profundity; helmed by a director who knows exactly what he wants and populated by actors who know exactly what their director is aiming for. It works brilliantly.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

What would one know? It turns out that the great Ram Gopal Verma is a fan of Ayn Rand. His heroine, Reva, in Naach is a female version of that supreme egotist - Howard Roark. Reva spends most of Naach being insufferable sure of herself, gazing stony-faced at her
lover Abhi or dancing through her steps with a kind of pouty defiance that is supposed to stand for artistic satisfaction but is clearly Antara Mali's failed stab at icy eroticism.

Naach may not be a loony call to individualism as Rand's FountainHead is. It is however Ram Gopal Verma's confessional: where he tells us what drives his work and the constant compromises that he's forced to make working with the Bombay film industry. His critique of Bollywood films is on the dot (and I agree with him on almost everything here): that Bollywood plots are frozen in the boy-meets-girl mode, that we have embraced mediocrity in the way we refuse to experiment even within our framework, and that we lack a small-scale independent movement that can offer a reasonable alternative to the commercial mainstream. The three main characters, offer, at different points, Verma's thoughts. Abhi is Verma's pragmatic side, willing to make compromises to get things done. Reva is what he'd like to be (but thankfully, is not) - uncompromising, unbending, and rigid.

Of course, Verma himself has succeeded in the same industry while retaining his own rough edges although I grant that his status is nothing like whats accorded to upstarts like Karan Johar, Aditya Chopra or old hands like Subhash Ghai (at whom Verma makes a pointedly cheap dig. Whats cooking, Ramu?) or Yash Chopra. Yet Verma has made commercially successful yet highly ndividual films himself. He has made musicals like Rangeela, Daud and Mast, gritty
crime-tales Satya (his masterpiece and one of the best films ever) and Company, and low budget experiments with horror (Bhoot, Raat, Kaun). Granted that there were elements in all these films where he compromised. For instance Satya was conceived as a realist
songless film. Yet when Verma did decide, out of commerical pressure, no doubt, to add songs to he narrative - he arrived at a way to make the songs merge seamlessly with the narrative which akes Satya even more of an artistic triumph. The two songs in Company are hip and stylish - in sync with the movies tone. This, I argue, has always been Verma's greatest contribution. He has orked within the Bollywood genre even as he has successfully tinkered with it. For instance, with his distinctive use of music, he has worked with composers from A. R. Rehman to SAndeep howta - none of whose work is in any way traditional.

Given how personal Naach is, its suprising that it is Verma's weakest film to date. The narrative is flaccid; it proceeds languidly almost like a tableux, but never really becomes interesting. Quickly sketched conversations fade into each other and the characters have no life beyond the artistic. Its a sign of how much I expect from Verma that I took Naach's different "look" for granted. Verma uses hues of blue and black; its a welcome sight to watch a film from Bombay that doesn't bombard us with reds, maroons, yellows and pinks. But Verma's fixation on Antara Mali's body does get a bit too much at times. The camera roams her body in boringly fetishistic detail; boring because Mali and her director concentrate too much on being sensous rather than imply being. In a deeper way, the problem is Mali herself. She's a competent actress but she has always relied on physicality to convey her characters. Reva, on the other hand, is the quiet artist who is supposed to be seething inside (creatively, of course). Mali's acting choices are correct; she underplays but she just cannot convey the artistic turmoil that is raging inside Reva's head. (I'd have preferred Sushmita Sen myself). We are supposed to go into raptures when Reva dances but beyond capturing certain zen-like demeanor and a performer's reflexes, she never comes close to reaching that kind of transcendent grace that at least her director thinks she does. Ultimately this is Naach's weakest link: the dances that Reva creates are as bad (or as ordinary) as the ones she hates. What could be more damning for a movie that celebrates dance?

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

No two icons resemble each other but I guess there probably won't be another one like Bette Davis. Six years ago TNT India planned to show Gone with the Wind. In the grand build-up to D-day, they had a month of flims that starred all the different actors associated with it. I remember that Davis' Jezebel was screened then although I didn't get to watch it. Davis apparently was determined to be Scarlett (and I think she'd have made a good one) for Gone with the Wind but David O'Selznick had other ideas.

As a trade-off, Davis, got her own Southern vehicle in Jezebel. The movie doesn't stand up to scrutiny but it's amazing what she can do. Her character Julene is supposed to be a misfit, a young woman born ahead of her time but it's hard to see which time she would actually fit in. Julene is petty and wilful and stubborn and she would be trouble in any world, modern or medieval. Julene alienates her fiance Pres (the great Henry Fonda) by wearing a red dress to a ball and he soon enough marries another woman. Her attempts to play off one Southern gentleman against another result in a succession of tragedies.

Much ado is made, of course, about the charming Southern customs like duelling and I would agree with everything the movie said if it wasn't for smug self-superior tone. And the Julene-Pres combination is too Scarlett-Ashleyish for my liking what with her selfishness and his constant soul-searching and honor. But Fonda and Davis are too good as actors and director William Wyler never forces his hand. As much as I hate admitting it, the movie made me cry as it ended, with Julie, humbled and proud as ever, marching off towards redemption.

A different kind of Davis performance: loony, flamboyant, wild, and touching is on display in Whatever happened to Baby Jane?, a movie I'd describe as 75% black comedy, 15% melodrama and 10% thriller. Two old hags live in a claustrophobic mansion - with Baby Jane (Davis) tending to the crippled Blanche (Joan Crawford). Baby Jane has never gotten over the fact that her success as a child-star on the vaudeville stage has been eclipsed by her sister who became a big film-star. As the movie begins, Baby Jane sets unleashes a spectacular vendetta against her crippled sister.

The revelations at the end can be sensed a mile off but as the feverish camera roams around the house, the movie makes one restless. The violence is brutal and shocking; because its perpetrator is an old woman in her sixties who may or may not be mad. The movie allows Davis to hit notes like never before; dressed in what I can only call Miss Havisham gear, she pitches her act perfectly; over-the-top but with a pathos that literally hurts. Baby Jane's longing for her childhood is fierce and naked and pathetic; the movie is fascinating in a frighteningly dreadful way.

Between the callow Jezebel (1938) and the loony Baby Jane (1962) is a perfect Davis performance in All about Eve (1950). As Margo Channing, a great but aging theater actress, Davis seems to be channelling herself into the role. It seems like an effortless performance but it's on a scale that's hard to describe. The movie chronicles the rise of one Eve Harrington, a burningly ambitious upstart, who will one day supplant Margo Channing. Eve's rise is the archetypal tale of an actress: she charms her way into Margo's favors, becomes her understudy and finally uses Margo to fulfill her own dreams.

It's a brilliant film, with brilliant performances. But Eve's metamorphosis from an earnest too-good-to-be-true guardedly ambitious side-kick into an evil incarnate doesn't quite jell. It's strange though, but I liked Eve and I think the movie does too. Even as he becomes more and more ruthless, her desire to be an actress is treated with respect. It's hard to find a film that does that.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

VJTI as it looked in 1923. Posted by Hello

Sunday, April 03, 2005

There is something in watching a classically structured narrative - a story when an unforseen tragedy impedes on lives being lived. From Here to Eternity ends with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The attack is addressed as an aside, something that happens outside of the web of the characters' lives yet it is also the harbinger of things to come. As one of the oldest cliches goes, things will never be the same again.

Called by many as the movie that Pearl Harbor wanted to be (but never was, not even halfway!), it is easy to see why Eternity was something of a shocker for its time. In the age of the production code, the film's characters are either prostitutes, adulterers, or misfits. Plus it has the famous (and incredibly sexy) romp in the sand between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. (The moment is so brief that it almost flashes past unnoticed but it's erotic charge is undeniable.) What is more, it deals with these things without cheap moralizing and sanctimony. Director Fred Zinneman has directed Eternity with supreme restraint. Not a shot calls attention to itself (although there is one, during the attack - an aerial shot of soldiers in white lying flat on the ground shot from the point of view of a Japanese plane - that is breathtaking.) Instead, this is an actor's movie with not a single wrong note. Montgomery Clift is the shy, tortured hero and he strikes the right balance between heartbreaking need and tough bravado. So does Burt Lancaster whose looks kept diverting my attention from his performance. And then there are Frank Sinatra (How someone who looks so ugly can have such a divine voice is something I've never figured out), Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed - all of whom, make not a single misstep.

Eternity does not go all the way, of course. James Jones' novel is considerably denser than the movie and Deborah Kerr's character Karen Homes actually has a son. But it has all the things that matter - good, solid writing, character development, a lack of sentimentality and above all, splendid performances. All of the things that Pearl Harbor did not.

Friday, January 28, 2005

I have to say that the bland Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow improves on second viewing. When I saw it for the first time, the movie had bored me after a promising start - I had simply not been able to see what the hype was all about. But I thought it was good fun the second time (which leads to a question: do mediocre movies seem good on second viewing?) and for once, the repeat viewing told me what I had not been able to pinpoint before - in other words, the problem with Sky-Captain. (It's definitely not the actors. Paltrow smirks, smiles, grimaces and frowns to great effect; Law does the same but he's kind of lost his shine these days. Angelina Jolie gives the best pouty English accent that I've ever heard.)

My experience with action movies tells me that they strive for realism. All the millions (or hundreds of millions) of dollars that are pumped into the special effects are for the sole reason of making an audience not notice them. A side-effect of this is the palpable sense of danger that results - I know that the plucky heroine won't die despite all the fires raging around her but I fear for her life, just the same. The problem with Sky-Captain is that it forgets the cardinal principle of the same comic books that it wants to cinematize (if such a word exists) - while the story skips along jauntily, comics rarely waste time in action scenes. Sky-Captain does and to its detriment - it's action scenes are too noisy, too incoherent and ultimately fail to convey what action must - danger. When we are with Sky Captain and plucky Polly Perkins playing Nancy Drew, SkyCaptain coasts along like an especially enjoyable comicbook; when we're with SkyCaptain battling enemy aircrafts, SkyCaptain becomes a noisy, unentertaining and tame action movie.

Monday, January 24, 2005

When characters are defined by their sexual kinks, and nothing else, you get Shiner, an odd, unsettling movie by Christian Calson. I must admit that I saw this movie because it seemed to be one of those grungy, edgy underground movies and truth be told, I haven't quite made up my mind about it. The film tells three interconnecting stories; about two men Danny and Tony who get their kicks by beating the heck out of each other, a woman Elaine who likes mild sexual violence, and an amateur boxer who is being stalked by a creepy-crawly gay man. Ultimately though, none of the story-lines manages to make a great impact, although I must admit, the boxer-stalker subplot manages to hit genuinely wierd notes at times.

Writer-director Calson shoots in a gritty, naturalistic home-video syntax that is at odds with his dialogue which is melodramatic to the point of being cringe-worthy. Ultimately though, Shiner fails because it is never able to take us into the protagnists' heads as they fight. The violence never attains the intensity of, say, the boxing scenes in Raging Bull; instead the sounds are oddly muted and we never see the blows landing. In a movie that is about extreme sadomasochism, we never quite see why the characters love being "hit"; instead we merely observe them as freaks in a freaky movie.