Monday, November 8, 2010

Double Features

It seems like every other week, I'm yet again unable to resist the urge to discuss something that treads on the boundaries of what this blog was supposed to be about. The irresistible temptation up until now has been the Performing Arts, until such time as I see what futuristic insanity Rei Kawakubo's mind has birthed lately. Film, most particularly, is about as over-saturated by uneducated opinions as you can get, mostly because pretty much everyone sees them and proclaims to know what they don't like. But this post I think is far enough out in left field (or perhaps I should say the left side of the Cricket pitch) that I'm just going to go ahead and do it. And I do have a degree in Film Production, after all, so I suppose I should be allowed.

I've been trying to see a lot of Bollywood movies lately.

Asoka (2002), Satosh Sivan Cinematographer
It always baffled me how films from India, an industry that produces more films than even Los Angeles, are practically impossible to see here with any normal kind of consistency. Until the advent of Netflix, that is, bless that cult, but I really meant in the theaters. Certainly it takes getting used to some of the cultural differences. More than the way characters behave--I'd have to be an idiot (at best) to claim that causes me any consternation--I mean the way that physical action, visual signals, and character behaviors affect cinematic meaning. At the same time, these films are positively normal by the standards of a typical American audience compared to the alien things Fellini was doing mid-career, let alone the work of someone like Alejandro Jodorowsky.

And they love those musical numbers. But you'd be hard-pressed to find any American over thirty who hasn't seen at least one movie musical in his or her lifetime, especially if you include Disney. For everyone under forty, I fail to see all that much difference with sitting around watching MTV for a couple hours.

This intimate relationship between popular music and film is a bit troublesome. It means that Pop music is restricted to being compatible with a film context, which is dangerous, especially in clubs. The most innovative club music hasn't been narrative for about twenty years, except for the preferences of silly drunken sorority girls, who are not widely known for their progressive taste in music. It does, though, raise the standards quite considerably for film soundtracks to be club-worthy, an obligation not understood here since probably Footloose, and not fully realized since Grease, or questionably Xanadu. Much of it here is  radio-ready, and put to great use, but it's usually in the Ballad category.

We have the stars of course. John Williams is a brilliant master. Ennio Morricone is an absolute genius. Jerry Goldsmith and Nino Rota generated revolutions.  Giorgio Moroder did it all. But none of them could hold a candle today to Wolfgang Gartner, Saeed Younan, or even Danny Tenaglia on a dance floor (to choose three of my favorites out of many choices).

Well, I think I have a theory. Perhaps if an Indian reader feels I'm getting it all wrong, they'd be generous enough to discuss it. It's actually a combination of different elements creating a problematic result. The language barrier is one part of it, and I'd like to argue than it's actually more of one than it might be with a Romance language, and also that it's more of a problem than, say, Japanese, when combined with other factors.

I get the impression that India's audiences weren't raised as much on the zero-attention-span television media that we did, necessitating the rapid-fire audio-visual bombardment we get with most of our films now. On the other hand, I also get the impression that living in a city like Mumbai is like that, in reality, all the time. So many people, so many vehicles, so many smells, so many colors, so much bustle, so much activity. One might think their cinema would be ponderously slow just to offer a retreat, but they move fast. It's not quite an Oliver Stone pace (and he comes back into the discussion later), but the plot points hit hard and fast.

This is where the language becomes a problem. The pace is fast, and it's a narrative bombardment, as well as cultural. In other words, take for an example the first act of Terminator 3--which, in my humble opinion, is one of the greatest feats of destructive, pyrotechnic, computer-generated action ever put on film. Sci-Fi nerds may compare it to T2 as disparagingly as you wish. Its physical action is overwhelming, but in only a very visceral way. There's not much you have to absorb intellectually, and for the most part, it relies very little on language, much like the popularity enjoyed by some of the Asian offerings, both Gojira and Kung-Fu (the preponderance of dubbing notwithstanding). It's interesting also to note that the pacing of, say, YasujirĂ´ Ozu is extremely leisurely.

It's pretty much understood that Americans love movies because they can't be bothered to ever pick up a book. Subtitles are always going to be a hindrance because no one here wants to read. I'm not quite as cynical as that makes me sound, but you know what I'm saying. To be as fair as I'll care to be, it has to do with the reasons why people go to the movies in the first place, namely for escape.

There's something else here, as well, that I'd like to coin a term to describe if no one already has: Hindglish. My eyes know very well how to handle normal subtitles. In a Chinese film, where I understand none of the spoken dialogue but can focus more on raw intonation, subtitles are a breeze. But I have found it a bit distracting that much of the dialogue in Indian film is quite familiar (English) and much of it so foreign to me (Hindi), but all contained in a single sentence, bouncing back and forth.

The sum of all this--cultural differences, the fast narrative pacing, and the disorientation caused by the dialogue/subtitle dilemma--is that it is a lot of information to absorb. That brings me to the next factor: these movies are LONG. Make no mistake, I have many, many times sat through the entirety of Lord of the Rings installments. I become engrossed. I don't need to pause the DVD fifty times. A friend from India explained that mass audiences there (he very amusingly called them "the mob") wouldn't pay to see a movie if it weren't three hours long, that they'd feel cheated paying the same price for a movie of shorter duration.

I said most Americans can't sit still for much more than an hour at a time, especially without checking their Blackberries a couple of times. I also pointed out the size of an extra-large soda at our neighborhood cineplex. I almost puked just looking at this mammoth plastic vessel. I swear the extra-large is literally a half-gallon of soda. If I drank that much Coke in an hour and a half, quite seriously I'd need to be taken to the hospital. So no way is anyone going to be able to last three hours without going to the toilet. He did point out that they have rather long intermissions, gratefully.

I really lament the fact that our longer films these days don't have intermissions. It seemed like such a civilized inclusion to the experience. I understand that theaters want to pack as many showings into their business day as they possibly can. I also can't help but wonder if the loss of that percentage of ticket sales per day wouldn't be offset by the inevitability of some audience members purchasing another $11.99 barrel of popcorn or $7.95 slab of milk chocolate on their way to or from the restroom.

I'm also not surprised that the Bollywood Dramas are as long as they are. Speaking of Oliver Stone, I was recently
inspired by the similarly intense and brilliant Rajneeti to watch JFK again, a movie I proudly own. Stone's movie is rapid-fire with not only narrative information, but also complex historical references, and it's a relatively long film. But I'm really not surprised by a lengthy Drama anymore. What got me was that the Bollywood Comedies are just as long.

I really thought about it, and in the entire history of American cinema, I could think of only one true Comedy that far surpassed the two-hour mark, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. And for the record, I also believe that is the single most epic Comedy in the history of American film. I say that not because it is so very good or so very funny (or lengthy). There have been plenty of movies that were funnier (although it is soil-yourself hilarious). I say that because on the one hand, its plot is so ingeniously, uniquely simplistic that the greatest comedic insanity could effortlessly be attached to it. On the other, it symbolized a complete 180-degree shift in the nature of comedy as a genre and a vocation, from the old Vaudevillian Guard of both live theater and the Golden Age of Hollywood to the figures who would make their names and whose work would be shaped by the brand new medium of television.

I'm going to see more of these works and perhaps my impressions will change. I've found them entirely entertaining. I think it may be that it's too much for typical American audiences to handle, in intensity and duration. In New York, maybe we have a chance. We've always loved foreign films here. Our city is intense, its pace speedy compared to Los Angeles, the suburb-without-an-urb that has molded our continent's understanding of cinematic expression in its own image. Still, we have no city here that runs at the pace of Mexico City, Tokyo, Hong Kong, or I suspect Mumbai. I'm just happy I live relatively close to Jackson Heights so I might have a chance to enjoy them.

©2010, Ryan Witte


himalayancancerchallenge said...


well i guess as indian my view on indian cinema is naturally biased. well you are right that indian cinema will need some getting cultural getting used to. and in that i just do not mean of plot and roles.

the experience of cinema is culturally different. traditionally the "mob" went to movie halls to forget the daily grind. so cinema was and still continues to be larger than life. This is of course the so called mainstream cinema, apart from the section of reality or 'art' movies.

there is more to cinema of india than just hindi, suggest you see some tamil or bengal movies which are different.

also of late the multiplex culture has given rise to cinema that portrays the indian living in post economic liberation. 3idiots,Khosla ka Ghosla, bheja fry, mixed doubles, MR and mrs iyer are some names i suggest you might find interesting to watch.

Ryan Witte said...


Thanks for your thoughts.

It's true that while the pacing might not be all that relaxing, I have noticed from the ones I've seen that the characters do seem to often be living the High Life. The cars especially are crazy: Hummer, Jaguar, Bentley, and they always seem to live in the most outrageously palatial mansions or ridiculously hip modern villas. That's definitely more escapist than the drama of reality, presuming of course that not everyone in the audience watching these films is stinking rich.

Thanks, also, for your suggestions. I've added them all to my queue.