Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Through a prism, differently”

Among the great pleasures of pop culture is the viewing of cinema through the skewed eyes of someone else.

Bill Condon, the director of Gods and MonstersKinsey and Dreamgirls remembers his reaction to certain scenes in Bonnie and Clyde. “There was something about [the film] that I think I connected to at a very, very basic level… There’s a whole sexual tension there that I think was speaking to me in some way I didn’t even understand… Like the shock of Warren Beatty, when Faye Dunaway was trying to go down on him, of him turning over so he just basically smothers her and this look on her face of rage and betrayal and frustration. It’s unbelievable, and as you’re entering puberty and worried about that, to see that kind of thing. I still think it is powerful filmmaking that you don’t see much in movies. You never think of these things consciously, but looking at it the other day, it is interesting – Warren Beatty and his reputation as a ladies’ man and then playing this person.”

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Condon saw the film for the first time when he “probably had just turned twelve,” and it spoke to him, primarily, at a sexual level. And look at how his personal and intense and passionate reactions – the way he sees not just rage and frustration in Dunaway’s face but also betrayal – reshape the film, this scene, in our eyes. Condon’s revelation is part of a most enjoyable book, The Film that Changed my Life: 30 Directors on their Epiphanies in the Dark, and we have epiphanies of our own hearing these filmmakers talk about how they perceived a film, sometimes the same way the general public did, sometimes in ways completely different. The book is a reminder that film is not a static medium, where one critic’s star ratings can dictate someone else’s experience of a movie, and that even the “worst” of films, the films that no one in their right mind can seemingly approve of, can have their passionate champions.

In a book where Peter Bogdanovich talks about Citizen Kane, Atom Egoyan about Persona, Frank Oz about Touch of Evil, and Danny Boyle about Apocalypse Now, it’s surprising to find John Landis choose The 7th Voyage of Sinbad as his “epiphany in the dark.” He was eight when he saw the film, and “it transported me. I was on that beach running from that dragon, fighting that Cyclops. It just really dazzled me and I bought it completely.” This is just a memory, and childhood memories are the rosiest of all, but the truly fantastic part comes when Landis justifies his reaction. “Everything about a movie, and I mean this sincerely, is who you are and where you are when you saw it. Because it’s hard just to say, ‘This movie is a piece of shit,’ because depending on who you were and where you saw it, it can be a great and important thing.”

I think the conveying of one’s personal impressions of a film is great and important thing too. Like any art, cinema too is often subjected to the “greatness” debate. We’re often asked to opine on the best films of all time, for instance, and this “best of” list is expected to be an objective and ironclad set of films that oozes greatness from every pore. But as much as some kind of canonical enshrining is useful – I’d rather say “useful” than “necessary,” for while these lists can help a newcomer get up to speed, they’re never the last word, because the people who made these lists aren’t the same people as you or I – it’s far more worthwhile to register one’s personal (and therefore, necessarily idiosyncratic) views, which can help take the reader down unexpected and rewarding paths. The point, as is often stated, isn’t to agree or disagree, but to discover and delight in a new way of looking at the film in question.

Finally, here’s Gurinder Chadha looking at Purab aur Pachhim through the prism of an Indian girl who grew up in London. “I think everyone in England was very entertained by it because it was so far from the truth. It was such an exaggerated version of our lives in England. As a young girl with two long plaits, with a mother who refused to let us cut our hair or anything, [Saira Banu] was supposed to be like us, with long blond hair and cigarettes and miniskirts. We were like, ‘God, that would be great! But we’re not allowed to be like that.’ I think it was the incongruity of what [director Manoj Kumar] perceived people like us growing up in Britain to be like, and what we were actually like. That incongruity – that was bizarre.” The Indian audience, of course, had no such reference points, no such issues. The film was a blockbuster.

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 ©2013 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

4 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Through a prism, differently”

  1. What are the details or themes, in Rathnam’s early cinema, that made a very personal impact on you? I realize that this question can infringe on privacy, and I concede that I do not have time currently to read your book on this director, but if you feel that these two concerns can be pardoned, your answer would be appreciated.

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  2. UPN EarnesTaster: I think a lot of what I have to say about the impact (on me) of Mani Ratnam’s early cinema is in this piece.

    Sakkaravarthi Kaliannan: Thanks for the link. I especially loved these lines:

    “After all, what laws can be laid down about books? The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries.”

    I get into this argument a lot with those who see critics as gatekeepers, laying down firm rules as to which film (in my case) is to be allowed entry into the canon, so to speak. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to possess that kind of insight and say “this film is good, that one is bad, this other one is a masterpiece” without taking into account the ephemeral pleasures of viewing and the fact that your taste, today, may undergo quite a change tomorrow.

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  3. Isn’t that an everyday problem, how the story connects to you vs liked by the masses. There may be a few people who share similar thoughts about the film and there might be a bunch of such groups after watching a movie. Sadly very few Indian movies actually give space for this and from what I’ve seen among movie blogs(including movie buff favourites) is that there can be only one right opinion, the movie can convey only a single motive/story/message.

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