In these coronavirus times, understanding why the mind seeks lighter fare over heavy-duty, 'difficult' cinema
The coronavirus outbreak has shaken the foundations of the Maslow's need-hierarchy pyramid: self-actualisation has been pushed to the back burner.
Sight & Sound magazine recently put up a superb article from its Summer 1937 issue: 'Alfred Hitchcock: my own methods'. The Master of Suspense wrote about how he put together his thrillers, and while talking about Blackmail (1929), he made one of the most profound statements I have heard about cinema. He wanted a bleak end. “But I had to change it for commercial reasons… And that shows you how the films suffer from their own power of appealing to millions. They could often be subtler than they are, but their own popularity won’t let them.”
This is the reasoning generally used to explain why any film industry that appeals to the “masses” (the Indian mainstream industries, Hollywood) is usually unable to make really great cinema. And by this, I don’t mean great mainstream cinema or great popular art, but cinema whose greatness is measured by how “difficult” it is: cinema that deals with heavy themes and makes us think about the human condition, and so on and so forth.
I love these “difficult” films. I love them for different reasons than the ones that make me adore mainstream cinema, which courses through my veins. This other cinema takes me places the way a great aalap can, with the singer navigating the raga’s contours unmindful of time. I love these films because they use the language of cinema to communicate to me — in the sense that I may not especially like Michelangelo Antonioni as an artiste, but his films are fascinating the way Cubist paintings are. They expand your mind.
And there’s some psychology behind this. Maslow’s pyramid-shaped hierarchy of needs posits that physiological needs (food, shelter) come first, followed by safety needs (health employment), followed by the need for love and belonging (friendships, relationships), esteem needs (status, recognition), and finally, at the top, there’s the need for self-actualisation, the desire to be the most that one can be. Watching “difficult” films, I think, comes in that last category.
But for some of us, life with coronavirus has changed things. It has shaken the foundations of this pyramid; the need for self-actualisation has been pushed to the back burner. The pandemic has made us seek optimism and joy, which is not usually a quality you find with these “difficult” films. When life has become The Seventh Seal, with many of us playing games with Death each time we step out, the last thing we may want is more gloom and doom on screen.
Woody Allen adored The Seventh Seal. Reviewing Ingmar Bergman’s autobiography, The Magic Lantern, he wrote in The New York Times, “Now this is hardly anyone’s idea of a good time, and yet it’s all dealt off with such stupendous imagination, suspense, and flair that one sits riveted like a child at a harrowing fairy tale.” For those of us who like this type of cinema, the parts of that sentence that would have grabbed us in the pre-COVID days would have been the following: “stupendous imagination”, “suspense”, “flair”. But now, we may wonder if all these pluses are worth it if the end result is a “harrowing fairy tale.” That’s what life sometimes looks like, as we sit in our rooms all day and stare out of a solitary window.
Many people are talking about cinema undergoing a profound shift because of OTT. But another kind of shift may be happening, too: that even those of us who like “difficult” films may find our mental wiring being altered as we speak. It’s a blessing that I have to review films, or even write this column, because that makes me seek out such films. And at that time, I find I am no different from the pre-COVID me.
But left to my own devices, I have been seeking solace in Monty Python and the Marx Brothers. It’s like PG Wodehouse. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve read the book. You laugh as if for the first time, and that laugh is liberating. Take the amphitheatre scene from Python’s Life of Brian, where the members of “The People’s Front of Judea” are chatting, and Stan says he wants the others to start calling him “Loretta” because he wants to become a woman.
When Reg asks why, Stan says, “I want to have babies… It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.” Reg is gobsmacked. He says, “But ... you can’t HAVE babies!” A wounded Stan says: “Don’t you oppress me!” Reg fires back, “I’m not oppressing you, Stan. You haven’t got a womb! Where’s the foetus gonna gestate? You gonna keep it in a box?” I laughed till tears came, not just because of the brilliant absurdity of the writing but because how prescient this satire is. The scene lampoons Twitter wokeness decades before there was Twitter wokeness.
Speaking of social media, Facebook has recognised my love for The Graham Norton Show, and for once, I am thankful for algorithms that keep tracking your taste. Some of the episodes are hysterical. But I am also aware that each time I watch these snippets, my brain is being reprogrammed bit by bit to seek shorter content, or content that delivers an instant jolt of the purest pleasure. Will this change the way I watch “difficult” cinema? That is a concern, yes. But for once, I am not minding that at all.
I hope I’m not sounding like I’m rejecting cinema that seeks to… well, elevate you. But given the relative lack of human contact, given the oppressiveness of the same surroundings, I think my subconscious has begun to rebel against gloom-and-doom movies. I’d like to hear from other lovers of “self-actualisation” cinema. During these difficult times, have you found yourself being able to commit to the rigours of these films and the dedicated watching they need?
I think part of it is also the aspect about language and sensibilities. To date, I have not seen a single European film that’s as slap-your-thighs funny as the ones I have mentioned above. (Hence, they usually fall into the “art-house” bucket.) I think humour works best in a language you know really, really well. Look at the Sight & Sound list of top foreign-language comedies. It has films like Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game: a brilliant satire, no doubt, but not really haha-funny. And it’s the latter I keep looking out for these days.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
All images from Facebook.
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