Friday, November 27, 2015

The Devil's advocate

The Devil's advocate
As long as there is need for an Omnipotent Human God, there has to be his antithesis - the need for a Devil. This is not merely a logical or epistemological necessity but a commonsense proposition as well. However, this has been a long standing problem with Monotheistic religions. In all three of them: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, The devil figures as symbol of “evil”, a representation of all that is malevolent and pernicious in Human life, responsible for acts that entices Man to stray from his path, motivating perpetual strife, violence and restlessness; creating discontent, encouraging avarice, promoting vanity and sexual depravity - in all, he is the sole reason why Man still remains in his fallen state keeping this struggle of-“God overcoming the Devil”- fantasy alive and vibrant. Fortunately for polytheistic religions, they never got themselves into this tight knot. Their world view not only allowed for multiple Gods and demons, but their origins and sustenance are more symbolic of a mysterious collaboration in running this world, and not standing opposed to each other, as is the case with Monotheism. Therefore, there is an element of playfulness in this drama. The earth shaking wars and life along enmities that fills pages of polytheistic epics, myths and folklore are merely chapters in a cosmic act, where at any given point, one is victorious and the other waiting for a second opportunity. Unfortunately, not so with Christian devil, Satan. His deviation from Godhead is serious matter and has shaped western theology for millennium and more.
Interestingly, in the old Hebrew writings Satan is represented as an “Adversary”. It was conceived as a position taken against natural law and order and did not refer to any individual, but rather a proclivity or stance that stood opposed to something natural. Satan or “Lucifer” as a horned demon with goat’s body and wings was a later development spawned through the hands of writers who interpreted and assembled the Bible as they thought fit. Yet, in none of the three religions is there clear enough evidence that Satan stands Opposed to God. That he is angel - there is no doubt in any scripture; but why and when this angel fell into bad books of God; or whether at all he deserves the calumny he suffers at the hands of scriptural authors is a different question altogether. In my reading of Christianity, there seems to be three versions for the origin of Satan as a foe of God. And all three are more symbolic than anything else.
1. In the Book of Job, Satan (an angel) is shamed by God by making Job, a common man, prove his loyalty to God in adverse circumstances, against Satan’s wishful thinking that Job will forsake his faith in his God’s omnipotence and grace when pushed to the limits. An embarrassed Satan afterwards becomes obsessed with driving Man against God.
2. The second version declares Satan to be a highly acclaimed angel in God’s court. And when God created Man, he ordered all his angels to worship him as himself. Satan refused (out of true love, it would seem) to bow to anybody else but God, and was banished from his kingdom for this indiscretion and insubordination.
3. The third version accused the Dragon, snake to be Satan. We all know the role the snake played in fueling discord in the Garden of Eden. Perhaps, the most popular form of Satan known to us.
Whatever be the origin of Satan, there is no doubt in the fact that it has permeated Western Literature and arts to a point where without the devil in it, most of these works would lose their relevance. Painting, sculpture, books, music - almost all of them are woven into this tapestry of antagonism between the God and Devil, if not overtly, at least as an undercurrent. It is not my intention to go into a detailed study of Satanism and its repercussions in Western culture. What triggered this train of thought in me is a movie that I just finished watching.
“The devil’s advocate”, is a 1997 film featuring Al Pacino, Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron. It’s a beautiful title. The origins of this phrase lies in medieval church history when a person was appointed to disprove a reported miracle by arguing rationally against it. With too many priests lining up for canonization, and possessions becoming common, the church used this tool as means to discredit charlatans and deceivers. Slowly, it got into mainstream English indicating a provoked debate to test an opponent’s strength. To act as a Devil’s advocate is to be play the bad boy in a given situation. The movie begins with Kevin, a young debonair lawyer from Florida (Keanu reeves) winning a seemingly lost case in court. A brilliant small time prosecutor with a moral conscience, and not succumbing to scruples. His desire to win is greater than his desire to be morally straight. He has pride in his abilities. Raised by a single mom, Strict catholic lady who spends most her waking time singing choir and quoting bible, Kevin walks a moral tight rope juggling his work and Christian beliefs he has grown up with.. His wife, the ravishing Mary Ann (played adorably by Charlize Theron) is ambitious but prefers to toe her Husband’s line. In theological context, Kevin’s life is symbolic of the common man living within well-defined ethical and moral boundaries with the temptation to dream and aspire big. Into his life, comes an offer from John Milton (Conscious pun intended... Paradise lost? Played by the brilliant Al Pacino). He invites Kevin to join his multinational firm in New York - the land of corruption, temptation and dreams. Kevin is sucked into the vortex of Milton’s charm, power, money and sheer magnificence of his life style and work. Though reluctant at first, Kevin slowly begins to get enveloped in the net of deception, greed, lust, moral laxity and unethical choices clothed in words precise rationalization and indisputable enticements by John Milton. The way of the devil is always smoother than the way of God. Kevin’s perfect life of peace and happiness degenerates into a vortex of confusion, fear and uncertainty. Kevin knows that choices he is being made to make are not right, yet the centrifugal pull of duplicity and lilting power of honeyed ratiocination is so powerful that he becomes blind sighted, plunging headlong into personal disaster and disintegration. He tragically loses his wife in the middle of all this chaos. The movie end on a paranormal note, but not before Kevin realizes the power of temptation and lure of evil, and his inherent sense of Goodness prevails.
The movie is a mix of reality and phantasmagoria, held together by some fine performances. Notably Al Pacino’s. To portray the devil effectively, one needs to have a streak of eccentricity. And none better than a De Niro or a Pacino to put on that mask. John Milton oozes pure urban evil - His measured tone, the perfect diction, the studied pauses, the relaxed and tempting body language, deep penetrating gaze, the nonchalant pursing of lips, the savvy seductions, the superfluity of money and excessive indulgence – all of it finds a perfect consummation in the artistry of Al Pacino. He is the master conductor whose baton weaves the story and its characters to the music he wants. In lesser hands, the role of John Milton would have ended looking superficial, gaudy and out of proportion. But not so when Al Pacino walks the stage. If there is a reason to fall in love with devil, he gives you one.
“Vanity - definitely is my favorite sin…” This is the line of the devil. The symbol behind the myth of Adam’s and eve’s banishment from Eden is vanity. The narcissism of man, his tremendous conceit in his own cloistered, narrow knowledge is the genesis of deviation from natural order... In one of the finest dialogues spoken by the devil in movie history John Milton presents his case to Kevin in the climatic moments of this film. I am paraphrasing it here:
“..Why not? I'm here on the ground with my nose in it since the whole thing began. I've nurtured every sensation man's been inspired to have. I cared about what he wanted and I never judged him. Why? Because I never rejected him. In spite of all his imperfections, I'm a fan of man! I'm a humanist. Maybe the last humanist.
Let me give you a little inside information about God. God likes to watch. He's a prankster. Think about it. He gives man instincts. He gives you this extraordinary gift, and then what does He do, I swear for His own amusement, his own private, cosmic gag reel, He sets the rules in opposition. It's the goof of all time. Look but don't touch. Touch, but don't taste. Taste, don't swallow. Ahaha….”
What a perfect expression of Man’s predicament? It is this dichotomy that Monotheistic religions will ultimately succumb to - The irreversible surge of instincts versus the iron hand of codified religions. If God is a personification of all that we conceive as good, then the Devil must take the opposite stand. And caught in the middle of this is Man. He must either align himself one way or the other. He cannot owe allegiance to both; his churches wouldn’t allow it. It in this yawning gap between the two, that different faiths and denominations have a field day.
This has turned to be a rather long essay. On Thanksgiving Day, one would have hoped that I wrote about something more pleasant than the devil. But that’s the way it is. “The devil’s advocate” then from technical aspects of film making is not exceptional. Except of course, for some fine moments of choreography, music and photography, which blends well with the dark drama on screen. But what makes this movie a cut above the rest is the thematic treatment of an ancient subject without the gore and horror of it genre. One would be hard pressed to classify this film. Is it a thriller, a social drama, a horror movie, a theological debate – it depends on how we perceive it. And it is in that sense this film becomes a landmark and sets its educated audiences thinking.
Happy Thanksgiving to all!
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala



Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Playboy - a resurrection

Playboy - a possible resurrection
In early nineties, a friend of mine from high school days visited me at Chennai. He was in the US for higher studies, and was travelling to India on a short break. Apart from a brand new Panasonic Walkman, he also happened to bring along with him a few old copies of Playboy, hidden deep under layers of clothing in his suitcase, covered in brown paper (making it look almost like a packet of hardcore narcotics).He was very proud that he had made it passed Customs in both countries. We waited for everyone to go to bed before his slipped the packet into my hands. Guilt ridden, in mellowed lighting, cuddled on the floor, I opened that packet with trepidation and trembling hands. The excitement in my eyes, I am sure, would have been palpable for anyone to see. Holding the famed Playboy in my hands was almost a dream come true. At near about twenty years of age; testosterone rapidly coursing through one’s veins, this magazine represented the consummation of all the female fantasies that run riot in a young male brain. Those glossy pages of female anatomy glittering sensually, photographed to perfection, unconditionally revealing secrets - were taboo in a cloistered society. It was as ecstatic liberation that burst through all emotional boundaries, not to mention physical. He had bought three copies, old ones- he could find in second hand stores. But that was enough. For days and months, those pages held me in thrall. Interestingly, I don’t remember hardly ever reading anything from it. It was its visual stimulus which dominated my being.
It was nearly a year after, when the rush of promiscuous passion had passed, that I remember picking up one of the issues to actually leaf through its written content. It was a 1991 copy (I forget the exact month). To my surprise, I realized that there was quite a bit of reading material in there. The editorial was lengthy and polished. It talked about the urbane Male and his intellectual proclivities. Lots of interviews, satires and comical pieces. A section was devoted to literature. There was a retrospective on Norman mailer (whom I came across for the first time) and Gabriel Marquez, who had written a short story for Playboy in 1971. It also featured a full length story by Margaret Atwood (a writer who still remains on top my all-time greats).In fact, the number of written pages in playboy was significantly more than the provocative pictures which held my sway for so long, and with absolutely minimal advertisements. Given my taste for written word, I was pleasantly surprised that within the covers of “Girlie” magazine (that’s how Playboy was cast in our minds then), so many different topics unrelated to provocative pictures were discussed in great detail. Now that my burning desire for sexual titillation was fulfilled and out of the way, I found myself actually “reading” playboy more and more. Now that was a complete reversal of my original intentions. Don’t get me wrong here. I didn’t turn into a chaste saint overnight. All that I am saying is that Playboy revealed itself more of a great intellectual tradition than anything else, and the women in them, obviously was just one strand in a broader mental landscape the magazine wished to cover. Unfortunately, in the 90’s, despite the economic liberalization, such magazine was still difficult to come by in India, and not many friends visiting from US to keep stocks replenished. So those three copies were all I had for quite some time. There were, of course, cheap imitations in India of Playboy, but none came even close to its class and quality. Probably, the only exception was Debonair, which for some time did carry decent reading material. But it couldn’t sustain that pitch for long. So for many years, I kept revisiting those three copies of Playboy. As pictures grew more and more stale (as it always happens), the reading material in there seemed to blossom into greater understanding and appreciation within me.
A few years ago, I got hold of a book which contained a collection of essays, interviews, cartoons, political satires, social comments and boo reviews featured in Playboy from 1960 onwards. What an intellectual feast? For sixty odd years, a parade of Intellectual giants have contributed to this revolutionary magazine. It cuts across genders. To call it the voice of the archetypal male is a fallacy that can be committed by those who haven’t had the chance to look at it in better detail. It was a Golden era when even a Magazine projected the most beautiful Nude pictures would also have so many thinking minds writings for it. The difference in even more glaring when we contrast in to the abysmal depths today’s brand of magazines has fallen into. Even the likes of Economist, Journal of Foreign affairs or National Geographic have hardly anything really worth reading these days -splashed as they were with advertisements and endorsements.
Anyway, the point of this essay is Hugh Hefner, the Man behind Playboy and the proverbial young man well in his eighties, has decided that Playboy would stop publishing fully nude pics, and try and regain some of the charm that it had during its glory days when it sought to educate the urban male. It would still continue publishing those ravishing pics, but a mellowed version to suit current times. Nudity on paper is not more a selling point. The Magazine circulations has dropped from Millions to thousands, and competing with online media will not be the brightest of ideas. The CEO put it rather beautifully and bluntly when he said “The battle has been fought and won”. What he meant was the sexual revolution that Magazine pioneered has been fought and won. Now with internet porn and digital photos a click away, it doesn’t make sense to invest time and money publishing nudity it in print. For a generation of Americans in from the fifties to eighties, reading playboy was a cultural initiation. From the 1953 cover girl Marilyn Monroe till date, it continues to feature some of the finest looking ladies in the showbiz Industry. Many actresses aspired to become Playboy models for the sheer visibility it offered, and equally so -many aspiring writers sought to gain space within its hallowed covers to reach their reading public. Ian Fleming, Marukami, Margaret Atwood, Martin Luther King Jr, Nabokov, Jimmy carter - all of them and many more have featured in either short stores or interviews. Never before and never after will a magazine ever hold such a sway and iconic status over men and women. The symbol of Bunny rabbit is recognizable throughout the globe, and its very presence on a piece of merchandizes evokes a range of emotions ranging from the perverse to the most sublime. I wonder, how many logos can ever do that?
True to the acumen of Hefner, he chooses not to compete for digital space, like many of his competitors did and failed. If he can stir the magazine back to its state of intellectual vibrancy, then it would be a battle won all over again. I for one, am looking forward to its new avatar.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala