Wednesday, March 10, 2010

War against emoticons

Truth be told, “Frowning At Smileys” was the headline in my mind until a Daily Telegraph article ended with this bleak portentous line, “In the future Shakespearean tragedies would be rewritten in a series of downcast emoticons”. Thus, the headline, which, to the uninitiated, is derived from Martin Amis’ sublime book “War Against Cliches”. Be it on gTalk, the Google equivalent of Yahoo! Messenger or on sms, my florid sentences aimed at the cerebral cortex of the recipient fail to register until they are followed by a miniature version of a Halloween pumpkin with gamut of emotions pasted on it.

If you are reading this then I don’t think I really need to delve into how a colon followed by bracket or a semi-colon for that matter or a colon followed by ‘p’ are supposed to represent your current state of mind. Thanks to the smileys I am always skeptical if the irony or sarcasm in my words is being noticed at all by the person, usually those of fairer sex, on the other side. Thus, I follow it with a smiling emoticon to convey the hilarity intended. In short, during this virtual communication people are in a verbal Jacuzzi – a pool of warm, swirling water, relaxing yet constantly moving and challenging – but only if smileys are there in the water.

For every intelligent remark that I make online or on sms I make it a point to tag a smiley along or, even worse, an exclamation mark. In my earlier job my editor’s thumb-rule while editing is to avoid exclamation marks. Why? It’s like laughing at your joke, he said. What about people who use at least three exclamation marks to convey the gravity of situation? Author Terry Pratchett said that everyone of those has a diseased mind(!).

I am no Luddite, by the way. I dig YouTube, I tweet my movie watching schedules, I update my Facebook status every nine hours (mostly I am a quote hanger there), until recently my religious views on Facebook was ‘pro-piracy’. I almost qualify as a poster child to that new saw making rounds, “I am only popular on the Internet”. My problem with the smileys is that they are making me feel inferior. While I am trying to woo (or whatever you kids call wooing these days) that ‘new’ Facebook friend with my Kevlar-like grip, suspend your disbelief for a while, over English, I am almost sure that the words would ring hollow until there’s a smiley lurking around.

For the record, I have no problem against swimming in the alphabetical soup of tsk tsk or lol or hehe or rotfl. I know that’s like quitting drinking, but making an exception for beer and hard liquor (I am so tempted to use a smiley, preferably the wink one, here). But then, dealing with bigger evil is of more important. For now, I hope there is an Alcoholics Anonymous or sex-rehab (a certain Mr Woods would attest to it) equivalent for shedding the addictive habit of mine to use smileys. Smiley patches may be?

Needed: quality criticism

In his early 20s, film-maker Quentin Tarantino used to wait for movies to release. Not necessarily to watch them but to read the trenchant reviews of Pauline Kael, the then New Yorker movie critic. The way she used to tear into movies was a masochist’s delight. In India, we too wait every Friday to watch the Bollywood fare and as far as film criticism is concerned we go by the ‘stars’.

Despite the existing shoddy standards in the country I still consider film criticism as journalism and this star system would qualify for that ultimate term of humiliation, lazy journalism. I don’t know if Google is making us stupid but this star system is definitely dumbing us down. As Richard Schickel , a Los Angeles Times book reviewer puts it, “Opinion — thumbs up, thumbs down — is the least important aspect of reviewing.”

French film-maker Jean Luc Godard once remarked that a movie should have a start, middle and finish but not exactly in that order. Maybe he was referring to his days as a film critic as well. Writing a movie review is as creative as any other art form is. The proof is in the pudding called Western journalism. Pick up any daily or magazine in US and UK and their reviewing standards are so high that it would seem they were always destined to be film critics.

Cut to India, except Bhardwaj Rangan, who reviews for The New Indian Express, no other Indian movie reviewer (film criticism is not their forte) comes closer to global standards. (Full disclosure: I worked at the desk of The New Indian Express in Bangalore for 19 months.) Rangan is the only person, who seems to have taken Godard’s remark to heart, and that can be seen in his reviews. He doesn’t start like everyone else in his Indian brethren with mundane details like plot outline, how good or bad the lead actors were, if the second half was better than first half or vice-versa.

Rangan starts his review with a minor gem of a scene in the movie (a la Roger Ebert and Nigel Andrews) and from there on he takes off. He tries to find global parallels for even the biggest cinematic duds. I am not even talking about his breathtaking writing, which would leave all the other reviewers’ writing akin to hanging their underwears in the open. Case in point: I almost barfed when the review of Kurbaan in a ‘reputed’ daily started off with “first things first”. I wonder if all fourth ratehacks end up as film critics here. It’s so easy to imagine Rangan as a Woody Allen character in an empty train coach and on the parallel track is revelry populated by the other reviewers.

Some less-informed people tell me that conventional reviews will die soon what with the blogs allowing everyone to voice their opinion. I don’t think this argument merits a counter argument simply because our blogging culture is still in its infancy. We have people who watch the movie first day morning show and put up a wishy washy ‘review’ on their blog. With a vocabulary that doesn’t go beyond ‘awesome’ and ‘superb’, I don’t want to waste my time reading such spontaneous drivel. Rangan too started off as a blogger but then he took his craft seriously unlike the latest crop of smug bloggers, who think of themselves as the final authority on any movie and can’t say who A O Scott is or what Criterion Collection means. Had J D Salinger ever ventured out of his Cornish castle, these bloggers would have been the first ones to be branded ‘phoneys’.

For Christ’s sake, Sistine Chapel is awesome not the jejune balatkar joke in Three Idiots. I know am digressing. The need for conventional criticism has never been more felt than now when life is manically divided into 140 characters, three minute you tube videos and “my kitty is sick” status messages. Any form of art that is not on the top will have to vie for space with millions others because of the fragmentation of media. This is where the critic can make all the difference by separating the wheat from the chaff (read sensible from juvenile).

For now, the situation seems so dire that I am forced to give an extra dimension to a Richard Feynman’s statement: “movie reviews are as important to Indian moviegoers as much as ornithology is to birds”.