Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Meaning is what we make of it. Momentarily.

“To live in the world without becoming aware of the world is like wandering about in a great library without touching the books.” (Manly P Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, 1928.)

Finding meaning is a thankless and purely human preoccupation, often amounting to obsession, come to think of it. Imagine the worst-case scenario of a man lusting after an inaccessible woman plucking petals from a hapless flower and going “She loves me, she loves me not”. Jesus Christ! Coming to terms with the likelihood of life being totally, blissfully meaningless is beyond the ken of most people. (P.S.: The “meaningless” hypothesis is also capable of taking coincidences in its stride.) Our family physician is a guy who would rather short-change himself than overcharge a patient whenever he happens to be short of change. On the other hand, I know another general physician who declares that many of his patients are crooks. They often diddle him out of his modest fees and don’t keep “firm” appointments fixed over the telephone. So, his relationship with this wretched lot is governed solely by his own interests, Hippocratic Oath or no Hippocratic Oath. For instance, when planning a pleasure trip, he doesn’t give a damn about how they will cope in his absence. He doesn’t arrange for a reliable locum, either. Those days are gone for good, he avers. (My niece who has her own clinic in Canada could not come to India to visit her ailing sister for a long, long time because she could not find a trustworthy locum.) If you want to read meaning into these random happenings according to conventional wisdom, the former as also the doctor from Canada are selfless and noble healers and the other Indian doctor, a selfish, conscience-less scoundrel in perpetuity. Then, there’s the curious case of a placebo doing the work of a medicinal drug to bring about a cure. Here, the patient’s faith and trust in the doctor and his prescription impregnates the make-believe medicine with meaning to make it do the job of the real thing, as it were. Trying to find meaning may well be a trespass into an alien culture at times. Picture, if you please, a Martian hopping into a Mumbai cab and, after being taken on a long and bumpy ride by the cabbie, concluding that all Mumbai cabbies are crooks. Or, alternatively, think of the same ET quitting the cab sans his weird-looking hand-held Meltdowner 5.0, receiving a call from the cabbie about his forgetful faux pas, retrieving his invaluable weapon and reaching the diametrically opposite conclusion about the integrity and honesty of the cabbie tribe in the megapolis. Then there’s an ad currently on the idiot box that has a somewhat plump, attractively attired and distinctly flirty young woman literally bumping into a young man in a mall to catch his eye and his fancy and then flitting around to lead him into a merry chase all over the place. Were they to be quizzed, I bet the ad agency and the client would try to pass it off as an innocent fun ploy to sell the soft drink. But the way she behaves on camera with cloying, come-hither coyness, she could well be a high-priced sex worker successfully turning a “trick”. Finally, the recent controversy about the pejorative label “slut” points to the temporality of meaning. The word was originally used to describe a dirty, slovenly or untidily dressed woman. It donned its offensive sense in as late as the late 19th century. Attire is still very much the context, though.

Monday, June 27, 2011

David & Goliath, circa 2011.

The Biblical title sounds a tad clich├ęd, I admit. Nevertheless, it is particularly apt. The story I’m going to tell you is about the current battle between Indie US booksellers and Amazon.com’s publishing arm. JB Dickey, who owns Seattle Mystery Bookshop situated in the district burned to the ground by the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, has taken up the cudgels for it by refusing to stock the Amazon Mystery Imprint (Thomas & Mercer). http://tinyurl.com/6e46voc. A reader (Dave) http://tinyurl.com/6bppr2y (‘On Dave’s Thoughts’) writes that Amazon is not a monster-sized Darth Vader out to get the puny Indie Jedi. It is at a marked advantage merely because of a better, more reader-friendly business model conforming to the contemporary lifestyle and benefiting the book shopper. Likewise, a new whodunit author seeking a signing session at SMB urges JB Dickey to go with the flow. All this seems to make eminent sense. Yet it does not gel in my “forest killer” book-loving heart that harks back to the time when remaindering was magically transformed into an honourable pursuit by an astute South Bombay bookseller. http://tinyurl.com/65mb9qz. In India, this sort of a grim scenario is probably far, far away in the future. My biblioidolatrous heart http://tinyurl.com/3orucp8 continues to bleed for the Indie Davids in the US of A. Meanwhile, there’s no denying the disturbing findings of a recent Cornell University investigation. A June 2011 paidContent.org article (‘What Shoppers Don’t Realize About Amazon’s Reviews') http://tinyurl.com/6a9tzz7 reveals the following behind-the-scene secret: “How do you become a top 1,000 Amazon reviewer? A new study by a Cornell professor Trevor Pinch shows that the website's elite reviewers "do not always make independent decisions about which books and other products they write about.... the reviewers in many cases acknowledge that in order to maintain their high rankings and continue to receive free products (one of the perks of being a top reviewer), they have to make surprisingly calculated decisions about what to review and what to say about those product.”

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Nature of the beast. (Hollywood, Bollywood and other wonderlands.)

The movie business, I’ve always suspected, is run by sub-humans and morons who strut around like geniuses and God’s own gift to mankind. Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, the duo who wrote the made-for-the-summer-holidays blockbuster, Night at the Museum, and its less successful sequel, Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian, as well as two notable bombs, Queen Latifah’s Taxi and Lindsay Lohan’s Herbie: Fully Loaded, admit as much in their soon-to-be-published how-to-do-it guide, Writing Movies for Fun & Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too! (2011). http://tinyurl.com/3wew6cr. They say stuff like: "There are a lot more idiots than smart people. The president of the studio is usually a very smart woman. . . but there are executives who have to approve your script. Smart people give good notes, dumb people give bad notes." And: "The position of producer is one for oversexed, megalomaniac uber-humans who for some reason feel the desire to play wedding planner to a group of dim-witted rodeo clowns, who are also, for the most part, oversexed and megalomaniacal, … Note: Throwing a phone, paperweight or fax machine at an intern is never acceptable in Hollywood. Unless your last movie made a shitload of money. Then - go nuts." They explain the failure of Herbie: Fully Loaded thus: "The president of the studio loved our take. She had one note. It was too sexy for Disney. We took out the sexier stuff and turned it back in -- and here's where it gets interesting/horrible. We were now dealing with the studio executive under the president. . . dumb as a stump and mean as a rattlesnake. We did about ten drafts for this executive: dumbing down the plot, making everything cuter, taking out things that made the movie make sense." They got fired somewhere along the way and were followed by a row of 24 writers/script doctors. In his Adventures in the Screen Trade, William (Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid) Goldman summed up “Hollywood's collective idiocy” thus: “Nobody knows anything.” This is said to have led to his virtual boycott by the industry. He stopped getting screenplay writing work afterwards. Let’s hope G&L are spared that kind of hounding. Back to Fun & Profit revelations, though. Here’s their description of how the studio steers script development: "You have a Volkswagen Bug. You sell it to someone. He says, deliver it in eight weeks. Make it pink. Then that person's underling says, 'I know we bought a Bug but all the other studios are buying SUVS this year, so lets make it a big SUV. Then: 'I read an article about boats today and how they're going to be popular this year - let's make this thing kinda like a boat.' Then they say, 'Terminator made a lot of money, let's make this thing kinda like Terminator.' Then. 'Make it green.' You go back to the person who bought a pink Bug and they say 'What the hell is this giant green Terminator boat?'” And, some truly worthwhile advice for the would-be screenwriter at the time of facing the studio critique: "Write down everything they say. Keeping your hands busy like this will help prevent you from making the 'rage faces' that you will be inclined to make when you hear their crappy ideas. . . Don't be argumentative. It's way too easy to get fired. Be thoughtful. Practice turning your 'mad' face into an 'I'm thinking about it' face." Reading between the lines of the drivel dished out in fanzines, on the idiot box and movie-related websites in India, one senses that things are no different in Bollywood. Here directors get thrown out on their butts in mid-production (remember Amole Gupte?) or denied their due credit (remember Anusha Rizvi?) The stories one hears about script-reading for the benefit of the stars and the producers along with the quality of the final product are also telltale giveaways.