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Sunday, December 15, 2019

The same spectacle

When the language of cinema is only the language of finance.

Written by Jaideep Unudurti | Updated: January 3, 2015 12:00:26 am

You need to see certain kinds of films. Watch that right amount of TV. Read the books that everyone is reading. You need to do this to acquire the “lowest common cultural denominator”.

When two people meet and try to carry out a conversation, you need to have something in common to talk about. Nowadays you can get by by ignoring Hollywood’s latest, but not knowing the flavours of TV gets redflagged, whether it is True Detective or Black Mirror or House of Cards. Television has become indispensable to the cultural landscape.

It is already a cliché that the best writers are in TV now. The standout shows are able to create a world that viewers can escape into.

This used to be the strength of film. Whatever happened? While the arthouse offerings continue as they always have, the loss in quality of the traditional “cinema of spectacle” has been felt deeply. Critic Mark Harris blames this on the big studios’ addiction to franchises. Every next big thing merely exists to set up the next big thing, as the ubiquitous “post-credit” scenes in all the Marvel movies attest to.

At the heart of this franchise mania is the “long release calendar”, where every blockbuster is lined up for the next half a decade. For example, I can reliably inform you that 2018 summer will see Puss in Boots 2: Nine Lives and 40 Thieves open at the theatres. Or that 2020 will see part three of the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them series, penned by J.K. Rowling. In fact, by the time the product cycle nears its end, the first films are already being rebooted, a serpent eating its tail.

There is homogeneity already at the source, as everybody reads the same scriptwriting books. The current bible is Save the Cat, a manual that breaks down narrative into 15 “story beats”, pre-programmed elements that will form the scaffolding of any possible script. Hollywood embraced this, as this structure is something that business executives are a lot more comfortable with.

The problem perhaps goes deeper — the language of cinema is now only the language of finance, with corporate buyouts and mergers as franchises collide and merge. The Sony hack revealed some interesting bits about the decision flow inside a megastudio, why a certain film is made and why another isn’t.

For example, a Powerpoint slide asks, “What is After Earth?”, and then jubilantly answers that it is “an ecosystem of content and brand initiatives”. (The M. Night Shyamalan-directed Will Smith-starrer was in fact a box office disaster). According to the studio, the themes for this debacle include “brands that withstand the test of time” and “products that withstand harsh weather”. We’ve certainly come a long way from Orson Welles.

So is there any escape from this “ecosystem”? One way is crowdfunding, fuelled by bizarre teaser trailers. Case in point is Iron Sky 2, a kind of anti-franchise, which has scooped up $15 million from enthusiastic fans.

The trailer, featuring Hitler riding his pet dinosaur “Blondi” in his secret underground base while making plans for world domination with Sarah Palin, has already gone viral. Studios can’t catch up with this arms race in outlandishness. You could say this is a primitive reaction to the endless focus-group driven plotting of the industry.

Or you can have Berandal, second in the Raid trilogy of martial-art actioners. Directed by a Welshman settled in Jakarta and featuring a former pizza delivery boy as its lead, it features some of the most kinetic, visceral sequences ever captured on celluloid. Minimal CGI and old-fashioned stunt work means that the battle sequences feel far more real than any overly choreographed explosions that Hollywood could generate. Despite being made at a fraction of the cost, Berandal has been dubbed the best action movie made this year by fans and critics alike.

Similarly, science-fiction cinema was once known for the scope of ideas and imagination. Thanks to inexpensive computer-graphics, even this feeling of wonder has been dampened. The sleeper hit, Under the Skin, featuring Scarlett Johansson as a femme fatale from outer space, takes a radical new approach, doing away with big-budget spectacle.

The central conceit of the film is Johansson driving around in a van fitted with hidden cameras as she tries to pick up men off the streets of Glasgow. The men are unaware they are being filmed; some get in the van to their cinematic deaths, some don’t, adding a bizarre layer of reality TV on this standard SF trope.

The film that blew the critics away this year was Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Watching the movie, its easy to see why it has racked up a 100/100 rating on Metacritic. Shot over 12 years, we see a six-year old Ellar Coltrane, literally in a performance of a lifetime, grow up before our eyes. No explosions, no CGI, no plot, nothing.

The audacity of the idea and execution carries the movie through. Audiences sometimes just want to be surprised.

Undurti is a Hyderabad-based writer, express@expressindia.com

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