May 23, 2011

Boxing with the Idiot

Eva Green’s cinephile character in ‘The Dreamers’ proudly claims that she does not watch TV. ‘We are purists, the purest of the pure.’ That moment in this amazing film is what I could relate most to. I don’t have a TV set, I don’t want one. And I consciously stay away from the best of American TV – soaps that have a huge fan-following all around the world. I’m sure they must be well-made, and I would love them, but I’m afraid of being addicted. Reason – they will encroach into my movie-time!

Cinema, or at least the movie-watching trend in theatres, has never felt as threatened by anything as by the ‘Idiot Box’. In fact, various evolutionary milestones in the history of cinema were reactions to the advent of TV. For example, despite having produced successful colour blockbusters in the 30s, B&W movies continued to be made in Hollywood, so much so that 88% of those released in the year as late as 1947 were in B&W. Then came the TV, moving images brought home in a small box, gaining popularity in the 50s. In order to keep the audience interested, as many as 50% of the movies adopted colour. And when colour TV came in the 60s, it was the end of B&W era for cinema.

Another innovation made to counter the threat was the adoption of the Widescreen. The Aspect Ratio of 1.66:1 or more provided a visual experience that TV could not emulate. This not only led to dramatic changes in the cinema aesthetics: exploring the horizontal space, and using longer, uninterrupted shots as each frame was now wide enough to display a close up, a medium shot and a wide angle simultaneously, it also led to a natural proliferation of genres more suited to this format, like the Historical Epics and Westerns.

Hollywood also started experimenting with 3D as a ploy against the TV. The early attempts were flawed. However, the evolution continued and today 3D movies provide a strong attraction for the audience to come to the theatres. The idea is to provide them with something they do not usually experience, as is the idea behind the IMAX (Image Maximization) technology: to fill the field of human vision by producing an image as large as 20 metres high and 26 metres wide. OMNIMAX (or IMAX DOME) uses a fisheye lens for projecting a 165-degree image on a giant dome screen surrounding the viewer with high-fidelity sound, thus increasing the spectator's feeling of immersion.

These technological advances, however, continue to affect cinema in more ways than one. With improved CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) technology, the option of 3D, and a giant screen for projection, movie theatres are turning to amusement parks, with the preferred genres being Sci-Fi, Action-Adventure, and Fantasy. Drama, the most prominent film genre, is dying a slow death. Filmmaking was once a costly business. Today, with inexpensive but good-quality digital cameras around, anyone can shoot a Drama or a Comedy and upload it on the internet. In fact, the current American media is already showing such trends, where the genre of Drama is being limited to its widely popular soaps and serials. It will be interesting to see how, in the years to come, cinema responds to this. More technological innovations and increased focus on specific genres will be the oxygen for movie theatres. And perhaps the only way for Dramas, Comedies and Art-house/Experimental cinema to find its audience would be the way through the idiot box.

(A lot in this post comes from ‘Studying Film’, a book by Abrams, Bell, and Udris.)

P.S. On the insistence of a dear friend, I just finished watching Episode 1 of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’, something that seems to be tailor-made for me, because of its setting in a hospital and the characters being young doctors – things which have already become nostalgia-elements for me. Seems I have taken the first step towards exploring something I kept delaying till today. And the first thing that came to the mind of this “purest of the pure” on watching the first episode was to start the second!

May 21, 2011

Must Watch Before You Die #11: The Apartment (1960)

There are films that transcend the ‘cinema as art or entertainment’ debate and end up as examples of supreme achievement of the medium. One of those immortal classics is Billy Wilder’s ‘The Apartment’. Its script is one of the best you are ever going to read, and reading which remains pleasurable whether you have watched the film or not. (Click here for the screenplay). And Wilder re-writes it impeccably on screen through his masterful use of the tools of the craft, and of art.

‘The Apartment’ is a must-watch because:

• Of its wonderful and memorable performances. Note how the actors make sure you empathize with their characters without being overtly dramatic, and at the same time keep things funny without trying too hard.

• Of its immortal dialogue.

• Of how the movie stays true to its genre – which I believe is its biggest achievement. It is handling the issues of forbidden and extra-marital sex, lonely but ambitious city life, and romance, without losing its fun feel. For the self-assured balance it maintains, this film will remain a text book for all filmmakers.

• Of its universality and ability to entertain at any given time, it will always have the widest reach to the audience.

This film was entirely copied in one of the stories of ‘Life in a Metro’. So I was aware of the graph its story. Despite this, and I can never forgive Anurag Basu for that, ‘The Apartment’ has made a huge, and I hope an everlasting, impact on me. I am also confident that the repeat viewings are going to be even better, effectwise, and otherwise-wise!

May 20, 2011

A River Ran Through It

Until recently I thought Mumbai was a peninsula. It was a day of revelation when I realized it is actually an island – the Mumbai City and the Suburban Mumbai are actually surrounded by water from all sides and connected to the Indian mainland only through road and rail bridges. And today, another geographical truth hit me. There is a river running through Mumbai – it originates in Sanjay Gandhi National Park and after traveling 18 kilometers through the heart of Suburban Mumbai, it joins the Arabian Sea at Mahim Bay, near the now-famous Bandra-Worli Sea Link. I realized today that the filthy, stinking ‘naala’ that we cross while traveling on the local train between Mahim and Bandra is actually what has remained of the same river – Mithi – its name all but a misnomer today.

These recent discoveries about Mumbai are like discovering some essential truths about your beloved after being in the relationship for three years. And then you start looking at her, and at yourself, with a different and enhanced perspective.

So I’m thankful to a friend of mine who invited me for the screening of her documentary film on the Mithi River. ‘Making the Sewer a River Again: Why Mumbai Must Reclaim its Mithi’ is a small but hard-hitting film on the sad state of the river. Most of it is like a horror story, like most discussions involving man’s misadventures with nature. And you sit through it captivated and tensed, especially if you love nature, and more so, if you love Mumbai. But it ends with a hope, that if we work towards reclaiming the river, we can actually have an 18-kilometer long stretch of river-park corridor, with water fountains, pedestrian bridges, cycling-tracks, amusement centres, concert halls for performing arts, and even roadside shopping stalls. It can be one beautiful site of tourist attraction, like Venice, and a river will run through Mumbai again.

What can we do at this stage to help this ambitious initiative? It is simple. Just watch the film by clicking here. And forward the link to as many as you can. If you love Mumbai as much as I do, you’ll find this simple exercise extremely fulfilling.

May 09, 2011

European Art

A mundane rural area scattered with ruined buildings is the site of a meteorite that landed on earth twenty years ago. The meteorite was never found, but it was rumored that the site had the potential to fulfill a person’s innermost desires. As the government has declared the area, or the Zone, out of bounds, a Stalker (guide) illegally leads his two clients to the forbidden place – a dangerous expedition where the three will approach the unknown to seek their deepest desires.

Consider this plot. And you would agree that it has the potential to become a gripping sci-fi mystery Hollywood thriller, full of unpredictable twists, visual effects, and action. But then you watch Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ (1979), and find it completely different from your expectations. It is long (close to 165 minutes), slow (only 140 shots cover the entire film, many lasting more than four minutes), and demands extreme patience. Most of it is in sepia, devoid of colours, and there is hardly anything fantastic to watch, with no visual effects at all, except for some normal trickery in the celebrated closing shot of the film. Yet, it is one of the most acclaimed works of the Russian master. And I believe it is European Art Cinema at its best.

What Tarkovsky has achieved through his unique cinematic language is not a sci-fi thriller, but a poem in a sci-fi setting, not a roller-coaster ride through plot elements, but a study of the characters, going deep into their minds, and fears and obsessions, away from the materialistic scenario the plot promises to deliver. By consciously, and painfully so, staying away from the genre parameters, he has penned a novel on film, and has delivered one of the most personal and truly artistic movies ever made. I have always found Tarkovsky the most difficult filmmaker to watch, and did require more than one sitting to finish ‘Stalker’, but could watch it again as soon as it ended. The best of European cinema guarantee you this – that the movie experience will rise much above the promise made by the premise, genre conventions will be demolished under the powerful voice of the auteur, and the impact will last a lifetime, unlike the weekend Hollywood entertainer.

Following is the poem that ends the film. Read this and imagine how it can conclude a film that belongs to the sci-fi genre:

“I love your eyes, my darling friend,
Their play, so passionate and brightening,
When a sudden stare up you send,
And like a heaven-blown lightening,
It’d take in all from end to end.

“But there is more that I admire:
Your eyes when they’re downcast,
In bursts of love-inspired fire,
And through the eyelash goes fast,
A somber, dull, call of desire…”

P.S. Here is another plot:

Rome, 1938. A weak-willed Italian man, working for Mussollini, is ordered to assassinate his one-time professor in Paris. He takes his young and beautiful wife, whom he has just recently married, with him, for supposedly a honeymoon. But on reaching Paris, he discovers his professor has married a former love of his, and the two of them work together in their fight against the Fascists. Can our protagonist kill them both and fulfill his duty?

On the surface it appears like a regular political thriller. Watch Bernardo Bertolucci’s ‘The Conformist’ (1969) to discover how a piece of art, a visual masterpiece has been constructed from this. Nobody does it better than the Europeans.

May 06, 2011

Crowd-Sourcing and 'Source Code'

Watched 'I Am'. I was not interested in the movie per se. But in what went behind its making. The director and his associates approached friends and the aam janta to contribute for the movie. 400 people from 45 different cities across the world made financial contributions. Though not a first, this film will remain a fine example of what resolve and relationships can do. For those involved, I believe, being able to make it possible would have been the matter of greater pride, over what they finally made. And even otherwise, the movie does work, because of its issues, stories and, as Rajeev Masand rightly puts - its 'inherent honesty'. I would not say it was a very good film, but definitely worth a watch. Even on a very critical note, I'll have to admit that each story in itself was so affecting that my attention to technical deficiencies gradually waned. And there was not much to complain about.

Also watched the sci-fi thriller 'Source Code' that according to Roger Ebert is the best movie of the year yet. I hope that is not true, though I liked it a lot. Two things that I felt about it - one, the same merits that make it a good film, are its limitations and keep it short of being great; and two, it is a fairy tale, after all... For debating with me on these points you'll have to watch the film. Do it. You will be entertained, for sure.