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JAI ARJUN SINGH
WORDSMITH

Jai Arjun Singh is an author and runs the popular cinema and books blog Jabberwock.

An anthology of cinematic moments

onducting a workshop on film criticism at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival last weekend, I faced a minor dilemma. The workshop would last around 12 hours – enough time to show a couple of full-length movies and build elaborate discussions around them – but there was a long list of talking points to be covered. It seemed far more useful to show clips of individual scenes – between 5 and 20 minutes in length – from a number of different movies, made across the world in various genres and styles.

A part of me rallied against doing this. Did it make sense – and was it fair – to show selected bits of a film to people who might not be familiar beforehand with the work, and who would therefore not have a proper contextual appreciation of the scene? Would it mean spending long minutes apologetically explaining a back-story to a befuddled audience?

A serendipitous visit to the fine new bookstore Kitab Khana – a 10-minute walk from Kala Ghoda – helped me make up my mind (in addition to providing one of my best purchases in weeks). In the cinema section was a sumptuous, thick book titled Defining Moments in Movies, part of the Cassell Illustrated series. This 800-pager, edited by Chris Fujiwara, is packed with photos spanning over 110 years of cinema, as well as ideas contributed by leading film writers from around the world. And one of the entries – by the critic and curator Paolo Cherchi Usai – seems to sum up the value of the book. In a piece about the sensuous silent movie The River – only 50 minutes of which have survived the ravages of time – Usai laments that this beautifully shot film was not widely considered one of the classics of the medium. "Cinema aficionados hate fragments," he notes, "If the same criterion were applied to the other arts, the Colosseum would be ignored; there would be no interest in the poetry of ancient Greece; no orchestra would perform Schubert's Tenth Symphony. The River is cinema's Venus de Milo."

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Indian cinema is surprisingly well-represented too – with Rays, Ghataks and even south Indian films included – though a reader who has grown up with Hindi movies is unlikely to find much new here.

owever, the Cassell book isn't just a collection of scenes – it includes key events that may have altered film history, and some of the selections are fascinating. Consider this entry, early in the book, dating to 1905: "Alfred Hitchcock sent to prison". The reference is to the famous story about six-year-old Alfred being sent to the police station by his father as punishment for having done something naughty. This is an oft-repeated anecdote (and possibly an over-stated "explanation" of the recurring motifs of guilt and injustice in Hitchcock's cinema), but how interesting to find it included here – it gives the perusing reader an immediate sense that this isn't just an antiseptic collection of over-familiar sequences.

Indian cinema is surprisingly well-represented too – with Rays, Ghataks and even south Indian films included – though a reader who has grown up with Hindi movies is unlikely to find much new here. There is some repetition: was it necessary, for example, to include "Amitabh Bachchan lands his first punch in Zanjeer" and "The fight scene in the warehouse in Deewaar"? (Both are explained as being key scenes for similar reasons: they changed the image of the Hindi-movie hero and the idiom of fight scenes, made Bachchan a superstar etc. They were chosen by two different writers – Jerry Pinto and Rachel Dwyer respectively – and the non-Indian editors probably didn't realise how similar these moments were.)

But this is a minor flaw in a book I'm going to be dipping into for a few weeks to come. Gratifyingly, as I flipped through it on the plane back to Delhi, it turned out that some of the more offbeat inclusions were scenes I had independently opted to show at the workshop. Such as the young American girl dancing to an old Hindi-film "rock video" at the beginning of Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World — a scene I used to talk about how people can sometimes find it cathartic to watch movies from completely different cultures. It was most pleasing, then, to read the entry's summary, which says the moment is key because "the way outsiders seek their identity in cultures other than their own is wittily shown"!

 
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