Today I saw The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. A lovely, moving film, based on a short story by James Thurber. It touches many topics, directly and indirectly. Millions of people spend their lives behind a desk, never striking out on their own, never taking a risk, living lives of soul-crushing anonymity. But that’s not the issue I’m talking about. No ma’am. The movie shows the death the printed version of Life magazine. From Life in paper, it becomes Life dot com. Behind that not-so-smooth transition, many lives (pun unintended) are turned upside down by the heartless, relentless march of technology. It takes many people to make a magazine, or for that matter, any published material. Most people never understand the pain, handwork and joy that go into creating something, especially something that will be printed. Because print has an air of finality. It can’t be coded to make a correction later. There is no option to upload a new file. Written in ink equals written in stone.
Because of print’s highly demanding nature, there are many different people, each a vital performer, involved in the art of printing and publishing. Did you ever guess that there is someone like Walter Mitty, sitting in his dark room of negatives, sifting through hundreds of little images? He knows them like old friends. There is someone who colour corrects, sharpens and touches up every single image you see in any publication worth its ink. There is someone who composes the pages for print on the offset machine. Each of these people are small cogs in the larger machine. Individuals with expert, specialised knowledge. Unless you work directly with them, there is no access to that amazing tradition and well of knowledge. They never get much credit. The magazine always stands between them and the viewer, like a wall.
I’m not bemoaning the rise of digital media, far from it. I love the internet, and all the information, entertainment and cat videos it houses. I’m only wondering if we are losing a entire generation of people, and with them, the knowledge and skill they had, for all time. That knowledge is of no use to us, for sure, but their stories deserve to be told. Walter Mitty tells us one such story. You can see Life online, with more photographs than ever before. But if you hold a Life magazine in your hands, you will see so much more. Behind each image, you can see a quiet person, staring at photographs for hours, checking their quality, so that you gasp wow!, and turn the page.
Films from India
Some interesting films came out of India, back in the day of one national TV channel. Whatever your age, you'll never grow tired of watching these. The last one, 'I Am 20', shows how much has changed, and at the same time, how little has changed.
Now I've never been a hard-core Tarantino fan. I've seen Pulp Fiction, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I've watched bits and pieces of both Kill Bills, wincing as blood flew. But his last two movies have been wonderful, perfect movie-watching experiences. The one that really made me a fan is of course, that glorious piece of film-making called Inglorious Basterds. From the opening scene, it gets you in it's grip, and it doesn't let you go. It's story is perfect, and more importantly, it's perfectly told. QT knows what to tell you, what to show you, and when to show it to you.
Many people don't like Tarantino films because of their graphic violence. Indeed, they are not for the faint-hearted. If bullets and blood flying, people getting their genitals blown to bits, and dogs tearing people apart is not your cup of tea, don't venture into this territory. You've been warned. I'm not a fan of extreme violence. But I didn't seem to mind it in these movies. It's the tale of revenge, the story of how the oppressed rises up one day, and gives it back to the oppressor, it's the underdog becoming top-dog, and it leaves the audience cheering for more.
The best part is, it's not the scenes of violence that really stay with you. It's the other, far more subtle things that get stuck in your head. One of the best scenes in Inglorious Basterds is when Shoshanna, meets Colonel Hans Landa in the Nazi officers club, for the first time since he shot her family to pieces. Inglorious Basterds unfolds like a book, slowly, revealing a complex plot. At the end of the movie you are left wishing something like that really happened in World War 2.
Django Unchained is set in America before the civil war. Unlike Inglorious Basterds, it's plot and story is very simple and straightforward. Perhaps for this reason, some people may not like it, but this is it's chief charm. Django may have a simple story, but it makes up in the richness of its characters. They are endlessly entertaining. They are human, there is something that breaks each of them at different points. There are some traumatic scenes of violence such as a horrendous wrestling match, dogs tearing a slave to pieces, and other such scenes. But there are some remarkable moments. One is when Django's wife is brought out of the hot-box, where she has been kept as punishment for trying to run away. You will rarely see a film showing a naked, shamed woman, without showing nakedness or shame. Somehow, QT masters it. There is the terrible moment when the hot-box is opened, water is thrown on her, and several white men pull her out, and literally man-handle her. This could have been a very ugly scene, but it is heart-wrenching without being explicit. It shows the cruelty, but it handles it sensitively.
Another fantastic moment comes towards the end. Dr Shultz (Christof Waltz) is haunted by the scenes of the slave being torn to pieces by dogs. Until there he has maintained his strength, but suddenly, one senses the cracks appearing in his calm state of mind. He seems a character who can absorb many disturbing things, and he himself kills people without qualms, but this experience shatters something deep within him, and unravels him. If there is that one moment in life when someone can't take something anymore, this is it for him. It's a very telling moment. The audience knows that something in him has changed, and he is going to do something extreme, or crazy, but you just don't know what.
It's easy to underestimate the acting talent of Jamie Foxx, because he is a man of few words in this film. But as you watch the entire film, he communicates volumes without words. Experiences have toughed him up, but they haven't made him inhuman. He's a simple man, with a simple mission. His greatest strength is he learns fast. His greatest weakness is his love for Hildi, his wife. He can bear anything, but Hildi is his Achilles' heel. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect, charming, funny, kind but with a hard, cruel, hypocritical and almost psychotic core. His character is unveiled beautifully. Initially, you like him. He charms. Slowly, you fear and dread him. His unpredictability leaves one on the edge of the seat. Samuel L Jackson is brilliant as the faithful slave, serving a family since generations. He is so identified with his role of the servant, that he cannot believe that any black person can be anything else. He is the most annoying, cloying, racist person in the movie.
Of course, Christof Waltz takes the cake, as he does in Inglorious Basterds. In both these movies he is a ruthless killer, who is delightfully cheerful and practical about his work. But in Django, he is a softer, more interesting, more nuanced character. He is the most likeable, pragmatic, person, who takes life with a pinch of salt. If one wanted a traveling companion, one really couldn't ask for a better one. He is honest, brutal, and takes things as they come. Most enjoyable, even strangely touching, is the way he takes Django under his wing. Theirs seems like an unlikely partnership. But it's the best there is. It broke my heart when they killed him. I think I could have accepted Django' death easier than his. But it was a good ending.
Most amazingly well shown is the attitude that QT exposes, through the dialogues, the brilliant screenplay. The attitude that any oppressor has, he feels justified in his actions. He genuinely believes it is his birthright to oppress, to rule, to own. This belief is so strong, that even the oppressed believe it blindly. They deeply resent anyone who upsets this balance. Samuel L Jackson brings this to life. Black slaves resent a black man who is free, and who rides a horse alongside the white men.
The Sisters Brothers
Two brothers, and their travels and travails as they move across America, are well captured by Patrick DeWitt in The Sisters Brothers, a runner-up for this year's Booker Prize (The Booker Prize finally went to Julian Barnes). These two contrasting characters are on their way to loot and kill, but their experiences change them, build them and burn them.
Told in the first person, by the younger (and relatively milder) brother, The Sisters Brothers is captivating right from the start. The writer's descriptive power builds up vivid images of the wild, wild West. One can see the filth, smell the blood, the bullets, the dust, and come face-to-face with the ugly and wretched characters all integral to the plot. DeWitt uses simple language, nothing complex here, and even the thoughts of people are simple, direct and in-your-face. One experiences the hard, tough life, made easy only by regular alcohol consumption and the occasional woman. The brothers are two hardened killers (especially the elder one), moving from desolate town to desolate town. They have no one in the world they can trust but one another. Despite their constant bickering and contrasting natures, or perhaps because of it, they grow closer over time. Even in the most hardened person, there is still a thread of humanity. The main story is made interesting by little diversions and sub-narratives. One of these involves Tub, the old, faithful horse that carries the younger brother. Tub has a severely infected eye, yet he plods on. Ultimately he meets his end. The brother's attachment to Tub, and his unwillingness to really give up on him, is bound to pull on the reader's heartstrings.
The author launches into 2 or 3 'dream' descriptions, which masquerade as 'Intermissions'. These seem boring and meaningless, as they don't seem to add anything real to the book. Apart from this, there is little to criticize in The Sisters Brothers. The brothers' bizarre adventures give a real picture of an uncivilized place, uncouth people, the Gold Rush, and the desperate greed that accompanied it. But more that the physical things, it is the subtle description of the intangible that is truly gripping. The love-hate relationship shared by the brothers is apparent in their dialogues, which are by turn both nasty and entertaining. One's love and longing for home, and the desire to leave the bad life and be a better person, is strongly contrasted by the other's complete disdain for a civilized and decent life. Unexpected events however, change both of them, and in the end their natures undergo a transformation. Each becomes more like the other. The cold-blooded murderer becomes subdued. The soft-hearted sentimentalist becomes ruthless and calculating, for one last kill.
DeWitt is a master of description, and even with numerous details, he never bores you needlessly. It's not easy to make a reader imagine a place they have never seen, but he pulls it of with ease. His characters are unique and quirky, with twisted minds, but good intentions too. They are, in a word, very human, and fallible. Psychologically, they are extremely interesting. What goes on in the killer's mind? Does he ever regret his life? Does he really think that his killings are justified? Can he ever really escape his past and make a fresh start? How long can a person kill for money? Someone who doesn't squirm while shooting a man clean in the face, has qualms when it comes to killing a horse. Everyone gets attached to something, even if it is an animal.
The quick pace, and descriptions that hold nothing back make this book like a Western movie playing across the pages. Sometimes, I even found myself reading in a Western accent. Blood flies, eyes are gouged out, guns are drawn and chemicals gorily eat away gold prospectors, while the two brothers stick together through it all.
A great visionary, dreamer, and doer of our time has passed on. Though he is no more, he is forever more. Working on a Mac everyday, one can't help but just be in awe of the man who created these marvelous machines. Apple products are more than technology, they are a way of life. A better way of life. A way towards excellence and perfection in everything. Few people had the guts and the gumption to strive for such perfection in a cynical, mediocre world, defined by bottom-lines, but Steve Jobs did. And in that, he inspires people everyday. If we can even be one-tenth of what he was, if we had such drive, such single-minded passion, such attention to detail, if we all did our work with such a quest for excellence, the world would be a better place. We would work for the joy of creating something nearly perfect.
From the black apple subtly placed at the bottom of the screen, to the serene, snowy keyboard, to their mysterious inner workings, Apple products are all the vision of a person who made the impossible possible. He made technology a sheer delight, a pleasure, a thing of beauty. He enabled the machine to truly become an extension of us, seamless, intuitive, and most importantly, he put the joy factor into the littlest of things. I have had the good fortune of working on different generations of Macs. The first one I had was an iBook G4, a small, 13 inch delight. Then I was lucky to get a good second-hand MacBook Pro in 2007, which is still going strong. After that the iMac and now the big daddy, the 27 inch Mac with its magic mouse, which is, well, magical. So many times, I have discovered something new on the Mac, and it has made me smile, or go "Wow, they actually thought of that!" Steve Jobs ensured they thought of everything. Every unvoiced need, every unspoken desire that's swimming around in a user's brain, is addressed. Yet, its never intrusive, ugly, or in-your-face. No icon is too small, no detail too unimportant, to warrant absolute attention. Everything is honed to perfection. Apple knows what you want, when you want it, when you need it. Steve Jobs is the mastermind who brought science, technology, art and beauty all together in his too-short lifetime. He redefined our way of working, connecting, and thinking. In the computer world, he made that evolutionary leap, and the best part is, he still enables millions of others to leap with him.
Yesterday, when I heard the news that Steve Jobs had died, I couldn't believe it. We can't see our heros fall. I know he was suffering from pancreatic cancer, but death is always sudden, and we are never prepared for it. Maybe Steve Jobs is gone, but in many ways he hasn't. Every time I click on iTunes, or hear the signature Mac start-up 'ahummmmmmm' sound, I'm reassured, he still lives somewhere.
RIP Steve Jobs
Have seen some good, and some strange movies lately. A most unusual movie is The Symbol (Shinboru). This movie has very little dialogue. But it just proves that non-verbal communication is as powerful as any other. Written, directed, and starring Hitoshi Matsumoto, it starts with a man alone in a large white room. You don't know what the hell is going on, but it all comes together in the end. And what an ending it is. It is as if you have been let it on a bigger secret, which nobody knows of yet. In short, an extremely creative and dont-give-a-dam director has been able to pull this off with aplomb.
The Great Debaters, is based on a true story, and explores the struggle of black people in 1930s America. An idealistic college professor at Wiley College, inspires and trains four young black students to debate against white students, in colleges across the United States. On a deeper level, it is about their search for identity, their fight for equality, and their need to be heard. The movie is a little predictable, and not as inspiring as it could be, but still, worth a watch. It is filled with interesting quotes from literature, and allusions to Gandhi.
True Grit is by one of my favourite movie-makers, the Coen Brothers. Based on a book, it's a touching story of a young girl's search for her father's murderer. She teams up with a US Marshall, and the movie is about their adventures together. Set in old-time America, it is slow in parts, but definitely worth a watch. Yet, it is not as brilliant as the Coen Brothers' other films. A Serious Man is a brilliant one, a combination of wit, sarcasm, and just plain randomness. Centered around an American suburban character, set in the late 1960s, it involves his wife, kids, neighbours, colleagues, and his thoughts and reactions to all of these. Only Coen Brothers can take the most everyday things, and make them so interesting. Who needs fiction, when life itself is so rich in beauty?
The Coen Brothers' crowning masterpiece has to be No Country For Old Men. It's a hair-raising, excruciatingly suspenseful film. A hitman is on the lose in Texas, and the murders get increasingly cold-blooded, random and bold. It's not the actual killing that kills you, but the danger and suspense. Without too much of a show of blood or gore, the audience experiences the very real terror that a serial killer inspires. You can feel the cold hand of the murderer somewhere around you, while he silently and menacingly swings his axe. You can never actually be rid of his clammy and frightening face, with its deadpan eyes. The movie has a strange ending, but it's probably the most appropriate one.
With A Serious Man, you are going to get some laughs. With No Country For Old Men, you are going to be looking over your shoulder for a couple of days, or weeks, depending on how jittery you are. The Coen Brothers are masters of making you feel things that you can't really express later. Their movies defy description. If anyone can express movies in just words, why go through the effort of making the movie? Some may find them a tad violent, but Coen Brothers tells it like it is. As an old man says in the film, "You can't stop whats coming."
Thats it for the movie updates.
The New Yorker