Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Romeo, Juliet and a When

For millions of people the world over, the words "Romeo and Juliet" instantly bring to mind an artist unrivalled for his skill with words and strings; one whose name is, to borrow from an advertising catalogue, a byword for excellence. His creations are of such beauty and power that even the Gods themselves - Tendulkar being one - have confessed to feeling weak in the knees when listening to him.

And on a day when he got up from just the right side of the bed, felt his feet finding his slippers at just the right place, and found his newspaper - unspoilt by rain or forest fire - on the front porch with just the right tidings, he let loose a challenge into the morning air: he roared "Carpe diem!" After finishing up with the roaring and clearing his throat, Mark Knopfler strode purposefully into his study, and wrote what will be known for all time as humanity's legacy: Romeo and Juliet.

Now comes the strange part. We get into bare-fisted fights over Bessel Functions and non-linear partial differential equations*. We debate endlessly on whether a pizza is a pizza when we start making it, or only when it's taken out of the oven. We burn books for a misplaced comma in countless, soporific texts. But the true Words of Wisdom, in what is beyond challenge the greatest song ever written, we allow to be mutilated; to have its meaning and its power sheared away by an inability to listen and to understand.

When you can fall for chains of silver, you can fall for chains of gold
You can fall for pretty strangers and the promises they hold

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now; for never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo and their leading "when" - sometimes omitted, sometimes replaced by a banality as "Well." Would we allow "The Third Man" to be seen without that image of Harry Lime leaning thoughtfully in the dark street, a sardonic smile on his face revealed by an unexpected flash of light from the window high up? Would we allow the Continental Op to be shown a weak, corrupt man, jaded beyond recognition; or Philip Marlowe a mumbling, vicious idiot? Would we allow a very tall man to flick boogers up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? And yet, web page after web page, we find when-less.

You see, in the When lies the Answers. It tells us how we love, why we hate, and lays the foundations on which mathematics is built. It even admits that love does ensnare us from time to time; but only until we see before us the shadow of something that holds - but does not make - the promise of being as gold compared to the silver that we have.

And that, my friends, is why men with wives and kids** in Baltimore go for a ride, and, like a river that knows not where it flows, never go back. Those lines tell us where we find the strength to smile at our friends while we scheme behind our masks. They explain every body, with a knife through its heart, in every gutter. They hint at what makes us doubt that the stars are fire, that the Sun doth move, or that Truth be a liar. And isn't that what makes life worth living; without that doubt, wouldn't such a thing as love, to take just one example, be not only commonplace but also lacking in all passion?

Now consider Knopfler's lines without the "when." You can wake up in the morning, you can go to the office. You can make sure you're the conformist line on your manager's spreadsheet, and then you can catch the bus back home. You can soak in flashes of light and sound blended, talk to other carbon-based bipeds maybe, have sex with willing quadrupeds, or read poems about trees and hills and fences and lakes. And after a few years, you can die.

*Or so claims Arthur C Clarke.

**While this is a song I love, a friend pointed out the sexism and adultism it hides - would it have hurt Springsteen to rephrase it as "spouse and dependents"?

P.S. - Something (I forget what exactly), Sreenivasan said, is like an award-winning film: the film-makers intend one thing, the audiences see something very different, and the award jury divines something else altogether that is neither of the first two. But I suppose that doesn't hold here. After all, it's obvious what Knopfler intends: here is the great man telling us all that the meaning of life isn't 42.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Of Priggishness, Prudishness and Prattishness

It's been a while since I've taken a swipe at the censor board. Now, it may be misdirected in this instance, as the snipping was on a TV channel, and the TV chaps may have done it all on their own. Still, since the censors' rating of "A" on the back of a DVD case always leaves me wondering how much they've snipped; and this prevents me from buying the film - no matter how badly I want to see it - I'll bag on them, anyway.
"Oh, Holden, I beg you, please. Don't drop 50 stories in my opinion of you by falling prey to that latest of trendy beasts: lesbian chic. It's oh-so acceptable to be a gay girl nowadays. People think it's cute. Got this fool picture of lipstick lesbians in their heads like they all resemble Alyssa, while most of 'em look more like you. Screw that all-for-one shit, all right? I gotta deal with bein' a minority in the minority of a minority, and nobody's supportin' my ass. While the whole of society's fawning over girls on girls, here I sit: a reviled gay man. And to top that off, I'm a gay black man. What is it about gay men that terrifies the rest of the world?"

To find out who all those people are, and what the context for that quote is, you'll just have to watch "Chasing Amy." The reason I brought it up, though, is that the snip-snip-chop-chop men and women have managed to convey the same idea in a way that Hitchcock would approve - all visuals and no reliance on dialogue; specifically, by showing Alyssa and her girlfriend at it until I half expected to see pieces of their faces flying off the TV, and then when it comes to the part where Ben Affleck and Jason Lee snog, they snip sneakily away. Not a thousand words each by a thousand gay men could've got their point across better than our guardians from vulgarity did with the judicious use of their scissors.

I've noticed I'm becoming all crusty and intolerant. It wasn't that long ago that I was boasting to all and sundry that the gay sex in Almodovar's movies don't bother me at all. But had I paid more attention to the world around me, I would've seen sooner that the likes of Antonio Banderas and Gael Garcia Bernal are in a different league from most other men. And my tolerance for seeing this latter group in the buff, much less anything more intimate, is very low. I've just about had it with sitting on the couch next to the lockers in the gym to tie my shoelaces, only for some guy to place his third eye about 2 feet from my face. It's not like there aren't changing rooms there. And those have doors too.

And this isn't just with the men. The contraptions in the gym ensure that I get my fair share of glimpses of what the censor board would call an indecent angle. Time was when I'd give myself a mental high-five. Now, though, unless the girl in question fits Gimli's descriptions of Galadriel, I find myself turning away with the dismayed look of a Shiv Sainik spying a couple holding hands on Valentine's Day or displaying some other signs of corruption by the Decadent West.

I think I'm growing old.

Speaking of gymming, one of the attractions of my gym is that it has a lot of really good restaurants just near it. Despite the wealth of choice, the one place that keeps drawing me in is Haldiram's and its masala dosa. Now, it's hardly perfect: they distribute coconut chutney in the same quantities that lembas were in the Mordor stretch of Frodo's and Sam's journey, and the staff there are the grumpiest bunch of sourpusses ever assembled on one spot since Saruman's Uruk-hai had the misfortune of meeting Fangorn's Huorns at Helm's Deep. But still, since you can take a Mallu out of Kerala, but you cannot take his craving for masala dosa out of him, I find myself there time and again.

Since it turns out that I'm not speaking of gymming at all, but rather of Tolkien, I might as well admit that I've finally finished reading "The Lord of the Rings." While my efforts spent reading it were no less epic than the Fellowship's Quest, they were well rewarded. I'm in awe of Tolkien's imagination: for over two months, he marooned me in another world. But I do have some quibbles: the book seems a little obsessed with racial purity, lets us downs by showing only the Elveses as free (relatively) of ssexis'sm, and is very directionist (being from a part of the world that is regarded as the East, and also because I'm from the South of this segment of the map, I was doubly offended).

But my major complaint is that the writing deteriorates through the series. "The Fellowship of the Ring" isn't too bad, but "The Return of the King" is all but unreadable. To paraphrase Fawlty, "Why don't they speak properly?" Apart from the chapters where the Hobbits find themselves in forests, the sections that had Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn were what I enjoyed the most; but even Gimli catches the mush-talk disease after meeting Galadriel, and Aragorn gets insufferably pompous as the story wears on. And, having had to endure the descriptions of Faramir's and Eowyn's courtship, I can see why Tolkien left all the romance to Peter Jackson. Also, aren't these people supposed to be fierce warriors on a desperate mission? So what's with all the weeping and wailing and speeching whenever someone gets a bit of a scratch or falls into a little pit?

I wish Tolkien had taken a little inspiration from "The Big Sleep." Even before I ever saw it, it was already amongst my favourite films. And now, having managed to get a copy, it has risen higher in my estimation, if such a thing were possible. For dialogue, for sleaze, for atmosphere, for unforgettable characters - in other words, for embodying noir and every associated image to perfection - it has few equals. I could watch it a dozen times and not tire of it.

P.S. - For a very critical appraisal of the first LOTR film, you may go here.