Thursday, March 30, 2006

Name calling

'Pointy-head columnist' Jonathan Freedland writes a goofy piece on why he chose a nom de plume for his latest book:

Once I was persuaded, it was only a matter of fixing on the name. The first part was easy. My last book was called Jacob's Gift, a family memoir whose starting point was the birth of my first son Jacob. When it came out, my second child, Sam, was already born. Concerned friends and relatives, anxious, no doubt, about future therapists' bills, warned that Sam might grow up to feel hard done by. I pictured an 18-year-old slamming doors, shouting, "He got a book with his name on it. What do I get?"

I had struggled to imagine how I would weave Sam's name into a book title. Here was the solution. But what about a last name? I went through a variety of options, all with a personal connection. But none sounded quite right. On the day of the decision, my agent called on his mobile. "We have to have something," he shouted, at the very instant his bus passed a poster advertising the summer's big movie, The Bourne Supremacy. Sam Bourne was born.

I liked it instantly. It made the connection with my son even stronger: after all, the book was hatched in 2004, and when was Sam born? (Sam Bourne - get it?) And I thought he sounded like a thriller writer. My own name is somehow too convoluted, too polysyllabic, with difficult "fr" and "th" sounds. Sam Bourne is altogether shorter and sharper.

The experience was liberating:

I confess there were scenes in The Righteous Men - especially the more intimate moments between protagonist Will Monroe and the women in his life - that Sam Bourne was happy to take on, where Jonathan Freedland might have been rather more wary.

Read the whole thing for other famous name droppers.

An evening to remember, vicariously

Frank Wilson spends an evening with John Banville, Sebastian Barry and Colm Toibin (yes), and recounts his experience. I have not read The Sea, but have read seminal works by the other two writers. Readers of this blog will attest to my admiration for Toibin's The Master. Coincidentally, the scene that I refer to in my review and which hit me with a subtle precision is the one Toibin chose to read out at the gathering:

Toibin read, in a formal, stately voice, the passage from The Master where Henry James consigns the clothes of his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson, who has committed suicide, to the waters of Venice's lagoon.

Toibin also made a comment that points to a view I have recently begun agreeing with:

Toibin pointed out that if, while writing a novel, you try to give voice to a grand idea or theme, you're in deep trouble and should really write a pamphlet.

This is certainly true for his work. Toibin desists from making Henry James's life queer propaganda, something gay writers have been accused of in the past. He presents a true picture of Henry's life, complete with his longing for intimacy with men such as sculptor Henrik Anderson.

I think, Toibin means more than what he states in that line. He is not against a grand idea per se, but perhaps he is suggesting that novelists need to pick up characters and stories that amalgamate their vision of the world with everyday life. It then becomes a lesson in morality, at the same time not pedantic. The fabric of the story carries within it the embers of the grand vision that writer is imbued with. Fiction then is subversive not because it propels us to revolution but because it gives us a sense of what was and what might be. By that parameter, it earns the respect of a fence-sitter, a respect that can come only when the writer is not being desperate with his vision. That which fuses gently into the conscious until it captures your being with its impact is more life-affirming that a "come, savour this burden" story.

This argument can be extended to question what is a moral tale. Is it one in which characters spout dogma in the writer's hope that (s)he might convert some, or is it one in which they are forced to live the consequences of their actions?

Monday, March 27, 2006

Blog to book to award

An Iraqi woman with the pen name Riverbend is the first blog author to be longlisted for a big literary prize. Baghdad Burning, the book of her blog, is in the running for this year's Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction.

Here's an exceprt from her blog published on February 23:

Things are not good in Baghdad.

There was an explosion this morning in a mosque in Samarra, a largely Sunni town. While the mosque is sacred to both Sunnis and Shia, it is considered one of the most important Shia visiting places in Iraq. Samarra is considered a sacred city by many Muslims and historians because it was made the capital of the Abassid Empire, after Baghdad, by the Abassid Caliph Al-Mu’tasim.

The name “Samarra” is actually derived from the phrase in Arabic “Sarre men ra’a” which translates to “A joy for all who see”. This is what the city was named by Al-Mu’tasim when he laid the plans for a city that was to compete with the greatest cities of the time- it was to be a joy for all who saw it. It remained the capital of the Abassid Empire for nearly sixty years and even after the capital was Baghdad once again, Samarra flourished under the care of various Caliphs.

The blog

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Occidentalism, through a filmmaker's lens

...The first scene of Brokeback reveals features typical of the Ang Lee style. A ranch hand (Heath Ledger) and a rodeo cowboy (Jake Gyllenhaal), who will become lovers, wait outside an office hoping to snag a seasonal shepherding job. The manner in which they put on and take off their hats, light cigarettes and take drags, is much more eloquent than the words they utter.

Brokeback succeeds by keeping alive the tension between the flow of the action and its symbolic counterpart, which is the myth of the cowboy. While that myth, perpetuated by John Wayne and the Marlboro man in equal measure, proclaims the virtues of freedom and rugged individualism, the plot of Brokeback traces a tale of love denied, of repression inherent in rural societies of the United States in the 1960s. The movie draws emotional power from the palpable pain felt by the characters, while its intellectual and political import derives largely from an interrogation of well-established forms of representation, specifically the cowboy movie genre.

Lee did something similar in adapting Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen's least mature novel centred around the romance between Elinor Dashwood (played by Emma Thompson) and Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant). In that film, Grant walks in measured steps, speaks deliberately, bows low when introduced to women, creating an atmosphere of sombre ceremoniousness. He is dressed in jackets with such high collars that his head seems sometimes on the verge of disappearing entirely from sight. The intensification of upper class British formality is so carefully calibrated that most viewers notice no departure from established conventions.

The device allows Lee to achieve an ironic distance from the society he is representing. It enables him to see with an anthropologist's eye. And in this lies the political radicalism of the work.

Let me explain the context in which I speak of radicalism. Anthropology was, for decades, a discipline built upon the examination by Europeans of non-European cultures. Anthropologists tended to consider themselves and their own society as governed by freedom and rationality, while thinking of cultures they studied as domains of ritual, custom and tradition. What Lee does is to reverse this gaze by highlighting the fetishes, rituals, taboos and customs of Westerns societies...

Reversing the gaze

Saturday, March 25, 2006

I'm an apostate

Most of them are lying low because they realise what they advocated hasn’t worked out at all and they’re just hoping something will turn up.

So says Francis Fukuyama, and he may well be right this time too, what with Gorge Bush proclaiming the other day that Saddam Hussain had links with al-Qaeda. Oh really, George? What else are we not in on yet?

In his new book After the Neocons, published next week, Fukuyama writes forcefully: “I have concluded that neoconservatism, both as a symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support.”

There are few more shining believers than Tony Blair in the universal application of liberal democracy. And while the horrors of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s led many commentators to sneer, “What end of history?”, under Blair democracy ultimately reached Belgrade — courtesy of the American and British military.

Blair, Fukuyama believes, has become an “honorary neoconservative” who has deluded himself into thinking that democracy can be imposed at the speed of one’s choosing at the point of a gun. That is not at all what he meant by the end of history, which took a more nuanced view of the many bumps on the road to man’s final destination.

“With Blair, I find it hard to tell what he really believes as opposed to what he has calculated is in his interest,” Fukuyama says. “He obviously wanted to preserve the special relationship with the United States and then talked himself into thinking the war was historically necessary.


Friday, March 24, 2006

Wonder, on 'short' notice

Have been reading an excellent anthology of short shorts edited by Irwing Howe, which is a collection of truly great stories that span only a few pages, and therefore cannot be called short stories. Howe writes exemplarily about them in his introduction:

No one reading xxx is likely to forget its solitary image: the old man sitting there, alone in the kitchen…it pierces the heart. It speaks to the human condition in some profound way. Yet we would have a hard time saying precisely in which way, for there is something mysterious about this image, communicating more than we can say about it.

Hardly any of the stories in this collection are online, since they are too recent to escape the copyright clause. However, one by Leo Tolstoy, I have been fortunately able to locate. It's called Alyosha the Pot:

"Are you really going to die?" Ustinia asked.

"Of course I am. You can't go on living for ever. You must go when the time comes." Alyosha spoke rapidly as usual. "Thank you, Ustinia. You've been very good to me. What a lucky thing they didn't let us marry! Where should we have been now? It's much better as it is."

When the priest came, he prayed with his bands and with his heart. "As it is good here when you obey and do no harm to others, so it will be there," was the thought within it.

He spoke very little; he only said he was thirsty, and he seemed full of wonder at something.

Doesn't end there; read it here.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

To the Netherlands

The Dutch government has compiled a two-hour-long film to help potential immigrants, many of them from Islamic countries, meet the demands of a new entrance examination that went into effect on Wednesday.

In the exam, candidates must prove they can speak some Dutch and are at least aware of the Netherlands' liberal values, even if they do not agree with all of them.

What has generated the controversy is the film, which has scenes of nudity and two guys kissing, in a signal that such sights are common in the country and potential immigrants must be aware of them, "so that they are not shocked". The Netherlands recognizes same-sex marriages under law.

Muslim organisations in the country protested the move, calling the film offensive. They view it as an attempt by the government to discourage applicants from Islamic countries who may be offended by its content.

I don't see how such a move can be viewed as offensive. I would rather term it sensitive because it warns those seeking to come to the country of what they should expect. Since most Muslim immigrants come from closeted societies, it is reasonable to assume that they would find themselves out of place in an open one.

Incidentally, people from the US and EU do not have to take the test, and this has invoked further consternation among Muslim groups in Amsterdam. As a logical extension of the above argument, an American or European is unlikely to lose his cultural bearings in a permissive culture. It's a matter of mindsets. It would be impractical to question these assumptions under the guise of political correctness. Social background is an important criterion in deciding integration. This is true for all European countries.

In fact, it is the willful suspension of these realities that has promoted ghettoisation of communities. The inherent rage builds up gradually to finally explode in the kind of riots that Paris recently saw.

Republicanism backfires in France

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Delightful & sensitive

After a string of forgettable movies, director Duncan Tucker comes into his own with Transamerica.

Transamerica is the story of a man who is in the process of undergoing gender realignment. A week before his operation, he receives a call from a New York prison and is aghast to hear that the person on the other side is his son.

Stanley, who introduces himself to everyone as Bree, is so ashamed of his male past that he does not want to have anything to do with his son. When he visits his surgeon who must decide if he is fit for the surgery, he tells her about it as the outcome of a "lesbian thing" he had in college.

Turns out the son is a hustler, who has lost his mother to suicide. Under pressure from his surgeon, Bree makes that trip to New York City.

Relationship trajectory

Transamerica then plots the relationship trajectory between Bree and Toby, as they chart their way literally across the breadth of America. She bails him out from the prison as a member of the Church of the Potential Father and thus begins this tale, in which Bree must ultimately divulge the terrible secret about who she is to Toby.

Transamerica works because it does not fall into the trap of maudlin sentimentality. In a scene, Toby tells Bree casually that perhaps, she is just not the suicidal type. "Maybe," replies Bree. To the viewer, this is an elliptical but moving explanation for an action that would have been a given in a so-called "towering grief" movie. But not Transamerica. That is to say, there is a realism to the movie, which does not cater to grandness. Typically like life itself.

Felicity Huffman shines as Stan/Bree with the clipped accent and the shoulders-always-raised primness. So evident are the dilemmas besetting her transsexual character, it's hard to imagine this actor juggles cranky kids as Lynette in Desperate Housewives. No wonder she won a Golden Globe for her performance.

In a pivotal scene, she speaks about how she is as much a child of Jesus, no matter her sexual ambiguity. The scene is important because it strikes at the roots of conservative stereotypes about sexual minorities. People are who they are. You can't straitjacket them into narrow definitions: liberal versus conservative, gay versus straight.

Real surprise

But the real surprise of the film is Kevin Zegers, who plays Toby. All of 21, Zegers portrays the dichotomy of being a kickass hustler on the one hand and craving parental love on the other remarkably well. His innocent proposal of marriage to his own father, and the aftermath of Bree's disgusted reaction, is a must-watch.

Transamerica showcases light on a community whose loneliness is a terrible cross to bear. It also speaks about how love ultimately conquers everything. No analysis, no post-mortems needed.

Speaking of transgendered identities, let me present the case of feminist Norah Vincent whose just released book Self-Made Man charts her experiences as a man, a facade she put up for 18 months to know about the relationship dynamics of a straight relationship. She adopted the moniker Ned during her little experiment.

In my mail exchanges with Sasha, I wasn't playing a role. I didn't try to write or say the things I thought a man would write or say. I responded to her genuinely in every way, except about my sex.

Our time together lasted the longest, three weeks or so in all. We had only three dates during that time, but we wrote several times a day. Naturally, during the course of all this, we talked about her past relationships with men, which, as she indicated at some length, had been less than satisfactory. I suggested that perhaps if men were so unsatisfying to her emotionally, she should consider dating a woman. To this she sent a sharp reply, something of the order of having about as much interest in lesbianism as in shooting heroin.

She had, by this time (about two dates and a week and a half into our correspondence), told me that she found Ned attractive, though she also made it clear that she was emotionally engaged elsewhere and was likely to remain so for a long time. Still, something had grown up between us in a short time and I decided that it shouldn't go any further. I would tell her the truth on the third date, which we were scheduled to have at the end of that week. I was curious to see what would happen to her supposed attraction for Ned when she learned that he was a woman. Would it evaporate?

We met for dinner at her house. During dinner I told her right out, in the blurted way our conversations tended to go, that there was something I wasn't telling her about myself, and that I couldn't tell her what it was. I told her that if we were going to go to bed together she would have to be willing to accept the untold thing and the physical constraints it required. She took this well. She was curious. Not frightened. She didn't need to know, she said.

The conversation moved on to something else and then back again to the prospect of sex and my visible discomfort with skirting the edge of full disclosure. We decided to go into the bedroom...She moved in response, lolling her head to the side. She reached up behind her and placed her palm on my cheek. She would feel the stubble now for sure and know that it didn't feel like stubble should. The jig was probably up. Anyway, this was about as far as I was willing to take it - the make-up was smeared now for sure - so I got up from the bed to move around in front of her, to face her on the floor.

"Do you want me to show you or tell you?" I said. "Whichever you prefer." It took me longer than I'd thought it would to spit it out. I was holding her hands when I finally did. "I'm a woman." She didn't pull her hands away. I went on immediately to fill the space. I told her about my plan to write a book and why I was doing it. Then I waited. She was still quiet. Then she said, "You're going to have to give me a few minutes to get used to this." We sat in silence. Clearly, whatever physical deformity she'd been expecting, it hadn't been femaleness.

Vincent's transformation is mapped out in these pictures. You can visit her website here.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

An incongruous contrast

Have been reading a lot on the Milosevic trial in the aftermath of his sudden, unexpected death. This morning, came across a leader in the Times of India, by Ananya Vajpeyi, which recounts an offbeat first-person account of his trial at The Hague.

From September to November 2004, as the scholar in residence at the Waag Society for Old and New Media in Amsterdam, Vajpeyi had the opportunity to attend a few sessions of the trial.

She has been writing on globally important events with an emphasis on the lensman's impressions of them. In this piece, she speaks of the sanitised surroundings she found herself in when she visited the court room. Her frame of reference was Luc Delahaye's 'The Milosevic Trial' [on top].

I realise as soon as I sit down in the gallery for the first time that Delahaye had special permission, not only because ordinarily no photography is permitted, but also because nowhere outside the courtroom can one see Milosevic from the vantage of Delahaye's lens.

I realise also that there is a colour missing from Delahaye's palette: the red of the judges' robes. Blue is for the UN; black, white and red are for justice. I am concerned about the detail and accuracy of my impressions.

For despite the clarity of the scene, the motivation behind the violence that it seeks to discover, punish and atone for is utterly obscure, beyond the scope of eye or camera, hiding in the light on the other side of the transparent glass wall that separates viewers from actors.

Notice the choice of words. Vajpeyi is shocked at the gleaming interiors of a court room that is meant to punish a man accused of mass genocide. The incongruity of the pleasing aesthetics befuddles her.

Milosevic acts supercilious. His appearance is genial and upper class: He could be a German professor of some mildly difficult subject, linguistics perhaps. He belongs in old Europe, in a highbrow profession, snowy haired, well bred and murderous.

He is impeccably dressed. He does not seem unwell at all, nor does it look like he has uncounted killings behind him and a death sentence ahead.

She speaks of a megalomaniac hubris that instantly reminds you of a Saddam Hussein or an Adolf Eichmann:

If contempt of court could be embodied, it sits there in the defendant's seat, refusing to recognise the rule of law. Who are you to judge my innocence or guilt? his body language shouts.

How come my infinite power cannot simply crush you as it did hundreds of thousands of persons in the country I once ruled? At recess he stands up, puts his hands in his pockets, makes a remark — probably a sarcastic one — to the guard, and leaves.

An hour later he re-enters, shuffles over to his seat, resumes his posture of exasperation at the foolishness of those who would dare to make him accountable for his deeds.

The rules that dictate the court's deference to Milosevic's rights are necessary, but infuriating. His victims had no rights. Theirs was the bare life extinguished with impunity.

Finally, she caps her piece with an outpouring of disbelief:

Behind this antiseptic courtroom lies all of the sickening visceral reality of war and genocide, the carnage and suffering unleashed by Serbian supremacist ideology in a multi-ethnic nation.

In the chair to my left behind the glass is the author of unspeakable crimes. Sometimes what is hard to believe is not what you see, but what you don't.


Luc Delahaye's other work

Original report: Butcher of Balkans dead

Unrelated: Magic of photography

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A case for humanities

Coming as I do from a society where the stress on being a doctor/engineer is massive, it's nice to come across articles from time to time which tell you that your interest, despite in the process of becoming a lost cause, does carry weight still:

Ever since the Renaissance, the humanities have defined what it means to be an educated person. The very word comes from the Latin name of the first modern, secular curriculum, the studia humanitatis, invented in fourteenth-century Italy as a rival to traditional university subjects like theology, medicine, and law.

To study the humanities was to grow more independent and intrepid, both intellectually and morally; it was the royal road to becoming a complete human being. In the words of the critic George Steiner, A.M. ’50, modern education has been defined by the principle “that the humanities humanize.”

But today, every part of Vergerio’s confident creed is coming under increased attack. For one thing, “liberal studies” can appear less useful, to the student and to society as a whole, than concrete scientific and technical knowledge. Better to emerge from college as a budding biologist or financier, our practical-minded culture incessantly tells us, than as a mere reader of books. [My exact dilemma, take note.]

Meanwhile, the humanities themselves have become infinitely more self-critical in recent decades, so that “virtue” and “wisdom,” unproblematic terms for Vergerio, are now contested battlegrounds. Reading canonical texts, many people now believe, is not the road to freedom, but a subtle kind of indoctrination.

[Genuine point: one which the powers that be in those hallowed institutions need to address if humanities have to be rescued from propagandist inculcation.]

The piece then moves to Francesco Petrarch and his intense desire to read:

No wonder Petrarch never had enough to read, as his modern biographer, Ernest Hatch Wilkins, Ph.D. 1910, records. “I am possessed by one insatiable passion, which I cannot restrain—nor would I if I could...I cannot get enough books,” he wrote to a relative in 1346.

And the rarity of books made them precious in a way that we can only dimly grasp today. Petrarch’s paean to his books still defines the humanities’ most elevated ideal of reading as a communion of souls: “Gold, silver, gems, fine raiment, a marble palace, well-cultivated fields, paintings, a splendidly caparisoned horse—such things as these give one nothing more than a mute and superficial pleasure. Books delight us through and through, they converse with us, they give us good advice; they become living and lively companions to us.”

Wilkins notes that Petrarch’s reverence for books affected his entire household, including his illiterate steward, Raymond Monet. “Though Raymond could not read,” Wilkins writes, “he loved the books, and had learned to know them by name. When Petrarch put a book into his hands he would press it to his heart, and sometimes, in a low voice, he would talk to its author.”

And his attempts at saving his soul in the face of the perverse love for knowledge:

Although Petrarch was himself one of the most learned men of his day, he maintains that he would rather be known as a good Christian than as a great classicist: “If You choose to grant me nothing else,” he prays, “let it at least be my portion to be a good man. This I cannot be unless I greatly love and devoutly worship You. I was born for this, and not for learning. If learning alone is granted us, it puffs up and ruins, and does not edify. It becomes a gleaming shackle of the soul, a wearisome pursuit, and a noisy burden.”


Bigotry up, close and personal

The one scene in Crash that will stay with you is the one most of you have seen in the run-up to the Oscars. A distraught woman is being rescued by a hassled police officer from a crisis situation (perhaps a bomb blast).

Watch the movie and the details begin to emerge. The woman is black, the police officer white. There hasn't been a bomb blast. She is being rescued from an accident site.

But that's not it. Just seconds before, Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon) passed through a momentary existential crisis as Christine (Thandie Newton in a wow performance) refused to accept help from him. He had molested her the previous night, as her affluent husband (Terrence Howard) watched in silent humiliation, all on account of their being black.

Christine shrieks and rages and is nearly prepared to be killed by the approaching fire than be saved by her molester. The scene must be watched for Dillon's restrained acting and the contradictions besetting his character. He asks her politely to allow him to lower her skirt so he may release her seat-belt. This from a man who had his hands all over her just the last night.

In fact, there is that extra effort on his part…an urgency to rescue Christine at any cost, to cover up his guilt for an act that he ostensibly commits every now and then, not for sexual gratification, but as a means to humiliate a community, affirmative action for who, cost his father his job.

Crash juggles several such narratives with race and religion providing the backdrop. The setting is urban - LA, and the American melting pot comes alive in its varied hues and shades, as also in its ignorance and biases.

In a scene, an educated police officer calls his partner Mexican. Since they are having a heated argument, she does not let this pass ordinarily, and snaps back saying, "My father is from Puerto Rico, my mother is from El Salvador. Neither of those is Mexico."

Crash offers you a striking, if somewhat hurried, study in contrasts. A racist harridan realizes she is being a bitch to her Latina maid. A tolerant white police officer kills an innocent man because he fit a stereotypical black image. A little girl's selfless act transforms a man for life.

Now for the BIG comparison. Crash is a far more relevant film in today's troubled post-9/11 times. In its realism, it mirrors the qualities of a docu-drama. Having said that, it does not affect you as gutturally as Brokeback Mountain.

These people are leading their lives by facing up to and crushing suspicions and biases from one day to the next. Racism is captured in its humdrum nearness. It isn't something that afflicts loony gangs like the Ku Klux Klan or chest-thumping third world types alone. You and I are its victims as much.

But it is precisely this contemporaneity that suppresses lyricism. At the end of the day, racism does not quite hurt as much as lost love.

Salman Rushdie
Personal accounts of racism
Republicanism backfires in France

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Butcher of Balkans dead

Slobodan Milosevic, 64, a depressive with a history of high blood pressure and chronic heart disease, was found lifeless in bed by one of his guards at a UN prison near the Hague, where he was being tried on 66 counts of crimes against humanity, including genocide.

As news of his death spread, mixed reactions from former Yugoslav republics. Guardian reports people were divided between celebrating his death and regretting he was not finally judged guilty for his crimes:

President Mesic of Croatia, which fought Serb forces in 1991-92, said: 'It's a pity he did not live through the trial and get his deserved sentence.'

A Croatian government statement summed up the views of many people in the Balkans: 'Several hundred thousand dead, millions of refugees, billions of euros of damage, dozens of destroyed towns, ethnic cleansing, genocide, those are all consequences of his policies.'

'It seems that God punished him already,' said Hajra Catic, of the association representing the mothers and widows of 8,000 Muslim men and boys massacred by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica.

Milosevic passed away with a typically dictatorial trait intact:

"He told me, 'Don't you worry: They will not destroy me or break me; I shall defeat them all,'" said Milorad Vucelic of the Socialist Party, recounting a phone conversation with Milosevic late Friday. "But it was obvious he was very ill."

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Magic of photography

French filmmaker Julien Donada has been sending postcards to himself from the past and then revisiting those places to see how they are transformed by time.

Morning News has put up a gallery of his cards contrasting the old with the new. It’s a fascinating collection, not just for its beauty, but also for the incongruous nostalgia it bred in me for themes past and times forgotten.

This despite me having not stepped out of India ever. But there's a wistfulness about the way the pictures meld the sepia with the flashy.

He plans on visiting Lebanon, places in the US, Ukraine and France (of course) in the future.

Visit the gallery here.

A few cold words

One reaction on the Brokeback loss no-one has felt the need to capture..and a very important one at that. Creator of Ennis and Jack, Annie Proulx tells Guardian how it felt to see the heavily nominated and near favourite movie lose out to a race drama. True to her writerly self, Proulx begins by giving us a bird's eye view of the red carpet:

Inside, we climbed grand staircases designed for showing off dresses. The circular levels filled with men in black, the women mostly in pale, frothy gowns. Sequins, diamonds, glass beads, trade beads sparkled like the interior of a salt mine. More exquisite dresses appeared every moment, some made from six yards of taffeta, and many with sweeping trains that demanded vigilance from strolling attendees lest they step on a mermaid's tail. There was one man in a kilt - there is always one at award ceremonies - perhaps a professional roving Scot hired to give colour to the otherwise monotone showing of clustered males.

For someone who was an insider in the Brokeback brigade, she is quite nearly impertinent in her criticism of Crash.

We should have known conservative heffalump academy voters would have rather different ideas of what was stirring contemporary culture. Roughly 6,000 film industry voters, most in the Los Angeles area, many living cloistered lives behind wrought-iron gates or in deluxe rest-homes, out of touch not only with the shifting larger culture and the yeasty ferment that is America these days, but also out of touch with their own segregated city, decide which films are good. And rumour has it that Lions Gate inundated the academy voters with DVD copies of Trash - excuse me - Crash a few weeks before the ballot deadline.

As you read forward, Proulx diligently tears down the magnificent facade that's called the Oscars...not just the selection procedure, but also the details of that oh-so-grand ceremony:

There were orders to clap and the audience obediently clapped. From the first there was an atmosphere of insufferable self-importance emanating from "the show" which, as the audience was reminded several times, was televised and being watched by billions of people all over the world. Those lucky watchers could get up any time they wished and do something worthwhile, like go to the bathroom. As in everything related to public extravaganzas, a certain soda pop figured prominently.

But finally, she hits the nail on the head, and introduces a searingly deviant point of view:

Hollywood loves mimicry, the conversion of a film actor into the spittin' image of a once-living celeb. But which takes more skill, acting a person who strolled the boulevard a few decades ago and who left behind tapes, film, photographs, voice recordings and friends with strong memories, or the construction of characters from imagination and a few cold words on the page? I don't know. The subject never comes up. Cheers to David Strathairn, Joaquin Phoenix and Hoffman, but what about actors who start in the dark?

Well said, Proulx...well said! But them words weren't cold exactly, heck, even remotely.

Brokeback review
Proulx's Bookslut interview

Monday, March 06, 2006

Biggest Upset

They are terming it the biggest upset in Oscar history...Crash all but swept the Academy Awards Sunday night (in spirit definitely), when the movie took home the Best Picture award.

Only silver lining for Brokeback: Ang Lee, whose direction was, in any case, not much to write home about:

The direction could have been better. The movie moves at a snail’s pace for the most time. Lee takes a lot of liberty with the script, but that is due largely to the effort in deriving a 2-and-a-half-hour movie from a 40 pages story. It’s only towards the end that the storyline is rescued somewhat.

Heath Ledger was nervously expectant through the length of the ceremony, perched next to partner-in-crime Michelle Williams, who looked radiant in her yellow outfit (as opposed to the very clearly balding Mr. Ledger). Jake Gyllenhaal occupied the second row, and when Lee only just brushed his and Heath's hands while going on stage (and then forgot to mention the two in his acceptance speech), something was seriously amiss.

All said and done, opinion had been veering towards Hoffman in recent weeks. Despite having not seen the movie, even I could not remain untouched by the outstanding praise that the actor garnered for "becoming" Truman Capote. Duplicitous, fey, effeminate, with an intellect sharper than razor...these words were bound to up the curiosity quotient.

One relief: this pretty much peaks the emotional roller coaster of this year's awards. With daring, path-breaking cinema up for grabs, this was surely one of the more keenly contested ones. The show, as always, was terrific, but for the rather lame jokes of comedian and host Jon Stewart. Next year then!

Friday, March 03, 2006

Indo-US nuke deal...

...and what it tells us about the kind of relationship that a developing nation can share with a superpower. My views, published in today's Economic Times:

In the post-Cold War era, the game of international politics has shifted from the one-upmanship tangles of the two blocs to the unilateralist hegemony of the US, brought to clear light by the global events unfolding in the wake of 9/11.

In this scenario, it would be foolhardy to postulate that a developing nation can have an equal relationship with a superpower (read the US). At best, the former can tweak the terms of engagement a bit to allow itself the space to hold negotiations on a more level footing.

Consider US President George Bush’s India visit. The one aspect that will determine its success or failure is the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. The UPA government’s handling of this issue is a fine hook on which to hang my argument.

Speaking solely of logistics, the deal heralds far greater advantage for India than it does for the US. While the US may seek Indian support in containing China, it is India whose nuclearisation is essential for keeping in check the rampant animosity that it brooks in its backyard.

The onus of seeing the deal through, therefore, rests with the Indian government. This is precisely why the prime minister is sidestepping domestic opposition to the deal, even at the cost of antagonising his allies.

Having said that, the government can hardly be accused of a sellout. It has identified facilities that will not be subjected to international inspection after Atomic Energy Commission chairman Anil Kakodkar raised doubts over the future of India’s nuclear programme if the fast breeder reactor was brought under IAEA’s purview.

While the government is conversant with the compulsions that surround the deal, it is unlikely that it will dither on vital issues of national security. Each and every interaction must be governed by ‘enlightened self-interest’, one that makes the most of shared interests, while simultaneously conceding give-and take on points of individual welfare.

Only then can a developing nation salvage its dignity and not end up looking like a stooge. This holds true for all unequal relationships.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Dawn of a new era

India and the US have reached an agreement on the landmark nuclear deal after confabulations between President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. After a two-hour meting at the Hyderabad House, the two leaders emerged to smile for the cameras and make their historic announcement.

This contrasts well with President Musharraf's visit to Agra a coupe of years back, when despite long-winding discussions with then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for close to 24 hours, the visit ended in televised failure.

Where there is a will, there's a way...may be cliched, but it does make eminent sense if you think about the fast movement that the two leaders achieved on the nuke deal. Bush arrived in India only last night.

A tremendous amount of groundwork had been done in preparation for the trip. For both sides, the gains from the deal clearly outweighed any reservations. While India has agreed to open 14 facilities to international supervision, Bush has promised to rake in Congress in allowing greater nuclear transfer to the host country.

Plenty of heartburn for our neighbour(s) and plenty of joy for those who have junked past shibboleths.

Meanwhile, at the ceremonial reception at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, Bush got a bit carried away:

"I have been received in many capitals around the world but I have never seen a reception as well organised and as grand as the one I just received. Coming up to this majestic building was breathtaking and the horses that led us in added great elegance to this welcoming ceremony.

"It is a great honour, I have never been to India before and I have been looking forward to this visit for a long time. I am looking forward to meeting the Prime Minister to foster a very important relationship.

"I want to thank the President and the Prime Minister, thank you sir, for such grand opening reception and also thank you for arranging such beautiful weather."

Yes, some people never change!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Too general to be copied

The judge hearing the plagiarism trial against Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown was told that the idea of Jesus Christ marrying Mary Magdalene is at such a high level of generality that it is not protected by copyright.

John Baldwin QC, representing The Da Vinci Code's publishers, Random House, added that themes similar in both books were known to Mr Brown before he had read Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh's earlier work, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (HBHG).

"Many of the ideas complained of are not even in both books, some are not even in either, so they cannot possibly have been copied from one to the other," Mr Baldwin said.

"In the main, the ideas complained of were not original to HBHG anyway ... the authors are seeking to monopolise information which is already in the public domain."

He said the authors' claim "seeks to monopolise ideas at such a high level of generality they are not protected by copyright".

Perfect reasoning. Indeed the publishers of HBHG could hardly claim that the notion of the scandal was borrowed from them, solely because it was the fodder that made up their 1982 book.

That would be like saying that an upcoming book on the life of Princess Di would be plagiarism because her death has been reported in mainstream media to death and is part of urban tragi-lore by now.

The case meanwhile continues, with Brown expected to testify next week.