Friday, November 23, 2012

Teatre-Museu Dalí

I wouldn't be able to tell a Goya from a fly squashed against a wall. So there's really very little intelligent commentary I can offer on my visit to the museum that contains most of the work of Salvador Dalí. But I can say that even after close to three hours in the museum, I didn't get the least bit tired. This was probably because I didn't have to spend the slightest effort trying to make sense of his work or in asking myself why I liked what was in front of me. 

They simply spoke to that part of me that wants to strain the boundaries of the imagination and established a hell of a rapport with it. The other thing was that while I expected to see bizarre images rising up from  the same space in our subconscious that nightmares occupy, what I didn't expect, but found in plentiful, were works that conveyed the same tranquility and heartache-inducing beauty of our more serene dreams.

So, do I upload snaps or not? On the one hand, it seems silly to upload pictures of what are already exhibits in a world-famous museum dedicated to an incredibly renowned artist. On the same hand, I recently had the pleasure of seeing pictures that a friend I made in Andalusia had put up of the south of Spain... and then the rather red-faced comparisons with my own photos. I'm under no illusions about my photography skills and, to make it worse, I've taken all photos of the Spain trip on a cell-phone camera. Venkatesh Prasad facing Steyn with a hockey stick is the closest metaphor I can think of. On the other hand is sheer bloody mindedness. I promised myself I'd write and put up all the photographs I have and by God I'm going to do it!

Bloody mindedness is always a hands-down winner when pitted against largesse and rationality. Which is why our world is in the state it is in. A nightmare world where opinions such as the article linked are decidedly in the minority and an execution is cause for celebration. A pluralistic democracy where fascism is in and freedom of speech is a joke. A world, then, where I can upload terrible photographs without remorse.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

There is no decent place to stand in a massacre...

... but if a woman take your hand, go and stand with her. - Leonard Cohen

Barcelona versus Real Madrid.

In the Camp Nou.

I haven't stopped bragging about being at the match and I'm not likely to stop in the foreseeable future, either. You might as well get used to it.

Most things are more than what it says on the tin. Milk is not just something you add to coffee to make it taste better, but a prelude to a life of fame and achievement via faster brains, bigger muscles and so forth. A bottle of soda is not just carbonated water, but something that lets young over-achievers (bred on milk) brood on whether they've "made it large;" whilst wistfully thinking that if only alcohol advertisement were legal, they wouldn't look like such asses.

In the world of sport, if there were one game that is more than just a game, it would be El Clásico, between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. And that is because the two clubs in question are more than just football clubs. When Spain was under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the success of Real Madrid gave the country and his regime a sheen that only sporting over-achievement could give. On the other hand, FC Barcelona from independence-minded Catalonia, with its echoes of resistance and democracy, represented much of what he hated.

To the Catalans, living in a time when their own language was banned and much of their culture was being suppressed, supporting Barça was one of the few legitimate means of expressing dissidence: in a stadium of over a 100,000 people, it's not so easy to police the language they speak, the flags they wave and the songs they sing. Culture and football don't often come together in the same sentence, but here was a football stadium being the last bastion of a culture under siege. I still find this last a little hard to believe - there seems only so much you can do in two hours a week: and that is including the time spent moaning about the referee - but I wasn't actually there and it's an evocative notion. If ever a club could claim to be a national team, it is Barcelona. And hence their motto: més que un club. More than a club.

The establishment club versus the separatist underdogs of Catalonia. That was, and in many ways continues to be, the image the rest of the world carried of the two. When Johan Cruyff signed for Barcelona, he declared that he chose them over Real because he did not want to play for a team associated with Franco. Not just that, in defiance of the rules then against registering traditional Catalan names, he named his son after their patron saint, JordiLess than a month before the match this year, 1.5 million (or two million, according to some) of the region's population of 7.5 million had demonstrated in the streets of Barcelona, demanding independence from Spain. So, with the eyes of the world trained on the Camp Nou, there was bound to be something from the club, to show its solidarity with its people...

That's the Catalan independentist flag
The Camp Nou has a reputation for being a bit on the quiet side, as far as football grounds go. Like a slightly unruly library. But never in this fixture. In 2002, the Camp Nou welcomed Luis Figo, their ex-vice-captain who'd defected to Real Madrid, with a pig's head and a sign that said, "We hate you so much because we loved you so much." Play was held up while they restored order. It's stories like these that made me determined to watch a clásico live one day. The fixture usually happens in November or December - a little too cold for a trip there that, for me, would involve a lot more than just football. And so I was first disbelieving and then thrilled when they announced the fixtures and I learned that the clásico was to be on October 7th, bang in the middle of my trip.

Despite the capacity of 98,000, tickets for this match are almost impossible to get through the normal  (read "relatively cheap") channels. I went through their official international agent, who sold the tickets as a package involving a museum tour, a Barça scarf, two nights stay in a hotel, etc. The museum tour, I didn't have the time to take, but the hotel stay paid unexpected dividends in that it was the same hotel that the team used before the match. Who knows, maybe Messi was in the room next to mine?

I had no clue about this, though, until I saw this huge crowd milling about in the lobby of the hotel. It took a while for the team to make their appearance: every time the elevator doors opened, there would be a buzz of anticipation, soon to be replaced by the disappointment of seeing guests of the hotel making their way to the reception. Not that this stopped us from keeping ourselves entertained. Among the very first to walk out of the elevator were this middle-aged couple, who were absolutely astonished to see the proverbial multitudes waiting for them in the lobby, waving and cheering and blowing kisses at them. The guests to follow - many in Messi and Villa shirts - took the thing more in their stride and gave us waves in return and one even did a little dribble through the hotel lobby for us.

When the team finally appeared, Messi came down via the stairs on the other side of the elevator, which was a couple of metres away from me, sadly. I'd imagined him making his way over and thanking me for coming all the way over from India, and then continuing on with broken voice and a tear in the eye - what the hell, let's have the works, tears in both the eyes - that none of this (he waves a vague hand to indicate all the fame and the trophies and the goals) would've been possible without my support. As things turned out, the little bugger did not even look in my general direction. Xavi and Iniesta, though, took the stairs closer to me: Xavi, in fact, passed by about two inches from my nose. I could've clapped him on the back - one of my eternal regrets from the trip will be that I didn't do so.

At the stadium, a few hours later, I was disappointed that my seat was a little higher up than the ones I had for the two earlier matches. In the end, though, while I couldn't see the players' faces from where I was, it turned out easier to follow the game from up there. All the seats around mine were occupied by women. It was no different to watching a match surrounded by men, except perhaps that the girl to my right would follow up a volley of abuse at the Real players, or at the referee, with a sidelong glance and an embarrassed giggle. The chap at the Sevilla stadium didn't bother with embarrassed giggles.

The pre-game rituals were all the same, except that everything had an edge - the cheering for Barça and the whistling for Real - as they warmed up. Because of my elevated position, this time I had eyes for more than just Messi pinging the ball to Alves. The entire team had split into pairs arranged rather haphazardly and balls flew across the grass, criss-crossing each other in complicated patterns. If you want a visual metaphor, try the flyover sequence from Tarkovsky's Solaris.

And then the moment I will remember forever. As the Real Madrid players emerged out of the tunnel for the kick-off, they were greeted by the whole stadium transforming itself into a Catalan flag and erupting into the Barça anthem. It was a spine-tingling moment. I'm not a particularly political person and, in any case, only an idiot would take a position on a matter like this, having been in the country for just a month and knowing very little of the history and the emotions involved. But all the same, I couldn't help but be moved by being in the midst of such a poetic (and non-violent) cry for independence.

As for the match itself, I remember only bits and pieces. This was a match Barça didn't need to win, so given that practically their entire first-choice defence was out injured and the quality of Real's attack, they were more cautious than normal. Real still went a goal up and for all money should've been up 2 goals in the first 25 minutes. Then the only first-choice Barça defender left, Dani Alves, went down with an injury and had to be substituted by young Montoya - and Barça's play at the back actually improved from that point on.

Then there was Iniesta. He'd been out injured for over a month and so I was over the moon when they announced that he would play. Can't say that he was at his best, unfortunately; but even so, everything he did was very elegant - an action as simple as bringing the ball down, he does with remarkable grace.

And then there was Real Madrid. In each of the wins I'd seen of Barça live, they snatched victory in the last few minutes. But even so, no one was under any illusions about Barça's superiority. But for this match... Though Real is historically the more successful side, since 2008 they have been well and truly under Barça's boot. In this period, it took them until 2011 to register their first win against Barça - by a solitary goal. Along the way, in addition to seeing the rest of the world slavering over their hated rivals and exalting them as one of the greatest teams ever, they'd been at the receiving end of historic maulings; like the 2-6 at the Santiago Bernabéu and then the 5-0 at the Camp Nou (José Mourinho's first clásico since taking over Real).

After that disaster in the November of 2010, Mourinho lined up very defensive squads for the next few clásicos. Matches descended into kicking contests and tempers flared on and off the pitch. In addition, fans were unhappy at the style of play he imposed on a team with such a history of attacking football and as much wealth of talent (their current squad is the most expensively assembled in history) as Real. Their biggest legend, Alfredo di Stefano, at one point noted that they were playing like mice against the Catalan lions.

But Mourinho slowly turned things around and ended Barça's run by winning the league in a record-breaking campaign. So the team that turned up to play at the Camp Nou this time was not one wracked by self doubt, but one that has slowly started to turn the tide against their most unforgiving rivals. This was not a team obsessed with preventing Barça from scoring but one that was looking to win themselves - and pugnacious as hell. Even when Barça went ahead via a glorious Messi free kick, they were never anything less than threatening. Particularly Ronaldo. Shame he's such a prat, though. If everything Iniesta does is elegant, everything Ronaldo does on the pitch, apart from when he has the ball at his feet, is seemingly designed to aggravate anyone but the most thick-skinned fan. His gestures after scoring a goal... even the way he shapes up to take a free kick... you just want the ground to swallow him up. Great player, admittedly, and sent nervous jitters through the home fans every time he got the ball.

Above all, there was Messi. He was the reason I picked Spain for this trip and he saved his best for this, the last match I would see him live. He did not play up front for much of the game, preferring to stay deep. Which is why it's sometimes a shame to see his goal records getting so much mention. There's so much more to him. It was quite something to see him slaloming his way through the crowded centre of the pitch, holding the ball way longer than seems possible and drawing multiple defenders toward him. And then finding teammates, now in acres of space, with pinpoint passes. Again and again. That he still ended up scoring both of Barça's goals points to a problem for them, maybe. The Camp Nou has this rather mournful chant for him that goes "May-siiiii, May-siiiii" like zombies calling to their brethren from beyond the grave. Maybe it was meant to give Real the willies. I wonder what it feels like to be the recipient of such unrestrained adulation week after week.

The crowd were fun, as expected. In front of the old enemy, they were not quite as unforgiving of mistakes as they were in the match against Granada. Solidly behind their team, they sang that chant of theirs that goes "o le le, o la la, being a Barça fan is the best there is" every few minutes - even (and especially) when the team were under the cosh in the first half. Even the 4-year-old to my left knew the words and she would sing along whenever the chance came. Though there were the planned shouts of independencia during both halves, the atmosphere was rather restrained (a trifle disappointing to me, I'll admit) and mirrored the generally well-behaved game on the pitch. Yes, the crowd did chant hijo de puta (very gallantly in Spanish and not Catalan) every time Pepe touched the ball, but then who wouldn't?

The only time they displayed a hint of frustration was when Barça were a little too intricate. Even when presented with an opportunity for a counterattack, they more often than not choose to hold the ball up and start another slow, short-passy build-up toward the opposition goal. This, I think, the Camp Nou has resigned itself to and even takes quiet, if rather snobbish, pride in. What gets their goat on occasion is when the same happens inside the opposition penalty box. Messi apart, they have a tendency to pass the buck when it comes to shooting. In the dying minutes of the match, Barça had a glorious chance to score the winning goal as they found themselves outnumbering the Real defenders in the box. But they kept patiently passing the ball to each other, forming a nice pentagon inside the penalty area, while all the while I could hear veins popping all around me. I didn't need to know any Catalan to know what was being muttered across the length and breadth of this giant stadium, "Shoot, goddammit, shoot! Somebody, for the love of Gaudí, take a punt at the fucking goal!"

That was that and the match ended 2-2. I suppose a great victory for football. But great victories for football don't interest me very much. What matters for me is that I got to see three Barça matches live, all of which went down to the very last minute. And two of those were in this magnificent stadium. Well after the ground had emptied, I was still in the stands looking at this stand, then that, then peering over the parapet into the sections below, until finally a security guard detached herself from the shadows and asked me whether I intended to leave. "Two more minutes, please," I said, "let me just take a picture of the pitch from here." All right, she said, two minutes.

I used up every second of those two minutes feeling those mixed feelings everyone talks of. On the one hand, this was it. It was goodbye to the Camp Nou. But then again, I'd just watched one of the greatest sportsmen of all time weave magic against his team's oldest rivals, in one of the great cathedrals of sport. Definitely my most memorable mixed feelings.

The Trip

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Skyfall

"Sometimes, the old ways are the best."

And then again, many times, they are not. Like this new Bond film that has the cleverest references to Bond mythology, and yet breaks away significantly from what has gone before. My favourite Bond film yet.

I don't normally like writing reviews of enigmatic films that I love. It's like how a stalker feels when he turns knife-happy murderer: he's no closer to understanding his obsession and there's simply no way to put her back together again... But since I think Skyfall is a wonderful counterpoint to the recent Batman movies that I once spent much time whingeing about, let me tell you why I think this is a far better superhero movie than Nolan's gloomy, talky trilogy.

My chief complaint of the Batman movies is their pretentiousness. Their strong point, like most superhero movies, is that they allow us to enjoy a good-looking likeable hero beating the crap out of the bad guys. What annoys me, though, is that while the films revel in violence and glorious action sequences, they pretend otherwise and allow Batman, Alfred and friends to wallow in self-pity - the films have a "look at the price of violence" high moral ground about them. Oh please. And how much they talk! Every single point Nolan wants to make is hammered home through sledge-hammer dialogue.

For me, Skyfall manages to get it exactly right: first and foremost a slickly-made action film. But one that manages to weave into its taut tapestry themes of vengeance, crippling remorse in a business where "regret is unprofessional," facing the inevitability of one's obsolescence (and therefore, a healthy dose of nostalgia), and loyalty. One-sided loyalty. A loyalty that demands your heart and soul while you're only a little less expendable than the enemies you fight. And so you have a story of two men who have both come to the same crossroads - where, for all their abilities, they have to deal with their own dispensability to the ones they've sworn allegiance to.

Since I started this post with a comparison to The Dark Knight, I'll admit that Javier Bardem's Silva reminded me of the anarchic indestructibility of the Joker. But he is more than just a bad guy to be done away with at the end. He is fully fleshed out, with excellent reasons for what he's ended up as, and you feel for him as much as for Bond and M.

So, is it a perfect film? Of course not. Great films are rarely perfect films, said Pauline Kael, and a film as ambitious as this one, that aspires to something more than wall-to-wall action, in a series that has the baggage of having to conform to a 50-year-old tradition of mindless mayhem, is bound to have its share of inexplicable plot turns, the odd theft of images from films as diverse as Apocalypse Now, MASH and The Silence of the Lambs, and the occasional inability to really delve into some of the questions it asks.

But what it does manage to do is populate the screen with a wonderful cast, who're then given the room to add depth and weight to characters we've seen onscreen for decades now. Further, while remaining true to its action-movie roots, it asks with subtlety and humour questions that wouldn't be out of place in an indie flick, and with enough understated emotion to have many of the audience quietly sniffling at the end. (In a Bond film!) It also respects the intelligence of the viewer by avoiding the temptation to explain every frigging thing through dialogue. And did I mention that it has an excellent epilogue that acts as a prologue to the Connery era?

Above all, and what, for me, is the most remarkable thing the filmmakers and Daniel Craig have managed to do, is that they've taken cinema's most famous empty suit and given him heart and soul. They've given him a past, they've made him think about why he does what he does and for what rewards, and over the course of the film, they ever-so-slightly peg back his arrogance to bring him into the fold of the mortals.

The Way of Sant Jordi

The spires of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela rose heavenwards in glory of God, propelled toward the stars by the devotion of the tens of thousands who walk hundreds of kilometres across Europe to pay their respects to Spain's patron saint, Santiago (Saint James). It was here that his remains were supposedly discovered by a shepherd in the ninth century and it was here that the armies of the Reconquista rallied under his banner to take Spain back from the Moors.

I walked toward the entrance, as if hypnotised. I had no thought in my head, save that of entering the church. And no devotee has ever had such reverence in his heart as I did  the moment I saw the pews inside. At last I could shrug my luggage off and sit down awhile.

I had about half a day for the city: I was to take the early-morning bus out from Fisterra, catch the night train to Madrid and then change for Barcelona. I was to leave my luggage at the lockers in the station and spend the day walking around the town. As Fate planned things, though (what with trouble waking up early and stuff), I ended up taking the afternoon bus out of Fisterra. Which, on the whole, turned out to be a good thing because I would soon find out that the train station at Santiago de Compostela does not, in fact, have lockers for keeping luggage.

On paper, I had just a backpack and a laptop bag. The trouble was, I'd packed too many clothes, and the backpack weighed a ton. Plus the laptop bag contained, apart from the laptop, about 6 books and plenty of odds and ends that wouldn't fit my backpack. (What was I thinking? In my one month there, I read all of three pages from the 6 books combined.) So, with no other option in sight (actually, I did have one other option, which was to sit in the railway station and read the books for the next 5 hours or so), I decided to walk to the cathedral. It was 2 kilometres away and you will have no trouble believing, I'm sure, that no pilgrim who'd walked 2000 kilometres suffered as much as I did. I could've taken the taxi, but it seemed sacrilegious to visit such a famous city and not walk even a little of it. On the whole, I now wish a little sacrilege had been involved.

And that is how, for the first time in more than a decade, I found myself sitting quietly inside a church with no inclination to be anywhere else. I did this "sitting quietly with no inclination to be anywhere else" business for more than half an hour. A new record. Perhaps this was all in God's Plan.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A sunset at the end of the world

Sunsets at the end of the world are, oddly enough, very joyous and communal. I'd always associated frontiers with melancholy and the individual. Like when Clint Eastwood rides off into the sunset. Or was that John Wayne?

At Fisterra, though, the scores of tourists and pilgrims at the lighthouse scramble (at a little after 8 PM, at the time I was there) to find a suitable westward-facing rock on the practically-cliff-like sides of Monte Facho. No one ever wants for one for long, though: there are as many rocks there as grains of sand in a good-sized beach. The trick, though, is deciding exactly how much nerve you've got. Monte Facho is, I remember reading somewhere, around 250 metres above sea level. Falling off from this height could definitely lead to a broken finger or two. Maybe even three.

So you have most people clustering around near the top, while the braver folks venture to climb down a little further and find a more isolated rock. I think I even noticed one or two who'd managed to get almost to sea level. Once everyone's had their seats, there's silence, save for the odd annoying click of the camera. Not that I should complain. (But I only took one or two snaps.)

The frequency of the clicks reduce as the sun descends closer and closer to the ocean and holds the whole lot spell-bound. And finally, as the last of it disappears into the sea, the clapping and the cheering.

Un film del universo.* 

*Anyone coming in here to criticise my Spanish will be dealt with very harshly.

The Trip