Monday, 17 September 2012

Movie Review: Pather Panchali

The young Apu in Pather Panchali
The 1955 Bengali film "Pather Panchali" by filmmaker Satyajit Ray is a deeply moving tale about human emotions with a timeless simplicity. It is an authentic portrayal of day to day village life in rural Bengal narrating the tale through the eyes of a boy and his sister. Pather Panchali captures the life of four members of a family with a stunning eye for details. Horihor (Kanu Banerjee) is an intelligent but impractical man who aims to be a writer, his wife Shorbhojaya (Karuna Banerjee) has her hands full trying to make ends meet by keeping the family together with limited needs, the daughter Durga (Uma Dasgupta) and the son Apu (Subir Banerjee).  

The film depicts abject poverty and yet the children derive joy from the simple pleasures that the rustic life offers: trees, fruits, dusty paths, rains, lush green grasses, songs of birds and flowers. The story of the film is narrated through Apu's point-of-view that begins from an infant to a young boy discovering the world around him. The film documents his desire to join the jatra, the time spent in school, the first time he sees a factory and a train with very fine detailing. Hence, the film presents a touching picture of the lives of ordinary people in rural settings.

The film focusses extensively on natural imagery by capturing the raindrops on the pond, the rustling wind, the roads in the jungles filled with leaves, the reflections of the sweetmeat seller falling over the pond. The music by Pandit Ravi Shankar through his sitar is firstly at odds with the film's visuals but later comes across as a logical outcome of the events. 

Pather Panchali is Satyajit Ray's debut film and he establishes the fact that he is a master filmmaker way ahead of his times. The use of black-and-white photography along with his cinematographer Subrata Mitra is effective. The way he captures even the seemingly mundane chores such as grating coconuts confirms that he is a natural filmmaker. Some of the scenes in this deeply poetic work on celluloid are excruciatingly realistic. His camera displays an astute understanding of the world through Apu's eyes, mind and lips. 

The only major complaint I had was with the pacing. At 2 hours 6 minutes, it has an incredibly slow. There are a number of sequences which go on for longer than necessary such as the train scene which itself occupies about four minutes. In the time of Twitter and Android phones, I wonder how many of us would have the patience to sit through such a slow movie.

For a movie that is claimed to be the first part of "The Apu Trilogy", it is surprising to know that Apu's participation in this film is minimal. The film is a textured document and the simplicity in its narrative style gives it a feeling of universality. It has a poetic quality despite narrating the tale of ordinary villagers in very ordinary circumstances yet it provided insights into the tragedies of human existence. This is surely a must watch for those who seek real, expansive yet fine-tuned cinematic experiences. 

Friday, 14 September 2012

Vodafone Speed Fest

The Indiblogger team recently asked bloggers whether if they were the fastest bloggers. To begin with, I had my apprehensions but I took up the challenge to ask why not? 

To begin with, this was meant for a few lucky bloggers who could not only meet Vodafone McLaren winner Lewis Hamilton but also go for a drive with him. Since he will be the one doing what he does best, I hope to play along with him. I was always fascinated with the idea of motion (read: speed) since childhood and my earliest association with speed was trains. It was just last year that the first F1 race took place in Delhi at the Buddh International Circuit and could not attend that due to non-availability of tickets. So, when the radio stations in Mumbai announced about Lewis Hamilton making it to India, I just jumped at the opportunity.

A colleague who managed the sports desk in the paper where I worked for a few months told me that the F1 cars are capable of being driven at 370 km per hour and  all I could guess was it was immensely fast. He then explained through an example of being able to reach Mumbai in a whopping 5 hours 40 minutes if one drives down from Delhi. Yes, it was purely because of this that I started watching more of Lewis Hamilton trying to observe the nuances of the driving sessions and hoped to catch the speed in real life too. I would honestly like to see whether if an F1 is indeed as fast as it looks on TV. Hence, I feel I should be one of the lucky bloggers to be allowed on a drive with Mr. Lewis Hamilton just to make me feel good with the assurance that I will be pleading for more. I honestly want to experience whether if it is possible to be driving down Mumbai and India's roads at such high speeds. 

P.S.: This post has been written for "Are you the fastest Indian blogger?"-- "The Vodafone Speed Fest". 

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal

* Isn't that a sort of utilitarian argument as it relates to our eventual survival? So if there is an inevitable crash, we'll all be turtles wallowing upside down in the mud. But what if there is not a crash? What if these technologies simply open up more time for things like reading to children, or good conversation?

Zerzan: Well, there may not be a crash. I'm not a so-called collapsist where I'm just banking on this all failing. I think there's a good chance that as our systems get more independent and vulnerable that some small thing could unravel, a lot of it, but I'm certainly not counting on that. It's up to us to make choices, not just sit around wait for the whole thing to fall apart. But yeah, there are tradeoffs. That's why people buy these things; they do have use value and you can find the attractive part of the exchange. Like you just said, you can pay attention to your family, you can do something valuable, or maybe you'll just look at another screen. Unfortunately, if you look at what is actually happening, if you look at it empirically, we're spending more and more of our time looking at one tiny screen or another that gets back to mediation, the sense that there are more and more layers between us and the things that matter.

* Getting back to Jobs' legacy, is there an Apple product, or an Apple-enabled product that you regard as particularly corrosive to culture?

Zerzan: I was reading in The New York Times about this Baby Cry app for the iPhone that interprets the cry of a baby when it wakes up, whether it's wet or hungry or whatever. I look at that and I think to myself the human species has been around for two million years and now we have a fucking machine to tell us what our babies' cries mean. If that isn't horrendous, I don't know what is. To me, that is just so telling about our dependence on this stuff and you can say this is a loony example, but is it not indicative of where we're heading? It's everywhere, this dependency. When did you need a life coach? When were there billions and billions of dollars in self-help books? 

As for Jobs himself, I was reading all of these editorials talking about the elegance of Apple and what Jobs did to reintroduce an aesthetic and I thought to myself: you've got millions of these devices which are the exact same thing and which to me are pretty sterile: where is the artistry? Isn't that more of the massification of everything? You've got all of these iPhones that are absolutely identical and yet shouldn't there be something in there that's personally distinct or something with your own stamp on it? It seems to me a spurious claim to say that Jobs gave us all this artistry and aesthetics; that's only true in a completely mass produced sense. Is that how we now define artistry and aesthetics? I would hope not.

* In closing, if we look at five hundred years--crash or no crash--how do you see Jobs being remembered?

Zerzan: If we survive that long, we're not going to have a positive image of Jobs, because at some point we're going to realize where all of this "elegant" technology comes from. It all rests on industrialization, ugly stuff that we don't want to think about right now, stuff that's happening in India and China. You can wax poetically about this clean, gleaming thing that is the Steve Jobs product, but in order to get it you have to have the ugly, systematic assault on the natural world. That's the other obvious thing that hasn't been a part of the conversation either. If we continue at this rate, we'll be lucky to make it fifty years. 

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal

* Taking your premise that technology is a bad thing or at least a bad thing for human communities, do you regard technological innovators like Steve Jobs as especially bad actors relative to the rest of us who merely use technology?

Zerzan: I do. I'll give you an extreme case. During the whole Unabomber ordeal in the late 90s, the media would occasionally interview me and try to get me say that "it was great that somebody would send bombs in the mail to these people" which I never said and which I don't believe. I respond that while I did not believe in sending bombs to people in the mail that did not mean that these people, the targets, were innocent. People like Jobs who devise this "Brave New World" type stuff are choosing and there's a moral dimension to those choices. I remember Steward Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog saying at one time that "in the sixties some of us realized the question was 'technology, yes or no?' and we basically answered yes." That includes people like Leary and Kesey and others who thought there was this great promise to technology, that we could achieve all of these things through the magic of computers. That was a conscious choice by some of these people and it was the wrong choice. So you have to ask, critically, how has it worked out? It's not just a question for theory, it's an empirical question: what does society look like that embraces that goes full tilt for that way of living? 

* Is that fair, though? To push you a little bit on that point, is it fair to regard technology as a whole? Why can't we select among technologies empirically to see which ones are doing the real cultural harm, instead of hanging everything bad that's come of technology on that single choice from the sixties, that 'yes or no'?

Zerzan: That's a fair point and I'll tell you I was very involved in the sixties and I didn't have a clue what was coming, so it is out of line to demonize somebody like Stewart Brand, although he's had a lot of time to reassess that choice and he's only deepened his embrace of the whole techno thing. I guess I'd have to say again, I don't think it is so much of individual devices, but rather a whole orientation to reality and to life and to community that's become mediated. I could mention Martin Heidegger who looked at it as something much more basic, as really how you relate to the world; he felt that when pushed far enough along everything basic becomes fuel for technology.

Everything becomes a technological question and everything else is ruled out. That's why he called technology: the end of philosophy, because these really technical questions come to override everything else. To some extent, you can see that in politics now, where the regime seems to have become much more technically oriented and the real human questions are just subsumed under the weight of technocracy. You can go all the way back to simple stone tools and then follow it all the way out, in terms of the values or the choices that are embedded there. For example, if you look at simple stone tools, before you get to systems and technology, they don't require much specialization or division of labour and accordingly, you can see the potential tool for equality: anyone makes this tool, anyone can use it and you don't depend on an expert for using it. But as we move ahead in technological time, the need for a lot of specialists and experts gives those specialists and experts gives us those specialists and experts total power over us and that's a disabling and de-skilling process. It involves everything you can think of; people used to work on their cars, but now there are hundreds of computer sensors that prevent a normal person from tinkering around under the hood of a car. Kids' way back could make their own radio set. There was a time when you could still have some access or some agency, but now you need an expert. That's not healthy. We have to re-skill ourselves in my view, or else we're just sitting there passively waiting for the next thing to buy. 

* Where would you place a figure like Jobs within the spectrum of technological innovators, with particular attention to what you described earlier as the moral dimension of innovation?

Zerzan: Well, he was obviously very good at figuring out how to make these things, these devices, easier to use. He did it with marketing and with technology that cut across generations so that people like didn't have to figure out programming or anything. Instead, we just sort of crudely move our fingers across a screen and there it all is. But if you follow that long enough, eventually you don't need to know anything, you can just be inert, a blob and lay there and push a button and then what happens to our place in the world? We use to walk around on this planet and have some autonomy and capability of knowing how to do things. If you don't know how to do anything, then ultimately if and when the system crashes, we're screwed, because we don't know the simplest things--and I include myself in that. I don't have many actual skills, in terms of interacting with this we live on. 

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal

Ross Anderson
The Atlantic Online

One has had to work hard to find an ill-written word about Steve Jobs, the technologist. While some have attacked Steve as a personality or as a ruthless businessman, even his harshest critics have agreed that his dazzling inventions have been a force for good in the world. 

Hence, you might think of John Zerzan as anti-Steve Jobs. Zerzan is an intellectual leader of the anarcho-primitivist movement, an ideology that regards technology as a destroyer of human communities. His first brush with national prominence came after a 1995 interview with The New York Times in which he expressed some sympathy with the ideas, if not the methods of Ted Kaczynski. Yesterday, I spoke to Zerzan by phone in order to gather his thoughts on what Jobs meant to the world of technology and to our culture at large.

* As someone openly opposed to technological progress, have you been frustrated by all of the public mourning and tributes that has been attended Steve Jobs' passing?

Zerzan: I am, though I'm not surprised at all given the popularity of these devices and the cultural predominance of technology. Steve Jobs has been in the limelight for so many years, you kind of expect that this would happen, that there would be these different ecomiums etc. 

There's an interesting contrast to the reaction to the innovators of the early Industrial Revolution. For example, the inventors of the power loom for the first textile factories in England; I was reading recently these accounts of how they used to have slink around and hide their work and identities. They were spat upon and even chased down in the streets because they were so hated. And now look at Jobs, there's all of these vigils and tributes, even a huge spread in The Wall Street Journal the other day calling him "a secular saint".

One of the things I noticed in the obits and letters to the editor about Jobs was the recurrent notion that he enhanced our connectivity. This is something that strikes me as such an irony. We're all connected now, we're all wired, we have this complete ease of contact with everybody--but it's also obvious that the more society becomes entrenched in these so-called connecting technologies, the more isolated we are as individuals. It's clear the machines are connected, but to what extent are humans connected? Everybody's on their cellphone all the time, to me it's like zombies, you walk along the street and people bump into you because they're so enthralled by these devices. 

* I wonder if that's a criticism best levelled at particular technologies, or even certain features of those technologies. It might be the case that certain gadgets are pushing people apart, while others actually enable the community. For example, Facetime for the iPhone allows families to video conference when they're apart. So even if I grant you that these large technological trends are widening the space between people, can't some individual technologies work to bridge those spaces? 

Zerzan: Well, there are these band-aids, these substitutes, of course there are. That's the appeal, that's why they're popular, but in the meantime we're more and more dispersed. And don't get me wrong I use them too. I have a close friend in Serbia. How often am I going to see him? Not very often, so I rely on a fixed version of the technology you're describing. But those are consolations and you ultimately have to look at what's being traded away. When you weight the whole ensemble of this, the whole culture of this and you see the direction it's going, and again getting back to the community, which to me is really the key thing, it's evaporating. So I look at the technology not so much in terms of specific devices or even features, but rather than the overall thing. What is modernity now? Where is it going? What is holding it together?

You have these extreme sociological phenomena like mass shootings that seem to occur with some regularity now. It seems to me that when you no longer have community, and you no longer have solidarity, then almost anything can happen. And the technology isn't helping. It's no substitute for real cohesion and connection. Everybody uses that term--every politician, every developer--talks about community, but it's disappeared with the advent of mass society.

* Unpack that for me a little bit. Focussing in particular on Apple and Steve Jobs, and fortunately we don't have to zoom in much because Apple has been such a big player in a lot of technological advances of the past twenty years, at least in the consumer technology space. How do you think that those technologies are really driving people apart, or taking away from community? 

Zerzan: Well, yeah, I threw out a really general kind of thing, but it doesn't seem coincidental that what is really accelerating more than anything is the PACE of technological change, and people in social theory don't pay much attention to that. At the same time, the bond that holds society together seems to be loosening with the advance of mass culture. Again, I'm talking about technology on a more fundamental level, not just Apple devices specifically. On one hand technological change is proceeding apace, and on another people are being driven further apart. Of course, this is an overnight thing, but when you look at this historically, it's not going well.

* It sounds like you're saying that rather than connect the dots from particular technologies or even technological trends to this creeping sense of human isolation, all you have to do is zoom out and notice that the two dominant features of modern life are rapid technological changes and the fraying of human community. But I'm not so sure that people are obviously drifting apart from one another. In fact, there might be some empirical evidence that people are, as you've even said, more connected than ever. You mentioned mass shootings as one signpost, but those are still fairly anomalous, so what are the other symptoms that you associate with that fraying, what makes it especially obvious to you that we're drifting apart as a species? 

Zerzan: One of the things I often point to in lectures is a study I saw in an American sociological journal that looked at how many friends adults have over a twenty year period from 1985 to 2005. In the study, the definition of a friend was someone you'd consider as a confidant. Anyway, after thousands and thousands of interviews these researchers determined that in the mid eighties the average American adult had three friends, but that in 2005 that figure had come down to two. That's fifty percent fewer over twenty years. The study also noted that the number of people with no friends at all had tripled. 

I was talking to Sherry Terkel, from M.I.T. who writes about new technologies from the point of view of a psychologist and she gave a talk here at the University of Oregon a couple of years ago, with a special reference to her daughter who was 13 at the time. She was talking about the toll that total immersion in technology has on the human soul and she was saying that at a certain age, her daughter didn't really grasp the difference between something that's living or animate and something that's a machine. She was really staggered, really appalled by this and as a result, it was a very moving lecture. In the end and this is typical of commentary about the nefarious effects of technology, she just kind of shrugged and smiled as if to say: "Oh well, that's modernity for you" and sat down. I said to her, "wait a second, you can't give us this two hour picture of how desensitized and machine-like we've become and then just shrug and say oh well." That's ethical and intellectual bankruptcy.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Movie Review: Mathulikal

The 1989 Malayalam film "Mathulikal" is based on the 75 page Malayalam novel of the same name by Vaikom Mohammed Basheer. Mathulikal is one of the most cherished and well-known love stories in Malayalam. The story of the novel is semi-autobiographical. 

The movie begins with Basheer (Mamootty) being jailed for writing against the British. He is confined to a narrow space of a prison cell. The cells are separated by the presence of tall walls (Mathulikal). To combat his solitary confinement, he tries talking to a fellow inmate present in the other side of the wall which happens to be the women's cell. The lady from the women's cell who responds back to Basheer is Narayani and they start talking to each other. It is interesting to know that this film never reveals who she is or how Narayani looks like. Hence, he is also not aware of her age despite this, they fall in love with each other. Throughout the film, it is just her voice which is heard. It is these little conversations with her which help him sustain the torture and isolation of solitary confinement.

The film by Adoor Gopalakrishnan is carefully crafted with adequate attention on silences. Secondly, the pace of this movie is extremely slow yet it is an engaging viewing. The lilts and the intonations of the dialogues mouthed by Narayani in itself is one reason to follow the story. Secondly, it is one of the few movies where the voice is being used as the main prop without revealing how Narayani looks like. The film is made in Malayalam and yet do not limit yourself ignore this movie. Do watch it for the different style of storytelling and its faceless romance. 

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Wikileaks and Free Speech

Michael Moore and Oliver Stone
The New York Times

We have spent our careers as filmmakers making the case that the news media in the United States often fail to inform Americans about the uglier actions of our own government. We therefore have been deeply grateful for the accomplishments of WikiLeaks, and applaud Ecuador's decision to grant diplomatic asylum to its founder, Julian Assange, who is now living in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. 

Ecuador has acted in accordance with important principles of international human rights. Indeed, nothing could demonstrate the appropriateness of Ecuador's action more than the British government's threat to violate a sacrosanct principle of diplomatic relations and invade the embassy to arrest Assange.

Since WikiLeaks' founding, it has revealed the "Collateral Murder" footage that shows the seemingly indiscriminate killing of Baghdad civilians by a US Apache attack helicopter; further fine-grained detail about the true face of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; US collusion with Yemen's dictatorship to conceal our responsibility for bombing strikes there; the Barack Obama administration's pressure on other nations not to prosecute Bush-era officials for torture; and much more. 

Predictably, the response from those who would prefer that Americans remain in the dark has been ferocious. Top elected leaders from both parties have called Assange a "high-tech terrorist". Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who leads the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has demanded that he be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Most Americans, Britons and Swedes are unaware that Sweden has not formally charged Assange with any crime. Rather, it has issued a warrant for his arrest to question him about allegations of sexual assault in 2010.

All such allegations must be thoroughly investigated before Assange moves to a country that might put him beyond the reach of the Swedish justice system. But it is the British and Swedish governments that stand in the way of an investigation, not Assange. Swedish authorities have travelled to other countries to conduct interrogations when needed, and the WikiLeaks founder has made clear his willingness to be questioned in London. Moreover, the Ecuadorean government made a direct offer to Sweden to allow Assange to be interviewed within Ecuador's embassy. In both instances, Sweden refused.

Assange has also committed to travelling to Sweden immediately if the Swedish government pledges that it will not extradite him to the US. Swedish officials have shown no interest in exploring this proposal, and foreign minister Carl Bidt recently told a legal adviser to Assange and WikiLeaks unequivocally that Sweden would not make such a pledge. The British government would also have the right under the relevant treaty to prevent Assange's extradition to the US from Sweden, and has also refused to pledge that it would use this power. Ecuador's attempt to facilitate that arrangement with both governments were rejected.

Taken together, the British and Swedish governments' actions suggest to us that their real agenda is to get Assange to Sweden. Because of treaty and other considerations, he probably could be more easily extradited from there to the US to face charges. Assange has every reason to fear such an outcome. The justice department recently confirmed that it was continuing to investigate WikiLeaks and just disclosed Australian government documents from this past February state that "the US investigation into possible criminal conduct by Mr. Assange has been ongoing for more than a year."

WikiLeaks itself has published emails from Stratfor, a private intelligence corporation, which state a grand jury has already returned a sealed indictment of Assange. History indicates Sweden would buckle to any pressure from the US to hand over Assange. In 2001, the Swedish government delivered two Egyptians seeking asylum to the CIA, which rendered them to the Mubarak regime, which tortured them. 

If Assange is extradited to the US, the consequences will reverberate for years around the world. Assange is not an American citizen, and none of his actions have taken place on American soil. If the US can prosecute a journalist in these circumstances, the governments of Russia and China could, by the same logic, demand that foreign reporters anywhere on earth be extradited for violating their laws. The setting of such a precedent should deeply concern everyone, admirers of WikiLeaks or not. 

We urge the people of Britain and Sweden to demand that their governments answer some basic questions: Why do the Swedish authorities refuse to question Assange in London? Why can't neither government promise that Assange will not be extradited to the US? The citizens of Britain and Sweden have a rare opportunity to make a stand for free speech on behalf of the entire globe.