Dead trees


For those of you who wondered about the radio silence: I have a daughter who is old enough to acknowledge me as something more significant than Random Tall Creature With Facial Hair, but not yet old enough to want to watch Citizen Kane with me and argue whether it’s the greatest film ever made. (Her current approach to the Universe involves three fundamental questions: Is it a pair of glasses perched on a nose? Whatever it is, can I bang it on the floor and make some noise? Can I eat it? Citizen Kane, unfortunately, doesn’t check any of those boxes.)

What happens, therefore, is that I end up watching a couple of movies on long haul flights (and I don’t even travel all that often), and on the odd night when I really ought to know better than stay up late. On the flip side, I’m reading a lot more (on my way to work and back). So I recently revisited Mockingjay, the third book in the Hunger Games series, and thought back to my experience of watching the two movies (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire), the latter of which I watched on one of the aforementioned long haul flights. And I realized something.

The reason why I grew increasingly less enchanted with the writing in the series is the following: It is set in sort of a haphazardly put together dystopia — a cross between a TV show and a post-apocalyptic nightmare that feels real and plausible as often as not. Just when you begin to feel drawn in by the despair, an odd discussion about fur–lined leggings yanks you out of the mire of despond you happily found yourself in just seconds ago. It’s a bit disconcerting, and prevents you from getting involved, almost always a bad thing in a book.

The first book worked for me because it introduced us to this world, and quickly dropped its main characters into a deadly, inverted version of a reality show (unreal world, real emotional responses), where the plausibility of the setup was not a principal consideration. The second and the third books, being increasingly concerned with the world outside the arena, worked less and less as a result.

When I look back on the whole series, I realize that what holds the series together, if only tenuously, is the character of Katniss Everdeen. This is one messed-up girl, perhaps even more than Lisbeth Salander, who in recent times has become the archetype of the Batshit Insane Ass-Kicking Heroine. It is in charting Katniss’ scarred emotional landscape that Suzanne Collins gets a measure of control over her book — the story is simply there to provide a backdrop against which to set Katniss’ inner monologue. Since the story is told from her perspective, and her narrative eye looks inward as often as outward, we feel emotionally anchored to some extent.

The movies, on the other hand, can only hint at all of this. It can be like any other blockbuster action spectacular. But as far as adapting the actual books go, they basically have to hope that Jennifer Lawrence can hint at the more interesting inner narrative through her acting. As good an actress as she is — and let’s face it, after watching her in Winter’s Bone, we all pretty much knew she’d hit this waaay out of the ballpark — this is a tough ask. She almost pulls it off.

Almost.

When someone asks me what genre Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels fall under, my usual response is ‘comic fantasy’. But the truth is, I don’t read Pratchett for the laughs anymore, although I will readily vouch for the quality of his humor. No, these days I read his novels for their humanism. This might explain why I often find myself returning to his Watch novels starting Samuel Vimes, even though there is enough and more unread material waiting on my bookshelves.

Pratchett’s style has occasionally been described as stealth philosophy, which basically means that, while he’s making you laugh, he’s also slipping in a dose of his brand of philosophy. With the Watch novels, it isn’t quite as stealthy – he would basically pause between punchlines and deliver his punches, as it were, and there’s no way you wouldn’t notice when he does that. But the laughs do keep coming. Feet of Clay, for instance, has an utterly brilliant section towards the end where the golem Dorfl has an argument with the priests of Ankh Morpork. By the time you close the book, you’re still chuckling.

With Snuff, he bothers even less with the humor, idly picking at easy targets like marriage and scat on occasion, but staying focused on the dramatic content. It’s as if Pratchett, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, is trying to get Sam Vimes to dispense as much justice (“just ice”) as possible in Discworld before his own memory fails him, and can’t stop to engage in trifling wordplay. Note that I say this by way of description, not complaint.

The more crucial difference, though, is Vimes’ self awareness and intelligence. In the earlier books, he was a bit more of an earnest plodder with clear ideas on right and wrong, and would figure it all out eventually. In this one, you see a street-smart cop whose obstacles are not so much internal as external.

Take the case of the Summoning Dark, which had one of the more intriguing cameos in Thud. Here it makes an appearance as a mostly benevolent demon that helps Vimes. There is something anticlimactic about that. Again, like I said, Vimes seems to have matured internally into a self-aware hero, and mysteries don’t mystify him anymore, so his problems are more, shall we say, operational now.

His wife Sybil has a bigger role to play in this one, and it seems like her understanding of her husband is also much better. She has always understood what he did, and sometimes even assisted him in her own way, but one rarely saw her taking it personally. There is a scene where she urges him to seek justice for the goblins, and her vehemence is surprising, even to those who have known her long. There is also more than one mention of their sex life, something I frankly didn’t expect in a Pratchett novel.

From a philosophical standpoint, though, what has distinguished the earlier Watch novels is Pratchett’s insistence on the rule of law, even though his novels are populated with people who deserve a more vicious punishment. However, the man has lately begun to favor the more visceral forms of dispensing justice, like the encounter between Andy and Pepe in Unseen Academicals, or the late scene involving Willikins here. And while these scenes are satisfying in the obvious way, they are also a bit worrying. It feels, strangely, like a cop out.

These quibbles aside, Snuff represents yet another strong entry in the always excellent Watch series of novels. Will there be another before a Terry Pratchett goes gently into that good night? Maybe not, but Samuel Vimes will walk into the darkness knowing (and I daresay a little bemused) that he has had, not only a series of books (mostly about poo and farm animals) read aloud by him and another series written about him, but even one dedicated to him. Blackboard Monitors have never had it so good.

 

At this point, I suppose, I should define “we”. I refer to peole like me, born in Madras in the nineteen-seventies and ripening into cinematic awareness in the decade that followed, in Mani Ratnam’s decade. We are possibly the most qualified to write about Mani Ratnam. We might also be the least qualified.

– Conversations with Mani Ratnam: Introduction.

The above passage might serve to explain why I anticipated the arrival of this book like no other non-fiction book before it. I too count myself among the “we” that Baradwaj Rangan talks about. Born in the seventies, struck by the twin Sicilian Thunderbolts of Mouna Raagam and Nayakan. Felt, in a strange little way, disowned when Mani Ratnam went on to be owned by a larger audience after Roja.

Add to this the other “we” that a growing band of us now consider ourselves part of. The people who, come Friday morning, find ourselves keeping one tab in our browser constantly open to Blogical Conclusion and refresh it every few minutes to see if there’s a new post awaiting us.

Does it make my ilk uniquely qualified to talk about a series of conversations between Mani Ratnam and Baradwaj Rangan? Perhaps not so much, but it certainly makes the topic personal enough to want to write about.

With a book on film that involves a filmmaker and a film critic, one is tempted to get all meta and assign movie-like attributes to the book itself. This is not as much of a force-fit as it sounds. Conversations can be tricky. You have to strike a balance between covering the stuff you want to talk about and allowing it to flow in whichever direction the topic takes you. At its best, the conversation is smooth, yet wide-ranging. Sort of like a film that draws you in so completely that the maker’s skill occurs to you only in hindsight.

Cover art

The other aspect of these conversations is the comfort level that the two people seem to have with each other. The first chapter, which talks about, among other things, how Mani Ratnam came to be a director, is more in the nature of get-to-know-you chitchat. The tone is more biographical than conversational, but that is not to say that it is a dry, factual account. But as the book hits its stride, the dialogue gets more bilateral. There are questions where the man is predictably cagey, such as when he is asked about moving from Ilayaraja to Rahman. Then again, this isn’t meant to be a tell-all tome. For the most part, he is both articulate and detailed in his answers.

There are a few jarring transitions —  for instance, a conversation about Manisha Koirala in Bombay suddenly jump-cuts to a question on actors knowing how to enter and exit a scene, before getting back to her again. A conversation on tangled relationships in Dil Se suddenly gives way to one on the spiritual undertone to his songs. But these instances are few and far between. By and large, the shift from one topic to another seems organic and not forced. Towards the latter chapters (Kannathil Muthamittal onwards, especially), you just wish they’d keep talking.

The conversations are further enlivened by gentle tug-of-war between a critic’s intellectual viewpoint and a filmmaker’s refusal to let his work be mined for subtext. But this is not to say that Mani Ratnam is a purely instinctive filmmaker who doesn’t think in layers — his closing remarks in the chapter on Iruvar, and his comments on micro- and macro-conflicts in Kannathil Muthamittal are cases in point. His viewpoint, I suppose, comes from the fact that the final product we see is a function of what he originally conceived as well as what transpired on set.

Somewhere in the first chapter, Mani talks about the challenge of translating an abstraction (a scene as it is written) into reality (the scene as it is filmed) and being flexible about the things that change while not letting go of its essence. A macro version of the same idea comes up in the chapter on Mouna Raagam, where he reveals that the whole Manohar (Karthik) subplot was put in as a way of making Divya’s viewpoint more credible/palatable to audiences. Entertaining as it was, it might not have been there at all, had Mani made this film later in his career. Other instances, such as the case of a window in Kannathil Muthamittal, pop up here and there.

But at the end of the day, the fact is, we don’t notice the scaffolding. Or want to, for that matter.

How the fuheck does The Merchant of Venice get labeled a comedy? Sure, it gets a bit farcical at times, and mercy (apparently) triumphs over revenge in the end and what not, but seriously? Didn’t Shylock deserve the right to kick Antonio’s butt seven ways to Tuesday?

The key moment, for me, is his wonderful monologue about the anti-semitism he faces. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” he asks. Even earlier in the play, while you see Sherlock mostly through the eyes of the people around him, their criticism is laced with pithy self-awareness. But this is the scene where he leaps off the page and becomes the only character worth remembering from the play.

So when I heard a few years ago that Al Pacino was playing Shylock in a new adaptation of the play, I was obviously quite excited. If you had to pick an actor who could do justice to that impassioned rant, the man would be on top of a very short list. And his performance lives up to expectations.

Out of curiosity, I looked up other versions of that scene and came upon Orson Welles’ take from his unfinished 1969 adaptation. While Pacino is energetic, physical and angry, Welles sounds more sad than anything else. And if one had to bear the cross of anti-semitism (pun absolutely intended) for so long, I suppose both reactions are equally plausible.

For the most part, Welles is surprisingly unimpressive. But there is one moment where he scores. It comes when he puts in a little pause in the phrase “scorned… my nation”. For that one fleeting moment, you can see him being almost overwhelmed. Then he pulls himself together.

I watched the movie a few weeks ago and just finished reading the Michael Lewis book it was based on, and as it happens, what works in the movie and what doesn’t are the same as with the book. Both stood out as interesting examples of a certain type of storytelling — dense, jargon-heavy dialogue about a specific subject, nevertheless rendered compelling by the fact that they are about big, easy-to-understand ideas and people who believe in them. Once you focus on that, you realize that what drives these stories is the same thing that drives so many others — a man with a theory nobody else believes.

In this case, that man is Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Beane was a gifted athlete whose pro-baseball career fizzled out, but who found a lot more success after his move to the management side of things. He was given the task of building and managing a team that had far fewer dollars to play with than its competitors (less than a third of what the New York Yankees had to work with), and responded by trying to find undervalued players who could help the team win.

How did they do this? The simple, yet superficial answer would be statistics. A lot of rigorous statistical analysis replaced the conventional wisdom used by the scouts working for baseball teams. Instead of letting the scouts influence the decisions on who a team picked and for how much, Beane based his decisions on the work of his analysis team, led by a Harvard economics graduate named Paul DePodesta.

But as anyone who has a lot of data on his hands knows, you can coax a large enough database into giving you any conclusion you want. What really matters when you delve into the world of baseball statistics is an ability to figure out what you should be looking for. Lewis uses a number of examples about both batters and pitchers to convey this point, and this is where the jargon gets in the way of the narrative.  If you don’t know baseball, you might find it difficult reading.

The film has the same problem — there were scenes where my response was driven primarily by the expressions on the characters’ faces and not by what they were saying. It was like watching a foreign movie without subtitles. These scenes are rescued by the acting, and by the fact that we understand the emotional context of the scene, if not the specific topic being discussed. As a result, we stay involved enough in the narrative to cheer when Beane’s unorthodox methods produce spectacular results.

In 2002, the Oakland As put together the longest winning streak in the history major league baseball. As Paul himself might say, that’s a bit of a statistical freak with not a large enough sample size to back it up. But the truth is, the 2002 season was not the first time that the As did so well with so little money, or the first time Beane went looking for undervalued draft picks. It was just the season where his methods were most evident and came under the most stress (three of his best players had just been bought by other, richer teams).

While the movie is principally about Beane, and how he championed the use of new techniques to be “the card counter at the blackjack table”, the book uses it as a jump-off point to profile a bunch of people whose work influenced him and his team. This idea of focusing on a little band of idiosyncratic outsiders is something Lewis uses again in The Big Short, his chronicle of the subprime mortgage crisis.

Chief among the outsiders here is Bill James (who was later hired by the Boston Red Sox), who is among the best known pioneers in this area. When one says, “James wrote the book on meaningful baseball stats”, it’s not a figure of speech — he literally wrote a series of books with all kinds of baseball stats. But more than the numbers he crunched, it was the kind of analysis he provided that really had an impact on the game.

As someone employed in the field of data mining, I can understand why this character strikes a chord with me. I can imagine being engrossed by a biography/biopic of James himself. But I can also see why the focus of the book and the movie is not James but Beane — he was the man who staked his career on these ideas. Given how much it went against the conventional wisdom prevalent in major league baseball, he’d have been flipping burgers if it hadn’t panned out. The fact that Beane had, in the past, shown himself incapable of dealing with failure, meant that flipping burgers was not the worst of the consequences one would worry about when it came to him.

As interesting as Beane is on the printed page, what makes him tough to base a movie around is that a team manager’s involvement with the game does not seem as immediate as that of a player or even that of a coach. So the filmmaker is stuck with the challenge of making a sports movie where the sport is as much of an abstraction as a stock ticker in a movie set in Wall Street. Even a movie like Jerry Maguire, which was about a sports agent and only peripherally about the sport, had one of those big last-minute-play moments. This one has no major scenes on the field, no inspirational speeches… none of the traditional dramatic flourishes that we’ve come to expect, really. But it works, and we are involved, because in its own understated way. Brad Pitt’s performance helps immeasurably — here is an actor who is more often admired for looking good, and therefore underrated as an actor. By the time he gets an offer to manage the Red Sox at what was then an unheard-of salary, the film has quietly built up such a dramatic head of steam that we cheer, even though the scene is quiet as they come.

You don’t always need great dramatic flourishes to draw people in. Quiet observation of interesting people will do just as well. What is significant doesn’t always have to be the thing that draws our attention at first glance. Which, I suppose, is what the story is about.

ps: It occurs to me that I have not said anything about the extent to which the movie is faithful to the events and characters depicted in the book. It also occurs to me that this is not a significant variable in the equation.

Okay, so here’s what I want you to do:

  1. Get yourself to Bangalore. If you live here, it’s a relatively short commute in non-peak hours.
  2. Look up Jagriti Theatre in Whitefield and get tickets to Lysistrata.
  3. Try not to laugh too loudly.
  4. Be warned, though: The original play was pretty damn raunchy to begin with, and these folks haven’t watered it down in their update.

2500 years ago, a man named Aristophanes wrote a comedy about the women of Athens and Sparta going on a sex strike so that their men would stop fighting. The Jagriti version keeps the general plot and the names intact and updates the dialogue to include references to Bangalore landmarks and the odd current event. The result is a curiously anachronistic mishmash that nevertheless manages to tickle the funny bone throughout its running time.

Jagriti is a pretty small theatre — you sit so close to the stage that you feel almost part of the performance. On top of which, the dialogue breaks the fourth wall so often, it almost feels like a conversation with you rather than between the cast members. This can, in theory, be pretty distracting, but it works because the performances are so strong. Especially the ones by Deepika Arwind (Lysistrata) and Sukhita Aiyar (Calonice).

Aside: If I do have a complaint, it is that they don’t introduce the cast members at the end of the play, so I had to spend some time on the net to figure out who played who.

As anti-war works centered around women go, Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment still ranks number one on my list. But thanks to my experience on Saturday evening, Lysistrata comes a close second.

 

So it all ends.

And I am left with the feeling that maybe, just maybe, it could’ve ended a little bit better. The fault lies, I think, with Voldemort.

As much as the focus of the series is Harry growing up to face his destiny and defeat one of the greatest wizards of his time, its dramatic power derives from the dark side. The principal theme of the series is the psychology of fear. Voldemort, a creature of fear and shadows at first — almost a MacGuffin in his own way — is the key. As the series progresses, he and his Death Eaters slowly gain more and more definition until that absolutely brilliant moment in the graveyard after the Triwizard tournament when he returns as a creature of flesh and blood. In fact, the choice to leave him almost entirely out of the picture in the fifth book and to give us tantalizing glimpses of his childhood in the sixth are what get us to primed to enjoy the rollicking adventure that the seventh one is. The series is not without its faults, but overall, it’s a masterpiece of construction and build-up. That is precisely why, when Harry calls him Riddle in that final confrontation and responds with an “Yes, I dare!” to his shocked response, we feel exhilarated.

The films, on the other hand, are completely hamstrung by Voldemort. As good an actor as Ralph Fiennes is, there’s only so much he can do when every feature in his face has been eliminated by make-up. The look of the character is so distractingly bad that it takes away from the performance and characterization.

The other major compromise comes in the way the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort is played out. In the book, it’s a long conversation culminating in a short duel, much like the finale of Kill Bill. The film chooses to make them fight, run up and down staircases, even hit each other in the odd instance. What is magical in the book is mundane in the movie. Sad, really.

Outside of that, there’s little to complain. The special effects are on par with any good production, the performances are top-notch, as usual. The highlights, for me, were:

  • Helena Bonham Carter playing Emma Watson playing Carter herself, when Hermione drinks some polyjuice potion to transform into Bellatrix.
  • Maggie Smith commanding the statues to come to life and guard Hogwarts, and ending with an excited little giggle and the line: “I’ve always wanted to use that spell!”
  • Rupert Grint and Hermione Granger sharing an excited little smile after their first kiss.
  • The epilogue, whose tone is closer to a quiet smile than a laugh, and contains essentially the only line that made the epilogue necessary — the one about Snape.

But despite the positives, I keep coming back to what bothers me about this film. Maybe he must not be named, but must he not have a face either?

A few years ago, when I watched Juno, was completely charmed by it and wrote a glowing review, one of my friends told me that the reason why she didn’t like the movie was that it kinda trivialized teenage pregnancy by treating it as comedy. I didn’t agree with her on that one, but I could see her point.

A few years later, I came across a show on MTV on pregnant teenagers. Its imagery and subject were clearly inspired by the film (the handwritten block letters, for instance), but the thing that came across most clearly was: these kids aren’t Juno. Juno was a sassy adult in a teenager’s body. These are really just kids with adult responsibilities and adult decisions to make. And most of the time, they’re not all that well-equipped to deal with it. As much as I still like that movie, I see her point a lot more now.

Nick Hornby’s Slam is midway between these two worlds. Sam, the narrator of this story, is a teenager who gets his girlfriend Alicia pregnant and now has to deal with the consequences. He understands these consequences better than most — he himself is the product of a teenage pregnancy, and his mom never fails to mention how she’s only three years older than David Beckham and already the mother of a sixteen year-old. His situation isn’t helped by the class difference between him and his girlfriend, something her parents are only too aware of.

What illuminates this tale is the quality of Hornby’s writing. Writing in first person has its pluses and minuses — while it is easier to visualize yourself as the narrator and write the story as it unfolds before your eyes, it is also easier to end up making the character simply a version of you. Creating a distinctive “voice” for a character isn’t straightforward, and with a first person narrative, there is no part of the book that can have any voice except that of the characters.

Sam sounded real to me, although he is not unlike anything Hornby has written. His characters are often a little selfish and undergo a maturation process through the course of his stories, and this one is no different. The fact that Sam really is just a kid makes him only slightly different from Rob Fleming (High Fidelity) or Will Freeman (About a Boy). Hornby’s knack for sly social commentary and ability to cut through the bullshit is also in evidence throughout. My favourite is a scene where Alicia’s mom makes a snobbish remark and Sam talks about how Alicia always says that she really is a good person but just blurts stuff out without thinking sometimes. If someone makes a snobbish remark without thinking, he wonders, doesn’t that mean they’re really snobs on the inside and their brain has to work constantly to prevent them from showing it?

I guess what really worked for me was the fact that Slam had a certain sense of balance. Something that a skater (skateboarder for un-cool people like us) like Sam would doubtless appreciate.

Now, the answers to Trivia Challenge #1:

1. The connection I was looking for is Joseph Conrad. Apocalypse Now was based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Coppola’s wife made a documentary on the making of the film, titled Hearts of Darkness). Amitabh’s character in Kala Paththar was indeed based on the protagonist in Conrad’s Lord Jim (watch the flashback sequence where he is a naval officer). And the spaceship in Alien was named Nostromo, after a Conrad novel. In the script, another spaceship was named Narcissus (after another Conrad novel, The Nigger of Narcissus). Ridley Scott appears to have been a Conrad fan — his debut was based on The Duellists.

2. The connection is the phrase For whom the bell tolls, originally by John Donne (pic 1) from his work that begins famously with No man is an island</i>, borrowed by Hemingway for the title of his novel. The third pic is a still from the movie version of the Hemingway novel.

3. The reason is Good Will Hunting, which was set in MIT. When it won a bunch of Oscars, they lit up the building to celebrate.

4. Ah, the one question people didn’t get! What people did was put the stamp on envelopes and sent it to junk addresses so that they would get it back with the words Return to Sender stamped on it. Which, in case you don’t know your Elvis, is the title of one of his hits.

5. Modern Times was supposed to be a critique of the mechanized world we live in. Therefore, all sounds in the film are mechanical. Even human voices are not heard directly, but over a device such as the radio/loudspeaker.

Good show, Shafeek and PV! Srikanth, I’ve seen it referred to as a poem in some places, but I’ll take your word for it being an essay :-)

I will do one on Hindi films soon. Hope you folks enjoyed this one. Let me know if it was too tough/easy/boring.

I am, or at least used to be, an avid quizzer with a special interest in movie trivia. (To the point where my wife used to turn to me during a screening of, say, Jodhaa Akbar, to ask me if I knew the name of the second elephant from the right in the battle scene right at the beginning.)

Then I got into this blogging business and found that most people around knew more than I did about the movies. So here’s a set of questions aimed at you movie buffs. Depending on the response, I may do more of these in the future. This one’s centered around Hollywood, but in case that’s not your preferred area, I’ll do one on Indian cinema soon enough.

1. I like to come up oblique connections, especially between literature and the movies, so here’s a relatively straightforward one to begin with: Connect the following:

2. Again, as Margaret Schlegel would say, only connect…

3. This is a photograph of a building at MIT, taken sometime in early 1998. Why was it lit up like that?

4. Not quite a movie question, but one I really love. When this stamp came out, a whole bunch of Elvis fans did something very curious with it. What exactly did they do?

5. Modern Times was supposed to be Charles Chaplin’s first full sound film. But there is something unique about the sounds in the film; something to do with the film’s theme. What ?

Answers in a day or two.

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