Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Abandoned Railroad

Fields of summer wheat rusting in the sun.

The railroad has been abandoned now, but ever since the river dried up it is here the young lovers come in the evenings, dreaming of escape, imagining that these broken tracks may lead them somewhere.

Crows rise from the earth, fill the sky with warnings. Far away, on the new line, a locomotive puffs, its smoke rising in thought bubbles. Like the mind of a man trying to think of something to say.

Even if they tore these tracks up and took them away for the metal, it wouldn't help. Nothing would grow on this gravel, nothing would cover up this trail. It will always be here, a backbone of stone stretching across the landscape, like a grave, or a very hard bed.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

His Dying Voice

[While we're on the subject of Shakespeare adaptations (and no, it isn't meant to be funny)]

Hamlet is the lead singer for a heavy metal band. He pens soulful yet obscure lyrics about Death and worms and patricide and such like, spends his days in a drug-induced haze, and talks a lot about killing himself. Everyone knows he won't do it, though. He has too big an ego.

Ophelia is a groupie, a 60's-throwback, an authentic California flower-child who is madly in love with Hamlet and follows him everywhere. She burns incense, listens to the Grateful Dead a lot, spends most of her time lost inside her own thoughts. She isn't too bright, has nervous fits and bouts of depression, but she's precocious and beautiful and has a kind of otherworldly innocence that makes you reluctant to hurt her.

It would be the perfect match, but for one thing: Hamlet is gay. He doesn't dare acknowledge this in public, though - it would lose him too many fans - so he keeps his sexuality a secret and contents himself with the scattered one night encounters that Horatio, his lead guitarist and close friend, arranges for him.

One day, depressed by the news that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his drummer and his bass, are leaving to form their own band, Hamlet confesses his secret to Ophelia, telling her that if she's going to wait for him to have sex with her she might as well join a nunnery. Shocked and heartbroken by Hamlet's coming out (and by the revelation that he wears women's underwear), Ophelia goes on a wild drug trip, which ends with her drowning in a motel bathtub.

Cut to Ophelia's funeral. It's a cold, rainy day. Hamlet and Horatio are standing at the back, discussing a potential replacement drummer called Yorick, who's a real fun guy but a bit of a numbskull. Suddenly Laertes, Ophelia's younger brother who has flown in from New York (where he works in a law firm) for his sister's funeral, slips and falls into the grave. Hamlet lunges forward to rescue him. As the two grapple their way out of the pit together, they feel an instant chemistry between them. Hamlet, wracked by guilt over his part in Ophelia's death, sees in her brother the lineaments of the lover she could have been if only she'd been born a man. Laertes, despite his bitterness against Hamlet, feels himself drawn towards the older man's rock star magnetism, his black hole like intensity. The two men exchange phone numbers. Two weeks later they become lovers.

Then one day Laertes shows up backstage at one of Hamlet's concerts. He has bad news. He has tested positive for HIV. Hamlet is probably infected too. Soon Laertes dies, and the play closes with Hamlet lying in a hospital bed, telling the weeping Horatio that he must keep the band alive and suggesting young Fortinbras (whose warlike music he particularly admires) as his replacement.

The rest is silence.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Stage

In those days, the State made actors of us all.

Not stars, you understand, but extras, walk-ons, the kind of people who played their part and tried not to be noticed. Taking whatever roles we were assigned because to refuse was to risk vanishing into the nameless wings. Memorising our lines, learning the script by heart, because the slightest fumble, the smallest pause could be the end of us. Never, ever daring to improvise.

Every day we would step out onto the great stage of the city and find the play of History in progress. We would join in, not knowing whether the people we crossed in the street were fellow actors or part of the audience. Or fellow actors playing the audience.

We never asked what the play was about, what it meant, or whether it was a good play. We knew only that it was a tragedy, and that it had a certain desperate realism. It was all that we were allowed to know.

Somewhere out there were the critics - watching us, judging us. We had no way to know what they were thinking, no way to defend ourselves against the secret interrogation of their eyes. By the time we heard from them, it would be too late: the judgement would have been passed, the act completed. There would be no appeal.

That is why we never relaxed, never dared to step out of character. Even in the green rooms of our own homes we continued to wear the pose, the expression, because who knew what was behind the mirror or when someone might come bursting in through the door?

There were many of us in this play - an entire country performing in the theatre of oppression - and yet it always felt as though we were alone on stage, as though we were reciting a well-rehearsed monologue, and every eye was on us. If we made a mistake the curtain would come down and it would all be over. But if we were clever, and very, very lucky, we might just get away with it - escaping with only the wild applause of our own heartbeat to mark the unforgettable performance of our lives.

[Inspired by Das Leben der Anderen]

Monday, March 26, 2007

Turning over an old leaf

Walking to work this morning, I notice the last of autumn's withered leaves scattered about the pavement - scraps of tattered brown - the discarded wrapping of a season now turned to litter.

How much they have survived to be here! Tempests of leaf blowers and car exhausts. The tyranny of rake and sackcloth, inquisitions of sleet and rain. Then the snow pressing them between its blank pages, and the melting waters licking them apart.

And the feet, always the feet.

Is there something about these leaves that has singled them out? Some lightness approaching ingenuity, some quality of shape or character? Or is it just luck that they have made it, that they were left behind when others were taken? And do they suffer now with a survivor's knowledge, trapped between gratitude and unworthiness, unsure of what to do with this dispensation they have been granted?

Where do they come from anyway, these leaves? Did they fall from this tree that now towers above them, bare, having forgotten its days of being green? Or were they spilled from some distant branch, blown for miles by wind and slipstream, to lie defeated on this nameless sidewalk, their skin dried to fine parchment, the veins showing as clear as handwriting.

The leaves say nothing, have no message. Even if we could speak their language their memories would mean nothing to us -being human, and in Spring. They are like the veterans from old battles you see sunning themselves in the park, the kind who never talk about their past, but bear witness to it simply by being there.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Is it a bomb? Is it a stock market crash? No, it's the World Cup

Apparently there's a World Cup on. And apparently India is out of it.

The only reason I know this is because everywhere I go complete strangers, seeing that I'm Indian, strike up conversations with me to share our (supposedly) mutual grief.

This can be rather disconcerting. The thing is, when someone comes up to me looking obviously distraught and says "Isn't it terrible what's happened? With India?" I tend to picture scenes of violence and carnage - bomb blasts, twisted railway carriages, people being slaughtered on the streets - that sort of thing. So when I discover that it's just a lost cricket match, my natural response is to chuckle in relief and say "Oh, is that all?" This, it seems, is not done. If you're Indian you're supposed to treat every lost wicket as a blow to your immortal soul. Anything less and you're a traitor to your race.

The truth is, all this fuss about India losing the World Cup always reminds me of those conditioning experiments of the behaviouralists. You know, the ones where you feed a pigeon the first couple of times in response to a certain behaviour, condition him to behave in that way, then stop feeding him and see how long it takes before he realises that the behaviour is unconnected to the response and stops trying.

The last time I checked, it's been almost a quarter of a century since the Indian team won a World Cup. And from the headlines I see on MSN every time I log out of my Hotmail account, it doesn't look as though they've been particularly successful in other tournaments in the last couple of years. Any reasonable person would have reasonably concluded therefore, that India was not going to win the World Cup, and would have seen yesterday's result as confirmation of a strongly held hypothesis. Instead, we have people acting as if they've been struck by a bolt from the blue. And wondering how their team could have lost despite their loyal support, as if the two things had something to do with each other. It's pathetic.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Black out

"Ever since the lights failed,
I have been searching to see how I could see."

- Faiz Ahmed Faiz 'Black Out' (trans. by Agha Shahid Ali)
It doesn't really matter why the lights go out. There is that moment when the darkness overwhelms you, when you are afraid to move for fear of what you may stumble on. When you become aware of the tentativeness of your position, your presence like a held breath in a silent room.

Slowly, things resurface. Furniture rises from the depths of the blackness like debris from a drowned ship. Outlines reestablish themselves. A resplendence, subtler than starlight, informs the gloom.

Faced with this grey world you grow blurred yourself. A shadow among silheouttes. The ghost of your imagination scurrying in the diluted air. Faded to discernment, you learn to distinguish shade from shade, darkness from darkness, until the world seems distinct again, though you are afraid to touch it, thinking it may disappear.

It will not be long now before you come to fear the light. Before you wince at the thought of the curtain being opened, the switch being turned back on - afraid to lose this hard won clarity that you are now soothed by. Shutting your eyes against the light, and cursing it for coming back.


Shahid's translation is beautiful, but not terribly faithful to the original. The original reads:

Jab se be-noor hui hai shamaein
Khaak mein dhoondta phirta hoon na jaane kis jaa
Kho gai hain meri donon aankhen
Tum jo vaakif ho batao koi pehchaan meri.

which Shahid translates as:

Ever since the lights failed,
I have been searching to see how I could see.
Where have my eyes strayed in the dust?

You who know, give me proof.
Describe me to myself.

but which more literally is just:

Ever since the lights went out
I have been searching in the dust for I know not what.
I have lost both my eyes.
You who know, tell me how to recognise myself.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


Poor Elgar.

He's not a bad sort, really. He's harmless and well-meaning and every now and then he even stumbles upon an interesting musical idea in his awkward British schoolboy kind of way.

He's certainly not the kind of bloke who deserves the cruelty of being placed between Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini and Bach's Prelude and Fugue in B minor - which is what the Philadelphia Orchestra did to him this evening. It was like being served mashed potatoes between a juicy steak and a rich chocolate dessert.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Someone to watch over me

If there is a God, he must be a couch potato.

I mean, He watches over us, right? But with six billion of us, it's not like He's paying any real attention. So obviously, He channel surfs. He sits in front of His 29 foot plasma TV, a keg of beer by His side and pretzel crumbs in His beard, and flips from person to person, hoping to catch some of the naughty bits (it is cable, after all). He'll stare at each person for a split second, decide he / she is not worth watching, and move on. He's probably got His favourites though. He probably watches Fox News. He probably watches a lot of FRIENDS re-runs. He's the kind of person who would.

Or maybe He can watch all of us at once, but He needs to take bathroom breaks. In the old days, this used to be really frustrating for Him. He'd make a quick dash to the kitchen for a fresh batch of popcorn, and He'd come back to find that He'd missed something really exciting - like a plague or a pogrom. Which is why He finally decided to invest in a VCR [1]. Now He tapes everything so He won't miss it. The only trouble is, since the world doesn't actually stop, He's always running behind on his world watching. Right now, for example, He's only got to 1996. That's why He doesn't listen to any prayers anymore - He's worried they'll ruin the suspense. The truth is He'd rather be watching baseball, but what to do - He's God, after all, He has responsibilities.

I wonder if God ever gets to person number 4,135,567,892 - the one He's been really wanting to watch - and finds that the %@#$! cable operator has replaced him / her with Sun TV?

If the soul was television programming, I suppose mine would be a commercial break.

[1] I know, I know, it should be a TiVo. But I'm betting God is old-fashioned.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Lear and Prejudice

Thinking about it, I think the Austen adaptation I would like to see / read was one that combined Pride and Prejudice with King Lear.

Rich but arrogant bachelor (Darcy / Lear) has choice between marrying three sisters. Proposes marriage to the one he likes best (Elizabeth / Cordelia), but she turns him down because he acts too proud. So he then goes and marries the other sister (Kitty / Goneril) but of course, she's only marrying him for his money and soon divorces him (claiming half his property in the process), only to marry his arch-rival (Wickham / Edmund) - a man who bears our hero an old grudge and dreams of usurping his power.

Stung by this treachery, Darcy asks after Elizabeth again, but hears rumours that she's gone off and married Mr. Collins and moved to France. Miserable and bitter, Darcy is left vulnerable, and easily seduced by Lydia / Regan (who, of course, has been having an affair with Wickham all along). This marriage proves short-lived as well and Darcy, heartbroken, deprived of three quarters of his fortune and out of favour with his aunt, turns to drink and gambling, eventually ending up in the poorhouse from where he is rescued by the ever faithful Bingley (Edgar).

In the meantime, Jane (Gloucester), makes a spirited attempt to protest Lydia's treatment of Darcy, whereupon Lydia blinds her with a hatpin, leaving Bingley with two invalids to take care of.

Eventually, Elizabeth returns and Darcy begs for her forgiveness, but it turns out she's only returned from France because she's dying of consumption. Her death drives Darcy mad and he commits suicide. Meanwhile, Bingley, distraught at the violence done his wife and by Wickham's usurpation of Pemberley, challenges him to a duel and kills him. Kitty and Lydia are left destitute (Pemberley having reverted to Darcy's aunt given that Wickham had no male heir) and join a nunnery. The book ends with Mr. Bennet (Albany) standing alone in his garden delivering a mournful speech.

There, that's what I call an adaptation.

Opening line: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune is to God as a fly to wanton boys.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Matthea Harvey

I've been reading and enjoying Matthea Harvey's Sad Little Breathing Machine (Graywolf 2004) over the last week. While I'm not that impressed by the rest of Harvey's work, I love her prose poems - they're whimsical and hilarious and altogether brilliant. A sample:

"Everyone was happier. But where did the sadness go? People wanted to know. They didn't want it collecting in their elbows or knees then popping up later. The girl who thought of the ponies made of lot of money. Now a month's supply of pills came in a hard blue case with a handle. You opened it & found the usual vial plus six tiny ponies of assorted shapes and sizes, softly breathing in the Styrofoam. Often they had to be pried out and would wobble a little when first put on the ground. In the beginning the children tried to play with them, but the sharp hooves nicked their fingers & the ponies refused to jump over pencil hurdles. The children stopped feeding them sugarwater & the ponies were left to break their legs on the gardens' gravel paths or drown in the gutters. On the first day of the month, rats gathered on the doorstep & spat out only the bitter manes. Many a pony's last sight was a bounding squirrel with its tail hovering over its head like a halo. Behind the movie theatre the hardier ponies gathered in packs amongst the cigarette butts, getting their hooves stuck in wads of gum. They lined the hills at funerals, huddled under folding chairs at weddings. It became a matter of pride if one of your ponies proved unusually sturdy. People would smile and say: "This would have been an awful month for me," pointing to the glossy palomino trotting energetically around their ankles. Eventually the ponies were no longer needed. People had learned to imagine their sadness trotting away. & when they wanted something more tangible, they could always go to the racetrack & study the larger horses' faces. Gloom, #341, with those big black eyes, was almost sure to win."
- Matthea Harvey, 'The Crowds Cheered as Gloom Galloped Away'


"Last year I made up a baby. I made her in the shape of a hatbox or a cake. I could have iced her & no one would have been the wiser. You know how trained elephants will step onto a little round platform, cramming all four feet together? That's her too, & the fez on the elephant's head. Applause all around. There was no denying I had made a good baby. I gave her a sweet face, a pair of pretty eyes, & a secret trait at her christening. I set her on my desk, face up, & waited. I watched her like a clock. I didn't coo at her though. She wasn't that kind of baby.

She never got any bigger, but she did learn to roll. Her little flat face went round & round. On her other side, her not-face rolled round & round too. She followed me everywhere. When I swam, she floated in the swimming pool, a platter for the sun. When I read, she was my peacefully blinking footstool. She fit so perfectly in the washing machine that perhaps I washed her more than necessary. But it was wonderful to watch her eyes slitted against the suds, a stray red sock swishing about her face like the tongue of some large animal.

When you make up a good baby, other people will want one too. Who's to say I'm the only one who deserves a dear little machine-washable ever-so-presentable baby. Not me. So I made a batch. But they weren't exactly like her - they were smaller & without any inborn dread. Sometimes I see one rolling past my window at sunset - quite unlike my baby, who like any good idea, eventually ended up dead."

- Matthea Harvey, 'Ideas go only so far'

Saturday, March 17, 2007


In a piece a couple of weeks back, Kathryn Hughes over at the Guardian argues that Jane Austen's books are not about love, but about money. Ms. Hughes is exaggerating, I think, but only a little. It's hardly coincidence, after all, that the men Austen's heroines eventually end up with are always men of significantly greater income than the rivals they upstage. They are also, to be fair, men of superior character and moral worth, so that it isn't just money that Austen's heroines are marrying for, but her reluctance to ever put her heroine in a position where she has to choose between true worth and net worth speaks to her general disdain for what we now call romance. The thrill we feel at Elizabeth's achievement of Darcy is as much the excitement of love accomplished against all odds, as it is the thrill of a venture capitalist who sees her daring investment pay off. Darcy's proposal to her is the ultimate IPO, and vindication enough for not investing in the Mr Collins Savings Account.

Austen's stories are not so much about love as they are about revealed eligibility. Nowhere is this clearer than in Mansfield Park whose conventional, lifeless ending, coming at the conclusion of such a breathlessly dramatic work, is both a tragic failure of literary courage and a testament to Austen's dogmatism in placing logic over feeling. Austen's heroines have two key tasks: they must identify a man they can be happy with, and having made that discovery, must somehow secure him - and the former often takes a lot longer than the latter. Love is irrelevant here, or rather, it plays a role only as a wilful puppy who must be patiently trained to recognise its true advantages.

As I said in my comment to DoZ's post about the proliferation of Pride & Prejudice spin-offs, I'm always surprised by the way popular imagination seems to privilege Pride & Prejudice over all other Austen novels. Don't get me wrong, I adore Pride and Prejudice, but if I had to I'd still pick Emma over it any day, and I enjoy Sense and Sensibility as much as I do P&P.

But the thing that really bewilders me is the seemingly widespread notion the Austen's novels are about Love. Personally, I've always found the romantic bits of Austen the most plodding. What makes reading Austen a pleasure, aside from the sparkling miracle of the prose itself [1], is the acuteness of her social observation. We love Austen's characters not for the depth of their emotion, but because they are silly like us - because they are obtuse and idiosyncratic, largely well-meaning but frequently misguided. Far from being stodgy archetypes or symbols of some idea, her characters are deliciously real - the kind of people we, centuries later, can see reflectd in our neighbours and relatives, their stories played out among the delicate bric a brac of the everyday, the mundane gossip of living. This is social comedy at its finest - a body of work that turns the domestic into epiphany, makes us see the patterns of social posturing and self-deception that we all live by.

The truth is, Austen has no ability to write about love revealed or accomplished - an actual declaration almost always spells the death-knell for her books and happily ever after is never a state actively portrayed in her work. Her real interest is in the delicate negotiations by which people exist in society, the politics of interpersonal relationships. Because romantic relationships often require the most secrecy and delicacy she chooses to focus on them, but they are far from the only form of social manouvering her novels explore. What Austen is particularly good at is showing us how the most ordinary social interaction can take on the dimensions of pitched battle. Her most emotionally charged scenes are models of scrupulous politeness, her most dramatic plot developments occur in seemingly casual conversations. This is the chessgame of human relationships in all its fraught and intricate brilliance, and it is a sport made all the more compelling by the fact that we all continue to play it.

For me, the best chapter in Pride and Prejudice, perhaps the best chapter that Austen ever wrote, doesn't involve Darcy at all, or only at second hand. It's the scene between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine where the latter, suspecting her nephew's interest in Elizabeth, tries to warn her off. It's a savage, savage conversation - a verbal duel unmatched for the briskness of its thrust and parry, the intricacy of the little feints and stabs each adversary takes at the other, the clash of steel clearly audible behind the politeness of the words. Yet it has a formality that is almost musical in its flow and elegance. You could score this conversation for piano and cello and it would sound exactly the same, except that you would lose the impeccable logic of the arguments being made. It is her ability to write like this that makes Austen one of our finest novelists - not the silly excuse of a plot that Hollywood and the publishing industry seem hell bent on celebrating.

[1] I've never understood the whole notion of Austen adaptations. Without the verbal magic of her writing, without the precision and meticulous wit of her descriptions, there is, it seems to me, no Austen left worth adapting. Doing Austen in some hack script writer's words is like performing Don Giovanni with music by Elton John.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

There's more to handcuffs than the one your arresting officer puts on you

Inspired by this. (via: Desi Pundit) So much for fighting against the objectification of women [1]

Having understood the basics about handcuffs, felons its time we looked at the various types. For two reasons.

1. Not all of us are equally violent

2. Police officers like variety. It keeps their sadism alive.

Hinged Handcuffs

Here cops will agree...a fair arrest and a handcuff long enough to allow the prisoner flexibility to swing his hands and get violent kills the effect (as well as, potentially, several innocent bystanders). If your arresting officer has small hands or you don't know that hinged handcuff exists, felon you have the right to be properly bound up. Indispensable for mass murderers or weapons experts, a hinged handcuff deserves a place in every police officer's arsenal.

It's important to get the cuff-size right. Too loose and you might be able to get your hands free, too tight and it could cut off your blood circulation and leave you numb.

Many conventional chain handcuffs can have links removed to make the distance between the wrists shorter. Most inflexible of all - the latest solution is rigid handcuffs which have a metal bar across the cuffs. Whilst bulkier to carry, it permits several variations in cuffing and, with one hand cuffed, can be used in control and restraint techniques.


Though not a felon myself, I can understand the anxiety attack you get at times when you look down and see our fingers swinging dangerously free even when you're wearing handcuffs. The solution is a good pair of thumbcuffs. They're designed to link the thumbs of the felon together, thus restricting the range of possible movements even further.

Double Locks

Double Locks (one of my all time faves) is a very sexy style of handcuff with a lock-spring, which, when engaged stops the cuff from tightening further. These cuffs are good typically under around the wrists of people with clever fingers because the double lock makes them harder to open. Am sure my policemen readers with their complete lack of imagination will agree.


I have said it before and I repeat. If you think you're not that dangerous or want to pretend that you're not a threat to society...please don't ruin the look by wearing a normal handcuff with metal cuffs. The most disgusting thing to look at are small delicate hands in a big rusty metal handcuff. If you're harmless, flaunt it, and flaunt it right.

The solution is a plasticuff. These are lightweight disposable plastic strips that can be carried by police officers in large quantities.

Leg Irons

For all those enthusiasts of running away and other unsporting flash! Your legs can get worn out running away from savage police dogs. This causes them to bleed (no, they don't get tougher) and the bad news is they'll never get better.

A good leg iron, however, can cut your ability to move your legs by upto 95%

What to look for? A leg iron is designed to provide both restraint and humiliation. Good quality stainless steel will keep the rusty iron from rubbing against your skin and causing you to get tetanus. As for humiliation, look for the kind that can be linked up to your handcuffs so as to leave you 'hog-tied'. This doesn't just make you ridiculous, it could also cause you to die of positional asphyxia. Most leg irons come with a specified length, so be sure to choose one that isn't too loose for you.

[1] All information in this article comes from Wikipedia. Just in case you're wondering how I know so much about handcuffs.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Last Ride Together

It wasn't the things you said that scared me away. Or the way you had of taking my wrists in your hands, your fingers curling around them as if feeling for a pulse. It was the way you looked at me - your eyes hidden behind the oversized dark glasses you always wore, your smile pointed tentatively in my direction but refusing, somehow, to focus. There was something wrong with that smile. I saw you practicing it in the rearview once, when you thought I wasn't looking, and it came out fine, it came out beautiful. But every time you tried smiling at me, or at someone else, it was always hesitant, always forced. As though it didn't trust human beings, only mirrors.

I wonder if you ever realised that.

The day I decided it was over I told you that I wouldn't be needing the ride anymore because I was quitting my job at the music store. I had a whole story planned to explain this - how my grades at school had been slipping, how my parents felt this was a crucial year and I should be spending my time at home. But you didn't ask me what happened or why I was leaving. You didn't ask me anything. You just said "Oh" and went on driving.

We didn't talk much after that. We just sat there, listening to the hum of the car accelerating between us, like something momentous and menacing that we could barely control. It was the first time we'd been silent like this. Even that first day you gave me a lift - when you'd seen me walking towards the bus stop and recognised me from the Sharma's New Year party next door and asked me if I needed a ride - even then, not knowing the first thing about each other, we'd managed to find something to talk about. It felt strange, sitting next to you without saying a word. It felt like I was riding with a stranger. When we got to the store I had to keep myself from telling you where to stop.

Only you didn't stop, didn't drop me off outside the store the way you always did. For a moment I felt panic. Where were you taking me? You pulled into an empty parking slot, switched off the engine.

We both paused then, like characters who had arrived late to their own movie. It wasn't that we didn't know what was going to happen next, it was that we couldn't define what had happened, what was ending. Or perhaps it was just that we couldn't decide who had the first dialogue. You sat defeated behind the steering wheel, nervously turning the ring on your finger. I stayed frozen in my seat, wishing you would do something, say something. Ready to defend myself against whatever it was that you came up with.

After a while I opened the door. The hum of the traffic flooded into the car, unfroze us, plugged us back into the usual machine of arrival and departure. I edged my way out, careful not to let the door touch the car parked next to yours. Holding my breath till I had got clear.

As I reached back in from my knapsack, you laid your hand on my forearm.

"Thank you", you said, looking up at me.

It felt as though you'd slipped a hand under my shirt.

I could have asked "What for?", could have pretended not to know what you were talking about, but I figured you deserved better. So I just looked down and nodded. Then I whispered goodbye to you very softly and shut the door. Then I walked away.

Half way down the block I turned back to look. You were turned away from me, straining to see the traffic coming up behind you, trying to reverse into the street in order to drive away. From the angle your car was at, I could see you were having trouble. You never could back properly.

Monday, March 12, 2007


Over at the Guardian blog, Sarah Crown has a post asking for books that you've started but never managed to finish. The comments section makes for interesting reading, if only because it highlights the vast differences in what people enjoy.

Frankly, I found some of the comments bewildering. I mean look, there are a number of books that I love and have even re-read where I understand why someone else might find them heavy going. I wouldn't dream of leaving a Faulkner unfinished, for instance, but I recognise that he takes a certain amount of effort. I myself tend to read him in small bursts of 40-50 pages, after which I need to take a break just to assimilate the overwhelming impact of his prose before I can go on - it's one of the things I love about him. Something similar applies to Woolf, and to some of Henry James.

But how anyone can put down any of the following books is beyond me:

1) Emma
2) Crime and Punishment / Brothers Karamazov
3) The Lord of the Rings
4) Midnight's Children
5) Clockwork Orange
6) The Autumn of the Patriarch
7) Waiting for Godot
8) Lord Jim

Understand - it's not that these are 'great' books (though they are), it's just that to me they're so thoroughly engrossing as to be almost page turners. And yet here are people who claim that they weren't able to finish them. It's shocking.

My own list (which is somewhere around the middle of the comments) includes:

a) Mann's The Magic Mountain (I've got as far as page 300 something, then put it down because there was something else I wanted to read, and never managed to muster up the enthusiasm to go back)

b) Dreiser's Sister Carrie / American Tragedy (Both of which I found stultifyingly dull)

c) Thomas Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities (Started it, thought it seemed vaguely promising, but then sort of drifted away)

d) The Bible (Have never managed to read that one through, even though I've started a half dozen times. I'm fine through Genesis and Exodus, but at some point in Deuteronomy I tune out and only really wake up again in Job)

e) Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet

f) Spenser's Fairy Queen

g) Byron's Don Juan

h) Dos Passos' U.S.A. (which is a pity because I really did think it was promising. one of these days)

Then, of course, there are the books I can't really claim to have started - books that I own and have considered reading, but never really got down to it - like Galsworthy's Forsythe Saga or Finnegan's Wake. And one of these days I must get around to reading Updike. And Nabokov's Ada.

My current albatross is the new Pynchon. I started it a few months ago, read about a 100 pages (about 10%), liked it, took a break to read the new Vikram Chandra (because the library wanted that back more urgently) and haven't managed to go back since. Maybe tomorrow I'll get restarted on it...

Dance dance dance

Last weekend it was film. This weekend it was dance.

First, the Compania Nacional de Danza 2 from Spain performed at the Annenberg Centre on Friday evening. The company danced three pieces, the first two of which (Remansos and Coming Together) were interesting without being spectacular. Some really interesting stage-craft - superb lighting, fascinating use of sets - coupled with brisk, high energy dancing. Good vibrant stuff.

The highlight of the show, though, was the third piece. Called Rassemblement, it featured some exquisite dancing set to the haunting songs of Toto Bissainthe. Nacho Duato's sublime choreography captured perfectly the sense of soulful yearning in Bissainthe's songs, creating a mood of oppression and heartbreak, before finally erupting into a powerful, earthy celebration at the end of the piece. An evocative and beautiful piece.

On the theory that one good dance deserves another, I followed Friday's performance up by attending a double feature by the Pennsylvania Ballet Company Saturday afternoon. The program began with Tchaikovsky's Serenade - a Balanchine classic that struck me as being more an amusing exploration of geometric forms (how many different ways can you arrange 16 dancers on stage?) than a particularly moving dance.

Serenade was followed by a performance of Orff's Carmina Burana choreographed by PA Ballet's own Matthew Neenan. Orff's song cycle (with its opening chorus forever redolent of Old Spice) is an old favourite, and the Company's adaptation of it was spectacular. Neenan's dramatization places the music in a sensual, almost surrealistic landscape - a land of passion and energy where secret desires are danced out. What I particularly enjoyed were the parts where the tenor / soprano / baritone would walk out onto the stage. There he / she would be - a flat-footed, graceless figure in black formals, singing his / heart out, while behind him / her figures in bronze or red would leap and pirouette. Matisse would have approved.

Finally, to top it all off, I spent Sunday watching two squirrels gambol and dance out in the park. After a month of bitterly cold weather, that was the most heartwarming performance of all.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

When Poets Attack

So much for poets being mild-mannered, dreamy folk. Over at the NY Times, David Orr does a hatchet job on Dana Goodyear's recent article in the New Yorker on the Poetry Foundation. After thoroughly fisking Goodyear's arguments in that article, Orr turns to examine the role that the New Yorker plays in advancing the cause of modern poetry, pointing out that:

The New Yorker tends to run bad poems by excellent poets. This occurs in part because the magazine has to take Big Names, but many Big Names don’t work in ways that are palatable to The New Yorker’s vast audience (in addition, many well-known poets don’t write what’s known in the poetry world as “the New Yorker poem” — basically an epiphany-centered lyric heavy on words like “water” and “light”)

and then going on to talk about the New Yorker's tendency to publish poems by it's own staff, including Goodyear herself, whose poems, as Orr points out, have, since 2000 "appeared in the New Yorker more than Czeslaw Milosz, Jorie Graham, Derek Walcott, Wislawa Szymborska, Kay Ryan and every living American poet laureate except for W. S. Merwin".

Vicious, but beautiful.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Oh frabjous day!

It's 60 degrees outside! 60 degrees! No more gloves and hats and bulky coats! No more layers upon layers of clothes to put on and take off every time you exit / enter a building! The fish are jumping, the current's high! Callooh! Callay!

What the f*** am I doing stuck behind this keyboard? Later.

Fire Escape

It's forty degrees outside, but you step out onto the fire escape anyway, standing there a minute in your shirtsleeves and socked feet.

It comforts you to think that the way out of your life could be this bare, this ordinary. A gravity not sudden like a fall, but a jazz of scales descending, story by careful story. The final ladder suspended just out of earth's reach. Like obstinacy. Or hope.

You touch the cold railing, imagine that you are touching the bones of some metal reptile, some species of monster that once crawled over all our walls and has left the zig-zag of its skeleton behind.

Something about the iron feels like backbone, makes the height you live at more credible.

All around you fire escapes just like yours fill the city's vertigo, expose the simplicity of its architecture, bare the soul of these lofty, lonely places that we call home.

What we all have in common is our need to run away.

Friday, March 09, 2007

You know you're getting old when... see a young woman walking down the street in a tiny, tiny mini-skirt and your instinctive reaction is - wow! isn't she cold in that thing?

The singing-masters of my soul

The power of such lines can never be explained by metrical analysis or by counting end-rhymes (although rhymes play subtly throughout the passage), and any intellectual "meaning" a conscientious critic or teacher might tease out of them at such a time would be superfluous. The best poetry—great poetry—happens when sound, rhythm, and image bring about a mysterious feeling of wholeness that somehow draws mind, body, and spirit together into what both Yeats and Eliot envisioned as a unified dance. What we call "the power of the word" is really a pattern of words in a rhythm originating in heartbeat and footfall. Language, like the human mind, consists of a conscious and an unconscious element, and what "real" poetry can do, even when it looks like prose on the page, is to reproduce the hidden music we are all born hearing but lose as we grow up.

from Anne Stevenson's lovely essay 'The Unified Dance' in this month's Poetry.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

By opposing, end them

Okay, so here's the deal. I've been getting complaints from people about how tame 2x3x7 is getting, how it's been a while since I said something controversial or provocative on the blog. This won't do. And since today is the day of the Blank Noise Blogathon (which I recommend you at least read, and ideally contribute to) and since everyone knows the most controversial thing you can do as a guy is criticise just about anything that calls itself 'feminism', because your gender automatically makes you suspect, I figured I might as well give it a shot.

I'm constantly appalled by how much of what passes for feminism seems to focus almost entirely on establishing victimisation, while paying little or no attention to what can be done about it [1]. Discussion after discussion will go to great lengths to discover new ways in which women are being treated unfairly, without coming up with a single suggestion on what they can or should do about it. The general idea seems to be that once we've managed to prove that women are being oppressed, the oppression will somehow automatically go away. Push for solutions and you'll often end up with a lot of utopian idealism about how oppression shouldn't exist in the first place, and how it's up to the oppressor to correct his ways (the old "only men commit rape, so men need to stop it happening" chestnut). Try and have a discussion about practical means by which we can address the issue, and someone is almost certain to tell you that women shouldn't have to struggle to get freedoms and privileges that are rightfully theirs in the first place.

Now of course, none of this is 'wrong' in an ideological sense. Women certainly do get treated unfairly and they certainly shouldn't be. But saying a problem shouldn't exist is not a useful method of making it go away. It's unfair, certainly, but most of us stopped believing in the fairness of the world about the same time we stopped believing in Santa Claus (oops! please tell me that wasn't a spoiler). The real question isn't what we deserve but what we can get, and how. Power is rarely accidental and almost never easily forsaken. The patriarchy isn't going to change out of the goodness of its heart once it sees the error of its ways, no matter how attractive that pipe dream might seem. Any real advance towards gender equality will take considerable effort and sacrifice, and realistically, that effort and sacrifice is going to come mostly from the people who stand to benefit from greater equality. If we're going to make progress on women's rights what we really need is a plan that focuses that effort and sacrifice where it's most likely to be effective.

None of this is to suggest that creating awareness isn't important. Joan Didion, in an essay on Feminism, makes the point that at its heart the feminist movement is a class struggle. As such, creating class consciousness is a vital part of the overall agenda, but it's important to remember that it's only a first step, and in order to be useful needs to be closely tied to concrete action. It's not just that political energy tends to dissipate if left unused, it's also that genuine socio-political commitment / conviction comes from joining abstract ideas to specific initiatives. Mouthing allegiance to a cause is meaningless precisely because it's easy - actually doing something about it not only forces you to take the issue seriously, it also involves the participant in a more fundamental way. It's how political consciousness is created. Making women / society see why a particular rule / condition is an issue may help, but giving them something they can really do about it is much more useful.

The history of socio-political struggle is the history of successful mass movements that have tended to do two things particularly well. First, they have enabled coordinated action, tapping the collective power of the oppressed by aligning dispersed actors and interest groups behind a common front of specific demands. Second, they have carefully studied and understood their opposition, understanding its motivations and weaknesses, as well as their own relative strengths. That's why specifying the problem without clearly defining a solution isn't helpful, because the effort it inspires is usually too scattered to succeed. And that's why arguments that demand that large corporations or temple priesthoods or other partiarchal institutions change their ways because it's the right thing to do make me laugh. It's like the story of the damsel in distress who's being held captive in a high tower by an evil dragon. However much we may dislike the idea of her having to be rescued by a knight in shining armour, expecting the dragon to see the error of his fire-breathing ways and set her free of his own free will is even sillier.

Take these posts over at Known Turf that I've been commenting on for a while. In them, Ms. Zaidi points to the way women's magazines propagate stereotypical images of women and provide meaningless bubble-gum content. One reason for this, Ms. Zaidi claims, is that corporations advertising in these magazines choose to specify that their ads must not appear next to 'negative' content that could, presumably, be bad for their sales, a practice that she (somewhat bizarrely) terms 'censorship'. According to Ms. Zaidi, millions of women consumers desperately want, no, need higher quality content, but are being systematically deprived of this right by evil corporate conspiracies against them. And what, may one ask, is Ms. Zaidi's solution to all this? Should the millions of women who are currently buying these magazines, and funding the marketing campaigns of companies who advertise in them by purchasing their products, simply stop doing so in protest? Should we try to take out an alternate magazine that does provide the kind of content women desire / require and try and compensate for lower advertising revenues by charging customers more for our higher-value content? Not at all. It's hard to tell exactly what Ms. Zaidi is suggesting, since she seems entirely uninterested in actually discussing / debating any solutions to the issue and prefers to restrict herself to wild and completely irrelevant blather about child pornography and the starving masses, but it seems that her preferred solution is to sit back and wait for corporations to change their ways of doing things. Why even bother thinking about anything else, when that's clearly the 'just' / ethical solution? And why will corporations do this, you ask, without any economic motivation whatsoever? Why, because it's the right thing to do.

Anyone think this will actually work?

Now personally, I'm not particularly concerned about magazines like Femina and Cosmo. I see them as the kind of trite pop culture artifacts that I, and all the grown-ups I know, habitually ignore. But let's say you were really concerned about the poor quality of content these magazines were putting out there. Let's say you did want to stop them from propagating one-sided stereotypes. There are a number of things you could do. You could decide to leverage your power as consumers. Stop buying these magazines yourself. Stop all your friends and relatives from buying them. Explain to the women in your neighbourhood (if they haven't figured it out already) why these magazines need to be sent a message and stop them from buying them as well. Convince your dentist / hair dresser / local clinic to stop keeping these magazines in their waiting area. If you really feel strongly about the issue, go further. Organise neighbourhood protest meetings where you invite all the women in the neighbourhood to bring their current / back copies of these magazines and burn them in a public bonfire. Get the press to cover a few of these meetings. Get volunteers from colleges and organise pickets around prominent city book stores demanding that they stop stocking these magazines. Send a signed petition to the publishers of these magazines demanding that they include the kind of stories you want. Put together a list of advertisers who try to control content and spread it around, suggesting that women boycott their products. Do everything you can to make it clear to publishers and corporations that not meeting your needs as a consumer will hurt their bottomline. If you could get readership for one of these magazines to drop by, say, 10% among SEC A households in the top 10 urban centres, that'll go a hell of a lot further towards getting them to change their content than all the noble sentiments in the world.

Or, if you're convinced that the demand and supply of these stories exists, and it's just the stranglehold big business has on the media that's stopping them from getting out there, try coming up with the substitute. Start small. We live in an age where getting your message out there is easier than it's ever been. Start a website. Ask women what they want to read. Get in touch with people who might be interested in writing these stories (or may have already written them) but can't get them published. If it looks like you're getting a good response, try and raise funding from a social venture fund. Remember, you don't actually need to get a full-fledged magazine going. All you need to do is create enough of an impact so that the current publishers realise that there's an opportunity they're missing out on. (Personally, I doubt this will work but it's worth trying, especially before we go around blaming corporations for their reluctance to publish quality content).

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that the content of these magazines isn't an issue, or that corporations aren't to blame for propagating it. I'm simply more interested in trying to figure out a way to solve the problem rather than apportioning blame for it. Nor am I suggesting that I know what the answer to the problem is. Only that I'm interested in discussing / debating what it could be. Finally, I'm not suggesting that blogging / talking about these things instead of doing them is a waste of time. Only that a useful discussion focuses on finding ways forward, rather than tracing paths back.

In the end, the question I keep coming back to is the one Hamlet famously posed to himself: "Whether it is nobler in mind to suffer / the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / and by opposing end them". We have a choice between highlighting the causes of our oppression while continuing to suffer it, or finding ways to harness our collective energy into forward-looking solutions that ask 'what can we do about this' rather than 'why is this so'. What is noble and heroic is not always practical or useful. The latest Blank Noise blogathon, we are told, is about fighting back. As we read these stories, let us certainly applaud the courage of the women in them, but let us also, and in my view more importantly, look for stories that provide a blueprint for how we could all agree to respond, for responses that could provide a more generalisable solution to the problem of harassment; let us not forget to debate how the problem could be solved, instead of focussing on what it is and why it exists. Making noise is all well and good, but let's also try to find something in the cacophony that we can say loudly, together and with confidence.

[1] I'm not suggesting, of course, that this is true of everything 'feminist'. Generalisations about something as broad and unfocussed as feminism are necessarily untrue, and this one isn't even a generalisation. There's plenty in the movement that is specific and actionable and that I heartily agree with. Everything I say in this post applies only to the subset of 'feminist' writing that sees raising an issue without suggesting or looking for a solution as an end in itself.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Argerich and Dutoit

Concert applause, for the most part, is like tipping. There's a certain amount of it expected, and unless the performance has been truly terrible or truly outstanding that's pretty much what the audience will stick to. Soloists at Philadelphia Orchestra performances, for example, follow a pretty much set pattern. They'll take a bow with the conductor, go off stage, come back alone to take another bow, go off again, and come back one final time with the conductor again to take a final bow. As they walk off the third time, the applause quickly dies, the house lights come on, and a few dozen people make an urgent beeline for the restrooms. It's the norm.

Except that last night when Martha Argerich walked off stage for the third time the applause only got louder. Cries of 'Bravo!' and 'Encore!' filled the air. Awed by her fluent and magnificient performance of Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto, the audience demanded that Argerich come back a fourth time, finally convincing her to play an encore, which she did with dazzling energy. By the fifth time she came out you could see she was exhausted, and pretty much forced the issue by taking the Concert Master along with her when she left. It was a breath-taking performance overall.

And we'd only got to intermission at this point! After the break, conductor Charles Dutoit (who will be leading the Philadelphia Orchestra for a while, as the Orchestra looks for a new director) came back to showcase, with a little help from Rimsky-Korsakov, just what the Orchestra is capable of. Piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone and tuba - every single member of that superb wind section was spectacular. I've heard Dutoit conduct the Orchestra a couple of times now, and on the whole I think he does a better job than Eschenbach. So it's good news that he's going to be taking over for a while.

Meanwhile tomorrow (JAP, stop listening now) the Orchestra plays Mozart's Fifth Violin Concerto (with Gil Shaham as soloist) followed by Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony. If only it weren't snowing.

P.S. Okay, okay, I realise that the last week has seen an overdose of these posts about movies / music. I can't help it - it's the season. Tomorrow I'll get to something completely different. Promise. Meanwhile, those of you who may be feeling pained with all this 'culture' shit, can check out this hilariously funny spoof trailer for Titanic Two - where Jack comes back! (courtesy Ben Marshall at Guardian Unlimited)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Three Movies

Another weekend, another hectic spate of film-watching. As I mentioned last week, was in NY this weekend attending screenings of three contemporary French films as part of the Lincoln Centre's Rendezvous with French Cinema (also stuffing my face with delicious home-cooked food and scrumptious desserts, but that's another post). Now as everyone knows, I only watch films in order to be able to review them on this blog, so here goes:

[Warning: Some Spoilers]

In Xavier Giannoli's The Singer (Quand j'etais chanteur) Gerard Depardieu plays Alain Moreau, a modestly talented singer who works in provincial dance halls and struggles to cope with his growing irrelevance in the world of MTV and Karaoke. He has his fans, but they tend to be among the elderly - folks in their forties and fifties seeking to relive the simpler, more innocent times when they were young, middle-aged divorcees in search of that last flutter of romance. Mostly though, Moreau remains in the background, singing at night clubs and restaurants where his pleasant yet unremarkable singing provides the elegant backdrop for the ongoing social interaction. Moreau likes to think of himself as an artist, but the truth is he's little more than a small-time entertainer, he and his band just one among dozens of acts that compete on the fringes of the world of live music.

Moreau's specialty, we are told, is the 'croonie' - the kind of slow love ballad that combines romance with nostalgia, notable more for its atmosphere than for its artistic merit. And that's exactly what The Singer is like - an easy yet unremarkable film, sentimental and soft-bellied, that tells a familiar story with passable skill. The main plot revolves around Moreau's fascination with the considerably younger Marion (Cecile de France) and the unlikely dalliance between these two. What we have here is a coming together of vulnerabilities - Moreau's sense of his own ridiculousness in courting Marion makes his passion for her more desperate, Marion's emotional fragility (she is just coming out of a failed marriage) makes her just susceptible enough to Moreau's mix of insecurity and charm to respond to his overtures with a combination of friendliness and exasperation. What develops between them is tentative and sweet, but not particularly exciting or credible. Like Moreau we live through the movie with the constant dread that it will all end badly, and when the ending turns out to be neither the tragic one we are expecting, nor the happy one that would make this movie a farce, we can't help feeling a little revealed.

On the whole though, this is a quiet, gentle movie, and like its main protagonist, the smallness of its achievement is matched by the discreetness of its ambition. Depardieu is as unexceptionable as ever, though much of his performance here felt like a reprise of his role in Changing Times, making me wonder whether he isn't overdoing the aging, insecure lover bit. The rest of the cast is adequate, and Giannoli does a marvellous job of bringing the marginal world that his story is set in vividly to life. The last thirty seconds are a false note, and I couldn't help wincing a little over the French version of 'Save the Last Dance for Me', (some of the other song lyrics are hilarious, though), but overall The Singer is an enjoyable film - though perhaps more for its ambience than for its art.


The phrase that best describes Bruno Dumont's Flanders is 'artificial intensity'. Flanders is one of those films so committed to being stark and gritty and doing everything in its power to contradict the glorified version of reality that cinema gives us that it overcompensates by presenting a world view that is every bit as stylised as the one it seeks to replace. Every scene in this movie is a deliberate attempt at artifice, desperately self-conscious and trying to make a point - and the result is a movie that suffocates as much as it shocks.

Flanders opens in the French countryside, where two young men are spending their last few days with their girlfriends before heading out to war. Why exactly these men are joining the army is never clear - it seems to be voluntary, but aside from a throwaway line about wanting to make money, no real explanation is offered. Comparisons with Godard's Les Caribiniers are inescapable, though Godard's easy, inventive dialogue is replaced here by an oppressive lack of articulation combined with a few mechanical couplings. In a strangely reductive move, Dumont then throws in that oldest chestnut of all, a love triangle, with one of the men's girlfriend taking up with another man, who is also, as it happens off to join the war, and, in a coincidence that's straight out of 60's Bollywood, will end up in the same platoon as the others.

From here the action moves to an unspecified desert landscape, where a war is being fought. Here the movie switches gears, and begins to feel a lot more like Full Metal Jacket, with hints of Platoon thrown in for good measure. All is gore and violence. Dumont pulls a few punches, but only where absolutely essential. In the course of half an hour we get to see a horse getting shot, a man being blown up by an explosion and his charred remains afterwards, two children being shot at close range (one of them in the stomach, so that he takes a while to die), a woman being raped, a man being castrated and at least four people being shot in the head. Dumont seems supremely unconcerned with narrative here - why a group of five soldiers (including - no surprise here - our three friends) has been left to wander seemingly at random through a land infested with guerillas is unclear and much of the action seems fragmented and illogical, yet the power of the images Dumont puts on screen is undeniable, as is the quality of the cinematography both here and in the Europe sections.

Meanwhile, back home, our protagonist's girlfriend (the apex of the love triangle) hallucinates about being pregnant and eventually has a nervous breakdown. By the time one of the young men returns though, bringing back the news of the others' death, as well as the guilty secret of his role in it, she seems to be recovering, and after a brief reflex of hysteria, the characters settle back into the everyday silence of their lives which is not so much calm as it is an absence.

Speaking briefly at the start of the screening, Dumont talked about watching the new Bond film on his flight into New York and made the point that the difference between his films and the Bond films is that in his films it's not always clear who is good and who is bad. While it's certainly true that Dumont's film actively avoids the characterisations of good and evil, it's also true that that idea isn't exactly new, even in Hollywood, and that Flanders makes that point so self-consciously that the very artificiality of it robs it of much of its emotional impact. With their air of isolation and their inability to articulate not only their ideas but also their feelings, Dumont's characters seem alien and unreal, and this undermines the point I suspect he is trying to make. Flanders is mesmerising to watch, combining a vividness of vision with considerable technical skill, but it is also emotionally sterile.


Easily the best film I watched last week (perhaps even the best film I've seen so far this year) was Denis Dercourt's The Page Turner. I tend to scoff at reviews that compare directors to Hitchcock, but it's a comparision this film entirely deserves.

The Page Turner is the story of Melanie, a young girl who, as a ten-year old, has her potential career as a pianist cut short after she fluffs an audition after she realises that the chief judge, a celebrated pianist herself, is not paying attention. Ten years later, and still seeking revenge, Melanie skilfully works her way into this pianist's trust and prepares to ruin her life. What unfolds is a tale of psychological manipulation that would have done Iago proud. Every scene in this movie is taut with suspense - the presence of Melanie (played admirably by Deborah Francois) haunts the screen like a specter, seemingly innocent but secretly ruthless, and with an intensity that could come straight out of Omen. Image after image brings premonitions of catastrophe, but the nail-biting question of what Melanie is going to do is never resolved until the very end, so that you spend the entire movie on the edge of your seat, waiting breathlessly to see what happens next. And if all that wasn't enough, there's also the music - a score consisting of Bach and Shostakovich and an air of being drowned in music in a way that connects the obsessiveness of Melanie's quest to something unforgiving in the notes itself.

So compelling are the performances in this astonishing film, so carefully crafted is the film as a whole, that you'll find yourself gasping with shock at each unexpected twist. The Page Turner is a must watch. Great suspense doesn't get more gripping than this.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Train spotting

Why is it that every time I travel by train people feel the need to come park their noisy brats next to me?

My co-passenger this time around was a wide-eyed, loud-voiced four year old who was fascinated by trains and tall buildings, and felt the need to shout across to his mother (who was sitting in the next seat, though from the way he screamed she might as well have been in the next compartment) every single time he saw either one.

This might have been endearing (the sense of wonder must not disappear & c.) except that we were on a train to Manhattan, so Junior was able to spot either a train or a tall building with astonishing frequency. No sooner had he turned back to the window than another train or skyscraper would swim into his ken, and with a wild surmise accompanied by a most un-stout Cortez like yell, he would have to proclaim this fresh bulletin to his mother. I'm all for kindness to children, but after you've heard the phrase "Look Mommy! there's another tall building!" for the 16th time in two minutes, you begin to wonder if 'kindness' wouldn't consist of hitting the brat on the head with a blunt object.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Such a long weekend

Isn't it interesting how art connects across time and space? At the end of the 16th century, an English dramatist writes a play about two star-crossed lovers. In 1936, inspired by the play, a Russian composer composes a ballet. And in 2007, a Montreal based hip-hop dance troupe makes an extract from the ballet the opening piece in their evening's performance.

Attended a performance by the Rubberbandance Group Wednesday evening. Founded in 2002, they combine a variety of contemporary dance styles (the dancer bios in the program talked about things like hip-hop, b-boying, break and hungarian folk dance, as well as classical ballet) with an interest in theatre. Their opening work was this thing called Elastic Perspective which is a series of six short pieces, the first of which is danced to the Dance of the Knights from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet (hence the somewhat tangential introduction). It was fascinating to watch, especially since it's only been a little over a year since I saw Prokofiev's R&J performed as a classical ballet. The contrast between that performance and the spectacle of three men in camouflage pants getting down on the stage with a sequence of heart-pumping moves that were more calisthenic than graceful was hilarious.

At this point you're probably wondering who I am and what the aliens have done with the real me. I mean Falstaff and Hip-Hop!! Okay, look, it's true I don't get hip-hop as a form of music. To me it's the musical equivalent of chewing gum. There's a rhythm to it, but no real substance; and I can't imagine sitting down to listen to it any more than I can imagine sitting down to a dinner of Wrigley's. That said, I see how it makes for a really interesting and challenging sound to dance to, and I love the energy that hip-hop dance performances bring to the medium. Rubberbandance's performance was mostly notable for the way it combined an almost gymnastic speed and agility with a sense of something fractured and angular, the ability to stop in mid-air, an almost cubist idiom of intersecting planes. It wasn't particularly elegant, but it took your breath away, partly because of the raw power radiating off the stage, and partly because every five minutes you had to stop and say "How did he /she DO that?" [1]

Plus, well, the music wasn't all hip-hop (though substantial chunks of it were - and I didn't wince even once - Neela, you would have been so proud of me!). Easily the high point of the show was the final part of Elastic Perspective, which consisted of some frenetic dancing to a song from Verdi's La Traviata. It doesn't get much better than that.


Meanwhile, it's turning out to be a long and interesting weekend. Rubberbandance on Wednesday [2], followed by a festival of films on 'Feminism and Beyond' at the Philadelphia International House Thursday and Friday, followed by a trip down to NYC to catch the Rendez-vous with French Cinema festival at the Lincoln Centre.

Watched a double bill consisting of a short feature titled Plumb Line by Carolee Schneeman followed by a film called Invisible Adversaries by Austrian artist Valie Export. The Schneeman film struck me as pretentious tripe (look, look, I've split the screen into four parts, aren't I clever?) but the main feature was interesting. It reminded me of Bunuel, especially of the Discreet Charms of the Bourgeoisie, though with a much greater focus on gender. The plot, such as it is, involves a photographer called Anna who is convinced that invisible beings called 'Hyksos' are amongst us, taking control of our minds and making us behave in fundamentally inhuman ways (amusingly, this storyline, clearly meant to be metaphorical, has caused imdb to classify the film as horror / sci-fi!). She spends the movie gathering 'evidence' of this phenomenon and arguing about it with her boyfriend Peter, who sees human beings as side-effects to what the calls 'the system' of political and social control. As with any good art film, though, the plot is largely incidental. What is memorable about this film are the specific images / episodes that Export constructs - a baby in a refrigerator, a woman walking around town on skates, the scene where the couple argues accompanied by television sets that replay everything they say with a time delay. Much of the political commentary in Invisible Adversaries is inaccessible / irrelevant to us now, and the overall look of the film feels dated (it was made in 1977), but its artistic vision remains intriguing and the representations of women in media it lampoons dog us to this day.

Relevant as the film's message is, I couldn't help thinking, sitting in the theatre with a half dozen other people, that it was preaching to the choir. The speaker who introduced the film talked about how Valie Export's work challenges the stereotypical gender representations we see around us - and it does - but I'm pretty sure that everyone in that room was already brought into the phoniness of mass media. I mean, really, these were people who'd tramped through the rain to attend a Thursday evening screening of an obscure art film by an Austrian director as part of a festival on feminism. They weren't exactly the kind of people who beer commercials are targeted at.

Tonight it's Godard's Numero Deux (it's strange - I've never thought of Godard as a particularly 'feminist' film-maker; but then, the strangest people turn out to be 'feminists'). Blogging will be slow this weekend, but next week is spring break, so I promise to make up for it (what was that about a long Murakami-like short story?).


[1] Everyone except the gentleman on my right, that is. He, it turned out, had taken the name of the company to heart, and his recurring query after very piece was "But where are the rubberbands?". May the Lord protect me from the literal minded

[2] Insert obligatory joke about how only a PhD student could think the weekend starts on Wednesday.