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The ideas that drove movies

There's a great moment in Carol Reed's Odd Man Out: James Mason spills a drink, looks into its bubbles, and sees his troubles in them.

india Updated: Sep 02, 2011 23:21 IST

There's a great moment in Carol Reed's Odd Man Out: James Mason spills a drink, looks into its bubbles, and sees his troubles in them. Twenty years later, Jean-Luc Godard, who admired Reed, had a similar scene in his movie Two or Three Things I Know About Her. Ten years after that, Martin Scorsese had Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver stare into the bubbles of a drink. Scorsese is a fan of Reed and Godard. To watch such a visual idea pass from film-maker to film-maker is to look into the DNA of the movies.

Cinema has been the autobiography of our times, glammed up like biographies often are. But the hoopla about its box office, the pay packets of movie stars and the production costs of blockbusters tell us little about how the medium lives and breathes. Its fuel is filmic ideas, like a guy looking into the bubbles of a drink.

David Lynch agrees. He thinks getting ideas is like fishing. Federico Fellini used to say he was a radio trying to tune into a signal. John Sayles says getting an idea is like getting the flu - you feel sick, you can't shake it off. For the last six years I've been travelling the world, making a 15-hour documentary about ideas in the movies. Thousands of miles and hours later, and after having talked to great film-makers and visited key movie studios and film schools, I'm more sure than ever that Lynch's fishing, Fellini's tuning, Sayles's fever are the motor of the movies.

That was true from the beginning. In the New Jersey factory of Thomas Edison, the manic co-inventor of film, there's a plaque with a quotation from Joshua Reynolds: "There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labour of thinking." That was Edison's creed. It became the creed of the movies.

Think of something simple, like a forward tracking shot. In the earliest years, people put cameras on the front of trams to give the feeling of floating through space. Known as phantom rides, these shots were like the point of view of a ghost. DW Griffith put a camera way up in the air, then tracked forward to the Babylon set in his silent epic Intolerance, and we felt like we were kings, floating into his world. Decades later, at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick had his camera move forward through the abstract colours of the cosmos - a trippy, infinite journey. And after that, Claude Lanzmann put the camera on the front of a train travelling on the tracks that were used to deport the Jews of Europe to their deaths. The resulting film, Shoah, was the movies' greatest phantom ride. Decades later, Terence Davies, who loved Griffith's shot, used phantom rides in his majestic film Distant Voices Still Lives to revisit his painful Liverpool childhood and make the pain beautiful. Like the bubbles shots, phantom rides show us how movies procreate.

And that's only the start. In the 1920s, German director Ernst Lubitsch was a fountain of ideas. In his 1921 movie The Mountain Cat, a woman eats a man's heart and snowmen play musical instruments. And he didn't settle for standard straight-edge framing, or even the round iris look. He has black edges shaped like teeth one minute, a slit the next + like trippy cut-outs. Everyone was trying to make romantic films in these years, but Lubitsch pinched romantic movies into new guises. This took him to Hollywood, of course, helped create Paramount's house style, and led to the films of Billy Wilder, with their emotional paper cuts.

After the second world war, ideas drove movies even more. Famously, amid the rubble of Italy after 1945, neo-realist film-makers and writers opened film up to ordinary life. In Bicycle Thieves, a boy is following his dad, whose bike has been stolen. The son crosses a road and is almost hit by a car, twice. In conventional cinema, the dad would have seen this, and scolded the boy, but in Bicycle Thieves the dad doesn't even see the incidents. The dramatic chain had been loosened. Movies had started to show the small dangers that make your heart skip a beat.

In the 1970s it was about to become rock hard in the movies of Bruce Lee, but between these, Taiwanese director King Hu made A Touch of Zen, an epic, shape-shifting action movie. Asia in the 70s seemed to corner the market in all-encompassing films. While we in the West were screaming at Jaws, the Indian film Sholay was quietly being seen by more people still, playing in some cinemas for five years or more. Its star, Amitabh Bachchan, told me it is "poetic justice in three hours" and that's about right. Sholay is certainly one of the most influential films ever made.

We'll still keep hearing about the business of film, of course, because movies make money as well as meaning. But to focus too much on the money is to miss the point, the pulse, the potency.

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Sep 02, 2011 23:18 IST