I am now no longer embarrassed by my propensity to watch and replay specific scenes, especially those with a good background score. Being able to take pleasure in the little moment is, I find, as important and valuable as anything else.
When the going gets tough, we turn to our favorite guilty pleasures. But when it comes to entertainment, is there even guilt in what makes you happy? In our new Guilt Free Pleasure series, we take a look at pop offerings that have been decried by the culture police but continue to endure as beacons of pure fun.
As a teenage movie buff in the early to mid-1990s, a few years before the internet came into our lives, one of my most treasured possessions was a CD-ROM called Cinemania, a collection of reviews, d ‘pictures and biographical sketches – as well as with new elements called “hyperlinks” that take you to another page of the CD-ROM when you click on a highlighted word. (Oh, wonderful technology!) Most fascinating, however, was the section with short clips – two or three minutes at most – of some 20 major films. Until then, it was literally unthinkable that I could watch a video on my big desktop computer.
I hadn’t watched a few of those movies yet, but still enjoyed the clips, devoid of context: like the tense scene from Taxi driver where director Martin Scorsese plays a paranoid man with a soft and menacing voice, one of Travis Bickle’s passengers. Or a fragment of the “Burning Atlanta” backdrop by Gone with the Wind (which I found exciting because I had recently read a biography of Vivien Leigh that mentioned that producer David O Selznick had first seen her and knew she was his Scarlett O’Hara when she visited the set while filming the Atlanta sequence).
At the time, I felt sheepish at the thought of watching clips regardless of films, and this feeling will continue through my early years as a professional critic: after all, as a serious filmmaker, you are supposed to watch a film in its entirety, focusing on whether it is holistic or organic creation; you don’t have to be obsessed with specific parts of it. The oldest and most insipid reviews that most of us have learned to write were those that looked at a movie from God’s point of view, each devoting a sentence to acting, directing, cinematography, history, editing, etc. marks as if we were evaluators during a jury exam.
It’s something in my life as a movie buff that has changed over time: I am now no longer embarrassed by my propensity to watch and replay specific scenes. Being able to take pleasure in the little moment is, I find, as important and valuable as anything else.
I agree with writer Paolo Cherchi Usai who lamented that many film aficionados “hate fragments” – and that if the same attitude were applied to other arts, “the Colosseum would be ignored by all; there would be no interest in the poetry of ancient Greece; no orchestra would perform Schubert’s Tenth Symphony. “
But there’s another side to my obsessive viewing of the scenes: many of the sequences I love are brought to life by lush, pushy background music, the kind that many people disapprovingly call “manipulative” – aimed at directing emotions. from the viewer, making us feel a particular character or situation, or simply getting our adrenaline pumping.
Some examples from the top of my head:
– The silent sequence of the cat and the mouse in the Brian De Palma museum Trained to kill: A middle-aged woman, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is first baffled when she thinks a good-looking man might pursue her – then equally edgy and indignant when she thinks he might try to s ‘move away from her. Full of visual flourishes from De Palma – smooth and elaborate camera movements, many long, uninterrupted shots – the scene gains intensity with the help of a wacky score on Pino Donaggio’s best score. Aside from its own merits, one of the reasons I love this sequence is because it is partly an homage to one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock sequences. psychopath: Marion Crane’s long road trip after stealing a large sum of money, a drive that will lead her to a place of settling, the Bates Motel looming out of the darkness. (And this scene was also beautifully fueled by Bernard Herrmann’s violin score.)
– The climactic shootout between Harmonica (Charles Bronson) and Frank (Henry Fonda) in Sergio Leone Once upon a Time in the West, again to a superb score by Ennio Morricone which brings together at least three distinct sound patterns that were used earlier in the film. This scene might, at first glance, seem like a classic portrayal of onscreen machismo – two men playing a very masculine game of overbidding and revenge, the camera fetishizing them with long master shots and worshipful close-ups, and a dramatic film flashback scene – but there is also something oddly poetic and courteous about it: in the stilted manner in which Fonda takes off her jacket and takes a hesitant stroll, assessing the position of the sun, and in the staring gaze of Bronson over his opponent; it is as if two dancers are preparing for the most exhilarating performance of their lives.
– The last lyrical moments of The Godfather IIMe, with the silent cry of Michael Corleone after the death of his daughter, followed by a montage of dances with three different women at different stages of his life – all on the intermezzo of the Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni.
– Although old Hindi cinema didn’t pay much attention to sequences with excellent background music (as opposed to great songs), there are exceptions – RD Burman’s brilliant, multi-faceted score for Sholay, for example, best understood if you watch the clever opening credits sequence of the film that takes us through the entire topography of the village of Ramgarh and its surroundings long before the narrative takes us there. I showed this scene in class and I shared the students’ pleasure in pointing out small details that I had not noticed before. (A side note: I also re-watch many wonderful song sequences from old Hindi movies – but one difference is that it is possible to see most of these sequences as cut off from the rest of the film, occupying their own special dream landscape.)
Here’s a funny thing about the scenes mentioned above: most people would agree that the music itself is great; and that skillful visual filmmaking is involved. But somehow when the two things come together it is seen as strong or emphasized or too obvious, therefore to be disapproved of. But this is the very essence of melodrama, an artistic mode that has become outdated today with the constant – and often thoughtless – emphasis on sober or grainy films.
A sort of “liberal” commentator (note: there will be several quotes in this sentence) also tends to criticize the possibility that a film could “approve” the actions of a “problematic” character using background music. To that I say: so what, if we agree that the writer or director made an honest effort to step into that character’s mental space – to understand his inner world, his private motivations, and his multiple personalities, what whatever the broadest meaning. ethical issues involved?
To be able to sympathize with Corleone at the end of The Godfather Part III, or feeling moved by those glimpses of his journey through three films, from a reluctant stranger to a brutal donation, doesn’t mean approving everything the character does. Feel engrossed in the beautifully written scene from the TV series The crown where the Queen Mother embarks on a bitter monologue about the fact that modern royals are just “puppets”, puppets with no real power, or being moved by the flashback scenes depicting the childhood of the Prince Philip at residential school, does not mean that we have compromised ourselves by “supporting” an evil colonialist monarchy – it may just mean that we have briefly bonded with individuals in a very specific situation; seen vestiges of humanity even in people who, in a broader sense, might seem too privileged or unlovable.
And I think hyper-dramatic sequences like the ones mentioned above are uniquely placed to create that immediate thrill of recognition, of tapping into the primal emotions that we all share. Afterwards, of course, we can go back to being detached and critical critics: watching the film as a whole, discussing its larger policy coldly, not worrying too much about the little powerful moments that had moved us so much.
To learn more about the Guilt Free Pleasure series, click here.
Jai Arjun Singh is the author of The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Jaane bhi do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983 and The Popcorn Essayists: What Movies do to Writers. Follow more of his writings on his Blog, Or on Twitter.