Monday, February 19, 2018

The death of English

A prominent film critic once said something to the effect that the worst directors tended to come from film schools, while the best directors tended to transcend the limits of academia that such schools imposed on them and their colleagues. While it’s difficult to ascertain whether this is definitive, or true also of various other fields and professions, I can vouch, from my personal experiences, for the opinion, held by many, that it is true of writers, especially of critics: the best among them start out on their own terms, the worst among them come as young idealists from our universities. By no means do I intend this to be definitive, because there are exceptions, infrequent though they are.

My friend Dhanuka Bandara, waxing eloquent on two collections of essays, on the arts and on politics, by the late Regi Siriwardena, told me that Regi was not a top-of-his-class university product, and that Regi did not obtain First or even Second Class Honours from University College, adding in his own inimitable way that this was true of pretty much every great prose stylist in this country. That critic I referred to before, Pauline Kael, was like that too: she dropped out of the University of California, Berkley in her last year, owing to financial constraints (she made it a point, a few decades on, to joke and quip that the years she spent at Berkley encouraged her to get rid of a prose style which was academic and full of what she called “saphead objectivity”).

The point I’m trying to drive at here is that qualifications alone have never been enough to validate an artist, be he a performer or a purveyor. I am not aware how true this is of Sinhala and Tamil artists and writers, but I am painfully aware of how true it is of English artists and writers, particularly the latter. What schools and universities bestow on their graduates, that is with respect to a language, is the grammar and the syntax of that language. Taking what is learnt, while unlearning the rigidity entailed in committing it to your memory, and in the process unleashing your creativity to do away with (what else?) saphead objectivity, is part of the fun, but very many critics, from then and even now, fail to make that leap. Last Tuesday I talked about the death of Sinhala, from a specific angle. That compels me to visit the death of English, from another specific angle: the drab lifelessness of our critics and stylists.

It’s easier to write about an art form than it is to be a performer of that art form, easier to write about plays and movies and books than to be a stage director, filmmaker, or writer. But critics are needed, especially in as small and indefinable a country as Sri Lanka, because works of art by default require cohesive critics who can identify the worth of the artist and convey it to a lay readership. Helping others to see, or more to the point discern, is the critic’s primary function, and in a country like ours, where a rift exists between the vernacular and the non-vernacular, the absence of a critical fraternity that writers well in English does tend to worry. To be as simple as possible, how are we to get our art forms and artists to the world outside?

Speaking for myself, I prefer writers and critics who use their intelligence and instincts and let their emotions flow. When critics are insultingly put down as impressionistic, when what they write is ignored on the basis that their writings are ridden with emotions and vignettes (personal impressions, never even once following the rigid rationalisations that have been taught at school and at university), a confusion is sustained: what should criticism be about? It’s certainly an art in itself (that’s why we call it “vicharana kalawa”), and not a science, so to let go of those rigid rationalisations that mar good writing isn’t an option, it’s a necessity. Critics need to live, they need to breathe, to be alert.

What separates the late and the lamented writers of the past – Siriwardena, Ajith Samaranayake, L. O. de Silva, Philip Cooray, Gamini Haththotuwegama – from the new writers we have today is that the former were able to fulfil the chief function of any critic worth his salt: discerning what is new and original in a work of art and helping audiences see it. My belief is that Ediriweera Sarachchandra and Lester James Peries would have been able to survive with their work without such writers, but the existence of these purveyors, in the popular press (the most democratic form of media we have), helped them, and us, understand the sensibilities they were evoking in the people and the culture. On the other hand, the tendency of the modern critic is to rationalise something, anything, with academic principles. Just take a gander at this review of K. S. Sivakumaran’s recently published compilation, On Films Seen:

“David Bordwell suggests... there are four key components present in film reviews. These components consist of a condensed plot synopsis, background information, a set of abbreviated arguments about the film, and an evaluation. Generally speaking, when a reviewer is evaluating a film he/she tends to be assessing some, or all, of the following: the motivation for what happens in the film, the film's entertainment value, the film's social relevance and social value, and the film's aesthetic value. If it were easy everyone would be a film critic. It is a great job, most of the time. Unless of course, you are watching a genuinely bad film, the sort that once caused a notable film critic to comment, ‘That is 90 minutes of my life I can never get back.’”

Whenever I read a review that suspends and transcends disbelief, and in a bad way, I feel like that notable film critic: those minutes spent perusing and turning over the pages are minutes I can never get back. But really, must film criticism, the most alive of all modes of criticism, follow Mr Bordwell’s “key components” this way? There are reviews which don’t reveal the plot, and reviews (probably the best of them) that elaborate on rather than abbreviate arguments. When you follow the same format, you are not unlike that high school student who, to win his teacher’s attention and (if he’s in a co-ed class) his girlfriend’s attention, regularly polishes up his homework to stick to what that teacher prescribes as the only correct structure of an essay to his class. (Critics who strayed from this – Pauline Kael included – were often described as being frustrated and random, but I for one prefer such manifestations of frustration, however random they may be, to the boredom of those “correct formats” and “components" we are taught to accept at an early age.)

Mr Sivakumaran has reviewed, his book tells us, 58 movies; the most charitable and positive thing I can say here about On Films Seen is the fact that it contains (rather terse) reviews of Sinhala films which have not been explored by any English critic (Madhu Samaya, Umayangana, Mandakini). They are less reviews, in fact, than capsule reviews, which isn’t bad, though their lapses of judgment (especially those that involve puritanical overtures, like the following: “Being a natural heterosexual person, my immediate reaction in viewing the retrospective of the British filmmaker Derek Jarman was one of repugnance and repulsion”) take away from his sincerity.

The reviews for Jehan Aloysius’s Rag: The Musical were ecstatic when it first came out years ago: according to one writer it provided a “potent appeal against campus violence.” (“Because when you strip away all the hype and the hoopla [whatever that hype and hoopla is] Rag is a rare animal indeed: a musical with a social conscience” – but then have there never been musicals staged before that had a social conscience, however facile?) These were predictable in the praise (not to mention the hype and the hoopla!) they bestowed on the production; it was almost as though the musical had been turned into an ineffable experience that existed to be venerated. Common sense does prevail in such circumstances, though the one account of the play that I had been waiting for came after it was restaged this year, and not from a newspaperman; instead it was an undergraduate who came up with it.

“... the elitism of this play, especially in terms of its language politics, was deeply problematic. Sinhala was used in the play for two specific reasons. One was to imply a sense of roughness or vulgarity (the raggers resort to Sinhala, to which the students who resist the rag unanimously respond in English). The second, was for what could be called in Sinhala as ‘gong athal’ – to resort to cheap humour that ridiculed a much less privileged popular/folk tradition of Sinhala theatre, as well as to poke fun at the aesthetic sensibilities and gender performativity of Sinhala-speaking classes.”

It was the kind of elitism I encountered, though in a much less insidious form, in Dear Children Sincerely, last August. When critics are emboldened by the cosmetics of a production, or any work of art for that matter, they tend to miss out on the undercurrents, the subtleties and easy-to-ignore nuances, which breathe life into that production. When you can’t explain those undercurrents, when what’s on the surface is easier to project, the writer will resort to that surface; you can’t blame him for that, because that’s his training, and because Sri Lanka, being what it is, is too small for an individual voice to bring the curtain crashing down on the producers who (wrongly) believe that those superficial cosmetics are enough to validate and vindicate their work. That review above, which garnered outrage from many of the theatregoers at the Wendt, was rare, and beautifully so, but the likes of it continue to be limited to the thoughtful blogger, the ardent activist, the revolutionary student.

The role of the critic, Kael wrote in 1963, was to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn’t be, what is not in it that should be. Opinions do differ and converge, which is why what I like about an objet d’art may not be what you like, or what you notice. Given all this, then, our critics need to go back to school, though a different school, to unlearn what has been learnt, to shed away the rigidities that have been imbibed, and to start living.