Can you ever forgive me? (2018)

As the swivel chair spins #15  

In a dusty, not often visited corner of Disney+ Hotstar, far away from Marvel and Star Wars is the 2018 film about a down on luck and life writer forging her way through the New York literary elite, only to pay her rent and feed her cat. 

Shitting on Tom Clancy

Lee Israel, 51 year old former New York Times best selling author walks with trepidation into a party, only to be schooled by Tom Clancy holding court and talking about writer’s block. 

“It’s something invented by writers to cover up their laziness”, he says, something to that effect. 

This hits Lee hard, she has not been able to come up with anything of worth in the recent past. But hey, she is going through one of the worst times in her life- fired from her job (for drinking), broke up on a long term relationship, her agent is not interested in what she submits and even cat doesn’t respond to her. 

How would the words come?

And here is this multi million dollar writer with a winning smirk talking about ‘writer’s block’ being an imaginary thing. 

Umm, it hit me hard too, this was a saturday evening, here I was settling down to watch a movie after surprisingly finding it on hotstar, after a guest casually mentioned it on a podcast and so on. 

The premise drew me in. It was about a struggling writer. ‘I’m sure I could learn something about the writing life’, I told myself and that’s when Tom Clancy (or a fictionalized version of him) delivered a good warm slap on my face about his theory about writer’s block. 

I should have been writing. So should have been Lee Israel. 

But it’s not my movie. Later on when Lee gets to know that this red scare flaming, right wing jingo bullshit writer (psst she meant Tom Clancy) is getting paid millions while she cannot even afford treatment for her cat, she flips out. 

Naturally. 

But the lesson was lost. 

The words will come, only if you sit. 

Finding a voice

“Can you ever forgive me?” is not about this moment, it is not even about the debate between what’s popular and what’s literary. 

It’s a sweet film about Lee Israel who along with her friend indulges in some literary deception by faking the words of Lillian Hellman, Noel Coward and most importantly Dorothy Parker to basically get by.  

Over the course of the movie, I came to realize that Lee Israel forged over 400 ‘literary’ letters to a select clientele and some of these even made it to the official biographies of the said authors. Such was her ability to replicate authentic voices. 

While there is little to doubt about Lee Israel’s ability or writing talent, it is lost behind either the voice of others. If Wikipedia is to be believed her bibliography consists of four compact line items, three of which are biographies and the fourth is ‘Can you ever forgive me’, arguably her most famous work. 

Clancy on the other hand wrote a novel a year till his death and has his own mini media universe (Rainbow Six, Splinter Cell & ofc Jack Ryan), so maybe Tom knew what he was talking about when he did say those lines while at the party. 

But then again, the movie is not about quality vs quantity creative debate, I make it to be so and I keep saying this because that is what I derived from the film. Apart from the fact that Mellisa McCarthy and Richard E Grant are absolutely marvellous and it sort of feels like a sin that they didn’t win more awards for the film, two barflies circling around each other when it seems that most of the world has given up on them.

Other people’s projected lives are not to be stood on podiums and to be judged upon, but a movie about lost potential is always the harbinger of doom in the lives of the viewer. 

Viewers are not doers and those who are not doers, and not doers are doomed to be left in the state of lost potential. 

This is not an indictment of what Lee Israel did, a brave soul who faced prosecution and even braver one when she overcame her fears and finding her own voice (and the one she is memorialized in celluloid for) by penning this memoir, this is just another wake up call to face the uncomfortable unknowns of our lives.

‘Can you ever forgive me?’ is streaming on Disney+Hotstar 

Image credit: The New York Times

Naanum Citizen Kane-um

Invocation

I pray to the uninitiated to go watch Citizen Kane and I pray to the Movie God that they be allowed to see the movie without having to think about the weight that Kane carries and enjoy it in all its brilliance. 

I am just going to believe that Citizen Kane released the day before yesterday. That’s it. Here I am writing about it with the same misguided enthusiasm that I have whenever I write about a new release. 

The castle’s not a welcome sight, a very dark place, a palace possibly going to waste, seen better days? Doesn’t seem so, it seems it was quite hopeless from the start, unsettling in ways that sometimes open spaces can be. There’s also the sign, “no trespassing”. 

Somewhere deep in this castle lies Kane,at least he seemed to have seen better days? Or is he too like his castle, unsettling and doomed to be depressed always. That’s the feeling I get, as the only light in the castle goes out.

“Rosebud” 

And a snow globe gently glides down the bed and shatters. 

Life is not a snow globe

A house in winter, captured as the snow rains, set for eternity. But life is not this captured mountain scene in a snow globe, nor does it rain snow always, nor can it be controlled and enclosed within a glass dome. 

Someone should have told Kane that, maybe they did, but would he have listened? 

Who was Charles Foster Kane?

The castle, Xanadu, a monument to himself, unfinished. Ah yes, I can see where my discomfort comes from, a monument for yourself, now that seems pretty sad. 

Consider the narrative of Citizen Kane.The story’s been sullied by multiple narrators, all of whom are suspect and been wronged by Kane at some point. Heck, even the “News on the march” segment (which is basically the whole movie in 10 mins even before the movie begins) cannot be trusted, for example, it shows him at once a friend to the workers and the other time a cold capitalist. 

But what sort of a man was this Mr Kane? 

Orson Welles’ genius is that he keeps posing the same question all through the movie, who was this Charles Foster Kane? 

Was he a mountain child wishing only to play in the snow all day? 

No but he also liked taking over loss making newspapers and building an empire, so was he interested in the news? 

Or was he interested in the business of news? 

Did he marry for love? Or did he hope to find love in the President’s niece? 

Did he really love opera? Or did he just build an opera house because he can? 

Yes cannot be the answer for all of these questions, but what is affirmative is that a man or a woman is not wholly knowable, definitely not from the impressions that they have left behind. 

These residuals are simply not enough to truly like or hate Kane. Any additional information only deepens the mystery, leaving us with no answer to what sort of a man Kane is. It’s not the question we should be pursuing.

Welles himself hints at the answer, towards the end, when one of the many reporters tasked with finding out what Rosebud was, says one word can never sum up a man. 

What could Citizen Kane be about? 

I, like the reporters in this movie, could spend years trying to know what was in Kane’s mind and not care about what’s hiding in plain sight. 

To me, Citizen Kane is about: desire leads to suffering.

Let’s look at this way.  

Kane desires the Inquirer to be the most read newspaper but he also desires to be appreciated by the editorial of the serious folks at ‘Chronicle’, his suffering here is he loses his only friend to this contradiction. 

Kane desires more people to love him, runs for governor, doesn’t make it because of his affair with a ‘singer, his over estimation blinds him and he suffers a severe damage, never to fully recover again. 

Kane desires to be seen as a patron of the art, again pushing through, trying to make a non singer shine, suffers more damage and loses his only personal connection. 

Kane desires to build the most prized private collection of arts in the whole world, and no one wants to live with him in it. 

If there is one thing that the movie keeps establishing is this. 

It’s not about the unknowable persona of Kane but that even the most fulfilling desires are not so fulfilling.And where do we go from there?

Welles doesn’t cast Kane as a villain or a hero, but a sad figure of history who achieved so much and still so little, it is an optimistic tale on what a person can achieve in a lifetime, but it is also a cautionary tale. 

Citizen Kane asks us to choose your desires wisely, because we must be willing to suffer for it. Kane’s early fortune in the mines made it possible that he could afford to take all the suffering that life put in his way (honestly he added most of the suffering himself) but not all of us are blessed with a choice of businesses to run and a personal treasury. 

Kane probably thought that happiness and satisfaction can be got from being successful, being popular and being loved. To his credit he pursued all of it with his talent and charm. 

But it’s not a very happy ending, alone filled with memories or maybe I am reading too much and leaning into some imaginary rule that allots more weightage to how a person died than how a person lived.

I wonder from where the citizen part of “Citizen Kane” came through, probably it is from the notion of the American Dream, a broad affirmation of what America stands for, a land where an individual can live a richer and fuller life when they reach the best of their abilities. Kane did that, he did reach the pinnacle of what was possible for him, it maybe made him richer, but not fuller. 

Forget Rosebud it’s an imagined mystery made eternal on screen, but the suffering is real.

PS: The Sight & Sound Magazine has been publishing the greatest 10 films of all time list, spaced by a decade since 1952. Citizen Kane was on top of the list from 1962 to 2002, only to be replaced by Vertigo, a movie about a singular obsession and how that too leads to suffering. 

PPS: I pray the knowledgeable to forgive this amateur, there has been a lot written and said about Citizen Kane, while mine may not add anything to it, I hope it does not scar the reader’s memory or spoil any existing scholarship. 

All images from youtube.

Moneyball: Saving Stories From Storytellers

More Words, More Lies

As a writer, lately, I have been having a crisis of faith. A falling out with words, adjectives mostly, a bunch of liars, these adjectives, hate them. They mean nothing and the world is a better place without them. 

That’s the thing with words, I just abused a whole class of them and no one is going to defend them. My crisis of faith stems from a professional point of view, the truth I believe is at the opposite of what I write and I keep blocking them with words, words that don’t mean what I want to say, but words that will somehow convey what the other person wants to hear. Basically, lies. It’s the same in conversation too. 

Analytics tell the truth and self analytics tell you the truth, and when people tell you the opposite, you know they are just saying it to make you feel better. There is concern, of course, but little truth. 

So you can imagine my crisis of looking at words on a page day after day and thinking, is this the truth?

I’ll make that generalization now.

Humanity stepped away from the truth when it started to use words to make itself feel better and ever since has made the lives of professional bullshitters (often called those who call themselves as storytellers) a very lucrative one. 

Seeking Truth in Movies & Life

Humor me one more time, I would like you “feel” the crisis of faith,if you are in a career that demands working with words 80% of the time (written and spoken-speaking on phones too count) and the rest 20% of the time “socializing”, then I’m sorry it is within the profession of bullshit, maybe we can collectively calm ourselves by calling ourselves storytellers. 

Oh no, I don’t hate stories, in fact I love them, stories come with seeds of truth in them. It’s the story tellers that come with their extra words and obfuscate the truth.For the storytellers the only tools are words and not analysis. As mentioned before, analysis leads to truth. 

Adding two and two, a well analyzed story and by keeping storytellers away, will lead to a personal truth, that the story is willing to offer me, the beauty of story is that it can deliver multiple truths.  I see Moneyball as a metaphor for this higher generalization.

But there is no denying the fact that words are entertaining, they take us away from the dullness that is associated with analysis, they can make us laugh or cry, feel emotion or even make us buy a product. But it’s not the truth, nor is it a path to it. 

Which is why it surprises me, when I see Aaron Sorkin’s name on the writing credits of MoneyBall.

Aaron Sorkin deals with a lot of words, more words than what you thought about when you just read “a lot of words”, not the Tharoor unreproducible types, but reproducible by people with decent degrees and some degree of smugness types. 

Affectionately paraded as ‘Sorkinisms’ by those trying to up their intellectual image (and smugness), his fast paced dialogues in a professional set up has ever since given men (mostly men) wet dreams of becoming a TV news host, Navy lawyer, Facebook founder, political speech writers and heck even the President of The United States. 

Sorkin’s characters radiate with the message often found on t-shirts, “Smart is the new sexy” , except Sorkin kids believe that here smart means using a lot of words within a short period of time. And too many words, often amount to nothing. 

Humor me again, four of the five professions mentioned are professional bullshitters, I mean storytellers,no wonder these give rise to wet dreams. 

So yeah, Aaron Sorkin could be one the patron saints of those who want to be storytellers. Which surprises me even more when I find his name on the screenplay of Moneyball. 

Because Moneyball is a film about how a American baseball team cut the bullshit and decided to win games. Based on the non fiction book by Michael Lewis, it traces the 2002 season of Oakland Athletics under the stewardship of GM Billy Beane. 

Now,Billy Beane got exposed to professional bullshit early in his life, he made a bad decision, falling prey to a talent scout who convinced Billy and his family that he has all the talent that is made to become a sports superstar. 

Except he didn’t. Not even close. 

The danger with these word driven professions and relationships, is that after a point people start believing in their own bullshit, it’s easier at stage when the storyteller is able to discern which part of what he/she says is the truth and which part is the shit. But when they keep doing that for years, it becomes difficult, as in the case of talent scouts looking for future recruits in the film. 

There’s a scene where Brad Pitt (who plays Billy Beane) is sitting at the end of a table with half a dozen talent scouts, the Oakland A’s have just lost their marquee players and are looking for replacements. 

X,Y & Z players are chosen not for their ability but for reasons such as how pretty the player’s girlfriend is. He’s been fed all these narratives and no real solution to build a team that will win. 

That’s the thing with professional bullshitters, they often forget the problem they have been employed to solve, but circle around intangibles not willing to face or seek the truth. 

Billy Beane could have been a top executive somewhere far away from professional bullshitters had he taken up the offer from a top school and not followed someone else’s gut instinct, but you cannot really blame these tale spinners entirely, they have been doing it for long convincingly, drowning in their own stories and overestimating their ability in every step, even when the data points the opposite way. 

They are the ones who need help, too. 

The Difficulty of Being Honest

One of the best things that the movie Moneyball does is that it addresses how difficult it is to be honest in the real world and how civility and pleasantries weigh in on every conversation, but thankfully it also shows how an honest conversation can bring about real change. 

Every conversation that Billy has with those who are up the power chain (his boss, his ex-wife with whom he shares a kid, the team manager played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman)is laced with needless affirmations of positivity, half-truths to somehow sneak in what he really wants to say. 

But when he is the one holding the power chord in conversations (to her peers, the talent scouts, the players ) it’s always business, always to the point and always with a result. Never an indecisive moment. Never an extra word wasted on a pleasantry.

The more honest he gets, the more his team wins.

With data powering him, Billy Beane is able to make the most dramatic decisions in the mid-season of play, but hardly seems dramatic while doing it. The lack of drama is due to the absence of charged up confrontational scenes, and what do confrontational scenes bring? Yes a lot of words in full volume. 

The Oakland A’s go onto create a record number of wins, a team that could hardly hope to retain its key players at the start of the season managed to go high places because its GM chose to cut out the bullshit and focus on what is to be done by careful analysis. 

That’s the story. 

It doesn’t need embellishment, it doesn’t need narrative constructs, it doesn’t need the ‘instinct and gut’, it doesn’t at all need words, it doesn’t definitely need storytellers.

Which is why it surprises me to see Aaron Sorkin’s name on the credits of Moneyball, it surprises me even more to know that he was nominated for a writing Oscar for this film. It doesn’t surprise me, however, to find that he shared a screenplay credit with Steve Zaillian.

Moneyball is the most non-Sorkinesque of the Sorkin films, there is hardly any walk and talk, there is no high pitched emotional venting, there is not much smart quipping at each other moments. Very less confrontation, very less words. 

It’s all very quiet, the dialogue is on point, nothing more than the scene demands. Although I could see the ‘screenplaying’ in the form of the relationship between Billy Beane and his daughter, it doesn’t divert the attention away from the story. Though I acknowledge that there is a lot of Sorkin in one major three way phone call scene. 

Which makes me wonder, was Sorkin compelled by the inherent forces of the story to tone himself down or was he having a crisis of faith? Was he losing his words for the search for the truth? Moneyball, after all is mostly the truth, these things happened. 

(I don’t have to make everything about myself, but hey this is my blog)

By asking that question I know I am playing down a lot of things, like say the involvement of director Bennet Miller,the contribution of Steve Zaillian and Stan Chervin who wrote the script and story respectively.

But to answer that here’s what Zaillian told Sorkin during the time when Sony Pictures asked for a rewrite “Listen, do me a favor, don’t change the movie. Just write more of it.”

Sorkin could have and certainly had the power to make the movie another Sorkinesque film, after all he had just written The Social Network! 

But he didn’t. He stuck to the story.

Following Moneyball, Sorkin wrote an adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s monumental Steve Jobs biography and this video hints that Sorkin is back to his ‘language’ days. And Moneyball seems to be just a one-off for him, the one time the story was saved from the storyteller.  

Moneyball can be seen from the outside world of sports and analytics too, like this piece called Who’s On First by Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler. 

While here I am typing away and trying to connect seeking truth in life and seeking truth in movies, with Moneyball playing example, but the events did happen right? Oakland A’s did win all those matches and other teams did start to adopt Billy Beane’s method of team building, it did force the talent scouts to reduce their guessing games and kitchen counter speeches and go behind numbers, it changed something and so there must be some truth in it. 

All great movies (despite the words), reveal a personal truth to the watcher and for me Moneyball did during this rewatch. 

So all is not in vain, if you have read this far, hope you did get something out of it and not empty words.

There’s a lot of challenges for many of us right now and we don’t know what the world is turning out to be, but Moneyball offers a warm blanket of a solution too and when followed moderately can lead to happiness. 

Speaking of Endings- Star Wars:The Rise Of Skywalker

So yeah. 

When I came to the very end of the end of “The Rise of Skywalker” which is the end of this new trilogy of Star Wars films, but it is also the end of the end of all the Star Wars films so far (yet). 

Only one thing struck me, they had ONLY planned the end of the end. 

So the rest of the movie was just to get to the end of the end? 

At least they could have been honest. They could have put in a slide saying, “you know we think the best ending for this Star Wars is Rey doing a Luke and watching the binary sunset, we just don’t know how to get there”, but of course honesty is that value which is quite in shortage in this world, can’t expect much. 

They should have gotten our email address and just mailed the ending. With consent and all for GDPR.

Instead I was treated to more than two hours of lessons on finding the self, being a good leader, not seeking revenge, standing up for brethren and more importantly, never losing hope. In short the movie was trying to emulate a good twitter account and wait for the RTs to ring. 

Look now, I’m not opposed to hope; let me just make that clear,I am just tired that it is being sold again. Yeah people fall for it, deep down everyone feels they are special, of course that is why a character of Rey would appeal to everyone, a nobody who saves the universe- the last jedi- our last hope. 

I have seen this. Next one please. 

Movies can be about anything, it can be about hope, it can be about despair, it can be about friendship, it can be about tiredness; but a film about hope should evoke hopeful qualities not make me tired and a movie about tiredness should not make me hopeful.

The Dead Speak! The Audience Yawn!

The Dead Speak! Screams the familiar opening crawl, as though to make us forget the ending of the previous movie, the entire galaxy has now heard a broadcast, obviously it cannot be someone new, someone whose story we have to build from the start, someone whose exploits we need to follow over time so we get accustomed to their behaviour and then decide whether to fear him or not. 

No no no, it must be an old and familiar face whose appearance might bring some amount of excitement back into the fan bloodstream. So yeah let’s get the old main villain and try and sell the “i’m the puppet master behind everything that happened till now” narrative. 

I paused. So this is where they went a little bit like Infinity War, although without the infinity stones- they just had two-pathfinders-to the villain’s lair. Umm nothing dramatic, I have seen enough movies to know what will ultimately happen in a villain’s lair. 

Irresponsible Expectations 

Partly I am to blame, where did I think they would go with it? 

A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy With More Of The Same

On the Laureate, we try to write about genre a lot, but we skipped franchises. Yes they are deeply steeped in genre lore, but also deeply bound in risk. A franchise exists only to make money. Yep. 

It’s not enough if just the fans see it, it should appeal to everyone and in the end, add more star wars fans. The movies themselves are made timed to not allow enough time for the fans to figure out why they liked it in the first place. They have to see the next one and be disappointed until they announce another series, a few years later- another series where someone’s grandson is now leading the resistance against another black robe clad father figure, I mean Vader figure. 

By this time, another enthusiastic innocent generation would have been pulled into the fandom, this fandom which will include buying t-shirts, dolls, plastic light sabers, theme parks and voice over gigs for Vijay Sethupathi. 

A new paste of slimy culture over mine, made to make me feel how my slime (now hardened) was actually better. No it wasn’t. . 

For some like, it is now a habit. I have seen the films. They are more of the same. I don’t even have the mind to say, “but in the original trilogy…” Nevermind. As someone said, these movies are about space wizards intended for children. 

Good sunset. BTW. 

Joker (2019)

The immediate message that got to me after watching Arthur Fleck slowly descend into madness is that I should get out of my head for good. 

Joker’s a really well made film, thoughtfully so in the departments of art and cinematography, but something about this record of madness doesn’t sit well with me. This was one of the reasons, I gave myself for skipping the film, until today.

Another reason is that I don’t really like the Joker character. 

There, I said it. 

Enough hot takes, I would like to elaborate a little, what I really mean is that I don’t really appreciate the modern interpretations of the character- starting from Heath Ledger’s take in the Dark Knight.

The character (in the movies) has traveled far from the camp that Jack Nicholson literally painted on screen. Now all the fun is gone. 

Well it’s been a generation since 1989. Things change, people tend to be attracted to different things. 

Maybe they do prefer this interpretation, where a comic prince of clown is moulded into this thinning frame which has nothing in its heart, but only itself ( and self pity of course). Maybe there is a reason why Arthur Fleck is a stand up comedian- a profession that requires a lot of suppressed anger (on society and on self) to be converted into jokes. And when those jokes don’t work? It turns into the descent, that I touched upon earlier. 

Drawing directly from Scorsese’s influential work in the 70s & the 80s that also featured decaying characters in cities of decay, Todd Phillips, adds too little. By throwing in Robert De Niro in as a funny talk show host, Phillips ensure that the Scorsese references don’t go unnoticed.

Gotham now has a rat problem, there is garbage everywhere and they hate the rich. The city then erupts into protests with people wearing clown masks because billionaire Thomas Wayne made an offhand comment, an indication that protests may not always have its origins in meaning.

But there is one thing, it doesn’t seem like a usual super hero(or villain) based film, and kudos to the director for that and Phoenix is in his usual great form; but after a point it becomes difficult to back the delusions of a depressed guy. 

Joker, the character itself is quite diabolical and is in constant need of space and adoration, it almost stole the movie from Batman in the Dark Knight; now it wants it’s own movie and going by the box office collections, it could have its own franchise. 

A franchise for those who feel they are disenfranchised. God, help me.