23 August 2010

What's Your Rashee?

Bollywood is kind of like a guilty pleasure for me, but this movie seemed worth writing about because a few days later, I find myself still thinking of it and what it says about love. The movie is in many ways fairly standard bollywood - long, with a somewhat bizarre, convoluted plot, some pleasing song and dance routines (more song than dance), etc, but there was something intriguing about it, namely, the way it took on the question of tensions between models of arranged marriage and romantic love.

The main character, because of plot machinations we don't really need to go into, needs to get married, quick. For somewhat random reasons, he decides to meet one girl of every astrological sign and pick one as a wife. This is explained by him saying that he had always thought he would marry for love, so he wants to at least make some attempt to find it - if each astrological sign represents one type of woman, he can at least take a sampling of the lot. Curiously, all the girls are played by the same actress (the beautiful and charismatic Priyanka Chopra), a perhaps unnecessary bit of randomness that seems to be done just for fun, and is half-heartedly justified when someone tells the protagonist that they all look the same because they all have the face of the true love he seeks. Why not.

So, what's intriguing about it is that the protagonist is committed to getting married - he WILL pick one of these women. He also wants to find love, but he's ready to marry even if he doesn't. So with every meeting, he seems to be sort of juggling two questions: how do you go about picking a wife (in the practical sense) and how do you go about figuring out if you're in love with someone whom you've just met? The women seem to be wrestling with a similar set of questions, and while it isn't really something explicitly discussed in the movie (though you get moments where they say to each other "Jeeze, what should we talk about?" and one great scene where the girl basically makes him act out various scenarios playing the role of someone who is in love with her - especially interesting because she tells him exactly what to do, and then seems to fall for him when he deviates from the script), the film nonetheless provides plenty of occasions to contemplate it. What's so interesting to me about it is that in some ways these questions overlap, and in some ways they don't. I mean, on a basic level, there's a kind of tension between romantic love and practicality. But at the same time, in a sense we identify "true" love by its ability to survive and overcome (practical) obstacles. But we're also aware that it's easily confused with plain old lust, or some kind of delusion, and we suspect that maybe the best relationships are ones with a more practical foundation. Then, of course, there are the more mythical dimensions of love, the sense of fate or a cosmic connection between two people who are "meant" to be together. Our protagonist pretty straightforwardly seems to reject those. Lust he wrestles with a bit more. But he's also a bit put off by the sheerly practical side as well. The neat thing about the movie is that by having 12 girls, it gets to model a bunch of different aspects of the issue. It's really cool. And you genuinely don't know who he will (or should) pick. And while the ending is satisfying (or was to me), it doesn't foreclose the possibility of alternatives, or try to insist that this is the best possible ending, thus guaranteeing for itself that this is REAL true love of the one and only variety.

On a more idiosyncratic level, I also enjoyed all the Chicago in the movie. Although it's set in India, the protagonist lives in Chicago, so there are some lovely shots of the city (including one of the new Trump Tower - I believe it's the first time I've seen it on film, and testifies to the incredible speed at which Bollywood films are made. Obama gets mentioned too. And the University of Chicago makes an appearance - they have some gorgeous footage of the Business School building). Incidentally, there is an understated reflection on immigration as well. There's a great rant from one character about Indians who leave home, come back, and suddenly develop stomachs "too sensitive" for the local water, which is kind of fascinating. Also, a subtle critique of people who leave purely to make money - as one character suggests, perhaps there are more important things?

Overall, it's also just an entertaining movie to watch. It's not perfect, and a lot of plot points don't really work. But what makes it really worthwhile is all this stuff going on just below the surface, in really fascinating ways.

20 August 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Ok. There are gonna be some spoilers here, I'm telling you now. Sorry. I am going to talk about the ending of the movie, so if you haven't seen it, you should probably stop reading.

So, for the most part, I found Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to be a highly entertaining, delightful film. It's a lovely homage to old school video games, and a lot of fun. I was amused. All was well. But as it progressed, I felt a growing sense of impatience. Then, at the end, there was a brief moment where it looked like salvation was on the way... only to be cruelly disappointed.

Here's the thing. The movie is about Scott fighting off his love interest's exes. That's all well and good, but the problem is - you're not really sold on why he's so interested in this girl Ramona in the first place. And the more you get to know her, the less you like her. And you start to think about who these people are, and what their deal is, and you start to feel a little... uncomfortable.

(What follows is basically a plot summary with running commentary. I realize I said at the outset of this post that you shouldn't be reading it if you haven't seen the movie, which means that if you're reading this, you've probably seen it and have no need of plot summary, and in fact, this kind of summarizing with commentary is exactly what I'm constantly telling my students not to do, but you know what? It's an easy way to work out what you think about something. That's why they do it. If I were turning this into a paper that I'd be handing in to myself, I'd use what follows as fodder and distill it into an argument about the film. In fact, if I were writing a professional review, that's what I'd do. But I'm writing a blog post, and I have less than 10 minutes to finish this before going to play poker, so if it's gonna be posted today, this is what it's gonna be. Sorry.)

So, at the opening of the movie, we meet Scott, played by the wonderful Micheal Cera in typical fashion. He's been brutally dumped by a girl named Envy, and has just started dating a girl named Knives. This is suspect to his friends, because Scott is 22, and Knives is 18. We also find out that Scott might have left a trail of wounded women in his wake. But we don't really think about this too much, we just sort of enjoy the humor of his interactions with Knives and wonder, albeit slightly uneasily, what's coming next. Then, he has a dream about a girl he's never met. And the next day, bam, he meets her. Ramona. She is literally the girl of his dreams. He starts pursuing her like mad. We're kind of sympathetic, because he's so pathetic, and also because Knives has always seemed like kind of a joke anyhow. Besides, Ramona seems so cool.

Next thing we know, Scott is dueling Ramona's exes. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but whatever, it's entertaining. Things are going pretty well, overall. But this is when the movie starts to imperceptibly shift. First off, Scott starts getting annoyed at having to fight these exes. Why in the hell was she dating these jerks anyhow? Hey, good point, we think. What's the deal? Then Ramona starts getting kind of... angsty. Oh, woe is me, my past that hangs over me. Meanwhile, Knives is still in the scene, which is initially milked for awkward humor, etc, and then an apparently absurd revenge quest that you start to realize, isn't that absurd after all. He jilted her. The movie initially tries to play this off as amusing, like how on Earth could Knives presume to challenge Ramona? But you start thinking, gosh, you know, Knives is pretty cool. And Ramona is kind of a flake. Huh.

Then we get to the denouement, which happens twice, and seems to involve a kind of epiphany where both Ramona and Scott realize that when it comes to relationships, they've both been selfish jerks in some ways. This is sort of interesting, but ultimately not all that compelling, not least because it seems so hollow. But then, when the dust settles, Ramona does this whole self-sacrificing, you can do better than me, and besides Knives loves you act, and walks away. And Scott does actually turn to Knives, who he's been seeming a big more snuggly with. And you think, hey! YES! This is awesome! This is totally how this movie should end! And then Knives unloads the SAME self-sacrificing bullshit and tells him to go with Ramona, and he DOES! GODDAMNIT!!! I was SO pissed. And you know what? I honestly do feel like there is a subtle racism to it, of him picking the goth white girl over the badass Asian chick. And then I started thinking about how throughout the whole film, Knives was basically a caricature, more so than any of the other characters. And I found myself liking the movie less and less. And realizing how closely it adheres to basic stock plots of hollywood cinema, albeit dressed up in a cute way.

So yes, I was entertained, for the most part. But still, ultimately, I'm disappointed. In other words, I'm not saying don't see it - it's a fun movie, worth checking out. But I invite you to share my disappointment. SHARE IT. Join me in bemoaning the stupid cliche of the stupid mainstream, and in yearning for something more interesting. I want to say more true to life, but the thing is, I have this suspicion that movies like this ultimately serve to reinforce the mainstream, and to keep guys believing that they're right in picking Ramonas instead of Knives. And I guess that's a step forward from the days when they were supposed to pick the cheerleaders who had no ostensible personality whatsoever, but still, lame. So I guess, I want movies that are more true to life as it should be (what can I say, I read Marcuse's Aesthetic Dimension a few years ago and it changed my life.).

I will say though, that Kieran Culkin was absolutely fabulous as the deadpan gay roommate. A real treat. His career has been following an interesting path. While I wasn't really a huge fan of Igby Goes Down or The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, they're certainly interesting choices of roles. It'll be interesting to see what he does next - I bet this performance will get him some positive attention.

11 August 2010

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I had heard of this novel quite awhile ago, and then someone posted this video on facebook, which I thought was riveting, and I connected the dots and went out and bought the book the next day. It took another week or two for me to actually start reading it, but once I started, I could hardly put it down - I flew through the book in just a few days. To be simplistic, one could say this is the Nigerian Kite-Runner - ie, a gripping novel about politics and war that reels you in with its characters and imparts a bit of a history lesson along the way. But ultimately, the thing about this book is that the writing style is just... readable. It's not the most amazing piece of literature you've ever read, but it is absorbing and heart-wrenching. Definitely recommended.

05 August 2010


Of all the city movies (Paris Je T'aime, New York I Love You), this one seemed to have the least to do with the city itself. But it was by far the best. It's 3 short films, one by Michel Gondry (who I have very mixed feelings about), one by Leos Carax, and one by Joon-ho Bong. And all of them are just great.

The first, the Gondry movie, follows a young couple who has just moved to Tokyo. It's a well done portrayal of a relationship slowly falling apart under pressure, but then (I don't want to say too much) it takes a turn for the wonderful. The second, the Carax movie, is about a swamp monster who terrorizes the city and his subsequent court case - not as good as the other two, I think, but interesting, in that it made me think about what it means to be a prophet. The final film is about a hikikomori, a recluse, and it's just kind of beautiful. It also though, makes you think about the whole hikikomori phenomenon, which is absolutely fascinating (and terrifying).

Overall, the movies were lovely and strange and I was totally charmed. Much recommended.

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

This is certainly a very clever book, but it somehow failed to really engage me emotionally. Bechdel writes about her childhood, focusing mostly on her relationship with her father. Her father was a closeted homosexual with a penchant for younger men. Alison is a lesbian. Her father killed himself when she was in college. These are the three main issues the book orbits, and the thing is, after awhile, you start to feel like everything comes back to one of those three things, and it starts to feel kind of ponderous.

You know what? I think I might be tired of stories about closeted homosexuals who have a penchant for younger men. The shame, the guilt, the nastiness, I dunno, it just seems like I've been over it so many times that I just don't find it all that gripping anymore. Isn't that strange?

Likewise, the whole torturous figuring-out-that-you're-gay thing. I should have more sympathy for this, but gosh, it gets kind of self-indulgent and boring after awhile. Not to mention, cliche.

Meanwhile, however, there's a nice use of old letters and interspersed literature. Of course I enjoyed the literary interpellations (one of those things a graphic novel can do very well, that other genres would have a hard time with) though Bechdel's own commentary on them often left something to be desired.

One of the reviewers on goodreads.com points out there's more narration than dialogue in terms of moving the plot, and that's true, I guess. The same reviewer complains that the intertextual references make the protagonist seem like a character, and that overall the whole thing seems too abstract rather than like you're actually accessing emotion. I dunno about that. But the point about narration is a good one. Most of the text is basically narration - like a voice-over - with scenes that sort of illustrate the point, but don't really add to it. Only rarely does the comic actually stand alone without that - there's very little dialogue. Which probably contributes to the sense of distance that aforementioned reviewer feels, and indeed, that I feel.

01 August 2010

The Puttermesser Papers, by Cynthia Ozick

I think I heard about this book around the time it came out, or maybe I've picked it up in bookstores before, but I had a vague sense that it was good but not that good. I saw it at a bookswap awhile ago and grabbed it with a feeling of "well, it's about time". I dunno. Anyhow, my vague sense, wherever it came from, turned out to be mostly right. The book is a collection of 5 or so novellas, as it were, centering around the same character. The first one is fantastic, and then they start petering out. If you really want to harp on the book, you might note that the central character doesn't really seem consistent throughout. But really, the thing to do with this book is to read the Puttermesser and Xanthippe episode and skip the rest.

Puttermesser and Xanthippe tells the story of how Puttermesser created a golem and took over New York. It's wonderful, whimsical but not frivolous, with lovable characters and a wonderful dry humor. Ozick has a very enjoyable style, but this novella shows it to the best advantage, because it has the most compelling content. The other ones kind of try to skate by on the strength of the characters, and they're just not as good. Her romance (Puttermesser Paired) is initially kind of touching but rapidly becomes both grating and pathetic, her family troubles (the Muscovite cousin) feel obsolete (Soviet humor is just... not that funny anymore? I dunno.), and her demise and afterlife are just stupid.

Still, for a book acquired at a bookswap, I'm pretty happy with it.