Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Danny Collins (2015) by Dan Fogelman

Rich successful man is tired of being fake and is roused by an artifice to become more authentic, caring and creative.  Then he falls for the first woman that he comes across.  That is supposedly a good, authentic event.

What is interesting in this film is the hidden glorification of money, despite the overt message that love is more important than success.

Notice the camera angles for his sports cars.

Notice the depiction of the private jet and the palatial house.

Notice the grand piano (the various superfluous scenes where it is being carried here and there) and the meaningless giving up of it.  (After all he still plans to remain a musician)

Notice his big bus and the way he makes a few calls to get a great favor for nothing.  And notice how the favor is talked about (dispensed with many years of wait, no, many many years of wait).

Notice the scenes where he tips hundreds of dollars.

Notice the sports car and the spontaneous, but ostentatious, renunciation of it, and the remark that the car is wonderful and the recipient should know what he is getting (as if anybody is doubting that).

The purpose of these scenes and the not-so-subtle glorification is to build up the wealth-based persona of a man who therefore is in need of saving and in need of "true love" of a woman.  It is a female fantasy that a rich, accomplished man will eventually just fall into their laps by a twist of fate and all their travails will be a thing of the past.

After all, the man is a musician and an artist.  Or was.  So maybe, he is a catch.  What does he immediately see in the hotel manager that he asks her out to dinner?

The answer: nothing.  Yeah she is slim and cute (for her age).  But more than that, what?  The man is ready to ask her out even before she appears on the scene.

I recognize that the common female fantasy is for the man to be a catch, but for the woman to be just lucky.  For something to be demanded of the woman will narrow and reduce the fantasy's appeal with the female demographic.

I have no quarrel with films or literature which cater to feminine (or for that matter, masculine) fantasies.  But I do frown at subterfuge: when a film is ostensibly about love versus wealth, but when it actually is about wealth and hence love.

Court (2014) by Chaitanya Tamhane

The film is widely praised for its depiction of the dysfunctional Indian court system, and for its illustration of the plight of gutter workers.

That narrative is straightforward and does not require much critique.

To me, what is more interesting in the film are the interludes between the court scenes.  What is being said in those interludes?  What is the point being made?

The film is actually less of a courtroom drama than a study of various social situations.  The court merely ties together the various characters in those situations.

I consider this to be a rather well-crafted film in which every scene or dialogue serves a purpose.  As in a story by Chekhov, nothing is superfluous.  One could regard the interludes as developing the supporting characters, but it is quite obvious that that is not all.  There is a meaning to the apparent random set pieces.  There is a statement being made in each of them.  And the statement is powerful because it is shown and not talked about.  It is oblique and not direct.

But the risk of such an approach is that such a statement might also therefore be cryptic.  That's where a film critic can add some value.

There are twelve such interludes:

Interlude One: Narayan Kamble traveling from his home to the public venue

Interlude Two: The Police Station hallway

Interlude Three: The lawyer at the "Dissecting Democracy" event, and later, grocery shopping

Interlude Four: The lawyer and his family at the lunch table

Interlude Five: The lawyer and his girlfriend at the club-lounge

(I am omitting the scene when the judge postpones the hearing due to the appearance of the petitioner)

Interlude Six: The train ride of the Public Prosecutor

Interlude Seven: The Public Prosecutor serving dinner to her family

Interlude Eight: The Public Prosecutor and her family's outing

Interlude Nine: The lawyer dining out with his parents and sister

(I am omitting the scene where the lawyer drops the wife of the gutter-worker to her home in his car.  Though the theme of dignity ("don't give me charity, give me work") is pretty straightforward to interpret, the brief episode of the seat-belt is more nuanced.  It is obvious that the woman is unfamiliar with the seat-belt since she has probably never sat in that kind of car before.  But more interestingly, we should remember that the woman has just testified about the lack of safety equipment for her late husband.  The seat-belt is also a kind of safety equipment, in fact one will be penalized for not using it.  But why was there no safety equipment provided to her husband?  Was it merely a lack of funds, or a more fundamental lack of concern, or that her husband is considered more dispensable than someone who can afford a car ride?  The judge never shows outrage or comments on the lack of safety equipment as criminal negligence by the state, since he is merely to rule on whether the man committed suicide or not.)

Interlude Ten: Narayan Kamble again at the public function

Interlude Eleven: Narayan Kamble at the printing press

Interlude Twelve: The judge and his circle of friends/family on his way to the resort, and then at the resort

In my next post, I will provide a subjective interpretation of these twelve interludes.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Seeking the Unknown, part 6

As man grows older, his mind is weighed down with memories and experiences.  To read a book or to watch a film or a sunset is not the same for him now as it was when he was young.  In youth all experiences were novel to him.  Now, having seen it all, nothing is very new to him.

Give him a novel, and he will recognize the familiar tricks of the writer.  The familiar building up of anticipation and then release.  The familiar setting up of ambiguity and moral choice.

Give him a song, and he will recognize the sentiment as having been sung before.  The familiar crooning and the elements of poetry.  The familiar expressions of the familiar feelings of heartache and longing.

What sustains the spirit of adventure as one grows older?  As more and more enters the sphere of the known, does the hankering and the seeking become more insistent, or does it fade and die?

If what the sages say is true, then the search for the unknown cannot be diminished by the knowledge of the known.  It can only become more focused, focused away from the known.

But life is finite, and at the end the unknown is still ahead of the seeker, infinite in its expanse.  Living longer will not help the seeker.

The seeker's only value is exploration.  Each day the seeker does not explore is a waste of a day for him.  He has to go toward the infinite, and it must fill him with shame to circle around a puddle.

The infinite is never reached.  The seeker's journey never ends.  But the journey is not thereby futile.  It would be a tragedy for the seeker if it ended.  What would be there for him to live for, then?

To seek the unknown is the very flow of time.  From the known, the past, into the unknown, the future.  The seeker is more ardently in love with the future than with the past.  The future is his beloved, and the past contains only ashes for him.  And that may be scary for the ambitious, for who the future is full of risk, and the past provides wealth.

The seeker floats and flows in the river of time.  The ambitious plans to navigate it.

The seeker trusts.  The ambitious prepares.  While the ambitious revels in light, the seeker lights up during the night  The ambitious is energized by the crescendo of trumpets, the seeker seeks the silence of stillness.

या निशा सर्व भूतानाम् तस्याम् जागर्ति संयमी
यस्यां जागर्ति भूतानि सा निशा पश्यतो मुनेः

What is night to all beings is the time of awakening for the seeker
When all are active and awake, that apparent day is like the night for the silent.

(Bhagwad Gita 2.69)


Monday, February 01, 2016

Proactivity as Health

Looking forward and avoiding problems is a sign of health.  Reacting to situations, especially the same situations over and over, is a sign of illness.

This can be generalized to the health of a society as well.

On that front, I find India to be extremely sick.  I am afraid things are so bad that the basic institutions of police, courts, hospitals, public education have become worse than the problem they are trying to solve.  The police and courts have become tools of oppression, hospitals have become dens of patronage, thievery and infection, public education has become a farce.

Does the police in India ever patrol a neighborhood in normal times?

Does a court in India ever even read a petition instead of just sending "notices"?

Can any educational institution in India claim that it is adding value to society rather than leeching on it?

Does any public hospital in India ever deliver the baby of a politician or of a civil servant?

There is urgent need of massive surgery, perhaps even a re-writing of the basic structure of the government, and all we are seeing is announcements.

It is perhaps to be expected that the beneficiaries of a system will not have any incentive to transform it.  The educated and the able have either left the country, or have joined the beneficiaries to share in the loot.

After the British left, the only real change was how the central and state legislators were elected.  There was absolutely no change in the structure of government and judiciary.

No change in legislature can bring about a change in India till the basic structure is revamped to:

1. Fix the justice delivery system so people are not helpless against injustice, especially by the state (there is no hope there because the lawyer-police-judge mafia will never allow this to happen)

2. Reorganize the police force to serve the people rather than the politicians (there is no hope here because the politician-executive-police mafia will beat people into submission rather than reform)

3. Rewrite the laws to serve the people rather than the state (there is no hope here because legislators will never allow any diminution in their own powers)

4. End discrimination in the form of reservations and subsidies (there is no hope there because the majority of electorate is now the beneficiaries of these doles).  Instead of reservations, there must be massive investment in education and healthcare.

The situation is dire.  The rich and the powerful have given up on improving the nation.  Everybody is acting as a vulture to ensure that he/she gets a piece of the carcass.

I repeat: till the basic structure of India's institutions is reformed, there is no hope for this country.  New leaders will change absolutely nothing but re-arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Some Notes on Free Will

The problem whether human beings have "free will" is not very precisely defined in most philosophical texts. That is obviously because the very concept of "free will" is not very precise to begin with.

Wikipedia states: "Free will is the ability to choose between different possible courses of action."

This is unsatisfactory because "ability to choose" is not a very formal phrase.

The Information Philosopher states: "The classic problem of free will is to reconcile an element of freedom with the apparent determinism in a world of causes and effects, a world of events in a great causal chain."

This is better, but unsatisfactory because it is undefined what an "element of freedom" means. Also, "causal chain" is a very ambiguous concept in a complex, inter-related world.

Let us attempt to clarify this issue with some common-sense statements.

1. The universe has interacting phenomena (matter, energy, waves).

2. These phenomena exhibit theoretical (predicted from theory) and statistical (predicted on observation) cause-effect relationships. "Cause-Effect" can be generally understood as: for all else remaining equal, say in a closed system, event A always leads to event B.

3. If we understand quantum mechanics from an instrumentalist standpoint, we can state that at microscopic levels, causation is not precise and theoretically predictable, but nevertheless statistical and probabilistic. We can construct post-hoc theories (or rather, models) based on those statistics, inventing imaginary particles etc.

Let us now define "free will" as: the possibility of humans to act in ways that cannot be predicted in principle. That is, no matter how much information we have, and how much statistical history we have, human behavior (including thought) may still deviate from our predictions.

It is a false dichotomy to argue (as quacks like Deepak Chopra do) whether human behavior is quantum-mechanical in origin and therefore only subject to a probability analysis, or whether it is a macro event amenable to theoretical calculations and precise prediction. That is because in both cases, prediction is possible and the concept of "free will" does not really enter the picture. Quantum mechanics is not a "free-for-all" physics where particles have a "mind of their own" and physicists are helpless. Quantum mechanical predictions are actually extremely precise.

So, if prediction is possible in either case, what happens to free will? Free will therefore has to be "non-physical" (whatever that means). That is obviously a crushing blow to free will, but let's continue anyway.

As an illustration of why this is a crushing blow, consider the question as to how a "non-physical thing" interact with the "physical": how does it affect physical bodies (nerves, muscles, etc.). That is the famous "mind-body" problem - which is a problem only because of confusion. (To elucidate this cryptic statement, I highly recommend this excellent lecture by Noam Chomsky)

Another (consistent with the above) formulation of the free will is to define a phenomenon that is un-caused. That is, something that is independent of all other phenomena.

But for something to be un-caused, it must be therefore completely chaotic and random. If it is following a pattern or principle or "God's will", it is not un-caused.

Hence, for "free will" to exist, two conditions (both highly dubious) must be true:

1. There is an element in human beings that is "non-physical". (pretty much a nonsensical statement, since "non-physical" is equivalent to "non-existent").

This condition is needed because anything physical is known to be subject to interaction and hence causality.

2. That "non-physical" element is completely random in its behavior.

This condition is needed because anything non-random is subject to statistical/probabilistic or theoretical analysis.

The second condition has a curious corollary. Since randomness is defined as data with nil information content, that means that instead of free will bestowing dignity on a human being, free will actually takes it away since we are then merely noise.


My understanding of free-will is that human mind is a complex organ and quite difficult to understand in minutiae (due to the huge complexity), but amenable to pattern-analysis and broad understanding. The whole fields of Evolutionary Psychology and Behavioral Economics, for example, are predicated upon an understanding of how human brain reacts to information and environment. "I" am a narrative center of gravity in a complex machine with billions of moving parts.: Unpredictable due to complexity.