Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Ocean’s Twelve, and ways of watching films

Watched Ocean’s Twelve last night, my first movie preview in what felt like decades. Didn’t regret it though; it was almost as fluid, snazzy, cinematic as its predecessor, if a bit overlong. Am not going to review it here, but here are some scattered thoughts:

- Enjoyed a film despite the presence of Julia Roberts in it. Big achievement for me, I deserve an Oscar. Especially because, for a few horrible, cheesy moments the Julia Roberts character has to impersonate the real Julia Roberts, which is twice as bad as Julia Roberts just playing somebody else. Soderbergh being unnecessarily cute here.

- Thought George Clooney overdid it in this one -- too many facial tics. Strange, because his trademark is being relaxed.

- There’s talk of how the shooting for this movie was one big picnic for the cast and crew, and some of the nudge-winkism has spilled over into the film.

- Some friends are annoyed by Don Cheadle’s Cockney accent. I don’t get that. Okay, so it’s inauthentic. But people, is realism really a big issue in this movie?! (Beside, it’s such fun.)

On to a related topic. After watching Ocean’s Eleven a couple of years ago, I shook the faith many of my friends had in my movie judgement by opining that it was Steven Soderbergh’s best film: better than the intriguing Sex, Lies and Videotape, better than the underseen Kafka and Out of Sight, certainly better than the overrated "Look at me, I use different colour schemes for different settings!" Traffic. I strongly felt Ocean’s Eleven was closer to "pure cinema", or at least my idea of what that is, than any of his other movies. I loved the way the film didn’t rely too much on words: the assured playfulness, the long silent passages where the director used purely visual means to convey what was going on (I remember especially the sequence that showed how the final heist was executed, and the look on Andy Garcia’s face when he realised exactly how he had been duped).

My notion of pure cinema (and I’m aware that it’s a limited definition) is a movie that doesn’t need words at all, spoken or written (on title-cards). The most famous example of this being achieved in a feature film was in F.W. Murnau’s 1924 silent The Last Laugh, which made do without any title-cards. And I also remember the late-1980s Kamal Hassan-starrer Pushpak, which was a very interesting experiment in making a modern-day silent film.

I think it’s notable that throughout film history the great purveyors of "pure film" have had to be defended most ardently by their fans, against meaning-seeking critics. Hitchcock remains, of course the classic example. Even though he has latterly been overanalysed by critics/academics anxious to atone for the sins of their forerunners in dismissing him as merely a clever showman, the fact remains that even today, it’s difficult to write an article about Hitchcock without first explaining why his work must be taken seriously. (Things haven’t changed all that much since the day Truffaut wrote in the introduction to his famous book of interviews: "Why should we take Hitchcock seriously? It’s a pity the question has to be asked at all...if we were yet able to see cinema, instead of mentally reducing it to literature, it would be irrelevant...")

Among living directors, Brian DePalma is a notable victim of this critical insistence on "serious, important, meaningful" themes and the simultaneous dismissal of a movie that is a great visual experience, with style generating its own substance. How easily it’s forgotten that cinema is, first and foremost, a visual medium. (DePalma told Quentin Tarantino in an interview once: "People often tell me, you’re very clever, you know how to make things jump and dance, but where’s the substance? And I tell them, look at a Van Gogh painting, where’s the substance in that? What you see is what you get.")

Like I said, I know my idea of pure cinema is a limited one. I had a rewarding conversation with a friend recently who pointed out that the concept as I see it doesn’t accommodate directors like Bergman, Woody Allen and others who rely on words, and the subject matter of whose movies is such that they have to include reams of dialogue. This friend also suggested that DePalma’s painting analogy was problematic, because cinema as a medium/art-form has more dimensions than painting: sound is as much a part of it as sight, and you can’t do away with words altogether. Fair enough. So I’ll accept that my espousing of directors like Hitchcock and DePalma is a matter of personal taste (and protectiveness: for such directors need defending much more than the Bergmans do).

I have all the time in the world for informed, thoughtful debates like these where opposing views on a subject are exchanged. What I don’t have time for is people who dismiss outright -- and without allowing for further argument -- great visual movies like Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve as "mere entertainment, nothing more". There are far too many of these joyless sorts.


  1. Thank you for mentioning Brian De Palma! Not very many people consider him a 'serious' filmmaker. Although Hitchcock probably doesnt need any defenders ...

    I actually quite like your definition of pure cinema - Much as I like Woody Allen, I think of him more as a dramatist than as a filmmaker. He essentially used the medium of cinema to distribute his dramas to a much bigger audience. You could do almost any of his films on the stage with minimum fuss.


  2. Dude, still can't figure what you saw in O's's "pure" trash. Reminded me of "Shalimar". Was hurt that Soderbergh had to "plagiarise" from Krishna Shah. And also fail to see how you can be dismissive of "Traffic". Colour-coded is old hat, but SS uses it so effectively. I'm actually hurt that after "Sex, Lies..." and "Traffic" SS could make films like the two Oceans. Anyway these are personal views.
    Re pure cinema: your views come close to "art for art's sake" type. Again, we differ here. Art has a function which cannot be limited to just pleasure. That does not mean we make films/art that has MESSAGE written all over it. I've seen/read enough of the social realist films/books (you know where the eternal triangle is man, woman and the tractor)to know how much of a p in the a they can be.
    My idea of cinema is still "Breathless". It's one film that I would love to see every day.It has "serious" issues...loneliness/social comment/love,etc but all you see is Belmpondo having a ball. This is what I would term as a "serious" film. Or for that matter Tarkovsky's "Andrei Rublyov"...the list is endless.
    Hitch as a serious filmmaker: I don't think we need to defend Hitch anymore. It's a dishonour to him. I think we should let those who see him as a mere entertainer live in peace.
    Coming back to O's 12: I was actually surprised that Soderbergh had holes in the script. I still remember my first impression when I saw "Sex, Lies..." (some film festival in Calcutta) was God, here's somebody who understands the necessity of a good script. Hollywood was always famous for scripts (Hitchcock being one example. I believe at times he would take a couple of years to work on a script). It was nice to see somebody going back to tradition to chart his way forward.
    I even found the cinematography very MTVish. Capturing a plane landing in that skewed camera angle...give me a break. YB