Unfinished, but perfect Wednesday, Jun 29 2005 

Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony (Symphony no. 8 in B Minor)

What can you say about a 31 year old composer who died? That he was beautiful and sensitive and a genius the like of whom we shall never see again? That he worshipped Mozart and Beethoven and spent his entire life living in their shadow and probably never realised that his music was as wonderful as theirs? That centuries after his death his best music still has the power to reduce me to tears?

Of the four composers who I consider ‘great’ (Bach, Mozart and Beethoven being the others) Schubert is perhaps the one who’s most often overlooked. Relatively unappreciated in his own time (it was 35 years after his death that the ‘Unfinished’ symphony received its first public performance!), Schubert has somehow resisted becoming a true legend – sure, most serious classical music fans worship him – but he’s rarely the first composer that comes to mind.

And yet Schubert in his own right is more than the equal of the other great composers. What sets Schubert apart, I think, is his vulnerability – his ability to channel his anguish and loneliness and doubt into his music. Bach is too precise, too mathematical to do this and Mozart is too near perfection. Beethoven has an ability to give in to passion, but his flights of emotion are more conquest than surrender. It is Schubert who is the true poet among the composers – he may, in fact, be the most authentic poetic voice that humankind has ever known. You can see this most clearly in his lieder: in Winterreise, in Schwanengesang, music becomes not so much a performance as a search for expression, a struggle to become. Schubert is also the composer who best spans (IMHO) the divide between the classical and the romantic. His early work could easily be mistaken for Mozart, his later work carries the shadow of Beethoven, but extends and enhances Beethoven’s passionate sensibility, anticipating Brahms and, eventually, Mahler.

The other impressive thing about Schubert, is, of course, the sheer scale and scope of his work. Like the other great composers, Schubert spans a variety of forms, writing quartets, quintets, sonatas, lied, choral music, concertos; producing literally thousands of sublime masterpieces in the course of his short life. Only Mozart can truly be said to rival such richness.

And then, of course, there are the symphonies. These are masterworks – taken as a body together they are surpassed only by Beethoven’s nine symphonies, and even there it’s a close contest. The Fifth is a marvel of melodic drive, the Fourth is moving and dramatic, the Seventh is exquisite in itself and the Ninth, of course, is one of the grandest pieces of orchestral music ever written.

For my money though, the greatest of all his symphonies is the 8th. The ‘Unfinished’ (as the name suggests) is not really a complete symphony – Schubert wrote only two movements before abandoning it – but I would gladly trade that breathtaking first movement alone for all of, say, Haydn’s symphonies (or Brahms’). One reason for this is that the 8th is, I think, the truest expression of Schubert’s unique genius – it’s a symphony no one else could have written.

The first movement is unforgettable – that dark, menacing opening; the restless rhythm of the strings rising above it; and then the entrance of the woodwinds, calling out to the world, trying to reach out, reach beyond. There’s a constant sense of struggle here, the music rises and falls, swells and is dashed back, the notes gathering courage slowly then breaking out suddenly, proud, triumphant, only to return broken and start again. There’s an incredible amount of power here, a force, an almost unmatched drive. But there’s also longing (listen to that one solitary oboe rising plainitively above the music) and an impending sense of defeat, of tragedy (the key is B minor, remember). But perhaps the most incredible part of the movement is the development that follows the repetition of the opening sequence – here Schubert lets the darkness from the bass line overwhelm the entire orchestra, rising in an absolute crescendo that goes on and on beyond all breathing, all endurance, crushing you under its weight. There is enough anguish in that one moment of music to tear apart the world. Here is the eternal battle between strength and compassion, between God and man – Schubert sets up a dialogue here between all that is dramatic and powerful and all that is fragile and simple and plainitive. These are the passions of a young man (Schubert was 25 when he wrote the movement) turned into a music for the spheres. Even more touching, perhaps is the way Schubert resolves the conflict – those last few minutes of the movement with all their ecstatic poetry, the notes so tremblingly perfect that you’re almost afraid to listen for fear that you may do them harm.

If the first movement is all emotion and upheaval, the second movement is an ethereal miracle – a movement so sublime, so rich, filled with light and air and longing. There is a great sense of peace, of contentment. This is not a happy piece – there is no triumph here – there is only a sense of slightly melancholy satisfaction of having come to terms with the world.

All in all, Schubert’s 8th Symphony is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written – a masterpiece of immense perfection; a sound you can never quite get out of your soul.

(N.B. I attended a performance of Schubert’s 8th by the Philadelphia Orchestra yesterday – hence the post. It was part of their ongoing Mozart festival; go figure! Conducted by Peter Oundjian, the performance took a relatively gradual approach to the 8th, drawing the music out a little. This made it easier to appreciate the richness of the symphony, and made the solo pieces seem more sweeping and majestic, but it robbed the symphony of some of its drive: that vital, immediate pulse that runs through the first movement. It was interesting, therefore, but on the whole I’d have preferred a marginally faster tempo)


The Good Doctor Tuesday, Jun 28 2005 

Akahige (Red Beard)
On the surface, Kurosawa’s Akahige is an unoriginal, even cliched tale – an ambitious young city doctor gets posted to a clinic for the poor where he slowly overcomes his initial rebellion and finds a vocation of sorts in caring for the wretched and the miserable for whom the clinic is the only source of hope. Yet bringing trite and simple stories magically, poetically alive is precisely what Kurosawa does best – and this movie is no exception.
One reason for the incredible power of the movie is the way the main plot becomes a setting for many smaller episodes – Kurosawa sketches, with haiku like precision, the stories of a number of patients, making them come vividly alive as characters. Every single one of these vignettes has the solemn beauty of a Kawabata novel – together they form a stunning testimony to the complexity of the human spirit, its capacity for suffering, its ultimate resilience. A beautiful young woman who is also a dangerous psychopath, a couple doomed to tragedy because their love for each other makes them too happy, the death of an old craftsman, a young mother with a history of horrors worthy of a greek tragedy behind her, a twelve year old girl who feels compelled to seek punishment because she cannot bring herself to trust strangers and a seven year old boy who steals food for his family, because his brothers (aged nine and ten) are still children: these are characters that is impossible to forget, and Kurosawa shows them to us in all their simplicity and naturalness, refusing to either judge or pity. There is no complex pyscho-babble here (see Hitchcock’s Spellbound for instance), but Kurosawa’s characters seem so psychologically accurate that it’s hard not to relate to them
And of course, the plot is not the main reason to watch this movie (is it ever with Kurosawa?). What makes it really beautiful is the incredible vision that Kurosawa brings to every scene. There’s the classic interplay of light and shadow for starters – the way Kurosawa uses the small, intimate spaces of dimly lit rooms to create images of intimacy, fear, frustration and loneliness (as with all of Kurosawa’s best work – see the Seven Samurai for instance – every shot, every inch of film here could legitimately be framed as a photograph and considered art all by itself). But there’s also the timidity, the way in which the characters turn away from each other, bow their heads – so that the very body language of the characters becomes a metaphor for the inability to meet life head-on, the need we all have to shy away from pain, from suffering, to hide ourselves in words, in subterfuges of language, because the naked world is too painful.
The brilliance of all of this is that Kurosawa manages to get you to share the experience the young protagonist of the story goes through – you see the suffering he sees (and Kurosawa is unflinching here – early on in the movie there is one scene where the camera watches an old man breathing his last, followed almost immediately by the struggles of a young girl lying naked on this primitive operating table (the movie is set in 19th century Japan) while two doctors hold her down physically so that the third can sew up a bloody gash in her side without letting her intestines fall out), you experience the same mixture of sorrow, awe and hope that he experiences. So that his ultimate conversion to the cause is not some stirring emotional upheaval, but the logical consequence of everything that has happened in the movie – you cannot imagine someone having seen what you have just seen not making the decision the young doctor does.
Adding to all this, of course, is Toshiro Mifune (who plays Red Beard, the hospital director). This is Mifune’s last work with Kurosawa (and that itself is reason enough to watch the film – how can you not see the finale to so incredible a collaboration) and he brings to it his trademark gruffness, his quintessential intensity, his dominating screen presence. The truth is that by this point Mifune doesn’t even really need to act – just the sight of him on stage is enough to leave you awestruck: the set of those shoulders, the burning eyes, the voice of a mountain lion. It’s this mix of gentleness and breathtaking power that makes Mifune so perfect for the role – he seems eternal, inexhaustible, a fount of strength mixed with kindness. Plus, of course, there’s his ability to be disarmingly human at times (see for instance, his obvious embarassment in the last scenes – I can’t think of a better portrait of gruff emotion).
Akahige is spotty in parts – there’s this scene where Mifune fist fights a bunch of brothel guards which is more than a little over the top (though it’s wonderful to watch because it’s Mifune – it’s like being transported back to Yojimbo again) and while the side characters are exquisitely done, the main characters seem a little too stereotyped. Also, some of the scenes seem a little derivative (there’s a scene where this trembling young woman tells her story to the doctor, which simply reeks of Rashomon) as though Kurosawa were quoting himself. On the whole, though, Akahige is a beautiful movie, a genuine Kurosawa classic, and well worth watching.

A divine sort of madness Thursday, Jun 23 2005 

(Pierrot Le Fou)

There’s a scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou where the main protagonist (Ferdinand) reads out a poem that his mistress has written describing him. It goes “Tender and cruel / Real and surreal / Terrifying and funny”. I can’t think of a better description of this gem of a movie.

Pierrot Le Fou is vintage Godard – a movie as whimsical and dreamlike as any the director has ever made. As such, it is an excellent example of the elements that make Godard (IMHO) one of the century’s finest film makers.

To begin with, there’s the sheer restlessness of it, the sense of constant, often arbitrary motion, the ever present element of surprise. There’s a Beckett like quality to Godard, the way he has of jumping from one scene to another, of tossing in casual asides, episodes that go nowhere and seem to have no relation to the main script, as if there was really no need for one thing to lead to another. This is a little disconcerting if you’re used to linear narrative, but it also creates a more authentic sense of being alive. At one point in the movie, for instance, Ferdinand suddenly begins to talk like an old man, for no reason other than the fact that it seems like an interesting thing to do!

Coupled with this playfulness, is the sheer inventiveness that Godard brings to the script. Where else but in Godard could a couple driving along a seaside highway suddenly decide to drive their car into the sea as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Where else could a desperate gas station robbery be orchestrated based on ideas from a Laurel and Hardy film. Where else could a couple, desperate for money and finding some American tourists on the beach, put on an impromptu skit of the Vietnam war, complete with snarling American accents and a dive bomber made from a comb and a bunch of lighted matches. The overall effect is that you’re always caught off balance, always struggling to hold on to the movie that constantly threatens to overwhelm you, get away from you.

That feeling is made worse (or better, depending on your point of view) by the self-referential nature of the movie. At various points in the film it’s clear that the main characters understand that they’re exactly that – characters in a movie. So at one point in the movie Godard stops the action to take a closer look at the bystanders in the shot – interviewing each one of them in turn to find out who they are and why they are there. In the course of this one of them confesses to being a professional movie extra, currently working in a scene in a new film! In another scene, Ferdinand wonders aloud why the police haven’t arrested them yet, since they should be easy to find to which Marianne replies: “They’re smart. They just let people destroy themselves.” There’s also this incredible scene where the two main characters are living in an idyllic home on an island and she’s bored and tells him that she’s had enough of playing Jules Verne and wants to get back to the violent gangster movie they escaped from!

That reference to Jules Verne is the key to the second of Godard’s great accomplishments – his ability to incorporate high art / philosophy in the everyday lives of his characters. The film starts for instance, with a discussion of the later paintings of Velasquez, and references to poetry, literature and art abound throughout the movie. In fact, almost all the dialogue in the movie, has this impressionist, almost poetic feel, as if the words were clues hiding a deeper meaning within them. The incredible thing is that these poetic, polished references are interwoven with the more prosaic action of the film. A plot to steal money at gunpoint is laid out thus: “A small harbour, as in Conrad / A sailboat, as in Robert Louis Stevenson / A steward turned millionaire, as in Jack London / Two guys who beat me up, as in Raymond Chandler”. It’s this dissonance – the violence and action of a Tarantino movie combined with conversation that could come straight out of Henry James or Rimbaud – that makes the movie such a mesmerising watch.

But unlike in Tarantino, dissonance is not Godard’s main point here. In some ways, Godard’s films are an exercise in nostalgia – they celebrate a more golden age when the art of conversation was still alive (early in the movie Godard satirises modern conversations by showing us a high society party where everyone talks like a commercial for some product or the other) and people talked about books and poetry and art rather than about cars or beauty products. This decay of the world into Americanised Pop culture is something Godard feels strongly about, but rather than be preachy or supercilious about it, he makes the simple point that the old conversations were more interesting. It’s not that people who were in touch with culture were any more admirable or purer morally, it’s just that they were more fun to watch.

In making that point, Godard relies heavily on the third of his great gifts – the ability to create a sort of spontaneous magic on screen. There’s a scene in Pierrot Le Fou where the Ferdinand and Marianne are walking through a forest along the beach, and Marianne begins to sing a silly little song (accompanied by a faintly heard piano) about the line of her fate (which is too short), which Ferdinand counters with his own silly tune about the line of her thigh (which he claims is much more ample and interesting). The scene is vintage Hindi cinema – two lovers dancing around trees, singing a song. Yet there’s a naturalness and spontaneity about the scene that every single Hindi film director I’ve ever seen would kill for. Part of it is just that Godard refuses to stylise – the movements of the actors seem genuine because they are awkward and unpolished, the song seems spontaneous because the words are silly, don’t really rhyme and make little sense. But more than that, Godard is able to create a sense of pure chemistry between these two people, so that the screen seems charged with the electricity of their presence and you can truly feel the giddy happiness that they must be feeling.

It helps, of course, that the two main actors are serious talents in their own right. Jean Paul Belmondo brings a sense of scruffy coolness to the part of Ferdinand – creating a persona at once hard-edged and casual. As played by him Ferdinand is a man who walks calmly into disaster, a man who combines an almost helpless yearning for life with an easy fatalism. And as for Anna Karina – has there ever been a more engaging cinematic presence? How can you not love an actress who is just one syllable short of being a Tolstoy heroine? It’s not just that she’s beautiful (though she undoubtably is – those wonderfully expressive round eyes, that perfect nose, that entrancing hint of a smile; in the movie, Ferdinand compares her to a painting by Renoir – the comparison is apt) it’s also that she’s the essence of blitheness, of elfin charm. Alternating between wide-eyed child, petulant woman, predatory seductress, cold blooded and ruthless killer (she kills at least four people in the movie) and a simple and sensitive young girl, Anna is impossible to pin down. She remains a thing of mystery, a creature wild and unnamed (what was it Keats said: “Full beautiful – a faery child / Her hair was long, her foot was light / And her eyes were wild”) and therefore alluring. As such, the two of them work well together*, her impatience matched against his casual sense of balance.

Bottomline: To watch Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou is to be plunged into an engaging, fascinating dream and to experience cinema at its most inventive and most poetic.

*To see just how well, see also Godard’s 1961 film Une femme est une femme – particularly that incredible scene where the two of them sit together in the cafe listening to Aznavour.

Beethoven Agonistes Wednesday, Jun 22 2005 

(Beethoven Piano Sonatas No. 30, 31 and 32)

What would it be like if we could hear Shakespeare talking to himself?

Imagine if we went back in time and found him, at the height of his powers, sitting alone in a darkened room, thinking out aloud. What would the bard sound like when he had no one to impress, no need for the fire and passion that are so essential a part of what we love about his writing, no richness of metaphor, no fervid ornamentation of speech? This was a man who polished language to its finest, most glorious lustre; how would that language change when he had only himself for an audience, when the power of that mighty tongue was turned inward? What would the writer of the greatest soliloquies in literature have to say to the silence of his own room?

That, unfortunately, is a question we will probably never know the answer to. But it’s the same impression of solitary genius, of a great master coming to terms with his solitude, that fills Beethoven’s final piano sonatas (30, 31 and 32). Gone are the fireworks of the early sonatas, the grand flourishes, the sound structured yet majestic – the sound of a great pianist who is miraculously, ostentatiously in control of his music. Instead we have an older, quieter, wiser Beethoven; a Beethoven who no longer feels the need to make his music defined and rigid and powerful, a Beethoven who is more willing to trust his instincts now, feeling his way quietly out to a terrible beauty of notes that even he can only begin to imagine. It’s almost as though Beethoven had finally got over his desperate need to impress, to show off, realising that peace is internal and true satisfaction can only come from within. Which is why he is now content to sit in front of his piano playing note after note to himself, trying to capture the calmness of beauty, the incredible joy of contentment which is also its greatest sorrow.

As such, these last sonatas are a stunning testament to the distance Beethoven had travelled, to his inimitable genius. The faster movements here still have all the force, all the drive of his earlier work (the first movement of Sonata 32 is particularly brilliant), though the power seems less controlled, more flexible; Beethoven is more willing to let the passions have full rein. But the real beauty of these sonatas are in their slow movements, which brim with feeling and transcendence like nothing else Beethoven ever wrote. These are perfection, or as close to perfection as Man can hope to get – one note follows another and each note is exactly right, and the overall tune is invisible, inaudible to the ear but true to the heart. It’s like listening to a combination of Chopin, Tatum and early Beethoven himself – a sound unmatched by any other work for piano I have ever heard.

Understand that I’m not knocking Beethoven’s earlier piano sonatas. I would still pick Moonlight (No. 14) or Pathetique (No 8) over pretty much any other piece of music, and I will always be in awe of Waldstein and Appassionata. What impresses me about the last sonatas is that they sound nothing like these earlier works, so that listening to the two together you could be forgiven for thinking they were by entirely different composers*. There is a sense of ease in these last sonatas, a seeming lack of anxiety, which means that while the early Sonatas take your breath away by force, these latter works leave you afraid to breathe for fear of spoiling their intricate and fragile perfection. It almost makes you wonder how things would have turned out if Beethoven had lived for another five, maybe ten years. Would music have stayed the same then, or would it have altered forever achieving a serenity we can only dream of now? Yet another question that we will never know the answer to.

What we do know is that those last years of Beethoven’s life were also his finest, that he achieved in those last days a maturity and a vision perhaps unmatched in Western Classical music. What we do know is that it was this Beethoven, a far greater composer in his dotage than he could ever be in his youth, who wrote the weary yet joyful sonatas that were to be his last. What we do know is that these sonatas still exist, are easily accessible to anyone who seeks them out, and cry out to be listened to for the sake of all that is beautiful in music.

* There are signs of the coming change, of course. Listen, for instance, to the slow movement from Hammerklavier (Sonata 28).

Batman, Parineeta and other reasons to stay at home this weekend Tuesday, Jun 21 2005 

(Parineeta and Batman Begins)

A week ago, we published a review of Parineeta on this blog that was almost overwhelmingly positive. Some readers (such as yours truly) may have therefore been suckered into watching the film, in the hope of finally getting to see that elusive miracle – an INTELLIGENT Hindi movie. For those of you who have escaped this horrible fate, allow me to offer a word of warning: do not watch Parineeta; you’re liable to have a more exciting time sitting at home watching the laundry drying on your washing line!

Because a complete wash-out is precisely what (in my far from humble opinion) Parineeta undoubtedly is. The plot is inane, the emotions banal and the characters have all the depth and finesse of mirrors in airport rest rooms. The music is derivative but relatively harmless, the sets and costumes opalescent in a sickly-sweet way and the acting, when it occassionally occurs (the Balan woman is not bad, I admit, but Sanjay Dutt looks like he has termites running through his veins, and Saif Khan, though a classic Bengali beauty in his own right, proves once again that he can’t really act) is mediocre. As for the movie being a tribute to Calcutta it’s a Calcutta without football or politics (this is the early 1960s, remember – we’re about to go to war with China, the Communist Party is splitting into two, but these facts have clearly escaped the film-makers’ notice) or poverty or visa issues (anyone can just decide to fly out to London whenever they like) or any real culture except for the one mandatory reference to Tagore. I can’t really judge, of course, (I’ve spent all of three days in the city, and two of those were after enjoying the largely liquid hospitality of IIMC, so that my memories of the place include the odd pink elephant) but it seems to me that if you just cut out the odd footage of the city and replaced the clamouring for Fluries with clamouring for say Chaat at Karol Bagh and the Kali dances with some Bhangra, you’d have a movie that could just as well have been set anywhere else (I mean are you seriously telling me that that’s exactly what a traditional Bengali wedding is like? come on).

What I chiefly objected to, though, was the complete lack of an intelligent script. Given that I’ve always had a fair deal of respect for Sharat Chandra I’d be interested to know how much the movie actually deviates from the novel (a lot I suspect). I mean is it really true that in Calcutta women will sleep with you if you just put a chain around their necks at the right time? How do I get me one of those? And am I actually expected to a) relate to some twerp who spends his life writing mediocre pop tunes and fantasising about being Elvis while he lives in his parent’s house and off his parent’s money b) feel sympathy for someone who owns a beautiful old mansion / estate but can neither manage it himself nor hire a decent lawyer to help him c) admire a woman who stays at home faking a headache because the man she secretly loves shouts at her and gets upset if she goes out and has fun by herself or d) believe in a big-shot industrialist who goes around the world buying steel plants but spends his vacations in some Calcutta back-alley with his half-wit sister playing cards (and actually enjoys something as hideous as the Moulin Rouge depicted in the film; I mean, hello, the hottest woman there is REKHA!!). I won’t even go into how dumb I think the end is – that much at least other people have already admitted. The only good thing I can find to say about the whole thing is that it’s so incredibly silly in parts that I actually found myself laughing out loud (see, for instance, the scene where Saif and what’s her name are wrapped in a supposedly passionate embrace – have you ever seen anything more artificial? like some twelve year old’s idea of sex)

Bottomline: Parineeta is a bland, meandering and ultimately pointless movie featuring the incredibly obvious and totally unsurprising love affair between two fundamentally uninteresting and spoilt young people about whom the best that can be said is that they deserve each other.

It says a lot, therefore, about how terrible Batman Begins (the other movie I watched this weekend) is that watching it I actually found myself comparing it to Parineeta and not always favourably. The two movies have a lot in common actually. Both feature sons of super-rich business tycoons who are in love with their childhood sweethearts, keep pianos in their bedrooms in case of emergencies and are struggling not to go over to the dark side (a fate from which they will be saved by the power of True Love). Both have people dressed in outlandish costumes pretending to be normal, everyday people. Both end with considerable damage being done to buildings, walls, etc, while the main protagonists finally learn to step out of their father’s shadow. Both feature random trips to the mysterious East to meet with caricatures with bad accents (Bruce Wayne’s trip includes learning mysterious ninja arts in a monastery while spouting platitudes about guilt, justice and responsibility; Shekhar’s involves singing bubblegum love ballads while riding a train before confronting a prospective bride who is easily the scariest and most inhuman character across both movies). Both have plots of incredible flimsiness (I can’t decide which is worse – a couple who gets married because they happen to exchange chains at a certain time or a plot to destroy Gotham that involves an oversize microwave and a gas that is scary, because, well, it scares people; no really, that’s what it does; honest!). Both feature couples who are ultimately unconvincing as lovers (though to be fair the complete woodenness of both Katie Holmes and Christian Bale makes Saif and Vidya’s tepid romance look like something out of the steamier home life of Antony and Cleopatra). Both operate primarily through cliche and caricature – substituting surface effect for actual substance. And both are therefore gross travesties of what they stand for or could have stood for (Parineeta of the lost art of sensitive, intelligent and realistic Bengali film making; Batman Begins of that greatest of all superhero movies – the original Batman).

On the whole, I think Batman Begins is worse. Partly this is because of the incredible amount of talent it thoughtlessly wastes – the cast includes Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson and Gary Oldman! It’s not that the performances by these people are bad (though Liam Neeson is woefully miscast as a megalomaniacal super-villian; I mean really!), on the contrary, it’s precisely that their inherent brilliance shines through even in so fundamentally hostile a setting, so that the overall effect is like sterilising a bath tub with fine single malt whisky. Just watching the class that Freeman (to take just one example) brings to his third-rate role and awkward, lifeless dialogue is enough to make you cry. What were these people thinking? Are they that hard up for money? From that perspective, both Bale and Holmes are refreshing – since they clearly can’t act anyway, you feel that they deserve the roles they’ve ended up with.

The other reason that Batman Begins is such a sacrilege is because it takes one of my favourite comic book characters and totally ruins him. Maybe it’s just me, but Batman has always been my favourite superhero. In part this is because his ‘powers’ aren’t really superhuman at all – it’s not like he has some strange genes or dropped in from another planet and therefore can’t help being who he is (I mean what’s so great about being a superhero if bullets bounce off your chest anyway). In part it’s because he’s the darkest (and therefore to my cynical mind the most realistic and exciting) of the superheroes. Superman is a sickeningly All-American muscle-bound twit (the kind of superheroes high school football stars and cheer leaders can relate to) and Spiderman is just an adolescent with slightly exaggerated issues. It’s only Batman who begins to approach the Nietszchian ideal of the Superman: an angst ridden post-modern warrior, a superhero for the thinking man, who sees the abyss of choice and the existential reality of action and judgement. The great achievement of the original Batman movie was precisely this – it made Batman an ambiguous, almost fearful presence, a superhero you could admire but not really be friends with, an angry, tormented and often cruel soul, for whom crime fighting was a challenge and a thrill rather than a moral imperative and who was, at times, almost indistinguishable from the enemies he fought. Batman Begins destroys this myth – it tries to humanise Batman, not realising that there are those of us who don’t want him to be human and feeling and as sentimental as the next guy.

There are other flaws in the movie of course. The dialogue lacks punch (the only thing more stilted I can think of is the dialogue in Revenge of the Sith, which sets a new low for clunkiness of spoken word), the action sequences are shot too close up and too fast, with the result that they’re un-engrossing, and for what is essentially an action movie the pace is almost excruciatingly slow.

Overall, then, I left the theatre having watched Batman Begins with pretty much the same feeling as I’ve left the last three Batman movies with – the fervent prayer, that, after this at least, Hollywood will be content to let well enough alone.

Balm in Gilead Friday, Jun 17 2005 

(Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead)

There is, by now, a fairly well established tradition of one-hit wonders in American literature. These are authors whose entire ouvre consists of no more than one or two books, but books of such searing power, such unforgottable brilliance, that even though their authors write nothing else, their reputations are established forever (and rightfully so).

Understand that this is not a question of their other works being mediocre – on the contrary, practically everything they write meets the highest of standards – but rather of there being few or no other works, so that it almost seems as if they had chosen to lavish all their care and painstaking precision on creating that one perfect novel and then chosen to write no more. Included in this list are such greats as Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man), Carson McCullers (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Ballad of Sad Cafe), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) and even, perhaps, J D Salinger (Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey)*.

And Marilynne Robinson. When Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping was published in 1981, it showed a writer of great promise. Deceptively quiet and simple for its first half (and vaguely reminiscent of Atwood at her best) , Housekeeping develops into a novel of incredible vision and sublime poetry. As the protagonist of the novel withdraws deeper and deeper into her own silent world of fantasy and impression, Robinson makes that personal universe come alive with a precision of writing and image unmatched since Faulkner. It’s the incredible brilliance of Housekeeping that makes the publication of Gilead, Robinson’s second novel (23 years in coming) an event attended by such great expectation.

And Robinson does not disappoint us. Gilead is not quite Housekeeping – the intensely poetic feel of those last chapters is missing here. But it is a more balanced book, one where every line glows with a sort of quiet perfection, so that to read the words aloud is to experience a sense of almost magical calm. The story of an aged preacher with a young wife and son who the book is meant as an epistle to, Gilead is a deeply religious book – not only because many of the discussions and themes of the book revolve around theological belief, but also because the overwhelming feel of the book is a sense of a blessedness, a state of Grace. Robinson’s skilful, tender prose has the same effect as Chekhov’s – she creates a world where the simplest and most mundane of life’s events (a line of soap bubbles floating in the wind, the expression on a cat’s face) can be seen for the miracles they truly are. This is a novel meant not so much to be read as to be savoured – weighing every word, every phrase in the balance and finding it true. The plot of the novel itself is largely irrelevant here (if anything, I feel the latter half of the novel loses some of its power because it focuses too much on the story) – what matters is only the incredible skill with which Robinson makes the reality of everyday emotion come timidly, delicately alive.

A word of warning is required here – if you’re the kind of reader who thinks good writing is about big ideas or ingenous plot twists or flamboyant imagination or even bold, breathtaking metaphor and wordplay (think Rushdie, think Murakami) then Gilead is not for you. The real value of Gilead, its great gift, lies precisely in it being the finest example I have read in a long time** of a genre of writing that is characterised by its quiet power, it delicate nuances. As Keats says in his Ode on Melancholy (I quote from memory) “She dwells with Beauty; beauty that must die / And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips / Bidding adieu, and aching pleasure nigh / Turning to poison as the bee-mouth sips / Ay, in the very temple of Delight / Veiled Melancholy hath her sovereign shrine / Though seen of none, save him whose strenous tongue / Can burst Joy’s grape upon his palate fine / His tongue shall know the sadness of her might / And be among her cloudy trophies hung.”


* Not that I question Salinger’s claim to greatness, of course, quite the contrary. I’m just not sure he qualifies as a one-hit wonder. After all, there’s Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, Seymour, Raise high the roof-beam carpenters and the short stories. That’s a fairly decent amount of writing.

** The only other modern writer I can think of who does this exceptionally well is Graham Swift. But more on him later.

Review : Hitchhiker’s Guide – The Movie Thursday, Jun 16 2005 

Mostly Charmless(The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: The Movie)
The first time I heard they were making a movie out of the Hitchhiker’sGuide to the Galaxy, my instant thought was: Will I hate it, or will I HATE it? Movie versions of books (especially brilliant books; more average books, like the Harry Potter Series or Stephen King novels lend themselves more easily to competent movie-making) are usually grossly inferior – witness the grotesque travesty of the second and third Lord of the Rings movies. And making a movie that does justice to a book whose very essence is in the trivial details (remember the recipe forthe Pan-galactic Gargle Blaster?), is about as improbable as, say, turning a couple of missiles into a bowl of petunias and a large whale.
Not of course that successful (read enjoyable) movies have to do full justice to the book they’re based on. While the occasional movie may manage to stay true to both the plot and spirit of the book (see Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, or Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451), more often than not good movie versions survive by pruning down the plot and the language, while managing to hold on to the spirit of the book (a good example is Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility – you lose a lot of Austen’s incredible language, but the pleasure of watching Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet together on the screen more or less makes up for it). In extreme cases, movie versions of great books can be so loosely based on the underlying text as to be completely unrecognisable (witness Troy,which, aside from a few coincidences of nomenclature has almost nothing to do with Homer’s epic) – this does not necessarily make for a goodmovie, but it has the benefit of leaving the book unsullied, so that one is liable to be more forgiving.
Not so with Hitchhiker’s. For all the low expectations I brought to the movie, I found that I had grossly underestimated the horrors of the movie and was forced to watch, with almost masochistic fascination(rather like someone at a Vogon poetry recital) as the film plumbed lower and lower depths. In an effort to make the movie more box-officeworthy and accessible to American demographics (meaning, presumably,the sort of teenage girls who listen to Britney Spears and dream about the Miss America pageant), the makers of the movie have chosen to not only leave out some of the more brilliant parts of the book (to take a single instance, there is no explanation given in the movie for whyit’s so important to always take your towel with you; I could cry into mine) but also to add new characters, plots and settings – thus completely mauling both the letter and spirit of the book. So we nowhave a movie where Trillian looks dreamily into the distance at the mention of Arthur’s name, and says in a voice worthy of a Danielle Steel novel that she might have lost “the only man she could ever love”. Or where the power of True Love (rather than general twerpiness) is what enables Arthur to overcome his foes. And Beeblebrox – that most lovable of misguided rulers becomes a cross between professional fashion victim and failing rock star – a total caricature of the incredible character who populates Douglas Adams’ pages. And as for Ford Prefect, it’s like the makers of the movie felt they’d done enough by casting Mos Def in the part, and that they really didn’t need him to act or anything.
Not that the movie is a complete wash-out. The actual Guide is well imagined, Stephen Fry’s voice as narrator adds a touch of much needed class, Bill Nighy does a good job as Slartibartfast, Zooey Deschaneldoes an adequate job as Trillian (or what passes for Trillian in the movie) and Marvin (voiced by Alan Rickman) comes across well. It’s just that if you’re a serious Hitchhiker’s fan, by the end of the movie you pretty much subscribe to Marvin’s point of view anyway. (I should say here that if you’ve never actually read the Hitchhiker’s Guide, you’ll probably enjoy the movie – but since this means you’re some lowly form of protoplasm who has no right to exist at all, your opinion can hardly be considered relevant).
The overall effect, then, is one of wanton sacrilege. It’s as though Mel Gibson had decided to make the Passion of the Christ with Mary Magdelene as an ass-kicking dominatrix (think Trinity in the Matrix), who ends up seducing Pontius Pilate and gets him to condemn Christ to be crucified in a bout of inspired foreplay. It’s not that the movie isn’t imaginative (though much of the new material lacks the breezy punchiness of the original), it’s just that it corrupts and destroys all the essential wisdom that lies at the very heart of the Hitchhiker’s guide, the very soul of what makes the book so special to so many of us (even 42 loses it’s meaning in this movie – becoming a sort of side-gag that has to be somehow got through). Sins of omission one expected, but at least what they did put into the movie could have been true to the original. And if all they wanted to do was make another chick-flick, why not use some other script – why Hitchhiker’s? If some species of puppy love is really what’s going to make the world go round after it’s destroyed and rebuilt on Magrathea, then there is, clearly, reason to panic.
Bottomline, if you love and revere the Hitchhiker’s Guide to theGalaxy, don’t watch this movie. Or if you do watch it (Hitchhiker’s fans are notoriously contrarian; at least the human fans, and I’m pretty sure you’re not going to catch any dolphins watching this movie) be prepared to come out feeling vaguely homicidal and with the general sense that if this is what the world has really come to, then maybe theVogons had the right idea all along.

Review – Strindberg’s ‘The Stronger’ Wednesday, Jun 8 2005 

The Stronger

On the surface, there’s nothing particularly complicated about Strindberg’s play ‘The Stronger’. Two women – two actresses – run into each other in a restaurant on Christmas Eve. One is married and has been out shopping for presents for her family, the other is unmarried and is sitting alone in the restaurant reading magazines and drinking. We are told almost nothing about these women – they are not even important enough to have names; Strindberg calls them simply Mrs. X and Miss Y. And the entire play (all 6 pages of it) consists of nothing more than a single conversation between these two women. There is no action, no real plot development, nothing particularly out of the ordinary. In fact, one of the women, Miss Y, doesn’t even speak in the entire performance.

And yet, in this one simple scene Strindberg creates an episode of incredible, poetic power – a snapshot of life so intense, so powerful, that it rivals Beckett at his best. Like a Kafka short story, ‘The Stronger’ is rich in allegory and lends itself to many layers of interpretation; it is a play that takes little more than ten minutes to read / perform, but that one can easily spend hours thinking about afterwards. It is moreover, a powerful play, one that makes a deep impression, and leaves one with the illusion that one has travelled far and seen much, even though the entire thing is actually incredibly short.

What is it that makes the play so powerful? To begin with, it is an immaculate piece of stagecraft. It is a tribute to Strindberg’s genius that despite the fact that Miss Y says nothing right through the play, the interaction between her and Mrs X is in every sense of the term a dialogue. Strindberg uses a combination of stage directions and reactions from Mrs. X to ensure that Miss Y is more than a passive listener and that her responses (or at any rate, Mrs. X’s interpretations of her responses) influence and guide the thread of the scene.

Second, ‘The Stronger’ is one of those fascinating pieces of writing that lend themselves to multiple (and conflicting) interpretations. As the play progresses, we discover that Miss Y and Mrs. X are rivals for more than theatre roles – Miss Y is having / has had an affair with Mrs. X’s husband. Except that the play never really corroborates this – we only know that by the end of the scene Mrs. X believes that this is true. So the play lends itself to two very different readings: in the first, Mrs. X is an astute wife who discovers the truth about Miss Y and her husband; in the second, Mrs. X is a pathetic and paranoid woman who’s insecurity about her marriage has brought her to slander. This in turn, leaves the question of who is ‘The Stronger’ one (which is, after all, the key to the play) open. Is Miss Y, who chooses to maintain her silence against Mrs X’s accusations (whether false or true) stronger in her independence? Or, as Mrs. X would have it, is she the stronger one, because she has accepted the truth about her husband and found a way to go on?

This divergence of interpretation brings us to the first of the allegories implicit in the play – the debate about gender roles. In this simple little episode, Strindberg captures wonderfully the fundamental duality of the role women play in society. In Mrs. X we have the woman as caring mother and devoted wife, a person who has lost all individuality and been completely reshaped by the demands of her husband, a woman who glories in the stability and warmth of the family life she has achieved. On the other hand, we have Y, who is the independent woman, who lives her life her own way and is able, because of her independence to shape others to her personality, but who ultimately ends up alone in a restaurant on Christmas Eve. Obviously these are stereotypes, but Strindberg’s point is precisely to make them stereotypes and set them off against each other, so that what is essentially a quarrel between two women, becomes a larger debate about the role of women in society. What makes this particularly interesting, of course, is that Strindberg is not a writer one associates with sensitive portrayals of women (see for instance, the grotesque caricature that is Miss Julia).

But there is, I think, a deeper allegory here. In choosing to silence the character of Miss Y and showing us how Mrs X is able to carry on a conversation (making accusations, drawing inferences) with someone who never actually speaks to her at all, Strindberg has created an image of man’s interaction with God. In the play, Miss Y is not really an individual, but more a sort of human mirror that Mrs X uses to understand and interpret her own life, surfacing her discontent and insecurity and reconciling herself to them by means of a dialogue that is entirely one sided. Miss Y does not need to say anything, and what she thinks or knows has no part in the development of the story. Even the facts are irrelevant here – by the end of the play we do not know what has actually happened, we only know what Mrs. X believes. ‘The Stronger’ is thus a fascinating portrait of both the way individuals can think through the contradictions in their own lives, using another (or the idea of another) as a mere sounding board for their own thought processes, and of the fundamentally conditional nature of truth.

(‘The Stronger’: A Scene. 1890. August Strindberg. Included in ‘Eight Best Plays’ Urwin Brothers, 1979. Translation by Edwin Bjorkman)

Note :

There’s a biography of Strindberg athttp://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/strindbe.htm.
There’s a version of the play available online at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/8499(pages 120 – 124 in the ebook).