Cinema Paradiso

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 5, 2014

Since a new year deserves an honest beginning, let me plainly state that I do not like my colleague John Lui. This is partly because he is far funnier than anyone in this newspaper. Mostly it is because he doesn't know it but he has my job. John is our fine film critic and informs me he watched roughly 150 films in 2013.

Admittedly, many are execrable and have led to his premature ageing. Yet it is worth it, for he is living the life that the German writer Goethe ordered: "A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry and see a fine picture every day of his life in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul."

Goethe possibly meant picture as painting but we can interpret it as film. Either way, he was advocating that we should frequently take creative journeys that astonish and inform. We can do some of this at home, but such adventuring is best done in the art gallery, the museum, the opera house or cinemas for these are the grand transporters to the world of wonder.

Wonder - and its cousins incredulity and marvel - needs the appropriate canvas, and in cinema, it is the big screen. When helicopters clatter across the screen in Apocalypse Now amid napalmed trees to the mournful tune of The Doors singing about a "wilderness of pain", every sense seems inflamed. To see it on a television is to see art reduced and awe diminished.

Our viewing options have become greater - iPad, TV, computer - but it is wonder in miniature. Rembrandt's works can be seen on a phone screen, but truly they should hang on museum walls, intimidating and grand.

It is why the movie hall, where the unlimited scale of a craftsman's imagination is revealed, cannot be allowed to die as an artistic platform. In July, this paper quietly noted that attendance in cinemas in Singapore fell by 5 per cent from 2011 to 2012. It may just be a blip, a reflection of an inadequate year of cinema, but I still go, I will always go.

The hall has been my release from the humdrum since I was 12 and walked crooked streets to cinemas in Kolkata. In the dark, I took magical flight, my boyish mind racing as fast as a camera across a landscape. Here it was as if I was within the film. I fought with true grit alongside John Wayne and asked my mother, De Niro style, "You talkin' to me?" Turns out she had a meaner squint than Clint Eastwood.

No movie was too awful to miss then, for it is how taste is developed. Soon enough I recognised the names of cinematographers, of music composers, of the fleeting character actors, as if they had become my familiar family of conjurers. It is how knowledge is compiled if not necessarily expertise found. These days, after watching films, I scour the reviews of Mr Anthony Lane in the New Yorker and Ms Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, whose dissecting of the craft confirms how little I know after 39 years. It is an unending education.

The movie hall was my daughter's first fantasy land, an arena truly larger than life and it is humbling. It is a place I took her so that she could appreciate wonder and yet a place which allows part of me to forever stay a boy.

With my daughter and my wife this was our Sunday communion, but as it was in my childhood, I am content to go alone. I am fussy in this regard, even snobbish. Who you share the experience with is integral to the experience.

And so I'd rather avoid my fine brother-in-law, who napped during Inception as the car began falling from the bridge, then awoke to find it was still falling, and loudly muttered: "What's wrong with this movie?" He prefers 15 dead bodies and four explosions before the credits and that is his wonder.

In the hall, quaint rituals play out. I watch the watchers: the hand-holders, the restless shifters, the whispering plot-revealers, the folk who laugh at moments you do not find remotely funny. There was a ceremony to cinema-going in my parents' time, when ties were worn, whiskey drunk at interval and three bells rung to warn them the movie was set to commence. Those customs have died but wonder never does: Like then, even now joy lies in the anticipation, the tease of trailers, the style of credits, the opening music. Come with me, the director says, and off we go.

Wonder is found in the relentless internal dialogue a movie offers you and yet also a shared experience of emotion. At the end of 12 Years A Slave, not a person in my row shifted for a stunned minute and I wept openly and it was the cumulative power of image, story and screen.

Wonder needs the hall, for it presents what the DVD at home cannot and it is the ability to immerse oneself entirely in an experience.

At home, a phone beeps, a bell rings, a beer calls, light streams in, traffic lumbers by. In the hall, something almost unique to our existence occurs: For two hours we, the sad modern sect of the amputated attention span, are captive. It is what we need, for not even reading lets you drown yourself and travel for such an uninterrupted span. No book, after all, tests the bladder. Nothing in the hall intrudes, or should, and to surrender yourself to art is a profound idea that phone fiddlers don't always get.

The hall is also respect to the film-maker, who thinks, creates, fashions each scene like a sentence in a long story beautifully - or crudely - put together. But his offering is more complex than just a story, it is fusing of many crafts.

It is the words of The Godfather, it is the set design of Schindler's List, it is the reverberating sounds of pain from Lupita Nyong'o as a whip tears her back in 12 Years A Slave. It is the landscapes of Lawrence Of Arabia, it is the lighting of Lincoln by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski as he recreates a world of gas and oil lamps, it is the camera lingering on Meryl Streep's face, finding her crevices and creases and her genius.

Only in the hall do we find such richness, such nuance, till we travel occasionally to a point where wonder is transcended by awe. Oh my god, we shout to ourselves, what is this? (Or, what is this c*** I have paid to watch?). It is why sometimes when a grand movie is done we take time to stand, for its magic is still percolating within us.

In Melbourne last week, I found tickets cost roughly A$20 (S$23). Here it is around $12. It is a gift not to spurn. In our lifetime, the hall will remain but the more we lean towards TVs, phones and pirated movies, the more an art form lurches towards redundancy.

It is a shame, for Socrates believed "wonder is the beginning of the wisdom" and if nothing else a film in the hall is a sublime provoking of the senses. So grab your child, buy a ticket, take a journey. If nothing else, it ensures John Lui will still have a job.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 5, 2014

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