Categories
cinema:english Essay

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. 

Categories
cinema Essay

Kalaai as a Service (KaaS): Siva Manasula Sakthi (SMS)

It’s time the world took note of the work of director M. Rajesh.

The other SA Chandrasekhar assistant. Especially of interest is his pentalogy of movies with comedy star Santhanam, which began with 2009s Siva Manasula Sakthi or SMS. 

A decade just went past and no one only seemed to notice. Of course SMS is a certain kind of film that would not attract revivals, it also has the misfortune (from a critical pov) of being a non-classy romantic film, a genre which seems to somehow require a film to be ‘classy’ to be revived. 

Anyway, Rajesh wouldn’t care. I don’t mean that in a wrong way.

It shows in every scene right from the start, the mock freeze frame narration and pausing to question the audience whether Jiiva would be an Olympic athlete but then insisting that he is just a normal guy running to catch a train. It’s not that he is not sincere, it’s just that he is probably bored with what is quite commonly known here as “build-up”. No pretensions. 

Cut to next scene

Siva meets Sakthi on the train. 

Seconds later he is asking her to talk to him to pass the time. 

That’s it. 

No glowing close-up to the heroine’s eyes, no hero touching his chest and kneeling to the ground, no guitar solo,no “avlo oru azhagu” types, no Harris Jayraj duolingo humming (although Rajesh would use the composer in a later film), no general wishy washy circling around for 40 mins before saying something poetic etc. 

No romance in a romance film. Boom. 

Full disclosure, we generally love all types of films, but we also tend to hate the most romantic of the romantic ones. The ones where romance is the sole soul, we mean…never mind. 

Siva can never be a movie romantic lead, his pick up line is about Anantha Vikatan (also the producers and the magazine is ‘well placed’ in the movie), it’s not much of a pick up line too, he is raw male instincts personified  he is also real. 

Our usual romantic leads are often those who just jump out of a strawberry dream in little heart situations. Unrealistic even by middle class expectations. 

Siva is just another guy, Sakthi too, just another girl. 

They remain so till the very end.

No no, this is definitely not the glib “mature understanding love story” , no no, this is even not the “poratti podra” transformational love story where one lead influences the other to change their entire life. This movie does not even fall into the taming of the shrew subgenre. 

Siva Manasula Sakthi is the most realistic love story ever made in Tamil cinema, the fact that it is told as a humorous interplay between two characters with brittle ego who cannot get enough of themselves is its differentiating point. That it also avoids unnecessary social commentary is where its brilliance lies. 

Right so, when they do first meet, both are instinctively attracted to each other and present complete fake versions of themselves, but those thin characteristics break away and the rest of the movie is just Siva and Sakthi irritating themselves to the world’s end. 

Yours Irritatingly

Love stories tend to focus on the great moments that a couple have (imagined, with the passage of time) but SMS stays on the not so great moments and more on how much can one tolerate the other, which seems to be a more practical approach to deciding on long term romance, rather than say learning guitar or that sort of thing. 

Hence, the term real.

In life or say real life, relationships are truncated or prolonged based on the mutual tolerance level and relationships include love, we think no other movie touched on this aspect and it’s a very practical way to decide. Great work Rajesh, we know you don’t care, but still. 

Again, a romance film that does not romanticise. 

But it is true that they do have their sweet moments, but it is reserved for a montage during the time Siva and Shakti are away,not as elaborate as the “Kalaai” portions. 

Making irritation scenes the mainstay is also clever while looking at it from the impact POV, when Sakthi realizes that Siva really does love him underneath all the put on contempt, sitting in a restaurant with Arya (another Rajesh trademark cameo feature) her “could have been would-be”. It’s incidents from these irritations and scheming that Siva really understands her. It hits her (and us) hard.

Not so punny, kid

‘Kalaai’ is a difficult word to translate, so is ‘Nakkal’ and ‘Kindal’, make-fun-of does not really meet the meaning, it’s a very Tamil thing and although it is not unique to Rajesh’s films, but he was the one who codified it and it becomes emblematic to the point of difficulty in his later films (maybe wait for our essay on Vasuvum Saravananum Onna Padichavanga). 

Comedy films have been gauged on the amount of laughter that they provide, how many lines have been remembered, how many lines that could be repurposed for daily life. Maybe that’s a cerebral way to approach humor, but it is not the natural way. Structured dialogue comedy does not happen in real life, people rarely speak in rat-a-tat-a-tat. These are constructed screenplays based on intellect, not for normals.  

Like his practical approach to love, Rajesh also has a practical approach to comedy, he doesn’t want to pack 200 jokes in 100 minutes, he doesn’t even care if some jokes do not land (which is very true of the film) and that’s okay, because in the life of Siva or a person like Sakthi would not be able to make up smart turns of phrase. They would probably make fun of a fat person, which is what they do. But they have a good laugh.

Kalaai hence becomes both the medium for love and comedy, it was refreshing to watch this two pronged approach the first time and it is still refreshing because very few have attempted such a radically different way to tell a love story. Rajesh would, but then this is his mould from which other movies do come out. Do note that the Kalaai is not one way, the hero too gets it back (and nicely so) from the heroine (Anuya Bhagwat is a treat to watch in her debut, despite the dubbing). 

Rajesh’s films are also dubbed (not in another language) as TASMAC films (why not wait for our essay on All in All Azhagu Raja), owing to how the hero and Santhanam spend most of the time at wine shops and yes TASMAC is an important setting in SMS, it’s where Sakthi finally admits to being in love (he still thinks it’s another elaborate Kalaai), but what other outlet does Siva have in matters of the heart. Where else will he go to nurse his broken ego and who else would support him like his friend Santhanam (named Vivek [LOL] in the film). 

Santhanam’s role in Rajesh films would continue to grow even to the extent of the whole film revolving around him, but surely you can witness traces of the flow in the ever popular ‘Harry Potter Vaaya’ and the broken mobile phone gag in SMS, but it is definitely not peak Santhanam. We were surprised about how little he appears in the film.

Rajesh also believes that Kalaai is not restricted to what only the comedian says, he finds it in the RJ voice obsessed Siva’s sister, he finds it in the kindness personified Urvashi, Siva’s mother. It is here that Rajesh forged his strong family setup which would be repeated time and again. 

But it is Jiiva who takes the money to the bank, the testimony to his acting prowess is that after SMS, he is able to fit right into Neethane En Pon Vasantham too. Absolute talent, perhaps the most versatile after Kamal. 

Rajesh perfected his model in his first film while many accumulate signatures slowly over time.

Why yes how many first film directors set out to make their best film as their first?

Working under limitations of a production house (Vikatan) which was till then producing tele serials and no star magnet to put people in their seats. His advertising background probably came to help in including items that interest his core audience (the youth of 2008-9) and he went about it making it as honestly as possible and proving that excessive displays of conviction alone cannot make a good film, just being self will do. 

Do give it a watch, if you haven’t lately and we hope you would think well to include it in future anniversary revivals.  

After a top debut, where will Rajesh go from here? 

Tune into the next edition of Kalaai as a Service, where we (hopefully can) dive deep into the cinema of M Rajesh. 

Thank you for reading.

Categories
cinema cinema:english Essay Movie Notes

First Reformed

In silence, a moving camera slowly stops at the entrance to a church; the First Reformed church in New York, the setting of Paul Schrader’s film.

The lack of camera movement is striking, the lack of music drowned by cawing-cawing creates an unsettling atmosphere; my movie mind immediately reclines to the mode of familiarity, that smug sense of the mind jumping ahead of the story.

Oh, but how wrong my movie mind was and how happy I am. It is not that I have not been wrong before, the lord knows I have but it is not often that the feeling of being defeated is accompanied by indescribable happiness.

First Reformed is nothing like anything I have ever seen.

Movies are a visual medium, meaning they communicate to us through the eyes and when that sensation is achieved, we have in our hands what is often called a visual treat.

First Reformed goes beyond all that. Schrader forgoes cinematic mastery for spare but sure-footed direction and lets his main character wrestle with the theme of the movie.

From the very beginning it concocts a headache giving mixture of hope and despair, headache giving because it confirms simply that there can be no hope without despair. But what should one do when those tasked with reigning us out in times of despair are themselves sinking in doubt?

Ethan Hawke in a career defining performance plays Reverend Ernst Toller, a former military chaplain who is now faced with convincing an environmental activist who strongly believes that we are headed for the worst of times and it is all our doing.

The restraint in film-making and lack of score, automatically puts the weight of the film on the actors and the success of the themes on the lines that they speak. Hawke is excellent and we must take time to thank the lines on his forehead, which jump from disinterest to doubt to finality of despair.

A spiritually moving and transformative film, which made me feel the truly small nature of our collective existence and how helpless we are in the great problems that we create for ourselves.

Finally, it felt like a great movie.

Categories
cinema cinema:english cinema:tamil Essay

IT’S THE SAME THING, MR SIVAM!

HOW KURUTHIPUNAL AND THE DARK KNIGHT ARE ONE AND THE SAME

Well, almost the same. An essay.

“The mind sees what it wants to see”

The Da Vinci Code, 2006

The choice of opening quote from the Da Vinci Code might put you into a lot of worry, I know, but I simply love that movie. Nevertheless the movie has this brilliant quote which is so close to what I am trying to do here.

When you keep seeing a lot of movies, ok let me refine that, when you keep seeing a lot of movies, a lot of times; things just strike you, you begin to see things that you wouldn’t have cared about during your first viewing, you start to make assumptions based on thin connections, this article is a voice of all that goes into a head which makes these connections.

It could be frivolous to many who have reached this page, and this is what that gives me the nervousness.

Nevertheless, I begin.

Sometime after Inception was released, there was a Disney comic that was doing the rounds, written of course years and years ago which had the exact structure as that of Inception (A dream within a dream within a dream), we can hardly accuse Christopher Nolan of theft, but the interesting point here is the similarities in structure and how some things are quite universal.

Let’s now get to the wonderful police film Kuruthipunal, released in 1995 is actually based on a Govind Nihlani film Drohkaal which was released the previous year.

Then why doesn’t your article cite Drohkaal? You are bound to ask, I’ll come to that in a bit.

The starting point is of these kind of these connections are of course the interrogation scenes from Kuruthipunal.

Kuru-TDK12

FEAR AS AN INSTRUMENT OF TERROR

The above subtitle would have been a better title for this whole piece, because that is what these two movies are essentially about. Two men; one with an ideology (Badri-Nasser) and another seemingly without (The Joker- Heath Ledger) make up the main antagonists, so critical to both the films

While the joker constantly plays on the subject fear and loss, not only on the main characters of the film, but also on the inhabitants of the city; similarly do Badri and his gang unleash terror on the common public and the honest police officers.

Interestingly both movies begin with an incident involving a school bus.

Well, all this too generic to see, every terrorist group will aim to do just that.

But Wait.

In the Dark Knight, the token of Harvey Dent is a coin, he keeps referring it to as chance- the fairest of all things in the world, but just look at it from here, a flip of a coin can indicate many things and among them is the change of sides.

WE ARE NOT AS STRONG AS WE THINK

The Joker keeps referring to himself and the Batman are one and the same, just on different sides, he also strangely says that he is able to understand the freakiness that is the Batman character and that Batman would do better on his side.

This is again exactly what Badri says to Adi (Kamal Haasan), but here it is not the freakiness that is in question, but honesty.

Both films have characters that have been lured by the tricks of the antagonist and cross over to the other side, Harvey Dent even asks “why me?”, but it was the Joker’s trick with everyone, only Harvey was not as strong as he seemed to be, similarly the case with Adi who accepts to become a terrorist informer for the sake of his family and friends.

Shake your belief to an extent that you topple and fall from grace, the death of Harvey Dent had far reaching consequences including a major cover up, similarly in Kuruthipunal, Kamal makes a last ditch attempt at honour even when fully realising that he can live no more without his honesty.

Thematically these movies are so similar because of the below: fear and faith, and most of the conversations in Kuruthipunal are about the same, while only the scale of events are different.

In the Dark Knight, as with most Batman lore is about the city, while Kuruthipunal is interestingly anonymous about the whole setting of the movie, there are few references to other places in the country, but invariably the setting seems anonymous, to imply what I believe is the universality of terror.

The terror groups in the film also represent the threat of the times in the south, although that could be reading into it too deeply.

Something which Kamal again touches upon in Unnai Pol Oruvan (again a remake, improved if I might add)

Kuru-TDK21

The Dark Knight has three pivot characters around which the Joker operates, the Batman: The Dark Knight who as we know has many issues including one childhood girlfriend, Harvey Dent: The White Knight who also has girlfriend issue and then there is Commissioner Gordon who fears for the life of his family.

Ok, Kuruthipunal too has three central characters whose life is turned upside down by Badri, DCPs Adi and Abbas and Commissioner Sreenivasan (Director K Vishwanath). The transformations that these characters undergo because of the activities of the antagonist are what I think the most common element amongst them.

There can be no private life of a public protector

The Dark Knight however has this advantage of having a symbol that is incorruptible and hope giving, while Kuruthipunal and Drohkaal manage to bring the same story out with real life characters as opposed to comic book heroes.

That brings us to Drohkaal and why Kuruthipunal is more closer to the Dark Knight than its predecessor, on casual viewing you can say that Kuruthipunal is really better made, there are so many things that are added to the Tamil version that is not there in the Nihlani film, like for example extending the role of Abbas (Arjun) and involved action sequence on the platforms of the dimly lit Egmore Station, which still remains as chilling as I saw it the first time, cinematic differences aside which are many and bound to be when a film is being helmed by one Mr PC Sreeram, the structural similarities between the Dark Knight and Kuruthipunal is only heightened because the screenplay and dialogues (John and Kamal Haasan), because only through dialogue character motivations are completely brought out.

Drohkaal on the other hand brings it down to a more corrupt police vs good police generic concept.  But there is no denying what Kuruthipunal owes Drohkaal, the basic story.

While Kuruthipunal makes it a clash of cultures and ideologies as shown through the conversations between Kamal and Nasser, and this is what the Dark Knight tries to achieve by letting off the Joker against the Batman.

Both scenarios end with a sacrifice.

ENDING NOTE

All this analysis is for what? Any movie can be compared to anyone and with a convincing writer, connections can be established.

I am hardly a convincing writer and this is not a post of revelation, it is just a thought that has been doing the rounds for quite some time in my head, to look at the ideas that make these films as one fluid entity and that may be the reason for the similarities, ideas that flow from one person to another. But the explanations might be even simpler for this, a common movie that has inspired these both, putting this entire post to waste bin. But that is a risk I am willing to take.

I have always seen Nolan’s Batman films as police films that comment on terrorism and maybe that is also one of the reasons for this post.

The stories of both progress differently, Kuruthipunal with a strong grounding towards the families of the policemen involved, while it is only a sub-element in the Dark Knight.

The relationship between the three characters in both the movies oscillates between absolute trust and just working relationships which as mentioned before is exploited by the villain.

Did not want to put this up as points and reduce it to a scoop whoop/buzzfeed release, because this is more involved and needs more discussion. Both are great movies even without these similarities: taut and exciting thrillers which deliver one good scene after the other.

Both films are elevated to a different level by their villains, although Heath Ledger has been lauded posthumously, Nasser’s chilling portrayal towering over the leads and that to in a Kamal film has sadly been forgotten, like most of his roles.

Interestingly Ashish Vidyarthi whose role Nasser assumed for the Tamil version won a National Award.

Kuruthipunal and not Drohkaal was India’s official entry to the Oscars in corresponding year, while the Dark Knight was nominated for every other major category except Best Film, which it would have, had it not been a super hero film.

PC Sreeram has just made one film after Kuruthipunal as director; Nolan came to the theatres with yet another terrorist film called the Dark Knight Rises.

It is also interesting to note that Kuruthipunal begins with a phrase that contains the word Kuruthipunal which translates to River of Blood, while the Dark Knight literally ends with the words: the Dark Knight.

#justsaying

The title of this post, if you haven’t figured out is a direct reference to another Kamal film called Anbe Sivam

This post also marks 20 years since the release of Kuruthipunal.

kuru3

Thank you for reading.