Thursday, December 29, 2011

Lunar lunacy

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s brand of fantasy-realism is polarising and there can’t be any acquired taste about it. You either believe in talking cats and orthogonal cheese or you don’t. However, his latest opus 1Q84 is a far less demanding work of fiction but is as rewarding like Kafka On the Shore, Sputnik Sweetheart, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Set in the last nine months of 1984 in Tokyo, the three-part novel (divided into Book 1, 2 and 3) pivots around two characters: Aomame and Tengo. They have not met for two decades, but each is very much an essence in the other’s memory. Aomame is a sweet, po-faced sports club instructor with a sexual leaning towards balding men who look like Sean Connery and occasionally operates as a Manga-version of Lisbeth Salander who kills men by touching the “sweet spot” on the back of their neck. Tengo is a math instructor at a primary school and writes fiction that is yet to deserve any publishing house’s affections. The title alludes to a parallel world that the characters unwittingly walk into (number 9 is pronounced as kyu in Japanese).

Tengo is involved in the rewriting of a young girl’s novel about a cult, at the behest of his smarmy editor, Komatsu. Not so far away, Aomame is entrusted with the impossibly dangerous task of killing this cult’s leader. Murakami does well to inject a few more characters who propel the novel into the realms of brilliant storytelling. Ushikawa, a lawyer turned private detective, has a major presence in the book 3, and his Sherlock Holmes-kind deductions are an absolute delight. Tamaru, Aomame’s Man Friday, waxes eloquent on topics ranging from Carl Jung’s home in Switzerland to Chekhov’s “gun maxim”.

1Q84 was issued in three volumes to huge acclaim in Japan in 2009-10 and is destined for similar response in rest of the world as well. Right from the opening page, where Aomame is transfixed by Czech composer Janacek’s Sinfonietta, Murakami wears his Western cultural influences on his sleeve. He eschews kimono for jeans, sushi for pizza and hardly mentions sake in this hefty (932 pages to be precise) novel. Here are a few references that should give you an ample idea of what Murakami wants his reader to think about: Faye Dunaway, Duke Ellington, Janacek, Sonny and Cher, Anton Chekhov, Proust, Churchill and George Orwell.

What makes 1Q84 a fierce work of imagination is the scope that Murakami gives to his love story: Lewis Carroll meets Charles Dickens meets Philip Pullman at the same table in a jazz club in Tokyo. The way Aomame makes her way to the parallel world through an innocuous expressway is pure Carroll, Tengo’s deprived childhood could give any Dickens character a run for his money and the way parallel worlds coexist cheek-by-jowl in the novel is straight out of a Pullman book. On top of that, 1Q84 is deeply rooted in the Japanese kaidan eiga tradition and its kabuki theatre ancestry.

The part where Aomame kills the leader has more chills per sentence than the entire shower scene in Psycho and eyeball ripping in Un Chien Andalou together. Despite its size, Murakami makes sure that he weaves his yarn intricately enough to not let the reader’s attention waver. By jettisoning his usual fantasy-realism, Murakami could etch out his characters more finely and have arresting backstories that would make 1Q84 a novel easily suitable to any reader’s palate. Explicit, yet subtle and dreamlike, and more sex than is usual for Murakami, 1Q84 will transcend Murakami’s fan base.

That said, this being a Murakami novel, ordinary events do turn into extraordinary events in no time. Tengo and Aomame can see two moons in the sky, Aomame ties herself up in knots over the colour of the uniform of Tokyo Police, there’s a bizarre impregnating scene, dwarfs called Little People walk out of dead people’s mouth and any Inception fan would revel at how you can never be completely sure which world the story is taking place in. Memory plays an important part in the novel’s structured and exploding proceedings. Both the leads are forever clinging to their past despite the bad taste that it leaves in their mouths. After all, the past is something they can be at least sure of.

If any blemishes are to be picked up from this otherwise flawlessly brilliant novel, it’s the climax that is a tad contrived. The publisher appointed two translators and had them race against the time in order to release the book as soon as possible, which is why the language gets a bit jarring at times. In fact, 1Q84 was nominated for Literary Review’s bad sex in fiction award for this clunky line: “A freshly made ear and a freshly made vagina look very much alike, Tengo thought.” Despite this I would say that if you have to read only one work of fiction this year, make sure it’s 1Q84.

1Q84: BOOK 1, 2 AND 3
Haruki Murakami
Harvill Secker
932 pages; Rs 649

Thomas Hardy in India

Nine years ago, British director Michael Winterbottom visited the deserts near Osian in Rajasthan for a documentary project. Though Osian did not make it to the final cut of the documentary, Winterbottom decided to make a feature film set in Osian. This is Trishna, a not-so-faithful adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which will release in India in March 2012.

The story revolves around Trishna, played by Freida Pinto, who wishes to rise in life despite her humble roots. She meets Jay Singh (Riz Ahmad), the London-bred son of a hotelier, who falls in love with her. What follows is a rollercoaster of emotions that Marcel Zyskind’s (a Winterbottom regular) camera captures unflinching, never once shying away from reality.

Asked why he chose to set Tess in India, Winterbottom says, “I think Hardy was able to capture ordinary people’s lives really well. He wrote about rapidly changing rural landscapes as a result of increased education, mechanised farming, steam engines, and so on. Right now, India is undergoing a similar change, so I thought it would be interesting to set the story in India.” Clearly, Winterbottom, who has made three films on Hardy’s novels, knows the author very well.

Shot in Osian, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Nagore and Mumbai in a short shooting schedule of six weeks, Trishna is a departure from Winterbottom’s two previous films which released last year — The Killer Inside Me which was a thriller, and The Trip, a comedy. Trishna, on the other hand, is a cross between a gritty documentary on rural India and a love story.

Unlike Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, however, Winterbottom depicts both the incredible and insipid India in the same light. On his choice of Pinto for the lead role, he says, “When I met Freida, she came across as extremely beautiful but also as someone who could convey Tess’s pain.” Pinto is not the only Indian on the film’s credits. The film has been co-produced by Sunil Bohra and Anurag Kashyap while Amit Trivedi has composed the music, coming up with an evocative soundtrack which combines Rajasthani folk music with sounds of English bands like Kasabian and Portishead.

Kashyap, Trivedi and Bollywood actress Kalki Koechlin play themselves in the movie, while Trishna’s family members are inhabitants of Osian who hosted the film’s cast and crew. In fact, some of the best wisecracks in Hindi uttered by the minor characters were spontaneous improvisations.

Recounting her experience of working on the film in Goa, where Trishna premiered at the recently concluded 42nd International Film Festival of India, Pinto says, “This is an author-backed role of a silent sufferer and Michael took me ten steps ahead as an actor.” Used to working with large crews in The Immortals and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Pinto says she found working with a small crew on Trishna an “intimate and interesting” experience.

Trishna is the third film this year to adapt a classic novel — earlier there were Cary Fukunaga’s bleak Jane Eyre and Andrea Arnold’s dreamy Wuthering Heights. While both these films stuck to the novel’s plot, purists may scoff at the liberties Winterbottom takes with the original, especially in the character of Jay Singh, who is a combination of the two main male characters in the novel. But Winterbottom is undeterred. “Every human has a spiritual and sensual side which comes out at appropriate time,” he says.

But why make a movie that is so bleak, and offers little hope? “When the socio-economic conditions of people are rapidly changing, some are gainers while some are invariably left behind,” says Winterbottom. “In this period of flux, Trishna might have lost out but I show that there’s still hope for her family.”

Between the covers

A couple more weeks and the books industry will have survived another year, predictions of its imminent death notwithstanding. Yes, people are spending more time on social networking sites, giving pigeons competition in terms of attention span, and independent bookstores in the West (not just chains like Borders) are shutting down en masse, but books as such have survived.

Apart from the gloom and doom, 2011 saw the worst literary spat since Paul Theroux and V S Naipaul’s fell out. Niall Ferguson accused Pankaj Mishra of racism after Mishra’s scathing review of Civilisation: The West and the Rest appeared in the London Review of Books.

Here are a few of Mishra’s jabs. Ferguson, he wrote, is a “retailer of emollient tales about the glorious past” whose books “are known less for their original scholarly contribution than for containing some provocative counterfactuals”. He summarised Ferguson’s new book in one word: gallimaufry. Thin-skinned Ferguson threatened to take Mishra and the LRB to court for making “racist” comments and called the review “a personal attack that amounts to libel”. Mishra refused to be cowed, and is nowhere near making an apology. It remains to be seen whether in the new year Ferguson makes his threat real.

Mishra rubbed Patrick French the wrong way, too. He trashed French’s India: A Portrait so harshly in Outlook magazine that the latter retorted, “It was less a review than an ideological cry of pain,” and returned the compliment by comparing Mishra, with his “migratory bio”, with Lord Curzon.

Catfights apart, one of the bigger events was Salman Rushdie’s entry into Twitter. Other than Bret Easton Ellis, Rushdie is probably the only popular novelist who understands perfectly well how to engage his followers. When Facebook banned his profile for not including his first name (Ahmed), Rushdie took to Twitter and compiled a list of Middle Name Users: James “Paul” McCartney, Francis “Scott” Fitzgerald and Edward “Morgan” Forster, among others. If you haven’t yet read Rushdie’s limerick on TV personality Kim Kardashian’s recent divorce, you’ve missed a minor gem.

Another major controversy blew up when a judge quit the Man Booker International prize panel after Philip Roth was given the award. The judge, author and publisher Carmen Callil, said of Roth that “He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”

Closer to home, the mushrooming of literary festivals was a cause of minor consternation as the same clique of writers was seen displaying its wares at every location. But then, anything that celebrates a series of dark pigments in rectilinear format has to be a good thing.

The Jaipur Literature Festival at the beginning of the year was the absolute standout among the bookfests. With the impressive lineup of international writers its organisers manage to assemble year after year, JLF is turning into the Hay Festival of South Asia. Martin Amis, Orhan Pamuk, Kiran Desai, Junot Diaz, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Richard Ford, Jay McInerney, J M Coetzee and Vikram Seth are a few of the many writers who held the audience in thrall during the five days of the event. Next year’s list of speakers looks equally promising.

The sore thumb of the year in bookfests was Harud, the Srinagar literary festival that was indefinitely postponed because of an “open letter” that several writers of Kashmiri origin composed and circulated. The letter said that so long as human rights were being denied in the strife-ridden region, an “apolitical” festival was an absurdity.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. If only it didn’t have to be that way.

Margin Call

There has been massive literature on the financial recession that shook the world three years ago. However, not many movies have been made depicting the exact turn of events. Wall Street 2 was at most middling with the usual Oliver Stone empty bluster. First-time director PC Chandor’s Margin Call makes more than a decent attempt at plugging this ever-widening gap. In his fictional account of how Lehman Brothers bit the dust, Chandor shows how harrowing those 72 hours leading to the bankruptcy were.

In brokerage parlance, “margin call is a demand by a broker that an investor should deposit further cash to cover possible losses”. The large investment bank in the movie realises that it has too many junk bonds well past their sell-by date, which it can’t sell to the investors anymore unless it doesn’t mind cheating. Thus, this dictum: “There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat.”

Chandor’s camera is a fly on the wall and is uncomfortably close to the faces of the dramatis personae. The viewer is bound to feel the tension. There are no two ways about it. The bank’s chairman Jeremy Irons, who is modeled on, YES, Dick Fuld, delivers a masterly performance as the man who knows end is nigh but would still delude himself that a miracle is on the anvil.

Not just Irons, each actor, the bits-and-pieces ones included, perform their part with a gusto that these themes need. Chandor manages to give everyone sparkling dialogues. In the heat of the moment, Paul Bettany stands atop the skyscraper and gets philosophical with his subordinate Zachary Quinto, “When you’re this high, you’re not afraid that you might fall, you’re afraid that you’ll fall.”

In another delicate moment, Quinto’s colleague has an epiphany that he is just “pushing buttons” and making loads of money. “I might as well play roulette,” he says.

The movie’s denouement is equally heartrending when Kevin Spacey asks the brokers to go for the broke (pun not intended) and deceive their clients. When the game’s up and only one team of players knows that, it’s an absolute rampage. This is why the Occupy Wall Street protests fall flat on one level. This quote from Reuters journalist Felix Salmon should illustrate why, “Wall Street isn’t picking the pockets of the 99% and giving the proceeds to the 1%. It’s picking the pockets of the 1% and giving the proceeds to itself.”

Humble brag

UrbanDictionary. com defines the term humble brag as, “A form of self promotion where the promoter thinks he is bragging about himself in the context of a humble statement.” This definition more or less sums up what Douglas Edwards achieves through his book I’m Feeling Lucky on his former employer Google (more on this later).

Edwards was Google’s 59th employee, was involved with the company in 1999 when it was virtually based out of a garage in Silicon Valley and he left it in 2005. Backed by seven years of solid marketing experience for the San Jose Mercury News, 34-year-old Edwards felt he deserved a tiny bit of the technology pie in Silicon Valley. He acquired the vague designation of director of consumer marketing at Google, and quickly realised it wouldn’t be a cakewalk. Here was an organisation that is as flat as it can get. He had carte blanche over various decisions and in the same way anyone could overrule his decisions as long as the alternative made sense.

With headlines inspired from the satirical website Onion (“I Go Logo Loco and Learn Good Enough Is Good Enough”, “Rugged Individualists with a Taste for Porn”, “Managers in Hot Tubs and in Hot Water”), Edwards charts the all-too-familiar history of Google, albeit with in-house jokes and anecdotes hitherto unknown to outside world. Whether this Google-y humour will make those unfamiliar with Google’s zeitgeist smile is a contentious issue but the writer deserves to be commended for the perennial undercurrent of light humour in the book. One of the chapters, “Is New York Alive?”, has the sweep of a disaster epic novel. Edwards displays all his literary chops when he describes how Google went about covering 9/11. The spot ethical decisions that Google made at that juncture demonstrate that it at least strives to live up to its credo of “Don’t Be Evil”.

Edwards’ reverence for Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page shines through the pages. All sorts of fawning adjectives are used to describe their intelligence and ingenuity. They may be valid but it would have been better if Edwards had exercised some restraint. The book’s subtitle is “The Confessions of Google Employee 59” but this is hardly a tell-all memoir. If anything, it’s a safe one. Where is the bite that was seen in, say, Stephen Levy’s In the Plex? Google’s disdain for non-engineers is legendary and an open secret, but Edwards gives this issue cursory treatment. And that’s quite discombobulating considering he was told this when he was sacked in 2005: “I’m having a hard time slotting you. I don’t really see where you fit. There doesn’t seem to be a place for ‘brand management’ in the organisation as a functional role.”

If Edwards didn’t want to burn bridges, he could have at least loosened a few screws and provided an insight like Eli Pariser did with his book The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You. If Google really purports to not be evil, why is it that search results change depending on the geographical location of a user? The only mild criticism that Edwards had was the company’s attitude towards Orkut, a social networking site. Edwards thought that the site had great potential but it was nipped in the bud because Google’s “tech snobbery” came in the way. “Because Orkut had been written using Microsoft tools, Google’s engineers deemed it not scalable. They turned their noses up at it and … they just let it die,” reminisces Edwards.

Edwards himself doesn’t have any earth-shattering contributions to speak of. Apart from coining AdWords and writing the documentation in corporatespeak (he has studied English literature at college), Edwards wasn’t a great employee. Even though he was a bit player, he invariably found himself in the enviable position of fly-on-the-wall during Google’s most momentous occasions. That is why the way Google pipped its then competitor Overture for a contract with AOL is written with a panache that will keep the reader hooked.

Coming back to the humble brag part, I’m Feeling Lucky is a litany of complaints and Pyrrhic victories that Edwards writes about in meticulous detail. Be it his tiny ego battles over inconsequential things with his superiors or an argument that he wins after intense wrangling, Edwards doesn’t let anything slip away in the ether of time. It’s not even his delusions of grandeur that let down the book; what really prevents it from being a page-turner are the useless details with which he peppers the book. Instead of providing the true insider’s lowdown on Google, Edwards dedicates pages to the canteen food and the facilities in the recreation room.

Pardon the feeble attempt at humour, but as a reader I didn’t feel lucky having to review this 400-page puff piece.

Douglas Edwards
Allen Lane
401 pages; £20

Smudged ink

T S Eliot once wrote, “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper.” Looking at the way newspapers across the world are either going belly up or downsizing to the barest bone, Eliot is a vindicated man. My idea of an apocalyptic world is one where newspapers aren’t sold on the streets but can be read only on digital contraptions of various sizes. Thankfully, closure of News of the World brought dailies into an ephemeral limelight. That limelight is sputtering but will be alive for a while because of a few movies that released this year, which make for a pretty compelling case for the future of smudgy old newsprint in the face of new media.

One movie that makes maximum noise is the documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times. Film maker Andrew Rossi is a fly on the wall of the media desk of the Gray Lady and tries to portray how the world is a much more uncomfortable place to live in without newspapers (especially NYT). Page One is a documentary for news junkies that charts the apogee and perigee of arguably the best newspaper in the world: Pentagon Papers expose and the utterly discredited reporting of Judith Miller in Iraq respectively.

David Carr, the crusty media columnist of NYT and a former crack addict, is at the heart of the documentary whose spit-and-vinegar nature is an absolute delight. Right at the documentary’s fag end the viewer gets to see how Carr is ripping a Tribune Company’s executive to shreds for having the gall to accuse Carr of doing a “top to bottom hatchet job”. The ‘job’ here refers to the story that Carr eventually wrote about the company's bankruptcy and the rampant sexual transgressions that reduced the esteemed publication to a “fraternity house”. Carr takes a jibe at the ever-expanding Internet news machine and rightly so.

The earliest beacon of investigative journalism was Hunter S Thompson whose truculence produced some of the best pieces the world has ever seen. However, Thompson’s brand of journalism is something else, a kind of new journalism. While he was commissioned to cover a certain happening, his shoe-gazing self would unearth something else that would be oblivious to every other pair of journalistic eyes.

The Johnny Depp-starrer The Rum Diary is an adaptation of his book with the same title that he wrote in Puerto Rico while he was working with a newspaper called San Juan Star during the sixties. A young Paul Kemp (Depp) is assigned to write astrology columns and rambling pieces about American tourists that land up on the island to go bowling.

The movie’s shining moments are to be seen when Depp and his two amigos, the leathery photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) and a batty religious affairs correspondent Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), get their banter going.

When Sanderson, a local mercenary played with an understated menace by Aaron Eckhart, asks Kemp to write a few flattering pieces about a real estate ripoff that he has in mind, the old school journalistic ethics start kicking in. Realising that he is turning into a bedfellow of the deep-pocketed evil men, Kemp tries to expose them but his troubles are such that he utters this line when at the printing press, “Do you smell it? It’s the smell of b**tards. It’s also the smell of truth. I smell ink!”

If Rum Diary is about journalistic ethics, Errol Morris’ purely entertaining documentary Tabloid lays bare how the Tabloids slug it out for that all-elusive ‘exclusive’. In the 1970s, Joyce McKinney, a Miss Wyoming and absolutely gorgeous woman, was accused of kidnapping and raping her erstwhile boyfriend who turned into a Mormon. While a fair bit of Tabloid is dedicated to how Joyce went about with her ‘act’, what Morris shows is the dog-eats-dog ethos of the Tabloid culture. Here were two premium UK Tabloids — Mirror and Daily Express— that were desperate for any scrap pieces of the story as long as it’s ‘exclusive’.

Closer to home, Tamil flick Ko is about an audacious newspaper photographer (played by Jeeva) who gets involved in journalistic capers that would make even Clark Kent blush. But then, at a time when Indian movies are all about wall-to-wall television coverage (cue Peepli Live), Ko redeems the declining habit of appreciating what’s on the front page.

Economics 2.0

I have a modest alternative in mind for the Occupy Wall Street and its variants that are spreading their tentacles across the developed world. Let the 99 per cent lay a siege against all the banks and ask for its money to be returned, something that James Stewart underwent as the head of a bank in the 1946 classic It’s A Wonderful Life. That way, we can no longer blame ourselves for lining the “one per cent’s” pockets. If you think I’ve lost my marbles, you are not the reader Charles Eisenstein wants to attract through his book Sacred Economics: Money, Gift & Society In The Age Of Transition.

This book is Eisenstein’s clarion call to the world to jettison all its prized possessions and get together again to build a new world. This world would invert all the cherished tenets of conventional economics and instead use new concepts like de-growth, underproduction, non-ownership and negative-interest currency. Negative interest on reserves and a physical currency that loses value with time ensure that we don’t hoard money and instead lend it out to people without, here’s the kicker, expecting it to be returned. That’s the motto of the citizens of Planet Eisenstein: to eliminate currency and bring back the system of a selfless economy.

Economic de-growth puts the brakes on our unfettered quest to conquer every Maslow hierarchy and scale new peaks without giving any thought if it’s worth our time. Thus, de-growth will allow us to work less for money and enjoy the beauty of life. Eisenstein upends every theory of economics and tries to topple every master who is perched atop, be it Malthus or Keynes or Marx. In an interview with the Dazed And Confused magazine, Eisenstein said: “People think we’re too materialistic, but I think the problem is that we’re not materialistic enough. We settle for cheap mass-produced stuff made by people in a degraded state of paid starvation at the expense of the ecosystem. Materialism to me means treating matter as sacred and making as beautiful a thing out of it as we can.”

In a world dominated by cold hard cash, it’s a stretch of the imagination to envision a sacred economy in action. But then, what’s the harm in it? If John Lennon’s Imagine can be a classic, why not at least venture out to create an economy that embodies new values like human dignity and sustainability? Eisenstein’s child-like enthusiasm to overhaul the financial system is extremely gratifying. He tries to find withering life under every unconventional stone of economics. He hits and misses but he never gives up. Even he admits the fact that he’s being “hopelessly naïve, vague and idealistic” but one can’t contend the fact that he gets a few things right. In this age of smartphones and uninhibited access to others’ personal lives, we have somehow forgotten that sharing a song or link to an article is not as altruistic as donating blood or kidney. Eisenstein wants to put the H back in humanity.

Some of the things that the author proposes in his book are straight out of Communist Manifesto. In modern-day China, that last true-blue bastion of communism of yore, no one is allowed to inherit a house after the death of their parents. That’s why we read newspaper reports that the one per cent Chinese are investing elsewhere in the world. In such circumstances, a book like Sacred Economics makes for essential reading.

This distilled elixir of Ayn Rand’s utopia in Atlas Shrugged is the backbone of this hefty book. And that happens to be its Achilles heel as well. While imagining this hybrid of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged kind of world, Eisenstein starts to sound as if the world is divided into two people: brainiacs and idiots. He thinks that people shouldn’t be working for wages. They should strive (read: work) to create something beautiful all the time. “We’re not born to just survive — we were born to contribute to the world in a way that makes use of our talents,” he says.

And his point of reference is the garbage collectors. So deluded is Eisenstein that he believes recycling waste will eliminate these “menial” jobs and people can channel their creative energy towards something more sustainable. Clearly, Eisenstein hasn’t heard of something called shadow economy. At a time when an entire layer of ancillary jobs is disappearing, be it the gas station attendant or the ticket agent at airport or employees at retail stores who would help customers find difficult-to-locate products, Eisenstein thinks we don’t need to have these jobs at all.

As long as Eisenstein’s magpie eye is focused on current economics, the book is devastatingly good. Once he starts mining the depressing but brilliant lecture that David Foster Wallace gave at the Kenyon College, Ohio, in 2005, the book turns into a rah rah manifesto for Ayn Rand fans who will lap up anything that barely resembles her utopia. That’s why this book will never eclipse the dinner table talks. After all, we all have to get suited up for the next day at work.

Charles Eisenstein
Evolver Editions
469 pages; Rs 843

In the dark

Everything that’s wrong with post-Internet movies can be seen in The Pirates of The Caribbean and the Transformers movies. These money-spinning ventures show how fluffy Hollywood flicks are turning out to be: aimed at teenagers, special effects glossing over hackneyed plots, Photoshopped people passing off as actors, being cool is the norm. If this Facebook-status size rant gets you either interested or worked up, film critic Mark Kermode’s The Good, The Bad And The Multiplex (TGTBATM) might make it to your bedside table.

Right from the standard of service at multiplexes to the decreasing influence of movie critics and the flakiness of 3-D cinema to the American disdain for foreign movies, Kermode makes sure every sacred cinematic cow is slayed between the covers of this slim paperback. He describes Michael Bay, the brain behind the Transformers franchise (personally, I’m not sure if making this garbage needs a brain), as “the reigning deity of all that is loathsome, putrid and soul destroying about modern-day blockbuster entertainment”. Nowadays Hollywood only makes two kinds of films: the larger-than-life fare that inevitably turns out to be jaw-droppingly awful or the below-the-radar stuff that can only be seen at independent film festivals like Sundance.

How have things come to such a deplorable pass? If you are someone who likes unapologetically bad movies with superb production values then you are part of the problem. In one of the six chapters, “Why Blockbusters Should Be Better”, Kermode argues that a “big” film is possible without eschewing the essential cinematic aesthetics, and his prime exhibit is Inception. Here was a smart thriller that was never “dumbed down” to pander to the sensibilities of a certain demographics, unlike expensive obscenities such as Titanic, Pearl Harbor and Avatar.

Kermode is equally dismissive about the latest practice of Hollywood studios of producing all big-budget flicks in 3-D format. In the chapter “The Inevitable Decline of 3-D”, Kermode turns into an entertaining boffin to give the reader a guided tour of the past of a medium that was never impressive and only ended up leaving a perpetual itch on the bridge of the viewer’s nose.

Equally revealing is his take on the profession of film criticism. He speaks at length about the shady practices of the studios in misquoting a critic. It's baffling to know that a review can be mangled in such a way that a review that trashed the movie is actually shown to be glowing on the DVD cover. Beware budding reviewers, next time you describe a movie as “so incredibly bad that it's good”, there are high chances it might make it to the DVD cover.

His cri de coeur that film criticism is no longer that important an art is arresting. He is very clear that, “I don’t think that critics should do the job of watching movies for you. I don’t even think they should do the job telling you which movies to watch… I think critics should do the job of watching all the movies and then telling you what they think about them in a way which is honest, engaging, erudite and entertaining.” What really gets Kermode's goat is that “for most cinema-goers in the UK, it’s blockbusters or nothing”, a phenomenon that we Indians perpetuate as well.

TGTBATM is an entertaining read because of Kermode’s LOL-provoking writing, which makes the book literally laugh-a-minute. He's so funny that if you hasten to read this book in public places, brace yourself for some baffled stares. But the humour is also the book’s biggest undoing. In a chapter in which he rants against the multiplexes he gets so carried away that he calls a multiplex staff member a “uniformed monkey”. While Kermode is an able wordsmith he tends to go overboard, which makes one wonder why his editor didn’t even make a feeble attempt to lasso his excesses.

It’s true that you need to take a small loan to afford the complete multiplex experience, but one can’t deny the fact that they have helped spawn an alternative movie-going culture. There have been a few occasions when I was allowed to watch a movie even though I was the only one in the auditorium. The burgeoning “mumblecore” movement, which is reminiscent of the Dogme 95 style of filmmaking in the US, is a sign that independent cinema might just thrive. The fact that a movie like Drive is finding a release in India shows that a multiplex is not really, to borrow a Matt Taibbi quote, “a vampire squid relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”.

Another irritant in the book is that Kermode keeps reciting his impressive resume of the last 25 years. There were moments when I shouted aloud, “all right, all right, I get it that you’ve traveled half of the world and schmoozed with every movie celebrity, now can we please move on”. What’s more, he inundates the reader with random numbers about how much a movie spent and earned in return. I really wish Kermode’s gimlet eye for accuracy was toned down to turn this enjoyable book into what could have been a genre-defining book.

Mark Kermode
328 pages; Rs 732