Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cinema Paradiso

You’d always find me sitting closest to the screen. Why do we sit so close? Maybe it was because we wanted to receive the images first, when they were still new, still fresh, before they cleared the hurdles of the rows behind us.” This is the first dialogue of “The Dreamers” where Michael Pitt lays bare his cinephilia. The Popcorn Essayists, an anthology of essays on films written by 13 well-known Indian writers, is a book-length equivalent of that Pitt dialogue. Edited by Jai Arjun Singh (a columnist for Business Standard), the book pays tribute to a raft of eminence grises of world cinema like the Kaurismaki Brothers, Wim Wenders, Francois Truffaut and Luis Bunuel. This being an essentially Indian book, there are quite a few pieces dedicated to the Hindi cinema of yore too.

For every brooding of Manjula Padmanabhan over Luis Bunuel’s technique of using multiple actresses for the same character in “That Object of Desire” there is an Amitava Kumar gushing over Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya. If Manil Suri gave the ultimate ode to Helen by performing a raunchy number of hers at the Brooklyn Book Festival, on her trip to Finland Anjum Hasan hops on to a cinematic time machine that takes her on a whirlwind trip of all the movies of Kaurismaki Brothers. There’s this one really long passage in which she encapsulates all the tics of every stereotypical Kaurismaki character (for the uninitiated, imagine them as poor man’s Jonathan Franzen characters): “In Kaurismaki land, you lead an honest life, working with your hands. You take short breaks, standing under a harsh light and smoking silently with a colleague. You go to a bar where there’s a band playing and you sit and listen for a while.” And so it goes. This dry-as-dust scholarship married with superb literature is the book’s biggest achievement.

Jai Arjun Singh’s recollection of all the slasher flicks that he has seen from his childhood is just what the flicks are all about: a guilty pleasure. He flits from the grand-daddy of the genre (Psycho) to the chained-up-in-the-cellar movies within the space of a couple of paragraphs. As an Ed Wood, Wes Craven and David Cronenberg fan, I was a bit disappointed at not finding them mentioned but Singh makes up for that by discussing lesser-known but brilliant movies like Onibaba and Hour of the Wolf. Despite the space constraint, he manages to delve into the philosophy of the genre through his childhood.

In 1996, Susan Sontag remarked on the decline of the film culture: “Perhaps it is not cinema that has ended but only cinephilia.” To a certain extent Dame Sontag was spot on. Cinema is thriving even more but it’s the fragmented reality of modern human lives that have other media of entertainment like the Xboxes, YouTubes, incessant text messaging and so on. A ridiculous sense of urgency has been creeping into the movies lately. A languid shot and empty space are all taboos now. An interesting counterpoint to this theory is to be found in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s latest book (the title and this review’s headline are the same). He says the golden age of cinema is long past us because “it’s a central aspect of our alienated relation to language that when someone says, ‘I just saw a film,’ we don’t know whether this person saw something on a large screen with hundreds of other people or alone on a laptop — or whether what he or she saw was on film, video, or DVD, regardless of where and how it was seen”.

This was the kind of argument I relished while reading Rajorshi Chakraborti’s penetrating analysis of his favourite movies. A beautiful condensation of the initial manic ten minutes of a Hindi film (Naukar Biwi Ka) is a roller-coaster ride fuelled by amphetamines and regular eighties’ Hindi cinema tropes. Right from the fifties to the late eighties, this flashback episode has always been a Hindi movie staple, which Chakraborti coins as “Pre-Credit Backstory-Compression Special”.

The book has its shares of misfires also. Amitava Kumar’s essay on his love for Satya and adoration for Manoj Bajpai was belaboured and the subject matter is hardly compelling. What could have made for a better narrative in the form of a book was too rushed and out of place here. His pretzel-like twists at trying to win Bajpai’s trust made for some bad reading. “I would press him for details. It didn’t always work. I was unsure whether Bajpai understood the difference between a journalist and a writer. But I was pleased when he granted me little snippets.” I burrowed through this dreck but the essay fails to break any new ground. Madhulika Liddle’s piece on Hindi cinema tropes is more of filler than a definitive tip of the hat to an era gone by. The same is the case with Sidin Vadukut’s homage to Charlie Sheen starrer Terminal Velocity. This hyperbolised essay left me gasping for breath at times: “Terminal Velocity was the greatest movie ever made by man.” To think of it, Vadukut’s tweets make for a better read than this tripe.

At a time when the cinematic discourse space in India is increasingly being colonised by kitsch purveyors like Karan Johar and Rajkumar Hirani, this book is the most fun a movie buff can have with his clothes on.

(Edited by Jai Arjun Singh)
227 pages; Rs 395

Drip from the top

For everyone who thought Julian Assange was fighting the good fight, his former associate Daniel Domscheit-Berg has evidence that suggests the contrary. The evidence is this book, Inside WikiLeaks, and because it is about WikiLeaks the subtitle is appositely dramatic: “My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website”. In Manichaean terms, this book is the yin to Assange’s yang — the autobiography he was asked to write, for a sum reportedly totalling more than £1 million.

The domain name was registered in late 2006, but not until November 2007 did the whistleblowing website make its first revelation, when it published the Guantánamo Bay handbooks (a military manual for the notorious “detention facility”). A month later, Domscheit-Berg met Assange at the 24th Chaos Communication Congress, an annual hackers’ meet, in Berlin. Until that time the site had looked like a poor man’s Craigslist. With Domscheit-Berg WikiLeaks got a new lease of life. In his book he claims to have redesigned the site’s architecture and made it almost immune to hacker attack.

In its initial chapters, the book bears an uncanny resemblance to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. The setting is Sweden, the hackers in Assange’s team chat online just like Lisbeth Salander and her coterie, foreign forces oppose the release of some startling information. It would, however, be disingenuous to compare WikiLeaks with the Millennium series because the former is headed by a man who, as Domscheit-Berg describes him, is more anarchist than revolutionary. Assange does not want the world to be a better place; he wants the world to go belly-up.

Assange is megalomaniacal, narcissistic, never owns up to his mistakes, throws his weight around, has mood swings that oscillate between the sublime and the ridiculous (more often the latter). These Aguirre-like characteristics (like those of the lead in Werner Herzog’s film Aguirre, the Wrath of God) are brought to the fore in Inside WikiLeaks. In a chapter devoted to Assange’s polyamory, Domscheit-Berg says his former boss would “never be able to accept a woman who was truly his equal” and that he would “boast about how many children he had fathered”. Revelations like this may add fuel to the fire of the rape charges against Assange in Sweden. On the other hand, they might be dismissed as the author’s inability to disguise his burning resentment towards his subject.

In a perverse way, Domscheit-Berg might be forgiven for deliberately obfuscating — if he is, that is — truth with facts. After all, according to him, he never got due credit from Assange for raising funds by expending a lot of shoe leather, right from Berlin to Iceland. In fact, he says, Assange “had become very concerned that he get at least 52 per cent of the attention and me only 48 per cent”. Before Assange turned into this Frankenstein’s monster, Domscheit-Berg had a few good words for him. “For Julian,” he writes, “principles were more important than anything else.”

These “principles” are highly dubious. Here’s why. According to WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, a book by Guardian journalist David Leigh, Assange dismissed Leigh’s suggestion that WikiLeaks disguise the identities of Western forces’ informants in Afghanistan, to protect them from retribution. “Well, they’re informants,” Assange is said to have replied, “so, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.”

In his book Domscheit-Berg focuses on certain lesser-known facts. Regarding the quarter-million diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks released last year to worldwide uproar, Domscheit-Berg says: “Of 250,000, 15,652 of the dispatches were classified as ‘secret’. Only a fraction of them, however — a few hundred in total — appeared on the Cablegate page.” Most of that set of cables was of a scabrous nature. The cables talked of Muammar Gaddafi’s allegedly voluptuous Ukrainian nurse and Silvio Berlusconi’s propensity for erotic play, or “bunga-bunga”. In short, none of the dispatches was particularly shocking.

If the US authorities hadn’t girded their loins in advance, Assange could never have claimed to have been victimised by the American government. Domscheit-Berg explains why Assange wanted to unsettle the US: “Why should he expend his fighting energy in Africa or Mongolia and get into quarrels with the Thai royal family?

It would have been a far less attractive prospect to end up in some jail in Africa… than to inform the world that he was being pursued by the CIA.” Domscheit-Berg’s further insinuation that “someone could purchase exclusive access to documents with the express intent of ensuring that they never see the light of day” sounds ominous.

Inside WikiLeaks may be treated as the author’s book-length manifesto for, a site he helped found and that he intends as a more democratic version of WikiLeaks. In retail terms, OpenLeaks is a mom-and-pop shop while WikiLeaks is a “giant supermarket” for secret documents. At OpenLeaks, the whistleblowers will be king. In that case, Domscheit-Berg should have come clean.

He never delves into his informants’ details, instead lumping them together as “disgruntled elements”. His painful attempts to portray himself as saintly and Assange as a monster will not cut much ice with the reader. Never once does he attempt to counter the claims of journalists like David Finkel, who said the infamous “Collateral Murder” video is doctored to a certain extent (the video, released by WikiLeaks in 2010, shows American soldiers killing civilians indiscriminately in New Baghdad; the victims include a couple of Reuters reporters). It’s hard to believe that he has no clue whatsoever about the identities of the women who alleged that Assange raped them.

For these reasons the reader is unlikely to empathise with the author, and may, in fact, decide that Domscheit-Berg is to Assange what Simone de Beauvoir was to Jean-Paul Sartre: “part accomplice, part victim”.

My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website
Author: Daniel Domscheit-Berg
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 282
Price: Rs 499

Gentleman of Letters

For the last three years, most of my mornings’ caffeine shot has been Arts And Letters Daily, but on 28th December 2010, I saw a black masthead on the site. The site’s founder Denis Dutton breathed his last. This was my “where were you when Michael Jackson died” moment.

This was the very site that opened my eyes to a plethora of world-class writers and amazing pieces of writing. After spending a couple of months at the desk of a newspaper, this particular Oscar Wilde quote was ringing in my ears: “Journalism is unreadable and no one reads literature.” Time was ripe for the most sophisticated deus ex machina:

Modeled on an 18th century newspaper format, Dutton, professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, started aldaily in 1998. For the uninitiated, I’ll try to describe the site: The site is divided into three sections, ‘Articles of Note’, ‘New Books’ and ‘Essays and Opinion’ and, six days a week, one link is uploaded to each section. On the left-hand side there’s another section called Nota Bene (Latin for “note well”). This might be seen as the site’s equivalent of tabloidish news, which could easily walk into New Yorker’s pages.

Forget the paywalls, there’s a lot of material out there to be read on the Internet. How do you rummage through this midden to spend a couple of hours of your day reading something intellectually stimulating? Aldaily condenses its three links into a tweet-size introduction and lets you make the decision if you want to read it or not. In a way, aldaily is a precursor to Twitter’s 140-characters. Right from 1998, Dutton and his small but able team have been giving links preceded by just the right kind of tantalising text. Sample this: “When her daughter died, Edith Piaf slept with a man to pay for the burial. The melancholy grit of Piaf’s voice was hard-earned.” That was good enough to let me decide that I’m going to spend the next twenty minutes on reading the piece.

It’ll be unfair to lump aldaily along with other news aggregators like Browser or Utne or Longform. If an earthquake takes place in Japan, aldaily will give a reflective piece after a week rather than flashing the news on the site on the day of incident. Dutton’s refined tastes used to reflect in the kind of pieces he used to handpick. He is a connoisseur of classical music, world cinema, classic literature and also dismissive of technology and geopolitical conflicts. Through aldaily I came across magazines that I would otherwise always be oblivious to. Dutton never gave much thought to the publications. A New York Times article will have a piece from Dublin Review of Books giving it company. In fact, I tell my friends that “you read only aldaily and there’s absolutely nothing that you wouldn’t know about this world”.

Dutton will be sorely missed.

The Disillusionist

“We knew we weren’t going to win. So, getting the nomination was the exciting part,” said Bob Last grinning from ear-to-ear. The producer of Oscar nominated animation film The Illusionist (not to be confused with the Edward Norton starrer in which all characters are animated) was talking about the chances of his movie at Oscars, which eventually lost to Toy Story 3. Sitting in the plush-but-somewhat stuffy lobby of Taj Lands End hotel in Mumbai, the shaggy-haired man, dressed like a PGA Tour player sans the cap, recalled the adrenaline rush when the movie got an Oscar nomination: “On the day of the nomination I was in Lost Angeles, and they tell you at five in the morning. I was fast asleep and I didn’t think we weren’t going to win. It was the best wake up call.”

To think of it, The Illusionist needed as laidback a producer as Last. Based on an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati, director Sylvain Chomet is a delightfully lo-fi yin to Toy Story-3’s yang of over-the-top 3-D mish mash of thin characters and bland dialogue. The story is simple but potent: in the late ‘50s, a down-on-his-luck magician migrates from Paris to London to a hamlet on a Scottish island, where he befriends a young servant girl, Alice. With her encouragement, they go on a tour of the mainland, she believing he is capable of real magic, he taking menial jobs to maintain the illusion. The flick is full of rich characters, finely attuned details and the love of pop culture from a bygone age. The scene where The Britoons (a brilliant parody on The Beatles) are to be seen performing is killer amazing. Chomet’s semi-silent soundtrack interspersed with sparse Gallic dialogues is so rooted and lilting that it elevates the movie to a couple of notches higher than other indie animation flicks like My Dog Tulip and The Secret of Kells.

Barring a computer-generated vertiginous swoop around Edinburgh, the movie’s master-stroke is rendering of the wistful tale in soft lines, gentle water-colours and detailed backgrounds. But at a time when the multiplexes are swamped with 3-D flicks (blame James Cameron!) it made immense sense to ask Last if he never wanted to follow suit: “I always said film is not a war between pencils and computers. The animation industry has reached a new maturity where 3-D is technically easy to do. So, it comes back to your creative decision making. Not so long ago making a 3-D movie was good enough but not anymore and that means getting back to making movie first and choosing the right tools to do it.”

Last should know judging by his years of experience as MD at Dundee-based, whose range of work includes working on The Illusionist to award winning animated commercials. He was in Mumbai as one of the delegates at FICCI Frames 2011 and the Scotsman had quite an impressive pitch for the increasingly growing Indian animation sector: “After The Illusionist I’m looking at making a major family CGI feature. In Hollywood, it would cost me $100 million. My model is to keep production in Europe, use Hollywood story-telling and looking at a possibility of 30-40 per cent production in India.” That’s a win-win-win situation fuelled by amphetamines.

When the talk veered towards Scotland’s expertise in animation industry, one gets a feeling that there’s a lot under the Scottish kilt, “Our greatest strength is the creative decision making. From the Indian point of view, we can help the Indian company make those early creative decisions that will allow the company to access the global markets and work as a bridge.” Clearly, this small nation of five million people is punching way above its weight. Mark Dolan, country manager, India, Scottish Development Institute, who accompanied Last said that Scotland is number one contributor to UK in terms of animation.

Producing films is just one of the many hats that Last donned. He was music supervisor for twenty feature fims, was series producer for BBC and even did a few art installations. But his major claim to fame came in 1978 when he founded the independent record label “Fast Product” and launched the to-be major cults like Human League, Gang of Four, Mekons, Fire Engines et al, which suggests he pioneered indie music before the indie music. Throughout the 1980’s he managed The Human League, ABC, Scritti Politti, Heaven 17 and literally took them from obscurity to national consciousness. In other words, think of him as an indie Malcolm McLaren.
When asked about the changes that he noticed from the vinyl days to the current iTunes zeitgeist, he drew an analogy between the music and animation industries (I believe the plug is unintended): “In the 80s the production of music went from analog to digital and that was interesting and I see some parallels with what’s going on in the animation industry now. For a while, everything digital was fashionable and everything in music had to be done digital and then it reached a new maturity and people again went back to their guitars, drums and so on. Which is the same happening with animation where for a while everything was digital and people are again now using the old tools.”

The most interesting aspect of music industry that has caught Last by surprise is the importance of live performances to the bands. “In the eighties live performance used to cost us money but now live performance is where a band makes its money. So the whole business model is now upside down.” He is unfazed by the digital downloads and with a Zen-like expression on his sleek visage he said “it all comes back to good music”. “For example in 1981, when we were making a big Human League record we got computers, imported a drum machine from California and we thought that was what counted. But the reason why the record was a hit is good song-writing.” I didn’t want to debate that times are different now and that the popular perception is that it’s borderline foolish to buy music. Even Radiohead allowed its last two albums to be downloaded virtually free but then as I said, The Illusionist needed a producer like Last, who is slightly divorced from the present but is pragmatic at the same time.

When I said we are done he stands up, shakes hands and tells me “you know more about me than anyone else” and rushed out. In cinematic terms, all of that happened in one shot. May be he really had a golf game to attend to.