The Budapest Hotel: A Grand Escape

“But it doesn’t mean anything.”
“So we put in words. One word for every note, like this…”

— ‘Do-Re-Mi’ from The Sound of Music

Does music need words to make it meaningful? Do we have to find a message in a work of art before we can appreciate it?

the-grand-budapest-hotel movie poster

Here we are with a cinematic piece that can’t be ‘explained’. What genre? What theme? What purpose? I’m not going to bother. As with my experience of watching previous Wes Anderson movies, somehow, I feel I need to let my rational side relax and just enjoy the ride. Rushmore probably has more of a traditional storytelling mode and thematic content. But with The Royal Tenenbaums, I have to adjust the quirky frequency to high, it’s a totally different kind of viewing experience. Fantastic Mr. Fox, I was mesmerized by the stop-motion animation and humour, great voices add to the lively adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story. Moonrise Kingdom, I wasn’t fully gratified but by then, I was used to the Wes Anderson style of ‘magical realism’.

That ‘magical realism’ strikes again in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Not my favourite colour palette, red and pink, by I was totally captivated as soon as the film began. I was being led into a fairytale world of real life people. From the cinematic framing, it aptly demonstrates the idea of symmetry. In many frames, the subject is right in the centre, almost perfect symmetry on both sides of the screen. But does it mean anything? One might ask. If we have to be rational about it, shall we just say, for the effects of a neat and tidy piece of the old world. Framing nostalgia before the world becomes too distorted, too inhumane. This is, after all, 1930’s Europe. And we can see the parallels in signs and symbols especially towards the end of the movie when uniformed men take over the Hotel.

Grand Budapest Signs & Symbols

Wes Anderson credits Stefan Zweig in creating The Grand Budapest Hotel. The Austrian writer’s name is shown at the very beginning of the end credits. In numerous interviews, Anderson pays tribute to Zweig’s whole collection of works, a writer who is noted as once ‘the world’s most translated author’. Zweig is a relatively new discovery for Anderson but so deeply has the writer inspired the filmmaker that ‘it’s basically plagiarism’, Anderson joked at the news conference when the film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.

As someone who is much intrigued by the creative process of adapting books into films, I did read some Zweig before watching Budapest. I must be reading the wrong works though, I’d thought. From the novella Chess Story, to a few of the stories I read in the new collection recently translated into English, all tell very gloomy tales. The writings almost exude a sense of despair, as the characters are mostly running away from persecutions and ethnic cleansing, or memories thereof, even driven to madness as the chess champion Czentovic in Chess Story, albeit some descriptions embed a subtle trace of humour.

Maybe along the notion of ‘Wabi-sabi“, beauty and sadness, what Zweig has done subtly and now Anderson explicitly is to extract and fuse “humor and sadness”. Here in Budapest, writer/director Anderson has freely utilized the element of fantasy and fun to paint the passing of an old world, a realism too sad for millions in 1930’s Europe, Zweig being one of the subsequent victims. To escape the incendiaries of Nazism, Zweig and his second wife moved to England, then to the U.S., and finally to Brazil in 1940 where he ultimately committed suicide together with his wife in 1942, leaving a note of utter despair as he saw Nazism dominating Europe and his former homeland Austria.

In this fictitious Republic of Zubrowka, where The Grand Budapest Hotel is situated, Anderson offers us a great escape despite setting his story within the brewing tension of 1930’s Europe. The story begins with a closer to present day author (Tom Wilkinson) reminiscing upon an extraordinary experience which has inspired his book The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Concierge Desk and Main Staircase

Years ago when he was still a young writer (Jude Law), in finding cures for writer’s block, he had retreated to a mountain hotel The Grand Budapest and in there met its owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Known as Zero when he  himself was just a lobby boy in an age long passed, the owner told the writer his story of how he came to inherit this grand piece of property, albeit in a run-down shape now. Someone volunteering an extraordinary life story to an author in an exotic locale, the beginning of Budapest reminds me of Life of Pi, another great tale of magical realism.

But the movie belongs to Ralph Fiennes as the hotel Concierge and go-to person for all sorts of favours, M. Gustave. The death of long time patroness of the Hotel Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) has dragged M. Gustave and his protégé, the new lobby boy Zero, down a rabbit hole of misadventures and fortunes. Fiennes has proven that he is a versatile actor that can be as evil as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, or as madly romantic as Count Almasy in The English Patient, or as charming and fun here in Budapest. His comic timing is first-rate, his expressions, spot-on. My long-range forecast, an Oscar nom awaits him next year for his role in Budapest.

Gustave & Zero

The line-up of talents is long, not just in acting, where we find the usuals of Wes Anderson movies like Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum. Saoirse Ronan (breakout role as young Briony in Atonement) as Agatha the pastry maker is adroit and whimsical. She’s well matched to the young lobby boy Zero, aptly played by Tony Revolori.

The movie is also marked by the delightful compositions of Alexandre Desplat, whose musical scores adorn many notable movies in recent years. A collaborator with Anderson since Rushmore but here, Desplat’s scores captivated me early on with the lively East European themes and in particular, the Russian folk melodies. Some instruments that we seldom hear in other films are distinctly alluring, such as balalaikas, zithers, dulcimers, and organ, with full orchestral rendering. Another long-range forecast, Oscar for original score.

And then there’s the make-up of Tilda Swinton, the art work and production design of the whole Budapest experience (even the parody painting “Boy with an Apple” is an original art work by English painter Michael Taylor from a real life model), the flowing editing, the original screenplay and directing, the cinematography, Budapest Hotel is going to be one grand entry in the next Academy Awards.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Read a related post: How Zweig Inspired Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

Awards Update:

Feb. 22, 2015: Oscars for Best Costume Design, Make-up, Production Design, Original Score.

Feb. 14, 2015: Wins Best Original Screenplay from WGA.

Feb. 8, 2015: 5 BAFTA wins, Original Screenplay, Original Music, Production Design, Make-up and Hair, Costume Design.

Jan. 15, 2015: 9 Oscar noms, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Make Up and Hair-Styling, Costume Design, Original Score.

Jan. 11, 2015: Golden Globe win for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical

Dec. 11: 4 Golden Globe noms for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical, Wes Anderson for Best Director and Best Screenplay, Ralph Fiennes for Best Actor – Comedy or Musical

Dec. 10: SAG nom for Best Cast in a Motion Picture

Dec. 7: The Grand Budapest Hotel wins Best Screenplay and Best Production Design at the L.A. Film Critics Awards

Dec. 1: The Grand Budapest Hotel just wins Best Screenplay from the New York Film Critics Circle

Related Links:

From BBC CULTURE: The Writer Behind Budapest Hotel

From NPR: The Rise and Fall of Stefan Zweig

The Music Behind the Screen

The Untold Story Behind ‘Boy With Apple’

Top Ripples of 2013

It’s not easy to rate a whole year’s experience by Ripples, unlike a two-hour movie. However, here are some stats I’ve compiled for my own records.

Ripple Effects is all about books and movies. For me, watching a movie definitely is a much easier activity than finishing a book. So far this year, my movie number is around 100, almost three times as many as books I’ve read. They include movies I’ve watched on the big screen in theatres, at TIFF, and on DVD and Blu-ray formats at home. But I’m sure there are still a few I’d forgotten to jot down.

I’ve written 16 movie reviews on Ripple Effects this year, and they are not all 2013 releases. This number represents only a dearth of my film experience. From this small collection, there are two that I’ve given 4/4 Ripples (I’m sure I’ll add some more in this Award Season):

Nebraska 
12 Years A Slave

These two came close, with 3½ Ripples:

Before Midnight
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her (TIFF 13)

And several more with 3 Ripples. Click here to my review list.

For my trip to Toronto to attend TIFF in September, definitely a 4-Ripple experience.

Many of the movies I watched this year are “catch-up’s”. They are cinema classics I’d missed over the past decades. These are films that I’d long wanted to see but had not the time or the chance to. Yes, this ‘catching-up’ activity is a most enjoyable time for me. They don’t make movies like these anymore. No CGI, no colours even, yet we can see a kaleidoscope of characters, fantastic scenes and poignant human conditions. So, Top Ripples go to:

Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953), La Dolce Vita (1960), 8½ (1963)
Victorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), Rashomon (1950)
Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957)

Some others are book-related. Before the newest remakes come into being, I’d like to experience the original version, like:

Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940)
Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955)
John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Still other films I watched and/or rewatched to prepare for or just to go together with what looks like is their latest version, or homage, if you will, like the following to coincide with Before Midnight (2013):

Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973)
Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (1992)

Or Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) to go with Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (2013)

Along the way during this rewarding movie-watching year, I’ve discovered some foreign language films, two in particular stand out: Korean director Chang-dong Lee’s Poetry (2010) and Secret Sunshine (2007)

As a freelance reviewer, I continue to be a contributor to Asian American Press as their film and arts guest columnist. Further, and this I’m really excited about, my feature article on the Canadian-Korean playwright/actor Ins Choi was published on the December 4th issue of Curator Magazine.

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Even though I’ve only read a small number of books compared to movies watched, I’m glad I’d completed a major challenge, and that’s reading Proust. It’s definitely a 4-Ripple experience for me, despite having had to slash my way through thickets and at times, find my way out of a literary labyrinth. My post on this first taste of Proust was featured on WordPress’s ‘Freshly Pressed’. Now that’s the bonus madeleines on top of an already savory meal.

Another book I hold high esteem is Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer, a Read-Along I hosted earlier in 2013. I’d enjoyed the camaraderie of reading the same book with others, and the discussion of ideas. Finishing a book or not is not as important as taking part in the journey, even for a little while, as we share our thoughts. 4 Ripples.

For old acquaintances and new friends I’ve made in the blogging world this year, I must give another 4 Ripples. This is the major reward of blogging. To all the new blogs and sites I’ve discovered, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our mutual visits.

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As for posts, looks like my “Quotable Quotes from Downton Abbey” has taken over “Memorable Movie Love Quotes” as the most popular these days. And I can understand why. Let’s get ready for Downton Season 4, coming up in just a few days.

And for my adventures as a nature paparazzo and bird-stalker, I give them nothing less than Top Ripples.

To 2014, I have a few ideas. This may involve a bit more individual studies, and researching into topics that have interested me for some time. Yes, films and their influence in our postmodern culture, into that topic I will continue to delve. So there you have it, more books and movies to share with you all. As always, I invite you to come by the pond and throw in your two pebbles. I cling on to my motto: “Serenity is golden, but sometimes a few ripples are needed as proof of life.”

To All, a Four-Ripple 2014!

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All Is Lost (2013)

If Life of Pi (2012) is magical realism, then All Is Lost is absolute realism. Some say it’s a modern version of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I tend to see it as the flip side of Life of Pi. It is the magical, the supernatural that we pant for while watching the man in the film silently struggle to stay alive in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Without a miracle, this is what it is.

At the back of my mind was this query… In our age driven by visual spectacles and mega sights and sounds, why would someone take up a project of this nature, a 106 minute feature film with just one character and no dialogue, except for a few words from voice over in the opening when the man utters what seems to be his last words to his loved ones.

I admire the courage and talent of writer/director J. C. Chandor, who writes a 32 page script (according to IMDb) and directs it as a minimalist production in a time when the movie industry has gone ultra mega and high tech. All Is Lost is only Chandor’s second feature film. His directorial debut which he also wrote? Margin Call (2011), about the tempest in the tumultuous ocean of investment banking. Versatility is the mark of talent indeed.

But the film belongs to Robert Redford. No longer The Sundance Kid (1969) here but a 77 year-old actor playing a man dangling over the edge of survival. Redford just might have put forth the definitive performance in his long career. He has taken on the role with grace and gentleness, a paradox to his predicament in such a physical drama. He carries the whole film by engaging our empathy. His screen presence is the replacement of fancy plot lines, setting and dialogues. He plays a character with no name. Only when the end credits roll do we find out that he is called ‘Our Man’. 

Robert Redford in All is Lost

Unlike Tom Hanks in Cast Away (2000), who speaks and yells his mind, and socializes with a volley ball, Our Man is the epitome of restraint. He is the strong and silent type of veteran sailors on a solo voyage, who encounters the misfortune of being stranded in the vast ocean. At the beginning of the film we see Our Man wake up to find his sailboat has been hit by a loose cargo container floating by. The sailboat is taking on water through a hole in the hull. The radio and equipments are damaged. Our Man deals with the situation resourcefully. He uses a repair kit to mend the damage, pump water out, dry out his boat. We see him eat and shave. 

Just as he has made some headway to restore safety, an impending storm blows his way. Our Man is no match for nature’s callous ferocity. He ends up having to escape a sinking boat and jump into a life raft, bringing with him a meager supply of food and water. He learns to use a sextant, and carefully charts his drift. His only hope is to be seen if his raft drifts into the course of cargo ships. He utters no words except for a futile S.O.S. call while in his sinking boat, and one expletive out of total frustration in the raft after a few days of bare survival.

One man, one raft, one sea. The wide-screen cinema is probably the best medium to depict such an existential predicament. We don’t need special effects, for this is all that we have. And the nameless ‘Our Man’ shows how universal he is. And what of him? A patient and courageous man trying with all that he has and all that he is to stay alive, waiting to be found, hoping to be saved.

Do we need to know the name on that cargo container that hit his boat? It really is immaterial considering all that Our Man has gone through and all the efforts he has put forth to be saved. But just for information, we see the name in English, ‘Ho Won’, an obvious translation from the two Chinese words below: “Good Luck”. A jest too harsh.

Spoiler Alert. If you have not seen the film, you might want to skip the next paragraph, just that one. If you have seen the film, you’re most welcome to share your thoughts on the ending.

Like Life of Pi, the ending is open to your own interpretation. Two lines of thoughts conjured up as I watched the open-ended final scene: Only when one has lost all would one be saved. Or, go into that good night with gentleness, for brightness awaits. I can see both these scenarios to be applicable here. Again, this is one of those films that leaves the viewer to draw the conclusion, a type of ending which may not be very popular but one that conveys the multiplicity of reality.

As the credits roll, we hear the song for the film. I first thought singer songwriter Alex Ebert was calling ‘Our Man’ throughout his song. As I later found in the credits, it was ‘Amen’ (with the ‘Ah’ sound). Yes, ‘Amen’ is the title of the song.

A fine movie to watch with a quiet mind and patient disposition. A necessary offering in our present day of excess among some numbing and mindless entertainment. It’s like holding your breath in your hectic course of life for 106 minutes, and survive.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Click here to listen to Alex Ebert’s song ‘Amen’ and watch the trailer of the movie All Is Lost.

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Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant

Reading Maupassant reminds me why I love Jane Austen.

To be fair, I’ve only read one of the numerous short stories and one novel of Maupassant’s, but all of Austen’s six novels. So it just may not be apt for me to generalize the former. But focusing on just this book, Bel Ami, I can say here’s a protagonist whom I can never cheer for nor find amiable, to put it mildly…

Maupassant uses a scoundrel as the main character and have us follow his ascent, unscrupulous at every turn, as his ego and desires are being fed all the way to the end, and then some more. An antihero, the poster boy of realism in his depiction of late 19th C. Parisian high society?

Jane Austen has also written a protagonist she described as “A heroine whom no one but myself would like”. But comparing to Bel Ami‘s Georges Deroy, Emma Woodhouse is angelic. How do I even start to think of a parallel… imagine Wickham of Pride and Prejudice and Willoughby of Sense and Sensibility, combine them and magnify their nasty streak ten folds, then you’ll have Georges Deroy, nicknamed Bel Ami by the women in his life, ‘good friend’, a most pathetic irony.

The time is 1890’s Paris. Georges Duroy is a former soldier living in poverty. But call it luck or call it will, Duroy ends up a prominent figure in Parisian high society. This is how he does it.

Women. At one time, there are four significant females in Deroy’s life. These are upper crust, influential beauties. To Duroy, they are but rungs up the social ladder, each a conquest.

First is Madeleine Forestiers, the wife of his benefactor, editor friend whom he runs into coincidentally, and who saves him from poverty by bringing him in to work for the newspaper La Vie française.

The second one is Clotilde de Marelle, a married woman whom Duroy has made mistress. She aptly analyzes the Mars and Venus chasm of gender differences on that elusive notion called love. To Duroy, she says:

I know perfectly well that for you love is merely a sort of appetite whereas for me it would be more a sort of… communion of souls which doesn’t exist in a male religion. You understand the letter and I understand the spirit.

The third is the big boss of the newspaper Monsieur Walter’s wife Virgine, who has such a crush on Duroy that she loses her senses when he successfully schemes and manipulates her daughter Suzanne to elope with him.

George Wickham has plenty to learn from Georges Duroy because his subsequent wedding after the elopement is not a hush hush patch up, but a glamorous celeb nuptial, fully legit and the envy of all. By now, Duroy has climbed to be editor of La Vie française and made himself a Baron, changing his name to Du Roy for a more aristocratic sound. And we know full well that the conquest doesn’t stop there.

In one earlier incident, Duroy comes out of a gun duel unscathed, albeit a bit numbed. With his life spared, he could well have used such a near-death experience as a springboard to a new beginning and a turnaround of his ways. But his lucky escape has only fuelled his hubris and reaffirmed his self-importance. After the duel, he thinks himself invincible.

Is he immoral or amoral? I feel I have to choose the latter in order to find some amusement in following this unscrupulous character. Is it realism or sarcasm? I have to mix them both in order to seek some reading enjoyment. And with the English translation by the Cambridge scholar Douglas Parmée, there are the occasional descriptions that sounds… curt. But are they the original intent as realism dictates, or the collateral effects of translation? Can’t make up my mind on that one. Just an example:

The elder sister Rose was ugly, as flat as a pancake and insignificant, the sort of girl you never look at, speak to or talk about.

There, I find myself having to choose or debone or mix and stir in order to wash down better when reading Bel Ami. Under Maupassant’s pen of realism, Duroy is relentless all the way to the end. Just goes back to my love for Austen’s works… why, I can take in big gulps, devour and be totally satisfied. There are Wickham and Willoughby, but ultimately my yearning for some sort of poetic justice can be gratified. For my reading pleasure, I’ll take Jane’s idealism anytime.

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Bel-Ami by Guy De Maupassant, translated by Douglas Parmée, Penguin Classics, movie tie-in edition, 2012, 394 pages.

As you can see from the book cover, Bel Ami has been adapted into film. To literature purists, I suggest you look for another edition. Whenever I read about Georges Duroy, which is on every page, Robert Pattinson’s face keeps haunting me, and images of Uma Thurman as Madeleine Forestier, Kristin Scott Thomas as Virginie keep conjuring up in my mind. Now I haven’t even watched the film… oh the suggestive power of a book cover.

This concludes my Paris in July entries for 2012. Thanks to Karen of BookBath and Tamara of Thyme for Tea for hosting.

To Paris again next year!

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Midnight’s Children: Book Three

Click on the following links to the different sections of the book:
Midnight’s Children Book One
Midnight’s Children Book Two, Part A
Midnight’s Children Book Two, Part B

CLICK HERE to read my Movie Review of Midnight’s Children

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Finally, we’ve come to the last section, the most eventful and catastrophic in our protagonist Saleem Sinai’s life. I must admit, my enthusiasm sagged a little at the end of Book Two, through no faults of Mr. Rushdie’s. Book Three sent me to some major Googling to be informed. After reading what I found on the Internet, I was fully awake.

The tumultuous waves of history swept Saleem along like an open dinghy. The 1965 Indo-Pakistani War over Kashmir ‘wiped out’ his family in a bomb blast. Saleem was ‘wiped clean’ with no memories of his own identity. He subsequently joined an intelligence gathering unit in the Pakistani military, his super sensitive nose being the major asset. In 1971, another war awaited him as he headed from West Pakistan into East to counter the revolutionary Mukti Bahini in their fight for an independent Bangladesh.

Perhaps fate had a gentler hand than humans. Saleem, now ‘buddha’ as he was ‘purified’ of all his past, got lost in the Sundarbans jungle. For seven months, he escaped the war between the two Pakistans. When he reemerged he witnessed atrocities done by his own Pakistan army he could not believe. Ten million refugees from East Pakistan walked across the border into India. As a result, the mightier Indian army led by Sam Manekshaw intervened and soon ended the war, with Pakistan’s Tiger Niazi surrendering with his 93,000 men. Buddha shed his uniform and became a deserter in Dacca, independent Bangladesh.

Tossed amidst the raging sea of national and personal upheavals, our protagonist, though a drop in a sea of six hundred millions, felt the burden of history and came to a self-realization. Rushdie’s description is powerful:

Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me… I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.

With the Bangladesh Independence victory parade came a band of magicians from India, among them was Parvati-the-witch, one of the Midnight’s Children. Seeing Saleem again and calling his name out loud in excitement, Parvati cured his amnesia. She smuggled him in her basket back to India. Subsequently, Saleem stayed with Parvati and the magicians in the slum of Delhi. The silver spittoon he carries all these years is a perfect metaphor of his life… once born with a silver spoon in his mouth as a changeling, Saleem now comes back to where he would have been if he had not been switched at birth, the spittoon.

Saleem met his changeling rival, Major Shiva now. A loyal supporter of PM Indira Gandhi, Shiva had risen as Saleem fell. A national hero and a womanizer, Shiva went to the magician ghetto and took Parvita away. Months later she was sent back to the slum when he learned that she was pregnant. At the end, it was Saleem who married Parvita, knowing that she would give birth to Shiva’s son.

Baby Aadam Sinai was born at midnight, June 25, 1975, on the brink of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency measure in gripping absolute power, another fateful night of the nation’s history. But Saleem knows his son who is not his son will have a different path:

Aadam was a member of a second generation of magical children who would grow up far tougher than the first, not looking at their fate in prophecy or the stars, but forging it in the implacable furnaces of their wills.

With Shiva as the biological father, baby Aadam once again flowed back to the blood line of his grandfather Ahmed Sinai, the offspring of a changeling comes full circle back to his rightful lineage.

Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay conducted an anti-poverty operation to eradicate the slums. Parvati was killed in the clean-up. After her death, Saleem had a chance to go back to his birth city Bombay with his son. There he reunited with Mary Pereira. She was now Mrs. Braganza, manager of a pickle factory. Her changeling crime forgiven, Saleem now worked in her factory, paralleled his work as a writer preserving history:

… in words and pickles, I have immortalized my memories, although distortions are inevitable in both methods. We must live, I’m afraid, with the shadows of imperfection.

Is an author liable for what he writes in a work of fiction? The line delineating reality and fiction in Midnight’s Children is often blurry. Do Saleem’s views parallel Rushdie’s? Like Saleem telling his life story to Padma, Rushdie in Midnight’s Children could well have gone all out to unleash his sentiments towards the historical progression and political turmoil of India, the Partition, Pakistan and later Bangladesh.

In Book Three, Rushdie was particularly critical of the suspension of civil rights, censorship of the press and arrests of subversive elements during the Emergency as Indira Gandhi seized absolute power. But it was for a more personal description, a single sentence about Indira in this section of the book that brought Rushdie a defamation suit in 1984 by Mrs. Gandhi when she was PM again. In context, the sentence is Saleem’s account, but has to be removed from publication after that year. Rushdie mentions it in his introduction to the 25th Anniversary edition.*  The author still has the last word.

Midnight’s Children is an epic chronicle that carries multi-layered meaning and parallels, a feast of stylistic literary offerings. As an outsider, I feel I have only scratched the surface. But with just this outer core, I’ve been much entertained and informed. I will be back for more.

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A note of appreciation to Mrs. B of The Literary Stew who planted the seed of this read-along, and Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza who supported the start-up. My hearty thanks to all who have shown interest, participated at one time or another exchanging thoughts and insights in your reviews and comments, as well as those who are silent readers. All your contributions have made this four-month endeavour gratifying and worthwhile.

Review posts for Midnight’s Children Finale:

Janell of An Everyday Life

Gavin of Page247

To read my reviews of previous sections of Midnight’s Children, please click the links on the sidebar.

We must do this again some other time. Book suggestions?

* Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, 25th Anniversary Edition, Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York, 2006, 533 pages. (Book cover as image above)

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Midnight’s Children is one of my most anticipated films for 2012. Here are the actors playing young (Darsheel Safary) and adult Saleem Sinai (Satya Bhabha):

Here’s @SalmanRushdie’s Tweet regarding the release dates of the film: ‘Canada, October 26th; UK, November 9th; USA, being finalized, should be around the same time.’

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Audiobook Review: Brideshead Revisited Read by Jeremy Irons

Don’t be misled by the cover design. This audiobook is not related to the 2008 movie adaptation. Rather, it’s an unabridged recording of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, engagingly read by Jeremy Irons, who plays the narrator Charles Ryder in the 1981 award-winning British TV series.

Jeremy Irons exemplifies what an ideal audio performance should be like. We look for the visuals in a movie; we are drawn to the voice in an audiobook.

For one who has had his share of youthful desires, tasted love and loss, and known the ambivalent effect family and religion can bring, now twenty years after, Charles Ryder is resigned to a numb and dreamless existence. Irons delivers such a tone perfectly… his deep, quiet and sombre voice an apt reflection of Ryder’s sentiments.

His voice dramatizes the various characters with clarity. As a listener, I can easily tell who’s talking, as simple as that. From the senior Lord Marchmain to 12 year-old Cordelia, from the stuttering Anthony Blanche to the constantly drunk Sebastian Flyte, Irons’ portrayal is natural and apt. Characterization is consistent in their manner of speech, quirks and eccentricities. Further, he has also effectively conveyed the subtext, the undercurrents in the dialogues, for example, the sardonic remarks Edward Ryder often hurls at his son.

On top of all these, Irons has presented Waugh’s beautiful language and descriptions with poetic eloquence. His articulation stops me time and again to rewind so I can listen and savor the language once more.

Here is the excerpt that seized me from the start and sent me to find the passage in the book to recap every word. This is in the Prologue when Charles unknowingly arrives Brideshead in his army duty twenty years later and asks his subordinate where they are. This is the moment when he is told the name of the place:

He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long forgotten sounds: for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.

I know it’s a bit long, but I must include it here, for this is the passage that has drawn me to the written word, all because of the voice reading it. Can this be the measure of a good audiobook?

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Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh read by Jeremy Irons, BBC Audiobooks America, 10 CD’s, 11 hrs 21 min, Unabridged. July 22, 2008.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Thanks to Devourer of Books for hosting Audioweek 2012.

Other related posts on Ripple Effects:

The Downton Ripples

Dances With Words

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Prometheus (2012): Still Searching

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun. ” — Ecclesiastes 1:9

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We went to see Prometheus on Fathers Day. That’s a ‘family movie’ for us. Literal meaning: son taking father to the theatre, mom gladly tagged along as chaperone.

The quote above was what came to mind as I left the theatre. Haven’t I seen them all somewhere before? The whole idea of advanced ancient civilizations, as one blogger mentioned von Daniken (Chariots of the Gods), or the enemy inside (literally), or a robot watching old films to be informed of the human way (Wall-E). O wait, maybe there are plenty of CGI techniques that are new and that my amateur and non-technical eyes could not pick out. And the fact that I chose not to watch the 3D version means I’d missed out a lot of technical extravaganza.

Let’s just pick up where I left off.

I watched the very first, Ridley Scott’s Alien, in the theatre… that was 1979. In one notorious cinematic moment, the alien bursts out from within a human belly. That’s quite original I think, shocking scene at that time. So there incubates the subsequent alien offshoots, not only in movies, but I’ve read something like that too, unexpectedly, in the book The Astronaut’s Wife.

Prometheus is the latest version of Ridley Scott’s Alien. At the start we see a couple of archeologists/scientists discovering some ancient cave paintings pointing to a star map that they think could be invitation for them to find out the origin of human life. Following their instinct, they are put to cryo sleep and waken up in the year 2093 on the space exploration vessel Prometheus heading towards those stars.

Prometheus is a space ship purely for scientific discovery. It is also privately funded by Weyland (unrecognizable Guy Pearce) for his own agenda, to find the means to eternal life. Heading the ship’s operation is hard-nosed Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). Unfortunately, her character seems unnecessary except to deliver a few trite dialogues.

Leading the scientific team is Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, most aptly played by Noomi Rapace (Lisbeth… obvious name derivation). She has a chance to demonstrate her Dragon Tattoo Girl agility in combat, in resourcefulness, in quick thinking, and in acting. She’s a ‘believer’, wearing a cross necklace, always searching for the truth, despite the discovery that her Maker could be a creator-turned-terminator. She wants to know why.

In contrast, there’s David, an android/robot programmed to offer objective and unemotional info in all areas from scientific data to the various scopes of human civilization, icily played by Michael Fassbender (Jane Eyre, Shame, A Dangerous Method…) In a short exchange, David asks Elizabeth why she needs to know the reason for her Maker turning against its own creation. Elizabeth gives the answer: because I’m human and you’re just a robot.

So the search lands them on the moon LV 223 where they find some humanoid creatures with much more advanced technology. But who made them? Soon they see their dangerous predicament as some organic matter inside these ‘engineers’ are still alive and can turn agressive and powerful. Spectacular warfares ensue and lives lost as a result. And I should stop here to avoid giving away any more spoilers.

The movie ends with the idea that the search continues, and so will its sequels…

I’m not a fan of the Sci-Fi/futuristic genre. But I’m glad in the year 2093, these things remain: Chopin’s music, classic films, Christmas, and human’s search for their Maker.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Vision not Illustration

Read a post entitled “It’s All About the Story” on the Austenblog relating the controversial remarks the Welsh filmmaker Peter Greenaway made recently in an international film festival.  He criticised modern blockbusters like the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series, dismissing them as “not films but illustrated books”.  As for all the Austen movies sprouting up in recent years, Greenaway said:

Cinema is predicated on the 19th-century novel.  We’re still  illustrating Jane Austen novels—there are 41 films of Jane Austen   novels in the world.  What a waste of time.”

This is my response.  I recognize that not all attempts of turning books into films are successful, many far from being effective.  However, a good movie should be the portrayal of a vision, not mere illustration or graphic representation of the written words.  As I have commented in that post, let’s just say a film is the visualization of the novel, not mere illustration.

And there is a major difference between vision and illustration: the former is seeing through an interpretive lens, rather than simply transferring images from one medium to another like the latter.

That’s why we may like a certain adaptation over another of the same Austen novel, and that’s why there can be more than one movie on the same story… Just as Bach had created Theme and Variations, we can have Story and Adaptations. That’s the reason why we still go to the concert hall and listen to different masters playing the same pieces of music, infusing into their performance their own unique persona and interpretation.  As an art-house filmmaker, Mr. Greenaway should have grasped this very fundamental notion.

As for future endeavors to turn Austen novels into films, I say, “All the best!”

Becoming Jane (2007)

I’ve delayed watching this movie till now.  I wanted to avoid all that hype about Jane Austen.  Even as a JA fan, I’ve hesitated jumping on the Austen bandwagon of what I suspect to be mere commercialism.  Well, after a few months waiting for the dust to settle, I went into a second-run movie theatre this crisp October day with very little expectation, and was pleasantly surprised…I thoroughly enjoyed the movie!

Becoming Jane

As I mentioned in my reply to a visitor who had left a comment on my WWAW post, like many of life’s simple pleasures, a movie does not have to be ‘deep’ to be enjoyable.  However, simplicity does not mean superficiality.  Becoming Jane is heart-felt story-telling.  It has many witty renderings especially carved out for Austen readers, like the mirror images reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice.  The first part of the movie moves along breezily with its humour; but it is the sombreness in the latter part that makes the story so poignant.

Based on the recorded short-lived courtship between Austen and a young lawyer named Tom Lefroy, the backdrop of the movie has its historical accuracy:  the Austen family, Jane’s close relationship with her sister Cassandra, the inequitable social environment wherein Jane as a female, had to write anonymously, and the torment that one had to face having to choose between marrying to survive and marrying for love, and suffer the social disgrace and financial ruins resulting from it.

Other than the basic background, the movie never intends to be a serious, historically grounded account.  It is pure fiction, and as one of the contemporaries of Jane Austen the Gothic writer Ann Radcliffe says in the movie,  it is the imagination, and not real-life experience, that gives rise to story-telling.  From this spirit evolves the beautiful story of Becoming Jane, purely imaginary, idealistic, noble, and yet painfully poignant.  The movie leads us ever so subtly to realize the bitter taste of love over the sweetness of romance.

The simple script will not work if not for the great acting, or understated acting rather, of all its cast members.  Anne Hathaway has once again robbed the Brits of a coveted role, yes, an American playing one of the best-loved British authors (The other one I’m thinking of is Renée Zellweger playing Bridget Jones). James McAvoy is comparable in his charm as Tom Lefroy.  The supporting roles are all played by excellent veterans like Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, Ian Richardson, and James Cromwell.  Anna Maxwell Martin as Cassandra provides immeasurable support to Hathaway.  I was deeply affected by her lead role as Esther Summerson in the BBC production of Bleak House (2005).  Here once again she has demonstrated that her acting is superb.

I have enjoyed the cinematography, the costume, the music, and yes, even the disheartened twist at the end.  I came out of the movie theatre contented.   So what if the story is pure speculation.  Sometimes it takes the imaginary to lead us to look more directly at love, life, and the choices we make.   Maybe that’s why we are always drawn to stories, fiction … and movies.

~~~3 Ripples

WWJW: What Would Jane Write?

thejaneaustenbookclub2

The Jane Austen Book Club

Calgary International Film Festival 2007

Some time ago, I was using the phrase “intellectual chick lit” to describe the book Literacy and Longing in L.A. to a friend and was instantly retorted with: “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”  I had no reply.  Maybe to respond to the bad rap “chick lit” and “chick flicks” have been getting, a few writers have infused literary ingredients in their concoction in their attempt to create more intelligent work.  The Jane Austen Book Club falls into this short list.  The book written by Karen Joy Fowler (2002 Pen/Faulkner Award finalist) was turned into sceenplay by Robin Swicord (Screenplay, Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005) who made her directorial debut in the movie.  I had the chance to view it on the first day of the 2007 Calgary International Film Festival.

The book club is established with the original intent of consoling Sylvia, who is recently divorced from her husband Daniel.  It is a plan conceived by her good friend Jocelyn, a never-been-married dog breeder.  Following the theme of Austen’s Emma, Jocelyn has brought along the only male, Grigg, to the club, intended for her friend Sylvia.  What follows is the expected outcomes, Grigg falls for Jocelyn instead of Sylvia, who later reconciles with her estranged husband, while the other members of the group also are either hooked up with new found love or have their relationships mended.  Very neat, very happy, very clean ending.  Is this what Jane would have written if she were around today?

TJABC reminds me of the British movie Love Actually, which was released during the Christmas season in 2003.  Dealing with the love affairs of eight different couples in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the season has got to be a swift and jolly feat.  The movie remains a montage of famous British faces delivering superficial Christmas cheers under the banner of love.  TJABC has just slightly fewer characters, with six members in the group responsible for leading discussion on one of the six Austen novels.  Despite the juxtaposition and parallels of Austenian motifs and plots, I feel that both the movie and the book circumvent the periphery of contemporary life and relationships without offering much depth and insights as Austen’s own work. But of course, who is comparing Fowler with Austen?  Having said that, I must say I’ve enjoyed the acting of some of the characters, especially Prudie (Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada, 2006), and Hugh Dancy (who would have thought he’s a Brit?)

Coming back to my original question:  What would Jane Austen write in this 21st century?  Would she fall for “chick lit” that can be turned into romantic comedies, for good cheers or box office successes?  Would Jane Austen be a mere romance writer, or “chick flicks” producer? Carol Shield noted that Austen’s heroines “exercise real power”, given their disadvantaged social positions.  Martin Amis stated “her fiction effortlessly renews itself in every generation.”  Virginia Woolf said about Austen’s writing: “That was how Shakespeare wrote.” Harold Bloom commented on the somberness of her work.  Thornton Wilder claimed that Austen’s “art is so consummate that the secret is hidden.”   Fay Weldon summed it up well:  “I also think … that the reason no one married her was … It was just all too much.  Something truly frightening rumbled there beneath the bubbling mirth:  something capable of taking the world by its heels, and shaking it.”  Thanks to Fowler for including such commentaries at the back of her book.

Austen is a sharp and incisive social commentator of her time, a progressive thinker holding a sure sense of morality, and a brilliant observer of human nature and relationships.  Her wisdom is well crafted in the disguise of humor and satire, her vision covered under seemingly simple, idealistic fervor.   Her critique of the manner and injustice of society, if transferred into modern day context, might not appeal as “chick” or as “romantic” as many of us would want to see, or can accept.

What would Jane write?  Definitely not “chick lit”.

~~1/2 Ripples for both book and movie