Readers Write In #170: Meta-cinema – A case for “not-so-great” cinema

Posted on May 7, 2020

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(by Adhithya K R)

I wanted to insert “Bad cinema” or even “Terrible cinema” in the title of this piece but that would be going against the very spirit of what I’m about to say. It’s what Gautham Menon mentioned in an interview many days back that got me thinking about what the cinematic experience really means. “Every screening, every show, has its own magic associated with it. It’s not just the movie but the entire atmosphere that makes up the experience. Sometimes it works – People have an infectious enthusiasm that spreads like wild-fire and before you know it, people are cheering and they’re locked into the rhythm of the movie, responding to all the scenes exactly the way I wanted, sometimes responding to moments that I didn’t even expect them to. But sometimes things go down the wrong way. A sigh, a groan, an exclamation or a satirical laugh, and nobody’s taking the movie seriously any more.”

OK, he didn’t say all of that, but that’s the experience I got out of watching his interview. Before there were online reviews, and opinions about a movie got out so fast, the movie-going experience was very subjective for me. The first time I watched Transformers on the big screen with my cousin and a couple of friends from school, we screamed our heads off even when we had no idea who was fighting whom. I remember discussing with my Sanskrit teacher the scene where Optimus Prime played hide and seek, and making up songs with nonsense lyrics like “Transformers Kundalakesi…” – Ten, fifteen years later the memory of this day is what I carry though I’ve now wised up to the fact that Michael Bay isn’t such a God.

I don’t get such experiences that easily even with the best of movies these days. Everyone’s too engrossed with the movie. Understandable that they don’t want to waste the 250 bucks they spent on the ticket, but it’s scary to puncture that invisible shell that they’ve constructed around themselves. Most of my friends know that I’m insufferable if I start getting bored by the movie – I keep myself busy by cracking jokes and building a narrative around what’s happening on the screen. But movies these days are incredibly detailed even if they aren’t dense and it’s dangerous to disturb a Marvel Junkie who’s waited years to catch End-Game on screen.

True, movie watching is a very personal experience and something like Kumbalangi Nights will have the greatest impact when it’s watched in solitude. The unbroken, meditative state necessary to let some movies get beneath your skin just cannot be attained in the company of the others, even if they are all absolutely silent.

There are some experiences solitude cannot buy though. There’s a movie called “The Room” which has the dubious honour of being “one of the worst films ever made.” I watched this film with a close friend of mine and we spent two hours dumbstruck that someone would make a film like this, all while adding our own inside jokes and absurd “analytical explanations” to elevate it to more than what it was. The film didn’t teach us anything about life or transform a part of our soul, but it did give birth to a set of inside jokes and ideas that we kept coming back to. When we saw terrible acting by the guy who played Billy Russo in The Punisher, for example, we postulated that he had probably learnt acting by watching The Room. Unlike millions of fans who haggled over what happened at the end of the Inception, ours was an experience possible only because of that particular viewing. And that was probably true of every group that watched “The Room” which explains its cult following to date.

I had the same feeling when I watched Vishal Menon’s video essay on how Amarkalam was one of the most “meta” films of its time. I had watched Amarkalam just a few months back and I was just frustrated with the crude humour and writing, wondering how this was the turning point in Ajith’s career. But watching the video essay, I was surprised to see that Vishal had built a narrative of his own around the movie, finding meta-moments and references that made the film a ‘surreal experience’, in his own words. I didn’t necessarily buy into the story he was selling, but I could see that he did, and that was what mattered. The film enabled the construction of a story around it that gave him some form of catharsis.

This is not an attempt at justifying generic mass movies or at providing an excuse for bad filmmaking. It’s just that with the deluge of film criticism out there, people begin to re-evaluate the film that they’ve watched by isolating the film from the experience they had and belittling the memory that they’ve created in the process. I’ve done this too in the past, and only a conscious awareness of the experience as a whole lets me hold on to those memories. Sometimes it’s a good movie that truly moves me, but sometimes it can be just the basis for an engaging discussion. It could result in an inside joke or a meme. It could create the opportunity for a story outside the movie or serve as a template for you to fit your emotions on. And you can still enjoy that.

Sometimes art is not what it is, but what you think it is.