Saturday, December 26, 2015

The enigma of others: Kapurush

Kapurush (The Coward, 1965), directed by Satyajit Ray, screenplay by Ray based on the story "Janaiko Kapuruser Kahini" by Premendra Mitra.

Where Ray's Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963) is expansive and humanistic, his Kapurush is brief and bitter. A hired-car breakdown strands Amit (Soumitra Chatterjee) in a small town on his way elsewhere. A friendly local tea grower, Bimal (Haradhan Banerjee) offers to put him up for the night so that he can catch the next day's train. When the two arrive at Bimal's plantation, Amit is stunned to recognize Bimal's wife Karuna (Madhabi Mukherjee):

And she recognizes him:

In flashback we learn that in their student days, Karuna was Amit's lover. When her wealthy family learned of her affair with the poor Amit, Karuna came to his apartment and boldly proposed that they elope. Amit lacked the courage to seize the moment, though, and the lovers were separated. That failure has haunted him ever since.

Back in the present, as the uncomfortable hours crawl by in Bimal's bungalow it becomes clear that while Amit's host is affable, he's also a bit boorish, stolidly conventional, and a heavy drinker. Amit asks Karuna for some sleeping pills, and when he has a moment alone with her, questions her about her happiness (questions she refuses to answer). The next day, on the way back to town so that he can catch a train to his destination, Amit sees a chance to relive the moment of his failure and change the outcome. He takes advantage of Bimal's brief absence to propose that Karuna leave her husband and go away with him.

The ending—spoiler alert!—is deeply ambiguous: Karuna does meet Amit at the train station, but only to ask for her sleeping pills back; as she says, "I need them." Is Karuna now the coward, unable to act because she has become too accustomed to the comforts supplied by Bimal's wealth? Having once seen Amit's failure of nerve, is she unable to trust him again? Does she feel that it is impossible to recapture the past? Or does she feel that Amit is acting weakly and selfishly once again, as he did at that earlier moment of decision?

My preferred interpretation is that she is making a Tatyana-like sacrifice of her feelings because she is unwilling to violate her marriage vows (see the post on Eugene Onegin for more on Tatyana's renunciation scene). But Ray doesn't resolve the question of her thoughts and motives; Karuna remains for us, as she does for Amit, a haunting enigma.

—End of spoilers—

Kapurush, perhaps because of its ambiguity, was not a financial success when it was released. But it offers a very different role than Ray's earlier Mahanagar for the superb Madhabi Mukherjee. She is no less convincing as the unflinching Karuna than as the anxious, sheltered Arati, and her performance is reason enough to see the film. As an added incentive, Ray employs some almost Hitchcockian touches to ratchet up the tension: when the husband apparently falls asleep after a picnic and Amit tries to use the opportunity to ask Karuna to run away with him, we watch a cigarette slowly burning down between the husband's fingers, knowing (as Amit also does) that when ash reaches the husband's fingers he'll wake up. If, that is, he's really asleep...

Kapurush is available in a dark, grainy print of what seems to be the dubbed Hindi version on YouTube, from Rajshri Films. A crisp transfer of the original Bengali version with English subtitles is included as a part of the Criterion Collection's 2013 DVD reissue of Mahanagar.

Last time: Danger and possibility in the big city: Mahanagar (1963)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


Madhabi Mukherjee as Arati in Mahanagar

Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963). Directed by Satyajit Ray; screenplay by Ray based on the stories "Abataranika" and "Akinchan" by Narendranath Mitra.

In Satyajit Ray's Mahanagar, family is a source of both strength and vulnerability, and Calcutta—the "big city" of the title—is a place of both danger and possibility.

Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) is the head of a multigenerational household, but his jobs as a private tutor and as a bookkeeper for a bank barely bring home enough money to support his struggling family. His ailing father Priyagopal (Haren Chatterjee), a retired schoolmaster, needs medicine and new glasses, and his young sister Bani (Jaya Bhaduri, in her first role) needs books and school fees. The money worries are even taking a toll on the teasing closeness of his marriage to Arati (a luminous Madhabi Mukherjee). 

When Arati discovers that the wife of one of Subrata's friends works outside the home, she tells him that she will take a job to help support the family. At first Subrata is resistant to the idea,

A housewife should stay in her house

—he literally tells her, in English, that "a woman's place is in the home"—but he soon bows to necessity.

It is Subrata who finds a want-ad listing for a "smart and attractive" door-to-door salesgirl, but he and the rest of the family, including Arati, have distinctly mixed feelings when she gets the job. Subrata's father is concerned about the loss of the family's social standing, and his mother Sarojini (Sefalika Devi) feels guilty for the burden that the elders' presence places on the household economy. Arati herself is anxious about whether she'll be able to meet the demands of her new job. Even their son Pintu (Prasenjit Sarkar) feels abandoned and angry. Only Bani is delighted at the news:

Bani's delight

Bani is soon to take her secondary exams, and she recognizes that Arati's taking a job represents a broadening of possibilities for her as well (her idea of a good job is "film star").

On her first day at the firm of Himangshu Mukerjee (Haradhan Bannerjee), Arati meets Edith Simmons (Vicky Redwood), a lively Anglo-Indian girl who was hired at the same time. Edith defuses their potential rivalry with open friendliness, and a bond quickly begins to develop between them.

Arati and Edith establish their friendship

Arati is full of trepidation as she sets out on her rounds. She is also a bit in awe of the spacious, expensive homes she's invited into—the contrast with the cramped flat she shares with Subrata, his parents and the children is all too apparent. But as the days pass she grows more at ease with her work, and clearly even starts to enjoy it.

And she grows closer to Edith, despite their differences. Edith wears Western dresses rather than saris, applies face powder and lipstick, and is boldly willing to negotiate with Mr. Mukerjee on behalf of the five-woman sales force. There's even a suggestion that she's having premarital sex with her fiancé. In a key scene, Edith and Arati meet in the employee restroom after receiving their first pay packets. Arati gazes in wonder and delight at the crisp new bills; Edith (whom Mr. Mukerjee calls "firingee," or "foreigner") has gotten crumpled and dirty old ones. Arati insists on trading half of her notes with Edith's; Edith returns the favor by giving Arati a tube of lipstick and showing her how to wear it.

Edith offers lipstick to Arati

After telling Arati that lipstick is mentioned in the Kama Sutra, Edith says that "It's good for business." Exchanges of all sorts are taking place in this scene.

Arati comes home with the lipstick hidden in her purse and an armful of gifts for her family. The gifts are received with delight by the children, wariness by Subrata, and outright rejection by his father, who tells Arati,

Don't ask me to share in your happiness

Subrata isn't sure he likes the changes he sees in Arati. When she tells him, "You wouldn't recognize me at work," he responds, "Would I recognize you at home?" Although she attempts to reassure him that "I'm still the same housewife," Subrata knows that she, and the household, will never be the same again.

To Arati's dismay, Subrata insists that she quit her job. But just as she's on the point of doing so, his bank fails and he's thrown out of work. On the spur of the moment Arati negotiates a substantial raise from Mr. Mukerjee (who, it's clear, likes her and values her conscientiousness).

This sudden turn of events makes Subrata feel even more insecure, resentful and jealous, while Arati is blossoming as she discovers her own resourcefulness and inner strength. The stage is set for a crisis between the old patriarchal values Subrata has inherited and the new reality of Arati's self-realization.

Mahanagar's final scene is perhaps unrealistically hopeful. My initial response was that it had seemed as though the movie was heading towards a different, and much darker, ending. But on re-viewing the film, it became more clear how the couple's emotional dynamic has been altered by Arati's newfound confidence. The film's conclusion suggests that Arati's new role has enabled not only her, but also Subrata, to grow and change. Mahanagar is another of Ray's masterpieces, and (as my own experience shows) rewards multiple viewings.


The Criterion Collection's 2013 DVD reissue does full justice to the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Subrata Mitra; extras include an interview with Madhabi Mukherjee about the filming of Mahanagar, and a second disc containing Ray's 70-minute feature The Coward (1965), with Madhabi Mukherjee, Soumitra Chatterjee and Haradhan Bannerjee

Next time: The enigma of others: Kapurush (The Coward)

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The 100 greatest British novels

The authors of seven of the ten greatest British novels. Clockwise from top left:
George Eliot (#1), Virginia Woolf (#2, #3), Charlotte Bronte (#5) and Charles Dickens (#4, #6, #8)

Another year, another "100 best novels" list. The BBC's "100 greatest British novels" derives from a poll of 82 book critics "from Australia to Zimbabwe," but, interestingly, excluding the UK. (Of course, Australia, Zimbabwe, and many other countries from which the participating critics are drawn are former British colonies.)

Jane Ciabattari writes for BBC Culture, "This list includes no nonfiction, no plays, no narrative or epic poems (no Paradise Lost or Beowulf), no short story collections (no Morte D’Arthur) — novels only, by British authors (which means no James Joyce)."

Or Oscar Wilde, or Bram Stoker. My Irish history is a little shaky, but wasn't Ireland still a part of the UK when The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dracula, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man were first published (in 1890, 1897, and 1916, respectively)? Just to be inconsistent, Laurence Sterne, born in County Tipperary in 1713, and Jonathan Swift, born in Dublin in 1667, are included, although the Act of Union creating the UK wasn't passed until 1800.

Oh—and is Le Morte D'Arthur really thought of as a collection of short stories?

In any case, there are some striking differences between this list and those published by the Guardian/Observer and the Telegraph, which I wrote about previously in "100 novels". One major contrast is that both of the previous lists included novels originally published outside of Britain, and in languages other than English.

Another key difference is that the BBC poll does not limit entries to a single novel by a given author. As a result, there are two novels by Virginia Woolf and three novels by Charles Dickens in the BBC poll's top ten (in fact, Woolf has two of the top three novels). Both authors have four entries overall; Jane Austen matches their popularity with four titles (Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey don't make the cut), but, surprisingly, none of Austen's books break into in the top ten. Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland comes in at #40 (the Guardian has it at #24 while the Telegraph places it at #78), but the sequel Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There is not on the BBC list (or on either of the others).

The Alice example points up the many discrepancies across the different lists in the placement of authors and novels (of course, the very idea of ranking novels against one another is absurd, but never mind):
  • Middlemarch is ranked #1 on both the Telegraph and BBC lists, but astonishingly it doesn't appear at all on the Guardian list of the "greatest novels of all time," where the sole Eliot slot is taken by Daniel Deronda at #28.  
  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a robust #26 on the BBC poll, a middling #64 on the Guardian list, and #100 on the Telegraph list (the Telegraph adds major insult to minor injury by misspelling Tolkien's last name). 
  • Ian McEwan's Atonement is a grossly overrated #15 on the BBC poll, #30 on the Telegraph list, and barely squeaks onto the Guardian list at #97. 
  • P.G. Wodehouse's Code of the Woosters is #15 on the Telegraph list, is clinging by its fingertips to #100 on the BBC poll, and has dropped off the Guardian list entirely.
So as I did before, I thought I would tally the novels that appear on all three lists. I've ordered them by the highest place they achieved in any of the three polls (in bold), with ties ordered alphabetically by author. You might expect the closest agreement between the Telegraph and Guardian lists, because they both include non-British authors, and, for the same reason, that the BBC poll would generally rank the same novels higher. Neither pattern, though, is seen—the placement is all over the map:

AuthorTitle  Telegraph  Guardian        BBC
Daniel DefoeRobinson Crusoe#12#3#27
Virginia WoolfMrs. Dalloway#9#46#3
Charlotte BronteJane Eyre#7#18#5
Henry FieldingTom Jones#28#5#22
Samuel Richardson  Clarissa#33#6#14
Emily BronteWuthering Heights#14#17#7
Laurence SterneTristram Shandy#20#7#47
Charles DickensDavid Copperfield#13#16#8
Mary ShelleyFrankenstein#27#10#9
George Orwell1984#21#59#12
Ian McEwanAtonement#30#97#15
Evelyn WaughScoop#18#54#84
E. M. ForsterA Passage to India#22#47#50
Lewis CarrollAlice's Adventures in Wonderland#78#24#40
J. R. R. TolkienThe Lord of the Rings#100#64#26
Kingsley AmisLucky Jim#35#65#48
Muriel SparkThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie#46#72#63

Are these really the consensus 17 best novels by British writers? Could the contributors to these lists really not agree that Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, Wives and Daughters, and Barchester Towers belong on all of them?

Here are a dozen British authors ("British" if they were born in the UK), ordered alphabetically, who did not make the BBC's "100 greatest novels" list, but probably should have:

Anne BronteAgnes Grey
Fanny BurneyCecilia
Angela CarterThe Magic Toyshop
Arthur Conan Doyle  The Hound of the Baskervilles
Daphne du MaurierRebecca
Elizabeth GaskellWives and Daughters
James JoyceUlysses
James KelmanHow Late It Was, How Late
Charlotte LennoxThe Female Quixote
Flann O’BrienThe Third Policeman
Bram StokerDracula
Oscar WildeThe Picture of Dorian Gray

I've mentioned several of these before (some on the occasion of their exclusion from other lists), but I'm happy to have another opportunity to recommend them; please click on the title links for my (sometimes extensive) comments.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Favorites of 2015: Hollywood and other movies

Charles Ruggles and Jeanette MacDonald in One Hour With You (1932),
one of my favorite Pre-Code Hollywood movies of 2015 (see below)
Contemporary Hollywood

For us 2015 was the year of the classic films of Ernst Lubitsch and Pre-Code Hollywood, and so only one contemporary Hollywood film managed to squeeze onto our list of favorites:

Inside Out poster

Inside Out (2015; story by Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen, directed by Docter)

Inside Out takes us inside the head of 11-year-old Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), where we meet her emotions: Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Anger (voiced by Lewis Black), Disgust (voiced by Mindy Kahling), Fear (voiced by Bill Hader), and Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith). Joy is the clear leader of the group—until Riley's parents decide to move from Minnesota to San Francisco (they must be multi-millionaires). Things begin to go wrong: their belongings don't arrive, Riley cries in front of the class at her new school, and she slips and falls during a tryout for a hockey team. Sadness starts wreaking havoc, and Joy—in the company of Riley's almost-forgotten imaginary playmate, Bing Bong (voiced by Richard Kind)—must delve deep into Riley's mind to recover her happy core memories before it's too late. Of course, this leaves the other emotions in control...

The personification of Riley's emotions is a very clever conceit, even if on reflection there seem to be a few missing: Love, for example, and Envy.* But the film works so well thanks to its moving story (despite triggering a cascade of disasters, Sadness, it turns out, has an essential role to play) and the excellent performances of its vocal cast, especially Poehler and Smith.

The concept also has a built-in potential for sequels. I foresee Inside High-School Riley, Riley Tries to Pick an Undergraduate Major, Riley Works Crappy Jobs While Dating Undeserving Men, and Riley Finally Appreciates What Her Parents Went Through. Genius.

Pre-Code Hollywood

Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, and Miriam Hopkins in Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Trouble in Paradise (1932; written by Ernst Lubitsch and Samson Raphaelson, directed by Lubitsch)

I wrote in "The Lubitsch Touch": "When people speak of the 'Lubitsch Touch,' this is the kind of film they have in mind. Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins portray expert thieves masquerading as aristocrats, who find each other's duplicity romantically and professionally irresistible. Kay Francis plays a French parfumier who is their intended next victim, until Marshall discovers that she's already being her accountant. His chivalrous feelings soon begin to develop into something more; can he steal from a woman he loves? Charles Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton provide their usually brilliant comic support. Lubitsch himself later wrote that 'As for pure style, I think I have done nothing better or as good as Trouble in Paradise.' It's tempting to agree with him; this is one of the greatest classic Hollywood comedies."

One Hour With You (1932; written by Samson Raphaelson, directed by Ernst Lubitsch):

Maurice Chevalier (yes, and he's charming) is a Parisian doctor, Andre, and Jeanette MacDonald (yes, and she displays an unsuspected comic flair) is his wife Colette. Their marriage is happy until Colette's married friend Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin) makes a play for Andre, who, despite his passionate love for Colette, is sorely tempted:

The couple's predatory friend Adolph (Charles Ruggles) decides that he will take this opportunity to offer consolation to the unhappy Colette. In her hurt and anger she seems willing to entertain his suggestion...but has Andre actually been unfaithful after all?

As I wrote in "The Lubitsch Touch": "One Hour With You plays up its own theatricality, as characters directly address the camera and sometimes speak, as well as sing, in rhyme. I think it's the best of Lubitsch's Pre-Code musicals, in part because there are real emotional dilemmas at its heart."

Baby Face poster

Baby Face (1933, screenplay by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola, directed by Alfred E. Green)

In the notorious Baby Face, a hard-bitten Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way from the street-level personnel office of the Gotham Trust Bank floor by floor to the penthouse apartment of its president, George Brent. In a famous series of tracking shots, the camera actually follows her progress up the side of the building. (Among her early stepping-stones is a young John Wayne; also notable is Stanwyck's loyalty to and friendship with her black maid Theresa Harris.)

It's mind-boggling that in any era Hollywood could produce a movie with a heroine this amoral. And throughout it all, we are pulling for Stanwyck to get what she wants. Just ignore the obviously tacked-on ending intended to placate the censors. (If you'd like to see movies in which the heroine doesn't end up either punished with death, or as a loyal, monogamous wife, see Design for Living, Red-Headed Woman, or Too Many Husbands.)


Sebastião Salgado in The Salt of the Earth
The Salt of the Earth (2014; directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado)

Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado spent much of his life travelling around the world seeking out places where people faced man-made disasters: forced migration, famine, brutal working conditions, burning oil fields, civil war. The very first photograph we see in The Salt of the Earth is at first hard to comprehend, but gradually resolves into an image of thousands of Brazilian gold miners in a huge open pit at the Serra Pelada mine. In an utterly blasted landscape, hundreds of mud-coated miners are carrying ore on their backs up rickety wooden ladders to the top of the pit. It's a hellish scene, the first of many shown in the film, which displays dozens of examples of Salgado's work. His photographs are gorgeous, mind-boggling, and horrifying—often all at the same time. A warning: some of the images are very disturbing, particularly those he took in the Congo and Rwanda during the mass slaughter of the mid-1990s.

The documentary either doesn't address, or addresses only glancingly, some key issues raised by Salgado's life and photographs. First is that his son Juliano hardly saw his father while he was growing up, because of Sebastião's constant travel; he only gets to know him as an adult by joining him on his photography excursions. The second is the moral position of the photographer who records mass-scale human misery while standing apart from it as an observer. The third is the aestheticization of horror: Salgado's black-and-white photographs are stunning, even when they portray almost unimaginably terrible subjects. And finally, although Salgado himself comes to despair of humanity's future, the film ends on a note of hope that I think isn't really justified (although I was grateful for a break from disaster).

But if the film is at times too careful, or too utopian, or entirely silent in its approach to these issues, Salgado's photographs themselves are unforgettable.

Finding Vivian Maier (2013; directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel)

Vivian Maier photograph
A Vivian Maier photograph (detail)
At a storage space auction in 2007, John Maloof bid on some boxes of photographic negatives and prints. When Maloof began to examine the photographs more closely, he was immediately struck by the way that they combined the immediacy and spontaneity of street photography with the careful framing and close attention to contrasts of light and shade of art photography. He began to scan and post the images to his Flickr account and blog.

As Maloof eventually discovered, the pictures had been taken by an eccentric Chicago nanny named Vivian Maier who (as it turned out later) died in 2009. Maier had lived in the area for decades, and over the years had taken hundreds of thousands of photographs on her daily walks with the children in her care. Finding Vivian Maier tells the fascinating and wildly improbable story of Maloof's discovery of her work, his attempts to trace her history, and her posthumous rise to fame. And it is filled with Maier's striking and sometimes unsettling photographs. See it while you can; an (in my view baseless) copyright lawsuit is proceeding which may determine whether Maloof is able to continue to make Maier's work available.

Other Favorites of 2015:
Opera and other music
Classic and contemporary Bollywood

* The emotional typology used in the film was developed by Paul Ekman, who believes that emotions are fleeting and thus love is not an emotion.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Favorites of 2015: Bollywood

Meena Kumari in Dil Apna aur Preet Parai, my favorite classic Bollywood movie of 2015 (see below)
Contemporary Bollywood

Although I've seen well over 300 Indian films, 2015 was the year I saw my first Indian film in a theater. It wasn't because I couldn't be bothered to get off my couch: before this year, theatrical showings of Indian films in this area were almost entirely confined to the South and East Bay, where there are large NRI communities. So showings of first-run Indian films in theaters that don't require us to make lengthy round trips are a very welcome development.

My first experience was pretty fun, even though the movie, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, wasn't great (see "The sequel most in need of a sequel" below). The audience laughed uproariously in surprising places; clearly, my dependence on subtitles meant that I was missing out on a lot of the cultural context of the characters, situations and dialogue. It was a good reminder that my experience as a non-Indian, non-Hindi-speaking viewer of Bollywood must necessarily be partial.

Our nearby theaters are still very inconsistent about what Indian films they offer and how they are shown. The Shahid Kapoor-Alia Bhatt film Shaandaar (Fabulous), for example, despite being produced by Karan Johar's Dharma Productions and distributed by Fox, was not shown locally. And when my partner and I tried to see Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (A treasure called Prem (Love)) one Sunday, we discovered that the only showing for the next three hours was in XD and cost $16 (Rs 1100) per ticket. Alas, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo remains unseen by this household.

So the erratic availability of Indian films in theaters and on DVD rental services like Netflix means that my viewing tends to lag film release dates by six months or more. (Yes, we'll clearly have to move to streaming, but we haven't yet.) As a result my favorite film of 2015 was actually released in 2014.

Favorite film: Queen (starring Kangana Ranaut, Lisa Haydon, and Rajkummar Rao; story and direction by Vikas Bahl)

On the day before her wedding—almost literally while the henna is drying on her hands—the shy, sheltered Rani ("Queen" in Hindi) is abruptly dumped by her London-returned fiancé Vijay (Rajkummar Rao). Rani decides to go on her honeymoon trip to Paris and Amsterdam by herself; adventures—some heartwarming, some cringe-worthy—and self-discovery ensue. Including Rani's first intoxicating, regret-inducing encounter with alcohol, in the company of free spirit Vijayalakshmi (Lisa Haydon):

Kangana Ranaut gives a highly believable performance as an ordinary young woman tentatively beginning to discover her inner strength and resourcefulness. She's the main reason to see this modest and likable film.

Read the full post: Queen

Honorable mention: PK (starring Aamir Khan, Anushka Sharma, and Sushant Singh Rajput; written by Abhijat Joshi and Rajkumar Hirani, and directed by Hirani)

PK involves two interlinked stories. The first is that of PK (Aamir Khan), an alien who has been sent to Earth to understand human culture. No sooner has he landed, though, than he's stranded: the device he needs to signal his ship gets stolen (lesson #1 in human culture). Through trial and error—mainly error—he begins to figure out our confusing and contradictory conventions about clothes, money, gender roles, and communication. When everyone tells him to seek God's help, he goes in search of Him/Her—but at every house of God he encounters only humans, with all our selfishness, greed, gullibility, fear, and anger.

The second story is that of Jaggu (Anushka Sharma), a young Hindi woman who is studying in Bruges. There she meets Sarfaraz (Sushant Singh Rajput), a Pakistani Muslim, and falls in love. Pressured by her family, Jaggu demands that Sarfaraz marry her the next day. But Sarfaraz doesn't show up at the church, and Jaggu, heartbroken, returns to Dehli. There she becomes a reporter for a local TV station, where she encounters PK and aids him in his quest to recover his device. As they spend time together, PK begins to experience some unfamiliar feelings:

Towards the end of the movie certain implausibilities in the plot—and no, I don't mean a character who is an alien—become apparent. And the pluralistic message of the film gets stated a bit too bluntly—and no, the irony that a film that questions religious divisions does so by getting preachy did not escape me. But in the main PK is charming, and so is Aamir Khan's deadpan, wide-eyed embodiment of the naïve and good-hearted title character.

The sequel most in need of a sequel: Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015, starring Kangana Ranaut, Kangana Ranaut, R. Madhavan, the largely wasted Jimmy Shergill, and Deepak Dobriyal; written by Himanshu Sharma and directed by Anand L. Rai)

At one point in Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Manu's friend Pappi tells him, "You're repeating a mistake!"

Indeed. In the original movie, Tanu Weds Manu (2011), NRI doctor Manu (Madhavan) returns to India to look for a bride and encounters the free-spirited Tanu (Kangana Ranaut), who already has a boyfriend: street thug Raja (Jimmy Shergill). As I wrote in my post "Who cares if Tanu weds Manu?":  "It's possible to understand why the quiet, dutiful Manu might be attracted to the vivacious Tanu: she embodies freedoms that he has never allowed himself. But Himanshu Sharma's script doesn't show us enough of what might attract Tanu to Manu, or give us any long-term hope for this couple. I found myself thinking 'This is such a bad idea' throughout the final Tanu-Manu wedding scene—not exactly the note on which you want to end a romantic comedy."

The sequel takes place four years after the events in the first movie, and the couple have discovered for themselves what should have been apparent before their marriage: they have nothing in common. They divorce, and before you can say "rebound" Manu meets Kusum (Ranaut in a double role), a college student who bears a striking resemblance to Tanu.

After stalking courting Kusum, Manu proposes. There's only one impediment: Kusum is already Tanu's old boyfriend Raja. So when Tanu and Raja crash Kusum and Manu's wedding, the stage is set for a showdown:

Only, we don't want either Tanu or Kusum to wind up with Manu, who needs to take a long look at himself before he'll deserve to be with anyone. Once again, the thought "This is such a bad idea" was inescapable during the final scene. I can only hope that there will be a sequel to the sequel. Perhaps after two tries writer Sharma will finally figure out the couple that clearly belongs together at the end.

Read the full post: "Repeating a mistake": Tanu Weds Manu Returns

Classic Bollywood

Favorite film: Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (Hopeless love, 1960, starring Meena Kumari, Raaj Kumar, Nadira, and Pratima Devi; written by Madhusudan and Kishore Sahu, gorgeously photographed by Josef Wirsching and directed by Sahu)

In Dil Apna aur Preet Parai Meena Kumari is Karuna, a young nurse in her first hospital assignment. Karuna's commitment, competence and compassion soon endear her to even the most cantankerous patients—and to the dedicated young Dr. Sushil Verma (Raaj Kumar). Long hours together caring for patients and sharing late-night coffee breaks soon lead to feelings of more than professional admiration.

But Sushil's mother (Pratima Devi) has already promised him in marriage to Kusum (Nadira), the daughter of wealthy family friend. In the melancholy "Dil Apna aur Preet Parai," as celebratory Diwali fireworks explode all around her, Karuna decides that she must keep her feelings for Sushil forever unexpressed:

While the film's final scenes—a battle for Sushil between the good woman dressed in white and the bad woman dressed in black—veer over the melodramatic edge, Meena Kumari's subtle and heartrending performance as Karuna is unforgettable.

Read the full post: The suffering woman: Meena Kumari

Other Favorites of 2015:
Opera and other music
Hollywood and other movies

Friday, December 4, 2015

Favorites of 2015: Books

"She leant her cheek against the back of a chair, and gave way to the anguish
which mocked control." Illustration from Susan Ferrier's Marriage by Nelly Erichsen (1894)

For me 2015 was the year of Samuel Richardson and Susan Ferrier. Richardson seemed unavoidable after my immersion last year in the writings of precursors of Jane Austen such as Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Inchbald and Maria Edgeworth. He was hugely influential in the late 18th and early 19th century, particularly among women writers. His novels served as models in both form (Burney and Austen wrote epistolary fiction) and content (novels by Burney, Inchbald, Edgeworth and Austen contain echoes of Richardson's plots and characters).

So to understand a bit more about Burney and Austen in particular, I undertook to read one of the longest novels in English, Clarissa, on a smartphone during my commute; and then I read Pamela, and have now just begun Sir Charles Grandison (which is even longer than Clarissa). But…I can't say that any of Richardson's novels have quite claimed a place on my favorites list. While Clarissa and Lovelace, Pamela and Mr. B, Harriet and Pollexfen are memorable characters, the novels in which they appear are extremely long and proceed at a very deliberate pace.

This isn't just my TV- and Internet-conditioned brain talking, either: Samuel Johnson, a contemporary of Richardson's, thought so too. He famously said that "if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself." [1]

To avoid carnage among my readership, my list of favorite books from 2015 will include only those that I can recommend less reservedly. Fortunately, this was also the year I encountered Susan Ferrier for the first time. Her first novel, Marriage, was the most enjoyable novel I read this year, and her later Inheritance and Destiny weren't far behind.

Anne Brontë: Agnes Grey

Anne is the comparatively unread Brontë sister, but her neglect is hard to fathom. While she's not as polished a writer as Charlotte or Emily, and while her heroines may not be quite as compelling as Jane Eyre or Lucy Snowe (Villette), she is still very much worth reading.

Agnes Grey is based on Anne's experiences as a governess in two families. If the fictional counterparts of the families are anything like their real-life models, life as a governess must have been a torture for the sensitive Anne. Agnes, like all governesses, is in an odd, in-between position: socially and economically inferior to her employers, who often reat her as though she is not there, she must also remain aloof from the servants, who are her social inferiors. And she seeks allies in vain among the children in her charge; they try to frustrate her at every turn.

As her sister Charlotte later reported, "[Anne] said that none but those who had been in the position of a governess could ever realise the dark side of 'respectable' human nature; under no great temptation to crime, but daily giving way to selfishness and ill-temper, till its conduct towards those dependent on it sometimes amounts to a tyranny of which one would rather be the victim than the inflicter." [2]

Read the full post: The other Brontë sister: Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

George Gissing: New Grub Street

Like Anne Bronte, George Gissing drew directly on his own experiences in writing New Grub Street. Perhaps that's why its descriptions of poverty, literary struggle, and incompatible marriage are so agonizingly vivid. The novel is split between two mismatched couples. Jasper Milvain, a shallow and facile writer who is keenly aware of what will advance his literary career, has impulsively promised to marry the smart, sincere Marian Yule; Marian is led to believe that he returns her love. Meanwhile, Edwin Reardon, who can only write in those (rare) moments when he is imaginatively inspired, marries Marian's beautiful cousin Amy; she mistakenly thinks Edwin's recent fluke success marks him as a rising young author. Over the course of the novel, Marian, Edwin and Amy will all be bitterly disillusioned. The cynical and calculating Jasper, of course, has few illusions to shatter.

As I wrote in my post on Gissing's novel, "In its candidness about the connection between money and desire, New Grub Street was daring in its day; it remains compelling in ours."

Read the full post: Money and sex: New Grub Street

Susan Ferrier: Marriage

Ferrier is a writer I'd never heard of before happening across Marriage on a bargain cart at a used book store a few months ago. But she shares many of the virtues of her near-contemporary, Jane Austen: dry wit, vivid characters, and sympathetic young heroines negotiating the perilous marriage market. Ferrier not only shares Austen's virtues, she also borrows and reworks some of her characters and plots.

In Marriage, rather than marry a man she doesn't care for, the young, beautiful but heedless Lady Juliana elopes with her penniless lover Henry Douglas. Quickly disillusioned, they soon separate, but not before Lady Juliana gives birth to twin daughters, Adelaide and Mary. Adelaide grows to young adulthood in London under her mother's influence; she is beautiful, but selfish and vacant. The unwanted Mary is left with Henry's brother and his wife in Scotland, where she is taught by precept and example to be kind, thoughtful, selfless and devout.

Adelaide faces the same fateful choice as her mother: marriage to a handsome but impoverished lover, or to an elderly, dull, but fabulously wealthy duke. Will she repeat her mother's mistake, or make her own? Meanwhile, Mary falls in love with Colonel Lennox, a gentleman of small fortune, but her mother strenuously opposes her choice. Will Mary be able to find happiness with the man she loves?

Read the full post: The Scottish Jane Austen: Susan Ferrier


Richard Thaler: Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics (Norton, 2015)

As a graduate student Richard Thaler began to compile what he called "The List": discrepancies he'd noted between the predictions of economic theory and the choices people actually make. Those discrepancies profoundly violated the principles of traditional economics—and, crucially, did so in ways that weren't attributable to random error

In order to explain how economic models had failed to predict actual economic outcomes, Thaler, together with a handful of colleagues, wound up creating the field of behavioral economics. Behavioral economics tries to take our observable behavior into account, instead of treating us like the super-rational, utility-maximizing, optimal-choice-making agents of traditional economic theory. This isn't just an academic question: understanding the economic choices we make can have profound real-world effects on our well-being and happiness.

As I wrote in my post on Thaler's excellent book, "Misbehaving is an entertaining way to increase your awareness of how, and how easily, we can be manipulated. And with that knowledge, perhaps, we can try to make our choices—political, social, and economic—more conscious ones."

Read the full post: Misbehaving: Richard Thaler and behavioral economics

Michael Rose: The Birth of an Opera: Fifteen Masterpieces from Poppea to Wozzeck (Norton, 2013)

Great works of art can seem inevitable. And the more familiar they are, the harder it is to imagine that they might have turned out differently—or never been created at all.

Michael Rose's The Birth of an Opera helps restore a sense of contingency and even danger to the creation of fifteen operas—as the subtitle has it, from Claudio Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea (1642) to Alban Berg's Wozzeck (1925). (Although if the works were placed in strict chronological order by first performance, the final opera in the book would have been Giacomo Puccini's Turandot (1926)). Rose makes judicious selections from the letters, diaries, memoirs, and other first-hand accounts written by those involved, and weaves them into compelling tales about the joys and difficulties of creating opera—the most complex art form of all.

His approach limits him to operas for which there is an extensive documentary record, but given that constraint Rose chooses works that are both historically significant and inherently interesting. Those operas include Gluck's Alceste (1767), Mozart's Idomeneo (1781) and Le nozze di Figaro (1786), Berlioz's Les Troyens (1863), Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (1865), Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin (1879), and Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (1893). There are, of course, gaps. There are no operas by composers in the 125 years between Monteverdi and Gluck, meaning no Cavalli, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Purcell or Handel (perhaps because of a lack of letters or memoirs written by these composers). There are also no operas from the mid-19th century by Donizetti or Bellini (which is fine by me) or from later in the century by Offenbach (a less happy omission; I would have thought that the creation of Les Contes d'Hoffmann would have made a compelling story. Perhaps that work is being saved for a future Volume 2, along with Der Rosenkavalier, La Bohème, Alcina, and Dido & Aeneas).

I have just a few minor hesitations about Rose's book. The first is that short French quotations are often not translated into English, although for other languages generally only a translation is given. Rose is British, and the book originated as a BBC Radio show. In writing for a British audience he can probably assume a certain familiarity with French. My junior high school French was generally sufficient, but for this ignorant American full translations would have been helpful.

The second hesitation has to do with Rose's treatment of the creation of Eugene Onegin, which is an amazing story of art imitating life imitating art. Tchaikovsky was famously contradictory about the timing of his decision to create an opera from Pushkin's poem. In early May 1877 he received an impassioned letter from Antonina Milyukova, one of his former students, declaring her love for him. Shortly afterwards Tchaikovsky attended a dinner party at which his hostess suggested Onegin as an opera subject. That very night, as he wrote in a letter to his brother a few days later, he rushed off to sketch out ideas for the letter scene. The letter scene is a key moment in Onegin in which the heroine, the gentle and vulnerable Tatyana, writes an impassioned letter to Onegin declaring her love.

So the evidence at the time the composition began clearly suggests that Antonina's rash action, no less compromising for her than for Tatyana, was one of the inspirations for Tchaikovsky's choice and treatment of Onegin. But years later Tchaikovsky wrote that Antonina's letter arrived after he had already begun working on the opera. Perhaps after their unhappy marriage and permanent separation, Tchaikovsky was unwilling to credit Antonina for her role in inspiring the Onegin theme. Rose, though, doesn't attempt to reconcile Tchaikovsky's contradictory accounts, and curiously seems to accept the later one rather than the one written at the time. It's a rare lapse in his careful use of historical sources.

But my minor hesitations aside, my main complaint is that the book isn't long enough. We can only hope that Rose really is preparing a Volume 2.

Other Favorites of 2015:
Opera and other music
Classic and contemporary Bollywood
Hollywood and other movies


1. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 480.
2. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Ch. VIII

Friday, November 27, 2015

Favorites of 2015: Opera and other music

Janet Cardiff, The Forty-Part Motet, SFMOMA at Fort Mason Center (Photo: SFMOMA)
It's time once again for my post-Thanksgiving roundup of favorite music, books, movies and television shows first encountered (although not necessarily first released) over the past year.

Live performances

The Forty-Part Motet, a sound installation by Janet Cardiff of Thomas Tallis's "Spem in alium," performed by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, SFMOMA at Fort Mason Center; seen November 12.

It's a bit of a stretch to call this a live performance, but I think it belongs in this category because it's experienced in public in the presence of others. Cardiff's installation involves 40 speakers placed in a circular array in a large, nearly empty room. The speakers play, on a continuous loop, a recorded performance of Tallis's motet, with one vocal part per speaker. The distribution of the speakers in eight groups of five highlights the work's contrapuntal and antiphonal qualities.

When I first heard about it, I thought Cardiff's idea wasn't particularly transformative; in 1999, for example, we saw the SF Bach Choir under the direction of David P. Babbitt perform Tallis's motet with the choir surrounding the audience, precisely to enhance the spatial aspects of the music. The chief difference from a live performance is that at Cardiff's installation you can walk around the speakers to hear different groupings of vocalists at different times, stand by one speaker to hear one part emphasized, or sit in the center and let the massive sound wash over you. So while Cardiff's conception is not especially original, the actual experience of the piece is both meditative and exhilarating. "The Forty Part Motet" can be visited for free at Fort Mason's Gallery 308 in Building A until January 18, 2016; if you will be in the Bay Area between now and then, I strongly recommend that you not miss it.

Even in mere stereo, "Spem in alium" is overwhelming. This is my favorite recording, by the Huelgas Ensemble, Paul Van Nevel, director, from the album Utopia Triumphans:

Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens (The Trojans, 1858), SF Opera, seen June 7.

Susan Graham (Didon) and Bryan Hymel (Enée) in Les Troyens (Photo: Weaver/SF Opera)
In my post on Les Troyens I wrote that the production, the first at SF Opera in nearly half a century, was "superbly sung" by Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre, Bryan Hymel as Enée, and Susan Graham as Didon. "Highlights included every moment the fierce Antonacci was onstage, Enée's anguished realization that he must betray Didon, 'Intuile regrets' (Futile regrets), and Didon's final lament, 'Je vais mourir' (I am going to die). The exquisite love duet between Enée and Didon, 'Nuit d'ivresse,' simply stopped time." The previous post includes performances of "Nuit d'vresse" and "Je vais mourir."

The Monteverdi Trilogy, Boston Early Music Festival, seen June 12-14.

David Hansen (Nerone) and Amanda Forsythe (Poppea) in L'Incoronazione di Poppea (Photo: BEMF)
At the Boston Early Music Festival we saw the staging of all of Monteverdi's extant operas: L'Orfeo, (Orpheus, 1607), Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria (The return of Ulysses to his homeland, 1640), and L'incoronazione di Poppea (The coronation of Poppea, 1642). The musical and vocal performances were exceptional, and the stagings ranged from good (Orfeo, Ulisse) to excellent (Poppea); for details, including the names of the wonderful BEMF singers and music from each opera, please see my original posts. It was a privilege to be able to see these three masterpieces performed on successive days.

W. A. Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), SF Opera, seen July 5.

Nadine Sierra (the Countess) in Le nozze di Figaro (Photo: SF Opera)
In the original post on this production I wrote that "despite the miscommunication between pit and stage and the directorial and design misjudgments, this Figaro was rescued by its brilliant young cast," which included rising baritone Philippe Sly as the wily Figaro, Lisette Oropesa as his spirited fiancée Susanna, Luca Pisaroni as the lustful Count, Nadine Sierra as his long-suffering Countess, and Angela Brower as the love-struck page Cherubino. "Ultimately this production mirrored Figaro's schemes to thwart the Count: constantly threatening to slip into disaster, but in the end, a triumph." For a video of the great Lucia Popp singing Susanna's lovely aria "Deh vieni," please see my guide to Le Nozze di Figaro.

Marin Marais, Sémélé (1709), American Bach Soloists and Academy, seen August 14.

Rebecca Myers Hoke (Sémélé) and Sara LeMesh (Junon) in Sémélé (Photo: Gas Lamp Productions)
This "splendid performance" of Marais' long-neglected opera was especially notable for its rich score (which contains a vivid earthquake scene); in my original post on Sémélé I wrote that "the 30-strong American Bach Choir and the 50-odd members of the ABS Academy Orchestra created a huge and beautifully intricate sound in the relatively intimate confines of the San Francisco Conservatory's Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall. The vocal soloists, all drawn from Academy participants, were uniformly excellent; special mention should be made of Rebecca Myers Hoke as Sémélé, Sara LeMesh as Junon, and Christopher Besch as Jupiter, who handled their virtuosic roles beautifully."


Agostino Steffani: Niobe, Regina di Tebe. Karina Gauvin, Philippe Jaroussky, and other vocal soloists. Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors; Erato.

The spectacular operatic centerpiece of the 2011 Boston Early Music Festival has been issued in a beautifully produced CD box. While I had my reservations about the dramatic and theatrical dimensions of Steffani's opera, the music—especially for Jaroussky's Anfione—is frequently gorgeous. Gauvin and Jaroussky are international stars, but there isn't a weak link in the cast. Secondary roles are taken by singers who frequently perform leading roles in other BEMF productions: Amanda Forsythe (2015's Poppea), Aaron Sheehan (2015's Orfeo), and Colin Balzer (2015's Ulisse). Niobe richly deserves the accolades it has already received, including the Diapason d'Or, the ECHO Klassik World Premiere Recording of the Year, and a Gramophone magazine Recording of the Month and nomination for a Baroque Vocal Award. Here is a sample of the music for Anfione taken from the 2011 staging:

Steffani, a composer from the generation before Handel, is unjustly overlooked, and with luck projects like this and like Cecilia Bartoli's Mission (one of my Favorites of 2012) will remedy this neglect.

Franco Fagioli: Porpora Il Maestro. Academia Montis Regalis, Alessandro de Marchi, conductor; Naïve.

This is the second recital disc by Fagioli to make my annual list; in my Favorites of 2013 it was his Arias for Caffarelli. In the earlier post I compared his voice to "an Islay single malt scotch for its smoky, dusky quality in the lower range," a comparison that still holds. And like Islay scotch, Fagioli's voice won't be to everyone's taste. Here is a sample: "Alto Giove," from the opera Polifemo:

For us, Fagioli's recordings are compelling because of his remarkable voice, his unusual selection of repertory, and his astute choice of collaborators.

Nathalie Stutzmann: Handel: Heroes from the Shadows. Philippe Jaroussky, guest artist. Orfeo 55, Nathalie Stutzmann, conductor; Erato.

On Heroes from the Shadows Stutzmann offers a range of Handel's arias for alto and mezzo-soprano, many of which are for male characters. Handel frequently cast women in male roles—"inventing the so-called 'trouser role,'" as I wrote in my guide to his great opera Alcina, "a convention that went on to be used by Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, Offenbach, and both Johann and Richard Strauss." This album is included not for the uptempo arias of rage or vengeance, which do not always display Stutzmann's voice to best advantage, but for the arias of longing, sorrow, and loss, which are powerful and deeply moving. Here is part of "Son nata a lagrimar" (I was born to weep), a duet  between the just-widowed Cornelia (Stutzmann) and her bereaved son Sesto (Jaroussky), from Giulio Cesare:

Interestingly, while in most of the arias on this recording Stutzmann is singing male roles written for women, in this aria it is the male countertenor Jaroussky who is doing so: Sesto was originally written for soprano Margherita Durastanti. Heroes from the Shadows is not only full of wonderful music, it raises questions about our gendered expectations about vocal types and leading roles—questions also explored this year by mezzo-soprano Alice Coote in her thoughtful article "My Life As A Man" (The Guardian, 13 May 2015). 

Dagmar Krause: Supply and Demand: Songs by Brecht/Weill & Eisler; Hannibal.

This album was initially issued in the mid-1980s and contained English-language versions of songs composed in the 1920s and 30s by Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht. I bought this on vinyl when it came out, and thought it was great. What I didn't realize at the time was that there was an even better German-language version. Not that I speak German very fluently, but in her native consonant-rich language Krause can give these songs even more bite.

A dear friend sent me a copy of the CD re-release of Supply and Demand, which combines tracks from the two versions of the album, and I must confess that it's the German-language songs that I return to again and again. Here is the title song, "Song Von Der Ware (Angebot & Nachfrage) [Song of the Commodities: Supply and Demand]":

Supply and Demand's dark, bitter cabaret and theater music seems as fitting for our tumultuous times as for those in which it was written.

Other Favorites of 2015:
Classic and contemporary Bollywood
Hollywood and other movies

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Suggested reading: Stop the robot apocalypse

Another in the occasional series of my favorite recent articles, posts, etc. from around the web:

Metropolis (dir: Fritz Lang, 1927)
1. Stop the robot apocalypse

There's a branch of moral philosophy called "effective altruism." William MacAskill is one of its founders, and he's written a book called Doing Good Better (Gotham, 2015), recently reviewed by Amia Srinivasan in the London Review of Books (24 September 2015).

MacAskill's basic argument is that you can do more good in the world by becoming rich and philanthropic than by making (in his view) pointless self-sacrificing gestures like becoming a schoolteacher in the inner city, a doctor in rural Kenya, or a librarian anywhere.

His calculation depends on two main arguments. First, the idea of impact: the greatest good we can do for others is that which will make the biggest improvement in the lives of the largest number of people. Second, the replacement theory: if you don't become a teacher, someone else will, who will be almost as good at it as you are. But if you don't become an investment banker, someone else will, who may not use their wealth for as much good as you would. In other words, philanthropy—paying other people to do good on your behalf—is better than doing good yourself.

That's not the only strange conclusion these arguments lead to. Taking the replacement theory first, it would seem to justify doing harm in one's daily life, as long as you compensate with sufficient charitable giving. By this logic, in a disaster Bill Gates should trample the rest of us to death to escape (and we should let him) because his survival will have so much more of a charitable impact than ours. The comparison that occurs to me is carbon offsets: charitable giving is like a moral offset. And as with, say, donating to the Nature Conservancy because you drive a gas-guzzling carbon emitter, it can be difficult to determine whether the good done by the charitable gift actually outweighs the harm of the daily activity.

But the idea of impact gets really odd: if doing the greatest good means having the biggest impact on the lives of the largest number of people, then working on ameliorating or preventing future species-threatening catastrophes--a large asteroid impact, say--is more important than helping individuals who are alive right now. And the greatest existential threat to humanity, in the eyes of many people in the tech industry? Robot apocalypse.

A robot Björk in "All is full of love"
2. Superintelligence and human insignificance

In his recent book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (Oxford, 2014), NIck Bostrom speculates on a posthuman future in which superintelligent machines colonize the universe. Sure, superintelligent robots might enslave or destroy us, but in Bostrom's view they also might ensure the essential immortality of human consciousness.

But this scenario actually makes the effective altruism paradox worse. As Raffi Khatchadourian writes in the New Yorker,
Imagining one of his utopian scenarios—trillions of digital minds thriving across the cosmos—he reasons that, if there is even a one-per-cent chance of this happening, the expected value of reducing an existential threat by a billionth of a billionth of one per cent would be worth a hundred billion times the value of a billion present-day lives.
That's a lot of "billions," but the message is clear: the future, especially the remote future, is vastly more important than the present.

There are a few things to say about this idea. First, robots colonizing the universe is only a "utopian scenario" in the most hopeful view. Second, it looks to me like the probability of humans eliminating ourselves through environmental destruction, nuclear conflagration, or bioengineered plague is higher than the likelihood that we will create "trillions of digital minds thriving across the cosmos." Thirdly, before they become repositories for our consciousnesses, intelligent machines are likely to put us out of work, creating a mass unemployment crisis that may itself have catastrophic consequences. Finally, the "billionth of a billionth of one per cent" standard for action against an existential threat seems laughably low—I think you might reach it when you take out the recycling.

A local business and an adjacent apartment building catch fire Sunday morning
3. Kicked to the curb by altruism

So if present-day humans are insignificant, and if getting rich so that you can make larger effective charitable donations is an imperative, then it is only logical for those who own property to forcibly remove lower-income residents in order to raise real-estate values and increase their own wealth—a process I see happening all around me. (And in a nicely closed feedback loop, evictions create the need for more altruism, which creates the need for greater wealth, ad infinitum.)

As Neil Smith points out in The New Urban Frontier (Routledge, 1996), it is in the interest of those who own property to raise rents. In Alex Pareene's Bookforum review of DW Gibson's oral history of gentrification, The Edge Becomes the Center (Overlook Press, 2015)—a sequel of sorts to Smith's book—he writes that landlords and developers:
  • would rather leave a building empty than rent to the poor,
  • deliberately thin housing stock by converting multi-unit buildings into single-household dwellings,
  • destroy the earning power of middle-class renters by pushing city planning departments to rezone manufacturing areas as residential, because manufacturers put their capital into expanding their businesses rather than using it to raise the value of their real estate,
  • displace lower-income renters (you and me) in favor of the global rich who can pay what the market will bear—even as that increases radically from year to year.
More market-rate development doesn't redress these issues, it just creates more "ultraluxurious pieds-à-terre." Pareene writes,
The pro-development crowd also likes to remind us that “people don’t have the right to live wherever they want”—and that if certain of them can’t afford “hip” neighborhoods anymore, that hardly rises to the level of a tragedy worthy of government intervention. Of course, it’s always been the case in America that certain people have the right to live wherever they want—that’s the right that allowed the republic to stretch from sea to shining sea—but let’s concede the point. Once you’re there, though, and once you’ve established yourself in a community, it seems profoundly antithetical to any intelligible notion of liberty that you should be forced to leave merely because someone else shows up with a briefcase full of more cash than you can put together on short notice.


4. The inevitability of climate change

If combatting gentrification is almost impossible because it is in the interest of rich property owners and the city governments which regulate them, combatting increasing carbon emissions is almost impossible because they are in the interest of all of us—at least, in the short term. Increased carbon emissions directly correlate with economic growth, something that all nations seek to ensure. If the arguments of "effective altruism" lead to the radical discounting of the present in favor of the future, failure to act on carbon emissions radically discounts the future in favor of the present.

The United Nations climate change conference will take place in Paris in late November and early December, and many journalists are writing hopefully about its possible outcomes. Unlike most journalists, though, David Campbell has actually read the documents being submitted as a basis for a potential agreement at the conference. And as he writes in the LRB, the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change enshrined a distinction between developed and developing countries which will doom any attempt to reduce global carbon emissions for at least the next several decades.

Currently the major industrializing countries—including China and India—are classified as developing countries. And as a matter of "climate justice" (rather, economic justice), the burden of reducing emissions has been placed on developed countries. It is impossible to argue with the culpability of the developed world for getting us into this mess—and the US Congress has famously never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for developed nations to reduce their emissions. US emissions fell slightly between 2007 and 2012, but that was due to the Great Recession, and they have begun to climb again. And the per capita carbon emissions of the US are more than twice those of China, and about ten times those of India.

However, China is now the largest absolute carbon emitter by a factor of nearly two. (The US is in second place, followed by India, Russia, and Japan.) China has submitted to the conference its 'Intended Nationally Determined Contributions' (INDC) document, which declares that it will continue to increase its annual emissions until at least 2030. India's INDC does not even mention a future target year for peak emissions.

India's Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar, said in a recent interview:
We are asking the developed world to vacate the carbon space to accommodate us. That carbon space demand is climate justice. It’s our right as a nation. It’s our right as people of India, and we want that carbon space.
Only, there is no "carbon space." In 2013, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time since about 15 million years ago, when seas were at least 80 feet higher than they are now. We are in uncharted territory.

I must not procrastinate

5. Procrastination

With individuals, as with nations, the ultimate consequences of procrastination tend to get worse with passing time. So why are most of us still prone to put off necessary action? Forget working to prevent climate change or robot apocalypse—I can't even clear off my desk.

The tendency to procrastinate is present in all of us to some degree. However, for some it is so powerful an impulse that it becomes impossible to hold a job or maintain a romantic relationship. Clearly procrastination has deep roots which can be difficult or impossible to overcome rationally. As Robert Hanks writes about his own almost crippling levels of procrastination in his heartrending essay "On putting things off" (LRB, 10 September 2015),
The broken promises, the unprofessionalism, the evasions and quasi-explanations you offer to others, the outright lies you tell yourself: better leave this till after the weekend; I’ll have it finished by the end of Tuesday; they won’t mind getting it on Wednesday...Reading as a way of putting off thinking; thinking as a way of putting off feeling.