Friday, February 08, 2019

That tingling sensation (or, Attack of the Killer Chairs)

[My latest column for The Hindu is about how 4D can turn a regular movie scene into massage therapy... or whiplash]

As discussed before in this space, many factors determine the effect a movie sequence has on a viewer: your mood on the day, your emotional connect with the setting, the degree to which you relate with a character. But as a recent experience showed me, a scene’s impact may also hinge on whether the chair you are sitting in is violently shaking.

Going in to watch Damien Chazelle’s First Man, I had heard that the opening scene – in which Neil Armstrong narrowly escapes a rocket-plane accident in 1961 – was a marvelous bit of filmmaking, both for the claustrophobia-inducing sense that we are in the shuddering cockpit with Armstrong, and for the pre-echoing of things to come: we know that this man will walk on the Moon years later, after an inter-space journey much more complicated and fraught than his current adventure.

Unfortunately, I barely registered what was happening to Neil, because I was worried about the state of my own vitamin D-deficient bones. Without realizing it, I had bought tickets to a 4DX show. This apparently means the sort of immersive experience where your chair performs calisthenics each time something bumpy (like a plane ride, or an astronauts’ training session, or maybe just two people dancing the salsa) happens onscreen. Midway through, my friend was thanking her stars that she hadn’t brought her father along as initially planned. To reference the titles of other Chazelle films, the experience was less la-la-land and more whiplash.


So I couldn’t fully appreciate First Man – though I made up for it by listening to the beautiful Justin Hurwitz soundtrack at home, sitting on my boringly stationary sofa. And yet, much as I would have liked to watch the film without all these accoutrements, I was also left with the feeling that the 4D could have been more imaginative. 

All we got was chairs shaking every few minutes, and on one occasion a small quantity of cool vaporous liquid sprayed at us from the side. (I forget now what was happening in the film to necessitate this: did Neil’s miffed wife throw a glass of wine in his face?) There were so many other unexplored possibilities. For instance, in the climax, when our hero makes it to his zero-gravity destination, our chairs could have detached themselves from their moorings and floated about the large hall with us in them, like versions of the Star Child in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It is also exciting to think about what this technique may accomplish for Indian cinema. When we stand up for the national anthem before a screening, or watch an Akshay Kumar film (or stand up when the national anthem inevitably plays during an Akshay Kumar film), perhaps nozzles will spit itchy tricoloured powder into our eyes, making us feel even more patriotic than we already were? Or imagine a show of Tumbbad – a cautionary horror story about greed – where gold coins are sprinkled into the audience; when we bend to collect them, a neon-lit, battery-operated version of the demon Hastar snarls at us from under our seats.

Much can also be done with 3D holograms, which are relatively easy to project out of a screen in such a way that the audience feels the image is flying at them. That scene in Andha Dhun where evil Tabu defenestrates an old woman? How much more thrilling it would be if, at the moment of the assault, a spectral Mrs D’Sa were to appear shrieking and flailing over our heads.


Notwithstanding our conceit that such bold innovations are the prerogative of our own age, none of this is new. As far back as 1959, the American producer-director William Castle used a vibrating device – the Percepto – on selected chairs during the screening of his B-horror film The Tingler; the device came into effect during the film’s creepiest scenes, which involved a wriggling creature attacking its victims’ spines.

My favourite part of that story, though, is that the Percepto was accidentally used during a tearful scene in the Audrey Hepburn-starrer The Nun’s Story (a film as austere and high-minded as its title sounds). In the Netflix age, I feel we could do with such mix-and-matches to enliven our theatre experience. Imagine: you’re on the last scene of Badhaai Ho, Neena Gupta’s baby has made its long-awaited appearance, and instead of a hologram of a gurgling little cherub dropping virtual flowers and glitter and baby spittle on our heads, the screen dispenses a tired-looking Amitabh Bachchan in pirate regalia, waving his sword feebly and calling out to his bird.

If that won’t get lazy viewers away from their laptops and into the halls, nothing will.

[Earlier Hindu columns are here]

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