Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The comfort of clichés”

There’s a special kind of heaven to be found in old things given the smallest of twists and made to seem new again.

If you’ve been following the Oscar prognosticators, you know that Ben Affleck’s Argo is a front-runner for Best Picture – at least in these pre-Lincoln, pre-Life of Pi days. This delights me not because Argo is some kind of “great movie” – in the sense of an exemplar of motion-picture art that will show post-apocalyptic civilisations what Hollywood was capable of – but simply because it’s a supremely well-executed genre movie. There’s a special kind of heaven to be found in the comfort of clichés that are presented with verve and vision – it’s only when clichés come to us lazily and apologetically that we recoil from them – and Argo is filled with reinvigorated been-there-done-that scenarios. It’s time someone recognised that edifices reassembled from Lego blocks are as worthy as those built brick by brick, and that it may actually take more skill to manipulate a large audience while respecting their patience and intelligence than to make a “great movie” that will make it to the top-ten lists of a handful of critics.

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Of course, cinema as art has its place, but the trouble, often, is that the films made with towering ambition – like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master – end up with lots of rave reviews and not a lot of box office. These films, inevitably, are almost always one-offs. While this distinctiveness, the fact that an Anderson film is like no other filmmaker’s, is what makes these films valuable in a historical context, genre films are more valuable in the cultural context – because they reach a larger audience, and as success breeds clones (in Hollywood as elsewhere), a quality, mid-budget genre hit like Argo could, strangely, end up influencing movie-making and movie-going habits more than an idiosyncratic work like The Master (which has still done reasonably well in North America, considering its style and subject matter). More studios will finance these kinds of films. More big stars will be drawn to them. More audiences will line up for them.

This has been a good season for genre films in India. We’ve seen Premium Rush and Taken 2, both of which gave me more of an action buzz than the much-vaunted new Bond film, Skyfall. What I refer to as “action buzz” is the high you get after a stunt-intensive stretch where the character you’re rooting for vanquishes the villain. Skyfall has great stunt-work in the beginning and at the end, but the film suffers from towering ambition – it wants to be The Master among James Bond pictures, which, for the longest time, were quite content being uncomplicated genre films. The director, Sam Mendes, in his desire to infuse “class” into this 50-year-old series, forgets that we want an action-adventure, not drama. The genre switch is a little confounding, not least because Mendes wants to have it both ways. He ties himself (and the movie) up in knots – though none of this matters because the Bond brand is enough to make the movie a worldwide smash.

But it matters when genre films aren’t pre-sold. Genre films, then, have to be very clear about what they’re after, capable of being condensed to a one-line description that instantly tells audiences what they’re in for and how it will all play out. Premium Rush, for instance, is your basic good-guys-being-chased-by-bad-guys movie, incorporating your basic love triangle. The one-liner for Taken 2 is even simpler: this time, Liam Neeson has to rescue his wife. Both these films aggressively court clichés (because they wouldn’t exist without them), but also sidestep these clichés in reasonably innovative ways – so we at once find things comfortingly predictable and somewhat new. In the case of Premium Rush, the newness comes from the hero inhabiting the world of bike messengers, which is new at least to us Indians. (Though as I write this, I’m grinning because our postmen do go around in bicycles. Looks like bike messengers aren’t that new to us after all.) It’s too bad Premium Rush didn’t perform as well as it should have. I’d have liked to see more such tight little action movies (as opposed to the bloated, special-effects-laden would-be blockbusters).

The most satisfying genre film I’ve seen this season is Trouble with the Curve, with Clint Eastwood, Justin Timberlake and Amy Adams. This baseball movie hails from the crusty-old-farts-do-it-better genre, which means that Eastwood, even if he is nearly blind and doesn’t trust computers, will prevail over younger and technologically savvier men. The surprise of the film is how we anticipate each cliché, and yet how smoothly enjoyable it is. This is partly due to the performances. (No one can out-grouch Eastwood, and who imagined that a former ‘N Sync frontman would grow into such a fine, appealing actor?). It’s also due to the film being steeped in Americana, with kids playing ball, small-town bars with pool tables and country music, and mom-and-pop diners serving platefuls of scrambled eggs. This could have been a genre film from the 1950s, and this old-world setting — rarely seen on screen anymore – is this film’s newness. Those Lego blocks show no signs of breaking.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

18 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The comfort of clichés”

  1. Thanks for the shout-out to Premium Rush – no one seems to have actually seen it here – but its just beautiful.

    Re Mr Eastwood – hasnt he always been making very very good genre movies , even his so called celebrated movies to me always looked like proper well made old school genre pictures, if he wasnt such an iconic figure ( less so after his performance during the elections ) – he would have got greater acclaim as a director , just my 2 pennies.

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  2. @br ” Skyfall has great stunt-work in the beginning and at the end, but the film suffers from towering ambition – it wants to be The Master among James Bond pictures, which, for the longest time, were quite content being uncomplicated genre films. The director, Sam Mendes, in his desire to infuse “class” into this 50-year-old series, forgets that we want an action-adventure, not drama. The genre switch is a little confounding, not least because Mendes wants to have it both ways. ”

    in my defence of skyfall or my argument against these lines , i ll have these quotes by francis ford copolla.”. But the French are the French – they love movies. They look at a movie differently. In America, even the critics – which is a pity – tend to genre-ize things. They have a hard time when genres get mixed. They want to categorize things. That’s why I love Wes Anderson’s films and the Coen Brothers, because you don’t know what you’re going to get, and very often you get something that you don’t expect and that’s just what a genre’s not supposed to do.”

    http://therumpus.net/2012/08/the-rumpus-interview-with-francis-ford-coppola-2/ the interview with FFC.

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  3. Coming out of Skyfall, I just couldn’t stop thinking this was a grand send-off party for Dench’s M. The script goes out of it’s way to placate and package her for…you know. Health issues or otherwise Dench probably wanted out and Sam Mendes just couldn’t hold himself back.

    My guess is, the climax was tailored to get M where she ends up. It could just be me imagining stuff, but my thoughts on Skyfall.

    Watched ‘Moneyball’?

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  4. aneek: I get what he says. But there’s a difference between fixating on genre conventions (i.e. saying “this movie is this genre, and so it cannot deviate from that”) and guessing that perhaps a movie didn’t work because it aimed for a mix of genres and couldn’t pull it off. I’ve done the latter. As for the former, there are at least a few films where my review pointed to the successful mix of genres. Can’t recall them offhand though.

    venkatesh: I reviewed “Looper” a few weeks ago.

    Hemanth: Yes, watched “Moneyball” and loved it. Loved Brad Pitt’s performance — a beautifully relaxed star turn.

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  5. Very nice read. Agree. Tarantino is the master of cliché recycling, in my opinion. I was very satisfied with Skyfall but I think The Bourne Legacy is the best action movie I’ve seen this year. That final, extended bike chase set a benchmark.

    Btw where did you get to see The Master?

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  6. “As for the former, there are at least a few films where my review pointed to the successful mix of genres”

    But even then, you are still viewing it as only a mix of genres, not as a unique genre-less film, even if it is a successful mix.That’s what Coppola is referring to I guess as the American way of looking at things.
    Also this way of looking at films pre-supposes a genre intent on the director’s part. You are evaluating the movie based on how well the director has done in doing that kind of genre film rather than going by how well the movie just hits you. If I viewed Moneyball as a “sports film” it is a miserable failure for me

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  7. BR, have you wonderd as to why we lack Clint Eastwoods here? why is that very rarely, we see 60+ or 70+ formerly successful or legend-like makers/composers/actors re-invent themselves or maybe just go about doing very well what they know how to do? The downswing in the career arcs here is really steep sometimes.As just an example, take Balu Mahendra. His style of maing, composing a shot, his plotlines are not something that are tied deeply to a particular era or sensibilities of a particular generation. Not like 60s and Bhim Singh. So why does he have difficulty in adapting himself ? Especially when his supposed protege can get away with making half-baked stuff like Mayakkam enna.BaluM can easily make that kind of film.
    (Mani Ratnam is the only 80s big name who still seems to be holding up a bit, even if he is’nt that old yet. It would be interesting to know what is that about him, that can can help explain his longevity.Forget his commercial success, it has not been there for the last 10+ years. But his inability to make a bad film even if he cant make a great one. Iam hoping your book would throw some light on this for me)

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  8. aneek: Here’s my review of “Kahaani,” where I praise the genre-melding (i.e. the genre mixing didn’t bother me at all). Though I’m fairly certain there may be other reviews where I got stuck with a genre-image in my head and was unable to get out of it. Will look for one of those as well.

    vijay: Reg “But even then, you are still viewing it as only a mix of genres, not as a unique genre-less film, even if it is a successful mix” — I guess the whole point of a genre is that it leaves its stamp so cleanly that it’s difficult to NOT notice its presence. Like in “Skyfall.” It’s impossible not to notice the strains of “classical tragedy,” from the pacing, the thematic and near-Biblical overtones (good son/bad son), the failed mother and so on. Even so, I’m only guessing that this is probably why the film kinda didn’t work for me.

    Actually liking or disliking something is the easy part. It’s instinctive. You know at once if it’s working for you or not. But trying to explain why is the harder part, and I tried to explain my disappointment with “Skyfall” using this genre element. In my eyes, that seems to be the problem. Maybe it’s really something else, that I will unearth in a future viewing.

    Reg “Also this way of looking at films pre-supposes a genre intent on the director’s part.” Not at all. The fact that a movie shows traces of a genre doesn’t mean the director intentionally put it there — unless, of course, it’s a Western or Sci-fi or something extremely specific. As always, I let the movie tell me what I’m watching, not the director.

    As I keep saying in these parts, trust the tale and not the teller.

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  9. @br what copolla said is this genre fixation happens to the best of critics.you have mentioned umpteen times that you dont like to read about a movie before viewing it.why then have an expectation from a “bond movie” and tarnish the “clean slate”.my only quibble was with your explanation of why you didnt like skyfall.anyways you can see i m a minute reader of your blog.please keep em coming.

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  10. aneek: Clean slate can only go so much, no? I can refrain reading about the specifics of this particular Bond movie, but Bond having permeated our consciousness so much, how can you not have any expectation? “Casino Royale” was a very different kind of Bond, but in that film I felt the newness and the old-Bond stuff was balanced very well, and I did not feel that to be the case here.

    I’m not saying I’m beyond “genre fixation,” as you call it. But “Casino Royale” worked for me, while “Skyfall” was just okay, and I think that’s because of the odd genre elements (classical tragedy) that didn’t quite fit in.

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  11. “Actually liking or disliking something is the easy part. It’s instinctive. You know at once if it’s working for you or not. But trying to explain why is the harder part,”

    do you always have to explain? I think it is in the attempt to explain our tastes/likes/dislikes that we often strain to set some objective parameters which might/might not exist in reality, and then say that a movie failed because it didnt meet so and so parameter. Rationalization of instinctive responses doesnt work all the time.
    When someone asks me “why do you hate Vijay(the actor)”, I’ll just say that he sucks, that a mere look at him or his films prompts nausea in me. Trying too hard to explain why I feel so will be an exercise in futility. Mind doesnt work that way. It is like you tasting a new dish and developing an instant dislike to it. Not all the time Iam going to be armed with a nice set of reasons for why I disliked something

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  12. vijay: But that’s the whole basis of criticism — (1) did I like it or not, and (2) why?

    Ille-na it becomes just a review, no? That is, just saying a bunch of things as opinion and not really exploring your feelings towards art in the context of some framework? In that case, you guys will find nothing to get aggravated about in my work :-)

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  13. BR, my point was would you be able to explain your feelings ALL the time? Not everything about how we respond to art can be reduced to a cause-and-effect type of explanation.Certain things, you just like it, that’s all. Cannot explain why. Like a certain perfume scent. Or an instant dislike for certain colors. Mind processes these things at a level which is a bit too complex to have a neat logical explanation for our responses.
    But you try the hardest, which is what I guess makes your reviews interesting.

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  14. vijay: No, no, it’s obviously not about explaining ‘your feelings ALL the time.” Obviously you’re not always going to be successful doing that. But it’s also about describing, as precisely as possible, the effect of a scene or a performance, and that — sometimes — becomes its own kind of explanation as to why you reacted the way you did.

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