I used to think that being a naturally funny writer was an impediment to being a good reviewer (wouldn't one constantly be tempted to sacrifice the measured assessment at the altar of a reader-pleasing witticism?), but the work of David Thomson is a counterpoint to this idea. Thomson is one of the most perceptive and nuanced critics around, but also the sort of writer who validates the use of the blurb cliché "he's incapable of producing a boring sentence".
His excellent book Have You Seen…? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films makes a strong case for the well-written "short review". Most of the pieces here are only between 400 and 700 words long, but Thomson packs a lot into a few terse sentences, and despite the space constraints there is always room for the complex thought — the defiance of the human tendency to seek patterns and divide things into neat categories.
"It is too much to ask a film to be perfect, or even good, most of the time," he writes at one point. "The process is so inherently flawed that we must be prepared for twenty minutes of fragrant sunshine in an otherwise overcast afternoon."
[...] "With films, it is our habit to say that this one is good, that one a masterpiece, whereas maybe the most truthful approach would say that in John Frankenheimer's I Walk the Line, there are two or three minutes when the look on Tuesday Weld's face is from some other film, a film made by William Faulkner, while the rest is, well, decent filler. I think once we got into that way of looking, we could all build an anthology of moments while admitting that elsewhere a film rests or glides downhill."
Forget the specifics of that passage: it isn't important to know who Tuesday Weld is (she was a perky 60s and 70s actress who briefly shone in offbeat roles, and whom I suspect Thomson had a reviewer's crush on). Nor is it relevant whether you think William Faulkner would have made a great filmmaker. Thomson's basic point is direct and clear-sighted, and his phrase "an anthology of moments" resonated with me, because lately I've formed the habit of repeat-watching favourite movie scenes without feeling the need to re-watch the whole film.
To an extent, this is guided by practical considerations: one human lifetime isn't enough to see and read a tiny fraction of everything one would like to; there are always so many distractions, and attention spans keep getting lower; and the DVD culture facilitates certain indulgences. But it's equally true that very often a whole film simply isn't worth watching multiple times. Many movie buffs would agree that the statement "I can watch that sequence over and over again" is usually more accurate than "I can watch that film over and over again".
Incidentally, Thomson's observation is from his review of a musical titled Broadway Melody of 1940, and it builds to his point that this otherwise ordinary film contains a nine-minute-long dance sequence of tremendous artistry — "with a gaiety and energy so great that if you'd been Hitler in 1940, you might have looked at this and called a halt".
That reminds me of a personal favourite sequence from a Hollywood musical — the soulful Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dance routine towards the end of Swing Time. "Lucky" Garnett (Astaire) has just discovered that his dance partner and true love Penny (Rogers) is going to marry someone else. He corners her on an empty stage, sings the stirring Jerome Kern composition "Never Gonna Dance", and then gently persuades her to glide about the floor with him; their movements gather urgency and passion, eventually growing into a full-fledged routine that ends with Rogers breathlessly pirouetting into — and out of — his arms. The sequence ends with her rushing out of the room as Astaire strikes a tragic, balletic pose. Fade to black.
And once that's over, we return to the film we were watching before this great scene began. In the final 10 minutes there is some slapstick comedy, some quick clearing up of misunderstandings, a reconciliation between the lovers, a final clinch; all of which is anti-climactic, because what a viewer will take away from Swing Time is not the facile ending but the mournful symphony that had preceded it — two star-crossed lovers, alone together for seemingly the last time, expressing their feelings in the way they know best.
To an extent, all the best Astaire-Rogers dance duets — the joyful ones and the sad ones — transcended the films they were in; it's difficult to work up too much interest in the other sequences, which are often workmanlike. No wonder some of those movies feel schizophrenic — the script and performances are very much products of a particular period, but the dances are timeless.
While on films with split personalities: have you ever experienced the disappointment of watching an old Hindi movie that you thought was going to be unblemished loveliness from start to end, and discovering that apart from the music or a performance or a couple of scenes, much of it is mediocre or facetious?
Looking at the past through sepia-tinted glasses (or through the faint memories of parents or grandparents), it's common to remember this or that film as "beautiful" in an all-encompassing sense. Asit Sen's 1969 film Khamoshi was the subject of rave reviews in my house as far back as I can remember, and my appetite for it was whetted a few years ago when I saw the lovely song sequence "Woh shaam kuch ajeeb thi" on TV. As it happens, this four-minute scene brings together the three best things about the film: Hemant Kumar's music, Kamal Bose's stunning black-and-white photography (shown to particularly good effect here), and Waheeda Rehman's luminous performance as a nurse who begins to lose her own emotional equilibrium as she cares for mentally ill patients.
None of these elements can be faulted, but now consider what surrounds them. The story is set in the "National Psycho Analytical Clinic" (sic), run by an unbearably self-important Colonel Sahab who — working on the assumption that women are capable of any magnitude of sacrifice for men — develops a unique form of psychiatric treatment wherein beautiful nurses are encouraged to provide maternal or romantic care (or both, simultaneously) to handsome young male patients.
Meanwhile there are terrible attempts at comic relief, built around the gag that the inmates are unsupervised and have the run of the institute — thus, when a patient's visiting relative meets a doctor, each man briefly thinks the other must be a "paagal", and situation comedy of some form develops. (When the error is cleared up they chuckle with relief, secure in the misguided knowledge that they are both sane after all.) The real patients spend their time making facial gestures lifted from the Dummies' Guide to Playing Mental Patients. Through all this, Colonel Sahab stalks the corridors with his stooges, discussing which patient they ought to administer an "electric shock" to next. (You suspect that whenever the good Colonel is out of ideas he turns to a lackey and says "Still two hours before closing time? Let's go and give number 18 patient a 2,000-volt dose. Where's that new generator I ordered?")
It's hard to explain how all this baloney can possibly coexist with the heartfelt sincerity of Waheeda Rehman's acting — there are moments in her performance when she seems to be working almost in isolation, oblivious to the silliness of the man she calls boss; some of the scenes between her and Colonel Sahab are a demonstration of how the sublime and the ridiculous can share the same frame. This can make Khamoshi a confounding film for any reviewer who might want to arrive at a definite judgement.
But to return to Thomson and his rhapsodising over that long sequence in Broadway Melody of 1940:
"It is heaven. I see no reason why there couldn't be a small corner in your house where this scene is playing on a loop all the time. After all, if you had a Rembrandt, you'd put it on your wall for as long as you could see, wouldn't you?"
I feel the same way about "Woh shaam kuch ajeeb thi" and a few of Waheeda Rehman's other scenes in Khamoshi. And dozens of other brilliant sequences from films that don't hold up as a whole. Watch out for more examples in future columns.
Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based freelance writer. His book about the making of the film Jaane bhi do Yaaro was published by Harper Collins in 2010 and he has also edited The Popcorn Essayists, an anthology of film writing, for Tranquebar. He writes the blog Jabberwock. More about the books here.