Sunday, April 30, 2006

Tumblin' Keith


Should I risk it, Keith Richards asks himself before climbing the coconut tree (image courtesy: www.newsphoto.nl)













I shouldn't have, says the Keef after the fall
(image courtesy: www.speakuponline.it)








My childhood was almost entirely spent on top of a guava tree (good fruit, but monkeys were a common hazard) and two mango trees (one bore the picklin' mango and the other, the aromatic "dasheri".) There's nothing better than spending some alone-time on a tree. But a coconut tree?

A Serendipitous Find

Let me get this out the way: America RRRRAAAAWWWWKKKS. One of the (often overlooked) reasons is C-SPAN. As far as I know, there is no equivalent of C-SPAN in any democracy anywhere in the Universe. But let me not get pretentious here. It's not like I watch C-SPAN every night. I don't even watch it every week or even every four score and seven years. So God knows why I channel-surfed on to C-SPAN last night.

OMFG. The White House Press Corps dinner was on and they had Stephen Colbert as one of the speakers. Stephen freakin' Colbert, talking to journalists, writers, TV newsmen and of course, to the POTUS himself.

Ever experienced a supremely scary-entertaining moment when a brave classmate in high school pulled off an insanely dangerous but funny prank in the class, right under the teacher's nose? The prank was funny precisely because the potential for cruel punishment was high, very, very high. Stephen Colbert gave us one such delightful moment on C-SPAN last night.

BoingBoing has links to the transcript and the torrent. Read it and watch it if you are a fan of the Daily Show. Read it and watch it if you just enjoy comedy. But if you want to see why comedy is the new rock and roll, read it and watch it now.

YouTube has the videos in one two and three parts.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Don't Steal, Don't Lift

The outrage over the Kaavya Viswanathan story confuses me.

For starters, I am not sure I understand what plagiarism means in art. That does not mean I condone it. All I am saying is, I am just not sure how to draw the line between "borrowing", "quoting", "homage", "imitation" and "plagiarism".

The generally accepted principle is this: an artist can borrow from another's work only if the new creation is "very" different from the borrowed work and bears a stamp that distinguishes the borrower from the "lender".

The best plagiarists take something old and make something new. The worst are the ones satisfied with the old. (Correction: the very worst would be the ones copying Thomas Kinkade paintings while listening to instrumental covers of songs written by American Idol winners.)

Film-makers borrow all the time. It's one medium in which borrowing is accepted. Directors and writers borrow plots, situations, characters and the "look and feel" of their favorite films. God knows how many samurai films and French New Wave films Tarantino must have consumed in his formative years. A Coen Bros. film like "O Brother" has so many homages to their influences one cannot even count them. (Wait, someone at imdb.com did count them.) My main man Akira took Dashiell Hammett's words and turned it into "Yojimbo". Coen Bros. then took Yojimbo and Hammett's novel and produced something familiar yet so utterly Coen-esque. I can bet you somebody somewhere has totally internalized "Yojimbo" and "Miller's Crossing" and read "The Glass Key" and is creating something familar and something totally new. That is art. Even Shakespeare turned to other sources for plots for his plays. Don't let that break your heart.

In the context of rock music, one can probably write a thesis on plagiarism and Led Zeppelin. Only after Zeppelin had learned to play "You Need love" could they hammer out "Whole Lotta Love". But only after The Yardbirds had survived those experimental years could Jimmy Page re-use those radical ideas on I, II and III. (Just curious - why are Yardbirds largely forgotten today?)

The I-IV-V progression of the blues is simple and elegant. All of blues and most of rock music depends on it. Using that chord progression in a song is *obviously* not plagiarism. Why is that? Because it is now a conventionally accepted wisdom that no one "owns" the I-IV-V chord progression. However, if you used the exact opening riff from "Smoke on the Water" (which, if you think about it, is really just a series of Fifths, nothing more) for a completely new song, not only is Ritchie Blackmore likely to pummel you with his Strat, critics and fans will call you a plagiarist. Strange, isn't it?

If musicians and film-makers are allowed to tinker around with their inspirations and influences, why are writers not allowed to do the same? Why is the written word more sacred than recorded sounds and images and why should the writing process be considered pure and insular? All writers read. A lot. They have their favorite passages, openings and climaxes. So why can't we, the readers, accept a borrowed paragraph or two?

Moreover, how does one propose to handle plagiarism in literature? Does the simple act of crediting a quote or a passage (to the original writer) make it not plagiarised?

At their worst, most arguments over plagiarism are ridden with double standards (as in "artist XYZ can steal, but artist ABC cannot"). At their best, the arguments are supported only by individual taste and public consent.

So why the outrage?

I think the answer may have to do with that $500,000 advance and the author's educational background. Anna at Sepia Mutiny has another idea why there is so much schadenfreude among Indian bloggers over this incident. She may be right.

Salvador Dali once said "Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing". So why don't we just assume that Kaavya Viswanathan was merely imitating the writer she enjoyed reading and see if her next book - or the one after - has anything interesting to say?

(For those of you interested, Malcolm "Tipping Point" Gladwell wrote about this subject in a superb article in the New Yorker titled "Something Borrowed".)

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

No One Steals OGG VORBIS Files!

Some 80,000 demonstrators walked silently through the Belgian capital Sunday to protest the killing of a teenager who refused to give his digital music player to two young robbers.

So naturally, the ONLY headline for this crime story could be: Belgians Protest Fatal MP3 Robbery

If a digital camera was stolen instead, would it be called a .jpeg robbery?

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Funnyman Fyodor

"In despair, there are the most intense enjoyments, especially when one is very acutely conscious of the hopelessness of one's position." -- Fyodor Dostoyevsky

So the next time I am in a brand-new car that's skidding wildly out of control on an icy road, I will try to laugh my ass off.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Fathers Of The Disappeared

How unbelievable is it that the one of ugliest chapters in modern Indian history played out only 30 years ago and it has almost slipped out of the nation's consciousness? Or maybe it will not, not as long as bloggers are writing about it and generations of Indians that were born in the years following the Emergency can still read about it somewhere.

Uma has a post on the death of Rajan Warrier's father. In that post is a link to Mr. Warrier's book about his son's disappearance that night in 1976. It is a chilling but important documentation of India's past (esp. read the chapters titled "An Inhuman Police Officer" and "With Malice Towards None".)

(U2 sang about the "Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo" when thousands were kidnapped in Argentina, coincidentally, also in 1976.)

Thursday, April 20, 2006

What's Playin'

My strictly passing familiarity with Buck Owens' music sprang from two sources: Beatles' note-for-note rendition of Buck's "Act Naturally" and CCR's hippy-trippy "Looking Out My Back Door" (which - a terrible mondegreen - I first heard as "listenin' to Beethoven". Ludwig, Buck, forgive me.)

Lately, I've been catching up with his music and I now understand why Beatles and CCR were attracted to it. The lyrics, the melodies and that guitar sound are all so fresh and distinctive.

Salon.com featured him in their "Brilliant Careers" series, calling him the "Baron of Bakersfield".

It's kinda late, but RIP, Mr. Owens.
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A popular jazz compilation titled "The Best of Blue Note". Like the fishmonger and the "fresh fish sold here" story, the words "the best of" are superfluous. Blakey, Rollins, Coltrane, Hancock, Ellington, Basie....can it be anything but the "best of"?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

If Spring Is Here, Can Stupidity Be Far Behind?

"Music is the soundtrack to my life" - heard on a television interview.

A $5,000 guitar tuner. The good news? Parents will only need an equity line of credit to put their child through guitar lessons. And the bad news? After all those music lessons and a 5 grand tuner, the kids will still be playing three-chord songs.

Monday, April 17, 2006

All For One, One For All

One of the advantages of growing up with the "rationed film and television" (borrowed that one from Uma) regimen of the 1980s was that the aired programs were, in so many ways, the cream of the crop. There could only be room for ONE science show, so we had Carl Sagan's "Cosmos". If there was time only for ONE nature show, it had to be a David Attenborough documentary and so on. (The shows did not demand any more attention than any of the million shows on TV today, but we gave them undivided attenion anyway.)

But that's not what this post is about. This post is about a documentary that I caught on PBS over the weekend. For one full hour, I was wide-eyed and kept saying "I can't believe this" every 2 minutes or so.

Along with evolution and adaptation, symbiosis is, to me, one of the most fascinating aspects of nature and it is a fascinating subject for three reasons.

One, symbiosis makes all the links in the chain equally important. That bird riding the water-buffalo is not just there for the ride (though it must be a lot of fun wading through all that water.)

Two, it gives meaning to each of those links, especially the little ones. For example, what does the life of a little wasp, with its puny life-span of a few hours, mean? To an African Sycamore Fig tree, it means everything. The Sycamore Fig tree itself means everything to ants, spiders, beetles, bees, butterflies (who, get this, get DRUNK on fermented juice from the fallen fig), fruit-bats, birds, reptiles, monkeys, fishes, crocodiles and finally, the Masai tribesmen.

What a beautifully interconnected system of giving and taking(how those 2 terms become meaningless in the context of Life - capital L - and symbiosis.) How elegantly nature designs systems to facilitate this complex business of propagation of life.

Thirdly, any random example of symbiosis serves as a warning cry. The chains are woven so intricately, how dare we disturb even the smallest link.

I don't know if you can catch this marvellous show (titled "The Queen of Trees") outside the US, but if you can get the DVD of the show, watch it. I believe it is important for a film about nature to push cinematic boundaries too. This film does that in an awe-inspiring manner.

As if all this inspiration and edjucashun wasn't enough, PBS aired "The Barefoot Contessa" later that night. Ava Gardner, hummana hummana.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Basinstoke in Westphalia

In spite of the DVDs and obligatory semi-annual viewing of Holy Grail, I've been soaking up the Monty Python re-runs on PBS. Somehow it feels more real.

They had some gems on last night, one of them being the Courtmartial sketch. I remembered it mostly for the absolutely lunatic turn of events that occur towards the end of the sketch. How could I have forgotten the cheeky and inspired anti-war dialog that the Python boys managed to sneak in?

What can I say? I mean, how can I encapsulate in mere words my scorn for any military solution? The fultility of modern warfare? And the hypocrisy by which contemporary government applies one standard to violence within the community and another to violence perpetrated by one community upon another?

Then, just to prove that they are not taking themselves too seriously, they throw in a "I'm sorry, but my client has become pretentious."

Comedy can say so much more than drama. That must be why writers say life is hard, comedy harder.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Hand Jive

Scout, who's just bored of studying and has therefore taken to personality analysis and writing odes to unavailable boys that she has fancied, blogged about an online handwriting analysis site. (The site emails the results of the analysis, which is kind of sucky, so thank you, Mailinator.com.)

For some reason, we are all suckers for character and personality analyses conducted by strangers (and with a good reason. I dare not ask people I know what they think about me.) Could it be that we feel their lack of intimate knowledge about us somehow gives them a glimpse of the "real" us? Or do we just like hearing good things about us?

For example, here are some of the good things the site says about me:

..a very aggressive personality toward others and quite frankly lacks a bit of respect for the space and property of other people

I think Mr. Graphologist overestimates the amount of respect I have for others.

..finds plenty of reasons to break the rules and get in trouble. (Okay, perhaps when he was younger, not anymore?)

This guy clearly knows way too much about me.

he blows things way out of proportion because that is the way he views them

I'VE TOLD YOU TEN MILLION TIMES I DON'T BLOW THINGS OUT OF PROPORTION!!!!!!

..is sarcastic. These sarcastic remarks can be very funny. They can also be harsh, bitter, and caustic at the same time.

Stop sounding like my middle school English teacher whose level of reading was lower than my level of reading in kindergarten.

Although there is room for improvement in the confidence catagery, his self-perception is better than average.

I maybe aggressive, prone to exaggeration, harsh, bitter and caustic but I have better than average self-perception! A mean a-hole who thinks no end of himself. Just great.

...has a temper. He uses this as a defense mechanism when he doesn't understand how to handle a situation

Oh, fsck off, Mr. Graphologist.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Elephant Ignores Diet, Vows To Hit The Gym "Soon"

Sri Lanka's most celebrated elephant, "Raja," has fallen ill after eating scores of cookies, chocolates and other rich food offered to him as part of Buddhist new year celebrations.
Speaking as a world-renowned authority on cookie-binging, I know how much it must hurt him. But heart-burning as it is, I wish they wouldn't print animal stories with sad lines like these:
At dawn Tuesday, monks found Raja writhing in pain with tears in his eyes.
It is precisely our tendency to anthropomorphize these animals that led the devotees to feeding him "homemade cookies deep fried in coconut oil, chocolates, rice cooked in thick milk and fermented slices of sweet pineapple" Next time, stick to the sugarcane and bananas, Jumbo. (Link to WaPo)

Meanwhile, O Wise One, I heartily recommend Pudin Hara, Tums and as much Seltzer water as your ginormous stomach can hold.

Do all you grown-up bloggers and blog readers know how the elephant got its trunk? I'll let Mr. Kipling tell you how. Er...can I just take the rest of week off and read Kipling?

"Annavaru"

I did not grow up with his films, but you cannot be a Kannadiga and not feel his presence. Or at least his garlanded cutout's presence (not ONE image on Google!)

His last major adventure was spending 108 days as Veerappan's hostage.

Rest in peace, Doctor.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Places To Go, People To Meet

"You should see it. It has a very POWERFUL message" - someone I met at a party, telling me about "Rang De, Basanti"

"Yeah, the traffic has grown really bad". "But the pollution's worse." "And there's no electricity for several hours!" "Don't they have mosquitoes there?" - conversation between 3 Indians passionately discussing the advantages of working in Bangalore in front of a puzzled European engineer who wisely remained mum throughout the conversation, at the same party as above
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God, Details:

Cue up Cream's "White Room" on your CD player or the iPod (or the turntable or the Victrola.) Just before Clapton begins that guitar solo sodden with a triple coating of wah, there's a short feedback note. The feedback note fades out and the solo kicks in. But before he lets that happen, Clapton plays another feedback note, like a little counterpoint to the first feedback note, totally changing the "color" of the solo.

Two short, insignificant notes that don't mean much at all, but consider their contribution to the atmosphere and the meaning of the song!

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Ten Pictures, Ten Screenplays

Will the list of 10 greatest screenplays exactly correspond to the list of 10 greatest films? Not necessarily. According to the members of the Writers Guild of America these are the ten greatest screenplays.

There are two Billy Wilder films on the list. And how could they have not voted for both of them? When Wilder, Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond write, you can feel the magic coming off the page. I kid you not.

Script # 3 is not just a great script, it is a terrific read on its own. I must have read the shooting draft at least 20 times but it still packs so much surprise and tension.

But why is Lehman (North By North West, Sabrina) not on the list? I would have voted for the former any day over "Network" (great film, but....). And where's "Pulp Fiction" (Tarantino and Roger Avary)? That screenplay, other than being simply brilliant, has had so much impact on screenplay writing since the mid-90s.

I call for a re-vote. The future happiness of so many fanboys depends on this list!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Being Serious

The "unexpected visitor" genre of films can hardly be called under-populated. "Six Degrees of Separation" comes to mind. There is even our own "Bawarchi".

These films are always about misplaced trust and they unfold in the following manner: a stranger enters a tightly-knit family (or a group - think Yoko Ono and Long John Silver), the initial mistrust slowly dissolves (one of the characters has a weakness that the stranger "reads" well) and the stranger, who is now accepted by the family, goes on to play one member of the family against the other and this ultimately has consequences. Whether the consequence is pleasant like in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" or tragic like in "Being Cyrus", the message is the same: never let a stranger in.

Unfortunately, the film does not fulfill the genre's expectations.

My first grouse with the film is its characterization. There are no real characters in the film, only caricatures. Granted, film-makers sometimes use broad characterizations with an end in mind. Like in animation movies, fairy tales or even straightforward murder mysteries. Directors also sometimes deploy such characters for parodic purposes.

But what to make of the characters in this film? Remember the stereotypical Parsi of bad Bollywood films? He is back, more miserly, crankier and crazier than ever before. The director clearly loves whimsical characters. He loves them so much that when the story has nowhere to go, he unleashes the "Parsi experience" on the audience for comic relief. Just because the awesome Boman Irani can curse in Parsi does not make his character interesting. It also does not push the story forward.

My second grouse is again with characterization.

A noir-drama requires clear character-motives. Noir does not exist without motive. (Noir without motive is like a cat without its meow. I said that.) For nearly 30 minutes into "Being Cyrus", I struggled to understand the characters' motives. Which is ok. Motives could be hidden from the audience to heighten the suspense (and then suddenly revealed for a stomach-churning betrayal.) But just when the motives started becoming clear, that darned comic relief started breaking out like buttercups in spring: the cop with the "disallocated shoulder", Boman Irani's encounter with the little dog. Why?

The ramblin' Cyrus (he even quotes Tolstoy at one point) is nothing better than a psychotic android, if you think about it. But what is his real motive? Revenge? Money? Sex? I can't say for sure. But I think the film-maker wants us to sympathize with him. Sympathy comes with understanding. Help me understand the character's wants and needs and then maybe I will feel sorry for him, yeah?

Maybe the film should not have been named after Cyrus, but after another key character. After all, it is this (semi-central) character's desires that set the ball into play. I will not name the character to avoid spoilers. How much tighter the focus would have been and how much more story possibility lay in that choice. It could have been a fine tale of greed, revenge and manipulation. Instead, it turned out to be a so-so, "give him an A for effort, yaar" film.

At least it's a "so-so, A for effort, yaar" 90-minute film. "Being Cyrus" tastes like chicken dhansak that was taken off the stove a little too early.
But tell you what, I am not staying back for that vasanu.

Ha ha, I got two Parsi references in there. Clever of me. Exactly.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Holy Mother, That's Some Resemblance!



Paris Hilton as Mother Teresa? This could be the casting coup of the year decade century millennium eon, but on the other hand, if this film is ever, uh, dare I say it, green-lighted, the name "Mother Teresa" could forever invoke some terrible images...

Someone please stop T. Rajeevnath from making this film.

(both images courtesy Wikipedia.)