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In Akira Kurosawa’s 1965 movie Redbeard, Toshiro Mifune plays the eccentric Dr. Niide ( Redbeard) who runs a charity hospital for the poor in nineteenth century Japan. At  the beginning of the movie, Noburu Yasumoto , a newly minted medical graduate reluctantly joins the hospital as an intern. A bookish, arrogant sort, he would rather have waited for an appointment as a doctor at the royal court  by virtue of his connections. However, his family feels that working with Red Beard will benefit him and help him forget the sting of having been jilted; his fiancée broke off their engagement and married another man. At Red Beard’s hospital, young Yasumoto is transformed as he helps tend to a horde of poor patients; he realizes  that medicine  means interacting with the sick, that it is not just a career path. Towards the end of the movie, his ex-fiancée comes to seek his forgiveness but , as she kneels down before him, he sees not the girl who jilted him but the mother of a sick child; he at once enquires how her child is doing. Without being told, the viewer understands that Yasumoto’s transformation is complete; he now understands what being a doctor really means.

That, to me, is an example of the film-maker’s art.

Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali is now regarded as a masterpiece but it is a miracle, first that it got made and, then, that it was recognized as a masterwork. Before he made Pather Panchali, Ray had never directed a film, his cameraman had never used a video camera and  there was great difficulty financing the film. Somehow, Pather Panchali wound up as India’s entry at the Cannes film festival of 1956. Because of the low quality of Indian films, only the French member of the judging committee attended the screening. So impressed was he that he insisted on it being rescreened and that his fellow committee members watch it. The rest is history; Pather Panchali won the Palme D’Or and went on to garner awards at Edinburgh, Vancouver and San Francisco.

What is its appeal? on the face of it, this story about a poor Bengali villager, Harihar, and his family ( wife Sarbajaya, daughter Durga and son Apu) should not appeal to audiences worldwide. The poverty it depicts is heart-wrenching, the events almost uniformly depressing. In the film’s climactic sequence, Harihar returns to the  village after having earned some money in the big city but is puzzled by his wife’s strange behavior. Unbeknownst to him, while he was away, his daughter Durga, the apple of his eye, has died of a fever that she caught when she was drenched in a sudden thunderstorm. He calls out to his children as he opens his metal trunk and pulls out a sari which he has bought as a present for Durga. At this, his wife who has been wondering how to break the news of Durga’s death bursts into sobs and falls to the floor. Harihar ,when he understands what has happened, lets out a wordless howl and collapses beside her. Watching this scene is like a punch in the gut. The film also has moments of great beauty as the camera follows Durga and Apu around the village. In one memorable sequence, the two children follow a sweet seller, irresistibly attracted to his wares which they cannot afford and are trailed by a stray dog. The whole procession is reflected in a roadside pond. In another, the children run through a field of waving grasses to catch a glimpse of a railway train, a symbol for the mysterious world beyond their limited everyday lives. And at the end, when Harihar packs his family and meagre belongings into an oxcart and departs the village, the last we see of them is a swaying lantern in the back of the cart, perhaps a harbinger of their hope for the future. In its lyricism and universal appeal , Pather Panchali transcends the barriers of geography, culture and time to tug at the heartstrings of moviegoers worldwide.

This, to me, is the film-maker’s art.

I started thinking about this topic after I saw Hitchcock’s ” Vertigo” last week. It too was a groundbreaker in its time and Hitchcock introduced many innovative techniques in filming it. However, one thing about it that turned me off is its heavy use of symbols and hidden meanings, many of them  obscure. For instance , ” Tunnels and corridors repeatedly represent the passage to death. The first tunnel image appears when the camera reveals Scottie’s perspective as he clings to the rooftop gutter. The camera pans straight down the side of the building, creating a tunnel effect. While visiting the sequoia forest, Madeleine shares a recurring dream in which she walks down a long corridor. Nothing but darkness and death await her there. She also dreams of a corridor like open grave. When Midge walks away from Scottie for the last time, it is down a long corridor that darkens around her. The passage marks a kind of death for Midge as she loses all hope of re-kindling her romance with Scottie.” This may be fascinating stuff  for movie buffs but for ordinary viewers like me it is a big yawn. It is too clever by far and seems as if the director is saying ” Let’s see if you get this, you dummies”.

Art, whether it is cinema or painting or something else, should immediately strike a chord with viewers. Real art, in my opinion, doesn’t need multiple viewings or a critic to explain it.  Real art does not make things  complicated or obscure. It  makes things appear natural and simple  and audiences connect with it effortlessly. Or so I feel…

Last Sunday I attended my first ever film discussion group, a group in our development that meets once a month to discuss classic films. This particular meeting was to screen and talk about Alfred Hitchcock’s ” Vertigo” ( 1958) . What particularly attracted me was the announcement that Alan Williams, a Rutgers University professor and film aficionado would be on hand to talk about the film. I only vaguely remembered watching the film , many years ago on TV, and it would be like seeing it for the first time.

The meeting was held in the Ladies Card Room and was attended by about thirty film fans, the majority of them women. After helping ourselves to the popcorn, cookies and snacks we settled down to listen to Professor Williams give us an introduction to Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Vertigo. ( He said) Hitchcock’s early career in England was an artistic success but he really hit his stride only after he came to America. Here, once WWII was over, he had much larger budgets to work with and was able to take his time developing his plots and shoot many more takes.  Vertigo was shot on location in San Francisco, unlike most of his films which were filmed on studio sets. Today there are ” Vertigo tours” of San Francisco quite popular with Hitchcock fans and others.

As most of you will recall, Vertigo is based on a French short story; it is about  John ” Scotty” Ferguson , a San Francisco detective who retires from the force when his fear of heights results in the death of a policeman colleague as they pursue a robber across the roof tops. Six months later, he reluctantly agrees to shadow Madeleine, the wife of an old acquaintance, Gavin Elster, a wealthy ship builder. Claiming that Madeleine has been acting strangely, Gavin tells him that he thinks his wife might be losing her mind and that he fears for her safety. Scotty does follow Madeleine and, after rescuing her from an apparent suicide attempt, falls in love with her. On an outing at an old mission, she climbs to the top of the bell tower and falls to her death as he is unable to follow her up the stairs. At the inquest, her death is ruled a suicide but Scotty is faulted for not having prevented it. But this is not the end of the story… Months later, Scotty runs into Judy Barton who bears a startling resemblance to Madeleine. Is she who she claims to be Or… ?  The rest of the film deals with Scotty’s attempts to  re-make Judy as Madeleine  and the unraveling of the mystery.

Vertigo is a very complex film, heavy on symbolism, hidden meanings and multiple themes. In his post-film comments, Prof. Williams gave us insights into them and into Hitchcock’s favorite themes .He told us that most of Hitchcock’s  protagonists are somewhat paranoid and suffer from psychological problems of one kind or another. Hitchcock often used Jimmy Stewart for roles where the main character is clueless , Cary Grant for lighter roles. Hitchcock’s wife Alma played an active role in the making of his films( particularly as film editor) but , though he loved her dearly, he never gave her any credit for her efforts on his behalf. Hitchcock was a vain and not very likeable as a person ; he was also a very shrewd marketer. His cameo appearances in his films started as a gimmick but, ultimately became a marketing tool; audiences loved them and used to wait for them. Some of these cameos were ingeniously woven into the movie. In Lifeboat, for instance, one of the characters is reading a newspaper and Hitchcock appears in a diet ad of the ” Before and After” variety in the paper. In the” Before” photo , of course.

In the discussion that followed the film screening, I was amazed  at how much detail my fellow members in the audience had absorbed and dissected. For instance, there are two separate instances when Scotty and Madeleine are on their way to the Mission and are driving on the wrong side of the road, a harbinger that things are breaking down and bad things are going to happen. This happens for mere seconds each time and I missed them completely. Not so my friends. There were many other instances like that.

Both the pre-movie introduction and the post movie discussion were enjoyable but the movie itself was a disappointment. It may be a classic  and it may have been avant garde in it’s day but to the modern movie-goer it appears outdated. The advances in cinematography have been so profound that the movie seems amateurish. As for all the layers of meaning and the symbolism, I wonder if they are not excessive. I do not think that anyone could have picked up on more than a small fraction of them at a single viewing. Is there a point at which a movie stops being art and becomes self -indulgence on the part of the director? One would have to see the movie many, many times to pick up on things like the director’s use of red and green and what the colors signify. For casual moviegoers like me who are interested in a movie for its story, this is all a bit too much.

I saw the movie while seated in what seemed a comfortably upholstered chair. I was mistaken. By the end of the movie my behind was numb and I was squirming around. To make matters worse, this was the enhanced edition of Vertigo and was almost three hours long. Next time I go to a film discussion, I will take along a pillow.

Who can resist a book with the title The Top Ten Things Dead People Want To Tell You ? Not me. Even before I read that 70% of the responders on the Amazon had given it a five-star rating I knew that I wanted to read it.

I have never been more disappointed in a book. It’s title is  the best thing , perhaps the only good thing, about it.

The book is written by Mike Dooley, a former tax consultant turned entrepreneur. He is the author of two previous best sellers and the founder of Notes from the Universe, an uplifting daily free e-mail that goes out to over 700,000 subscribers. The central premise of Dooley’s book is that when people die they ascend to a happy place where their every need is fulfilled. However, these dead souls still retain their attachments to those they left behind and follow the fortunes of their loved ones on earth. The Top Ten things are what Dooley imagines they want to pass on to those they love. Dooley doesn’t offer any proof of this premise; he says he just knows this is true. Some readers object to this postulate; they seem to have thought that Dooley would use the actual experiences of people in writing this book. I am not one of them. In saying” I know. Just trust me.”, Dooley is not doing any different from all the major religions. They too do not offer any proof for their beliefs.

My problem is with the rest of Dooley’s assumptions. He tells us that everyone, regardless of whether they were saints or sinners goes to the same place, even the scum of the earth. The only punishment is the knowledge of what they have done during their earthly lives and the guilt for their actions on earth. The idea that there is no other retribution for one’s sins is difficult for me to swallow. Also problematic is his belief that all of those who have died yearn to come back to earth and particularly the idea that they choose the identities they will assume in their next incarnation. Perhaps eternity can be boring, perhaps souls want to return to an earthly existence to experience things but why would they want to choose anything but comfortable, positive environments. Why would anyone choose to be born desperately poor or physically handicapped?

I must confess that I skimmed the latter half of the book. The writing is so annoyingly saccharine, so relentlessly rah-rah, so full of fluff that I just could not will myself to read it more thoroughly. The Top Ten Things are far from earthshaking and are little more than platitudes. Number 8 for instance is ” Life is More Than Fair” and Number 10 is ” Love is the Way, truth is the Path”. You will have to read the book if you want to know the other eight but I don’t think it is worth your while. Trying to read this book is like opening a beautifully wrapped gift box only to discover that it is empty.

Why did so many readers find this book great? Perhaps it is the idea that the departed are in the other world still watching out for us, loving us. It is a comforting thought; many of us have surely felt that someone is watching out for us when we fortuitously overcome problems. It also helps explain why , at the moment of death, not a few people call out to their long dead mothers.

As a long-time fan of Roger Federer, I had been rooting for him to win the French Open. With a favorable draw, in which Djokovic, Nadal and Murray were all in the other half, I thought that this was his best chance to win one more Grand Slam. I was shocked when he went out in the quarter-finals, losing to his countryman Stan Wawrinka in straight sets. I imputed it to Federer’s decline rather than to Wawrinka’s  good play. When Wawrinka beat Tsonga in the semis and advanced to the finals against Djokovic, I still did not give him any chance of winning the final. After all, Novak has been pretty dominant over the past couple of years.

By the merest chance, I happened to tune  in when the third set was in progress and what I saw amazed me. Wawrinka was going for his shots, hitting the lines and running down everything Djokovic was throwing at him. The winners were flowing from his racket, particularly from the backhand side. His first serve was clicking and he was hitting with power and accuracy, jerking Djokovic from side to side before blasting a winner. It was he was dictating terms, he who was the aggressor. There was one game in the middle of the third set, when he broke Djokvic at love, that was simply remarkable for the quality of his stroke-play. Djokovic went ahead at the beginning of the fourth set in a last gasp effort but Wawrinka fought back and closed out the match, a deserving winner.

Wawrinka’s success has been nothing short of remarkable. Elite tennis players usually make their mark in their late teens or early twenties; Federer, Nadal, Murray, Sampras, McEnroe, Borg and Connors are some names that come to mind. By contrast, Wawrinka won his first grand Slam ( the 2014 Australian Open) at the ripe age of 28 and his win at the French Open came at the age of thirty. This was after a dozen years on the circuit and at an age when most players have plateaued or are beginning to show signs of decline. It is particularly noteworthy because Wawrinka, over his entire career, has played second fiddle to Roger Federer as his doubles partner and Davis Cup teammate. Practicing daily with Fed and losing to him regularly in tournaments must have severely affected his self-belief. Credit for his resurgence must go to his resilience and hard work but also to his coach, Magnus Norman, who seems to have done wonders for his confidence. It underscores the importance of the mental aspect of the game.

Tennis fans everywhere must be pleased with Wawrinka’s success. With Federer nearing the end of his remarkable career and Nadal fighting both injuries and age, Djokovic has had no real competition other than Andy Murray. Berdych, Cilic, Raonic and Dimitrov may pull off the odd upset but they are not capable of the sustained run of form that results in a Grand Slam win. Nishikori tries hard but does not have game to challenge the big boys. Tsonga seems to have plateaued and at age 30 does not have many years ahead of him and Del Potro, once so promising, has fallen off the map. Perhaps Wawrinka, if he can overcome his inconsistency, can hang with Djokovic and Murray and give us some exciting matches.

Wawrinka does not look like a tennis player. He is not long and lean like Djokovic or Murray; not is he musclebound like Nadal. His stocky frame belies the fact that he is six feet tall. He is not as smooth as Federer- no one is- but he covers the court well and has the full assortment of strokes. On his day, he is as good as anyone and a pleasure to watch. However I do wish he would take a little more care about his appearance. His clothes have been the focus of many comments ranging from pained to derisive and his scruffy, unshaven look could stand improvement. I have never understood how athletes who know they will be appearing on TV worldwide do not take more care how they look. Stan’s rumpled appearance  makes it seem as if he has just been woken from a deep sleep, thrown on whatever clothes were on hand and rushed to the tennis court. Ah, well. We have to take him as he is. His tennis at least is beyond reproach.

Coming Attractions

I used to enjoy movie pre-views ( or coming attractions or trailers , as they are also known). There was the feeling of getting something for nothing. After all we were to see for the main feature and these were “freebies”. The shorter the main feature, the  more previews there were to compensate for it. And it was exciting to see what was coming down the pike. When I was young it always felt that the coming attractions were better than the movie we were about to see.

All that has changed now.

Nowadays, the previews feature lots of explosions and car crashes, earthquakes and other natural disasters, superheroes and aliens. Or an apocalyptic future, in which mankind is struggling to survive amidst the rubble. Everything is very loud ( good in a way, because it tells me my hearing isn’t failing).When there are five or six pre-views, it is difficult to tell one from another. Not one of them is a movie that I would want to see.

I was at a Bollywood movie recently and it was preceded by two previews. One of them was about two rival terrorist bombers striving to out-do each other. Once again, lots of explosions. I think the movie title was something like “Bangistan” and it was supposed to be a comedy. A comedy!  I can’t remember what the other preview was; I must have tuned out.

One thing is certain… I will not be watching either of those movies.

I was reading The Ways of the World, a thriller by Robert Goddard that is set in 1919,in the days immediately following World War I. It started out well. The hero, James Maxtead, is a Royal Flying Corps veteran at loose ends after being de-mobbed. He hopes to start a flying school  but needs the help of his father, a veteran British diplomat. However, before he can strike a deal, his father is murdered in Paris during the Peace Conference. Goddard’s writing was smooth, the pacing expert and the storyline absorbing. Wanting to know more about the author, I turned to the back flap. I found that Robert Goddard had read history at Cambridge, lived in Cornwall and that he was the internationally best selling author of several books. One of them, I further read, had won the WHSmith Thumping Good Read Award.

I was instantly entranced by  this information. What a wonderful name for a literary award! It sounded so much better than the Man Booker International Prize or the PEN Literary Award. If I were an writer, I would love to be known as the author of a Thumping Good Read. The name was uniquely British and conjured up memories of the British thrillers I used to read in my schooldays: the Biggles and Gimlet books by Captain W.E. Johns, the Sexton Blake mysteries, the Shark Gotch stories and the adventures of Raffles, the gentleman thief.

Alas, I was in for a disappointment. Halfway through The Ways of the World, I began to think it might not end well. The writing was still very good but there were too many plot twists, some improbabilities and, at the end, the fatal words TO BE CONTINUED. This was a low blow indeed. When I start a book, I expect it to have a definite ending. It can be the first of a series but it should not leave things unresolved. On the last page, I expect to see the words THE END.

From now on, the first thing I will do is take a peak at the last page to make sure it contains the words THE END, or failing that, that it does not contain the words TO BE CONTINUED.

I have always been a sports fan.

My father was a multi-sport athlete and he instilled in me a love of sports. Growing up , in the days before television came to India, meant that I either watched sports live or read about it in the newspaper next morning. (The only exception was cricket which I avidly followed on the live radio broadcasts.) I happily tagged along with my father to basketball, volleyball, soccer, badminton and tennis matches and to track meets.

Coming to the U.S  opened up a whole new vista of sports because of television. Suddenly, it was possible to watch on TV what previously I had only been able to read about. Some of the sports were familiar to me ( basketball, tennis, track and field) but I quickly developed a liking for football, ( American) football. It is a liking that has  grown over the years into a full-fledged mania. Once having fallen in its thrall, everything else becomes a runner-up.

This doesn’t mean I’ve neglected the other sports. While I wait for the football season to start, I watch tennis or soccer or track and field. Fresh out of college, I used to live in Forest Hills close enough to hear the roar from the packed stands at the tennis stadium nearby. ( For the youngsters among you, that was the site of the U.S Open until it moved to Flushing Meadows in the mid-seventies). I was a regular at the Open for the next twenty years and saw things that I can hardly believe now. For instance, can you imagine a young Jimmy dancing attendance on Connors his idol, Pancho Gonzales, and carrying his rackets and equipment bag? I also saw the Lakers at the Garden, the Millrose Games track meet, the Giants, the Mets and Yankees( many times), the Rangers, the Devils and the Islanders.

Over the years, sport has changed a lot and so have I.  I am no longer the wide-eyed innocent I used to be. These are some of the things that have changed , with sport and with me.

1. I am much more selective in what I watch; I have to be. In my college days, I used to watch everything but have since become more choosy. It just isn’t possible to follow them all. The first to be jettisoned were college football and basketball ( except for March Madness). There are just too many teams to keep up with and the roster keeps changing every year. Next was baseball; a 162 game season was too long and I only got interested once the playoffs started. That happened with pro basketball too. Then tennis, except for the Grand Slams. Now, I follow regular season games only in the case of pro football and , even then, I rarely watch the entire game.

2. The standard of play is not what it used to be, except in the late stages of the playoffs or late in a tournament. The product has been diluted by lengthening the season or by expanding the league with more teams. A case in point is U.S Open tennis where the day’s matches are now divided into afternoon and night sessions with separate admission. Ticket prices too have risen an exorbitant level. I haven’t been to a baseball or basketball game in years but I think it costs upwards of $150 for two tickets, transportation/parking and refreshments. It just isn’t worth it to me.

3. Almost every sport is better to watch on TV than it is to watch live. With TV, I have the benefit of instant replay, slow motion replays and a close-up view of the action. There’s also expert analysis ( which can sometimes be annoying, it’s true). Even when I watch a game live, I spend half the time glued to the giant TV screens because the play is at the other end or because I don’t have a good seat. Additionally , at home, it is much easier to get to the rest room (LOL), the food is (much) cheaper and I can tune the game off if it becomes one-sided or if it is lousy.

4. I am becoming the sort of sports fan I used to laugh at. My friend, Arnie, was an ardent fan of the New York teams, all of them. Once ” his” team got eliminated, he would switch off and move on to another sport. For instance, as soon as the Mets were mathematically eliminated, he would say” Time for the Knicks” and would not watch even the World Series. If the Knicks stumbled, it was time for the Islanders, and so on. I’m not quite that parochial but it’s not like the old days where I would happily watch games where I had no rooting interest without any diminution in enjoyment.

5.I’m disillusioned with pro players and their greed. Certainly, they are entitled to whatever they can make but I wish they were more likeable. Far too many of them are arrogant trash talkers, steroid abusers and, in general, men behaving badly.

6. The computer age has made sports less enjoyable for all except aficionados of  sports statistics. Because it is easier to sift through vast amounts of data, we are subjected to meaningless trivia when we read about sports or watch it on TV. e.g  Smith is the first rookie to average 12 points,7 rebounds and 3 assists in the month of November. Or Jones is only  the second left handed pitcher to strike out A-Rod three times in a row. Instead of admiring the balletic grace of a Federer we are subjected to endless discussions about who is the Greatest Of All Time. ( I hate that acronym and will not use it).

All this makes me sound like a curmudgeon and perhaps I am but I think my views are shared by many sports fans today. I hasten to say that I still love watching sports. This summer, I want to go to a minor league baseball game and to a track and field meet if there is one nearby. And , of course, I will continue to read about sports and watch them on TV.

Got to go now. Roger Federer has his hands full with Gael Monfils at the French Open…

Golden Ripples

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