Saturday, March 12, 2016

Ode to a Cruiser

Driving my Chrysler PT Cruiser, it is not uncommon for me to pass another PT Cruiser going the other way and for the two of us drivers to wave to each other or nod with a smile. A silent high five; one PT Cruiser fan to another!

Obviously, I do not have a similar unspoken ritual going on when I am driving my other car, a Nissan Pulsar.

So, why the difference?

A few facts first: The PT (personal transport) Cruiser is a retro-styled compact car that was launched in 2000 by Chrysler. After 1.35 million cars sold worldwide, production of the Cruiser ended in 2010. While the 5-door hatchback was the original launch, a 2-door convertible was also launched in 2005.

Designed by Bryan Nesbitt (who was later behind the Chevrolet HHR), the car was manufactured primarily at the Toluca Assembly plant in Mexico.

The iconic design of the PT Cruiser is part of the rich heritage of unashamedly retro-styled cars like the Volkswagen Beetle and Mini Cooper. The Cruiser is specifically a modern day tribute to the bold hot rods of the American gangster era.

Some cars are personal statements of power and wealth. Some are meant to underline sophistication and class. And some others are just meant to put a smile on your face. The Cruiser does just that.

Yes, the turning radius of the Cruiser is clearly an issue and the acceleration is not something to write home about. But the individualistic, vintage look of the car made it something to aspire for (and not many compact cars are designed with that objective in mind). Affordable and contemporary, yet surrounded by an almost “collectable” aura, the Cruiser became a runaway hit when launched, spawning a number of fan clubs in many parts of the world (click here for the Australian PT Cruiser Community website). 

The first time I saw a picture of the Cruiser in a newspaper article around the time of its launch, I said to myself that I would someday own that vehicle. And years later when I did join the PT Cruiser family, it was a quiet thrill to feel a sense of indulgence without having to actually break the bank for it. It was not so much the fact that the Cruiser looks like no other car on the road. And it certainly had nothing to do with fuel efficiency or on-road performance (my Nissan Pulsar does a much better job at that). It was just the visceral feeling of driving a vehicle of amazing design that was clearly comfortable in its own vintage skin.

Perhaps, a psychologist will have a field day analysing the hidden triggers that make one a PT Cruiser fan or critic. It can be polarising. But, the one thing the car does not do is sit on the fence. By exuding an unmistakable vintage vibe, the Cruiser is either loved unconditionally or treated with derision by some. In the end, what it does is challenge our conventional pathways to establishing taste.

Quite often, we feel a need to follow every change in fashion to the point that we inevitably reach a boring sameness in our tastes. It is often a subconscious and powerful process of “mainstreaming”. But every once in a while, something comes along that is unafraid to look and feel as if from another age. And as old and naive as that age may have been, it refreshes our perspective today. A smart and simple way of turning the seemingly ‘uncool’ into something really cool!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Universal Treasures

Music is ubiquitous. It accompanies the celebration of a baptism, a birthday, a wedding, an anniversary, a march into battle. It also sustains us as we grieve at funerals. And beyond the decisive moments, music is also with us in the everyday moments. It is part of worship in churches, mosques and temples. It is the lifeblood of a carnival, it is that ‘very personal’ song between lovers, it is the throbbing beat from spectators at a sporting event, the anthem we sing, the background score to the films we watch, the insidious, and sometimes, irritating ambient tracks in a lift or lobby, the live music in a concert hall, at a party or from a busker on the street, the bedtime song we sing our children, the whistling in the dark, the singing in the shower, the aerobics accompaniment, on the car radio, on home stereos, on personal headphones; in fact you can think of hundreds of different scenarios where music is part of our lives.

Music is also universal in that in some form or the other, it is created, performed and enjoyed across races and cultures. Afro, bhangra, bel canto, boogie, bolero, calypso, carnatic, celtic, cha-cha, flamenco, ghazal, hillybilly, hindustani, jazz, polka, qawwali, rumba, salsa, samba, swing…the exercise of simply listing out some music styles throws up a rainbow of impressions of each culture and geography that gave birth to each of these genres.

Researchers from McGill University and University of Montreal in Canada and Technische Universität Berlin in Germany played specific musical compositions to two extremely different groups - first, to forty Mebenzélé Pygmies in the Congolese rainforest and second to forty Canadians. The findings (published in the journal 'Frontiers in Psychology', 07 January 2015) showed that the music (including both western pieces and Mbenzélé melodies) elicited similar types of responses in both groups for key musical characteristics such as tempo, pitch and timbre.

If I were to briefly list a few of the memorable moments in cinema that I recall involving some form of appreciation of music, it becomes clear to me that art is indeed a universal language:

In ‘The Mission’, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) scales the mighty Iguazu Falls in South America and, reaching the jungle above the Falls, he sits down and plays his oboe. The fearsome Guarani warriors who emerge from the jungle, ready to strike down the intruder, are instinctively captivated by the music and let him live.

In ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, prison inmate Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) (wrongly convicted of murder and serving time at Shawshank State Penitentiary, managed by a cold and brutal warden) does the unexpected when he locks himself in the room in which the warden’s LP record player is located. He then plays a recording of Mozart's ‘Le nozze di Figaro’ over the prison P.A. system. In a prison where not even basic human rights are honoured, the divine music wafting out to all the prisoners is a lifeline for many (although it results in Andy being mercilessly beaten by the prison guards after they break down the locked door).

In 'The Prince of Tides', football coach, Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte) is saying his farewell to the young violinist and football beginner, Bernard Woodruff (Jason Gould) at the train station. He makes a final request to the boy before the train arrives. He asks him to play the violin for him. The boy promptly opens his violin case, takes up his violin and plays with astounding passion and artistry in the midst of the bustling station. The coach is moved and says something to the effect that if he could play the violin like that, he would never touch a football.

In the end, when we respond instinctively to music, we are giving ourselves the opportunity of shared experiences with people who we may never have engaged with otherwise. This video of two strangers improvising together on a piano at a train station in France reiterates this truth in a disarmingly effective manner. Enjoy!

Friday, February 26, 2016

Why Art Matters: Dr. Linda F. Nathan at TEDx

Founding headmaster of Boston Arts Academy (Boston’s first public high school for the visual and performing arts), Dr. Linda F. Nathan speaks about Arts education as a foundation element in schooling.