May 31, 2009

Paradise Lost or Rejected

'Dev D’ reminded me of the DPS MMS scandal that shook the nation a few years ago. At that time I like many others was unequivocal in my disgust and loathing at the spectacle of young children who had made news out of peddling what should have been the most sacred (ok, I am old fashioned) and private of acts into a sickening display of how fast track technology coupled with rampant consumerism had eaten into the moral fabric of our lives. I cannot say that I never stopped to think about the girl in question, I did; but there was a sort of quasi ‘she-got-what-she-deserved’ strain that diluted much of my anxiety and concern about her future. A larger share of my sympathy was reserved instead for the parents who through no fault of their, were being forced to live and participate in this nightmare.

I think time and motherhood has changed a lot of that – not that I find the whole episode any less distasteful. What has changed is perhaps that the focus of my attention, the pivot, has shifted from the two adolescent participants to the surrounding world that encompasses them.

One of the common ideas that has unified all nations and civilizations across ages has been a uniform insistence on the ‘myth of the lost childhood’, a recurrent idea that has permeated popular culture through films, TV talk shows, and literature, and even occupied a special place in anthropological and scientific studies. This theory of childhood as an exalted place of special privilege and innocence that has succumbed to a Faustian future of eternal damnation actually arises from our own inability to fight the very forces that usher in such bleakness. Parents regularly lose sleep over a whole range of issues and usually interpret ‘corrupt’ or wayward behavior in terms of simple morality, of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’, of ‘us’ versus ‘they’, of ‘then’ versus ‘now’. What we fail to realize is that they are a product of our lifestyle – the 24x7 stress, high degree of competitiveness, parents’ busy schedules and the accompanying compensatory consumerism. All of this often results in conveying conflicting set of instructions to children.

A closer examination of our motives and lives will reveal that most of our moral panics regarding our children are merely a reflection of our own fears. Mostly it is the fear of losing face, alongside the more fundamental fear of loss of ground. Not only are we apprehensive about what others’ will say, we’re plagued by insecurities regarding the social standing and economic well being of our children. So great are these insecurities that we struggle without comprehending that the real focus of our anxiety is not that the child fared poorly in his mid-term semester but that we intuit in this the seeds of a far greater failure to live up to the standards prescribed by our success.

It doesn’t help that medical jargon and the media often offer an easy way out to parents with their overblown focus on ‘messed-up kids’ or, ‘emotionally disturbed adolescents’; they offer clueless parents a way out to avoid looking inwards, to introspect and take stock of the highly complex problems of everyday life.

Maria Kefalas, of St. Joseph’s University, a specialist in teen sexual behavior says, “For a 14-year-old to be having sex it’s usually a symptom of a kid who’s really broken and really hurt. ...Teen pregnancy is so high in America compared to other places not just because of access to contraception but because we have a lot of poverty. But Americans don’t want to see themselves as a poor society. They want to make a moral argument: if only teens had better values.” The same can be applicable in every case in differing degrees.

While I largely agree that more than parenting, one’s peer group influences early behavior to a large degree, the onus on setting the right milestones rests squarely on us parents/guardians. In this light it is important that we re-examine the very nature of the milestones and whether they gel with the larger domestic fabric of our shared lives and interactions. It is no use lecturing one’s children against rampant materialism if buying a toy after every bitter argument you’ve had with your child is your way of demonstrating love. Instead of blaming the West or the onslaught of MTV or Channel V or mulling the strange appeal of teenage style icons like Britney Spears, we need to cast a keener eye on the kind of dysfunctional household where a child finds nothing wrong in uploading nude photographs of oneself on the Net. Imagine the lack of real life model in the child’s life who cannot even envisage a lack of self esteem in the act; imagine the desolate solitude of his existence where he is so starved for attention that he is incapable of discerning between right and wrong kinds of attention.

Cross posted from 4indiawomen

Notes on The Reader

It is difficult to really like Stephen Daldry’s ‘The Reader’, despite the Oscar buzz it generated or Kate Winslet’s numerous award wins. For a film that pretends to examine the whole issue of moral ambiguity, it is oddly predictable, maudlin, and in places, even frivolous. In my opinion The Reader is a good example of how wasted even great actors can be when they are part of a project that is shorn of even the most rudimentary exercise of creativity or vision. Individually there are parts of The Reader that dazzle you, but sadly the whole does not create a similar effect.

Also, The Reader seems to have been made so obviously keeping the Oscars in mind – the tried and tested theme of Holocaust guilt, quotes from and references to great literature, the rain drenched, wintry continental landscape and an unmitigated air of mourning – that whatever genuine moments do exist, lose their efficacy. First, Hollywood directors have to understand that it’s time to move beyond the Holocaust, not that I’m trivializing it. I see a similar syndrome shaping up with regard to Bush’s invasion of Iraq – it will come to epitomize America’s worst capitalist and discriminatory impulses in years to come. But that is far from the truth. America has done worse and we need to think beyond stereotypes. Sure, the invasion was a shame, as was Auswitch, but mankind has silently stood by too many other shameful incidents in China, Cambodia, Rwanda, Afghanisthan, and other places for filmmakers to repeatedly circle the same corpses like carrion birds.

In this story of personal awakening, we have Michael Berg (played as a teenager by David Kross and an adult by Ralph Fiennes) enter into a brief but passionate affair with Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) a woman much older to him. The grungy, gloomy and cramped apartment that is Hannah’s home forms the backdrop to their passionate encounters in which sex and reading are irrevocably joined. Michael has to first read to Hannah from literature as diverse as Tintin comics to Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ before which will she allow him to make love. Though the affair is short lived, only lasting the summer, it has a profound impact on both their lives. When Hannah suddenly disappears one day, Michael is left bereft with a hole in his heart that nothing and nobody he meets later in life can fill. The film jumps a couple of years when Berg, now a law student, attends a trial where Hannah is the defendant for her role as a guard in the wartime death camps in Auswitch. There is something that Michael knows about his former lover that will surely mitigate her sentence, but he chooses to remain silent and Hannah is sentenced to life in prison.

In a film that likes to make obvious most of its underlying themes, Daldry exhibits reticence and manages to convey well the horror, guilt and shame that stop the young Michael from standing up for the truth. He is challenged to discover that he cares about someone whom he ought to rightfully despise. While The Reader aims to examine many aspects of guilt and culpability (and not all pertaining to World War II), it is often way too evident in its approach.

What this silence will cost both of them and what if anything at all, can emerge out of a bond, no matter how shameful or sordid it may appear to society, is the larger question that the film examines in the rest of the film. There comes a point in The Reader when you know you have been moved, but just not enough; when you know a terrible thing has taken place before your eyes, but you’re too disconnected to care. And it is precisely when I was feeling thus that the narrative delivers a punch, which frankly could be the only kind of redemption that is allowed to its flawed protagonists. To disclose what happens is to kill what makes The Reader worth watching. In a scene that extends well over 8 odd minutes and is underscored by the most divine music by Nico Muhly, with Ralph Fiennes reading aloud passages from great literature, we have the essence of The Reader; it answers the question of salvation or its lack thereof.

Kate Winslet as Hannah embodies the contradictions of the role perfectly, and in a way that makes perfect sense when we learn all her guilty secrets. We understand how the toughness and coldness she exhibits in the beginning are a product of her self-defensiveness and shame - not just because of the surprising secret that Michael knows alone, but also because of the guilt that she feels over the horrific things she's done, and her firm conviction that she is not really deserving of love. That's what made it so shattering later on when the defenses have been stripped away and you see the fear, the vulnerability, and the weight of the choices she's made. Her hardness is a defense that allows her to carry on living. Once it's taken away from her, she crumbles. It is a testament to her superb acting skills that she manages to perform splendidly in a role that isnt supported by the best script & make up.

David Kross playing the teenaged Michael makes a stupendous international debut and successfully conveys the shame, confusion, thrill and joy of discovering and exploring his budding sexuality. He is angry at Hannah’s callous indifference, but also hopelessly devoted to her. Some of the film’s truly meaningful scenes with Michael are executed by David Kross, who effectively paves the way for the confused teenager to grow into a conflicted young man. Ralph Fiennes is his usual superb self but there isn’t much that he is given here to work with.

Daldry and David Hare who has written the screenplay, based on the book by Bernhard Schlink, have earlier worked together in The Hours, a film that balances its handling of multiple time periods much more successfully than The Reader does. The cinematography by Chris Menges and Roger Deakins deserves mention. It creates the right shade of grey that is so suited to this grim examination of human frailty and connivance in the face of evil and its sudden impulse to do right when given a second chance.

Is The Reader a film worth watching? Sure, it is if you are a cinephile who loves to look beyond Slumdog Millionaire. However, if you are hard pressed for time or not really interested in international films, then you can surely give The Reader a miss.

Cross posted from here

May 8, 2009

Notes on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I went to watch ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ with great expectations; after all it was directed by David Fincher of ‘Fight Club’, ‘Seven’ and ‘Zodiac’ fame and the screenplay was by Eric Roth who previously gave us the delightful ‘Forrest Gump’. I wasn’t disappointed though the rest of the world seems to have a whole host of problems ranging from Roth’s extensive reworking of the original story, the lack of traction in Benjamin’s character to the film’s 166 minute running time.

‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ is loosely based on Scott Fitzgerald’s short story that combines equal measures of satire, humour and whimsy, with no scope for any serious introspection about life, the pathos of old age and the transitory nature of romantic fulfillment. Both the story and the film are about a man who's born elderly and grows younger.

Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is born in 1918, ‘the day the Great War ended’, with not only the puckered face of an old man, but clogged arteries, arthritis and other assorted conditions that define old age. His father, horrified at his son’s deformities, leaves him at the doorstep of an old-age home where Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who works there, brings him up. It is here that he meets Daisy (Cate Blanchett), the love of his life, who comes to visit her grandmother at the home. The two have an on-again/off-again relationship as Benjamin grows from a helpless old man to a helpless baby.

Outwardly alike to the inmates of the old-age home in appearance and infirmities, Benjamin grows from infant to toddler to fretful 11 year old among them. It is never his fate to join the neighbourhood children in their games; he can only sit on the varnished rocking chair like the other inmates and watch them wistfully. He is especially bereft for the other inmates of the home have at least enjoyed a childhood and can recollect it but Benjamin never gets to actually live any state of his life as it ought to be lived. With the perspective of a perennial outsider, Benjamin alternately identifies with the playful children he can see, as also the aged tenants with whom he has to live. He learns not to view death with despair, rather to accept it with equanimity as an inevitable end to life. This is a terrible wisdom for a child to possess. Says one of the residents he befriends, “We’re meant to lose the people we love. How else are we supposed to know how important they are?”

At 17, when he looks and feels considerably fitter than before, Benjamin joins the eccentric Mike the captain of a tugboat. It is through his adventures on the tugboat that Benjamin develops any real relationship outside the one he has so long shared with Queenie. With help from Mike he visits a prostitute whom he more than amazes with his desperate hammering and who has no way of knowing that the man who looks old enough to be nearly 70 is actually a teenager.

After Pearl Harbour, the tugboat is recruited by the U.S Navy where Benjamin loses most of his comrades and finally lands up in Russia in the heart of severe winter. Stranded in an old hotel, snowed in from all sides, Benjamin is finally free at last. Also alone. Bereft of Quennie’s overwhelming concern, Mike’s boisterous personality, or Daisy’s magic spell, he is finally free to form adult relationships and that is exactly what he does. His affair with Elizabeth (a mysterious and regal Tilda Swinton) not only reveals to him that he is capable of being loved by others apart from Queenie, but also about the sadness of lost dreams. Elizabeth we learn was an ace swimmer who was so buckled by her failed attempt to cross the English Channel that she never attempted it again in her life. When the affair ends abruptly, Benjamin is neither surprised nor heartbroken, yet even this has contributed to his growth and shown him the importance of pursuing ones dreams, no matter how transient life itself is. In retrospect he writes to his daughter much later, “It’s never too late to be whoever you want to be”, and “Your life is defined by its opportunities, even the ones you miss”. These may seem like Archies greeting card sentiments but fall into place in the film.

Post his return from Russia and after much ado, Daisy and he finally end up together. That it is again the fortuitous hand of luck that throws Daisy and him together is explained in one of the best interludes of the film where a series of unrelated, chance incidents conspire to move events in a fashion which unites him with his childhood sweetheart. It is impossible to watch the sequence and not think that had things transpired otherwise, Benjamin’s life would have turned out quite differently. It is Daisy who tells their story from her deathbed in modern-day New Orleans as her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) reads to her passages from Benjamin’s diary.

While the first 90 minutes of the film are a bit slow, perfectly in keeping with the elegiac tone of the film and its cinematography, the second half of the film which deals with Benjamin’s shared life with Daisy, her decision to have his child in the face of his growing fears and her firm determination that she will somehow make ‘them’ work, Benjamin’s gradual decent into youth and finally wordless infancy, are what truly makes this film worthy of its Oscar nomination. Without going into details let me just say that Benjamin with his curious disability, sees and does everything and a lot more than any one of us ever has. He shows how rehabilitating love can be to anyone who has been born unfortunate; likewise he also shows that there are some journeys, that no matter how arduous, must be undertaken alone. Daisy’s untiring love and caring for him and his selflessness in always putting her welfare before his is the idea that underscores this part. Seen in this way, ‘Benjamin Button’ is no better than a simple love story about two people who never wanted anything better than to build a life together, who pass through much of their early years with their paths crossing each others, and who when they finally meet, realize the sweet pain of a life together that was too short.

The splendid cinematography by Claudio Miranda captures the passage of time from 1918 to 2005 with its use of sepia tone photography. It does full justice to the slow, languid quality of Benjamin’s childhood in early 20th century New Orleans, as well as the lived-in feel of the home he builds with Daisy in the 60’s. For a film that is so high on soul, the music by Alexandre Desplat is tepid and fails to impress. There is none of the vibrancy of Thomas Newman’s ‘Feather Theme’ that so enhanced the appeal of ‘Forrest Gump’.

While there are several elements that are common to the story of Benjamin and Forrest, chiefly due to the unfortunate disabilities they are born with, ‘Benjamin Button’ is less about finding gold at the end of the rainbow. It is perhaps the best film to have come out in recent terms that examines the enduring quality of love, the healing that flows from it naturally and the message of hope that stems from it. After all it is because of this love that Benjamin finds the courage to live his words, “I hope you live a life you are proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”

p.s. earlier published in 4indiawomen