Month: October 2015

Mad Max : Fury Road

Mad Max : Fury Road

FUN FACT : If you watch Mad Max : Fury Road with dialogues turned off, you will not miss much.

This movie has been designed to mesmerize you by its visuals. And you can see how difficult it must have been for director George Miller to do that in this day and age of CGI and digital enhancement. What can one do so that the user ignores the 34 WhatsApp messages and watches the movie uninterrupted for two hours?

Answer : Miller bombards you with incessant spectacular visuals. Tattoos are not a novelty, full body tattoos are the norm – women who look like Playboy Playmates appear in the desert out of nowhere and proceed to shower together – steering wheels with skulls on them – modern, sleek vehicles are a passé; instead we have robust, tattered vehicles that look like they have been through WWII. You do not get much time to reflect on the visuals because you are constantly being zapped with new ones. You have punk – rock – goth – binoculars – drums – lone electric guitar – mother’s milk – nipple clamps – the whole smash. And then there are the pastiches. Captive humans as an energy source à la Matrix, shotguns : the Terminator kind, weird permutation of the Vulcan salute and characters whose appearance reminds you of Star Trek, The Mummy, E.T., Silence of the Lambs, Poltergeist and fifty-one other movies. Remember the red dude playing electric guitar that breathes fire? That’s your ‘little girl in red’ from Schindler’s List. He is also an evolved version of the bagpiper who plays in front of the British army in John Wayne movies like The Longest Day. The review mirror shot during chase is a classic Spielberg. He started using it right from Duel and continued at least till Jurassic Park.

I could go on but even then I am sure I would still miss a few hundred symbolisms. The point is, Miller succeeds in keeping you riveted to your chair. Did you notice that there is no rape or murder in the movie, unlike the original Mad Max? That’s because that, too, has become a passé. For the Internet generation, everything has become a passé. Why does the movie start with the protagonist eating a lizard? It’s not for shock purpose, even children are not shocked by that any more. It’s so that users who regularly watch the reality show Naked And Afraid can relate to the movie.

And therein lies the rub. Allow me to elaborate.  Go and watch the original Mad Max. And before watching, remember that it, too, was a cult movie of the time and became a huge hit worldwide. 100 bucks if you can make it through the movie without fidgeting, yawning or displaying any other signs of boredom. I watched it. I was bored to tears. The apple eating, coffee drinking Mel Gibson is tepid and instead of looking hip, he looks like a regular guy. So does the weird gang leader, who is fond of making Vulcan mind melding moves on unsuspecting strangers. The strange gestures these guys make which must have been so hip at the time look plain awkward. The oh-so-sensual cabaret dancer looks lame – you see more skin in a toothpaste ad today (and better lighted, too!). Sorry, George Miller, Mad Max is BORING!

Wait! That’s not fair, you say. All movies from the seventies or earlier would look silly today because we have changed. Have we, really? Is there a movie from the seventies that still looks fresh today? How about The Godfather? I watch it for the 257th time and it never occurs to me that this was a movie made more than 40 years ago. Why is that? Okay, I know that comparing Mad Max and The Godfather is not fair, the latter was much superior in all departments, so we will just compare the visual aspect.

What was the attraction of Mad Max? It had the state-of-the-art chase scenes, characters who broke conventions of the time, and things that were hip at the time – thugs riding bikes and good guys aka cops chasing them. Or guys shooting unclothed mannequins on a beach. Things like that. What about The Godfather? Cinematographer Gordon Willis relied on techniques that have been used in the last century by many notable photographers and before them, by painters going back to the Renaissance – techniques like chiaroscuro or Rembrandt lighting. Remember the sequence when Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) meets Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall)? Interplay of shadow and light is what gives the scene – and the whole movie – a whole different character. Or the scene where Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is talking to Michael (Al Pacino), with both their closeups in focus, facing each other, instead of the conventional over-the-shoulder shot. I have never seen a dialogue framed so beautifully in any other movie. Remove Gordon Willis from the movie and it loses half of its strength. Freeze any frame of The Godfather movies and chances are it will make an interesting photograph. Willis does not move the camera much. For him, the art of visual storytelling lies in combining together a series of well shot frames.

CGI is both a boon and a curse. Boon, because its immediate effect is mesmerizing. Curse, because it has a very short half-life. Spielberg and his team spent three years researching on how to bring dinosaurs alive on screen. You see more advanced CGI in a car commercial today. Jurassic Park is still interesting today, but not for its CGI. The cinematography of Janusz Kamiński backed by an amazing score by the great John Williams are enough to keep me in my chair till the T-Rex roars for the last time.

Mad Max : Fury Road is perhaps the most visually appealing movie of 2015.

The $150 million – which was its budget – question is : What will people in 2040 think of it?

Interview with Lisa Brackmann

Interview with Lisa Brackmann

Lisa Brackmann is a bestselling author of four novels and she has also contributed to a noir short story collection about San Diego. In addition, she has worked as an executive at a major motion picture studio, an issues researcher in a presidential campaign, and she was the singer / songwriter / bassist in an LA rock band. Her latest novel, ‘Dragon Day‘, was published this summer. I had an opportunity to talk with Lisa soon after her debut novel, ‘Rock Paper Tiger’, was published. In this interview, Lisa talks about her writing process as well as issues faced by artists in the wake of suppression, especially in contemporary China.

Sustaining both physical and mental injuries in the Iraq war while serving as a vet, Ellie Cooper finds herself in the strange surroundings of Beijing. Scarred from the inhuman experiences during war, Ellie is uncertain what the future holds for her, when she meets a Uighur dissident at a friend’s place. This single incident proves a turning point when soon after Ellie is chased by American and Chinese Secret services and it becomes impossible to know who can be trusted. The story provides glimpses of contemporary art scene in Beijing as well as the restrictions imposed on the freedom of artists. People getting together for any reason whatsoever – it may be as simple as exchange of creative ideas between artists – causes frowns on the unseen, unknown face behind the curtain. When every move you make is being watched, phones tapped, e-mails monitored, an ingenious form of communication evolves. Ellie and her companions communicate through Avatars of an online game called The Sword of Ill Repute. Fighting with dragons becomes a secondary task to secret exchange of messages.

Lisa Brackmann’s debut novel ‘Rock Paper Tiger’ was amongst the top ten mystery/thrillers on Amazon and it was also nominated for the Strand Magazine Critics Award for Best Debut Novel. “Be prepared for a wild ride,” is how the New York Times praised ‘Rock Paper Tiger’.

It is immensely satisfying to read a good book. And the opportunity to talk to the author about it only adds to it. It was great pleasure talking to Lisa about ‘Rock Paper Tiger’.

Raj : While writing RPT, did you try to adhere to the standard plot structures – like plot twist on page so and so? Or did you let your muse guide you, with the end point fixed?
Lisa : I usually describe my writing method as “Kids! Don’t try this at home!” I’m not very organized in how I approach it. I don’t outline, though I do at times have certain key scenes that I know I’m working toward. Generally I have a few major elements that I’m interested in exploring, and the challenge is how to fit them together.

For ROCK PAPER TIGER, I knew that I wanted to write something that takes place in modern China, a setting that I felt was underutilized by Western novelists. I wanted to explore the contemporary Chinese art scene, because I found it really interesting. I also was very much concerned about the American “War on Terror” and the invasion of Iraq. So how could I juggle these disparate elements and turn them into some kind of story? The linchpin was the main character, Ellie Cooper, an accidental Iraq War vet. Through her I realized that a lot of what I wanted to say was about how imperial powers and unchecked authority, be they American or Chinese, tend to act in similar ways.

So, I really didn’t know how I was going to end the book. I pretty much let Ellie and those concerns guide me through the story. And along the way I realized that the book was really about how to live a moral, meaningful life in the face of huge impersonal forces that don’t necessarily value an “ordinary” individual’s concerns.

Mostly though, I tried to write a fun thriller that would keep people turning the pages!

Raj : In RPT, Harrison has an interesting point of view about political art and personal expression. What is your view on this?

Lisa : I pretty much agree with Harrison — didactic art is rarely good art. That said, I’ve seen a lot of overtly political art that is really powerful—a lot of work coming out of China, for one. And a few years ago I saw a show of contemporary Cuban art that really resonated with me. So I personally like a lot of political art—it all depends on the execution.

In a way that whole discussion in RPT was a discussion I was having in my own mind about writing the book—obviously I’m concerned with politics and ideas, and I have a certain point of view. But I also wanted to write a book that people could read on an airplane and enjoy (I was thrilled when I made a couple of “Hot Summer Beach Reads!” lists). If the artistry doesn’t transcend the politics, your book is likely to be an annoying bore. And I really wanted to avoid that!

Raj : The city of Beijing with its cafes, game parlors and urbanized habitats plays an important role in RPT. What does the city mean to you?

Lisa : I first went to Beijing shortly after the Cultural Revolution, in 1979. I lived there for about half a year. I was quite young, and the experience had a tremendous impact on me. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it completely transformed the course of my life.

Beijing has changed so much since then that most of the city is completely unrecognizable from that time. It’s not an easy city to get to know or to navigate, and there are things about it that are frustrating, that can actually make me angry (the wanton destruction of historic neighborhoods and the structures that have generally replaced them I find particularly painful). But I still have a sense of familiarity and homecoming when I go there. And it’s never boring. Plus, if you want to understand China today, Beijing is the epicenter of it all. There’s way more to China than Beijing, and a lot of short-term foreign visitors will drop in on Beijing and Shanghai and come away with a completely distorted perception of what China is about. But if you want to see the cutting edge of China, the center of political and cultural opinion—Beijing is the place to be.

Raj : When I was reading RPT, I had this feeling of that not much is being told about the bad guys. Suit #1 and Suit #2 are carrying out instructions from the top. And in the background there is always this unseen, unknown enemy, watching your every move. This ambiguity –  how did it come about?

Lisa : This hearkens back to what I touched on in my answer to your first question. A lot of what RPT is about is this idea that most people are not these geniuses who are able to outwit bad guys and forces that are way more powerful than they are. I mean, it’s a nice fantasy, but most of us are worried about our jobs, our futures, our ability to make a home for ourselves in the world. To a certain extent these are existential problems: everyone wrestles on some level with the question of “how am I to live?” But the things that have screwed up Ellie’s life are not things that she can really control. She can’t find a job and wants to get money for college, so she joins the National Guard. Maybe that was a bad decision, but it’s not an unreasonable one for someone in her situation. Then, the leaders of her country, people who are way more powerful than she is, decide to start a war, a war she ends up fighting. She has no say in this. At the time she doesn’t have the knowledge or the experience to even understand what she’s been dragged into.

Which is not to say that each of us isn’t in control of our own moral choices, and that’s what Ellie comes to terms with over the course of the book.

But you know, the whole Abu Ghraib scandal, all the other prisoner abuse scandals, the only people who were ever punished for those were low level functionaries. The approval of torture as a legitimate tool of state power was made by people at the very top. None of them have been called to account. They probably never will be. And those are the “unseen, unknown enemies.” The truth is, we know who they are. We know who they are in the US, and we know who they are in China. They are the people with the most money and the most power, who make the big decisions, and who benefit the most from the power structures that are in place and that they maintain.

Raj : You speak Chinese, which is in many ways different from Indo-European family of languages. Did it change your perspective in any way?

Lisa : I really love studying other languages, and if I weren’t such an intrinsically lazy person with a short attention span, I would study a lot more of them. I actually don’t think of Chinese as something that is segregated from the other languages I’ve studied. It’s just another linguistic system to figure out. I look at the way it’s pronounced, I mean, how you actually form the sounds in your mouth, and I see some similarities to German, of all things.

That said, yes, there are no (or few) cognates with English. And the system of characters is totally different, and highly significant culturally.

Which is really the important thing. Being able to speak some Chinese (I am not fluent) totally changes my experience when I go to China. It is like having a key that unlocks all kinds of things culturally that you just don’t have if you can’t talk to people in their own language. I haven’t studied linguistics, but the idea that languages have a profound impact on how different cultures are shaped and how people raised in them think seems pretty obvious.

Raj : Could you tell us a little about your upcoming novel?

Lisa : It’s a literary thriller set in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, another place where I’ve spent a fair amount of time, about an American woman whose real estate financier husband has died, and she discovers that he was running a financial scam and has lost all their money, so she’s at a crisis point in her life on multiple levels. She takes an already paid-for vacation in Puerto Vallarta to get her head together, meets an attractive guy on the beach, they go back to her hotel, and things go terribly wrong. The book is also about the intersection of drug cartels, political power, and corruption on both sides of the border. It’s called Getaway, and it will be published by Soho Press in May 2012, and by Harper UK under the title DAY OF THE DEAD. They are also publishing RPT as YEAR OF THE TIGER in April 2012 in the Commonwealth. I’m very excited about all of this.

Raj : Many thanks Lisa for this wonderful discussion.

If you have questions for Lisa, please leave them in the comments.

Lisa’s official site is here. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
Image credit : Lisa Brackmann.

The Murakami Hypnosis

The Murakami Hypnosis

Image credit : Carter McKendry

Year 2008. I am sitting in a lounge at Milan Malpensa airport, having just missed my British Airways flight to India. I did not know that the British immigration rules require a UK visa even for the purpose of changing flights in London. I did not have it and could not board the flight. I vow never to fly by British Airways again. I book the next flight – Alitalia – due for departure at 6 am, which means I will have to spend the night at the airport. Sleep is out of the question, so I need to find some way to pass the time. Fortunately, I have acquired a new habit. Before any journey, I choose a brand new author, select one of his books and read it on the way.

MurakamiThis time the book is Kafka on the Shore and the author is Haruki Murakami. I have no idea who he is. If he is boring, I am in for a long night.

The lounge begins emptying as the night wears on. I have a brief visit from the Carabinieri – the Italian police – who want to know why I am not boarding any flight. I tell my sad tale in manageable Italian. They roll their eyes at the mention of the British immigration rules. I take the cue to add some choice Italian words about how life is unfair and they seem quite satisfied, sympathetic even.

I get something to eat and settle myself in a comfortable place. The lounge is almost empty now, except for an Italian Mom with two kids. We exchange pleasantries and throughout the night guard each other’s valuables during toilet breaks. She has an easy task guarding my lifeless luggage while I have a tough one – trying to control two toddlers who seem to have energy of ten Cappuccinos, even though they are not old enough to drink even one.

I open the book. The first chapter says, ‘The Boy Named Crow’. I start reading.

For the next few chapters, I am very confused. I cannot place this author. Is this a mystery? A thriller? Or have I chosen the one genre that I don’t really like – horror? But Murakami gently brushes aside all these questions and soon I am engrossed in the magnificent tale of Kafka Tamura. The next details are hazy. My flight is announced, I mechanically do all the formalities and as soon as I settle down, I am back in my book. The next thing I know is that we are landing in Mumbai. I have not slept a wink and I don’t care about a further 4-5 hours drive from Mumbai to Pune. All I care about is Kafka Tamura. My logical mind forgets to question why fishes are raining from the sky or how is it that cats can speak.

I am under the Murakami hypnosis.

That is how I would describe in one word the writing of Haruki Murakami – hypnotic. He can make even a simple act like preparing a spaghetti lunch absolutely mesmerizing. And keep in mind, this is a translation. I cannot imagine what reading Murakami must feel like in original Japanese. An out of body experience, perhaps. I have looked closely at his words. They are simple words. No flowery sentences, no grand comparisons. Still, they hold you captive. The beauty of Murakami’s sentences is that they are so simple that you always feel even you could write them. But if you try, they fall flat – and that’s when you realize how extraordinarily difficult this task must be.

After coming back to Pune, I tried to search for more Murakami books. In those days, he was not a popular author in India. When I did get his other books, it was a pleasant surprise to realize that the hypnosis was not a one book deal, rather it was a regular weapon in his writer’s arsenal.  

Haruki Murakami is an elusive writer. He stays away from social media, rarely gives interviews, and is never seen at functions. Only one book gives a glimpse of his personal life. His small, 180-page memoir – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Murakami is a seasoned runner. He has run many marathons and some double-marathons. In this book, he draws analogies between his running and his writing. One significant point that emerges from the book is : writing is a difficult job and even a genius like Murakami has to work very hard, with full focus, everyday. The sentences that look so simple on paper have many hours of toil behind them.

Barring few exceptions, the protagonist in Murakami’s novels is the same – much like many Woody Allen movies with same neurotic central character – a man searching for answers who gets entangled in bizarre circumstances. Murakami thrives on nostalgic memories of Japan in the sixties, but his Japan is not the traditional one with strict codes and etiquette – remnants of the Samurai culture. Instead, you have rebellious youths, strange women, librarians explaining Schubert, and bartenders expounding on Beethoven. Add to it some surreal elements like mysterious labyrinths, deep wells, and cats – preferably the talking kind – and you have the essential backdrop of a Murakami novel. Murakami loves western music – Jazz, Classical, Pop. In some ways, he is an outsider in Japan, trying to find echoes of western culture while shunning much of the traditional Japanese one.  

I could go on listing characteristics of Murakami novels but it would not amount to much. There is no way to describe the experience that his words create. That’s why I have stopped reading reviews of his books. And yes, I see the irony of saying this while writing an article on Murakami myself, but I get increasingly frustrated with articles trying to “explain” Murakami’s novels. Murakami novels are not Sherlock Holmes stories. They are to be experienced, not understood logically. And everyone’s experience is different. It’s a question of what is known as qualia – my experience of redness of an evening sky or taste of Chianti Classico will never match yours and we cannot communicate this experience to each other. All one can hope is you get an approximate idea of what is being described, with the caveat that you may not experience it that way yourself.

The Martian

The Martian

I saw The Martian. I have not read the book. This was not intentional. The book has been in my reading list for a while, I just never got around to reading it. And then the movie came out. So for once, I decided to see the movie first and then read the book.

There was another reason to watch the movie. It stars one of my favorite actors, Matt Damon.

Here’s what I like about Matt. While doing a wide variety of roles, he does not change his getup much, save the occasional blond hair, blue contacts, or a funny mustache – and often, not even that. If you just look at his photo in a magazine, it’s still Matt looking back at you. But then you see him on the screen and everything changes – accent, body language, and sometimes the body itself. For Invictus, he got himself physique of a Rugby player (though his size does not fit in the traditional Rugby player category), walked with both feet firmly planted on ground and made himself robust like a rock. He was Francois Pienaar in flesh and blood. To be fair though, he had tough competition in Morgan Freeman. The way Morgan managed to resurrect Nelson Mandela on screen with his body language and voice is a topic for another post. In the Bourne series, Matt was agile, sharp, and quick as lightning. In Legend of the Bagger Vance, he became Rannulph Junuh – a golfer from Savannah,  easy going and relaxed with a delightful Southern accent. And in all these transformations, his instrument was his body.

Matt is one of the best examples of actors using their body as an instrument. He has another interesting quality. He is at that sweet spot between a star and a serious actor. He has enough star quality to blend easily in the Hollywood’s Who’s Who Extravaganza that was Ocean’s Eleven, but he is also serious about his acting which allows him to experiment. That he does not have many signature mannerisms also helps, save perhaps the toothy grin, which has become less frequent as he transitions from his younger roles.

First thing that strikes you about The Martian is its low key approach. The stock camera movements and cuts depicting launch sequences have been done away with. In fact, there is a deliberate attempt to create disharmony by playing 70’s Disco hits that feel so out of place. This ironical interplay reaches its high point when Mark Watney (Matt Damon) prepares for the final launch, with ABBA playing in the background.

The downplay does not make the film routine. Nothing about the grand landscape of the Red Planet can be routine. With two rovers sending pictures of Mars everyday, there is no dearth of details. This is one occasion where the 3D does feel like an advantage. Instead of superheroes beating the heck out of each other, it’s much more rewarding to watch the Martian landscape in 3D.

Most of the movie – barring the climax – is shot like a documentary, with few witty lines and tense moments thrown in. There is much science here and from what I have read, much has been left out from the book. This makes me wonder how the movie will come across to laypersons not familiar with intricacies of space flight. Apollo 13 was packed with details as well, but they spent quite a bit of time explaining the main points. The Martian is more abrupt, never dwelling too much on one particular problem and the problems just keep coming.

While watching The Martian, it struck me that perhaps we are becoming familiar with space exploration. And this reflects in the way the director does not spend much time on things like the movement of spaceship across the sky – one of the favorite shots of earlier directors. Soon, a spaceship going by could be as routine as a car or a train. We want more – survival on Mars or psychotherapy in space. In other words, space is slowly becoming another background location where the usual human interactions can be played out. And this is where Kubrick (And Arthur C Clarke!) still wins. The high point of 2001: A Space Odyssey is not rooted merely in the wonder of space exploration, it goes beyond. The journey from early humanoids to artificial intelligence and its implications leaves you breathless.

There are some moments in The Martian where Ridley Scott pauses for a moment and reflects. When Mark soliloquies, “I am the only person on this planet”, the vastness of Mars and of the space beyond hits you. It’s one of the few existential moments in the film.

Even if you don’t care for the scientific details, The Martian is worth a watch for the beautiful Red Planet and some well paced drama in space.