Monday, 15 February 2010

Sublime or silly: curious contrasts in cinema

Watched two films at the weekend.

The first fulfilled a wish I’d nurtured for over forty years. A bit sad, isn’t it? You can decide to watch a film when you’re fourteen or fifteen and finally get round to doing it when you’re getting close to sixty.

It’s like when you live in a place with a must-visit sight-seeing spot and you never go. Ten years I lived in London, and I’ve never been to the Courtauld Gallery.

The film I saw that affected me so much when I was in my teens was Satyajit Ray’s The World of Apu. At the time I was still too young to have given up the illusion that I could pass myself off as tough – today I openly admit I’m just incurably sentimental. I’ll get a tear in my eye over episodes of The West Wing (remember when Toby organises a military funeral for a homeless man who died on a park bench but was a Marine Corps veteran? That one does it for me every time). Even as a teenager, though, I realised there was something special about The World of Apu and for the next couple of days bored my school friends telling them about it. Talk that helped me relive the poignancy while also working it off.

The World of Apu is the third film in the trilogy, and I promised myself back then that some day I’d see the other two. Well, on Sunday I finally watched the first, Pather Panchali.

What an extraordinary piece of work. The crew and cast were mostly unknowns, and though some went on to successful cinema careers, several never made another film. Ray financed it out of his own pocket at the outset, which meant it took three years to make – a few scenes here, a few scenes there, as he could afford them. He admits himself that the start is far from perfect – and there were times when I found it slow and unengaging. But then he learned the trick of timing and the film took off, with two moments of exquisite sharpness, and of course the extraordinary scene when the brother and sister wander through tall grass fronds in a field bordered by a railway and, for the first time, watch a train roll past. John Huston saw that scene before the film was finished and wrote home to announce the arrival of a cinematic genius.

Now another genius, I’ve frequently been told, is Quentin Tarantino. I get squeamish at the slightest tinge of horror or gore – I simply will not watch any more films about the Holocaust, and despite my unbounded admiration for Stanley Kubrick, I’ve never plucked up the courage to see The Shining or Full Metal Jacket – so given his reputation, I’ve made a point of not seeing Tarantino’s films either.

But Danielle has a colleague who told her she absolutely had to watch Kill Bill. ‘Much less gratuitously violent than Pulp Fiction, much more cleverly built’. So he lent her Volume 1. We watched it on Saturday.

Ironically, the aspect of the film that worried me most – the gore – simply turned out not to affect me at all. Why, I’ve seen worse in House M.D.: every time they plunge the blade into a patient’s throat for a tracheotomy, every time they make the first cut (neatly down the sternum) for open heart surgery, I frankly blanch. Kill Bill just gave us fountains of red water which, to me at least, felt about as close to the real effect of severing a head or a limb as fireworks are to an artillery bombardment.

At the end of the great fight scene, which had some smart choreography but very little else, there was some moaning from casualties, but at no other point do I remember anybody showing any pain from their wounds, or any distress over the loss of a friend or loved one. Why, the five-year old girl who has just watched her mother being murdered stands there looking no more than solemn, while the killer explains that ‘she really had it coming.’ I half expected the orphaned daughter to nod, sigh and go back to her dolls.

So is the genius in the clever writing? That ‘she really had it coming’ comment comes near the start and is delivered as though it was the best line in the film; sadly, by the time you get to the end you find it really was.

The story perhaps makes up for it all. But what is it? Just another revenge tale. The Count of Monte Christo builds the tension more, and even it is by no means Dumas’ best – it can’t hold a candle to The Three Musketeers.

You want a good revenge flick? See The Sting – now there’s a film that knows how to build suspense, how to keep you guessing, how to twist a plot, while at the same time creating brilliantly funny situations and delivering finely crafted dialogue full of wit. Even the horror is better handled: a distraught family, milling aimlessly around the weeping widow; the foreboding with which the character approaches the window to look out; the body spread-eagled on the paving stones below. That’s how to do violent death – make it believable, don’t spray coloured water around.

So a film I expected to frighten me or even sicken me, or otherwise perhaps entertain me, in the end just left me indifferent. It was simply insipid.

Tonight we watched the second Apu film, Aparajito. Tomorrow, we can complete the cycle and I can renew a joy from four decades ago (and then some) by watching The World of Apu again.

It’ll be like Champagne after lemonade.


Awoogamuffin said...

God I hate Kill Bill

Tarentino is beyond over-rated. He made one decent film (pulp fiction) and suddenly everybody had to find his films incredibly cool even though they're just style (and its the same bloody style every time) over substance.

Kill Bill has almost no redeeming features - it's just boring. Fight scenes aren't effective if you really couldn't care less what happened next.

Sorry, had to get that off my chest

David Beeson said...

You need to try Satyajit Ray - though you've already seen 'The Chess Players' - but the Apu trilogy is worth seeing.

'Kill Bill' can't hold a candle to it...

Anonymous said...

what does for me is the scene where, after the sister dies, Apu discovers the necklace that she had stolen, and to protect her memory decides to throw in in a river.


David Beeson said...

Careful, San - you've posted a spoiler... That being sad, you're absolutely right: the film has touches of perfection. I still think the scene when they move through the field towards the railway line is one, but the moment with the beads is another.