Sunday, November 05, 2023

A brief encounter with classic films, on a big screen

(my latest Economic Times column)

Most film buffs who are invested in old cinema (and by “old”, dear post-millennials, I don’t mean the hazy mists of time just before the advent of Christopher Nolan) know that we have mostly viewed classic films in conditions they weren’t made to be watched in. On small, flat screens, with countless distractions. But it is one thing to know this, quite another to be confronted firsthand with the repercussions. A proper, big-screen viewing of an iconic film in a restored print can blow your circuits and cause you to rethink everything about your movie-watching history, as happened with me during the recent Delhi screenings organised by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur and the Film Heritage Foundation team.

It began with the Dev Anand centenary in September – and the chance to see Guide and Jewel Thief in plush multiplexes – and continued at the India Habitat Centre and India International Centre. Watching Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut, G Aravindan’s folklore classic Kummatty and even Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (which I am not a big fan of generally) in these conditions was an incredibly intense experience. The wonderful, dialogue-less sequence in Kummatty where the bogeyman leads the children in a dance before transforming them into animals had a hypnotic quality that made it seem a wholly different film from the one I had seen just a year ago.

An important value-addition to the screenings were inputs by guests such as Lee Kline and Karen Stetler of the Criterion Collection, who have been involved in many restorations and were in a position to offer background information and insights. They recounted anecdotes and ethical dilemmas: is it okay, for instance, to change the look of an old film in restoration, even at the director’s bequest? (What if a director originally wanted the film to look a certain way but couldn’t do it for budgetary or technical reasons, and now has a belated opportunity to restore his vision – but at the cost of changing the look of a work that viewers have known for decades?) “You almost have to become a referee in these cases,” Kline said, mentioning how Theo Angelopoulos had wanted to make little colour corrections in a film during a restoration. Or how there was a brief proposal – eventually shot down – to turn the last two shots of Francis Ford Coppola’s black-and-white film Rumble Fish into colour, to achieve a particular artistic effect. They also spoke about the trickiness of restoring a film from a culture they didn’t know much about, such as the 1977 Senegalese film Ceddo, made by the late Ousmane Sembène. “We were looking for help from anyone since there was so little information available,” Kline said, “It was important to know the difference between one African skin tone and another. Or to be told – I wouldn’t have known this – that in Senegal the sky is almost never blue.”

My one reservation: during Kline’s introduction to Douglas Sirk’s tempestuous 1956 drama Written on the Wind, I felt he was being patronising about melodrama as a form. “Please keep in mind that you watch a film like this for fun, to laugh a bit at the characters – don’t take it seriously,” he said. This felt bizarre, especially addressed to an Indian audience made up of people who had grown up with mainstream Hindi cinema (even if many of us are sheepish about that filmic language too) – it could be that Kline was being defensive, or trying to keep our expectations low, but either way it wasn’t required, for Written on the Wind got the reception it richly deserved. I had watched it a decade ago, but this was another animal altogether. The brilliant compositions, the use of colour, Sirk’s relentlessly tracking camera which brought a kinetic energy to so many dramatic scenes, and yes, the turbulence of the emotions – all of this was heightened and made more urgent in a dark hall. The texture of the images felt different, a little grainier (in a good way) than the cool, smooth digital images most of us are so used to – you could appreciate details such as the vein popping on an anguished character’s forehead.

I felt similarly while watching another classic, made in a more restrained mode but also building towards moments of high emotion, all the more effective for having been suppressed: David Lean’s Brief Encounter, about a fleeting extramarital relationship, told mainly from the woman’s viewpoint. As a teen viewer I had crushed on the prim Celia Johnson, but hadn’t been well-placed to properly understand the two forty-ish protagonists and the intolerable situation they find themselves in after falling in love. I understood much better now, and this was aided enormously by the scale of the viewing. The conventional view is that it’s the later Lean films – the epics such as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago – that need a huge screen, but Brief Encounter – so full of stolen glances and anxious gestures – is a different type of big-screen masterpiece: as its tone moves from stiff-upper-lip reserve, and the need to keep feelings under check, to something more desperate, the film becomes tense and alarming, almost like a Hitchcock thriller.

To see those magnificent close-ups of Johnson’s troubled face, and then close-ups of another troubled character in a very different genre of film – Gary Cooper as the beleaguered lawman without support in High Noon, or Joan Crawford as the saloonkeeper Vienna in Johnny Guitar – was to be reminded of what film-watching can be like when you do it right, and how vital and relevant and dangerous an 80-year-old film can still be in these conditions. But of course, soon after this I was on my way home in the metro, watching as people “consumed content” on their mobile screens – ravenous zombies on a Halloween night.

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