Saturday, August 27, 2005

a handful of old viewings

[august 06/07, 2005]

So I finally managed to catch Schindler's List. Flashback: when the film hit the theatres in Pune, I was in Kerala on vacation. This was a brief trip, but all I remember was that the film played in the cinema halls for exactly one week. Terrible, really, because, for all its worth, the film deserved more than that. The editing and cinematography (aah the wonderful quality of the black-and-white stock) are strongly in opposition to Spielberg's conventional style[sic] of filmmaking. After combining these two elements with the cross-fading dialogue across scenes, the film became much better than I thought it would be. Not for the narrative or the contents, really. More for the technique. Overall, I wouldn't pan it as much as I had (partly out of my fear for everything that Spielberg has made, except Duel and Jaws). What worried me about the film was its length and the treatment of Oskar Schindler. Clearly, this man was not a duudh-me.n-dhulaa saviour. He had his vices and his shortcomings and the film (to be fair) brings these to our attention. But the film seems to suffer from this desire not to allow us to dwell on the rough edges of this strange diamond. And all the atrocities inflicted on the Jews seem to relish in the lack of colour on the stock (what's with that random dose of colour for that little girl?). Eventually it all sank into the miasma I associate with Spielberg -- emotional pandering. The man cannot get rid of his fetish for mushy mawkish excess. Given Ben Kingsley's stellar turn as Itzhak Stern and Ralph Fiennes' interpretation of Amon Goeth, I'd have preferred a character study instead of a sweeping tale of redemption and rescue. I should watch The Pianist again and see if these observations might hold for that film as well -- the first time I saw it, I liked what I saw, but I fear that time may have altered my views on films in this genre.

This was somehow followed up with Be Cool (based on the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name), the sequel to Get Shorty (based on the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name). The film begins like a self-conscious sequel. So there are lots of digs at sequels and even an internal reference Get Leo to the first film. The mechanics involve record label owner Tommy Athens (James Woods) who is pitching himself to Chili (Travolta) as the subject of a movie. The problem with having Travolta doing his little jig in a movie that seems to enjoy referencing itself is that we've seen him do it before, and perhaps in a more subtle way (see Swordfish for that nice take on Hollywood and the semantics of Groundhog Day Dog Day Afternoon). This means the loss of value for nice moments like the one when Chili mentions how a film needs to only use the "F" word more than once in order to get an R rating. He then uses the "F" word - the only use of it in the film - and thus, this film gets a PG-13 rating. As soon as Tommy is bumped off shortly thereafter by a Russian hitman with a problematic wig, the film begins to go to sleep. The references (trying to be both fond and smart) are not interesting, and after a while the best graphic representation of the goings-on is a flat line. Dead. Time for the morgue.

After having sympathised with and laughed at friends who had been unfortunate victims (note: I do not even want to talk about people who decided to watch the movie on their own volition) of the Will Smith sick-chick-flick Hitch I ended up drowning in the soup myself. The ugly (IMO) Eva Mendes (see also: Training Day, Out of Time) joins the festivities where a lot of the dialogue seems written as a mainstream attempt to sound intellectual. I can't think of a real-world experience that can serve as a parallel for the experience of watching this movie. It's a mix of anguish and anxiety, the FUD of having to wait for something that your life depends on in a room that's completely ill-fashioned for the occupant, accompanied by sick feelings in your gut, sautéed with foul smells, your most hated cellphone ring-tones, idle party conversation, re-runs of Friends without the studio laughter (which means you have no hints on when to laugh), and a wet skunk in your lap. This damage deserves some serious remedial action. Or as Roger Ebert puts it, "it just doesn't seem entirely necessary."

Why is it that other less (or hardly) important films have made it through the VHS years successfully and have managed to get a reasonably decent version of themselves onto DVD while classics like Bimal Roy's last film as a director, Bandini seem doomed to death through slow degradation? Why can't the people who have the power and ability to create a record of India's great movies understand the cinematic vocabulary and grammar so evident in this film? It's not the obvious aspects like the performances and the songs. It's not the sometimes-tiresome comic interludes and the occasionally stilted lines of dialogue. It's about the sheer open-endedness of the story, the influences of expressionism, the wonderful use of chiaroscuro. Please. Someone save this film before it's too late.

As a coda, I'd like to offer my sympathies to anyone who missed watching Sarkar in the cinema hall. I don't do this because I'm getting a kick of superiority out of being able to watch it in a cinema hall. I do it after having seen a videotape sourced from the DVD recently. The audio-visual quality of the film that was so evident on the big screen has been sullied, processed with a mud filter and reduced to something that resembles a TV serial shot with a complete lack of understanding of lights and sound. That, IMHO, severely affects the impact of the film. Sure, it doesn't mark a new milestone in Indian cinema (although it has its place), but this butchered print doesn't give you any ammunition to argue for the movie's merits.

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