Monday, December 28, 2009

The Least of these my Brethren

25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002) and The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008) both take an utterly humane look at a man nearing the end of his life as he knows it. The protagonist in both the films is the kind of man people love to hate and revile, pour scorn on, and otherwise consider the scum of the earth.

Where the Spike Lee film is about the last day before a drug dealer in New York goes to jail, the Aronofsky film is about a showbiz wrestler (one of those who fight choreographed and fake battles in the ring with dialogue and spectacle). Both films are remarkable in that they succeed in humanizing and bringing depth to the kind of person who are generally considered to only have a shallow, dark side.

In 25th Hour, the director juxtaposes the drug dealer's life with his other so-called normal friends (who don't pay the price of their mistakes, whereas he does). This film does not say anything overtly, is more subtle in what it wants to show us. Many critics have justly admired the two amazing stream of consciousness scenes in this film (the first in the protagonist's mind as he pours out his contempt for others as a means of validating himself, and the second in his father's mind as he pours out his fatherly fantasy of letting his son escape the law). Both are poignant in their own way, the second much more because its canvas is far more extended.

In The Wrestler, the director illustrates not just the inner life of the wrestler himself, but also the inner life of a lap dancing woman. It is obvious to see the connection. Both are subjecting their body to a voyeuristic and superficially entertaining abuse in order to make their living. But the similarity ends there. The woman knows that hers is a false life but the wrestler, unable to find any succour in his actual relationships, turns, tragically, back to the ring in order to find meaning and sympathy. In one of the most devastating scenes in recent films, he fights his final battle with a man who, while beating him and taking a beating from him, shows great empathy and understanding towards him during the fight. I mean, who could have thought that these muscle-bound neanderthals could have such depth of character, and while fighting?

Man is complex, and his motivations are complicated. To see a man as evil just because he made a socially reprehensible choice, or because he slipped somewhere where most people don't, is to ignore his vastness, his essential similarity with the rest of us.

And of course, Mickey Rourke and Edward Norton are a pleasure to watch in their performances in the respective films.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Food for Thought, and for the Soul

Pleasurable Consumption is a very vast subject. Once the survival needs of the body are taken care of, what do you look forward to?

Most people then move on to seeking pleasure.

It is not necessary to define pleasure, except to note that certain neurobiological processes are involved.

Cognitive pleasures and affective pleasures are usually interpretative and imaginative in nature. These armchair-pleasures, as it were (e.g. Watching television, communicating over email or over the phone, computer games, listening to music, reading, surfing the internet, indulging in virtual social networking), are to create an imaginative world in the mind, in which narcissism regins supreme. I am the king (or queen) in these virtual worlds.

These pleasures provide the illusion of being connected, while one is increasingly isolated and alone.

This illusion and sense of self-importance needs to be sustained and nurtured by repeated affirmations, hence the addiction to these pleasures, which addiction is reaching epidemic proportion in urban affluent classes.

What, for example, is the essential reason of posting something on Facebook for most people? It is to seek acknowledgment of one's existence, an affirmation of one's tastes, a sense of sharing the intimate details of one's life in an increasingly crowded but lonely world.

And is it not true, that if nobody responds to your posts, nobody replies to your emails, and nobody comments on your status updates, you get depressed?

We are moving from sharing of experiences in the real world (conversations, walks, eating together, singing and dancing, playing together) to sharing in the virtual world (people doing all these, except dancing perhaps, while being physically isolated).

The need to belong, to connect, remains, but given the constraints of modern living, the easiest way in which to fulfill this need is via the global telecommunications network.

Many decry this change, many herald this change.

Just like in a pornographic film, in which the lovers simply and without much of a prelude and fuss engage in sex, digital pleasures are cutting to the chase and addressing the pleasure center without addressing the physical body.

The time is not far when even the eyes and hands (the screen and the keyboard) will be unnecessary. Direct control of the computer from the brain, and direct feedback to the brain. Further down, I speculate that the feedback may even stimulate the sensory centers, to the extent of providing a full sensual experience, completely virtually.

In this paradigm, the body is seen only as a vehicle of geting pleasure, and if pleasure can be directly and instantly delivered to the brain, why bother with physical acts? Why bother getting up from the couch?

More and more, I think, we will see pleasures (and ads, which support them) being more precisely targeted.

Physical health is obviously going to suffer, but are there any other consequences?

I think, firstly, digital entertainment is going to result in intellectual devolution for a vast majority of people. Some will use the new tools to further their understanding, but most will use these to augment their existing biases.

Digital entertainment puts one in control. Whether it be a click of the mouse, or pressing a button to change a channel on the TV, one is enabled to be more and more impatient, selective, and intolerant. Since now one has the power to not perceive what one does not want to, what happens to intellectual growth? There is no incentive (or lack of choice) to watch something which one may not agree with. And disagreement, criticism of one's ideas, and dialectical engagement is the essential ingredient of intellectual growth.

Secondly, facts take a backseat, and perceptions and impressions and opinions become primary. After all, if one's primary interface to the world is through a screen, what is the difference between a war shown in a movie, and a war shown as a news item?

Thirdly, the democratic process is undermined. What is the value of an opinion, if it is based on what you have been told? Driven by what is most visible in the digital world (controlled by media houses), and given that it is too much effort to find out what is really true in a flood of information, most people are going to end up believing what big media needs them to believe.

Fourthly, actual relationships (if any) will get burdened from the stress of conforming to virtual idealizations. What was earlier a teenage fantasy (the Mills and Boon romances) is now an adult expectation, due to the larger and larger role media and its depictions of relationships (and physical beauty, and sex) are playing in our lives.

There are many more consequences, but these derive from the above.


Do you have a choice of disengaging from the virtual/digital world and still not feel lonely, isolated, without anyone to share your experiences with? What if most of your relatives, friends, colleagues are deep in the "matrix"? Will you be able to coax them out? Isn't it true that these days, people resent you if you take them away from their phone, computer or television? What will you do without using the very tools of communication that others are hooked on to?

It is a tough problem, and is going to become much tougher. What are your thoughts on this new world, where with your minds and souls being nourished through wires, your body is only useful as a provider of blood sugar to your brain?

Is the day far when education will be primarily how to learn to use a computer, work will be primarily how to instruct a computer and to create digital content, and entertainment will be primarily hooking on to the computer?

Look around.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

On Being Touchy

Incident A:

Hundreds respond with outrage and vehemence at the ill-worded and hence misunderstood (but not ill-intended, as later clarified by the company spokesperson) publicity stunt by the international ice-cream vendor Haagen-Dazs.

Incident B:

Lawrence Summers hounded out of Harvard University because of a statement commenting on whether some intellectual differences between men and women were inherent or due to socialization.

And the following remarkable passages from Industrial Society and Its Future by Theodore Kaczynski:

11. When someone interprets as derogatory almost anything that is said about him (or about groups with whom he identifies) we conclude that he has inferiority feelings or low self-esteem. This tendency is pronounced among minority rights advocates, whether or not they belong to the minority groups whose rights they defend. They are hypersensitive about the words used to designate minorities. The terms "negro," "oriental," "handicapped" or "chick" for an African, an Asian, a disabled person or a woman originally had no derogatory connotation. "Broad" and "chick" were merely the feminine equivalents of "guy," "dude" or "fellow." The negative connotations have been attached to these terms by the activists themselves. Some animal rights advocates have gone so far as to reject the word "pet" and insist on its replacement by "animal companion." Leftist anthropologists go to great lengths to avoid saying anything about primitive peoples that could conceivably be interpreted as negative. They want to replace the word "primitive" by "nonliterate." They seem almost paranoid about anything that might suggest that any primitive culture is inferior to our own. (We do not mean to imply that primitive cultures ARE inferior to ours. We merely point out the hypersensitivity of leftish anthropologists.)


14. Feminists are desperately anxious to prove that women are as strong as capable as men. Clearly they are nagged by a fear that women may NOT be as strong and as capable as men.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Rocket Singh by Shimit Amin

Hmmm, where to start? At the end, I guess!

This film, like Ramanand Sagar's Ramayana (a vignette of which is shown about halfway through the film), is ultimately a moral tale. Yes, the end too nicely wraps the film up. Yes, the ending is convenient. Yes, the change-of-heart of the "villain" is too sudden. But, given the fact that this is a film with a message (more on that below), I found the ending reasonable.

Rocket Singh is the coming of age story of an honest man who does not easily give in to the ways of the world. He tries to do the right thing and he fails (is not effective at his job), succeeds (starts his own venture), FAILS (gets a rude dose of reality which destroys his venture) and SUCCEEDS (all is well, all are happy, nobody yell! music peppy!).

The second FAILURE is an important failure in this film, and that is what makes this film different from other, similar, moral tales. The overriding message is obviously that corruption doesn't pay in the long term. But the subtler message seems to be that it is a bad idea even in the short term. That while pursuing the right end, right means are also important. AYS Corporation is a corrupt company, and its owner, certainly so. But that doesn't give Rocket Singh the justification to take an unapproved loan from him.

I think what the film is trying to say is: There are bad rules (the rules of the game) and the good rules (the rule of law). The first category of rules are pooh-poohed, but the second set of rules are upheld as important. And in my view, the film is sensible in doing so. After the fiasco, one of Rocket Singh's partners in his illegal venture, his immediate boss Nitin, is shown dejectedly applying for a new job while his worried wife and his kids look on. There is only a hint of the legal machinery in the police station, but it is enough for the purposes of the film that the machinery is shown to work as intended.

Even the complaint that Rocket Singh makes against a corrupt client is shown to have had at least some effect. Hence, the film is trying to say, this is not after all a world where just because you are right you can take unlimited liberties, or that just because the world is corrupt you will face no consequences.

The film starts with some extremely well-framed compositions of the common objects in a middle class North Indian home. This was one of the rare films in which a Sikh character is not a caricature but is depicted as a normal human being. Prem Chopra was a pleasant delight to behold as the elderly Papaji (or was it Dadaji) of Rocket Singh.

The screenplay is taut, with nary a scene that drags. The dialogue is excellent, in fact. The pervert sys-admin provides the lion's share of laugh-aloud moments. His lecherous though infantile character is extremely well-done. This is also one of the few mainstream Bollywood films which does not shy away from closing up on a character's face. It is a pleasure to enjoy the uniformly good acting and the facial expressions of the characters.

As a conscious choice, the director does not dive deep into a romantic sub-plot. And the film is better for it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Films Seen Recently

Transsiberian (Brad Anderson, 2008): A curious crime drama where the viewers know more than any single character, and wherefore, the film is less of a whodunnit than a study of how a rather implausible crime and further implausible events are mishandled by the culprit. As in many such films, the deus ex machina denouement is absurd.

Happy Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, 2008): This was my second viewing. Some notes about Poppy: ... However, even if she is at times irritating, it is striking to note that she is an energy provider, and not someone who needs constant bucking up (and hence not an energy sink). So even though her "giving" is ill-advised at times (when others are not receptive, e.g.), it is generally quite harmless. Many others in the film are so wounded inside that they end up burdening others with their sorrow, anguish and general pessimism. Hence, I consider the "burden" she puts on others by almost pushing them to share in her cheerfulness as a happier alternative than to remain aloof, or to burden others by one's sullenness or sour mood.

Of course, if she was more aware, she would modulate her "pushing" as per the situation (when in the film it is almost a monotonically exuberant cheerfulness). It is as if she is a compulsive cheerio (and since the root is compulsion, or her nature, it is not a matter of choice which others can then emulate). And being a compulsive cheerio, she does exacerbate certain situations (e.g. with Scott) in which a calm silence could have been better.

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009): Interesting take on human rights and on class warfare, shallow characters and video-game-weaponry mar this otherwise interesting and uncharacteristically misanthropic film.

Lakeview Terrace (Neil LaBute, 2008): I saw this film after it was highly recommended by a favorite reviewer. Social misfits are interesting character studies. The film is a curious take on race relations in the United States. I also recommend The House of Sand and Fog (Vadim Perelman, 2003) for those who like this film.

Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000): Ben Kingsley as a psychopathic gangster in a remarkable, bravura performance. In a flawless white shirt. The starting and the ending of the film are cute and atmospheric.

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009): An exercise in signature-style, film references and award hunger, the film is notable (as far as I am concerned) only for the strong and memorable performance by Christoph Waltz. The scenes drag on for too long at times, while some reviewers see that as the point. Mr Tarantino never has much to say, but revels in his formal ability to say that little. And his formal ability mostly consists in long takes and inane dialogue. Unimpressed.

Doubt (John Patrick Shanley, 2008): The film looks good, the actors do their jobs rather well (especially Ms Streep and Ms Davis), but the film is quite flat in tone, and the characters are not deep enough for one to care about them. It pans like a story, not a real occurence. Which is perhaps because, after all, it is a literary adaptation.