September 22, 2010

Must Watch Before You Die #4: 'The Truman Show' (1998)

A couple of days ago I finished studying Nicholas Proferes’ shot-by-shot discussion of Peter Weir’s ‘The Truman Show’. In his excellent book ‘Film Directing Fundamentals’ he studies the craft of three movies, the other two being Hitchcock’s ‘Notorious’ and Fellini’s ‘8 ½‘. While I was aware of the greatness of these two masterpieces, I wondered, before watching ‘Truman’, why Proferes has chosen this movie among the two great ones. I wonder no more.

Why ‘The Truman Show’ is a must-watch-before-you-die movie?
• Because ‘How the hell they came up with this idea!’ is the universal exclamation the audience has on watching this film. You talk about innovative story ideas? After watching this film, it will be the benchmark to evaluate that. Also, twelve years after its release, it now has indeed acquired a prophetic status, with our private lives actually being chased by the phenomenon of reality television.
• Because this story can only be told through the medium of cinema. Movies like these establish the importance and uniqueness of cinema among other forms of art and expression. ‘The Truman Show’ is a triumph of the power of cinema, something that would make its founding fathers smile in their graves.
• Because it is universal in its emotional appeal and entertainment. No one can stay unaffected by the wonderful journey of Truman, beyond cultures, languages, and even tastes. This film again proves that when it comes to pure entertainment, nobody does it better than Hollywood.
• Because Jim Carrey is Jim Carrey. And in this film he is more than that. He is Truman. I have watched its dramatic scenes so many times already, and with a very mathematical eye at the camera movement and the edit pattern and all. And in spite of that, Carrey’s performance makes me truly emotional. The climax is devastating and uplifting at the same time.
• Because you can not help but think about the philosophical undertone of this film – the world is an illusion, a make-believe trap for us, controlled by a mastermind, who loves us, but is cruel at the same time, who exists because of the world he has created, and the world exists because we allow ourselves to be trapped in the illusion. As Christof, the Creator of the Show says about Truman: “He could leave it anytime, if his was more than just a vague ambition. If he was absolutely determined to discover the truth, there is no way we could prevent him... ultimately, Truman prefers his cell.”

If you haven’t watched this movie, you are definitely missing something wonderful.

A Dream Come True

Last week I got the opportunity to talk to a group of Mass Media students, 50-60 of them, on Screenwriting. It was a wonderful experience and I feel like thanking them for their patience. The lecture ran for close to two and half hours, and though there were a few dozing heads and heavy eyelids, it was a fairly successful affair! I had gone there to learn, rather than to teach, though teaching has always been a dream. But I did learn a lot, about myself, about the students, and about the subject. There were some interesting experiences that I thought to share here:

• A long time was spent on explaining the difference between a screenplay, and a script. Some brought up the issue of a shooting script; some were obsessed with the idea of storyboarding. You can go through the “Getting Cinemate” series of my posts under the label “Reading Film” for a quick understanding of these.
• Surprisingly, it was not a problem to convince them that screenwriting needs to be learnt. Not a single one of them objected to me saying something like: “A storyteller is a born storyteller. Why does he need to learn anything?”
• I explained them about the inherent three-act structure contained in every purposeful bit of communication. One of them shared a joke – I broke it down to three acts. I did it with the poem “Johnny Johnny, Yes Papa.” And then asked someone to share a random dream he had. And showed to them how a dream does not have a universal appeal because it does not have a distinct beginning, a purposeful direction, and a definite conclusion. It is a product of the subconscious and the conscious storytelling is a different thing. Also, while sharing the dream, we actually give it a ‘structure’ because now we are consciously “telling a story”.
• I chose the structure of ‘The Matrix’ to explain them the three-act paradigm. It is a popular film and has a very conventional three-act structure (you can find the discussion in my “Getting Cinemate” discussion). Also, the inquisitiveness to ‘understand’ the story of this film helped. I’m pretty sure these students have taken the first step towards understanding the classical structure of storytelling.
• While talking about protagonists and antagonists, we had a little debate over the antagonist of ‘Titanic’. Some believed it was the fiancĂ© of Rose, before I convinced them that it was nature. Also, I loved it when someone did answer my question regarding the antagonist of ‘Inception.’ Cobb is the protagonist and he himself is the antagonist: his past, his fears, his weaknesses are proving to be the biggest hindrance in his desperate pursuit of fulfilling his dramatic need.
• I didn’t want them to take notes during the lecture. But if there was one thing I wanted them to take down, and take home, it was this: “Make sure you know the end of your story before you know the beginning or anything else.” They appreciated the illustration, and I hope they will remember it forever.

A wonderful experience indeed, for a student of screenwriting to test the theory in front of a group of enthusiasts. I wish some of them write a great script some day that would teach me a thing or two. It has to be a two-way process, or a self-centered man like me would hardly be interested. Teaching is fun, learning is life.

September 19, 2010

Must Watch Before You Die #3: 'This is Spinal Tap' (1984)

A ‘rocumentary' by director Rob Reiner on the legendary British rock band ‘Spinal Tap’, covering their trip to the USA to promote one of their forthcoming albums is the perfect answer to the ‘must watch’ question. I won’t say a word more about this, just that you must, must, must watch this film as soon as you can. Unlike other posts, I’m purposefully not giving any ‘must watch reasons’ for this film, because the most important reason will spoil the film for you.

If you have not watched this film, stop talking about it with anyone, do NOT google or wiki about it. Just watch it.

If you have watched this film already, I’m sure you understand me. Please respect this sentiment and do NOT give a hint about anything to those who haven’t watched it. Just ask them to do it soon, so that we could discuss.

By the way, for your information, Entertainment Weekly rated ‘This is Spinal Tap’ as the greatest cult film of all-time. Come, join the fan club.

September 09, 2010

Must Watch Before You Die #2: 'Raise the Red Lantern' (1991)

Zhang Yimou’s ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ is set in China, in the year 1920. It tells the story of a young girl who becomes the fourth wife of a wealthy man and finds herself caught in the game of winning that disgusting, good-for-nothing chauvinist from other ‘sisters’.

Why is this movie a must watch?
• Because it is a bold and brutal critique of our society that has traditionally been making rules to suit the polygamous and perverse nature of the male. At the same time it displays an interesting game of sexual politics by women who know how to make use of the male’s weaknesses.
• Because it is immensely erotic and haunting, without being either. There is a gutsy aesthetic decision made by the director by hardly revealing to us the face of the husband – as if it is a shame, as if it is irrelevant, though we are allowed complete access to the expressions, the emotions, and the inner lives of most of the wives.
• Because it is always wonderful to witness something so unique, so local in its socio-cultural expression, so universal in its aesthetic appeal. From the customs, to the music, to the costumes – it is an amazing cultural journey into one of the world’s oldest and richest civilizations.
• Because it is one of those rare films where the location is as important as the plot or the characters. You can not forget the imposing castle that contains all of the film and might even feel like taking a trip to China just for visiting that place.
• Because this film proves how a good director can take the script and re-write it on celluloid, making it rise to a level so supreme that is beyond words written on pages.

Film Critic James Berardinelli says, talking about its opulent visuals, “The appeal to the eye only heightens the movie's emotional power." He rated this film as the 7th best film of the decade.

September 08, 2010

Must Watch Before You Die #1: ‘The Wild Child’ (1970)

Watched Francois Truffaut’s ‘The Wild Child’ yesterday. And it inspired me to start a new series of posts on this blog. I would be recommending movies in this series that must be watched if you love cinema. A movie can be anywhere on the spectrum of poor to brilliant. And a ‘must watch’ movie need not be among the most brilliant ones. Let me make it absolutely clear that I would not suggest movies on the basis of their merit or their quality, but depending on a simple fact: If you don’t watch this movie, you are going to miss something truly unique. For example, I would recommend ‘Let’s Talk’ over superior films like ‘Maqbool’.

Also, there are certain expressions possible only through the medium of cinema. I would try to recommend those movies. ‘Amelie’ is a must watch for the same reason.

‘The Wild Child’ is based on a true story – about a beast-boy discovered in some jungle in France, and how a doctor dedicatedly works to ‘civilize’ him. Why is this film a must watch?
• Because it is a great study into the mental development of man over other species, illustrating the unique achievement of certain inherent traits in us that we hardly seem to notice. This film can actually arouse in you an interest in the psychological evolution of man.
• Because it doesn’t take sides and still triggers a discussion, a paradoxical debate in your head, about the importance or the futility of ‘civilizing’ someone by robbing him of his natural habitat. This balance, this ambivalence of the film is a rare achievement.
• Because the way Truffaut directs his actors (including himself as the Doctor) makes you seriously doubt whether a better film would be possible with a similar story.
• Because you do not want to blink and miss a moment during the entire length of the training sequences – you see the child being civilized and learned, and you smile at his achievements, but can still feel the loss of that wild ignorance, as if it were a desirable virtue.
• And finally, and this is going to be my strongest reason for many ‘must watch’ films – because you just don’t want this film to end.

“It is an intellectually cleansing experience to watch this intelligent and hopeful film” - Roger Ebert

P.S. I will try not to go through the list of movies I have already watched, because then there will be no end to this exercise. Instead, I will come up with these recommendations only when a new movie blesses me and I’m dying to make you watch that.

September 03, 2010

Disturbing Delight

When we watch the first film of a director, and one made on a low-budget, there are certain things we take for granted. If the film fails miserably, we dismiss it. And we know that the next film made by this filmmaker will not inspire us to the theatres. But if it moves you at some level, there is just one thing that comes to mind – wish it could have taken care of its flaws, wish the craft was just a little more mature, and effective.

While watching ‘Antardwand’ it was very apparent. All this script required was one final rewrite – just a little work on the structure, making small but meaningful changes in some of the scenes, cleverly hiding expository dialogue and making it more true, and at times, just getting rid of the lines – replacing dialogue with expressions, with action. And I believe one week’s work would have been sufficient to cause significant improvement.

‘Antardwand’ is a deserving story, and the horror of its premise and the psychological trauma of its characters are deeply moving. All its characters and some of the actors are so true that I felt transported to the land of my birth, my first taste of Bihar in more than three years now. But other actors appear equally fake, in spite of sincere attempts to do their best. Again, it could have been handled with a little more understanding from the part of the director. Just a better camera placement, just a purposeful cut, just letting the shot linger on for two more seconds…

The film is definitely worth a watch, for some of the performances, if not for anything else. And if you allow yourself a little sensitivity, and thought, you can be truly affected. My advice would be to watch this movie alone – I almost was, with just four other men in the large PVR theatre. Even with its flaws, it is good enough to win the National Award for Best Film on Social Issues. Here is your chance to stop cribbing about the lack of sensitive and meaningful cinema in today’s Hindi film industry. Catching it in a theatre would be difficult, considering its limited release, but grab a DVD when it is out. You won’t be disappointed.