JG Ballard‘s Crash has quickly become a favourite with me — its sense of impending doom, the sexual energy of car crashes, of moments when man and machine collide — but I’ve been going on and on about this novel, so I’m going to focus on some of the other books I read in February.
One of my uncles, a historian and writer, insisted that I read a book called How Poetry Works by Phil Roberts. Roberts does not claim to teach you how to write poetry; rather, he focusses on various aspects of poetry. His particular emphasis is on sound and he historicises the various techniques of making a poem sound good. I’m making this sound awfully boring, and it was, most of the time. I perked up, however, when he talked of how the printing press has changed the way poetry is accessed today — we read it off the page whereas, back in the day, poems were performed in communitarian spaces. They had to sound good if they were to be appreciated and remembered.
I love the printing press, and the idea of performing poems every time I write them scares the hell out of me, but Roberts’s point about performance is one I think a lot of people could do with reading.
As poetry is spoken performance, its language too is performative. Ignorance of this may be the main source of confusion over the elusive ‘meaning’ of poetry. Because performative language has a great deal in common with referential language (access to the entire English lexicon, for one thing), it is often assumed that it may be treated as referential. Nothing is further from the truth. Rejecting a poem because it’s not the way you speak is no more valid than rejecting an artist’s painting because it’s not the way you would paint a wall. (On the other hand, it is quite acceptable for you to reject a poem or a painting simply because you don’t like it.)
I also managed to grab a photocopy of Women in Dutch Painting from N (who apparently got it from someone else’s library). I was rather hoping there would be more ekphrastic work like the title poem, which is a response to the paintings of Johannes Vermeer and the like. Domestic women who seem to transcend their apparently limited home spaces. There is no real way for me to tell if the other poems are ekphrastic, but I enjoyed them anyway. Eunice de Souza has a great sense of humour and writes witty epigrammatic verse.
from ‘Transcend self, you say’
Men can, and do. Beggars survive.
Destitutes survive. There’s something in this culture.
Must ask beggars how they do it.
The two novels I read besides Crash were Todd Keisling‘s A Life Transparent, which I have reviewed here, and David Malouf‘s Fly Away Peter. Malouf’s prose is strangely poetic — strange, because I do not like it. There is something distracting about it. The novel itself is thoughtfully constructed. It begins with the description of an Eden-like Australia, with its protagonist Jim Saddler keeping a bird sanctuary. The second half of the novel shows Jim fighting in the Second World War in Europe, which I suppose is hell. Somewhere along the way he dies (this is not a spoiler, believe me). And finally, the reader is meant to realise that life goes on, with or without war and dying. Apparently Malouf himself felt it was more a playing out of ideas than a novel. I have to agree. Not the most exquisite read, but not bad either.
Sometimes I have to question this project of mine of reading erotic fiction, discovering the different kinds, finding out what I like, what I think is good, what I think is awkward or underplayed or absurd. When I said “two novels” in the previous paragraph, I should’ve said three, the third being an anonymous novel called She. I thought the title was very… woman-centric. And it is, in a way. The story is of a young married couple who are very much in love, but are frustrated because the wife is frigid. They go on a second honeymoon hoping to solve their sexual problems. Instead, the husband cheats on his wife, and then this gang of bank robbers lands up at their cabin, while Hubby (I swear to god, that’s what they call him in the novel) goes on a fishing trip. The gang, well, they gang rape the wife. Hubby watches part of the rape. After this all has changed. The wife is no longer afraid of sex and she goes orgy-wild.
I’ve had a couple of discussions about this book with people whose opinions I value. Rape or enacted rape does turn some women on, but is that how the desire for it is discovered? Besides, Wifey does not seem particularly to enjoy masochism… I suppose I’m saying that the novel was inconsistent and lacked a psychological dimension that would have rendered it more believable and more appealing. Also, Hubby/Wifey? Yeesh. Mr/Ms Anon seems to have focussed all his/her imaginative faculties on sexual positions and not enough on names. Most of the characters have names beginning with J: Jack, Jill, Jude, Judy. It was hard remembering who was who. Oh well, there’s bound to be some disasters along the way.
In non-disasters, I watched one of the best Indian films of my life: Dev D directed by Anurag Kashyap, and with Abhay Deol, Mahie Gill and Kalki Koechlin in the roles of Dev, Paro and Chanda. It’s self-indulgent, over-the-top, utterly cinematic.
What I love about the film is that while it breaks away most popular (and tired) Indian cinematic trends — the happy coupling, the punished woman, the weeping mother, the predeterminism — it doesn’t entirely reject all Bollywood conventions. You have the elaborate Indian wedding, the song and dance — but the song and dance is very neatly incorporated into the narrative. It’s not fantastical. It makes perfect (slightly irrational) sense that a couple of guys start singing ‘Emotional Atyachar’ at a wedding.
I wonder how the film survives in the international scene. This is no Slumdog Millionaire with its “universal” message of triumphant love and underdog victory. It is strongly rooted in a particular culture and literary tradition. For someone like me, who hasn’t read Saratchandra Chattopadhyay‘s novella Devdas (of which Dev D is a modern interpretation), or watched any of the numerous films made on it, it wasn’t the easiest watch. Or to be fair, it was easy enough to watch, but I didn’t catch all references and jokes. Yet, the story of Devdas is somehow known to me. Not in details, but in a general way. It’s almost like a folk tale that seeps into your mind unknowingly. For any non-Indian readers, Devdas is a wealthy Brahmin boy who falls in love with Paro, who is not of the same caste or class. They are unable to marry for largely those reasons and Devdas moves to the city and lives drunkenly with Chandramukhi, a courtesan, until he dies.
There are substantial changes to this story in Dev D. You might as well find them out yourself, if you haven’t already, but what is most noticeable is how the women aren’t victims, not even Chanda (/Chandramukhi), who becomes infamous after a video of her giving a blowjob begins to circulate, first in the city, then across the country. Nisha Susan has an article on Kashyap in the latest issue of Tehelka, in which she says, “In college he [i.e., Kashyap] was still insecure about being a Benaras boy. But all around him were magnificent examples of unapologetic living. One night a young woman scandalised the boys’ hostel with her presence. The next morning she wandered into the gossipy mess hall wearing her lover’s shirt and ate a large breakfast. Another woman told a casual letch that she would string his balls up on a tree. She and other women became his closest friends, participants in his quest to know What Women are Like. Bhikku Matre’s wife Pyaari, Paro, Chanda, the androgynous dancers of No Smoking, the women of Gulaal — within an oeuvre of highly masculine movies Kashyap has given us some fascinating women. In a cinema most afflicted by moralising, Kashyap refuses to sit in judgment.”
Dev D is not without its faults, but I refuse to point them out. This isn’t a fair review. This is a review of a film I enjoyed completely and unabashedly.
Sometimes people build a film’s reputation to epic proportions before you watch it, and then you watch it only to be disappointed. But despite all of the praise heaped on Cargo 200 by MKR & co, I was not disappointed. I was not disappointed at all.
According to IMDB, several of Aleksey Balabanov‘s usual cast members refused to be part of this film — it’s that gruesome. Set in 1984 (a date significant in itself), Cargo 200 is a scathing critique of Communist Russia. The footage of factories spewing waste suggests the disrepair and corruption of the Communist machine, but the film is horrific on more than a symbolic level. Zhurof, a police officer, kidnaps the daughter of a diplomatic, sodomises her, chains her, watches her being raped. (I’m remembering the flies.) This is easily the most horrific film I have ever watched: the absence of humanity is far more terrifying than the presence of a few bizarre habits, or even a desire to kill.
I watched a dozen or so movies in February, excluding the short films. I won’t be reviewing all of them. In brief, the two Harold & Kumar movies were ridiculous, full of toilet humour and momentarily funny.
Zoya Akhtar‘s debut film Luck by Chance was so forgettable, I almost forgot to mention it here.
I think I may be prejudiced against Kubrick after watching Eyes Wide Shut, which seemed pointless to me, although I liked the scene with the hooded man and women in a circle around him.
Part II and III of The Godfather were not as enjoyable as Part I. Part III sees Pacino become unbearably dramatic, quite unlike the subtlety of Michael Corleone in the pre-Godfather stage.
There’s not much to say about 27 Dresses except that I seriously question whether one can make a good romantic comedy again. Nothing seems capable of surpassing Four Weddings and a Funeral, my all time favourite in the genre.
Don Siegel‘s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the first zombie movie that I can remember clearly. I have a feeling that it informed my review of Todd’s book (linked above) quite significantly.
I liked The Hairdresser’s Husband very much. MKR has a nice review here.
From the short films, Genet‘s Un Chant d’Amour is quite interesting. It is a silent film about two very masculine men in a prison who are sexually attracted to each other and try to communicate through the walls. Their sexual interest leads to romance and imaginative romps in nature. Meanwhile, a prison guard is attracted to one of them and tries to interrupt their love affair. What’s stunning is how all of this is communicated non-verbally. The film is available at UbuWeb, but expect to see a lot of penises doing a lot of things. If that makes you uncomfortable, skip this one.
Zulmat, Parchayi and Hua Noor are short films made by the students of the Srishti School of Art. Hua Noor was spectacular.
The other short films are all Academy Award winners, but much better than what the Oscars usually parade as “good films”. Oh, and you have to watch Humorous Phases of Funny Faces — it was made in 1906; one of the earliest animated films, I’d imagine.
I’ve left two films for the last. Katzelmacher is Fassbinder‘s second film, and the first of his that I’ve watched. Admittedly I watched it because (a) I felt obligated to watch a Fassbinder film and (b) there was a test I wanted to skip. Whatever my reasons were, the film was great to watch. Fassbinder’s work is very stylised — you can tell from the still above. The positions of the actors are choreographed, not just the way they sit, but how they move, how they gesture and look at each other. It’s a film about slackers, but not in the way of American slacker films. It’s cool, but not slick. It’s funny, but you don’t guffaw. No, it’s not funny. It’s humorous. It’s experimental and it works. I rather like this review I read in The New York Times.
The next is my favourite of all: David Cronenberg‘s Dead Ringers. It was only after watching it that I remembered (or was reminded of?) MKR’s lecture on horror films. He mentioned Dead Ringers and talked about the infection being “a contamination of personality”. Brilliant, isn’t it?
I think most people have watched this film. If you haven’t, it’s about twin gynaecologists whose relationship is so codependent, at times, you don’t know which is which. Jeremy Irons plays the twins — one of the best performances I have ever seen. Cronenberg seems to have a real talent for picking actors (I’m thinking of James Spader in Crash and Peter Weller in Naked Lunch.). Oh, and look out for the scene in the operating theatre (still below).
Complete list: books (in order of completion)
- Fly Away Peter, David Malouf, 1982, English (Australia) (novel)
- Crash, JG Ballard, 1973, English (UK) (novel)
- Women in Dutch Painting, Eunice de Souza, 1988, English (India) (poetry collection)
- A Life Transparent, Todd Keisling, 2007, English (US) (novel)
- How Poetry Works, Phil Roberts, 2000, English (Canada) (non-fiction)
- She, Anonymous, 1975, English (US) (novel)
Complete list: movies (in order of viewing)
- 27 Dresses, Anne Fletcher, 2008, English (US)
- Luck by Chance, Zoya Akhtar, 2008, Hindi
- Dead Ringers, David Cronenberg, 1988, English (Canada)
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Don Siegel, 1956, English (US)
- Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Danny Lerner, 2004, English (US)
- Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, 2008, English (US)
- Cargo 200, Aleksey Balabanov, 2007, Russian
- Dev D, Anurag Kashyap, 2009, Hindi, Punjabi
- Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick, 1999, English (US)
- The Godfather: Part II, Francis Ford Coppola, 1974, English (US), Italian
- The Godfather: Part III, Francis Ford Coppola, 1990, English (US), Italian
- Katzelmacher, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1969, German
- Le Mari de la Coiffeuse, Patrice Leconte, 1990, French
Complete list: short films (in order of viewing)
- Un Chant d’Amour, Jean Genet, 1950, French (silent)
- Le demoiselle et le violoncelliste, Jean-Francois Laguionie, 1964, French (animation)
- Balance, Wolfgang and Christoph Lauenstein, 1989, German (animation)
- Zulmat, Ishan Ghosh, 2006, Hindi
- Parchayi, Smriti Chanchani and Anjorah Noronah, 2006?, Hindi
- Hua Noor, Kunal Sen, 2006?, Hindi (animation)
- Le Chapeau, Michele Cournoyer, 1999, French (Canada) (animation)
- Atama-Yama, Koji Yamamura, 2002, Japanese (animation)
- Ryan, Chris Landreth, 2004, English (Canada) (animation)
- Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, J Stuart Blackton, 1906, English (US) (animation)