Sunday, February 19, 2012

An anthology of cinematic moments

[Did a version of this for my Sunday Guardian books column]

Conducting a workshop on film criticism at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival last weekend, I faced a minor dilemma. The workshop would last around 12 hours – enough time to show a couple of full-length movies and build elaborate discussions around them – but there was a long list of talking points to be covered, and I couldn’t think of specific films that could illustrate them all. It seemed far more useful to show clips of individual scenes – between 5 and 20 minutes long – from a number of different movies, made around the world in various genres and styles.

A part of me rallied against doing this. Was it fair to show selected bits of a film to people who might not be familiar beforehand with the work, and who would therefore not have a proper contextual appreciation of the sequence? And would that in turn mean spending long minutes explaining a back-story to a befuddled audience – using dry words to describe how the scene they had just watched connected with others that they hadn’t seen?

There was never going to be an easy resolution to this problem, but a chance visit to the fine new bookstore Kitab Khana – a 5-minute walk from Kala Ghoda – helped me make up my mind (in addition to providing one of my best purchases in weeks). In the cinema section was a sumptuous, thick book titled Defining Moments in Movies, part of the Cassell Illustrated series. This 800-pager, edited by Chris Fujiwara, is packed with photos spanning over 110 years of cinema, as well as ideas contributed by leading film writers from around the world. And one of the entries – by the critic and curator Paolo Cherchi Usai – seems to sum up the value of the book. In a piece about the sensuous silent movie The River – only 50 minutes of which have survived the ravages of time – Usai laments that this beautifully shot film was not widely considered one of the classics of the medium. “Cinema aficionados hate fragments,” he notes:
If the same criterion were applied to the other arts, the Victory of Samothrace would be buried in the basement of the Louvre; the Colosseum would be ignored by all; there would be no interest in the poetry of ancient Greece; no orchestra would perform Schubert’s Tenth Symphony. The River is cinema’s Venus de Milo.
It’s true enough that most critics tend to think of films as wholes. But as David Thomson observes in another context, it should be possible to watch movies in such a way that “we could build an anthology of moments, while admitting that elsewhere a film rests or glides downhill”.
The Cassell book isn’t just a collection of scenes though – it includes key events that may have altered film history, and some of the selections are fascinating. Consider this entry, early in the book, dating circa 1905: “Alfred Hitchcock sent to prison”. The reference is to the famous story about six-year-old Alfred being sent to the police station by his father as punishment for having done something naughty. This is an oft-repeated anecdote (and possibly an over-stated “explanation” of the recurring motifs of guilt and injustice in Hitchcock’s cinema), but how interesting to find it included here – it gives the perusing reader an immediate sense that this isn’t just an antiseptic collection of over-familiar sequences.

Indian cinema is surprisingly well-represented too – with Rays, Ghataks and even south Indian films included – though a reader who has grown up with Hindi movies is unlikely to find much new here. There is some repetition: was it necessary, for example, to include both “Amitabh Bachchan lands his first punch in Zanjeer” AND “The fight scene in the warehouse in Deewaar”? (Both are explained as being key scenes for similar reasons: they changed the image of the Hindi-movie hero and the idiom of fight scenes, made Bachchan a superstar etc. They were chosen by two different writers – Jerry Pinto and Rachel Dwyer respectively – and the non-Indian editors probably didn’t realise how similar these moments were.)

But that’s a small quibble – I’m going to be dipping into this book for a few weeks to come. Look out for scattered references to it as I try to get back to more regular movie-related writing.

P.S. Gratifyingly, as I flipped through the book on the plane back to Delhi, it turned out that some of the more offbeat inclusions were scenes I had independently opted to show at the workshop. Such as the opening of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World with the young American girl dancing to an old Hindi-film “rock video” (from THAT film): at the workshop this was a starting point for a chat about how people who are on the fringes of their own society can find it cathartic to watch movies from different cultures. It was pleasing then to read the entry’s summary, which says the scene is key because “the way outsiders seek their identity in cultures other than their own is wittily shown”.

P.P.S. The excellent Jonathan Rosenbaum is one of the many contributors to Defining Moments in Movies. On his blog are two posts about the entries he wrote for the book: here and here.


  1. did you notice the change in the URL? Some silly policy!

  2. I bought this book a while back; was surprised how good it turned out to be. Classics aside, some of the pulpier films have very convincing entries - especially Harold and Kumar go to Guantanamo Bay.

    Your post reminded me of this piece in another anthology called 1000 Films To Change Your Life. It was by chris petit, if i remember correctly. Deceptively simple, just a laundry list of isolated movie moments and moments. Stunning.

  3. Will you be doing this in Delhi anytime soon? Pretty please.

  4. The Jaan Pehechaan Ho track was used by Tarantino in a Heineken commercial. Gumnaam and Tarantino - both of them never cease to amaze.