Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Movies now, movies then”

Posted on November 18, 2011

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It’s not just the speed of arrival of Hollywood blockbusters in our backyards that’s changed. Our relationship with these blockbusters has changed too.

There were times we had to wait an eternity, sometimes two, in order to see new films from Hollywood in the theatres – even the blockbusters. Battered by heat and humidity and mists of condensation from eager faces pressed up against glass, the coming-soon stills would age from effervescent Technicolor to a sepia from the early days of the cinema. They would mature, in essence, into coming-late stills, and the films themselves would come even later, haunted by the ghosts of a thousand previous projectors around the world. The picture on screen would jump as though it had been spooked by the creaky groans resounding from the speakers. You know you belong to a certain generation if you remember not just Julie Andrews’ songs in The Sound of Music but also the soundtrack burps, as if a Bacchanalian banquet were perpetually in progress behind the camera. But we didn’t complain. There were no 24-hour movie channels, and you couldn’t instantly download the latest releases, so if you wanted to watch “English films,” you had to head to the theatres. But first, you had to temper your desire with the patience of the saints.

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Today, our penance has paid off – the movie gods have answered our prayers. It is with a sense of divine magic that we regard the local release of The Adventures of Tintin a full month before it will play in theatres across North America. What a reversal this is. Now we can brag to our visiting cousins about films that they haven’t seen. “Oh, that Tintin movie. Isn’t that, like, old?” (A month, in these precipitate times, is what a year was in those days.) And that’s not the only thing that’s changed, the speed of arrival of these blockbusters – we’ve changed too. Hollywood hits are stacking up at theatres in foreign countries faster than ever before – and yet, there are films we choose not to see. Back then, we couldn’t wait for the latest English films to hit the theatres, even the truly terrible ones, but now we venture out to see only the good ones. The Tintin film is, of course, a must. It is as much a movie event as a slice of childhood reclaimed, but the other blockbusters – the generic ones that end up resembling each other, like the recent spate of superhero sagas – we can afford to avoid. They are the reason TV was invented. The glut has changed us, made us pickier customers.

Even the notion of a worldwide blockbuster has changed. Long ago,  “blockbuster” used to denote any film that played to capacity crowds over a long period, like The Godfather or The Sound of Music, but since Jaws opened wide and became the first film to touch $100 million in receipts in its initial theatrical run in North America (before taking a toothy bite of the box office around the world), the word has been tainted with an escapist brush. Today a blockbuster has come to mean not just a mega-grossing film but something of a frisson-inducing spectacle – and it is these frisson-inducing spectacles that we go to the theatres to see. The Godfather or The Sound of Music are uniquely American films, the first a gangster drama, the second a Broadway musical – and it’s unlikely, today, that they would be seen as worldwide-blockbuster material by a studio executive thrust with the decision of green-lighting them. boxofficemojo.com reveals that The Godfather grossed $134,966,411 domestically and  $110,100,000 in foreign territories. Can you imagine a large portion of the current theatre-going audience in India or Thailand or South Africa sitting still for a slow, three-hour meditation on family and power, where the most famous name in the cast mumbled his lines through a mouthful of cotton?

But in the early nineteen-seventies, they apparently did – for The Godfather made almost as much overseas as it did in North America. Today, similarly “American” dramas like Moneyball and The Help manage, at most, to become respectable earners in foreign territories. Nobody is slapping the “blockbuster” tag on them yet, for if they were released in our local theatres, the general audience wouldn’t queue up for tickets. The reason, of course, is that these films are dialogue-driven dramas that lose little when confined to a television set, and the audience that enjoys these films is no longer forced to go to the theatres to be able to see them. And so the theatres are filled with spectacles with an eye on general-audience entertainment. This is not a complaint. If the global appeal of the blockbuster has necessitated that it play to the lowest common denominator, it also means that we get to see Tintin without shudders and soundtrack burps. But once in a while, I dream of a future where Moneyball and The Help and J. Edgar and The Descendants wash up on our shores as soon as they begin charting a course through North America. More prayers for the movie gods.

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.

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