Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Birds of a feather... Dhruba Hazarika's Luck

Penguin India has a new eight-book series titled “Jewels from the North-East”, and there are some interesting titles in it. I’ve started Mamang Dai’s Stupid Cupid and look forward to reading A Game of Chess: Classic Assamese Stories, edited by Dhirendra Nath Bezboruah, but the book I’ve just finished is Dhruba Hazarika’s Luck, an elegant and moving collection of stories about unlikely encounters between human beings and animals.

My approach to a book of short fiction by a writer I’m not familiar with is to test the waters by starting with the shortest pieces. “The Hunt”, “The Leopard” and “Soul Egret” are only between 4 to 5 pages each, and when I finished them I knew I wanted to read the whole book - even though, on the face of it, not very much "happens" in these three stories. A recently bereaved doctor joins a group of men on a jungle hunt and is filled with a powerful grief after the shoot. Three boys in search of a missing cow fleetingly come face to face with a predatory leopard. And “Soul Egret” in particular doesn’t have anything like a conventional plot – it’s a first-person narrative by a clerk whose troubled mind is soothed by brief physical contact with an egret late one night.

But what Hazarika does here and in the other, longer stories is suggest an almost mystical connection between humans and other species; in some cases through a flickering, twilight moment when even the most self-absorbed people become aware of the deep relationship between themselves and other denizens of the natural world.

They respond in different ways to this knowledge. They might be humbled, or enlightened, or comforted. It might make them more aware of their own feral natures. (“There was the putrid smell of blood and excreta, and of something else that only the night and sudden death can bring.”) Or it might even bring them luck. One of the most satisfying stories here, “Chicken Fever”, is about a young, melancholy magistrate out on a police raid. His mood is altered by the sight of a fat black hen in a haystack and this affects a crucial decision he makes a few moments later.

In another sense, these are coming-of-age tales. The title story is about a solitary man learning a thing or two about patience and caring in the company of a stubborn pigeon. In “Ghostie”, an unusual, ghostlike dog becomes a test of the limits of human cruelty, and perhaps, a catalyst to understand what growing up really means. (“Young boys, someone has said, are condemned to walk the ragged line between innocence and evil, occasionally being casually cruel as only children can be. It’s a rite of passage.”)

Hazarika’s writing is unfussy but vivid, and when he does reach for a more dramatic style or a change of course he does it judiciously – as in the two stories here that are slightly different from the others in tone and effect. There are no animals in “The Gunrunner of Jorabat” (written in the informal, rustic voice of a partly drunken narrator) but there IS a man with a distinctly feline quality, and like “Chicken Fever” the story touches on insurgency and the mysterious workings of fate. And “Asylum” is a nicely playful yarn about a vet-cum-psychiatrist who might possibly be experiencing some very strange hallucinations. I thought these two stories slightly diluted the book’s standing as a thematic collection, but they are fine pieces in their own right. Luck didn't come with a lot of fanfare - it's what you'd call a "small book", not just because of its slimness - but it's a rewarding read about people discovering something familiar in other creatures at the same time that they discover something unfamiliar in themselves.

[A somewhat related post: Ranjit Lal on birds and beasts. Also see this Q&A with the author Vandana Singh, and her essay "The Creatures we Don't See: Thoughts on the Animal Other"]

Friday, December 25, 2009

There was a crooked house...

Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, which I recently read, is a book that works on two distinct but interlinked levels. On one hand it’s an atmospheric haunted-house story, on the other it’s about the blurring of the class divide in post-WWII Britain, and the effect this has – materially and psychologically – on both the old rich and on upwardly mobile members of what used to be the servant class.

The setting for this clash of cultures is a once-grand mansion called Hundreds Hall whose inhabitants – the elderly Mrs Ayres and her two children Caroline and Roderick – used to be landed gentry but who are now casualties of a changing social order. The vastness of the house they live in – most of its rooms ill-maintained and in disuse – is perversely disproportionate to their actual financial standing and lifestyle; it almost seems to mock them. (As a reader one can sometimes forget the book is set in 1947, the Ayres appear ossified in a much earlier age.) Into this world comes the book’s narrator, the middle-aged Dr Faraday, who had seen Hundreds Hall once before, as a child – his mother used to work there as a nursemaid. Faraday tentatively crosses the class divide, becoming the Ayres’ friend and a regular visitor, but he can’t quite understand why the family is so terrified of the house, and the hold it has on them. Surely there’s a commonsense explanation for all those strange noises and mysterious markings?

This book is underscored by personal tragedies, minor and major. There’s the tragedy of a family struggling to survive in a world that no longer has place for their “type”; the tragedy of a woman who lost a little daughter decades earlier and has never come to terms with it; a war-scarred young man who has been forced to grow up too soon, and a plain-looking young lady with few prospects. But what struck me most was the theme of people clinging to the past, afraid to let go, even when presented the choice of a better future. “I expect you think what most people must think when they’ve seen Hundreds as it is nowadays,” Caroline tells Faraday at one point, “that we’re absolutely mad to go on living there, trying to keep it the way it was...[but] the truth is, you see, we know how lucky we are to have lived there at all. We have to sort of keep the place in order, keep up our side of the bargain.”

“Keep up our side of the bargain”...even if you’re swallowed up in the process. This idea is central to the book. Caroline’s words reminded me, poignantly, of Norman Bates telling Marion Crane in the parlour-scene in Psycho that he couldn’t abandon his mother, because “the fire would go out...it would be cold and damp like a grave...if you love someone, you don’t do that to them even if you hate them”. The relationship between the Ayres family and Hundreds Hall is intense, deeply ambivalent and mutually dependent; you can tell that neither is going to let go of the other.

Part of what makes The Little Stranger such a tantalising read is that we share the vantage point of an unimaginative – or perhaps obdurate – man. Dr Faraday is deadly dull, so blinkered in his rationalism that even the most rational-minded reader will yearn to see him proved wrong (“Give him a real scare!” one wants to shout out to any ghosts that might be lurking in the dark corners of Hundreds). But on occasion one also senses a shadowiness in his motives. At one level, it’s possible to read this as a story about a man who has been accepted as a friend and near-equal into a house where his mother once worked as a servant, and whose (inappropriate) presence sets off a violent chain of events – events that he, subconsciously at least, contributes to. In a sense he and the house are in perpetual conflict, even if he doesn’t realise it.

But Waters’ book remains open to multiple interpretations. Who or what is the “little stranger” and what exactly is the strangeness in question? It’s possible to say that we learn the answer to these questions on the last page – in fact, in the very last sentence. But it’s equally possible to say that we never learn it at all, and finally that adds to the book’s enigmatic quality. I closed it thinking it had been a moderately good read (if I were inclined to allot “marks” to books - which I'm not - I would probably have rated it a 7.5 on 10), but in subsequent days I found that it had crawled under my skin and I couldn't stop thinking about it.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Robin Wood

Just heard belatedly that Robin Wood has died. I was a big fan of his writings: back when I first started taking movies seriously and reading about cinema, his Hitchcock’s Films Revisited was a personal Bible (along with V F Perkins’ Film as Film, Danny Peary’s three Cult Movies books and Joy Gould Boyum’s Fiction into Film) – and later I came to discover his incredibly literate yet personal and sensitive readings of the films of Howard Hawks, Satyajit Ray, Ingmar Bergman and others. More than anyone else, his writings showed me what a complex organism a great film is, and how form and content are inseparable in the work of the true movie artists. His essays on Vertigo and Rio Bravo are among the most insightful film pieces I’ve ever read.

Some sites with Wood tributes and links: The Auteurs, Glenn Kenny’s blog, Girish Shambu. Also, this nice long feature.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

On Paa, a time-eating grasshopper and an old fox

Watched Paa a few weeks ago and liked it overall. Made my peace early on with the fact that it isn’t a “Progeria film” – that the medical condition is mostly incidental to the Parent Trap-style story about a child reuniting his estranged parents (and, in this case, validating his own sense of self by getting them to do the “round and round” of the saat pheras). The film makes the very deliberate decision to race though the first 12 years of Auro’s life, not lingering on the complications he and his mother would have faced during this period: his adjustment problems in school, how his classmates would initially have reacted to him. And it’s notable that when it does have to confront the implications of Progeria full-on (in Auro’s prolonged death scene, complete with Dogme-style handheld-camera close-ups as he fades away), the tone of the scene is inconsistent with the rest of the movie.

When I saw the extensive pre-publicity, I suspected that the main purpose for this film’s existence was the gimmick of getting Senior B to play Junior B’s son. “Is there a medical condition that would allow us to do this plausibly?” one could imagine R Balki asking his writers, “Go forth and research!” The project threatened to be an embarrassment, but thankfully that’s turned out not to be the case. This is a well-made, nicely written movie, and Bachchan Sr’s performance, aided by the great makeup, makes it possible to forget for long stretches about who’s doing the role. Apart from the incongruity of Auro being a six-footer (not a Progeria symptom as far as I know), I came away thinking that there’s no particular reason why this kid shouldn’t have been played by the 67-year-old superstar.

The film’s most poignant subtext (though it isn’t explicitly stated) is that Vidya Balan’s character, almost from the moment that she becomes a mother, must cope with the knowledge that her child’s life will run along a different time-scale from her own; that he will pass through every physical stage of his life and eventually die – of old age – at a time when she herself is a relatively young woman. The last thing any parent wants is to outlive their child, but she is preparing for this from the time of his birth. It's a desperately tragic situation, but the film does also suggest that this knowledge brings a greater intensity to their relationship; they have to make the most of whatever time there is. (For this reason, the recurring split-second shot of the Cambridge grasshopper clock – or the “time eater” – is an apt visual symbol. And the flashback scene that goes with the song “Udhi Udhi Ittefaq Se”, where the grasshopper makes its first appearance, is a fine example of condensed storytelling.)

On a personal note now: as Abhilasha and I came out of the hall, our conversation was less animated than it normally is when we’re talking about a film we’ve both liked – and without getting maudlin about it, we both knew why. You don’t have to be the parent of a Progeria-afflicted child to be able to empathise with the broad situation that the Vidya character is in.

If you’ve seen the Foxie posts on this blog, you might have guessed where this is heading.

Our canine kid is one-and-a-half human years now, and assuming she has a reasonably full dog-life she’ll probably leave us around the time we are in our mid-40s. But things will start to happen before then. Another five years and she’ll be older, relatively speaking, than us.

For a long time now, the highlight of my daily routine has been taking Foxie down to the local park in the evening and throwing a tennis ball around for her: marveling at the concentration in her darting eyes and the way she follows my hand movements like a goalkeeper when I feign throwing the ball in one direction, then throw it in the other; watching her paw the ground impatiently or even jump up to snatch the ball out of my hand when she thinks I’m taking too long over the throwing business. Clouds of dust rise as she tears after it (and she really does tear – she’s a bloody energetic dog). Sometimes when it rolls away in the distance she pretends not to be interested, but then when I jog across to pick it up she stealthily races up behind me, gets to it first, looks up at me as if to say “You old slow-coach!”, and then bounds away with it.

At these times I feel like a middle-aged daddy huffing and puffing away, unable to keep up, but a time will come when she isn’t the energetic adolescent pup she is now. Her reflexes will be less quick than mine. That will be difficult to deal with, especially because it’ll be a reminder that her clock is ticking away.

For solace, I think about others who have articulated similar feelings. In his autobiography Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins (which I blogged about here) the actor Rupert Everett reflected on his years in the company of a beloved dog. “As he gets older you become younger, so that in the end he is a grandfather and you are a thoughtless child. In denial of his great age you force him to do things, to keep going and he looks at you with the eyes of an elder, sitting in the shade of the village oak...but he still obeys instructions...” And Arthur C Clarke’s beautiful, heartfelt short story “Dog Star” is about a man who must accept a prestigious research position on an observatory on the Moon, at the cost of leaving behind his beloved dog – the living being he is closest to. “The choice was simple. I could stay on Earth and abandon my career. Or I could go to the Moon – and abandon her... After all, she was only a dog. In a dozen years she would be dead, while I should be reaching the peak of my profession. No sane man would have hesitated over the matter, yet I did hesitate, and if by now you do not understand why, no further words of mine can help.”

P.S. As I wrote in my ancient Sandy post, it can be a lonesome business being closer to an animal than you are to most humans. People often give you strange looks if you express your real feelings, so you end up making light of things – shrugging and saying things jokingly as if they don’t really matter, when they actually matter a great deal. Just the other day I was exchanging empathy notes with a friend who’s in a similar position. She and her husband treat their human child and their dog as equals (with the caveat that the human kid, aged ten, is relatively independent now, spends most of his time playing video games and is already heading for a life-stage where parents won’t be very important to his scheme of things, while the dog will be completely dependent on them till the end of his life). But it’s very difficult for them to share these thoughts even with close friends - unless the friends also happen to feel the same way - because the typical reactions are derisive laughter or criticism. Defensiveness ends up being your default mode. Halfway through writing this post, I was already thinking about trolls who would decide to feel “offended” because I’m drawing a connection between a Progeria-suffering human being and an animal. Well, tough.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The electrocutioner's tale


Reading about the death of the hangman Nata Mallick – and the fact that West Bengal doesn’t yet have anyone to replace him (or anyone who wants to replace him?) – I was reminded of a short story I used to love: Stanley Ellin’s “The Question” (a.k.a. "The Question My Son Asked"), which is anthologised in one of the many horror/suspense collections I devoured as a child.

Set sometime in the 1950s or 1960s, this is a tale told in the first person by a state executioner – the man who pulls the switch for the electric chair. At first he appears a bit defensive about the real nature of his profession – his insistence on calling himself an “electrocutioner” seems like a subterfuge – but then we see that he’s really quite proud of what he does. He doesn’t have much time for the anti-capital punishment position, which he feels comes from people psychoanalyzing things too much, creating complexities where there are none – to the extent of claiming that there is no such thing as a criminal at all, only “sick people” who can be cured. Our narrator, on the other hand, believes that when someone commits murder or rape he is no longer in the human race, and he has to be exterminated the way any dangerous wild animal would be. A jury finds this person guilty, a respected judge sentences him to the chair, most people approve of the verdict … and then someone has to be found to do the actual dirty work – to pull the switch. Why should this person become a social outcast when he’s merely acting as society’s instrument?



But the problem the executioner faces now is that his own son doesn’t want to continue in the family profession. This is a difficult thing to accept for a “simple” man who feels that “if more people believed in tradition, you wouldn’t have so much trouble in the world today”. They argue. And then his son asks him a question.

Though my first and second readings of “The Question” were separated by nearly 20 years, I remembered every detail vividly when I revisited it. Even at a time when I wasn’t consciously thinking about writing styles or narrative structures, I was very impressed by how this story initially seemed to be about one thing and then turned into something else altogether; how my ideas about the narrator vacillated; how it led up to its surprise ending, the tone going from sombre, almost melancholy, to dark and twisted; and how this surprise ending didn't necessarily overturn everything that preceded it (even if that's how it seems at first). It's a wonderfully skillful tale.

I’m transcribing the final few sentences here for anyone who’s curious. SPOILER ALERT: if you ever plan to read this story (and it won’t be easy to get hold of, given that much of Ellin’s work seems out of print), skip over this:

He looked at me, puzzled. “Is that all it is to you?” he said. “A duty?”

“Yes.”


“But you get paid for it, don’t you?”


“I get paid little enough for it.”


He kept looking at me that way. “Only a duty?” he said, and never took his eyes off me. “But you enjoy it, don’t you?”


That was the question he asked.


You enjoy it, don’t you?


You stand there looking through a peephole in the wall at the chair. In thirty years I have stood there more than a hundred times looking at that chair. The guards bring somebody in. usually he is in a daze; sometimes he screams, throws himself around and fights. Sometimes it is a woman, and a woman can be as hard to handle as a man when she is led to the chair. Sooner or later, whoever it is is strapped down and the black hood is over his head. Now your hand is on the switch.


The warden signals, and you pull the switch. The current hits the body like a tremendous rush of air suddenly filling it. The body leaps out of the chair with only the straps holding it back. The head jerks, and a curl of smoke comes from it. You release the switch and the body falls back again.


You do it once more, do it a third time to make sure. And whenever your hand presses the switch you can see in your mind what the current is doing to that body and what the face under the hood must look like.


Enjoy it?


That was the question my son asked me. That was what he said to me, as if I didn’t have the same feelings deep down in me that we all have.


Enjoy it?


But, my God, how could anyone not enjoy it!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Two or three things I love about Godard's Weekend


The very mention of Jean-Luc Godard can send shivers down the spine of a middlebrow movie buff – or a highbrow movie buff for that matter. He stirs up some very extreme reactions. Students of cinema (self-taught or institute-taught) learn early on that Godard occupies a hugely important place in film history but that it may not be possible to learn much of practical value from him. In an astute piece written in 1968, Pauline Kael compared the stature of the then 37-year-old director to a stature that James Joyce had reached in literature at a much later age:

He has paralysed other filmmakers by shaking their confidence (as Joyce did to writers), without ever reaching a large public...it’s possible to hate half or two-thirds of what Godard does – or find it incomprehensible – and still be shattered by his brilliance...

...Again, like Joyce, he seems to be a great but terminal figure. The most gifted younger directors and student filmmakers all over the world recognize his liberation of the movies; they know he has opened up a new kind of movie-making, that he has brought a new sensibility into film. But when they try to follow him they can’t beat him at his own game, and they can’t take what he has done into something else...he has already made the best use of his innovations, which come out of his need for them and may be integral only to his own material.
It’s common to find people having strong “opinions” about Godard without having seen much of his work. (“He’s too gimmicky and pretentious,” someone told me once. Later I learnt that this person’s only firsthand knowledge of a Godard film was of the first 20 minutes of Alphaville.) Viewers who believe content should take precedence over form (or that form should be as invisible and functional as possible) don’t have much time for him. And even among those who are more open-minded about cinematic experimentation, there’s a perception that Godard is a director to be admired from a distance rather than to be enjoyed. After all, even the descriptions or short synopses of his films can be intimidating.



I was thinking about all this while watching my DVD of Weekend, Godard’s superb 1967 movie about an unpleasant Parisian couple on an increasingly bizarre road-trip. Certain words or phrases repeatedly crop up in descriptions of this film: “apocalyptic vision”, “the end of civilisation”, “bourgeoisie greed”, “consumerist society” among them. Its reputation as a very political, radical work can scare away potential viewers, which is a pity – because though Weekend IS self-conscious and self-referential (its protagonists remark that they are “just imaginary people” in a movie, and one of its many playful “inter-titles” describes it as “a film discovered in a garbage dump”), it’s also outrageously funny if you have a taste for dark, grisly, absurdist humour. I rate it among the most eye-poppingly entertaining movies I’ve seen.



For one thing, it’s full of surrealist setpieces that are reminiscent of Luis Bunuel’s late films (including a sequence that explicitly pays tribute to The Exterminating Angel). There are great moments involving a herd of sheep and an Alice in Wonderland figure (or is it Emily Bronte?) who cries as she is set afire. As the film progresses, its imagery (highways littered with destroyed cars, cannibalistic hippies who play drum solos and crack open eggs with giant saws) gets more and more outlandish, but on a poetic level it makes perfect sense. Besides, is it really so exaggerated? The scenes where rich people turn savage over the most minor car accidents, attacking each other with tennis balls(!), spray paint and then shotguns, won't seem particularly strange to anyone who's witnessed road rage in Delhi.

I have too many favourite scenes to mention here but one is the extraordinary early sequence where Corinne (Mirielle Darc) talks about a ménage-a-trois she participated in. It’s a long monologue and it has all the trappings of a really erotic scene (an attractive young woman lounging about in her underwear, detailing a sexual tryst in explicit language), but it’s made deliberately sterile, even off-putting, by the flatness of Corinne’s voice, the repugnance of some of the acts she describes, and Godard’s on-again, off-again use of Antoine Duhamel’s ominous music score makes it even more unsettling. It reminded me of a famous sequence in an earlier Godard film, the wonderful Contempt, where a nude Brigitte Bardot sprawled out on a bed effectively deconstructs herself by drawing her husband’s (and the viewer’s) attention to various parts of her body in turn. In both cases, there’s the director taking a scenario that should by rights be stimulating and instead turning it into something that discomfits the viewer.


Weekend is usually described as a “political film”, but I see it as a work of pure nihilism, not a vehicle for any sort of ideology. In one scene, a character flags down a passing car for a ride and a middle-aged woman rolls down the passenger-seat window. “Would you rather be screwed by Mao or [Lyndon] Johnson?” she asks. “Johnson, of course,” the hitch-hiker replies. “Drive on,” she tells her chauffeur, “he’s a fascist.” But the impression one gets is that if he’d answered Mao, she would have said the same thing and driven on anyway. Then there’s the magnificent, hyper-politicised exchange of words between a rich young woman and a tractor-driving peasant after a crash between their vehicles kills the woman’s boyfriend. “You can’t bear us having money while you don’t!” she screams at the lower-class man, “You can’t bear us screwing on the Riviera, screwing at ski-resorts.” If you miss the humour of this scene, you'll think it's wordy and didactic (hence "political") - but the very absurdity of the conversation and the way it's intercut with shots of people looking on vacuously makes it easier to see it as a cosmic joke. Besides, this “class struggle” (as the inter-title calls it) ends with the unlikeliest of reconciliations, which makes nonsense of what has gone before it, and suggests that human actions are determined not by long-lasting principles but purely by the convenience of any given moment.

“The power of text”


My Weekend DVD has a video introduction by director Mike Figgis. Wanted to share this bit – his view on Godard’s unconventional use of inter-titles:
People say of a Bob Dylan song “Well, the lyrics were amazing.” And I go “Oh, I never really thought about the lyrics – but it’s such a lovely song, and the lyrics seem appropriate for this song.” But many people seem to have this idea that you either listen to the music or you listen to the words. And one of the problems some viewers have with Godard is that he uses text in his films in a very deliberate way – he uses provocative statements that sometimes don’t seem to make much sense. But I see it differently: I think it’s almost as if, in the flow of the film, he suddenly thinks it would be a good idea to cut to black, with some red letters flashing on the screen. Then he asks himself “What would the red letters be? Oh, they could be this...” and he thinks of something very quickly that fits in organically with the flow of the film.


And as a viewer I’ve always agreed with his decisions: I’ve never had a problem with why those words are appearing at that particular time. And often the text is accompanied by a sound, which also makes sense. To me, he’s a complete filmmaker who’s thinking with all of his senses. He doesn’t bias himself towards the visual, which is something most filmmakers do. Godard is one of the few artists in cinema who has understood the power of text. Text engages a different part of the brain from sound – if someone says something and you listen to it, intellectually you’ll engage with it in a certain way; but if you repeat those words as written text on the screen, with music underneath it, a different part of the brain will engage in a different way, and you’ll end up with a different result.


So I think it can be a mistake to ask the question “What does that literally mean?” – the question should be “Does that feel correct to you?” Does it make sense that he went into that mode at that particular point in the scene, and for me the answer has always been yes. Godard has forced me to think about the way in which sound and text and camera movement can be used together to make a film.
It think it's interesting that Figgis makes the Dylan analogy, because the question "Does that feel correct to you?" (as opposed to "What does it mean exactly?") is the right one to ask of some of the great abstract Dylan songs from his "electric" phase in 1965-66 - songs like "Visions of Johanna", "Tombstone Blues", "I Want You", "Ballad of a Thin Man" and "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again".

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Private luxury: doing your own thing


[Did this piece for M magazine’s section on what the word “luxury” means to different people in an intimate, personal sense]

I have a friend who works for a bank in London. He’s doing well for himself but he thinks of his job as a necessary evil, something that must be survived for 10 hours each day while he tries to make time on the side for the things he really likes doing. His real passion, going back to our school days, is acting, and when I last met him he had just returned from a weekend trip to Ireland, to play a role in a short experimental film directed by a former classmate.

He loved the experience and couldn’t stop talking about it. “I wish I had the luxury of traveling to Dublin to be with those guys every week, he said, “or even just participating in three or four shows of a theatre performance in London each month. But it isn’t easy to juggle this along with the other stuff.” Looking at his eyes, I could see that the strain of the weekend was making itself felt. We parted after an early dinner; he was very tired and he needed to be at the bank – for “the other stuff” – at 9 AM.

It probably says something about the life I lead that such encounters come as minor jolts. At risk of causing serious annoyance, let me tell you something about myself: for the past seven years, my “work” has largely consisted of reading books, watching movies, and writing about them – all activities that I enjoy. There have, of course, been many commissioned assignments – which means often having to plough through less-than-engaging material – but after I established myself on my beat it became easier to pick and choose. Thus spoilt, I have to be regularly reminded of one of the most basic facts of human existence: that most working people in the world keep their professional and personal lives in separate, airtight boxes, and baulk when the two things chance to overlap; that they meticulously plan their weekends and weekday evenings (assuming they aren’t working late nights) and feel a bitter sense of loss if they don’t succeed in squeezing maximum utility from those precious pockets of “leisure time”.

Four years ago, I made another important career decision (with the help of a generous retainership offer from the newspaper I was employed with) and began working out of home, on my own time. Freelance writing may not be as lucrative as many other professions, but I rarely have to spend on books any more, and that’s where most of my money went in my pre-journalism days. It also means freedom from the ball-and-chain routine, freedom from neat and sterile office routines that make little sense to the writing life (what if the Muse goes AWOL between 9AM and 6 PM and comes calling at midnight instead?). It means being able to avoid the stress and the time-wastage associated with being stuck in Delhi traffic for over two hours each day.

I can spend quality time with my dog. I don’t have to shave every day, or every third day for that matter. Nor attend meetings or conferences, things that rank very high indeed in the long list of pointless manmade inventions based on the pretence that it’s possible to make sense of the world. Best of all, I don’t have to don formal clothes. (When I was a child, I wanted to be a vet. This partly had to do with love for animals, but I’ve come to believe that the real reason was the notion I had that vets weren’t required to wear ties or suits.)

And – to return to the all-important point with which I began this piece – there is no discernible divide between my “work” and my personal interests. I can spend my morning reading a great new novel by Orhan Pamuk (which is in fact what I did today), then watch a couple of films on DVD in the afternoon and evening (occasionally pausing to make little notes), and truthfully claim that I've spent the day adding value to my skill-set as a columnist/reviewer. My banker friend, who earns a lot more than I do, would probably agree that that really is luxury.

I see you turning green, reader, so here are a few crumbs of consolation: each of the benefits I’ve mentioned above comes with small minefields. It’s easy to become addicted to being anti-social. Getting out, even to go to the neighborhood mall, can feel like a chore. On the rare occasion that I do get into my car and travel a long distance, I find that my driving skills have deteriorated through disuse. Self-discipline is paramount in my line of work, and at times when it isn’t all coming together I find myself yearning for the extra shove that can only be provided by a martinet-boss. My dog is over-pampered and sulks mightily when I’m away for even a few hours. Power cuts, and visiting relatives who assume that because you’re home, you’re free, must be hazarded.

Turning something you enjoy doing into a career can be a tricky business in other ways; it can easily lead to a situation where you’re never really switched off from your “work”, and this can affect your family life. This is something I have to consciously guard against. My wife has standing instructions to smack me on the side of the head if things get out of hand. (Thankfully she’s a feature writer herself – albeit an office-going one – so she understands something of the compulsions of this life. But she’s afraid of discussing movies with me because I’m too “analytical”.)

All that said, would I trade this in for a regular working routine, or a high-paying job that I couldn’t be enthusiastic about? No way. Whenever I even consider it, I think back to a remote time in my past, a time when I had just graduated in Commerce from college and seemed set for a career in chartered accountancy (because it was the done thing, the inevitable thing. I’d been good in Maths and Accounts in school, so what else was there?). There’s a vivid memory of interning for my Articles in a middle-rung CA’s office, reading out and making tick-marks against debit and credit entries in an office ledger under the supervision of a genial man with whom there was nothing I could really talk about, while I secretly daydreamt of the movies I would rent from the British Council library later in the evening... if I got out in time.

When I think back to those days and reflect on the life I’m probably leading in a parallel universe right now, I can only thank my lucky stars.

Peter Joseph’s cult Internet film Zeitgeist posits a near-Utopian world (and a very improbable one) built on a high-technology, resource-based economy rather than the debt-perpetuating monetary system that all of us take for granted. One of its many conceits is a future where people won’t have to spend their lives chained to jobs (described as “paid slavery”) that they aren’t inherently interested in, but would find their own niches, adding value in little ways by doing things that are personally satisfying and meaningful to them. I like to think I'm already halfway there.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

On Georges Franju's Blood of the Beasts

Reading this news item about the possibilities of “laboratory-grown meat” got me thinking about the two or three times in my life I’ve flirted with vegetarianism. As a child, after seeing a struggling chicken being carried to its doom through a lane behind a butcher's shop, I stopped eating meat for around 10 days. As an adult I've resisted the temptation to convert, having accepted one of the key hypocrisies of my life: that my very strong feelings about cruelty to animals (“animals” in this case being mainly cats, dogs and caged birds) are thoroughly incompatible with my eating choices. If or when I do turn vegetarian for good, it’ll probably be for health reasons (and with a sense that I’ve been the victim of a terrible injustice).

There have been a few times when I lazily considered converting for ethical or visceral reasons. One was after I read Eric Schlosser's description of the beef-making process in “Cogs in the Great Machine” (a chapter excerpt from Fast Food Nation). More recently, while watching Georges Franju's 1949 documentary Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts), an almost unbearably impassive look at what goes on inside the slaughterhouses of Paris.

The film was made in black-and-white, which was the only reason I could keep my eyes on the screen from beginning to end: as Franju himself said in an interview, it would have been repulsive if it had been shot in colour. But even so, the most hardened non-vegetarian will feel squeamish about the scenes showing calves and sheep being decapitated and strong, proud horses being reduced to twitching carcasses by stun-guns, then casually bled and flayed until the inanimate mass lying on the floor is unrecognisable from the cantering, head-tossing beast it had been a few minutes earlier.

The slaughterhouse scenes are intercut with benign, pleasant shots of life as it goes on in the other, more “visible”, more respectable parts of the city: children playing, lovers kissing by the Seine. Reading a shot-by-shot description of the film, one might think that Franju has set out to make a profound moral statement about “the barbarism and cruelty that lies just beneath the thin surface of what we call civilization” (or insert similar portentous phrase of your choice). But watching the film, one doesn’t at all get that impression. All he’s doing, really, is recording a series of incidents, without comment or judgement (this is what happens in Paris, but see, this also happens), and that in a way makes the whole thing more disturbing. (“I like recording truth,” he said in the interview, while also expressing the hope that viewers would find his film “aesthetic”.)

Blood of the Beasts features as an Extra on my Criterion DVD of Franju’s Les Yeux sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face), which is one of my favourite horror movies (and which, creepily, I was re-watching the night before Michael Jackson died). Eyes Without a Face is a beautifully shot, lyrical movie with a ghastly subject: a surgeon tries to restore his disfigured daughter’s face by kidnapping other young women and transplanting their faces on to hers. This is by no means the hysterical mad-doctor figure of genre tradition: he’s a composed, serious-looking, slightly melancholy man who does everything he can – using his professional skills – to help his daughter. Watching him use his scalpel to make incisions and peel away a mask of skin in the film’s most unsettling scene, I was reminded of Franju himself, making Blood of the Beasts, methodically examining how things work.

Anyone who badly wants to turn vegetarian but needs a final strong push, get hold of Blood of the Beasts. You'll thank me for it. There’s a version of it on Youtube, with the voiceover dubbed in English.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Reality and fantasy in Unfaithfully Yours

Just watched Preston Sturges’ 1948 film Unfaithfully Yours, about a famous symphony conductor who, believing he has been cuckolded, plots revenge on his wife and her lover. There’s so much to say about this brilliant black comedy that I don’t know where to begin. For anyone familiar with Sturges’ other films as a writer-director (The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story among them), it won’t comes as a surprise that this one is full of sharp, witty dialogue. But I was unprepared for how dark some of it was. (“I thought of killing you, my dear,” the lead character tells his wife at one point, without losing anything of his elegant bearing, “I cut your throat with a razor. Your head nearly came off”.) I also thought it notable how the film manages to continually transcend genre, moving from screwball comedy to a shadowiness characteristic of film noir, with a bit of surrealism and slapstick thrown in. And oh, it’s also a frenzied musical that makes splendid use of classical music to reflect mood and comment on the action.

The story has Sir Alfred De Carter (played by Rex Harrison, more than 15 years before his best-known screen performance) coming to believe that his beautiful (and much younger) wife Daphne (Linda Darnell) is cheating on him with his secretary. De Carter has an important concert the same night, and his rage turns it into the performance of a lifetime. But his rapt audience has no idea what’s going on inside his head. Over the course of three symphonies, he imagines different ways of dealing with his situation: the first and third scenarios involve murder, while the second (set to a sombre, dignified score) involves a mere parting of ways (which gives him the opportunity to play the wounded yet stoical husband who is still concerned about his wife’s financial welfare).

Once the concert is over, he tries to put his ideas into action but real life isn’t as obliging as his fantasy world was; things don’t unfold quite as conveniently. In the imaginary world, when he writes out a 100,000-dollar cheque for his wife (whom he intends to divorce), he does it with a flourish that turns him into a grandly tragic figure, betraying both his deep hurt and his determination to conceal it. But when he sits down to replicate the gesture in the real world, it turns out his fountain pen is out of ink. In fantasy-land, a gramophone player conveniently transforms his recorded voice into his wife's when he adjusts the dial from 33 rpm to 78 rpm; in the real world, the thing becomes a monster machine that refuses to cooperate despite the words “so simple it operates itself” printed everywhere in the instruction manual.

I enjoyed the shifts in this film’s tone. It starts off as a lightweight comedy of manners – and the rapid-fire banter starts to get mildly tiresome after a while – but then the concert begins and we enter the fantasy segment in the film’s midsection. Sir Alfred strikes a pose to commence his conducting and there is a remarkably fluid camera movement that begins with a medium shot and draws towards him, taking us right into the depths of his left eye and – literally – into his mind. The next 30 minutes are intense and claustrophobic, but after the concert finishes the film comes out of its reverie and we’re headed for something resembling a happy ending.

Throughout these changes of mood, Sturges’ dialogue never loses its sting.
Much of the pleasure of watching Unfaithfully Yours comes from listening to his rich dialogue, whether it’s in the form of lengthy exchanges or brief, tossed-off remarks. (“It sounds like a talking dog!” exclaims Daphne when she picks up the phone and can’t make sense of the sounds – her husband gasping and stifling a sneeze – on the other end.) But at a more serious level, I saw it as the story of an
artist who appears self-assured, even arrogant and supercilious on the surface, but who turns out to be deeply insecure inside – and who must use his art as a form of catharsis, to help him deal with subconscious fears. On the surface, the “dream segment” of the film is the long symphony sequence containing Sir Alfred’s fantasies, but one also gets the impression that he's never more himself than when he loses himself in that world. He’s truly alive when he’s conducting (Harrison performs these scenes marvelously well), his arms making frenzied movements in the air. Like Walter Mitty he’s in control of his interior life - little wonder that reality doesn't quite measure up.

P.S. There was a remake in 1984 with Dudley Moore and Nastassja Kinski – both charismatic actors, but the film wasn’t anywhere near as gripping as the original.

P.P.S. Unrelated to anything: my DVD has a nice 12-minute video introduction to the film by Terry Jones, formerly of Monty Python - it was shot in Jones’s house and towards the end there’s a great impromptu moment where his black cat appears and sidles on to the sofa next to him. Very cosy little scene.