Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Ars Gratis Artis

I have finally acquired my own set of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a trilogy in five parts written by Douglas Adams (known as DNA to his countless fans throughout the galaxy and perhaps the most popular man now at the restaurant at the end of the universe – Elvis comes a close second). I read the five books around three years back and kept reading them again and again even though it meant bunking all my classes (which I did very gladly anyway). Our world lost a truly unique man on 11th May 2001. May his towel come in handy.

After reading a recent entry on Pracci’s blog and following the ongoing battle of wits and slandering in her comments section I decided to investigate this need to be a member of one cult group or another. Why is it that we feel the need to identify ourselves as ‘Metallica’ fans, ‘Harry Potter’ zealots and ‘Stanley Kubrick’ aficionados? Before going any further let me clear my own stance on this subject. I am a die hard buff of the following people and their work:

Note – A list of favourite films, books, TV sitcoms, performers, etc. would be endless and require a Herculean effort to prepare from my side (maybe I will do it). These are the people I worship

Al Pacino
Charlie Chaplin

Douglas Adams

Hobbes (not the philosopher because he was a materialist)


Ingrid Bergman

Jim Carrey

JRR Tolkien

Mel Blanc

Oscar Wilde


Quentin Tarantino

Roger McGough

Vivien Leigh

Yoda (I know he isn’t real, but that is the greatest tragedy of this world)

These are the names that come to my mind at this moment. There may be others but more on that later. The point of this list was to show that I am inclined in a rather extreme way to follow other people and their work and worship it. I also spend a lot of time discussing the philosophy behind a particular work.

A friend (Blue pussy I think) once said that the reason people become admirers is because of peer pressure, they like Lord of the Rings because every other person claims to be a fan. I completely disagree. Yes, there are those who could claim to be adherents of a particular film/book/actor because all their other friends are claiming the same thing. But I don’t think a 20 something guy/girl would claim to be a Harry Potter fan until and unless they really adore the books (I like the books but Rowling has a lot to learn about fantasy writing). The reason why you love something is quite hard to explain. Often the reason turns out to be quite trivial. Take for example Tarantino. All his movies are pointless, lack any coherent story and yet are so entertaining and visually stunning that he is regarded by many as a master director and story writer.

But recently I have seen another trend. Most people would claim to hate an otherwise popular book/movie just to appear different and stand out. Some of them haven’t even taken the effort to go through the books which they claim to hate so much. These are the people who are in a cult of their own – the cult of the We-Don’t-Like-Cults.

But wait. There was something else that I had in mind. The real question (three of them actually) in my mind was the following – does the creator of fiction (writer/director/actor/painter) always put his own personal philosophy forward through the medium of his work? Should the receiver (reader/viewer) really be forming his own personal philosophy based on somebody else’s work? Is it necessary for art to have a meaning, a message?

The answer to all the questions according to me is no. Great books which changed the way people thought or which were at least aimed at trying to change people are few in number. And yet I believe that a work of art is not necessarily a projection of the creator’s philosophy. It could be, but not always. A writer for example chooses a particular set of principles for his book. They could be similar to his beliefs but could also be their exact opposite. His integrity, and therefore the book’s integrity, lies in his staying true to the set of principles he has selected for his book, not in his following his own personal philosophy (which could be a superset of the book’s principles).

Example – Thomas Harris has created perhaps the greatest villain of our times – Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal loves human flesh and has killed many. Yet for some reason we find ourselves attracted towards him and are rooting for him when he is going on a killing spree. That is called integrity. Harris has remained true to his character even though he himself might be disgusted at the idea of killing and eating another human being. He has succeeded in creating a character we fear and love at the same time. There is never a sudden change of heart where Lecter is himself disgusted with his habits. A part of him is evil and is convinced of its own superiority and its right to kill and eat the ones who don’t deserve to live. Lecter is the law. He punishes. Does that mean that it is Harris’ belief that a man should take the law into his own hands and go about killing people who end up on his wrong side? I think not.

A better example would me Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Humbert Humbert is a pervert and ruins the life of Dolores Haze (Lolita) and yet the reader feels his pain and the reader’s heart goes out to him. Yeah so he did some regrettable things and fell in love with such a young girl. But Humbert has our sympathies. Nabokov’s descriptions of Humbert’s fantasy at first shock us but slowly we get involved with it because of Nabokov’s beautiful word play. Now that is integrity. The writer does not approve of child molesters and perverts and yet he has created a very endearing character that does such abominable things. The reader can actually feel himself giving advice to Humbert – don’t do it man, it isn’t worth it, she isn’t worth it. Your sympathies don’t go out to the nymphet Lolita, which in retrospect seems strange.

Douglas Adams loved science and believed in it. He knew its limitations and yet believed in its greatness. Still in his work we only see him bashing science and just showing its extreme limitations. His books are covered from page to page with eastern philosophy’s simple rules - there is no coincidence (which perhaps makes all science useless), things happen for a reason, all things in this universe are completely interconnected. And though these are parts of his personal philosophy some aspects of his books are contrary to his otherwise western ideas.

On the question whether art should have a meaning, I believe meaning is overrated. There is no need that a book should have a message. It could be plain old Pulp Fiction. It is in no way the creator’s responsibility to give a message to his audience. I believe in the aesthetic movement – art for art’s sake – ars gratis artis. Ars gratis hominis doesn’t make sense because I don’t think that the artist is answerable to, nor has an obligation towards the audience. It could have a message and the audience is free to interpret it any which way they want. So I give my thumbs up to David Lynch’s latest movies (his old stuff like the Elephant man is pure gold but his latest stuff is just his self-expression and nothing more). This brings me to the second question.

If the art does have meaning/message, is it necessary for us to intellectualize about it? Yes. But do we form our own philosophy based on it? No. Any form of art even if it rambles on for thousands of pages cannot be kept as a basis for a complete set of human principles. Rand’s and Salinger’s characters are too idyllic for the real world and wouldn’t survive in it. One could appreciate their traits but could not live their life by them. A man/woman who does not compromise would never enjoy his existence because he/she would never find love. And what is life without love. And though Roark found love, it was only in fiction. He would not continue to be in love if he doesn’t compromise.

So read/watch books/movies, have fun interpreting them and worshipping their creators, but don’t lead your life by their support. Books/movies make great companions but if they are your only companions then you are in trouble. So I am in trouble. I need to get out and get some fresh air. Maybe I should go out with some friends for a movie.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

The Life of Stanley Vacant (continued)

The story so far: Stanley Vacant, a middle aged voice artist by profession, has joined the local gym after having endured some stinging remarks about his appearance from his girlfriend Tricia.

The girl on the reception desk had a sweet smile and a good pair of knockers. That is what she is being paid for, I mean the smile. She asked me to fill out a form with some personal details while she called my personal trainer Ricky.

Ricky, sounded like a hoodlum who had spent his late teenage years in prison, where unquestionably he had felt the need to bulk up. I could easily picture a guy six feet four inches tall, weighing 205 pounds with a motor bike tattooed on his left shoulder. The description turned out to be quite accurate except for the tattoo. It had ‘I love my mom’ engraved on a valentine heart. I did not trouble myself in trying to understand the underlying currents of the statement. So he loved his mom. Good for him. We need more people who care about their parents.

Ricky stepped forward and shook my hand. “You got a firm hand shake there Stanley. I can see you going all the way. Just work with me on this regularly and within 12 weeks you’ll be giving Brad Pitt a run for his money.” I smiled weakly back at him and proceeded to finish the form which then I handed over to the girl with the great knockers. Sorry, I mean the girl with the sweet smile.

Ricky explained how on this first day he would take me around the gym and give me a thorough tour of all their facilities. “I am going to check your endurance and strength today, Stanley.” I nodded my approval and entered the inner sanctum of this commercial temple of physical beauty. Like Aphrodite’s oracle, Ricky proceeded to tell me what the function of each machine was and how this enterprise was totally dedicated towards combining cutting-edge-state-of-the-art technology with good training practices.

Now around me I could see a lot of people sweating profusely and working out real hard. Young and old, fat and thin men and women were trying to improve their health and their looks by working out to some fast paced rhythmic music. The only good looking people with perfect bodies were the trainers who were moving around the whole place, smiling a broad smile and giving little nuggets of advice to anyone who would listen.

Ricky asked me to try out a machine which had a lot of complicated gears and weights. I had to sit on a seat and pull a bar of steel with both my hands towards the back of my head. This bar was connected to different weights. There I was sitting on this complicated looking machine trying to do an exercise I had never done before and also trying not to hurt myself in any irreparable way, when my eyes landed on the most beautiful, the most exquisite women I had ever seen in walking daylight.

She was exercising on a similar machine directly opposite and was facing me. A small bead of perspiration rolled down her forehead, onto the side of her cheek, down her neck and disappeared into the valley of her round and firm breasts. She looked so athletic, so angel like that I could not hear what Ricky the oracle was saying. In this temple of beauty, I had found Aphrodite.

I had seen her somewhere before but I could not place her. Then I realized that she was the model in the Estee Lauder perfume ad for which I had provided the background voice. She looked far more beautiful now. And what was this. She was staring right back at me, without batting her eyelids. Come on Stanley this is the time when you take destiny by the forelock.

“Yes Stanley you are doing it perfectly. Just bring the bar down a little slower to feel the tension in your muscles.” The oaf was telling me how to use this damn machine correctly while this most beautiful sweating creature was staring right at me. Wait a minute. She was watching me exercise. Come on Stanley be cool now. You are the voice of Baritone Bunny, the most suave and dashing rabbit in the world of animation. Do this exercise properly. Pretend you have been doing it for ages. Listen to the oaf.

“Yes Stanley you are doing great”. I am doing great. Is that a look of admiration I see in the eyes of the Estee Lauder model? Yes it is. I am admiring her and she is admiring me back. He hits, he runs, he scores. Stanley scores? This is a new feeling.

“I’ll increase the weight a bit Stanley to check your endurance.” Go ahead oracle Ricky. Increase any weight you want. Stanley is on a roll here.

But what was this? The bar was stuck in the air and I couldn’t bring it down. Be cool Stanley; bring it down slow and easy. She is watching you man. For the first time since I had started exercising I could feel my forehead perspiring. It took all the strength I had to bring the bar down. “Very good, Stanley. Just nine more times and you are down.” Nine more times. Is the oaf trying to kill me or something? Aha! Jealous is he, Aphrodite’s oracle jealous of her lover Hermes. I wouldn’t give you the pleasure of seeing me lose. Stanley Vacant’s ego had just been challenged and he was ready for it.

With great effort I brought the bar down again. She was still watching me. Oh! How gracefully she was doing her exercise - power hidden below the veil of beauty.

By the sixth repetition I was thoroughly drenched and didn’t have an ounce of strength left. Did I just catch a look of dejection on her face? Her hero had turned out to be a loser. She finished her exercise, stood up and walked away, without looking back. I could take this exercise no longer and let the bar go. It went and hit the pivot with a bang and a few faces turned around to see the culprit. I could see looks of been-there-before-buddy on some of the faces.

“Don’t be disappointed Stanley. It’s just your first day. Within a few weeks this would be a cake walk.” The oaf was gloating over his victory and applying salt to the wounds. “Yeah, I suppose so”, I replied and stood up.

It has been more than an hour now and we have finished the tour of the entire place. I am sitting inside the steam bath. Each and every muscle in my body is screaming out right now. Ricky says the pains would go away in a few days. The muscles are just getting used to the exercising. I got up and took a shower, got dressed and all the while I was thinking about how very different I was from Baritone Bunny. Except for the voice (which is mine anyway, or is it?) we have nothing in common. He is cool. The chicks dig him. He could have done all those exercises single-handedly. He could have won the heart of the Estee Lauder model in a snap. Well at least he can’t speak without me.

I stepped out of the gym with my gym kit (a gift from Tricia) and made my way towards the car. Suddenly I heard a voice from behind “Mr Vacant”. I turned around to see the Estee Lauder model running towards me. “I have been waiting for you outside, for some time now”, she said in that sweet nectar like voice of hers. “You probably don’t know me. I worked in a commercial for which you provided the voice. I am a big fan of yours. I watch Baritone Bunny every week and absolutely love it.” I could not believe my ears. Here I was, fantasizing about this goddess and she turns out to be a fan. “Would you like to come to the recording of next week’s episode of Baritone?” I spoke in the most sophisticated voice I could conjure up. With that I gave her my studio card after having scribbled my home number at its back. She seemed very excited by the prospect and thanked me. “I’ll see you in the gym tomorrow then. And thanks for inviting me to the recording.” I said sure and with that I entered my car.

She was still standing some distance away and talking very excitedly on her mobile. She was telling someone, apparently another girl, about how she had met the voice of Baritone Bunny and how she was going to the studio for the voice recording session. She was as excited as little kids are when they are promised a tour of Disney world. Seeing her in this new light I realized that she was hardly a day over sixteen. Oh my God! What was I doing? I had been fantasizing about a young girl, a girl who was still excited about cartoons, a girl who was young enough to be my daughter. I hung my head in shame. Sophia would be as old as this girl now. I hadn’t seen her for ten years. Her mother had got her custody when we got a divorce and then had moved to Paris. All I had were a few photographs and letters from her. She was going to college this spring. Maybe it was time I met her.

With these thoughts I decided to drive back home to Tricia and tell her that the gym was a bad idea. She wouldn’t be happy. But I can’t take this pain in my muscles. For now Aphrodite and her temple are not meant for me.

Stanley Vacant © Anshumani Ruddra 2004

Saturday, August 21, 2004

The Life of Stanley Vacant

There is this character in my mind that is yearning to see the light of day in a book. Sadly for him, all spaces are currently occupied and he will have to wait his turn. But the problem doesn’t end there. I wish it would. While I might be his creator in every sense of the word, he also is a resident of the over active world that is my mind. And hence he is a part of me, a part of my being. And he wants to share his adventures, his crusades with the rest of the world.

First I though a brief cameo in my book would be sufficient for him. But then I realized that it would be an absolute waste of a terrific character, which he is, a very likable character who deserves to be the protagonist of his own book. So here is another solution: the blog. From now on Stanley Vacant, who is a middle aged voice artist (provides the background voice for ads and supplies the voice characterizations for over half a dozen animated characters) would make regular appearances on my blog and would hopefully stop bothering me.

It is my firm belief that fitness and health and good looks are overrated. These days everyone seems to be running after a good physique. Every man wants to be like Brad Pitt and every woman wants to be like the latest cover of Cosmopolitan (not like the cover but like the women on the cover). I believe our capitalists have once again succeeded in making absolute fools out of us. First they cut us up into little pieces and then they recommend ten different ways to stitch us back.

While growing up you are coaxed to eat tons of junk food. As a teenage boy you have to hang out at the cool places and eat the cool food or you become an outcast. TV commercials tell you where all the chicks are hanging out. So you go there and what do you do? You eat and eat and eat. And before you know it you are 30 years old and weigh 250 pounds. Even if you are not 250 pounds your wife would constantly nag you about the love handles that you have developed. People will constantly crack jokes at your expense and make your life miserable.

You go in for magnetic radiation therapy which according to Jim from the shopping network helps you lose an astonishing fifteen pounds in just a few hours. You end up buying and hoarding exercise machines which promise to give you chiselled abs and good looks. But nothing works. Out of frustration you just eat more.

On the other hand are girls. Women in our society grow up looking at anorexic super models vouching for the latest fashion products. You see sixteen year old girls dieting and trying out the latest health products from television shopping networks and ending up in the hospital because they haven’t eaten anything in the past one week. Face creams, face packs, fairness creams, oil-free soaps, extra moisturizing soaps, grime removing soaps, dandruff free shampoos, revitalizing shampoos, extra conditioning shampoos and much more can be found in the bathroom cabinet of an average sixteen year old girl.

Women are constantly conscious of their weight. They will not eat that extra piece of cake even if every cell in their body is crying out for it. Sitcoms joke about how every chocolate you eat ends up going to your butt. So you try very hard to retain that knockout figure. It doesn’t work and again out of frustration you eat.

On the other end of the spectrum are people who are naturally thin. Any amount of junk food, chocolate pastries and ice creams has no effect on them. They simply don’t put on any weight. But this doesn’t mean they are happy. Quite the contrary, even they are yearning for those chiselled abs and well toned muscles.

So we live in a society where majority of people are either overweight or underweight or are simply not happy with the way they look. The remaining 0.1% appear on television and in films and make us feel bad about ourselves. We are simply not happy about our appearance and spend both precious time and money in improving it.

Luckily I am very happy with the way I look. Or at least I was happy till a few days back. Tricia and I were watching a film sitting in my nice cosy apartment when she turned towards me and said, “Why don’t you join the gym and put on some muscle?” The question caught me off guard. But I made a quick come back in my smooth Baritone Bunny voice, “Say babe, you not happy with the looks of your lover.” “No”, came the reply and silenced me. I could not think up of a reply in my hundred or more different voices. The voice which enthralled millions of people on television every week was silenced by a very pointed “No”. I got up saying, “… it hurts, it hurts, it hurts.” Tolkien would have been so proud.

But the truth was that her remark really did hurt. I have an average height and an average weight. I never played any physical sports or did anything adventurous. I had average grades in school and was not the most popular guy either. But people liked me. They still do. My voice impersonation of Mrs. Higgins, our seventh grade mathematics teacher, is still the stuff of legend. Nobody ever cared about how I looked. But they loved my voice because it could make them laugh. My voice for the ghost in Hamlet back in college is still considered by many to be a benchmark in voice quality. Every week I make kids laugh with ‘Baritone Bunny and Friends’. I have given the background voice for more than two hundred commercials and have the distinction for providing twenty one different voice characterizations for a single Disney animation. Critics have even compared me to Mel Blanc. How foolish of them. Nobody could be like Mel Blanc. He is a legend and can never be matched.

But something needed to be done. I like Tricia and see a future for the two of us. She is not demanding and makes me very happy. She has a great sense of humour and makes excellent pan cakes. But now she wanted me to be someone I was not. She wanted me to take care of my health, join a gym and build muscles. She had never asked for anything before this so I decided to do this as a gift to her. So here I am standing in my local gym after having taken an annual membership. With all my negative views on people’s obsession with their own looks, I am standing here inside a monument dedicated to commercialism and the victory of capitalism.

Stanley Vacant © Anshumani Ruddra 2004