Thursday, December 17, 2009

Watching great movies

It was another lazy December afternoon. I was relaxing at home - I had finished reading The Scarlet Pimpernel and come to the half way mark of Beyond A Boundary. Not to mention somewhere in the middle of Peskin and Schroeder. Idly looking for some distraction, I browsed my hard drive (That sounds strange, but that's the way it is) - I chanced upon the 1956 heist movie Bob le flambeur, which I had downloaded a month back, but forgotten in the whirl that is the end of a semester. I always feel hungry when I see people eat in films, so I kept some snacks handy as a precaution. I settled down in my chair and started watching the movie.

An hour and a half later it was rudely interrupted by the persistent ring of the phone. When I answered the call, my mother on the other end of the line asked me why I was so preoccupied with some thoughts - sad even.

Every once in a while, a movie has this effect on me. It has nothing to do with tragedy. You could describe it as a tightening of the gut, a dull feeling stuck in the pit of your throat - at the back of your mind, you try to figure out a label to put on it, but you can't put a finger on it. The part of your head chafing at the loudspeakers blaring devotional music, the part of your head thinking about the upload deadline three days away - they all suddenly seem short circuited. The world consists only of what is happening in the movie and your gut. When you are rudely reminded of the existence of the rest of the world, you stumble about to find your bearings - like I did while answering the phone. For want of a better adjective, I should put the title "great" on these movies.

Most recently I had this experience with passages of the Inglourious Basterds, during the crime scene of Rififi, while watching the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West (an old favourite), the end of Cool Hand Luke. It happens more frequently than I would have expected, but there is a massive selection bias operating here. For example, I never get this feeling during romantic comedies or animation flicks, partly because of the my personal biases I guess.

Some Spoilers ahead-
There is always a build up to these scenes. Sometimes the whole movie was just meant to lead toward these moments of release.

This is very prominent in Rififi - the careful planning leading to the crime, the atmosphere of the Cafe in which the characters move around - these can get you fidgeting if they were not building towards the crime. This 30 minute silent scene catches and holds you as I described. The rest of the movie documenting the unraveling is like a long release of pressure - fascinating in its own right, but coming so soon after the "great" scene means that it will have lesser claims upon you.

In Bob le Flambeur, the scene comes near the end - most of the movie sets up the character of Bob and develops and uses the characters of Paolo, Anne, Yvonne and everyone else to drive us towards the conclusion. The description and planning of the crime itself is pedestrian and sketchy when compared to the care which Rififi lavishes upon it. This alone gives a clue that maybe the execution of the heist is not the central point of the movie. But I was not prepared for the ironic twist at the end - all of Bob's character which was stealthily developed in the early part turns out to be the key on which the twist turns. Truly a great movie.

I can go on forever detailing such cases, but something different is my experience with Quentin Tarantino. I had a vague loathing for his fare in the beginning because I heard severed hands and decapitated heads spewed blood like water faucets in his films. I always had a queasy feeling about excessive violence - a LOT of people recommended his movies to me, but I always avoided watching them.

One day I finally sat down and watched Reservoir Dogs. It was nothing like I had imagined it would be. I found that he had a rare gift - he could produce those moments which I said defined "great" cinema (for me) WITHOUT any character development or buildup. It was curious how he managed to do this in opening scenes, climaxes, anywhere.. - and build his movies around them instead of making them a goal. A great example is the opening sequence or the scene where he introduces the protagonists of Inglourious Basterds - it is astonishing how he can produce the reaction which he does with no lead up at all.

I had this experience in some of Sergio Leone's movies too. I find it in almost all of QT's films. I still think that some of his excesses are gratuitous, but maybe he wouldn't be Tarantino without his eccentricities.

This "essay" contains too many "I"s, lacks a degree of coherence and a conclusion, but that's the way it is if you put out your thoughts as you think them. Maybe like a Quentin Tarantino movie :)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Movie review: Godzilla

I watched the movie "Godzilla" today. It has an IMDB rating of 4.5. It fully deserves its rating, but people have missed the point. People reviewing it say that it is a rip-off of the "classic" originals which I haven't seen and frankly don't want to see. I don't care whether this offends the "finer" sensibilities of these "critics" who make classics out of movies because "they are so bad they're good".

The reason why this movie causes stomach ulcers is not its cinematography or screenplay or CGI. It is not its bad acting or ludicrous setting. It is just because it is plain irritating. I honestly can't recall another movie in which I felt like taking a gun and finishing off the hero(es) myself.

The cameraman - he made me so angry that I had to pause the movie for a while to control my anger. The dumb idiot runs after the monster and stands in its path. Then he wears a look of horror on his face as the monster's foot bears down on him. Why the hell does he run into its path and then act horrified? If I felt like hitting him at that point, I later hated him so much that I wanted to shoot him. While the godzilla egg is hatching, the heroine and the cameraman are standing beside it. She says "run!" and the subhuman says "One minute! I've gotta record this!" Why should he live? Nuke him I say.

Later, they are escaping from the monsters which are pursuing them closely. The cameraman then stops and tries to collect his camera which has fallen on the floor. When he managed to escape, I felt cheated. I am sure the audience would have been more pleased if the monster(s) had taken him in their mouth along with his precious camera and crushed him to pieces. If he values his camera more than his life, why should he live?

The hero - he should have been killed a thousand times. In the entire movie, he goes around seeing the monster every now and then. Yet each time, his mouth opens like a cavern and he looks surprised. He stands rooted to the spot and watches the monster emerge from the subway (yes, the subway). He could have run 50 meters and hidden in a doorway in the time he had. Instead, he stands and watches the surface of the road crack. Then he waits for the monster to surface; all the while his pupils are dilated. We are then treated to an entirely avoidable scene where the monster looks him in the face. It offends my sense of "survival of the fittest". He should have been either fed to the monster or tied to one of the missiles and shot at it. At least we would have been spared the sight of him buying boxes of pills at a medical store and then finding out that the monster is pregnant using pills meant for humans. "Similar hormonal patterns" my foot.

The heroine is a whiny nuisance. She could have been used much more efficiently as fodder for the monster. She is so manipulative it made me sick. She takes tapes which have "Top secret" written on them in big red letters (yes, really!) and later cries and says it was wrong. While everyone is running away from the monster, she slips and falls. The hero turns back and rescues her. Every time I see this stunt pulled by the director, two more minutes are sawed off my life because of the resulting surge of anger.

One scene which illustrates this is when the monster surfaces from Madison Square Garden. The group of four people stand and watch wide eyed as the monster confirms that its children are dead. They wait while it becomes angry and looks closely at them. They still look at it in awe. Then one of them says "what do we do?". The other replies "I think we should run". I have an alternate line for him. He should have said "Look around for some ketchup and onions. Let's garnish ourselves".

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Comments on a tragedy

I do not consider myself a geek. I do not code much. I still use precompiled packages. I use windows for a significant fraction of time. I do not have sufficient knowledge to take part in entirely rational discussions about which programming language is better or which OS is better. But I appreciate the fact that those who do so are the reason we are in this stage the first place. I have a dilettantish interest in such matters. I have an interest in and know something about Physics. I (hopefully) will contribute something to the world.

If all people were like the typical IITK student, we would still be in the stone age.

Heck, his entire awful life lurches from one "festival" to another. In the beginning, he tries to get "ragged", so that he gets contacts with his paragons - his seniors. Then he either takes part or watches with bated breath a talent hunt, so that he can be involved in the "freshers". If he has no talent, well, he can always perform the role of the minion painter. Then he can go to various introductory club lectures, attend a few workshops wide-eyed and leave them for "cultural activities", like dumb charades and dramatics. He is never going to become Al Pacino, but the herd goes, so he goes. Then he rushes around and mugs up some things for his initial mid semester exam. He performs miserably, utters a few choice abuses at the instructor and returns to his arena of choice - the herd. Then he can run around and be a volunteer for menial work for the cultural festival in October. He can either play or "turn up and cheer his block" in the "prelude" to an intra hall sports festival. Yes, that's right, prelude to a damned intra hall sports festival. After that, come his second mid semester exams. Some more curses for the poor instructor. Then he can focus his attention on making his block triumph in the intra hall cultural festival, if not by performing, by "turning up and cheering". Bloody idiots could be replaced by an army of clapping furbys. Then he gets all "serious" and mugs up a few more things for his end semester examination. A final volley of curses.
Next comes his precious intra hall sports festival. He participates in long meetings into the night to choose teams and "waits with bated breath". He cheers his block on. He runs around and exchanges high fives. He analyzes games after their end and pats the losers on their sweaty backs. He cheers if his block gets a good position or heckles the other blocks. The midsems in between and resultant curses are a common feature I won't go into. Then we have the Hall Day! An occasion to wait for, prepare for, and die for! He works as hired labour to make backdrops; He cheers and claps for the dram guys and dancers. He heckles people from other halls and ogles the girls.
Then comes the "inter hall sports festival" - Josh. The same as for the intra hall festival, with suitable substitutions. Then comes the hullabaloo of the general and hall elections. He campaigns for his friends: He goes around with a group of like minded, strong bodied students and persuades people to vote for his candidate, saying that they will get greater representation in so and so body. He listens wide eyed with his wingmates when older versions of him come with their candidate and preach his virtues. He cheers his hall candidate on in the general elections and cheers his block candidate on in the hall elections.
During intra hall elections and contests, he is against other blocks. During inter hall elections and contests, he is against other halls. When students from outside come for various contests, he is against the other institutes. His entire life is a meaningless series of affiliations and "passions" for cheering finer and finer subsets of the general herd.
With the possible reintroduction of the inter hall cultural festival, even more events will be added for him to work in, to cheer in and be a general part of the mindless herd in.

What a meaningless, dumb life! It will prepare him for his destiny - management! After all, what hard work does he need to do to be in management, he just needs to be "well known" or have the right contacts.

What these herd members don't realize is how much they owe to the geeks they want to eventually "manage". For example, look at the simple things they do like playing computer games.
Someone has developed ways of reversing the entropy of the universe and generating usable power by expending the least amount of work. Someone has developed technology so that we can transmit that power vast distances from where it was generated. Someone has developed a computer so that idiots can press the power button and make millions of circuits work in perfect synchronization. Someone has developed an OS so that dumbos like him can click on Install and Autoplay. Someone has developed games for him. Someone has cracked them so that he can play it for free. Someone has made a chat client so that his friend can tell him about the games. Someone has developed a file sharing system so that he can do what they describe as "DC se uthalo". Someone has developed technology so that they can have good speakers in a small volume and decent manufacturing cost, so that he can hear the sounds of the game. Someone has found a decent way of transmitting complex signals like his asinine bellow across networks, so that he can hurl cruse abudes at the other players. Someone has found a way of compressing complicated sights and sounds so that they be rendered and displayed using the minimal memory his system has.

It is good that our world has become user friendly, or as some disgruntled people say, idiot friendly. But it has become far too easy to forget the incredible leaps of technology and science which led to this ease of use. Easy to the point where management jobs are valued above technical ones. Easy to the point where the people in India's supposedly premier technical institute read "self improvement" books and improve their "soft skills".

To hell with studies of brand failures. To hell with Shiv Khera and Jack Welch. Maybe Douglas Adams (may his memory be sacred) was right after all. Let's emulate the people of Golgafrincham. Let's take all these middlemen and launch them into space. We can do something while they land on some planet and set up committees to develop the wheel.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Survey Research: A pathway to "science" for mediocre people

Look at the following -
Does god answer prayer? ASU research says 'yes' - article
Women drawn to men with muscles: UCLA survey - article
Coping with the Stress of the Terrorist Attacks: A survey study - article
All these are Scientific publications. Imagine that, Scientific publications!
Want to be a scientist and publish hundreds of papers? Flunked your analysis and quantum mechanics courses in your college? Never mind, you can still become a bona fide scientist.
All you need is a grounding in statistics and a familiarity with statistics programs which can do the boring work for you. Become a psychiatry/ behavioral science/ sociology (what the hell is it anyway) /biology (like health care) "researcher". Sit around twiddling your thumbs and think of surveys which you can get your minions to do. Put up notice boards in universities offering money for anyone who participates in your survey. Any inane thing will do. "Hmm.... Women are attracted to men with muscles.... Let's study it "scientifically".... Let's get "data" and "prove" the "hypothesis"...." Yay, we have a paper!
While the rest of us here are busting ourself working like idiots, looking at the bandwidth of a waveplate with aberrations, the structure of a complexity class and its subsets and other things which require some actual, honest work, people like you can get free tenure and publications. One or two surveys a month, that's it!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

From Delhi to Kanpur

I was returning to Kanpur from Delhi after taking part in the finals of a quiz contest. The quiz contest didn't go very well, and I didn't like the questions either. But that's not the topic here. The return journey from Delhi to Kanpur was yet another indictment of Northern Railways. I spent most of the journey hunched up on the upper berth. The harrowing experience and the free time I had resulted in the following piece of doggerel:

It's early in the day
when I climb the train
There's water in the walkway
thanks to the rain

There's no room in the aisle
People keep coming in
I can't see how they fail
to see that S6 is not S10

Their luggage leaves no room
They don't seem to mind
As they crush each other in the gloom
I wonder if they're blind

A child begins to wail
His father gives him a sweet
He throws it into the aisle
where it's crushed under many feet

Someone goes to the loo
The toilet's sprung a leak
Now there's urine too
in the place where we walk

I thank my fortune
My berth is an upper
but I've spoken too soon
Someone's kicked away my slipper

I'm stuck for good
I can't come down
The water below has bits of food
It looks muddy brown

As I huddle on my berth
people without tickets come and sit
If there's a hell on earth
this damned place is it

Friday, December 22, 2006

Hanging on in quiet desperation is the UP way

Douglas Adams, wherever he is, will be pleased. His memory is being propagated on the Earth in ways unlike anything he will have remotely imagined. After surveying the cosmic muddle that he commented on, when he gets tired of seeing sights like deep thought, when he turns his all seeing eye on to the much maligned Earth, he will find a giant monument to him erected in a place he probably never visited. It is the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. It is the only place, apart from Krikkit to be enclosed in an envelope of Slo-time. For the uninitiated, Slo-time is an envelope within which time proceeds at a slower rate.
To give an instance which demonstrates that time in UP seems to remain at a standstill, I'll take the following example.
I was coming from Hyderabad to Kanpur yesterday. I was boarding the train at Warangal. The train was scheduled to come at 9:22 am. When it came into the station, I glanced at the clock in the station. I was astonished to see it show 9:22. That level of punctuality is not expected in India. My hopes of reaching Kanpur on time were cruelly killed the next morning, when the train groaned into Kanpur Central three hours late.
Those three hours started when the train crossed the border of the Slo-time envelope (read UP border). This envelope's existence is in evidence each tortuous minute you spend in UP. The key to this slo-time is the word "bhaiyya". Each time when some UPite starts saying "Arre Bhaiyya" (Oh brother - A very weak translation) in that long drawn out drawl, you know that time has slowed down. When you are hurrying to beat a deadline, do not ask a UPite when the train will reach its destination. He will say "Aaramse aur chaar paanch ghante main pahuch jayega" (It will comfortably reach in 4-5 hours) After five hours of waiting, when you ask him again, he will say "Aaramse aur do teen ghante main pahuch jayega" (It will comfortably reach in 2-3 hours) After three hours, when you ask him again, he will say "Aaramse aur ek dhed ghante me" (Same as earlier with 1-1.5) and so on, ad infinitum. "ek dhed ghanta" "poun aadha ghanta" "paanch dus minute" (1-1.5 hours, 15-30 mins, 5-10 mins) the infinite series goes on, deadly in its assurance of convergence, equally deadly in its denial of redemption. After infinite repetitions of these platitudes, what sticks in your mind is that "Aaramse pahuch jayega" (It will reach comfortably) is the only thing he is sure of and you are not so sure of.
To return to my journey, I woke up and sat near the window, shivering from the cold. A train pulled in on the track beside ours. I watched in shock as an old man opened his window, thrust his head out and proceeded to release a stream of red liquid in a leisurely manner. As in a Matrix moment, time stood still as the red parabola stood, perfectly poised like a cobra ready to strike, as I instinctively shifted to a crouching position. Abruptly, a red stain appeared on the window whose existence I had forgotten. As I considered the coincidence involved in this occurence - my waking up a few minutes earlier, my feeling cold enough to close the window moments before the other train comes by, I felt that we are blessed to have a state which offers such contemplative moments.
The surreal procession continued with the next train that appeared out of the mist like a specter. I squinted for a moment to confirm that I was not dreaming. The train had bicycles hanging out of alternate windows. Any passenger just waking up would go right back to sleep if he saw a procession of cycles going on at window height. My belief in my sanity pulled me through that one. That convinced me that UP is a timeless, mythical land.
The sign that you've reached UP is the presence of shifty eyed characters hawking Gutkha and the reassuring sight of people with tattered shawls wrapped about their heads, tapping a powder in their palms for a long time and tossing it into a corner of their mouth. Do not think that this is the fault of poverty. Even people travelling in AC compartments, the supposedly affluent class, seem alike.
Back to my journey. After alighting from the train, I take an auto to my institute. Even the most resilient person will find his will strained by the journey. (I don't mean UPites) As I survey the unhealthy medley of autos, bullock carts, horses, two wheelers, cars, trucks, walking people congealed into one disgusting mass smack in the middle of a junction, I sit back and make myself comfortable. No moving for atleast half an hour. To my astonishment, the driver takes the auto right through the center of the mass. I see the cause of this jam, an auto which has paused in the middle of the road, waiting for its passenger to get its driver some Gutkha. As we lurch forward, our valiant surge is cut short by another jam, caused by a bullock cart driver's urge to cross the road and beat a couple of trucks. Talk about unequal contests. I am passing through a modern day dystopia. It is the wreckage of a city, doomed before its conception to hold the "Arre Bhaiyya" quoting people of this world who will make it worse with their lack of any idea about time. As I pass through this crowd, the lyrics of the song One by Metallica come to my mind -
Darkness imprisoning me
All that I see
Absolute horror
I cannot live
I cannot die
Trapped in myself
Body my holding cell

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Five years in the wilderness

It was 12:40 pm. The chemistry lecture was on in L7, one of our lecture halls. The chemistry professor, in his typical broken English and Bengali accent, was starting to lecture on spin and orbital angular momenta. He had said absolutely nothing on the topic till then. He walked to the board and wrote "B = H0 + (4*pi*M) where M = magnetization" Is that the way to start a lecture? Then he said "you must have seen a similar formula during your JEE days". Someone in the first row asked him where the 4*pi came from. Apparently, this way of teaching was perfectly natural for the others. After all, who wants to waste time on pondering over the motivation, the significance, and anything related to the topic? Anyway the instructor does not need to stop for a moment and let the students think how to approach the (unspecified) problem. How can we do that if we have to touch upon the whole of chemistry ever done in 4 months? "B = H0 + (4*pi*M)" is a good beginning. You know the formula, great. Then you can apply it in trillions of problems, with different B's! You can get hundreds of marks, gloat, eat, breath, drink, sink, cover yourselves in billions of marks! Anyway, he then proceeded to derive another formula (derive is not the word, sorry, derive implies some logic) . He then glanced at the students and said, "Dont worry. You dont need to be frightened. I will simplify this formula." He the proceeded to write "mu(M) = sqrt(n(n+2)) BM" on the board. "This is easy to apply", he said with a satisfied smirk on his face. "Some people prefer using the equation with s, some with n". That inane comment then rounds up the inept handling of the subject. After all, isn't which formula you apply more important than what you are doing, if you have to produce millions of "scientific" papers per month, which also serve the useful purpose of being used as wallpapers in laboratories to hide the drab walls whose paint is peeling off? Drown yourself in papers. Publish bajillion papers based on other work by varying a few parameters, and you are a great scientist!
Visions of millions of scientists conscentiously poring over papers and creating zillions of sheets filled with data written in crabbed handwriting in a room, with the walls being papered with their papers and the photos of this year's nobel prize winners floated in my head. Beats me why these people have a fascination for keeping these photos on their walls. Maybe to delude themselves that they are doing some scientific work.
No! I didn't join Physics to become one of these faceless horrors churning out data! I doubt whether these people can sit down and think about the philosophical aspects of a theory. No, it is much easier to say that dxy rotates 45 degrees to d(x2-y2), twirl your hands suggestively, and say that this is orbital angular momentum, without stopping to think what an orbital means. Even if this plainly is not a logical extrapolation of classical physics, what the hell, you can derive formulae! Bajillions of beautiful formulae! Thousands of staggering papers with zillions of tables with many beautiful decimals! For the MBA oriented people, this means you can answer two three questions in the endsem! 15 marks! I can almost see these thoughts in a milder form swirling around in the empty faces of the people around me. People who have never had the chance or inclination to have an abstract thought, forget that, an honest thought, a thought not related to the furthering of their career. I am surrounded by a sea of such people. An orderly, marching sea. Each walking in a well defined line towards a career. Eyes fixed straight ahead. As I look around in confusion, for someone to share my thoughts, I see empty faces, empty heads. Very suggestive of the movie Equilibrium.
There is a tremendous feeling of loneliness, a lack of intellectual companionship. Have I come to the wrong place? Why are the others like this? Is it the same elsewhere? Such thoughts created an internal turmoil in my mind. Meanwhile, outwardly, I calmly listened to the lecture. After the lecture, my thoughts went further. After coming to this place, what have I done, except write 50-60 exams, participate in hollow activities, read things and curse potatoes? I have no time. No time to read things of my interest extensively, no time to pursue my finer instincts. I havent written a poem in one and a half year. I havent drawn a portrait in one year.
What does this place do to people? Does it turn out automatons, robots who write CAT, machines who produce papers? Isnt there a bigger aspect to science? Isnt there a need for imagination? Is it a coincidence that great scientists who have changed the philosophical perception of science have keenly appreciated art? Shifts in perception dont come with millions of formulae. A higher plane of thought is required. Art, litertature, music, these are other, more accessible manifestations of this plane. But, hell, who thinks in such a manner? People here prefer sutta, a crass song with slang, to Stairway to Heaven. People who can fill in a poster colourfully are great "artists". Appreciating music and art isn't easy. Abstract thought isn't easy. I dont know how to put more than half of abstract thought in Telugu. It exists, but simply has gone out of normal usage. The language of science has irrevocably changed to English. More significantly, the language of philosophical speculation and abstract thought has become English. How can these people, who struggle with formulating a coherent sentence, have philosophical thoughts? I dont blame them, but I can't help feeling a surge of anger when a Kanpuriya (a localite), a big hulking fellow with huge hair, sits bovinely and says "arre yaar. ye sab hamaare liye nahi hain. bas formula bataado, aur ham lagaadenge", (Arre yaar is untranslateable. The rest mean "All this is not for us. Just tell the formula and we'll apply it." Again, "applying" is a weak translation of "lagaadenge") and another hulking fellow laughs and says "jugaadu!" (fraud) in a happy tone, glad to have found an intellectual (?) companion.
I guess this feeling has been intensified due to my having been in the olympiad camps, where we had an intelligent batch of people in one class. The experience of being in intellectual company lifts you up, and goads you to think, exercise your mental agilty and compete. After that, coming to this place, where the average Kanpuriya or Bihari has eyes and ears only for the average marks, and says "Arre yaar. Kuch samajh me nahi aa raha hai." (I am not understanding anything) and "Abe Angreji jyaada mat bolna hai" (Dont use too much English) has been a big comedown.
Wherever I look, I see emptiness. Hollowness. The signs of the grave. A mental grave.
As George Eliot says in Silas Marner -
"their imagination is almost barren of the images that feed desire and hope, but is all overgrown by recollections that are a perpetual pasture to fear. "Is there anything you can fancy that you would like to eat?" I once said to an old labouring man, who was in his last illness, and who had refused all the food his wife had offered him. "No," he answered, "I've never been used to nothing but common victual, and I can't eat that." Experience had bred no fancies in him that could raise the phantasm of appetite."
I am embarking on a journey, a voyage of five years in the wilderness...