Monday, September 23, 2013

Kiss Kiss Bangs Bangs

Pauline Kael, Lester Bangs and the Twitter Age

One of the many curious changes social networking has wrought is that anybody with half a thought and a willingness to share it can now be a critic. This has led a majority of the critical establishment—people who write about the arts for a living—to adopt a tone that cannot be mistaken for that of a “normal” moviegoer, music listener, or book reader. This often results in critics distancing themselves from the movie/book/album at hand. Why risk sounding amateurish by reacting emotionally when one can tackle it coolly, intellectually?

Would Pauline Kael or Lester Bangs have deemed it necessary to change their approach in the era of Twitter? Neither of them was capable of writing anything that didn’t sound like a gut reaction. This isn’t to say their work wasn’t frequently, dazzlingly intelligent, just that they couldn’t bear to sound sterile and academic. Today, 31 years after Bangs’s death and 12 years after Kael’s, the level of passion and excitement the two of them brought to the task of reviewing is largely missing from the scene. One might admire Pitchfork‘s dedication to taste-making, but their cooler-than-thou writing could do with some Bangsian directness. And Kael, who was always on hand to take Bosley Crowther or Sight & Sound down a peg, would have surely raised the alarm on the sort of cozy consensus that exists between top film critics today.

* * *

In a 1970 review of the Stooges album Funhouse, Lester Bangs wrote: “I still hear a horde of sluggards out there whining: ‘Are you putting me on?’ Or, more fundamentally, haven’t the Stooges been putting us all on from Yelp One? And the answer, of course, is Yes. Because, as beautiful Pauline Kael put it in her characteristically epigrammatic way: ‘To be put on is to be put on the spot, put on the stage, made the stooge in a comedy act. People in the audience at Bonnie and Clyde are laughing, demonstrating that they’re not stooges—that they appreciate the joke—when they catch the first bullet right in the face’.”

This is the only proof I have that at least one of my two favourite critics was aware of the other’s existence. When I first read the piece around ten years ago, I was only familiar with Bangs, and wondered why he’d paused during such a magnificent rant of a review to quote another critic from a different field. What did “characteristically epigrammatic” mean anyway? And who was the beautiful Pauline Kael?

Pauline Kael was the film critic for the New Yorker from 1968 to 1991. She published her first review in City Lights exactly 50 years ago: Chaplin’sLimelight, which she called “Slimelight”. Before that, she did cinema-centric broadcasts for a Berkeley radio station, wrote detailed, opinionated program notes for a two-screen theatre there, and eventually started reviewing films for magazines like McCall’s and The New RepublicMcCall’spanicked after her merciless pan of The Sound of Music and fired her. In 1967, she wrote a lengthy rave for Bonnie and Clyde, which was published in the New Yorker. They hired her soon after, and she worked there until Parkinson’s and a growing disenchantment with the movie scene hastened her retirement.

Lester Bangs was a rock critic and editor of Creem. His first published review was in 1969, an angry letter to Rolling Stone. The magazine had run a review of the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams which Lester didn’t agree with. He responded with a submachine blast, which, to their credit, the magazine printed. Bangs started freelancing regularly for Rolling Stone after that, until editor Jann Wenner let him go four years later for being “disrespectful to musicians”. He moved to Creem, where he got the space and freedom to work out his feelings in rambling, quasi-stream-of-consciousness pieces. He died in 1982 of an accidental prescription drug overdose. In death, he’s been very alive, turning up in a R.E.M. number, getting name-dropped by Kurt Cobain, and being impersonated by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous.

* * *

I know that suggesting Kael and Bangs were similar birds might lead to ruffled feathers in both camps. After all, one of them was a straight-shooting, heart-on-her-sleeve writer who was born in Petaluma, California and later moved to New York, the other a straight-shooting, heart-on-his-sleeve writer who was born in Escondido, California and later moved to New York. There were, I concede, some differences. Kael did the majority of her writing in the rarified environs of the New Yorker, Bangs wrote for Rolling StoneCreemVillage Voice, and dozens of smaller, less distinguished zines and rags. She was a late bloomer, publishing her first piece at 34; he died at that age. He was way crazier than her; despite Kael’s claims to a “bohemian lifestyle” in her early years, it’s unlikely she ever ended up in a drunken shouting match with an artist she admired, like Bangs did more than once with Lou Reed. Apart from this, though, they were kindred spirits.

As mentioned at the start, the most evident link between the two is the straightforward, non-academic nature of their writing. Leave it to Andrew Sarris—or his musical counterpart, Robert Christgau—to lead the reader on an aphoristic dance. Neither Bangs nor Kael ever left you in any doubt of their feelings towards a particular record or movie. Though Kael’s writing was precise and beautifully constructed, and Bangs generally carried on like an offended windmill, both generated prose that strained and seethed and yodeled with passion. In a 2001 radio interview, Sarris took a dig at Kael, saying that she made it seem like filmmakers “weren’t just making bad movies, they were setting out to torture her.” He wasn’t wrong. Four years after she called Antonioni’s L’Avventura “easily the best film of the year”, here was Kael on his 1964 film Red Desert: “If I’ve got to be driven up a wall, I’d rather do it at my own pace, which is considerably faster than Antonioni’s.”

If Kael resembled a gunfighter out to avenge cinema, Bangs was more like Michael Douglas with his baseball bat in Falling Down. He cussed and called out musicians in his pieces, wrote openly about the machinations of corporate rock, and generally made life very difficult for himself and artists he wasn’t fond of. The Beatles were “dandelions in still air”, Bob Dylan’s Desire was “an exploitation record”. He championed anything that sounded maladjusted: The Rolling Stones, Iggy and the Stooges, skuzzy garage bands like the Troggs and the Godz, the Velvet Underground. His best pieces—“The White Noise Supremacists”, about racism in punk rock; the affectionate Jamaican travelogue “Innocents in Babylon”; the obituaries he wrote for John Lennon, Elvis Presley, and Peter Laughner—were messy, thrilling affairs, grasping for truths that most rock reviews never bothered with. He was part Burroughs, part Beat lit, part cough syrup-fueled madness—easily the most rock ‘n’ roll of rock ‘n’ roll writers. (His wildman persona aside, it’s worth noting that Bangs wrote with great insight about more contemplative albums, like Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.)

Both were known for boiling things down to their basics. One of Kael’s books was titled Kiss Kiss Bang Bang—a distillation of cinema’s basic impulses and a pretty good indicator of her approach to the subject—while Bangs’s article on the skronk bands of the late ‘70s was simply called “A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise”. Their prose also shared a rhythmic quality, leaving one to wonder whether Kael ever wrote with music on in the background (references to music—from swing bands to rock ‘n’ roll—frequently appear in her reviews). Bangs, more given to self-mythologizing, described his own writing thus: “I feel I have a Sound aborning, which is my own, and that Sound if erratic is still my greatest pride, because I would rather write like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head, and perhaps reach only readers who like to use books to shake their asses, than to be or write for the man cloistered in a closet somewhere reading Aeschylus…” Kael, who liked to dance and who spent a good deal of her time railing against academic snobbery, would probably have concurred.

* * *

Perhaps it was because their reviews were often more entertaining than whatever it was they were reviewing, but Bangs and Kael were (and still are) treated with kid gloves by the more academically minded sections of the critical establishment. There’s more than a hint of jealousy in a lot of this, with rival critics citing populism and crowd-pleasing bombast as reasons for their popularity. Bangs certainly did not cultivate a reputation as an intellectual—addictions to alcohol and Romilar came in the way—but he was no lightweight; a 1979 piece of his daringly points to common ground shared by free jazz and punk rock, and his unbearably intense tribute to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks—one of the great stand-alone pieces of rock criticism—ends with a juxtaposition of verses by Morrison and Garcia Lorca. Kael, who had neither addictions nor the indiscretions of youth to distract her by the time she started her career, was an even sharper critical mind. She was a keen observer not only of movies, but also the people who watched them; unlike most other critics, she regularly mentioned how the audience in the hall reacted to a particular film. Her “trash versus art” argument, a recurrent theme in her writing over the years, was provocative and influential. (“Technique,” she wrote, “is hardly worth talking about unless it’s used for something worth doing.”) And she was always on the lookout for new trends and hot young talent—hardly common practice for someone past the age of fifty.

It was in her reviews of the early 1970s that readers started encountering unknowns like Altman, Scorsese, Spielberg, De Palma, and Coppola. The same thing was happening in the music press, with Bangs writing about Patti Smith, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Television, and the Clash. The important thing to note is that, with New Hollywood and punk, Kael and Bangs weren’t riding a wave. They were there first, which is why their names will forever be associated with landmarks like Horses and Mean StreetsBlank Generation and The Godfather. Kael actually wrote a review of Robert Altman’s Nashville before it released, calling it “the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen”. It was as if she’d been waiting for these films all her life. As for Bangs, he was a punk before punk existed. As he wrote in a 1977 piece about the Clash, “As far as I was concerned punk rock was something which had first raised its grimy snout around 1966 in groups like the Seeds and Count Five and was dead and buried after the Stooges broke up and the Dictators’ first LP bombed.”

* * *

There’s a parlour game that some music fans like to play. It’s called ‘What would Lester have said?’ Would he have liked the Hold Steady? (Yes.) Would he have offered to eliminate the members of Coldplay, like he did James Taylor? (No, but only because he’d have been in his fifties, too old for death threats.) Would he have kept a blog? (A definite yes, Lester’s style was made for blogging.) The same game happens less with Kael.

That her absence isn’t felt as keenly might stem from the fact that even after she retired, younger critics kept adopting aspects of her style; as a result, it still doesn’t feel like she’s truly exited the scene. Bangs, on the other hand, no one even tries to imitate. It’s too much work—put yourself on the line, fight with your editor, make enemies of the artists. There are no Lesters out there, which might account for the underwhelming nature of a lot of popular music criticism today.

One of the few writers with a healthy appreciation for both Kael and Bangs is Greil Marcus, a legendary rock critic in his own right. This is what he wrote after Kael’s death in 2001: “Her credo…brought countless readers, and countless people her readers talked to, argued with, scorned, laughed at, dragged into theaters to see movies they would never forget or never forgive, into the action.” He was even more emphatic in his forward to Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, the first collection of Bangs’s writings, published five years after his death. “Perhaps what this book demands from a reader is a willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews,” Marcus wrote. I think there’s a corollary to that statement. Maybe if one writes reviews like they’re the only things that matter, the way Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs did, then writing reviews is enough.

This piece appeared in PopMatters. You can see the piece as it appeared on their site here

Grand Masti: Review

Do you want to see Aftab Shivdasani and Vivek Oberoi in drag, kissing? Do you want to see Aftab Shivdasani and Vivek Oberoi at all? Do you find rape jokes funny? Do you consider Indra Kumar a master of the cinematic medium? If the answer to any of the above is yes, our advice is still as follows: avoid Grand Masti like it’s done you personal harm. Because if you do see it, you’ll feel like it has.

Shivdasani, Oberoi and Riteish Deshmukh play three husbands who, to put it plainly, aren’t getting any and are very upset about it. The obvious solution – obvious to screenwriters Milap Zaveri and Tushar Hiranandani, at any rate – is to send them off for a college reunion where they can take revenge on their wives for putting offspring, household and career before sex-on-demand. That’s about it for plot – what follows is less a story, more a series of demented, depraved ravings culminating in a scene where Pradeep Rawat’s character can only be saved from falling off a roof by his daughter, wife and sister stripping off and using their clothes to form a rope.

You have to wonder why Kumar is still being allowed to direct anything longer than a public service announcement. In the ’90s, he made some of the shrillest Hindi films ever (Dil, Ishq); lately, he seems to be trying hard to make the stupidest. Is fashioning the wreckage that is the collective career of Oberoi, Shivdasani and Deshmukh into a mountain of double entendre a fulfilling job? We might never know – though it’s interesting how much of Grand Masti’s humour revolves around castration. During the course of the film, various appendages are attacked by cats, pecked by crows, scalded by soup and chopped off by axes. In Freudian terms, maybe this is a manifestation of Kumar’s powerlessness, after two decades in the business, to make a decent film.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

15 years of Satya

In the '90s, after the long reign of the Angry Young Man and a brief, intense flirtation with parallel cinema, Bollywood went back to being the valium of the masses. With one eye on the emerging NRI market, cinema became a delivery device for family values and nostalgic patriotism. Four of the 10 top-grossing films in 1998 were romantic comedies; three of these had the word ‘pyaar’ in their titles. The top earner was Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, which repackaged India as an Archie’s comic. (In second place was Bade Miya Chote Miya, which had half of KKHH’s earnings – and pretensions.) Soldier, Major Saab, Bandhan – tremendous wastes of celluloid all – were among the top ten that year.
It’s a wonder number 13 got noticed at all. Had Satya released today, it would have fit right in with the Twitter-happy ‘hindie’ crowd. Back then, however, this bastard child of Govind Nihalani and Martin Scorsese must have come as a rude shock to the Bollywood system (not least because it candidly dishes on the underworld-film industry nexus). 1998 was the year of monumental upheavals like the Pokhran blasts and Sachin’s twin innings at Sharjah. Satya was an event of similar import. Along with Dil Chahta Hai, it was to become the most influential Hindi film of the next 15 years. It is also the towering achievement in director Ram Gopal Varma’s conundrum of a career.
Whatever you might consider him now, RGV in those days used to be a filmmaker. Starting in 1989, he churned out – as he still does – a film a year. Some of his early experiments were fascinating; especially Siva, his debut, and the slick horror film Raat. In 1995, he made a huge splash with the sensual, freewheeling Rangeela. A year passed, then two. News trickled out that he was making a gangster film.
In a December 1997 article on, with Satya still to be released, Varma is quoted as saying “I want to portray stark reality, as Shekhar Kapur did in Bandit Queen.” Though Satya might appear to have more in common with films like Parinda, Deewar and Nayakan, this mention of Kapur’s 1994 film is significant. One could make the case that Varma took Bandit Queen’s (and Salaam Bombay’s) gritty storytelling style and expletive-heavy dialogue and ran with them as far as mainstream cinema would allow at the time. Three key roles in Satya went the way of Bandit Queen cast members: Manoj Bajpayee as Bhiku Mhatre, Govind Namdeo as Bhau Thakurdas Jhawle and Saurabh Shukla as Kallu Mama.
Kapur certainly thought of his film as a spiritual ancestor of Satya and the left-of-mainstream cinema it spawned. “Let’s put it this way,” he said in an interview, “if there was no Bandit Queen, there wouldn’t be Satya and if there wasn’t Satya, there wouldn’t be Anurag and Manoj.” It’s true that many people first heard of Anurag Kashyap after his screenplay for Varma’s film. Vishal Bhardwaj, Satya’s music composer, might well have been taking mental notes for his own directorial ventures. Actors like Makrand Deshpande and Sanjay Misra got their first major exposure with this. As for Bajpayee, his turn as Bhiku Mhatre, charismatic mid-level don and mentor to JD Chakravarthy’s sedate Satya, brought him a couple of years of stardom, before the industry stopped pretending it cared about character actors. (Interestingly, it was Satya alumnus Kashyap who gave Bajpayee’s career a second wind with last year’s Gangs of Wasseypur.)
In gangster film terms, Satya is more Goodfellas than Godfather, concerned with foot soldiers rather than generals. (Varma would later attempt a Godfather remake with the overrated Sarkar.) And like its illustrious forebears, Satya has gone on to redefine the organised crime genre in Indian film. Mhatre was a new kind of anti-hero, gleefully amoral, a Vijay Verma without a hard-luck story. The film’s simultaneously slick and gritty look is still being imitated – not least by Varma himself. Danny Boyle reportedly watched the film while prepping for Slumdog Millionaire; he also cast Saurabh Shukla as a cop with a very thuggish outlook. And, of course, every subsequent Hindi film about the Mumbai underworld, from Vaastav to Black Friday to Shootout at Lokhandwala, would be made in Satya’s shade. Varma himself revisited the genre; triumphantly in Company, and with diminishing returns in Shiva and D (which he produced).
Even after 15 years, Satya has dated very little. What has changed, however, is the perception of Varma as Indian cinema’s golden boy. Still, even his critics would do well to remember what Citizen Kane’s director Orson Welles said in response to a remark about Greta Garbo only being in a couple of good movies: “Well, you only need one.” Varma might not have fulfilled everyone’s expectations, but he made Satya, and Indian cinema will forever be indebted to him for this.

A slightly truncated version of this piece appeared in GQ's September issue.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Shuddh Desi Romance: Review

The first 15 minutes of Shuddh Desi Romance should be shown to aspiring screenwriters in the class on set-ups. En route to his wedding, handsome, hesitant lunk Raghu (Sushant Singh Rajput) finds himself falling for Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra), whose acquaintance he made a couple of hours ago. They get talking and, as often happens on long bus journeys, share a couple of awkward kisses. The next day, moments before the varndmala, he takes a bathroom break and disappears. The grace note, however, is what announces Jaideep Sahni as writer even before the credits roll. Upon learning that her fiancée has flown the coop, the bride-to-be sighs, sits down and orders a cold drink. 
Back home in Jaipur, Raghu runs into Gayatri again. Soon enough, sparks and clothes fly, and the two of them move in together, with Gayatri warning her lover not to take things too seriously. All is bliss, right until they decide, in a drunken dare of sorts, to get married. The subsequent twist can be spotted fairly easily, but all we’ll say is that it leaves a window open for Tara (Vaani Kapoor), Raghu’s ex-fiancée, to re-enter the film. Raghu, faced with two women who talk very fast and are way too smart for him, ends up comically paralyzed by indecision.
Sahni’s return (his last filmed screenplay was in 2009) has been eagerly anticipated – both by those who consider Khosla Ka Ghosla and Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year to be modern masterpieces, and by those who simply find his movies very entertaining. Shuddh Desi Romance, directed by Maneesh Sharma, subverts just about every Bollywood romantic trope you can think of, but even more audacious are the bombs Sahni sets off under the seat of middle-class morality. Everything from live-in relationships to passing judgment based on someone’s dating history is dragged out into the open, discussed and dismissed. Like David Dhawan is fond of saying, leave your beliefs at the door.
It’s hardly surprising that Chopra is a great fit with Sahni’s homespun, unsentimental dialogue (there’s no other actor we’d rather hear say “inquiriyaan”). What is less expected is how consistently Rajput, in his second film after Kai Po Che!, vies with her for the audience’s sympathies, even as his character keeps getting his dignity handed to him by two headstrong, independent women. Vaani Kapoor, in her first film, is almost as merciless as Chopra, which is saying something. And the other Kapoor, Rishi, is just fine as a stand-in for “old-fashioned views”.
Sharma and production designer TP Abid get a lot out of little details – a bottle of Romanov (not Smirnoff) in the kitchen, for instance, speaks to Gayatri’s outlook and financial situation. Sharma also uses the backdrop of Jaipur life in the same effective way he did Delhi in Band Baaja Baaraat. Unfortunately, like that film, Shuddh Desi Romance runs out of gas with about half an hour to go. Tara’s return, though welcome, is never convincing, her actions after returning even less so. It’s as if the film runs out of taboos to break, and ends up repeating the same ones. You can only shock all the people some of the time.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Ramadhir tells it like it is

The wisest ever dissection of India's relationship with the movies, courtesy Ramadhir Singh: "Sab saale sabke dimaag mein apni apni picture chal rahi hai, sab saale hero banna chah rahein apni picture mein. Ee saala Hindustan mein jab tak sanimaa hai, log chutiya bante rahenge."

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Satyagraha: Review

“All things equal, a bad message film is better than a bad entertainer.” Among the many unwritten rules governing movies in this country, this is the most unfortunate. It is this rule that’ll save Satyagraha from being called the worst film of 2013. Yet, in more ways than I care to recall, that is exactly what it is.

Like his last two films, Aarakshan and Chakravyuh, Prakash Jha’s latest has been snatched from the headlines, dressed up, dumbed down and served to the public without comment or insight. Satyagraha revisits the anti-corruption protests that shook, albeit briefly, the capital in 2011. Amitabh Bachchan plays the Anna Hazare stand-in, a schoolteacher and activist called Dwarka Anand, whose thwarted efforts to retrieve the compensation money promised to him by a scheming minister (Manoj Bajpayee) after his son’s death soon morphs into a public crusade against corruption. His painfully loyal followers include his dead son’s widow (Amrita Rao) and friend (Ajay Devgn), a reporter, Yasmin (Kareena Kapoor Khan), and a local tough, Arjun (Arjun Rampal).

You’d think that with the benefit of hindsight, Jha and his co-writers Anjum Rajabali and Rutvik Oza might have ventured a few educated guesses about the inner workings of the anti-corruption movement. Yet, all we get is a recreation – a trite, simplistic version of a story everybody already knows. Maybe Jha thought that the very sight of hunger strikes and lathi charges would be enough to win over the audience. But like Raanjhanaa before it this year, Satyagraha ends up looking like a parody of the real-life agitations it so solemnly restages.

The incongruities pile up faster than you can count. Yasmin is the only big-time reporter I know who’d pass on an interview with a prime minister to go cover a story about a schoolteacher rotting in some small-town jail. Devgn’s Manav starts the film as a rule-bending phone company CEO, but soon proves he’s just another whore with a heart of gold. To top it all, the film contrives to have Dwarka, in a weakened state from his hunger strike and being watched by thousands of people, suddenly go missing.

A few good performances would have gone a long way – as they did in Jha’s Raajneeti – but there are none to be had. Bachchan, repeating his cantankerous old man act from Aarakshan, manages to avoid both embarrassment and impact. The same cannot be said for Devgn, whose acting abilities have deteriorated alarmingly since the days of Zakhm and Company. Kapoor, Rampal and Rao come and go, as cricket commentators like to say, without troubling the scorers. Only Bajpayee manages to have some fun with his hissing, bandgala-wearing villain.

Jha has become the Indian Stanley Kramer, seemingly unable to resist the higher calling of the message film. At least the director of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Inherit the Wind made It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Is there a silly, logic-defying comedy in Jha as well? Or has he already made one with Satyagraha?

This review appeared in Time Out.