Thursday, March 24, 2016

Objectifying taste in the movies

Not too long ago, a friend of mine accused me of trying to objectify taste in movies. We were (as I remember) arguing about the gulf between kitsch (or "rubbish") and art in our cinema, and not surprisingly I was "with" the purists (whom I end up with, somehow or the other). My contention was that inasmuch as money-makers are needed to salvage this industry, what they churn out in the name of earning profits and pleasing audiences are so bad that they do not warrant the “film” tag attached to them.

His argument, which wasn’t easy to counter, was simple: stop trashing the money-makers, leave them be, and go on enjoying the movies I’d grown up loving.

I am of course adamant and stubborn, and my opinion isn’t shared by the majority. My friend Yohan Cooray accused me (in his own special way) of pandering to the phobia that critics in this country display towards those who fulfil what I regard as the most primitive function of art: to entertain. I believe Yohan has a point, I know I might be having that phobia, and so I admit: his take on the impossibility of objectifying taste (in the movies at least) stands to reason. Makes me want to re-examine some hard truths about the cinema, both here and elsewhere.

I suppose the problem of taste-objectification is one of aesthetics: what is art and what is not, we constantly ask ourselves. If 12 Years a Slave is art, does that make Star Wars: The Force Awakens kitsch? Besides, who determines the criterion which differentiates the one from the other? These questions remind me of the age-old debate between critical appeal and commercial success, a debate that still hasn’t been resolved in the movies and one which reflects the distinction between art as decor and art as utilitarian, criticised amply by the inimitable Ananda Coomaraswamy, who, if he were alive today, would have written extensively on the movies.

What works for the unperceived minority (or those whose taste is reserved for esoteric movies) doesn’t work for the majority, everyone knows. This is where my friend made his point, because not only can’t taste be objectified, it also can’t be imposed. One can take to a work of art spontaneously, but just because a particular film, owing to a non-linear narrative or sloppy editing done to deceive the eye of the viewer, escapes the praise of that spontaneous cine-phile it doesn’t mean he or she should be lambasted. In this Yohan is correct and I am wrong.

Where I am not wrong however is this: in the movies, it’s difficult to blur the distinction between art and kitsch. Forget the United States of America. Take Sri Lanka. For every Dadayama there’ll always be more than one Kavuda Raja, and for every Akasa Kusum there’ll always be more than one Gamini. I know there’s no commonality that binds these movies together, except for one point: they are all driven by a personal vision. Only difference is, the director of Aksharaya infused his personal vision more so than the director of, say, Kavuda Raja, whose outlook on the cinema depended on the accumulation of popular tastes and cliches.

Perhaps this is my pessimism at work here, but in Sri Lanka (it being the small country it is), this distinction may continue for quite some time, and until then, the likes of me and Yohan will be destined to fight out with each other.

In the USA this problem virtually doesn’t exist. David Denby, in an article written for the “New Republic” (“Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?”), practically rants and raves by way of attacking the superhero movie genre and Christopher Nolan, but at the end of the day we are left wondering: how is it that the same industry which produces such obviously recycled movies as Iron Man and Captain America (which rarely obtrude on a human experience, inspite of their good-versus-evil storylines) can churn out 12 Years a Slave and a director as obstinate and admirable as Wes Anderson? Makes one want to grill Mr Denby, no doubt.

I doubt most Sri Lankans watch Wes Anderson (even I find his films somewhat obscurantist), but this doesn’t marginalise one salient fact: in the West the fine line between art and kitsch has eroded, in part due to the decline of the studio system (which, admittedly, still dominates) and in part due to the emergence of a free, independent cinema.

How about Sri Lanka? First of all, our film industry was and always will be teetering between two extremes, but I don’t necessarily see anything bad in this. In a small country such as ours it’s only natural that polarities come out more extremely. And how so?

In the nearly 70 years since Kadawunu Poronduwa was made, we’ve seen only one H. D. Premaratne come and go (and thank goodness he came up somehow!). Sure, there was Vasantha Obeyesekere, who valiantly tried to make use of popular cinema as a means of articulating social discourse, but by and by (and I say this honestly) his work eventually tilted to one side of the divide. Sure, we have Udayakantha Warnasuriya, but then again his films, like the films of Chandran Rutnam (who once told me that the key function of movies is to entertain), are all largely atonal. Consequently, his political thrillers are worlds away from his romances and comedies, and for this reason the distinction between artiness and non-artiness becomes apparent even in his cinema.

The best filmmakers, hence, operating for and in an industry like ours, can’t afford to make critically acclaimed works of art all the time. Nor can they always aim at connecting the box-office with the critic. That’s why there are foreign film festivals and of course financiers out there to bait. That’s why producers are hard to find here for a film like Aksharaya, which those inevitable cultural puritans pounded rather too much. That's why even as enlightening a figure as Lester James Peries found it difficult to wed the commercial with the arty, while in his most successful work – Golu Hadawatha, Akkara Paha, and Nidhanaya – he went more than any other director in his time to achieve this task.

My point therefore is that inasmuch as we critique this essential divide, we can’t ignore it in assessing movies which (we feel to be) inadequate and debased. Along the way we glance at the past rather nostalgically. We also yearn for reruns of classics, forgetting that while they’re watched on television by a great many people probably a fraction of that TV audience, who wish these films to be aired again and again, went to watch them when they were first screened in the country.

In short: we need a Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) as much as we need a Christopher Nolan. We need Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man as much as we need him in Chaplin, even though very few Sri Lankans I’ve met even know there was a movie made on that inimitable artist, let alone the fact that it starred the man who’d get to play Tony Stark about 15 years later.

There’s little space for these reflections to take their intended course, and an academic essay is not what I am aiming at here. Suffice it to say that my friend Yohan hit the point rather brutally, coming short of accusing me of being snobbish towards the money-makers. I am not, but it’s easy for people to think I am. Not because I deride entertainment as a key function of the movies, but because I believe that the directors of these films, by transforming the unreality and gross crudities rampant in their work into emotion, are (for the lack of a better way of putting it) duping audiences.

And you know the tragedy of all this? We don’t care. We just seem to go on. If that isn’t cause for sober reflection, I don’t know what is.