Sunday, November 25, 2012

Cross-cultural comedy: Outsourced and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Late to the party, as ever, my partner and I watched Outsourced (2006) last night, and thought it was pretty delightful.

Todd (Josh Hamilton), a Seattle call-center manager, discovers that the jobs of his entire department have been outsourced to India, and he is asked to go to there to train his replacement. At first, predictably, things don't go well. Todd is overwhelmed by the crowds, noise and poverty—not to mention the intestinal distress from unwisely sampling a street vendor's gola ganda. He's unfamiliar with Indian customs and practices, and makes more than a few embarrassing mistakes. The call center turns out to be in a raw, unfinished building and the crew is hopeless at pretending that they're from "Chicahgo" as they try to sell Americans cheap patriotic figurines made in China.

But Todd is a resilient, practical guy. When he exasperatedly tells the crew, "You have a lot to learn about America," and Asha (the terrific Ayesha Dharker from Loins of Punjab Presents) responds, "And you have a lot to learn about India," he realizes that she's right. The rest of the film follows Todd's deepening involvement in the lives of his Indian neighbors and co-workers, and his and Asha's growing mutual attraction. And fortunately, although writer/director John Jeffcoat's script does stretch our credulity a few times, it's smart enough to leave some important questions unresolved.

And there are some pointed asides about American lifestyles, as well. Through the eyes of the Indian characters it's clear that we look like we're isolated and atomized, filling our emotional voids with an addiction to cheap junk and oversized appliances. After his weeks in India, Todd's Seattle apartment seems huge, and his refrigerator and microwave look like artifacts from a technologically-advanced alien civilization.

Josh Hamilton is not my idea of a man that would set a desi girl's heart aflutter, but he's perfectly cast as the go-getting but fundamentally good-hearted Todd. And while I see that Ayesha Dharker works steadily, mostly in British TV, on the basis of Loins and Outsourced I'm not sure why she isn't besieged with good film roles.

The message of Outsourced is one of tolerance, openness to new ideas and experiences, and acceptance of differences. That's also the message of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), which features an ensemble cast of acclaimed British actors. A group of retirees (including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Bill Nighy) come to live at the hotel, which they've been led to believe is a glorious palace but which is now decidedly run down. The film follows the accommodations that each character chooses (or refuses) to make with their new circumstances. The film is also the story of Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel, of Slumdog Millionaire), the hotel's visionary but inexperienced owner-manager who has to battle his own family to realize his dreams of resurrecting the hotel and of marrying the woman he loves.

My one hesitation about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel relates to this narrative, though, and there's no way to discuss it without spoilers. So you've been warned: spoilers ahead! Maggie Smith plays Muriel, a housekeeper with racist attitudes who has come to India for a cheaper hip replacement than she can get at home. While she's recovering, she comes to realize that the hotel could succeed with better management. At the end of the film we see her acting as the manager of the newly renovated hotel, with Sonny reduced to standing in the lobby in traditional dress and showing guests to their rooms. Essentially, he's become a figurehead in his own hotel.

I'd like to think that writer Ol Parker and director John Madden were being deliberately ironic, but somehow I can't quite believe it. Or perhaps the fault lies with the source, Deborah Moggach's novel These Foolish Things (Chatto & Windus, 2004). Wherever the blame lies, the film ends on a note that seems to recapitulate the colonialist ideology of the Raj: that the British know how to run India (for the benefit of Britons, anyway) better than the Indians themselves.

—End of spoilers—

It's the one sour note in a film that for 99% of its length is about the wisdom of accepting India on its own terms. But don't let a misstep in the final moments dissuade you from watching these wonderful actors in what is, for the most part, a very enjoyable story.

Next on our viewing list: the Outsourced television series.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Nick Hornby's "Stuff I've Been Reading"

Every time I pick up a Nick Hornby book I'm reminded how pleasurable it is to read him. His style is straightforward and unpretentious, he's disarming in his willingness to say what he thinks, even if it's uncool, and he's got an offhand, self-deprecating sense of humor. Reading one of his "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns for The Believer is like having a great conversation with a friend over a beer.

So why did I feel a hint of reluctance every time I thought about picking up a volume of his columns (published by Believer Books as The Polysyllabic Spree (2004), Housekeeping vs. The Dirt (2006), Shakespeare Wrote for Money (2008), and More Baths Less Talking (2012))? After all, I can honestly say that I've enjoyed everything of his I've ever read, although my favorite of his books remains the first one I encountered, High Fidelity (Riverhead, 1995). When he published Songbook (McSweeney's, 2002), a series of essays about his favorite songs (at least, of the moment), I even wrote an "answer book" about my favorite opera arias.

But somehow I didn't overcome my hesitation until last week, when I heard Judson True's interview with him on NPR's City Arts & Lectures program and enjoyed it so much I sought out The Complete Polysyllabic Spree (Penguin, 2006, a compilation of the first two titles in the series). I immediately followed it with the remaining two.

I think there were a couple of reasons for my hesitation. Partly it was because, as appealing as I find Hornby's voice on the page (or the radio), our tastes don't always completely coincide—except when they do, and then I'm disappointed. Of course I recognize that these are contradictory objections; clearly, I can't be satisfied. And since I was having these feelings before I even took the trouble to read the books, they're doubly unfair. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that what I want from a collection of book reviews is a sense of discovery, not a discussion of books I doubt I'll ever read or a confirmation of my own taste. And it seems that I didn't feel confident enough that Hornby's columns would provide that sense of discovery.

As it turned out, they largely don't. So I wouldn't recommend picking up his collected columns to learn about some overlooked masterpiece or neglected minor classic; at least for me, they mostly didn't work that way. What they do, very entertainingly, is give a picture of Hornby's own reading habits: his tendencies to buy more books than he can read (there's a list of "books bought" and "books read" every month), to forget the books he's already read with alarming alacrity, to attempt to read while other distractions surround him, and finally to abandon books that aren't giving him sufficient pleasure, even if he's "supposed" to read them.

With his unflinching and at times very funny honesty about his own modes of reading—and no one would bother to fabricate stories about this stuff—Hornby wins my sympathy and frequent identification. And although I've had mixed luck with his book recommendations, there's nothing mixed about how enjoyable his columns are. 

Who are the Polysyllabic Spree?

A running joke in Hornby's columns is that he can't pan any of the books he reads, because a fluctuating group of humorless young editors he calls the Polysyllabic Spree, all dressed in white robes, polices The Believer for negative reviews. (One of the founding editors, Heidi Julavits, wrote a famous statement of principle for the first issue that established an editorial policy against critical snarkiness.) Whenever Hornby's column skips a month or two, he claims that it's because he's been suspended for trangressing this policy (I'm guessing he's really on a book tour).

What I hadn't realized before I Googled was that the description of the Polysyllabic Spree is based on the Texas band Polyphonic Spree, a fluctuating group of musicians and singers who performed in white robes. Here's the Polyphonic Spree's version of Nirvana's "Lithium":

The robes, the earnestness, the slightly self-conscious hair-tossing, and the special emphasis given to the line "I found God" (0:44 and 3:15) offer more than a hint of Christian rock, or, at least, rock by Christians. And in this context the lines "I'm so horny / That's OK my will is good...I'm not gonna crack" come to seem like they're about a group abstinence pledge, or something.

I don't want to be too hard on these guys; my problem with the Polyphonic Spree is less their implied religiosity than their fresh-scrubbed optimism. I don't turn to rock music to see people who are better adjusted, more wholesome, and having more fun than I am. Where is the rage, the pain, the fear, the self-laceration, and the compelling spectacle of decadent self-destruction that all of your finest rock bands display in such abundance?

Reading as an addiction
The last time I was here, I promised to return to Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs, which I hadn't quite finished. Well, I finished it, and liked it (although not as much as I liked Empire Falls, which is an all-time favorite), and no longer feel competent to write about it. I started it on a sun-lounger in France, and it's now November, and Lou "Lucy" Lynch and his careful, gentle ruminations seem a lifetime ago. The same goes for Paul Zindel's The Pigman, this month's YA experience—I know I read it, but I'm not entirely sure I could tell you an awful lot about it. Maybe I should have done my book report the moment I finished it.

I recently discovered that when my friend Mary has finished a book, she won't start another for a couple of days—she wants to give her most recent reading experience a little more time to breathe, before it's suffocated by the next. This makes sense, and it's an entirely laudable policy, I think. Those of us who read neurotically, however—to ward off boredom, and the fear of our own ignorance, and our impending deaths—can't afford the time. (January 2008, Shakespeare Wrote for Money, p. 97)

I feel a bit like this (and like Francis Spufford, whose knotty memoir The Child That Books Built is discussed in Hornby's February 2008 column): as I wrote in 7 things about me, "I get anxious when I finish a book and don't have another one that I can begin immediately. Perhaps that explains why I'm a bookseller who's in library school—I'll go to any lengths to insure a continuous supply!" Spufford attributes his early development of a reading habit to needing a refuge from an outer world that contained too many unresolvable difficulties. While I've experienced my share of pain and confusion, my love of books stems from the sheer childhood pleasure of being read to by my mother. That may make me less profound than Spufford; on the other hand, once I've finished a book, until I've got a new one I feel like a caged rat desperately pressing a bar for a reward and coming up empty.

The downside of motivating by bribery
I turned back to Spufford's book [The Child That Books Built] because my five-year-old is on the verge of reading...Writing hasn't softened for him: three-letter words are as insoluble as granite, and he can no more look through writing than he can look through his bedroom wall. The good news is that he's almost frenetically motivated; the bad news is that he is so eager to learn because he has got it into his head that he will be given a Nintendo DS machine when he can read and write, which he argues that he can do now to his own satisfaction—he can write his own name, and read the words Mum, Dad, Spider, Man, and at least eight others. As far as he is concerned, literacy is something that he can dispense with altogether in a couple of months, when the Nintendo turns up. It will have served its purpose. (February 2008, Shakespeare Wrote for Money, p. 102-103)

On "age-appropriate" viewing
There were two visits to cinemas this month, a family outing to see The Simpsons Movie, and a rare adults-only evening out for Juno. I can tell you little about The Simpsons Movie because—and I'm not big enough to resist naming names—Mila Douglas, five-year-old best friend of my middle son, was scared of it, and as her parents weren't with her, it was me that had to keep taking her out into the foyer, where she made a miraculous and immediate recovery every time. Scared! Of the Simpsons! I will cheerfully admit that I have failed as a father in pretty much every way bar one: my boys have been trained ruthlessly to watch whatever I make them watch. They won't flinch for a second, no matter who is being disemboweled on the screen in front of them. Mila (who is, perhaps not coincidentally, a girl) has, by contrast, clearly been "well brought up," by parents who "care," and who probably "think" about what is "age-appropriate." Yeah, well. What good did that do her on a afternoon excursion with the Hornby family? (March/April 2008, Shakespeare Wrote for Money, p. 113-114)

One night, years ago, when the son of some dear friends of ours was seven, I suggested capping a day that had featured a highly popular visit to the dinosaur exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences with a viewing of King Kong (1933), a movie that I remembered featured some dinosaur scenes.

"Is it violent?" asked one of the concerned parents.

"King Kong? No, it's not violent," I confidently assured them.

No, it's not violent. The scene where a carnivorous brontosaur devours screaming, terrified men isn't violent. The scene where Kong vanquishes a T. Rex by forcing its jaws open until gouts of black blood gush out isn't violent (judge for yourself!). The scene where Kong hurls an elevated train full of panicking commuters to the street isn't violent. And the scene where planes strafe Kong with machine-gun fire as he clings to the spire of the Empire State Building isn't violent. (Not to mention that the scenes of the "natives" on Skull Island don't indulge in any offensive racial stereotyping, either.)

"It's OK, 'cause this is just make-believe—right, Mom?" my wide-eyed seven-year-old victim kept asking. Fortunately, despite the years of nightmares that must have afflicted their son after that night, my friends have forgiven me. I think.

On ignoring the big picture for the nagging detail
[Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin] is a rich, warm, deeply felt and imagined book, destined, I think, to be loved for a long time. Regrettably, however, McCann makes a very small mistake relating to popular music toward the beginning, and, as has happened so many times before, I spent way too long muttering at both the novel and the author. I must stress, once again—because this has come up before—that my inability to forgive negligible errors of this kind is a disfiguring disease, and I am determined to find a cure for it; I mention it here merely to explain why a book I liked a lot has not become a book that I have bought over and over again, to press on anybody who happens to be passing by. And it would be unforgivably small-minded to go into it... Ach. Donovan wasn't an Irish folk-singer, OK? He was a Scottish hippie, and I hate myself. (January 2011, More Baths Less Talking, p. 69)

I have my own experience of a minor detail poisoning the experience of a novel. In Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Random House, 2000), a character decides to perform a Houdini-like escape from the frigid, swiftly flowing waters of the Vltava:
Josef held up a long, glinting glass wand and brandished it as Kornblum himself might have done.

"A thermometer," he said.

"What for? Whose temperature are you going to take?"

"The river's," Josef said.

At four o’clock on the morning of Friday, September 27, 1935, the temperature of the water of the River Moldau, black as a church bell and ringing against the stone embankment at the north end of Kampa Island, stood at 22.2 ° on the Celsius scale... (p. 31)

Um, wait a minute. Chabon goes to a lot of trouble to establish the precise water temperature. He has Josef find a thermometer and bring it with him to the bank of the river, because he wants to establish unequivocally that the water is really, really cold. But 22.2 degrees Celsius isn't cold. It's actually 72 degrees Fahrenheit, and swimming in 72-degree water doesn't seem like much of a hardship. The temperature is not a typo, by the way: it was published in a New Yorker excerpt and in multiple printings of both the hardback and the paperback edition of the novel. Instead, it's simply an error. (It's one that obviously has since been called to Chabon's attention, because in the book's 2012 edition it has been changed to 2.2 degrees Celsius.*)

After Chabon went to such elaborate lengths to make his point and blew it so spectacularly, I found it impossible to disentangle the sources of my dislike of the novel. Would I have enjoyed it more without such a glaring (and easily avoidable) error? It's impossible to say.

Farewell to "Stuff I've Been Reading"?

I notice that Hornby's last "Stuff I've Been Reading" column was written in September 2012; he's missed the October and November/December issues of The Believer. He's threatened to stop before: Shakespeare Wrote for Money calls itself "the final collection" on the back cover, and indeed his column was on hiatus from September 2008 until May 2010. Here's hoping that he's simply undergoing another of his periodic "suspensions" by the Polysyllabic Spree, and that "Stuff I've Been Reading" will soon return.


* Update 24 November 2012: Sorry, I can't let this go: Chabon's new version is no better than his old one. 2.2 degrees Celsius (36 °F) isn't a realistic temperature for the Vltava at Prague in September.

The summer of 1935 was unusually warm in Prague (the city has one of the longest continuously-operating weather stations, the Prague Klemintinum, whose records go back to 1775). On September 27, 1935, it looks like the high temperature was about 21 °C (70 °F) and the low was about 13 °C (55 °F). That's the air temperature, of course; it's harder to find records of the water temperature, but I did find a scientific article that measured the river's average temperature on October 29-31, 1968 to be 11 °C (52 °F).

So when would the river get that cold? Here's an article from the Atlantic magazine, "Deep Freeze Spreads Across Europe," about the European cold snap this past winter; one of the images (#12) is captioned "A member of local polar swimmers club gets out of the Vltava River where water temperatures reached 3 degrees Celsius (37.4 degrees F) and air temperatures reached minus 9 degrees Celsius (16 degrees F) in Prague, on February 4, 2012." In February, in the dead of a historically bitter winter. Not in September, at the end of an unusually warm summer.

OK, now I hate myself.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Six favorite songs from Yash Chopra films

Yash Chopra, 1932-2012 (Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images)

I was greatly saddened to hear of the death of Yash Chopra on October 21. Although I'm not an uncritical fan of every Yash Chopra film—see my posts The "Arrgh!" factor: Chandni and Forbidden Love: Silsila and Lamhe—his films are justly renowned for their great music. In memory of this legendary figure, I've selected six favorite songs from Yash Chopra films spanning five decades.

 Aye Meri Zohra Jabeen from Waqt (Time, 1965):

Music: Ravi
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi
Playback singer: Manna Dey

You may recognize this as the song interpolated into Mehndi Laga Ke Rakhna from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Brave Heart Will Win The Bride, 1995), written and directed by Yash Chopra's son Aditya.

Kabhi Kabhie Mere Dil Mein from Kabhi Kabhie (Sometimes..., 1976):

Music: Khayyam
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi
Playback singer: Mukesh

Khayyam won the Filmfare Award for Best Music, while Sahir Ludhianvi won Best Lyrics and Mukesh won Best Male Playback Singer for this song.

Pehli Pehli Bar. . .Ladki Hai Ya Shola from Silsila (The Affair, 1981):

Music: Shiv-Hari
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Playback singers: Kishor Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar

Rekha warns Amitabh not to get burned by her flame...

Lagi Aaj Sawan Ki from Chandni (Moonlight, 1989):

Music: Shiv-Hari
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Playback singer: Suresh Wadkar

A monsoon song, of which there are many examples in Yash Chopra films. This one is unusual for its melancholy mood.

Bholi Si Surat from Dil To Pagal Hai (The Heart is Crazy, 1997):

Music: Uttam Singh
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Playback singers: Udit Narayan, Lata Mangeshkar

Shah Rukh teases Karisma, but she's hurt because she recognizes (sooner than he does) that his feelings aren't really in earnest. Click on the CC button for English subtitles.

Main Yahaan Hoon from Veer-Zaara (2004):

Music: Madan Mohan
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Playback singer: Udit Narayan

One of the best soundtracks of the past decade, at the very least.

Yash Chopra is no more, but the music of his films is timeless.

Update 16 July 2013: Since this post was published a few days before Yash Chopra's last film was released, I thought I would include something from it as a bonus 7th song, from a sixth decade:

Ishq Shava from Jab Tak Hai Jaan (As Long As I Live, 2012):

Music: AR Rahman
Lyrics: Gulzar
Playback singers: Raghav Mathur, Shilpa Rao

What makes this song work for me is Shilpa Rao's passionate vocal performance.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Gangnam Style in alternate worlds: Duncan Watts' Everything is Obvious

Stanford University Gangnam Style flash mob

I first heard about PSY's "Gangnam Style" video in mid-summer, although I didn't get around to actually watching it until a couple of weeks ago. Throughout August and September the Gangnam Style references proliferated, and Gangnam Style parodies started showing up (including on the scoreboard at an Oakland A's game I attended). As of the time of this post, PSY's original video has been viewed on YouTube more than half a billion times. It has become a pop culture phenomenon which will only be eclipsed by overexposure, age ("Gangnam? That's so three months ago") or replacement by the next viral meme. (If somehow you still haven't seen it, there's a link at the bottom of this post.)

One question that has been argued endlessly about hit songs, movies, TV shows and books is whether there's something intrinsic that explains their success. Are hits simply of higher quality (or, to avoid qualitative judgments, do they better match consumer preferences) than less successful songs, movies, TV shows and books? Or are they popular because the mass culture industry spends billions of dollars annually to manufacture a demand for what is essentially interchangeable product?

If success is just a matter of knowing the existing market or jamming prefabricated product down our throats, the surprise is that success comes so infrequently. As Duncan Watts reports in his book Everything is Obvious (Once You Know The Answer) (Crown, 2011), the Beatles had trouble getting their first recording contract, George Lucas struggled to get financing for Star Wars, the Fox network turned down Friends, and JK Rowling's Harry Potter was rejected by eight publishers. Part of the problem is that our knowledge of the success of these cultural products is retrospective: each of them helped create a mass consumer demand for products like themselves. It's not clear that if you had exhaustively polled pop music fans in 1962 you would have come up with the Beatles as the ideal group, since very few people had ever heard them.

But there's another reason that it's so hard to predict success. Yes, there are differences among cultural products, and yes, the culture industry tries mightily to create demand. But especially in the instant-feedback age of the internet, a chief reason why certain products become popular is because, well, they're popular. It's a process that sociologists term "cumulative advantage": once a song or movie gains a slight popularity advantage over its rivals, that advantage tends to get amplified. Once enough of your friends, workmates or other information sources are mentioning this goofy Gangnam Style video, you have to see it yourself (particularly since the barriers of cost and inconvenience for doing so are minimal), and soon hundreds of millions of people have done likewise. We may also use information about other people's choices as a filter mechanism: faced with an overwhelming number of new novels, movies, and songs, we may be tempted to assume that there's a correlation between popularity and quality.

Watts and his research partners decided to try to measure the size of social influence on musical choice. We obviously can't re-run the early 1960s to see if the Beatles become popular again, so Watts and his collaborators came up with an ingenious solution. They created a website offering free downloads of 48 songs by new bands. What the visitors to the website didn't realize was that they were seeing one of 9 different versions of the site. On one version (the "independent world"), the songs were arranged randomly, and no information about other visitors' ratings or downloads was given. In eight other versions (the "social influence worlds") the number of downloads was shown. The researchers ran two experiments on the social influence worlds, one in which the songs were arranged randomly, and one in which the songs were listed in descending order by the number of downloads. Visitors could not download a song without listening to it.

So how much of an effect did social influence have on the songs visitors chose to listen to and download? A huge one. In the randomly-arranged independent world, the chances that any two songs would be listened to were equal, as we might expect. In the social influence worlds where the songs were arranged randomly, the visitors were three times more likely to listen to the most popular song than to songs of average popularity. And in the social influence worlds where the songs were ordered by the number of downloads, visitors were ten times more likely to listen to the most popular song than a song of average popularity.

And the popular songs were not always the same in each of the worlds. The researchers measured popularity by the number of downloads, and used the results from the independent world as establishing a baseline ranking of each song's appeal. While the songs with the most appeal generally did better in all the social influence worlds, the results for individual songs were highly unpredictable. Watts gives the example of the song "Lockdown" by 52 Metro, which ranked 26th out of 48 in appeal in the independent world. In one social influence world, it ended up as no. 1 in downloads, while in another it ended up as no. 40. Across all the worlds, a song in the top 5 in appeal had only a 50 percent chance of winding up among the top 5 downloads.

So this result suggests that if we could re-run the pop culture history of the past six months or so, there's a good chance that "Gangnam Style" would not have become a worldwide phenomenon. But then we wouldn't have had the pleasure (?) of watching the Stanford University Gangnam Style Flash Mob.



Watts, Duncan. (2012). Everything Is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer). New York: Crown Publishing. Chapter 3: The wisdom (and madness) of crowds, pp. 54-81.

Salganik, M. J. & Watts, D. J. (2009). Web-based experiments for the study of collective social dynamics in cultural markets. Topics in Cognitive Science 1, 439-468.

PSY: Gangnam Style (Official video)

The original dancing flash mob: Sound of Music | Central Station Antwerp