Monday, February 23, 2009

Food for thought


Not my words, heard it on the radio in a discussion about who lives, how long and in what state.

Made perfect sense.

We all live in a polluted world breathing lethal chemicals and digesting mercury without our knowledge. But every one responds differently to the pollutants based on their genetic make up. And that decides what diseases one would be prone to contract or develop in the course of ones life span. It is not just about the toxins that we come in physical contact with, but also ones mental state . People with high stress and discomfort will develop certain diseases in comparison to people who live like monks. It is what it is.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Oscar Orgy

This evening millions around the world will turn on their television sets to watch a red carpet orgy "Live". An annual showcase of pomp and pageantry that has become a global event purely because of the might of the American media to "shove it down" through the air waves. While movies and people who make them are pitted against each other and crowned in a run off, it is hard to ignore that the Oscars are primarily about American cinema and films made in the English language, overwhelmingly by a white community. The token black actor or the occasional surprise and the foreign film category attempt to give it an international flavor, but in no sense of the word is it an international affair. The only thing that makes it global is the viewing audience. At the end of the day the event is merely a network TV show with premium advertising, where you get to see your favorite actors outside of their screen persona, showing of their beautiful made up faces and clothes, like gods and goddesses descended from the heavens.

This year “Slumdog Millionaire” attempts to add international flavor to the Oscars even though it’s a British production with some Indian talent lucky to be nominated. Most often the majority of the awards are shared between the Americans, the British and recently the Australians.

The great American actor George C. Scott was nominated twice and won it once for his role as the war general Patton. He never attended the gala and declined to accept the award as he felt the whole process forced actors to become stars and the ceremony was little more than a "meat parade." He found the whole notion of pitting actors against each other to proclaim one a winner, absurd and obscene. He famously said "the ceremonies are a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons." Unlike Marlon Brando who declined to accept the award for political reasons, George C. Scott had strong personal convictions about the hoopla and rightly so. But then he was George C. Scott a titan in his own right.

The Oscar podium provides a great forum for people to voice their opinion about what’s wrong with the world. But seldom do you find people taking advantage of that. For most people the award is a badge that furthers their career, so movie trailers can use the term “Academy Award Winner/Nominated” to sell their movies.

I have been guilty of watching the Oscar orgy many times. Partly because I am a filmmaker and have been a movie buff all my life. At the same time I am a documentary filmmaker and have always felt discriminated and am happy to have a documentary category at the Oscars. Even so like many in the biz and outside the biz I dream of making a feature film one day. Ironically the pain and glory of working with actors and telling a fictional story is rewarded more in the culture we live in. For all the criticism I would not mind having gold on my mantle someday.

At the back of my mind, I understand and am aware of the power of movie stars and the celebrity meat culture that poisons our world and pushes its way into our subconscious. Like many who live in a TV/internet infested world, I am a victim of this media incursion. At the same time I talk about movies all the time with great passion. Even though I find the cult of celebrity misplaced in the world we live in, most probably I will be watching the ceremony tonight rooting for “Slumdog Millionaire” and A.R.Rahman. It is what it is.

Friday, February 13, 2009


“Bodies…The Exhibition” has become America’s biggest museum sensation and has been playing to full houses across the nation. The exhibition is a traveling spectacle of 20 real cadavers and more than 250 body parts, exhibited in a dark, black and gray sleekly lit display spanning eight large rooms. The show is produced by Premier Exhibitions Inc., an Atlanta-based company which specializes in creating mega-million dollar grossing exhibitions. The company is listed on the NASDAQ offering its investors handsome dividends.

Unlike its earlier exhibition like “Titanic”, “Bodies” has stirred debate just about everywhere it has shown for using unidentified bodies of Chinese citizens, who apparently did not document their consent for use of their remains. The bodies were allegedly obtained from the Dalian Medical University in China and were unclaimed bodies from their morgue.

From Miami to New York City this exhibition has educated, enthralled, fascinated and repulsed thousands. It has been showing in New York City since 2005, held over by popular demand. The New York exhibit has recorded remarkable ticket sales. With tickets priced at $25 per person, more than the admission fees charged by the MOMA and The Met, it has become one of the most popular destinations on the New York cultural scene. It has been showing at the South Street Seaport location a two minute walk from my office. For months I had been contemplating making a visit with my daughter but some how never managed just out of concern that it might repulse us. Recently a relative of mine visiting from Canada showed great interest in seeing the exhibit, so I finally caved in. Even though my wife had some valid arguments as to why we should not go, I decided that I could not judge something informed only with what others have written or said. I had to see it for myself to determine whether it was controversial enough to warrant disdain.

As we entered the first room, a big sign screamed at us saying, PHOTOGRAPHY STRICTLY PROHIBITED. There were people in uniform making sure you did not use even your cell phone to take any pictures. This prohibition seemed a bit excessive to me. These were after all dead bodies, not ancient artifacts. The first room was dedicated to the muscular system. A skinless figure greeted me with his muscles flying out of his legs and arms. He was postured as though he was running a race and his muscles were separated as though they were flying like ribbons attached to his limbs. It looked like a sculpture at first glance, a work of art. There were others displayed in various sporting postures, swinging a baseball bat and holding a football. There were other smaller exhibits in the room, body parts enclosed in glass cases. On first glance it was fascinating to see the human body in this form. Exposed, with out skin, fat, muscles and veins- all revealed. It reminded me of a large piece of meat from an Asian village market hanging from a hook, but without the smell and the presence of flies on flesh. It was frozen in time and space. You could not help but wonder how it could have been preserved in this manner.

I found out that the preservation process is called Plastination. It involves carefully dissecting the skin from the human body, then immersing it in various chemicals and replacing all that is water in the body by a silicone rubber which effectively solidifies the body parts. It sounded simple but I am sure the process required great skill. From afar the figures looked dry, rubbery and extremely fragile. The preservation process, we were told, was painstaking work and it took approximately fifteen hundred hours to create a single specimen. The result was body parts mostly preserved in all their detail, texture and color.

I was fascinated and consumed by the science behind this exhibition until my eyes met the eyes of an anonymous body. In the eyes I could see an expression. Behind the eyes was a brain visible in all its intricate detail, and I could not stop to imagine that this person was once a living breathing creature with hopes and dreams and now, without his knowledge, was a skinless model in a room surrounded by strangers looking at him through his nakedness. This was a very disconcerting and uncomfortable feeling as I was a member of that crowd as well.

My eight year old, innocent and virgin in her thinking, devoid of the baggage of adults, was enjoying the museum with out any blinders or deep philosophical leanings. For her, it did not matter if the bodies were real or not. She was being a sponge, inquisitive and enamored by what she was seeing, completely fascinated by the detail and the textures. For her it was no different from going to the Museum of Natural History where stuffed African Elephants and other exotic animals were routinely displayed in still life. The art of taxidermy had finally come to the human specimen. But this was a reverse process. The shell was gone and the insides were frozen in time. These bodies were over 90% real and original in composition. The skin was skinned and the anatomy was the exhibit. Henry Gray’s classic book on the human anatomy was on view in three dimension. I am sure he would have been stunned by this exhibit.

As we walked through the endocrine system, nervous system, respiratory system, things began to get more and more complex. The human organs were displayed in every cross section possible. The intricate web of the human nervous system was suspended in a glass tank separated from skin, muscle and bone. Diseased lungs were displayed next to healthy ones. A smoker’s lung charred black by nicotine and other noxious substances lay there scaring the smoking audience. An obese body was displayed with yellow fat hanging from every side. That was a rare specimen. An obese Chinese is hard to come by. I had never seen one in motion in my lifetime, and here he was frozen in time.

And then finally, I saw a female in the reproductive section. This exhibition was another place where you felt it was a man’s world we lived in. This lonely woman stood there exposing herself as the bearer of life and all that comes with it. The exhibition in one sense was telling me that this was the only reason the woman was made, to bare children. I could see why some feminists have had a problem with the exhibit. But later I would find there was an explanation for it. Next to the woman, displayed in small glass containers were the different stages of the human fetus. My eight-year-old found this fascinating and disgusting at the same time, especially because her baby sister had been born only a few months ago and she was saddened to see babies lying there still and lifeless. We had to leave that room in a hurry.

Many interesting lesser known facts about the human body were displayed on the walls, on large placards. They made interesting reading even for my young one.

By the time we reached the last room of the exhibit, I had had my fill of dead bodies and the finer aspects of the construction of the machine known as the human body. I still could not get over the fact that this exhibition was racially homogeneous. Thoughts about why these were only Chinese specimens and not any other, bothered me, especially because China has a deplorable human rights record and is a nation that sends more people to death as a program of punishment than any other in the world. The United States is not far behind in that statistic. So, I wondered why I did not see American specimens – black and white - in the exhibit.

At the end of the exhibit was a perky man sitting behind a table with a button on his shirt with the words “ASK ME”. He, I assumed, was the spokesperson for the exhibit and answered questions that remained unanswered for many, and I sure had my share. When I approached the table, I realized he was there to entertain the children who were passing through the museum with some fun facts. This was the table where you could actually touch and feel body parts. You were not allowed to touch those in the exhibit as they were delicately supported and suspended. The children were having fun asking questions and answering those posed by him, while squeezing body parts. My eight-year-old, who wants to be a doctor when she grows up, had quite an impressive set of question to ask the man while he offered her a liver, heart, spleen and a lung to clasp. After the children had their fill, then came my turn to ask him some questions.

The first logical question in my mind was the one which was bothering me a lot:

“Why Chinese? Why not some Americans and some others from around the world?”

He said it was easier to acquire specimens from China than anywhere else. And all the specimens were unclaimed bodies from a morgue. And there was some other connection between the person who had pioneered this technique of preserving bodies and China, which I could not entirely understand from his explanation. Then, he added, if there were Caucasians in the exhibit, the audience (predominantly Caucasian) would have had a hard time looking at the bodies. Even though the exhibit showed, that under the skin we are all the same, the fact that the specimens were all Chinese, defeated that very purpose.

“Why mostly men”?

He responded by saying that most often it is the men who are reckless and disregard their families, get drunk and get killed. The women, on the other hand, stay close to their children and are programmed to put their wellbeing last and their children’s first and the chances of them going missing and ending up unclaimed in a morgue are rare. That, I thought, was an interesting hypothesis offered by a man who certainly did not seem like a social scientist with a PhD. I had a feeling, however, that it was his own hypothesis and not the company line. But then again, it could have been a company line fed to him in anticipation of such questions being raised by the general public.

As I walked away from the museum with an unsettling feeling, I could not help but think of the countless times humans have desecrated the dead in pursuit of science, history, curiosity and sometimes pure entertainment. These have ranged from the “body snatchers” of the 19th century, who stole dead bodies from burial sites to meet the growing demands of the medical establishment of the time, to the unearthing of mummies from Pyramids in Egypt and South America to be exhibited in museums in the west. Together with the display of the preserved bodies of Lenin, Mao and Stalin in glass enclosures and the reality TV show on the National Geographic Channel called “The Mummy Road Show,” dead bodies have always played to the curiosity of the human mind. And, now with this exhibition, new ground has been broken as a result of technological breakthroughs and humankind’s ingenuity. The art of preserving flesh and bone had reached a new level. The unending quest for humans to deal with their own mortality pushes them to look at our insides closer, than ever before.

While all these questions knocked around in my brain, one aspect of the exhibition that continued to cause me great concern: the racial homogeneity. I could not ignore the fact that these bodies come from the world’s most populous country already supplying the West with a vast array of cheap consumer goods. Now, members of the Chinese populace have, themselves, become a low-cost source of bodies and body parts. Even if they were acquired through legal channels, there is considerable evidence that China’s repressive regime does not value the lives of its citizens. With a growing worldwide illegal trade in human organs emerging as a growing business, and with China on the forefront, no matter how good the exhibits are, it was hard for me to walk away from there emotionally unscathed. The pain was even sharper when I realized how heavily my pocketbook was hit to pay to see this show. I have to console myself by observing that it at least generated this essay, for which I am grateful.

This exhibition probably will never travel to China. If it does, it would be fascinating to record the reaction of a predominantly Chinese audience. So, no matter how spectacular human endeavors are worth in my dictionary of any achievement, creative or otherwise, they are always measured by the ethics that define them. Everyone walks by one’s own code and so, this exhibition could have been a fascinating journey of spectacle for many and also had a great deal of educative value for some. For me, it was a troubling observation of ourselves, and the complex world we live in.

With more than a million viewers having passed through it, the exhibition in New York has been extended indefinitely by popular demand. It is what it is.