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

Posted on November 9, 2012


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.

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