Musings: Lights, Camera and Lots of Action
Who exactly is a hero?
Action movies. You know, the ones that make you sit on the edge of your seat as the hero on-screen pulls off yet another seemingly impossible feat that us mere mortals only dream of. I’m talking about Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto driving a car off the edge of an ice-cliff straight into a nuclear submarine and coming out unharmed. Or Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne single handedly incapacitating an entire militia. Or need I remind you of when Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt falling off the world’s tallest building, yet showing up just in time to fake an illicit diamond trade for nuclear weapons?
I am a sucker for this genre of movie, even though I know just how fake it is. I enjoy the barrage of incredulous feats thrown at me as I inhale my popcorn, eyes widened and my gullible mind in awe of the immortal, omniscient beings on screen. However, is this beloved genre of mine solely American?
Let me save you some time: of course it isn’t. In fact, if you think the Hollywood portrayal of action is the only example of crimes against the laws of physics in this world, then read on.
Before we delve into the different movie industries around the world, let’s start by setting a yardstick: Hollywood. This iconic industry has produced a few gems of action choreographies over the years. One particular example that I immediately start thinking of is the running scene from Tom Cruise’s latest installment of the Mission Impossible franchise. I’ve watched that clip several hundred times now on YouTube, on repeat and I still can’t get enough of it. Here’s why:
That one scene, to me, shows a quintessentially Hollywood trend. It’s going back to the roots of action choreography. In this day and age, where movies rely so heavily on Computer Generated Images (CGI), the Mission Impossible franchise has repeatedly been sticking to its guns: raw, real, action and stunt work. I allude to this particular scene because in this scene, it pays off. When you watch this scene, especially for the first time, you feel every second of it. You or I, we aren’t just watching a video being played out on a screen, we are living it. There is no grand set of complicated color schemes or larger than life beings present, it is just a 56-year-old man…..who is running.
Action being grounded in reality has always been present and it has always been the preferred way to direct action choreographies for many directors. But even then, they use stunt doubles and CGI perception to try and trick the audience. But in their attempt to bring some grandiose non-existent aspect of plot into the scene, directors destroy the reality of it and thereby disconnect the audience member from it. This is true of movies all over the world, but what Hollywood is trying to do is to bring back and emphasize the reality of these intense scenes.
It isn’t only the American part of Hollywood which is catching on this train. Across the pond, we find the land where characters such as James Bond, Sherlock Holmes and the likes have come alive. James Bond has been such a hugely cultural figure around the world that it is only natural that we find some the all-time defining scenes of cinematography and action sequences from the world’s most famous spy. I have a particular scene in mind:
The sequence in Skyfall when Bond finds a contract killer preparing to take down a Shanghai-based corporate tycoon in a building with a lot of windows. What follows is one of the most beautiful fight scenes ever put on screen; there are very few “beautiful” fight scenes in today’s cinema. What makes this one so special both behind the camera and in front of the camera is its minimalistic beauty. I mean, at its core, it is a simple fight scene. Our man finds a bad man who has to extract information from. Oh and the bad man’s killed our man’s colleague, causing Dame Judi Dench to frown. Vengeance is definitely on the back of Bond’s mind.
The director: Sam Mendes, plays with lighting in this moment. He hides the faces of the two figures fighting. That, to me, is the antithesis of modern action sequences, where the directors not only want you to look at who’s who, but also to dress them up to reaffirm or alter the audience’s bias towards a character. Mendes, does the opposite, he hides their faces as things begin to get serious. Mendes appears to hint at a vital philosophy behind the modern Bond; that maybe he isn’t a completely good guy after all. That, beneath the suave and refined exterior, he is just as feral as the scruffy man with a Tommy Gun from the Godfather. And this shows in the fight sequence because after the exchange that they both have, we are left wondering who’s who and when the light does pick up and shows us their faces, it is as if the good guy, Bond, finally gets his ‘goodness’ back.
That is how fight sequences are treated in Britain. They are grounded in realism, but they borrow dramatism that simply doesn’t exist in reality, not to make the sequence more entertaining, but to alleviate the character motivations and to reveal more to the plot.
We can’t possibly talk about movies, particularly action movies, without talking about Bollywood now can we?
Bollywood is its own little world. It’s like the colorful uncle who’s really bad for your mental health but also really fun. And exactly what types of movies does this uncle watch? He watches Baahubali. or RaOne or Race or numerous other high grossing Indian Hindi movies. And what do all these movies have in common? Tons and tons of aggrandizement.
Bollywood is different to both Hollywood and the British cinema industry in that it takes everything up a notch. This includes CGI. The action sequences of the Indian cinema Industry are made with the sole purpose of accentuating the protagonist’s capabilities and virtues. And the easiest way to do this is to pit him against extraordinary supernatural aspects which don’t exist. It’s the age old rendition of the formula: Throw ludicrous things flying at the hero and have him conquer these challenges without breaking a sweat. It’s almost like filming Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ but with better costumes.
The point here is that Hollywood and the BCI use emotional complexities and challenges to complement the character’s relatively normal physical capabilities. Bollywood, on the other hand, views the hero’s actions and capabilities from a more literal perspective. I wasn’t kidding about comparing the Indian action hero to a Greek demigod.
The action sequences involve tremendous feats such as jumping off of Turkish ruins in a beige suit and emerging unscathed or launching rockets by actually holding the entire rocket launcher itself. They get more ridiculous at times, like when your local honest cop starts chasing the baddies— on his honest horse.
There is good reason for these stunts: action sequences don’t make for good storytelling. The general audience in India does not go to movies for just a plot or pure entertainment, they go to movies to celebrate the actor, the protagonist and his omniscience. They aren’t bothered with the lighting on his face, not when he can fly a helicopter with no hands. When this is the general dynamic of the audience, when the face sells, it makes no sense from a production perspective to show that face in a weak light. Rather, it would make the fans throw more money as long as their beloved actor can conquer the impossible all while keeping his hair absolutely perfect.
It is important to note that action sequences aren’t just to show off the prowess of the protagonist, no matter what part of the world he is from. The Americans use this tool to expose the reality of the situation. The British use superficiality to elevate character arcs and the general plot of the story in action sequences. They treat these scenes with just as much care and attention as any other scene and make it a point to keep them absolutely beautiful. The Indians use the action sequences to elevate their stars. They use these to demonstrate the godliness of the heroes and keep them there.
Different places have different ways they can interact with this quite important aspect of action storytelling to reveal nuances about the whole plot, and sometimes, mostly all the time, these make for some bloody good cinema.
In “Musings,” sophomore Krishna Pamidi shares a new adventure every week about the grand modesty that is called life by exploring the global twists to universal experiences.