Sunday, September 15, 2013

Context: Do you have it?

I don't have a new review for you, so have a mini-post touching on some ideas I've been mulling over recently!

Last night I stumbled across a new addition to the Criterion Collection on Hulu: the Japanese film Fall Guy (1982). By happy coincidence it happened to be based on a play by the playwright I’ve been researching--Tsuka Kouhei (つかこうへい), who seems to be a Neil Simon-y type figure. Even with my library access, it’s been difficult to find anything out since very little seems to have been written on him in English and Japanese language books aren’t exactly easy to come by. But my difficulties in geeking out on research are neither here nor there; the reason I bring this up is that the film got me thinking about context.

The Japanese title of Fall Guy is 『蒲田行進曲』 or The March of Kamata, referring to Kamata Film Studios where the action of the film takes place. The film follows three characters in and around Kamata: a past-her-prime heroine, her lover the fading hero, and a stunt man who loves her. This stunt man is the one singled out by the English language title, despite the fact that the heroine gets top billing and a large share of the main narrative thrust. It just seemed so ridiculously Western Film Guy to impose a single male “underdog” narrative on a film that is actually about much more than that. And, unsurprisingly, the divine actress Matsuzaka Keiko who won a handful of awards for her role as Konatsu gets relegated to a few lines at most in the English language reviews I found.

It’s all context--the title signals that the film is about a stunt man and the (let’s be real) men reviewing have no need to challenge that because of course the film has to be about a man, right? That’s their context.

The context question came up for me a few months ago when I watched another Japanese film called The Happiness of the Katakuris (カタクリ家の幸福, 2001), directed by Miike Takashi. And, oddly enough, this film also stars Matsuzaka Keiko; she plays the deglam mother of the titular Katakuri family, who run a guest house up in the mountains where TRAGIC THINGS happen to those who visit. After watching Happiness, I found it difficult to categorize, though that hasn’t stopped my Western Film Guy nemeses from lazily placing it in the horror-musical genre and evaluating it as such.

But framing Happiness as The Sound of Music with Zombies erases, yes, the context of the original. I don’t see how anybody could attempt to critically watch the film without understanding that the music is rooted in 歌謡曲 or kayoukyoku, a nostalgic genre of music loosely equivalent to the German Schlager or perhaps to the 1980s and early 1990s era of Bollywood songs. And, perhaps even more importantly, that the main male actor in the film is the extremely well known pop star Sawada Kenji aka “Julie” aka a gender-bending David Bowie style artsy sex god. Watching former sex god Sawada Kenji play a schlubby father is a far different thing from watching some actor play a schlubby father--and Miike knows it, which is why he included an old school “Julie” style television showcase in the film. Yet, Sawada Kenji gets barely a parenthetical mention and the kayoukyoku none at all. Nope, as far as the West is concerned: SOUND OF MUSIC WITH ZOMBIES WHY IS THIS SO WEIRD LOL.

Can you say you’ve seen a film if you don’t know the context?

I certainly include myself in this question. I’ve mentioned this a handful of times in various places but watching Dil Se in 2004 when I had just started watching Indian films was a far different experience than watching it again five years later when I had seen a lot of Indian films. I had completely misread what Preity Zinta’s character had to offer to Shahrukh because I was still unfamiliar with the wedding tropes of all the 1990s films it was referencing--and I had mistook mundanity for exoticness.* And one certainly has to question the glowing reviews to medicore films on both sides of the Bolly-Holly divide along the same lines--how much of that praise can we attribute to a lack of familiarity and context? Of seeing only what you want to?

The last little tangent I’ll lead you on relates to the rise of the Youtube Clip. This morning an Indonesian friend of mine sent me a clip of a JR NTR song--this song from Shakti--that had been overdubbed with an anime theme song. She wanted to know what “Bollywood” movie it came from. (YES, I KNOW! It’s a Telugu film.) I quickly identified the track for her, though I hadn’t seen Shakti, by guesstimating the year based on JR NTR’s weight and then checking to see what fantasy films he was in that I hadn’t seen. *Bingo* It took me all of about five minutes.

But the disembodied film song remains a pet peeve of mine.

I don’t like the disembodied film song and I like even less the contextless mocking they receive from contextless dummies. Not that every film song is serious business but some of them used to be… but those don’t play well in the clubs or on youtube. The film song ripped from the context of the film it’s in just becomes another MTV video--and, sadly, that’s the direction more and more Bollywood films seem to be taking, with filmmakers who don’t take songs seriously and corporations who seem them only as promotional tools. And what promotes better than a hit song at the clubs?!

It’s the same direction American pop has taken over the last 15 years or so and it’s really depressing, to be honest. What I wouldn’t give for a lovingly picturized lament or a folk song or sisterly bonding song or a political anthem… so many other things other than soppy romance numbers or items. Well, at least we still have the Southern industries, right?

ETA: I also wonder what role the lack of empathy plays--do foreign viewers see actors that don't look like them as real people? That might be worth writing about later. And I'd also like to ETA that in the handful of reviews I read on Fall Guy, it's rather disturbing that a rape scene was almost universally written about as "he watches her get raped" versus "she is raped while he watches"--in other words these critics were primed to read "HE" as their POV character even when the heroine is the main character in the narrative. *Paging Priyanka Chopra.

5 comments:

filmi-contrast said...

You really put your finger on something that bothers me as well with "the disembodied film song remains a pet peeve of mine," and "what I wouldn't give for a lovingly picturized lament," etc.

I think the ideal use for the disembodied "music video" pop number in the modern filmi setting *should* still be the "item girl" song. It's perfect, because it doesn't have to connect to the story (even though I don't know why it can't--if Helen or Jayshree T could dance out the heroine's darker side and move the emotional plot along, I don't see why item numbers can't now as well), rather, at it's most basic it merely provides an entertaining break from the action. I think it's a brilliant convention--because, if you use it right, it provides the mass appeal a Hindi film needs to have . . . and frees the rest of the film to embrace variety in it songs and lyrics. Item songs, SHOULD, in my opinion, give the rest of the film the license to keep its soul. And at the risk of sounding like a nostalgic anti-modern hater (gosh, SO obnoxious)I would venture to say that in more recent years, in spite of the available item song convention (into which a film *could* pour all it's mass-appeal commercial tendencies), a lot of Bollywood products run dangerously close to being one long series of item-girl-like numbers. I find musical depth and variety of expression more often to be had in older films, pre-90s esp.

The rise of the disembodied song not only gives the filmi-haters something to hate on, but also turns a lot of films into long MTV videos with a little bit of plot in between. Which is so unfortunate. Because, as Roger Ebert once said, "A film is a terrible thing to waste." For me, that goes doubly for Bollywood films, which have SO much expressive potential BECAUSE of the nautch-gaana--that it hurts me even more when that nautch-gaana's highest aim is just to be catchy enough to find itself in a nightclub remix track.

~Miranda

Filmi Girl said...

The rise of the disembodied song not only gives the filmi-haters something to hate on, but also turns a lot of films into long MTV videos with a little bit of plot in between.

It's something like a self-fulfilling prophesy, right? Where more and more disembodied songs lead people to believe that films songs are SUPPOSED to be like this but... they aren't. Or, rather, they don't have to be.

odadune said...

I guess I've been lucky in the post-2009 Hindi films I've seen because I haven't run across that many "disembodied" songs, in the sense of a self-contained music video that is poorly integrated into the movie without rhyme or reason. (Keeping in mind that I don't really have a issue with "end credits videos" as such, like Lungi Dance, Dharpakad, Hookah Bar, or the five billion YRF examples.)

Even in the oldies, it was not unheard of for a movie to have predominantly romance-themed songs with kind of repetitive picturizations, or even predominantly item numbers, if the story took place in that kind of milieu. The reason why people cherish the older movies with imaginative picturizations, is I think because they stood out from the crowd even at the time.

Moimeme said...

Filmi Girl, this post embodies all the reasons why I love you! :)

Keep writing, and keep forcing Indian films to continue to be ... Indian.

filmi-contrast said...

"Self-fulfilling prophecy" is right! I think audiences can usually stomach more variety than producers/backers assume. (Hollywood certainly suffers from a similar problem.)

As for the excellent point by Odadune (that our view of older films is skewed by the fact that we only consider the classics and not the numerous duds) . . . I think the only way to find out whether or not the films of today contain more "throwaway" or "disembodied songs" than the oldies of yesteryear . . . would be to set up some sort of research study. I would definitely be interested to see a systematic treatment comparison of the types/uses/styles/contexts of songs of the last twenty years with the songs of the previous 20 or 30.

I still feel like it is rare to see the type of plaintive individual lament made famous by Mahudbala in M-e-A: "Mohabbat ki Jhooti Kahani." Or the poignant rebuke/lament, like "Jab Bhi Jee Chahe" from Chopra's Daag (1973). Whether or not it was ever a common type of musical expression in any decade, I wish we had more of it! Does anyone have any thoughts/examples on where the individual lament songs are in films today/recent years?

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl