The Ambiguity In The Box

Moral ambiguity is one of the stocks-in-trade of literary and art criticism. This or that work of art is said to have moral ambiguity to a high degree and it is usually meant to be a compliment. Now moral ambiguity, given the world we live in, is indeed something that perhaps every work of art should possess to some degree. After all, what can be worse, from the artistic point of view, than to sit in judgement over each and every aspect of human life, when human knowledge of human mind or of human relations, let alone of the cosmic realities, is so little that we can only feel humble at our own collective ignorance. We can also feel collectively criminal, given what we have done to the Earth, but that is a digression. Paraphrasing and putting in the reverse order what Pinter said in his Nobel acceptance speech, unlike in real life, where we often have to (and must) say what is true and what is false (or what is good and what is bad), in art one need not do that. The necessary result of such a well advised policy will be moral ambiguity in art, because art is not Moral Science. That applies as much to popular art as it does to ‘high’ or ‘fine’ art. However, that does not give us the license to see moral ambiguity where it is not present.

The sources of immediate provocation for bringing up this topic are the reviews ([1] [2] [3] [4]) that I have recently read of an acclaimed movie. That movie is called Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), directed by Michael Curtiz. It can be called a gangster movie. On the surface, it is quite run-of-the-mill, but like all ambitious works that achieve some artistic success, by which I don’t mean box office or critical success, but the inherent quality of the work, this one too rises above other similar crime movies. It is also one of those rare movies that are made great (or almost great) mainly because of the acting, in this case the acting of just one person: James Cagney. On this point I am in agreement with all the reviewers of this movie, who, without exception, praise his performance. The direction is good enough, but it has become secondary.

One can also mention before proceeding further that this is a better movie than the overrated Casablanca by the same director. But please don’t let that come in the way of listening to what I have to say about the supposed ambiguity in this movie.

The basic plot is simple and familiar for every movie buff (even to others perhaps). Two boys live in a slum. They are members of, what we euphemistically call, ‘troubled youth’. They indulge in petty thievery (one reviewer called it robbery: unarmed boys trying to steal a little something from a stationary goods-train wagon and failing to do so). On this train ‘robbery’, they are noticed by someone and then chased by two policemen. One gets away, the other gets caught. From then on, their lives are separated for fifteen years. One becomes a priest and the other becomes a hardened criminal. No prize for guessing which one becomes what. Their lives collide again and one of them ultimately loses. No prize again for guessing which one.

The plot would be especially familiar to those who grew up on Hindi films of the seventies, but it was a common plot even in the US in those days, that is, the thirties. Only forty years of difference in progress, instead of fifty. Cheer up. Don’t feel cheated.

So where is the ambiguity? When the hardened criminal comes out of prison one more time and meets his old pal, the priest, he also revisits his old slum. And he runs into not just the girl he used to tease (who, after having waited for fifteen years, pays him back as she always wanted to, but falls in love with him nonetheless: the movie does suggest that they were in love even in the beginning, though their street-smartness required them to express it via mutual hostility), he also runs into a a group of boys just like what he and his friend were. These boys pick his pocket and he bests them (as one reviewer expressed it) to win their admiration. He was already their hero, being a familiar figure in the daily headlines, but now that they have him near them and find out that he lived in the same place and used the same hideout, their admiration is total. These boys are called the Dead End Kids (or Dead End Boys in the movie, I don’t remember which). They are played by the same actors who played similar roles in an earlier series with the same name. The situation is that the good guy priest is trying to ‘straighten’ them. He tries to make them go to the gym and play basketball. Play by the rules, that is. But he fails. It turns out that the bad guy criminal is better at making them play the game by the rules. How would the priest feel?

The movie ends with the bad guy criminal duly coming to an inevitable bad end, as required by the moral Production Code of those days. He is captured after a shootout, which occurs, in the first place, because he was trying to save his friend’s life. For the second time. The first time was just before he was caught after the train ‘robbery’ and was put in the Center for Juvenile Delinquents. Jerry (the to-be priest) had fallen on the rail tracks as a train was approaching and Rocky (the to-be gangster) stopped and helped him get up. That probably cost him his future. But he ain’t complaining. He is the kind who is prepared to ‘take the rap’ for his actions and maintains his tough persona and, when Jerry comes to visit him and asks him why didn’t he name him too (so that he could have got an easier punishment), he (Rocky) advises his best friend, “Always remember: Never be a sucker.”.

So the bad guy comes to a bad end and is sent to die on the electric chair. Now the priest, who already owes his life twice over to his best friend (and had earlier gone on a campaign against all the criminals in the city, including Rocky Sullivan), asks for one last favour from him. Since the boys hero worship him, would he now show “a different kind of courage, a courage that only you and me and God know about” and pretend to die as a coward, instead of maintaining his brave persona to the end, as expected by the boys? That, the priest argues, would save the boys from falling into a criminal life and coming to … a bad end.

Rocky Sullivan refuses the request (it’s the only thing he has: his heroic, even if criminal, image) and walks defiantly to the chair, but just before the last part, after walking the last mile, his shadow is seen through a glass and his voice is heard as he apparently succumbs and cries out for mercy. The next day the media reports that Rocky Sullivan died ‘yellow’ and the priest takes the dejected and disillusioned (isn’t that an appropriate word?) boys to go with him to say prayer for “a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could”. No mention, of course, of the life saving part, which would have caused the hero worship of the bad guy to resurface.

The ambiguity, for many reviewers, is supposed to be in that last act of cowardice. Did he just pretend to die as a coward (for the sake of his friend and the boys who admire him), or did he actually lose his courage in the end? But one can almost excuse the reviewers because James Cagney himself is reported to have said that he tried to make that scene seem ambiguous, and his co-actor (then not quite a star) Humphrey Bogart also appreciated this scene, presumably because of the same ambiguity.

What ambiguity? Where is the ambiguity in that last scene? There is no ambiguity there. If you insist it’s there, may be it’s there in the box. I didn’t see it. Given all that went before in the movie, it is crystal clear to me that Rocky was just pretending to have turned ‘yellow’, granting one more favour to his best friend. And thus failing by his own standards, as well as by those of the others. He died, not a coward, but a sucker.

Actually, there was a reviewer who also didn’t find any ambiguity here. Neither, as he mentioned, his father. He is the one of the robbery mention. But there were others. So I am not completely alone in this.

Movies about crime, movies like this, almost always work at different levels. One is as required by that moral Production Code. Criminals coming to a bad end. The conflict between the good and the bad. Even this is not as simple as it sounds, because at this first level too the bad guy, who is the main character, is shown to be basically a good person (in this movie: in others he may have some good traits), who only came to a bad end because of his circumstances (the movie doesn’t mention his hero worshipping a preceding Rocky Sullivan). That is why he does all those favours to his friend. The movie also shows many other bad characters, who are much worse than him and meant to be seen as such by the audience. But the priest, who is also shown to be really a very good person (who came to a good end), boils down the whole set of circumstances to just one thing: Hero Worship of criminals like Rocky Sullivan. That’s the reason, he seems to believe (like a right-wing conservative nut), if that hero worship was stopped (by hook or by crook), the Dead End Kids will get straightened and will live a good life. So he decides to make an example of his own best friend (who is dying because of him and probably came to a bad end also because of him). For a good cause. For him, ends justify the means. Priesthood and goodness be damned. He is a pragmatic, albeit idealistic, politician. As wily as they come.

The second level, when compared to the first, is what shows up our own moral ambiguity. That is the level of entertainment. How we enjoy those thrilling scenes. How we root for Rocky all the way (as more than one reviewer noted), even when he is in the shootout and is killing policemen. The whole story has been made up mainly for our entertainment. Michael Curtiz (he was famous for his problems with the English language) is known to have said about his movies (and his way of making movies, and may be also for the business of making movies), “Who cares about character (development)? I make it go so fast, no one notices.”. All the way we root for the bad guy, and at the end we set it morally right by delighting in the sorry end of the same bad guy, so that we can go home and sleep well.

That’s the usual thing. What is especially bad here (or is that usual too?) is that there are a lot of other really bad guys. Much worse, as I said. And most of them don’t come to a bad end. They are not even considered or known to be criminals. They live respectable lives. What about their hero worship? Don’t the ‘straight’ but not yet respectable people see them as their role models (or at least look up to them)? The lawyers. The police chief. The businessmen. The mediamen. You can extend the list to the very top.

In fact, as the soon-to-die criminal remarks, all those bad guys were named during the trial and the priest himself had tried to clean the city of all the corruption (with the help of one brave newspaper editor), but nothing happened. The only ones who we see coming to a bad end (except Rocky Sullivan) are those who are killed by Rocky, who is the only one caught and sentenced. So what’s all this about bad guys always coming to a bad end? Does someone really believe that? Did they believe it even in the thirties?

I am talking about the world we have, not the one we should have.

To follow this to the bitter end, one could almost say that the good guy priest finally has his revenge on his friend who didn’t take his offer of help and instead advised him (condescendingly?) to not be a sucker. The monster living in the priest’s dark side might well be looking up during the prayer after the execution and saying triumphantly, who is the sucker now?

The boys, when they first saw him and decided to pick his pocket (and before they realised that he was their hero, Rocky Sullivan), identified him as, yes, a “sucker”. Works of art often say things which their creator may not have intended.

Why were the boys called the Dead End Kids? The word angel is referring to these boys as well as to the famous criminal. One of the dirty-faced angels has to be sacrificed to save the other dirty-faced angels. So it’s all among the dirty-faced angels. Nothing to do with the rest. Be happy, go home and have fun.

It was perhaps the possibility of having to face such questions that sent those reviewers and commentators (and Cagney and Bogart) scrambling to find ambiguity where there was none.

As hinted earlier, there is a kind of ambiguity here, but it’s not in that last scene, which is an embarrassing end to the movie. It’s there in the priest’s character. It’s also there in our reactions to the movie, where it always is. But the criminal-with-a-heart-of-gold’s character is as straightforward as that of any archetype in Western movies. No ambiguity.

The problem (at the first level) is not that the priest is trying to make the kids forego a life of crime. The problem is that his endeavour, like that of the moral Production Code as well as the quest for ambiguity in this particular case, is not genuine. And the solution is not to make suckers out of ‘angels’, dirty-faced or not.

The problem (at the second level) is also that even the last purifying delight of ours just doesn’t work, if you think a little about it. After all, it’s not just the priest and criminal and God who know what really happened. We also know it. And the final bad end was ultimately for our benefit. But if we know that he didn’t die ‘yellow’, then the device breaks down. Now we need something else as a substitute. So we make up the story that we really don’t know. The last scene is ambiguous. In spite of the explicit explanation that went just before it and all that went on earlier, we don’t know whether the cowardice was real or not. May be it was. That would absolve us. Because if he did die yellow, then he did come to a really bad end: in the public eyes, his own eyes, in our eyes. No redemption for him. After having entertained ourselves at his expense, we have appropriated his redemption as well. That’s smart, isn’t it?

We ain’t no suckers.

The Original Mark Twain

A day or two ago Google put on its search engine interface what they call a doodle. It was for celebrating the 176th birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain. I used to have trouble recalling his real name, so commonly known and popular his pen name has become, something like that of George Orwell, who, by the way, wrote an essay about him titled ‘The Licensed Jester’ (note this down as evidence of contradiction).

I had read Huckleberry Finn during my first college degree days. At that time I was aware of the fact that Mark Twain was a famous writer. I had read a few short things by him in English text books. I had also read a part of Tom Sawyer, but couldn’t finish it because it had to be returned. But I did not know about this book, Huck Finn. I didn’t know that it was considered the first Great American Novel. But even before finishing that shortish novel, I had no doubt that it was one of the best American novels ever written.

Note the self-referentiality and pomposity and keep it in mind while reading the rest of this article.

But this article is going to be more of a cut-and-paste (copy-and-paste, to be exact) job. That’s because this is the only way to do justice to what I want to say here. And there is no editor and a board of reviewers to look over my shoulder, so that makes it easy. The source is also in public domain, so no legal problems. If you are a fair use fanatic, go read something else.

If even people like me have trouble recalling his real name, it can be expected that few people (other than literary scholars and may be some other literary geeks) know the story of the origin of his pen name. Those who do know, only know a part of it, and that too the part that is less interesting.

Now I can add here that there is a theory among scholars that this story is perhaps not factual. I am not aware of their arguments and since Mark Twain himself explained in detail why he became Mark Twain, and I also know him to be one of most honest people in literature or elsewhere, I will ignore that theory and get on with the one that I like.

In fact, when I first read this story it made such a great impression on me that I have been aching ever since to write about it. The story forms Chapter 50 of another of his great books, Life on the Mississippi. I read it some years after I had read Huck Finn and this time I had borrowed the book (from the British Library, if I remember correctly: note this down for your later judgement). Since I had it in my own name and was ready to pay the fine for late fees (which I did very frequently and they were substantial sums for me at that time), I was able to finish this much longer book (I was as busy as anyone can be in those days: note it down). I liked it almost as much as Huck Finn. For the record, I completed reading Tom Sawyer much later and didn’t like it that much. No match for Huck Finn.

The story, or the part of the story that is commonly presented and known, is also given on the Wikipedia page about Mark Twain:

He maintained that his primary pen name came from his years working on Mississippi riverboats, where two fathoms, a depth indicating safe water for passage of boat, was measured on the sounding line. A fathom is a maritime unit of depth, equivalent to two yards (1.8 m); twain is an archaic term for “two.” The riverboatman’s cry was mark twain or, more fully, by the mark twain, meaning “according to the mark [on the line], [the depth is] two [fathoms],” that is, “The water is 12 feet (3.7 m) deep and it is safe to pass.”

The Wikipedia page goes on to say that he “claimed that his famous pen name was not entirely his invention” and that “In Life on the Mississippi, he wrote:”

Captain Isaiah Sellers was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the river, and sign them “MARK TWAIN,” and give them to the New Orleans Picayune. They related to the stage and condition of the river, and were accurate and valuable; … At the time that the telegraph brought the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient mariner’s discarded one, and have done my best to make it remain what it was in his hands – a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth; how I have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say.

As I said, the complete story forms a full chapter of the said book. The title of the chapter is “The ‘Original Jacobs'”.

Mark Twain was not faultless, of course, and he was also not one of those who only seem to become faultless by adopting the current orthodoxy about political and social correctness, taking no risks of their own, and having done that, they entitle themselves to judge and sentence anyone from the present or the past, say, for having shown a little bit of racist tendencies in the seventeenth century or of being a little sexist in the first half of the 20th century.

That is not to say that he did not do some nasty things in his time. In fact, the interesting part of the story is about just that. Then there is also the fact that he displayed considerable literary/stylistic prescriptivism in blasting some writers and critics of his time, but I am not going to go into that.

The introduction to the story is that there was another man who had used the pen name Mark Twain. He wasn’t a literary writer, but he was something impressive: impressive enough for Mark Twain to say that it was an honor to be the only one hated by him.

So here comes the copy-and-paste of the 50th chapter of Life on the Mississippi (I have left out the final paragraph, which is not relevant to the story):

Chapter 50 The ‘Original Jacobs’

WE had some talk about Captain Isaiah Sellers, now many years dead. He
was a fine man, a high-minded man, and greatly respected both ashore and
on the river. He was very tall, well built, and handsome; and in his old
age–as I remember him–his hair was as black as an Indian’s, and his
eye and hand were as strong and steady and his nerve and judgment as
firm and clear as anybody’s, young or old, among the fraternity of
pilots. He was the patriarch of the craft; he had been a keelboat pilot
before the day of steamboats; and a steamboat pilot before any other
steamboat pilot, still surviving at the time I speak of, had ever turned
a wheel. Consequently his brethren held him in the sort of awe in
which illustrious survivors of a bygone age are always held by their
associates. He knew how he was regarded, and perhaps this fact added
some trifle of stiffening to his natural dignity, which had been
sufficiently stiff in its original state.

He left a diary behind him; but apparently it did not date back to his
first steamboat trip, which was said to be 1811, the year the first
steamboat disturbed the waters of the Mississippi. At the time of his
death a correspondent of the ‘St. Louis Republican’ culled the following
items from the diary–

‘In February, 1825, he shipped on board the steamer “Rambler,” at
Florence, Ala., and made during that year three trips to New Orleans and
back–this on the “Gen. Carrol,” between Nashville and New Orleans. It
was during his stay on this boat that Captain Sellers introduced the tap
of the bell as a signal to heave the lead, previous to which time it was
the custom for the pilot to speak to the men below when soundings were
wanted. The proximity of the forecastle to the pilot-house, no doubt,
rendered this an easy matter; but how different on one of our palaces of
the present day.

‘In 1827 we find him on board the “President,” a boat of two hundred and
eighty-five tons burden, and plying between Smithland and New Orleans.
Thence he joined the “Jubilee” in 1828, and on this boat he did his
first piloting in the St. Louis trade; his first watch extending from
Herculaneum to St. Genevieve. On May 26, 1836, he completed and left
Pittsburgh in charge of the steamer “Prairie,” a boat of four hundred
tons, and the first steamer with a STATE-ROOM CABIN ever seen at St.
Louis. In 1857 he introduced the signal for meeting boats, and which
has, with some slight change, been the universal custom of this day; in
fact, is rendered obligatory by act of Congress.

‘As general items of river history, we quote the following marginal
notes from his general log–

‘In March, 1825, Gen. Lafayette left New Orleans for St. Louis on the
low-pressure steamer “Natchez.”

‘In January, 1828, twenty-one steamers left the New Orleans wharf to
celebrate the occasion of Gen. Jackson’s visit to that city.

‘In 1830 the “North American” made the run from New Orleans to Memphis
in six days–best time on record to that date. It has since been made in
two days and ten hours.

‘In 1831 the Red River cut-off formed.

‘In 1832 steamer “Hudson” made the run from White River to Helena, a
distance of seventy-five miles, in twelve hours. This was the source of
much talk and speculation among parties directly interested.

‘In 1839 Great Horseshoe cut-off formed.

‘Up to the present time, a term of thirty-five years, we ascertain, by
reference to the diary, he has made four hundred and sixty round trips
to New Orleans, which gives a distance of one million one hundred and
four thousand miles, or an average of eighty-six miles a day.’

Whenever Captain Sellers approached a body of gossiping pilots, a chill
fell there, and talking ceased. For this reason: whenever six pilots
were gathered together, there would always be one or two newly fledged
ones in the lot, and the elder ones would be always ‘showing off’ before
these poor fellows; making them sorrowfully feel how callow they were,
how recent their nobility, and how humble their degree, by talking
largely and vaporously of old-time experiences on the river; always
making it a point to date everything back as far as they could, so as to
make the new men feel their newness to the sharpest degree possible,
and envy the old stagers in the like degree. And how these complacent
baldheads WOULD swell, and brag, and lie, and date back–ten, fifteen,
twenty years,–and how they did enjoy the effect produced upon the
marveling and envying youngsters!

And perhaps just at this happy stage of the proceedings, the stately
figure of Captain Isaiah Sellers, that real and only genuine Son of
Antiquity, would drift solemnly into the midst. Imagine the size of the
silence that would result on the instant. And imagine the feelings of
those bald-heads, and the exultation of their recent audience when the
ancient captain would begin to drop casual and indifferent remarks of a
reminiscent nature–about islands that had disappeared, and cutoffs that
had been made, a generation before the oldest bald-head in the company
had ever set his foot in a pilot-house!

Many and many a time did this ancient mariner appear on the scene in the
above fashion, and spread disaster and humiliation around him. If one
might believe the pilots, he always dated his islands back to the misty
dawn of river history; and he never used the same island twice; and
never did he employ an island that still existed, or give one a name
which anybody present was old enough to have heard of before. If you
might believe the pilots, he was always conscientiously particular about
little details; never spoke of ‘the State of Mississippi,’ for instance
–no, he would say, ‘When the State of Mississippi was where Arkansas
now is,’ and would never speak of Louisiana or Missouri in a general
way, and leave an incorrect impression on your mind–no, he would say,
‘When Louisiana was up the river farther,’ or ‘When Missouri was on the
Illinois side.’

The old gentleman was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used
to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the
river, and sign them ‘MARK TWAIN,’ and give them to the ‘New Orleans
Picayune.’ They related to the stage and condition of the river, and
were accurate and valuable; and thus far, they contained no poison.
But in speaking of the stage of the river to-day, at a given point, the
captain was pretty apt to drop in a little remark about this being the
first time he had seen the water so high or so low at that particular
point for forty-nine years; and now and then he would mention Island
So-and-so, and follow it, in parentheses, with some such observation
as ‘disappeared in 1807, if I remember rightly.’ In these antique
interjections lay poison and bitterness for the other old pilots, and
they used to chaff the ‘Mark Twain’ paragraphs with unsparing mockery.

It so chanced that one of these paragraphs–{footnote [The original MS.
of it, in the captain’s own hand, has been sent to me from New Orleans.
It reads as follows–

VICKSBURG May 4, 1859.

‘My opinion for the benefit of the citizens of New Orleans: The water
is higher this far up than it has been since 8. My opinion is that the
water will be feet deep in Canal street before the first of next June.
Mrs. Turner’s plantation at the head of Big Black Island is all under
water, and it has not been since 1815.

‘I. Sellers.’]}

became the text for my first newspaper article. I burlesqued it broadly,
very broadly, stringing my fantastics out to the extent of eight hundred
or a thousand words. I was a ‘cub’ at the time. I showed my performance
to some pilots, and they eagerly rushed it into print in the ‘New
Orleans True Delta.’ It was a great pity; for it did nobody any worthy
service, and it sent a pang deep into a good man’s heart. There was no
malice in my rubbish; but it laughed at the captain. It laughed at a man
to whom such a thing was new and strange and dreadful. I did not know
then, though I do now, that there is no suffering comparable with that
which a private person feels when he is for the first time pilloried in
print.

Captain Sellers did me the honor to profoundly detest me from that day
forth. When I say he did me the honor, I am not using empty words. It
was a very real honor to be in the thoughts of so great a man as Captain
Sellers, and I had wit enough to appreciate it and be proud of it. It
was distinction to be loved by such a man; but it was a much greater
distinction to be hated by him, because he loved scores of people; but
he didn’t sit up nights to hate anybody but me.

He never printed another paragraph while he lived, and he never again
signed ‘Mark Twain’ to anything. At the time that the telegraph brought
the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new
journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient
mariner’s discarded one, and have done my best to make it remain what it
was in his hands–a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found
in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth; how I
have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say.

The captain had an honorable pride in his profession and an abiding love
for it. He ordered his monument before he died, and kept it near
him until he did die. It stands over his grave now, in Bellefontaine
cemetery, St. Louis. It is his image, in marble, standing on duty at
the pilot wheel; and worthy to stand and confront criticism, for it
represents a man who in life would have stayed there till he burned to a
cinder, if duty required it.

I find it interesting that the part that this chapter focuses on is always left out from the usual accounts, as far as I know (I am not a Mark Twain scholar, so I am only talking about what I have read).

I also feel that there is a lesson somewhere in this story for those who are receptive. How many would be receptive to such a lesson is something depressing to think about these days.

As a bonus for having read thus far, I invite you to read this, which was not published in his lifetime and about which he said, “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.”.

Drones, Aerial and Otherwise

[This was meant to be a comment in reply to an article on the ZNet by Pervez Hoodbhoy about aerial drones and what he calls ‘human drones’.]

I feel very strange, in fact disturbed, to have to make this comment, as this comment is critical of the ideas of someone with whom I have a lot in common, whereas I have almost nothing in common with those he proposes should be killed by any means possible. The strangeness also comes from the fact that the author not only recognizes but has actually been writing about the grounds on which I will put forward my criticism.

I am not sure whether Pervez Hoodbhoy is one or not, but I am an unapologetic atheist and have almost the worst possible opinion about religious fundamentalism of any kind, especially when it is of the organised kind or has organisational support. I also have no hesitation in stating that there IS something that can be called Islamic Fascism and it should be called by its proper name. But I also recognize that often things get mixed up and we can have a resistance movement that is also a Fascist movement. That makes it difficult to analyze them, let alone judge them. We can, however, still analyze and judge specific facts and events and be mostly right about them if we have sufficient evidence and we make sure that we keep our intellectual integrity intact.

Thus, for example, the people who are being targeted by the American drones (excluding those caught in the ‘collateral damage’) have been doing things which no sensible human being can support. These include the horrible terrorist acts, but more importantly (as the author rightly points out) they include their atrocities on their own people: women, protesters of any kind, ‘blasphemers’ etc. I can very well see what would happen to me if I were living in that kind of society.

I also share most of what the author has been saying. The trouble is that, he also makes some leaps of logic or conclusions which seem patently wrong to me and I think I have to register my disagreement with them, because they are far too important to be ignored.

I could, perhaps, write a longer article about it, but for now I will try to say a few things which matter more to me.

The first problem is that the author mixes up the literal and the metaphorical and this logical error leads him to atrocious conclusions. We can surely talk about ‘human drones’ where we are using the word drone metaphorically and the usage is justified as he has eloquently explained by comparing them with the non-human aerial drones. But the comparison itself is metaphorical. And the justification does not remain valid when he goes on to establish a straightforward literal equivalence. The ‘human drones’ might be brutal, unthinking, destructive, (metaphorical) killing machines and so on. They might be, in a sense, inhuman or anti-human, but they still are not non-human. They do have bodies, minds and thoughts. To say otherwise is to abandon one’s thinking in a fit of rage. What they deserve or not may be a matter of debate, but it has to be based on a vision that does not ignore the fact that they still are human beings, however detestable and dangerous they may be.

I am sure the author is aware of some of the history of the world which seems to indicate that there were a lot other people – and still are – who might also be justifiably called ‘human drones’ and who might be considered as bad as the ones he is talking about. That definitely can’t justify their actions, but it has a bearing on what those taking up the task of judging them should think and do.

If you agree with my contention here, then the analysis will lead to different directions. What those directions exactly should be, I won’t go into, because I don’t claim to have the answers, but they would lead to conclusions different from those of the author.

Even the metaphorical comparison here has some problems, which can, as I said, be guessed from what the author himself has been writing. There are some similarities, but there are also many differences. The ‘human drones’ still come from a certain society and they are part of it. The aerial drones are just machines, they don’t come from any society. The ‘human drones’ come from societies which have seen destruction of the worst kind for ages, whereas the aerial drones are (literally) remote controlled by those who played the primary role in bringing about this destruction, as the author himself has written and said elsewhere. If you ignore these facts, you will again be lead to very risky (and I would say immoral and unfair) conclusions.

With just a little dilution of the metaphor, haven’t most of the weapon laden humans (soldiers, commandos etc.) been kinds of ‘human drones’? The ones author talks about may be deadlier, but the situation is more drastic too. On the one hand you have an empire that is more powerful than any in history and on the other you have an almost primitive society that thinks it is defending itself, just as the empire says it is defending itself. Will it be improper to ask who has got more people killed? What about the ‘human drones’ of the empire: thinking of, say Iraq?

As far as I can see, the use of aerial drones to kill people, whoever they may be, is simply indefensible. Because if their use is justified on the grounds of the monstrosities of the Taliban ideologues and operators, what about chemicals? If some people were to form an anti-Taliban group and they were to infiltrate the ‘affected’ villages and towns and if they were to use poisoning of the water supply or something similar to kill people in the areas where these monsters are suspected to be, would that be justifiable? The aerial drones are, after all, just a technological device. There can be other such technologies and devices.

There must have been some very solid reasons why the whole world agreed to ban the use of chemical and biological weapons after the first world war and stuck to that ban (with a few universally condemned exceptions), though they were very effective and the Nazis were very evil.

The other big problem I have with the author’s opinions on this matter is that he suggests that the American aerial drones are one of the unsavoury weapons we should use against the fundamentalist Islamic militants. This is a logical error as well as a moral one. The logical error is that ‘we’ are not using the weapons at all, the empire is using them. And it is the same empire that created the problem in the first place, once again as the author himself has said. We have no control over how these drones are or will be used and who they will be used against in the future. Can’t they, some day in the future, be used against ‘us’? Why not? Perhaps the empire won’t use them directly, but it can always outsource their use: think again of Iraq. Iraq of the past and Iraq of the present. The author, in fact, knows very well the other examples that I could give.

To put it in Orwell’s words, make a habit of imprisoning Fascists without trial, and perhaps the process won’t stop at Fascists.

The use of aerial drones, they being just a technological device, might perhaps be justifiable for certain purposes, for example in managing relief work during large scale natural disasters, e.g. the wild fires in Russia or the frequent floods in India and China (but not as just a cover for their more sinister use). Their use for killing humans is, however, of a completely different nature.

The moral error is that the author’s conclusions unambiguously imply that ends justify the means. As long as these monsters producing (or becoming) ‘human drones’ are killed, it doesn’t matter whether the weapons are, to use the author’s word, unsavory. It also doesn’t matter that they are being used by an empire ‘we’ are opposed to and which started the mess. (Actually, the mess was started long ago by another empire, but then we could say there were even older empires who played a role in creating this mess, so let’s not go into that).

I even sort of agree with the author’s idea that recommending the standard left meta-technique of “mobilizing” people (actually, it is not just leftists who use such techniques) may not be very practical under the conditions prevalent in this case. But, as I said, though I understand the severity of the problems, I don’t have the solutions. I only want to say that the kind of errors that the author makes can lead us to a worse situation. We should not forget (I am sure the author knows this too) that it is not just a case of some bad apples. Even if these were to be removed by using ‘unsavory’ forces and weapons, the problems are not going to be solved so easily. Because there is not just one clearcut problem but many problems which are all meshed together and the meshing is too complex and barely visible.

At the risk of making an unpalatable statement, I would say that if any party in conflicts like this has to be excused for using unsavory weapons or tactics, it will have to be the much weaker party, not the strongest party in history. But I don’t think I would include suicide bombing among those weapons or tactics. And I also realize the limits to which I can be entitled to sit in judgement over people living under such conditions.

The author need not offer me (business class or mere economy) tickets to Waziristan. I am scared to even go to places in India.

One more problem that I have with the author’s writings is that he seems to have assigned blame to most parties involved in the conflict: the Army, the militants, the Taliban, the Americans etc., but has he (I haven’t read everything written by him) considered, equally critically, the role of the Pakistani elite (not just the leftists) and the somewhat ‘secular’ middle class? He seems to have hinted at their role, but it seems to me that their role was, is and will be far more critical in determining what is happening and what will happen. After all, the rise (if we can call it that) of the Taliban closely parallels the Islamisation of the Pakistani society in general. How did the Pakistani elite (intellectual, feudal and official) help in this and what can they do to solve this problem?

That, it seems to me, is the crucial question to ask (though it won’t lead to a quick fix), apart from what people around the world can do about those controlling the aerial drones, towards whom, as the author earlier wrote, “we still dare not point a finger at”. After going on to point a finger at them, the author seems to have now moved to the position of accepting their support in terms of killings by the aerial drones in order to contain the ‘human drones’, which (to be a bit harsh) doesn’t make sense to me.

Related to this is another question: does the natural antipathy of the Pakistani elite towards these ‘primitive’ tribal communities has something to do with the position that the author has taken and which he says many others (‘educated people’) share?

There are, of course, other actors. The author has mentioned Saudi Arab, but Iran has a role. Even India has (or at least wants to have) a role.

But I want to end on a positive note. It’s heartening to see that the ZNet allows this kind of a dissenting view to be presented on its platform. That should be a good sign for the discussion.

[Unfortunately, I have to end on a slightly negative note. As I was going to add the comment to the article, I realized that I have to be a ‘sustainer’ even to post a comment. And I have not been able to become a sustainer for reasons I won’t go into here. Hence I post it here.]

Five Fingers

The phrase ‘too clever by half’ was coined for such things.

Take Twelve Monkeys as an antidote to this poison. If there is not enough improvement, take Brazil too.

In case of side effects from the above double dose, Burn After Reading might help. But be sure to know your allergies before you take it.

For preemptive, I mean preventive, purposes, it is advisable to periodically take The Quiet American. Beware, however, that you have to take the 2002 version, not the 1958 version. The latter is prescribed by many quacks who practice intellectual euthanasia.

As a final resort, you should take the Mr. Neutron episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. If that doesn’t help, I am afraid there is not much hope.

The Crescent Moon

Director: Jang Kil-soo
Year of Release: 2002
Language: Korean

So, a long time after I wrote that I am going to review some movies just a bit more systematically, I have finally started doing that.

I didn’t go into an infinite loop: I just took longer.

Most people will find my list of Great Movies (when compared to my list of Very Good Movies) unconventional, if not strange. And this movie is likely to be perhaps the one (out of my selection of Great Movies) to which rarely any other movie critic will do the same honor. But then I don’t really see myself as a critic. I claim to be a good movie viewer, which is more important in my opinion than being a good critic. Anyway, it seemed quite appropriate to me to start my movie reviewing career with this movie. I was so bent on starting with this one that I stopped myself from reviewing any other movie here before I reviewed this one. So you can be quite sure that I am not taking it lightly and it is not a passing fancy. In fact, it’s already more than two years since I discovered (I hope not in the colonial sense) this movie.

Why did I put this relatively unknown movie in my list of Great Movies? Simply speaking, because it fulfills my criteria of being a Great Movie. But I wouldn’t try to objectively list those criteria. You can get a sense of them if you keep reading my reviews.

But you won’t be so surprised if you are familiar with Korean movies, which are known to be among the most creative by those who know about them, so much so that both Hollywood and Bollywood are getting some of their inspiration from there.

Like several other Great Movies in my list, this one too starts out quite unassumingly. And if you are (according to my standards) not a good movie viewer, you are unlikely to notice much in this movie that can make you call it Great. You might just say that it is a good enough movie. Perhaps I too would have done so when I was just beginning to learn the difficult but quite a tempting art of movie viewing.

The Crescent Moon is, first of all, a classic example of the works of fiction which are centered around what I call the Sibling Motif, or more particularly, the Young Sibling Motif, or even more particularly, the Mixed Young Sibling Motif. This motif requires two protagonists who should be young (children or adolescents) and they should be brother and sister. It involves telling the tale of their experiences, adventures if you like, over a period of time that can range from the shortest possible to whole lifetimes, but is usually a few years.

It is not an uncommon motif and is found in some of the greatest works of fiction, literary or audio-visual. I am not very sure, but it seems to have become more popular from the nineteenth century. Off the top of my head, I can think of many works built around this central motif. From the nineteenth century itself I can cite George Eliot’s classic tragedy, The Mill on the Floss, about the life and death of a girl who is more devoted to her brother than he is to her and who (like many others in Eliot’s novels and like herself) is also an unusual female character in the Victorian era literature in that she is quite an independent individual with a better brain and better education than her brother, but who nevertheless doesn’t do anything that could be considered indecent even by the Victorian standards, though she is hardly ever treated fairly by anyone.

Another, much more well known, classic which is centered around this motif is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. Since it is so well known, I won’t say anything about it. There is also the movie masterpiece (and the novel on which it is based) called Pather Panchali. From around the same time, there is a different kind of movie masterpiece, which is much less well known. That one is Charles Laughton’s only directorial work, The Night of the Hunter, which has still not received as much recognition as it should have. Incidentally, both of these movies are in my list of Great Movies. Coming to more recent times, there is, of course, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Needless to say that there are numerous others such as Jean Cocteau’s (much darker) Les Enfant Terribles, which unfortunately I haven’t read as I simply haven’t been able to lay my hands on it. And all the three novels by J. D. Salinger (but more so Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey) are also centered around this motif, except that in his case there are other siblings too who either appear in the novel or are talked about. (About defining what a novel means in Salinger’s writings, you could almost call his collected works a single fragmented novel).

I don’t exactly know what it signifies, but I notice here that the first three books that I mentioned were all written by women and the main protagonist is the girl in all of them, whereas the two movies were made by men and they had the boy as the main protagonist.

Coming back to the movie under review, this one doesn’t really make either the boy or the girl the main protagonist. In that sense it seems to me to be a more paradigmatic example of the works centered around the motif.

The girl in this movie is significantly younger than the boy and we are in fact shown the boy seeing her recently born sister. He is not happy as he is given the task to care for her when the grandmother is busy working inside and outside the house. The mother left the girl with the grandmother and we don’t know anything about the father. So the siblings are not only motherless and fatherless, but their only refuge is the old poor grandmother who has only a few years of work left in her.

The boy is even more unhappy with her sister when she turns a out to be a little hunchback. The fact of the sweet little extremely lovable girl being a hunchback, if I might mention with technical and/or academic brutality, allows the movie to look at the world from a different perspective and to develop the character of the brother, who gradually becomes much more affectionate to her, overcoming his embarrassment at being the brother of a hunchback and being the target of taunts for the same reason from his friends, who the movie doesn’t really make out to be monsters.

The movie also has many other minor and not so minor motifs. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that it is full of what could be called (with some justification) clichés. But then (to use a clichéd expression) some of the greatest stories ever told are full of clichés. Wise usage of these clichés and ‘worn out’ motifs often gives a work of fiction that epic quality which is the dream of most authors and auteurs. This movie is a case in point.

It deals with themes ranging from migration (to city), poverty, the struggle for survival, moral ambiguity, exploitation, child labor and unthinking oppression by the state in the name of development to the relationship between a boy and a teacher, but unlike in Mera Naam Joker (which is not one of my favorite films), here the teacher is a mother figure for the motherless child. It even has a section (which is one of the least clichéd and the most interesting) about the repressed sexual desires of a middle aged woman (to whom the boy delivers newspapers) and the awakening desires of her adolescent maid servant. But (despite the mother figure teacher) this is not really a movie for prudes and moral puritans (the teacher is introduced to the boy’s family through the intervention of the family’s dog who steals the teacher’s ‘chest scarf’). It gives both of them (the woman and her maid) due dignity, even as it presents the tragi-comic nature of the situation. If you want some single label for this movie, then I would have to give you Humanist.

Apart from the brother and the sister, the other important character is the grandmother, who we come to know better and are sometimes surprised by as the movie proceeds. To use another cliché, she represents all the honest hard working members of the class to which she belongs. I might confess here that, unlike some ideologues, I don’t believe that all the members of any class (including hers) are honest and hard working. But I don’t think that changes anything with regard to most other things.

On the whole, like Pather Panchali, this movie has a lyrical (sometimes poetic) quality that, if you get it, would remain with you for a long long time, even if you don’t see it again, which I think you are likely to do if you can. And it is so strong that the fact that The Crescent Moon doesn’t have any very ‘innovative’ technical flourishes is not a good enough reason for me to keep it out of my Great Movies list.

Another important reason why this movie works so well is the perfect cast, which is very important for this kind of movie (as it is for movies by Fellini and the Neo-Realists), even though it may be less important for other kinds of movies, such as those by Godard. Which brings me to mention that this movie somehow makes me recall The Nights of Cabiria.

I might add one caution for those who are very sentimental and also, at the same time, very particular about hygiene. Keep a handkerchief ready. It won’t take anything away from the movie’s greatness.

P.S.: I have found out that the famous French magazine Cahier du Cinema (to which Truffaut used to contribute regularly) conducted a poll of major critics and prepared a list of 100 great films. In this list, The Night of the Hunter is ranked second, along with La Règle du jeu by Jean Renoir. By the way, Truffaut’s was among the few favorable reviews that this movie got at that time. Let’s hope the great actor will break the wall of regimentation that stipulates that if someone was as great an actor as Laughton, he couldn’t be an equally great director (unless he is already recognized as an exceptional auteur, like Orson Welles: after the deification, everything is allowed). Most people now (barring, perhaps, the movie historians and the like) don’t even know that at one time he was as famous as Marlon Brando, Lawrence Olivier and Alfred Hitchcock. And how many people know that he not only worked closely with Bertolt Brecht on the English version of Brecht’s Life of Galileo (and played the title role in it), Brecht also wrote a poem about the actor’s garden. For the longer term, however, let’s also hope that he is not deified.

Cinema Deserves a Separate Blog

My personal blog already has a lot of posts (whatever is on a blog is a mere post, it can’t claim to be more: ask the bigwigs) about movies. However, there is so much about cinema that I have got to say that I find it necessary to start a blog just for posting movie reviews, or to be more accurate, counterviews of movies. On the personal blog, I explicitly stated more than once that I was not writing a review. But on this blog I will not make this statement, because now I am going to write reviews (or counterviews).

There are a lot of other things about which I have a lot to say, but I am not going to write about them. At least I am going to avoid writing about those things. For example, about Barack Obama. The main reason is that almost all that I have to say has been already said by a lot of people. Not just by a few people, but a lot of people.

I don’t want to add to global warming.

But movies are a different case. For one thing, I do have things to say which not many (in rare cases, none) have said before. For another, simply speaking, movies are (more) fun to talk and write about. And read about. So are books, but let’s leave them for some other day.

So, in this blog, I will be writing in a more systematic way about movies. But I won’t write reviews in the very conventional sense. Hence the name of the blog.

I will also make public my list of Great, Very Good, Good, Average and Bad movies. The last category should not have many entries.

Before I write my first counterview, let me make one thing very clear. I am not Roger Ebert. I don’t claim to be Roger Ebert. I don’t want to be Roger Ebert. I won’t be Roger Ebert. I shouldn’t be Roger Ebert.

Nor am I a cowboy. Or God. Or the Devil. Or an Emperor. Or even The Good Shepherd.

Rumours of my being one of these must be highly exaggerated.

I am just Anil Eklavya.

A Tryst with the Soul of Paris (1)

As I promised, I am going to write about the movie ‘La Môme’, also known as ‘La Vie en Rose’ (‘The Life in the Pink’). The movie is about the legendary French popular singer Édith Piaf, real name Édith Giovanna Gassion, but earlier known as La Môme Piaf (The Little Sparrow).

For the last many weeks, I have been soaking myself in her songs. Not her alone, because I am never ever an exclusivist, but my playlist during this period has been almost half full of her songs. Or songs related to her, i.e., songs sung by her which were later also sung by others. As far as music is concerned, this has been one of the major obsessions so far. And it doesn’t look like I am going to get over it soon. I don’t mind it, of course.

I even found some notes and tunes familiar from Hindi film songs, which are the true melting pot of music like nothing else.

Did I say I will talk about it later?

Let it be said that I have listened to a very wide variety of music from around the world and claim to have a very good musical sense. So, now that you know about my qualifications for writing about her and the movie based on her (I guess you already know that I also claim to have a very good cinematic sense), I can get on and you better take me seriously.

Heh! Heh! Where is your degree?

First, I will say what has already been said by all. Marion Cotillard has given a great performance in this movie as the legendary singer. It’s hard for me to forget that she is not really Édith Piaf.

By the way, she became the first actor (or actress) to “ever win an Academy Award for Best Actress (“Oscar”) for a performance entirely in French”. Given that winning an Academy Award is considered the height of achievement for people working in the movies, doesn’t it sound a bit strange? I mean French directors (along with directors from other countries from Europe and Asia) have been making movies and setting the standards for others for a long time now and French actors have been acting in them. Well enough to deserve world class awards.

How easy it is to forget that the Oscars, the Academy Awards, are mainly meant for English movies. There is just one magnanimous (or guest, if you like) category for ‘Foreign language movies’. But everyone behaves as if the Academy Awards are equally for all movies of the world.

Can we expect globalization of the Academy Awards? I won’t bet on it.

Except that I have never bet.

The spell checker has identified ‘globalization’ as an invalid word. I am adding it to the dictionary. The spell checker also doesn’t recognize ‘exclusivist’ as a valid word. I am adding this word too.

I have heard the term ‘Artificial Intelligence’ somewhere. I also heard a rumor (rumour for the non-dominant party) that computers now have some of it. Why do I feel a bit relieved that it is just a rumor?

Coming back to the movie, it is about a singer who, as someone said, “belts them out, doesn’t she?”. She does indeed. And she does just great. I have become her lifetime admirer. For whatever is left.

She was a born singer. She started on the street. She was the daughter of an acrobat and a street singer. For some time she lived in a brothel managed by her grandmother, where she was treated very well. One of the prostitutes became so fond of her that she was heartbroken and hysterical when the father came back for his daughter. With her father, she (the singer to be) lived in a circus. Later she accompanied her father on his acrobatic (contortionist) street shows and started singing. Then she sang on the streets with her half-sister, who remained close to her till her death, except for some time when she felt ignored and abandoned by the star singer.

She was discovered by a nightclub owner. She was suspected of involvement in his murder, but was cleared. She denied that she had anything to do with that and I would prefer to believe that. I would rather give her the benefit of doubt than to Henry Kissinger. Or so many like him, even if not his equal in douchehood.

She sang under the protection of local mafia men, who took their share, obviously. She met a composer, Marguerite Monnot, who also became her ‘most loyal friend’ for the rest of her life. Then she was mentored by a composer who was also a poet and a businessman. She became popular on the radio as well as on the stage. She became a star. Actually, in France, she became a super star. She mentored many people and helped them launch their career. And ‘dropped’ them when they became successful and no longer needed her mentoring. She helped launch many careers, including that of another legendary singer Yves Montand. Jean Cocteau wrote a successful one-act play ‘Le Bel Indifférent’ specially for her and she acted in it.

She was severely injured in a major car accident. Then she suffered more car accidents. Partly because of injuries from the car crashes, she got into addiction and suffered more. She fell in love with a married French boxer (who was a star in his own right in France) …

Well, according to the ethics of movie reviewing, I shouldn’t divulge too much. Suffice it, as the phrase goes, to say that if there was anyone whose life was the stuff of legend, she was the one.

I would say even more than Howard Hughes.

So much about her, what about the movie? It is one of best biopics I have ever seen. It is better than ‘The Aviator’. It is better than ‘Capote’, even though I have more than a soft spot for movies made about writers or about literature. It is better even than ‘Gandhi’. More about that last movie later.

Now the reasons why it is better. First is simply that I like it more. But more specifically, everything is almost perfect in this biopic. Direction (Olivier Dahan) is really good without being pretentious or stiff. Screenplay (Isabelle Sobelman and Olivier Dahan) is as it should be for a biopic. Realistic but still interesting. Not over the top. Neither starry eyed, nor of the kind which seems to be declaring ‘I will (academically) judge this person’s personal life and cut him or her to size’.

Marion Cotillard actually became The Little Sparrow. I don’t know whether it was with or without Method Acting. The rest of the cast also gave very convincing performances, including the actress who played Marlene Dietrich. I should make special mention of Sylvie Testud who played the role of Mômone (Simone Berteaut), Édith’s half-sister and her lifelong friend. Her lifelong partner in mischief.

For now, I will stop talking about the movie here as I intend to write a second installment of this post.

I would be proud to have lived a life like the one she lived. With warts and all.

Even now, as I write, she is singing in the background. Literally.

In the words of the movie’s Marlene Dietrich, she is taking me on a voyage to Paris. Where (unlike Marlene Dietrich) I have never been, except for half an hour at the airport when I had to keep sitting in the plane as there was a strike at the airport. So I have yet to set my feet on the soil of Paris, but The Little Sparrow, who really belts them out and who embodies the soul of Paris, has flown me around there plenty of times now.

P.S.: The strike in the above paragraph doesn’t mean terrorist strike. It means labour strike. Just in case.

And yes, labor for the dominant party.

Two Laws of Reviewing

After a few years in research, I have discovered two laws which the process of reviewing (of research papers) follows. Not very original, but here they are:

  1. You can always find some reasons for accepting any paper.
  2. You can always find some reasons for rejecting any paper.

Screwball Horror

This movie is supposed to belong to a genre called ‘screwball comedy’. Well, there was some comedy in it, of a very black sort, which is fine with me because I like black comedy. It is the kind of comedy found in the real world in the most abundant quantity.

However, what I felt most while watching the movie, especially after the first twenty minutes or so, can only be described by the word ‘horror’. Screwball horror.

The movie I am talking about is called ‘His Girl Friday’. It is a story about an unbelievably unscrupulous newspaper man and another newspaper ‘man’ who is actually a woman and who was previously his wife and his primary reporter. His Girl Friday, as the title says. She is almost equally unscrupulous, but this we find out a bit later into the movie.

Since she is just a bit less unscrupulous than him, she got fed up at one point (before the movie starts) and divorced him to go and become ‘a human being’. At the start of the movie, she seems to be on the way and has found a human being (an insurance agent) to marry (who loves her) and comes to the office of her former husband to inform him of the news.

But her former husband has other designs. He is determined to not let her go. As we find out later, not because he ‘loves’ (whatever that means) her, but because she is too good a reporter (of the kind shown in the movie and of the kind often found in real life) to be let off and also because, as a person, she is of the same flock, and would have been much better off had she stayed married to the reporter.

As it happens, a man is going to be hanged the next day and there is great news capital that can be made out of that. The man happens to be a poor man who was fired after a long spell of loyal service, who started getting drunk and started attending some union meetings just because he had nothing else to do. Then something happened some day and he shot a cop. He says accidentally. The cop happened to be a colored man and the colored vote is important in the locality concerned. So, the governor doesn’t want to give him a reprieve as the elections are coming.

So far so good. But, as the reporter (editor? owner? all in one?) tries every trick in his morally anarchic bag, and after he has got his former wife to stay for a few hours (he has a plan) and interview the convict (which she does) for a great story, the convict escapes during his ‘psychoanalysis’ by a shrink from New York.

The Wikipedia page says this is where the fun begins. I don’t think the statement is accurate. Actually, this is where the little bit of fun (as I understand it) that was there ends and true horror begins.

I don’t have the patience (or the stomach) to describe everything that happens after this. We begin to really understand the distinction made by the screenplay writer between newspaper men and human beings (which a notice at the start of the movie indicates doesn’t apply in the ‘present’ times).

Basically, what we see is almost everyone (newspaper men, cops, politicians etc.) behaving like monsters, except that there is no (visible) blood and gore. Without batting an eyelid. Or bowling an eyelid for that matter.

The game of the hanging to be (which later becomes shooting to be) gets dirtier and dirtier, till we realize that the director is not just showing us a screwball comedy, or a satire, or a black comedy. We realize that the genre to which the movie belongs is that of the blood and the gore which flows thick through the stream of rapid fire dialog but is not directly visible to the eyes.

Because it is not directly visible to the eyes, some people (who don’t look at such things very hard as it might upset their constitution or their life) can understandably call the movie a screwball comedy.

The director has to be given credit for sticking with the idea throughout and not giving us a falsely feel good ending.

Almost all the characters in the movie, who all belong to a particular class, are not bothered, even superficially, by such trifles as deaths of human beings. Even when they might be causing it. They are not shaken even by the most moving emotional outbursts by one of the few ‘human beings’ in the movie who had talked kindly to the man to be hanged and is therefore branded a murderer’s girl friend.

So there is enough horror in the movie to make it feel more like amplified (albeit sanitized) ‘Clockwork Orange’ than, say, ‘Some Like it Hot’ or ‘It Happened One Night’.

But there is some more horror off the film. Like in the movie, this horror can also be seen in the trivia:

  • The director Howard Hawks, who could be perceived to be a closet commie (by many) in this movie, was known to make anti-semitic remarks. Ben Hecht, whose play was adapted for the movie, was Jewish and is known for his anti-Holocaust activism.
  • Rosalind Russell, who played the female lead (the newspaper ‘man’), hired her own writer to ‘punch up’ her dialogs to make them as good as that of Cary Grant, who played the male lead. Did she mean her dialogs were not as horror inducing as that of the Hero?
  • The man to be hanged is white (even if trash) and he had shot a colored cop. Not vice versa, which would be much more likely given the demographic and other statistics.
  • The fact that I mentioned earlier. That this movie is considered to be a screwball comedy. Not even a black comedy.
  • The corollary to the fact mentioned above. That horror can be mistaken for fun and enjoyed accordingly.

I won’t accuse the director for giving us some escapist fare. Not even of making a feel good movie.

Nor of making a comedy.

Transcribing Romance on Your Menu

It makes us feel that we are all extras in somebody else’s movie.

That’s a comment someone made about the movie I am going to write about today. I am not the kind of person who likes to watch the same movie again and again. But there are exceptions. So I do watch some movies more than once. And this one is a movie I have watched the second highest number of times.

From what I have written so far about movies, the regular readers of this blog (assuming there are any), might have got the impression that I am a very dry kind of person. Always talking about serious movies. And always talking about only the serious (political, philosophical, psychological) themes in all movies.

I am not going to do that in this post. Not because I want to prove something (there goes an apology). Just that this particular movie doesn’t have anything serious to say about life. And, therefore, I don’t have anything serious to say about the movie either. (Well, yes, this is more of an exaggeration than a literal truth).

But I still have watched this movie the second highest number of times (for me of course). And will definitely watch it again. More than once.

Like the other movie that I have watched the highest number of times (for me of course), this movie too was a big surprise.

In how many non-Indian movies will you find a Punjabi folk song on the soundtrack? A song like the one transcribed below.

This is one other very unusual unme-like thing I am going to do in this post. Transcribing the lyrical and poetic parts of the soundtrack of a non-serious movie. There might be some mistakes in the transcription (there goes a disclaimer), but then I won’t be the only one to do that (there goes an excuse). Just a few days ago I bought a sackful of second hand books (all in English: good Hindi books don’t have a market, even a second hand market) from a roadside Sunday book bazaar. One of the things I bought was a booklet titled ‘Joyful Hearts (For Private use only)’. It had lyrics of popular songs in several languages, all transcribed in the Latin script. One of them (California Dreamin’) is on the soundtrack of the movie I am writing about. I too have transcribed it below, but I have done so from the movie. The version in the booklet wrongly contains the word ‘in a lay’ instead of ‘in L.A.’. Actually, the task for me was easier (for English songs) because the subtitles also had the lyrics. But the Hindi and Punjabi words I had to transcribe on my own. And if I remember correctly, even the subtitles had some mistake in the transcription of an English song.

Anyway, here is the Punjabi folk song:

पिपलां दी ठंडी-ठंडी
छाँ वरगी
सत्थ मैनूं लग्गे
मैनूं वरगी

मैं वी उन पुच्छ के
बैर कर दी

So, how many foreign (non-Indian) movies will have this kind of real and really beautiful folk song that is hard to find even in India? (I am talking about music more than the words. Unfortunately, I can’t transcribe the music).

Even in an India where, while Punjabi as a distinct language is going down the extinction path as much as any other language except the lucky handful, certain aspects of Punjabi culture are making inroads even in the South. And music is one of those aspects. But, tragically (I mean it: I don’t use words lightly), the Punjabi music that is proliferating is of the worst kind.

And how many foreign movies will have light classical Hindustani music with words like this:

बदरवा बरसन लाई
लाई फूहारों की लड़ाई
पवन चलत पुरवाई
बदरवा …

As this is Hindustani classical music, even if light one, the words give very little indication of the beauty of the music. Unless you have a gift for discovering the music hidden within the words. A well known Hindi film music director used to say that all songs (i.e., lyrics) have music hidden within them. You just have to find that music and you can get the right composition for the song. I think he was at least partially right (there go weasel words).

But the one that follows takes the cake. In how many movies will you find hardcore poetry in hardcore standard Hindi. The shuddh Hindi. The pure Hindi. Even I don’t understand everything in this poem. And, I am ashamed to say, I don’t even know whose poem it is.

गर्जन भैरव संसार
हँसता है बहता कल कल
देख देख नाचता हृदय
बहने को महाविकल बेकल
इस मरूर से
इसी शूर से
सघन भूर गुरू गहन रूर से
मुझे गगन का दिखा
सघन वह छोर
राग अमर अंबर में भरने जरूर

ए वर्ष के हर्ष
बरस तू बरस पर तरस खा कर
मार दे चल तू मुझ को
बहार दिखा मुझ को

गर्जन भैरव संसार
हँसता है नर खल खल
बहता कहता
बुद बुद कल कल
देख देख नाचता हृदय

This poem, like other songs in the movie, is played in more than one bits and is employed as the musical theme of a certain bit of the ‘story’.

There is not much of a story though. What you see in this movie, what made me watch it the second highest number of times, and what made this one of Tarantino’s favorite movies, is simply cinematic magic.

Magic created out of photography, choreography, composition, colors, music, musical words and romance. Simple almost unreal and surreal romance made magical.

By the way, the movie is called ‘Chung King Express’ and is directed by Wong Kar Wai. And it stars a very good looking star cast consisting of Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Chiu Wai (the smaller, who is a bigger super star than the bigger Tony Leung of ‘The Lovers’), Faye Wong (who was already a pop star), Takeshi Kaneshiro (who actually knows four languages and uses them all in this movie) and Valerie Chow.

The movie also has a song from one of Faye Wong’s albums which I couldn’t transcribe as I neither know the language nor the script.

I have a feeling that this movie has influenced a lot of people working in the realm of popular culture.

It is also influenced by a lot of other creations by other people working in the realm of popular culture.

It’s not every day
We are gonna be
The same way
There must be a change
Somehow

There are bad times
And good times too
So have a little faith in
What you do, oh yeah
Getting happy, yeah
I want you to understand, yeah

The movie actually has two interwoven stories (CLICHE!). Roger Ebert may be right in saying that watching this movie is a cerebral exercise as you like this movie because of what you know about it, not what it knows about life.

But Roger Ebert can be horribly wrong sometimes. Like when he wrote a review of Malena. I will just quote Michael DeZubiria to point out how unbelievably wrong the best known movie reviewer in the world can be (there goes a marathon digression):

Roger Ebert wrote probably the most idiotic review I’ve ever seen him come out with about this movie. He missed the point of this movie even more than he missed the point of Memento, and his review of that movie was like a blind man describing a shooting star. He describes Malena as a schoolteacher “of at least average intelligence, who must be aware of her effect on the collective local male libido, but seems blissfully oblivious.”

Roger, seriously, are you joking? BLISSFULLY?? Did you sleep through this movie?

She almost never speaks at all and never displays even the slightest hint of a smile. Given the extent of her depression and stifling sadness, it is astounding to me that anyone in their right mind could attach the word “blissfully” to any element of her character.

I know what that’s like though, because sometimes I completely miss something about a movie and I think that something else is the stupidest thing in the world because of it, at least until someone explains what I missed and then it all makes sense. Watch Malena, for example, walking through the central square in town at any point in the movie. If you think she keeps her eyes on the ground directly in front of her because she is in a state of pure, ignorant bliss, then trust me. You are missing something.

I don’t know if Malena was actually unaware of the effect that she had on the townspeople, but I find it nearly impossible to believe that she did. That thought actually never even occurred to me until I read Roger Ebert’s gem of a review. Her behavior struck me much more like someone who had been dealing with such behavior from the men around for her whole life. I doubt very much that she doesn’t understand the concepts of human physical attraction.

Coming back to the current movie, I can say with a crystal clear conscience (I don’t like to lie too much) that this is one of the best movies about plain and simple ‘love’ type romance.

What a difference
A day makes
Twenty four little hours
Brought the sun and the flowers
Mmm, where there used
To be rain

My yesterday was blue, dear
Today I am a part of you, dear
My lonely nights are through, dear
Since you said you were mine

Lord, what a difference
A day makes
There’s a rainbow before me
Skies above can’t be stormy
Since that moment of bliss
That thrilling kiss

It’s heavens when you
Find romance
On your menu

What a difference
A day made
And the difference
Is you

But then it is a movie by the master of nostalgia. Wong Kar Wai can make you feel extremely (I don’t use adjectives or adverbs lightly) nostalgic even about places where you have never been. He can even make you feel nostalgic twice removed. In this movie he first makes you nostalgic about Hong Kong (even if you have never been there) and then he makes you feel nostalgic about California (even if you have never been there) from Hong Kong. And all this time you (there goes projection) are sitting in a man made cave in India.

All the leaves are brown
And the sky is gray
I’ve been for a walk
On a winter’s day
I would be safe and warm
If I was in L.A.

California dreamin’
On such a winter’s day

Stopped into a church
I passed along the way
Well, I got down on my knees
And I pretend to pray
You know the preacher likes cold
He knows I am gonna stay

California dreamin’
On such a winter’s day

If I didn’t tell her
I could leave today

California dreamin’
On such a winter’s day

I was (along with the person who gave that movie to me) fascinated by the soundtrack of another one of Wong Kar Wai’s movies, ‘In the Mood for Love’. But ‘Chung King Express’ beats even that movie. It has one of best soundtracks in the history of movies. In fact, I have watched it sometimes just for the soundtrack. And I am not really crazy about movie soundtracks.

Tarantino has claimed that everyone that he knows who watched this movie (he only knows men, or, more likely, he only counts men) had a crush on Faye (who is named Faye in the movie too).

A tribute from the king of cinematic non-serious violence to the king of cinematic non-serious romance.

So, whenever you want romance on your menu, go to Wong’s. They serve the best there. You will find yourself visiting frequently.

Even if there was nothing else, I will still watch this movie to listen to the Hindi poem being played on the TV, accompanied on the soundtrack by many other sounds.

Hindi poem on cinema. Foreign cinema. Now there’s a rare thing for you if there ever was one. Even if it forms the backdrop of an almost comic botched small time drug smuggling operation involving many very bad looking lower class ‘Indians’ who are actually Pakistanis.