Friday, February 29, 2008

Dear John McCain

I realize it's a bad year for the Republicans and you're probably not going to be able to afford advertising on your own. So I thought I'd put together an ad that you could use to make your pitch for President. I think it makes the perfect case for why we need someone like you in power. Best of luck!

Oh, by the way, the last five seconds or so have a picture of me - sorry about that but we couldn't find one of you. But you should be able to replace that easily.



P.S. Seriously, what is the woman thinking?

UPDATE: The PhD version.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Those who do not learn from history...

...are doomed to make others repeat it.

Paul Kramer in last week's New Yorker (sorry, I'm running behind on my reading) about a raging controversy over the use of torture by occupying US forces trying to deal with subversives - over one hundred years ago. Go read.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

It must be something I 8

Ok, it's official. I am not doing another tag for at least three months. Or 8. So there.

Meanwhile, I suppose I may as well get this one out of the way (who comes up with these things anyway?):

1. 8 things I am passionate about

a) Poetry (surprise!)
b) Beethoven, Mozart, Bach
c) Miles
d) Films with subtitles
e) Dark Chocolate
f) Procrastination
g) Being right
h) Air-piano

2. 8 things I want to do before I die

a) Finish my dissertation (it may take that long)
b) Read Proust
c) Conduct the Berlin Philharmonic (what? No one said I had to be realistic)
d) Win an argument on the Internet (see above)
e) Clean the fridge (I don't really want to do it, but figure I should, at least once)
f) Develop a new flavor of Ice-cream (How does Single Malt Dark Chocolate Espresso sound to you)
g) Stop putting off things I want to do
h) Commit suicide (this list is in no particular order)

3. 8 Things I say often

a) "Three things"
b) "And now for something completely different"
c) "Hello"
d) "Goodbye"
e) "What was it Eliot said?"
f) "My dissertation?...uh...well, you see, I haven't really decided yet..."
g) "Go ahead. Make my day" (I don't really say this often. But I'd like to)
h) "Not another tag!"

Bonus: Things I'd like to say often

4. 8 Books I've read recently

(You can actually see this from the Shelfari list on the side - but let's see which ones I remember)

a) Susan Sontag, At the Same Time (currently reading)
b) J.M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year (currently reading)
c) Paul Celan, Selected Poems trans. by Michael Hamburger (currently reading)
d) William T. Vollmann, The Atlas
e) Nicanor Parra, Emergency Poems & Poems and Antipoems
f) Rae Armantrout, Veil: New and Selected Poems
g) Ursula K. Le Guin, Searoad
h) Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

5. 8 songs I could listen to over and over

a) Franz Schubert, Winterreise (okay, okay, so that's 24 songs right there, but you can't seriously expect me to pick between them)
b) J.S. Bach, Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott (from Matthaus Passion BWV 244)
c) Georges Bizet, Habanera (from Carmen; see also)
d) Joni Mitchell, River
e) Bob Dylan, Desolation Row
f) Ella Fitzgerald, How High The Moon / Mack the Knife
g) Begum Akhtar, Mere Humnafas mere humnawa
h) Tom Lehrer, Masochism Tango (talk about passionate)

6. 8 Things that attract me to my best friends

a) A well-stocked bar (also, apartments in Manhattan and / or a penchant for driving rental cars to distant National Parks)
b) A disdain for all things popular
c) Comic book collections
d) A complete absence of spouses, children and other such domestic inconveniences
e) A well-stocked bar
f) A taste for bad puns
g) Willingness to be seen with me in public
h) A well-stocked bar

7. 8 people I think should do this tag

a) Raul Castro: "8 things I want to do before I die. Hmmm. Fido, what do I want to do before I die?" ("Oh, never mind, too late.")

b) Barack Obama "8 things I'm passionate about: Change, change, change, change, change, change, change and...ummm...maybe change?" (Hillary: "Did you hear that sixth change? Didn't it sound exactly like the fifth one? He's plagiarizing himself again.")

c) Snow White "8 things I'm passionate about: The Prince, Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sneezy, Bashful, Sleepy and Dopey"("Yes, sometimes all in one night")

d) George W. Bush "8...errr...8...Uncle Dick, what's a b-o-o-k?" ("Uncle Dick, Uncle Dick, I got up to five. Can you tell me what comes next? I've got a book in my other hand.")

e) Quentin Tarantino "8 things I say often: ****, ****, ****, *******, ******, ******-******, ******-******, ******-******* *******" ("It's a tough job, you know, writing your own scripts")

f) The Spanish Inquisition "8 things that attract me to my best friends: Surprise, fear, ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to the pope, nice red uniforms, comfy chairs, soft cushions, diabolical laughter and The Rack! The 9 things that attract me..." (You weren't expecting that were you? well....)

g) Nipper: "I'll listen to anything! Any 8 songs, I tell you! Anything but that damn voice!" ("Oh, come on, not 'How Much is that Doggy in the Window'!!")

h) Elizabeth Barret Browning: "8 ways I love thee" ("a) The depth my soul can reach b) The breadth....")

Monday, February 25, 2008

Fairy Tale

In the beginning God created the Gingerbread House.

And the door of the house was of chocolate, and candy was on its face.

And God looked at the Gingerbread House and knew that it was good.

Then God created Hansel and Gretel that they may dwell in the House.

And She said to them: "Of all that thou seest before thee thou may freely eat.

But of the Oven of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, thou shalt not eat of it, that alone I forbid thee, for it is surely death."

And the days of Hansel and Gretel in the Gingerbread House were many, and there had they much sport.

But a serpent more subtle than others came unto Gretel and said to her: "Beware! for thy life lieth in peril. Not the first art thou to live in the Gingerbread House. Go look in the Oven that God had forbidden thee and there shalt thou find the truth of what I have spoken."

So the children looked into the Oven, and lo! there were the bones of the children who had come before them, and little flesh was left on them.

Then were Hansel and Gretel frightened and they did hide from God.

But God was aware of their fear, and She walked through the house calling: "Wherefore dost thou hide from me, my little ones? Who has taught thee to be afraid of thy Maker? Hast thou peered into the Oven of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as I had forbid thee? Then for this sin shalt thou perish"

And God chased Hansel and Gretel all through the Gingerbread House, but the children were clever and they lured God into the Oven and locked Her inside.

Then were Hansel and Gretel sad for they knew that they must leave the Gingerbread House. And the Serpent came unto them and said "Fear not, my children, for I shall lay a trail of bread crumbs from this house to a place where thee may live safely, and if thou shalt follow this trail thou shalt be saved"

And so the Serpent laid a trail of bread crumbs, but the Arch-Sparrow Michael and the Arch-Sparrow Gabriel who were servants of the Lady did see the crumbs and swallow them, so that when Hansel and Gretel came to the edge of the forest they could not find the trail.

Thus did Hansel and Gretel come to leave the Gingerbread House, and were lost in the forest forever after.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Obligatory (Pre-) Oscar Post

It's Oscar night. What better time to clear up some confusion about the purpose of the Oscars. The Oscars are not, as only the feeble-minded could possibly believe, meant to celebrate outstanding achievement in the cinematic arts or anything like that. On the contrary, they are an important cultural touchstone precisely because they provide the bronze standard against which the rest of us can measure our own snobbishness. How could self-defined, self-important film critics like me showcase our superior intelligence and taste if we didn't have an establishment account to disagree with? How could we prove that we are serious film people, except by showing off our familiarity with all the contenders (unlike certain other people) and our opinion on their relative merits? Without the Oscars we would run the risk of actually finding ourselves in agreement with everyone else. This way we can play it safe.

Of course, just beating up on the Oscars afterwards is a tad unsporting. To keep things fair, one must have the decency to pick the nominees one thinks should win beforehand, rather than ascribe merit afterwards to those who lose. With that in mind, here's my list of films I'd like to see winning tonight - films I think should win are marked with a #, films I haven't seen are marked with a *.

Best motion picture of the year
"Michael Clayton"*
"No Country for Old Men" #
"There Will Be Blood"

I'm not really that fond of No Country, but of the three nominees I've seen, it's easily the best. Now if I'm Not There / Across the Universe had been nominated, this would have been a different story.

Performance by an actor in a leading role
George Clooney in "Michael Clayton"*
Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood" #
Johnny Depp in "Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"
Tommy Lee Jones in "In the Valley of Elah"*
Viggo Mortensen in "Eastern Promises"*

Ya, ya, let's get it over with already. I'll be happy if that's the only Oscar There Will Be Blood wins.

Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Casey Affleck in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"*
Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men"
Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Charlie Wilson's War" #
Hal Holbrook in "Into the Wild"
Tom Wilkinson in "Michael Clayton"*

I have to say I was a little underwhelmed by Bardem's Chigurh. It's probably because my mental picture of the character from reading the book was so much scarier. Also, what was with that haircut?

Performance by an actress in a leading role
Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"*
Julie Christie in "Away from Her"*
Marion Cotillard in "La Vie en Rose"*
Laura Linney in "The Savages" #
Ellen Page in "Juno"

I'm going to plump for Linney on this one, partly because I haven't seen either Cotillard or Christie's performances, and partly because I think The Savages deserves to get something.

Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Cate Blanchett in "I'm Not There" #
Ruby Dee in "American Gangster"*
Saoirse Ronan in "Atonement"*
Amy Ryan in "Gone Baby Gone"*
Tilda Swinton in "Michael Clayton"*

Okay, so Blanchett's is the only performance I've seen, but it doesn't matter. She was the best thing about a very good film, and probably deserves to win anyway. Now if only we could convince her to come accept the award in character. That's one Thank You speech I'd love to hear.

Best animated feature film of the year
"Surf's Up"*

All I can say is, why did they even bother nominating Surf's Up?

Achievement in cinematography
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"*
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" #
"No Country for Old Men"
"There Will Be Blood"

Watch the film. Really. Just watch the film.

Achievement in directing
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", Julian Schnabel
"Juno", Jason Reitman
"Michael Clayton", Tony Gilroy*
"No Country for Old Men", Joel Coen and Ethan Coen #
"There Will Be Blood" , Paul Thomas Anderson

I think it's about time the Coen brothers won a Best Director Oscar, don't you?

Best foreign language film of the year
"Beaufort" Israel*
"The Counterfeiters" Austria*
"Katyn" Poland* #
"Mongol" Kazakhstan*
"12" Russia*

For me, the best foreign language film of the year is Bela Tarr's Man from London (I haven't got around to watching Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days yet, though I plan to soon) Of the films nominated here (none of which I've seen), I'd pick Katyn, if only because it's Wajda. What the Academy should do is institute a Scorsese award - given every year to a director / performer the Academy has been too boneheaded to reward when it should have. At least that way they'd stop playing catch-up with the current year's awards.

Best animated short film
"I Met the Walrus"
"Madame Tutli-Putli"
"Même les Pigeons Vont au Paradis (Even Pigeons Go to Heaven)"
"My Love (Moya Lyubov)" #
"Peter & the Wolf"

Best live action short film
"At Night" #
"Il Supplente (The Substitute)"
"Le Mozart des Pickpockets (The Mozart of Pickpockets)"
"Tanghi Argentini"
"The Tonto Woman"

(for both short film awards, see here)

Adapted screenplay
"Away from Her"*
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" #
"No Country for Old Men"
"There Will Be Blood"

I know the popular argument here is for No Country, but I can't help feeling that the Coen Bros. had it a little too easy. The person who really should be getting an award here is Cormac McCarthy (not like he needs anything as trivial as an Oscar). I can't say that the Coen Bros. script added much to the book, and I think there were several key elements that they took out of it, which weakened the story considerably. On the other hand, I thought The Diving Bell and The Butterfly did a fascinating job of taking the thoughts inside Bauby's head and finding a way to bring them alive on screen. I haven't actually read Bauby's book, so I don't know how much of it is coming straight from there, but the way the hospital staff / friends respond to Bauby's predicament is pitch-perfect. And someone should get an award for that.

Also, is there a reason Persepolis is not nominated here?

Original screenplay
"Juno" Written by Diablo Cody#
"Lars and the Real Girl" Written by Nancy Oliver*
"Michael Clayton" Written by Tony Gilroy*
"Ratatouille" , Screenplay by Brad Bird;
"The Savages", Written by Tamara Jenkins

I will say that I thought Tamara Jenkins' script for The Savages was interesting - if only because of the way it deployed Brecht, but I think Cody's script is just brilliant at so many levels - both in its quick-witted surface energy and in the way it challenges and subverts its audience's expectations. I would have liked to see a slightly less cheesy last twenty minutes, but I suppose that's asking for too much.


In case you haven't seen it already, Vanity Fair has a special photo feature paying tribute to Hitchcock by the somewhat bizarre method of shooting imitations of famous scenes from his films with modern day actors in them. It's a fairly silly tribute, if you ask me, but it makes for fascinating discussion. You can see the full series here.

Personally, I can't say their choices are all bad. I happen to think Jodi Foster in Birds would be a distinct improvement, as would Naomi Watts in Marnie (it occurs to me, btw, just looking at that photo, that the perfect person to play Marnie may actually be Nicole Kidman - after all, you have only to look at Ms. Kidman to know that something traumatic happened to her as a child), but this may be because I think anything short of a block of wood [1] would be an improvement on the mannequin that is Tippi Hedren. And I can certainly see Keira Knightley in Rebecca. Admittedly Ms. Knightley can't really act, but then Joan Fontaine can't either, and Ms. Knightley is both more spirited and much better looking. I'm even willing to live with Charlize Theron taking on Grace Kelly's non-role in Dial M for Murder, though I draw the line at letting either Scarlett Johansson or Gwyneth Paltrow replace her in Rear Window and To Catch A Thief respectively. As for Rene Zellweger in Vertigo, the very idea of letting that woman onto the set of a Hitchcock film makes my blood run cold, let alone actually giving her a part in one [2].

On the men's side things are not so bad. I like the idea of Josh Brolin in Lifeboat and I can totally see Javier Bardem carrying off Jimmy Stewart's role in Rear Window (and that's a serious compliment, though it's hard to imagine a role Bardem couldn't carry off) except that I think the sight of him staring out of a window unable to move will bring back too many memories of The Sea Inside. You're likely to end up spending more time worrying about his death wish than what's happening in the apartment opposite. The role they should really use Bardem in is Olivier's role in Rebecca.

It is, of course, entirely impossible to imagine anyone, and I mean anyone, replacing Cary Grant in anything, but I can just about see how Robert Downey Jr. could pull of To Catch A Thief. The idea of trying to have Seth Rogen (who in case you're wondering is the guy from Knocked Up) substitute for Grant, on the other hand, is utterly ridiculous. It would be like replacing a bottle of champagne with mango Rasna.

[1] Actually, even a block of wood might be better, remember that Monty Python sketch?

[2] I'd say "act in one" but there's no risk of that, is there?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

While his guitar gently taps

Just got back from an evening listening to this man do wild and wonderful things with a guitar - the kind of things it shouldn't be possible for mortals to do, including an adaptation of the slow movement to Mozart's Piano Concerto 21 (yes, that's Elvira Madigan) that brought tears of joy to my eyes and that old Amadeus himself would have been proud of. Adapting the Beatles and S&G and Led Zep and even Miles is one thing, but when you can pull of Mozart on a guitar you are truly God.

Now you'll excuse me while I go listen to the man play ragas Bihag, Shankara and Malkauns. Meanwhile you can check out more Jordan links courtesy TR.

Prayer for Image's Sake

Give us this day the photographs not taken. Handfuls of film poured away in the river. Memories misplaced between pages of light.

Spare us this day regret's exposures. The blankness of lives that we never used. Spare us the shutter of your wrath, your eye that bruises, and all the vulnerabilities with which our flesh burns clear.

Let no one leave who cannot be forgotten. Let no one stay except in our hearts.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Binayak Sen Petition(s)

And while we're on the subject of Human Rights, csm points to an online petition for the release of Binayak Sen.

You can read more about Dr. Sen and his arrest by the Chattisgarh government here (I'll admit this is the first I've heard about it). The wikipedia article also has a link to a site that lists a number of other petitions (including this one, which seems more recent).

Happy signing.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Democracy Unveiled

Another day, another set of movies. Today's crop included a short documentary by James Longley called Sari's Mother, as well as a one-hour feature by Danish film-maker Eva Mulvad about Afghanistan politician Malalai Joya, called Enemies of Happiness.

The Mulvad documentary is a fascinating watch - less for what it tells us about Joya, than for its depiction of a society coming to reluctant grips with democracy. Set almost entirely in the ten days leading up to the first parliamentary elections in Afghanistan in 2005, Enemies of Happiness chronicles the day to day life of Malalai Joya, a 28-year old woman fighting the election on a platform of women's rights and opposition to warlords, a stance that had her banished from the national assembly in 2003 (for violating 'common courtesy' - link leads to video clip of the incident) and that has made her the target of assassination attempts ever since. As the film unfolds, we see Joya struggling to cope with the pressures of the forthcoming election, balancing her role as a sort of impromptu village elder giving advice and support to those who come to her with their troubles, while struggling to get her message out there in a pre-election environment where she cannot move out of her office unless wearing a burqa and with a heavily armed escort in tow.

There is no doubt that Joya is an inspiring figure (you can read more about her here) but I can't help feeling that the film is a little too obviously on her side, it's viewpoint so heavily subjective that it's impossible to arrive at your own opinion of Joya, making one's approval of her an article of faith. Things are made even more problematic by the fact that the film provides little or no background information about the issues Joya is fighting for or the context she's fighting in, treating all that as something the viewer would know about (which I suppose one should, but frankly, I don't). Instead the film spends a lot of its time on the details of one particular problem - somewhat tangential, I would think, to Joya's main platform - the insistence of an 80 year old opium dealer on marrying a girl younger than his grandchild against her wishes. By itself, it's not an uninteresting story, but in the larger context of the film it feels like a distraction, and I found myself wishing the film had spent more time telling us about the 'warlords' that Joya is fighting against - who they are, what they're guilty of, etc.

Where the film works, I think, is in documenting Afghanistan's first tentative steps towards democracy. Some of its most fascinating scenes are only peripherally about Joya - the UN briefing of the candidates standing for election ten days before polling, or the scenes at the polling stations as people figure out how this whole thing works. These scenes are both rueful and heartening, and their magic lies, fittingly enough, in the knowledge that, ultimately, democracy is about the people. To watch a 100 year old woman enact how she used to place mines to kill the Russians, and then hobble her way into a polling booth to cast her vote for Joya is to see, in miniature, what democracy should really be about, and to have hope that, no matter how much the democratic process is subverted by self-seeking warlords, some change will happen, even in a place as unpromising as Afghanistan.

By contrast, James Longley's Sari's Mother is an unsatisfying work. The story of a woman whose son (Sari) has been infected by HIV via blood transfusion and is now fighting to receive aid and compensation from the Iraqi government, Sari's Mother seems directionless and insipid, a mini-documentary hastily assembled from a section left out of Longley's Iraq in Fragments (which I blogged about here). Sari's plight is heart-breaking, of course, but while one feels sympathy for him and his family, it's hard to achieve any level of indignation. Sari's mother tells us how she's been fighting for four years to get support for her son, but in the film the footage of her encounter with the authorities (billed in the film description as "a Sisyphean journey to Baghdad, into the offices of government officials, devastated hospitals and through the country’s labyrinthine healthcare system") lasts all of two minutes, and, by the standards of your average government office back in India seems fairly responsive (though I can't help wondering how much of that is because she's accompanied by an American with a camera). Longley spends the rest of his time filming Sari and his family at home, and while the footage is beautiful in parts and certainly redolent with atmosphere, it really doesn't tell us very much about Sari's family or the world they live in. The one mention of the situation in Iraq beyond the family's immediate concerns seems artificially tacked on, so that the only real sense of being in Iraq you get from the film is by hearing the helicopters pass over the family's house.

One scene, however, stands out in my mind - a scene of Sari's siblings playing in the yard, pretending that they're fighters placing a bomb in the path of the foreigners, the childish glee in their voices as their little clay 'humvee' runs over the pebble 'mine' and blows up. So much for winning hearts and minds.

Infamous Five

Sigh. First Space Bar, then Anindita. I suppose I'm going to get no peace till I do this silly tag. So here:

The Family



My Love

Something I like
(and posts that follow)

So there.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Coming shortly to a theater near you

Just got back from watching all ten of the Academy Award nominated short features for the year - five animation and five live action. It's a decidedly mixed bag: some of the films (Even Pigeons Go To Heaven, Tanghi Argentini) are clearly 'shorts' - clever little pieces that make for amusing viewing, but would fall apart if they were stretched for another five minutes [1]; others are bizarre (Madame Tutli-Putli) or just plain silly (The Substitute); some (Mozart of the Pickpockets, My Love) are so delightful that I was disappointed they didn't go on for longer; while others (well, one, at least) may as well be full-length features for the emotional and visual impact they pack.

Among the animated shorts, I really loved Alexander Petrov's My Love. The story is a little cheesy (ok, so it's VERY cheesy) but the sheer visual exhilaration of the film more than makes up for it (see the opening scenes here - though Youtube doesn't do justice to the richness of the colors). Petrov's palette is drawn straight from the impressionists (Renoir, in particular, seems strongly suggested), except he marries it to the imagination of a surrealist, so that the result is a hazy, dream-like tone punctuated by glorious swirls of living color that will take your breath away. Frame after frame of this film seems like it should be hanging in some museum, and the nostalgic, fairy-tale quality this gives the film works well with the story itself - about the awkward combination of innocence, sexual desire, intensity and unfaithfulness that is adolescent love.

In dramatic contrast to the visual splendor of My Love is Josh Raskin's I Met the Walrus, which provides hilarious visual accompaniment to an audio recording of an interview with John Lennon (you can see the trailer here). I'm admittedly prejudiced (I mean, this is Lennon we're talking about) but I sat through the whole length of this feature with a big grin plastered over my face, and when it was over ,wanted desperately to go back and watch it again. Raskin's art work isn't much, but his inventiveness is breathtaking, and as he segues effortlessly from image to image, joke to joke, his witty, zany drawings blending perfectly with Lennon's words, you just sit there with your eyes glued to the screen, afraid that you're missing something. Great stuff.

Among the live action films, I'll confess to being utterly charmed by Phillippe Pollet-Villard's Mozart of the Pickpockets. The film tells the story of two petty thieves - Philippe and Richard - who end up taking in a deaf and dumb boy they meet in the streets one day, only to discover that he's twice the pickpocket that they could ever be. Again, the story isn't much, but the two main characters are so delightful to watch that it really doesn't matter: Philippe and Richard are the Bouvard and Pecuchet of crime - a couple of hapless, hopelessly incompetent crooks who like to imagine that they're genuine tough guys when really they're pushovers. Watching the deftness with which Pollet-Villard's film plays out, I was reminded of Bertrand Blier's Going Places - Mozart of the Pickpockets is a far sweeter, far more modest film, but it has the same comic lightness, the same sureness of touch, so that you can easily imagine spending a pleasant hour and a half watching the shenanigans of this unlikely trio, and can't help feeling let down when the film draws to its (fairly tame) end.

But my pick of all the films I saw was Christian E. Christiansen's At Night, a moving, superbly acted, brilliantly filmed piece that delivers an unflinching yet beautiful portrait of three inmates of a cancer ward. The 'Night' here is both literal and metaphoric - the three women gather after lights out, but the real gloom that surrounds them is the shadow of death. It is the knowledge of their own mortality - a knowledge whose anguish and isolation the film perfectly captures - that drives these three to seek a small measure of comfort in each other's company. There's is a bond created out of terror and loneliness - what they have in common is a way of dying - yet in their togetherness they are like convicts in a penitentiary ("Death Row" as one of the characters remarks - and what is death but the most existential of prisons), sympathetic to each other's suffering but jealous of each other's consolations.

As though to do justice to his character's despair, Christiansen's film is a study in starkness, awash in neon, its visual landscape leached of all color, even hope. In shot after loving shot, what you see staring back at you from those ravaged faces, from those pain-filled and terrified eyes, is a need for love and comfort that is achingly human, a vulnerability that cannot be named because it is mortal, but that demands to be seen. Nothing can quite match the sheer poetry of sickness that Bergman and Nykvist created in Cries and Whispers, but there are moments when At Night approaches that level of perfection. The result is an exquisite and captivating film, that, in a mere 39 minutes manages to take you deep into the emotional wastelands of its characters' minds, and delivers the kind of quality experience that many a full-length feature can only aspire to. If At Night is anything to go by, Christiansen is a director to watch out for.

[1] To see what this looks like, you have only to watch Daniel Barber's The Tonto Woman - based on a powerful enough short story by Elmore Leonard, the film takes about twice as long as it needs to, tries to substitute atmosphere for movement, and ends up so self-conscious that it comes perilously close to being a parody of itself.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Miniature version of Solar System discovered; developed by Apple

Cupertino, California

A spokesperson for the Apple Corporation acknowledged today that the miniature version of the Solar System discovered last week is, in fact, developed by Apple. Speaking at a press conference, the spokesperson said that the development of the miniature Solar System - tentatively called iWorld - is a logical extension of Apple's long-standing corporate strategy of pandering to Steve Job's God complex and hoping that consumers will go along.

Rumors about the connection between Apple and the newly discovered planetary system have been rife since Thursday, when astronomer Dan Newton first noticed a similarity between the orbital pattern of the system and the dial on his son's iPod. Newton said the discovery felt "like an apple falling on his head".

Confirming the rumors today, the Apple spokesperson said that the new iWorld was not only capable of sustaining Life (as many have speculated) but could also make phone calls, play movies, and have a more exciting sex life than its owner. The iWorld is currently in limited release, but will be freely available to all galaxies by 2010.

The Apple announcement comes even as insider sources in Microsoft report that Bill Gates attempts to develop his own personal Universe continue to be dogged by failure, with repeated crashes proving the new version of the Universe highly unstable. As one source said, "who wants a Universe where you have to go back to Big Bang every two days or so?"

In other news, Apple also announced the launch of the iDogWhistle - a new mp3 player that solves the problem of iPod listeners being unable to hear sounds around them by playing music at frequencies inaudible to the human ear.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Dies Irae

I don't normally post youtube videos on this blog, but saw this one while searching for stuff for the comments thread on ??!'s blog, and thought it was the perfect bit of palate cleansing for the day after Valentine's. I've always been fond of Jenkin's setting of Dies Irae - I never cease to find the juxtaposition of the latin text and the discotheque-like beat amusing. Plus I think the Alfred Kubin images are a considerable value add, don't you?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Go and shoot a falling satellite

So apparently the US is going on a turkey shoot in space. Not only do they plan to shoot down a falling satellite (which just happens to contain half a ton of a lethal fuel), they plan to do it using a technique they've never employed before, using instruments that have only been used in carefully controlled conditions and technology that is undergoing "modifications that are still under way". But not to worry, if they do miss the first time, they will have time for a second shot, maybe even a third. What could possibly go wrong?

Sources close to the Pentagon also report that the armed forces are reaching out to John Carpenter to direct the whole operation.

Of course, the authorities say they've looked at the risks and found that "broadly speaking, they are negligible." Now remember, this is the same administration that was convinced that there were WMDs in Iraq, so you can draw your own conclusions about how broad "broadly speaking" can be. One can only hope that Dick Cheney isn't overseeing the operation. Otherwise we might end up shooting the moon in the back of its head.

Ah well. Mustn't be pessimistic. I'm sure the whole thing will go off without a glitch. And if all else fails, they could always use the force.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Flowers

No, he can't take them on the subway. Not at this time of day. He'll just have to walk - twenty five blocks in the mid-February cold - but it's worth it, if only to keep the flowers from getting crushed.

As he leaves the florist's he is aware of being noticed. It's the flowers, of course. Roses. Two dozen. Each one as delicate as a wineglass, as plush as a mouth. For a moment he is embarrassed by the vulgarity of the gesture, but he reminds himself that it's Valentine's Day, this kind of thing is expected, he's not doing anything wrong.

Walking down the street, he tries to read the faces that turn to him. Envy, longing, amusement, scorn - emotions that pass like windows - opaque expressions in which he sees only his own reflection, and not the people watching from the other side.

What do they see, these strangers? A man in his mid-thirties clutching an enormous bouquet. A tall, well-dressed man, plain looking but confident, competent, successful, but also sensitive and self-aware. The kind of man who is neither ignorant of his own feelings nor afraid to show them. A little short on imagination, perhaps, even a little old-fashioned, but a staunch romantic for all that. It pleases him, this picture he imagines other people seeing; in some obscure way it makes him proud. As though he had always wanted to become this man walking down Fifth Avenue with a bouquet of roses in his hand, headed for an evening with the woman he loves.

Back at the apartment he leaves the flowers on the side table, changes into something more casual, sees about dinner. Nothing too fancy, of course - he is no cook - but perhaps some wine? As the microwave hums into action, he puts some music on the stereo - Chopin, the Nocturnes - then dims the lights. Perfect.

By the time dinner is ready, the smell from the flowers fills the room. It is a pleasant smell, rich and lazy, though in a little while it will start to sicken. He will have to get rid of the flowers early tomorrow morning, go down before the super wakes up and leave them in the trash, so no one can tell where they came from. Chewing his way through his microwave meal, he thinks back over the walk, remembering the eyes of the others on him, reliving the exhilaration he felt. Imagining how it would feel to really be in love.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Caferati Contests 2008 / Apparently, Mediocrity really is my middle name

So it seems that two pieces of random doggerel I wrote for the Caferati sms poetry contest won 1st and 2nd prize. You can go read them here.

And while you're in the area, you might as well go read the short piece of mine that made it to the finals of the Flash Fiction thing. It's not a particularly great piece, but well, if you can't get a post out of this stuff then what's the point of writing it?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

He plays drums

like a blind man groping for direction. Eyes tightly closed. Only the insistent tap-tap-tap of his stick to guide him into the untraveled heart of the music. Corridors of rhythm. Silence like a ruined house.

We can only imagine what it sounds like inside his head. We listen, awed, as he stumbles, stops, hurries forward again; his occasional awkwardness melting into fluent triumph, getting to the point where we think he can go no further, where he must give up, only he goes on and on and we feel our heartbeats going out to him, our heads nodding their furious assent to his impossible urgency, secure in the knowledge that no matter how confused or crowded the song gets, he will find a way through.

He plays drums like a blind man. You must shut your eyes to hear.

Abort! Abort!

Another weekend, another protracted and pointless discussion on Ultra Violet. My own fault for trying to scratch beneath the surface of these posts instead of just nodding along, I suppose. I don't know why I bother [1].

This one involves a post by one Sharanya Manivannan which is intriguing only for how little it says and how long it takes to say it. Ms. Manivannan starts by telling us that even though we are entitled to have our own opinions on whether abortion is right or not, we must recognize that illegal abortions put women at risk and therefore it's important that women be permitted to choose - an argument she dwells on for a bit before concluding that it isn't particularly relevant in a country (India) where women have the legal right to have abortions.

This little digression over, she finally gets to what she really wants to say, which is to claim that women choosing abortions still face social disapproval. She describes this disapproval by saying that she can't remember the last time she heard a conversation about abortion that didn't involve "a hushed whisper, a disapproving tone or cluck of the tongue" by which what she really means is that women who choose to have abortions are seen as 'loose women' and that "The easiest way to damage a single woman’s reputation in India is to spread a rumour about her multiple abortions", though she doesn't, of course, say this (or says it only after a protracted comment exchange), simply expects us to somehow infer it.

What we're not supposed to infer, meanwhile, is that she would like to see a world where abortion was a casual act, free of any trauma or regret for the people involved. It's not that she doesn't believe this - she does. Or might. In any case, we're not supposed to infer it.

The summary of her post (as far as I can tell) is that it would be nice if women didn't have to face social censure over their choice to have an abortion - a pretty, if somewhat trite sentiment, which comes without any discussion of how this is to be achieved, particularly if it's acceptable for people to hold the view that abortion is wrong (as she seems to accept at the start of her post).

The problem, I think, is that Ms. Manivannan is confusing acceptance with approval. It is unrealistic to expect that the large numbers of people who see abortion as wrong or unethical are going to change their mind about it anytime soon. Indeed, it is not clear to me why they should (they're entitled to their opinion, after all) and I certainly don't think it's going to happen if we simply dismiss their issues as irrelevant. We can certainly expect and demand that their disapproval not be allowed to interfere in a woman's exercise of her right to have an abortion, or that it not be allowed to take that right away from her. And we can hope, in the name of a civil society, that they not harass women who have had an abortion (not 'honor' their choices, perhaps, but keep silent about them), and that they distinguish between disapproving of the act and disapproving of the actor. Though even that may be hoping for too much.

The real issue, of course (which is mentioned in Ms. Manivannan's post, but which she never really discusses) is that in a patriarchal world where women are often not economically empowered, and are therefore dependent on social approval, they may not have the ability to make independent choices that fly in the face of social censure. This is a valid concern - to the extent that it is true (I personally have no idea how serious the social taboo against abortion really is, I'm taking other people's word for the fact that it is serious), but the solution to it is is not to expect social attitudes to magically change to approve of women's choices. That's putting the cart before the horse. The solution to the problem of lack of real choice (with abortions, and more generally) is to work towards empowering women so that they can exercise their rights without having to rely on the approval of others. That empowerment, is also, of course, the way to change social attitudes themselves, but their key role is not to reduce social disapproval but to make it irrelevant. If empowerment doesn't happen, social attitudes won't change either. If it does, then social attitudes will probably change as well, but by then they won't matter that much anyway.

Of course, creating empowerment is a long and difficult process, but it's not like there's an alternative, is there? Certainly legitimizing the dependence of women on social approval while dreamily imagining that social mores will change doesn't help. As I've said before, I believe that those who oppose abortion should have every opportunity to state their case, and to do whatever they can to influence a woman's decision to have an abortion. If we disagree with them, and want to counteract their influence, we need to do so by creating a counter-community of people who support and celebrate a woman's right to have an abortion - which, of course, is what the pro-life vs. pro-choice dynamic, that Ms. Mannivannan so airily dismisses, is all about.

Finally, on abortions as a 'casual' choice. It seems unlikely to me that we'll ever get to the point where choosing to have an abortion will be an easy choice for the majority of women to make. I think it's safe to say that for most women choosing to have an abortion is a difficult, traumatic decision, and I think it would be even without the threat of social censure or the taboo (such as it is) around abortions. We can debate whether this emotional involvement comes from some kind of physiological maternal instinct, or from socially conditioned beliefs in the sanctity of life and parenthood. It certainly goes much beyond the threat of reprisals over the fact of having had an abortion, and beyond any narrow definition of gender role. Whether we want to see abortions become less of an emotional issue is a function of how important we see some of these factors being, but it's worth noting that the social values involved are deeply embedded in our social fabric, and imagining a world where abortion would not, by and large, be an emotionally charged choice, means imagining a world with a social and ethical superstructure dramatically different from the one we have today. Can such a superstructure be imagined? Yes, I think so. But I'm unsure that it would lead to a better, more egalitarian world than the one we've got now. At any rate, the whole question strikes me as being somewhat irrelevant to the immediate issue at hand. In any reasonably foreseeable future, abortion will remain a traumatic and emotionally troubling choice for everyone concerned, and therefore one that is difficult to talk about, even for those of us who don't disapprove of it.

Recognizing that, rather than trying to deny it for the sake of some ideology, is actually critical to taking the first steps towards opposing the kind of social censure that Ms. Manivannan claims is common. Much of the trouble, I suspect, is that the only people who freely declaim their views on abortion are those who don't recognize that it is a difficult choice for the women making it - and these are almost always the people who not only disapprove of abortions but have managed to convince themselves that the women who choose to have abortions treat them casually (hence their indignation). It's not clear to me that public opinion is really so staunchly anti-abortion. I think it's possible that it simply seems that way because those of us who are sensitive to the trauma involved find it awkward to talk about, so that all the air time goes to the anti-abortion zealots, leaving women who have abortions feeling victimized. The question to ask then, as I've said before, is not what we can do to change the minds of those who are against abortion, but how we can find ways to express our support and solidarity with women who do have abortions so they don't feel so alone. I'm not sure what the answer to that question is - maybe abortion support groups, maybe new pro-abortion depictions in the arts / media, maybe clearer, more concise blog posts - but it certainly seems to me that that is the right question to be asking.

[1] Actually, I do know why I bother - because I think the underlying issues are important, and deserve more careful consideration than they typically get - but I think I need to be less obsessive about it, don't you? From now on I'm making what I'm going to call the Falstaff Resolution. I will write one comment critiquing what I see as wrong with a post, and unless I get an intelligent, constructive response which suggests that the person is actually interested in engaging in a real discussion, I will LET IT GO! There. And I'm asking you, the reader, to help me stick to this resolution. If you see me going on and on about something [2], either on this blog or elsewhere, please call me on it - just leave a comment saying: 'Vade Retro Falstaff' or something along those lines. Seriously.

[2] After this post, obviously.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

She plays jazz

She plays jazz 'cos she cannot play the blues.

She plays jazz like a long distance runner with a pair of new shoes.

Like a child woman, wild woman, woman breaking loose.

She plays jazz 'cos she cannot play the blues.

She plays bass like a lover, fingering his heart; holds it in her arms and plucks its neck like a goose.

She plays bass like it was the humming of the earth, thunder in a cave, a growling deep inside her like a river of bad news.

She plays bass 'cos she cannot play the blues.

She plays music like it was blood with fingers, like it was soul with a thump; like it was all that she had in her, all she knew how to do.

She plays jazz because she's too precious, too young, too heartless, too new; too I-don't-know, something - you choose.

She plays jazz 'cos she cannot play the blues.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Little Known Hazards of Python Videos

Part VI C: The Songs

Re-watched The Meaning of Life the other day, and haven't been able to stop humming 'Every Sperm is Sacred' since. This would have been bad enough if I'd been doing it at home (though I do so hate getting a song, especially a not particularly good song, stuck in my head) but I actually caught myself sort of half-singing it on the bus yesterday. The nice old lady sitting next to me looked most offended.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The People You Meet in Heaven

Just reflecting on km's comment to this post, it occurs to me that maybe the reason there are so many engineers involved in terrorist attacks (assuming it's all the Will of God) is that Heaven is running short of virgins.

Imagine if all these people who go around martyring themselves were greeted in Paradise not by a flock of ravish-able houris, but by a gaggle of sex-starved engineers. Now that would be Divine Justice.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Women Patriarchs

It's been a while since I pontificated, hasn't it? Well then.

Reading this post over at Ultra Violet made me think (somewhat tangentially) about a kind of reverse-sexism we're often guilty of - the assumption that a woman, any woman, will naturally be sympathetic to / concerned about women's rights issues.

The logic behind this bias is not hard to see. All women are, to a lesser or greater extent, victims of patriarchy, so it seems reasonable to assume that a woman will have greater empathy for the plight of her fellow-victims and will be prepared to make common cause with them.

Except, of course, it doesn't work that way. If the history of oppression teaches us anything, it teaches us that victimization at the hands of a common oppressor does not automatically lead to unity. Instead, class consciousness takes time and effort to achieve, and collective action requires a level of coordination that is truly astonishing when you consider how much the participants have to gain. This is true even when the oppression is explicit and clearly perceived, let alone when it comes disguised in a superstructure of tradition and community 'values' so that those oppressed may not even recognize themselves as such. In fact, because the oppressed have access to little power / resources as a class, they end up seeing each other as competition, and fight amongst each other for what little privilege is allowed them, instead of trying to work collectively for more. And those who do manage to secure status / privilege for themselves now have a vested interest in maintaining the social order and often end up working to support the oppressor rather than to help the oppressed.

It's not hard to see this at work where gender is concerned. Pick any patriarchal institution and you'll find scores of women serving as its agents. Attempts to deny women the right to abortion, for instance, have widespread female support, even though such legislation means taking away women's right over their own body and granting it to the state. Women are perpetrators in dowry deaths and genital mutilation and, as we have seen, are often active advocates of the idea that women can avoid being attacked / harassed if they dress properly, stay at home and generally 'behave responsibly'.

None of this is to suggest, of course, that women are not, as a group, more likely to be concerned about women's rights than men (or, in other words, the probability that a given individual will be sympathetic towards gender issues is higher if that individual is a woman). That, sadly, is still true. But one must guard against the fallacy of division that ascribes this property to every woman. That's why the notion of the 'first woman president' is a largely meaningless one [1]. We have little or no reason to expect that a woman who is president will be, simply by the fact of being a woman, more responsive to gender issues than a man would be in her place [2].

In her post, Indhu says that "we should subject all political offices and the state to a feminist scrutiny". I agree. And I think a key starting point there is moving beyond the tokenism that sees electing women to political office as being somehow a victory for women's rights. Electing feminists to political office may certainly help, electing women per se is unlikely to. The flip side to subjecting male politicians to the same scrutiny or expectations (as Indhu suggests) is recognizing that our expectations from female politicians should be no higher than those from their male counterparts. In both cases, we should demand much, but (realistically) expect little.

[1] This is not to say, to take a different context, that if Hillary were to become President she's unlikely to pay attention to gender issues. Given Hillary's background, as well as her probable need to keep women voters happy if she wants to be reelected, I'd expect her to be responsive to women's concerns. But I'm not convinced, for example, that she'll be more responsive to them than, say, Obama.

[2] The assumption that women will be naturally more sympathetic to other women also leads, of course, to a backlash against those who do not conform to this expectation, with people feeling disappointed and betrayed when women behave in patriarchal ways. My point is that the expectation that leads to this sense of betrayal is erroneous, and we'd be all better off if we recognized that once and for all, instead of being repeatedly surprised when it didn't come true.

Update: Reading through this again, I realize that I missed a 'not' in the last but one paragraph. This is why one should not write posts late in the night after an evening at the local pub. It's still a terribly constructed sentence but hopefully you know what I mean.

This just in: FIITJEE to offer coaching classes for Al Qaeda Entrance Exams

A piece in the Primary Sources section of this month's Atlantic points to a study that finds (I quote from the abstract) that engineers "are strongly overrepresented among graduates in violent groups" within the Islamist movement. As the Atlantic summary puts it:

The authors couldn’t find evidence to support the idea that radical groups seek out engineers for their skills. Instead, they speculate that something in the engineer’s mind-set—the emphasis on structure and rules, and on finding singular solutions to complicated problems—may fit neatly with Islamist notions of the ideal society....They also note that engineers tend to be high-achievers who rise by merit, which may make them more likely to be frustrated by their interactions with corrupt bureaucracies in the Middle East and North Africa and thus receptive to radical messages.

And you thought the most sinister thing about engineers was their lack of social skills.

Personally, I think it's all about sexual frustration. That's what all this fundamentalist violence is really about, isn't it? Bombings as orgasm substitute. And it's a well established fact that engineers are the most sexually frustrated people on the planet. Well then.

Still, any study that finds that engineers are all zombified servants of the dark side can't be all wrong can it?

Monday, February 04, 2008

Suicide Attack Kills One

Too tired to really blog today, but found myself thinking about this headline over at the NY Times. The first time I read it, I thought to myself - now there's a particularly ineffective suicide attack. It turns out what they mean is that the attack killed one person in addition to the suicide bomber.

Am I the only person who finds this confusing? Does the death of the suicide bomber himself not count because he's a terrorist? Or a Palestinian? Or is it because the victim is the only person 'killed', the bomber choosing to die (so that, for instance, it would be two die in suicide bombing but only one killed), and if so, shouldn't it be suicide attacker kills one (so that the act kills two but the actor kills one - or is it valid to conflate the actor and the act?)? Or is the logic that calling it a 'suicide attack' implies that one person died anyway, so that counting the bomber among the people killed would be redundant (sort of like saying 'the firefighter rescued one person from the fire' - meaning one other person, his rescue of himself being implied), which, of course, makes me wonder whether there is such a thing as an unsuccessful suicide attack and whether an attack that kills no one but the suicide bomber would be called successful or unsuccessful?

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Underground Parking

He returns to the parking lot like a ghost breaking into a mausoleum, the cars laid out like graves.

It is 6 am outside, the beginning of dawn, but in here it is, as always, twilight - the light of a bleached and sterile world, where the cars wear their shells of neon and naked tubes hang from the ceiling, white as the bones of some long extinct monster.

It seems to him now that the garage is a museum of emptiness, an eternity of waiting in which his footsteps sound as hollow as time. This is not a haunted place, rather it a space sucked dry of all possibility of spirit, a blankness so preternatural that he can feel it erasing him even as he walks to his car, can feel himself shrinking, his presence an irrelevance in the maw of the garage.

He reaches his car, gets in. The slam of the door revives him, restores to him a sense of self. He turns the key in the ignition and the stereo comes on. R.E.M. Carefully, as though afraid that the void may still claim him, he backs out of his slot, then winds his way up the two levels to the road, a soul escaping purgatory, gathering momentum as he reaches the surface and sees the faint but unmistakable light of day framed in his windshield.

Friday, February 01, 2008

In which Falstaff goes for a Concert after a month, and Stravinsky mops the floor with Bernstein

Poor Bernstein. It's bad enough that one of last century's finest conductors is now at risk of going down in history as the composer of the insufferable kitsch that is the score to the West Side Story. But when the Philadelphia Orchestra (in yet another of its inspired programming choices) decides to follow the schmaltzy strains of 'Mariaaaaa' (even as rendered by Joshua Bell, who I can't help feeling is a tad overrated [1]) with the genius of Stravinsky's Petrushka, the whole thing just seems too monstrously unfair.

Petrushka, as usual, was pure joy. The vitality, the subversion, the heart-pounding ruthlessness of it all, the orchestra turned into a precision machine, one capable of stopping on a dime, and the sense of being endlessly second guessed (even though you've heard the piece half a dozen times before) that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout the performance. Remember how Blake said "Energy is eternal delight". Stravinsky is the best proof of that assertion I can think of.

[1] It's possible I'm being unfair. I thought his performance yesterday was considerably inferior to the other violin soloists I've seen play with the Philadelphia Orchestra this season - Midori, Sarah Chang - but Midori was playing Britten and Chang my beloved Mendelssohn, while Bell was playing Barber and extracts from the West Side Story. You can see why I liked the others better.