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Tuesday, Feb 6, 2007

Women hold a sacred place in Indian cinema. Pre-Christian rituals of worship are imbued on a screen projecting images of full-lipped goddesses. The inherent beauty of the female figure, the agility of the dancer, the playful sauciness, and above all, the promise of sex, is what endears these eight women to billions of moviegoers. Sex is less taboo and dirty in Indian cinema when rendered in a certain artistic, quasi-religious sort of way. Indeed, its procreative potential and its ability to excite the human consciousness grants it a divine status. Audiences don’t just drool and fantasize over these goddesses. Like their more cerebral Hollywood counterparts, Marlene Dietrich and Sharon Stone, they’re admired for their charisma, craft, elusiveness and unpredictability. As mutable as the Apsaras they recreate onscreen, these actresses grow more complex with each new film, tantalizing us with a spirited song sequence or surprising us with a new side of their acting, nuanced and original, that we didn’t expect to see.


Four of the eight actresses hail from South India, the heart of classical Indian dance. Dance is a vital aspect of worship in Hinduism. Shiva created the universe through dance, resolving and sustaining the cosmos via a sinuous ballet. A woman who is accomplished in the technique and discipline of classical dance is deeply respected for her beauty and her intelligence. South India’s starlets remind one of the primeval goddesses represented in cave sculptures: woman in its original, undiluted form.


One of the most popular stars of the 40s and 50s, Vyjayantimala, was the first big star from South India, no small feat in a North Indian-dominated film industry. With her astounding virtuosity at Bharatnatyam, her classical Earth Mother beauty, and her sensitive performances she paved the way for the other South Indian actresses. Hema Malini, the darling of the 70s, shared Vyjayantimala,’s talent for dance and arresting good looks, though she defined her persona as a wise-cracking, brassy skeptic along the lines of Jean Harlow. Sridevi, the reigning movie queen of the 80s (the most prolific of all eight, she sometimes had up to 10 movies out at the same time) upped the ante on slapstick and sex appeal—the Carole Lombard of Indian cinema. Rekha, the last of the South Indian beauties, a star of the 70s and 80s, seems to become more fascinating with age, starring in provocative roles that challenge the existing norms of India’s sometime hypocritical policies.


In the 70s, India like the rest of the world, was swept up in the tide of cultural revolution that came with political dissent.  As the Women’s Rights movement spread internationally, Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi embodied modernity. While the Indian heroines thus far wore tasteful, conservative saris and bindis, Aman and Babi were unashamed to show off their lovely figures in bikinis and mini-skirts. They were looked upon as “Western” heroines whose rejection of conventional attire and attitude (the subservient wife or fiancé) stunned and titillated audiences who were unaccustomed to seeing an Indian woman so unapologetically cosmopolitan.


By the time Madhuri Dixit entered the scene the ideal of the screen goddess began to unravel. Actresses struggled to be seen as artists and not merely as nubile, plastic dolls. The late 80s and 90s, when more Indians were working abroad and longed to return to India, tradition and ritual came back full-force in Indian cinema. Dixit was the phenomenon of those years. A spirited dancer and vivacious personality she possessed a homespun beauty of Miss Middle India, a glamorous homebody equally at ease in an evening gown or cooking at home. She enjoyed the popularity Rita Hayworth did in the 40s, her picture emblazoned on every man’s wall in all far corners of the world. But the overwhelming celebrity as an international sex symbol became too much for Dixit, who retired from movies seven years ago to marry an NRI doctor and live a quiet life as a soccer mom near Denver, Colorado.


Kareena Kapoor is the most of recent of the lot and the one who seems to have the most fun. A star of the new millennium, when Indian society enjoyed more progressive liberalism and more respect for an independent, sexier woman, Kapoor is less inhibited than her predecessors, and less pretentious She dances, not classically, with enthusiasm and abandon. Her love of the limelight is inherited; the granddaughter of Bollywood founding father, Raj Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor combines the Old World glamour with New World attitude.


All of these women realize that being a sex symbol in India, a country that reveres sex but is still reluctant to talk about openly, is a challenging mantle to assume. As the object who graces the dreams of the both rickshaw driver and the Sultan of Brunei, she bridges men together with collective longings. But eroticism aside, the Bollywood sex symbol’s true talent is cerebral; she tantalizes with what’s left unseen, with fantasies unanswered. It takes a clever woman to realize that her sex appeal is half of what she has and half of what everyone thinks she has.



Vyjantimala circa ‘50s

Hema Malini circa ‘70s

Rekha circa ‘70s


Sridevi circa ‘80s

Zeenat Aman circa ‘70s

Parveen Babi circa ‘70s

Madhuri Dixit circa early ‘90s

Kareena Kapoor circa ‘90s


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Tuesday, Feb 6, 2007

Economist Brad Delong wonders what’s going on with the Super Bowl ads’ scorn for low-wage jobs:


I am not imagining this, am I? The underlying background assumption of these commercials is contempt for the men and women who serve the fast food and work the loading docks and deliver the pizzas and staff the call centers of America, isn’t it? The exectives of GM and Nationwide Insurance and their creative ad professionals think that denying the dignity of labor is the road to selling annuities and SUVs to the fiftysomethings with spare cash watching the Super Bowl, isn’t it? This is a Sign of the Apocalypse for our current Second Gilded Age, isn’t it? Or am I overreacting?


A good question, related to this story PopMatters ran the other day about GEICO’s caveman ads. The implication of these ads seems to be that sympathy for low-wage workers or marginalized groups is contrived, as contrived as the set-ups of the ads themselves, that to raise such objections as “What about the service worker’s dignity?” is to exhibit a fuddy-duddy political correctness that epitomizes a lack of cool. The only people who would leap to defend the fry cooks from the affronts in these ads are not fry cooks themselves but patronizing bleeding hearts who want to earn points for their conscientiousness. Presumably, the fry cooks aren’t bothered by the ads because (a) they find them sufficently funny, (b) they are content with any sort of recognition, even as the butt of a joke (the reality-TV eager-for-humiliation paradigm) or (c) they don’t identify themselves with the job, which they too have contempt for. People in those jobs don’t see themselves working them forever; the jobs are disposable and interchangable; meanwhile those working them are rooting their identity in future jobs (call it the permanent identity hypothesis) or in their consumption practices—what we are is not what we do anymore, or rather what we do mainly is shop, collect things and display them.

Also (and this may contradict the point above and may end up being tautological), I think when we watch ads, unless we are consciously resisting and hurling insults at the screen, we end up suspending our actual selves and adopting a provisional persona, a kind of collective transpersonal identity which codifies all the traits recognized as socially dominant. This self is open to the fantasies the ad wants to communicate—this openness makes the ads enjoyable rather than an irritating intrusion; in fact we’re grateful to the ads for helping us assume this powerful persona that public discourse (ads, again) is continually flattering. (That’s why it’s strange that the ad industry promotes the Super Bowl as a commercial showcase—it prompts viewers to adopt a critical attitude, as though they were expert judges of rhetoric and persuasion instead of the receptive blobs we typically are, softened up by formulaic entertainment. The critical attitude stymies the adoption of this alternate persona.) This provisional self is awash in aspiration and knows itself able to make good on all of marketing’s empty promises of transformation, reading accurately and vicariously experiencing all the meticulous details of the lifestyles ads convey. It revels in the (demented) faux utopias of beer ads and truck ads, full of anxiety-free relations, effortless beauty, unspoiled landscapes and perfect homes. The provisional self can know no failure, so it adopts the appropriate elitist perspective toward low-wage jobs and finds the comedy in them—the laughable idea that society makes people do things such as that. Ha! Can you believe it? The jobs themselves are shifted to the realm of fantasy, comedic nightmares invented solely for the purposes of getting laughs. Ads induce us to adopt a transcendent persepctive from which the fantasy and magical thinking ads trade in register as real and the tedium and injustices of life register as false, as jokes.


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Tuesday, Feb 6, 2007

As much as I enjoyed her work at the New York Times, Ann Powers is doing even better work at the L.A. Times now, more than ably replacing Robert Hilburn there.  She’s thoughtful as hell and knows how to dig into deep into ideas and concepts surrounding some of the biggest rock and pop acts around today.  Yes, she’s a popist but unlike others of that clan, she’s not snobbish about it and doesn’t dole out pot-shots, instead she’s “just try(ing) to turn Kylie into Dylan, in a lot of ways” (though she’s still a Dylan fan too).  If she’s got any faults, it’s that sometimes, she pushes for a zeitgeist angle too much.  Nothing wrong with that- from her exclusive perch, she should take advantage of it and try to make grand statements.


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Monday, Feb 5, 2007


It’s a week of great ideas vs. divergent execution. Indeed, one of the defining skills for a filmmaker is the ability to translate what everyone agrees is a stellar premise into an equally intriguing movie. Sometimes, the combination creates a classic work of art. But in most cases, the lack of imagination destroys the fascinating narrative foundation, reducing the translation to something miserable and misguided. Luckily, most of the entries in this week’s inspiration against implementation contest came up winners. See for yourself as you peruse the titles for 6 February, including our main selection:


The Science of Sleep


When you consider its cinematic pedigree, and its remarkable visual invention, it’s unfathomable why more people didn’t respond to Michel Gondry’s fracture fable. Like an incomplete European version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (his collaboration with Charlie Kaufman) the fascinating French auteur explored the battle between fantasy and reality, and how it relates to love, in a way that was stunning in its message and meaning. Never closing off any avenue of emotion, and using his dualistic characters (named, ironically enough Stephane and Stephanie) to constantly challenge the standard conventions of onscreen romance, Gondry does something very daring with this otherwise whimsical workout. He never offers any closure, instead looking at relationships as they really are – complicated, dense and often open-ended.

Other Titles of Interest


Blume in Love


Using the unique construct of following a divorce lawyer as his own marriage breaks up, counterculture stalwart Paul Mazursky serves up one of his last iconoclastic efforts. George Segal expertly embodies a man incapable of understanding his own role in the dissolution of his relationship. This is the rare comedy that transcends its joke-oriented trappings to find the truth behind commitment and its collapse.

Crossing Delancey


Amy Irving is a good Jewish girl, content with her life. Her grandmother wants her to find a good Jewish man. But she balks when it’s suggested she see a yenta (a.k.a matchmaker) – that is, until she meets up with pickle maker Peter Riegert. While things are complicated at first, this romantic comedy overcomes its uniquely ethnic trappings to work as both laffer and love story.


Flag of Our Fathers


It’s a brilliant subject for a film – how the famed image of the flag rising over Iwo Jima came about. Oddly enough, Clint Eastwood opted for jingoism over explanation, focusing mostly on the men post-event, and how they were honored, and exploited, for appearing in the photo. Most believe that his companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima, is the much better WWII testament.

Hollywoodland


In one of the more tragic tales of typecasting ever, B-movie staple George Reeves could never live down his TV’s Superman persona. So the kept man finally killed himself – or did he? That’s the unusual premise for a detective story dissection of the actor’s supposed suicide. Thanks to an amazing turn by Ben Affleck, this occasionally convoluted story shines through.

A Summer Place


Pure processed American cinematic cheese, filtered through an angst-ridden soap style that’s awfully hard to resist. More obsessed with sex and hate than clique-ish middle schoolers, this puerile potboiler has the most hissable villain in the entire canon of melodramatic camp. Add in more mindless innuendo, a sulking Sandra Dee and total lack of subtlety and you’ve got a choice cheddar classic.


And Now for Something Completely Different


Mad Monkey Kung Fu


Okay, it’s true confession time. We here at SE&L have never even seen this infamous martial arts movie. We wouldn’t begin to know how inventive or thrilling it is. We’re not even sure if it has the kind of gravity defying fight scenes that make the genre so sublime. But what we do know is – you gotta love that title! Thanks to a bit of research, we have learned that “Mad Monkey” is a style of combat, and that the movie represents some of the best-choreographed illustrations of the format ever committed to film. While it probably was too much to hope for simian streetfighters kicking the crap out of each other, we’ll still line up for a copy of this long out of print chopshocky epic.

 


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Monday, Feb 5, 2007

The BPS Research Digest reports on a study about boredom whose findings make a kind of intuitive sense to me. Researchers issued questionaires to students and found that those “who said they suffered from more boredom also tended to report difficulty identifying their emotions and being externally focused.” The researchers somewhat poetically explain the problems of looking to external stimuli to cure boredom: “Like the trap of quicksand, such thrashing only serves to strengthen the grip of boredom by further alienating us from our desire and passion, which provide compass points for satisfying engagement with life.” Looking for distractions only yields further distraction, more boredom. The psychology of this strikes me as correct, and I have argued before that consumer societies have to manufacture this state in its populace. Boredom has to be built in to consumer society’s products, and its discourse needs to continually reinforce the notion that we owe it to ourselves to be bored, lest we recognize the resources we have within ourselves. Boredom is a learned habit, not an accident of circumstances. Here’s what I wrote about it then:


Since we’re trained from childhood not to value the luxury of free thought, and since all initiative to think for ourselves and all cultural validation for autodidacticism has been effaced from the working world, we experience this erstwhile freedom to think undirected thoughts as boredom, as sullen blankness. Given this dire scenario, the culture industry’s primary function becomes one of habituating workers to their fate: to routinely expect boredom and to see the oscillation in and out of states of boredom as the only kind of joy. So accordingly, mass entertainments, with their interchangeable stories and their quick-cut edits and their rejection of complexity, carefully cultivate the short-attention span, continuing the cultural work initiated at the multiplex during the children’s movie. Concentration is counterproductive in a consumer, whereas boredom suits the consumer economy: incapable of forming deep attachments to cultural commodities and spurred by sublimated class envy, shoppers become perpetually restless for novelty, making serial purchases with spiraling frequency until the ever more tenacious habit of boredom renders them instantaneously empty upon possession. At that point, the act of acquisition is the only moment of pleasure, and one’s life becomes a perpetual buying spree.



How then do we get in touch with our emotions if consumer society conspires against us to induce alexithymia? Having recently seen David Lynch field questions about his TM practices and lulled by his repeated allusions to the ocean of bliss within, I wonder if meditation could form a bulwark against the hedonistic materialism’s snares, keeping us in a state of pristine emotional biofeedback. I don’t know. Meditiation seems kind of boring.


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