Friday, January 30, 2009

Master Marathon

Two Masters in two nights: that's the arch-enemy Time Lord on Doctor Who, for the few people who might not know (recently revived as John Simm in series 3 of the new Who).

First up, the suave Roger Delgado in 1972's "The Sea Devils" (Jon Pertwee as the Doctor). I really like Delgado; he's the epitome of moustache-twirling, sinister-chuckling villainy. A caricature, yes, but a delightful one.

This adventure has a truly crazy score, completely made up of weird electronic blips and bleeps and tones. Some people find it off-putting, but it's quite similar to the Manhattan Research, Inc. music of which I'm so fond. Then, in the same story, the Master builds an oscillating frequency-generating doohickey in his prison cell, to transmit messages to reptilian Sea Devils under the ocean, and it emits noises almost indistinguishable from the score.

"It's like he's composing the music for his own episode!" I told my honey, as the Master flipped little switched on his machine to make it squeal.

The best part of the episode was when the Doctor and Jo visit the Master in his so-called high-security cell. They almost shake hands, and then they draw back and raise their palms in a sort of embarrassed salute. Just for a second, I thought they were going to high-five, which would have been the best thing ever!

Later, when the Doctor and the Sea Devil leader finally start to understand each other, the Sea Devil holds out his palm at about chest level, and the Doctor does touch palms with him in handshake-like gesture. A low five! Later, the Sea Devil and the Master do it too. I don't know why that's so memorable, except that a militant reptilian sea species that high-fives is clearly more interesting than one that doesn't.

Last night's entry in the Master-a-thon was 1981's "The Keeper of Traken." First, let's talk about the Master. He'd shown up in the '76 storyline "The Deadly Assassin" in a horribly burned form, his elegant black suits replaced by a crinkly, burned-looking robe. All these years later, he's healed slightly (though not much), but he's still wearing the robe! It looks like he's wearing the same clothes he had on during whatever space accident caused his disfigurement.

I kept thinking of Morrissey's "I wear black on the outside, because black is how I feel, on the inside." He's been horribly burned, he's (potentially) on his last regeneration, his ship is trapped on the Planet of the Goody-Goodies ... frankly, I think he'd just gotten a little depressed. Which can't be a good addition to his usual insane megalomania.

Sadly, the episode as a whole suffers from its slow pace and an absolutely ridiculous level of technobabble. There are two randomly put-together teenagers, who turn out to both be such mechanical geniuses, they can jury-rig a sophisticated device to sabotage one of the most powerful energy sources in the universe. In about fifteen minutes, while the Doctor's being menaced elsewhere. Even worse, they have to TALK about what they're doing while they're doing it.

When I was watching the whole Tom Baker run of Doctor Who after school every day, in thirty-minute increments, some of the changes on the show started to bleed in slowly, so I didn't really notice them at the time. During the Douglas Adams reign (rest his soul), the slapstick slowly got a little bit sillier over time, and by the time it was too silly (I'm one of the people who agree that it did), I'd gotten used to it. Same with the technobabble element. It started creeping in more and more, until suddenly, the Doctor wasn't making witty brush-offs about his technological prowess, but discoursing like a particularly pompous physics professor.

Yes, "The Sea Devils" was the episode that introduced the famous phrase "reverse the polarity of the neutron flow," so it's not like technobabble wasn't there. But whole conversations didn't go on in incomprehensible jargon.

"The Keeper of Traken" does look, however, like they spent a million dollars on the costumes, and even more on the sets, which were truly things of beauty. I also astounded my honey by saying that I remember this episode as the one is which Adric was the least annoying, and after watching it, I stand by that assessment. But if this is as good as he gets, it's not going to inspire anyone to want to see what he's like when he's MORE annoying.

Knowing that the even more technobabbly "Logopolis" and "Castrovalva" are ahead of me is a daunting task, but for some perverse reason, I feel compelled to revisit them. Just goes to prove, some of the biggest fans aren't happy unless they can talk about the ways their beloved shows suck.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ashoka Vs. Talk Radio

One of the new digital TV channels we get with the new converter box is a local weather map, that shows the current temperature and conditions, which is, actually, somewhat handy in these days of twenty below. Unfortunately, it's operated by a station that also owns a talk radio channel, so they run the audio from that behind it, and I just do my best to ignore it.

The other morning, my honey switched over to the weather channel for a second, and the radio person was asking whether talk radio had had a negative effect on -- something I didn't catch, probably a particular situation.

I looked up from my book to scoff. Of course talk radio had a negative effect on it, whatever it was. When has talk radio had a beneficial effect?

Now, I will go out of my way to avoid talk radio whenever possible. It's irksome that a public trust is handed over to bitterly partisan people for the specific purpose of creating artificial controversies, and encouraging hostility and misunderstanding between different groups of people.

As luck would have it, I barely turned the page of my book, Amartya Sen's The Argumentative Indian, to discover him quoting Emperor Ashoka (third century BCE, and known to all of us from the movie Asoka if nowhere else) on basically the same subject as my train of thought.

Ashoka "was strongly committed to making sure that public discussion could take place without animosity or violence," Sen says, and then quotes from an edict on tolerance.

"He demanded, for example, 'restraint in regard to speech, so that there should be no extolment of one's own sect or disparagement of other sects on inappropriate occasions, and it should be moderate even on appropriate occasions.' Even when engaged in arguing, 'other sects should be duly honoured in every way on all occasions.' "

So, turns out there were higher ideals for civic participation thousands of years ago. More evidence for the "we're all de-VO" school of thought? Or at least evidence against the notion that we as modern people are more evolved than our ancient ancestors, who tend to get tarred as primitive because they didn't have laptops.

Even better, Ashoka goes on to say:

" 'For he who does reverence to his own sect while disparaging the sects of others wholly from attachment to his own sect, in reality inflicts, by such conduct, the severest injury on his sect.' "
-- The Argumentative Indian, p. 16, 18

I certainly can't say that any better.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Banana Takes the Cake

Well, the winner in the difficult category of Favorite 3-D effect in Purana Mandir 2, aka Saamri, aka 3-D Saamri, was as follows: lecherous bad guy is flirting with an attractive maid at the haunted bungalow, and tries to stall her by offering her an unpeeled banana (hmmm). This provides an opportunity to thrust the banana toward the camera a few times. That's got the yo-yo scene from Friday the 13 Part 3: 3-D totally beat.

I also discovered that this whole time, I've owned two separate Hindi-language films with full-on zombie graveyard dance scenes openly inspired by "Thriller." (In this case, it's all a dream by Jagdeep as cook/gravedigger "Chunges Khan alias Startrek," who actually says "Michael Jackson, Thriller!" afterwards, although Mithun looks better in the shiny red jacket).

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Both have their merits

I can't decide which 3-D effect I like best so far in Purana Mandir 2: Saamri. Is it the dog bone used to stir a cup of coffee, and then flung directly into the camera? Or is it the garden hose?

All the Fanwank in the World

I've been thinking that the next season of Doctor Who will be in good hands with Steven Moffatt. The first few seasons of Coupling, at least, were smart and hilarious, and he wrote two of the best (and definitely scariest) new Who episodes, "The Empty Child" and "Blink." But then last night we watched the two-parter that started with "Silence in the Library" -- a good creepy story with some emotional meatiness for our two leads, which was totally marred by the presence of someone the script hints will become the Doctor's wife.

Moffatt wrote this, so I feel free to blame him. The casting of the youngest Doctor ever (a twenty-something who looks barely twelve) doesn't add to my confidence that they will escape the trap of transdimensional soap opera, with which I am officially sick and tired. I just want the smartest man in the universe to go around saving people and planets and making witty quips while he does it. (Like "The Unicorn and the Wasp," an episode back. Now, that's Doctor Who).

We suffered through all the Rose angst (I know she's coming back, and I have an inkling something will happen that I'm really not going to like). We had Martha, a really good companion, unfortunately plunked into an unrequited love scenario; the overtly romantic suddenly-he's-ready-to-settle-down "Girl in the Fireplace" thing; the full-on outright romance, albeit with amnesia, with Jessica Hynes in "Human Nature;" the Kylie Minogue thing; even with Donna a surfeit of "no, we're not a couple" business. And now a swoony "oh, it'll all be true love when we meet in the future!"

Enough already! If the writers were curious about exploring "what if the Doctor really has feelings for his companions," and thought the audience was curious also, well, it's been explored. You've got all of time and space to play with, people, so let's stop rehashing and get to it!

It doesn't help, either, that "The Doctor's Daughter" episode revisited, too ham-fistedly for my taste, the whole idea of the Doctor's previous life. The Eccleston throw-away comment "I was a Dad once" is about as far as that needs to go. I was happy to have that comment, actually, because of the whole fan controversy about Susan and who the heck she was. Which has always amused me, since literally the first thing anyone knew about the Doctor was that he was this girl's grandfather. Then they found out he lived in a junk yard. In a police box. Etc.

So why shouldn't we assume that he was a dad once?

Of course, there's a problem with Susan, which is the fact that she met a fella, and the Doctor just left her there with him on a future Earth, but with no TARDIS and no explanation of what'll happen when the time comes for her to regenerate. (It's been years since I saw "The Five Doctors," where she made an appearance, mainly in a tea-making mode, so I can't recall if there was any mention of what she'd been up to since then. And since I don't remember it so fondly, I'm kind of putting it into the Paul McGann TV movie category of dubious canonicity).

This whole incident has always been fuel for the theory that Susan wasn't actually, literally, his granddaughter, but one of the numerous waifs he's picked up over the years, but one so young (and probably orphaned) that he raised her as his granddaughter. If she was really human, then extreme longevity and regeneration wouldn't be an issue, and he might have left her thinking it was better for her to have a life with other humans. Retcon can then fill in the blanks, with more recent episodes, to say that he somehow lost his pre-existing family, and adopting Susan filled the void, much like Rose gave him a connection to others again after the destruction of Gallifrey in the Time War.

Of course, continuity really is a lost cause at this point, because all the fanwank in the world can't change the fact that when the Doctor and Susan parted company, there were no enormous life spans, no regenerations, no Time Lords -- just the vague notion that they were from "another time, another world," which meant anything was possible and nothing about them could be proven wrong.

If Susan wasn't a real granddaughter, though, then the idea of the Doctor being a husband and a parent was created from a whole cloth by the "I was a Dad once" comment, forty-three years down the line, and really unnecessarily. I guess I'm just in the school of thought that too much backstory, and the bringing of subtext to the fore, has straitjacketed the show more than it's enriched it. The Doctor and Susan acted like grandfather and granddaughter, and that's all that mattered. He could feel and express affection for Jo and Sarah and Ace without seeming like a serial womanizer.

Romance is a crutch! Throw it away and walk!

Unless they cast Shah Rukh Khan as the Doctor, in which case he has a special dispensation to play the Doctor like he's James T. Kirk.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Final answer

Well, I finally saw Slumdog Millionaire. And, yeah, it was okay. (Adopts jaded posture).

Kidding! I loved it! A few random thoughts:

I would not have guessed the question about the famous Indian poets correctly, but at least I'm familiar with all of them.

Anil needs to do a version of Faust. He can play either Faust, or the Devil. Or both. Double role!

Afterwards, I heard a woman ask someone "So, what did you think of Rupee Regis?" I don't know quite how to react to that, but it's better than that screening of Born Into Brothels where I heard a woman in the restroom refer to the kids' mothers as "stupid whores." I'm still horrified!

I'm glad Irfan got more and better screen time than I was expecting, based on what I'd heard.

Speaking of, I was perversely intrigued by villainous Ankur Vikal, who I hope to see in a lot more movies. I think he had the part Irfan would have done five years ago.

I'm glad I read Sacred Games, even apart from its own virtues, so I was able to understand a lot of the untranslated profanity.

My husband got to the theater early to buy our tickets, and a guy coming out of the previous show started chatting with him. The stranger asked, "Are you familiar with Bollywood films?" Ha ha ha!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hamster Hai!

Midway through Thoda Pyaar, Thoda Magic, a heartwarming tale about a group of mischievous orphans and the uptight businessman who needs to loosen up and learn to love them. To that end, God personally sends an angel to help bring them together. One of the things I find interesting is the fact that heaven isn't depicted as a Hindu heaven, or a Christian heaven, but as a traditional movie heaven. You know the one: very pastel, and non-denominational.

Best of all, Rishi Kapoor is God, which is exactly as it should be. This may be an idolatrous thought in some circles, but it can't possibly hurt to picture Rishi during the prayers, when I go to church with the folks on Sunday. Can it? That might be a theology I can get behind.

(Oh, and my favorite line so far: one of the kids' pet is mistaken for a rat, and he indignantly says "Hamster Hai!" Which is, of course, simply "It's a hamster!" But the sound of it strikes me as some kind of strange rallying cry. But to what end, I can't possibly imagine).

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Dubious Mandir

So yesterday I got home from a ninth-grade basketball game to find an envelope from a certain Hindu Mandir (temple) in northern California. This didn't surprise me; in fact, I'm surprised more booksellers don't put me on mailing lists of one kind of another, the way you buy one thing from some companies and they, along with like merchants, inundate you for years. Anyway, I assumed they were doing a fundraiser, or promoting some new stuff, and were doing a mailing to all their previous customers.

Interestingly, such was not the case. It was a personalized letter thanking me for my "participation in the Mandir, and for all the beautiful blessings you shared with us throughout the year." Well, thanks, but it was the least I could do. Then there was a specific thanks for my "donations," a reminder of their tax deductibility, and their tax ID number for use in declaring it.
Now, the only contact I have ever had, in any way, with these people, is that earlier this year I bought a single book from their store through the Amazon Marketplace. The amount of my "donations" listed in the letter is the same as what I paid for this book.

Oddly, the letter includes in the statement "No product or service was given in exchange." I think that's because the IRS code says (among other very dull things) that "There is generally no donative element involved in a visitor's purchase from a museum gift shop." Then there's a lot of stuff about if you donate over so much and get such and such goods and services back (which makes me think of pledge week on PBS), the charity has to give some special statement, and my "donations" would be too small to be concerned with there.

But to the untrained eye, it doesn't really look it should be deductible at all. Either way, the notion that "no product ... was given in exchange" is absurd, since our only relationship was of a product given in exchange.

Either they're on the sly side here, or they're just too ethereal to keep the revenue streams separate. Since I was a girl who grew up in the seventies, I can't help being skeptical of California gurus, unfair as that is to what I'm sure are perfectly sincere Swamijis who just like the nicer climate...

Friday, January 9, 2009

Sadly, Phoonk's no Bhoot

Ever since I got the DVD of Phoonk in the mail (Ram Gopal Varma's 2008 horror release), we've been bopping our kitties on the nose and saying "Phoonk!" It's totally onomatopeic, although really, of course it means "an incantation," and has no intrinsic connection to nose-bopping.

Now that I've watched the movie, I can say that it wasn't bad: it was competently made, and contains some spooky visuals. I've seen a lot worse. (Well, if you either know more personally, or have ever read my blog, that goes without saying). But I'm relieved that it flopped. If it had been a hit, I might have worried about the implications, since Phoonk's main drawback was: it's just like an American movie, in a bad way.

For one thing, it's so straightforward, we know exactly who the villains are even before they do anything villainous. Directly from point A to point B, and then, that's it! Dudes, I'm already in a country with a multibillion dollar entertainment industry utterly dedicated to simplification. That's not something that needs to be imitated!

Our protagonist is a rational modern businessman, opposed to religion, but when his daughter is cursed, he learns there's more in heaven and earth, etc. When the construction workers he hires dig up a Ganesha head, he refuses to let them waste time building a shrine on the site. Later on, he's so adamant about this that he wants to fire them. Eventually, with his daughter acting possessed and catatonic by turns, he goes to another magician for help in fighting the unknown (but sadly obvious) evil (uncovered in a "eureka! It's them!" moment). His mind expanded, he allows the shrine to be built. That's as much "character development" as we're going to get.

The best thing in the movie was Ashwini Khalsekar as the creepy tantric magician. Madhu. In her early scenes, as a business associate who was supposed to be smart and capable, but off-puttingly weird, she seemed to be suffering from a sort of giggly Tourette's. But once she started to be vaguely menacing, and eventually turned on the full black magic mode, she was really good. Apparently, it was the stress of acting normal that caused her character to seem crazy; in her own lair, as her evil self, she was interestingly dignified and intense. (Her previous film was 2007's Johnny Gaddaar, with, ooh, Dharmendra, which sounds worth checking out).

And about those magicians -- I was really hoping for some complexity there. Like, they were falsely accused of the fraud that got them fired in the beginning of the film (which led to their desire for revenge). Or that their magic had been a key part of the hero's business success, as opposed to his put-upon wife's prayers to the gods. Anything to ambiguous it up for us. After all, the relatively low-budget Gehrayee used a similar possession-of-the-innocent revenge plot, but with larger overarching themes and a lot more subtlety. That's in a horror movie from 1980. Think about that!

So yeah, the style was very American cinema. Here's your characters; here's your situation; it plays out; the end. No interesting subplots or digressions. Nothing to connect us emotionally to these people's plight, other than the idea that, well, they're the main characters, so we're supposed to care.

Gives me new appreciation for the Ramsay Brothers, I'll tell you that!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The path of reason

I, of course, only know the Emperor Akbar from two fabulously lush, lengthy historical epics: 2008's Jodhaa Akbar (which depicts him as young, hunky, and romantic, embodied in super-buff Hrithik Roshan), and 1960-s Mughal-E-Azam (grown into a stern, imposing king trying to keep his son away from beautiful dancing girl Madhubala, obviously a futile goal).

Nonetheless, those movies did give me an interesting mental picture (largely Hrithik-ized) when he turned up in Amartya Sen's excellent Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, a book which, if I could afford it, I would buy and give to every human being on the planet.

As described by Sen, Akbar was a promotor of "rahi aql," or "the path of reason," especially in dealing with religion. His strategy of granting equal legal protections for different religious practices seems, on one hand, like an only-logical way of dealing with a large geographical area full of wildly diverse beliefs. After all, when the citizens you're ruling belong to all sorts of different groups, why fan antagonisms and sectarianism between them? Why not try to encourage understanding between them, if only in the name of stabilizing the country? Since the same could be said of the wildly diverse citizens of the US, though, let's just assume that logic isn't always the issue.

But back to the book. "Akbar, the Great Mughal, was born a Muslim and died a Muslim, but he insisted that faith cannot have priority over reason, since one must justify -- and if necessary reject -- one's inherited faith through reason." (p. 161).

He goes on to quote Akbar thus: "The pursuit of reason and reject of traditionalism are so brilliantly patent as to be above the need of argument. If traditionalism were proper, the prophets would merely have followed their own elders (and not come with new messages)."

I think I've attempted to use that exact same argument (in certain specialized circumstances), but much less succinctly. As I said to my honey whilst reading on the couch, "Akbar kicks ass!"

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A drink with Saint Ghalib

The text for this Sunday's sermon comes from The Oxford India Ghalib (p. 10), where editor Ralph Russell writes:

"When a man read him a lecture against wine-drinking and told him that the prayers of the wine-drinker are never granted, Ghalib replied: 'My friend, if a man has wine, what does he need to pray for?' "

As luck would have it, this needs no explication.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The first time I saw David Bowie

Last night I was watching some videos from the '80s, and stumbled across "Ashes to Ashes," which led, as things so, to trains of thought. (I was watching on DVD, but here's a link to a video of decent quality: At the "wanna come down right now" part, doesn't he look like he's plugged into the Matrix?)

It's hard to exaggerate just how contextless I was, back in the pre-Internet, pre-mass media saturation days. You could hear a song on the radio, and you might never find out its name, or who sang it, or, potentially, meet another person who'd heard it. For much of my early life, we had one television channel, then a few more channels trickled in, and then WTBS. There were a handful of radio stations, mostly country-oriented, some oldies (sixties music), occasionally some decent R&B, and on some lucky nights, WLS, which I've talked about before. (Overall, we definitely got better access to the goings-on in the outside world from the radio).

And, of course, a few monthly magazines: Time, Newsweek, 'Teen, MAD, CREEM, and random celebrity gossip magazines, usually focused on the stars of ABC. I still remember the cover of the first Famous Monsters of Filmland I ever saw (it was Darth Vader, and I suspect the popularity of Star Wars was the only reason anyone got a magazine like that on the newstand in the first place).

In this environment, despite years glued to the radio, I was in college before I learned that David Bowie had done various songs I knew ("Fame," "Young Americans," etc.), or even realized that those singers were all the same person. One of my best friends in the dorm had a David Bowie book, and I was startled by a picture of something I wasn't entirely sure I hadn't dreamed: the guy in the weird Pierrot costume.

I had seen the "Ashes to Ashes" video, completely without context, in what I'd guess was the summer of 1980 (the year it came out, when I would have been 15). My semi-educated reconstruction of events is that the video was aired on the show The Midnight Special. I know I was sleeping over at my best friend's house, we were up late, and we had no idea what the hell we were seeing.

When I look at the list of singles from 1980 on the Wikipedia (and surprisingly, there are some really good ones on there), the ones I actually remember hearing at the time were like, Ambrosia's "The Biggest Part of Me" ("ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo no, baby please don't go"), "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin', " and "Funkytown." I'm sure I was pretentious enough, but my knowledge base about art and music and, well, everything, was pretty limited. (And come to think of it, I think the two go together more often than not. My snootiness was based on, "I don't know what I want, but it's not this. There must be something more!" Once I discovered that there really, truly was, I was able to relax and enjoy, without always having to make a big deal out of it in order to differentiate myself. But again, that's just me).

But back to Mr. Bowie. I cannot overstate how weird this was, stumbled upon with no explanation, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, never having seen anything that would put it into any kind of context. I don't know how you could possibly recreate those laboratory conditions, even if you wanted to.

In contrast, for example, the 1987 "True Faith" video by New Order has a similar French theater surrealism weirdness going on, but by the time I saw that, I'd read Beckett, and I knew who New Order were (tongue twister!), so it didn't seem all that weird. It was just, well, that's a video.

( In retrospect, this seems sort of Blue Man Group, and as such, wouldn't even seem that strange to anyone who's watched television commercials. Which is...kind of weird.