Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Top 10 Movie Picks of 2008

Did you really think I was going to give up on my annual opportunity to pontificate about the arts? Here, in no particular order, are my 10 favorite [1] movies of 2008 [2]


Visually immaculate, emotionally profound and historically insightful, Wajda's Katyn is an important work in every sense of the term - not only a reminder of one of the worst acts of genocide in human history, but a sublime cinematic work, one that deserves to rank with masterpieces like Kanal and Pokolenie. Pawel Edelman's cinematography is exquisite, Penderecki's score is as glorious as you would expect, and the final scenes of the film, with their unflinching depiction of systematic mass murder, are among the most chilling I've ever seen. But what really shines here is the way Wajda balances the human and the historic, so that his characters retain their individuality even as their small, deeply personal stories give us a sense of the times they lived in. At its best, Katyn has both the weight and the beauty of Greek tragedy - a sense of heroic sadness, of a history relentless and fatal to all who stumble in her path.

My Winnipeg

Is it a documentary? A satire? A surrealist adventure? A nostalgic homecoming? A memoir on film? Whatever it is, Guy Maddin's whimsical, lyrical and entirely hilarious film is one of the most exhilarating things I've seen on screen this year - a zany, prodigious work that is in equal parts a tribute to memory and a celebration of the imagination, and underscores how thin the line dividing those two really is. To label My Winnipeg 'experimental' would be to do it an injustice - wildly inventive as the film is, it remains true to one of cinema's oldest and most long-standing traditions: the ability of movies to bring our dreams to life.

The Pool

If whimsical and dreamlike aren't your cup of tea, then you can do no better than watch The Pool. Acutely observed and psychologically and linguistically pitch-perfect, The Pool is a work of exemplary realism - a movie that manages to portray poverty in India without falling prey to either pessimism, escapism or sentimentality, and that depicts, with unerring accuracy, the emotional contradictions that come with being under-privileged. Chris Smith's experience as a documentary film-maker has given him both an eye for detail and an ability to withhold judgment, to tell a story without weighting it down with 'meanings', and the result is a film that would have been a major achievement coming from an Indian film maker, and that, coming from an American, is nothing short of extraordinary.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

And while we're on the subject of realism...Given the amount of praise Cristian Mungiu's film has received, anything I add is going to be redundant. So I'll content myself by saying that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days deserves every word of that praise and more.


Is it possible to be both cheerful and realistic? That question that lies at the heart of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. Leigh's answer to that question is a resounding yes - an answer provided both by the central character of Happy-Go-Lucky (the preternaturally optimistic Poppy), as well as by the film itself. As lives go, Poppy's is neither particularly harsh nor particularly pleasant, so that her vivacious good humour (brilliantly brought to life by Sally Hawkins) becomes a matter of pure perspective, a consequence of her personality rather than of luck. Poppy is happy because she chooses to be. And while that may sound like a childishly simple philosophy - it is - when was the last time you saw a film based on that principle?

In a sense, Happy-Go-Lucky is the anti-Naked. In Naked, Leigh gave us an indelible portrait of a witty and seemingly intelligent young man who possessed the emotional maturity of a small child and whose verbal hi-jinks were a way to disguise a deep-rooted insecurity. In Happy-Go-Lucky, he shows us a young woman who seems both trivial and naive, but whose cheerfulness, as we discover, comes not from innocence or stupidity, but from a great reserve of inner strength. It's a tribute to Leigh's genius that he gets both portraits exactly right.


If Happy-Go-Lucky is the anti-Naked, Wall-E is the anti-Shrek. Where Shrek took the old Walt Disney formula and added a liberal dose of cynicism and street-smartness, Wall-E restores the wide-eyed romance of the genre, but replaces its reliance on anthropomorphism with a visual realism all its own. Spectacular as Pixar's visual effects are (and they are spectacular) the true greatness of Wall-E is its complete eschewal of every trace of humanization, and of the language that goes with it. Wall-E is not a robot pretending to be a human, or a human disguised as a robot to showcase the power of animation, Wall-E IS a robot, with a robot's vocabulary (or lack thereof) and a robot's gestures, and it is a testament to the genius of the wizards at Pixar that this doesn't, in any way, compromise our ability to understand and interpret his actions. Okay, so the story gets a little overly sentimental. Okay, so the second half is fairly predictable and somewhat silly. None of that takes away from the sheer poetry (and I mean poetry) of that opening half-hour.

Whether the human species is likely to end up as a race of over-fed babies on a cruise-ship in deep space I cannot say, but I'd venture to bet that even if that happens, anyone bothering to look up the history of animation in cinema will find Wall-E listed as the movie that changed it all.

Encounters at the End of the World

I've already blogged about Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World, so I won't go over all that again. Suffice it to say that it takes a rare kind of talent to transform a set of ordinary interviews shot in the most banal way into a vision of Man's engagement with the Universe at the very edge of civilization. And that's precisely the kind of talent that Herzog has. In spades.

Boy A

2008 saw the release of two films that dealt with the theme of life after prison. The more recent one of these was an overwrought French film called Il y a longtemps que je t'aime, lifted out of poorly written mediocrity by an incredible performance from Kristin Scott Thomas (a performance so finely tuned and so haunting that it alone made the film worth watching twice, if only to catch every nuance). Personally, though, I preferred John Crowley's Boy A - the story of Jack Burridge, a young man imprisoned for the killing of a little girl when he himself was no more than a child, and who, released at 24, attempts to build a new life under an assumed identity, permanently haunted by the threat of disclosure.

What makes Boy A a superior film, in my opinion, is the way it brings Jack's vulnerability to life, his sense of living on a knife-edge, always waiting for things to go wrong. And it's not just the past, and the possibility of that past being discovered, that haunts Jack; Jack is fragile because he's been denied normal human contact from the time he was a little boy, and to watch him experience, for the first time, the emotions we all take for granted - friendship, love, trust - is a truly heartbreaking experience. Crowley has a point or two to make about the way society treats ex-convicts, but that is largely incidental to the power of his film; his achievement in Boy A is that he makes us share the terror and suffocation that Jack lives with, makes us experience every small act of normalcy as the real victory it is, and in doing so delivers a portrait of a gentle young man trapped in impossible situation that you cannot help being moved by.

Parlez-moi de la pluie

What's this? Eight out of ten films done and not a single French film among them? Can this really be 2x3x7? you wonder. But not to fear. One of this year's most delightful films was Agnes Jaoui's Parlez-moi de la pluie (english title: Let it Rain). Compared to many of the other films on this list Parlez-moi de la pluie is modest in scope, but it combines gentle comedy, a genial insight into the foibles of human insecurity, a quietly feminist worldview and three sparkling perfomances: Jaoui herself, husband and frequent collaborator Jean-Pierre Bacri (who also co-wrote the script) and the marvellous Jamel Debbouze. What more can you ask for?


I could give you a dozen reasons why you should watch Milk. I could say that it's a fine example of the bio-pic genre - a film that delivers an authentic sense of both the personal and the political, that is intelligent on tactics and strategy without being tedious, and insightful on its main character's personal life without being invasive or exploitative. I could go on about Sean Penn's performance; a performance that serves to showcase why Penn is one of the greatest actors of his, or any, generation. I could remind you that it's the story of an inspiring civil rights leader who deserves to be remembered for both his courage and his charisma. I could claim that Van Sant is one of the finest directors at work today, and that his work with Savides is simply glorious. I could praise the ease, the tenderness and the spontaneity of the film's love scenes. And I could tell you that James Franco is really, really hot.

But true as all of that is, the reason you should, no, you must, watch Milk is that it is a moving reminder that the battle for civil rights remains to be won. That people continue to be denied the simple right to choose to live how and with whom they please because of narrow-minded bigotry and the laws it inspires. Most films about civil rights have the distance of hindsight - we watch the action on screen and we shake our heads and think, "how could people ever have been so prejudiced, so small-minded, so cruel?" What makes Milk special is that the anti-gay rhetoric in the film sounds all too familiar, all too contemporary; this is not a film about long-ago bigotry, this is a film about the kind of homophobia that continues to exist around us, and that we must continue to fight. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film is the one where Milk and his friends celebrate the defeat of anti-gay legislation that would have made it illegal for homosexuals to teach in California public schools; it's heartbreaking because you know that three decades later the same state and the same counties will vote Yes on Proposition 8, denying homosexuals the right to marry. It's a reminder that the freedom and equality that Harvey Milk fought for are yet to be achieved. And that's why Milk is one film you just have to watch.

Bonus Category 1: Best Film You've Never Seen

I can't resist putting in a quick plug for a Czech film called Roming which, to the best of my knowledge, was never released in the United States, and which I only got to see because I happened to catch it at the Philadelphia Film Festival. It's a light-hearted and charming film, part road-trip, part magic realist fable, that combines a gypsy's love for old-fashioned story-telling with a good-humored eye for human silliness, to produce something that seems like a light-weight Kusturica. Not, by any means, a great film, but a very good one, and one that deserves to be seen by more people.

Bonus Category 2: Great Performances

I also wanted to point to a couple of truly stand-out performances in films that didn't quite make it to this list. I've already mentioned Kristin Scott Thomas's work in Il y a longtemps que je t'amie. I also thought Melissa Leo was wonderful in Frozen River, a film that narrowly missed making it to my top 10. And then there was Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight, which I've blogged about before.

Bonus Category 3: Most Unduly Praised Film of the Year

Finally, I can't help record my bewilderment over all the praise being showered on Rachel Getting Married. Okay, so Anne Hathaway's performance was better than you would expect from someone whose previous credits are limited to things like The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada. But that aside, the whole damn film was about thirty-five minutes of mediocre psychploitation drama padded out with an additional hour and a half of footage from some new age shaadi ka video. I can't remember when I've been more bored. Seriously, if you ever feel the temptation to go see this film, take my advice and go watch you're cousin's home movies of his wedding reception instead. Not only will you save the price of the ticket and make your cousin happy, you'll probably have more fun.

P.S. Happy New Year! [3]

[1] I'd say 'best' but there are too many good / promising movies that came out this year that I never managed to see - notable misses include Waltz with Bashir, The Edge of Heaven, Vicky Christina Barcelona and The Class

[2] At least some of these movies were made (and released) in 2007, but they only made it to local cinemas this year.

[3] It is, of course, fairly unlikely that the New Year will, in fact, be happy; or at least noticeably happier than any year in recent memory. Still, isn't it beautiful to think so.

That's Sir Pratchett to you

Terry Pratchett has been knighted.

Now all he has to do is stop the war in the Middle East and be made a Duke.

Sunday, December 28, 2008


I feel sorry for Tchaikovsky. I really do. He's not a composer I'm too crazy about, but he's written some fine pieces and he certainly doesn't deserve to be reduced to the racist, sexist, nauseatingly saccharine kitsch that is the Balanchine version of the Nutcracker [1]. So here, in no particular order, are six alternate versions of the Nutcracker I would like to see:

1. Nutcracker as a drug rave

Herr Drosselmeier as a shifty pusher (he looks the part anyway) who brings Marie a bong for Christmas. Marie then proceeds to get seriously high, thus explaining the rest of the ballet: the snowflakes are cocaine, tea is tea, and the sugar plum fairy is, inevitably, the brown sugar fairy.

2. Minimalist Nutcracker

A performance of the Balanchine Nutcracker with no sets, no props and no costumes - everyone to wear plain black tights and dance on a bare stage. We'll soon see how impressive a ballet it is then.

3. The Mouse King

A performance of the Nutcracker which follows the usual script all the way to the fight scene between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, only at that point the Mouse King kills the Nutcracker, wins Marie's Heart, and then spends the entire Second Act pillaging, looting and burning his way through the Land of Sweets, with the help of his faithful Mouse Commandos. Death to the Sugar Plum Fairy!

4. Hypothermic Nutcracker

A performance of the Nutcracker where Marie, frightened by the Mice, runs out into the snow and proceeds to freeze to her death. The entire second act consists of Marie lying at the front of the stage shivering with the cold at first, and then slowly falling into a coma, while the Balanchine version of the second act plays out behind a transparent screen and represents Marie's hallucinations while she dies. Ideally, the light behind the screen would slowly fade throughout the second act, so that by the time the pas de deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Chevalier came on, the stage would be entirely dark and the audience would hear the music but see only the still form of Marie on stage.

5. Product Placement Nutcracker

A version of the Nutcracker where every dance in the second act is sponsored by, and modified to advertise, a specific Brand. So the Spanish dance becomes the Hershey's dance, the Arabian dance becomes the Starbucks dance, and so on. So much more honest.

6. The Subaltern Nutcracker

A rendering of the Nutcracker where the party scene is shown from the point of view of the serving maids. The scene opens with the stage divided into two halves - one half being the main party room (complete with presents and Christmas tree), the other being a smelly, grimy, kitchen where the household staff slaves away. The action in the 'party' half of the stage would exactly mimic the current Balanchine version, except that every time the serving maid crossed over into the kitchen area, the music would drop to half its volume and the party room would go dark.

[1] A version of which I found myself watching this afternoon - largely because it was the only ballet / opera / orchestra performance happening in the city during the holidays. It didn't help that the audience seemed to think they were at the circus rather than at a ballet and broke out into loud clapping every time anyone on stage executed a half-way difficult step. Sigh.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


In Memoriam

Harold Pinter

"The power's gone."


"What do you mean again? When did it go before?"

"That time you were away on work. I told you."

"Oh, yes. But that must have been, let's see, four months ago now."

"Yes, but it did go."

"True. So how long was it gone that time?"

"I don't remember. Three, maybe four hours?"

"Well I hope it comes back quicker this time. It'll be dark soon."

"Oh, the dark's not so bad. Not when it comes on slowly, when you have time to get used to it. Unless you're planning to read, that is."

"But there's the match tonight. I don't want to miss that. Besides, it'll start getting cold soon."


"I wonder what it is this time. Probably a transformer or something."

"Or maybe a tree fell on a wire, caused a short circuit."

"That's not very likely. Why would a tree fall? There hasn't been a storm or anything."

"Not here there hasn't. But who knows where the electricity comes from. Besides, you don't need a storm to knock a tree down. Sometimes they just fall of old age."

"I suppose. In any case, I hope they fix it soon."

"Me too. [pause] Harry?"

"Yes dear?"

"Do you ever think what would happen if the power never came back?"

"You mean tonight?"

"No, I mean if it never came back. Ever."

"But that's absurd! Of course it'll come back. It has to."

"I suppose. It's just that you never really know, do you?"

"What? Of course you do."

"No, I mean there's always some doubt."

"No there isn't. Of course the power will come back. Have you ever heard of it not?"

"Mr. Morton says that once during the war they didn't have power for two weeks."

"Yes, but it came back after that, didn't it? And besides, that was in wartime."

"But if it can go for two weeks then it can go for two months, two years, two centuries."

"No it can't. It's not the same thing at all. What's got into you today?"

"Nothing. Sorry, I'm being silly, I know. It's just what I was thinking about the last time."

"The last time?"

"When the power went. When I was alone."

"Oh, right."

"I just kept thinking what if there was a village somewhere where the power went and never came back."

"Well, they'd contact someone wouldn't they?"

"What if they couldn't? What if with the power gone none of their phones were working?"

"Well then they'd walk to the nearest place that had power and call from there."

"But what if they didn't want to leave their homes? What if they kept hoping the power would come back?"

"Now you're just getting carried away. Just let it go. Really. [pause] Any idea how long it's been?"

"Since the power went?"


"Fifteen minutes maybe? Oh!"


"I just remembered!"


"The clothes are in the dryer."


"So they've been sitting there all this time. I should go hang them out to dry."

"Why bother? When the power comes back you can just run the dryer."

"But who knows when the power will come back. Or whether."

"Don't start that again."


"It's taking them a while to fix it though, isn't it? I hope they know there's a problem. Maybe I should call someone and complain."

"Who would you call?"

"I don't know. I'll look it up in the book."

"Oh, I'm sure they know Harry. They have all sorts of instruments. And besides, someone else must have called by now."

"What if they haven't? What if everyone's assuming that someone else will call."

"Well then eventually someone else will. You sit down and take it easy. You know the doctor told you not to exert yourself."

"There's no exertion. I'm just going to make a phone call."

"No you're not. I know you. You'll call to complain and get into a fight with someone and spend the next three days sulking. You just let it be."

"Okay, okay. So how about some tea then?"

"That would be nice, wouldn't it? Only I don't know how to boil the water without the power."

"Hmm. I hadn't thought of that."

"It's frightening how dependent we are on electricity, isn't it?"

"Well, I suppose if the power really were gone for good we could start a little wood fire in the backyard and boil the water in a canteen. The way we did it when we went camping. Do you remember that?"

"Of course I do. It was lovely being out in the country like that."

"Yes it was, wasn't it? You know, I haven't thought about that for years."

"Me neither. We don't usually talk about the old days much, do we?"

"I guess we don't."

"I mean we're only talking about it now because the power's gone and there's nothing else to do."

"Well, so at least we have something to thank the outage for."

"I suppose. [pause] Harry?"


"Do you believe in reincarnation?"

"In what?"

"In reincarnation. You know. Like when you die but then are born again - only this time as some other person. Or maybe not even as a person. As an animal, or insect, or something."

"Do I believe in reincarnation? I can't say I've thought about it much. Seems a bit pointless, doesn't it?"

"Pointless? You don't think it'd be wonderful to start over, to have another chance?"

"I don't see why. It's not like you'd have learnt anything. You'd just end up doing the same things again. You might even do worse. Why do you ask anyway?"

"Oh, no reason. Was just thinking about it the other day, so thought would ask you. I figured it would pass the time."

"It's been a long time, hasn't it? How long, do you know?"

"Almost an hour, I think."

"It's something serious obviously. Still, I hope they don't take too much longer. The match will be on in half an hour."

"I'm sure they'll fix it by then."

"You said last time it took four hours."

"More like three I think. And that was because it was a major breakdown. A grid failure or something. Half the city was without power."

"You know I think I'll just pop out for a minute."

"What for?"

"Just to see if other people on the street have power."

"You mean it could be just us?"

"It could be."

"I hadn't thought of that. That would be terrible."

"Yes, it would. Which is why I'm going to go out and check."

"But where will you go?"

"Not far. Just down to the bar at the corner."

"Why the bar?"

"Well, I can't exactly barge into someone's house demanding to know if they have power, can I?"

"You could just wait fifteen minutes or so. It'll be dark soon. Then we'll see the lights coming on if it's just us."

"Yes, but if it is just us the sooner we know the better."

"But I don't want you exerting yourself."

"I won't be exerting myself. I'm just going down to the street corner, for god's sake."

"What if you go and don't come back?"

"What? What are you talking about? Of course I'll come back. I'll be back before you know it."

"But it'll be dark soon and I don't want to be alone in here when it's dark."

"Look, it's a three minute walk to the corner. Tops. I'll be there and back long before it gets dark."

"But what if you're not?"

"Why wouldn't I be? You're just being silly."

"But Harry"

"Look, I'm going now. I'll see you in a bit."


"Stop worrying, will you? Bye."

"Harry, don't go. Please. Harry? Harry?"

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

An Act of Mercy

Since it is Christmas...

I'd barely entered the stable when I felt it. A sense of dread so palpable, so oppressive, that even the warmth of being indoors seemed too faint a compensation. It was the sound of his breathing mostly, that uneasy pant, quick and shallow, that is the sure sign of an animal in distress. The others heard it too - they stood in their stalls with their heads raised and their bodies held rigid, as though seeking the scent of the predator, Death.

He was in the last stall on the right. He didn't look good. He was trembling, his head was drooping low, he could barely stand. I went through the usual checks - temperature, reflexes, heartbeat - looking for some chance of recovery, some sign of hope. There was none. He was done for. I patted him gently on the flank, to reassure him, then stepped out to meet his owner.

"I'm sorry, sir. There's nothing more I can do."

"You mean it's too late?"

"I'm afraid so."

"I see. It's my fault for not calling you sooner, isn't it?"

"Not really, sir. I doubt it would have helped."

"Only we're so busy this time of the year."

"I understand, sir. It's no one's fault."

"So there's really nothing you can do?"

"I'm afraid not, sir. The best thing now is put him out of his misery. As you can see, he's in a lot of pain."

"Yes, yes, of course. It's just....well, I'm going to miss him, you know. We've been together such a long time, been through so much together. I guess I just never thought it would come to this. I suppose I knew it would happen, but I just didn't think about it."

He turned away from me then, stepped over to the stall, cradled that triangular face against his own. They stood there like that for a moment, master and beast, his hands running over the floppy ears, the wide brow, the red, red nose.

Then he stepped back.

"You'll do it now?"

I nodded.

"And you'll make sure it's painless?"

"Of course. He won't feel a thing."

"All right then. Go ahead. Only, I'm going to go back to the house, if you don't mind. I don't think I can bear to watch."

"I understand, sir. I'll join you when it's done. It won't take long. And sir? I'm truly sorry."

I watched him walk away then, his body half bent as though under some invisible weight. I waited till the door shut behind him before I took the spike and hammer from my bag, placed the point of the spike between those two limpid eyes. "It's okay, boy", I said, as the deer stirred in panic, "it's okay."

Then I drove the spike home.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Theory / Literature

Reading Sarraute this evening, and nodding vigorously in agreement, I find myself wondering what it is I'm agreeing with.

Do I respond to Sarraute's ideas because they echo my own hazy convictions as a reader and a writer? Or is it her response to writing that seems to echo my own, and convinces me to accept her her ideas?

Is there a difference? How can one tell?

And if there is a difference, and one can tell, which is the greater achievement?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Encore! Encore!

Alfred Brendel has retired.

We will miss you, maestro.

P.S. I can't help wishing that Brendel had waited four more days and given his final performance on Dec 22, exactly 200 years after another great musician gave his final performance as a pianist, also in Vienna.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

10 literary adaptations I'd like to see

Not content with turning Benjamin Button into a chick flick with Brad Pitt, Hollywood is now apparently setting its sights on The Great Gatsby (again!), with a new version in the works that will be directed by, of all people, Baz Luhrmann - that master of nuanced emotion and hidden yearning. Tchah!

I suppose it's too much to ask that the movie biz leave books alone entirely (or at least leave good books alone; there are plenty of books that could only improve with cinematic adaptation - all of Coelho, for instance, or Adiga's White Tiger), but if we have to be subjected to movie versions of literary classics, can we at least have them made by the right people. I could probably live with an Ang Lee version of Gatsby, but the very idea of Luhrmann getting his hammy hands on it makes me shudder. What will they come up with next? A Tarantino version of The Golden Bowl? ("This may be a Hattori Hanzo sword, my dear, but to accept it would be to blunt the sharpness of our affection.""Or make our silence more precise.""Is that what you want?""It's what I can afford.").

So just to help Hollywood out, here, in no particular order, is my list of top 10 book to screen adaptations I'd like to see:

1. A Jim Jarmusch version of Waiting for Godot, with Bill Murray and Steve Buscemi as Vladimir and Estragon.

2. A Coen Brothers production of, oh, pretty much anything by Faulkner (say Sartoris) starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones

3. A Wong Kar Wai version of Norwegian Wood, ideally cast with newcomers, I guess, though I wouldn't mind seeing Faye Wong as Midori.

4. A Julie Taymor adaptation of Howl.

5. A Mike Nichols version of Herzog with Jack Nicholson in the lead role

6. A Werner Herzog version of the Hunger Artist with Christian Bale in the lead role.

7. A David Lynch adaptation of The Magician's Nephew (the cast doesn't really matter, so long as there's a cameo appearance by David Bowie)

8. A Gus Van Sant version of Catcher in the Rye

9. Almodovar directing pretty much anything by Jane Austen, with Javier Bardem as Darcy / Knightley / Wentworth.

10. A Woody Allen adaptation of Ulysses set on the Upper East Side, with anyone but Scarlett Johansson playing Molly Bloom (I'd pick Frances McDormand, but that's just me)

P.S. List of my 10 favorite movies of the year coming soon.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Every time someone gets close to her she holds back, keeps her distance. Waiting for them to turn against her, waiting for it to go wrong.

It always does.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Truth vs. Fiction # 29

And as further proof that truth is more literary than fiction, can you imagine a better name for a Wall Street shyster who makes off with other people's money than Bernie L. Madoff?

Apparently DFW didn't just make it to Heaven - he took over.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Shoe Drops

"Mr. Maliki’s security agents jumped on the man, wrestled him to the floor and hustled him out of the room. They kicked him and beat him until “he was crying like a woman,” said Mohammed Taher, a reporter for Afaq, a television station owned by the Dawa Party, which is led by Mr. Maliki. Mr. Zaidi was then detained on unspecified charges.

[President Bush] called the incident a sign of democracy, saying, “That’s what people do in a free society, draw attention to themselves,” as the man’s screaming could be heard outside."

- The New York Times, Dec 14, 2008

Sometimes real life can outdo the best fiction.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Or: I work at the language as a spring of water works at the rock, to find a course, and so, blindly. In this I am not a maker of things, but, if maker, a maker of a way. For the way in itself . It is well enuf to speak of water's having its destination in the sea, and so to picture almost a knowing in the course; but the sea is only the end of ways - could the stream find a further course, it would go on. And vast as the language is, it is no end but a resistance thru which a poem might move - as it flows or dances or puddles in time - making it up in its going along and yet going only as it breaks the resistance of the language.


I write this only to explain some of the old ache of longing that revives when I apprehend again the currents of language - rushing upon their way, or in pools, vacant energies below meaning, hidden to our purposes. Often, reading or writing, the fullest pain returns, and I see or hear or almost know a pure element of clearness, an utter movement, an absolute rush along its own way, that makes of even the words under my pen a foreign element that I may crave - as for kingdom or salvation or freedom - but never know.
- Robert Duncan, 'Source' from Letters [1953-56] (included in Selected Poems, New Direction 1997)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

As though someone asked... [Faraz V]

Aur tere shahar se jab rakhte-safar baandh liya
Daro-deevar pe hasrat ki nazar kya karte
Chaand kajlai hui shaam ki dahleez pe tha
Us ghadi bhi tere majboor safar kya karte
Dil thahar jaane ko kahta tha magar kya karte

"Hamne jab vaadi-e-gurbat mein kadam rakkha tha"
Jis tarah yaad-e-vatan aaiee thi samjhane ko
Kuch isi tarah ki kaifiyat-e-jaan aaj bhi hai
Jis tarah koi kayamat ho guzar jane ko
Jis tarah koi kahe phir se palat aane ko

- Ahmed Faraz

Translation (mine):

And being prepared to depart from your city
What had we to do with the sight of these rooms?
A mascaraed night, the moon at her threshold;
At that hour, journey-bound, what could we do?
Though our hearts said stay, what could we do?

"When we had stepped into the valley of exile"
And the memory of home came back to explain.
My condition today seems almost the same -
As though some calamity were about to pass
As though someone asked that I return again.

Note: Line 6 and 7 are from Bismil - the original reads: "hamne jab vaadi-e-gurbat mein kadam rakkha tha / door tak yaad-e-vatan aai thi samjhane ko". You can read the full poem here.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

In your ocean eyes

Blame Neha. Faiz is untranslatable in general, and Teri samundar aankhon mein (see original here) doubly so, but the Bilal Tanweer translation she put up was so godawful, that I figured I couldn't possibly do any worse. So here you go:

This shore of sunlight where evening sets,
where both times meet -
neither day nor night, neither now nor then -
an eternal instant, instantly fleet.
On this shore of sunlight, an instant or two,
the leaping lips,
the jingling caress,
our togetherness neither false nor true.
Why feel ashamed? Why talk of blame?
Why lie?
When this evening's sun sinks
in your ocean eyes
households shall sleep content
and the wanderer wave goodbye.

- Faiz Ahmed Faiz (translation mine)

Obviously there are a few departures from the original here - what I wanted to do was be as faithful as possible to the rhythm of Faiz's poem - its friskiness, its momentum, its rhymes and half rhymes. That's meant sacrificing accuracy here and there (and inverting the order of "Jab teri samundar aankhon mein / is shaam ka sooraj doobega"), but I quite like the result.

One serious change is the shortening of "Kis kaaran jhooti baat karo" to "Why lie?", which not only considerably shortens the line, but also makes it rhyme with the lines that follow rather than with the line immediately preceding it. An alternative line would "Why tell these lies in vain?" but that just strikes me as being unnecessarily clunky.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

BWV 1004

As everyone 'knows', I dislike children, and disapprove of any and all attempts to introduce them into the public sphere. I'm particularly critical of parents who bring their 4 /5 year olds to classical music concerts; a sub-class of quasi-criminals who, were it left up to me (though it mercifully isn't) would be shut away in a dark cell for a minimum of five years and be made to listen to six hours of ABBA everyday.

Every now and then, however, children will surprise me by turning out to be human. Last Thursday, for instance, when the 5 year old [1] sitting in front of me at a violin recital spent much of the concert with the score open on his lap, valiantly and self-importantly following along as Christian Tetzlaff scraped his way through Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. It wasn't just that he behaved like an angel - didn't fidget, didn't start to talk loudly in the middle of a movement - it was the fact that he was so interested, that he was enjoying himself so thoroughly. It was the first time in half a decade that I've actually felt anything approaching affection for a child.


In the meantime, I find I'm becoming completely obsessed with the Bach pieces for solo violin - particularly with BWV 1004 (with its mesmerising Chaconne), which I've heard four different versions of in the last 8 hours alone. It's incredible how Bach can construct so compelling a conversation with a single instrument - there are entire Haydn string quartets that have less going on than the final movement of this Partita.


Meanwhile, if I'd ever had any doubts about being in the wrong demographic for classical music concerts, they were put to rest today. Someone in the row behind me happened to mention that it was the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, which prompted everyone else to begin sharing their personal memories of that fateful day. And I mean everyone.

I don't know if I'm going to be alive on 09/11/2068 (I kind of doubt it to be honest), but if I am I'm so going to a concert and talking about it.

The really marvellous thing is: they'll still be playing Bach.


[1] Well, he looked five. But he could have been four. Or three. Or eight. How are you supposed to tell with the little blighters anyway? It's not like you can cut them open and count the rings.

Monday, December 01, 2008


No one to see on the empty mountain,
only the echo of someone's voice.
Light returns to the dusky forest,
makes the dark moss shine again.

- Wang Wei
(translation mine)

Inspired by Weinberger's Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, which compiles a set of alternate versions of a four line poem by Wang Wei (you can find the full set of translations included in the main book - there are two others in the notes after the book that aren't on the site - here, along with some other translations)

The thing that struck me about the poem - and made me attempt a translation of my own (not that I could have resisted anyway) was the resonance (heh!) of the word 'echo'. Most of the translations Weinberger includes assume that the sound in line 2 is being heard directly - but an echo does not come straight to us - it goes away from us and then comes back. And that, to me, is the key to the poem - the sound moving away and returning, the light fading and brightening, the perfect doubling of reprise on reprise, so that the light hitting the moss at dusk becomes not only the 'echo' of the light hitting the moss in morning, but the echo of an echo, a figure suggesting both renewal and diminishment.

The sound of the echo returns to fill a silence that sound has vacated, the light of the evening returns to illumine what the light of morning has left dark. Each arrives unexpectedly - the light because it is time for sunset, and we are expecting darkness not light; the sound because the first line has told us that the mountain is empty, so that the sound takes us by surprise. And each bears traces of the distance it has travelled to get here - the sound is fainter, the light (surely) more dim.

Emphasizing the 'echo' makes another thing possible - it allows us to free the poem of human presence entirely. Even if we take away the annoying 'I' that older translations tend to include, we are still left, in the translations that Weinberger offers, with the speaker(s) behind the sound in line 2. Presence nibbles at the margins of the poem, threatens its serenity. But make the sound an echo, and it is possible that there really is no one there, that the sound comes from far away (and by implication, from long ago) and is heard by no one, just as there is, perhaps, no one who wanders so late in the forest to see the light shining on the moss. The entire poem rests on a sense of absence that is both intuition and premonition (what will happen when the voices fade, when the sun sets?) and the substitution of echo for voice, by making the poem lonelier, somehow enhances that effect.

I've taken a number of other liberties with the poem, of course (and since I don't speak a word of Chinese they really are liberties) - notably the choice of 'dusky' (my alternate version replaces dusky with darkened in line 3 and dark with black in line 4) and the reversal of the order within the first line, which is partly just to be different, and partly to suggest both the senses of 'no one to observe' and 'no observer' - but hey, experimenting is what this blog is all about.

Finally, just in case you think I've totally lost it, here's the other Paz version that Weinberger includes in his book, and which I think is really interesting (it's PAZ, duh!):

No se ve gente en este monte
solo se oyen, lejos, voces.
Bosque profundo. Luz poniente:
alumbra el musgo y, verde, asciende.

No people are seen on this mountain,
only voices, far off, are heard.
Deep forest. Western light:
it illuminates the moss and, green, rises.

[Translation by E. Weinberger]