When I experience a creative block, I find comfort in the unfinished art, unused ideas and rendered thoughts of my favorite artists and writers. They are just about all the stimulation I can handle. But, more importantly, they assure me that there is virtue in the process, even if it leads to incompleteness. Sketchbooks provide the cables I need to jumpstart my batteries, but with some irony. Here, the movement is usually not forward as much as deliberately circular, like in a Ferris wheel. It is exactly the kind of thoughtless frisson of excitement I seek. It is predictable, palpable and yet thrilling, with a definite end. When the ride stops, I will have unwound and reached a state of relaxed alertness.
Brandon Graham gets me there with his randomness and pop-culture nostalgia. This particular sketchbook of his is a bric-a-brac melting pot with all his tongue-in-cheek playfulness and purposely terrible handwriting, spelling, and some excellent graffiti-calligraphy. Unlike his main works, his sketchbook is more organic; Here, his drawings evolve and fill up space as he goes along, but at the same time, everything he draws is measured and proportioned, and makes sense as a whole. He brings a comical anachronism to his work. He appropriates pieces from reality and incorporates them in his avant-garde retro-futuristic steampunk world, so that his fantasy happens in a commonplace that is bound in a fuzzy space between the immediate-past and the near-future in an alternate world!
He is fixated with pastiche, so half the fun is in the discovery, and the other half is in making sense of that discovery, and feeling smug about cracking all the memes, the allusions, his weird humor full of cheesy wordplay and idiosyncrasies, and finding all the trivialities. You are required to have your eyes peeled at all times. You see close-ups and long distant views of the same things from different perspectives, each revealing something the other does not. I am almost afraid to make eye-contact with any part of a page, or dive in and explore a reef of drawings, because I might get lost in there forever, and will have to force-rip my eyes off of that part of the page to get to another part. And then, I am nervous that I may have moved on prematurely without taking everything that he had to offer!
He has a lot of fun with products, brand names, warning and instruction labels, and advertisements. There are clues to his many literary and artistic influences in the way he structures his story and does his artwork. His bubbles capture the shapes and sounds of everything visible, so that they are all exploding to say something. Text and objects get mixed up and lifeforms become things, and things become lifeforms and everything’s a deconstructed version of something familiar that now serves an unexpected and odd purpose. It is as if the alien city in his book is conjoined with our post-modern urban aesthetic at the hip. The ingenuity and absurdity of the modded contraptions in his book may be difficult to replicate in the near future with our limited technology. But, there are some kickstarter projects there waiting to be created in our cyberpunk future!
Sometimes I haven’t the slightest what some of his sketches are about. Those, I pretend are in a different language (some of them really are), and I decode them in my own way.
Walrus is a great book to pick up ideas on what to read next (as is his blog and his interviews. See here and here). Seeing your favorite authors mentioned in fine print in some corner of a busy page full of drawings, makes them seem like they are all part of the same cool club, and you have somehow become a part of it by recognizing that! He also takes a lot of mainstream comic characters and puts them in his sci-fi world. It’s like finding Spider-Man in Spirited Away. But, you also find yourself in it, with him, and his wife and co-artist, Marian, so that the sketchbook is a fourth-wall-breaking self-reflexive adventure of love-puppies and comic heroes in a Walrus world!
You would wonder how an artist who indulges in sillyness in every bubble moves a plot along. That’s if you haven’t read King City or Multiple Warheads. His serialized comic books detailed from the macro to the very micro will tell you how it’s done!
(Plug: Here's an assorted collection of graphic works I love from India. It is called Obliterary Journal and is one of my favorites.
I devoured the first volume wholly, entirely and many times. It's funny how it keeps coming back alive, to be devoured again and again. I'm waiting for my parents to visit and bring me the second volume from India. It's so pricey here).
This video is part of a collection of eight documentary shorts featuring medically-different children from across the UK. What really makes them (and their friends) different from most kids I know personally is how active and proactive they are, and how they eat yummy foods and play popular sports in different ways than normal!
The jury may be out on whether a leopard can change its spots or not, but a Snowy Owl certainly can and will! It used to be believed that the male Snowy is white with little barring and gets whiter with age, and the female has more barring and gets darker with age. But, in reality, Snowies cannot be aged or sexed with certainty. The darkest males and the lightest females are selfsame to the human eye. Also, no two owls are identical, and even throughout an individual’s lifetime, Snowies may choose to increase or decrease their coloration based on the environment and their physiological condition.
The female’s barring serves as a camouflage to help her hide herself and her chicks in the nest, but not in the way that we automatically reason. Animals don’t see colors like humans do. For example, several animals see our black power lines as glowing and flashing bands. We are also not always who they display to or hide from! So their visual appearance is tailored specifically to their needs, keeping in mind their primary ‘ultra-awesome’ predators and prey.
Several of the owl’s prey have UV vision. So while the white plumage of the Snowy may seem to humans as allowing it to camouflage itself against the snow, it is in fact highly UV absorbing, making the owl conspicuous to its prey! To the prey, neither the Snowy Owl’s white plumage nor its dark parts reflect in UV or near UV. In fact its dark parts peak in the near infrared part of the spectrum. So the Snowy Owl appears starkly grey against the white background of the snow. Moreover, Snowies breed in the open tundra, where they can be seen from great distances both in white winter and in colorful summer. They are the largest avian predators on the tundra and can protect themselves from intruders. Having said that, they spend as much time fighting competitors and bullies as it do minding their own business, because every predator in the Arctic is plucky; Pluckiness is a prerequisite to survival in inhospitable terrains (unless you are a lemming, in which case, good luck, and hope the Snowy shines!).
In fact, the males that do all the hunting during the breeding season, reflect significantly more light than the females, so their white color is not an adaptation to camouflage the bird, but is an impairment during hunting! But, this is the sacrifice that the birds make, because pigmentation production costs energy that is better used to minimize energy expenditure during the moult, when all Snowies loose one or two primaries on both wings (the moult intensity is higher for non-breeding Snowies). At no point during the moult do the birds lose their ability to fly.
Because the white of the Snowies is an impediment, it is only the best hunters that can pass on their genes to further generations. In fact, a female might be mighty pleased to know that the male can hunt even without pigmentation!
While their preys have UV vision, Snowy Owls themselves don’t. To Snowies, white is white. On sunny days, they orient themselves toward the sun so that the snow’s albedo enhances their visual display. This is how they broadcast their territorial claims, prey information, and show-off to conspecifics. The lighter Snowies display longer than the darker ones.
Even though Snowies are not UV-sensitive, their vision is one of the most highly developed of any owl, and can track distant objects in all variations of ambient light! Unlike other owls, the Snowy Owls are diurnal (active during the day). Some believe this is the case because they have adapted themselves to the long nights and days in the Arctic! In fact, their multifocal tubular eyes are one of the most ecologically adapted of any bird. The species eyes are roughly 1.5 times more sensitive than those of humans, but with lower limited field view, and increased ability to see in low light levels. Like all owls, the Snowy can turn its head 135 degrees in either direction giving it a total of 270 degrees “field of view”. It can even turn its head almost upside down.
Interestingly enough, the primary reason for the eyes being set at the front of the head is not to give them binocular vision as much as to accommodate large ears. The Snowy Owl is distinct from the other avian predators in taking prey from under the snow. It even prefers to hunt through the snow than over thawed surfaces. Such hunting is clearly done using sound, as much as vision.
And even though their pupils maintain an unchanging diameter of 12mm giving them a small depth of field, they have well-developed rictal bristles around the eyes and beak that help them feel for their newborns, and assess their well-being, or detect the shape and softness of the captured prey.
(This is an uber-long post, because Potapov and Sale's book is fascinating. If you've made it this far, you will enjoy reading the rest of this post. So read on, and do read the book!)
Imagine if you unexpectedly came upon a Polar Bear, an Arctic Fox or a Snowy Owl casually moseying down your street. One might assume it’s also the day when the sun decides to remain under the horizon! But, the sun came out, and a female Snowy Owl, found herself nestled cosily on the ledge of The Washington Post building (fortuitously, a few floors down from the Capital Weather Gang’s workspace) in DC. But her fate was sealed! She was hit by a bus, and is now being cared for at the zoo.
Birds don’t usually draw the same brouhaha as animals! Hedwig may be more popular than Iorek, but in the human circles, Polar bears outclass Snowies all the time. No one made a fuss about Hedwig being played by male Snowy Owls in the movie because Harry “Daniel Radcliffe” Potter can’t handle a heavy female. The popularity of animals over birds has nothing to do with their beauty, rareness, fearsomeness or intelligence. This is how we have come to size things up. But, this year the Snowies are attracting a deluge of onlookers, because of the unlikely places they are being sighted in.
Snowy Owls are one of very few avian species who have the audacity to wait out the winter season in the Arctic. It is usually the full grown adults wanting to breed that stick around in these unmerciful areas. The Snowies that choose to skip the breeding season, and the young ones who are less equipped to survive up there, fly southward where the weather is less extreme. Still, it nearly never happens that south-flying Snowies fly all the way to the Mid-Atlantic, and as far as south as Florida as we witnessed this year. One curious Snowy even made it all the way to Bermuda!
For years, scientists cerebrated over these on and off massive irruptions, and have not been able to make sense of them. In order to do a systematic study of Snowies, scientists need to understand how the owl’s live in their main domicile, as well as what motivates them to travel to places with extremely different ecologies, especially since they don’t migrate every year but sporadically, and for a limited amount of time. The hypothermic weather in the Arctic makes observing the owls there impracticable. Added to that, Snowies are extremely nomadic even in the Tundra. They not only follow the cyclical nature of lemmings, that are abundant one year and scare another, and move around a lot, but also go after bigger lemmings, and therefore an abundant population of those that breed less! So scientists have been limited to compiling information about the the owls that migrate to the south, where are more easily observable, and have been doing so since the early 19th century!
What they’ve found so far is that Snowies are both individualistic and collectivistic. Every owl follows a different trajectory of living, hunting and breeding, making it difficult to make broad generalizations about the species. At the same time, they also choose to travel in boids (loose groups), so that one’s fate is tied to another’s. It seems as if being a part of a boid to them is a choice and not a given, making boids fundamentally different from flocks.
The magic of the Snowy Owl is not in how they survive in a pitiless landscape, but how they transform themselves physically, and make the impossible possible. But, magicians never reveal their secrets, not even if you put them under a knife. If you saw them in half, they won’t tell you anything at all, and you won’t be able to put them back together, because you are not a magician. I consciously share this analogy to underscore a sad piece of information that I learnt from the Snowy Owl book. Up until the 1940s (and perhaps even later), biologists who wanted to understand the diet of Snowy Owls would cut them open to examine their stomachs’ contents. One particular scientist examined 205 stomachs, meaning 205 Snowy Owls were killed; 78 of them had empty stomachs, which means they were cheated out of life for nothing! This is in spite of the fact that one scientist in the 1930s made popular how owls’ regurgitated pellets could be used to understand their diets, so that owls don’t have to be autopsied to understand their diets! Snowy Owls are one of the most delicate bone digesters in the world. They preserve more bones of prey in their pellets than most other birds and make ‘little’ modification to the bones in their pellets.
Pellet analysis can reveal not only what an Owl ate, but also how many species and the size and weight of each! Moreover, Pellets of owls take as much as 10 years to decompose, because of the cold weather in their chosen habitats, so the information is in tact for a long time! In fact, the Owl too routinely tastes its chicks’ pellets to assess their wellbeing and hunger levels. For instance, the absence of bones in the chicks’ pellets would mean the chicks didn’t get enough food, so the digestion sucked every last calorie from their meal. Fortunately, today, scientists don’t cut open Snowy Owls! They capture, examine, band and release them!
This year Snowies migrated southward is unusually high numbers! This kind of irruption hasn’t been seen in may never happen again (even though a long-term look at irruption patterns point to more and more Snowies migrating over the years!). Over two dozen researchers, including the Pulitzer nominated author Scott Weidensaul have come together to work on Project Snowstorm to understand this anomaly, and other physical and behavioral characteristics of the owl! They are using new methods of tracking the birds, such as solar-powered GPS-GSM transmitters, and also performing DNA and feather analyses, among other things.
The transmitters weigh 40 grams, which is the size of one lemming, and about 1.5-3% of the owl’s weight. This makes me uncomfortable, as owls determine what they eat and what they feed their chicks based on the weight of the hunted prey and their energy budget! The transmitters that are attached to their wings using a backpack harness should make flying inconvenient and cost them some energy on top of their usual expenditure.
That being said, scientists are already recording many differences in hunting strategies and invalidating many commonly held notions about their migratory motivations and their movements. One such myth is that the Snowies are here due to a shortage of lemmings in the Arctic. In fact, the abundance of lemmings in summer, led to a successful breeding season, and the current bumper crop of Snowies!
It has been believed for a few years now, that the mass irruption is the result of complex stochastic processes having to do with the availability of prey, winter snow thickness, but more importantly, the relationship between individual owls in their boids. Snowy Owls tend to travel to wintering grounds and breeding grounds in groups. It’s a loose structure where individuals keep safe distance from each other while also monitoring each others movements to get to places with rich food sources. Sometimes, this strategy works very well, and they hit a lemming bonanza, and pair up and start breeding. But, in some other years, they find themselves in an infertile area deficient in lemmings or alternate prey, but are too weak to move elsewhere and leads to mass deaths!
Snowies' most-preferred urban habitats are airports, because they offer vast open spaces with few trees and limited human access, and noise pollution. The noise factor gives the Snowies an advantage over other owls that use their ears and hunt in the dark close to dawn and dusk! Even though the Snowy Owls are diurnal, in the airports, they become very active when the sun begins to set. Here, they capture everything from tiny insects to large raptors, and even the Great Blue Heron and other Snowy Owls. While some airport owls are very healthy, others, especially the adults are exhausted and underweight.
Some years there are as many as fifty owls in one airport, which makes them all the more susceptible to being hit by planes. FAA recorded over 120,000 wildlife strikes (the vast majority were birds) in a 10-year period, and 11,000 strikes last year alone. Bird strikes have caused up to $700 million a year damage to civilian and military aircraft. At least five snowy owls were hit by planes in the US this winter season! A few States have “shoot-to-kill” orders, but most prefer to trap and relocate them.
But, in the early 1980s, research of 385 owls at Logan Airport revealed that the presence of owls in airports discourage flocking birds from roosting in the area. And attempting to disperse the owls only created a greater risk of a bird strike than just leaving them alone.
I recently watched the Magic of the Snowy Owl, which documents the life of one Snowy Owl pair raising their young in a very bleak part of the Alaska North Slope, where food seems scarce and there is little relief from cold winds, rainstorms and freezing fogs. It’s a story of struggle and triumph with all the deflating and elevating elements of reality-melodrama. There is this sense that you are furtively observing The Addams Family of Snowy Owls. The narrator suggests that everything the family are doing is unusual and never been recorded before; like one kawaii scene of owlets daring to cross the river. It was the first time that this behavior was ever recorded or filmed.
In reality, a lot of what the movie thinks is unusual has in fact been observed many times before. The Snowy Owl book by Eugene Potapov and Richard Sale that I mention a few times in this post, provides both scientific and anecdotal evidence from all over the world to this effect. If you’ve enjoyed the movie, I recommend the book to contemplate the bird’s stunning and peculiar ways and facets.
In a different post, I share insights from the book, and clarify some of what the movie thinks is unusual. But mainly, I intend to share how the owl magically transforms itself physically and does amazing non-birdlike things; such as how it changes its spots, manipulates the sex-ratio of its offspring, and enjoys recreational sex, among other things!
I won't be asking for much if I said he should make it with recycled paper, no? *that's called putting magic on and under the microscope* *don't beat me*.
I love watching little pixel-people scuttling about on the screen with single-minded purpose. They are the most uncomplicated people you will find: monosyllabic but demonstrative, like when they express anger, success, happiness or experience death. *thud*. game over. They are always busy, and in a hurry to get somewhere; and they feel the need to do things faster than we do in real life. You will never find a character idling away. I think there's a valuable lesson there (among other valuable lessons that I won’t get into today)!
Many years ago, I wrote down the walking speeds of many characters: the thief in Lode Runner, Donkey Kong, Mario... and compared them to that of the average human walking speed, keeping in mind different physical criteria (like size of characters, dimensions of their world, proportionate distances etc...)! My assessment may not have been mathematically accurate, but it was my way of celebrating the speed at which things happened in games! And overtime, all this interaction with video game characters in their two-dimensional worlds that allowed them to defy the laws of physics convinced me that they are definitely on a different time-space continuum and were messing up my circadian rhythm, if you will. You are forced to react to things hurled at you faster than you would otherwise, so you get into a zone by shutting off the world around you that’s moving slower, so that you can focus and channel your telekinetic abilities. And that also explains why games make you forget hunger, sleep and other biological needs. Even now, I find myself humming chiptunes when I am crunching numbers, doing mechanical work, or running to get to some place quick. They've proven to get the job done better.
Technically, all video games and movies we watch online are pixels moving on the screen (which is astounding when you think of it like that), but, the 8-bit style is more evidently so because of its straight-liney, hard-edgy, square-boxey aspects, and limited color palettes. Everything is pared down to the very basic, where a single dot is the difference between a man or a woman, anger or joy, and it still retains that evocative, and sometimes garish sensibility. The same goes for music, which is pared down to its basic frequencies. It reminds me of the type of rules-based traditional art I grew up learning in India. And it is also the same reason why I am drawn to LEGO!
Today, the 8-bit style has evolved beyond its humble gaming-days, when it was limited by a single-purpose. It is a goldmine of artistic possibilities for both the visual and music world! There is a profundity in the idea that what we see and what we hear both come from the exact same place! It changes how we think about art.
Cinefix’s 8-bit (and 16-bit) movies are fun because they compress popular movies (including some challenging ones) into two-minute videos (some adapted faithfully, like Hunger Games, and some reinterpreted very well, like Inception). And part of the experience is in guessing which games inspired each movie, and seeing the familiar games role-play our favorite movies. Fanboys will not be disappointed. And while you are at it, also check out some cool movie gifs by Pixelwood.
Last weekend, The American Craft Council Show (ACC) ran for three days in Baltimore and showcased the works of over 650 American artists! They also had tons of talks, demonstrations, education programs and walking tours. It’s hard not to get overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the show! I mostly ambled around in awe.
This post is a long one, about the shifting discourses of Arts and Crafts, and the latter's on-and-off resurgence over the last two hundred or so years.
What frauds! It is not as if either of them bypassed the anti-defection law and resigned from their political party and re-contested from the other's! In any case, two-third of cinema enthusiasts are honey badgers, and one-third will lap up whatever dreck they will dole out anyway.
The first time we watched the Ship of Theseus, we spent the evening thinking up all the different human organs that can be replaced, and came up with stories for each of them. As the night had us in a stupor, what began with heart and lung transplants, ended with cosmetic dentistry, sex reassignments, nose jobs and hair extensions!
I like this type of storytelling. I call it The Shell approach. It is when you take a philosophical question, thought experiment or a moral lesson, a.k.a. “the shell”, and create stories that best explore them. In The Ship of Theseus, the filmmaker likens the human body to the ship, and whips out three Hip of Theseuses! And because there are as many human body parts as there are ship parts that can be replaced, the creative possibilities of churning out such stories is as limitless as creating new songs from the same melodic modes. Moreover, the filmmaker is careful to keep the allusions partial, so we can explore each story in our own way within the confines of the overarching philosophy.
In the “shell” movies, you spend your time judging the quality or anatomy of the stories, how they are treated artistically, how true they are to “the shell”, and how deeply they explore it. If you were previously familiar with “the shell”, you also have the privilege of comparing how you perceived the same philosophy to that of the filmmaker, and how you may have explored his stories differently.
I think the beginning of a human personhood happens when the gametes fuse to form the zygote. From then on, every biomarker indicates how one has grown as a person, until the time of their death. To some others, the beginning of a human personhood is when one comes out into the physical world and takes in their first breath of air and interacts with the environment.
Regardless of where you mark the beginning of your personhood, you will agree that every moment from that beginning is only about change. There is nothing about us that is constant. We are not the same people we were a second ago. There is always a cell renewing, so much that, in seven years, every cell in our body will have been replaced by new cells, and none of the old remain. We are physically not the same person. And most of this happens in the absence of free-will.
This is the case even with our beliefs. I like to think that our beliefs change entirely in seven (or some other number) year cycles so that everything that was true then is false now, and everything that is true now is false later. And most of what we are is a result of our evolutionary history, our genetic makeup, our innate qualities, our personal experiences that are shaped by our environments, our physical and mental health (especially the interaction between our conscious and unconscious brain), and other deterministic or stochastic factors! But, in spite of the lack of real free-will, the idea of free-will is the prerequisite to living, if not life itself; because living is all about embracing change, and we do so by making choices under the sham of free-will.
I just finished reading Brecht’s essays on theatre and philosophy. The essays in the book are arranged in chronological order of when they were written by him, and span 38 years, starting in 1918 when he was 20 years old. What I love most about this chronological ordering is that I am able to take in how his ideas evolved over time, either to the contrary, or by becoming more developed, but always being consistently thought-provoking. He often ridiculed his own work.
Yesterday, I watched the Ship of Theseus for the second time after reading Anand Gandhi’s interview on Kindle. Coincidentally, it was only a few weeks ago that I watched The Turin Horse, which Gandhi talks about in his interview.
So during this viewing of the Ship of Theseus, where I came fresh off the Brecht fryer and loaded with Gandhi’s interview, everything was refracted through their ideologies. I was under their sway. And any cracks and fault-lines I saw in the film, were a result of the overlap between my way of seeing and their way of showing, and my ability to reflect their stories in my mind’s mirror without distortion; and that is not entirely up to any of us. What Brecht and Gandhi have in common is the ability to present social and character contradictions, and how causation impacts one’s choices and beliefs. They also make everything seem strangely familiar (read: verfremdungseffekt), as if you are looking at the familiar lines on your hands with a magnifying lens, and learning to read them. They both deal with the facticity of the world, and give a lot of weight to verisimilitude. But, they allow you to work out the immanent meanings behind the motives of the characters in their stories. But, the one important way in which Gandhi and Brecht differ (apart from their techniques to achieve their goals) is in how the former leads us to contemplate the world, but the latter leads us to change it.
I wonder which of the two approaches might inspire new philosophies? When is the last time you heard a new philosophical question that was posed only in the 21st century?
For every “shell” way of storytelling, there is a “non-shell” way, where the readers are allowed to engage with the stories without being limited to the confines of any one philosophy. Nothing is ever unformulated in storytelling, but the stories that intend to reflect reality and not change it are conceptually limited to what is, as opposed to what can be. It is when the story’s elements can take any shape or form of the audience’s choosing, that they become more socially active and create many stories and many different ideas out of the original. It is when actors become real people, and audiences become the characters, and the story mimics reality, where reality is mimesis, that some new philosophy may originate.
Sometimes, you may also create a story with a certain idea in mind, but that may not be what the audience takes from it. For instance, Brecht was unhappy that the critics of Mother Courage and Her Children sympathized with Mother Courage. He even made the necessary changes to the play to get his point across, to no avail. More on the Brecht book after I watch the play next week. I plan to be very unsympathetic.
Ship of Theseus is available online for free.
Yesterday was the 201st anniversary of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice. But, it was in fact written seventeen years before that, when Austen was still as young and spirited as Lizzy. She carried the book with her for almost half her life before it was finally published, only to depart from it and this world four years later. In those seventeen years, she had experienced a tumultuous life that was to change who she was and the course of women all over the world for all time.
When she first wrote the book, her father made an earnest attempt to get it published, but it was to wait almost two decades before Thomas Egerton agreed to publish it, albeit at Austen’s expense. Curiously, Egerton specialized in military and political works until then, and Austen was his first woman novelist. He was also her publisher for Sense and Sensibility the year before. Pride and Prejudice was so popular that it caught on with readers more quickly through word-of-mouth than printed advertisements, so that a second edition had to be printed within nine months of the first edition coming out.
At that time, Austen was only the second generation of novelists. Novels were a fairly new form of literature. They became popular in the mid-18th century when the middle class expanded and there was a demand for secular stories driven not by plot, but by individuals. But, most of them were written by men, and were adventures centered around larger-than-life male heroes, usually in imaginary worlds, with women playing insignificant roles in the stories. Even the novels centered around women were mostly written by men and portrayed them as being modest and meek, or as they were meant to be.
Austen is the first novelist in history to capture ordinary life in the Regency era. Her men and women are rooted in reality and come in every imaginable shade of character. Compared to her contemporaries, her characters are bold and the flirtations are akin to today's Fifty Shades of Grey, only more eloquent and reflective. I particularly savor the way she captures the constant negotiation of expectations and impressions between the commodities in the story, that is the “eligible” suitors in the marriage market. The conversations between them are crisp, witty and full of revealing gestures, but more importantly, intentional, and often driven through indirect discourses. Every conversation, every situation and every letter arrives with perfect timing, so that the plot always moves along in unexpected ways. We are forever reappraising characters and becoming aware of their lack of self-knowledge. Everyone’s foibles and the ironies of their life are so relatable, that you delight in them because it is your reality.
Her stories are primarily human and about the pursuit of truths through sharp satire. She once criticized her niece’s draft novel for portraying people in Dawlish gossiping about news from Lyme, which is forty miles away and would not be talked of there. That is the level of adherence to fact and societal accuracy that she aimed for, which makes her works important historic documents. Her truths are loaded and “universally acknowledged”, and lay all the societal pretensions bare and impossible to dispute!
What also sets her apart from novelists during her times is her lack of indulgence in prose about material things and the description of settings. Her characters are almost entirely preoccupied with calibrating delicate feelings and abstract nouns to take notice of their surroundings. They display a desire to understand what shapes people’s consciousness and their character and morality, and what dictates their choices.
And because abstract nouns have a universal appeal, she inspires every kind of intellectual dialogue imaginable. Her work speaks different things to different generations and cultures and academicians (and also to Orangutans). It has been superimposed by so many adaptations that the mind attempts to summon Darcy only to be distracted by Olivier or Firth or whoever else made a bold attempt at being devastatingly handsome (or devastatingly conceited)!
Along with the adaptations, there are a whole sleuth of biographies attempting to construct a woman who seems almost mythical in her attainments. When Austen first wrote Pride and Prejudice, she was a teenager with little formal education, gaining knowledge solely from the books in her father’s library. And it is that tiny world that inspired novels of such depth and beauty, and insight into society and politics. One wonders how!
When I read Pride and Prejudice today, I imagine my grandmom as a young teenager, holding the very same book, and swooning over Darcy, or admiring a clever Elizabeth Bennet and marveling at the society in England back in the days! Along with the book, my grandmom also passed on hope and that love comes from pursuing the truth of one’s own character. I find Austen's persistence as a writer, through all the hardships particularly inspiring! I also take comfort in reading the bits of her unfinished novels in Juvenilia because nothing about what I do is every complete. I can’t tell if I love her more or her works, because they, and their journey are also a reflection of who she is. Jane Austen and her Pride and Prejudice came close to being in extremis, only to become immortal.
Last year, BBC recreated the Netherfield Ball for the 200th anniversary celebration of Pride and Prejudice, and shared a 90-minute Making-of documentary called Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball! Also, there is an online exhibition called What Jane Saw, which attempted to reconstruct the art exhibit of Sir Joshua Reynolds paintings at the British Institution in Pall Mall that Austen talks about in Pride and Prejudice. Back then, the exhibition was the first commemorative museum show dedicated to a single artist, and something of a pop-culture phenomenon! Austen was something of a Rob Fleming of High Fidelity of her times, and kept up with all the who’s-whos and so-and-sos of her time and wove them into her stories. Many of the character descriptions in Pride and Prejudice were said to have been inspired by Sir Joshua Reynolds portraits. Finally, here is Pride and Prejudice cartoon by Jen Sorenson.
In describing this film, the word 'revulsive' comes to mind, but it's still important to watch it because something terrible is happening here.
There are two bands of exact likeness represented in this documentary, standing on opposite sides of the same chequerboard, intending to destroy each other, but ending up destroying themselves.
The Whites, moving first, are the Vishwa Hindu Parishad organisers and their young pawns who are training in a militant women's camp; and the slightly disadvantaged Blacks counterplaying the Whites are the Miss India pageant organisers and their 'hopefuls' who have been chosen to train for the Hunger Games. The chequerboard they are all standing on is their messed up view of themselves and their life's purpose.
Every time a piece is moved, there is a tense pause before we ascertain if they've neutralized the play, or if they deliberately or inadvertently led themselves to their own slaughter at the hands of the opponent.
But this game is nothing like chess. All the differentiated pieces have lost their meaning. It is also unlike checkers, because there is no meaningful interaction among those of the same likeness. It's everyone for themselves out for the pruning; In any case, the hands playing the pieces are making up the rules as they go. And, when all the pieces will have fallen, a bras de fer will have ensued, and it won't matter who pins the arm to the chequerboard.
Luckily, there is time before that happens. We can get the hands off the pieces by crying foul.
If art is meant to elicit an involuntary reaction in us that comes from a place that the mind cannot touch, then con artists are the truest to that vision!
They are the incidental inheritors of the philosophies of happiness that have been steadily passed down from the times of Lao Tzu and Socrates to our present day. They apply them on their marks like an art form; by offering them confidence and pleasure, in exchange for cultivating their hopes and desires. And when they have manufactured enough of what they want, they suck out every bit of the outcome, and along with it, all self-worth, until their marks are reduced to nothing but the scars of this terrible violation, and the helpless realization that their rational mind was blindsided with emotions and impalpable offerings, just so that they may be stripped naked forever. Then, the artists move onto their next mark. They spare only those who can destroy them, or who can provide them with more marks to feed off!
There is no doubt art involved in the eduction of happiness through connivery, and in delivering the dementor’s kiss without suspicion. It is a systematized art (like the practice of game theory or behavioral economics), where the ultimate goal is not some sort of creative or existential nurturing, but something more elemental. But, when it is presented as a cinematic story, that engages in artistry with the former nurturing goal in mind, the two combined bring about ultimate happiness of the kind prescribed by the early monks, whose philosophies ought to be passed on for all time.
... And then there is that lovable, exasperating, conniving little master manipulator of them all! Who is the real artist? Rosalyn Rosenfeld or J-Law!
The Dementor's Kiss:
"What's under a Dementor's hood?"
"Hmmm . . . well, the only people who really know are in no condition to tell us. You see, the Dementor lowers its hood only to use its last and worst weapon."
“What’s that?” asked Harry.
“They call it the Dementor’s Kiss,” said Lupin, with a slightly twisted smile. “It’s what dementors do to those they wish to destroy utterly. I suppose there must be some kind of mouth under there, because they clamp their jaws upon the mouth of the victim and -- and suck out his soul.”
Harry accidentally spat out a bit of butterbeer.
“What -- they kill -- ?”
“Oh no,” said Lupin. “Much worse than that. You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working. But you’ll have no sense of self anymore, no memory, no . . . anything. There’s no chance at all of recovery. You’ll just -- exist. As an empty shell. And your soul is gone forever . . . lost.”
Sometimes I wonder what I might do in an abusive relationship. Then I think of all the wonderful people I can depend on, who will never let anything like this happen to me, and I am ever so grateful.
It's important to have more than one person in your life to love, and make you feel loved!
Anders Ramsell animated 12597 remarkably tiny (1.5 x 3 cms) hand-painted aquarelle works of the Blade Runner to create this stunning adaptation. The artistry here is staggering when one considers the difficulty of working with water colors. The aquarelle method uses transparent splashes of paint to create layered artwork that blends realism with abstraction. Because of its fluidity, you have little to no room for error. Once you commit your brush to paper, you go for it like you are aiming for an apple on a man's head. Add to that, Ramsell even manages movement and transformation in his art through the evocative use of color, which is astounding. I wonder how many more paintings he made for this movie that he didn't include in it.
In a way, The Aquarelle Edition serves well as a metaphor for the number of times Blade Runner has been re-cut or readapted. Each version of Blade Runner has either attempted to fine tune the original or offer a fresh take. In a sense, they have all added a new coat of paint to existing furniture. The original movie itself is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Today, there are more copyrighted alternate cuts and illegal fan edits of the movie than one can count.
I love Blade Runner. But, beyond my own fixation with the movie, I find that it affirms my belief that the space for alternate cuts is limitless. Each cut of this movie is as meritorious and popular as the other, and does not dilute the spirit of and a fan’s love for the original. This Aquarelle Edition further validates this opinion.
It is in sync with the fan-fiction tradition that we’ve been following for centuries now. Adaptations are like modern folk tales or epic poetries that survived by way of approximate transference over many generations and mediums. When novels first came out in the eighteenth century, readers who were used to folk tradition, continued to feel entitled to own fictional characters and reimagine them in their own stories.
For instance, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe spawned many unauthorized sequels, satires, plays, adaptations, and even merchandise. Even back then, there was discussion on authorship and “original expression”, even though it didn't translate to a formal legal foundation around copyright. The discussion then must have been much like the discussion now on the hellish consequences of regular people owning 3D printers and making knockoffs of products. (I am dying to copy every damnedest designer jewelry or product there is that I have never needed or wanted, just for payback).
Even in the first half of the nineteenth century much of the culture was available for unreserved reuse. Moreover, even protected works (usually paintings, and rarely literature) were protected only against literal copying. It was only as businesses began to make deeper investments in cultural expression that copyright and fair-use were given attention.
The case that laid the foundation for fair-use was Folson v. Marsh in 1841, on whether a new biography of George Washington could use letters that had been collected and published by an earlier biographer. It turned out to be a dialogue between Republican ideology that celebrated uninhibited access to knowledge, and the profit-oriented media industry advocating copyright protection. The end result was the creation of more stringent pro-market laws that went on to shape our attitudes.
Some authors began to show a desire to own fictional characters as legal property, but they were also fickle-minded about ownership. For instance, when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a cult classic, it spawned several profitable but unauthorized copycat novels and merchandise. But, she didn’t seem to mind being cheated of licensing fees, because she was earning record-breaking royalties for the original. However, she later sued a German translation of the book in the US. I suspect this is because the sales of the translated book ate into her profits. Germans were the biggest immigrant group in the country, and in fact made up a third of the country at that time. Even though she lost the case, I have a feeling she might have won it if she had chosen to sue the english copycat novels that she let pass instead.
Even in our times, companies that have seen many Fan-edits of their films, have only on some occasions (and quite inconsistently and inexplicably) sued appropriators for causing customer confusion or for expropriating or leveraging their success.
I am both a fair use and anti-piracy advocate. I like the space that encourages both new and inspired material, and celebrates creative talent. I see creativity as a social phenomenon as much as individual expression. This is relevant especially in our times where the internet is full of impromptu creative literary and artistic works done purely for the love of art.
It would be deplorable therefore, if this Aquarelle Edition of the Blade Runner was ever to be sued for copyright infringement. We would be doing a huge disfavor to our culture, and crippling artists who find creativity through inspiration from others’ works.
The privilege of referencing pre-existing works (passive fair-use), or using source material to churn out new products (transformative fair-use) is exercised everyday in news programs, social networks and artworks. Fair-use is simple to apply and most of it is done legally, and oftentimes even when we think we are doing it illegally. There are no fair-use laws as such, and no one needs to authorize your decision. In fact, fair users don’t even have to worry about carrying over the legal encumbrances of the source material, and the nitty-grittys of their copyright and licensing arrangements, as long as they are using the material "fairly". And because fairness is a grey area, you exercise fair-use through self-belief, with some adherence to suggested guidelines, and keep your fingers crossed in the event of a challenge.
The truth is, the discussion around fair-use is as unreadable as a kiss scene in the Twilight Saga. It hasn’t matured one bit to accommodate our new culture. Artists, intellectual property owners and courts routinely take subjective and unpredictable views on what can be deemed fair use and what can’t. Verdicts change from artist to artist, work to work and judge to judge. There are as many fair use cases being ruled in favor of owners as there are being ruled in favor of appropriators, and the logic behind the judgment is as elusive as a unicorn.
Copyright exponents suffer from tunnel-vision with their unswerving adherence to the concept of originality. They are purblind to the wonders of reclaimed narratives and liberated creativity. But, originality is a fictitious concept in art, and now, it is mostly legal fiction. To come up with sensible copyright laws and fair-use guidelines one needs to understand art as being creative and transmissive, but not necessarily original.
In philosophy, Carl Jung says every man’s unconscious has a feminine part called anima (likewise, he calls a female’s male part animus) that transcends his physical psyche. It can be identified as the totality of the unconscious. The anima cannot be separated from the man’s physical form as an independent part! The man may not even be aware of his anima, but he sees it in the woman who he finds fascinating.
I see artistic works much in the same way. Art has many parts, but also an unconscious anima that is born out of the whole, but cannot be precisely delineated from it. It is the space where creativity and originality take shape. When inspired art unintentionally derives from original art, the former is like the man and the latter is like his anima. When inspired art intentionally derives from the original art, then the former is like the man, but the latter is like the woman, where they are attracted to each other because they find their own anima and animus in each other.
Jung says, if the man and woman merge into one identity, then he will adopt the character of her animus and she will adopt the character of his anima. What happens therefore is that it is not the man and woman who play with each other, but their anima and animus!
Any artwork is a puzzle of intimately interconnected parts that can only be understood by referencing the whole; but the whole cannot be pared down to its individual parts. Somewhere in the making of the whole, the parts create a soul. This soul is always original, even if it is created using borrowed material. When you see art in this manner, you see that its purpose is to pollinate future culture. Even when art is redolent of the past, it means for itself to be brand new; and it can only be assessed on how well it has lived up to that intention of being new. A period film, for instance, may intend to be truthful to the past, and in that way, may not be "original", but we still find in it its unique soul, and how it brings the past into the present!
Everyone makes work on the basis of, and in reference and relationship to existing work. From a legal point of view, proving any creation as originating from nothing, except one’s own innermost being, would require dissecting all the creative processes and stripping the work down to the basics. In doing so, most works that we hold in high esteem, as being the product of some “auteur” would be invalidated; but more importantly, such a striptease would not only be impossible in many cases, but would also undermine the true spirit of creativity.
Moreover, copyright laws’ emphasis on individual authors and works is a distortion of reality. In the music and film world (and even in the book world, and most of the art world), the end product is the work of many people willingly working in tandem. The dissection of a piece to prove originality is both impossible and futile! This is also true for fan-edits. Most of them are done by the digerati within a collaborative network that draws liberally from many sources. The original is oftentimes untraceable.
It is regrettable therefore that there is a sharp divide between those fighting to retain control of their works and those who want to draw on them to create new products.
There is a lot of valuable deliberation on copyright and fair use in both legal and social media circles, but most of the delibration revolves around improving regulatory laws, and coming up with fair use guidelines. But, because we are generating a huge body of fair-use work, it would also be useful to create of a legally viable space, such as a fair-use agora or a Fairuse-Con (like Comic-Con) where "transformative" fair-use videos such as fan-edits, parodies, satires, and other inspired works can be celebrated and encouraged, at least for non-commercial pleasure.
There are more fair-use videos out there than actual copyrighted works, and most of them are susceptible to legal action. This cannot be good. Fair use videos need to breathe freely, because when they do, an Aquarelle Edition of Blade Runner is born! Because there is no such thing as too much Blade Runner!
My previous post on fair use: "anmoku no ryokai"
A NYTimes video: "Allergy to Originality"
A prejudiced doctor runs an unsuccessful sperm bank with a precarious business model that depends on incessant sperm donations from one man to keep the outfit running. Add to that, he uses unscientific, proto-aryan, eugenics-like reasoning to assess potential sperm donors. One day, he randomly zones in on Vicky from his apartment terrace, and sniffs out his fecundity like a piranha sniffing out blood. Idle, blithely unconcerned young men are homologous with Bonobo chimpanzees or newly plowed fields or villagers (this last one is his real analogy). From then on, he hounds Vicky for days to sign up as a sperm donor.
All the patients and potential donors in the movie are caricatured, and serve mostly to substantiate existing class and gender stereotypes. The movie isn’t the best advertisement for sperm donors or assisted-reproduction patients.
The doctor suckers Vicky into getting tested for donor eligibility. The lab scientist marvels at his high sperm count (In reality, this is not unusual for a healthy man of his age), and the test results vindicate the doctor's claim that only Vicky’s sperms can satisfy his patients' lofty desires, even though confidentiality agreements preclude patients from knowing who their sperm donor is.
Vicky eventually comes around, as he sees this as an easy way to make a quick buck, and works out a partnership deal with the doctor. The only hitch is that he may be blackballed from his community if they find out about his comings and goings. So he keeps his family, including his girlfriend (later wife) Ashima in the dark about his arrangement, even though she is scarred from a previous marriage to a perfidious man, and is touchy about trust.
As can be expected from a simple three-act, single-track plot, Act Two portends a predictable shitstorm that destroys all the characters' lives. Ashima learns that she can never have a baby because of a tubal block (which, by the way maybe treatable) and that Vicky is a sperm donor. She inarticulately expresses her disillusionment, and cuts and runs from home. Coincidentally, Vicky is also arrested just then for tax evasion (only for one night, because the police officer is stunned into inaction when he learns about sperm banks from the doctor, and neglects to issue further punitive action).
In the interest of saving Vicky and Ashima's marriage, the doctor breaks all confidentiality agreements, without a picosecond of hesitation, and rounds up fifty three of Vicky’s donor-conceived children and their parents in a happy park for display. On seeing them, Ashima is overcome with emotion and fesses up to Vicky that she left him out of jealousy, because of his stupendous ability to procreate (and her inability thereof). In the interest of ending the movie, she expels all other legitimate reasons one would expect of a self-professed “modern woman”.
The doctor then introduces them to a donor-conceived child who lost her parents in a car accident. Vicky and Ashima adopt her, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Indian regulation concerning assisted-reproduction is flaky at best. Sperm banks follow ICMR guidelines, but there are no real laws in place. Anyone can open a fertility clinic without permission. There are also illegal and unmonitored sperm donation websites with detailed donor-profiles that list their physical characteristics and other attributes for people to choose from.
But, while malpractices abound, this movie is about a well-meaning, legitimate practice that at least intended to honor ICMR guidelines (such as testing and confidentiality). A man cannot father 53 donor-kids in a legit practice, except in Bollywood make-believe. In reality, a donor is allowed to donate 75 times towards the conception of a maximum of six children; and cannot make enough (at best Rs.1000 per donation) to sustain himself on donor compensation alone.
There are couples who seek “superior” sperm; but they are likely to trace the master-race to more “credible” (now definitely illegal) sources, such as Brokpas in the Himalayas, and not some random sperm bank in Delhi. Patients definitely don’t approach legit clinics asking for Aryan babies.
I don’t know if one comes out of this movie with considerate feelings for couples seeking reproductive assistance, or for sperm donors who volunteer with no compensation (as is the case most of the time). The movie has encouraged many college kids to become donors for pocket money. I wonder if this is a good thing!
The movie underlines several class, gender and inter-regional stereotypes (admittedly enjoyable, and maybe the only thing that kept me going, but I hope we outgrow them). It [half-heartedly] tries to portray women as being independent, but they are still far from being modern or progressive. One of Ashima’s bank colleagues goads her to date Vicky and not be a “bore”, and that is all the peer pressure she needs to do a 180. The story sustains our positive feelings towards Vicky, even after his disparaging behavior with his needy ex-girlfriend in their break-up scene. For some reason, even though he is flawed, everyone around him feels the need to be contrite (including his relatives who try to rope him into their business).
Today’s google doodle celebrates the birthday of Grace Cooper, “the first lady of software”. How far have we come with regard to gender equality since her time?
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."
He relinquishes life just as we are beginning to see slavery as a crime. He leaves for a better place, after he helped make one here. Thank you, Nelson Mandela.
I picked up this biography today. The film isn't here yet. It came out last month in some cities.
The heart floats just above reach. It is there for you to grab, if you have the means.
You don’t reach a balloon by making an impression on it. You don’t get through to it. You reach it more literally, by coming in contact with it. And yet, the balloon is a symbol of associations; calling to mind many life instances. The words “There is always hope”, stencilled on the right edge, make the surface meaning transparent.
The girl stretches her hand. Time stops, but, you feel the upward movement. The unswerving helium in the balloon has nothing but the northerly direction in its makeup. It is what makes it tick. Every girl likes flitting between wanting to hold it and wanting to let it go and see it become tinier and tinier before it disappears into the sky. But, letting the heart go, knowing it doesn’t want to stay, tugs at an empty hole inside, that wants to contract and stretch the surrounding tissue of hope.
One of Banksy’s girls flies with balloons. She lives the fantasy, but none of her balloons have a heart. One of his heart balloons is caught in barbed wire. It is too close to tragedy for comfort. But, it is the tenuous excitement of holding a balloon that means for itself to vanish into the sky that I find most enticing.
Now the heart stands wounded and bandaged in New York. It is still both practicing and defying the laws of physics. What might have caused the wound; who fixed it up; why won’t it fly away; and why is it still within reach? The girl is gone!
As most graffiti artists fulminate against Banksy and the whole enterprise supporting his illegal activities (including authorities), he stands taller than the rest of his kind and represents them, perhaps without intending to, one can never say. But when we express disbelief as other graffiti artists vandalise Bansky’s art, we discredit Banksy and everything graffiti stands for; and we do so in the very sanctum sanctorum of street art. New York is where Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Poster Boy, Revs, El Celso, SAMO, and every artist with a street number in his nickname, who reached for the rooftops or for the platforms of subway stations, or boasted of street galleries, created the Mecca of graffiti art. And then there are some hooligans who charge a fee just for a peek at Banksy’s graffiti. They add one more dimension to the dialogue on the legitimacy of street art. In the mean time, Banksy is as visibly elusive as the balloon. But, I think the really banged up protagonist in this story is the girl. Who is she? In spite of all the artwork being white-washed overnight, and the judge declaring its doom, I hope it is not 5 Pointz.
However you see it, hope is never in letting go of either the girl or the balloon! Banksy's spray-painted, floating bubble-lettering says he agrees. (Listen to the October 31st audio guide).
This interactive video of Pharrell Williams' 'Happy' from Despicable Me 2 is being touted as “the world’s first 24-hour music video". I recommend playing around with the full-version of the song on the website that features a clock. It has many well-known actors dancing through the streets at different times of the day.
While you are at it, also watch the new interactive version of Bob Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone'. The video allows you to flip through 16 television channels (they plan to add more), featuring everything from cooking shows to newsrooms, with well-known actors lip-syncing the song. It has over an hour of content, if you watch every video. But, if you stick to toggling the channels as intended, no two viewings of the song are the same. In a way, it is speaks to a real phenomenon. Dylan's 48-year old song is still everywhere, and plays at least once a day on some radio station or TV channel somewhere in the world. There are not many songs that are as enduring and ubiquitous, or remaining entrenched in pop-culture as Like a Rolling Stone.
I am a huge fan of interactive content, be it children's pop-up books, animated graphic novels, video games, flash videos, or web design… so it's exciting to see more artists experimenting with it in music videos. There's nothing more absorbing in the storytelling world, than when you get to play a role in the narration.
I still salivate when I recapture Matthew Bourne’s interpretation of the Swan Lake ballet with the male swans. It is a sublime reincarnation of the original, with some humor and whimsicality thrown in for good measure. Even though its story diverges from the original, the music is faster and more authentic than in the traditional ballets. It would have made Tchaikovsky proud.
Bourne is a film buff, and brings his cinematic sensibilities to ballet, which makes it all the more appealing to me. In an interview, he shared that he was inspired by Hitchcock’s The Birds, especially in Act 4 of the Swan Lake when the swans turn savage. Hitchcock is a very visual filmmaker. A lot of his storytelling is defined by the way he frames the shots, moves the camera, lights the scene, among other things. So it is interesting to see Bourne bring that sensibility to the staging of a ballet. His characters too take on Hitchcocky characteristics, such as, identity confusion, self-entrapment, paranoia, and some oedipal issues (although he says he was more influenced by Hamlet’s jealousy of his mother’s lover in this aspect); likewise, you see Hitchcockyness in the way he slowly reveals all the aspects of a character over the course of the ballet, and in the way he places the horror in everyday settings.
I have been meaning to read his conversation with Alastair Macaulay about his life, his various works and influences. I wonder if someone with his encyclopaedic knowledge about the arts works off of his subconscious memory, without even intending to draw from them. I might enjoy reading the conversation now, especially since I saw two of his three Tchaikovsky ballets.
Last week, I saw Bourne's Sleeping Beauty ballet at Kennedy Center, in which he spruced up the Disney version of the story with vampires and other gothic elements; all to Tchaikovsky’s music. I expected it to be either old-school Gothic-like, with elements of the original grotesque Sleeping Beauty story, or with Tim Burton’s eccentric style, since Bourne has adapted Edward Scissorhands to contemporary dance with great success in the past. But, it ended up being somewhat tame. With some imagination, it comes close to being as scarily vampiric as the True Blood or the Twilight series.
Perrault’s original story and most early European versions of Sleeping Beauty* had a lot more gothic elements in them than this ballet. Here is my blend of some of the stories I have read:
After the Princess falls asleep, a strange Prince from the neighboring kingdom climbs a tower to find the Princess (assumed dead in some stories) lying in her coffin wearing seven white bridal skirts and silver bells. He is bewitched by her beauty and returns to the tower everyday. One day he kisses her on her lips, and is overwhelmed with an insuppressible urge to keep kissing, until he finally rapes her. Eventually, she gives birth to twins (a boy and a girl). One of her babies mistakes her finger for her breast. He suckles hard on it, and fortuitously pulls out the needle stuck in her finger that put her to sleep. She wakes up and learns that she has been asleep for a hundred years. Just then, the Prince too climbs over the tower and introduces himself as the father to her two children. She instantly falls in love with him and agrees to marry him. Unhappily, the Prince reveals that his stepmother, an Ogress, might not accept the Princess, and may even cause her and her children harm if she finds out about them. So they keep their marriage a secret until the Prince ascends the thrown. The Ogress, then lovingly invites the whole family to her house in the woods, and directs her cook to serve the Princess and the kids as dinner to the Prince. The kind-hearted cook tricks the Ogress and switches the daughter with a lamb, son with a goat, and Princess with hind, and hides the Princess and the kids from the Ogress' sight. But, when the Ogress learns that she has been tricked, she becomes wildly furious and takes matters into her own hands. When the Prince is resting, she orders the cook to summon the Princess, and prepares a fiery pit with noxious creatures to throw the Princess into it. As the Princess is undressed, the silver bells on her skirts ring loudly and alert the Prince. He runs to her rescue. The disgraced Ogress then throws herself into the pit and is fully consumed. The Prince, Princess and the kids live happily ever after.
In Matthew Bourne’s ballet, the Princess falls in love with a gamekeeper, and not a Prince. When she goes to sleep, a fairy turns him into a vampire, so that he can live to see the Princess when she wakes up after 100 years. As the eras change, the Prince goes through enormous transformation. He is now only vestigially a human, and faced with absolute indigence (uncharacteristic of a vampire). He lives in a tent outside the decaying palace overgrown with vines, and woefully waits to wake the Princess up with a kiss. In the mean time, the evil fairy who cursed the Princess to sleep grows lonely and courts the Princess even though she is asleep. He too waits for her to wake up so that he can make her his bride. In the end, the fairy who turned the gamekeeper into a vampire makes quick work of the evil fairy, and the Princess and the gamekeeper live happily every after.
This is the only version of Sleeping Beauty with both male and female fairies, and where time does not stand still, except for Sleeping Beauty. The scenery assumes many transitions, and we are treated to settings of the Late Victorian period, the Edwardian period and modern day; in Russia. But, even as time passes, the story is bound to the historic moment when the curse took effect and put the Princess to sleep. From then on, we deal with the past in the present, and some aspects of the story remain immutable. This is amplified by the fact that time has completely stopped for Sleeping Beauty. Even in the future, in her dreams, she remains in the past.
I love romance. It is the most veritable way to experience something unreal happening to us. In romance, we reach out to a fantasy that wasn’t instinctually real for us until then. We embrace this irrepressible feeling, even though it contradicts our natural urge to shelter ourselves from the unattainable, albeit with eager hesitation. Love always brings with it a sweet pain. And Gothic, with its excesses, elevates this feeling to an epic stature. It turns reality on its head, so that the improbable is probable and the real is unreal. It drops us where opposing qualities mingle and bring forth a pleasing terror.
Over the years, Gothic has evolved into male and female genres (mostly a separate female genre), with the former being associated with horror and the latter with terror.
In the female Gothic, where women write for women, the stories mostly cater to women’s suppressed desires. At the same time, they also play on their everyday fears of rape, abduction and violence; and remind them of their reality of being weaker, helpless and oppressed by men. The plot oscillates between reality and the supernatural, while often siding with one over the other. Many women authors favor “imagined evil” over the supernatural or “realistic evil”; the philosophy being that real terror arises from the voices in one’s own mind.
Even in the earliest gothic stories ever written (and by men), women were mostly depicted as being fearfully trapped, either physically in labyrinths, or mentally, because of their own discrepant impulses.
In male Gothic (as in, general Gothic), pain is mixed with pleasure to form a pleasing horror. The horror is considered pleasurable because of our awareness that the perception of fear is fictional. The stories heighten uncertainty and celebrate the immeasurable. The contemplation of the immeasurability arouses awe, while our inability to fathom it gives rise to displeasure.
I find that Sleeping Beauty is among the rare exceptions that transcends this distinction. Each version of the story fleshes out either the terror or the horror in the story, or both!
Mathew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty begins in 1890, the year that the original Sleeping Beauty ballet premiered in Russia. Interestingly, this time period was also the beginning of the century of Gothic fiction (or Fin de siècle). This was also the period of degeneration, when cynicism and pessimism among the people led to decadence. Gothic was everywhere, in art, in plays and operas, novels and short stories, and even newspapers.
This was the era of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Stoker’s Dracula, Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, and James’ Turn of the Screw. The 1900s was also when cinema was introduced to the larger mainstream, followed by radio and television. People began their visual assault of the next 125 years of cinema with fiction that had strong gothic elements. The malleable and fantastic nature of Gothic added to the magic of moving images. And because Gothic is the genre of Borrowings, which cannot be circumscribed to any one period or style, it helped address many cultural concerns. It blends romanticism with idealism, and individualism with societal decadence, and anything else that you want to add to the mix.
But, the story arc is almost always one of subversion. Set in the gloom of a cursed castle or strange world, the good people are at the mercy of dark powers, whose origin is shrouded. They lurk in the shadows, waiting for a ripe time to threaten the people into physical and mental dissolution using diabolical means. But, in the end, through bravery or deception, the hero vanquishes the evil and good prevails. (Unless it is Grimm’s Tales, in which case, the story may end with the children being eaten).
But, in Michel Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty with vampires and a princess hijacked by dreams, it is not the hero who vanquishes evil, but a fairy, because the hero isn’t even fully solid! His abhuman gothic body is as helpless as the Princess languishing in the unconscious world.
In a way, we relate to them, because we have at least in one point in our life experienced the state of being both alive and ‘not’; be it in our mother’s womb, or in our sleep or in some kind of unconsciousness. We have, through the use of hallucinogens or because of illness, experienced feeling out of control, and not feeling fully human. We have waited endlessly, and helplessly, for our loved one to be saved by a miracle. We viscerally remember this as we watch the plights of the Princess and the Gamekeeper.
There is something to say for the fact that these stories have eternal appeal. We keep readapting them with little changes to their basic features. This may be because they provide symbolic mechanisms to help us confront the anomalies and contradictions even in our modern times. And because they are set in haunting distance from us, they provide us with time-honored way to deal with our forbidden desires and deviant thoughts that we divorce ourselves from in real life.
Gothic allows us to transgress moral laws in a richly complex way. There is mental degeneration, spiritual corruption, selfish ambition and carnal desire, but they are all obscured of single meaning by a supernatural subtext. The supernatural allows us to take everything in without being troubled with moral judgment. But, when the story ends on a happy note, we are forced to assimilate the moral of the story; that transgression, even in its darkest form comes with dangers. Terror begins where the rules of social behavior are neglected. This helps restore moral lines. This story would have been entirely different if the king did not neglect to invite the evil witch who granted them a daughter, to her christening ceremony!
The ballet lends itself surprising well to this Gothic retelling of a fairytale. Gothic in many ways opposes the rigidity of classical ballet. Its aesthetic rules insist on unity and symmetry. But here, you see the dancers break rules, and embrace disarray, and play up the grandeur and magnificence of the gothic world.
While writing this post, I read that Bourne used About the Sleeping Beauty by PL Travers (a book that shares five versions of Sleeping Beauty) and Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (a book that analyses children's fairytales), for his research! I wonder if he decided that the original Sleeping Beauty plots had very little love, and too much macabre weirdness even for a Gothic retelling. Moreover, what would you make of a story where a Prince looks at a sleeping Princess for the very first time, and kisses her, and she wakes up and immediately agrees to marry him? Bourne was not impressed. Is love at first sight, with a comatosed Princess, or with a strange Prince who kisses you in your sleep, your thing? The impossible love between a commoner and royalty in a supernatural world is still far more Gothicy and realistic!
*Here is a list of some popular Sleeping Beauty versions: The Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault, Little Briar Rose and The Evil Mother-in-Law (split into two stories) by the Brothers Grimm, a story in Frayre de Joy e Sor de Placer (A14th century Catalan collection), ‘Troylus and Zellandine’ in the Perceforest, Sole, Luna e Talia in The Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile, Sleeping Beauty and her Children in Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales… and a gazillion other variants, not including adaptations in other non-literary mediums.
With all due respect, how many muslim superwomen comics will it take before the idea gets old? Back in September, I wrote about two comic series that have muslim superwomen - the New X-Men and Qahera. Apart from these two, both Marvel and DC comics have had quite a few muslim superheroes in the past. Now, Marvel’s Ms. Marvel will have a muslim teenager playing the lead, and is being touted as the first series with a female protagonist of Islamic background. Wrong.
I have never been one to keep up with the religious beliefs of superheroes. That Superman is Methodist or Nightcrawler is Catholic is extraneous information, which distracts from what makes them truly singular for me. But, if that type of information tickles your fancy, The Comic Book Religion website has a comprehensive compilation of the religious affiliations of superheroes. The “Religious Topics” link on the top left corner of the website with excerpts from various comic books makes for an interesting read.
Superhero comics are hardly celebrated for being secular. A majority of superheroes were created during various national and economic crises, and served as harbingers of hope. They spoke to the people’s collective needs, beliefs and attitudes; gave context to their identity and re-vitalized their pro-nationalist sentiments.
If the rise of Islamic superwomen comics is looked at from this context, it may be speaking to some kind of collective guilt. This may not be a bad thing, if it leads to prosocial behavior. But, when you begin to describe a protagonist mainly by their gender or religion, then you may be running the risk of soft-pedalling their other qualities, which as I pointed out earlier, would be equivalent to describing Superman as a methodist superhero above everything else. That to me is highly irritating. Having said that, I can live with us having many muslim superwomen over having none!
This short is in Hindi, and does not have subtitles, but it is fairly self-explanatory, and has a predictable, albeit reductive ending!
On the issue of self-defense, I have, and I suspect a lot of women have wondered if self-defense works against sexual assault. This 77-page report published by the National Institute of Justice suggests that struggling against the attacker is better than cooperating. Some self-defense techniques have shown to have reduced the risk of rape by more than 80% compared to nonresistance; and to have also helped victims with mental health recovery post-rape.
This is great advice. But, many can't seem to see beyond women having to find the resolve within themselves to deal with sexual harassment. Moreover, sexual harassment needs to be seen as, and dealt with, in the same law enforcement capacity by the police, as any other cognizable crime, like murder or kidnapping. If a locality has a lot of murder incidents, the solution is not to simply teach all the residents karate, but to increase surveillance, patrols, and other enforcement efforts, in addition to educating people on protecting themselves and respecting human dignity!
I always watch these short films on sexual harassment in the hope that they will show us something other than women standing up for themselves or arguing that they are not to blame for sexual harassment; not because these are not important, but because, by now, we should have moved beyond this to a more reasonable world!
Some of the magic of cinema is lost when you see it in layers, search out the parallels and center on what lurks behind the scenes. It is the type of intellectual distraction you want to save for after the movie is over, when the value of wonder is fully expended and the emotions that remained under the surface are safe to come out.
Allusions, by their very design, are not meant to be explicitly spelled out. They are like the painted cloth hung at the back of a stage, inconspicuously adding dimension and context. They work in the subconscious mind, while the action on the stage takes precedence. The unsaid is only potent when the more perceptible layers start to become transparent on their own, allowing light to pass through and reveal more of the core. You don't want to spend your whole experience of watching a play staring at the painted cloth and making sense of it. But, in La Sirga, you do just that. The whole story is laid out in the first few minutes. The rest of the movie focusses on the painted cloth!
The perceptible layer is the fragile wetlands of La Cocha, a glacial lagoon in the high Andes, surrounded by the mountains of the Knot of the Pastos. It’s a place of stunning beauty and the unspoiled charm of an isolated haven, trounced only by rain and wind.
In this lakeside village are indigenous people, working harmoniously to eke out a basic living breeding trout, extracting coal and growing veggies. There’s a broken-down Inn with rotting wooden floors and leaky ceilings, being prepped to open up for tourists, who may never come.
But, hidden behind this perceptible layer are the real untold stories of an armed conflict plaguing villages, the near extinction of a people facing economic dislocation, and their isolation, loneliness and lust that are barely repressible. The shadows of forces obliterating lives are ominously near. Fear is expressed through a quiet unease. Nothing need happen to transfer feelings, if danger is the only reality.
The Olympics choose the most frosty military dictatorship ever as their host country, even though their government is violently opposed to it. Their military chooses to retaliate against the Olympics by unleashing the most powerful bioweapons on the participants. The Olympics officials fight back by shutting down the country’s defense systems, but too late. The bioweapons nearly destroy the country, forcing the government to unleash some more bioweapons to tackle the ones they initially released, and are now at war with themselves. Through all this mayhem, the games continue on with the surviving participants. There are no rules. The participants are even allowed to kill each other, and some even play for the mafia fixing the matches (oddly, this is the only thing that’s illegal).
This is Redline.
It is the galaxy’s deadliest illegal auto-racing event that is held every five years in a secret location. This year, the racers are to compete on Roboworld, a supreme militarized planet ruled by cyborgs. Roboworld are patently unwelcoming and intend to kill all the racers if they choose to compete on their planet. But the Redliners are unfazed by the threat, and are out to have unmufflered fun. The government unleash a powerful bioweapon named Funky Boy on the racers, but it also destroys much of Roboworld and the surrounding planets. They then unleash a cyborg-Colonel-monster to counter their own Funky boy, causing more destruction! The racers continue through the mayhem, the audience continues to bet on the racers, and the mafia continues to fix the match. The racers whip out all sorts of powerful doohickeys and pull every trick in the book to hoodwink their competition.
By the end of the movie, the plot about the government blows up and fizzles on its own. It is as if they just meant to dramatically self-destruct themselves for no reason, while the people from other planets whoop it up on their turf through the whole skirmish, like the explosions around them are party confetti!
It is a bizarrely entertaining movie, with not a dull moment in it, and not a frame that looks unexceptional! There is a bricolage of many artistic styles whisked into one creative alloy; like a necklace with diamonds, Froot Loops and plastic beads. When you catch someone wearing it, you don’t ask why... unless you want to jack your happiness.
(I recommend watching it in Japanese with English subtitles)
The painting above is Bill Watterson's tribute to Petey Otterloop from Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac. It is Watterson's first public art in more than 15 years, and was done for Thompson's Parkinson's fundraising project that over hundred cartoonists contributed to.
Watterson is a very selective endorser. He's also a media recluse. So when I read his foreword praising Thompson's Cul de Sac, I was eager to read it just to see what was so special about it that made him not want to contain himself.
"I thought the best newspaper comic strips were long gone, and I've never been happier to be wrong. Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac has it all--intelligence, gentle humor, a delightful way with words, and, most surprising of all, wonderful, wonderful drawings.
Cul de Sac's whimsical take on the world and playful sense of language somehow gets funnier the more times you read it. Four-year-old Alice and her Blisshaven Preschool classmates will ring true to any parent. Doing projects in a cloud of glue and glitter, the little kids manage to reinterpret an otherwise incomprehensible world via their meandering, nonstop chatter. But I think my favorite character is Alice's older brother, Petey. A haunted, controlling milquetoast, he's surely one of the most neurotic kids to appear in comics. These children and their struggles are presented affectionately, and one of the things I like best about Cul de Sac is its natural warmth. Cul de Sac avoids both mawkishness and cynicism and instead finds genuine charm in its loopy appreciation of small events. Very few strips can hit this subtle note."
Apart from the foreword, the only other time I saw him in the news was also when he made the Petey Otterloop portrait!
"I thought it might be funny to paint Petey “seriously,” as if this were the actual boy Richard hired as a model for his character. At first I intended to do the picture in a dark, Rembrandt-like way to accentuate the “high art” of painting vs the “low art” of comics — the joke being that the comic strip is intelligent and the painting is idiotic — but the picture went through quite a few permutations as it developed.
I found it interesting how the comical distortions in a cartoony drawing become freakish and grotesque when they’re depicted more three-dimensionally. (You sometimes see this in computer rendering and animation.)
Anyway, by the end, I wasn’t sure whether the painting came out funny or creepy, but I hope it’s intriguing somehow. The result surprised me, so I enjoyed it."
So it is undeniable that Watterson is obsessed with Richard Thompson, and it is making him less reclusive.
Both artists will be featured in The Ohio State University's Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum’s new exhibition galleries from March 22 to July 6, 2014.
Mental Floss shared an except of a rare and exclusive interview with Bill Watterson on their website. The full interview will be published in the December issue of their magazine.
Also, next month, Dear Mr. Watterson, a documentary film about Bill Watterson will release in theaters, and video-on-demand. It is available for pre-order on their website.
While we are on the subject of binging on Bill Watterson, here are
His 2010 interview, (his first since 1989); and
His 1989 speech at The Ohio State University.
He offers a wealth of insight on everything from his work to comic art and comic business.
Manikarnika is a sacred ground in India that offers us the best chance to meet our maker at the end of our lives. There, we are laid southward, in "the direction of the dead," and set alight, till the fire consumes our body and liberates our soul. If this ritual is not done correctly, our spirit floats restlessly above the sacred earth, and haunts the living!
Among those ensuring out proper departure are children, who stoke our fire, collect our dropping limbs that detach from us and throw them back into the pyre. Some take a few hours to burn and some a whole day, depending on how much fat and sin we have accumulated. With bodies burning round-the-clock, a hundred at once, all lined up next to each other, the temperature rises to a 50° (122°). The children are covered in burnt pocks and wet ash from all the sweating, and reek of melting flesh and the fetor of a thousand bodies. It is unconscionable to touch them, or let their shadows fall on the living. If the priests don't volley abuses or whack these varmints, they pluck the shiny shrouds straight off our cold bodies from right under the priests' noses, and sell them to recyclers for scraps. They smoke marijuana to ward off the images of burning corpses that interfere with their minds when they work; some corpses escape into their dreams and scare them all night in spite of the dry high. They mock our departure, by imitating the priests and chanting nonsensical verses over unclaimed bodies that they find lying on the ghat. They candidly speak uncomfortable truths that expose our affectations. They know too much. But, it is when they dance uninhibitedly, that their spirits transcend to where our delicate souls cannot reach! Not even when we are tempered perfectly for departure. And so, we stay back to haunt them.
The documentary is available on Netflix to Watch Instantly.
Superman goes too close to the sun, which oversaturates his cells and cuts his life to a few days. But, in these last days leading up to his death, he is most fascinating. The radiation triples his strength and curiosity, and unleashes his inner Coco Chanel (or E). He develops a fancy for fashion, and goes native with his costume design.
On his first date with Lois Lane on her birthday, he wears a costume inspired by traditional Kryptonian formal wear, and gifts her a costume he wove using indestructible thread and a serum that gives her superpowers for 24 hours. They have a role-playing date that almost turns into a foursome with Samson and Atlas. It will make you wonder what in the Ultrasphinx’s name this sequence is all about. But there’s little sense to roleplaying and pretense to begin with. Logic is highly irrelevant here.
Superman fights Solaris in a white suit that filters out solar radiation. It proves to be ineffective, but more importantly, it tells us that he always fancied wearing a fencing suit and looks spiffy in it.
When he shows Lois to a room full of artifacts, she remarks that she didn’t know he collected modern art; to which he responds, “Actually, I do, but this is the armory”; an armory full of incredibly destructive weapons including some that can hurt him. The point to note here is that Superman collects modern art. The tour of his armory feels like peeking into a museum’s vault and seeing one-of-a-kind objects locked from public view.
Superman’s creative side alone makes the story interesting. But, what makes it the best Superman story ever, is that everyone takes a U-turn in it. Everyone is a runway model strutting down to the end of the ramp, posing, turning back, and walking out.
Clark Kent reveals to Lois Lane that he is Superman. Now, you would think, Lois Lane who likes Clark Kent and loves Superman would be happy to reconcile the mild-mannered human and the strapping superhero as one person, but she instead, goes one hundred percent psycho and deludes herself into thinking Superman is in fact an evil human-harvesting nut-job who wants to impregnate her to create a race of super-children; so she attempts to kill him with Kryptonite. All the years of her adulation for Superman is reduced to distrust in a very peripeteian, existential way. Aristotle calls this Anagnorisis, where a character makes a discovery about someone that leads to love or hate, or in this case Hamartia, or accidental wrongdoing.
Throughout the story, Superman preaches humanity, empathy and forgiveness, that he was taught by his Earth parents. First, he preaches “humanity” to Lex Luthor after he poisons him; then he preaches “humanity” to his Krypton kins, Bar-El and Lilo after they tear down the statue of his parents and make plans to take over Earth; But, when Solaris destroys Sun-eater, his cute pet, Superman flies off the handle! He pummels Solaris, drags him down to Earth, and when he begs for mercy, Superman says “I don’t think I have any left!” and delivers a deadly blow both to Solaris and to “humanity”. U-turn!
Lex Luthor hates Superman because next to his “sickening inhuman perfection” even Lex Luthor’s greatness is overshadowed. Lex Luthor flaunts his “real muscle” to Clark Kent, that he takes pride in as not being is a “gift of alien biochemistry”. But, in the end, he consumes the 24-hour super-power serum that he steals from Superman, and waxes lyrical about being able to see the world as Superman does. “The fundamental forces are yoked by consciousness. Everything’s connected. Everyone.” And then, in that moment of revelation, he agrees with Superman that if saving the world mattered to him, he could have done so years ago.
In the end, when Superman dies and literally becomes one with the Sun, Lex Luthor calls Dr. Quintum and makes a literal confession, “Forgive me, doctor, for I have sinned.” (allusively referring to a previous scene where he ridicules the Padre who blesses him before his execution. “...may the Lord, in his love and mercy, help you” “Get away from me, Padre. You stink of the irrational”), and shares Superman’s genetic code that he reverse-engineered from the super-serum that can replicate him. “But, of course, it will require an ovum from a healthy human woman.” U-turn becomes :O-turn!
By now, I suspect nothing is healthy about a pigeon-feeding Lois Lane, who looks positively non compos mentis, as she assures herself that Superman is fixing the Sun. But, it’s decided that it’s she who will bear the next generation of Superhumans, and that’s that!
There are others in the story who made U-turns as well.
Solaris partners with Lex Luthor, because he wants to eat the Earth’s sun and replace it in the sky. But, he chooses to betray Lex Luthor before Lex Luthor has a chance to betray him. That double-crossing Sun of a Gun!
Robot 7, who loyally serves Superman in his secret pad, malfunctions when Solaris overrides his program, making him steal the super-serum for Luthor. But, in the end Solaris sacrifices himself to atone for betraying Superman.
Bar-El rebuffs Superman for disguising his greatness and “cavorting with the apes as one of their own” and ‘showing no dignity”. But, when both Bar-El and Lilo are saved by Superman, Bar-El says “Kal-El, son of Krypton, I am proud to call you my kin. Our greatness lives on in you.” U!
The whole story is a homily on truth. After all the years that Lois Lane spent trying to prove that Clark Kent was Superman, when he unceremoniously rips his shirt to reveal his blue unitard with the legit S-symbol and all, she plays Evey Hammond to Superman’s V. Why did he lie? Why he did he reveal his truth? And V says “...artists use lies to tell the truth. Yes, I created a lie, but because you believed it, you found something true about yourself.” As we find out, the truth about herself was so not all that it’s cracked up to me!
Superman’s truth on the other hand, is that he is Clark Kent. He is Kal-el. He is Superman.
But, as Lex Luthor teases Clark Kent, does the farmbody with brains and integrity, become “a parody of a man, a dullard, a cripple” when Superman is around? Or as Bar-el points out, has Superman always been the son of Jor-el, “a weak man”, “an ineffectual dreamer”, and therefore, has Kal-el also always been Clark Kent!
Lex Luthor who does not believe in truth, says “there are alternatives to truth, justice and all the other things you can't weigh or measure. To every abstract notion [Superman] personifies.” He says there are alternatives to what one can do with powers, other than help. We learn in this story, that pne can make indestructible costumes and collect modern art from all over the universe, and have Sun-eaters as pets!
(I recommend watching the movie and reading the book, for the artwork)
Walter White is Sméagol, the Stoor Hobbit. He becomes ensnared by the Ring and turns into Gollum, a slimy, sneaky creature consumed by greed and deceit. It is the Ring that prolongs his life far beyond its natural span and drives him to live under the Misty Mountains.
Walter White is Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis. The Three Witches prophesize that he will become a king. He assumes this to mean invincibility. He kills King Duncan of Scotland with his wife’s aid and takes over the throne and eliminates everyone who threatens his power, until his savage acts render his own life hollow and irredeemable.
Walter White is Satan, the rebel-angel fallen from Heaven, who vows to overthrow God and corrupt his beloved creation. He deceives Adam and Eve, first as a cherub, then as a cormorant, then as a toad, and finally as a serpent, succeeding only to become trapped in his own disguise, and robbed of speech and admirers with whom he can share his triumph.
Water White is Frankenstein, who creates a hideous monster. Unable to take back his creation, he rejects him, with little consideration for consequences. The monster casts himself as a miserable victim, overlooked and desperate. He kills everyone he and Frankenstein love.
Walter White is Dr. Jekyll, and Heisenberg is Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll’s dark side, a repulsive creature, free of moral conscience. Only, over time, Dr. Jekyll finds himself spontaneously turning into Mr. Hyde and becoming more and more trapped in his body. Eventually, he entirely loses his ability to change back to Dr. Jekyll and kills himself.
Water White is Ozymandias, the King of Kings. Where once he stood mighty and full of hubris, he now stands as a ruined statue; his life’s work reduced to dust. His legs remain in the lone and leveled desert sand, with a boastful inscription on the pedestal. He cannot see that everything he has created is gone, rendering his pride absurd!
Water White is a milquetoast college teacher, who comes face and face with mortality, falls to misfortune, and fights it with chemistry! He enters the drug world, and lets ambition alienate him, misery consume him, duty validate him, vengeance misguide him, and hubris feed him, until he loses all moral scruples and descends into a hell of his own making. Fate found itself in his choking grip. But, in the end, no one gets away with anything, not even Walter White.
"He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you." – Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Walter White Will Get a Real Funeral
My preferred relationship stories are the non-romantic kinds that are born out of exceptional circumstances.
I read that there are five stages to any relationship development. The first stage is acquaintanceship, when two people make first impressions; The second stage is buildup, when they display warm feelings towards each other; The third stage is continuation, when they show commitment to growing the relationship; The fourth stage is deterioration, when boredom and bad feelings lead to a downward spiral; and The fifth stage is termination, when all ties are severed!
I like when relationship stories threaten to enter the fourth stage, but somehow find a way to undo all harm and end on a happy note. It is rarely that one is able to accept another's flaws, or see it as being up to them to make things interesting. I am always looking to find that kind of love in non-romantic relationships both in my life and in stories. Sadly, in my life, Fours seldom turn to Threes. Happily, this movie is a special gem.
(Other recent movies and TV shows that I am thinking of as I write this are: Fan Chan (My Girl); Breaking Bad; and Lonesome Dove)
Every once in a while, I watch something that blows my mind, but makes me feel like it’s blowing someone else’s mind even more. The Matrix Trilogy is one such work. It can be appreciated on many levels; and on each level, one can go as deep as one chooses.
There are gazillion books and websites delving deep into the ideas behind the Matrix. It makes for a great take-off point for all kinds of philosophizing. Before I read the Philosophy Behind the Matrix Trilogy, I wanted to map out my own impressions of the trilogy. I see the first movie as being about reality, the second about choice, and the third about liberation through sacrifice.
A lot of religious and non-religious existentialist philosophy is about the discovery of reality. In eastern religious philosophy we are taught that the world around us is an illusion or Maya. It is through Maya that the universe becomes manifest. In truth, the self cannot be seen or heard, but known; and there is no reality outside of the self! At the end of each life, our body returns to the cosmos: our eyes to the sun, our flesh to earth, our fluids to water, our breath to air, and our mind to space; and they may join again and manifest themselves as other objects or beings! But when our soul is liberated, it merges into the transcendent Self (the divine)! The self therefore isn’t in the body or the mind. It can only be discovered through knowing. And by knowing the self, one knows its creator, and understands reality, and liberates oneself.
In the first movie, Neo begins his path of knowing. He learns that he and most other humans have been living in virtual reality, and are neurally connected to a computer-simulated world called Matrix created by the machines, where all their digital projections live in what they assume is the real world. You can say that the machines put all the humans in a dream state to use their bodies as energy sources for their needs. Guarding this simulated world are programs called Agents, who terminate humans who wake up to realize that they are living a false reality!
Descartes, the french philosopher, speaks of an evil demon whose whole purpose is to mislead humans. He creates a complete illusion of an external world, and makes us believe in falsehoods. But it is impossible for us to be certain that such a demon exists or that we aren’t dreaming because the demon is capable of manipulating logic.
But in the Matrix trilogy, some humans have managed to escape captivity, either through self-substantiation, or by being woken up by other free humans. They live in the hidden city of Zion far below Earth’s surface that the machines are trying to get to. In Judaism and other western religions, Zion or Jerusalem, is believed to be the seat of the Holy temple from where reality emerges.
Among these free humans, are some freedom-fighters who are looking to fight the machines and release all other humans from the Matrix; except not all humans are ready to leave the illusory world, and are happy to live in ignorance.
Buddhism teaches us that all things arise from dependence upon twelve conditions, which trap humans in a cycle of illusion. One condition is our craving for sensory experiences and the desires those experiences produce. The programs in the Matrix are designed to provide these sensory experiences. But, they will only work as long as humans believe what they perceive to be real as in fact real, and choose ignorance (Blue Pill) over enlightenment (Red Pill). If the human mind is freed, the programs illusory sensory experiences will have no effect on them. But the draw of samsara is so strong that even the enlightened sometimes are lured back into it. We see this happen in the story to Cypher and Mouse!
It is prophesied by the Oracle that Neo is “The One” who will release all humans from captivity. So he is woken up from the Matrix by Morpheus, the leader of the freedom-fighters and brought on Nebuchadnezzar, the hovercraft to learn his truth and train to fight the machines!
Neo is a reluctant hero. Even though everyone around him sees him as a savior, he behaves like the prisoner in Plato’s cave, who has lived all his life shackled facing the cave’s wall, not being able to recognize his own shadow. And when he is released from prison, he sees the world for the first time, and experiences denial and distress. The truth seems untrue, even though he recognizes the falsehood he has lived to be false. And then he comes to accept the truth of the real world, and the truth of the Matrix, and find his place in both with the help Morpheus and the Oracle.
The truth of the Matrix is one of Subjective Idealism; that all objects are ideas in the minds of its perceivers. One’s Reality is therefore dependent on one’s subjective perception of the world. One cannot change what does not exist, but can look in themselves and bring about change.
And as Neo accepts this truth, he frees his mind of the limitation of the self, and bends the rules of the Matrix. He becomes strong, agile, acquires many combat abilities and fighting styles, uses telekineses, and precognition.
Buddhism teaches us that a man’s emancipation depends on his own realization of the Truth. But while some bodhisattvas walk the path of enlightenment, some others postpose their enlightenment to liberate others through guidance. The Oracle and the freedom-fighters epitomize this compassion. Rather than remain outside the matrix, they choose to re-enter it as ambassadors of knowledge with the goal of freeing the minds of those who are trapped within it.
Both Morpheus and the Oracle tell Neo that they can only show him the door, but he has to see the Matrix, recognize the truth for himself, and choose to walk the path. There is a difference in knowing the path and walking it.
In eastern philosophy, we learn that humans see themselves as one unit, one being, because of their ego. But in reality, we are millions of cells each as alive and responsive as the whole that it helps create. But, if each cell grows an independent sense of self, it would threaten the symbiotic framework that allows for it to join other cells in the creation of one human.
But perhaps the illusion is that one need cells to come together to create a human. When in fact, Programs have no cells, but still are complex and autonomous and practically indistinguishable from humans; and in a sense free from the illusory constraints that have humans trapped in the Matrix. They are like Simulacrum.
There are two kinds of Simulacrum in art. One kind attempts faithful duplication of the original, and the other kind creates a distortion with the intention of making it appear faithful to the original. The machines and Agents are the latter type of Simulacrum. They are the humans without their fatal flaws (even though they are seen to exhibit some qualities such as anger, resentment, fear of death or deletion).
Humans created sentient machines, but failed to acknowledge that they too have their ‘truth’, or allow symbiotic bond of mutual advantage. Instead, humans chose to destroy the machines all together. But, in a turn of fate, the machines won the war and humans ended up having to live a perverse, pretentious reality, a simulacrum of the real world, controlled by the machines! It is a case of Simulacra challenging the privileged position of the original and winning; and reversing the roles of the creator and the creation.
By the end of the film, Neo fights the Agents, and is defeated by them only to be resurrected, as is unsurprising for a ‘savior’. The Oracle had foretold the return of The One who has the ability to manipulate the Matrix. As Morpheus explains, the return of this man "would hail the destruction of the matrix, end the war, bring freedom to our people. That is why there are those of us who have spent our entire lives searching the Matrix, looking for him." Both the Oracle and Morpheus believe that Neo is a reincarnation of that man.
But, the Oracle only tells people what they want to believe. She is aware that the choices they make based on that belief will lead to the future she foresees. All she needs to do is set them up to make those choices, by planting a thought in their minds, or giving them cookies of information that push them in the right direction and provide them with an impetus to follow the path to the future she foresees. She helps Neo realize that he is The One by allowing him to believe he is not. In the process he follows a path of sacrifice essential to the success of her plan.
In the second movie, the machines have located the hidden city of Zion, and are coming in full force to attack it. We learn that the Oracle is part of the Matrix, and in fact instrumental in creating this version of the matrix, which adds a new layer of suspicion. She primes Neo to find an exiled Keymaker who will take him to the Architect of the Matrix.
The Keymaker makes keys used by all the programs in the Matrix, and knows every backdoor and hidden place, including the location of the Architect. One may see his purpose is as providing keys that activate higher consciousness. Higher Consciousness as a spiritual philosophy refers to the knowledge of the Ultimate Reality or a union with the maker. But, when the Keymaker outlived his purpose in the Matrix, he was ordered to be terminated. Instead, he chose to live in exile protected by The Merovingian, also known as The Frenchman.
A background. When the Source first designed the Matrix, he created Utopia, a perfect world where humans knew no suffering. The world was akin to Hesiod, the Greek poet’s description of the Golden Age. Hesiod shared that prior to our present era, there were four Ages of Man, each more perfect than the one before. The oldest of them was the Golden Age, when men lived like Gods, free from toil and grief, and everything was in abundance, and peace and harmony prevailed. Also in Hinduism, the First and Perfect Age was Krita Yuga, when humans had no worldly desires and lived without hate, fear, sorrow or disease. But, humans in the Matrix could not accept such a world, and many died.
In the second version of the Matrix, The Source created an imperfect world full of evil and suffering. He introduced The Merovingian, a powerful program to rein humans in, by making them slaves to causality. Every human was just another link in the chain. All their actions were predetermined like automated puppets in a toy world. Humans could not handle this unfree world and rejected it. This Matrix was shelved, but the Merovingian did not have to face deletion. He continues to thrive and run an underworld mafia that traffics information and protects obsolete programs from deletion.
The current, and most successful iteration of the Matrix was created to rectify the second by adding the illusion of choice, so that humans can feel like they are driving their actions, even though the truth is far from it. The Oracle designed it with a keen understanding of the human psyche.
Most of the Matrix trilogy exemplifies how reality plays out as three philosophies try to pull ahead of each other. It is a tug-of-war between Merovingian’s Causality and the Oracle’s Choice; The Source’s purpose of balancing equations and the Oracle’s purpose of unbalancing them; and The Merovingian wanting to see the future and the Source wanting to control it.
The Merovingian is disillusioned by the idea of choice amongst humans, and demonstrates that it is not choice but causality that is the true nature of existence. ‘Why’ is the only real source of power. ‘Why’ is also the Aristotelian way of gaining knowledge.
The Merovingian is an adherent of Karma, whereas the Oracle is the advocate of Free Will; but in fact both Karma and Free Will are two sides of the same coin. At one point, the Oracle even tells Neo that he is not here to make a choice, but to understand why he made it.
The Keymaker shows Neo the path to the Architect. On meeting the Architect, Neo learns that he carries the source code because of which, he is able to bend the Matrix. If he does not return to the Source to reboot the Matrix, the Matrix will crash and kill the humans connected to it. This choice was presented to five Neos before, and they all chose to save humanity! Whereas the current Neo chooses to remain outside and save his lover Trinity instead, and changes the way the Matrix works!
This is a change brought in by the Oracle, who in her long study of the human psyche understands that falling in love is what drives the actions of humans; who in guarding the interest of one are capable of forging all of humanity on a new path.
When the Architect’s prediction about Neo turns out to be false, the Oracle explains that he cannot see past any choices. To him everything is a variable in an equation and that must be balanced on both sides; just the same as the Oracle’s purpose is to unbalance them. She does this by allowing The Anomaly (name given to Neo by the machines) to grow. The counters Neo with his opposite, Agent Smith.
In the third movie, Neo learns the lesson that liberty comes through sacrifice. Oracle sacrifices herself to Smith. Neo sacrifices himself to Smith. And all the women sacrifice or risk themselves for all the men! By now, the war isn't between those humans and machines, but between those who are preoccupied with what Smith calls the ‘vagaries of perception’, such as love, empathy and sacrifice, and those who are not.
The Oracle herself seems to have adopted love and empathy. Not love as a human emotion, but as a profound connection, as exemplified by Rama-kandra and Kamala for Sati. The Oracle agrees to trade her shell to the Merovingian in exchange for letting Sati go free. But in fact, it was also her choice to save humanity, that costed her Merovingian’s revenge, for leading Neo to the Keymaker.
It was empathy that changed the Oracle’s purpose to ending the war. The path she sends Neo on, helps him appreciate the sentience of machines, therefore aligning his purpose with hers.
Love is also the fuel that makes the freedom-fighters risk their lives for another, thereby putting events into action. It is love that makes Neo and Trinity save each other’s lives, that makes Niobe help Morpheus and Zee help Link, and that inspires The Merovingian’s wife Persephone to help Neo.
When Smith is destroyed by Neo, he becomes disconnected from the system and is able to defy programming and remain free. But, he feels like a victim of purpose and wants to destroy everything: the Humans, the Machines, and the Matrix. ‘Purpose’ is the final of the four Aristotelean causes. Aristotle believed that it is a cause that ties all beings, not just humans, and is without any form of deliberation, consciousness or intelligence. For instance, animals make choices by a different kind of deliberating agent or faculty than humans, which he calls ‘purpose’. Likewise, the final cause of a seed is the adult plant that it wants to become. And it is this final cause of becoming a plant that brings the seed about.
Smith’s final cause is to fight purpose, which he has always felt a victim of. It is this cause that brings about his invicible avatar, where he copies himself into others and acquires their abilities and ultimately takes over the Matrix with the intention of destroying it . All his actions there on are formal causes that help fulfill the final cause.
Neo convinces Deus Ex Machina, the central interface in the Machine City, to stop the sentinels from destroying the humans on Zion and to help him destroy Smith because he is about to destroy everything, which is a problem for both humans and machines. So the machines apply the ‘lesser evil’ principle and jack Neo in to face Smith. A wicked fight ensues between Neo and Smith.
Just as Smith sees the end, he also sees Neo not relenting. He asks Neo “Why, Mr. Anderson? Why do you do it? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you're fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Yes? No? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. The temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can't win. It's pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?” And Neo says “Because I choose to.”
It all comes down to choice. Well, in fact, it all comes down to the Oracle’s choice. She played everyone with her cookies. Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, The Merovingian and The Architect.
The Closing credits is a mantra from the Upanishads.
Asato Maa Sad-Gamaya |
Tamaso Maa Jyotir-Gamaya |
Mrtyor-Maa Amrtam Gamaya |
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||
Lead us from Unreality to the Reality
Lead us from the Darkness to the Light,
Lead us from the Fear of Death to the Knowledge of Immortality.
Peace, Peace, Peace.
That about covers one level!
In 2005, when Hal Lasko, a traditional painter, became vision-impaired, he switched to MS Paint and has since created more than 150 digital works of art. His blindness prevents him from viewing his own paintings in their totality, but he continues to work on them pixel by pixel.
He recites Joyce Kilmer's poem Trees.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
But only God can make a tree.
Why hasn't God ever made a pixel painting?
Wired Article: This 98-Year-Old Man Spent 13 Years Creating Remarkable Art in MS Paint
The first time I was stupefied at what qualifies as a museum was when I visited the vomit-inducing Health Museum in Hyderabad and was surrounded by decomposed foetuses begging for formaldehyde. Two decades later, I read that the place was still running without power supply, stinking of sixty-year-old decomposed bodies and the artifacts were accumulating dust mounds and grime. It sounded like the perfect place to observe how bodies putrefy over time! Over the years, I have stretched my definition of a museum, but nothing has challenged my finer feelings as much as this Health Museum! I am inclined to think, the Living Dead museum in Pennsylvania is more happily dead.
In fact, the museums that I find positively mind-boggling these days, such as the International Spy Museum in DC, the Homeless Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Bad Art in Massachusetts, may never qualify as museums in Hyderabad. There is also the Museum of Toilets in Delhi that sounds irresistible.
I am happy to note that exhibitions in museums are progressively becoming dramatic art forms. They are as much about the exhibits on display as they are about artistic expression, storytelling, and immersion. Few days ago, I was in the Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec, where I travelled to La Belle Époque in Paris. The music played on the headphones, and the narration spontaneously changed depending on which boulevard I found myself in. I walked into playhouses and cafes, explored the circuses and theatres, visited les salons d’artistes, and climbed to the first level of the Eiffel tower to catch the view of the city during Les Expositions Universelles! The exhibition, Paris en Scène (1889-1914), has over 250 artifacts on display, from theatrical costumes to photographs and film clips, and posters and paintings, and sculptures, and artistic technology and automobiles. But, as I stopped to look at them, I disremembered that I was in a museum. I was window-shopping in a real city!
This brings me to my present rumination on what constitutes as a museum. In my view, the sole purpose of museums is to immortalize ‘ideas and objects’ (artifacts). Immortalizing is not just about collecting and preserving artifacts to eternity, but is about making them larger than life. This is done by weaving narratives around them, and by simulating and augmenting their reality in our world through presentation. In a museum, I see what I cannot see anywhere else; or I see what I see everywhere else in a way that I can only see in a museum! As it often happens when one interprets the world to induce awe and wonder, one either creates or uses an art form or an artistic tool!
The Ultimate Dinosaurs exhibit in The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto has some of the rarest dinosaurs and prehistoric animals from South America and Africa. When the dinosaurs are viewed through a tablet or phone, their bones suddenly appear covered with flesh and skin, and they move as if they are alive! The PaleoLab in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburg lets us see how dinosaur fossils are prepared for exhibit! One can also pretend to be a preparator and remove fossils from rocks, and clean and repair them using the hammers, chisels and brushes that scientists use.
Apart from the Paris exhibition, the Musée de la Civilisation also has a Game Story exhibition showcasing video games from the 1950s to our times organized by historical periods (some spanning two decades, and some five or six years). The exhibition feels no different from a video game parlor, except that I was time-travelling as I played games from different eras; and the variety of games and technology, and their advancements over time felt staggering.
This brings me to my question. Is a museum a museum if most of the exhibits on display are available for sale in regular stores? The Cartoon Art museum in San Francisco has a lovely collection of new and old comic books, arranged in different rooms by themes. The display resembles the 'Recommended by Staff' sections in bookstores. When I visited it a few weeks ago, the museum was celebrating the 75th anniversary of Superman. As I waded through the various eras and delighted in Superman’s many avatars over the seven decades, I also found myself quickly adding a lot of those books to my wishlist on Amazon. For the first time in my life, I could afford to buy museum artifacts and bring the exhibition home with me. The exhibition at the museum ended day before yesterday, but some part of it is on my bookshelf for my own private viewing pleasure.
Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass) trilogy speaks of a multiverse with many earths parallel to each other. In some earths, people’s souls live inside their bodies. In others, they walk beside them as animals spirits called Daemons. Flowing through all the worlds and connecting people to their souls is Dust. Dust is the living essence of everything. It confers wisdom on all that it settles on. And while it is invisible to most, there are some who can see Dust and identify other sentient creatures with its help! On our earth, we call these people Birders.
One will find Birders in Central Park, a haven in the heart of the city, where two hundred and eighty species of birds visit every year. Some birds and their birders visit the park in every season, but most others visit it in Spring in Fall, when the leaves on trees are their vibrant best. When dawn breaks, millions of birds fly past Manhattan and a few thousand drop down from the sky for a morning snack. If you happen to walk in Central Park on such a Spring morning, you might find at least a hundred different bird species, and just as many birders perambulating in the park. Time has different meanings for all of them. Time is the changes to the foliage, it is the migration of birds, their travel and feeding schedules; it stand still for one, crawls for another, flutters for the third, and zips for the fourth...
The birders believe these birds are their souls. They say when they are not birding, they are missing out on something in an “almost bodily way”. It is as if they are part of the flock and need to be out there with them. It’s a deep impulse that presents itself as an addiction. “That sense of anxiousness, impatience, unease, that can only be stilled by getting over to the park, getting a binoculars and seeing the first warbler of the morning.” You could say they use the binoculars to look into their souls, and to look within themselves and feed their insides. Sometimes they use bird feeders, which seems to me the more direct approach.
Some birders seem to think the binoculars makes them defenseless, because they are looking at something that nobody else is looking at. They seem to think their souls are less corporeal to others; although, there is no evidence to support that.
They also seem to think the birds are more cooperative in Central Park than anywhere else. Lloyd Spitalnik says that one might find a yellow-throated warbler sixty to eighty feet away from a human at a breeding ground. But in Central Park, she might get within three of four feet of a birder. Conceivably (no pun-intended), breeding grounds are like restrooms, necessitating privacy. They are off limits even if a bird builds its nest at the Shakespeare Delacorte Theatre, on Juliet’s chest with Romeo looking down at it; or on the ledge of a fancy fifth avenue apartment building.
But, in Central Park, they seem manifestly metaphysically connected and can't seem to distance themselves from their humans for too much or too long. Birds and birders are awake and asleep at the same time (except from the birds of witches and shamans that remain awake even when their humans sleep and can fly five thousand miles in the pitch dark of the night away from their humans). Sometimes, the souls of birders change forms spontaneously. In the Spring, a birder’s daemon may be a Downy Woodpecker, in the Summer a Mountain Bluebird, in the Fall a Brambling, in the Winter a Western Grebe. In this documentary, they identify their daemons of the season for us.
“Bay-breasted Warbler. Boreal Owl, Gray Catbird. Hermit Thrush. Indigo Bunting. Wood Duck.”
“Worm-eating Warbler. Yellow-throated Warbler. Oven Bird. Northern Shoveler. Black-headed Gull. Blackpoll Warbler”
You see Anya Auerbach wistfully watching the birds and remembering her bird daemons. She speaks of how "alive, active, beautiful and varied" birds are... and it makes her feel protective of them, like she doesn’t want them scared. One wonders if she is projecting her own fears on the birds, and then one realizes that she and the birds are one and the same. They are her daemons, made of the same Dust! She dreamt just before one Spring-migration that every single migrant bird was perched on the same tree and it made her "so happy". Clearly, they are her past daemons paying her a visit, and assimilating themselves into a whole.
Central Park is an artificially created environment in 843-acres of land in the middle of an urban jungle. It has become real overtime by the sheer magic of Dust. Dust has settled on humans who manage the landscape, the birds and birders, the millions of people who visit on a daily basis, the transportation... Every little part of it, the greenery, the insects, the fungus, the soil has been put there by humans. The ponds and lakes and streams in them have water coming out of a hidden pipe under a rock, that can be turned off with the flick of a switch. But, it is not just Central Park; there is no place unmanaged by Dust. There is no land in the United States that is not managed to some degree or another. Even some of our most wild national parks and wildlife refuges have management underway, controlling the water levels in lakes and rivers, the vegetation of the place, the animal population… What is to say, this is not how it is meant to be? But then, there is extinction. Nearly a quarter of the species of birds have declined more than 50% in the last 40 years. Some dark matter is severing birders from their bird souls and wilfully killing joy. When it comes to birding, Joy is a very specific pursuit.
Chris Cooper speaks of the seven joys of birding.
- Experiencing the beauty of the birds: It is not narcissism when one appreciates the beauty of one’s own soul;
- Being in a natural setting: EO Wilson calls this Biophilia. We instinctively bond with nature and need it around us to feel more like ourselves.
- Puzzle-solving: Sometimes a birder’s daemon never shows itself fully. As it hides behind the leaves, birders piece it together to identify the bird that is their daemon;
- Collecting birds: As old daemons give way to new, birders collect them as memories and recollect them in their leisure time.
- Scientific discovery: In the Golden Compass, this is called Experimental Theology. When it comes to Dust, science converges with spirituality.
- Hunting without bloodshed: A birder often has to stalk his daemon to get to it.
- Unicorn effect: Sometimes birders become familiar with their bird daemons and develop a sense of intimacy with them, without ever seeing them. So they take on a mythological status and the birders wonder if they even exist. It’s what we call “soul-searching”. And then, one day, a daemon appears like a Unicorn came walking out of the forest.
- But, it won't be long before birds are imaginary and the Joy of pursuit is extinct. Respire by Mickey 3D reminds us such a world.
A special mention for Starr Saphir, the “matriarch” of birding, featured in this documentary. She had been leading bird walks in Central Park for over twenty years. You see her striding through the park with such love for the birds, and with such determination to meet as many of them as she could. She kept diaries (eighty in total) for many decades to note down the birds she saw everyday. One day, a Northern Goshawk landed on her apartment’s fire escape! She exclaimed “A bird appears in front of you in the most unlikely place or time!” and called it “the beauty where there wasn’t a moment before. It was so thrilling. It’s like magic.” Starr counted 2,582 different species of birds in her lifetime. Wherever she is, there's her favorite Cerulean Warbler by her side and a Northern Goshawk visiting to say hello. It must be magical place!
Sooraya Qadir (Dust) is a young Afghan Sunni Muslim mutant, with Sandman-like powers. She is rescued by Wolverine from slave trade in Afghanistan and brought to X-Mansion for training. She wears the abaya and niqab and observes traditional Islamic etiquette.
She is one of those characters who plays a prominent role in New X-Men and Young X-Men series, and saves the day on many occasions; still, most of the conversation around her is about her defending her faith-based choices; One wonders what motivated the writers to think up her character, in an otherwise secular series.
Most of this dialogue on Islamic faith is intriguing for several reasons.
One, because it happens over many volumes. Sooraya to everyone is a muslim before she is a mutant.
Two, because Sooraya's character was conceived right after 9/11.
Three, because it adds a new slant to the dialogue about hypersexualization and objectification of female superheroes in comics.
Four, because, in a world where mutants are misunderstood and discriminated against by humans, this discussion seems a bit captious.
Five, because the comic offers little information about the beliefs of other X-Men characters' from other parts of the world that are specific to their culture!
Six, because her faith is presented as being restrictive, and she as being one-dimensional, which is lamentable given she is an adolescent girl!
Seven, because it makes me deliberate on the similarity between the typical superhero costume and the hijab in relation to both secret and self-evident identities, visual iconography and symbolism!
The good news is, we now have another perky hijabi superhero in a more real, non-X-men universe! Qahera, an Eqyptian superwoman, fights misogyny, Islamophobia, and offers her own brand of droll humor.
I recommend using the Index to navigate through the Qahera comic strips and FAQs!
It takes twenty-odd pages of vivid graphics for a delightful acquaintance with MS Subbulakshmi. Within those 20-odd pages, you can also get a glimpse of other musical vidwans, freedom-fighters, artists, writers and spiritual leaders who shaped her life's work for nearly ninety years;
For me, this graphic biography kindled some derivative nostalgia. MS Subbulakshmi sang a few times in my ancestral house in Madras, including at my maternal grandparents' wedding. To me, this fact alone makes her next to kin. My grandmother's admiration for MS however was more heartfelt. To her, MS's sweet countenance and cultured disposition, her humility when she interacted with people, her devotion as she lost herself to music, and her complete and unreserved generosity inspired reverence.
During the time of my grandmother's wedding, MS was already married to Thiagaraja Sadasivam, a film producer, writer and freedom fighter. She also gained national recognition after her performance as Narada (a male role) in the film Savitri, and Meera in the film Meera. Her acting career was driven by her desire to raise money for Kalki, a Nationalist tamil magazine founded by her husband and Kalki Krishnamurthy.
To me, Kalki was the wellspring of some of the greatest historical novels ever written: Sivakamiyin Sapatham, Partiban Kanavu and Ponniyin Selvan. The first two epics were set in 7th century AD when the Pallava dynasty (Later Pallavas) was ruling southern India; and the last one was set in the 10th century AD when the Chola Dynasty (Later Cholas) was ruling southern India. All three epics are about romance and statecraft and beautifully bind real historical events with fiction.
Kalki was an offshoot of some pro-Tamil movements that MS too was a part of. For instance, the Tamil Isai Movement started by Annamalai Chettiar in the 1940s popularized tamil songs in concerts; most of the songs being sung in concerts up until then were in telugu and sanskrit. No other movement did better to delineate the link between language and class than the Tamil Isai movement; especially because classical music (Karnataka sangita), which was championed by the Music Academy, was brahmin-dominated; whereas Tamil Isai Sangam was advanced mostly by non-Brahmins (even though Kalki himself was a brahmin). Kalki fuelled the movement with its persuasive rhetoric, and MS lent her support to this cause by singing at the Tamil Isai Sangam, and later encouraging The Music Academy to acquiesce to tamil songs.
For all that, MS wasn't a tamil purist. She sang in many Indian languages (Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati, Malayalam, Bengali, Urdu, and Sanskrit) and was particular about pronunciation and spent time understanding the meaning (bhava) behind the songs. She was also the first to introduce Carnatic music to the West and performed in many Indian languages and Indian classical music genres all over the world!
She was a devoted wife, who unquestioningly accepted her husband's reformist convictions and his desire to challenge social taboos; this also meant donating all her life's earnings to charitable causes. In the end, they were badly off; even though they were lauded for their altruism.
The illustrated biography recounts all this and more. The anecdotes in the book, of MS's childhood are particularly appealing because they call to mind a way of life that saw its end in our time. No nadaswaram player will walk up to our doorstep and play us a tune, and no unknown hermit will volunteer to teach us the Grantha script everyday; even though we may have experienced remnants of this culture up until a few years ago.
But, what the book doesn't touch upon is how MS challenged the social fabric of Carnatic music. She was part of the female trinity of Carnatic music; the other two being DK Pattamal and ML Vasantakumari, who were the first vocal singers to perform in concerts. Until then, women (mostly devadasis) were allowed to perform only in private gatherings. Women were also restricted to singing Padams and Javallis; whereas, Pallavi singing that allows for improvisation was restricted to men. The trinity were the first to have male accompanists perform with them; In fact, women were rarely even allowed to attend concerts. The carnatic music world was brahminical and male-dominated, and MS, whose mother was a devadasi, fought a war against many ideals. In the end, she even led the unjavarti processions during Thyagaraja Aradana celebrations, which were restricted to men; and eventually only allowed in a separate women-only aradhana conducted at the rear-end of the samadhi. So, when you read the book, also think of her and an incidental feminist who ushered in a new era in India, where music is free for all and knows no boundaries! :)
This biography is part of the Pictures of Melody series by Lakshmi Devnath, and features many other great Carnatic musicians! I recommend all of them.
David Attenborough is one of the most consummate storytellers of our time. What makes him endearing are things that make him curious and the lengths he will go to satisfy that curiosity. And his things are in the uncharted hinterlands teeming with invisible and mysterious energies; where everything is fluid and transforming; and where humans are one small blip in a more diversely inhabited world.
And because he gives the air of being the most unlikely person one would find whispering from inside a toxic bat-cave or sitting snug next to a gorilla (even though he may be the first person or the only person to have done a lot of what he’s done); because the technology he uses is always groundbreaking; and because the world he reveals is unfailingly awe-inspiring, you are left both amused and astonished. And so, he goes about fossicking in the boonies and presenting us with many banquets of wonder, and letting us know that there is more wonder than we’d ever dream of wondering.
In this series, which is a mix of memoir and science, he meticulously chronicles sixty years of his adventures in the wild. It serves as an unbeatable testament to one man, and his bid to make the stunning complexity of nature’s superior design known to everyone.
He begins in a time much different from our own; when we were still taken with the boundlessness of nature; and everything was waiting to be discovered or seduced into revealing itself. Collectors hungered to own the rarest birds and beasts from the farthest corners of the world. Wild animal dealers, private and traveling menageries and zoo gardens were ubiquitous all over Britain.
Then, he saw wildlife diminish over time, and succumb to its own lavish generosity and our insatiable appetite for everything it has to offer. Extinction became a reality, and he became one of the many voices for conservation. He spent the next half of his professional life, not collecting, but being a diligent observer, translating the wonders of the natural world into exquisite words and visuals.
When he narrates this story, he paints a vivid picture of a revolution in thought, and displays a sapient inwardness, like a Once-ler reuniting with his inner-Lorax; and we take his wistful rumination, his hopes and questions, and make it our own.
There is something marvelous about the wisdom and knowledge he has amassed over time. He always seems unburdened by the scientific prose or activist rhetoric, while somehow striking the elusive balance between the two and oozing erudition. He embraces the science of scientists and the subjectivity of conservationists as being dogged pursuits towards a common ideal. He presents them as the warps and woofs of the natural world, who work to understand, protect and grow their environments, sometimes without heed to personal consequences.
Naturalists, more than any other kind of science maven, display an exceptional ability to observe! There is nothing purely rational about their line of work. Nothing in their world is mechanistic. No two beasts of the same kind are alike; and the interconnectedness of nature, and the complicated symbiotic relationships between flora, fauna and the natural forces, make the process of revelation labyrinthine. And still, researchers show their tremendous skill in taking in all the sights, smells, sounds, and other sensory information around them, and filtering them through scientific thought processes and making deductions on behavior and their consequences. It is a delicate dance between astute observation and skilful intervention; like rearranging all the pieces in a salad back to their respective whole fruits.
In that sense, Attenborough, is not a naturalist-scientist or naturalist-activist. His job is to passively extend his senses to the natural world and make us see what we wouldn’t see without his help. But, having done this for sixty years, he has the unique privilege of sharing impressions about our world over a long passage of time and constructing implications. And because these implications are not just scientific, but moral and emotional, he serves as a calm light of reason, a new door-opener, who leaves us with a questing belief in the future. His life is evidence of how our triumphs, uncertainties and errors recycle into new hopes and anxieties over time.
One, perhaps bonus benefit of this series is the stories of some remarkable women who put themselves in physical harm's way, as they work intimately with wild animals, in hostile regions full of poachers and angry locals. They have single-handedly saved whole species from extinction. And in them, as in the 87 year old Attenborough, and many other naturalists featured in this series, I find personal inspiration; it is clear that there is nothing one cannot do, and certainly not because of somatic reasons.
Some of Art is about making us either experience or overlook the contradictory nature of human imagination; that it is boundless, but boundless within its limits. For instance, when a blind person imagines color or a deaf person imagines melody, their mind’s eye fails to capture what their senses have not experienced; likewise, sighted and hearing people fail to find the vocabulary needed to describe color and melody to them. Our imagination is ostensibly limited when it comes to translating our literal world for those who don’t perceive it the same way as us. But, when we attempt to overcome this limitation by transforming the literal to nonliteral, we consciously enter creative space. We are persuaded by the boundlessness of imagination, and the possibility that the blind and the deaf can appreciate color and melody!
I think of all art forms the same way as I do our many senses. Each art form has singular, non-replicable qualities, same as each of our senses. And when we appreciate an art form using other art forms, we do so the same way that a blind person appreciates color using his other capacities. Consider a realistic painting of a sculpture. Even at its realistic best, it is still a painting, and not a sculpture. Its textures and temperatures have been replaced by something alien; the three-dimensional cold marble stone is now a flat oil on canvas. But, the sculpture as the painting adds a new dimension to its existence, that can only be appreciated when we contemplate why a realistic painting of a sculpture was made to begin with!
Of all art forms, I think of cinema as the one with superpowers. Because, it comes closest to sincerely reproducing other art forms, while making it near impossible for other art forms to reproduce it! For instance, when one watches a recording of a stage drama, a musical performance, or a dance recital, there is little information lost between watching the actual event and the recording on screen. When one scans each page in a book, and plays them on screen page by page, they are able to access its content just as in a book. The only things lost in these experiences are the intrinsic qualities, like the ambience of the theatre, the experience of dressing up for the event, the smell of the book, and the foibles peculiar to the medium such as dog-earing pages, or holding the chapter’s end page while reading!
But, most of our obsession and creative challenge with cinema is not with reproducing another art form, but overcoming reproduction, and taking advantage of the unique qualities of the medium that make it different from the other art forms. Every art form has special qualities that cannot be replicated into another medium. Those qualities are best perceived in the interpretative space, where the narrative is either fragile and does not provide the basis for the piece; or where it moves away from the recognizable world. Cinema is the only art form where one can truly reside in both the traditional and the interpretative narrative spaces at once; and the world can be both recognizable and alien. It is truly free of being realistic, and even when it depicts reality, it is not dependent on the chronological order of the story or the relative values of duration. One can travel any length of time and distance as quickly or as slowly as they choose! One can reproduce the world of their subconscious, their dreams, their thought processes, not truthfully, but sincerely; like Michel Gondry.
His work is on a different register, but it still feels familiar; like he means to express actual functioning of thought, or use his illusory world to explain the real world. He manipulates reality and shows us something visceral using a cinematic vocabulary that cannot be translated. But, it speaks to us personally and reverberates through our sensations, so that everything about this world that makes up our reality is on a new trajectory. In his world, people can inhabit many time-spaces at once, they can choose their own speed of movement, get lost in their imagination, liberate what is repressed, fall through different rabbit holes to new worlds and new scenes, and mingle the known with the unknown. It is oneiric, mimetic, self-evident and revelatory all at once. His work is inspired by dreams and music, it is made of rhythmic images, and celebrates the spectacular power of fragments and cinematic continuity.
Canudo thought of cinema as "a painting and a sculpture developing in time, as in music and poetry, which realize themselves by transforming air into rhythm for the duration of their execution". That’s what I think of Gondry’s music videos.
This is not a self-contained story, as the channel will have us believe. It is a story that was unfortunately shelved! You can tell because its plot holes need filling. And the best way to fill plot holes is to narrate the story linearly (from beginning to end), instead of the narrative chosen by the makers (narrating the characters' life at present, and having us deduce the past). So here goes:
Ryan is born into a family of wanderers and grows up in fairgrounds around the country. His early life is fraught with domestic violence, especially by his father and brother. His mother is both a victim of and silent witness to this abuse. The violence worsens as Ryan grapples with his gender identity.Over the years, he goes from boyhood to manhood as naturally as he is forced to, and briefly dates a woman and falls in love with her.
But of course, this isn't natural, and he is ready to make the switch to being a woman. He leaves his girlfriend and becomes Mia. There are no official records of Mia's existence. This comes in handy in Mia's line of work as a contract assassin. Having grown up in a violent environment, Mia takes to her job like a chicken crossing the road, and uses a multifarious approach to her hits. She is an honest-to-goodness sociopath, in her element.
One day, quite out of the blue, she receives a letter from the woman she briefly dated, and learns that she is the father of a 11-year-old son! The woman then dies of cancer, and leaves Mia responsible of her son, and the son's three misfit half-siblings, aged sevenish to sixteen, in a rural farmhouse in Yorkshire. The children, although overwhelmed, don't want Mia in their lives, but she sticks on as she contemplates her role as their new mother!
Riley, the eldest daughter, fills her mom's shoes quite naturally, and takes care of the kids. She presumably ran the house while her mom was sick too; which means having an affair with John, her landowner, a grown man with a pregnant wife and a 11-year old son. It's a give-and-take relationship. He lets her family live in the house without rent, and she feels some misplaced affection, perhaps of the paternal-kind. It's dark.
Riley remembers Ryan from when she was a kid and he used to live with her mom. But, she is not happy to have him back as Ryan or Mia or the new dad or mom, and makes it very apparent! In the mean time, Mia gets cosy with the rest of the family; has a fling with a neighbour who is confused about whether he wants to date a transgendered person or not; and is covertly her kickass-assasin self. Every once in a while Riley or her stepson make cruel jibes at her, and she runs away to her secret hideout and has a crying fit. Full life.
John, the landowner, isn't pleased with Mia's presence. Mia is oblivious is his affair with Riley, but generally thinks of him as a sleazebag and they exchange a few blows. John threatens to evacuate the family from the farm house, and puts the house up for sale. Needless to say, he is hesitant to sell it to Mia. Mia's boss comes to the rescue and buys the house for her, of course, with strings attached; although we will never know what because the series got shelved.
In the mean time, Riley becomes pregnant; John wants her to have an abortion; and when she refuses to do so, things get crazy; he almost kills her, and she most definitely kills him with Mia's gun! Riley, Mia and Mia's boss discard the body! There is an investigation pending, and a well-meaning but mentally handicapped uncle takes blame for the murder, and is put in jail, but this storyline never gets resolved because the series got shelved.
In an unrelated incident, things go wrong with Mia's latest hit. As a result, her so far helpful boss suddenly turns against her and is about to kill her, when her son comes to her rescue. Things end abruptly, and we will never know what comes next because the series got shelved.
There are other side plots, like Mia's relationship with her boyfriend, her relationship with her estranged family, her step son's business relationship with her boss, and the fate of the wrongly arrested uncle, that will never get resolved because the series got shelved.
ps: The unfinished story is still worth watching because everything about it so far is superlative. I could watch it many times, and therefore highly recommend it.
Happy Independence Day, India! In 2008, Times of India reported a decrease in patriotic films on television because of its dwindling audience over the years. This year, the same newspaper writes that patriotic films are popular, and are a big draw among "die-hard patriotic cinema-lovers". If one is to accept both articles as being accurate (based on TRPs), then the last five years have seen an upsurge of nationalistic sentiment. However, there aren't any new patriotic films that were made over this time. Are filmmakers not into popularity metrics; or did Times of India suddenly get an in with some hush-hush patriotic circles? Where were these "die-hard patriotic cinema-lovers" five years ago?
In the spirit of Independence Day, I am reading Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and will be watching Deepa Mehta's adaptation of the book.
Japanese manga publishers are okay with fans remixing, repurposing, deriving from or expanding on their works in the form of dojinshi (self-published works). This is not a legal agreement, but “anmoku no ryokai” (an unspoken agreement, a common business practice that has its roots in Japan's insular history). Thousands of fans illegally sell high-quality dojinshi in comic expos, and publishers ride on the exposure that these dojinshi generate for them, and it’s a win-win for everyone: Dojinshi increase sales of original works; expose potential talent; predict the direction of the manga market; and create new markets. Here’s a fantastic article on this in The Wired! An absolute must read! In fact, I recommend their whole issue dedicated to Manga)
Of course, this is not just a manga praxis. Fan fiction is taking over the media world even in the West, in spite of the all the tightening of legal protection! But when otaku (obsessive interest) empowers fans, nothing can stop Twilight from spawning Fifty Shades of Grey, or Harry Potter from spawning an unauthorised "guidebook" by their fans! The grey market is here and is heating things up fast!
Most blockbusters today release multiple versions of the same movie, aside from the theatrical release: There’s the director’s cut, producer’s cut, extended cut, International cut, “prepared for TV” cut, alternate endings, special editions, and so on. In fact, Blade Runner released multiple versions of each version of the movie, and I suspect they are not fully done with it! But as of today, final cut privilege is given only to bankable filmmakers, and those whose reputations are built on artistic merit! But, why not allow it for the rest?
And, why not allow a Fan’s cut for non-commercial pleasure, especially for films that are adaptations? The filmmakers who make adaptations should be able to relate to fans wanting to realize their version of their favorite book or movie on screen. I find having to rejigger a movie in my head highly inconvenient. I know I will enjoy a more hands-on approach. Someday, I hope filmmakers sell a copy of their post-production files that will let me do this.
There are a lot of movies that I think have great potential, but miss the bus because of the way the story is pieced together! Warm Bodies is one such movie. I want to be able to delete the voiceover, change the background score, cut unnecessary scenes, add deleted scenes, rearrange the plot and customize the movie to my taste; Not just because the movie isn't good as it is, but it is not what I want it to be for myself! I don’t see why this should not be salable. Youtube is full of talented buffs creating spoofs or re-interpreting their favorite movies.
This is not a new idea, even if it was never a legitimate business idea! In India, American movies are often illegally dubbed into regional languages, with “unsuitable” scenes edited out and the dialogues completely misstated with hysterical results. It’s a different matter that nine out of ten times, the audience for these movies are male adults, and those who are in it for the unsuitable content.
Even historically, stealing and re-editing film prints of one country that were not legally available in another was a regular affair. The Nazis, for instance, were notorious for stealing American film prints from Europeans during the Blitzkrieg raids, and re-editing them and changing the names in the credits.
Hollywood has lately been reacting against these unauthorized works, since they are in violation of the control that authors have on their product; and are seen as a destruction of artistic works. But, if a fan’s cut is authorized by the author, and can be made available in a way that keeps our esteem and the recognition for the authors intact, this idea might even pan out in their favor. The authors won't have to give up artistic control as much as retain it while also allowing fans to play with their works.
Many old ‘classics’ that have been adapted into movies with great success; without in anyway diminishing the importance of the original works; if anything, the adaptations have served to re-popularize the original works and prolong our reverence for them!
Films are meant to be enjoyed collectively, rather than individually; film worlds are inhabited rather than consumed. so why not inhabit it collectively? It’s time for a much more enlightened relationship between art creators and their fans, where the interaction is allowed to enhance the viewing experience!
My favorite type of adaptation is where you take a beautiful jigsaw puzzle and rearrange its pieces to create a new picture that is at once the same as and different than the original intended picture! The Wachowskis do more than that with their adaptation of Cloud Atlas. They take six completely different jigsaw puzzle sets, and combine them into one perfectly interlocked farrago. You can either reassemble the fragments of the different sets in your head into their individual stories, or think of them as a single harmonized unit, where all the sets coalesce to form a continuous whole!
To make such an adaptation, one needs to make sure all the existing puzzle pieces perfectly interlock and tessellate with each other in spite of being rearranged! The shape of each piece in relation to the others is therefore important in order to find the perfect placement!
The six stories in this movie look incompatible, completely opposed in character, like they belong to different worlds. The stories are set in the past, present, future and distant future, in many different places all over the world. The characters too move from story to story, and morph themselves into many other characters, oftentimes even changing gender and race. So your job as the audience is to suss out the differences and commonalities in their different personalities, and place them in context of the larger message that the soul transcends time and space. When you finally see them fit together seamlessly, it becomes clear that every instance in the world is comparable, analogous and homologous with every other!
In the plant world, epiphytes are plants that live on other plants or objects, not as parasites but by gainfully deriving nutrients or support from them! In the phone and tablet world, one might think of mobile apps as epiphytes that depend on the technology they are on to be operative! In Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis create an epiphyte-like narrative structure, where each story impels the other stories forward, as their scenes play out alternately, propagating their motive into each other. In this way, we move forward, while also being kept continually on edge with multiple cliffhangers throughout the movie. The cumulative effect of all this anxious uncertainty, is the equivalent of watching six completely different period-suspense films at once that also have profound philosophies behind them. It is a multitudinous mental exercise! Not to mention, how every story, however fantastical, is in fact disturbingly real.
Sometimes I am able to sit through an entire film and take pleasure in it without following much of the storyline. This is because, the story is only one part of any film; it's the bowl in which the noodles is served. But as I'm relishing my noodles, should the bowl disappear suddenly and completely, I would still continue to slurp up the noodles by eating it off the table, while hopelessly managing the running soup. It maybe highly inconvenient, and arguably insalubrious (provided the table is unclean), but I am not the type to give up good noodles for the lack of a bowl!
This is one such film. Still and all, I was feeling like the character in the movie, as she was experiencing her consciousness displaced outside her body, and her life slip away from her. I felt what she was feeling because the story is bathed in the abstract and unfolds in fragments like a disjointed puzzle. It felt just like when you try to push many opposing magnets together; the more you push, the more they resist each other. And yet, you assign each bit its proper bearing, and create a whole with the help of the bonds that come out of the characters who share the same experiences.
A few weeks ago, I watched Trance, where too a man's reality is manipulated through conversational hypnosis, and he willingly lives in an altered state of consciousness. The hypnotist puts him there by stacking many layers of "alternate" realities and repeated suggestions on top of each other until he goes so deep that he can’t get out, and doesn’t know what reality is anymore.
This brings me to contemplate how hypnosis is similar to storytelling, especially when the standard ‘beginning, middle and end’ format is broken down either in a nested fashion as in Trance, or in a parallel fashion as in Upstream Color. In both, the visual imagery, the background score, and the voice of the hypnotist create a tone of exaggerated mystery. They free up the characters unconscious and stimulate them to connect with new experiences and go on a journey of discovery. Like the characters, we too tap into own repository of associations and meanings to meet with the story! In Trance we see the hypnotized man becoming the creator of the story using his internal thoughts and memories. Soon, just as he loses his reality to the simulated world, we begin to bring in our experiences to bridge his two states, until we too get lost in them.
When listening to a story, our mind is constantly looking to close plot loops as we navigate our way from the story’s beginning to its end. And every time a new story is nested into a story, this loop is broken and a new loop is created. As more and more stories are nested into one another and more and more loops are broken, we go deeper and deeper into a state of trance, until time becomes relative and loops begin to lose meaning, and our reality is ultimately the suggested world that the storyteller wants us to believe!
Upstream Color has no nested loops, but it has parallel connected realities that seem to merge and feed off of each other, until the characters real memories are lost and they are left with new implanted memories and a substitute reality that is controlled by the suggestions implanted by the hypnotist (among other things). As a result, the characters begin to behave in odd and unpredictable ways and struggle with piecing their lives together. As viewers of this, when we experience the hypnosis that the characters are being put through, it feels as if the hypnotist is manipulating our rationality too, because
our intense sensations are improvised from the characters network of associations, inside our heads.
Both films satisfy two intentions; one, of telling stories with the intention of putting the characters in a trance, and another, of putting us in a trance with the intention of telling a story. The less things add up, the more the classical unities of time, place and action become blurred; we suspend our disbelief and stop questioning when things are off kilter. We break down our logical thought process and create a gateway into our unconscious mind to search for resolutions. The unconscious is also more receptive to suggestions by the storyteller, so we begin to assume those suggestions as the resolutions we are seeking. It’s only when the movie is over, and we are out of our state of trance that we logically workout its meaning in a way that makes sense for our reality! That is why, this story has many interpretations, none that is final.
Here's a really nice review of the movie in the New Yorker. As you will see, there is more to it than hypnosis. Do read it whether you've watched the movie or not. This isn't the kind of movie where one can give away the plot and kill the suspense. The story is nicely spelled out, although there can be many interpretations (as pointed out even in the review). I know at least one other, which is just as compelling!
FilmmakerIQ.com is a great channel for both filmmakers and buffs to understand behind-the-scenes aspects of cinema. See if this aspect ratio one makes you want to tuck into other nuggets.
The movie disintegrated way before that underwear scene! If you have watched the movie, here's a rib-tickling summary that you might enjoy.
Lately I have been reading books about how humans have been obsessed with genetic engineering since 12,000 BC, when plants and animals were domesticated through selective and deliberate breeding. Back then, we were preoccupied with converting wild rye to more domestic varieties, or grey wolves to dogs; Now, we have come as far as being able to accurately predict the whole genome of an unborn baby by sequencing the DNA from the mother’s blood and the father’s saliva; It won’t be much longer before we are able to manipulate our genetic makeup, and correct mutations which cause diseases.
When Star Trek was created in the mid-1960s, we had just come out of a very dark age that coincided with the two world wars; when scientists and politicians in several countries began targeting humans with ‘unfit’ traits, and forbidding them from marrying or procreating. The American Eugenics Society encouraged the creation of a superior human race through selective breeding. They organized public lectures, brought out publications, conducted “fitter family contests” among other things to educate people on the laws of inheritance. Here’s an example of a chart displayed at the 1929 Kansas Free Fair!
Many eugenics policies and programs, such as genetic screening, racial segregation, segregation of 'degenerate' and 'unfit' humans, compulsory sterilization, forced abortions and euthanasia were implemented in several countries, such as America, Brazil, Canada and several European countries (the reasons for and the methods of implementation were different in each country).
32 States in the US had eugenics programs. In North Carolina alone, more than 7600 men, women and children were sterilized, oftentimes against their will, even for reasons such as being 'feebleminded', 'troubled' or 'poor'; and this went on till the mid-1970s! Part of the reason for the sterilization was that abortion was illegal, birth control was not easily available in some places, and giving birth to an unfit child was just not an option! It was not until 2002 that the Governor of North Carolina formerly apologised to the victims, repealed the involuntary sterilization law, and ruled out sterilization for reasons of 'hygiene' and 'convenience'. Even today, a proposal to compensate the victims ($50,000 per person) is being debated, and only a few hundred victims were willing to reveal themselves because of the continuing stigma of being sterilized. Victims in other countries too were reluctant to come forward for the same reason.
Star Trek exemplifies one train of thought on what might have happened if we had continued on that path of racial cleansing. It is a fictional account, but one that has tremendous significance, especially given what was happening in real life during the time the story was conceived. If you watch the TV series, you will realize that every episode touches on one or more contentious real-life issues of that time that are relevant even today; and gives you a lot to reflect on!
Now to put ourselves and the movie in the context of its timeline:
According to the Star Trek timeline, we are somewhere between the Eugenics War of the early 1990s and World War III of the 2050s; The movie takes place 300 years from the Eugenics war, by which times humans have put their savage past behind them and moved on.
Prior to the 1990s, human scientists had been working on improving their race through selective breeding and genetic engineering. In the process, they created superhumans called Augments, with superior physical and mental abilities. What was unanticipated was that the Augments would want to dominate the world. Khan, the most powerful of his kind, appointed himself "absolute ruler" and ruled a quarter of the Earth, and close to 40 countries. His reign was mostly admired, because he was a man of peace, and there were no wars or violence under him, that is, until the humans rose up against the Augments. A huge war broke out, nearly devastating Earth. Most of the Augments were killed, except Khan and 84 others who managed to escape Earth in a sleeper ship, where they remained cryogenically frozen for three hundred years, until the crew of Enterprise discovered them in 2267. The current movie is set in this time period.
Soon after the Augments were deposed, not all was peaceful on Earth. By the 2050s, World War III broke out between various factions still in conflict on earth about genetic engineering, governments controlling military with narcotics and issues of ecoterrorism. All this led to World War III and the resulting nuclear exchange killed 37 million humans, leaving Earth mostly uninhabitable because of radioactivity, supply shortages, and the collapse of most of the major governments. Hundreds and thousands of humans were also mercilessly killed by evil troops to eliminate the spread of radiation sickness, impurities and mutations to future generations.
It took two generations of peace attempts for the post-atomic horror to give way to unified world alliances and end poverty and disease. During the 2060s, a team of engineers built Earth's first warp ship, which drew the attention of a Vulcan ship passing near Earth, who made their first contact with humans, and ushered us into a more peaceful era.
By the early 2100s, Earth was finally rid of poverty, disease, war and hunger. A United Earth Government was formed in 2150; A non-profit economy was developed, and replicators were used to satisfy material needs; although people were no longer obsessed with the accumulation of wealth or possessions. Humans were mostly focussed on enriching themselves in a secular, non-religious environment free of superstitions. A great deal of emphasis was placed on the importance of continued social and personal development, and the rest as we know is history!
Now… in the Reality meets Sci-fi spirit … here's a Spock talks to Spock Prime type video:
There is a lot that goes into making a superhero look seductive and heroic, especially when transforming the characters on page to screen, because their costumes are manifestly impractical to wear. The costumes are meant to perpetuate the unhumanness of superheroes, which is all nifty on paper, but on screen, to be both as faithful to the original as possible without the costumes coming undone and looking silly is a onerous task. Given the challenge, it’s amazing how badass and irresistible today’s superheroes look! What’s more, they even got a style update; Out with the mullets, bellbottoms and pouches.
A few years ago, Giorgio Armani’s Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy exhibition at Met Museum explored how fashion designers interpret superhero costumes in their modernist creations; It also explored where comic artists draw their inspirations for creating the costumes; say from early 20th century professional wrestling, gymnastics and circus attires; swashbucklers in stage plays; contemporary athletic wear; traditional iconography of the dominatrix (especially in the fetishized costumes of women); paintings such as of Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter; pulp-magazine covers; and various technologies depicting invincibility. The iconography in the costumes (letters, emblems, and such things as stars and stripes) often represent the socio-political realities they depict or are symbolic representations of their specific superhero abilities (such as stealth armors). The superheroes themselves have changed from their earlier boxy profiles to the more lissomely athletic over the years adapting to the aesthetic appeal of the time.
Fashion designers have always maintained that clothing transforms the body and plays a major role in the social construction of identity. It is one of the most visible markers of social status and serves to maintain or subvert structural boundaries. Superheroes exemplify this the most, because their costumes are explicitly designed to serve as a metaphors for identity, transcendent power, erotic spunk, heroism, politics and [American] patriotism (Superman’s costume, for instance, serves no other function); putting them above the law. Would one ever imagine superheroes testifying in court wearing their masks? (More on this later, when I write about The Law of Superheroes).
All one needs is a magical second skin to do the impossible, even if the skin itself possesses no real power. A large part of what we are is defined by our corporeal image. Designers work in the space that helps us create that image, and also unbeknown to us, they artfully transform us into metaphoric art. There is an element of fantasy in all of fashion that elevates it from commonplace to couture, and prosaic to poetry. Models on the ramp are hyperbolic impressions of reality who through exaggeration clue us in on what we will wear (which typically are subdued versions of their ensembles)! They share with superheroes, an obsessive preoccupation with the ‘ideal’ body, power of transformation (or the physical and societal agonies of transformation, such as with mutants), masking one’s identity with one’s purpose, and symbolizing ideas through visual and physical form!
I watched Tarantino’s Django Unchained again yesterday and fixated on Django’s badass costumes. Starting with that blue valet outfit, he came on every plantation scene dressed like a dandy. Costume is where you can visibly appreciate his freedom, especially when you think back to his slave days, when he was walking miles across an arid dessert, chained to the other slaves, none with a stitch on, and with iron shackles eating away at their ankles! To Django, costumes are a symbol of liberation.
And because it is a Spaghetti Western with black and german-immigrant leads, set before the Civil War, the film has two different kinds of period costumes and at least three or four different styles, each with a lot of symbolism. For instance, the valet outfit is inspired from Thomas Gainsborough’s painting of The Blue Boy, which was painted in retaliation to his rival’s statement about art: “It ought, in my opinion, to be indispensably observed, that the masses of light in a picture be always of a warm, mellow colour, yellow, red, or a yellowish white, and that the blue, the grey, or the green colours be kept almost entirely out of these masses, and be used only to support or set off these warm colours;”
Ironically, for a Superhero exhibition, there were only two American designers included!
Here's a Youtube video of the curatorial talk about the exhibition.
A few years ago, Aardman Studios, the guys who made the Wallace and Gromit films, made a film called Dot, with a tiny 9mm character playing the lead. The character, Dot, was created using a 3D printer, and the film was shot using a Nokia smart phone and a CellScope that is used by doctors to take blood samples of patients in remote places using a cell phone. This Making of video explains the process.
More recently, scientists at IBM made a film called A Boy And His Atom by moving and rearranging individual atoms on a magnetized copper plate viewed through a two-ton scanning tunnelling microscope that can magnify atoms a 100 million times. The boy in this film is 1/25,000,000 of an inch big and cannot be seen with a regular microscope. The film project is an aside of IBM's larger research to create the smallest and fastest possible memory chip for data storage. It demonstrates that one bit of information can be stored using 12 atoms, as opposed to 100 million atoms that our current magnets use in existing technologies. This Making of video explains the process.
From the time of the pinhole camera in the early 5th century, to our era of 3D and microscopic films, Film and Technology have crossed paths several times in their evolution and changed each other forever, while pretending to be orbiting different stars. The evolution of technology is as organic as that of life on earth, and our bond with them is irrevocable and one of mutual dependence; The fictional stories of films have enabled us to assimilate this fact into our real life, as naturally as possible. For instance, when we see a video of bots slipping into our world, it's less unnatural because we have been acclimatized to it by years of consuming science-fiction. It is as if we are experiencing fiction seeping into our reality! Now, I'd be just as unsurprised but excited (or terrified) if I inadvertently came upon a real tiger or a robot in the wild, or found myself flying to Neverland with Peter Pan one night to fight Pirates.
That's about the size of it!
IBM's Official page about the movie.
Writeup about about the movie by the filmmaker, Nico Casavecchia
Wired's article "The Star Trek Fan Art That IBM Scientists Created Out of Atoms"
NPR's article "Don't Miss The Premiere Of The World's Smallest Movie"
The Wiki page about the movie
Nokia also made the world's largest stop-motion animation called Gulp, using the same Nokia Smart Phone that they used to create Dot!
This is the kind of film that allows my thoughts to repose. It’s like what one does before they fall asleep at the end of the day. All the thoughts in the head float about listlessly, too tired to organize themselves, until sleep lulls them into the unconscious, where they morph into dreams and drift into the void. Each sequence in the film is a thought, a scene from a different story that lets on some truth or alludes to some mystery; but before it fully reveals itself, it disappears into the unknown.
It’s a simple story with a linear narrative structure and conventional character arc, and yet, its treatment is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s proposition that we must arrange our waking life the same way we do our dreams. Nothing resembles the freewheeling visions of dreams more than cinema. When cinema was first popularized, it was hyped as the dream factory that allows us to penetrate the world of our repressed unconscious. Filmmakers meant to give meaning to the garbled imagery in our dreams, and further justify our primal and transgressive desires. Dreams became the most common narrative device.
Ergo, Holy Motors, which pays homage to the cinematic medium, begins with the very first films ever made; followed by a scene of “le dormeur” (a sleeper), who wakes up from his sleep but remains in something of a dream state. He unlocks a door with his metallic phallic middle finger, tears open the two-dimensional screen, and breaks into the cinematic world. This alludes to our love for and the transportative powers of cinema. What happens after that, where we can’t tell dream from reality is what Christian Metz, the famous french theorist calls ‘perceptual transference’.
At its simplest, the story is about a day in the life of a seasoned actor. A chauffeur drives him around Paris to his performance locations in a luxurious limousine car packed with costumes. On the way to each location, he reads a brief about the role he is about to perform, and methodically dresses for the part. He then gets out of the limousine, performs his bit, and gets back in the limousine and moves on to the next location. In total, he plays nine different personas, in nine very different projects. In one he plays a homeless old woman, in another a father to an insecure adolescent, then a dying man, a murderous doppelganger, a humanist boy toy making passionate love to woman in a motion-capture suit that eventually reveals itself as a duel between two animated beasts in a visual simulator, a grotesque manikin who role-plays various priapic vignettes with an impassioned model. Each acting gig outdoes the other in outlandishness. Then there are scenes of the actor when he is not performing, which are equally compelling; like one where he bumps into his world-weary ex-lover from the same profession who melodiously expresses her existential angst to him before killing herself.
The film is full of allusions to many art-forms, and filmic genres presented in chronological order from old silent films to science fiction, and themes of life and death from young adulthood to old age and the impermanence of relationships. Some of his roles dawdle between the real and the absurd. Even when you see his larger-than-life persona interacting with the real world, he exhibits a befuddling unworldliness that belongs in some place mythical; And for all that, there isn’t the slightest indication of a camera, film crew, set or stage being present (the chauffeur and limousine seem to symbolically represent the whole production team; In the end the limousines also seem to represent the end the celluloid era).
In a way the lack of cameras around the protagonist draws attention to the artificiality of the scenes more than if they had been present. At the same time their absence presents the antithesis to our views on the perceptive nature of the camera lens. In the film, it also leads to the protagonist’s real identity getting mixed up with the characters he portrays, and therefore the perceptual transference that the audience experiences is also felt by the character! He’s a man whose vocation is clearly consuming him. He looks sapped at the end of each performance, including after impassioned scenes suggesting eros. Every scene is sexually allegorical, blending surrealism with humanism and satire. There’s always the clash between the conscious and the subconscious, the logical and the illogical, the real world and the imagined one, the uncanny and the norm. It is a film caught between 'providing an impression' and 'creating an illusion' of reality! In a way it goes with the larger theme that only in dreams and fiction do we sustain contradiction!
I like avant-garde and experimental films because they occupy the space in the cinematic medium that is unadaptable. You cannot translate experimental films into any other medium because they are not about storytelling, but about celebrating that unique metaphysical quality of the cinematic form that makes it different from any other medium! For instance this film cannot be adapted into a book, a play, or any other form, even though it has a simple narrative structure with a clear beginning, middle and end, and following a chronological time order (morning to night in an actor's life), because the scenes that the filmmaker chose the actor to perform in the film are ostensibly ambiguous and dependent on the atmospheric qualities that can be suggested only cinematically. Every medium has that quality that is so unique to it that it cannot be adapted into another form. For example: non-narrative poetry and stream-of-consciousness writing in literature, movement based abstraction in dance, expressionism in painting....
That being said, what is also remarkable about each of the scenes is that, while they are abstract in the way they were presented, they each seem like scenes that can fit in more conventional stories. There is enough detail in each scene to help us imagine the premise of the larger story that they may fit into. Or, we can think of them as self-contained short stories, since short stories are generally edgy, and oftentimes begin without an exposition, right in the middle of the action, and end abruptly.
In the end, it’s a film like none other, and your read of it will certainly be different from mine!
The backcover says the book is "A vibrant collection of stories from one of Karnataka's finest storytellers". It is as vibrant as a drowned whelp. It is intentionally and incontrovertibly a dismal book of stories about women who find themselves in unhappy situations. They portray real societal hypocrisies, but are ultimately unedifying, except for the main story Gulabi Talkies, which evokes nostalgia for a simpler time when cinema was a relative novelty that brought with it new hopes and aspirations [until even in that, the author decided to take a flourishing soul that she nurtured till the very end and squeeze it dry].
To be fair to the author, I found myself feeling equally anesthetized, or at least wanting to be, when I read a translated collection of short stories by some telugu authors a few years ago. The formula seems to be to cull some classic women's issues and spin stories around them without trying too hard, except to maybe think up some trenchant statements and choice phrases that will make you squeamish; To put it in their language: in the end, you are left wondering what in the world got you so wet, shaken and quickly dissatisfied.
I still recommend the book because it's a celebrated author, and her works are highly praised by most, so the underlying messages must just be lying deep beyond my reach. In my defense, in every story the author insinuates that the character is thinking deep thoughts, without ever revealing what those thoughts are. This aggravates me as much as when someone says "It's complicated" when they want to brush you off! Two because, if you haven't read this brand of short stories, then you haven't not understood one set of women's writings in the Indian context! Three because, the book did a good job of culling all possible sad stories, so you can use them as reference to reflect on similar experiences in your life. Your truth is sure to be stranger than this fiction. Four because, misery loves company. Tell me you suffered this book too. Five because, I am about to watch the movie adaptation of Gulabi Talkies. Make of that what you will.
Can you tell from reading a book by an anonymous writer if its author is male or female? I would like to believe I can't, only because when I read a book, I want to leave behind our world and get into the world in the book. The author needs to be indeterminate and invisible (except in the case of meta-books, where authors consciously choose to draw attention to themselves). But some suggest that short stories may be a more suitable form for women. I find that sexist. The only way I could read this book was to test my theory out, and imagine that it was written by a man, and see if the conversations would still read the same way. I am happy to report that they left me feeling equally squeamish.
Growing up, my grandparents' houses saw an influx of guests of the feline variety. Owing to them, the cats developed a taste for milk and a wholesome vegetarian diet; they found safe nooks in our cupboards to give birth to their young, and lots of corridors and stairways to play in; but most of all they experienced the freedom to wander as much and as far as they pleased. Whenever they disappeared, we would puzzle over their mysterious furloughs; never doubting that they would return. They always came back looking as happily zonked as one does after a long vacation. Cats confidently take on predators large and small. I have seen them terrorize dogs and monkeys twice their size; and within their own kind, there are quick to establish a pecking order and territorial divisions, even though the queens are happy to nurse anothers' young, and will work together to move all young away from the toms and other predators. Home is where they came to recuperate from wandering, to snuggle in their hiding places, to show off their nifty feats, to add an air of mystery to our lives and make us fall in love with the unfathomable! They taught me many valuable lessons; such as that you can lick every inch of your body; twirl down from great heights, and still land on your feet with grace and style… if you speak Meow.
A researcher at the University of Illinois spent close to two years observing the lives of 42 stray and pet cats, and found that on average an unowned cat covers about 388 acres of land. In fact, one particular wild cat covered 1359 acres (2.1 sq. miles) and travelled through urban and rural areas, fields, forests, and manicured lawns, and places overrun by wild predatory animals.
The pet cats on the other hand, were found to travel up to 5 acres of area around their houses, which is still a lot of area given that their travel pursuit is mostly driven by wanderlust and not necessity, and that they somehow manage this distance in spite of being asleep or in low activity 80-90% of the time. The unowned cats too are active only 38% of the time.
Despite covering a lot of ground, changing travel patterns seasonally, learning to share space with other species, cats are highly territorial. Two of the leading causes of cat deaths in that study were fights with other cats and diseases (from both cats and other wildlife)! Pet cats were surprisingly found to have a disproportionately more damaging effect on wildlife than unowned cats. (Another article).
Although cats love wandering, because they are territorial, they are in so many ways homebodies, more so than us. We can literally pick up our pieces and move on, but cats find our constant aspiration to be upwardly mobile very distressing. As soon as we move houses, our cats run back to our old house. They have a strong homing instinct that enables them to find their place of comfort, and we are not it.
Among other things, A Cat in Paris does well to remind us of this characteristic of cats. They are homebodies with wanderlust and a persistent itch for adventure. The film has a vibrant hand-drawn storybook-like feel to it, with many wonderful noir elements; but the biggest draw for me is that it evokes nostalgia. The storyline is slightly under-developed, but there's enough substance in there to inspire you to add your own depth to it, if you like.
I also recommend TS Eliot's delightful book of cat poems: Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, which I read right after I watched the movie. More on this some day!
Today saw the demise of a great intellect; a man with an insatiable appetite for experiencing life and informing ours, and he did so with sass and class.
While I often find myself thumbing through his film books, poring over his blogs and lists, and the articles he shared on twitter, the most recent book of his that I read was curiously about 'the mystery and romance of the rice cooker'. You might think cooking and Ebert are ill-matched, but it is the only cookbook I have read cover to cover in one sitting; and his rice cooker has gone with him to the Sundance Film Festival and has therefore been legitimized and hallowed by the film world.
I grew up in South India where rice is the predominant staple food, and it continues to be a major part of my diet even today; and when it is not, I am either dreaming about rice and salivating copiously or reading about it; only now, when I cook rice, it is sometimes infused with herbs and vegetables I didn't even know existed. My rice cooker also cooks other grains and pastas, including oatmeal, and my food is served with the kind of wisecracks and anecdotes that he collated in his lifetime. But, when I bought the book, I never intended to try Ebert's recipes as much as enjoy the book for his sake; the scrumptious recipes and health insights only came as a surprise bonus. I picked up Anna Thomas' Vegetarian Epicure, only because he called it "the most influential cookbook in the history of modern vegetarian cooking", and added Marie Sharp's Exotic Sauce and House of Tsang sauces to my condiment arsenal, only because he swore by them, and I do now.
The most intriguing thing about the book for me is the way in which he incorporated the readers' comments from one of his blogpost about rice cookers as a chapter somewhere in the middle of the book, and they flow seamlessly with the rest of the content, as if they were in response to the content in the earlier chapters of the book. This is the only meta-cookbook of this sort that I know; and is telling of Ebert's openness to experience, who after having lost the ability to eat due to cancer was only able to enjoy food vicariously or by way of nostalgia.
The rice cooker allows me to sit at a table and leaf through a book while it does all the cooking. Coincidentally, it is this luxury of leisure that cookers make possible that Ebert too enjoyed about it, and it is this type of relatability in small moments that he brought to his writing that made him appealing. While we both grew up in different worlds and eras, we seemed to have so much in common, and it didn't all boil down to rice, movies and living in our heads. Somewhere, our thoughts manifested our reality in some form or the other.
He wrote this cookbook after he stopped eating ("when it became an exercise more pure, freed of biological compulsion"), he tweeted after he stopped talking; I know he will live on after he has stopped breathing… for me, this is every time I watch a movie, or use the rice cooker, or do a thumbs up or down.
I had been meaning to read his autobiography for a while now. I'll pick it up today, although I know it won't be the same reading it after he has laid down his life as if I had read it before. The book is called Life Itself: A Memoir.
New York Times: Ebert Was a Critic Whose Sting Was Salved by Caring
The filmmaker, Patrick Jean says Simpsons is his main inspiration for this film. Oil is the new beer!
Also see his other films on his website. My favorite is Pixels, which is being adapted by Sony Pictures/Columbia for the big screen; it's a much awaited film for those of us born in the 8-bit era.
The animated video above served as a backdrop for Karen Eve Johnson's play about Maria Sibylla Merian, a European naturalist explorer; and Jacoba, an African slave woman in Suriname who is deeply knowledgeable about the jungles of Suriname. I haven't seen the play, and I am not even sure if it is touring, but the trailer was enough to make me giddy, and imagine all of Merian's splendid botanical artwork in movement.
Today is Maria Sibylla Merian's 366th birthday. A few days ago, I wrote about how her art and scientific explorations changed how we see nature. Getty Museum has a beautiful write-up and slideshow (with commentary) about her work. I particularly like the slideshow because it reveals how a young teenager scooped out insects from the mud and observed where they lived and what they ate, and then rendered the whole choreography of the ecosystem for us to see in delightful and visually articulate paintings.
I mentioned in my earlier post that women at that time were banned from pursuing both art and science; science primarily because it required working with nude bodies and corpses. Moreover, working with insects and reptiles was associated with witchcraft; and Merian was born during the peak years of witch-hunt. But, what I also forgot to mention as far as art is concerned is that, this was also a time when women were categorically forbidden from working with oil paints in most of Europe; and were restricted to watercolors because it was a limiting medium, and was associated with amateur work. Materials were therefore gendered, and informed what each work of art meant from a sociological point of view. Employing it the way Merian did however requires a great deal of mastery and virtuosity, which was clearly a skill she honed over many years of training from a real master, her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still-life painter of the Dutch Golden Age, who encouraged her to pursue art.
Merian broke every rule in the book when she became an artist and a scientist, and travelled to places farther than most men did to study insects (e.g.: she learnt from tribal people in the jungles of Surniname, which you can imagine wasn't a place many were familiar with at that time); that too as a middle-aged divorced woman with two young daughters. In spite of having no access to formal scientific education, she brought into being the whole study of ecology that deals with the relationship of organisms with their physical surroundings, and transformed science (especially botany and zoology, and within it entymology, or the study of insects) into the structured and disciplined field that it is today. She elevated the quality of botanical illustrations with her exquisite and accurate three-dimensional artwork. What is also fascinating is that she literally changed the language of science, from Latin to vernacular. The result of this was that she wasn't taken seriously by the scientific community during her time, but unconsciously transformed the rules of scientific writing for later decades.
She inspired her own daughters to become artists, publishers and business women. Although, she was married, she later separated from her husband and lived with her mother and two daughters in Amsterdam, and the four women together set up a botanical art studio, and published several artworks, and art and science books. Unfortunately, many of the books that survive today are heavily-used or damaged copies. What is particularly interesting is that she also took interest in teaching silk embroiderers and cabinet makers how to limn flowers. She exquisitely combined fine art with natural philosophy, scientific knowledge, and commerce.
I have lost count of all her exploits; but what is clear is that she had rule-breaking down to a fine art.
I recommend Kim's Todd's Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, about Merian's life, and her contribution to the metamorphosis of science, an age, and a society.
Here's another slideshow describing her artwork as part of the Royal Collection's Amazing Rare Things. The exhibition was collaborated with David Attenborough, and showcases artists who portrayed natural work with scientific interest from the 15th century onwards. There is also a beautiful coffee table book by the same name.
Here's a youtube video of a lot of her works set to Georg Friedrich Händel's music.
I walked through this exhibition open-mouthed, with my jaw hanging halfway down my chest. Every kind of photo manipulation being done in Photoshop today was already done in the 1840s within 20 years of the first photograph being taken! But, what was especially astounding was how these tricks were achieved and why they were done.
The how part consists of many different demanding processes having to do with clunky equipment, lots of chemicals, sunlight, and ingenuity.
The why part has to do with elevating photography to an art form, manipulating truth for political gains, bringing color to black and white, adding and subtracting people, and more happily for humor and gags. Any which way you see it, photography was the art of whipping up fictional hysteria, sometimes with the intention of making us believe they were real. Of course, there were also naturalists trying to document reality as truthfully as possible, but this wasn’t their exhibition, and even they inadvertently succumbed to the fictional aspect of photography, both due to the limitations of the technology at that time, and their own prejudices on how the medium should be used.
I would encourage you to visit the exhibition if it ever comes to your part of the world, and read the book, which is a lot sooner and surer to arrive at your doorstep than the exhibition!
The picture above is called "Two ways of Life", and was rendered in 1857 by Oscar Gustav Rejlander. "Rejlander photographed each model and background section separately, yielding more than thirty negatives, which he meticulously combined into a single large print." The Met Museum website showcases all the works in the exhibition, which is over 200 photographs.
NPR has a wonderful article about the exhibition with slideshows. Don't miss the slideshow in the bottom with Joseph Stalin and his mysteriously disappearing inner circle.
Here’s Getty Museum's video of how daguerreotypes were made, just for context on how difficult it was to take photographs at one point. The exhibition showed manipulated daguerreotypes, such as images within images, and other special effects.
And for contrast, here’s Getty Museum's video about a naturalist called PH Emerson, who wanted photography to capture the English countryside as realistically as possible.
Kumaré is a documentary film about an Indian American who pretends to be a spiritual guru from a fictional village in India. He attracts a retinue of followers who are emotionally fragile from various distressing life experiences, and are looking for comfort and healing. The followers find value in his fabricated teachings inspired by Zen Buddhism, adopt his philosophy and are on the mend. Eventually, he reveals his true self to them and the fact that they were his unwitting guinea pigs, and leaves us to contemplate the message.
This brings me to dwell on the ethical problems of this social experiment, and whether it is okay to mislead vulnerable people to satisfy one's own curiosity about what inspires them to seek spiritual leaders and join a cult; especially given the fact that they invested a lot of their time and faith on this man. Your appreciation for this documentary rests on this question, and the verdict is still out.
I saw a man making his opinion known about the fakeness of spiritual enlightenment at the expense of skewering people's faith, and humiliating already dispirited people seeking help. The filmmaker meant to reveal that a lot of what followers think is coming from spiritual healers is in fact coming from within themselves; His intention may therefore be harmless but this experiment seemed like too high a price to pay just to ratify his personal beliefs; and in fact to no other purpose, even if he felt like he was able to connect to people more deeply as a fake guru than as his real self. It also makes light of the fact that there are spiritual leaders who lead austere and venerable lives that are guided by deep philosophies. Not all of Indian spirituality is commodified even in the West; and the line between being inspired by spiritual leaders and being fixated on them is not always apparent to an observer, as much as it is to the people going through that experience.
On the positive side, I saw a healing process, as people submitted to a spiritual teacher with an open mind and took real action to better their lives. It takes courage to seek help (be it spiritual or medical). If you liken spiritual healers to psychologists or counsellors, would it have been acceptable for this filmmaker to pretend to be a doctor and pull a fast one on his convalescing patients? Also, would this very same experiment have been possible in Hollywood among celebrities who are the biggest evangelists of Eastern spirituality in America. I have a feeling getting them to honor their release forms granting permission to use their footage after they learnt that they were hoodwinked would have been near impossible.
If there was little collateral damage at the end of this experiment, it is a testament to the purity of these people who took this in good spirit (at least most of them); and to Vikram Gandhi's ability to stay in character throughout the process and genuinely connect with them. It was evident that he and his followers saw this as a spiritually fulfilling experience in some way, at least for as long as the facade lasted.
This got me thinking about where Kumaré fits within the different documentary modes that Bill Nichols talks about (See wiki). The filmmaker doesn't spoonfeed us with his thoughts, but the overall rhetoric of the documentary is allusively expository and leads our observations and thoughts in a certain direction. The filmmaker directly interacts with subjects, but because he does so in disguise, as a fictional character in the real world, it is both participative and performative. And as we find ourselves observing the followers and Kumaré's personal growth, it becomes a reflexive experience for both him and us. That is five of the six modes that Nichols talks about; the sixth being the poetic mode, and there is nothing poetic about dupery, especially if there is no poetic justice in the end!
This is a funny Wired talk with the film director, Vikram Gandhi a.k.a. Kumaré on the making of the film.
Between minute 10 and 18, Shabana Azmi and Shobhaa De have a difference of opinion on the film business. Shabana Azmi is optimistic about audience's interest in alternative cinema, and implores the government and established filmmakers to encourage small independent filmmakers and foster creativity; whereas Shobhaa De is more businesslike in her views, and insists that the film business will give the audience what they want, which is mediocrity.
This argument reminds me of The Innovator's Solution, in which Clay Christensen says that big companies are apprehensive about investing in the ideas of new upstart companies because it entails daunting risks. So they choose to invest in their own 'sustaining innovations' that make incremental changes to existing products over disruptive innovations that introduce entirely new products that cater to a new market at the expense of their existing market.
And while big companies focus on bettering the performance of existing products for their loyal customers, new upstart companies target the low-end customers who want a niche product. Once they have achieved success in that specialised, but profitable corner of the market, they move up the chain and not only compete with the big companies for a share of their market, but also start to contend with the same risks of radical innovation that big companies face; This leaves even-newer companies to explore the next innovation space that the big guys don't want to play in. To a small company, stomaching the risk of failure comes with a chance at bountiful rewards, but to a big company, the risk-to-reward ratio is too high. However, this has also been the downfall of many big companies, who went out of business after they reached a particular scale because they didn't want to make big bets, and only wanted to consider incremental innovation until a point where the audience was unable to use or absorb the improvements.
In this analogy, the big company or filmmaker may be Yash Chopra or Karan Johar, making the highest grossing films in the country, many that are formulaic and leveraging on the success of the earlier films; (take for instance their romantic blockbusters or their film series like Dhoom); and the small company or filmmaker may be Shyam Benegal or Anurag Kashyap who cornered a niche and created successful disruptive business; (take for instance Kashyap's New Wave films catering to a niche audience… He initially began as a Director, and as he gained more clout, he went on to become a Producer).
If one were to take Shabana Azmi's suggestion of having big filmmakers invest in small filmmakers without attracting the risk of losing their reputation if the investment goes sour, then the big filmmakers would have to invest anonymously or somewhat covertly. One such example is Ekta Kapoor, who maintained two personalities, one as a TV serial maven making "K" serials, and another as an off-beat film producer, the latter personality being more understated. This is similar to big companies reaching new markets by creating new brands or subsidiary companies, while at the same time serving as 'disruptive growth engines' that also act as incubators for other growing businesses; like Coca-cola Company's Glaceau that makes Smart Water, or Amazon's subsidiaries like Zappo, Woot, iMDb, Lovefilms and products like Kindle and Audible.
In the end, it all boils down to big companies' willingness to fail, with an eye on success in the long term!
ps: I don't condone Shabana Azmi's comment about Americans being ignorant.
Scheherazade! How many back-to-back narrow escapes does it take before the audience faints from an overdose of suspense? Luckily, so far, I haven't had to find out, even though Argo came close. The story is based on real life, so I went into it knowing how it was going to end; and in spite of that, the narrative tension in the movie was so intense in the sequences leading up to the end that I was forced to suspend my knowledge of what is to come, and entertain the possibility of the 'other' unpleasant outcome while things were still playing out!
Argo has two things going for it. It is factual as far as the big picture story is concerned, and fictive as far as the plot details are concerned. The details are where the holes in our memory and the window of opportunity for narrative tension reside. And together, the fact (the real story) and the fiction (the movie) share a common 'essence', and trigger the same sentiments and streams of thought.
Since the 2000s, there have been more films based on real events than in all the ninety years of cinema prior to that. I have wondered why this is the case, especially since most of the recent stories are based on incidents that happened prior to the 2000s. This may be because retelling of past stories require big-ticket resources to accurately recreate those ambiences, without which we can't fully immerse ourselves in that world; and given that film budgets too have increased manyfold within this same timeframe, this is now more possible than before. Also, stories of the past naturally permit fictional embellishments because they require us to put ourselves in a world that we don't belong in. And retelling of stories that happened in the past can take advantage of the paradox of suspense, because when we seek a fictional version of the real story over a factual one, we are seeking "half-truths" over "the truth", and depend on them to create the narrative tension. That's how Argo delivers. Ironically, a dialogue in the film says "If I'm doing a fake movie, it's going to be a fake hit". I am of opinion that Ben Affleck made a real movie, and it was a real hit.
For a fuller experience, I suggest watching the film and reading the real story, and interviews of the filmmakers and people involved in this hostage crisis. Here's a start, for those who've watched the film, and those who love spoilers:
Of course, Wiki to Argo and Wiki to the Iran Hostage Crisis
Interview with Argo's screenwriter
Interview with Ben Affleck
Joshua Bearman's Wired write-up on Argo
The real story about the Airport Sequence
Tony Mendez on the True Story
Argo as seen by the hostage survivors
Iran's plans on making it's own Argo
Argo vs. Zero Dark Thirty
The Argo (Lord of Light) Storyboards
Wired has a three-part interview with William Gibson where he talks about a whole lot of things, from how sci-fi speculations about reality are almost always wrong (and how that's a good thing); to the pointless pleasure of learning how to fix antique watches; and the global spread of punk rock in the pre-internet era. Every time I read his interviews (here's another), he kindles my enthusiasm to pursue a hobby, and know a lot about one thing (anything), and at least something about everything. His conversations are always fascinating and can sustain in many living rooms.
In some ways, he shapes some of what I appreciate in popular and counter culture. Like him, I see science-fiction as being rooted in reality; and even when it is not, I like working out at what point it veers off from reality and takes an imaginary, somewhat realistic alternate path; and then I wonder what our lives might have been like if we had taken that path. Sometimes, we correctly speculate a future phenomenon (example 1, example 2), but may not be able to accurately predict the means we used to arrive at that phenomenon, because they don't always follow a linear path or happen by intention. It's like we choose a different right, from many possible rights! And then, even if some of the rights ultimately lead to the same end, the manner in which they do it becomes important and critical to determining the course of the future. It's like how Acetaminophen (paracetamol) and Ibuprofen both relieve pain, but they have two very different mechanisms of action, where in one sends a message to our hypothalamus and increases our threshold to pain, and the other inhibits the release of hormones (prostaglandins) that trigger pain, and encourages endorphins to flow freely and relieve pain. They therefore come with different side effects, which you want to keep in mind when you decide which one might suit your physical makeup. Likewise, the means to arriving at a phenomenon comes with its set of contingent properties, and they in turn trigger other actions, thereby unfolding many new paths that the future can possibly take off in.
Science fiction writers don't usually look to be accurate in their speculation, as much as imagine another reality, with a willingness to entertain the possibility of the impossible (eg: time travel, parallel universes, gene therapy, advanced AI, etc). However, nine times out of ten, my quest to figure out what is real, what will be real, what is speculative, and what is completely made up, ends up revealing how much more outlandish our reality is in comparison with some of the most outlandish science fiction there is! Few authors manage to break away from what has already been done and create new imaginary worlds. On the flip side, few outlandish things in reality seldom reveal themselves to us immediately, and when they do, they don't seem far out anymore. One such example in our real life is virtual reality, our more intangible counterpart-reality, which has allowed us to experience many realistic interactions and other benefits, and sometimes more realistic than in our physical world, but, it still ceases to be considered palpably real. It has a non-real, fictional component to it that is dependent on our imagination, and is therefore cheated of legitimacy. At the same time, it is so useful that we just can't wish it away.
I think of the virtual world's palpability as being analogous to Aerogel, or frozen smoke; the ultralight solid that is 96% air, and so light that if you hold it in your hand, you can barely see it or feel it. When you put a flower on top of the aerogel, the flower appears to have levitated; and if you suspend the aerogel over burner, with the flower on top of it, the flower won't go up in smoke and appears to defy nature! It supports 4000 times its weight, can withstand a direct blast from two pounds of dynamite;
There were online communities, and virtual worlds forty years before people began to reckon with Facebook and Second Life, and speculate how virtual worlds are affecting our lives. Even in the 1970s, people interacted with each other in fictitious worlds, each with their own subculture driven by both players' imaginations and evolving conventions that became solidified as more worlds evolved and more people became invested in them. But, before the mass of millions caught on to it and it was only limited to a mass of thousands, it became more popular in science fiction, so much that many believed it to be a speculation of the future. Even today, we think of virtual worlds as a present-day phenomenon that's still in its early stages, and are trying to understand how it might impact our life. And now this is reality because we don't know any other reality, and because it is a multiple-reality that we don't fully understand, we have extended our existentialist philosophies and world views to it.
In real life, there is a line between work and play that is clearly defined. Unless you are a sportsperson or an entertainer, and in fact, even if you are a sportsperson or an entertainer, a game is not the centre of your existence. However, in the virtual world the line between work and play is imaginary. Notwithstanding our biological needs, we can do almost everything in the virtual world that we can in the physical world, except here all real life implications happen under the pretext of a game, but can impact our lives just as they do in the physical world! We can run businesses that can make or break our economy, enroll in school, join a religious cult, socialize and play. The metaphorical game of life in the physical world is literally the game of life in the virtual world.
Summer Wars depicts how seamlessly integrated the virtual and real worlds have become. It is a visually explosive fictional drama based on reality. Every frame is like a spectacular painting, and it is only in that that it differs from reality; Such eye-candy is unfortunately in short supply in both our real and virtual worlds, but I can speculate that this caliber of aesthetic will soon take over at least our virtual world, for real.
It said on the FMX 2013 website that the motto this year is "lean, smart and agile". Tee hee.
Until the Renaissance period, women were not allowed to become artists. Art was mainly a man's vocation, and in fact, women were rarely even depicted in paintings, except as angels or other divine beings.
But even as some women attempted to enter the 'artist's guild' in the Renaissance period, artists were considered respectable only if they were knowledgeable in mathematics and biological sciences; and women were unequivocally barred from learning biological sciences, since the study of the human body required working with male and female nudes and corpses; and also women working with animals and insects was associated with witchcraft! It was a frustrating conundrum, which did not fully get resolved until the late 19th century, although with each passing decade women inched closer and closer to full freedom: first painting still life, then depicting historical and mythological scenes, and then portraits of draped people (In fact nudes had to wait till the 20th century)! The few women who did manage to somehow break this quandary during the Renaissance were nuns or aristocrats who were able to gyp the system. Needless to say, few were willing to risk everything for a trifling chance to paint!
In the 1600s, a time when both art and science were inaccessible to women, a woman called Maria Sibylla Merian broke every rule in the book, and became one of the greatest naturalists and scientific illustrators of all time! At the age of 13, she was the first person to observe the metamorphosis of a silkworm, and her account of this pre-dated published accounts of scientists by almost ten years! She was also one of the first few scientists to venture out of Europe and travel all the way to Surinam to study insects with the help of local tribes; and eventually became the first to study the relationship between insects and their host plants, which changed the way naturalists thought about symbiosis; and gave birth to a whole branch in science called ecology. Until Merian drew insects with the food they ate, scientists believed that they reproduced spontaneously from decaying matter. Moreover, her aesthetic detail and the stunning quality of her work raised the standards of scientific illustration.
It convinces me that some of the best work in science happens outside of the strict parameters of scientific approaches. Maria's work was uninhibited by predetermined rules, and was a result of her own unfettered curiosity and imagination. You see this holds true even in other areas of Science. Several amateur astronomers even today contribute significantly to the study of astronomy, not only with finding comets and novae, and data collection, but also with inventing telescopic devices.
But even after two hundred fifty years since Maria Sibylla Merian, not all was fine for women artists and scientists. In the Victorian era (late 1800s), Edith Holden showed every sign of greatness, but her vast knowledge of her local ecology went completely unnoticed for fifty years after her death, and seventy years after she wrote The Country Diary and The Nature Notes!
Unlike Maria Sybilla Merian, Edith Holden did not actively pursue her calling as a naturalist. Her nature notes were never meant to be published, although she meant to share them with her students at the girls' school. She was just a young artist, exploring her countryside on her bicycle and discovering nature, admiring everyone and everything around her, while being blissfully unaware of how exceptional she herself was. Her diaries have simple hand-written notes about her everyday adventures arranged by date; interspersed with her exquisite water color paintings of flowers, plants, animals, birds and insects. When you read her notes, you see yourself in Birmingham in the Edwardian Period. 107 years ago, exact to this date, on a dull and grey day, she was watching birds building nests, carrying a bicycle half a mile down a thorny lane to picnic on a fence, and wondering why the white Periwinkles have five petals and the blue ones have four.
And while she painted the scenes of the West Midlands countryside, and illustrated various species in graphic detail, she had to make do with finding recognition only as an artist for children's books, as women were not otherwise taken seriously as proper artists or scientists. But to Merian and Holden, the pursuit of nature was mostly one of curiosity! They were just full of wonder and amazement; You saw that in Merian because all her writings were presented not as facts, but in sentences that began with "perhaps" "maybe" "probably". And Holden shares not only her thoughts about nature, but poetry written by all her favorite poets. Evidently, there was a poem for every season and every 'naturey' thing; and everyone knew their physical surroundings like the palm of their hand! I am not surprised how much nature was a subject of contemplation by poets, but just the level of knowledge about the wonders that seasonal changes brought to their places! But, I mostly wonder what would have become of Maria Sibylla Merian and Edith Holden if they were in fact allowed full freedom to pursue their dreams.
There are very few male and female naturalist writers in this era who are also painters; This was a lot more common up until the Victorian era. Just as women are beginning to experience professional equality today, we are beginning to lose this ability!
A nitrate film burns at 17,000 feet per second. It produces its own oxygen and can't be put out with water. You can strongroom it to keep it safe, but, what is the point of keeping films locked up?
I think of cinema as a mandala, a visual scripture of time, that is evanescent and finite. The old melts away, often literally, like ninety percent of old films that are now lost forever. The few left too will buckle with age, or will never see an audience because they are being preserved in a temperature-controlled bubble.
Even if films are everlasting, our minds move on. Beautiful art forms within the medium are ritualistically destroyed every decade to give way to new forms. Vaudeville gave way to silent film, silent film to talkies; black and white to color, films to digital, and 2D to 3D. This transitory nature of cinematic mediums symbolizes the fleeting nature of art and life itself;
Luckily, there is no end to man's imagination. It knows no age or era! One may stop transforming cardboard boxes into forts, spaceships and playthings, but one never ceases to transport himself to different worlds. As he grows older, and acquires new abilities, he realizes those worlds in other ways. For a filmmaker, the camera is his cardboard box, a portal to any world that he only has to imagine to bring into existence!
In the early 1900s, cinema was a game with no rules. There was no one to say what was possible or not possible to do. Filmmakers seemed always to want to make the impossible possible. The silent era was not the era when sound synchronization was not possible, or when cinema did not mean itself to ever be sound-synchronized (several silent filmmakers were happy to upgrade or readapt their silent films to sound eventually). It was the era when filmmakers chose to entertain even without synchronized sound, and oftentimes with a live symphonic orchestra accompanying the visuals. “The mighty wurlitzers” could produce every imaginable sound effect, and musicians were as much film celebrities as the filmmakers and actors; And anyone who makes silent films today will tell you that the genre is far from primitive, and requires tremendous imagination to conjure up new and exciting ways to tell stories that are captivating. Silence was a new language, with a vast visual and expressive vocabulary that was evolving as filmmakers began to explore it through their works! Moreover, silent films offer a wide range of storytelling possibilities that can be deep and meaningful, or silly and ridiculous. And when the audiences took that leap of imagination with the filmmakers and accepted the filmic world, cinema became an obsessive new art form!
There was a lot that was being tried in the early 1900s. In fact, 3D films were pioneered and patented by William Friese-Greene in the late1890s, where in two films were projected at the same time to create a 3D illusion when watched through a stereoscope. Harry Fairall made the first commercially successful 3D film in the 1920s; The Lumière brothers used 3D processes to shoot several scenes in their films, including one as early as 1903. Georges Méliès created a camera so that he could shoot on both European and American film reels at the same time, and when used together, both films created a 3D effect. Of course, production costs meant bigger experiments in 3D cinema would have to wait till the 1950s, when it made impressive headway, and several 3D films entertained a sizeable audience!
Even in the early 1900s, filmmakers began to dream of color cinema. In the 1910s, D.W. Griffith used a number of colors to tint each scene in his movies to complement the moods in his scenes, and he later invented a lighting system in which colored lights flashed on different areas of the screen to achieve the desired effect.
And almost simultaneously as the beginnings of cinema, came the use of visual effects and animation. In the 1890s just as cinema was born, Georges Méliès used stop tricks, made time-lapse videos, used dissolves and creative transitions, multiple exposures, and handpainted color. Several others used moving painted backgrounds and miniatures to depict worlds that didn’t exist! In the 1920s, Dziga Vertov was already making visual poetries full of animation and special effects, by manipulating film and transforming reality.
Even as cinema was being born, no one thought it would remain forever silent! So when I see The Artist, I see a charming film that I absolutely love and will watch over and over again. But, while it pays homage to the silent era, like the "simplicity" of good old cinema, and the charming romantic stories, the tragedy that befell silent artists, it does not fully represent the rich realities of that era from a historic point of view; There was nothing simple and innocent, or silent about 1920s cinema!
In fact, when one looks at the way The Artist is shot, one sees that it candidly pays homage to films made over four decades; which is what I enjoyed about it! You see it inspired by Hollywood as a whole, and by everything wonderful that each era has to offer. For instance, it uses the old square-screen format; is shot at 22-frames-per-second to quicken action (which is somewhat accurate of the 1920s, although typically they used a quicker frame rate, until the advent of sound); it has gorgeous art deco sets (which came to Hollywood only in the 1930s and 40s); and the acting, title cards, and music capture the spirit of the 20s era (even though the music used in the film was composed in the late 1930s).
And, if you have seen the old 1920s films, you can tell that this one is not dredged up from that era. The quality of the visuals is implausibly pristine, since it is not shot using black-and-white film but high quality color film from our era; the camera angles, editing and lighting styles are evidently inspired from films in the 30s through 60s. And yet, it all comes together and makes a movie that ultimately pays homage to the late 1920s silent films in a way that both neophytes and buffs can fall in love with! And in not being accurate, it (albeit unintentionally) captures the experimental spirit of the 1920s; which was an era forgiving of deception! When you think of it as a 21st century filmmaker's love letter to the silent era, The Artist is by far the most beautiful love letter a man of the future has written to the past!
Ever since I pre-ordered Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, I have been on a Bernd Heinrich-athon. I feel this uncharacteristic need to finish reading his books that have been staring me in the face for months, before reaching for his new one. The plan is to check each book off from this list after reading it, and share some overarching thoughts when I am done with the whole pile.
A Year in the Maine Woods ✔
The Trees in my Forest ✔
Summer World: A Season of Bounty ✔
Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival
Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds
The Geese of Beaver Bog
Speaking of Bernd Heinrich-athon, the man also writes a lot about running: humans running, animals running; Apparently, a lot of living species are built for distance. I am steering clear of those for now, and will save them for when I reach for a treadmill!
In the mean time, I present Anna Raff's bird paintings that have been keeping me entertained for over three years. After 576 paintings, I am amazed that she hasn't run out of ideas, and her birds continue to make me laugh.
This is an issue close to my heart. Visual effects artists literalize the magic of cinema. The demand for them is overwhelming in the industry, and yet, VFX shops are struggling to keep afloat and artists are barely making ends meet. Realism is the life of the artists making fantasies.
I urge you to type "VFX Protests" in your favorite search engine and read about the struggles of my favorite people. Here's a start: A Wired Article.
As I was half way through watching Ai Weiwei's documentary, Tapi, who had just watched it the night before casually stated that it was the last day of Ai Weiwei's exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum; not expecting that he would have to vault out the door with me that very instant to go see it! I then came back and watched the second half of the documentary, which ended on a disheartening note, and some more videos about his art installations.
With Ai Weiwei's work, one can't separate his art from the polity or his life experiences. He's determined to make bold statements about the lack of transparency in the Chinese government using the most visible tools of outreach: Art Installations and Social Activism through blogs, Twitter, documentaries, videos and photographs. Even alone, each of these are audacious tools in a highly censored country, and he combines them so that they feed off of each other. This, while being under constant government surveillance, having his blogs shutdown, getting arrested multiple times (including a "disappearance"), and seeing his studio destroyed!
After the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, Ai Weiwei made a documentary to show how the government had covered up the deaths of over 5385 children who were buried alive when shoddily constructed public schools collapsed during the earthquake. He then rallied support on twitter for a "citizens' investigation" to compile a list of all the students who were killed. When the blog where he shared the list was shut down by the authorities, he turned it into art, and pasted the names of the student victims on the wall as a massive spreadsheet! One art installation at the exhibition was made out of steel rebar that Weiwei found in junkyards after the government tried to dispose of evidence!
When one looks at the art pieces, it is hard to see the commitment of hundreds of volunteers and the toil that went into pounding thousands of steel rebar to shape, or painting hundred million sunflower seeds, or sculpting thousands of porcelain river crabs, without seeing the accompanying videos showing them willingly laboring away; and then the abstractness transforms into a real, heavy feeling. Weiwei's art is equally about all these people coming together to say something in this ideational way, as it is about the message in the art itself! That regular people are even voicing their opinion is out of the ordinary.
The exhibits make sense only when you read the context, or watch the accompanying videos and see what informed them, and what happened before, during, and after the making of these pieces. It is about cause and effect, and wanting to change the effect into something more positive! Weiwei sees his art as a game of chess, where he makes his move and waits for the opponent to counter. Although, he says in China, the problem is that after every move, the government changes the rules of play, making it impossible to win.
Weiwei's passport was revoked by the Chinese government, so he couldn't attend his own exhibition in DC, but his spirit is indomitable and reverberates across the globe! His photos and videos cover every inch of the walls and floors in Hirshhorn, as I would imagine they do in several other museums all over the world!
When you see thousands of people watching his artwork in a different countries, or thousands of people posting nude photos of themselves online when he is charged for pornography, or thousands honoring the Sichuan earthquake victims in Munich, Germany, or thousands coming together for a River-Crab Party after the demolition of his studio in Shanghai, you see one man's single-mindedness transforming into many people's like-mindedness.
Bugs Bunny: It's true, Doc. I'm a rabbit, alright. Would you like to shoot me now or wait 'til you get home?
Daffy Duck: Shoot him now!!!! Shoot him now!!!!
Bugs Bunny: You keep outta this! He doesn't have to shoot you now!
Daffy Duck: He does so have to shoot me now! (to Doc) I demand that you shoot me now!
I am partial to these switcheroo plots where nothing is as it seems: where fates are reversed; the good reveal themselves as bad or vice versa; the line between reality and fiction blurs and bends and the two swap places!
Martin McDonagh's metafilm is about the misadventures of a man writing a screenplay about seven psychopaths, of which some are fictional, some are inspired by real people, and some inadvertently turn out to be real, including that of his two dog-kidnapping friends. The trio then work together on finishing the screenplay, while also running from a mobster psychopath who is after their lives for stealing his dog; Subsequently, one friend becomes so invested in the film that in wanting to write a climactic shootout ending with all the psychopaths in it, he devises a real-life climatic ending involving the mobster psychopath coming for his dog, and things go to hell, as planned!
It's a matryoshka doll story: a screenplay about writing a screenplay, a spoof about a spoof, a story within a story, and in fact a story about a story that gets mixed up with reality and becomes a spinoff of a story yet to be written. In essence a total Charlie Foxtrot!
There has been a rise of these self-reflexive films in recent times, with filmmakers paying homage to a film genre, but in a less spoofy, more layered and provocative way: like Hugo, The Artist, Harishchandrachi Factory, Super 8, Argo, Tropic Thunder, Adaptation, Barton Fink, The Player and The Seven Psychopaths, of which the last four are centered around scriptwriters. It's like their way of getting back at us for not taking notice of them. They are smack dab in the middle of the story!
I am participating in the South Asian Women Writers Challenge, and will be reading six South Indian books by women writers and reviewing at least three by the end of this year.
Feel free to recommend both fiction and non-fiction books from the red area; and also participate in the challenge.
Jennifer Lawrence is a terrific actress. I buy into her character in every movie. I see her and I see everything through her, and every other character is worth considering if she thinks so. And the only time I don't see things through Jennifer Lawrence's point of view is when she is not in the scene.
In every movie I have seen of hers, she stands out as an empathetic person who puts loved ones ahead of herself; she is courageous and goes after what she wants even in the face of death or humiliation; she is talented (both physically and mentally) in spite of her upbringing; she is clear-sighted, perceptive and helps us make sense of things even in circumstances bereft of reason. I often find myself empathising with people who seem slightly off only because she likes them or gets them! And everyone behaves differently around her than when they are alone or with other people, suddenly becoming all the more interesting-- take the scene in Silver Linings where she dances with Chris Tucker, or the scene where almost all the characters meet in Bradley Cooper's house after the big fight at the stadium, and there's a parlay between Bradley Cooper's dad and his friend. You see their quirks come to light in the most endearing way as soon as she barges into the scene!
Her thriving spirit always prevails, and I come out of the movie ready to take on the world! But, the world always looks rather cruel.
In order to get the full grasp of her movie, you have to put it in perspective of all her other movies. It's like appreciating how the same glass changes forms as it goes through different phase transitions and comes face to face with various elements and changes in temperature. It's the type of quality that makes an actor an auteur.
When she stands straight, the world looks off-kilter.
A year and a half ago, I came upon a blog of a young girl suffering from terminal cancer. I had been following her since. She had an ambitious bucket list on her blog that included aspirations not just for herself but for 'everyone'; and was conquering it so steadily and indefatigably that I almost forgot that she had cancer except when she mentioned her treatment in passing. Even then, it was near impossible to see the suffering.
Middle of last year, she had completed all the doable-things on her bucket list (with the exception of the things she meant for us to do), but continued to be more active than ever.
On January 1st of this year, I had read her usual spirited post, and she seemed to have many things to look forward to. Today, I went back to find that she had a change of heart and chose to achieve them in the next world.
Here's a link to her charity: Alice's Escapes
(The picture of Alice above will take you to her tribute video on Vimeo)
"I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one's mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one's leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form." - Dumbledore
Few movies make me feel uneasy. While I was watching Zero Dark Thirty, the torture and the raid had me in cold sweat; and when I came out of the theatre the narrative of Zero Dark Thirty left me in an ethical quagmire; each of these alone would have been enough to discomfit me, but what got me most is that I associated this movie with reality, and it didn't feel right.
Kathryn Bigelow is good at appealing to our raw and visceral impulses. She has a way of making the fictional aspect of the film virtually transparent. It is as if the story always existed (as presented); her film testifies to its existence (as presented), and it is now available for us to see and understand (as presented).
Her fiction feigns the innocent arrogance of objective fact that is indifferent to our response. And in this way, she entices us to view the film; and because of the way it is presented, where in you are a third-person with access to unfolding 'real' events, you see your reactions and judgments as being either instinctive or filtered through your prejudices. In this way, the film exercises authority over reality, and becomes a reality in its own right, whose verity need not be questioned.
It becomes less important if Bigelow drew the vase or the space around the vase, because only a part of it need be filled for us to complete the whole. But, we can never unsee the whole, and see only the part, and therein lies the dilemma of reality based fiction, and fiction based reality. Whose truth or fiction is the vase, whose is the space around it, and who is to take credit for the whole?
“You may break, you may shatter the vase, if you will, but the scent of the roses will hang round it still.” - Thomas More
David Attenborough believes that TV naturalists could become extinct and be replaced by YouTube amateurs. That made me wonder what 18th and 19th century naturalist explorers might have thought of the very idea of a TV naturalist!
While I enjoy Attenborough 60 Years in the Wild this weekend, I leave you with this Guillermo García Carsí's pilot for a spoof series on creatures doomed to extinction. Even Attenborough might enjoy Doomed.
You can see some clips from Attenborough's 60 years series on their official website , and maybe that will tempt you to buy the full copy.
Months after watching War Horse on Stage, I was still turning over in my mind how a horse made of sticks galloping in front of a ripped piece of paper with surrealist artwork on a bare stage can reveal so much of our world to us, and extend our empathy to an animal, and through it to the million men and horses who lost their lives in a war fought almost 100 years ago!
Humans empathize with everything. If one were to hold a pencil in his hand and call it his sweetheart and break it into two, we would wince like he just broke his sweetheart! So, it isn't very hard to imagine that we are capable of seeing real horses in horse puppets, empathising with them and reflecting on our choices through them. And, in War Horse, we extend our empathy to the most silent character in the story. We see war through this neutral trooper - a horse that finds itself in situations, endures the shafts of human battle as part of British, German, and French militaries, but makes no judgments of anyone.
I was hoping the Making of War Horse would show me what went into making those beautiful life-size horse puppets that looked and behaved just like real horses. This was after I had watched a Ted talk demonstration of the same by the Handstring Puppet Company, followed by the play itself. I just couldn't get enough.
What I saw instead of the making of puppets was the rehearsal of the men who worked inconspicuously from inside the puppet to project a real animal onto it. I also saw them rehearsing wearing just horse hats made of paper, holding a rod that served as a whole horse puppet; and they synchronised their gallops and neighs, the movements of a ear or the tail. They weren't just letting the horses be horses, but were being horses themselves, and reacting not to dialogue, but the emotional temperatures of the scenes. It was like watching kids transform empty boxes into vehicles and themselves into beasts! Only, here, each puppeteer operated one bit of the horse, and together they determined how we saw the whole animal and reacted to it; so the audience was also engaging in their game!
Without going into the contents of the documentary itself, but continuing from where it left off, here is some of what the stage play captures beyond what meets the eye.
The first world war marked the beginning of the end of the old order in Europe. Technology was radicalized and warfare changed beyond recognition. Even as armies were learning to cope with the new changes and adapting their tactics, they were active at war and becoming casualties. Everything from aircrafts, machine guns, automatic rifles, tanks, poison gas, barbed wire and trenches were used for the first time, and what ensued was the bloodiest war the world had ever seen! You see the war in the play, and you see the stage turn into a dark war zone, as troops line up for battle, and huge tanks and machine guns come rolling out, overwhelming the British army. It is men on horses against machines!
The art movements of the time too were bloody but unbowed. The futurists saw war as cleansing the old orders, and the anvil upon which the 'new man' would be forged. Their aesthetic of art celebrated machinery and violence. Marinetti, in his Futurist Manifesto declared that "Art can be nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice". He saw war as inherent to life itself, and wanted art to "glorify war - the world's only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman". Britain too had its own Vorticists who wanted to wipe out all traces of the Victorian age and place the machine age at the very centre of their art work. You see these two cubist "offshoot" movements represented on the stage, in the backdrops and through the harsh lighting. Every scene was like Paul Nash's surrealist paintings, with stark landscapes, spaces full of darkness defined through light.
But none of this describes how bad the violence really was, and that's where Michael Morpugo's novel and the inspiration behind it comes in. He saw FW Reed's frightening painting of horses during the First World War, in which, Germans were shooting at the British cavalry charging up a hill into german lines. And as men were being shot at, a mass of horses had already become entangled in barbed wire. Later in the documentary, it is revealed that 8 million horses were killed during the first world war, and one to two million were from Britain alone!
With all the improved technology, the horses were still used for cavalry charges, because of the quick mobility they provided, and they remained the best means for moving scouts, supply wagons, ambulances, and artillery to the battlefield. But in spite of all that, the staggering loss of horses meant rural life throughout Europe would never be the same again. Some breeds were so reduced in number that they were in danger of disappearing. It changed the color and culture of the continent and also the ways in which things were done, including farming, mining and transport!
In a way the play captured and represented the fractured environments and inhuman landscapes of the early 20th century through a personal story, not of a soldier, or an animal, but of a collective people. It was a community going to war and returning to what little remained of home.
I enjoy that the whole story can be understood only by allowing ourselves to take in fragments of accounts through various mediums. It is a children's novel set in a historic context of World War I, with a central animal character, that came about as a result of the author's interactions with war veterans, his observations of a young boy's relationship with a horse, some old paintings and photographs of world war, and the poetry of Edward Thomas; It then got transformed into a stage play with puppets that introduced us to the aesthetic of various art movements at the time, and the folk songs that gave us a sense of the community… and together they wove something of a human narrative!
Slightly off-topic, but on the subject of human empathy, here is an interesting TED talk where Jeremy Rifkin explains how we are rethinking the human narrative.
"New York has shaped most of my major life choices. My first serious adult relationship was with a New Yorker; my closest friend was a New Yorker; my partner is a New Yorker. I may never be one, but if “home” is where one relaxes most, the length of my exhalation when I fall out of Penn Station seems to indicate something beyond mere relief.
It’s not too mysterious. First, there’s the way the natives communicate: they speak the way I prefer to be spoken to—nice and quickly, with an overdeveloped sense of irony. Irony is a whole dialect here, within which you can still be funny, moving, open, generous, sincere. Secondly, since I have little by way of an inner life, my resting state is a deep boredom, and New York is the least boring place I know.
New York’s great secret—or rather the truth it cannot openly declare—is that it is the European capital of your dreams. Lord knows, it isn’t really America. I’m always bewildered by friends who visit, and then plan five things to do every day—a gallery, a trip to Katz’s Deli, a show…They’re missing the point. The city is the show. Architecturally, for example, its brutal grid serves only to highlight its insane, principled, obsessive variety. No two adjacent buildings are the same; and no building embodies the beauty and lunacy of the place like the Frick Collection, a jaw-dropping limestone pile taking up a whole block at the corner of 70th Street and Fifth Avenue. It’s never long before I wind up here, as often by blind instinct as design. (For others, it’s not the art that makes it a place of pilgrimage. Every casual geek will tell you that Batman’s Gotham City is “Manhattan below 14th Street at 11 minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November”, but less well known is the fact that the Avengers’ mansion is the Frick: 890 Fifth Avenue is the same address as 1 East 70th.)" The Rest of the Article
It has been nearly 150 years since Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland was written, and hundreds of creatives have taken a stab at it and made it their own; the depth and beauty of each interpretation rivalling the other, and exalting the original. I find myself delighting in at least one adaptation of Alice a year.
The story is a very physical one that is both literal and fantastical, and therefore lends itself well to being communicated through any medium! But, no previous adaptation saw audiences line up at the box office at 3:30 AM to get rush tickets like Christopher Wheeldon's contemporary ballet when it first premiered in 2011! Even when we saw it last week at the Kennedy Center, two years since its premiere, and a year after our own Washington Ballet performed its interpretation of Alice in April 2012, it was sold out! The day also coincided with Lewis Carroll's 181st birthday!
I could feel his spirit in the dance and music, even though they were the two elements missing in the book; Likewise, the book had wordplay and logical puzzles locked into every page and the ballet had no words! And still, Wheeldon managed to replace the literary strengths of the book with physical and subversive humor, ballet wit, and an astounding visual and melodic vocabulary. It was enthralling to see all the scenes rising from the pages and translating into movement. The music, characterization, dance and decor, all had a cinematic and colorful feel that played on the physicality of the written word and catered to our non-literal perception of the world.
But, what I liked the most about the ballet is that it drew on the life of Lewis Carroll himself; especially his controversial connection with children. He played a pivotal character in the ballet, wherein he appeared as a family friend and photographer at the garden party hosted by the Liddell family; He entertained the young Liddell daughters (including Alice), and eventually transformed into the White Rabbit and lured Alice into the rabbit hole! This is much like in Carroll's real life, where he spent a lot of time with a real Liddell family, and is said to have originally narrated the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the young Liddells! He was also considered one of the best amateur photographers of his time, back when photography was still in its infancy. He particularly enjoyed photographing close family, friends and children… but eventually gave up the hobby when the art got easier with technological advancements, and it ceased to excite him in the same way.
He played a vital role in bringing up his eleven siblings, entertaining them with funny stories, puzzles, magic and puppetry, and you see all these elements in the ballet. The ballet was narrated in an episodic manner, where each story took place in a new exotic setting: some grotesque, some orchidaceous, and some eye-catchingly foreign-looking; all multi-dimensional and enhanced with hi-tech video projectors that magically flowed in and out of the same space! There were several whimsical characters in flamboyant costumes, displaying talent, drama and humor all at once. It was a visual wonder that exceeded my wildest imagination. It was as if every scene was an elaborate visual panegyric celebrating Carroll's love for magic!
To describe some of the scenes, there was a typical English garden party attended by an Indian maharaja in a palatial Victorian manor; Alice went down the rabbit hole and found herself in the curious hall with many locked doors that seemed to get bigger and smaller as she got tinier and taller; At one point, Alice was trapped inside a tiny tilted room that appeared out of no where; She swam in between waves in a pool of her own tears with several exotic animals; This was the same pool that she later sailed on in a paper boat with the White Rabbit (This scene was inspired by Lewis Carroll's love for folding paper and setting them off to sail in the water); She found herself outside the Duchess' pretty cottage that later revealed itself as a grotesque Sweeney Todd-esque pig butchery; She encountered a nutty tap-dancing Mad Hatter in his bizarre tea party, followed by an exotic middle eastern caterpillar in a shimmering mushroom; She joined the Queen of Hearts and the Duchess in the Victorian maze garden for a game of croquet (a game Lewis Carroll is known to love) using flamingoes and hedgehogs; and finally found herself in a courtroom made of a deck of cards (another game he is known to love) and implored the Queen to release the Knave!
The music gave the ballet its textural bulk and worked with the other visual elements to both enhance the humor and drive the narrative forward. It was always in the foreground, communicating the emotions and dialogues for the actors, and creating atmospheric underscores. Every character that Alice met, was on his own musical journey with a different musical instrument associated with him, that she then painted over with the aural colour of her own mood! It was wonderful to see how the same musical elements of a character transformed as they got filtered through another character's emotions! Or how the composer used a violin for the Queen of Hearts, a celesta for the White Rabbit, a oboe d’amore for the middle eastern caterpillar and so on, and layered each in a way that they worked together in perfect melodic and rhythmic harmony. And my favourite part was when the music and dance came together more rhythmically in the Mad Hatter's frenzy-filled tap dance, and the caterpillar's undulating moves!
There were some dance elements that were both hilarious and unbelievably athletic. For instance, the Queen of Hearts paid tribute to the Rose Adagio in the Sleeping Beauty ballet, which is a difficult sequence in which she had to keep steady on one foot for over a minute, while pirouetting and performing various moves. In Sleeping Beauty, the ballerina is aided by four princes who take turns as she takes off from each of them and proceeds to dance with the next. But, since the cavalry is fearful of dancing with the Queen, should they accidentally make the wrong move and have their heads cut off, the resulting dance was particularly comical, and portrayed the queen as being graceful, fierce, and uncoordinated all at once!
Sometimes, even though the live orchestra was visibly prominent, in between the stage and the audience, I got so involved in the drama that I forget that there were real people playing the music that these dancers were performing to!
As much as Alice in Wonderland has transformed over the years, the creative leaps in Performing Arts too have been getting curiouser and curiouser throughout this time! There was as much choreography off stage as there was on stage, and you could tell that from how swiftly the sets appeared and disappeared, and actors changed costumes in no time and looked dramatically different every time they entered the stage.
The divide between the stage and the audience was sometimes momentarily bridged, when the audience was in Wonderland, and the flower dancers danced among us, and confetti rained from above, while Alice was in the curious hall with the many locked doors, trying to get to where we were! She was first too tiny and then too tall, and tried very hard to squeeze through a peewee door and set foot in our Wonderland, but to no avail!
Then, there were hi-tech video projectors, large and small, that created perspective as Alice spiralled down the rabbit-hole and had many out-of-the-way things happen to her.
When technology was not used, there were invisible men puppeteering a giant-sized Cheshire cat whose limbs disengaged from the body and floated about freely all over the stage and around Alice. He was my most favorite character in the ballet!
When you have $2 million dollars, oodles of talent, and a whimsical Lewis Carroll story at your disposal, there is no limit to what Alice can dream up; Unlike the book, where she played an observer, here she was the architect of her journey, so she could stay in Wonderland for as long as she wanted, but, unfortunately for me, she did ultimately wake up, and there ended my dream.
Here are some articles on Lewis Carroll, a man of many personalities, and the real Alice:
Lewis Carroll: An Unconventional Character
Lewis Carroll's magic
Years Beyond The Rabbit Hole, 'Alice' Looks Back
Review of "The Mystery of Lewis Carroll"
The Lewis Carroll Society of North America
(Mary Blair is the artist who did the concept art for Disney's Alice in Wonderland!)
I have been slowly ploughing through the Cairo Trilogy by Naquib Mahfouz, relishing it like a succulent meal. In spite of that, having read the first book, I am now gravitating towards Cairo, a [completely different] graphic novel by G. Willow Wilson, instead of the second book in the trilogy.
I haven't fully moved past my childhood picture-book days. I need the text versus illustration ratio to tip towards illustration to experience full satisfaction. Which is why, I hope every book is adapted into a movie, and is written in a suitable font to begin with! No amount of evocative writing will fill the visual void that my imagination relies heavily on to transport me to its world. I see this as a disability that I manage to overcome with acceptance and mind games. I imagine that I am the filmmaker being given the task of adapting the book into a movie, and then the void becomes my canvas.
Now, about the book.
Palace Walk is richly descriptive, and paints a visual picture of the everyday life of a family living in an alleyway by a major souk in Cairo. It deals with the Cairene's simultaneous struggle with and respect for the old established order, at a time marked by profound transformation, during the days leading to the Revolution. This is done sensitively, aided by Mahfouz's own nostalgia for the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Cairo, and its fragile social fabric!
There are two stories being told through the plot: One, presents a portrait of people that details the characters' lives and their personal aspirations, and alludes to the larger story behind the perceptively drawn picture; Another, presents a portrait of time that focusses on the story of the rising tide of nationalism, and the push and pull of a patriarchal society, and how it contributes to the incongruous life of one family!
Mahfouz combines the two stories with some fluidity, so even when the characters are preoccupied with their own lives, you can see each of them rising from their personal depths and representing an ideological point of view shared by many Cairenes. You can see inside their minds and grasp the motivation behind their behaviors, and understand both the shared values and the gulf of understanding between the characters.
The revolution has just begun and I am taking a break now to savor a real-life-meets-mythology take on Cairo in sequential art form.
I enjoy watching Reality TV. No other medium of art or literature allows us this pleasure, except cinema; unless you have access to several detailed diaries or biographies of related-people interacting with each other in some elaborate set-ups.
One does not assume that Reality is real. As soon as real life is presented in fragments, everything is transformed, and even the recognizable world becomes limited and constructed. So we explore a transmuted reality from a non-rational unconscious, guided mostly by our deep inward feelings; while our conscious, rational mind works to overcome the reproduction and find reality in it!
There is always a plot developing; even when it all looks like a mindless tussle; the diegesis is well-thought out and progresses at an agreeable pace. My visceral reactions to the unfolding reality, or fiction, or whatever that thing is, is fascinating, simply because it evokes a real reaction!
It is when you see reality being presented as a screenplay, that you recognize photogenie, the ineffable element of cinema, which is like color is to a painting, and notes are to music. It reveals the soul of everything it reproduces. Even a tree is transformed from nature to art when it is viewed through the screen.
It reminds me of what Louis Delluc said way back in 1919 about cinema being modern art, because it uses technology to stylise real life.
But, there is a certain sincerity to the genre of Reality, not because it is non-mediated in nature, but because it is seeking to evoke feelings in us that are real and automatic! We are Reality. I also like that it makes us think that our everyday can be presented in a structured format, where each of us is a character in a story moving forward in a one-dimensional plot. It plays to our vicarious pleasure of wanting structure!
Lisa Vanderpump, one of the one-dimensional housewives in the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, is featured in another new Reality TV series called Vanderpump Rules, where we can see her play a successful restaurateur, her other dimension.
Last week, when Aaron Swartz took his life, I was too busy taking in all the outpouring of bewildered grief to acknowledge just Aaron Swartz, this man, in the video.
He doesn't look like he meant for himself to live such a short life. He looks like a man with a whole life's work cut out for him, that now remains an open dialogue that he won't get to be a part of.
He said that,
To be in a grave would be all right, as long as he had access to oxygen and no dirt on top of him; and as long as all the contents of his hard drives were made publicly available, nothing deleted, nothing withheld, nothing secret, nothing charged for; all information out in the light of day, as everything should be.
Wherever he is, I hope he has oxygen, and no dirt on top of him.
Thank you, Aaron Swartz,
A blogger, broadcasting my personal thoughts on the internet; using RSS; loving Creative Commons; and thinking about everything you fought for!
When I was ten, my aunt's friend scotched my illusory perception of fairy tales. From then on, Little Red Riding Hood was a 17th century French peasant's tale about a prepubescent girl who is led astray by a ravishing male [wolf]; he subsequently violates her in her grandmother's house; and just as he is about to kill her, her father comes to her rescue! All fairy tales seemed to be about confronting one's fears and coming out bruised, but happily not broken.
Hidden in these stories are symbols and significations pointing to some dark truth that can have many meanings when placed in different contexts. I used to find The Little Red Riding Hood most relatable to our time, and so I found the older and darker interpretation of her story more gut-wrenching, and wished then that my emotions translated more literally to the huntsman wrenching the wolf's gut. Instead he put two stones in the wolf's belly as punishment for his sexual transgression! It so happens that this ending is more in line with my current stand against the death penalty, so I am fine with it now!
Later, I read The Great Cat Massacre, in which this story was validated, and early versions of other familiar fairy tales were retold. For instance, in the original Sleeping Beauty, Sleeping Beauty is molested by a married Prince Charming and bears him several children, while she is still sleeping! The infants break the spell by biting her breasts during nursing. What a horror that must have been to wake up to! It tells me that the curse was meant to begin after she was awoken! In one version of Cinderella, Cinderella becomes a domestic servant to prevent her widowed-father from forcing her to marry him.
A lot of these stories go back centuries before their supposed authors were even born. Charles Perrault's 17th century version of Sleeping Beauty that we are familiar with, also appeared in an Arthurian romance in the 14th century! Moreover, the same stories were retold all over Europe through centuries, with little to no variations, making it hard to trace their origins.
Fairy tales were mostly written keeping adults in mind, and were never regarded as being suitable for children. Some had to be rewritten several times before they were considered 'debatably' tolerable as "household" tales, and were imparted to children with some horrific details to make moral lessons stick in their minds!
Over time, we have been seeing the same stories taking on new dimensions and becoming representatives of their times! The Disney versions may be indicative of our times being comparatively happier (or censored more heavily, depending on your optimism about our times)! But that too is changing. There are some dark interpretations that are being made for adults!
Once Upon a Time is a fairly adult series that builds on fairy tales and other fantasy stories from pop-culture, by splitting the universe into several extra dimensions, and having characters travel back and forth between them using magic! It's String Theory reinterpreted as: All things being equal, all fictional stories happening across time and space can be strung together, and re-imagined as one single epic!
Suddenly the retellings of 18th century Germany's Grimm Brothers, 17th century France's Charles Perault, 19th century England's Lewis Caroll, 20th century Scotland's JM Barrie, 19th century Italy's Carlo Collodi, and many more authors from different eras and places magically come together in a fictional but contemporary American town, reminiscent of the Lost world, by way of a curse!
I love that fairy tales have been slowly evolving over time and space and taking on new dimensions. I also love that through Once Upon a Time, their characters are travelling many physical dimensions and interacting with each other in one place. The series is my most favorite adaptation of old fairy tales in this era, followed by James Finn Garner's Politically Correct Bedtime Stories.
There is also another TV series called Grimm that I followed for sometime, but didn't enjoy as much. It's a cop drama where the cop (a Grimm, with secret powers), goes after some evil characters from Grimm's fairytales (called Wessen) who inhabit the human world disguised as humans! It's a great concept, but followed the same Dr. Who type formula, with one bad character being finished off by the end of the episode.
I watched a French crime thriller called Nobody Else But You (Poupoupidou), in which a crime novelist solves a murder of a young woman who shared several commonalities in both appearance and relationships with Marilyn Monroe, and believed she was a reincarnation of Monroe and predicted her own death! I watched it around the same time that I watched a few versions of Snow White - Mirror Mirror, and Snow White and the Huntsman, and read an account of a German scholar who believed that the story of Snow White might in fact be based on the life of German noble girl in Lohr am Main in 1725. There is also a "Talking Mirror” that is now housed in Spessart Museum in the Lohr Castle, to validate this account!
The line between reality and fiction has always been a blur, but perhaps it is the blur that we inhabit, and true reality and absolute fiction that we seek from the blur! Or maybe, we are all Grimms meant to keep balance between the real and imaginary creatures we live alongside or create.
Tarantino's violence is of a particular personality that I happen to like. It's an aesthetic ultra-violence requiring a willing suspension of disbelief so that art and motif can coalesce with chimerical coherence. It is at once real and sensational, and unreal and provocative, and evokes many opposite and extreme emotions simultaneously. I find myself reacting instinctually to the action, and intelligently to the dialogues. It convinces me that the only place for all moral outrage is on cinema, where violence can be converted into beauty!
One way to judge a film would be to imagine it being played in two different scenarios, and see if the filmmakers intention comes in the way of our perception of the film.
In one scenario, Tarantino makes Django Unchained just to cater to his whim. He hires a large crew, orchestrates a carefully crafted blaxploitation spaghetti western film full of stunning cinematography, eclectic music, cathartic action scenes, and frequent laughs! When the film is made, he keeps it to himself, for his late-night viewing and doesn't show it to anyone (this assumes of course, that he has the wherewithal to afford this indulgence). In another scenario, he makes the same film available to the audience.
In the case of the former, his motive being the creation of art and self-gratification, there is less incentive to make a point about slavery, as much as set his story in those slavery times by happenstance or by reason of his fancy! It is purely a creative endeavor by a man who has a thought, a fantasy and grandiose talents, and is wanting to scratch an itch without feeling the need to share or impress!
In the case of the latter, he is more generous. He gratifies himself while also allowing us to indulge in his fantasy and create our own; he gives us our first iconic black hero (a lovelorn slave turned bounty hunter) in a spaghetti western. A black western hero is an unwonted induction made more stark by the fact that it is a western set in a deep southern plantation backdrop; and he uses this setting to make known the holocaust of black slavery from his distinctive, fictional point of view! If these are Tarantino's motives (as he claims they are), then the violence is just a plot device to dragoon us into a frame of mind needed to move the actual story along!
The historic inaccuracies, such as that the Klu Klux Klan was formed at least a decade after the period in which the film was set, or that there is no evidence of real Mandingo fighting, maybe irrelevant as factual history, but are necessary to the story! They are artistic liberties that serve as plot devices to make a point about the slave experience, which in reality was as brutal as the lies that Tarantino fabricated! And that is where he has a whip-hand over historians, in that he is allowed to be blatantly manipulative, and use grandiose falsehoods as tools to weave mysterious threads of truth and tell some form of the real story! But he also intentionally forces us to reflect on the times by sincerely recreating the physical ambience of those plantations! The result is a fine balance of the different tones and stories at play. This is true also for his other purposefully inaccurate, and fittingly misspelled film, Inglourious Basterds!
I read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edward Allan Poe around when I watched the Life of Pi (although I had read the book many years ago), and couldn't help but contemplate the two in tandem. There were many apparent parallels in the two novels, right from the names of the characters and the overarching themes of solitary survival at sea and cannibalism, but they also had their own distinctive qualities, so much that even when the story-lines crisscrossed, the similarities only seemed superficial! The Life of Pi was a tamer and more openly spiritual cousin of the Pym of Nantucket.
In almost every great story about sea voyages gone awry, there is truth mixed with the unspeakable; where humans confront their savage instincts, and one Richard Parker becomes victim to the Custom of the Sea. This is true for both fiction and real life. In real life, back when there were no proper telecommunication facilities, cannibalism used to be accepted as an execrable, but necessary evil, unavoidable in certain circumstances, such as survival at sea. In The Mignonette case, a century ago, three lost crew members chose to eat an unconscious fourth (a Richard Parker), and the only objection raised by the law was that it was done so without drawing straws!
But, in all shipwreck stories, there is also the aspect of nature revealing itself in all its splendor, and making itself look dream-like! It brought the element of magic in magic-realism, as was best showcased in The Life of Pi. When the story was uninterrupted by human presence (besides Pi, who stands witness to this phenomenon), the world seemed ineffably vast and harmonious! There was chaos, there was stillness, and there was a perceivable rhythm to both. The twinkling of the stars was echoed in the bioluminescence of the jellyfish; the reflective water faithfully mirrored the golden sky above; the chaos of waves complimented the wrath of the storm, the fusillade of flying fish paralleled the scurrying of meerkats up the trees; the synchronous movements of critters and beasties matched the intricate anatomy of the woods, which in turn contrasted the tiny boat in a boundless sheet of uninterrupted velvet blue. The roar of the tiger and his continued stare into the abyss complemented the lyrical words of Pi and his nonstop monologues!
How much of it was real, and how much of it was made up, we will never know; just as we will never know which of the two stories was true, and if anything like the floating island really exists in our world! What we do know is what we wanted our unexplored world to look like, and it was delivered!
The human aspect of The Life of Pi came in the form of Pi's soliloquies, which at times left me mentally adrift, and trying to find ground! In being besotted with nature, I may have been distracted from the wonder of God. In the end, I was more happy that Pi found his gastronomical path than his spiritual one!
But just as one man and one tiger learnt to share space on a tiny boat in a fictional story, in real life, we have been witnessing a different result to the battle between tigers and humans sharing the same space. For sometime now, the score has been tipping heavily on the human side, so much that last week, 200 men savagely attacked a "released" tiger and ceremoniously killed it!
Almost all reserves in India have tiger populations in two-digits, and tigers have lost 93% of their range, and yet they seem to come in the way of human settlements. Environmentalists have been working hard to reverse this change and promote nonviolence. Tigers too have been somewhat proactive in changing their ways to thrive in this manscape. For instance, the ones in Sundarbans rarely attack the villages encircling the reserves. In order to provide for themselves in the wild, they have learnt to swim, and sometimes tread deep water for up to three miles to catch their prey. They have also adapted to eating honey from beehives. In other parts, tigers have adopted a nocturnal life and prowl on forest paths only at night when we are asleep. It seems they have done everything short of growing wings. Despite that, on occasion, particularly when food is scare, they polish off local livestock, and rattle our cage!
One begins to wonder if the solution to the riddle about transporting the Tiger, Goat and Grass to the other side holds water in real life. Secretly perhaps, our most desirable solution is to let the goat eat the grass, then feed the goat to the tiger, then eat the tiger, and deliver ourselves in fine fettle to the other side!
Cannibalism hasn't come that easily to tigers as it has to us! They do well playing Richard Parker. I know one tiger that did.
More on Tigers: http://worldwildlife.org/species/tiger
One way to experience the beauty of a chemical element is to make it manifest somehow; like when you strike a match and see phosphorus ignite, or add mercury to a neon tube to make it shine blue, or fill a balloon with helium and release it to the sky.
In The Red Balloon, the balloon has a life of its own; bobbing behind a little Parisian boy who is as enchanted by it as the rest of us. It's a simple story that is narrated with a poetic spareness that is as light, and as rare as helium itself.
There is a shortage of helium on our planet. It is the second most abundant element in the observable universe, but not here. Here, in our neck of the woods, it makes up 0.00052% of the atmosphere, not including some in underground gas pockets, a good chunk of which we pack into our party balloons and ship off to the outer space! It is predicted that all helium on Earth may be depleted in about 40 years. To let that happen would be a betrayal of innocence, just like in the story. The price of helium has already increased 300% in the last few years, and is unavailable in some places (although in some other places, like in Calcutta, helium rides are the things to watch out for)! Some stores have begun to impose a helium balloon limit here, meaning you can buy only six balloons at a time.
As kids, we were each allowed to buy one small pear-shaped helium balloon once a year. It was also the only day that I could most pretend to defy gravity. I could ride the roller coasters and ferris wheels, and sit on dad's shoulders as we strolled through the various stalls and sampled treats. Later in the evening we would let our balloons go and watch them get tinier and tinier till they disappeared out of sight, with the exception of one, whose helium would serve to distort our voices!
Helium to me is about the wonders of childhood, now kept alive through cinema - like the unwavering red sphere in The Red Balloon, the twenty thousand colorful blimps that lifted Carl's house off the ground in Up, the hot air balloon that
Francesca and Casanova used to oppose "the gravitational force of witchcraft" in Casanova, the wizard's balloon that "almost" transported Dorothy back home in The Wizard of Oz! Soon, cinema might be the only way to experience the magic of helium balloons.
I came across a humorous project by an independent director who took scenes from classic films and added little balloon props to them. They are something of an homage to The Red Balloon. Enjoy!
Of course, there is more to Helium than balloons.
Here are some recent articles about the crisis (and its effects on scientific research among other things):
• A ballooning problem: the great helium shortage
• Stop the Parade! Should we be wasting our dwindling supply of helium on floating cartoon characters?
• A Helium Shortage Leads to Fewer Balloons in the Sky
… and a link to a related cause: Balloons Blow… Don't Let Them Go!
I wonder what Henri Bergson would have to say about today’s cinema. He had nothing to do with cinema, but even as early as 1906 he anticipated it would influence new ways of thinking about movement. Do you think he could have imagined the likes of Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World when he said that?
I am reminded of a book that I once read on quantum physics called Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of The Universe’s Hidden Dimensions. In that, the author Lisa Randall who is a theoretical physicist speculates that there may be 10 or 11 space-time dimensions in the universe (and for all you know fewer or many more)… and that we experience only four because we are not physiologically designed to see those other dimensions.
Should she be right about there being many more dimensions in the world – and should parallel universes, warped geometry and three-dimensional sinkholes be real – it could change everything! Emboldened by our knowledge, we may even be able to impinge on these hidden dimensions and find ways to experience them. In some ways films like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World attempt (even if unintentionally) to do that! But if it was that easy to imagine and simulate a different world, wouldn’t it be that much easier to also realize it?
In fact, what we are doing in quantum physics now is seeing our world the same way Bergson saw cinema in 1906. We are seeing it with wonder, and even wondering hopelessly about that which cannot be imagined, and then wondering more about what it means that we cannot imagine what we wondered about.
But, unlike my kind of loosey-goosey wondering, Bergson’s speculation about cinema turned out to be more than accurate. In fact more so than I think he could have ever imagined. Moreover, if you think of his speculation in conjunction with his other philosophies on reality and intuition, and creativity and laughter… you have what I think is the perfect fodder for a discussion on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World… or any other nested-fantasy film for that matter.
The film has a lot of merit and is brilliant beyond words can express in just the way the plot unfolded and was visually presented. But, leaving that aside, if you consider the random chain of thoughts it triggers in our mind about the nature of reality alone, it still is a treasure trove of delightful reveries.
The other more obvious conversation that the film provokes is about Fantasy. Now that Fantasy has emerged into its own genre of film, one has to wonder if the word has lost its meaning or at least changed to mean something else. Is Fantasy fantasy if we know what to expect? Is fantasy not the expression of our unconscious that reflects subliminal realms of our minds that have been suppressed or repressed? Can we translate the form, structure and rationality of the world of dreams to the world of reality? And can we fantasize with films, the way we can fantasize in our minds?
Lacan would have us believe that fantasy is our conscious articulation of desire through images and stories… but, I wonder if by giving it a standard structure, we are interfering with the process of narrating our unconscious desire the way it wants to be narrated…
He addresses this dilemma by taking into account the many layers of fantasies between filmmakers and spectators that inadvertently cross-feed each other. For instance… the filmmaker perceives fantasy in a certain way, which may be different from the fantasy he creates for the spectators, which each spectator then perceives and fantasizes in their own way, and feed back to the filmmaker, who then re-interprets the spectators’ fantasies only to find that they may be entirely different from his own… but here too the filmmaker’s interpretation of the spectators’ fantasies may be maligned by his own subconscious desires, so he may never really know what the spectators had imagined… just as the spectators may never know what the filmmaker imagined…
To add to this, imagining is an ongoing process that we have little control over, and happens in our mind alongside other activities (including getting lost in the film and become one with it). Our imagination too changes all the time, which means we may all be fantasizing about the same thing differently at different points in time, and even have several fantasies about the same thing running simultaneously in our minds at once, making it impossible for us to articulate them! Moreover, we tend put ourselves in the minds of several people (the filmmaker, the protagonists, the spectators and so on) while also viewing the film as observers or protagonists, making it impossible to know how our various observations overlap or communicate with each other…
This means each spectator has millions of fantasies and there are millions of spectators for each film, making the number of fantasies as numerous as the number of atoms in the air, which again points back to the analogy about quantum physics.
And still everyone is together in this orgy of fantasies on account of a common pursuit, which is the viewing of the film and exploring our subconscious desires through it (and trying to explore the desires of others). We each speak to our own innermost fantasies and feed it to others who interpret it to satisfy their fantasies and so on and so forth. We can’t tell how our fantasies are triggered and how they translate to others desires, since it all happens within the unconscious mind.
That’s where I began and ended with Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World. I saw myself as the voyeur of the story unfolding in front of me, as well as the voyeur of my own fantasy. And what a colorful and spectacular world it was, and how much there was in it to see and be entertained by.
This was one of the first comic strips to make it to newspapers (1905–1913), by a man who was also the pioneer of early animated cartoons. Windsor McCay set the standard for Walt Disney and the likes in the later decades.
During this time, a single comic strip usually occupied an entire page in a newspaper, which is a huge contrast to our times where 20 artists share the same space and fight for attention. Whether this points to the popularity of comics, the lack of competition or the lack of other media entertainment is debatable. But, that a newspaper was willing to forgo one entire page for a “child fantasy” comic strip says a lot about what they thought eye-popping images can do to entice readers.
Little Nemo in Slumberland is about Nemo, a 5 year old kid, who falls asleep when the lights are turned off and dreams of a fantastical world with surreal characters. Nemo’s main purpose is to make it to Slumberland where he had been summoned by King Morpheous to be the playmate of his daughter, the Princess. At the end of each strip while he’s on his way to Slumberland, a terrible mishap befalls him leading to serious injury or death, like him turning into a monkey or being crushed by a giant mushroom. In the last panel, he wakes up, screaming in his sleep and a grownup in the household comes to scold or cajole him.
For an early 1900 comic strip, the rendering style is extremely sophisticated and colorful (following the popular art nouveau fashion of that era), with interesting perspective drawings that suggest limitless distance, and a linear cinematic structure. For a children’s fantasy, the adventures in the dream world are really dark and threatening, which may be attributed to McCay’s creative genius. However, a lot of comic writers also consider this his major flaw and write that he focused too much on the drawing than the writing!
Over the years, there have been hundreds of adaptations of Little Nemo, in book and movie forms but none have been as successful as the original… today the original print pages go for $50,000 or more… (and to think that there was a day when people wrapped fish in these masterpieces!!!)
There is a book called Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays! with the best of his works, reproduced in “actual size”, with the exact look of newsprint selling for $120.