Saturday, 23 November 2013

I, Me and Movies

In recent times, I have engaged in robust debates with friends on the merits and demerits of movies that I reviewed on my blog, and I have now realised a few things:

- There are no permanent allies or permanent foes where movie tastes are concerned
- It takes all kinds, and there's no accounting for taste
- It's not just other people who are exasperatingly unpredictable in their tastes; I'm myself high-brow in some situations and quite low-brow in others

There are those critics among my friends who resemble The Real Princess of Hans Christian Andersen's fable, because the tiniest flaw in a movie, like a pea beneath the bottommost mattress, can ruin the entire experience for them. Fortunately for me, I think I must come from stolid peasant stock, because those imperfections have to be pretty major to begin to affect my enjoyment. (At times, when these friends rip apart movies that I enjoy, I start to feel like a tasteless boor with very low standards. But then again, I have strong likes and dislikes of my own, so I guess I'm not entirely undiscriminating.) 

There are other friends who have for some unfathomable reason decided that I am a "sophisticated" critic who must have very highly evolved tastes, and who therefore expect me to like only award-winning, "art" movies. In truth, to quote an old friend of mine, I generally find such movies to be "avoid-winning" and I never watch them if I can help it. [I take heart from a report about that intellectual giant Raghuram Rajan, currently the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (and formerly my classmate), who says he enjoys physical sports but not chess!]

I view movies as entertainment, pure and simple. They represent an escapist paradise from the tedium, if not the stress, of everyday day. I'm not a "serious" movie-goer or connoisseur of any sort. Yet I myself find my exact taste in movies very hard to pin down.

Looking over the list of movies I like and don't like, I can begin to understand my criteria.

I tend to like "low stress" movies, humour (clean as well as naughty, but not gross), light romance, catchy music, some action, moderate suspense, glamourised violence, interesting villains (if they must exist at all), science fiction and superheroes.

An interesting premise, a reasonably well-told story and at least the main characters fairly well defined, help a lot. I'm a lot more forgiving than The Real Princess if these aren't quite stellar.

I tend not to like horror, gross-out humour, high emotion/melodrama, high-tension suspense, realistic violence, tales of suffering, struggle and sacrifice, tragic romance, tragedy in general, depictions of poverty, gritty crime, and threats to the well-being of vulnerable women, children and animals. (Does that cover everything?)

You see, I'm trying to escape from the mild unpleasantnesses of the real world for a couple of hours. Do I really need to inflict myself with intense unpleasantness, however vicarious?

A related piece of criticism that I hear about movies that I like is that they are "not realistic". On the contrary, I believe that is the very reason for my enjoyment! If I craved realism that much, I could just open the pages of the daily news or walk down the street and talk to real people. I certainly don't want to buy a ticket to the cinema and find I've paid for the same reality on the screen! Among Indians of my generation, such movies find their zenith (nadir?) in Adoor Gopalakrishnan's much-awarded execration, Elippathayam, in which a character could spend ten minutes examining his face in the mirror, and the audience gets to share every one of those excruciating ten minutes with him. So much for realism in the movies. My arthouse connoisseur friends can have it all.

Then there are some actors I dislike, so I can never warm to their movies. And if I sense movie-makers are pushing political or social messages that I disagree with, there goes their movie in my eyes (Hello, Jon Favreau of Iron Man, the biggest issue with the war in Afghanistan is not that American weapons are being used against American soldiers, although the ever-patriotic home audience would certainly like to be told so! Hello, Karan Johar of that otherwise beautiful movie KANK, there's no such thing as one single "soul mate" out there whom you must marry on pain of living a loveless life!) I've never gone back to see the Iron Man sequels 2 and 3, and Johar remains, yet unforgiven, in the penalty corner of my mind.

I like a fair bit of fantasy and larger-than-life characters and situations. I like mock-scary movies rather than really scary ones, the ones that give you thrills with comfort, like when a child watches a scary movie sitting on the lap of a reassuring adult. An extra scoop of thrills, and hold the realism! In the context of Bollywood, I like seeing beautiful people performing impossible stunts, singing catchy songs and making awful jokes.

I'm always game for a light "chick flick" in which the worst possible tragedy is a couple splitting up, not the tissue-box variety like Steel Magnolias in which people suffer and die. I like all the movies based on Jane Austen's novels.

And did I mention that I like science-fiction and superhero movies?

However, in spite of the detailed list of my likes and dislikes above, I've often found myself liking or disliking movies that broke these rules.

For example, though I dislike realistic violence and gore, I have been quite happy watching movies about groups of grown men whom I care nothing about taking up arms and slaughtering each other to the accompaniment of stunts and explosions. A whole series of war movies in my collection bears testimony to this. I guess not having any feeling of attachment or identification with the characters makes them expendable in my eyes. Their sufferings aren't real enough for me to empathise with.

I also enjoyed Under Siege, Broken Arrow and Die Hard (especially Die Hard 2). Again, since I had developed no emotional connection with any of the characters, I didn't mind what happened to them, and the most suspenseful situations didn't affect me personally.

In that context, although I abhor scenes of suffering, blood and gore, I confess I love it when villains die shockingly horrible deaths. The treacherous Major Grant being sucked into a jet engine in Die Hard 2 remains one of my favourite villain deaths. In the Bollywood spy thriller Agent Vinod, the villainy of the chillingly unstoppable "colonel" is finally ended by a helicopter's tail rotor. A simple bullet will never do! If I have to put up with scenes of realistic violence and convincing portrayals of innocent people suffering because of a particularly nasty villain, I insist that that villain meet a suitably horrific fate before the movie ends. The Bollywood movie Dabangg, which I sat through with great difficulty, did satisfy me at the end. The villain, who (among other cruelties) caused the hero's asthmatic mother to suffocate to death by denying her her inhaler, gets a tractor's exhaust pipe stuffed into his mouth by the hero, while his brother presses the accelerator. That's a more cheering ending for me than a happy couple getting married. Real-world villains get away with their crimes depressingly often, so I savour every instance of retribution I can find, whether real or imaginary.

Some realistic yet violent movies are still interesting. Bollywood's Madras Café was fascinating to me because I have closely followed the Sri Lankan civil war for as long as it has raged (about thirty years).

The interplay of science fiction (which I like) and horror/heavy suspense (which I dislike), produces interesting and unpredictable results. I disliked Alien, but I didn't mind either Predator or Alien vs Predator. I guess the difference was that Alien had a vulnerable female protagonist whose safety affected me personally, whereas Predator had a commando who could presumably take care of himself, and AVP distanced the characters from me, emotionally speaking.

Also within the Science Fiction/thriller genre, I liked Terminator 2 and the entire Jurassic Park series (where I knew from the start that nothing would happen to the main characters), as well as some putatively B grade movies like Dark Waters (where I didn't care).

I disliked Jaws because of the suspense, the loud, scary music, and the photography that made me feel I was myself in the water and in imminent danger. Yet sharks in general hold a fascination for me, so I quite liked the science fiction thriller Deep Blue Sea, with its mako sharks genetically engineered to be "bigger, faster, smarter and meaner". It also helped that I was watching it at home with the volume turned down. (I'm sure Sharknado is an awful movie, but the premise is so outlandishly fascinating I don't think I can keep from watching it!)

Like Sharknado (which I haven't yet seen) and Snakes on a Plane (which I have), there are some movies I cannot resist watching because of their intriguing basic premise, even though I know in advance that they will be awful. Cowboys and Aliens just had to be seen. Likewise, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

On the other hand, there are some critically acclaimed movies I can't handle. The Godfather was very disturbing, especially in its signature scenes like the man waking up in bed with his favourite horse's head beside him, and the man being garotted to death in a car and breaking the windshield in his death throes. Mad Max still gives me nightmares, with that very disturbing disembodied hand holding a chain, and the woman and child run over. The English Patient featured breathtaking photography, but I wouldn't wish the protagonist's tragedy on my worst enemy. I wouldn't even wish them to sit through the movie. To this day, The English Patient remains my metaphor for a work of beauty that is an absolute horror.

Needless to say, I would not watch Schindler's List unless a Luger were held to my head.

There are movies that I would not willingly watch (because they're tear-jerkers or too gritty) but which I don't regret watching if I accidentally do watch them. District 9 and In Bruges were movies I watched on a flight out of sheer boredom, and found that I could appreciate them ("Like" would be too strong a word). Lots of Bollywood movies also fall into this category, too numerous to mention by name.

[Speaking of Bollywood, the average level of quality has risen perceptibly in recent years, and I find myself enjoying more of them every year. The highlights of 2013 so far have been Chashme Buddoor, Madras Café and Krrish 3, and barring a major disappointment, will almost certainly include the much-awaited Dhoom 3 in December.]

At the deepest level of self-analysis, therefore, I guess I like movies that engage me but not involve me emotionally (i.e., give me stress, move me to tears or gross me out). In other words, I'm equal parts thrill-seeker and coward.

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