Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The big problem with small talk”

Posted on November 25, 2011


Critics are easy to strike up a conversation with when you run into them, but who listens till the end?

When you’re introduced as a critic at a gathering, you know that the others out there – the ones you will end up talking to for a few minutes as you wend your way around the room – are erupting in sighs of relief. Label yourself an accountant, and the stranger you are introduced to is left armed with little more than a broad smile and a hello. But with a critic, they’re instantly equipped with a quiverful of questions. And it’s not just about being a movie critic. Book critics, music critics and commentators on sport are equally easy to slip into a casual conversation with, because their spheres of activity overlap with your own interests. You may not walk up to an actor or a playback singer or a swashbuckling cricketer and say much more than how much you enjoy their work, with a star-struck smile, but a critic of the art is more approachable, more likely to entertain you till your eyes light on the next interesting person at the party. (Plus, he’ll throw fewer tantrums.)

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The questions usually shot at me are so unvarying that I often feel as though there exists a long-ago treatise that laid out the ground rules while conversing with a critic – and everyone’s gone through this treatise but me. Seen any good movies lately? What should I see? I’ve been hearing so much about this film – is it worth seeing? What did you think about that film, which I loved? The questions, sometimes, come without a question mark, demanding an answer nonetheless.  I read your review and went to this film – the experience was like picking up after my poodle. Or, I read your review and avoided this film – it turned up later on TV and I thought it was the greatest thing created since the wheel. Or, I love your writing – let me wiggle out of this couture creation so that you can autograph me all over with a glitter-tipped marker. Okay, I don’t get that last bit a lot – but the others I’ve encountered in some shape or the other. And I’m asked, most often, some variant of this question: Why are our films so bad?

This time of the year, especially, is when I encounter this question a lot, and it has to do with the rollout of Academy Awards season in North America, when the studios start to showcase their prestige releases, all hoping to win Oscars. I don’t get asked this question in summer, when mindless blockbusters crowd the screens, and a couple of times I’ve even run into this question’s evil twin. “I don’t know what the Hollywood hype is all about. Don’t you think they make as many crappy movies as we do?” But this week, in the US, the releases include The Artist (the silent, black-and-white movie that has every critic slavering with superlatives), My Week with Marilyn (about the brittle relationship between Monroe and Laurence Olivier while filming The Prince and the Showgirl), A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg’s chronicle of Freud and Jung and the birth of psychoanalysis) and Hugo (a 3-D fantasy by Martin Scorsese; enough said) – and so people wonder, “Look at the variety there. And we keep making the same films over and over. Why do you think that is?”

I usually nod and slip away, for it’s not a simple matter of comparing their ambition and ours, their range and ours, their quality and ours. It also has to do with audiences, what they want, what they’ll go to theatres to see. It has to do with how many of those derided summer blockbusters, with the great gobs of cash they generate worldwide, subsidise these riskier ventures, which play not only in the US but also in foreign territories, with Oscar labels slapped on them. It has to do with platform releases that build on reviews and word of mouth and expand gradually into wide release. It has to do with production outfits that can gamble on not carpet-bombing their film through every multiplex across the country. It has to do with acknowledging that, in a small way, we do make independent films with ambitions on par with those of these Oscar contenders, though certainly not as many in proportion to the volume of the other kind of films we make. How does one explain this when cornered at a party, over music, as you’re trying to catch the eye of the waiter with the short eats? You can’t. So you write down your thoughts instead, hoping that that creature in couture is nodding in vigorous assent, doodling heart symbols all over your column with a glitter-tipped marker.

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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