Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Pickup

In Coetzee's Inner Workings, one of the best essays that I have read so far is also about one of my favorite books: The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer. Given that they have always remained at loggerheads over the space socio-political issues deserves in literature, it was surprising to see Coetzee speak highly of any of Gordimer's work. It is, as Coetzee puts it, an astonishing work, and Coetzee's observation of it is acute and incisive, especially on the confrontation between philosophical and the rational.
The Pickup has an inward, spiritual dimension absent from July's People. But it has its political thrust too, not only in its exploration of the mind of the economic migrant, or one type of economic migrant, but in its critique and ultimately its dismissal of the false gods of the West, presided over by the god of market capital, to whose mercies Julie's South Africa has abandoned itself so unreservedly and who has extended his sway even into Ibrahim's despised patch of sand.
The Pickup is interesting in that, written in post-apartheid South Africa, it stripped Gordimer of her popular leitmotif of racism and forced her to explore new avenues. So she substituted the clash of races with those of cultures. But in stead of merely replacing the opposing forces, she changed also the nature of the opposition. What Pickup deals with is not inequality, but different equalities, each attracted with the other and unable to understand it. An illegal immigrant from an Arab country meets a young, rich South African girl, and both of them end up in a misunderstood relationship based on their physical attraction to each other. He wants to escape his poverty and his country, she wants to reject her father's wealth, his rationalism and ideals. As the immigrant is sent back to his country by the emigration office, she follows him as a wife, and finds herself mesmerized by the desert and the web of relationship that holds her husband's family together. And even though this family tie is often functionary and automatic, she finds comfort in it and soon makes a place within the household, especially amongst the women.
The novel is neatly divided into two different worlds, the world of the independent modern South African woman amongst her 'Table' (a set of modernist and liberal friends), picking up an Arabic boyfriend, and the world of the Arabic family where she becomes the compliant woman adopting to the social fabric, alienated from a husband who is looking to escape.
It is interesting that both the characters reject their own cultures and are lured by the other. Their relationship mirrors the constant fascination of Oriental with the Occidental and vice versa. They are attracted to each other as they are puzzled with each other. But it is difficult to determine who of them is the Oriental - is it the very practical man from a spiritual family who wants to escape his family history and find the luxuries of a material life? Or the woman who lives in her own apartment, drives her own car, but rejects all of it to embrace the desert in a country whose name was unknown to her all these years? Even gender confuses us, for isn't the male more Occidental than the female in traditional sense? But to contradict are her independence and his connection with his family, his sense of the traditional and her money. It is a question which is relevant to the converging world, because the convergence is being equally played by a divergence - as people travel everywhere, their differences draw them further apart even as they bring them together in the smaller space. There is a little more misunderstanding, and a little more attraction.

Here is a link to Coetzee's essay originally published in the NY Book review.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Captured

Last few days in Brisbane, and I am trying to tuck away everything. I really enjoyed my stay here, especially some time being alone and away from the overpowering weight of a routine.
The most beautiful evenings were spent listening to Eddie Vedder, walking on a wharf behind the story bridge. And some more spent with strangers stumbled upon.
I will miss this place.
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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

My Blueberry Nights

No, no, no Mr. Kar Wai. In flirting with Hollywood, please do not forget what you are loved for. We love the mood you create. We love your lights, your fleeting characters who do not speak, the ethereal music. Just because you are in America, please do not give so many words and tasks to your characters. Especially when they are played by actors who understand none of your romance. You have told us before that it is hard to say goodbyes, and you have said it much more beautifully. Please do not repeat it in the form of a common American romantic drama.

Norah Jones has a presence on the screen, but she has no softness which the (as it is weak) screenplay demanded of her. And there was so much focus on a story which was unimpressive to begin with. The only favorable impressions are created by Natalie Portman, who reminded me of the gambler played by Gong Li in 2046.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Readings

What was I thinking?! picking up Autumn of the Patriarch for a tired journey beginning on a Thursday midnight! No, I have not traveled through even 100 pages of it yet, despite having traveled many miles on either side of the equator in a crammed plane seat. It is not a travel companion, but a book to be read when you are in one of your 'streams of consciousness'. Now that I am more awake, I am enjoying it much more.

As I am home for a week, have picked up Sebald's Emigrants where I had left it. Somewhere in the midst of a melancholic tale. It is deeply touching and haunting, as Sebald's writing always is.

My Mumbai break is well-timed, with Landmark just beginning its annual sale - picked up a decent lot - Llosa's War of the end of the world (which got a repeated mention in the comments on my post on Death in the Andes here) and Coetzee's Inner Workings being the highlight purchases. Now all I have to do is read them.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Festen

Thomas Vintenberg's Festen has been on my watch list ever since I watched Breaking the Waves and Ubermensch introduced me to the concept of Dogme95. Finally, I found the movie on Quickflix (the DVD rental portal of Australia, which has a reasonably good collection, significantly better than seventymm and bigflix of India when it comes to titles from World cinema). The movie was well worth the hunt, more, in fact. It is one of the most impressive movies I have seen in sometime.
Dogme95 is a film-making movement initially drafted by Thomas Vintenberg and Lars von Trier, in opposition of the Hollywood enchantment with special effects and expensive sets. They drew out a manifesto and took the vow of chastity, resolving to make films as per the rules of the Dogme. Some of the more prominent rules were to shoot on location using a hand-held camera, abandon props, lighting and sets and make the whole movie in present time.

Though von Trier's Breaking the Waves was heavily influenced by the idea behind this manifesto, that movie was not a strictly Dogme movie. Festen was the first movie to follow the movement, though I suppose even this deviated from the rule of giving no directorial credits.
The Dogme rule appear very stringent at first, almost unnecessarily ascetic . It is only on watching the movie that one can appreciate how connected you feel when the peripheral effects and cleverness of filming is removed from the narrative and you can focus on the performances and the story.
Of course, the plot of the film is quite appropriate for a Dogme film and lends itself excellently to filming with a hand-held camera. It is a variation on the much-used theme of a happy family union becoming explosive and ugly. With the slightly awkward and shaky camera shoot, it feels like watching a home video of a birthday party. At some times you feel that you are the ignored guest on the show (like Harry in Dumbledore's pensieve) doing the shooting yourself.
The reunion is slightly tainted from the start, with the recent suicide of a daughter. It gets uglier when the elder son Christian makes a drastic accusation at his father. The fact that the most dramatic moment of the movie is so undramatic is what instantly made the movie so lovable. Hardly anyone in the party reacted at all to the speech. In a minute they went back to their festivities and chatter. Confused with the reaction, I had to replay the scene to make sure I had heard it right.
The movie is about exposing a dysfunctional family, but it also expresses the tenuous connections of families and the dilemma of hating your dear ones. When the film begins, Christian and his father still seem to share an affection despite what Christian knows he is going to say. Throughout the movie, passionate reactions and denials spurt out of the family, to protect their own despite their repugnance. The wife continues to shield her husband with generous claims of love and happiness - it is very hard to understand her stance and as Christian puts it - her hypocrisy is disgusting. But for someone who has accepted an ugly truth, it also seemed like the only way to react - to continue that acceptance.
Christian's character is singularly impressive. His dilemma and discomfort with the confrontation is plainly evident. Ulrich Thomsen is a brilliant actor, and his intensity shines through even the dull print and a simplistic hand-held camera.
I have come across wide criticism of the movie, which is more the criticism for sincerity of the Dogme95. I do think that it is overly dramatic to lay down a manifesto with drastic rules and take a vow of chastity, if all you want to make films without external hogwash. Also, it can be argued that the extensive editing done post-shooting is an artificial step too. However, the manifesto is only background information. There are different ways of making a movie and the technique used in Festen serves its theme and purpose well, making it a very compelling movie.