Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Cherry-Poppin' Movie-Writin'

Dressed To Kill

As a teen, I remember haunting the bound periodical stacks of my school library. I’d pull a massive New Yorker volume off the shelf with a grunt and drag it into a secluded carrel. Calcutta being a city of chronic power shortages, evenings usually found the metropolis dark, dotted with the dim lights of kerosene lamps. Grade school kids were often employed by the library as lamplighters. When the power went out, they’d trawl the corridors, poking their heads into carrels, matchbox in hand, while readers waited patiently, fingering their bound volumes like Braille texts. When the power came back on, the kids turned down every last wick before the library closed for the night.

It was in a cramped and musty carrel by the light of a pungent-smelling lamp that I read the first piece of movie writing that I memorized: Pauline Kael’s review of Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill. It began thus:

One of the most sheerly enjoyable films of recent years, this sophisticated horror comedy, written and directed by Brian De Palma, is permeated with the distilled essence of impure thoughts. Set in Manhattan, it’s about sex and fear; De Palma presents extreme fantasies and pulls the audience into them with such apparent ease that the pleasure of the suspense becomes aphrodisiacal.

Young and impressionable, I copied out the review and carried it to school in my backpack every day for a week. I circled all the unexpected turns of phrase, underlined the zingy adjectives and drew doodle-balloons around the intricately constructed sentences: I was becoming intimately acquainted with a piece of music as I was learning it by heart. Never mind that I had seen nothing by De Palma or any of the directors she discussed in the review, including Hitchcock. It would be years before I caught up with Dressed To Kill, appropriately so in New York.

I've had a long and complicated relationship with Kael's work, marked both by love and exasperation. Her prose remains matchless. But in the end it is Andrew Sarris' auteurism that packs the greater resonance for me. His books The American Cinema, Confessions Of A Cultist, and The Primal Screen formed and shaped my thinking about movies (especially American movies) — more so than Kael ever did. But each time I pick up one of her pieces and start to read, within seconds I've got a grin on my face and I'm shaking my head in admiration. What a writer.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Film Comment

Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Café Lumière

The movie magazines I subscribe to include Sight & Sound, Cinemascope and Cineaste, but the one that’s most fun to receive in the mail is Film Comment. It’s pitched blatantly to the cinephile set, and contains a well-rounded mix of essays, reviews, film festival coverage and trade news. The new issue arrived last week.

  • Like heading first for the cartoons in the New Yorker, I always begin with the DVD new releases page. Two of my faves from last year, Café Lumière and Kings And Queen, will be out soon.

  • I saw one of this year’s best films, Michael Haneke’s Caché, with three friends. We each had our own take on it, which makes me wish all movies were this customizable.

  • Over time, I've discovered that J. Hoberman is the critic my taste lines up most closely with. Normally tightfisted with his ratings, he lavished four stars on Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, taking it from “totally-off-my-radar” to “must-see-this-week” at my local second-run theater where it’s showing.

  • One of the best American movies I saw this year was actually three years old — it took that long to get a distribution deal. Alas, it looks like the director's new one might be headed the same way.

  • A film I caught in Toronto but never had a chance to mention was Italian avant-garde filmmaker/artist Olivo Barbieri's 12-minute site specific_LAS VEGAS 05, which he shot from a helicopter over Las Vegas. The city and people below are real and yet they look uncannily like scale models and toys. Only part of the image is in focus at any one time, which heightens its unreality. A quietly spooky experience.

  • Errol Morris’ guilty pleasures include Bubba Ho-Tep and Blood Feast.

  • I closed the magazine and hightailed it to my local bookstore to pick up a collection of Roman Polanski interviews. Always enjoyed hearing him talk.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Turkey À La Russe

My friend Edouard is seventy-eight. He started out as a truck driver and Teamster, then joined the Air Force before discovering his love of books. He got a PhD and went on to teach English Lit for four decades. But when he retired, he gave up reading fiction altogether, and became a full-time cinephile. His living room is a movie theater with a ten-foot-wide projection screen.

Thanksgiving orphans both, we decided to collaborate on the turkey project. He ran the bird department, and I managed the accessories. We slow-cooked a cranberry-strawberry-rhubarb sauce flavored with orange zest and cinnamon stick. We made tiny volcanic mounds of mashed turnips and potatoes, filling their craters with little gravy-lakes. And for dessert: German chocolate bars. An unorthodox meal perhaps, but a memorable one.

Afterwards, we staggered into the screening room. With his customary elegant and theatrical touch, Edouard produced two DVD's. "You will choose, Girish," he said, "And the candidates are both Russian: (1) Dovzhenko's Earth, and (2) From Russia With Love". I ambitiously pointed to the former.

But with tryptophan coursing through my veins, the silent film proved a bewilderingly fragmented head-scratcher. An hour and a half passed in a drowsy blur. At the end of the night, I took my leave. It remained unsaid but I knew what we were both thinking: shoulda gone with the James Bond.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Queue

Been feeling overwhelmed by my Netflix obligations lately: my guilt mounts when I see those red envelopes gathering dust on top of the piano. I joined Netflix six years ago, and have the La Grande Bouffe plan — eight at a time. Once, I used to be on a movie-a-night regimen: retire at nine, and comfortably tuck in a movie before hitting the pillow. But no more. There's life to live.

For years, my Netflix queue has had about 490 movies in it. (The limit is 500.) Every time I make some progress whittling it down, the new releases page appears Sunday morning at the Netflix site, and that Sisyphean boulder starts to roll down the hill again. But: the weather's turning cooler, and staying indoors to fire up a DVD is an attractive option when the mulberry tree in my front yard is drooping from the weight of snow on its limbs.

So, before I ask you what titles are at the top of your Netflix queue, here are the ones perched atop mine:

Et vous?

Saturday, November 19, 2005

A Carpet Of White

One of my most vivid memories is seeing snow for the first time. It was just after I had moved to the States. I was getting ready to go to class (Macroeconomic Analysis, I'll never forget). I stepped out of my house and felt the the white stuff crunch under my shoes. It was no more than a mere inch, but it utterly transformed the neighborhood and landscape. I forgot all about my class, went right back indoors, pulled up a chair to the bay window, made myself a large pot of chai and for the rest of the afternoon, just gazed.

Last night, when I got into bed and turned out the light, the bedroom stayed brightly-lit from the moonlight reflecting off the first snow. It felt so good that I had trouble falling asleep for a long time.

This morning, I'm at a (different) bay window, chai in hand, iBook in lap, offering up a handful of linkies:

  • Robert Christgau's annual turkey shoot is always a hoot. This year's edition leads off with his knocking the stuffing out of the new Burt Bacharach album.

  • Michel Legrand is, of course, a freakin' genius. A huge bag of goodies, in the form of the Thomas Crown Affair soundtrack, is generously available at Flickhead's. If you'd rather not get it all, you should at least score the two vocal tunes: "Windmills Of Your Mind" sung by Noel Harrison and "His Eyes, Her Eyes" by the melodiously French-accented Legrand himself. Precious.

  • Brian reminds me how much I love The Bad Plus. And they even have a blog! This entry, on matching up writers with bands, is inspired.

  • Screen capture quizzes this week: Fine with Aaron's but Filmbrain's has me stumped.

  • Interviews dredged up from the Salon archive: Haruki Murakami, Susan Sontag. (via Rake's Progress).

  • Ten writers admit to the things they've taken from Joan Didion.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Books Into Movies

Robinson makes a new friend

Full disclosure of my bias upfront: I don’t usually care for faithful film adaptations of books. If a film transplants a book slavishly to the screen, adding to it merely the pictorial element — however fastidiously — the film often strikes me as redundant and less than interesting. I prefer it when a filmmaker raids the source material for what interests her, throws literal fidelity to the winds, and infuses the movie version with her own thematic obsessions and stylistic signature — i.e., makes the book “her own” — as Claire Denis did in Beau Travail with Melville’s Billy Budd.

But sometimes a director can make a radically personal and original film while retaining much or all of a book’s plot but simply inflecting it carefully and strongly with his sensibility. Case in point: Luis Buñuel and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954). At first glance, the movie appears to be a faithful rendering, especially for a viewer less acquainted with Buñuel. But look a little deeper, and we see how successfully he has hijacked the novel, but without losing his regard for it.

Buñuel makes a revelatory point — that the meaning of a film is contained less in the broad strokes of the plot than in the interstices of that plot, in the spaces and cracks that lie between the large events of the story. So, while the original plot remains quite intact, the movie has scores of ingeniously invented Buñuelian details. A few interesting aspects:

  • Buñuel beautifully accentuates Crusoe's solitude and forced celibacy. Crusoe makes a scarecrow out of the first thing he can find, a woman's dress. A gust of wind blows the dress up gently, as if bringing the figure to life for an instant — and he freezes in a quiet moment of shock.

  • Later, Friday puts on the same dress and Crusoe grows furious and asks him to take it off immediately. (Subtextually, a moment loaded with sexual danger.)

  • "I'm an atheist, thank God," said Buñuel famously. Steeped in Catholicism and taught by the Jesuits as a child, religion and theology fascinated him all his life. In a touching moment, Crusoe arrives at a ravine on the island, longs to hear another human voice, and shouts a line from the Bible ("man short in days and long in sorrow") so he can hear an echo...of his own voice.

  • It wouldn't be a Buñuel movie without a killer dream sequence. Crusoe dreams of being punished by his father. He is convulsed with thirst but tied up, placed in water up to his waist. (Frustration — a key Buñuelian trope.)

  • As Crusoe is leaving the island, he hears the bark of his dog and spins around, though we know that his dog is long dead. It's a wonderful moment — a poignant disjunction of sound and image. (A sound from the past travelling in time to plant itself in the image of the present.)

So, tell me: your favorite literary adaptations? And why?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Art Of Teaching

Here's something bizarre: In my PhD program, I took upwards of a hundred credit hours of coursework, but I wasn't required to take a single course on how to teach. And that's not atypical. The first time I was ever asked to teach a course as a grad student, I simply received a form letter with my name and the name of the course on it. Next thing I knew, I was in the lion's den of a state university auditorium classroom.

Not having a clue, I cast about for help, and chanced upon the classic text, The Art Of Teaching (1950), by Gilbert Highet. It is a riot of a book – colorful, carpeted with sweeping generalizations, and oozing passion for the profession. After just a few paragraphs, I completely forgot to take notes. One wishes all academic writing were this full of personality and idiosyncrasy. Here’s a precious little sample from it:

It is an essential of good teaching to like the pupils. If you do not actually like boys and girls, or young men and young women, give up teaching. It is easy to like the young because they are young. They have no faults, except the very ones which they are asking you to eradicate: ignorance, shallowness, and inexperience. The really hateful faults are those which we grown men and women have. Some of these grow on us like diseases, others we build up and cherish as though they were virtues. Ingrained conceit, calculated cruelty, deep-rooted cowardice, slobbering greed, vulgar self-satisfaction, puffy laziness of mind and body--these and other real sins result from years, decades of careful cultivation. They show on our faces, they ring harsh or hollow in our voices, they have become bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. The young do not sin in those ways. Heaven knows they are infuriatingly lazy and unbelievably stupid and sometimes detestably cruel -- but not for long, not all at once, and not (like grownups) as a matter of habit or policy.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Charlie's Earth Angel

Sacha made me think of something. Ten minutes into Altman's Dr. T & The Women. A ritzy Houston mall. Feathered women mill about. Tara Reid and Kate Hudson are at Tiffany's with their mother, Farrah Fawcett. A few minutes later, they look around: Mom's missing. She hasn't been quite herself lately. They rush out, she's nowhere in sight. Altman discreetly pans to a store sign: Guess. Cut to Farrah, who's dressed in brown like some wood nymph. Spaced-out, floating. Kicks off her brown shoes. Shakes loose her earth-colored sweater, drops it. (She's outside: Timberland.) Next thing, she's climbing into the fountain. Disrobing. Splashing about like Anita Ekberg. Starkers, a mermaid-child. Women gather about, incredulous, giggly, outraged. Altman quietly pans up: Godiva, Chocolatier.

Friday, November 11, 2005


Dean Wareham & Britta Phillips, L'Avventura:

I Deserve It


I miss Luna. I discovered them on their debut record, then spent a decade following them faithfully, buying every album, involuntarily memorizing arrangements and lyrics, and happily spending money at the merch table each time they appeared in town.

Formed by New Zealand-born guitarist/songwriter Dean Wareham after he disbanded Galaxie 500 in the early nineties, Luna played a stately, deadpan guitar-pop with slight traces of its forebears, the Velvet Underground and Television, though sleeker and droller than either. A full-fledged elegy is in the works here in the newly-minted mp3 department of the blog, but as a warm-up opening act, let’s hear a two-shot from a Luna side project: Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’ album L’Avventura. Both selections are covers of songs originally written and performed by women.

Madonna’s “I Deserve It” is a song I would not have appreciated when I was twenty. It feels calm, mature, racked up with life-mileage, and its imagery is spare and elemental: “Many miles, many roads I have traveled/Falling down on the way/Many hearts, many years, have unravelled/Leading up to today.” (That last line gives me a little chill.) Wareham covers it faithfully, as close to the tenor of Madonna’s original as he can remain while still personalizing it as he expertly gender-flips both text and subtext.

“Moonshot” by Canadian First Nations songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie is the only song I know that belongs to the “moon landing protest song” genre. It’s nicely unpredictable, and a bit spooky: “An anthropologist, he wrote a book/He called it “Myths Of Heaven”/He’s disappeared/His wife is all distraught/An angel came and got him…”.

Tony Visconti, who worked with Bowie and T-Rex, produced the record. He made some unusual choices, like applying a wash of strings here or triggering a 1970's beat box there. But overall, the mood is mellower, airier, than a Luna album.

More: Dean & Britta's site, and a good interview with Dean.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


fish-scale guitar

I can die a happy and fulfilled man: I have a band named for me. No, I did nothing to earn or deserve it — merely owned a last name which, while probably quite banal and colorless in India, may strike some Westerners as odd or even exotic.

Shambu is a Buffalo quartet that was formed two years ago by a couple of students, college seniors both. Pete’s the leader; he writes most of the songs and plays an attractive Ovation acoustic. Mikey is one of the best tenor sax players in town and also an ace on the keys. And they both sing. Pete works for Ani DiFranco and her label Righteous Babe Records and Mikey’s now in med school. I started out as their prof, then became a friend.

Since I began teaching, my parents have dogged me with a peculiar request — write a book. They don’t care what it’s about: “Any damn book, so we can put it on our bookshelf at home in Chennai. It’s a form of immortality, you know.”

For the last couple of years, I haven’t heard a peep out of them about the book idea. I asked them recently: had they changed their mind? Their reply had me in stitches. No, they said. Since the formation of the band, the immortality thing was no longer an issue. I had simply gone as high as they could ever hope. Forget the book. I was way past that.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Conversations With My Mom: Racism

Mom: So, tell me: does racism still exist in this country?
Me: [bitter laugh, followed by humming of Kanye West tune] “Racism still alive/They just be concealin’ it.”
Mom: Girish, I’m serious: does racism still exist?
Me: Of course it does, Mom.
Mom: Oh that’s so sad.
Me: [shrug]
Mom: Tell me: are people ever rude to you because of — you know — our skin?
Me: Sure.
Mom: But how do you know it’s because of that? Maybe the guy’s just in a bad mood, or just a rude person. Isn’t that possible?
Me: Yes, it is...
Mom: But?
Me: But after it happens a few dozen times, you begin to realize there’s more to it than that.
Mom: And 9/11? Did that change anything?
Me: Well, that week, I went to Mighty Taco for lunch one day, right here in our neighborhood [almost all white working-class or retiree]. When I walked in, it felt like the whole place froze. Twenty-five pairs of eyes seemed to be staring at me and it got kinda quiet for a minute.
Mom: I’m shocked — you went to Mighty Taco?
Me: Good point, Mom, but you see what I'm saying.
Mom: Do you think it was…your imagination?
Me: Well of course anything’s possible — but in this case, I doubt it. It happened. And it took me aback.
Mom: I’m sorry to pry but I’m your mother, and though it makes me sad to hear these things, I want to know about them. Does that make sense to you?
Me: [shrug]
Mom: Do you remember the first time you thought someone was being racist to you?
Me: Yeah. This is almost funny. My plane had just arrived at JFK. I had been in America for, like, an hour. I collect my luggage. This cabbie comes over and asks me if I want to go to Manhattan. I say, no thanks. He looks at me: fresh off the boat. He says: “That’s OK. We don’t take Indians on Sundays anyway.” And he calmly turns away.
Mom: Oh my God.
Me: Wait. You haven’t heard the best part yet. I hear him say this, and I think, “Oh, they must have some kind of special rule about this.” And then I forget all about it for a while.
Mom: You’re kidding.
Me: No, I’m serious. See, for centuries we Hindus have had these outrageous caste rules and do’s and don’ts — we’re such a horribly class-conscious society. So, I just assumed this was some sort of unwritten American practice, some American caste rule I didn’t know about.
Mom: That is pathetic.
Me: [sigh] Yes it is, Mom.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Universal Heartbeat

¶ You know the soft verse/loud chorus/soft verse dynamics of Kurt Cobain? It left its mark on a zillion bands. Kurt himself stole it from the Pixies, as he often liked to point out. Ten years ago, I went through a phase when every mixtape I made had Juliana Hatfield's "Universal Heartbeat" on it. It takes that Nirvana-esque song structure and dresses it up in alt-pop clothes, accessorizing it with electric piano for the verse and power guitars for the chorus. Why it was never a hit I'll never know. But Fluxblog's got it. And you should go get it.

¶ Mr. Culturespace sprinkles handy links all over these music roundups.

Cinephiliac Aaron Hillis doesn't just slap links up on his sidebar like the rest of us. He creates custom graphics for them. In my case, he picked (so thoughtfully) Wong Kar-Wai's Days Of Being Wild. (Thanks, Aaron.)

¶ The much-loved annual Indian festival Diwali (or Festival of Lights) was this week. In celebration, here's some nifty Diwali artwork by Sanjay Patel.

¶ Maud on those pink chick-lit books: "Women's studies, my ass."

¶ While minor Hollywood films command major promotion budget dollars, the work of some of the world's best filmmakers — so many of them from Asia — slips quietly to DVD: Tropical Malady.

William Gass in The Believer on teaching: "I was very limited. I was basically a classroom lecturer. And I wasn’t terribly good at seminars or with tutorials. I certainly didn’t feel as comfortable, and that may be because, as Stein said of Pound, I’m a village explainer."

Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the New York Times: "I'm fascinated by pop stars who seem to come from another planet. David Bowie, Bjork, Michael Jackson — they're like aliens. They've made their own reality."

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Where The Truth Lies

Can I tell you about a little ethical dilemma I had last week? The Buffalo alt-weekly, the ArtVoice, asked me to review the new Atom Egoyan film, Where The Truth Lies. It’s a whole lot more fun to write about things I like than things I don’t, and I did not like this film. Which was a bit awkward because I’ve been an Egoyan fan for years. I’ve seen virtually everything he’s made, and because he is Toronto’s best-loved film celebrity, I’ve witnessed him speak many times. He’s smart, articulate, and really understands this art form.

A year ago, I was having a conversation with the manager of a local art-house theater. He told me something curious: the lead paragraph of the review in the local press — there are only two major publications here: the mainstream Buffalo News and the alt ArtVoice — can sometimes have a big influence on a film’s local box-office numbers. To contrast two leads: (1) Dogville got an excellent review that opened with the words: “This is a challenging three-hour movie” (the movie lasted barely a week); while (2) Swimming Pool got a lukewarm review that started off with something like “It’s been a while since a major-release European film boasted this much nudity.” (The movie played for three months.)

It would just be too easy to destroy the Egoyan movie with a snarky review. (And I was tempted, I confess.) I happened to mention this dilemma to a friend who suggested sagely, “Why not use the sandwich approach? Open with something nice, then say the bad stuff, then close with something nice.” I also happened to remember J. Hoberman’s review of Todd Solondz’s Palindromes, a movie I hated with all my heart. He wrote a fascinating piece, full of ideas, without every really indicating whether he liked the film or not. I later discovered that he had disliked the film — it just wasn't evident from his write-up.

In my review of Where The Truth Lies, the most generous words I ended up using were “interesting” and “stylish”, and I sandwiched all my criticisms in the middle of the piece. The all-important lead paragraph? It was spent on the film’s close brush with NC-17. And the review opened with that mighty word: “Sex”. If sex was the only reason some people were going to see this film, by jove I wasn’t going to stop them. In fact, I was going to help Egoyan by sending them his way.

If you're interested, the review is over here in pdf format, on page 22.