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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Note to Self: Othello @STC next season

Just got the brochure in the mail. No dates yet. I will go see it.

Below is a poster of Vishal Bhardwaj's modern adaptation of Othello, Omkara (2006). It's pretty excellent and very faithful to the play. Like in most productions, Iago, played by Saif Ali Khan, steals the show.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Theological Subversiveness in Mahabharata (Notes #17)

I suppose one should not be surprised by the mess of stories, mythologies, cults, and messages that were crammed into Mahabharata over centuries of telling and retelling. Many of the lessons and points conflict with and even contradict each other, down to the basic definition of "dharma." Fine. There is something in the Indian history and culture that drove the exacting English colonialists crazy, because one can never seem to get a straight answer to any question about India. Any simple question, like, What is dharma? What is maya? What is sin?, can lead to a lifetime of research and philosophical argument with no end in sight.

Be that as it may, I want to sort out a few signs of direct theological antagonism in the epic, particularly in the Bhagavad Gita.

The most striking message in the Gita is to act without expectations of rewards, ie, the karma yoga. This is in opposition to the traditional Indian mythology based on asceticism, which is full of anecdotes of someone getting his wish granted by a god, big or small, by starving himself, chanting the god's name a million times, and standing on his toe for a few years, known as tapasya. If you're a well pampered king who doesn't want to go through that self-torturing routine, you can hire a team of Brahmins to do the praying for you and throw in a lot of good stuff (eg, milk, ghee, flowers) in the ceremony. Voila! You get your wish granted. It is such a straightforward even exchange between the gods and men and universal to nearly all ancient cultures on earth. I offer/sacrifice something precious to the gods, and the gods give me what I want. Simple and instinctive. Yet the Gita says, you should not even expect a reward for your sacrifice to the god. Forget it.

Well, that's an unpleasant gift, isn't it? Even though it is more realistic and empirically true, telling people that they cannot bargain with (and therefore control) fate/gods/fortune is contrary to our hopes and dreams. Such realism can't win any followers. So we are thrown a bone. Yes, there is a reward, which is moksha. Who needs earthly rewards (eg, wealth, happiness, long life, death to your enemies) when you can achieve the ultimate joy of being released from the cycles of life and death, heaven and hell.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Palace

Last night I dreamed of the palace again. This has become a recurrent dream in recent months. The building is always somewhere nearby, in downtown DC or on the National Mall, behind one of the Smithsonian museums but easily. Or it might be just past Old Town Alexandria, between the red-brick buildings and the river. Or it was a ten-minute walk from home, across a field of waist-high grass and behind willow trees.

On the outside it is not gigantic but exquisitely complex. Topped with a golden dome, the deep blue frames and colored glass form intricate patterns. Whenever I visit it in a dream, it is always with someone --- family, friends, or just Sam, but never alone. It's a hidden gem that I show off to them. We have to first pass through a plain and ordinary building and a courtyard to see the grandeur of this palace.

At the sight of the dome and the glorious walls, a gentle gladness and calm excitement wash over me. We enter the palace and up the spiraling stairs. No royalty live here; it is an art museum, like National Gallery of Art. Let me show you all the good stuff, I say to my companions. It feels like home.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Ending of Chinatown (1974)

The original ending of Chinatown, written by Robert Towne, was changed by the director Roman Polanski to be more tragic and ironic, and Towne complained about it later in some book he wrote. Film critics generally take Polanski's side as the superior choice.

In Polanski's version (ie, the movie version), Jake the private detective (Jack Nicholson) and his associate, the villain Noah Cross (John Houston) and his henchman, his daughter Evelyn Cross (Faye Dunaway) and her daughter/sister Kathrine, and a couple of police detectives all congregate in Chinatown. Evelyn tries to drive away with Kathrine. Her father, the henchman, the police, and even Jake try to stop her, but somehow by holding a gun she gets into a car and drives off, and then one of the policeman shoots and kills Evelyn. Noah takes Kathrine. The end.

Towne's version is in some sense indeed more conventional to the genre and appealing to the popular expectation. Jake, Noah, Evelyn, and the police (but no Kathrine) also converge on a beach in pouring rain. Evelyn takes her revenge by shooting her father dead. She goes to jail. The end.

Well, I can see why critics favor Polanski's version of the ending, and clearly he wanted to do this when he read the script, because earlier in the movie he dropped several foreshadowing hints to duplicate the climactic ending (eg, Jake has his car's tire shot out by an orange farmer, Evelyn lowers her head in the car and accidentally hits the horn). An unsatisfying and tragic ending in which "the bad guy wins" is bound to stay with you longer than a just resolution. It is also understandable that Polanski wants a bleak ending in which the lead female character dies, since this was a few years after his wife was murdered by the Mansons.

Yet, I am not happy about Polanski's ending, either. All 3 female characters in the movie are victims through and through, used and abused lying down. They are weak and neurotic and pathetic. It is suggested but not confirmed that Evelyn has given her daughter to her husband as a sexual gift. One might excuse this treatment of women within the context of time and culture, but it becomes a lot harder to excuse when the original ending gives so much more power to Evelyn. Even if she fails in her revenge --- which would be an ending I prefer, she would have made an attempt and done something more than running away. Why not keep her fight while still kill her off and let the bad guy win?

I know it is not fashionable to bring Polanski's personal life into critiques of his work, but if we want to acknowledge the effect of his wife's murder, then I think his sexual preference for adolescent girls is fair game. One may argue that it is no surprise that he doesn't much like women with any strength. I suppose a male critic is unlikely to notice the dismal portrayal of women or be disturbed by Faye Dunnaway getting slapped around by the hero without much resistance. Even I did not much think of it, until I read up on what Towne had in his original script.

Last week I re-watched "The French Connection" (1971) and was much disappointed by several plot holes and unrealistic, illogical details in a film that prides itself for the documentary-like realism in style. The plot problems in "Chinatown" are less glaring, but nevertheless quite visible. For example, it is never explained clearly who hired Jake to expose Mulwray's extramarital affair in the first place, and the feeble reveal is limp and unconvincing and does not fit into the two main threads of the story. It is never explained how the police get to Chinatown in the end, yet do not seem to make a real effort to arrest Evelyn, who is by then the main suspect in her husband's murder and is about to become a fugitive. Why and where does Evelyn intend to run in the car? The story states early on that she did run away from home years ago, yet this time she is still incredibly incompetent at running away. It also makes no sense for Jake to confront Noah Cross, right before he carries out Evelyn and Katherine's escape. What is he, born yesterday? What's the rush?

I don't know what's the problem with these classic movies from the early 1970s. Did they not have script editors back then? Maybe I should re-watch The Godfather next because I do not remember any visible plot holes in that movie. This is not to say movies today do not have glaring holes and mistakes, but tightly written scripts like "Michael Clayton" and "One False Move" are not uncommon.

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