Super, ladder, boyfriend, husband or bar stool?

I got back earlier this week from a short trip home. Obviously, I haven’t been sleeping too well. Last night, the jet lag was aided and abetted by the smoke alarm. It is apparently running low on battery. It was beeping its sad beeps when I got home from work. Over 24 hours later, it continues to beep. Only, I no longer think of it in such sympathetic terms. It’s a tale of so many twists and turns, not to mention frustration that it could almost qualify for an episode or two of a Tamil day time soap. I’ll try to keep it simple:

This smoke alarm (henceforth referred to as ‘Spawn of Satan’ or ‘Evil device’) is fixed to the ceiling of my apartment. Personally, I possess neither the height nor the mechanical equipment necessary to reach said Evil device. Naturally, I called the Building Super (henceforth also referred to as Satan’s Lieutenant or Blot Upon Apartment-dwelling Humanity). He expressed regret and conveyed the impossibility of visiting my apartment before the next morning (closer to noon, really). Since I cannot afford to take a day off simply to cater to the whims of assorted Spawns of Satan, I asked him if there’s any way I could leave my apartment key with him. This Blot Upon whatnot suggested that I leave the key near the mail box, assuring me that this is a super secret spot only he knows about, and is hence perfectly safe.

Around noon today, he calls me to tell me that there’s no key at the agreed upon spot. No, what he says is that there is a key, but this key does not belong to my apartment. His theory is that someone has taken my key (key to apartment 3B) and replaced it with that to apartment 3D. This baffles me. If an undesirable element of the city has stolen my key, surely, one does not expect him or her to play bartering games. Satan’s Lieutenant helpfully explains why in his view this barter is entirely possible, indeed probable – apparently the woman in Apartment 3D is quite used to leaving her key near the mail box for friends to pick it up. His theory is either that my neighbor left her key, and picked up mine (which again makes no sense). Or that her friend took my key and in a mood of Christian giving, left the key to 3D in this spot, which to me is beginning to look less and less like a super secret spot known only to government agents and building supervisors and more and more like the forest of Arden, where all and sundry assemble to exchange keys, and goodness knows what else. Mr. Super Spy No More calls me again to let me know that he has called the occupant of 3D and left her a voice mail, but if I do run into her when I get home, I should ask her about my key.

To cut a long story short, after an afternoon of nail biting frustration and abnormal blood pressure, I manage to get spare keys from my leasing agent, only to come home and find out that my key has mysteriously materialized back at the agreed upon spot. Satan’s Spawn continues to beep. The only difference is that it does so from my bathroom now. The Super was guilty enough about the affair that he left me his ladder, which I used to successfully take the device down from its lofty perch. But the battery change turned out to be more complex than I expected – there are wires involved. Hardware stores in the neighborhood are already closed for the night, and I’ll be spending one more night with His Evil Beepingness.

Friends and acquaintances who know the story have offered a few suggestions:

a) Make nice with the Supervisor, give him Christmas gifts and so on, so that he is more receptive to treating such situations as the emergencies they actually are. Problem is after today, I don’t want to make nice with this man.

b) Acquire a ladder. Not a bad option. Most independent of the lot – but where do I find the space for a ladder in a New York studio? For something I will need once a year, if that, it just feels like too much trouble

c) Acquire a tall boy-friend – the theory being that a boy-friend will find it more difficult to refuse to come help out, as opposed to a tall mere-friend. Fair enough, but this solution has the same problem as the ladder – barring these once a year emergencies, what do I do with him for the rest of the time?

d) Acquire a tall husband, the theory being that this is a more ‘permanent’ solution than a boyfriend. But problems listed under c and d apply here as well. In addition to those, the acquisition of a husband apparently also involves at least one if not or more of the following: quitting my job, moving out of my Studio, moving out of New York – which makes the whole changing batteries part moot, really, so this isn’t really a solution. (OK, so quitting my job has nothing to do with batteries, but it’s a big deal to me, so deal with it.)

Given the grief these so called solutions come with, I’m giving serious thought to a fifth alternative – bar stools. Taller than regular chairs, useful round the year and in more ways than one.

 

 

Bill Buford’s Heat: Every amateur’s dream come true

Heat coverAfter a wait of many months, I was finally able to lay my hands on a copy of Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany. You may have read excerpts from this book in the New Yorker – there was one about Buford’s attempts to learn pasta-making, and another about his cooking and eating a whole hog. If you do remember those pieces, the rest of the book is much more fun.

I confess to a fascination with completely useless bits of information, and anybody who can explain what a “hotel pan” is, and do so in an amusing manner, is already a winner in my books. Kitchen jargon apart, this book is a mine of colorful characters. Mario Batali, known to food TV junkies as Iron Chef Batali, is one of them. The world of professional cooking seems to abound in such characters – Batali, for example, drinks wine by the case. Marco Pierre White, one of the foremost experts of French cooking, has thrown customers out of his restaurant for daring to order meat cooked the wrong way (the “right way” being what White thinks it is, of course). Other endearing and equally eccentric characters include a taciturn master butcher (known simply as the Maestro), a Tuscan bull (who is briefly suspected of being a homosexual for being bashful about getting it on with four cows), and Frankie, the terrifying sous-chef at Babbo (my favorite quote, “You’re doing this because you know we will fucking lose our fucking three stars if we start serving fucking instant [polenta], and if we lose our fucking three stars I lose my fucking job.”).

Heat is more than a book about food and the people who cook it. Buford writes of how
interns and “Latins” fit into the hierarchy of a typical New York restaurant, how women cooks deal with the macho environment of a restaurant kitchen (one female sous-chef wonders if she is expected to go and look at a hooker dining at the restaurant because every one of her male colleagues has done so), how you need a special “slave visa” if you wish to, well, be an unpaid kitchen slave in Italy. He effortlessly takes us from New York City to obscure European villages, and back again, stopping to quickly explain how some recipe is still adhered to centuries after someone came up with it, or how someone else came along to give another age-old recipe a little twist.

In some ways, Heat is also a lamentation for the old ways of cooking, and living.

 

“In Tuscany, you can’t get [chianina] meat at the heart of the region’s cooking, so Dario and the Maestro found a small farm that reproduces the intensity of flavor they grew up with. How long will that taste memory last? The Maestro will die. Dario will die. I will die. The memory will die. Food made by hand is an act of defiance and runs contrary to everything in our modernity. Find it; eat it; it will go. It has been around for millennia. Now it is evanescent, like a season.”

 

 

Despite his seriousness about the business of food, Buford is laugh out loud funny. He has a wonderful knack for self-deprecatory humor, and even though you’re supposed to feel sorry for him, or cringe, you can’t help laughing at how he ate hundreds of cubes of carrots (not all come out as perfect cubes), or how he burnt his fingers by throwing in ribs into some very hot oil (it didn’t occur to him to use a pair of tongs), or how he was made to walk around the kitchen holding a fish in a pair of tongs (because he’d failed to get fish off the grill).

My only grouse is not with the book, but with myself. For lovely as it was, reading Heat, to me, felt a bit like being insensate and having someone else describe sights, smells and sounds. I am a vegetarian, have been one all my life. Usually, this poses no greater handicap than being restricted to three or fewer menu items to choose from. But Buford’s book posed an unexpected challenge. How does a vegetarian imagine what it feels like to prepare, cook, and eat meat? The typical ½ hour cooking show on television does not treat meat with the same reverence (despite all the “ooh, the flavor is just lovely!” declarations) as Buford does. And most of my close friends are also vegetarian, so I’ve never observed anyone eating say, spare ribs.

Most of the terms baffle me – take “spare ribs” for instance. Why are they spare? It’s not as if the cow or pig (btw, are ribs species specific? They shouldn’t be, but who knows) said, “Here, I’ve a couple of ribs to spare. Take ‘em! No, really, I insist.” Here’s another – what is a “gamey” taste? There are other terms that I had no idea were related to meat, until I read Buford – sweet meat is one (pigs’ balls to those as clueless as I used to be. When I found that out, I said a small prayer of thanks that the Empress of Blandings is the Empress and not the Emperor!). And if I allow myself to think about them for more than a few minutes, the bits I do understand disgust me. After reading about ‘mutant’ ribs which are too malformed to look pretty on a dinner plate, assorted slimy creatures cooked in their own blood, etc., I came away with the impression that meat eaters will eat anything, including rotten food. One recipe involves “aging” meat over many days. Marco White describes how he experimented with different aging periods, from one day to twenty one days. He pithily concludes that the bird aged for twenty-one days was not good. No kidding.

Over exposure to some aspects of food and cooking has turned us into jades. The only country I can speak for is the US – here food has been reduced to sport (which is surely amongst the lowest forms of television…OK, an inch or two above Jerry Springer, but they are close enough to be first cousins). When “television personalities” (not chefs) are “edutaining” an audience whose idea of a family meal probably involves a bucket of chicken from the nearest KFC, what else can one do but get orgasmic over garlic (“Bam! Bam!”)? Come to think of it, it’s not just food. The idea that anyone with a mouth and a willingness to express themselves is an ‘expert’ is all pervasive. While this is an empowering notion, it puts a damper on day-dreaming. If you’re already a master chef, an excellent judge of singing talent, cricket guru, or whatever, what’s left to console yourself with during those soul-crushingly boring meetings most of us spend our lives attending?

“Heat” reminds you that there is such a thing as a true expert, and that becoming one is very hard. Every amateur, of cooking or of something else, dreams of quitting his day job someday and of spending the rest of his life overcoming such challenges. Buford’s account holds out hope by the bucketful for such dreamers. Even if you aren’t that ambitious, it’s one heck of a ride to merely observe genius in action.

Souvenirs from the other side of the moon

On pure impulse, I accompanied a colleague who went to a 5th Avenue cosmetics store. She was going to get a make over and freebies were also available for a friend. Since the person she really wanted to invite was out of town, I ended up being R’s “+1”.

Stanley, the poor man who ended up with me, must’ve been scandalized. He asked me what I did usually, and I said nothing. Rapidly revising his standards, he asked if I at least used a moisturizer, and I said sure – he asked me to name names, and I couldn’t. Stanley was a good sport though, and proceeded to cover my face with 16 layers (I counted) of stuff. He patiently described what each product was supposed to do, what was the best way to apply it, and so on. One of the many layers of stuff (apologies to those who understand these things – to me, it’s just “stuff”, some smelt nice, others not) had vitamins A, C and E. I almost said out loud, “oh, just like the 14th street subway station!” – but was too scared to open my mouth, or my eyes…

He complemented me on my “healthy skin”, and once on the length of my eyelashes. It was obvious that Stanley was a trooper and could work with whatever horrors fate threw his way. At one point, he used some whitish stuff to cover what he politely called a “blemish”. Is that the PC term we’re using for pimples now? I wondered what the point was – unless you put on enough layers to raise the rest of your face to the same height as your, er, “blemish”, the damn thing’s still going to stick out, isn’t it?

Meanwhile R was also getting her own face done, and making what looked like great chit-chat with her er, person. I am terrible at making chit chat with hair dressers and well, anyone in the “beauty” industry really. I make great chit chat with the security guard who checks my back-pack at the Donnell Library, with the lady who gives me my free newspaper at the subway and so on. But put me in front of a professional beautician, and I freeze. My attitude veers between abject guilt (“I am so very sorry to present my sorry, shabby hair / face / self before you”) and a sense of determined entitlement (“Your whole industry depends on people like me who don’t exfoliate enough or at all, so I refuse to let myself be intimidated by you!”).

In the absence of chatter, Stanley was able to finish in about 20-25 minutes. I thought about this friend of a friend, who allegedly wakes up an hour early every morning to blow dry her hair. I only recently discovered that there’s more to “blow dry” than mere blowing and drying – so I realize what this friend of a friend does is quite elaborate. An hour earlier? If I had that kind of time, I’d automatically start staying up an hour later at nights to read or watch an extra movie. I mentally calculated how long it might take me to do what a professional like Stanley was able to in 25 minutes – probably an hour. Maybe after 10+ years of practice, I could get down to his time (he mentioned he’d been doing this for 13 years) – but by then, I’ll be older and will need to put in more time to conceal random wrinkles and other “blemishes”.

I realized why women who deeply care about their looks don’t care about books or many of the other things I care about – it’s not because they’re not interested. It’s because they don’t have the time. If I were to ever take up this ‘looking good’ thing, I would have to overhaul my entire way of life – when I wake up, when I go to bed, what sort of things I carry around with me, what sort of container I carry these things in (the powers that be in the fashion industry will never allow ‘water proof backpack’ to become the “it” accessory) – everything I have or do now will have to go, to be replaced with an entirely different set of things.

At any rate, Stanley was done. He asked me how I though I looked, and I felt obliged to tell him I thought I looked great! And I suppose I did. (It lasted less than half an hour, as I ended up eating most of my make up – no I didn’t lick my face, but did have to eat lunch.) He asked me if I had questions, and both of us knew that there was no way I was going to buy all of the stuff he showed me, let alone ask him for pointers about how to go back home and become a DIY-beauty. I did buy a couple of things – some soap with beads in it (“to exfoliate”), because soap is something even I can use. And some eye thingamajiggy, as an attempt to convince Stanley and myself that without being overambitious, I would at least give this beauty thing my best shot.

So much for an afternoon’s venture to the bright side of the moon. It is too scary to consider a permanent relocation, but I feel adventurous enough from having had the guts to make that brief visit. And I have souvenirs to prove I did go there.

Bibliophile

It’s interesting that the term bibliophile is inextricably linked to the physical object. I wonder if there’s a term which only means ‘lover of reading’, something that denotes just the act of reading, independent of the medium. Perhaps when the term was coined, one didn’t conceive that reading might be possible on non-print media.

At least for people of my generation, a love for the physical objects themselves was a pre-requisite. I can’t remember my first ever visit to a library or book store. It must felt very close to how it felt like when I wandered into McLeod’s Books in Vancouver last month. The smell of pulp, that very distinctive smell of slightly musty pulp, made me feel heady. The sight of so many books at one spot added to that feeling of slight imbalance. I came down from that high pretty quickly, as I felt overwhelmed by the thought that I’d never be able to read all those books, or even read enough to understand what most of those books were about. That low was followed by a slow climb to another high (a more permanent high this time), where I decided that I’d somehow manage to read everything worth reading, regardless of the seeming impossibility of that goal.

These days, it’s difficult to recapture that sense of awe-struck wonder. For one thing, neither the Donnell Library nor Barnes & Noble are at all musty. Even the Strand doesn’t scare me anymore. Everything is too neatly labeled and categorized. I suppose the idea is to make it less overwhelming, but all it really does is to make it all seem more mundane, and therefore easier to ignore. My love for new books, with their slightly moist pages, and their smell of new binding is for another post. But in this one, I am going to say that as much as I like new books, with their shiny covers and untouched pages, I’d much rather take older books, used or not.

Even libraries don’t seem to carry very many old books these days. You might get lucky and get an old edition of something that no one reads any more, or something which the library hasn’t gotten around to replacing with a shinier version. But that’s extremely rare. All you get these days are new books trying very hard to look like old books – with their vain attempts at evoking the past, replete with references to old paintings and books and maps. These are the books whose pages are thick and their edges a tad rough, as though the paper’s been cut with a dull-edged knife. Who’re they kidding? They’re as close to “old” as Dan Brown is to Umberto Eco.

When I was a kid, if you claimed to ‘love to read’, you also had to love the musty-odor, and the silver-fish, and the cob-webs. Books were hard-bound in an intimidating sort of manner (intimidating because they reminded you that they really belonged in a fancy glass book case and that you were ruining them by stocking them in your modest non-glassy shelf). There were no capitalized or italicized blurbs shouting the book’s worth to the world, no quotations from Michiko Kakutani or Salman Rushdie, not even a summary. There was nothing. You either had to have read something else by the same author, or you’d heard of the book from a friend, or you went with the title and what little you could make out from skimming through a few random pages. These books were clearly not published in the 80s. These are books from my grandfather’s generation – but for some reason, these were the sorts of books one found at libraries – be it the British Council or the Shankar Lending Library at Cuddalore.

When I was a kid, reading was a solitary pursuit. I didn’t have friends who liked reading half as much as I did. I didn’t have siblings who might have steered me toward or away from books. I suppose I started with what my parents thought I might like, or rather, what looked like appropriate reading for a kid. Then I went through many authors they themselves liked – Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robin Cook… I used to go “through” authors then – if I liked one book, I read anything and everything else from the same author. Most of the books I now swear by were read for utterly random reasons – an uncle who happened to spend a few months in Germany brought back an Asterix comic as a present; old Mr. Shankar from the lending library told my Mom that Perry Mason would be “appropriate” reading for a young girl; a couple of my Dad’s friends from his bachelor days were PGW nuts, and Dad remembered the name long after he’d stopped being a bachelor; a neighbor had hard bound copies of all of Jane Austen’s novels in a book case they inherited from their grandfather; a senior from high school thought that our system of education was irredeemably screwed up because they no longer taught Shakespeare in the original – R quoted from Othello, I think, and insisted that the language was alive and not scary at all – I had a crush on him after that fine speech (mostly for being revolutionary enough to question the merit of a thing I’d taken for granted, and for not being afraid to openly express a fondness for reading stuff even older than what I’d read till then), and decided to give Shakespeare a shot, even though I doubt that I spoke to R ever again… It’s funny that the very strong likes and dislikes I now claim to have were developed so haphazardly.

Only in the last five or so years have I finally managed to connect with other readers. It still feels odd to ask someone about their reading – I am too scared to ask the question of people I think I would like to be friends with. I am terrified that they or I will give the wrong answer and a possible friendship might forever be lost. Even if I didn’t have friends, there are a zillion reviews to read, hundreds of rankings and blogs and book clubs to tell me what I should be reading. Suddenly, reading is a social activity.

But I get distracted. This was supposed to be about the books themselves, not about reading. McLeod’s as you can see from the photographs, is an amazing store. It was a delightful spot to kill a few hours, as I waited for my visa. One of the books I bought there is an old edition of Robert Graves’s Claudius the God. I’d been reading a library copy in New York, which I had to return before I could finish it. I like the book well enough, but the only reason I bought this copy was because it was inscribed:

“January 19th 1959.

To successful years ahead – and contentment – B.H.”

How could I have not bought the book after seeing that?

I have the book on my bed as I type this. Every time I read this inscription, I think of McLeod’s, the way the store looked and smelt, and I remember some of the reasons I fell in love with reading for the first time.

Can we please put Darcy behind us?

I am huge fan of Jane Austen, but get over her already! Perhaps I’ve been spending a little too much time at Barnes & Noble lately, but it looks like old Ms. Austen can give Dan Brown a run for his money, in the category of “works related to one bestseller”. See this sample from Amazon to see what am talking about. I’d assumed that some enthu pattani must’ve attempted a sequel, but never imagined there’d be so many!

This series from Elizabeth Aston takes the cake – she’s written a series of books based on minor characters from Pride & Prejudice. One of the many books in her series is about the daughter of the the girl Darcy didn’t marry! If this weren’t bad enough, there is this one, which gives Pride & Prejudice a Da Vinci Code twist (egad!), with shades of Possession thrown in for good measure.

What I really want to know is why B&N stocks these silly books in the Literature / Fiction section. Can’t they stick ’em in the ‘Romance’ section, so that the audience that is presumably interested in these books will actually find them, and the rest of us can avoid these things altogether?

Of course, the fascination doesn’t stop with the one novel or the characters in it. It extends to the Austen herself. A new movie wonders if P&P was “inspired” by events in Austen’s life. You can see why the idea appeals to suits in media – forget speculating about what might have happened to Darcy after he got together with Elizabeth – he could be real! The day is not far off when some bloke from England will claim to be the descendant of the “real” Darcy, and will probably get to be the next Bachelor or at least be on Big Brother.

We are all either turning into 5 year olds who don’t want to stop eating ice-cream, or we’re a society of obsessive compulsives who cannot let things simply be. The question is will we get away with a belly ache, or will we need to check ourselves into a psychiatric facility?

Wishful thinking

On the eve of every week end, I find myself having a panic attack. There’s too much to do – over the next two days, over the next week, month, rest of my life. Some of my time is spent worrying that perhaps I don’t work hard enough. But most of it is spent worrying that as a single woman in New York, I don’t play hard enough. Too many books to read, movies to watch, concerts to attend…and any left over anxiety is allocated to worrying about not living healthy enough, not being organized enough, and not having a clean enough apartment.

At especially harrowing times – such as the eve of a long week end, I’m tempted to make a list. My problem with lists is that they make me feel optimistic, which is completely against my nature. Lists give me an illusion of control, when I’ve demonstrated almost none in the past. Am convinced that were I to make a list right now, I’d cut out a few hours of television, assign myself ‘movie nights’ and ‘reading nights’ and end up subscribing to the WSJ or The Economist or both. The act of ‘making’ a list leads me to believe that I’d be able to ‘make’ other things, like time for instance. 

In the past, I’ve foolishly wished for more time. If only there were 28 hours in a day, instead of 24, I’d be able to get an extra half-hour’s worth of sleep AND be able to go to the gym. What folly. If there were four extra hours in a day, there’d be at least one extra snack (if not an entire meal) to eat, and you know what that means – more TV and more dirty dishes.

No – the real solution is to have less time. If you only had 18 hours in a day, you wouldn’t stare at a mug do a merry-go-round inside the microwave for a minute and fifteen seconds. You’d use that time to get shit done. There would be no more channel-surfing, or skipping through songs-you-really-don’t-like-but-think-you-just-might-miss-if-you-deleted-them-and-so-still-have-on-your-iPod. You wouldn’t watch both the Capote movies or Infernal Affairs and The Departed – you’d pick one and run with it. And you would avoid Iñárritu and Kurasawa altogether – critics and friends and Gael Garcia Bernal be damned. You wouldn’t wonder, as you’re typing up something like this, if your post will get commented upon, let alone dare to hope for some link love. And let’s face it, you wouldn’t have the luxury to feel bad about skipping gym. For fewer hours a day must surely mean fewer hours to feel guilty in.

Give me strength!

Our system of public entertainment needs fixing. It’s pointless to allow the performers (whether live or on screen) and the audience to be in the same room as each other, when the latter has no respect what so ever towards the former. Two incidents prompt this plea for radical reform.

I spent the entire first forty minutes of Guru dreading that something would go wrong with the movie. For isn’t a good set up always followed by a let down? Of course, there was little opportunity to worry about such mundane matters. I kept getting distracted by the trivial fact that people were still walking in, while those sitting down were waving their cell phones to these late comers in the wild hope that a dim-wit who is incapable of telling time will suddenly see one faintly-glowing cell phone for the pole star it is meant to be and head straight toward it.

On screen, we’d moved past Istanbul, the Sherawat threat had been contained. Rajiv Menon treated us to sweeping views of some gorgeous Indian village, where it rained oh so prettily, on a totally unmetallic Aishwarya [1]. I heaved a sigh of relief. Maybe this one wasn’t going to be so bad after all. Then an uncle-ji decided to sit next to me. He’d spent the last 10 or so minutes walking up and down the aisle, looking for an unoccupied seat. As I’d dreaded, he finally spotted the one next to me.

But I was soon glad that I was sitting next to this empty spot, and not behind it. You can’t just walk into a New York movie theater in January and start watching a movie. No, you have to strip yourself of however many layers of winter clothing you’re sporting. Uncle-ji did just that. He stood up and removed what felt like 20 assorted items of winter garments. Meanwhile, on the screen (yes, annoying of me to keep bringing up the movie), the heroine had run away from home and had started a cutesy-corny conversation with the hero. I heaved a sigh and started a trip down memory lane, dreaming of old Ratnam movies. Bad form to wander off like this in the middle of a movie. Old uncleji next to me brought me swiftly back to the present. It was samosa-time! He left, and came back with the damn Samosas, which he was sweet enough to offer me. If the lights had been any brighter, the expression on my face might have warned him off – but as things were, I tried to give him a polite, trying my best to convey to him the idea that I was there for just the movie, really, as kinky as it was.

What is it with desi audiences? When you see a theater showing a movie for 6:45 PM, and your watch or your cell phone or the sun or mars or whatever device you use to keep time says 7:15 PM, turn around and go away! Come back for the next show, and be on time. Just try it, once. New life experiences can be loads of fun. As a veteran at this sort of thing, I promise that this is one experience that’s utterly worth the blood, sweat and tears. I am irritated all the more by the fact that the very same set of people usually don’t stoop to such bad behavior if they’re watching a Hollywood movie. I decided I’d never watch another movie at a desi theater, if I could help it.

Who says karma is a long-drawn out process? I was punished for my reverse-jingoistic tendencies the very next day – at Carnegie Hall, where the Orchestra of St. Luke’s performed Bach’s St. Mathew’s Passion. The first 20 or so minutes were fine. Then some kid started saying something in a very loud voice. Since I was perched up in one of the Hall’s nosebleed seats, I couldn’t see where this spawn of Satan was seated. Honestly, who brings a kid to a choral performance? The kid’s chatter apparently liberated every adult in the hall to behave just as badly.

People dying of consumption should stay at home. If their dying wish is to listen to Bach, they should get their friends or family to loan them a really good CD player. They should not be allowed to attend live performances. Ditto for throat-clearers. Unless they plan to sign the next aria, they can live with a scratchy throat, can’t they? But these weren’t even the worst offenders. No, that prize goes to the jerk a few rows behind me, whom the Fates had decided to supply with some Velcro. How are you to grieve for the son of God, when the son of man behind you is very slowly ripping Velcro (as if doing it slowly kills the noise!)

Aarrrrrrrggghhhhhhhh!

Don’t people realize that it took a cosmic miracle to be in that spot at that exact point of time? Apparently, 3 of the 5 passions Bach composed are lost forever. I don’t know what quirk of fate brought this music composed by an Austrian composer 300 years ago to New York on a cold winter evening. Don’t people appreciate the miracle, the tens of miracles, it must’ve taken to simply get all these elements together in the same room?
[1] What is it with desi celebs dunking themselves in bronze paint? They have metallic skin, wear metallic make-up, and am not just talking about the women!

Letters from Iwo Jima, California

This week-end I watched the second part of Clint Eastwood’s two-part series on the Battle of Iwo Jima. Having already watched Flags of our Fathers (reviewed here), and not being averse to buying a box of Kleenex along with the pop-corn, I felt I had to watch this one. But this movie doesn’t deliver any of the sense of completion, loads of which had been promised. Despite being touted as the “Japanese version” of the same story, it is in every way, an American movie, made for American audiences.

A large part of why I was drawn to both movies (other than that they were made by Eastwood) was the novel idea of two movies about the same incident, an extended, and considerably more expensive Rashômon, as it were. As great an idea as this is, it doesn’t really work when there is little more than a superficial connection between the two movies. The first movie is more a social commentary on a country at war, specifically the United States of America, than it is a movie about one particular battle. While some of the most spectacular bits of the movie are set in Iwo Jima, much of it actually takes place back home, where we learn the many ways in which a minor incident in the battle at Iwo Jima impacts the lives of thousands, if not everyone in the home country.

Letters from Iwo Jima, in contrast, is almost exclusively limited to the little island. We, along with thousands of Japanese troops, wait for everyone (or nearly everyone) to die. Sure, there are back-stories for the odd soldier or two. Suitable flashbacks involving pregnant wives and other assorted members of families left behind provide the necessary Kleenex-moments that would be expected from a war movie, particularly one about the losing side.

So, we learn that the mainland has no resources to spare and it expects the soldiers at Iwo Jima to do their duty and die honorably for their country. But in keeping the story strictly about the battle itself, we don’t learn anything about well, anything really. Was losing the island strategically and tactically at all a big deal? What was going through the minds of those in Tokyo who were forced to make the decision to let Iwo Jima go? If the entire country of United States was so cheered up by the win at Iwo Jima, what was the parallel outcome in Japan after their loss? If this battle supposedly was the beginning of the Americans’ eventual victory, then was it also the beginning of the end for the Japanese? Or did this loss so rally forces stationed elsewhere, that it took two A-bombs to make them call it quits? If you want these questions answered, go read a book or something.

After they learn that they’ve been left to their own devices to survive, the leadership at Iwo Jima falls into two groups – with the more traditional lot advocating and in many cases, forcing suicide on the soldiers they command, because, as we have learnt from all those other Samurai movies – losing in battle is far worse than dying. The more liberal minority (comprising a grand total of two) feels that tactical retreat isn’t necessarily something that demands seppuku, and that killing yourself can be limited to more desperate situations – such as those where one is almost fatally wounded and only slowing down the rest of the group from making an escape.

My biggest complaint with the movie is this liberal minority. General Kuribayashi and Captain Nishi are the only enlightened commanders on the island. They always treat their soldiers fairly, and act with great nobility and heroism when others might have folded. Played by Ken Watanabe and Tsuyoshi Ihara respectively, they are also incredibly easy on the eye. All of which is grand. But here’s the crux – at some point in their lives, they’ve both been exposed to America. Kuribayashi was in the US for some official reason, before the two countries declared war on each other. And Nishi was a champion at the 1932 Summer Olympics held at Los Angeles. Heck, he was even friends with Hollywood stars!

By making only these two characters noble and heroic, it feels as if the movie’s telling us that only those Japanese lucky enough to have been exposed to American culture are great, while the rest of the country is filled with suicidal brutes. I wondered if it would have helped if even one of them had visited some country other than the US. But had they visited another Western country, or any other country in the world for that matter, doesn’t it still say that goodness and sensibility are traits which weren’t inherent even in a minority of the Japanese, and had to be imported from elsewhere? Nishi’s final speech (another Kleenex-moment) to his men borrows its key message from a letter written by an American mom to her son, which I felt was the last straw!

And what traits are inherent to the Japanese? A commitment to the team, a willingness to follow even the harshest of orders, and a strong sense of honor? C’mon, Mr. Eastwood, surely you can do better than Tom Cruise! Coming from Sofia Coppola, one might be willing to overlook such superficiality as ignorance. Coming from one of whom much is expected (because much has been delivered in the past), it smacks of pure arrogance. For all its Japanese actors and English subtitles, Letters from Iwo Jima is such an American movie.

Final verdict: Give this movie a skip. If you’re really in the mood for a good cry, wait for the DVD.

Scary future and Clive Owen are better than Gong Li and stylish soap opera

Curse of the Golden Flower: Garish soap opera
SEVERAL SPOILERS!

Curse of the Golden Flower is the final part of Zhang Yimou’s (or is it Yimou Zhang’s?[1]) trilogy. It is also the darkest of the three movies. That the terms betrayal, incest, adultery, fratricide, filicide, and bigamy do not exhaustively describe the story should tell you something about the movie. Chow Yun Fat, who plays an Emperor, returns to his kingdom after many years to find that almost no one has remained loyal to him. Gong Li, playing his beautiful and treacherous second wife, has been carrying on behind her husband’s back (or not, as we later find out) and isn’t too pleased to hear of the Emperor’s return. The court scene is made murkier thanks to a few disgruntled crown and wannabe-crown Princes, their lovers, an ex-wife, a conniving court doctor and hundreds of Asian women in push-up bras[2]. How and whether all of this gets sorted out is what the movie’s about.

A friendly warning to action fans – unlike the other two movies in this trilogy (Hero and The House of Flying Daggers), there are almost no action sequences involving flying kicks or daggers or swords or what have you. This movie is about courtroom intrigue, save a few scenes of large scale slaughter towards the end. There is also little romance – there isn’t a single heroic figure in the movie (well, save one somewhat minor character, and even that is a maybe) and the only difference between the several relationships that’re explored in this movie is the extent of duplicity involved in each one. Another feature I expected, from watching the earlier movies, was a grand visual spectacle. You’re offered one, sure, but this one isn’t anywhere close to those offered by the other two. While Hero and Flying Daggers were shot in bold primary colors, this one keeps switching between an excess of gold (I have a nagging fear that Shankar’s going to get “inspired” by this movie) and a mixture of too many colors of which a bright magenta is the only one that stands out.

In keeping with the other movies though, we do get a star-studded cast. Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat must be the only stars from that part of the world who somehow didn’t make into Hero or Flying Daggers. So we have them in this one. None of the three movies is exactly strong on plot, but at least the other two made up in imagery whatever they lacked in terms of story. And, they both did have nice little twists at the end. This movie ends up relying on plot a lot more than the others do, and therefore ends up being considerably more disappointing. For all the double and triple crossing, I couldn’t help feeling a little let down and perplexed by the end – there are few ‘why’s’ behind much of the wickedness in this movie – apparently, evil just is.

Perhaps it is unfair to judge this movie while lugging baggage from the other two movies. But I’m afraid that the baggage would be present even had this movie not been part of a trilogy. I’m just glad am still not hung over from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I wish these Chinese film-makers would get over that movie, too.

Children of Men: Ominously close to real
SEVERAL SPOILERS!

There is a lot of joy in watching a movie on its opening week end, before you acquire expectations and the disappointments that go with them. I am glad that Children of Men was one such movie. There is also a lot of joy in watching Clive Owen in a movie that works for him. Again, Children of Men is very much one such movie.

‘Children of Men’ is set in England in the not-so-distant future of 2027. I understand that the movie is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by P.D James. Had I not known this, I’d have thought the story eerily close to another novel – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Both present a bleak future for the human race – something has caused mass infertility and women capable of bearing children have become a commodity traded by the powerful and the power-hungry. Government as we know it no longer exists. Instead there is only a form of totalitarian authority which feels free to kill anyone it feels like. Where Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation (I haven’t read James’s version) departs from Atwood is that Cuarón’s story is a bit more optimistic, and a lot more open to all sorts of religious interpretation.

While the story is set in the future, it is an entirely plausible, perhaps even probable future. Cars don’t fly or go on the sides of buildings (that might have made it easier to dismiss it as sci-fi). No, everything is almost the same as it is right now, only more corrupt, more polluted, and therefore a lot scarier. I don’t know when the novel was published, but the major themes are as eerily relevant today as they probably were then. There’s a teeny-weeny chance that xenophobia, terrorist attacks, scary prisons for foreigners, and much else on our minds today will somehow magically get solved in the next 20 years. ‘Children of Men’ is bleak, because it reminds you just how small that likelihood is.

Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a disillusioned pen-pusher in a non-descript office, is pushed into adrenaline-pumping action and heroism, when he starts out doing what he thinks is a minor favor for his ex-wife (played by Julianne Moore). His task is to take to safety a young girl Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who is (surprise-surprise) pregnant. Of course, a lot of other folks, all bad, are after this girl. Most of the movie is a thrilling chase, with Owen and Ashitey dodging bullets and bombs, and surviving not just betrayals but also advanced pregnancy.

For a movie that lasts only a little over a 100 minutes, this movie is packed. Not every pause for breath is treated as an opportunity to launch into explanation. I realize that this is one of the things I complained about with Curse of the Golden Flower – but in this movie, I was utterly delighted with the paucity of “and here’s why this is happening” moments. In fact, I’m pretty sure I missed out on a lot of small things because I wasn’t paying enough attention. But that’s what makes it makes this movie feel so grown-up – the underlying assumption that the movie-makers’ responsibility ends with helping you with the outlines of the story, and that it is up to the audience to get the minor stuff or not. I felt the same sort of delight when Peter Jackson did not provide inane recaps at the beginning of the Twin Towers and Return of the King.

Clive Owen is immense fun to watch. The closest example I can think of (and it pains me to say this because it has since become such a cliché) is Bruce Willis in the first Die Hard movie. Perhaps since Willis humanized the action hero, all we seem to get nowadays are these types who are gray on the inside and gray on the outside… I am tired of the hero who knows better than anyone else does that that he is no “hero”, and takes care to show that while he is capable of destroying an army or two, he is also vulnerable, and has a heart which frequently gets broken and what not. What makes Owen so good is his ability to convince us that he is himself convinced of the ridiculousness of his position. At every turn, I expected his character to get killed or to simply give up and leave, because fighting both the government and the rebels just isn’t something a disillusioned pen-pusher does.

It is also fun to watch Michael Caine, who plays one of the many characters who help Owen in his run. Last week, I had a scary conversation with my 13 year old cousin, who had trouble placing Caine. Her, “Oh is he the old Butler dude in Batman Begins?” caused me great pain. In this movie, he has a small, but charming role. And while I doubt that this movie or his character will make a big impression on 13 year olds, it feels good to see him again, and to remind myself, if not these past-less teens that Caine is a lot more than old-Butler dude!

The only jarring note in the movie is the question of religious significance – even if the story tries to be flippant about it, there’s no denying that in a world gone mad, the only ray of hope is provided by a new born child, whose very existence, given the circumstances, is miraculous. I’m usually exceedingly dim-witted about inferences of any sort, but by the time Owen and a very pregnant Ashitey reach a refugee camp, even I couldn’t stop myself from thinking of all sorts of Biblical associations. This is where making the movie more like the Atwood novel might have helped. Atwood remains dark through out and offers no sappy signs of optimism. But all of this is neither here nor there – if this is what James wrote, one can’t very well expect an adaptation to break all ties with the original.

Warning to movie-goers who expect a sense of closure at the end of a movie – the most commonly expressed sentiment at the end of this movie was “F*&$% that! I hate movies like this!” I can only reiterate that this came from the same audience who’d had a demonstrably grand time before the last one minute of the movie. I understand that the book has an even more ambiguous ending than the movie, but that’s small consolation when you’ve spent a good one hour and a half building up to a finale that never quite materializes.

Before I changed my mind about Daniel Craig, I was rooting for Clive Owen for Bond. After watching Casino Royal and Children of Men, I’m relieved that Hollywood has wiser heads than mine – that sharp decision has given us a great new Bond, and left Owen free to do movies like this one. And it’s a complete pity that Cuarón isn’t directing the next Harry Potter movie. I like what he does with books.

[1] IMDB and Wikipedia disagree. If you know better, tell me.
[2] The last has nothing to do with the story. I can only imagine that it was intended as part of the “visual spectacle”. Chinese women dressed up in almost European gowns with very low necks do little for me. I wish they’d had better looking men in this movie, but that’s just me.

Resolutions

Perhaps the idea of counting in repetitive cycles isn’t so much to have a sense of order as it is to create opportunities for ourselves to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch – if things didn’t work out today, perhaps they will tomorrow, or next week, or the most popular option of all, next year. The idea of a do-over is immensely gratifying.

As a kid, I used to spend most of December coming up with resolutions for the New Year. The making of resolutions reached its heights during my teens. In my high school years, the item which figured on the list year after year was “Study for at least 15 hours a day on week ends”. I especially liked putting in the “at least” bit – a deft move, which I felt left the field wide open for days on which I might do more than 15 hours of studying. The “week end” specification is another DoZ characteristic – for week days, I obviously accounted for time spent at school, going to and returning from school, meal times and so on.

By the time I started college, studying mattered far less. Or at any rate any activity that involved Pachaiyappa’s College didn’t matter enough to warrant a New Year resolution. Others, such as ‘read Thomas Hardy’, started to replace the old promises to study for 15-hours a day. This particular resolution was as futile as ‘I will really like Analytical Geometry this year!’ (from circa 1999 aka the prepping-for-CAT year),‘Try to “get” Operations Research’ and ‘I will not let M. Peru [1] get to me’ (from circa 2000-01 aka the MBA years).

When making resolutions, I’ve tried everything – from being broad and rather vague (“be good” from when I was the 6th or 7th standard) to being ultra specific (“no more than 1hr and 15 minutes of TV per day on a week day” from around the same period). From the modest (“go to the gym twice a week”) to the dizzyingly ambitious (“don’t swear”). There are pros and cons to each method. In fine tuning the degree of specificity or the toughness of keeping a resolution, what I was really trying to do was to find a way to trick myself into keeping a promise, without being in any way conscious about it. Consciously doing or avoiding something reeked of “duty”, a dreaded option which was to be avoided at all costs. I hadn’t yet discovered the joys of martyrdom.

Some years, I’d do evaluations in addition to resolutions. I’d start out by listing what I was happy with from the last year. At some point this started to suggest pride. Perhaps due to spending several years in a Catholic school, every time I feel proud of something, a nun immediately materializes in my head, and chants “Pride goes before a fall”, while doing a little jig. So I’d stop, and start listing things I wasn’t proud of. This list was almost always longer than the first. Then I’d feel too bad, and try to balance things out a bit, till the dancing nun came back.

One year, I remember, a friend told me that using the negative was a bad thing – saying ‘not’ or ‘no’ or ‘don’t’ etc. brought nothing but ill luck. That year, all my resolutions were worded in positive terms – avoid watching TV, shun all telephone conversations exceeding 15 minutes on a day before an exam, and so on.

I can’t remember how long I managed to keep any of the million resolutions I’ve made over the years. I only have the vague but certain knowledge that none survived. Any resolutions for 2007? You betcha –

– avoid Law & Order and CSI and anything involving the solving of a crime in one hour or less

– read at least one never-before-tried author every month

– go to the gym more often (but not be such a sap as to turn up there on the first day!)

Am trying to keep things simple this year, nothing too specific or patently unachievable. Perhaps this year will be the one.

[1] M. Peru – the econ prof from hell, as anyone from BIM will tell you.