Monday, October 31, 2016

Light

Half of the enjoyment of a festival is the anticipation of it. If there is no anticipation, the day can just come and go like any other. 

I was saddened this year by the realization that I'd been oblivious of the impending arrival of Diwali. In India this is my favorite festival of sorts. The weather changes to a crispness, if not a coldness, in much of the country. Most cities are lit up with a variety of multi-colored lights, people are out shopping or are cleaning house, and on the big night there is a delightful multitude of fairy lights on virtually every dwelling. Still, my favorites were always the rough clay lamps called diyas, filled with sesame oil and lit with simple cotton wicks. In my youth my sister and I would be the ones to prepare the diyas by soaking them in water a few days before, drying them in the sun, preparing the wicks by hand, then laying them out in every conceivable nook of the house and garden, and finally lighting them all one by one. 

This year, I only woke up a couple of days before. Diwali is Sunday, October 30th, Google told me coldly. I had missed the entire window of anticipation and preparation. 

Still, last night, J and I put on some variety of finery and laid out a few cosmetic diyas and a few fairy lights. I made a rice kheer

I'd better be well and truly alert next year. Perhaps we will actually be in India, that would be the most meaningful thing of all. 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

French movie Friday: Dans la cour

How do you take the theme of mid-life depression and anguish and turn it into an intimate little film with sweetness and truth? Ask Pierre Salvadori, who's in fine form here. 

After having watched his matchless Hors de prix a couple of times, I'd decided to watch more films of his. I can't quite review that earlier one though, because the review would come out too sappy. I just liked it too much, enough to re-watch it and keep re-watching well into the future. Well, then. 

Dans la cour is altogether more earthly. So earthly in fact, that true to its title we get to see little besides the eponymous courtyard. But because it is Paris and the building itself is quite old, even a plain old courtyard has its charms. This is where Antoine, a musician who one days walks out of his entire life, ends up as the janitor, or 'le gardien' officially. He mumbles and shrugs his way into the job, somewhat hastily hired by the energetic resident Mathilde who is in charge of all such building affairs, among many other things. 

Mathilde and Antoine slowly develop a hesitant friendship. The other residents meanwhile, run somewhat roughshod over Antoine: his inability to be assertive being an advantage for all. Poor Antoine and his travails! He ends up being clouted with a ripe peach from four floors up, hosts a very large dog in his tiny apartment, endures the ravings of a cult member, and suffers from severe physical problems when he partakes of the drugs offered by one resident. 

Still, all is not misery, somehow, even though everyone has their own version of kookiness going on. These stories are the kind to be found if we scratched beneath the surface of just about anyone's life, anywhere. Meanwhile, Mathilde's slow unraveling is given the most attention by Antoine. This is not remotely about romance or the usual attraction though; rather, it is a slow drawing together of souls caught in the terror of realizing that they are really, really lost, and are on the brink of losing hope altogether. 

Antoine does show a bit of assertiveness towards the end of the story, and then...the ending left me sad and wondering if there could have been other possibilities for him. Still, this is not a bad thing. The whole film has after all been created with a sense of unerring reality, however tenderly. Depression, middle-age depression at that, is still poorly understood and vastly under-diagnosed. In fact, after learning that a friend who recently passed away had in fact been depressed, this  movie hit home rather hard. 

Dans la cour is a gently-paced and lovingly detailed piece of life. I'll have to be on the lookout for more from this director.

Director: Pierre Salvadori
Overall rating: 7.5/10

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Drunken sticks, all over

After a season of plentiful jacarandas, the city has another trick up its sleeve: the silk floss tree. They started popping up a few weeks ago, showy orchid-like pink blooms atop a nondescript tree with ferocious big thorns all down its side. 

I found out that they are called 'palo borracho' in Spanish, meaning 'drunken stick.' Eh? I must find out the origins. But for now I'm tempted to devise a foxy pink cocktail on one of my aimless evenings and name it this. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Je suis un peu fatigué

Just when one thinks one has understood the Subjunctive, it slips out of one's grasp yet again. This is how I imagine the Queen would lament if she had in fact undertaken the study of the beautiful espanol.

My valiant little class has been tackling the subjunctive for most of this year now. Yet whenever it crops up, fresh problems arise. But...that is, I thought..er, what, erm...when do you...WHAT? And this is how most trains of thoughts go on the subject, for me at least.

Still, I am yet young. I may have a few good years left before my brain degenerates entirely, and within that slim window I might still grasp a few solid basics. I may be framing coherent sentences before I depart this mortal coil,  with just the right flavor of subjunctive. Not too much, not too little, but just right.

What a joy would that be? I will send in my precisely-crafted gems to all newspapers in the land. Let all take note of the sweat and the weight of the years that went behind.

Sigh.

Learning a language is the most exquisite form of torture. I am in the throes of it, and I will miss it when it's done.

There is always francaise, eh? If I thought espanol was dificil....

Monday, October 24, 2016

Night Market, Not

I've recently had the rather memorable experience of walking into a funeral dressed in a bright, multi-colored floral dress. 

To be fair, J and I had the location off by just a hair. We were actually after the Thai food market. We really couldn't be blamed if it happens to be just next door to the Wat Thai temple, which also just happened to be the site of a large funeral yesterday. Still, we cottoned on very quickly: must have been something about the fact of everyone else being in solid black and looking somber. We backed out as nonchalantly as we could, and to their credit the attendees didn't give us the stink-eye. This is Los Angeles. 

We stumbled into the food market with great relief, and it was just as we'd dreamed. (Ever since we went to the big Night Market three years ago in Phuket, Thailand, we've both been rather enamored of the whole Thai food market experience.) This little affair was about a hundredth the size of the original, but we weren't counting. A handful of stalls stood invitingly before us, offering all sorts of mistily-remembered delights. First you buy a bunch of plastic tokens at a separate counter and then come back to the food. All rather quaint, and we were getting happier by the minute.

First up we had the intriguing "Rice with Two Item." The two items we chose were a fiery-looking curry and a salad heaped with gleaming roasted eggplant. Having no idea of what anything was is part of the charm; you simply point, and the hosts tell you what you are about to eat. 

The Two Item went down well, and then we went back to a different stall. This time I had a great heap of bamboo-shoot salad accompanied by thin wedges of fresh ginger, chopped on the spot, and tiny green chilies added only after the server gets your consent. With good reason- these little dainty things were the equivalent of nuclear missiles when I took one micro-bite. Never mind, the ice-heavy longan-berry juice to accompany it was sweet enough to save me from death by fire. Longan juice is really a marvel; slightly smoky, very sweet, and superbly refreshing. Why isn't it more popular? We need more longans in our lives.

We finished up with some tiny coconut-custard filled shells called Karnakrop or some such musical Thai name. (The custard was creamy and the shell lacy and crisp, a true delight.) And that was that. J and I are both possess appetites that have been widely panned as pathetic by various aunties across India, with good reason. So next time we go, we've planned to starve; a missed breakfast should enable us to do better justice to the next set of delights. Or so we hope.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Filmi Friday: Raman Raghav 2.0

Director Anurag Kashyap rather deservedly enjoys a reputation as being something of a daring stylist in Hindi cinema: his bold, lush, adult-candy romp, Dev D, was considered by many to be unique in the history of our film. And in that I quite agree, because Dev D really does occupy its own place especially since it is the third or fourth retelling of a popular classic novel. 

Now. Raman Raghav 2.0 is not a retelling, rather it is roughly based on the reality of a serial killer in the Mumbai of the 1960s who admitted to killing some 41 people. The film, though, is adamant that it is not about this killer. No, our protagonist here is one very creepy dude indeed, but he's completely fictional. Rather a relief that, because Nawazuddin Siddiqui as killer Ramanna is so completely creepy that, well, I don't want to think about the original version. 

However, there is such a thing as uneven distribution of talent. When you cast someone like Siddiqui, you should make very sure that the rest of your cast matches wits with him. Else, he is going to run away with the engagement of your audience. He is going to make them care about him, only him, and some audience members might even keep glancing at the clock especially in the scenes where he is absent, wondering how much longer dear Mr. Director is going to stretch the proceedings. (To be fair there was one other gripping performance though- the sister of the killer.)

The second piece of the titular character puzzle, the cop named Raghavan, failed almost entirely for me- even if he has garnered much praise for his performance, and I do not want to knock him. I get the irony of the bad behavior - drugs, beatings, misogyny, etc., that is second nature to him. I get that we are meant to look at both the killer and the cop through the same lens because their inherent nature is being portrayed only through that lens. But why was I emotionally affected by the killer, and left flat and bored by the cop? 

The other thing that fell flat for me was the use of music: It almost overshadowed the real menace and horror of the visual impact when the killer dons his helmet and drags his horrible tire-iron around. 

But lest this seem like an endless list of complaints, I will end that here. There is a good bit of hard-hitting visual wizardry to be seen: Mumbai is effectively rendered as the backdrop for desperation and a sliding moral scale especially when the camera, drenched in grainy dark green, shows you the claustrophobia of the existing slum labyrinths. 

Er, I find rather awkwardly that that was the only other thing that stood out besides the simmering, sinister Siddiqui: stylistic and bordering-on-noir visuals. Perhaps there should be a term for this: India-Noir? Because is there a better playing ground for a filmmaker than India? The place practically begs to be shot on film  and served up, gorgeous even in base reality.

I'll wait for Kashyap's next. Here's hoping he'll cast Siddiqui again, this time backing him up with those who won't be overshadowed, a stronger narrative scaffolding of empathy and exploration, and a less-indulgent use of music.

Director: Anurag Kashyap
Overall rating: 5/10

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Readings: Radiance

Catherynne Valente tackles a hefty raft of ideas in Radiance: The novel is self-described as a decopunk pulp science fiction alt-history space-opera mystery set in Hollywood. 

With that as the introduction, I was rather prepared to tire of Radiance pretty quickly, yet there was no doubt that there was some attraction. And somewhat surprisingly, the weariness never did arrive, except in small doses toward the end. What Valente has done here is use language to beautifully transcend time and place while hinting that there is something, shall we say, more metaphysical (?) that grounds us or sets us free.

The mysterious death of docu-filmmaker Severin Unck is the central point of the story, told from varying points of view and with jumps in chronology and location. The world of Severin is not Earth; in fact, here the entire solar system as we know it is actually fully populated by humans. (Homo-sapiens as the ultimate colonizer is a rather attractive hook, one that I did not fully grasp when I read the eye-popping introduction.) Severin had set off to Venus to make a documentary about the disappearance of a diving colony on that planet, but although some of her crew perished, she herself disappeared and is presumed dead. Her father, legendary director Percival, is trying to cope with her loss by crafting a film that aims at constructing an 'ending' for his truth-obsessed daughter. 

The narrative structure is meant to mimic that of physical film, i.e., shot, chopped up, spliced, etc. So Radiance is definitely not for the sort of reader who is annoyed at multiple and frequent shifts in time; in fact, had it not been for the chronology at the beginning, I would have myself abandoned this venture. Differing points of view result in audio and film recordings, personal recollections, screenplay, gossip columns, and so on. The world of film-making, silent films at that, is a sort of shadow world in itself here transcending the actual locations, hinting at the question: What stories would we tell if we were to roam free through all the universe? 

Towards the end there were some episodes that I found maddeningly over-stylized: as 'commercials' or then suddenly, a 'children's story' or then a completely mad mash-up of all characters put together in order to explain a critical plot point that in fact is not explained at all. The explanation comes at the very end, and here too there is a strong invitation to open interpretation. This was not a bad thing, in fact the ending was quite intriguing. It's just that at times it seemed like the author was having too much fun, got carried away in the dazzle of her own language, and ended up with a style that was simply too much on top of the heavily-layered and demanding narrative.

Still, Radiance does live up to its own rather ornate description. I would be willing to try more of this author in hopes that she tempers her inclinations to load the tale with stylistic curlicues. This is because at times Radiance felt like a cup of excellent coffee that some zealous barista has over-decorated with one of those foamy designs on the top. And then, added a too-generous sprinkle of cinnamon.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Foreign movie Friday: Ti Ricordi di me?

*Some spoilers ahead.*

This 2014 Italian confection is a retelling of the two-misfits-who-find-love tale, with a slight salting of 'reality' as perceived in its own universe. I must confess I'm less of a demanding film-viewer than reader. As such, I can be happy with sweetish stories like this one that offer not depth but simple engagement and curiosity.

The boy here is Roberto Marino, kleptomaniac, children's story writer. The girl is Beatrice Benassi, narcoleptic schoolteacher with some variety of amnesia problem as well. (The beauty of Italian names!) They happen to share a therapist, and it is here outside this building that Roberto becomes quickly enamored of Beatrice, tenderly watching her cross the street by skipping precisely over the white lines of a zebra crossing. In fact, after being an irritating git who keeps showing up with gifts for her, he finally gets her to soften by a cool trick he pulls in regard to this same zebra crossing.

The two become friends, the sort who hang out to eat gelato and talk about past hurts. She has a long-term boyfriend, though this does not deter the by-now less-annoying Roberto. In fact the director's nimble touch starts becoming evident here, when you realize that although things seem wafer-thin and airy, there is some substance beginning to emerge.

Roberto lives with his cop brother, Francesco and his wife, Valeria. This couple has their own bitter-sweet love story in the backdrop of the ups and downs of Beatrice and Roberto; finally, the misfits get together and there are more candy-sweet montages of their life together. Six years go by, in fact, and they've produced a little boy. Then, in an abrupt stroke of fate similar to those that Roberto is fond of using in his unsuitable children's stories, something happens to Beatrice. With the sudden-ness of real life, poor Roberto and the child are left behind in befuddlement.

Suffice to say that all is not quite lost at the ending, as in Roberto's stories.They happen to become wildly successful once they are targeted at the teenage-reader market - so we know that some sort of redemption is not off the table for their hapless creator, even if it is not explicitly shown.

For me, a big hook, besides the two leads' competence, was the tantalizing glimpses of Rome throughout. The cinematography is lush and flattering, and the use of color and light is simply put, very, very pretty. (In fact I was annoyed at having to look at sub-titles. I wanted to focus more on the faces and the almost casual beauty of the city in springtime.) Even Beatrice's sweet outfits in the first part of the story tell a sub-story of their own, as one sees in the last segment. And when you realize at the six-year mark when the crisis takes place that both she and Roberto actually look older, there is some sneaking respect for all involved in the crafting of this simple little chocolate and sea-salt bonbon of a film.

Director:Rolando Ravello
Overall rating: 6.5/10
English title: Remember me?

Monday, October 10, 2016

You, me, and an airplane

J and I have just realized with a shock that it has been two full years since we have traveled anywhere foreign. "It's been two years since foreign?" I squawked, foregoing proper sentences because I was in the middle of the usual punishing routine he has me on in the gym. 

That last trip was to J's childhood fantasy land, Hong Kong. (For some reason, he fibbed in kindergarten that he was going away to Hong Kong on vacation. He achieved much coolness until his teacher happened to ask his mother about it and all was revealed.) As an adult, J tripped around there with plainly childlike glee. One of the best afternoons was when we found a bench on the side of a street so steep it had stairs on it, and watched the city go by. J ate a custard pie, alarmingly good, while I scribbled in my notebook.

And all this time later we still do not have a destination picked out. The intervening two years have had a few little projects like selling a house, shipping belongings, quitting jobs and moving halfway across the world, and oh, I don't know why but all this seems to have kept us rather occupied.

Sigh. This is a sure sign that L.A. is no longer new, no? But that happened months and months ago; this is just that old old wanderlust again. J and I both need to be foreign together.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

A conspiracy of ravens

Some mornings the crows outside the window make such a racket that they seem to be having a great fight, but it's not just mindless cawing you hear. It seems layered, a back and forth so involved that when it ends, it seems only logical if you have been listening carefully. 

What can it be, that they fight over? Today again I saw them rise in a rush from some unknown spot, swooping up into the sky in a kind of choreographed swathe of black. How poetic for such a common bird! The older I get the more fascinated I am by them. I have seen them picking through the trash at the neighboring schoolyard with great finesse, discarding items until they got the very ones they wanted. J has long been an observer: his favorite story being the one where a crow, having obtained a dry cracker, patiently moistened it with great care (on both sides) before swallowing it.

With such intelligence, no wonder then that their cousins the ravens and rooks have long been associated with magic. The big ones we saw on our recent road trip high up in the mountains, seemed to belong not there but to some ancient tor or crag, whipped by the rain of centuries, watching all.

And here in the city they must have been present those few hundred years ago when this was a mere village. Did Los Angeles narrowly escape being named Los Cuervos? If only the birds could talk to us in our language. 

Friday, October 07, 2016

Foreign movie Friday: Retornos

Retornos is billed as a thriller, but I would say that the thrill in fact never arrives. There is slow burning-tension, to be sure, but no flashpoint and no ultimate satisfaction once the truth comes to light, so I would be inclined to just call it a moody redemption saga and be done with it. 

Not that Retornos is a bad film. It starts out with adequate warning as to its somber, adult themes with its dark palette of blues, olive greens and charcoal grays against mostly rainy skies. And the opening scene is of a funeral with many volumes told between two brothers in the looks that they exchange. This intrigues you enough, giving you the patience for the fairly slow unfolding of back-story to the background score of stormy piano. 

The trouble is, there is no payoff. The main character, Alvaro, has done something horrible ten years ago and has been living in Switzerland since. His wounded ex-wife and daughter are now understandably hostile when he arrives at the funeral of his father to their small community in Galicia, northern Spain. His brother, Xose, whom we had seen in the opening scene, is similarly resentful. How does all this tie in to the death of a young woman, a prostitute in the club run by the new husband of Alvaro's ex-wife Elisa? This is revealed while Alvaro tries to uncover the truth behind this death, as he is involved if only by accident. 

With the terrible goings-on of a decade ago, the characters' exchanges come off as curiously flat. Alvaro's now-grown daughter Mar, has the onerous task of portraying long-held resentment against an absentee father. In this she is adequate, but for some reason the entire film's mood does not let any character fully flesh out his or her motivations. Xose perhaps gets some bit of leeway here, but again the result is not emotional involvement on the part of the viewer; rather it is the awareness of being just that: a viewer, and not privy to anything more intimate in this difficult and emotionally-scarred set of lives.

The Galician dialect in about half the movie also ensured that I did not understand, increasing my sense of distance. What could have elevated Retornos? I think the crux was that we needed to care about the young dead woman, and we never got the opportunity to do so. Still, if one is in the mood for some dark and turbulent Galician crime-and-redemption on a rainy afternoon, I suppose Retornos will do. 

Director: Luis Aviles
Overall rating: 5.5/10

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

I'm chewing on it

In Bangalore we had a quite good collection of street dogs. In a stroke of brilliance, I had named most of them according to location. Hence: Bootleg, found by the bootleg DVD stall, Lakshmi by the ATM (Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth), Florian by the florist, and Our Lady of the Trash who met with her demise shortly after she was named.

Here all the dogs are properly labeled and leashed. Not one of them wanders at will, so I'm thwarted. Still, our building has four. In honor of temperament, two I have named Meanie and Brown Sugar. The adorable deaf Husky downstairs is too precious to name anything other than his beautiful real name, and then there is the newcomer. He's a perfect, boxy reddish-brown thing with a smart set of ears and a spiffy walk. The big problem right now is what to christen him. 

I still think about Bootleg though.

Monday, October 03, 2016

For no reason at all

In all my long life, I have never baked a cake. Why has it taken me so very long to realize this fact? It seems stupendous. Sure, I've used those ready mixes that I would dunk in the pressure cooker back in Bangalore, and with fairly satisfactory results. But what I refer to as actual cake- with the measuring and mixing and er...baking- that I have yet to achieve.

So I resolved rather ceremoniously the other day to do so. In the true spirit of new year resolutions, let this be mine for the next year, and let no one call me a procrastinator ever again. J was the only witness to this, and he heartily approved.

My first creation will be a dark and velvety chocolate with a hint of rich red chilies. 

Saturday, October 01, 2016

The last day of September

The light has definitely changed now. October is here.

Speaking to my father on his birthday, I see he looks no older than when I last saw him. This has made me absurdly happy.

Maybe this winter will not be harsh.
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