Slaughterhouse Five

May 18, 2006

by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

One of the strongest anti-war novel I have read. Catch-22 comes in first whenever I hear about anti-war novels. It must be the epitome of how to pull off a plot of stark contrast and irony. Mix and match dreadful conditions with silliness and humour, mock bravery with cold fear, death and insanity with life on the edge. And in the end, the protagonist escapes somehow.. (Or I hope he does so safely).

Slaughterhouse Five sets things straight. Sometimes in war, there is not even hope left. There is nothing but misery and death and pain. Desperation and severe mental trauma drives our protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, into dreaming up time-travel and alien worlds to which he often escapes.

The book is primarily about the Bombing of Dresden, which killed more people than the Hiroshima bomb, and destroyed almost all of the German City. The author himself was present as a prisoner of war in the city at the time of the bombing. (He appears in the novel as himself at times). The story is about how Billy Pilgrim, in the most terriblest of these consequences comes unstuck in time. That is being able to travel back and forth in time, essentially moving around in his own life time. He mentions that he is in a constant state of stage fright as he is not sure which part of his life he will have to play out next :).

Later he meets beings from Alien planet called Trafalmadore, who are beings of four dimensions. That is, they can look at their timelines and move along it, as we can look at a long mountain range. They find it interesting that, in all the inhabited planets, only on Earth, there is talk about free-will :D. We are all ants stuck on amber according to them, unable to change the past-present-future. Since they can move along their time line, the concept of death is not something final to them, and they are immortal. Interestingly, at the planet, he has to spend time 'mating' in their 'zoo' along with an erotic movie star from Earth.

Upon return to Earth, he spreads this philosophy among people giving them peace, and becomes famous. The book also gives us glimpses to parts of Billy's life from where his fantasy life elements might have come from.

The story threads between the war-time, his life on trafalmadore, and his later life. Since this plot involves time-travel, the author could beautifully skip across Billy's life at wish, providing us much relief because the true continuous account of the war is unbearable. The book does not glorify war at any point of time (which is mentioned as a primary objective in the first chapter). Beautiful book, totally worth the time spent.

Stalker

May 16, 2006

I have been trying to fight off this enormous lack of interest that has crept into my system. My general policy about writing is 'if it is not fun enough to rant about any subject, I will not'. (The vice versa rule might be added by a less lazy person)

There were a lot many very interesting moments that happened in my life in the last 4 months. Plain lazyness has kept me from writing about them. And even on the last post, all I could manage was post something I wrote back in November. So this is to be considered to be a step for my war against lazyness.

As always, Collective chaos came up with a classy menu for their film festival in February. Named "Tarkovsky Retrospective", it tried to showcase the great Russian director's work. Due to timing issues I could not watch the great Solaris or Nostalghia, but I managed to watch 'Mirror' and 'Stalker'.

Mirror, is a strange movie, and is not easily understood. You have to watch it to know what I mean. It is no fun writing about it 😉 . There were a lot of small scenes which touched my heart, though.
Imagine a man standing in a paddy(?) field. Quite far away. A gentle breeze descends on the field beyond the man and a ripple slowly drifts towards us. As it reaches the man, he raises his hands to feel it. When the wave finally reaches us (camera), we almost feel the shiver of cold, or atleast wish to feel it.

The movie was generally biographical, and it describes the author's interactions with his mother. For some reason, Author's mother (from yester years) and his young wife are played by the same actor. (It is stated that the author is reminded of his mother whenever he sees his wife.) At another point, the author starts describing his story to his son, and from that point onwards the young version of author is also played by the same actor who plays his son. This makes everything difficult for us. Since the director believes that art should never be forced to follow any rules… I will stop commenting about this one 🙂 But I did not have a bad time watching it. (just look out for scenes like the one I described above) I am also reminded of one of my friend's views that what's more important in art, is the how the audience is made to feel, and feeling's do not necessarily need logic. So strictly speaking a continuous story is not very important.(If you can keep your audience satisfied and make them feel exactly how you want them to feel). I think those were sb's thoughts, or atleast that is how I understood it from that discussion. (Anyway, Follow up link: Tarkovsky on Mirror)

This brings me to the exact reason I am writing. Stalker, the second film I saw on that day was simply spectacular. (A perfect science fiction movie, imo, although I am yet to see Solaris)
An (alien?) meteorite has destroyed a small Russian town in the near future. The area has come to be known as the zone. People travelling through this zone have mysteriously disappeared. Physics is said to be distorted in there. The Soviet Army has closed down the zone from people and, for years, the only people who now enter the zone are the illegal stalkers who somehow manage to outrun the army in and out of the zone. After they have closed down the place, there is a strong rumor spread among the population that there exists in the heart of this zone a room where you can go and it will grant your heart's ultimate desire.

Spoiler Warning! You have been warned, and this is a suspense movie.
The concepts of the zone and stalkers are taken from a Russian scifi novel called "The Roadside Picnic". The novel presents a curious theory that zones are picnic-spots where aliens land and leave a lot of strange artifacts not knowing their effects on surrounding population. Quite funny initially, but consider the plight of wild animals who have to deal with a flash light we left.

The story follows a stalker who has to take a scientist and a writer into the zone in search of the room. The stalker shows irrational fear about the zone, never trying to go by a straight forward path. It is like always choosing the long and safer path over the short one. The writer comes across as a drunk and pessimistic man, always doubting himself and the world. He is probably in search of inspiration for a story and the scientist says that he wants to know the actual truth about the room.

In the beginning we would see that the stalker himself in dire consequences, his child unable to walk, and probably suffering the consequences of his exposure to the zone. But somehow, he is not able to find peace away from the zone. The trio dodge bullets from the army and enter the zone through a trolley car, which takes us from a filthy brown Russian town into the lush green expanse and quiet of the zone. (The camera work all through the film is more than excellent.)

From there the long winding journey starts towards the room. Interesting fact about the journey: The stalker throws metal nuts tied with white ribbons in the general direction of travel and then follows only their trail. During this tiring journey we discover the three personalities in detail. On the actual reason each of them is seeking the room. The stalker explains more about the ways of the stalker. His love, fear and respect for the zone is revealed. The ultimate rule is that the stalker must not enter the room himself. He is only to be a Guide, and he recites an story about how his mentor broke this rule and later had to commit suicide. The landscape also changes as the complex journey begins. The lush green landscapes in the beginning start to contrast with the greyish abandoned structures inside the heart of the zone.

The background music plays its part to perfection, and the suspense builds up to an excellent emotional climax. Unlike other sci-fi movies concentrating more on the science part, this movie uses sci-fi as a plot element to bring about curious character traits of people around us. We ultimately see how wretched and how good we can be. This was one of the most stunning endings I've ever seen. Most reviews have categorized this movie as a journey from loss to discover faith. I felt it more as a discovery of qualities that make us human.

Remarkably, the movie uses almost nothing to generate so much suspense using clever plot elements and music. If you are in the right mood – that is donot feel like munching popcorn and relaxing, and are not averse to science fiction elements (which are very few) and most importantly can be patient – you should easily enjoy this one, and feel as impressed by it as me.

Original CC link for Stalker . Another (DVD) review of Stalker, which probably does better job.