Thursday, 18 August 2011

Incredibly Shrinking Cinema

Cunnylingus must be funny in all cultures. The British found it funny when Emma Thompson was shown receiving it in The Tall Guy, the Americans are laughing at Mila Kunis receiving it in Friends with Benefits, and now the Indians are roaring with laughter at the sight of Shenaz Treasurywala acquiring oral pleasure in Delhi Belly.

What's surprising about the latter is that India is not the kind of culture where the depiction of oral sex would have ever been permitted previously, yet Delhi Belly has bucked the trend, and in turn, proved to be a major smash hit in many international markets. Having made over $12 million in just one month, and become a top 10 box-office smash in foreign markets like the UK, Delhi Belly has been hailed as a new type of Indian filmmaking that is both youthful and naughty. Some argue that Delhi Belly has given a uniquely fresh approach to the conservative values of Hindustani culture and speaks in a hip voice of the young generation of India can relate to.

The reality is pretty different. Delhi Belly is neither fresh nor groundbreaking. Rather more, it is an attempt to ape the R-rated comedies America and Britain have peddled out for decades. In fact, Delhi Belly's plot and tone is akin to the daft London based caper comedies made by Guy Ritchie.

Indian cinema has always pandered to formula and still does. With the Indian economy pummelling other countries into oblivion, it's no surprise India now wants to prove that Hindustani national cinema is just as exportable as its beloved cuisines. But the problem is that Indian cinema has always struggled to make inroads into Western markets, being largely thought of as something hyperbolically camp in nature that only appeals to the diasporas residing in foreign locations. This is why the makers of Delhi Belly consciously set out to develop a film that is seemingly risky enough to garner plaudits in domestic markets, yet familiar enough to international audiences as not to put them off seeing it. It was a win-win situation that paid off brilliantly. Delhi Belly may be set in a foreign country, but the jokes to do with crude vulgarity and scatological humour are, in fact, culturally neutral.

It's easy to sit here and highlight the laboured attempts of Indian cinema to court the attention of Western moviegoers, but the situation is not that different from either American or European cinema. The international markets have become ever more important to Hollywood studios. The studios are tiring of unreliable domestic audiences that refuse to buy inflated 3D tickets for movies that emerging economies like India and China gladly purchase. That is why action-heavy tentpole franchises like Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Pirates of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Harry Potter (whatever the latest one's called) have played better internationally than at home.

There is a catch to all this and that has to do with how best to manufacture a cinematic hamburger the entire world can collectively consume together. The key is to play down intelligence and to play up spectacle. That's why the sight of watching transforming robots beating the shit out of each other in 3D will astound folks the world over in a way that , for example, watching a respected middle-age actress playing a woman dying of cancer will not.

So what gives? Are people bothered by inane special-effects, or should one just accept that the world and cultural tastes are homogenising?

Some 30 years ago the American director Peter Bogdanovich complained gloomily about the "juvenilisation of the cinema," brought about, he said, by films such as Jaws and Star Wars which appealed to an audience of those aged from 12 to 25 that , according to Bogdanovich, simply hadn't existed before.

Bogdanovich didn't know the half of it. The true "juvenilisation" is happening right now. Blockbusters of the 1970s were largely very good films, whereas most of the present crop are not. Jaws was as much driven by both character and plot development as was something like The Godfather. That can't be said about Transformers 1, 2, or even 3.

There is an underlying issue that explains much of why Hollywood cinema has gone to the dogs and that has to do with the death of its movie stars. Movie stars are still alive and kicking, it's just that they don't wield the sort of power they once used to. What's more is that there is no bonafide movie star under 35-years of age. Hollywood now tends to opt for relatively unknown actors in their late-teens or early-20s to carry movies. The reason why these films strike lucky is not because of its stars but rather due to the fact they are high-concept in nature. The problem with modern films is that concept has become king while substance has become redundant.

This summer has seen the release of films like Larry Crowne and The Tree of Life, both featuring big name acting talent, both failing to attract anything close to a satisfactory audience base. Audiences chose to eschew The Tree of Life due to its non-commercial pantheistic meditation on the meaning of life and everything in between; this despite fact that it starred Brad Pitt. One can argue that The Tree of Life is not to everyone's taste and would never have been anything more than a niche arthouse article. That's true but the same could have been said about Eyes Wide Shut back in summer 1999 and that film held its own against a myriad blockbuster extravaganzas like The Matrix and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

On the other hand, Larry Crowne doesn't even have the excuse of being too cerebral to attract mainstream audiences. Despite masquerading as a movie relevant to our times because of themes concerning redundancy and unemployment, audiences knew that the film was flimsy stuff trying to get by on its movie stars' past glories. Rather than making a grown up movie with respected actors dealing with real issues, Larry Crowne became a meaningless insult to the millions of Americans that are experiencing the hardships unemployment in its bitter reality.

Let's just dismiss Larry Crowne as a one off and think about the merits of movie stars. The great thing about movie stars in the past was that they were likely to only accept a role if they felt it would play to their strengths. This meant it was essential for scripts to demonstrate qualitative character development and rich dialogue. That is why Tom Cruise could star in a film like Born on the 4th of July and turn it in to a critical and commercial success. The same can be said of Al Pacino in Carlito's Way or Mel Gibson in Hamlet, both attracting bigger audiences because of star power.

The flipside to all this is the actuality that movie stars effectively out priced themselves of a job. Tom Cruise, who at one time charged up to $22 million plus portion of gross revenue for a star appearance, now only got the bargain price of $12.5 million to act, write, produce and do his own stunt-work in Mission: Impossible―Ghost Protocol. This is a far cry from the gross participation fee of $70 million he earned in 1996 for the first Mission: Impossible.

For further proof of ailing star power just look to Arnold Schwarzenegger. The former California governor had been tipped to return to the big screen in Cry Macho, a road movie about a down-on-his-luck horse breeder railroaded into travelling to Mexico to kidnap his boss's young son from the child's mother. It was reported that Schwarzenegger will receive a $12.5 million on a 25% share of the first dollar gross for the project. That all changed when nervous money men began questioning Schwarzenegger's star relevance and dropped the project. Schwarzenegger will now star in Korean director Kim Jee-woon's English language debut The Last Stand. However, The Last Stand reportedly has a modest $30m budget and is not likely to prove nearly so lucrative for its star, thus proving movie stars no longer shine as bright.

To conclude: cunnylingus will always have its place in cinema but it seems a shame to have sacrificed star power in order to accommodate it. The basic principles of economics prove that it's more cost effective to hire an unknown actor to simulate oral sex than an expensive movie star. Cinema is shirking and our expectation of what we want from films is becoming unilateral. The concept of cunnylingus has become more valuable than the actors hired to act it out.


  1. Oral sex in Bollywood? I thought Bollywood films aren't even allowed a kissing scene!

  2. Excellent and provocative as always. I could not agree more. Film really has gone to the kiddies with young actors hired to play older. Especially where women are concerned, though that has always been a blatant trend. Why use an actual forty-year old actress when you can hire a twenty year old and just tell her to act older. She looks better anyway.

    H-Wood continues to pander to the lowest common denominator at the expense of substance. F/X used to be just part of the story, an aid to enhance the experience, now, it's the entire experience. Just look at Avatar. So pretty, but the story was practically non-existent and what was there was plagiarized from a kiddie film called Fern Gully.

    They recycle most film ideas anymore and dumb them down. Which is particularly sad when the original film was not too intelligent.

    You're right, we accept this, lining up in droves for the latest blockbuster no questions asked. I pity my nephews' future movie experiences and can only hope this grind halts. Then again, I'm probably yelling into the wind.

  3. I think with all of these reality show celebrities, and Jersey Shore Snooki's, ect that the value of the "big Hollywood star" has definitely gone down. People are getting their entertainment elsewhere.

    You don't have to have talent to be a famous celebrity anymore, just have no shame.

  4. I can't remember if I ever told you this, or even blogged about it, but my grandfather was a Bollywood screenwriter/producer for 40 years. My father grew up on a movie studio as a result. The stories as fascinating and would probably mean more to you, as someone who knows about Indian cinema than they would to me (I have seen maybe three Indian films, lol).

    Anyway, I really enjoyed this post because it is fascinating to see just how much the Western culture is affecting Indian cinema. My father used to swear on his mother's grave that Indian movies would NEVER show a couple kissing. And, well, now they're doing sex acts apparently. Sigh. I'm not sure if this decision is a "breakthrough" for Indian cinema. I think it's just a lame step sideways in an attempt to "prove" Indian films are just as edgy and funny as their Western counterparts. What India doesn't realize is that it doesn't pay to be a copycat. They should appreciate their own unique filmmaking...

  5. You know the generation is in trouble when your itunes is playing "Clair de Lune" and your little sister turns to you and says "Is this the Twilight soundtrack? It's Edward's song!".

    Personally, I am very picky about my movies. Just because an actress or actor can spread their legs for someone and make another giggle doesn't mean it's worth my time. I've walked out movies before, and I have a feeling I'm soon going to be better off simply sticking with Netflix where I can control the amount of crap I have to deal with in movies.

    Wonderful post.

  6. a great in-depth post, my friend. I agree with almost everything you said.
    And I think that after juvenilisation of cinema we are experiencing and even more dangerous degree of it with Hollywood and publishing houses now shifting their focus to teen audience and making it a mainstream taste. Totally crazy.

  7. Had spread their cursed deed, and honourd name Following!

  8. Excellent post.

    It's so true. Jaws and those other 70's action-packed movies had great character development. I didn't even care about Transformers. The first one I watched, but didn't feel for the characters and the second one I couldn't even finish.

    I didn't know about the plummeting paychecks of the stars.

  9. Interesting article and thought!
    It's indeed rare to see a film like Delhi Belly coming out from India. But rare and out of expectation that made it entertaining and work to me.