Friday, May 20, 2011

The banal and the beautiful

In my Yahoo! column for today: some thoughts on great moments in average films (and the perils of nostalgia), via David Thomson's excellent book Have You Seen...?, the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers Swing Time, and Asit Sen's Khamoshi. Here goes.


  1. Somehow the "Never Gonna Dance" sequence never managed to move me!
    I prefer the initial dancing "lesson" enacted by Astaire and Rogers in front of the inimitable Eric Blore.

    A lot of George Stevens movies fit this bill - i.e great craftsmanship amidst banality. He seldom has anything profound to say. But as a craftsman of perfectly orchestrated melodrama, I wonder if he ever had an equal in Classic Hollywood.

    Take for instance the tear jerker - Penny Serenade. There is a remarkable scene in that otherwise ordinary film, in which Cary Grant pleads his case to retain his adopted daughter with an unyielding judge. Grant's acting and Stevens' direction never cease to blow me away.

    Similar memorable scenes abound in nearly all his films - A Place in the Sun, Giant, The More the Merrier among others. None of them are great films. But you keep revisiting them to enjoy specific sequences.

  2. shrikanth: I should clarify that I don't think of Swing Time as a mediocre film on the whole (as I do Khamoshi, for instance) - just that in my view the non-musical sequences don't hold a candle to the musical sequences.

    Good observation about Stevens - the anthology of moments thing seeems to apply to a lot of his work. But I do have a high overall regard for some of his films such as The Talk of the Town and Alice Adams. And Giant - well, if you can actually find the time to watch the full thing at one sitting (and make sure you do it in the right mood, on a decent-sized screen, with your cellphone switched off and no distractions - all of which are big Ifs in this day and age), you might be pleasantly surprised. It's an overblown epic, sure, but a very good overblown epic.

  3. I had exactly the same feeling after watching 'Chotti si baat', as you got after viewing 'Khamoshi'. I felt that the movie was brilliant in some parts. Specially the song 'Jaaneman jaaneman'.

  4. Have come across this in so many Groucho Marx movies that I have come to expect it now. There are brilliant scenes of comedy (slapstick and verbal) that are immediately followed by (or that immediately follow) cliched romantic scenes. This is almost exactly bollywood style, with the difference that in marx movies, it's the romantic scenes that are the filler :). To simplistically put it, you feel that in many such "schizophrenic" movies, you have the "core-competency", if you will -- comedy in marx movies for instance -- that is flawlessly executed. Then you have the filler material that's essential (for whatever reason) in making the movie palatable to the general audience. And you can generally tell which is which!

  5. But I do have a high overall regard for some of his films

    So do I. What I was trying to say was that he isn't really an auteur in the same sense as Hitchcock, Hawks or Ford. So you never see film critics talking up Stevens' films.

    Giant is wonderful entertainment. Yet, you don't see any critic talking about it in the same vein as the other two James Dean films directed by "auteurs" (Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan).

    A "George Stevens" credit is a sureshot assurance of fine entertainment. Even his lesser known films are so very good. Watched Vivacious Lady the other day on youtube (early James Stewart starrer). A great way to spend a couple of hours. But that's about it.

    His comedies won't be discussed in classes the way Bringing up Baby is probably discussed.

    I often think of the Tamil director Mani Ratnam in conjunction with George Stevens. Both exemplify very well made middlebrow filmmaking.

  6. Ashish: agree about Chhoti si Baat (which I wrote about in my last Yahoo column, by the way). Love the two songs (not just in themselves but also the way they are used within the context of the film) and a couple of scenes, but on the whole I didn't care for the film's pacing.

    Vivek: yes, I think there's been a lot of criticism about the romantic and musical interludes in many of the Marx Brothers films. Even a film as good as A Night at the Opera suffers from this. In that sense, Duck Soup is probably the most compact and consistently good film they made - hardly any frills.

  7. Excellent observation , the best memories of some movies is not the overall merit of the movie but isolated strokes of genius. There are countless hindi movies of the 60's and 70's which fall into this category.

    You can say the same for some Amitabh 'Angry young man roles'. Most of the movies were not oozing with cinematic brilliance but some of them like 'Zanjeer' , 'Deewar' had some brilliant scenes and even themes which were novel for the time.

    Also I cannot agree more about 'Woh Shaam kucch ajeeb thi' this song is not just beautiful but is hauntingly poignant , this is one of my favourite Kishore Kumar numbers . Unfortunately the movie when I watched it about three years back left me cold. It also shattered some dreams about an 'idyllic' beautiful Shakespearean tragedy which was my impression of Khamoshi entirely formed by waching it on Doordarshan in my childhood.

  8. Khamoshi was definitely uneven. I remember some other fine scenes, even though I saw the movie decades ago. I think Waheeda in repose is the common element in many of them. Waheeda walking up the stairs, slowly, holding Meghdoot, all dressed up for her lover and stunned at the news that he is getting married, to the divine music of "Tum pukar lo", and then walking away without histrionics, lengthening shadows in the corridoor - there's a stillness to the picturization that makes it poignant. I wonder if it would have looked half as good in colour. Then Waheeda sitting in the car, stiff with stern resolve, as she goes to the station where RK's girlfriend who jilted him is singing in that simpering manner (she looks as if she is making love to the mike) - Waheeda looks tired and determined. She was marvellous in that movie, I remember they make her look more and more tired till at the end she has these enormous dark circles. I am sure these moments would have died with any other actress - maybe Nutan could have done it. "Woh Shaam" is beautiful, the angles of the camera and the play of black and white are so effective as is Waheeda's almost bemused detatchment.

    What an absurd premise that movie had, though, no? That men whose hearts are broken should be given a rebound affair to heal them pronto!

  9. Anthology of moments - is a superb idea - I guess there could be a group on Youtube doing just that - snipping out those moments which go on that endless loop he mentioned