There’s a special kind of heaven to be found in old things, which seem new again with the smallest of twists
If you’ve been following the Oscar prognosticators, you know that Ben Affleck’s Argo is a front-runner for Best Picture — at least in these pre-Lincoln, pre-Life Of Pi days. This delights me not because Argo is some kind of “great movie” — in the sense of an exemplar of motion-picture art that will show post-apocalyptic civilisations what Hollywood was capable of — but simply because it’s a supremely well-executed genre movie.
There’s a special kind of heaven to be found in the comfort of clichés that are presented with verve and vision — it’s only when clichés come to us lazily and apologetically that we recoil from them — and Argo is filled with reinvigorated been-there-done-that scenarios. It’s time someone recognised that edifices reassembled from Lego blocks are as worthy as those built brick by brick, and that it may actually take more skill to manipulate a large audience while respecting their patience and intelligence than to make a “great movie” that will make it to the top-10 lists of a handful of critics.
Of course, cinema as art has its place, but the trouble, often, is that the films made with towering ambition — such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s — end up with lots of rave reviews and not a lot of box-office. These films, inevitably, are almost always one-offs.
While this distinctiveness, the fact that an Anderson film is like no other filmmaker’s, is what makes these films valuable in a historical context, genre films are more valuable in the cultural context — because they reach a larger audience, and as success breeds clones (in Hollywood as elsewhere), a quality, mid-budget genre-hit such as Argo could, strangely, end up influencing movie-making and movie-going habits more than an idiosyncratic work such as The Master. More studios will finance these kinds of films. More big stars will be drawn to them. More audiences will line up for them.
This has been a good season for genre films in India. We’ve seen Premium Rush and Taken 2, both of which gave me more of an action buzz than the much-vaunted new Bond film Skyfall. What I refer to as “action buzz” is the high you get after a stunt-intensive stretch where the character you’re rooting for vanquishes the villain. Skyfall has great stunt-work in the beginning and at the end, but the film suffers from towering ambition — it wants to be The Master among James Bond pictures, which, for the longest time, were quite content being uncomplicated genre films.
The director, Sam Mendes, in his desire to infuse “class” into this 50-year-old series, forgets that we want an action-adventure, not drama. The genre switch is a little confounding, not least because Mendes wants to have it both ways. He ties himself (and the movie) up in knots — though none of this matters because the Bond brand is enough to make the movie a worldwide smash.
But it matters when genre films aren’t pre-sold. Genre films, then, have to be very clear about what they’re after, capable of being condensed to a one-line description that instantly tells audiences what they’re in for and how it will all play out. Premium Rush, for instance, is your basic good-guys-being-chased-by-bad-guys movie, incorporating your basic love triangle. The one-liner for Taken 2 is even simpler: this time, Liam Neeson has to rescue his wife. Both these films aggressively court clichés (because they wouldn’t exist without them), but also sidestep these clichés in reasonably innovative ways — so we at once find things comfortingly predictable and somewhat new.
The most satisfying genre film I’ve watched this season is Trouble With The Curve, with Clint Eastwood, Justin Timberlake and Amy Adams. This baseball movie hails from the crusty-old-farts-do-it-better genre, which means that Eastwood, even if he is nearly blind and doesn’t trust computers, will prevail over younger and technologically savvier men. The surprise of the film is how we anticipate each cliché, and yet how smoothly enjoyable it is.
This is partly due to the performances. (No one can out-grouch Eastwood, and who imagined that a former ‘N Sync frontman would grow into such a fine, appealing actor?). It’s also due to the film being steeped in Americana, with kids playing ball, small-town bars with pool tables and country music, and mom-and-pop diners serving platefuls of scrambled eggs. This could have been a genre film from the 1950s, and this old-world setting — rarely seen on screen anymore — is this film’s newness. Those Lego blocks show no signs of breaking.