Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sitemeter, and the Anatomy of a Blogger

Now, this is a serious post. Where I lay bare my blogging soul. Given its profundity, I want no risk of alienating my readers. So, for you plebs who may not be as widely read as me, here's a glossary of terms up front.

Sitemeter: a tool that helps website owners understand their readers better. Logs the number of visits, the time spent by each visitor on the site, the number of pages viewed, the referring URL, the browsing history of the visitor for the previous week, credit-card numbers, and the last time (s)he took a shower.

Anatomy: of, or relating to, the structure of the body. Derived from the ancient Greek words "anus" and "tummy". Used by pretentious bloggers to appeal to the voyeurism of their readers, who, in turn, like to pretend they're reading something deeply philosophical.

Blogger: one who errs while blogging, chiefly by blogging.

,: a punctuation mark; useful for writers who, for one reason or the other - most likely the other, more than one - have not yet discovered full stops, or the virtues of conciseness.

and: 1) a conjunction; 2) a species of little things that can cause great discomfort if they bite you on the nuts.

the: the first word in the title of one of the greatest films ever made.

of: widely misunderstood as part of a phrase that describes democracies, when, in actual fact, as my history teacher was fond of repeating, it's "off the people, buy the people, and far from the people."

a: where the folks at b came from; or, most of them - some started from c and were stuck in reverse.

All right, that done with, let's poke about my anatomy...

For the 2-and-a-half years I've had this blog, I've learnt to cultivate an attitude of not caring whether anyone reads it or not. And no one really does read it. Most people come in on a google search for film-noir dialogue, find out that my post is not what they had in mind, and leave without so much as a "by your leave".

So when, a few days back, someone who stumbled upon my blog sent me an email saying how much she enjoyed it, I was over the moon. Ecstatic. I still don't care what anyone thinks of my blog, of course, but I couldn't help telling her how obviously discerning she is, compared to the vast hordes of morons out there.

Clicking her tongue, she replied, "Why do you blog? To get an enormous following, or simply to write?" What a question! Tchah! To write, of course. So why the complaints about the readership? To the crass mind, it might seem like I'm just an attention whore. But it's not that at all. Couldn't be. It's way deeper, subtler and existential (if I've managed to use the word right). It has to do with... Well, it's like this.

Ever seen "Before Sunrise"? Julie Delpy says, "Isn't everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?" Maybe. But it isn't quite that either. I put it in because it sounded nice.

My gripe is this. How can I go about not giving a shit about your opinion, when you have no opinion that I can not give a shit about? - when the pages visited reads 1, and the time spent on my blog reads 0? How can I scoff at the lowness of your intellect when you give me no hooks to get into you? How can I saunter about with an I-couldn't-give-a-damn smirk when you can't even be bothered to hate me? And how can you hate me, if you do not read me?

A shadow at my elbow interrupts my reverie.

"I tried reading your blog. Exhausting... And what's with the rationing of full stops? Do you foresee a shortage in the near future?"
"Tell that to Brian De Palma or Stanley Kubrick, my cinematic alter egos. Much as the poetry of their long takes cannot be achieved by quick cuts, full stops are an anathema to my style. Go to hell."

Quietly satisfied with the brilliant rejoinder, I go back to my thoughts with a smug smile.

So... I want you (yes you, facing the monitor) to pull your socks up and immediately go about worshipping me (let's skip the hate bit and go straight to the Julie Delpy version). I've given it some thought and have decided to be helpful. Here's a couple of suggestions:-

1) You're deeply impressed by the quality of the writing, and the depth of the intellect. You turn to me for profound insight. You know that by reading me, you're not one of the unwashed masses. Why, the unwashed masses wouldn't even get past the first paragraph! You're part of a select group. You go all Salieri, "I was staring through the cage of that meticulous HTML - at an absolute beauty." And why not? I have Kafka on my bookshelves; turn my nose up at commercial Hindi flicks; have a DVD collection with huge numbers of subtitled foreign flicks of various genres and decades; wear spectacles; have bad fashion sense; keep forgetting stuff; and - much like Newton, Einstein, Beethoven, Michelangelo and maybe Kimi Raikkonen - even had terrible grades as a kid.

2) You adore me for being one of the people; for disdaining the artsy-fartsy intellectual stuff. So far, I've read just one short story by Kafka, and the title of that piece, "Description of a Struggle" summarises perfectly what I went through to read the bloody thing. And while I was going through this collection of Robert Frost poems last week, I finally understood, after all these years, that my tears while watching "Amadeus" were not for Mozart and his squandered genius, but for Salieri and his desperate yearning for a mere fraction of that inspiration, to be the Voice of God for however brief an instant.

The films? Werner Herzog put it best with, "Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates." I remember a character from P.G. Wodehouse who, legend has it, could sit for hours on a fence watching a snail in a field, wondering what it was up to. If you look beneath all the pretension, that's what we movie lovers ultimately are. A snail or Wong Kar-wai? What difference does it make? Even then, when they try to rouse the brain a bit, like Alain Resnais did with "Hiroshima Mon Amour", or "Last Year at Marienbad", you can see our eyes glaze over... David Lynch is fine; so is Almodovar. We can watch them with our hearts open and our minds closed, but I get the sneaky feeling that Mr Resnais is trying to make us think.

I hate being preached to from the pulpit; hate having lofty artistic ideals crammed down my throat; hate having to work my mind, or stick my neck out, when it's so much easier to scoff. Why would my blog represent everything I hate? I'd rather be hip, be shallow but stylish,  merely reference others while creating nothing of my own - and reference them stripped of all higher thought. Why can't I be famous for that? Tarantino is. Great art, I'm not capable of; but great trash, why not?

Choose #1, or choose #2. Love me; or, if you must, hate me. Just so long as Sitemeter tells me you viewed more than 1 page, and that you spent at least 5 minutes on my blog - and so long as you let me disdain you.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Movie Turn-Ons, Part 4.1 (Cheesy Sci-Fi, or why "2001: A Space Odyssey" doesn't quite cut it)

As I write this, there are no less than 4 ads on TV that are nods to "2001: A Space Odyssey". (Someone at LG, especially, seems a huge fan.) Probably the most influential sci-fi movie ever, and, of all the ones I've watched, as a work of art, certainly the most accomplished. But, does mere great filmmaking suffice? Does it truly deserve its place in the pantheon of great science fiction on film?

In the foreword to "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke", he tries to define science fiction. Quoting Damon Knight, "Science Fiction is what I point to and say, 'That's science fiction.'" That's true enough, but there's something else, too. We turn to other worlds, to rainbow-hued laser battles in the deep black of outer space, to valiant heroes taking on creatures with hearts as black as their grotesque forms would suggest they have - all for what? Escapism, that's what!

And what does Mr Kubrick do? Rather than let us peer out to the stars and play out our fantasies, he takes his camera out to space and points it right back at us. From the moons of Jupiter, his camera turns sunward to that pale blue dot. It is calm, it is measured and it is unspeakably cold as it studies that world's inhabitants. It pins them to their seats - its audience - who're now wishing they'd picked, "I Married a Ghoul from Outer Space" for that evening's entertainment.

We could've taken that, had it at the very least had an ending where we destroy the alien mothership as it tries to do whatever unspeakable crimes it is that alien motherships do. But no, there are no alien motherships here. Just a few monoliths here and there. And fairly inexpressive ones at that; all they do is  sit around, looking like slabs of granite. To make things interesting, they spring to life every few millennia to give evolution a helping hand.

Do they give us a chance to demonstrate the indefatigable spirit of the human race by allowing us to destroy them? No! They merely point out that the human race would need another eon of evolution before it can even be considered infants in the vastness of the cosmos. We are nothing; not worth assimilating, not worth being piously lectured to, and not even worth complete and total destruction. If we destroyed ourselves, they would merely wait for a while longer for the next generation of hopefully rather more sentient beings to evolve.

That's the other thing about those monoliths. Sure, they don't say much, but they have a smug, superior air about them. Where they differ from other friendly, neighbourhood aliens is that they do not ask us to take them to our leaders, where they would  appeal to our better selves through impassioned speeches. They know we have no better selves. The first thing they do when they teach us how to use tools is to kill. Perhaps it's because they're stuck in the middle of nowhere and  want something to relieve their boredom, but I doubt it. They just understand us and our world too well.

By setting out to make a film about humanity's place in the universe, and then going about the job with honesty, Clarke and Kubrick have violated the core tenet of science fiction. Escapism. If we really wanted to know what our place in the universe is, we wouldn't have invented religion and then stuck to it with so much fanaticism. When religion gets a little too hot and heavy, we turn to sci-fi for our escapism. Our second layer of defense. You, Mr Kubrick, have blasphemed... and heresied (if that's a word).

Then there is the matter of the science. It has long been a tradition of sci-fi on film, that any actual resemblance to science is fictitious and coincidental. Sure, there have been attempts at criticism, but you really know they're clutching at straws when the bad science of "2001" includes, "It should've been C and not FORTRAN on the computer screens." Or, "The dust when the shuttle lands on the moon should've been falling vertically, as opposed to elliptically."

What makes all this even more unpardonable is that it was filmed over three years between 1965-68. This was before Armstrong's small step was a giant leap for all the rest of us, and way before CGI was even heard of. Still, for some reason, they felt they had to stick to realism; with visuals of space so stunning, and space travel so boring that not only is the film truly ageless, but also defined space exploration in our consciousness. They could've picked from any number of excuses for outlandish imagery, spaceships moving at warp speed, the thundering sounds of their plasma engines echoing in the vacuum of outer space. And yet, the spaceships in the movie are practically at standstill, move in deathly silence, save for the background score of classical music, and aren't even fitted with any photon torpedoes.

Where are those incredibly annoying noises pioneered by Bernard Herrmann (if I've done my research right) a decade and a half earlier, that would become such a staple ingredient of sci-fi? Where are the babes in skimpy futuristic clothes? The dialogue,  while bland, is not the expected corny; and even the blandness is by design. A movie where  Kubrick wants each of us to have our own, and very different, interpretations - and where the humans appear emotionless and robotic - would probably be undercut by endless exposition, or poetry-spouting astronauts. 

The tone, too, is way off. Science fiction is supposed to feel cheap, hurried and cheesy. This one is painstakingly crafted, leisurely, deliberate and magnificent. Can we, with honesty, point to the screen while the movie is playing and say, "That's science fiction"?

So... over the course of the next few weeks, I will try to turn back the clock to a time before the sci-fi film landscape was sullied by that film which we shall not name again. Watch this space! ... and the skies. They're coming! They're coming!

P.S. - Is it just me, or do the HAL scenes feel like a precursor to the Jodie Foster-Anthony Hopkins scenes in "The Silence of the Lambs"? Hopkins has admitted to basing his dialogue delivery on HAL, as he feels that Lecter, like HAL, is a supremely intelligent, complex, and logical killer, who knows everything that goes on around him. But it's more than that. From the unblinking stares right at the camera, to HAL asking Bowman to bring the pictures "cloooooser", to the "inquisitive personal questions"... Creepy!

P.P.S. - For all its greatness, it's not a movie for any time or any mood. It can be mystifying ("WTF just happened?"); it approaches space travel with a reverence and attention to detail that, 40 years later, makes us want to say, "Get on with it!"; and then... Every one of us, who calls himself or herself a movie buff, would at some point have delusions of talent; that we could be better than them. This movie destroys that.

They dared to make a film that starts with the dawn of our race in the distant past; moves on  for a glance at our present; pauses for a while to reflect on the nature of consciousness and the consequences of deceit; and onward to a peek at our future - and ultimately, our place in the grand scheme of things. And all this with virtually no dialogue for exposition. Imagine the arrogance, the sheer gall! For scope, for depth,  for intelligence, for artistry, for "look at that!", for redefining what you thought a movie could show, say and make us feel, there can scarcely be a more humbling experience.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Of ice cream, pretty girls and hill-top houses

I have this friend whose Facebook profile is literally a link to my childhood. Now-forgotten-but-once-best-friends; blokes I couldn't stand; and even that unforgettably beautiful girl I saw just once at our annual inter-school meet - they're all there in his friends list. Now, how this human paraquat (if I may use an insult phrased by The Dude) whom I, even after all these years, sometimes still feel like doing in with a brick, ever managed to keep in touch with all these people is a subject for study by far subtler minds than my own.

The other day I came across one such familiar face. She was 4 or 5 years my senior in school. And as she is very pretty, I still remember her name and her face. Which is more than I can say for most other former schoolmates of mine. If you think I'm going to entertain you with some story where I made a fool of myself all those years ago, you're in for disappointment. 4 years is an unbridgeable chasm in school. She might as well have been 20 years older. This is more of a topography reminisce.

When I cast my mind back geographically, there are these usual images that come back to me. Not because they're the most beautiful places from my childhood, but because they're the ones that were just by the house gate, as it were. I was never the outdoor sort.

There was, for instance, what I always referred to as the desert cliff. It may be amongst the cornier of names, but that being what I named it, we're stuck with it for the rest of this post. Unlike most other places in the vicinity of where I lived, this one wasn't green. It was brown and dusty - and all the more beautiful for it. It was so shaped that the land beneath was cut off on three sides. The fourth was sealed by the walls of a few houses; almost a perfect rectangle and overgrown with weeds and wild flowers. And on top, the brown and the rocks.

To the left of all this was the road that led to my house. Beyond the road, the land sloped not-so-gently down. This was rocky at parts, and barren too, save for a few bushes and one of those microwave towers. If you were standing on the desert cliff, you could see a part of all this, through a wide path between the walls of 2 houses; and since it lay westward, you could catch the setting sun too. Even as a kid used to sights as these, it still took my breath away.

The desert cliff has since been mowed down, and the rectangular patch has a hostel on it. The land west of the road slopes as ever before, but the setting sun no longer looks the same. The tower, not as melancholy with so many little friends around it now, somehow looked a lot better as a loner. It had character then. The many paths through there, those numerous shortcuts to everywhere else, most of them, they're gone. Houses everywhere. And even more walls. Sometimes, there's nothing between them; just empty walls, marking property and keeping out strangers.

Then there was that big pond with a huge rocky face on one end. I suppose the more adventurous folks would dive down from there. Or maybe not. It was quite a long way down. It was big, had clean green water, and there were grassy fields on the way there that hosted numerous football and cricket matches in the evenings. Perhaps it was on that grass that a young Tinu Yohannan honed his skills? If I were the sentimental sort, I would've cried when I was told a couple of years back that it had been filled up to free more land.

Ooh, and I almost forgot that stream with a couple of coconut trees for a bridge across it (or ex-coconut trees, as Cleese would put it - coconut trees tend to grow vertically, and as such are difficult to cross streams with), that I used a couple of times when the jeep that took us home from kindergarten wasn't there. Where was it? I remember not! The longer I type, the more fragments I seem to come up with. I wish I had a better memory; and that I was more of the outdoor sort.

My then best friend lived in a place which, even if I knew how to spell correctly, those of you reading would only mangle up in your mind's voice. The shortest way to go there, for someone with only a bicycle at his disposal, was a narrow, winding road, parts of it tarred, parts of it untarred, and parts of it really just a footpath cut through fields.

I hated it then. It was way too long for my liking. And Kerala is hot; it has just 2 seasons - one hot; the other also hot, but with a lot more water around. When it rained, I had to slosh through shin-deep water to use the path through the fields. And it was rather hillier than ideal. I had this joke, which admittedly isn't all that very funny, that the first person to discover the earth isn't flat must have been a cyclist.

But it was also beautiful in a way that, having been a city dweller for a decade now, makes it almost painful to remember. The road wound through paddy fields, a temple courtyard, kissed an unused water tank, skirted coconut trees and even passed through an open meadow. About half-way through, there was this little shop where you could buy really cheap sweets. And a little further down was a fork in the road. The one on the left went up a hill, and the one on the right led to my friend's house.

On this particular day, my friend was with me, too, and as we came to the fork, we halted. Nine times out of then, we would take the road on the right. But today we were feeling philosophical. We wanted the road less travelled. We decided the path up the hill was "just as fair, and having perhaps the better claim, because it was grassy and wanted wear." Besides, we could see an ice-cream cart at the gate of the house on top of the hill.

Just as we had smeared the stuff all over our noses and our chins, the door to the house opened and this gorgeous girl, whom we recognised as a senior at school walked out. I have half a mind to describe the beautiful little house on top of the hill, with its charming garden, but truth be told, I don't really remember it at all. She may have smiled or nodded at us, but we ignored her. It was way too uncool to acknowledge girls. She bought an ice cream for herself, and went back into the house. We stood there, successfully smearing the rest of our faces with ice cream, and made no comment about her. It was uncool also to talk admiringly of girls. And then we went home.

I suppose that story sucked. Anyway...

Until that link on Facebook, I had forgotten all about the shortcut to my friend's place. Maybe I'll see if it's still there, the next time I go home. Most likely, I'll run into a wall somewhere. We like to build walls, don't we? Not that I have a right to sound high and mighty. If I didn't like to build walls myself, I'd remember more.