Saturday, March 16, 2024

A part-response to a piece about Nolan's Oppenheimer

(This is a short thing I wrote on Facebook in August last year - forgot to put it here. So here it is, as part of the continuing discussions around "Oscar films"...)


The writer Vaibhav Vats wrote this thoughtful piece, "Complicated Fandom", about Oppenheimer and some of the responses to it by Indian viewers – there is much to chew on here, and I recommend you read the whole thing. 
I have a slight issue, though, with two examples he provides of the audience applauding and cheering (during scenes that he felt should have been greeted more sombrely and introspectively, if not with outright dismay). 
The second of these examples – involving the very end of the film, after the frisson-creating moment between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein (a.k.a. “Oppie aur Albie ki Prem Kahani” as I have been calling them in my film-club discussions) – is more easily dealt with. The film is over, the lights come on, and the audience applauds – this can be seen as a straightforward endorsement of the film’s overall quality (by those who genuinely loved it, or by those who feel they must openly celebrate a Nolan film because of peer pressure). Or even just relieved applause by those who are thankful it is over. It doesn’t have to be seen as anything more specific. 
The other sequence Vaibhav mentions – the Trinity test scene, which begat cheering and excitement in the theatre – may need a more complex discussion, more than I can really get into here. But briefly, I think he goes a little too far in setting up a binary along these lines: 1) Chris Nolan set out to create a “deeply sobering philosophical moment” in this scene, and 2) these viewers in a sense betrayed him (and the film) with their excited/gung-ho reaction to a scene that should only have elicited horror and pity and respectful silence. 
But… that isn’t how kinetic cinema works, and it isn’t how most of our brains work when it comes to visceral stimulation. Apart from anything that it may be at a philosophical level, that Trinity scene is *also* a great cinematic action setpiece, a paisa-vasool moment for many of us, and Nolan certainly knew it would be an engine that would get the viewers’ pulses racing. He constructed it that way, set it up, detailed it, for precisely that effect. This doesn’t mean that he is indifferent to the hideous things the Bomb did to those who experienced it firsthand in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; but then, he isn’t indifferent either to the primal excitement of the scientists who had worked manically for this moment and were now seeing the awe-inspiring results in front of their eyes. BOTH those experiences, and many others in between, make up this messy thing we like to call the human condition. 
Besides, the creative process, as I have often written elsewhere, is a very complicated thing where the filmmaker/writer is trying to be true to world-creation and to the particular point of entry he/she has chosen, rather than preparing a flowchart which goes: I have to take *this this this* ethical position/deliver *this this this* message, so I will structure this work accordingly. There are countless great books and great films that humanise very “problematic” characters, not because the authors or filmmakers endorse their actions in some all-encompassing way but because, in the process of honest world-building, they have had to occupy the mind-spaces of these protagonists. 
I’m always surprised by this expectation that we should have precisely calibrated ethical responses to everything, be it a film or a joke. Even the most “liberal” of us (or “sensitive”, or whatever other word you want to use) have reptilian layers that can be stimulated or excited by nasty things. And equally, when a well-made film contains a depressing or upsetting sequence, you can still be thrilled or moved to applause because of how powerfully it was done, because you recognise the quality of the achievement. When Dr Strangelove ends with those gorgeous images of mushroom clouds over our stone-dead planet, and Vera Lynn’s eloquent voice on the soundtrack reminding us of the music that has also forever died, I know I find it haunting and stimulating, think of it as the perfect ending to a wonderful film. If I were watching it in a hall, my response would be to express my appreciation – not to sit there quietly pondering the terrible implications.
(End of rant. For now.)
P.S. that point about the Hindutva lot having very little interest in, or knowledge of the nuances of, Hindu high culture – bang on. Starting with the prime minister, whose occasional pontifications about the Mahabharata have left me bemused. But more on that some other time.
(Related post: my Oppenheimer review)

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