Cinema Paradiso : In the Beginning...

Much of what I'm today and my area of work & passion is attributed to my childhood days and the early exposure to fantastic world cinema. Quite frankly, my first exposure to good cinema goes back a long long way. I don't even remember when I saw my first film but I vividly remember some of the earliest films that really opened up a bright and fascinating world where imaginations fly. Here I would talk about some of them and why they've been landmark films for me........This was the time of Doordarshan, a Crown colour TV, a National VCR and no computer/internet.


a. Ben Hur : My entire family has always loved this film, right from the day it was released back in the 60s when they watched it in the theatre. My Uncle even has an original signed and autographed photo of Charlton Heston which was sent to him by Heston as a Thank you for a letter which my Uncle wrote to him after watching the film. That photo still sits on the mantelpiece in my Uncle's room. I was made to watch this film on a VHS cassette which we bought from Palika Bazaar in Delhi when I was i think 8 or 9. Our trusty old National Video Cassette Recorder (which still works like charm after almost 23 years) was my Cinema because the local movie theatres would not play much English films.


Now I must point out that at that time, it was not easy to understand dialogue but one always remembers the key dialogues. Anyway, Ben Hur starts with this grand shot of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam with the text 'Anno Domini' and a grand music piece composed by Miklos Rozsa. This movie really took my breath away. My Uncle used to tell me that there was a special camera used so that everyone would look grand and epic in scale. I later found out that it was a special and exclusive MGM 65 (65mm as opposed to 35mm) camera indeed which was to later become the Panavision camera. The unique 2.77:1 aspect ratio of the projection was mind boggling. The first time you see Charlton Heston on the screen, its evident that he was destined to be an epic scale hero, and not your average romantic fool. Do you know that Paul Newman was the original choice for the role of Ben Hur and that even Leslie Neilson auditioned for the Messala's role. The grand scale of the movie is evident from the amazing production design where a lot of matte painting work was done and that too back in the 1950s. That is evident from the early shots where you see the three kings who come to offer gifts to new born Jesus. And Rome, my god what a shot where you see the Chariot Race arena in its full bloom for the first time. The sequence itself, directed by Yakima Canutt, is probably the greatest such sequence in the history of world cinema. The music of this film is something which I cannot describe. It just takes your breath away. Miklos Rozsa's Overture which plays before the film starts sets the mood. You see Ben Hur was such a long film that it actually had two intervals and a fantastic music portion which would play while the audience would get seated before the film starts. This music piece would keep playing while the screen shows 'Overture'. Unfortunately the video tape version did not have this part and I was only able to see this much later (around the time when I was in 9th grade) on a Laser Disc version of the film (Not a DVD). Back when I was 9, we had a Philips Cassette Recorder and I distinctly remember recording portions of the music on an audio tape from the television using the microphone from my Dad's Sanyo 3-in-one Turntable-Cassette-Radio unit. And I would listen to it till late in the night, rewind, play, rewind play and it would bring back images from the film. I was made to understand that its the best film in the world and I don't disagree even today. It definitely is one of the greatest films ever made. And its Oscar record of 11 wins was only equalled decades later by Titanic and later Lord of the Rings : The Return of the King. The impact that this film had on my can be summed up by saying that it opened up a grand cinematic vista for me, a scale which was larger than life and perfect in every way. I still have that cassette but I'm not sure after years of use if it still works. I've watched this film on tape over a 100 times I think. Much later I had the chance to rent a Laser Disc (its a huge disc, almost the size of a medium sized dominos pizza which works much like a DVD but is pretty much analog in nature and came years before Compact Discs. But this thing had surround sound and everything even back then.) We were able to buy a Sony LD Player and luckily enough found an LD rental near my home which worked out fine...100 bucks per film/day. That's how summer vacations were spent...My Uncle and my Parents funded these and I'm so so thankful that they did this. I'm really glad that I've just ordered a special collectors' edition DVD of the film from Amazon which has so much more than one could ask for as extras on a total of 4 DVDs. Really looking forward to it.


Moving on...... you see I did not get to watch much Hindi cinema back then, and this habit continues even today. Its impossible for me to sit through songs for instance. My folks somehow did not expose me much to Hindi cinema and I was only able to watch English films. Call me a snob but it really shaped my entire perception of Cinema and in the most appropriate way. I'm not against Indian cinema and do have favourites here too about which I will write some other day for sure but i still feel that the attention to detail and versatility of subjects is what sets Hollywood or for that matter English language cinema apart.


b. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly :: Or Buono, il brutto, il cattivo...This was the other tape which I had back then when i was a kid. Clint Eastwood, Elli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef. What a film...you just want to get in it and be a part of it.... I remember each and every shot of this western cult classic because if you watch a film over and above a 100 times, you're bound to remember it, don't you... First you have the music which has a cult status. And then the rough and tough outlaw world of the Civil War days in America and these three men and their lust for a cache of gold. This film was originally an Italian film which was dubbed in English for international release. Sergio Leone was a master of a genre described as Spaghetti Westerns. This film has some of the most impressive shots ever filmed, the grand wide angle super long shots which establish the mood and scale of the film. There are some really memorable scenes from the film like Blondie shooting down Tuco when he's being hanged for crimes.....the bridge shot which Blondie and Tuco blow up to smithereens...it was an actually constructed bridge exploded with tons of explosive. And who can forget the finale stand off between Blondie, Tuco and Angel Eyes at the cemetery. Right before this sequence is the cult scene where Tuco reaches the cemetery first after being blown off a horse by a Cannon by Blondie. And Tuco, as happy as he is to find out that he's almost reached his destination goes into this frenzy and runs around the cemetery in search for that grave marked Arch Stanton. This sequence is aptly called 'The Ecstacy of Gold' and carries a haunting music piece of the same name by genius composer Ennio Morricone who did the entire soundtrack. I have this music playing in my car almost every other day even today. You cannot stop loving it. So much so that Metallica has their rendition of this clip which they play at the beginning of each concert. The final stand off also has a fantastic music portion called 'Trio' which is mesmerizing and sets the pace for the sequence and the finale. And who can forget the last shot with Tuco on the noose and Blondie shoots him down one last time and Tuco's last cry, 'Hey Blondie....you know who you are, just a dirty son of a b****"....And the other popular one when Tuco is in a bathtub and this one armed rough neck barges in, in anticipation of a great opportunity to kill his old enemy. And Tuco fires a gun from under the water in the tub and says "If you want to shoot shoot, don't talk"...This was later blurted out by our own Dharmendra in some cheap 80s film. The Good, The Bad & The Ugly will always remain a classic in my memory and one of the most important ones which I shall remember. More so because my Dad had an old LP Record called Greatest Western Themes which had the Good, the Bad and the Ugly theme as the first track and I've been listening to it ever since i was 5. Its something you can never put down once you've heard it....I love westerns and that's how it all started. Grand scale shots, amazing acting, guns, railroads, horses and gold.....amazing...every time...


c. My Name is Nobody :: Another classic western starring Terrence Hill would always stay in my memory because I spent an entire summer vacation watching it over and over because I just couldn't put it down...It's a Western Comedy. And that's how I would never finish my vacation homework. This film had the amazing Henry Fonda and though it was his last western, the fact that this film had all the makings of a Sergio Leone classic made it a winner. The music once again comes from Ennio Morricone, the master who still continues to compose after all these years. I mean he's been at it ever since the 1960s. This film had some great sequences as well like the train which Nobody hijacks and the shootout with the Wild Bunch Gang.....


d. The Guns of Navarone ::This was the other important genre which I was exposed to because my Uncle, my Dad and my late Grandpa always regarded World War 2 as one of their favourite subjects. I remember Dad's bedtime stories of the war from a big Readers' Digest book back when i was 5 or 6 perhaps. And then came this film. Not the first WW2 film which i saw but one of the bigger ones. This movie is an amazing action piece about a band of allied commandos who go on this impossible mission to destroy two imposing gigantic guns which threaten allied war ships off the coast on a greek island. It starred Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle and James Robertson Justice and was directed by a Carl Foreman. That's like getting all the Khans in one film along with Big B by Indian standards. Its a gigantic film and the authenticity and detail of the guns themselves is awe inspiring. No wonder the film won the Best Special Effects Oscar that year. And guys we're talking the pre-computer era. So, all optical stuff. There are some mind boggling shots such as the sea storm sequence, the guns exploding and falling into the ocean amongst others. This film is based on Alistair Maclean's novel of the same name and though it deviates quite a bit from the novel, it still manages to capture the essence of the drama, the action and the amazing visuals. My favourite character from the film is the one played by David Niven, the explosives expert Corporal Miller. His flawless acting and quick humour bits like the shot where they tie up the german officers and Niven picks up an oversized german cap, wears it and does a 'Hail everybody'....its still brings a laugh when i think about it. A must watch for everyone.....


This brings me to the end of Chapter 1 of Cinema Paradiso. I have several other films to write about and I just can't do it in one post...If you liked reading the above, keep checking back as I continue with the second and third and fourth and so on parts of this series.

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