What would RTH do?

That is the question.

If I were in a highschool yearbook, they would vote me most likely to die of a lynch mob. That does not prevent me from opening my mouth and serving a warm hearty cup of STFU to people who deserve it. My dark scathing humor will leave no matter of existence untouched. My innocence will touch your soul.

Welcome to a warped world turned inside out and upside down. All sorts of discretion advised.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The band that played on

Last weekend I went and saw Titanic 3D. Ever since I heard about the re-release, I was pumped. I was counting days to watch the movie. That it was in 3D made it even better. Finally, my wait was over and I watched the movie. It was an incredible experience. People often wonder why I am so excited about the Titanic. Titanic is a romance and drama film. Usually, I'm not one for romance or drama. I prefer comedy, action or thrillers instead. I'm the last one to go gaga over a romantic love story. Even though, I swooned over Jack Dawson when I was a teenager, there is a lot more to the Titanic.

To me it is the Greatest Movie ever made. Period.

My own fascination dates back to the days  I was a child. One of the books my parents bought was 'Great Disasters'. It featured natural disasters all through history from Herculaneum and Pompeii to the Great San Francisco earthquake. Of all the disasters in the book, the one that struck out to me was the Titanic. There were tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and all that. Rome burned, Nero fiddled, the Black Death traveled the world, Typhoid Mary crossed the seas - but the one that captivated me was the sinking of the Titanic. So fascinated was I, that as a thirteen year old I painted my one and only one canvas, an embarrassment of artwork hung in my parent's room, depicting the sinking of the Titanic. The story of the Titanic moved me because it wasn't natural. It wasn't like the others. It didn't get carried away by a tidal wave, it didn't get buried in ashes and the sea didn't part to swallow it. It struck an iceberg. It struck an iceberg it could have easily avoided. People died who could have easily been saved. The natural phenomenon that sunk the Titanic was not an iceberg in the Atlantic but human nature. Human nature and its ego so vast and undefined that it was Sigmund Freud's iceberg.

While James Cameron's Titanic is a cinematic masterpiece in terms of acting and technical mastery in recreating such rich, lush, vivid imagery on screen and bringing an era begone alive - his greatest accomplishment in the movie is depicting the iceberg that is human nature. There are no heroes or villains in the story. There are no monsters or aliens. There are no superheroes saving humanity. However, there is circumstance and circumstance that gives us our villains, heroes and even superheroes if you think about it. It is a journey that takes us to the depths of human nature, our hidden heroism or villainy well below the tip of the iceberg.

If "Occupy Wall Street" is the mantra of today's 99%, then we ought to think of our 99% peers in eras well gone by. What Titanic portrays best is the harsh and stunning class divide of 1912. Today on a Cruise ship, the budget ticket travelers are not so disdainfully looked down by the passengers in first class. Today if a cruise ship is sinking everyone's life is weighed equally, everyone has the same probability of life and death. The steerage back in the day did not even have the right to live. Life was a luxury they couldn't afford.

Jack and Rose are not just star crossed lovers. They personify this divide and the challenges that come with it. Life at the top maybe luxurious and lavish. They have their multi course dinners in exquisite restaurants. They have their ballrooms and cigar rooms. They have brandy and parlor games. The have servants and aides. But their life is hollow and meaningless. Rose finds herself entrapped in an unhappy betrothal. Her mother Ruth DeWitt Bukater desperately clings onto wealth and lifestyles of the rich and famous completely in denial of their sinking fortunes. Cal Hockley is rich, but that cannot buy him love, respect or affection and he often needs to resort to power to command it from people.

But Jack is a happier and carefree person. Hailing from the small town of Chippewa Falls in Wisconsin, he lives his life as a vagabond flitting from port to port. He sketched prostitutes in Paris and lands on the Titanic through a Lucky game of Poker. Even though poor with barely pennies to their name Jack and his companion Fabrizio have more joy and enthusiasm than the entire first class of the Titanic. The steerage maybe terrible accommodations, with cheap food, drinks and plenty of rats. But that does not make their journey miserable in anyway. Who needs first class luxuries when you can have nightly parties with alcohol, music, dancing, good times and good friends. Yes, they are the few on board who actually have friends. Makes one wonder, what is better - a happier life or a better chance to live? Rose's choice to abandon a life of riches even after losing Jack, might give us the answer.

The 1943 German propaganda film portrayed the Titanic as a consequence of British capitalism showing German peasants as heroes. While German socialist propaganda against class warfare and the capitalist mentality of the British is not exactly ideal, considering the Nazis, the story of the Titanic is one of such dichotomy. James Cameron tells it to us masterfully.

You do have the ruthless Cal Hockley and Ruth DeWitt Bukater. You have the uppity women who look at the steerage in disdain. But they were fictional. There were other people like Joseph Brue Ismay who could be the true culprit of the Titanic disaster. He represents the worst of the upper crust. Captain Smith was reluctant to push the boat at full speed as they were on schedule. However, Joseph Brue Ismay who was the Managing Director of White Star liner wanted headlines and pushes the captain to go full speed. A fateful decision. Had the Titanic not gone full steam ahead, it probably might have been able to turn in time. You also have Cosmo Duff-Gordon and Lady Duff Gordon. Two rich people who were of twelve in a boat made for forty and still forbid the boat to go back and rescue more.

But all is not bleak. In the last quarter of the film, James Cameron captures some of the most heroic people and moments of the real story of Titanic.

My favorite scene is the one with Benjamin Guggenheim. There is a sense of romanticism and humor in how Guggenheim chooses to go down. When offered the life jacket, he refuses saying "We've dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen". He and his valet Giglio don't care for making an escape or scrambling for survival. They dress in their finest, sit in the great hall sipping brandy, patiently awaiting certain death. I salute you Guggenheim.

There is also romanticism in Captain Edward Smith locking himself in his chambers, going down with his boat, his illustrious career marred by poor judgment that sank the Titanic or in Thomas Andrews the engineer who stares at the clock regretting that he failed to build a better ship.

The first officer's tale is like that of a Hamlet like tragedy. Initially lured by money, he soon realizes that money cannot save him. In a moment of panic he shoots a passenger violating the woman and children rule, then consumed with utter guilt commits suicide. Neither a hero or a villain he is a tragic human strong and weak at the same time.

In the film during the sinking sequence, for a few brief moments you see a couple embraced in bed, together. They are Isidor and Ida Strauss, the real love story of the Titanic. As an elderly gentleman Isidore was allowed to board the lifeboat, but a true gentleman he refused as long as there were women and children on board. Ida stayed behind with her husband to keep her wedding vows of never leaving her husband. They stayed on board and died in each others arms. Their maid Ellen would live to tell their story.

Most memorable of them all is "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" played by the flawless Kathy Bates. Margaret Brown was a new money socialite from the United States. She was a women who never lost her humble roots or small town hospitality. In real life and in film, Molly Brown is one of those magical people who bridges the class gap and shows us how society really ought to be. She is kind, compassionate and one of the few first class passengers who treats Jack with dignity and respect. The movie does not do her justice though. It is my one pet peeve with the movie. When quartermaster Robert Hitchens refused to go back and save victims, he real Molly Brown led a mutiny of the women on lifeboat six and rowed back to tray and see who they could save. It was this mutiny that earned her the nickname "Unsinkable"

Finally, the most incredible and moving scene of the Titanic is the band that played on. Their music is probably the most noble and heroic deed on the Titanic. They were modest musicians confined to a lifetime of entertaining the snobbish gentry. Who knows what motivated them. There were no hopes of fame, riches, or reputation. Most likely no one would be listening. But against all odds and with the hope to calm people and share the gift of music the band played on. They are not your conventional superheroes. They didn't save lives or kill any villains. They were just men, ordinary men, not knights or gentry. Armed with their instruments somehow they became the greatest noblest heroes in history.

Watching Titanic in 3D is a rich experience. You are instantaneously transported in time to the deck of the Titanic. You are mesmerized by the fine china, the oak finishings, the rich artwork and intricate details of the craftsmanship. You are awestruck by its size, the mammoth engines churning way. You feel the sweat and toil of the workers in the boiler room. You experience a first class voyage as well as stowaway in the steerage. The second half of the film with the sinking will grip you and move you. You will feel the anguish, hopelessness and frustration. You will feel hope and salvation. And of course you will be pouring tears through the tragedy of star crossed lovers Jack and Rose. But remember that the Titanic is not just about the dashing Leonardo di Caprio or Kate Winslet's 3d boobs. It is not just another big budget magnum opus by James Cameron. If you pay attention to the subtle stories and the expression of human nature. If you try and see how circumstance makes us strong and weak. If you see the unlikely superheroes becoming legends. Discover the magic of the band that played on and you will see that the greatest movie ever made.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Wrapping up the Quran

Note: The following post is mildly humorous, slightly serious. The intent is some some honest opinions peppered with a little touch of fun. There is no intend to malign or disrespect any religion or beliefs. If you don't have a sense of humor or open mind - then don't read further. 

A month ago I embarked on a journey to read the Quran. Finally my long tedious journey has concluded this week. I never thought I would face something that was more difficult to read than Twilight. It took me a whole month to endure Twilight as well. To give the Quran credit, the prose and translation is difficult and it is not a quick and easy read. So completing it in a month is pretty sweet. On the other hand Twilight is supposed to be simple rudimentary English and light reading, but it took that long. Yes, I just did compare the Quran and Twilight - and I'm honestly unsure who should be offended God, Stephanie Meyer, Vampires or terrorists.

On a tad bit more serious note, I think the world would be a lot better place if only religious texts were presented in plain comprehensible English. You know, layman's English that is used everyday and easy to understand. I've read the Bhagwat Gita, The Bible, The Analects of Confucius, Tao Te Ching - and they all suffer a common problem - the mission impossible reading comprehension.

Have you ever studied for an exam where the text book was dense, difficult and written in alien English? Have you ever scratched your head in frustration what exactly you were supposed to learn from the chapter? Have you ever felt insecure for understanding zilch and assuming that everyone around you got it? Have you made up bullshit to show off that you understood your textbook and/or the professor? Have you experienced those murderous rages where you destroy objects around you and decide to just wing it for the test? And this bullshitting and murderous rage is precisely the problem we face in our world. It is not religion. It is not God. It is not fanaticism. The religious texts are plain incomprehensible that people are resorting to bullshitting to prove that they actually know and understand. It often boils down to the matter of one person's bullshit over another. Religious violence, terrorism and all that is a result of the murderous rage that ensues when you realize that you just don't get it and conclude to lash out and wing it.

So I have two theories to reduce the amount of religious violence and terrorism in the world
1) Have religious criminals and terrorists shovel snow as punishment instead of prison
2) Convert all religious texts to colloquial comprehensible language

After all the message often boils down to this
- Have faith (in God)
- Be Good
- Do no Evil

(Although the tricky confusion always is in defining what is Good and Evil, finding the black and white in shades of gray and most important figuring out what it means to have faith and understanding what is the nature of God)

Now to rate the religious texts I have read so far. Hands down the best read is The Bible. The Bible trumps over my own religious text the Bhagvad Gita (although Hinduism has a plethora of 'Texts'). The Mahabharata is entertaining, but the Bhagvad Gita is quite dull actually. I like the Bible because it reads like a story. The Old Testament is especially a collection of interesting stories. It would be a pretty neat book in plain English. The New Testament is quite repetitive with the same story being told over again, but has plenty of parables.

The value of the Tao Te Ching is in its poetic flow and philosophical nature. It really has a spiritual surreal nature that appeals to heathens like me who are not religious but spiritual. The Analects of Confucius and Bhagvad Gita also have philosophical value. They are also interesting because they are not preachy. There is no firm order "do this, do that, for God says so". The narrative is conversational. Confucius interacts with students and statesmen, rationally dissecting problems and giving advice for the greater good of the state. On the other hand in the Bhagvad Gita Krishna tries to answer Arjun's questions about life, the world, existence, humanity in general and offer some sort of guidance in the world. So Confucius offers pragmatic solutions to real problems, the Bhagvad Gita gives us a sort of spiritual road map that helps us find our way. Both are tools rather than doctrines and are much easier to digest for a skeptic like me. After all I'm not the kind of person to do something because of faith or God's will but more because I see good reason.

That is why the Quran ranks as the weakest of the religious texts to me so far. It is extremely preachy and difficult to digest for us skeptics. While Sufism has the spirituality of the Tao Te Ching, the Quran in general does not have a mystical spirituality. It is more rigid and doctrinal and focuses on defining Allah (God) and Allah's will. It does not deduce solutions, have engaging conversations or offer solutions, but rather tries to spell out what exactly must be done. It somewhat leaves you feeling that you are being stripped of your free will, that is almost like a violation of our sanctity for us free thinkers and skeptics. The Bible makes it easy to digest this violation by presenting it in stories, parables - a flowing novel of sorts that tells us God's will through the history of man, of Israel and finally Jesus Christ. The Quran even presents these stories in a preachy format.

I was told I would understand and respect Islam more upon reading the Quran. Unfortunately, reading the Quran has made me a bit worry of my own previous faith that Islam is indeed a religion of peace, and there is unfair prejudice against Islam. The Quran does have several references to fighting and encourages to fight. However, in the ambiguous text, complex verses and difficult translation this 'fighting' is ill defined. Now as a spiritual pacifist, I interpret fighting as being strong of faith, standing up for one's morals, integrity and beliefs, refusing to bow down to oppressors, cheaters and tyrants etc. However, I can see a less educated or a less pacifist person could interpret it in a more violent way. In the Gita too Krishna advices Arjun "Don't show love or empathy to your enemies, but take up arms and fight.". But Krishna does not promise lavish rewards, salvation or anything magical to Arjun or those who fight their enemies. The Gita ultimately leaves us responsible for trying to understand morals, try to figure out what is righteous, do what is right in good faith and that we will always bear the consequences of our mistakes and wrong actions. The Quran does not offer these clauses and makes it appear that fighters will always be blessed as long as they do it in the name of Allah. That is why there is a risk of people interpreting these verses negatively.

On the whole I am glad I read it. Another religious book down my belt and now I can easily reference to it in arguments and discuss interpretations. Most importantly, I learned how important it is for the religious texts to have good translators, a thesaurus and a style guide to modern English. Someone ought to take up the task of translating messed up difficult prose to plain English. Also take out the repetitions. I got that God created the world in the first chapter itself. I don't need to be reminded again and again.

And oh - the egg came before the chicken according to the Quran. God created Adam from a drop of sperm. If all of creation came about this way then the sperm came first. Now the egg is the opposite of sperm, but I'm yet to hear of chicken sperm. Also, I think it is a misogynist mistake. Scientifically cell division cannot be induced in a sperm, but can be in an egg. So most likely Adam was created from an egg. My feminist theory is that it was one egg that split to develop two distinct fetuses. So that makes Adam and Eve identical twins. Humanity is the result of original sin and original inbreeding. No wonder we are so messed up.