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Saturday, August 29, 2009

WTF?

Respected film critic Andrew Sarris writes the following in his review of Knocked Up:
Knocked Up isn’t going to help change the world or anything, but at the very least it may help take one’s mind off the relentlessly dismal headlines. I don’t know what greater service a mere movie can perform these days.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Conservative Tributes

Two conservative columnists pay sublime tribute to Ted Kennedy. This is why I like George Will and David Brooks. Though I disagree with these two wonderful analysts sometimes, they present their views with great decency and force that it's hard to turn away. It's as if they demand respect for their opinions through the means of presentation.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

New Rule for Bill Maher

Bill Maher should stop inviting Ashton Kutcher as a guest on his discussion panel for Real Time. He gobbles data and anecdotes and opinions, possibly from newspapers or podcasts or may be they're even his own and then regurgitates them. He stacks his words as if to ensure he doesn't miss any that he had studied for the show. That's not how a discussion evolves. You contribute, contradict or complement a point made by the previous speaker in an interesting, insightful or a funny remark. But he often digresses and tries hard to impress. To go on driving in your own track is not fun to follow. You can say a mundane truism, if that's all you have to offer. You can say "I didn't know that". The pressure to impress and get the audience to applaud when on TV is understandable. But when flanked by smart people, not diluting the standard is important.
I sometimes wonder what I'd be saying if were a part of a discussion that I'm watching or listening to. Some podcasts are by stalwarts - they're razor sharp in their observations. I'd just sit on the sidelines and listen, and if allowed I'd ask them to elaborate on a few points they've made.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Lucid Dreams

When I was a young boy I'd often have dreams where I would fall off from tall structures - temple towers, buildings, mountains... As I was falling off I'd paddle my arms and legs and the sound I made because of kicking my blanket was enough to wake me up. That essentially killed the dream. Later, when I was in high school or even after I graduated from my engineering school I would have dreams where I would be late for an exam or utterly unprepared and would hurriedly flip through the pages. The timeframe of these exams were years before the dream. As I would sit to write the exam, suddenly my conscious side would kick in and reduce the level of panic. It would say "hey, you already wrote that exam, you graduated, this is just a dream". But the interesting thing was I wasn't awake yet. I was still partly asleep.
In the past few years, my dream-consciousness has evolved. If I find myself in a tight corner, as often they're the themes of my dreams these days, my consciousness doesn't step in right until the crucial moment when I'm about to be caught/revealed/slapped/exposed. But exactly at that scene of the dream, something inside me is activated that not only assures me "hey you aren't in this situation really, this is all fake", but also starts taking control of the situation and guides through events. I'd like to say that it's me writing the story of the dream, but they're so brilliant, the dialogues spoken are so deep and touching and funny and sharp if I were asked to write them in a wakeful state I'd only draw a blank.
A couple of days back I was dreaming of this guy dancing amazingly and guess what, I'm the one choreographing. I don't know a from b when it comes to dancing fundamentals, but I'm the one directing his dance steps. Now, I don't recall any of the steps other than the fact that it was exhilarating to 'see' him perform. I had never thought I was alone in going through this phenomenon (appropriately called Lucid Dreams), but didn't know it was such a well established area of psychophysiology. Here are a few links if you interested: [1][2][3].

Inglourious Basterds

Allow me to indulge, for this is not a review, only a ramble. First, let me get this off my chest - Time's Richard Corliss is an asshole for revealing the final scene in the first paragraph of his review. I usually read the first and last paragraphs of reviews from people I respect (Corliss not being one of them). I was just flipping the pages of Time and read the first paragraph a few hours before stepping into the theater. Imagine the bitterness in my mouth. But then he says something sensible in the last paragraph, and I quote here: It's just possible that Tarantino, having played a trick on history, is also fooling his fans. They think they're in for a Hollywood-style war movie starring Brad Pitt. What they're really getting is the cagiest, craziest, grandest European film of the year. The Europeanness Corliss means is that the action is in the words. And sometimes the simmering tension between conversationalists is so hot that when they finally pull out their guns the atmosphere seems to cool down.
*
Every review I've read is head over heels with Christoph Waltz's performance as the smooth Nazi criminal. He's good. But not all of them are talking about Melanie Laurent's portrayal as Shosanna Dreyfus. In one of the trademark QT scenes where dialogues and photography and acting skills come together: Laurent and Waltz sit together in a restaurant in Paris; he's a Jew hunter, she's a Jew under an assumed French name; he hints that he knows her identity by ordering a cup of milk (she was raised in a dairy farm). The talk is plain but we can feel her pain and fear. I've seen such control with other European actresses like Julie Delpy, Kristin Scott Thomas & Emma Thompson.
*
There are five chapters in the movie, all loosely related but contributing to the final chapter's momentum. The first chapter is titled 'Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France...' - lending a fairy tale feeling and totally quashing anyone who expects historic authenticity. The second chapter is not titled, it simply says 'Chapter 2'; this is Tarantino's symbolic middle finger, somewhere between casualness and lazy arrogance to even name his film segments. And even when he comes up with a title, it doesn't make much sense. The final chapter is called 'Revenge of the Giant Face' or something like that, but has no significant meaning.
*
The beauty of individual sentences doesn't always add to the beauty of the scene as a whole. This is mostly the fault of the editor, not Tarantino, for he can't distinguish between the goodness or mediocrity of his dialgoues as they all are his children and he loves them equally. There's a scene where random German soldiers play a version 'find out who I am in less 21 questions'. And then the same game is played by characters of interest to the screenplay. This was a stretch. There's another scene where a German-speaking British soldier with a special interest in pre-German-war movies is picked to play a spy. The scene bothers us with details of German cinemas now and then. There are a few other examples of such sag and it would have been a taut experience had they been edited out.
*
We know that Tarantino is self-indulgent and sprinkles his works full of references to other movies, mostly B, sometimes parodying, sometimes celebrating. Another quote, this time from TNR's Chris Orr's review: Inglourious Basterds is far better than those films, but it is still, in some fundamental sense, less movie than "movie." And if Tarantino hopes to reach his full potential as a filmmaker, someday he's going to have to find the nerve to work once again outside the quotation marks. I can't agree more with the sharp Orr. Tarantino is a serious filmmaker and his talent cannot and should not be wasted on borrowing and punching classics and exploitation flicks. Though his 'Pulp Fiction' paid homage, it was ultra-refreshingly original. 'Kill Bill' is in a sense a Hong Kong kung-fu dance and 'Inglourious Basterds' in that same sense a spaghetti Western.
*

Friday, August 21, 2009

I'm not sure if there's anyone in Hollywood who enjoys writing and listening to dialogues more than Tarantino. And the way he places them in his meticulous script, every scene grows a personality of its own. Be it the talk about tipping waitresses in 'Reservoir Dogs', or the foot massage before getting into character in 'Pulp Fiction' or explaining karma to a little girl whose mother is just murdered in 'Kill Bill'. They don't add much to the flow of the screenplay and the movie wouldn't be diluted without those scenes, but it is these little pearls that make the movie glitter. And then there's his boyish delight in shocking the audience and ignoring it altogether - the accidental killing of a man in a car from 'Pulp Fiction' elicits the response "may be you went over a bump or something". This is the real fanboy Tarantino. I can't wait to absorb 'Inglourious Basterds'.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Raja Kaiya Vecha

I was 11 years old when the movie Aboorva Sagotharargal was released. I was in a remote part of Gudiyatham at that time and on a typical day parents with their kids will sit in their broad verandahs with piles of mini wooden planks for lining up safety match sticks (one side of which will be immersed in a chemical compound and later dried) and weavers would occupy the roads to work on their blue & white thread rolls and the third major chunk of populace will be rolling beedis
What I strikingly remember is that almost every house would have their radios blaring because a good chunk of the household is outside working. Add to that tea shops, who have since the invention of radio abused them. And barber shops. And there's the 'audio' shop which would proudly display their black speakers as tall as me. And the bunk kadai. Even medical shops had them on in a low volume. On my daily commute to the school, I would get to listen to the complete song in varying volumes, with varying degrees of clarity with rare bits of silence.
And this one time - sorry about the much needed digression - I was sent to some shop to buy something and the song 'Raja Kaiya Vecha' was broadcast. The song starts with a bickering between a mom & son, I stand in front of a house to listen, and then onto the hero's talent as a car mechanic, I stop in front a tea shop, and then onto an irrelevant comparison between women and cars, now I'm in front of a barber shop. I had to grasp the song because one of my classmates had hyped up how inventive this song was in terms of sexual connotations and I had to illustrate my coolness and contribute to the discussion by what I made out of the lyrics the next day. After listening to the song I remember brainstorming about what word implied what and trying to come up with interesting theories. All this came back to me as I watched this song today.


China's Respect for Intellectual Property

An NYT report on WTO's ruling that China had violated international free trade rules by limiting imports:
Ron Kirk, the United States trade representative, praised the panel’s legal finding. “This decision promises to level the playing field for American companies working to distribute high-quality entertainment products in China,” Mr. Kirk said, “so that legitimate American products can get to market and beat out the pirates.”
Mr.Kirk knows pretty well that this is just a baby step of a diplomatic pressure. When Harry Potter books and DVDs are available for less than 1/10th of the marked price, only the insane and the high-on-ethical-pedestal will be paying a visit to the original showrooms. The U.S producers have long whined at the possibility of missing the huge Chinese boat and have constantly engaged in soft nudging since the Clinton days. You can't blame the Americans - when they're the Chinese's largest consumer, the U.S fiction writers and movie producers and software coders and chip manufacturers expect the potential Chinese consumer to return the favor.
Respect for intellectual property is not big in developing countries. The general public wants to enjoy the fruits at a much cheaper cost. There's an Asian edition by the original publisher for a lot of products which are quite less than what their western counterparts pay. But that pales in comparison to the bootlegged version available at the mom & pop store. In countries like India where law enforcement itself is weak, one can't do much but whine. But China has an iron grip on what its subjects can see and buy and can effectively enforce what should and should not be available for consumption. Their current lax ethics seems like an open policy of negligence to what the west has got to say.
China's stronghold is manufacturing and it's not easy to pirate and make them take a plunge. Of course you can manufacture a lesser quality shirt or a cheaper toy, but obviously it doesn't make business sense to 'copy'. Where as most of the western economies' export revenue is knowledge based which can be duplicated with relative ease and hence made money or gotten free. For China to take this issue seriously most of state's revenue should be earned through companies and institutions that are knowledge based. When the treasury coffers aren't getting filled because of shady deals under the tree, the police will wield its baton.
And China is morphing itself away from manufacturing. There are English classes held in football stadiums. It is luring Americans who can't find a job because of the recession. With trillions in foreign reserves, they have started to invest substantially in R&D and communication technologies. They just executed a mass transfer of their population from lower class to middle class by taking advantage of the rapid globalization; even the recession has not bitten them hard - in fact their stimulus package is touted by economists to be the most effective. The government has stepped up investments in sceince and technology studies & firms.

But their opaque bureaucracy has its drawbacks. The state recently instituted a policy where every computer bought will come with a software installed that's supposedly designed to filter 'inappropriate content'. Not just pornography (what's wrong with that?) but any foreign site that riles the Chinese action & policies. Youtube and blog sites are banned on whims and fancies. The press is not free; the judiciary has its limits; one needs permission from the local authorities for a peace protest march. Add to this other social problems like the imbalance in male/female ratio because of their one-child policy (which obviously leans towards a male progeny) and an educated middle-class that has been clamoring for more information and freedom.

China has had and will have a hard time trying to transform its huge young population into knowledge force and at the same time checking their tweets and facebook status (figuratively speaking). If the state loosens its hold and unleashes the power of cooperation in every sense, I believe they'll command a bigger piece of 'services & innovation' pie. Until that happens, their markets (not so black, they're quite open in the streets) will continue to support pirates. Of course, there will always be some sort of violation - copiers, scanners, video tools will be put to use. But it wouldn't as flagrant as it is today.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Humor is Hard

Hawkeye writes:
If aliens were observing social patterns of earthlings, their report would read something like this - the younglings discard waste products from their intestines, which are emitted out through fissures on the back of their bodies. Curiously the male's social standing among other human beings is determined by how many times, how quickly and how desirously he cleans the youngling's intestinal discard. Cleaning the backside of younglings and removing intestinal waste with passion and love shows that the male is progressive, sensitive, caring and responsible.

Friday, August 07, 2009

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is without a doubt the best movie I've seen this year, and probably will for the rest of the year. From a script by Guillermo Arriago, who is best known for his collaborations with Inarritu, Tommy Lee Jones simply sparkles as the lead actor and the director. I think I've written about this before - I see Jones in drabs like 'Fugitive' and 'MIB' which hardly leave an impression and then he blows me away in In the Valley of Elah. In a scene from this movie, we see him sitting in a jeep doing nothing. He doesn't twitch his lips or shake his head or play with his eyeballs; but somehow we can sense his pain and anxiety with that still look. Now, that's just terrific acting.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

My friend Varaha wrote:
As the suicide bombers killed the infidels and went to heaven, they were not unhappy that the virgins were not veiled.
I've been writing for quite some time now. And I don't ever remember using a double-negative. I would frame the sentence in a different way. And this guy uses a triple-negative just like that.

Treating Kids

I went to a book shop in a hospital recently. As soon as I entered I saw that the lady behind the counter was preparing to close down the shop. Even before I asked (it wasn't lunch hour yet), she told me that her grand daughter is graduating from pre-KG to KG and her daughter had her invited to the graduation party. This reminded me of a line from the movie 'The Incredibles' where Mr.Incredible says "We keep coming up with new ways to celebrate mediocrity" on the occasion of his son's 'move' from the 4th to the 5th grade. I wouldn't go as far as to call it mediocrity; after all there's some effort involved. But call it a graduation party?

I grew up in a drastically different environment in India. I was slapped in school by the teachers, at home by my parents. And I was a good student and quite obedient. The general understanding was that the teachers and the parents wanted to discipline their children and the stick did the trick. And this was normal as almost every kid was treated similarly. Growing up in a lower middle class family, my mom borrowed money for my monthly tuition. I didn't buy those 'group photos' clicked every year with all the students of the class. Most of the time I didn't even bother to inform my parents of it as it would cost them. The family of six slept in 2 rooms and my prized possession of a table lamp came in when I was 13.
The rise of the middle class is not merely in terms of finance but also marks the level of cultural liberty. My 5-year old neighbor goes to a special class for math & reading that costs a little over $200 every month. Her parents sit with her to help her. When she goes wandering they softly but firmly pull her back and ask her to focus. After every mini assignment she's showered with 'good job'. Needless to say, new dresses and toys and restaurant visits are perks of good behavior. And this is not just my neighbor for she is representative of the new normal. Not just the U.S but also in India. As both parents are educated and employed, money is a lesser problem and spending 'quality' time with the kids becomes a priority.

I'm a strong advocate against force, be it verbal or physical towards children. It took some maturity for my emotional bruises to heal and see the love of my parents. But when compliments are used like 'pass the salt', what actually will the child think of itself? By treating every reading session an achievement, aren't we inflating the actual effort involved and thereby boosting the ego of the child? Do they even evaluate if their accomplishment is age-worthy? What would happen to their self-confidence when they're competing with much smarter kids later in life and there's nobody patting their backs?
With the passsage of time, almost every aspect of our culture has become liberal. This has prompted parents presenting a friendly face to their kids (they don't call their dad 'Sir' anymore). But this new degree of freedom shouldn't absolve them of their responsibilities. While every step is progress, I believe kids should be instilled in them a sense of humillty; parents and teachers should show them the long road they need to travel; they should expect no cheerleading just for trying things. As a parent I can understand how protective and over-cautious one can be. But may be it's time to take off those training wheels in the kid's bicycle and let him/her fall once in a while. After all, falling is progress.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

This space has become a link festival in the last couple of months. Though my commentary appears alongside, it's very minimal and essentially asks the reader to head to the link. At this point I'm not forcing myself to 'write' articles and I'm going with an impulsive flow of this-can-be-blogged. But I don't want ScreenAct to become a bouncing pad where regulars come only to go to another page. I plan to strike a balance by curtailing the number of quote-posts and adding more of my thoughts about the topic. This will also help me to evaluate my thought train over a period of time.

Why?

When an article starts with packed confusion like this, there's not much incentive to proceed. Is that an attention-grabbing technique? I was more put-off than curious to know what the heck the author was blabbering about.
Sometime after the 14-year-old retired actor and chimpanzee Travis Herold was shot and beheaded by Stamford, Connecticut, police in connection with an aggravated assault against 55-year-old Charla Nash, but before former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick finished serving a federal prison sentence for conspiring to violate the civil rights of dogs, South Korean scientists announced the birth of a beagle that glows in the dark.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Gladwell dissects the character Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mocking Bird) and the interplay of race and law in the south before desegregation. I found this excerpt interesting and shocking in equal parts:
One of Dorr’s examples is John Mays, Jr., a black juvenile sentenced in 1923 to an eighteen-year prison term for the attempted rape of a white girl. His employer, A. A. Sizer, petitioned the Virginia governor for clemency, arguing that Mays, who was religious and educated, “comes of our best negro stock.” His victim, meanwhile, “comes from our lowest breed of poor whites. . . . Her mother is utterly immoral and without principle; and this child has been accustomed from her very babyhood to behold scenes of the grossest immorality. None of our welfare work affects her, she is brazenly immoral.”
The reference to the mother was important. “Though Sizer did not directly impugn the victim herself, direct evidence was unnecessary during the heyday of eugenic family studies,” Dorr writes. “The victim, coming from the same inferior ‘stock,’ would likely share her mother’s moral character.” The argument worked: Mays was released from prison in 1930.
The superior Economist observes the state of Arab countries. Plain words, crisp observations, thorough coverage, unbiased, readable lengths* all make it a great choice for news & opinions.

Democracy is more than just elections. It is about education, tolerance and building independent institutions such as a judiciary and a free press. The hard question is how much ordinary Arabs want all this. There have been precious few Tehran-style protests on the streets of Cairo. Most Arabs still seem unwilling to pay the price of change. Or perhaps, observing Iraq, they prefer stagnation to the chaos that change might bring. But regimes would be unwise to count on permanent passivity. As our special report in this issue argues, behind the political stagnation of the Arab world a great social upheaval is under way, with far-reaching consequences.

In almost every Arab country, fertility is in decline, more people, especially women, are becoming educated, and businessmen want a bigger say in economies dominated by the state. Above all, a revolution in satellite television has broken the spell of the state-run media and created a public that wants the rulers to explain and justify themselves as never before. On their own, none of these changes seems big enough to prompt a revolution. But taken together they are creating a great agitation under the surface. The old pattern of Arab government—corrupt, opaque and authoritarian—has failed on every level and does not deserve to survive. At some point it will almost certainly collapse. The great unknown is when.

* I don't have anything against long articles. If anything, I have a tiny bias towards them for they usually explore a topic in great detail. But when it comes to current affairs and observations, there's usually a lot of stuff going around and it's better when the word count is limited to 500. And The Economist does it superbly without losing any depth or clarity.