Sunday, September 29, 2013

Tokyo Story

Ozu, 1953, 135m
It is a long and slow movie, but never tiring. Although a drama of domestic life, it has many suspenseful moments. In one such, the father, having no lodgings, lands up at his daughter's house drunk, and is chided like an infant. They are people who do not fit into their children's busy lives in the big city. Boats floating past, rippling sea, smoking chimneys, railway stations, a mound of marble grave stones, a moth beats against a lighted bulb as an old lady breathes her last. The film was the director's top choice in the Sight and Sound poll 2012--it's always more difficult to see something as it stands on it's own, when it is so highly lauded. It's also a picture of life in Japan at the time, hypnotic in cinematography, steeped in the rhythms of time and place. We see the strange mixture of westernization and tradition.This is a gentle, powerful, beautiful film. 

Friday, September 27, 2013


1958, 124m, Hitchcock
Vertigo is the latest No 1 movie in the Sight and Sound poll, replacing Kane. I'm visiting it after a decade. It seems to have lost the magic it had. As a movie in which suspense is an important ingredient, the second view is different from the first. It has great cinematic beauty and haunting music--I had not forgotten the picturesque car drives along the sea side around San Francisco. It ventures into the inner recesses of the mind, in the Freudian manner. It is about fear, death and desire. The hero, Scottie, is obsessed to a point of sickness by a woman, or of a mental picture of one. It is a picture of dark, brooding, obsessive sexuality. Like most Hitchcock characters he is driven by forces over which he has little control. Death and desire, birth and cessation--are they not complementary? The movie delves into the eternal mystery, hazards into the region beyond the grave, conceding the possibility of existence beyond. Of course, it's devilish cleverness lies precisely in discarding all these conjectures and winding up as an ingenious matter of fact crime thriller. Whatever else one may say, this is not a film that can be forgotten. Every frame has remained imprinted for a decade. Hitchcock was never modest of his ability to mesmerize his audience. In a sense, watching it seemed superfluous, since it was already embedded in the mind. The plot is absurdly improbable. It must be full of loopholes. But that doesn't count. It is a dark and troubled portrayal of human nature, but I am left asking whether it is great cinema, whatever greatness means, or a disturbing piece of gimmickry? Among Hitchcock's films, it is among  the most memorable--one that has to be seen.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

1961, 115m, Maggie Smith
This is an extraordinary drama, set in a girl's boarding school in Edinburgh. It has an entirely British flavor. Maggie Smith as a charismatic teacher, Jean Brodie, gives the performance of a lifetime. Set during the Spanish civil war, she "inspires" one of her students to run away to join this war and to lose her life. She is perhaps intended to be an epitome of charismatic leaders, capable of leading their unthinking flocks down the lane of dubious causes. Indeed, as could have been common in her time, she admires Mussolini and Franco. Her fault would be to promote their own persona rather than empowerment and independence of her students. The film is a textured and a bitter parody of totalitarian leaders whom Brodie admires--in her awkwardly angular grandiose gestures as well as the brilliant unstoppable flow of words, she is a fascist of the classroom. I am reminded of Chaplin's film on the theme. This is a great film which Ebert missed out in his compilation.
The Great Dictator: NYT Review


2012, 198m
Gives a picture of war devastated Japan just after the occupation. MacArthur and his aides have to decide about the guilt for the war, and particularly the fate of the Emperor. Though stereotyped in approach, sinking at times to insipid romance and sentiment, it does deliver a measure of historical content, in an entertaining fashion. As a bonus, we share the surreal tranquility of some Japanese gardens and homes. Not a film worthy of its theme, but something is better than nothing.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Corporation

2003, 144m
This is a disturbing film. It describes the the power of corporations in the modern world. In legal terms a corporation is a "person". If so, it is a greedy person with no conscience. Being responsible only to the investors, corporations are driven by the single motive of earning profits, irrespective of the social and ecological damage they might cause. Specific examples like gene technology, privatization of natural resources as basic as water, pernicious effect of advertising are put forth in series of episodes, punctuated with the opinions of corporate representatives as well as critics of the system. The film is quite enlightening about these monsterss in whose vice we are obviously gripped.

To quote what Chomsky says in the documentary:

"It's a fair assumption that every human being...real human beings flesh and blood ones not corporations but every flesh and blood human a moral person. You know we've got the same genes the same but our nature the nature of humans allows all kinds of  behavior. I mean everyone of us under some circumstances could be a gas chamber attendant and a saint. But it is the consequence of modern capitalism.....When you look at a corporation just like when you look at a slave owner you want to distinguish between the institution and the individual. So slavery for example or other forms of tyranny are inherently monstrous but the individuals participating in them may be the nicest guys you could imagine: benevolent, friendly, nice to their children, even nice to their slaves..... I mean as individuals they may be anything. They're monsters because the institution is monstrous. 

Then the same is true of corporations. The goal for the corporation is to maximize profit and market share. And they also have a goal for their target namely the population. They have to be turned into completely mindless consumers of goods that they do not want. You have to develop what are called created wants. So you have to create wants. You have to impose on people what's called a philosophy of futility...the insignificant things of life like fashionable consumption. I’m just basically quoting business literature. And it makes perfect sense. The ideal is to have individuals who are totally disassociated from one another. Who’s conception of themselves the sense of value is just how many created wants can I satisfy? These people are customers because they are willing to trade money for widgets. And all the customers take the widgets home to all parts of the country. Look at all the money the widget builder has taken in from the sale of his widgets......public relations industry, monstrous industry advertising, and so on which are designed from infancy to try to mould people into this desired pattern."

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


1965, 158 minutes, Olivier, Frank Finlay (Iago)
The function of a Shakespeare film is to frame the script and this one does it very well. I've understood the play better than in the past. Frank Finlay's paints a fascinating Iago, immersing in the lines to give us a clear vision of the flow of his thoughts and the working of his mind. Olivier's Othello too rises to a fever pitch of histrionics, quite unabashedly overdoing it. We cannot accuse him of restraint, nor of not doing justice to the character. This is a painful drama to watch. Suspense builds up as Iago screws in his instruments of torture with consummate skill, deliberation and courage. The moor is driven to paroxysms of mental anguish, culminating in an epileptic seizure. The end is cathartic, as Othello stabs himself to join the wronged Desdemona. Rightfully, Iago is denied the relief of death, being distilled evil (he is dubbed "serpent") without any saving grace.And of course, he is the more interesting of the two leading characters. Mephistopheles he may be, it is hard to withhold admiration for his poise and clarity of mind, his capacity for bold improvisation and the courage as he plays with fire, staking his own life and safety, serving no material gain but his own inverted vindication. Determination, purpose and clarity of the path to follow are qualities one associates with snakes. Othello is but a pitiable blabbering poet, as Iago manipulates him like a monkey on a string. What a magnificent play!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Chomsky: On Death

Lunch with the FT
”Carol Chomsky, his wife and a fellow linguist, died in 2008. “Since then I’ve dived into work.” I ask whether this was a deliberate, escapist decision. After a rare pause, he says: “Well, John Milton pointed out that the mind is a strange place, so who knows?....

“It has to do with: ‘what is the fundamental core of human nature?’ ” Early Enlightenment thinkers wrote about how it is creative character that separates humans from the rest of the organic world. This character is manifested most clearly in language. Later intellectuals extended this idea to the social sphere. “So, if there is anything that restricts a person’s natural need to carry out creative work under their own direction, that is illegitimate.”.....

Chomsky: On Humanism and Morality, 2000 (Excerpt)

Q: One idea that I find extremely interesting and fascinating is the notion that just as our language capabilities are genetically determined, so is our capacity - as human beings - for moral judgement. What do you see as the implications of the idea that our moral capacity is innate?

Chomsky: Well, for one thing, I don't think it can really be much of a question. (That's not to say we understand anything about it.) But, the fact of the matter is that we're constantly making moral judgments in new situations, and over a substantial range we do it in a convergent fashion--we don't differ randomly and wildly from one another. Furthermore, young children do it, very quickly, and they also converge.

Of course, there are cultural and social and historical effects, but even for those to operate, they must be operating on something. If you look at this range of phenomena, there are only two possibilities: one is, it's a miracle, and the other is, it's rooted in our nature. It's rooted in our nature in the same sense in which language is, or for that matter, having arms and legs is. And it takes different forms depending on the circumstances, just as arms and legs depend on nutrition, and language depends on my not having heard Swedish when I was six months old and so on. But basically, it must be something that flows out of our nature, or otherwise we'd never use it in any systematic way, except just repeating what happened before. So, it's got to be there.

What are the implications? One implication is, we ought to be interested in finding out what it is. We'd learn something important about ourselves. You can't hope at this stage that we're beginning to learn anything from biology. Biology doesn't begin to reach that far. In principle it should, but right now it deals with much tinier problems. It has a hard time figuring out how bees function, let alone humans.

But I think we can learn things by history and experience. Take, say, the debate over big issues like slavery or women's rights and so on. It wasn't just people screaming at each other. There were arguments, in fact, interesting arguments on both sides. The pro-slavery side had very substantial arguments that are not easy to answer. But there was a kind of common moral ground in which a good bit of the debate took place, and as it resolved, which it essentially did, you see a consciousness emerging of what really is right, which must mean it reflects our built-in conception of what's right. And that's something that we learn more about over time, we get more insight into what's coming out of our nature. The implications are very substantial, to the extent that we can understand them. It's better to have a conscious understanding of what's guiding you, to the extent you can, than just to react intuitively, without understanding. That's true whether you're a carpenter reacting to how to form wood artifacts or a moral human being reacting to how to decide between behaviors toward others.

Full Text

Chomsky: On Atheism, Religion, and Science

7 minutes, approximate transcript
Q: Do you consider yourself a person of faith?
Chomsky: I try not to have faith. I go along with a principle very well enunciated by Bertrand Russel, which is that one should keep away from having irrational  beliefs. One should believe in things for which there is some evidence or rational support, apart from commitment to principles like freedom and justice and equality and so on. I guess faith is the things you are committed to....but when it comes to things like world, reality....things for which evidence would be appropriate, my feeling is as far as far as possible one should have substantiated beliefs...

Q: Would you then consider yourself paradoxically a person who has faith in scientific method...
Chomsky: I think it's the only method we have to get some approximate understanding of the world...I don't have faith that it will reach the truth or even whether it is leading us in the correct  direction.... as someone committed to the scientific method I am also committed to its consequences and among them that we are organic creatures with specific capacities and limitations and have no reason to think these capacities are such as can enable us to gain the truth about the world....but that's the best we can do...

Q: People will say you cannot have moral principles unless you adhere to a faith...
Chomsky: If I attribute these principles to a divine creature whom I define as ordering you to have those principles, those principles don't become any better it's a useless's true that moral principles are not grounded in unshakable evidence or argument....but nothing is going to make them any more firmly for having a meaningful life it's irrelevant...people have meaningful lives with or without...

Q: Can Americanism be fairly characterized a a religion?
Chomsky: We call Americanism or Italianism or Russianism as totalitarian doctrines...inglorious history since Ahab... 


Chomsky Sessions 2: Science, Religion and Human Nature Part 1

This is the second of five interviews given by NC. I went through the script with the last portion missing. The video in any case is hard to decipher due to his low volume drone. The present interview says little about his views of religion. Chomsky freewheels over a range of topics, and various Presidents including Jefferson and some recent ones draw his ink jets of ridicule about how religious dogma has been used to justify wrongs like the decimation of American Indians. Even Whitman, Franklin and Emerson do not escape the ire of his rationality. About religion per se he says little except as a first fumbling step towards science, and of the human need for a framework. He says: " Whatever we understand about anything as complex as human affairs, the answers are trivial. And when not trivial, we don't understand anything."

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Distorted Morality

Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr'd gowns hide all.

This talk was delivered in 2002. Chomsky argues that the terrorism carried out by powerful nation states far outweighs acts perpetrated by individuals or smaller groups. The wholesale variety is carried out in broad daylight, with little attempt at concealment. He supports his thesis by marshaling an encyclopedic array of facts from recent history, painfully assembled from scattered sources around the globe. One has surely to concede that things are not what they are made out. Moreover, we passively swallow the biased, distorted or falsified information streaming in through the media. This makes us morally anesthetized and intellectually numb.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Manufacturing Consent: Naom Chomsky and the Media

1992, 167 minutes, Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick

"States are violent institutionsOne cannot and should not be proud of any government," says Naom Chomsky, This unnecessarily long film does no service to its title character. Chomsky in this documentary heavy with cinematic gimmicks is turned into one more brand name to be marketed--in fact it ends up bending backward trying to manufacturing a kind of consent about the very person who is so critical of the procedure. Chomsky's talks and interviews are a delight to listen, but this rag tag collage, punctuated with often irrelevant newsreel footage (presumably to make his thoughts accessible, though they are simple enough) makes for tiresome and painful viewing. On the plus side, there would be a modicum of fresh informational material which could keep admirers of the scholar-activist engaged till the finish line.


Interviewer: How far does the success of libertarian socialism or anarchism as a way of life really depend on a fundamental change in the nature of man, both in his motivation, his altruism,and also in his knowledge and sophistication?

Chomsky: I think it not only depends on it but, in fact, the whole purpose of libertarian socialism is that it will contribute to it.It will contribute to a spiritual transformation. Precisely that kind of great transformation in the way humans conceive of themselves and their ability to act, to decide,to create, to produce, to inquire.

Precisely that spiritual transformation is what social thinkers from the Marxist tradition, from Luxemburg, say, through anarcho-syndicalists, have emphasised. So, on the one hand,it requires that spiritual transformation. But also, its purpose is to create institutions which will contribute to that transformation.


In dealing with social and political issues,in my view, what is at all understood[br]is pretty straightforward.There may be deep and complicated things.[br]But, if so, they're not understood.The basic... To the extent that we understand[br]society at all, it's pretty straightforward. And I don't think those simple understandings[br]are likely to undergo much change.


Modern industrial civilization has developed within a certain system of convenient myths.The driving force of modern industrial civilization has been individual material gain,which is accepted as legitimate, even praiseworthy,on the grounds that private vices yield public benefits in the classic formulation.Now, it's long been understood very well that a society that is based on this principle will destroy itself in time. It can only persist with whatever suffering and injustice it entails,as long as it's possible to pretend that the destructive forces that humans create are limited,that the world is an infinite resource and that the world is an infinite garbage can.At this stage of history,either one of two things is possible.Either the general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community interests,guided by values of solidarity and sympathy[br]and concern for others. Or, alternatively, there will be no destiny for anyone to control. As long as some specialised class is in a position of authority, it is going to set policy in the special interests that it serves. But the conditions of survival, let alone justice,require rational social planning in the interests of the community as a whole.By now, that means the global community. The question, in brief,is whether democracy and freedom are values to be preserved or threats to be avoided.In this possibly terminal phase of human existence,democracy and freedom\are more than values to be treasured.They may well be essential to survival.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Chomsky--Foucault: On Human Nature

70m, around 1970
A very young Chomsky takes on the eldering (and balded) Foucault. The Vietnam war was going on when the depicted dialog took place. Chomsky's thinking, arrived at from the route of his epochal linguistic studies, resonates with the likes of Jung, in recognizing a mysterious (at least unknown) underlying sea of possibilities. Starting from every child's ability to arrive in a short time to a grammatically integrated linguistic ability to the achievements of the likes of Newton, Chomsky envisions, through the telescope of his own mind, a startling vastness that is each individuals endowment. There is a universal human nature, he says, alongside the undeniable individualization. From here he takes a giant leap (virtually abandoning the tool of science, finding it too blunt for the matters of greatest urgency) which lands him into his chosen field of social and political activism, exposing himself to considerable personal danger. Before anything, he is a humanist. Deeply ingrained in Chomsky's intellect is a concept of justice, which he has made his life's work. It is indeed a rare pleasure to hear the young Chomsky discourse so effortlessly and the sparks flying in all directions.
Full Video

Friday, September 6, 2013

Noam Chomsky: Rebel without a Pause

2004, 57m
Chomsky is said to stand side by side with Marx, Shakespeare, Freud, Lenin, Aristotle, Hegel, Cicero, Plato, Chomsky and the Bible among the ten most cited sources ever. This documentary gives a cross sectional picture of Chomsky's views on political matters, as distinct from his scientific research. What emerges is a formidable intellect with an amazing repertoire of facts, and the ability to marshal them into a picture of the world significantly at variance with the one projected by establishments of various shades. He has mentioned that to make an informed judgement of human affairs, no specialized knowledge or training is needed, beyond the willingness to shed prejudice and assumptions ingrained by social brainwashing, things within the reach of laypeople. He says his path breaking scientific achievements in linguistics do not impinge on his political views and are a separate matter. He has a formidable command of history with a tapestry of microscopic detail stretching over centuries. He justifiably prides himself in his non charismatic persona and lack of oratory, but the passion for justice and concern for the trodden, comes through in no uncertain terms as he speaks. In fact his charisma is composed of the solid stuff of his brilliance, clarity, boldness, and unassuming respect for others, not to mention the respectfully attentive ear he lends to even the youngest of his audience. He is a nice person, and a consensual candidate for the title "great man". As he mentions in this video, it takes courage to speak out against the society of which one is a part, and courage is a quality more often than not conspicuously absent in intellectual circles.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

At any Price

Ramin Bahrani, 104m, 2012

A story set in the vast American cornfields.  Agro-business is big business and as subject to racketeering (here genetically modified seeds) as any other. Bahrani is an immigrant and his previous films have been about immigrants. This film starts slowly but the mega-farmer who it is about is sucked into a vortex of wrong doing. The endless rolling fields laden with grain, the machinery slashing through the laden shafts, and the windmills in silent rotation, provide a breath taking backdrop. These perhaps were the real inspiration for this visually (and aurally) inclined film maker. The sun drenched yellows naturally bring Van Gogh to mind. Comparisons are irrelevant and this is another fine film from a talented director.