HARD TO BE A GOD: The philosophy of shit

Hard to Be a God (film)HARD TO BE A GOD
directed by Aleksei German
Village Voice: ‘Brilliant Russian Film Imagines Humanity Without a Renaissance’

I spent three hours covered in black-and-white mud and shit at HARD TO BE A GOD. Should’ve walked out after one.

It’s based on a 1964 novel that sounds fascinating and philosophically rich. “The novel follows Anton, an undercover operative from the future planet Earth, in his mission on an alien planet, that is populated by human beings, whose society has not advanced beyond the Middle Ages. The novel’s core idea is that human progress throughout the centuries is often cruel and bloody, and that religion and blind faith can be effective tools of oppression, working to destroy the emerging scientific disciplines and enlightenment.” (Wikipedia) Anton, known in the alien world as Don Rumata, comes to realise that although his advanced understanding of society accords him godlike qualities, he is hamstrung by the low beliefs of those around him. What a quandary: to know how to alleviate people’s suffering, to feel obliged to intervene, but to know any intervention can only at best offer temporary relief. The struggle for knowledge and improvement will rage on, punctuated by faeces and entrails, and you are powerless to do anything but watch.

If only the film had stuck more closely to these lines! Instead, the philosophy is virtually absent as German insists on keeping his camera at the level of the sodden, shit-stained dirt. Scenes unfold incoherently as Don Rumata staggers from one set of filthy, snot-ridden characters to another, none of whom is meaningfully distinct from the others — at least, as far as I could tell. German’s shooting style relies heavily on long, unchoreographed takes and features wavering focus, an insistence on close-up rather than wide angle cinematography, and regular, indistinct intrusions into the foreground of the frame by otherwise unseen characters and objects. At no point are any concessions made to an audience’s expectation for plot or character development; it is all base elements, mud and bodily functions and weapons. For three hours, and in black and white for good measure, lest anything capture our attention or imagination.

The point may be that we, the 21st Century audience, are equally powerless observers to the horrors of history. A good point, if so. And I’ll never feel more like I’ve spent three hours in the unenlightened Middle Ages, nor more appreciative of modern conveniences. But the point is laboured, and every element of the film remains out of most viewers’ grasp. The society Don Rumata inhabits is called Arkanar; fitting, as HARD TO BE A GOD is arcane in the extreme.

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Filed under Film

PATEMA INVERTED: Bloody kids

Patema InvertedPATEMA INVERTED
directed by Yasuhiro Yoshiura
The Guardian: 3/5

What an idea! Two groups of people, one with their gravity inverted so they walk on the ceiling and have to construct their lives around not falling into the sky. The two groups live in adjacent cities with little awareness of one another, primarily because their respective leaders do everything they can to keep them separate. PATEMA INVERTED brings them into contact through Patema, a teen girl heroine from the underground city with a penchant for unauthorised exploration, and Eiji, a fish-out-of-water in the 1984-esque Earthbound society.

So much potential. So many possible paths to tread, and so many facets of a compelling idea to explore. But while he sustained my interest through the premise, Yoshiura lost me with his characters. Often, just as the world began to draw me in and get my mind turning over, he’d hone back in on Eiji and Patema, stereotypical anime teenagers, alternately sullen and earnest. Their connection begins unconvincingly with youthful stargazing and, once cemented, blinds them to almost anything else. At one point, they reach an incomprehensibly vast city that appears to be deserted, but their focus remains squarely on each other. I wouldn’t mind, but if you’re going to make your film about the characters, then they need to be more captivating than this pair.

The ending is one of PATEMA INVERTED’s more satisfying elements, as it fits the scenario into a wider context and inverts our previous understanding of the characters. But I still left feeling cheated. Why couldn’t they have applied that level of inspiration to the rest of it?

The film I really wanted to see from this scenario would’ve had Eiji and Patema have sex as soon as possible, then focus on their offspring. Would they be able to fly? Would they use their understanding of both societies to bring about peace? Would they be unloved outcasts wherever they went? That would have been really interesting.

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Filed under Film, Japan

THE LUNCHBOX: Overlaps and folded chapatis

Irrfan Khan in THE LUNCHBOX

(c) Sony Pictures Classics

THE LUNCHBOX
directed by Ritesh Batra
Metacritic: 76

After a note about the high volume of seat ushers and a small bitch about the seat allocation (I was stuck somewhere up the rear right of the Embassy Cinema despite booking my seats quite early), the first of my scribbles about THE LUNCHBOX was one word: ‘hungry’.

It’s not a film about food, exactly, although food is an important part of its subtly expressed message about the fundamental connections between people. But you see food early, and often, and you want to eat it, regardless of whether you’ve just eaten an enormous yum char lunch (as I had). With its combination of tastes and textures and unpretentious presentation, Is there any cuisine more visually appealing than home-cooked Indian?

Similarly appealing are Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan, the housewife (‘Ila’) and salaryman (‘Saajan’) at the centre of THE LUNCHBOX’s straightforward plot of a dabba that repeatedly gets sent to the wrong man. The mistake could be corrected easily, but both Ila and Saajan settle into a note-passing routine that seasons their unfulfilling lives: she with her distracted, near-absent husband, he with his widowed malaise involving little more than cigarettes and government files. Kaur is just fine, and Nawazudin Siddiqui is perfectly pitched between irritating and charming in a supporting role, but you must see this for Khan, one of the great actors of our time. He does so much with so little.

The teeming metropolis that surrounds these characters seems to function more as a delivery device for boosted GDP rather than as a social structure. The man alone in a Himalayan cave for years could never be as lonely as the man in the city who lives alone, works alone, and travels on the packed commuter trains alone. But connections are possible. One of the most striking ways Batra illustrates this is by regularly overlapping sound between scenes — as if the previous scene continues to echo in a character’s head, even if they weren’t in it. They’re all in it together, for better or worse.

By the way, THE LUNCHBOX is set in Mumbai, a city I have visited and loved twice. The opening shot was of a mass of drab suburban railway tracks and the plain apartment blocks that overlook them. It gave me the chills. My impression of the film might therefore have been coloured somewhat favourably, but it is really good.

Read an interview with director Ritesh Batra here.

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Filed under Film, India

A 5000-word spam comment

Here is a 5000-word spam comment I just received for a post on this blog, copied and pasted in entirety — a reflection of its likely origins in being copied and pasted from other sources, which may have also have been spam comments copied and pasted from elsewhere. That’s a lot of copying and pasting. The spam hall of mirrors.

The line breaks are theirs, not mine.

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‘Noah': Adequate images and cliché

Werner Herzog’s maxim — that “we lack adequate images, our civilisation doesn’t have adequate images, and I think a civilisation is doomed or is going to die out like dinosaurs if it doesn’t develop an adequate language or adequate images” — has been quoted and espoused so many times, at least in the online company I keep, that it has almost passed into cliché.

But, as Ed always likes to say, clichés become clichés because they’re true — or at least, their initial effectiveness (and often timelessness) leads to their reptition. Somewhat ironically, Herzog’s ‘adequate images’ line is about avoiding the repetitive nature of talk shows and television commercials and expressing ourselves through new visual language. And from the hip-hop montages of Requiem for a Dream to Natalie Portman’s ballerina resting in the spotlight at the start of Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s ‘adequate images’ are the equal of any current director.

black swan

In Noah, Aronofsky offers more of the same, but he has a lot more money to throw at the screen (about $150m, apparently). From an unpromisingly derivative opening, Noah blossoms into a parade of breathtaking imagery, often on an epic scale. Here are some of the images I remember most clearly:

  • a bare foot tainted by the bloody earth
  • an underwater landscape slowly revealed to be comprised of dead humans and beasts
  • Russell Crowe’s face conveying gravity rather than ridiculousness, for a change
  • the Earth covered in typhoons
  • rock-and-mud behemoths, connected by chains, rising to protect the Ark
  • a divine rainbow

Noah movie

All that is well and good but if you don’t care, it doesn’t stick. The trailer for the new Godzilla played beforehand, and while it looked visually stunning, I’ll be curious to find out whether the concepts expressed in the film draw me in. You need good ideas to give those images some meaning that lasts longer than a few seconds.

Fortunately, Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel breathe life into this ultra-familiar story by a) chucking in Ray Winstone as a villain seeking his own special audience with God, and b) tying it to some fundamental human themes: our quest to find a balance between justice and mercy, our alternately symbiotic and destructive relationship with our planet, and the value we place in love. These are all ideas we’ve seen before — indeed, they are clichéd — but they were expressed earnestly and poetically enough to capture my attention and imagination.

The Bible has been the primary source of adequate images and clichéd notions in our civilisation for thousands of years. Speak of a well-known Bible story, and it conjures up cultural icons and universal themes: the Ten Commandments, Jesus on the cross, Noah and his ark. Aronofsky’s vision of Noah, filled as it is with broad artistic and emotional strokes, seems appropriate.

Read a good interview with Aronofsky at The Atlantic in The ‘Terror’ of Noah: How Darren Aronofsky Interprets the Bible

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Tenzin’s Hammer

Nizar, the owner/chef at Amantha Restaurant, whose grinning, elongated face is the kind you never forget, had a habit of inhaling on cigarettes as he smoothed out paratha dough on the hot plate. On fine mornings, the smoke swirled elegantly in a beam of sunlight that streamed in through a hole in the corrugated iron shroud. It partially overpowered the sweet and spicy smell of masala but was no worse than the exhaust fumes emitted by passing rickshaws, so if you had objections initially, they quickly melted away (especially if you were also a smoker, as I was at the time). In any case, the taxis roaring by at 80km/h on the newly paved Edava-Papanasam road were a far greater health hazard than any air pollution.

Where's your cigarette?

Nizar tossing parathas at Amantha Restaurant, Varkala

More pertinently, the food at Amantha was cheap, tasty, and delivered with a smile. As it was situated at Temple Junction, where three busy thoroughfares meet, the tables were often full.

One morning, I was walking over for a breakfast of appam, egg curry, and chai when I spotted Tenzin sitting at one of the front tables, barely a metre or two from the asphalt surface of the road. A large hammer was resting on the table in front of him and he held a glass of chai still in his hand. His eyes bore a hole in the street in front of him, his mind seemingly elsewhere. I imagined him finishing his chai in a single gulp, slamming down his glass, picking up the hammer and striding off to mete out bloody, mafia-style justice to some foolish transgressor.

I deliberately walked into his eyeline so that he would notice me, and as soon as he did, the blank expression vanished and his face lit up.

“Oh! Barnaby! Hello!”

Tenzin would smile with his whole face. Everything lifted, from the corners of his mouth to the highest wrinkles on his forty? fifty? year-old forehead, and he looked directly at you with wide and unassuming eyes. Even his voice lilted pleasantly as he greeted you. His intensity from a few moments ago stood at stark odds with his usual serene demeanour, and was quickly forgotten as I reflected his smile.

Tenzin had been running his Tibetan shop Wind Horse on the top of the Varkala cliffs for over about a decade at this point, which made him one of the longest serving shopowners in Varkala’s tourist area. Like many other Himalayan natives –- Kashmiris, Tibetans, Nepalis -– he would be in Varkala from mid-August to mid-May every year, and during the May to August monsoon he would return with his wife to Tibet to spend time with family and buy stock for the next season. Together, they would use their customary courtesy and a quiet, unshakeable self-belief to convince tourists they needed beaded necklaces and notebooks made from recycled paper, among thousands of other items in their cliff shack.

“What’s the hammer for?” I asked as I sat opposite him, my back to the street.

“Pardon?” he replied. Obviously the hammer wasn’t as prominent in his thoughts as it was in mine.

“The hammer! It looks like you’re… ready to use it,” I said, hoping he’d understand my implication.

“Oh! The hammer! Well, I have some workers to build my new shop but they don’t have a hammer, so I had to go and buy one. After this I will go back and we will continue the work.”

These two weeks of construction in mid-July were the exception to Tenzin’s off-season routine. Like many other shopowners on the cliff, he had returned to Varkala early to rebuild his shack, which had deteriorated after a summer’s worth of wind and spray from the Arabian Sea below. This tearing down and rebuilding was Varkala cliff’s yearly regeneration ritual. Most workers who come from elsewhere only make it through one or two of these regenerations before cutting their losses and trying their luck in another tourist paradise. Either they weren’t making money or, worse, they made too much money and got forced out by a local population swift to act against any successful rival to their operations.

The end result is that each season a few old shops would disappear and be replaced by new ones. This particular aspect of the regeneration cycle was sometimes made unconsciously explicit in the naming of new establishments. One year, Sun Rise Restaurant was torn down by its departing proprietor and replaced by a row of fabric shops. A little further along the cliff, a new eatery was being erected with an almost identical menu, despite no connection to the previous management. It was called Sun Set Restaurant.

Sun Rise or Sun Set, maybe?

A clifftop restaurant in Varkala

Tenzin’s longevity in Varkala was therefore something of a miracle — but it didn’t mean he was exempt from the regeneration, or the quality of local labour.

“How’s the work going?” I asked.

“Oh, Barnaby, it’s not going very well. These men, if I don’t watch everything they do, they do very bad work. I have to tell them all the time what to do!” He raised his voice above the din of a passing Ambassador taxi racing along the tar seal with its horn blaring. “Even though they are builders and I am not a builder!” He was still smiling, almost laughing at this point, as though this crucial stage of the process -– which sets the foundation for his and his wife’s livelihood until next May -– was just another trifle to be dealt with. Nothing to get too upset about.

It was a hard enough fight just to remain solvent for a businessman in Varkala, let alone to remain as calm and collected as Tenzin always seemed to be. The challenges were frequent and ranged from the petty to the physically dangerous. One nightclub-style establishment once had its electricity wires cut by a neighbour envious of its success, while the manager of a textile shack (which also served as his accommdation) awoke one morning to hear a rival placing a venomous snake at the entrance to his shop. One of Tenzin’s biggest problems came when the cocky young Nepalese manager of a new restaurant took a shine to Tenzin’s wife and started openly flirting with her. Within a couple of days, Tenzin called a meeting with him and halted the issue before it exploded, as such matters so often do in Varkala. Despite the affront, he made sure to maintain a positive professional relationship with the guy, and in his shop, with the customers, his smiling demeanour wasn’t compromised.

According to a few rare confessions, during which his voice would drop and his gaze would fall from my face to the ground, Tenzin wasn’t always like this. He used to drink and smoke and ride a motorcycle at high speed, late at night, on winding roads carved high into the mountains of Tibet. He used to have extraordinary violence in him that could rise to the surface at the slightest provocation.

Something happened to change all that, something he never told me about in detail. All he ever said of it was, “I thought I died. I should have died.” After that catastrophic event, he latched onto a selection of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs that made sense to him, found a guru, and was effectively born again. The idea of an angry Tenzin, which I had never known, seemed impossible to reconcile with the peaceful man I knew. He defeated all comers — not with blunt instruments but with a warm heart and unwavering conviction.

I wondered, though, if that look on his face as I walked up had offered a glimpse into his past. Perhaps that violence was still in him, somewhere. Maybe just the memory of it returned to him sometimes, an unwanted but necessary reminder of what he had been, before he files it away again and moved on with his life.

Tenzin tipped back the last of the chai and placed the glass back on the table. “Sorry, Barnaby, but I have to get back. If I’m not there, you know, they won’t work! It was nice to see you.”

He picked up the hammer by its head and allowed it to hang freely from his fingers, like a set of house keys dangling innocently from a forefinger. And off he went down the road armed only with his inner strength, the hammer’s potential menace neutralised.

*

This is a re-edited version of a piece previously published on The NRI, an online magazine bringing together Indians, NRIs and anyone with an affinity to India.

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Hoffman’s greatness now a void

The-Master-Philip-Seymour-Hoffman

I’ve been taking Philip Seymour Hoffman’s greatness for granted for well over a decade now. Where did I first see him? Was it the devoted nurse Phil Parma in Magnolia? Maybe it was the alternately sweet and acerbic film critic Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. Or maybe it was Brandt, smiling assistant to The Big Lebowski.

I must have seen all of these films in about 2000-2001, associating Hoffman with quality in my mind. Over the next decade or so he would show up to great effect in film after film, serving each script in his own inimitably familiar way and to the best of his ability. The towering but soft-spoken intellect of Truman Capote in Capote. The hot-tempered mattress store owner/phone sex operator of Punch-Drunk Love. The charismatic cult leader of The Master. Best of all, the theatre director Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York, whose art slowly consumes his entire existence.

If current reports are true, it was heroin addiction that claimed his life. Hoffman gave two reference points for addiction: Owning Mahony (gambling) and Love Liza (huffing gasoline fumes). I often think back to a scene in Owning Mahony in particular, in which Hoffman’s character impassively describes his biggest gambling thrill as 100 on a scale of 1 to 100. Hoffman, who has previously discussed his problems with drug and alcohol addiction, brought an understanding to these performances that sticks with you long after you see them.

Based on the roles I’ve mentioned so far, it’d be reasonable for someone unfamiliar with Hoffman to imagine he was a serious, dour actor. However, he was quite capable of comedy, and a sense of humour shone through in most of his work in the same way a sense of humour is a constant undercurrent when you’re with your closest friends. His capacity to believably and naturally deliver the precise emotion required of a moment, combined with his often unkempt appearance, made him more relatable to audiences than most actors.

He was even capable of elevating painfully uninspired comedy into something quite enjoyable. I’m thinking of the Ben Stiller vehicle ‘Along Came Polly’, a bog-standard rom-com in which Stiller stumbles through a blandly wacky relationship with Jennifer Aniston. Hoffman plays Stiller’s best mate Sandy Lyle and steals every scene he’s in: trash-talking during a pick-up basketball game, delivering a nonsensical presentation to Stiller’s colleagues, and sharting at a party. Doesn’t sound like much, but in each of these scenes, Hoffman offers a different emotional hook we can all recognise: brashness to mask ineptitude (basketball) and ignorance (presentation), and embarrassment severe enough to demand immediate escape. All for the sake of amusement in a weak film, with genuine laughs as a result. That can’t be easy, but he makes it look like it is.

I only saw ‘Along Came Polly’ once, and that was ten years ago. I’m amazed at how well I remember Hoffman’s scenes. That’s a testament to the quality of his acting, which was so good for so long that it seems like he was much older than 46. His death is an unaccountable loss to cinema that will be felt ever more keenly over the years.

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