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 in 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 to. And retelling of stories that happened in the past can take full advantage of the paradox of suspense, because when we seek a fictional version of the real story over a factual one, we are seeking these half-truths, 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 game, 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!
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 are being preserved in a temperature-controlled bubble where they will never see an audience.
Even if films don’t burn, 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 seems to symbolize 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 and what was not. 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 upgraded or readapted 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 a leap of imagination to conjure up new and exciting ways to tell stories that are captivating. 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 with the filmmakers and became captivated, cinema became the 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 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.