Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The second time’s hardly the charm”

Posted on April 20, 2012

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Whether it’s the restaged Kolaveri or the revamped Titanic, the versions from earlier are so much better.

Watching the Tamil film 3, which non-Tamils may know as the “Kolaveri movie,” I was struck by the genius-level marketing minds that perpetuated the viral sensation. Because as it appears in the narrative, the song is nothing special. It’s what we’ve seen in a hundred other films, a group of men expressing, through casual choreography, some type of frustration towards women. The only difference between the picturisation of this song and a spiritual predecessor like Kaadhal kasakkudhayya from Aan Paavam is that the movements are a lot less stagey, a lot more naturally in sync with the lyrics. Even its innate sense of subversion, of ripping past barbed-wire boundaries, is suppressed by the timorous admonition (censor-mandated, naturally) that the drinking of alcohol is injurious to health. What a different world the version we knew thus far came from, with that fly-on-the-wall feeling of hovering in the recording room around Dhanush and company as they joshed and jammed their way to musical mini-history. That video launched a thousand hits. This one has you groping the air for the fast-forward button.

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The lack of that button was more sorely felt with James Cameron’s Titanic (at least regarding some parts of it), whose 3-D restoration I watched on April 14, 2012, exactly one hundred years after the events in the early part of the picture supposedly took place. I had a general sense of a century having elapsed, thanks to news reports and web chatter, but there was an eruption of gooseflesh when Leonardo DiCaprio drew Kate Winslet in the nude (the censors made their presence felt again, their cuts making the actress appear the chastest aristocrat who ever threw her clothes off for a portrait) and then signed and dated the picture. April 14, 1912. I was there a century later, to the day. I don’t think this has ever happened to me in a movie before, and this thrill – which now sounds second-rate, but this is just one of things where you had to have been there – tided me over a lot of the tedious parts, the bits of the ill-fated romance that I never warmed to then and I didn’t find interesting now.

Even the 3-D was underwhelming. This is an infinitely superior restoration, with none of the darkening that occurs in the other 3-D movies the minute we slip on those spectacles – the screen, here, is flooded with a painterly light. But apart from imparting to the scenes a scrupulously dioramic layering, with the extras behind looking like they were really ten feet behind, the added dimension added nothing. The awesome dread that consumes the latter portions was as visceral as it was in the two-dimensional version, which means that Cameron, even working in the older format, had made a movie as immersive as anyone could. After a while, it was just easier to pretend that this was the same movie we saw in the last millennium, when Kate Winslet was still the impetuous younger sister from Sense and Sensibility and Leonardo DiCaprio, so effortlessly blithe, hadn’t yet congealed into a joyless ham, slathering putty on his face and pretending to have founded the FBI.

My defection from the church of Cameron – that apocalyptic god of action filmmaking – began with Titanic, where several scenes were staged just for the sake of spectacle. Take, for instance, the crashing of all that fine china, stacked in shelves like shiny coins from a mint. Cameron shows the plates rattle and fall and shatter as the ship lists, but that’s all it is. Plates crash in thunderous isolation. Cut to next instance of look-at-me mayhem. (By the time he made Avatar, on that iridescent lava lamp of a planet, look-at-me mayhem was mostly all he began to care about.) The earlier Cameron would have integrated this domestic destruction into an action sequence; the plates would have crashed while the leads ran through the room for their lives, dodging all this exploding china as if escaping a strafing. But there are still moments of breathtaking formal genius. As the ship begins to sink, a firecracker is set off as a distress signal – its light illuminates the passengers below, its sound like muted thunder. Later, when all hopes are dashed, we see another firecracker explode – only this time, Cameron gives us a long shot. The light is like a faraway sprinkling of stars, the sound that of a distant pop gun. This, then, is the pitiless god’s-eye-view, and we recall the hubristic boast from one of the earliest scenes: “God Himself could not sink this ship.” Apparently, He could. And He did.

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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