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Sunday, June 26, 2011

"Love-Hate Relationship" or "A Soiled Prayer"

When I was seven, God,
I was told to believe
And never be afraid,
For your invisible hand
Would set things right.
But if it didn't
(And here's the dodgy part)
It'd be your infinite wisdom,
After all; and I was clearly unfit,
Too ignorant, like the rest of us,
To comprehend the bigger picture.

My feeble seven-year-old intellect
Stubborn, headstrong, refused to conform
And thus I became an atheist.
Impressed with angst?
Seduced by rebellion?
Swayed by logic? (or lack thereof?)
I cannot say for sure.

For a dozen years or so,
I relished making my parents cringe
And shredding to bits
The arguments of my devout friends.
It wasn't their faith which was to blame,
I assure you, Lord, it was my tongue,
My acid tongue, which true to its name
Spewed forth venomous bile
In the guise of high rhetoric.
But as you know,
At eighteen, one lives a thousand lives
And a thousand times does one die;
Elevating the mundane,
Debunking the profound
At the drop of a hat.

In my thousand-and-first avatar,
I, inebriated, desolate, disjoint,
Declared to the heavens
The following blasphemous words,
"Why do you torture me so?
If you're real, make your presence felt!
I've been pining away in vain,
Not a sign of my beloved yet,
And I've been wasting away for so long...
Surely, surely this is a garden-variety miracle
For a divine old fart such as yourself!"

As it so happened, you obliged
And I was united with my apparition in red.
It was on a lark that I stopped believeing
And on a lark did I believe again.
I know I'm not supposed to summon you
Think of you as a last resort.
In fact, truth be told, your way
Is to renounce desire altogether
Or something like that.
Forgive me, I've been born again
Not too long ago.

But how do you explain
My return to your flock
In the wake of my failures
On the trail of my defeats
And with the stench of insincerity
Still bearing down heavily...
I believe I love you,
Most days when I wake up.
My prayer, however, isn't pure.
And I'm convinced, now,
That every prayer is equally soiled, equally defiled.
There are no holy cows, among
The mad cattle rush of pilgrims,
The frenzied faithful, who now
Call me one of their own.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

On Beauty

(In which we begin with a tip of the hat to/shameless rip-off from a certain Zadie Smith )

What does beauty mean to me?

What do I find beautiful?

I could, of course, go into an elegant discourse, citing various high-and-low-brow sources to back up whatever definition strikes me as suitably edgy or off the beaten track, as it were. Beauty might be found in Tagore one day, in Joyce the other, in silky Mozart on a calm Sunday morning, or in hoarse Dylan when we seek shelter from storms, both within and without. Beauty defies association, resists description;beauty is transient, always on the move, beauty is frozen in time.

The only universal thing about beauty is that it's always intensely personal.

Hence, I will simply tell you what happened when I went looking for beauty, retracing my steps, to a time when I thought my life itself was truly beautiful.

As is often the case with these questions, I found myself returning to my childhood, and those first, fleeting memories which one searches for, years later, only in vain. I hail from Ranchi, one of those quaintly in-between towns, a bunch of villages really, unsure whether they like the word "city". I've lived here ever since I was five, which means, importantly, that I don't really remember living elsewhere. Ever.

Hence, it is nearly impossible for me to view this place from an outsider's point of view, although the four years since I left Ranchi, (and went to college) have also, coincidentally been the years in which it has most rapidly and visibly changed. (read: "Expanded", that lovely bourgeouis usage which encapsulates so much and reveals so little)

I went ahead, anyway, to the neighbourhood I grew up in (my parents live in a different locality now) just for kicks, mind.. I had no intention of seeking out my old haunts, or going to some of the places which held a special meaning for me. My friends were supposed to pick me up from there, on a bike (the number of bikes on the road was another revelation, by the way)

But wait.

There were no old haunts anymore. In fact, the entire place looked too sanitized, and could have done with a bit of haunting.
The places which held a special meaning for me had become a meaningless pile of rubble, in most cases. The fields and the empty stretches of land had been filled up with something or the other, an ugly house, a shopping mall, a call centre in one case.

This is the chief paradox of beauty: quick to dazzle, and quicker to disappoint.

Have we not felt this again and again, this terrible aesthetic burden of having to look back upon the past with rose-tinted glasses? Note that when I see the whole thing now, with the curse of postmodern sensibilities, there's a small voice inside which says: It was never that good, you were too small, you were too stupid, and now you know better.

Whenever we're confronted with terrible beauty of this sort, it is this same voice which tells us: you know better, you know better, you know better... don't give in, don't fall for it, you know better.

This rant goes on and on, and at the end of it, we're still no better.

This is another tell-tale sign that you've fallen for something beautiful: Time ceases to flow in a strictly linear fashion. In the graphic novel "Watchmen" , Alan Moore writes about how a superhero character Doc Manhattan experiences everything simultaneously, all the time. Yet he is able to influence the future through his "present" actions. I know now that this is undoubtedly a curse.

When I was a kid, I used to sit down beneath a particular tree, exhausted from all the running I'd be doing on the field, wanting nothing more than a few minutes of respite. I used to secretly hope for a rabbit-hole to materialize, down which I'd happily disappear to escape this world, which was already proving no match for the ones inside my ten year-old head.

That tree was intact, miraculously.

I sat down, unsure of my feelings. I was convinced I wouldn't spend much time there at all. I wanted the disgust I felt, the outrage, to sweep everything else aside. I wanted to mourn the death of a beautiful place with its last surviving member.

But again and again, I'd see the plainest wild flower, and my affinity for the place and the familiarity I enjoyed with it, would transform it into the most beauteous rose you could ever hope to see. (Sometimes, you have to call it by another name to realise its worth) I'd see shabby little hillocks in the distance, but the moment the first drops of rain fell, they would rise before my very eyes and become Himalayan in stature. I was at home, you see.

Every child, every dog, every noisy car began to speak to me, as if to console me: It's all right, you don't know who we are, but a part of us is this right here, this mitti that you can smell now in the rain.

It was a truly beautiful feeling, there's just no other way to put it. This was beauty at its most inscrutable, and like all Art, it was inherently easier to understand than to describe.

The rain picked up pace and I stood up from where I sat. It took me a while to realize that I'd been grinning non-stop since it started to rain. I wasn't even trying to go back beneath my tree, let alone scamper for a shelter.

Presently, my friends showed up, bikes revved, wheels making a splash of an entry. One of them took off his helmet,frowning, and said, "Why were you standing in the rain?"

I said, "You were late. " I paused, before continuing, "So I decided to light up my day". As I said this, I broke into a dopey grin once again.

"How was it? " asked my friend.

I considered this in silence. How would I describe my day after all?

Beautiful, I murmured... just beautiful.

(This post is written as an entry for the Yahoo/Dove "Real Beauty" Contest. If you like this post and would like to promote it, just use the Facebook "like" button here. You can click the blue badge below to see more such stories, about what beauty means to us.)

Dove Real Beauty on Yahoo! India

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Age Of Irony: "Edward Scissorhands" and the cult of the cinematic “freak”

(previously published at )

My earliest memories of watching an English movie were that of seeing Johnny Depp clakkety-clak snippety-snip his way to Hollywood stardom in Tim Burton's superbly quirky "Edward Scissorhands". I was eleven, maybe twelve, but I quickly formed two conclusions: the first, (which proved to be right), that I wasn't appreciating this nearly as well as I should; and second, (which was just as easily proved to be erroneous) that the shift in language from Hindi to English was the driving facor behind the shift in quality of the film.

Before the language Nazi gets ready to sharpen its knives, might I point out helpfully that this article has nothing to do with cinematic idioms vis-a-vis language or nationality of filmmaker. What I actually want to talk about is that elusive something which passed my eleven-year old avatar by completely. In "Edward Scissorhands", Johnny Depp plays the eponymous Edward, an unusually gentle, kind young man who just happens to have scissors for hands: the reason being his creator, (Vincent Price), died before giving him humaneiform hands.

I draw your attention to the last sentence, where I mentioned the fact that Edward was in fact, a Frankenstein-like creature of sorts, towards the end, in a deliberate manner, without fuss, without the slightest build-up. This is reflective of the manner in which Edward's character has been treated by Burton: his deformity, his quirks, the very thing which makes him different, certainly, grotesque to some, fascinating to others; above all, the thing which makes him worthy of our attention as viewers, the scissor hands in question; have been treated time and again with nonchalance, with a cinematic straight face, so to speak. He is adopted into a nice, quiet American suburban town with almost comical ease, his mad scientist creator living conveniently atop a nearby hill. A very Betty Crocker-ish lady fawns over him, often exclaiming her happiness aloud when Edward uses his metallic appendages to snip her lawn, cut her hair or generally pull off some feat of aesthetic worth. She shows him off to her gossipping, incestuous group of suburban cougar friends, one of whom actually becomes sexually interested in young Edward.

Why was Tim Burton hell-bent on making us feel as if Edward had been seamlessly integrated into the ideal suburban family, not despite his seformity, but perhaps because of it? Consider this: Burton purportedly envisioned this film on the basis of a single, telling sketch he made when he was still a teen, a troubled misfit growing up in suburban California. He himself has a very perceptive comment about this: "I get the feeling people just got this urge to want to leave me alone for some reason, I don’t know exactly why.." Burton, whose "freakiness" tended to err on the side of silence rather than cacophony (Caroline Thompson, the scriptwriter of the movie, said that Burton was "the most articulate person I've ever met who couldn't string together a sentence.") could not figure out why he was being ostracised. He must have stumbled intuitively upon the reason behind this (but in true Burton fashion, he couldn't express it well enough): that we, as a society do not know how to react to anybody who does not fit in with the mob; or rather we lack the capacity for a balanced reaction, and opt instead for a kind of perverse celebration, a morbid and ultimately tragic fascination that does none of the parties involved any good whatsoever.

To look at this in a broader way, one is tempted to plump for the easy option: that storytellers all over the world have been known to embellish, to paint their characters in such a way that we see nothing but extremes all around, to use caricature as a means of generalisation, to use the characters (and not the story) themselves as fuel for polarization and ultimately, confrontation. But this phenomenon, this cult of the "freak" or the "beautifully ugly" outsider is too conspicuous a phenomenon in world cinema to ignore. Some of the early examples include Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose 1970 film "El Topo" (The Mole) inspired filmmakers like David Lynch, who'd go on to make the delightful "The Elephant Man" based on the life of Joesph Merrick, a severely deformed 19th century London man. It is instructive to remember that although Lynch had, by that time, directed "Eraserhead", a future classic, it was only after he directed the Merrick biopic that he achieved mainstream success. To quote a desi example, "Meri Surat Teri Aanken" (1963) dealt with a character (played by Ashok Kumar) which had both the deformity and the otherwise desirable attributes, of Burton's Scissorhands.

The American writer Susan Sontag, in her seminal work "On Photography" painted an unforgettable portrait of Dianne Arbus, her celebrated compatriot and photographer, whose snapshots of dwarves, giants, gypsies, and other assorted "freaks" gained her fame and notoriety in equal measure. Sontag argued vehemently against the "ugly is beautiful" easy ironism which was much in vogue then, and which Arbus and others of her ilk exploited to the hilt. Arbus' suicide in 1971 was a poignant footnote to this debate, which already risks getting lost in a web of semantics. Were Arbus and the others really saying "Gee! Isn't that just the ugliest thing?" or were they really saying "I find that ugly thing to be so beautiful!" Sontag opted for the latter... and it falls upon each of us to make up our own minds, whether towards the literal, or the ironic.

But the fact of the matter is that irony, once a powerful device in the hands of master artists, risks dying a premature death because of lazy and indiscriminate usage (of which "Edward Scissorhands" is not, I repeat, not an example). David Foster Wallace, the virtuoso American writer whose microscopic examinations of the human condition make him one of the most important authors of recent times (and whose suicide in 2008, like that of Dianne Arbus, sent shockwaves through artistic circles everywhere) warned against the role of television, and the pitfalls of irony in fiction (it is worth noting that Wallace himself used several forms of irony in his fiction, often to devastating effect) in his essay "E Unibus Pluram". Wallace had this to say about postmodernism and its ulterior motives: "one can define postmodernism as it exists today thus: "How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean!" "

One feels that something of the kind is in play when one switches the television on to see, say the Wayans brothers pretending to be criminally inclined midgets, or Billy Bob Thornton play a thieving dwarf Santa, or John Travolta with his over-the-top interpretation of Hairspray, or even good old Tyra Banks slapping on a fatsuit in real life "just for kicks". If this is not enough, we have the altogether more sinister cult of reality TV shows like "The Biggest Loser" , "Beauty and The Geek" and others, which take this opportunity to parade people who are easy targets for being labelled "freaks" of sorts. Wallace further explains his thesis: "I want to convince you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture (of which cutting-edge fiction is a part) that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat. I'm going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fictionists they pose terrifically vexing problems".

In this respect, I should mention the odd beacon of hope, like Judd Apatow's TV series "Freaks and Geeks" which handled several issues of this kind (I distinctly remember a transgender storyline) with humour and sensitivity, aided of course by a more than capable cast including the amazing James Franco, the swaggering Seth Rogen and the ever-reliable Jason Segel. But as we all know, the show didn't quite click with the audience and was subsequently cancelled after just one season, all of 17 episodes.

Coming back to "Edward Scissorhands", it is actually Edwards's other, more conventionally "human" (I mean close to the image of an ideal young man, in a very Sooraj Barjatya kinda way, to borrow an altogether different cinematic metaphor) aspects that have been treated with a sense of bewilderment, disbelief even: What is it that makes him so kind, so unbearably, undeniably decent? What kind of freak does that anymore? Nobody is ready to believe Edward’s version of the events throughout the story. Even more disturbingly, every attempt which Edward makes to fit in, to be more like the strange creatures who inhabit the town in the guise of human beings, is nipped in the bud: one such attempt leads to his ultimate manhunt.

What does all of this mean for the future of cinema, and indeed all narrative art? One might be inclined to think that this is merely a business-like response to, rather than a direct descendant of, the prevailing populist sentiments of our time. But there is no doubt that we’re all at the risk of losing our way a little, because we just can’t seem to keep off the straight and narrow path. And if you think that last statement is ironic, Lord help you.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Bohemian Anthem

(While I generally take a more calculating, measured approach while writing prose, poetry is an excuse to let my hair down, so to speak. Whether it's my fondness for the great comedic poets like Ogden Nash, or Franklin Pierce Adams, or my general laziness, I'm not sure, but I'm generally more freewheeling when I'm writing poems. This one, for example was scribbled down when I was watching a yawn-inducing football match between Portugal and Brazil)

None can resist the call of the wild,
Good sense, logic and forethought, begone!
In each of us resides the Devil's child
Who bays and snarls till the crack of dawn.

You may walk the straight and narrow path,
("God bless" you say when you see me sneeze)
Fearful of incurring the Lord's wrath
Afraid of doing as you please.

Be warned though, it'll catch up with you
That imp of the perverse
Bearer of mischief, anarchy or just the truth
For better or for worse.

Best be rid then, of doubt and guilt,
That vicious pair, cursing, spitting bile
Give in to yourself, (just hear me out)
Because you know resistance is futile.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Karna's metamorphosis

Yesterday, I read a whole bunch of poems by Indian authors via links on The Middle Stage, author Chandrahas Choudhury's excellent blog. One of them, "Moult" by Gieve Patel, really captured my imagination. Before you continue to read this article, here's the poem itself:


The sodden dripping weight which he moulted

and offered to the god who received it

in cupped hands—was it skin

really, or rather something amphibious,

half metallic scales, half mutely screaming

integument smelling of fish, while

flayed Karna shivered from a cold

he had never thought to endure, shivered

animal-like, a mere beast

prepared for the cooking pot;

and walked to the battlefield certain

to be pierced by the first lance

aimed at him. But the burden!

Amazingly it had lifted,

and might it not be one’s heart’s desire fulfilled

to die unrehearsed of lightness.

For the uninitiated, the incident from the Mahabharata being described here goes something like this: Before the battle of Kurukshetra started, Lord Indra, the king of the gods, and father of Arjuna, the mightiest of the Pandavas, started getting worried about the possible threat to his son's life, if he faced Karna. Now Karna, the son of the Sun-god, had been born with an armour (kavacha) and earrings (kundala) which were blessed by his father. These made him practically invincible. Indra, therefore planned to cash in on Karna's famed philanthropy (he had earned the epithet of daanveer, or the one who gave generously) by simply disguising himself as an old Brahmin and asking Karna for his armour. The Sun-god knew of Indra's intentions and was quick to warn Karna, but Karna, being the man that he was, obliged Indra, anyway, when the moment came. (Although not described in this particular poem, Indra was so impressed by Karna's gesture that he granted him a boon, upon which Karna asked for an amogh shakti, an unbeatable weapon.)

Now, the very first reason that this poem is fascinating is its basic premise: that what Karna gave away that day was quite literally, a part of his body. Note the use of words like "sodden" and "dripping" from the outset, to lend it an almost organic air. Every single edition of the Mahabharata I've ever read has coyly suggested this, cloaking it under various metaphorical blankets. The most common of these versions insists that the reason why Karna was so weakened and vulnerable after this act was that "the armour, on account of having been worn for so many years (Karna would never take it off) had stuck to his body, like a second skin."

What if it was literally a second skin?

Consider this: Karna and the five Pandavas were all born in the same way: Kunti would use a special mantra to summon any god she wanted to, and said God would then yield Kunti a son. The twins Nakula and Sahadeva were born when Kunti passed on the mantra to Madri. Why then, was Karna the only one abandoned? According to the Mahabharata, Kunti was terrified when the mantra worked for the first time, and plus, she was a maiden and not married. But the Karna-as-mutant theory would definitely explain this irregularity better: because Karna was the only one externally marked by the god's divinity, because he was the only one who you could look at and tell that this child was not a mere human; Kunti, afraid of social ostracism, and perhaps more than a little personal disgust, abandoned him. Was this another of the infamous "revisions" done to the Mahabharata done to make certain situations and characters look more "decent" or "human"? (The late Irawati Karve's magisterial book of essays on the Mahabharata, "Yuganta" abounds with examples of such possible "revisions")

The poem then continues to describe Karna as "flayed" while he "shivered with a cold/ he had never thought to endure" which clearly suggests that this is as unexpected and as brutal to Karna, as losing a limb would be to any of us. Patel, however, is not done yet, and he says that after this selfless act, Karna "shivered animal-like, a mere beast prepared for the cooking pot." The straightforward iterpretation of these lines is that the now-vulnerable Karna would be easily defeated and killed on the battefield. However, I think Patel has used both "animal" and "beast" to suggest that Karna, after shedding the elements which made him a mutant or a semi-divine entity, is now finally human, a "mere beast", so to speak. Referencing "Yuganta" once again, the author Irawati Karve argues that the central tragedy in Karna's life was his inner dilemma "Who am I?". According to the Mahabharata, Karna, a Kshatriya (the warrior-caste) by birth, was raised by a Suta (charioteer) family, and his foster parents had told him that they were not his biological parents, and that he had been found with a Kshatriya-like armour strapped on to his body.

It was because of this dilemma of Karna's that he found his judgement impaired, all-too often in crunch situations. Like Drauapdi's swayamvara, where he was berated for being lowborn, and he was not allowed to take part in the challenge. (This, by the way, is another one of the "revisions" I was talking about. This has been omitted in later versions of the Mahabharata.) "Yuganta" also says that this dilemma culminated in the final momets of Karna's life, when he was busy getting his chariot wheel out of the mud, and urged Arjuna to stop fighting until he had done so, calling upon the Kshatriya's code, a set of ethical war practices. But the omniscient Krishna, pointed out that Karna had not followed the same when he dishonoured Draupadi or when he took part in the unfair slaughter of Abhimanyu; and instigated Arjuna to kill the temporarily defenseless Karna. Karna died wondering "Who Am I?"

The caste-identity crisis which the Mahabharata wants us to believe, is an old one, and seems rather too simplistic for the otherwise complex and fascinating character of Karna. But if Karna was really confused about the infinitely more frightening and perplexing question of his humanity, I think it would make a lot more sense.

Patel acknowledges explicitly, towards the end of the poem that Karna is now destined to be killed swiftly in the battle. But then, he suggests something truly marvellous: consider the parting shot with which Patel leaves us

"But the burden!

Amazingly it had lifted,

and might it not be one’s heart’s desire fulfilled

to die unrehearsed of lightness."

Is he hinting that Karna deliberately cut off his "second skin" in order to settle, once and for all, the question of his humanity, or lack thereof? It would certainly seem so, as the last two lines suggest. I would definitely want Karna to finally take control of his identity and his destiny, even if his actions led to speedy and inevitable destruction. I think, if this were indeed the case, then Karna, after his metamorphosis, died what Albert Camus called "a happy death" .

Monday, July 5, 2010

Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho"

(originally published here at

Gus Van Sant has been, in my humble view, one of the most important filmmakers in the world, over the last twenty years or so. Although his career really took off after Good Will Hunting(1997), which garnered over 200 million at the box office, (as well as Oscar nods for the then-unknown Ben Affleck and Matt Damon for the screenplay, and a long-overdue one for Robin Williams as Best Supporting Actor) Van Sant’s first truly great film was “My Own Private Idaho” , which was released in 1991.

“My Own Private Idaho” is difficult to sum up in a few words. Indeed, to abbreviate it thus would be an exercise in futility. For it combines elements of the classic road film, high Shakespearean drama, the bildungsroman, and some which defy description, in a heady cocktail which stays with you long after the end credits start rolling. Starring River Phoenixand Keanu Reeves as a pair of young hustlers, it remains one of Van Sant’s finest films, and mind you, he has made some very fine ones indeed. Mike (River Phoenix) is a young gay hustler, who suffers from narcolepsy, a condition which causes him to fall asleep during stressful situations. He also has a troubled past, leading to his having frequent visions of his absentee mother. His best friend, Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves) is the son of a mayor, but chooses to live the life of a street hustler, hobnobbing with low-life urchins and petty thieves, one of which, Bob Pigeon (William Richert) becomes a mentor to him. Scott confides to Mike that he will inherit his father’s fortune when he turns 21. The crux of the film lies in the trip the two take, in order to find Mike’s mother, who he hasn’t seen in years. The trip makes the pair confront some uncomfortable truths about their lives and their relationship.

Due to his frequent narcoleptic episodes, Mike often wakes up to find himself in places he doesn’t remember going. Early on in the film Mike comments, “I can always know where I am by the road.. this here road.. there isn’t a road anywhere which is like this, I mean exactly like this. It’s one kind of place… one of a kind. Like a face… like a fucked-up face.” During the last part of the dialogue, we are seeing the road through Mike’s point of view, where he watches it in between his first and second fingers, and the shot zooms out to make it seem like we are watching it through a lens, or an ocular device, with the road converging to a point in the distance, the sky with clouds which are too picturesque, a clear reference to the standard ophthalmologist’s test which we take to check our eyesight. From the outset, the often conflicting and overlapping nature of narratives, depending upon the “impediment” which we place on them, (i.e. the different points of view) has been hinted at. That Mike is a classic drifter, is emphasized by the frequent shots of clouds speeding by overhead, a mechanism familiar to movie buffs, and one which would have been banal and superfluous in a lesser film.

But what really makes all this come together, and also plays a large part in making this the film that it is, has to be River Phoenix’s jaw-droppingly good performance as Mike. The gossamer vulnerability of Mike…. the way he aches for his long-lost mother, Phoenix makes it apparent, during the first fifteen or so minutes of the film, that he had gone under the skin of his character (a term used and abused by every Tom, Dick and Harry nowadays, on both sides of the ocean). When he begs an old client, a middle-aged man, for a few dollars more, we feel Mike’s quiet desperation. When he’s with the oddball street thieves, dancing away the blues, we see Mike and his presence for what it is, an elaborate self-parody. So involved was Phoenix during the production of the film, that he re-wrote a critical scene of the film( Van Sant did not have storyboarded scene sequences in any case, choosing to improvize, as he would a decade later, in the bleak desert drama, Gerry) where his character Mike professes his love for his best friend, Scott. Looking at this scene today, as well as the film in general, one cannot help but draw parallels with Heath Ledger. Two truly awesome talents, both making waves with their superlative, unusually sensitive portrayals of homosexual characters, both dying tragically early, from drug-related episodes. (Phoenix died, all of 23, in 1993, a couple of years after the release of “My Own Private Idaho” )

That doesn’t mean we take anything away from the brilliant Keanu Reeves. Yes, that’s right. I said “brilliant”. Over the years, Keanu Reeves has been one of the most criticized mainstream actors in Hollywood. Described variously as “plastic” , “stone-faced” and “cold” Reeves has faced a lot of flak, both for his style of acting, and for his choice of roles. The fact that he isn’t your typical Hollywood star didn’t help. (He’s fiercely private, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and doesn’t take pains to go on well-televised PR trips) His story arc in this film placed him in the shoes of Henry V, upon whom his character is loosely based(the Shakespeare play Henry IV, both parts, is the basis, hence the rich father and the son who’d rather be a vagabond, a wastrel than to follow his father). Bob, his mentor, then is Falstaff, one of the unforgettable Shakespearean characters, a fat, flamboyant, cowardly fool, who leads the future king astray. In the superb sequences between Scott Favor(Reeves) and Bob(William Richert in a delightful cameo), most of which are taken directly, or in a slightly modified manner, from Shakespeare’s original text, Reeves turns in a razor-sharp performance, swaggering his way through the Bard’s inimitable puns, and the wordplays, barely breaking a sweat. Far from being plastic, this is Reeves finding his calling in Shakespeare.( He went on to play Hamlet, in a prominent theatrical production, to rave reviews, a few years later in 1995)

It is instructive to note that Gus Van Sant initially had separate scripts for each of the two main story arcs, i.e. Mike’s story and Scott’s(which was basically a modern-day retelling of the Henry IV plays). He then utilized the “cut-up” technique made famous by William S. Burroughs and his seminal 1959 novel “Naked Lunch” which is cited by many critics as one of the starting points of post-modernism in literature.(Yes, “cut-up” means exactly that: to cut up and rearrange an already existing text; Burroughs had previously co-written and appeared in Van Sant’s previous film“Drugstore Cowboy”) Overall, the film also has formal similarities with Burroughs’ work, the meandering storylines, the lack of a “resolution” or a denouement, and the fact that one could go through the individual segments in a different order, without affecting the efficacy of the narrative.

But obviously, as with Burroughs’ work, this did not go down well with a section of the critics, particularly those from the old school, so to speak. Richard Schickel, reviewing the film for TIME magazine, said “What plot it has is borrowed, improbably from Henry IV” (if borrowing from classical sources is such a heinous crime, then “Throne Of Blood” ,“Maqbool” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, should all stand in the dock), adding for good measure, that “even this is a desperate imposition on an essentially inert film” . Remember, it was the sagely TIME magazine which went on to include Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Devdas” in its Top Ten list for the year 2002, citing “the pretty frocks worn by Aishwarya Rai” as one of the stellar reasons behind its choice. Another critic said that “My Own Private Idaho” was (and I quote) “nothing but set-pieces, tossed into a mix whose meaning is almost certainly private”.

These are, almost certainly, the same critics who famously articulated the “Good Gus/Bad Gus conundrum” , attributing to Van Sant a schizophrenic output, which according to them, veered between the very, very good, and the absolutely horrid. Predictably, the films which they hold up as being examples of the Bad Gus persona of Van Sant turn out to be the ones which do not follow the Great Hollywood Plot (Elephant and Gerry are two such notable examples), the ones which are truly exuberant artistic expressions of a master, but are trashed because they defy genres and do not conform to stereotypes, thus making them tougher to “pin” down. Perhaps these critics do not understand that art is innately easier to understand then to describe.

“My Own Private Idaho” exhibits the assured yet playful brushstrokes of a master artist, who would go on to make the superb “Good Will Hunting” , the minimalist masterpiece “Elephant” (which was inspired by the Columbia high school massacre) and most recently “Milk” which has to be one of the films of the decade. He has continued to tinker with the medium, experimenting boldly, his cinematic instincts sharp as ever, and his buccaneering spirit intact.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Harvey Pekar's "The Quitter"

Harvey Pekar has been the definitive working-class hero of the comics world over the last thirty years. His autobiographical series "American Splendor" , which started in 1976, ignited the underground comics movement which brought to prominence a whole generation of talented writers and artists and inspired many, many others like modern-day superstars like Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware. "American Splendor" was noted because of its focus on Pekar's everyday life, often featuring the ordinary, even mundane concerns of Pekar, who worked as a file clerk all his life (even after he became famous), his family and his neighbourhood. Followers of the series lapped it up, fascinated as Pekar's no-holds-barred, bare-all approach gave the comics a hitherto unseen gritty edge, and a realistic feel which was conspicuously absent in the superhero-dominated mainstream comics world inhabited by giants like Marvel Comics. His divorce, his struggles with cancer, his exasperation with brain-dead Hollywood producers..... all these and more were incorporated into the books, delivered with Pekar's trademark bitter, satirical voice, and his fierce appreciation of the trials of the underdog.

"The Quitter" was released in 2005, under the Vertigo imprint of DC comics, a label which had been producing a judicious mix of conventional comics like Hellblazer and Swamp Thing, along with some seminal works like Neil Gaiman's acclaimed Sandman series, and Alan Moore's V For Vendetta. It focusses chiefly on the pre- American Splendor Pekar, (although towards the end, we are given a glimpse into the making of the iconic series) specifically on his own impetuous nature, and his tendency to take failure hard.

From the first panel itself, it's clear that this is Pekar in a different, more playful avatar. To this end, the decision to rope in young upstart Dean Haspiel (who has worked with Pekar in the past on recent "American Splendor" books) was a masterstroke. In the very first page, Haspiel shows a bitter, wary Pekar, seemingly making a hurried exit, but then stops on an afterthought and says, nonchalantly, "I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, five weeks after the start of World War II... for what it's worth to anyone.." and then disappears to let the story unfold.

Pekar's childhood is portrayed in a very evocative manner, as Haspiel's crisp, sharp caricatures while drawing Pekar's Polish Jew immigrant family, segue smoothly into free-flowing curves, and cinematic, wide-angle action portraits of the frquent scraps that young Harvey gets into. In fact, the latter reminded me a lot of Eduardo Risso's superb, hard-as-nails depiction of ghetto neighbourhood fistfights in the Vertigo series "100 Bullets" , with which he made his name. Pekar himself delivers a few resounding punches, like the scene where he admits to feeling a dark, vindictive pleasure at thrashing a kid, with little provocation; a sort of karmic payback for all the times he'd been beaten up by groups of black kids in his old neighbourhood.

Pekar has always been a huge supporter of comic books as an art medium, exemplified by his now-famous assertion (which makes an entry here as well), "Comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures." He also has noted, on occasion, the many similarities between comic books and movies, asserting that comics could achieve everything that movies have, till date. This "cinematic approach" is prominently on display, both in the frequent appearances of the adult Pekar, offering bitter homilies about the many mistakes he committed in his youth. He serves as a narrator, a peddler of after-the-event wisdom as well as a kind of deliberate de-lineating device, pointing out among other things, that "things do not always change all that much" which has been a recurring theme of the American Splendor series as well.

In a particularly striking sequence, the young Harvey is advised by his mothers to apologize to the kids who'd been bugging him, and were subsequently beaten up by Harvey. She advises him to compromise because "sometimes it doesn't matter if you are right or wrong, as long as you get along with your friends". The young Harvey notes the irony of the situation, because his mother was supporting Henry Wallace, the under-fire Communist-backed presidential candidate at the time, and zealously at that. His internal monologue in this regard (see picture) has been shown depicted brilliantly by Haspiel, who deserves full points here.

The pace of the book mirrors Harvey's growth as a person. At first the frequent rants against errant coaches, unhelpful parents or snooty kids get a bit repetitive, but the story gets a shot in the arm as Harvey starts his final year in high school, and the burden of the approaching future starts getting too much for him to handle. In one of his appearances as the present-day Pekar, he confesses that all these years later, he is still every bit as insecure as ever, worrying about bad reviews, the dipping sales of his comics... you name it. In a very interesting move, Haspiel draws a starkly different, wraith-like Pekar, eyeballs popping out, wrinkles grossly overdone, perhaps to show the effect negativity and worry has upon a man. This is just one of the many artistic flourishes which can be seen every now and then in "The Quitter", both in the writing and in the artwork.

This is classic Pekar fare, enhanced both by his own increased maturity and his famed proclivity for taking artistic risks. In Dean Haspiel, he has a worthy partner-in-crime, and one can only hope that we see more of him in the days to come. It is important to mention here that "American Splendor" boasts of a tremendous ensemble of artists who made it big as comic book creators in their own right. Apart from Robert Crumb, who went on to become the patron saint of the underground comics movement, as well as a prominent counterculture figure, the series boasted of names like Alison Bechdel (whose 2006 graphic memoir "Fun Home" made it to the NYTimes Best Books Of The Year List), Gilbert Hernandez( co-creator with his brothers Jaime and Mario of the amazing and iconic "Love and Rockets" series, one of my all-time favourite comic books), Chester Brown ("Ed The Happy Clown"), Jim Woodring, Gary Dumm and Eddie Campbell (artist of "From Hell" , writer Alan Moore's magnum opus and one of the most important graphic novels of all time.)

Harvey Pekar remains one of the most important comic-book creators around, and in his own words, he hopes to "bring out "American Splendor" for as long as I can".