A world well into its 21st century is not satisfied with merely being one of the nine planets of a star-studded universe. It wants star status for itself, to be a part of the star cast in every act of the universe. This is obvious if we take stock of the entertainment scenario that dominates the world. Love, hate, love-hate relationships, comedy, tragedy, tragicomedy, accidents, evolution, the creation of the universe, the destruction of the universe, extraterrestrials, Martians, the influence of other planets, curses, sex, horror, mystery, romance, violence, action, food, eviction drives, sanity, insanity, God, Satan……in short we have films on every possible topic in this universe, every aspect of life.
Cash & Tango
Hollywood has grown immensely from what it was some sixty or seventy years previously. Cinema production has off late become a major money-spinning industry that offers rich dividends to film producers, filmmakers and actors. Tinsel town is currently a glamorous stage, a red carpet, on which only the hottest performers are allowed to tread to showcase their talents to the world.
As the arena of film production has undergone a dramatic metamorphosis, and as modern-day spectators comprise mostly smart city slickers and no longer the benighted crowds of the galleries and the pit who would cheer for every slapstick comedy, a careful examination of the present film industry as it stands will reveal certain startling facts.
Still Hogging the Limelight
Late 20th century and 21st century motion pictures are essentially of a new genre that is vastly different from the usual genres in which movies of the 1960s to the 1980s had belonged. The oldies largely consisted of dramatic renditions, historical events and romances that big families could happily watch without having to look away from the screens in cinema halls or stare at the floorboards of their homes when it came to the romantic scenes. The kissing scenes between Liesl and Ralph in the hot house and between Maria and Captain Von Trapp in the garden in the 1965 blockbuster, The Sound of Music, elicited no embarrassment whatsoever from grandparents, parents and children watching the film together. I remember having watched The Sound of Music with my family several times. The film is widely regarded as a family drama, that is capable of evoking unalloyed bliss amongst its viewers.
Much the same can be said about Roman Holiday. This 1953 creation of William Wyler continues to hold the stage even today with its bona fide and pristine charm. Though there are a few scenes towards the end of this cinema between actors Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn that are extremely romantic, the acts of osculation do not detract from the unspoiled nature of the romance. The humorous side of the cinema, such as when the princess is posing as a commoner when she is in the company of Joe Bradley and his friend, is as memorable as it is eternally heart-warming. The first time I watched Roman Holiday, I was only nine. I have watched the spellbinding film many times since then though not on cable television as cable television channels do not like to telecast old films. Roman Holiday can easily be dubbed as family entertainment as large families, in which the ages of members differ by eighty years, can easily watch the film together.
The fifties, sixties and seventies witnessed really creative directors getting their acts together so that they could set the stage for films that would come to be regarded as eternal, everlasting and all-time-greats. Aren’t Ben-Hur, The Sound of Music, Roman Holiday, The Guns of Navarone, To Kill a Mockingbird, My Fair Lady, Gigi, Scaramouche, How To Steal a Million, Gone with the Wind, Mary Poppins, The Prisoner of Zenda, The Return of the Pink Panther, Bridge on the River Kwai, Rebecca, Anne of Thousand Days, Becket, Limelight, and The Robe, immortal movies that can be watched tirelessly again and again? In fact, some of us have actually grown up watching such quality pictures. These films belong to a separate era altogether and prevail upon audiences of all ages notwithstanding the smattering of adult scenes that they contain. The few and far between adult scenes of some of the films cited above are interspersed with so many poignant and dramatic scenes, all of which have a meaning, that the adult scenes get obscured by the larger and all-encompassing message that the films send out. For instance, you will remember Ben-Hur for the scenes where Christ was featured, which depicted the torture that was inflicted on Judah Ben-Hur by the Romans, that showed many of Christ’s miracles taking effect immediately after he was crucified, rather than for the romantic and intimate scenes between Ben-Hur and Esther. No wonder the film received eleven Academy Awards, an honor that no cinema, other than Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King, has been bestowed with, since!
Affairs to Remember
Most people remember the megahit motion picture of 1939, Gone with the Wind for the scenes that displayed the indomitable spirit of Scarlett O’Hara rather than for the steamy scenes between Scarlett, played by Vivien Leigh, and Rhett Butler, played by Clark Gable. Similarly, The Guns of Navarone is recalled fondly for the heroic actions of Captain Keith Malory (Gregory Peck), Cpl. Miller (David Niven), Colonel Stavros (Anthony Quinn), and Maria Pappadimos (Irene Papas) that still stir up hearts and emotions rather than for the love scenes between Captain Malory and Anna (Gia Scala) and Colonel Stavros and Maria Pappadimos. The scene in Scaramouche where Stewart Granger and Mel Ferror are engaged in an intense fencing combat, remains etched in indelible ink in the minds of many while the music of Amadeus enthralls audiences far more than Mozart’s vulgar habits, which have been portrayed realistically and to perfection by Tom Hulce.
A Titanic Blunder
Despite the phenomenal success of the golden oldies, the directors of today prefer to steer away from the course of making meaningful films with high drama content. The drama of yesterday has been replaced by the action of today that is power-packed, fantastic, and sometimes borders on the bizarre. In their attempt to experiment with new ideas, directors have created a novel genre of films that are stuffed with violence, sex, sci-fi, action and horror. Making money out of movies is the main intention behind movie making, not making films that have the potential to cast an impression. If playing to the galleries is the main wish of new-age directors, then they are certainly underestimating new-age audiences. Even though movie buffs of the 21st century are tech-savvy people who appreciate 3D movies such as Avatar, which can create an illusion because they are made using immersive technologies, they are under no illusion whatever, when they judge the quality of modern films. And that is why The Hurt Locker stole the show at the Oscar Night of 2010, bagging six Academy Awards while the much hyped-up Avatar had to be content with three.
This and the fact that in the heated competition between Avatar and Titanic, watched closely by fans of the respective films, Titanic ultimately emerged as the winner, though Avatar grossed much more in a span of a few months than what Titanic grossed over a span of some two years, should teach James Cameron and the other directors a lesson. They should learn that making hi-tech films where most of the work is done by computer and graphics experts rather than by actors and stunts people, can be a waste of effort if the films show more technology than humans in action. Look what happened in the case of Avatar. More than the performance of Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana as humans, the film showed the antics of Jake Sully in his avatar and Neytiri, the leading woman protagonist and Jake’s consort, who belonged to the Navi people of Pandora. Avatar was high on technology and gizmos, being the first of its kind to make the audience feel the effects of a three-dimensional film but lacked the grace and finesse of the epic romance, Titanic. Avatar thrilled for the moment but Titanic will thrill for many lifetimes. Avatar made you sit up and stare but Titanic makes you get up and dream. Avatar put on an act for the time being whereas Titanic is a tough act to follow. Automatically, Avatar will do a disappearing act pretty fast but Titanic will remain forever on stage.
James Cameron, however, is not the only one who has to clean up his act. On the other hand, James Cameron is perhaps one of the few directors who has less to clean up because barring Avatar, Cameron has always shown a keen insight into audience likes and dislikes. This is quite evident from his other successful films such as the The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and True Lies. The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, though based on hi-tech robotics, always had a human side to them, with the Terminator sometimes experiencing human feelings and emotions.
The high incidence of horror and sex in modern films is what makes most of them loathsome. How do directors even hope to be remembered by just scaring people out of their wits? Watching modern horror films is like watching murder and mayhem being executed right in front of your eyes. The Evil Dead series (Director: Sam Raimi), A Nightmare on Elm Street (Director: Wes Craven), Orphan (Director: Jaume Collet-Serra), Drag Me to Hell (Director: Sam Raimi), the Halloween series (Director: Rob Zombie), Friday the 13th (Director: Sean S. Cunningham) are no doubt famous for the amount of fear and horror they helped to generate. But so also are the attacks on the twin-towers of the World Trade Center, the First and the Second World Wars, the holocaust of the Jews in the Nazi concentration camps that was initiated by Hitler, the effects of the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Gulf Wars, the Crusades, the Wars of the Roses, the Prussian War, etc. Do we think of these incidents of mass murder and genocide with nostalgia, pride and admiration? The answer is obviously NO. We all prefer to erase these black and bloody episodes from the annals of history forever. If that is the case, why exactly are horror films made? The answer to that continues to be shrouded in mystery. Film enthusiasts and critics feel that modern horror films are made to help depraved people give vent to their murderous and voyeuristic instincts in a way that is neither illegal nor illicit. An explanation right out of the books by Freud! But the problem with horror films is that they prey on idle and weak minds, are capable of causing negative and depressive feelings. They are poisonous and can vitiate the mind. Far from being timeless and ageless movies that inspire lofty thoughts and foster positive sensations, horror films negate the very existence of humankind.
Sex, Lies and Videotape
At this stage, a mention needs to be made of modern films, which are not horror films. The films of the 1990s as well as those of the first decade of the 21st century that are not horrors are weighed down by lewd and nude content and too much of sex. Take for example American Beauty or The Piano. They may have bagged Oscars for the themes they projected, the former, sexual relationships between people with wide age disparities, the latter, mild pornography and an anthropomorphic piano. Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction also fall in this category of motion pictures that you will not want to see a second time and that will leave you squirming, coughing and looking away in your seat if you watch them with your parents or kids around.
A Comedy of Errors
Modern comedies are hinged on comic and gay sex. When Harry Met Sally, French Kiss, Walk the Line, You, Me and Dupee and I Love You Philip Morris are some modern romantic movies that are also humorous. But the hitch with all of them is that you will never want to watch any of them more than once.
The Wonderland and the Imaginarium
Fantasy films are about the only category of films that are doing better than they ever did in the past because they have the aid and support of modern technology at hand, something that they did not have before. Ultramodern animation techniques and superior computer graphics are responsible for the whopping success of Alice in Wonderland and Toy Story 3 while great sets combined with fantastic technology are responsible for the success of the Harry Potter series, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, the Lord of the Rings series and other films belonging to the Fantasy genre. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the third film in the Lord of the Rings series can be hailed as an all-time-great. The film tied with Ben-Hur and Titanic in receiving eleven Academy Awards.
Mission Impossible? Yes and No
We live in the age of action. Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13, Predator, Eight Legged Freaks, Wanted, Iron Man, Godzilla, Rambo, Star Wars, The Matrix, Air Force One, Gladiator, Braveheart, Batman, Indiana Jones, Diehard, Top Gun, Robocop, Speed, Enter the Dragon, True Lies, Lethal Weapons, Aliens, Saving Private Ryan, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Mission Impossible, Starship Troopers, Charlie’s Angels, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day are some of the best action films of the late 20th and the 21st centuries. These films bear living testimony to the fact that modern directors have been able to get into the act from the wings at the side by making ‘high-wire act’ films. Action films have the power to make audiences cling to them just like the heroes and the heroines of the films who frequently cling to tightropes. Whether you are watching the adroit movements of Jackie Chan or the lithe grace of Cameron Diaz as she slides down a pillar or humans frantically shooting at aliens and monsters that refuse to succumb to bullets, action films can keep you on the edge as long as they last. Thankfully, most action films are family films. However, action films sometimes tend to sport with an inordinate amount of violence and may not be suitable for children. Still, modern action movies cannot be compared with all-time-great films because of the fact that you cannot watch an action film more than once. You will not feel like watching Ocean’s 11, 12 or 13, Predator, Eight Legged Freaks, Wanted, Iron Man, Godzilla, Rambo, Star Wars, Braveheart, Batman, Indiana Jones, Diehard, Top Gun, Robocop, Speed, Enter the Dragon, Lethal Weapons, Aliens, Saving Private Ryan, Mission Impossible, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Starship Troopers, Charlie’s Angels, or Terminator 2: Judgment Day for the second time unless you have forgotten the plot of the film, completely. Just like you will not feel like reading a whodunit after you have read it once and you know who the murderer is. However, some modern action movies may qualify as all-time-great pictures. These films are the ones that generally have a lot of drama in them. Thus, Gladiator and Air Force One may lure you in a way Predator and Starship Troopers won’t. Both Gladiator and Air Force One contain high drama that pushes action to the backdrop. So, it is chiefly because of their drama content and not because of their action content that these films are everlasting. The Matrix is an action film that is based on a new and interesting concept. If ever, The Matrix is to be classified with great films such as Ben Hur, Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, it will be because of its intriguing concept and neither because of its drama content nor because of its action content. True Lies reeks of the unmistakable ‘Cameron effect’, a magic that is neither action nor drama nor romance but simply the genius of James Cameron.
Hollywood: Another Wall Street?
As more and more directors are creating films only to sell them, the key question of the day focuses on the goal of the modern film industry. What is the objective of Hollywood now? Of the modern film industry? A careful investigation and scrutiny of the film promotion and marketing process will indicate that modern directors and producers want to gross as much as they can in the first week of the film’s showing. Producers and directors use clever promotional strategies and tactics to arouse the curiosity of prospective audiences so that people flock to the cinema theaters in droves during the first week of the film’s screening. The monies collected in the first week are generally well over and above the monies expended for making the film. So profits are large and filmmaking is a lucrative business. Never mind, if the film is not eternal, is not remembered by audiences fifty years down the line, does not have a message, does not serve as a guiding star to people groping in the dark. As long as well-known Hollywood actors star in it and it mints sufficient money in the first week of showing so that the producer can roll over the collections to sponsor some more films. Besides, the producer finds it fairly easy to achieve such an aim with 3D IMAX theaters and multiplexes sprouting around the world at a rate faster than directors are churning out movies. Movie watching has become akin to ‘pleasure shopping’ with more and more spectators opting for these big-ticket cinema halls over the traditional cinema halls in a way they would prefer a Versace or Gucci showroom over a local apparel or accessories store. Many people of the 21st century think of going to the cinema as an experience per se just like they think of going to a luxury hotel for a holiday. Even if the cinema is nothing to write home about, it is the experience of going to an expensive place, eating expensive food and being viewed by others as upwardly mobile and wealthy, that really counts. Therefore, you cannot really blame the producers, directors and the thespians if they cash in on such viewer desires and make cookie-cutter films with the usual dose of violence, sex and action.
Sense and Sensibility
The only redeeming factor is that the majority of the audience is still in their senses. However senseless the modern world of motion pictures might have become, this majority is sensible enough to differentiate good from evil, romance from trash, action from violence, drama from melodrama, and good acting from mere histrionics. These are the people who have the ability to spot a great movie, to bring the best out of a director, to celebrate creativity. Such people are the real film aficionados who can tear the mask off the faces of insincere play actors, who can catch the wrong people in the act. From such people have sprung great directors like William Wyler (Ben-Hur, Roman Holiday, How To Steal a Million), Charles Chaplin (Limelight, City Lights), Robert Wise (The Sound of Music), George Cukor (My Fair Lady), J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone), Victor Fleming (Gone with the Wind), Alfred Hitchcock (Rebecca, The Birds, Psycho, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, Spellbound), Milos Forman (Amadeus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park), Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), James Cameron (Titanic, True Lies, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Aliens, Avatar) and Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker).
As more and more films are made that make no impact on the public or provoke teenagers and people to violence or to have pre-marital sex, but are nevertheless box-office successes, it is up to directors such as the ones cited above and serious-minded members of the audience to change the face of modern cinema.