Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Ismail Merchant, Master Filmmaker passes away

Ismail Merchant, producer for the very successful Merchant-Ivory partnership passed away in London at the age of 68 today. The vastness of his ouevre cannot be underestimated.

I have probably seen almost every Merchant-Ivory film. They have been seminal influences on my own perspectives of visual art. Ismail Merchant's very first film at the age of 22, "The Creation Of Woman" won him an Academy Nomination, and was the US entry to Cannes, where he met James Ivory. This was produced as a 14-minute short, while he worked for McCann-Erikson, wherein noted Indian dance maestro Bhaskar Roy Chaudhuri plays the Indian creator god Brahma, whose role encompasses the creation of Adam and Eve as well. (He earlier made "Venice: Theme and Variations" and "The Sword and the Flute" as a USC grad student - actually directed by James Ivory).

From their first feature film together, "The Householder", they formed Merchant-Ivory Productions, and began work with "the rootless intellectual" Indian English writer Ruth Prawer-Jhabwala that lasted across two decades and numerous films. This film was another seminal film, with contributions by Satyajit Ray & his cameraman Subrata Mitra(Pather Panchali). It was their next film, "Shakespeare-Wallah" however, that was a real blockbuster, and a major force for English theater on the subcontient. The dilemma of the outsider who is not one, expressed by Mrs Buckingham in the immortal ""Everything is different when you belong to a place. When it's yours." was a continuous theme of their works. Ray provided the music again.

Subsequent films explored colonization, post-colonial colonials like Sir Nirad Chaudhuri, and the first Henry James adaptation, "The Europeans" in the 1970s. It was the release of the stunning "Heat And Dust" - one film that was sorely lacking from the recent 100 great films of Time magazine. I will refrain from singing the praises of this film, but will review it soon. (AVI/MOV trailer)

Their next major film was the 1985 "A Room With A View", recreating E M Forster's very English world, that received 3 Academy Awards and numerous others.

More recent films like Keating's "The Perfect Murder", "Howards End", and "Remains Of The Day" further illustrated the creative richness of this team, the longest-lasting partnership in film history. Ismail directed at least four films himself, the most recent being Naipaul's "The Mystic Masseur". He was also an accomplished cook.

"The White Countess", based on Kazuo Ishiguro's work is now in post-production and will serve as a fitting coda to this life richly lived.

I do not believe their other in-production work, "The Goddess", starring Tina Turner on the mother-goddess Shakti was finished(recent statement from Ismail Merchant, or even started the "City of Your Final Destination".

His final destination reached, the master rests among the giants of film history, along with Manik Da, Fellini, et al.

Ismail Merchant
Ismail Merchant, R.I.P.

My Passage from India: A Filmmaker's Journey from Bollywood to Hollywood/Ismail Merchant Ismail Merchant's Florence : Filming and Feasting in Tuscany/Ismail Merchant Heat and Dust / Autobiography of a Princess - The Merchant Ivory Collection Howards End - The Merchant Ivory Collection The City of Your Final Destination/Peter Cameron My Nine Lives: Chapters of a Possible Past/C. S. H. Jhabvala A Room with a View (Two-Disc Special Edition) The Remains of the Day (Special Edition) The Mystic Masseur The Films of Merchant Ivory/Robert Emmet Long

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

C S Lewis' Lands Of Shadow

Among the surfeit of reviews of "Beyond the Shadowlands", perhaps it would be useful to take a step back and evaluate the writer, Lewis, and his work.

He was born in 1898 in Belfast, and lost his mother at nine. She created a sense of wonder in him, and a love for books. As an academic, he was a renowned professor of medieval and renaissance literature, arguing against an English Renaissance. He was given to impressionism, in a literary sense, believing that a reader experiences a text through his or her senses.

He was close friends with JRR Tolkien, and they formed a literary society, the Inklings, along with other Oxfordians. Tolkien led him back to Christianity from agnosticism/atheism in 1931, using ancient myth. Both recognized the archetypes of the dying and reborn god in Christianity as similes, more than truth, and reinterpreted these images in their master-works, the Lord Of the Rings and the a.

The myth-making engendered in their works were islands of creative magnificence in the desolate twentieth century, a time of strife and war, a world under the Shadow, as it were. CS Lewis volunteered in the Great War, and was severely wounded. Tolkien perspectives of Boer Africa's cruelties, and their shared horror at the Second World War all strongly affected their vision of this world as a shadow of the real, promised land - Narnia for Lewis and the lands of the West for Tolkien. Their own implicit racism, sexism, and Catholic-Anglican conflicts added much more creative fuel to their fires.

Apart from Narnia, and his scholarly works, CS Lewis's best work was probably the a, IMHO, an exchange of letters between an elderly demon and his nephew, Wormwood on the damnation of a specific human, an allegory of the Second World War.

Tolkien critiqued the Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe so much so that Lewis almost never finished the book. The derivative nature of these books, and their childlike allegories were surpassed by his "Space Trilogy" set on Venus and Mars. His final book, "Till We Have Faces", a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche was from the perspective of Psyche's sister, drawn from Apuleius' The Golden Ass. More the memoirs of an old and bitter woman, berhaps based on his winter romance with Joy Gresham, and her lingering death from bone cancer.

This experience was caringly annotated by him in the third of his autobiographies, "A Grief Observed". His death was largely overshadowed by the demise on the same day of John F Kennedy.

His life and works have engendered much admiration and criticism. Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy is intended as an antithesis to the Narnia books. A series of posthumous books were of questionable authenticity.

As the Ruin Falls

All this flashy rhetoric about loving you.

I never had a selfless thought since I was born.

I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:

I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,

I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:

I talk of love--a scholar's parrot may talk Greek--

But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.

I see the chasm. And everything you are was making

My heart into a bridge by which I might get back

From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains

You give me are more precious than all other gains.

CS Lewis Signature Classics (Boxed Set)/C. S. Lewis A Grief Observed/C. S. Lewis Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold/C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters/C. S. Lewis Shadowlands His Dark Materials Trilogy (The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass)/Philip Pullman Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel/Susanna Clarke Light in the Shadowlands: Protecting the Real C. S. Lewis/Patrick Wynne

Monday, May 23, 2005

Terrorism, Global

A third bomb blast was reported near a railway crossing. One person was injured - unlucky sod. The incident was not linked to the bomb attacks.

Incidentally, a Lashkar-e-Toiba militant was arrested in New Delhi on Monday soon after the blasts - no details whether he is connected with the bombs. The accused, Mohammed Ishaq Ittoo, was apprehended with 5.5 kg RDX and Rs 2.5 lakh cash.
Ittoo was reportedly supposed to hand over the consignment to a man called Imran when he was nabbed by a team led by ACP Rajbir Singh and inspector Mohan Chand Sharma.

Ittoo belongs to Anantnag and is said to have come to Delhi two weeks ago. Two detonators were also seized from him. The police said that he is a Pakistan-trained militant. He apparently crossed over to Pakistan in 1999 where he learnt to handle arms and ammunition. He was sent back to India in April 2004 and started working under Atif, the district commander of Lashkar in Anantnag.

He is said to have established a computer centre for Lashkar in Srinagar and arranged hideouts for the militants.

The cops said that he was staying in a hotel in central Delhi and was in touch with hawala operators who arranged the money for him.

Ittoo later told the police that Imran, the man he was scheduled to deliver the consignment to, was a Pakistani currently based in north Delhi

The film has been pulled - bad opening weekend.

The Lashkar-e-Toiba are a terrorist group based in Pakistan - from wikipedia

Lashkar-e-Toiba or Lashkar-i-Taiba (the Army of the Pure) (formed 1990) is a terrorist Islamist group based in Pakistan and active in carrying out terrorist attacks on Indian civilians and Armed forces. It is the armed wing of Markaz Dawa-Wal-Irshad (the Centre for Religious Learning and Propagation), an Islamist organisation of the Wahabi sect of Islam. US Secretary of State Colin Powell in a notification on December 26, 2001 designated the outfit as a foreign terrorist organisation.

They carried out the attack against the Indian parliament in Dec 2001. From another source,
The LeT’s professed ideology goes beyond merely challenging India's sovereignty over the State of Jammu and Kashmir. The Lashkar's ‘agenda’, as outlined in a pamphlet titled Why are we waging jihad includes the restoration of Islamic rule over all parts of India. Further, the outfit propagates a narrow Islamist fundamentalism preached by its mentor, the MDI. It seeks to bring about a union of all Muslim majority regions in countries that surround Pakistan. Towards that end, it is active in J&K, Chechnya and other parts of Central Asia. The outfit had claimed that it had assisted the Taliban militia and Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan during November and December 2002 in their fight against the US aided Northern Alliance.
...The LeT has also been part of the Bosnian campaign against the Serbs.

The Markaz campus at Muridke in Lahore, its headquarters, was used as a hide-out for Ramzi Yousef and Mir Aimal Kansi, who was convicted and sentenced to death for killing two Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officers outside the CIA’s headquarters in Washington in January 1993.

Also, in other, somewhat related news,
A Pakistani detainee in Guantanamo Bay has exposed Islamabad's official sponsorship of terrorism in depositions before a US tribunal.

The unnamed prisoner, accused of being a member of the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, has referred to the fighting in Kashmir and said it was backed by Pakistan, the US' frontline ally in the war on terrorism.

"If you consider this organization a terrorist organization, then you should consider the Pakistan government a terrorist country," he says in a deposition obtained by the Associated Press wire service under a Freedom of Information lawsuit.

The excerpt comes from nearly 2,000 pages of documents representing some 558 tribunals held in Guantanamo Bay, according to AP.

Pray For The Soul Of Betty, Constantine can take care of himself

"Pray For The Soul Of Betty", the band featuring erstwhile American Idol hopeful Constantine Maroulis dropped their self-titled album on the shelves recently. They are a versatile band, with rich musical influences from bands like the Doors, Soundgarden and Jane's Additction, not Nirvana clones - the best thing one can say about modern rock bands nowadays.

"Drift" samples some train announcements before launching into a power-driving rhythm, then Constantine jumps into the mix. The song does not vary much in delivery, being a standard rock piece, but the mix is just right of A-B chords and Constantine's voice. Yahoo's Launchcast has a video for "Drift". The song deals with drugs, perchance, and 'the drift in all of life'."...Close your eyes when you see me coming/razor sharp/down the kids that plan/to meet you, to meet you, to meet you/close your eyes when you see me coming/razor sharp/thinking of my master plan/to get to you, to get to you, to get you"

"Rich Bitch" is more good rock. Constantine really soars in this song, an ode to loves lost, not worth the loving, perhaps. "When I think of all your lies/Wonder why I ever did/suffer you/We always make the same mistakes". He steps back in the second half and some great guitarwork from Taylor takes over. A good band is one where the lead vocalist is able to let his/her colleagues shine in the sun.


"Truck Stop Sally" is a clever, naughty song. More slow-paced, it tells the story of Sally, "A girl from Wichita
Pretty little jewel with a Cheshire smile
Grew up in the heart of a trailer park
No one there to raise her but her big bad Pa

Daddy had a streak like a lightnin’ bolt
Sally took the brunt as his whipping post
Waited ‘til the day she turned 16
Got up in the morning, yeah she split that scene
Made for the border down on Highway 1
Man, that girl knew how to make some fun
Free as a bird, oh yeah she’d spread her wings
Take ‘em round the world, oh yeah she knew her thing
She becomes the heart-throb of the truckers, able to "brokenheart a man like a blown-out tire", some image that. Again, appropriate mix of drums, guitar, vocals. Great song, should see more radio-play.

The reason why this band is among the best new American bands, and also why Constantine was not cut out for the sugar-sweet American Idol world, is demonstrated by the next song, "Some Of My Fucked-Up World". This is a true modern American anthem rock song. Fast, acid-fast rhythms, a lament for the American dream, love and the power of music to 'take you higher'. Constantine, once again, takes command of the soundspace, ably supported by Taylor, Clyde & Joao.Did…I know, I know, I know I didn’t get enough
Let me show you some of my fucked up world
Do the music turn you on?
Do it make you higher?

Baby, are you down
For a trip to lost and found
I wanna keep it on the ground
I wanna move you one more time

Where did we go?
I thought I felt a vacancy
Took me straight through the night
I wonder, did you feel it?
I can be anything you hoped or could envision
Now, what ever happened to love?
What happened to our love?

"Cry" slows the pace down, ruminating on the impermanence of dreams and fantasies, with the need to "Slip inside/The world to be/A victim of your sympathy". Taylor lays down a great bass line, well-coordinated with Constantine's crooning.

"the Day" is a Metallica-style power rock song, coupled with quite a bit of originality. Another song where the bass really shines. Constantine's closing tones are just phenomenal. Carpe Diem!


"Cut The Cord" samples a NY Cab dispatcher, and defines the reason why the lover must leave his love, now that he has 'climbed the mountain just to get the truth', and knows that 'there's more to you/or more to outshine'. He wonders why he 'didn't foresee the end', and promises to make it, asking the lover to 'wait 'til the day I rise/never be undone'. The true love affair though, is once again between the bassist and the vocalist:)

The dystopian tones of "Suicide" belie the richness of this song. Greatness is at work here - listen and appreciate.

"Sylvan", perhaps a very personal song, is about parental control. It closes out the album with a hard, power-driving song, that doesn't let up for a second.

Pray For The Soul Of Betty, the band, while somewhat derivative, shows great potential. Their live shows are apparently quite fiery, and the publicity from the American Idol attempt can only have helped grow their fan base. Fan boards are quite active, and the album is doing quite well. The album is also available in a sanitized form, but why would anyone want that really?

Pray For The Soul of Betty/Pray For The Soul of Betty Ten/Pearl Jam Nevermind/Nirvana American Idiot/Green Day

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Bomb Blasts in New Delhi cinema Halls over "Jo Bole So Nihal"

Two people died, and fifty more were injured in New Delhi, India, when two bombs exploded in cinema halls showing a new film, "Jo Bole So Nihal", a film certain Sikh groups felt denigrated their faith.

The story of the film, which I have not yet seen, is apparently about a Sikh police officer who travels to New York and single-handedly foils a plot to assassinate the US President. This sounds like a pretty good, positive storyline. The crazyfolk were offended apparently by the title - a sacred phrase - and that the lead character was played by Sunny Deol, a Hindu, and scenes depict him being chased by scantily clad women, while Sikh scriptures are being recited.

Sunny is actually a very popular actor given to playing the lead role in patriotic films, like "Border", and his father, Dharmendra was a dashing star of yesteryear. They are Punjabis, and one could almost consider them Sikhs.

The Sikhs earlier were embroiled in a misguided secession and terrorist movement from India in the 1980s, that was ended by strong police action, and subsequently the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, by two of her Sikh bodyguards.

Historically, the Sikhs were an offshoot of Hinduism, initially close to Sufism, and subsequenly a warrior clan-like religion dedicated to fighting against the Muslim rulers of India, like Aurungzeb.

The film,"Jo Bole So Nihal", or "By God's Word", is apparently a middling film. The reviews have it as a lame comedy/action film, one that would likely have sunk without a trace were it not for these unfortunate incidents.
"The problem is, the comedy can't make up its mind whether it wants to be a satire or slapstick. The narrative is finally much of neither. It all adds up to a whole lot of chaotic mayhem about gangsters and terrorists."

Update: I was able to find a torrent for "Jo Bole So Nihal" - I do not think this is a complete version of the film.

Update: Some additional news on the third blast, and the captured terrorist on the main page

Friday, May 20, 2005

Team America : World Police

I was unable to finish watching the film - it lacked any sense of narrative force, the actors were too wooden, and the humor somewhat dated.

Trey Parker is a very talented individual, and South Park is a phenomenally great show, but the short duration of South Park enables the exposition of the idea before it runs out of steam. The ability to put together an episode to reflect current social angst and issues enables it to be funny and relevant.

The film "Team America" fails because it is unable to sustain the story, such as it is. The most it can do is make a series of jokes, some quite funny, and then all that is left is an urgency to reach the end. The film also fails to take on the true issues surrounding the 'War on Terror', by pandering to a need to caricature them.

The opening section, where the heroes devastate Paris, is a send-up, perhaps, of well-intentioned American 'interventions'. The build-up however, is tossed away, as the film careens away into the second plot-line of the Broadway actor recruited to fight against the axis of evil. The third plot-line, the one featuring Lil Kim, is probably the best. This is one character around whom entire epics could be written, and probably have been.

The musical parodies are good, from "America, Fuck Yeah" to "I'm So Ronery". The film does not really live up to my expectations.


Team America - World Police (Uncensored and Unrated Special Collector's Edition) Orgazmo (Unrated Special Edition) South Park - The Complete First Season South Park - The Complete Fifth Season South Park - The Passion of the Jew South Park - Bigger, Longer & Uncut On the Art of Cinema/Kim Jong-Il Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader : North Korea and the Kim Dynasty/Bradley K. Martin Thunderbirds (Widescreen Edition)

The Dell DJ: A Review

Dell's line of portable media players, the Dell DJ Jukebox, comes in 20 GB and 30 GB models, as well as a 5 GB version. I recently got myself a 30 GB player, which came with a dock and case, for $230. I have been quite satisfied with it.

The player is sleek and well-designed. The controls are well-positioned, with a scroll-wheel to flip through the music library, Home and Back buttons to access the features, and the Advance/Reverse/Play/Pause buttons laid out front and center. The volume controls are on top, along with the headphone jack, power switch, and inline remote jack. In a nice touch, the volume controls are convex(Up) and concave (Down) - useful when the player is hooked to one's belt and one is navigating by touch.

The player comes with the basic version of MusicMatch, branded by Dell. One can either choose to suffer through the upsell ads, upgrade, or use Windows Media Player, as this device is on the PlaysForSure list. Alternatively, one can use the Dell DJ Explorer, a plug-in for Windows Explorer to navigate the music library.

I am beginning to appreciate the MusicMatch application. It is quite easy to navigate, and administer. It has a convenient auto-sync feature that keeps specific playlists in sync. An Auto-DJ function builds playlists based on seeded artists or genres. The upsell reminders are painful, though.

Another product that has some acclaim is the oddly-named Dudebox Explorer. This provides a different UI for the Jukebox, as well as a mini-web server, the XStreamer, which lets you play your music from your DJ on your computer.

The Music Library on the Jukebox itself is easy to navigate, and lets you view the library by Playlists, Albums, Artists, Genres, or Recordings, the last a reference to the optional inline FM-tuner recordings. The standard play modes are available, and a convenient calendar app. The player is very fast - random selection across an entire library of 3000+ songs has sub-second response times.

The aesthetics of the DJ stand out, at least for me, over the iPod. The contemporary, muted metal finish is a tribute to modernism. The battery life is really long - I haven't been able to wear it out over 12 hours of listening. The transfer speed on USB 2 is really fast. The player can also be used as a portable hard drive for any file type. The media types supported are MP3, WMA. Sound reproduction quality is good, depending on the headphones used and file quality of course.

Cost-wise, and quality-wise, this is pretty good. Functionality could be ramped up quite a bit.

Update:: My Dell DJ screen started going blank - the replacement has been doing well.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Van Morrison's Magic Time

Van Morrison's new album is much like his earlier ones, in tone and theme. Yet, at least a few songs are among the best I have ever heard. It is rich with insights, redolent with mood-calming notes and fine lyrics. His voice, that rarest of rarities, is still in good form, .

"Stranded" is a typical Morrison piece, dealing with being stranded on the shores of a new world, a world changed. A thoughtful piece, it features a saxophone section of some worth."It’s leaving me stranded/In my own little island/With my eyes open wide/But I’m feeling stranded"

"Celtic New Year" is a song straight out of "Astral Weeks" or "Avalon Sunset". Dealing with loss, desire, and hope, it has some vivid imagery of "Louisiana", "Bourbon Street" and the "Jack of Diamonds". The harmonica complements the lyrics ably."If I don’t see you when the bonfires are burning, burning/If I don’t see you when we’re singing the Gloriana tune/If I’ve got to see you when it’s raining deep inside the forest/I got to see you at the waning of the moon"

"Keep Mediocrity At Bay" is an uptempo piece, almost political in content, although one is unsure which side is being supported, if any. "You gotta fight every day to keep mediocrity at bay/Gotta fight every day to keep mediocrity at bay/Got to fight with all your might not to get in the bleeding heart's way

You gotta fight for your rights, you can't bury your head in the sand/You gotta fight for your rights, you can't just bury your head in the sand/Politics and religion, superstition go hand in hand"

"Evening Train" keeps up the pace. It is similar to classic blues songs from the 1930s, although it does not have quite the punch one might expect, which is something one can say for most of the album. The guitar work is great, by the late Foggly Lyttle, to whom the album is dedicated.

"This Love Of Mine" builds on the jazz theme introduced earlier. It is a cover of the classic Sinatra tune, done true to the original, with the classic Van Morrison touch.

"I'm Confessin'" is another jazz cover, done earlier by Lester Young, Perry Como, and more. This version is more slow-paced, except for an inspired harmonica section. This song gives him the chance to layer vocal intonations through repetition of simple phrases, something he does well. "I'm guessing, guessing that you love me/Dreaming dreams, dreaming dreams, dreaming, dreaming. dreaming dreams of you in vain"

"Just Like Greta" is a ode to the need to be alone, "Just like Greta Garbo/I want to be alone". A truly wonderful song, with great lyrics, and the classic, slow-paced Van Morrison 'howling at the moon'. "Some days it gets completely crazy/And I feel like howling at the moon/Then sometimes it feels so easy/Like I was born with a silver spoon

Other times you just can't reach me/Seems like I've got a heart of stone/Guess I need my solitude/And I have to make it on my own"

"Gypsy In My Soul" is about a restlessness of the heart. The initial notes are quite similar to the theme for "The Wire", another fine tune. "Well it seems like some kind of cruel fate/Keep me moving, moving in permanent restless state/Seems like some days I don't have any goal/It's just the gypsy in my soul"

"Lonely And Blue" is a gentle piece with a jazz blue note, a classic Fats Waller tune.

"The Lion This Time", penned by Van Morrison, is again reminiscent of early Morrison. A classic acoustic ballad, well executed. "They couldn't take away his throne/He knows that he must stand alone/If need be have a heart of stone"

"Magic Time", the title track, is scripted by Van Morrison again, and classic style for the man. Memories of a time past, timeless, much like this album.

"They Sold Me Out" is an acerbic warning against trusting too easily. "The oldest story that's ever been told", being sold out 'for a few shekels'.

"Carry On Regardless" is another personal expression of betrayal, featuring a slipped in reference to at least three "Carry On" films (Khyber, Dick, Doctor), yet a very sharp, reggae-influenced song - probably the best on the album "Carry on regardless, in spite of the music business scam/Carry on regardless, in spite of all the petty minded little women and men/Carry on regardless, when everybody don't give a damn
Carry on and start all over again, in spite of all the TV trash/Carry on regardless, in spite of all the media rehash/And the white wash, the brain wash and all the white trash"

The album features a variety of musical styles and moods. It is a worthy addition to a weighty oeuvre. While it might seem dated and similar to others, it still makes a good listen, one for a summer's night, with a glass of Irish or perhaps Scotch, memories of time, love, loss and betrayal.

Magic Time/Van Morrison Astral Weeks/Van Morrison Can You Feel the Silence?: Van Morrison: A New Biography/Clinton Heylin Into the Music/Van Morrison Moondance/Van Morrison Avalon Sunset/Van Morrison Celtic Crossroads: The Art of Van Morrison/Brian Hinton

Wal-Mart out of DVD Rentals, Netflix still in

Wal-Mart announced it would terminate it's online DVD rental service and provide it's customers the option of converting their subscription to Netflix at their current rate for a year. In return, Netflix will promote Wal-Mart's DVD sales online through their website. Wal-Mart will direct customers to Netflix via their own website.

Blockbuster retaliated by raising their rental price to $18 as a test, which is a pretty wierd thing to do when you are an underdog. This tie-up of Netflix and Wal-Mart effectively puts an end to the earlier rumors of Amazon teaming up with Netflix for DVD rentals, and could pose a huge opportunity for Blockbuster.

Netflix, with its new $9.99 one-at-a-time DVD plan, and formidable library of titles is a tough competitor. I have been a subscriber for a long time, and although I did sample the other services' free offers, would not dream of cancelling my Netflix subscription. Netflix now has about 3 million subscribers.

If you visit the Netflix site, you can already see a banner ad for Wal-Mart stretching across the top of the page. Wal-Mart features the reverse feed back to Netflix.

This is one of the few times where an under-dog has taken on a behemoth like Wal-Mart, and won. Then again, this is a new game, and the rules are different.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Song Of The Road and The River

Satyajit Ray, filmmaker extraordinaire, has been a constant source of pleasure. His early films such as Pather Panchali (The Song Of The Road) and Jalsaghar (The Music Room) had a down-to-earth simplicity that he never lost even as he took on other themes like the light-hearted Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha) or the emotionally affecting Ghare Baire (The Home And The World). He did not allow himself to be drawn into the socialist zeitgeist of the sixties and seventies, that caught up many of his contemporary film-makers like Ritwik Ghatak (Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star), Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal, although his social commentary was as trenchant as theirs.

He was an immensely talented filmmaker, writing all his own screenplays, designing the sets and costumes, and handling the camera post-Charulata. He composed much of the music and designed the artwork for the film. He designed at least two fonts - the typefaces Ray Roman and Ray Bizarre. He received numerous honors, not least the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

His first film "Pather Panchali" was based on the novel by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee. It is set in a small Bengal village in the 1920s. A Brahmin priest, Harihar, lives with his family and aged cousin in dire poverty. The birth of his son, Apu, seems to uplift the family out of their daily toil. Apu and his sister Durga grow close, play numerous childlike games in the dusty streets of the village and discover the small and secret wonders of life - from a train to a marriage ceremony. Their aunt, Indir, is an independent-spirited woman, who perhaps creates a sense of adventure and hope in Apu. She tells the children numerous stories, is mocked and cast out temporarily by her sister-in-law, and enfin, dies quietly and alone in a mango grove, accompanied only by the strains of Ravi Shankar's sitar. Things start to unravel now, and Durga is accused of a theft. Once cleared, the rains come, causing much joy in the village. Durga's dance in the rain leaves her ill and at death's door. Her father is away on one of his many trips in search of work. He returns to find a grieving household. His realization of his loss destroys him and he collapses in grief. The film ends with the family leaving the village in a cart, bound for Varanasi, spiritual center of Hinduism.

The subsequent films in the Apu Trilogy, Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apur Sansar (Apu's World) take up the story of Apu after the death of his father, and his subsequent migration to the big city of Calcutta. Later films of Ray were well-received and a cakewalk compared to the difficulties in making this, his first film. Almost everyone in the film was a novice to film-making, from Ray himself to Chunibala, the wizened aunt, an 80-year old retired theatre actress who was rediscovered by Ray lying in the alcove of a Calcutta brothel. Even the cinematographer of the film, 21-year-old Subrata Mitra, was a still photographer.

Satyajit Ray met Mitra on the sets of Jean Renoir's The River, filmed on location in India in 1951, and Renoir's first color film. The River describes a different culture, the English colonial culture - one originally alien to the land, yet one that took root in the fertile soil of Bengal, roots that have not been destroyed even today in modern Calcutta, with it's Royal Calcutta Golf Club and much more.

Renoir's economy of expression can be seen as a direct influence on Ray's early work, devoid of the later sentimentalism. The River is set in the 1940s, a time of much ebb and flow - the waning empire, the tensions post-war, the social upheaval engendered by centuries of suppressed national and communal identity. Harriet looks back on her adolescent life in a house by the banks of the Ganges, India's immense, mythical river, with it's ceaseless rhythm. She is one of the romantic contenders for a young American captain who is visiting his cousin after losing a leg in the war. The other contenders, Valerie and the confused Melanie are friends, yet their childhood friendship is transformed by the arrival of the outsider into their cloistered world. Each of them is an outsider in some way. Melanie was born in India and educated in a British boarding school. Her stoicism constrants with the exuberant Valerie and the awkward Melanie. The representation of the women might seem dated and stereotypical, but Renoir's technique and cinematographic talent cannot be denied, and his ability to capture the essence of the social conundrum of a temps perdu

Pather Panchali and The River are related in many ways. Satyajit Ray, then working in an advertising agency, served as a guide to Renoir on his visit to India to scout locations for the River. When Ray went to England in 1950, and steeped himself in the great films and filmmakers, he told Renoir the story of Pather Panchali, and was much encouraged to make the film. He re-used the art director of The River, Bansi Chandragupta, in his film. (An interview with Satyajit Ray on the making of his films, and Renoir, is at the BFI)
Q: What other filmmakers do you admire?

SR: Truffaut, Kurosawa – I admire many Japanese directors. They are great filmmakers, which means all aspects of filmmaking. Kurosawa has great humanism, style and verve. His style is very different, and has something of the West in him. I also like Western directors. These days I find I like films more than I like directors. These days, directors do not come up to your expectations all the time. I like Masculine et Feminine, but there is a lot of Goddard that I don't enjoy.

The two films have been reunited once again at Cannes this year. Both have been restored by the Academy Film Archive. The Ray film was restored under the auspices of the Satyajit Ray Restoration Project, which has restored 15 of Ray's 29 feature films thus far. The Renoir was restored by the Academy and the British Film Institute.

The films were shown to resounding applause at the Salle Bunuel in the Palais Du Festivals in Cannes, on May 12 and May 15.

The restoration itself is a remarkable tale - David Shepard and Dilip Basu visited Calcutta in 1992 to survey the condition of the films. They were horrified to find multiple tears in the reels, with 3 of the 12 having deteriorated from the 'vinegar syndrome'. Another negative was in London. Plans to use this one to restore the film were foiled when the lab in London burned down. The restorers at the Academy were forced to work from good quality positive print and an interpositive made for the National Film Archive in India. The restored print is now preserved in sub-zero temperatures in the climate-controlled vault of the Academy.

The River was restored from the original Technicolor negative at the BFI, and the restored masterpiece will premiere in the United States on May 26 in Los Angeles. It is available in the Criterion collection already
Pather Panchali The River - Criterion Collection Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye : The Biography of a Master Film-Maker/Andrew Robinson My Life and My Films (Da Capo Paperback)/Jean Renoir The Rules of the Game - Criterion Collection

Monday, May 16, 2005

A Valid Path: Alan Parsons

Alan Parsons ventures into new ground in 'A Valid Path", the first studio release in five years. While prog-rock, a la their earlier albums may have been in some ways a progenitor of elecrtronica, in the musical structures, just as perhaps Bach was the forefather of electronica with his own structured musical compositions, in this album, Alan embraces and extends electronica with multiple musical pathways.

Many electronica celebrities such as Shpongle, Uberzone, The Crystal Method, etc. lent a hand in defining this album, and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd lays the chords for the first song, "Return To Tunguska". Alan Parsons himself produced and co-wrote all the material.

This album sparked many visual images in my mind, not least a feeling of describing a far-away land, one unsullied by discordant post-modern rhythms. As a matter of fact, it builds a layered structure that takes multiple listenings to discern, yet is surprisingly evident from the very beginning.

"Return To Tunguska" creates a base, as it were, with soft chords, dolorous in nature, then a faster-paced rhythm, finally bringing Gilmour's guitar-work to the fore, giving it free rein to paint a tonal landscape of rich color.

"More Lost Without You" might be pop-romantic filler, but P J Olsson creates a catchy piece of Ben Harper-style romantica, with the eletronica stuffing one expects. The middle section creates an interesting effect, blending vocal distortion with electronic rhythms. "You're a storm in my head/That really blew a new day/A liquid design/Is what you do to my mind"

"Mammagamma 04" is a remake of the classic Project tune. It is quite slow and gentle, creating an atmospheric effect, and a drum section that reminds me of tribal Indian drums.

"We Play The Game" is classic Parsons, vocalized by Alan himself. It has the pseudo-philosophical bent of many of their songs, "You Raise The Bar/Lost In A Trance/One Bridge Too Far/No Second Chance/But No One Cares/Still No One Cares". The beats would not be out of home in any club anywhere. This song is the true inner filling of the album. It's middle section features rich, powerful bass, and a transition to a faster beat, then faster again. "We Play The Game/We Hold Our Own/We Fight To Win/We Stand Alone" - *****

"Tijuanaic" and "L'Arc En Ciel" are related, both with an atmospheric, gentle air. The Latin beats of the first song blend with rainforest sounds that segue into the second. These sounds create the initial unusual notes of "L'Arc", then transition into a fast '80s-style slectronica instrumental, along with fast lead guitar.

"A Recurring Dream Within A Dream" is a retelling of the original from "Tales Of Mystery and Imagination", superficially not much changed, yet a welcome reminder of the band's past glories. Alan Parsons processes his voice through a vocoder to "quoth the Raven".

"You Can Run" commences with a spooky voice that reminded me of the haunted (or haunting?) kid in "Ringu", but soon enough becomes a rock track, with some mysterious lyrics "I see the lines written on your face/ I wish you well/ But I gotta tell ya/ Ain't nothing human ‘bout the human race"

The final song, "Chomolungma" is truly different. The Tibetan word for Mt Everest, it means "Mother of the Universe". The song uses a fast drum track with overpowering bass, tribal chants, the howls of feral dogs and John Cleese's commentary on "these strange rambling explorations of your unconscious" to reach the summit of a challenging album, a truly "Valid Path".


A Valid Path/Alan Parsons Tales of Mystery & Imagination/Alan Parsons Project The Best of the Alan Parsons Project/Alan Parsons Project Chomolungma Sings the Blues/Ed Douglas Digital Empire: Electronica's Best/Various Artists Tales of the Inexpressible/Shpongle Community Service, Vol. 2/The Crystal Method

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Time traveler, world traveler, book reader