Why is Hollywood trash so much more watchable than the trash we make? The answer: professionalism
About the time the first Transformers movie was released, if you’d asked me what I thought of Optimus Prime, I’d have thought you were referring to a mathematical variable. A few movies in, I was slightly more clued in. About Transformers – Dark of the Moon, I wrote, “After the third instalment in the Transformers series, I think I’m a little clearer about the mythos. There’s a red car and a yellow car which transform into good robots with blue eyes and wage war with bad robots which are made from black cars and which have red eyes.”
Now, I’ve seen the fourth film (it’s called Age of Extinction, but there’s no prospect of that for this super-profitable series), and I’m still wondering how anyone can summon up any affection for all this metal-clanging mayhem, which goes on for nearly three hours. In the screening I attended, the audience hooted and whistled when the Mark Wahlberg character, an amateur scientist, walked into an old movie house and found a truck. See, they knew this was no truck. They knew it was Optimus Prime. It was like watching a Rajinikanth movie.
Of all the actors out there, would you pick Wahlberg to play a scientist? (He says earnestly, “One day I’m going to build something that matters.” Maybe he’s talking about his muscles.) But then again, why not, especially in a movie like this, which can be measured in BTUs (Blowing Things Up)? That’s all these films are about, but here’s the thing: you cannot deny the Hollywood professionalism on display.
When they say they’ll make a movie filled with (and fuelled by) technology, then they make one exactly the way they said they’ll make it. Even I — so not a fan of the series — found myself saluting the special-effects team. A lot of smart men have worked on this dumb movie. Why don’t we find the same professionalism in our dumb movies? Why is generic Hollywood trash always so much better than generic Bollywood/ Kollywood/ Tollywood trash?
I know what you’re going to say. They have more money. That they do — but this isn’t about the special effects alone. I agree that the really cool stuff — the cars that, in motion, transform into robots; the ferry boats that fall from the sky and crack open on the roads like coconuts — cost the kind of money we just don’t have. Plus, we don’t make that many sci-fi films anyway, the kind of films that need these kinds of effects.
But we do make action movies, don’t we? The action scenes in Hollywood films are staged by choreographers who think beyond fisticuffs, and these stunts are shot by cinematographers who know precisely which angle to use so that the viewer feels the adrenalin rush, and they’re painstakingly staged in fresh locations. Towards the end of the new Transformers movie, there’s a fun face-off that occurs amidst one of those vertiginous Hong Kong tenements. I say “fun” instead of “thrilling” because the stretch doesn’t carry any emotional heft, where we care about what happens to whom. Still, when was the last time you saw an action scene in one of our films that felt this well-choreographed, well-staged, well-shot?
Okay, forget action. Let’s just look at the cinematography. Even the random shots are done so well. When the Mark Wahlberg character talks to his daughter, they’re silhouetted against the setting sun, which is a giant ball of orange, sizzling just so in the summer breeze. As written, it’s a terrible scene — the lines are creaky, the relationship dynamics are clichéd, laughable. And yet, there’s at least something that salvages the scene, and that’s the moody image. This is what professionalism is — when something’s not great art, but you still manage to aim for (and attain) a basic level of competence.
Some of our films, especially when made by the big filmmakers, do have this professionalism, but most of them rely only on the writing, and if the writing fails, there’s nothing else – no cinematography to gape at, no action to be entertained by, no production design to be impressed by, and not even much by way of locations. (The only time our filmmakers seem to care about location is when this question comes up: “Where can we shoot this song?”) The script is the most important part of the film, yes, but isn’t it time we realised that it’s not the only thing that matters?