Thursday 28 February 2008

Moments of Transcendental Aesthetic

What is the sublime? The transcendental, or sublime, in art is usually defined as aesthetic pleasure so acute that it transports the viewer outside herself, sending her onto a higher plane of awareness and reality. It is an unbounded, incalculable aesthetic pleasure, so immense and so filling that, as Elaine Scarry would put it, we are momentarily jostled out of our subjectivity, and suddenly the object of beauty takes center stage in our reality. We can only graciously acquiesce our narcissism, bowing out in awe of something so magnificent, so all-consuming.

The PPCC has experienced this feeling of the Sublime in several films. The Empire Strikes Back was practically one, prolonged sublime-gasm, and, thanks to multiple viewings and subsequent neural rewiring, we often fall back on sci-fi images of foreign planets when we are moved by transcendental aesthetic. Recently, in our exploration of Hindi cinema, we have come across a number of Sublime moments, thanks mostly to Hindi cinema's capable use of music and imagery. More often than not, in films like Awaara (1951) or Chor Sipahee (1977) we have been blown away by a snatch of music, or a shadow falling on a face. It has been all-powerful.

This newest of PPCC projects will share some of the PPCC's most Sublime moments, as available from YouTube.

Subjectivity. A note about an obvious difficulty: we do not and cannot pretend that what we see as Sublime another viewer might not just see as filth. However, we think that rather than "I think you think" back and forth, it's more productive to explain what exactly is so special about a moment. Hence, while experiencing the Sublime in a particular object of art is a purely subjective experience, the feelings described might be universal, and we will try to maintain objectivity in explaining what moves us and why. Our first example should be a case in point, considering how poorly received this film was by viewers and critics alike.

Viewer involvement. A standard question in philosophy of aesthetics is how we can disentangle aesthetic pleasure from other factors. Some philosophers (e.g. Clive Bell) thought that aesthetic pleasure and things like Taste had to be a cool, disenchanted appraisal of beauty. Eroticism, emotional entanglements, nostalgia-seeking... all these warm-blooded reactions had to be dismissed in favor of something more detached. The PPCC does not subscribe to this view. While we believe aesthetic pleasure is a distinct pleasure from other things (like eating, or thinking how hot Shashi is), it often comes riding in on the coattails of some other emotion. At least, the PPCC has yet to find an instance of Sublime which does not feature someone we find hot. Once again, our next example, case in point.

The first example of the Sublime:
Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, Title Song

If you are a KANK snob who dislikes KANK only because it is so KANKicious, this may be difficult to accept. But the PPCC has watched and re-watched KANK several times in the past few weeks as Friends of the PPCC have gradually been converted to all things Hindi. And with each viewing, the PPCC has become further and further KANKified, so that we are now no longer apologetically in love with KANK, but shamelessly and wildly so. How can a movie be so damn satisfying? Guh! How can a movie be so damn pretty?! Gah! SRK's hair and Rani's eye makeup and the music from that scene on the pier and the shots of leaves and the costume design's color coordination and... guh, so much more. While objectively, the PPCC may recognize that KANK fails on many conventional levels of filmmaking - storytelling efficiency, SRK's acting is also nothing to write home about - we still like it so much that it has earned its way to the first spot of our Sublime series.

Now what is Sublime about the title song? The moment when the PPCC jumped out of its skin was the changing of the seasons: first, Abhishek climbing the steps of Columbia University, marvelling at the change from sunshine to rain; followed by gloomy Rani, hugging herself as she walks through the pouring rain in Philadelphia; which zooms into autumnal colors in upstate New York while Preity plays with her son, turning into snow; becoming (and here's the golden moment) a tracking shot of SRK limping through a graveyard, arms behind his back.

There are two things which make this moment Sublime for us: first, the change in music from 'autumn' to 'winter', when suddenly we emerge from our waffling background score to something powerful and tragic, minor-keyed and full of beautiful tabla; second, SRK's limp. The PPCC, like many warm-blooded women, has a fetish for the wounded Byronic hero - and its his tragedy which makes him even more attractive. The music reinforces this air of epic scars, so that the character Dev's loneliness becomes something large and monumental and beautiful. Of course, many viewers found Dev and Maya's romance a petty affair between two unlikable people. The PPCC concedes this point; they might be unlikable, yes. However, for us, this moment captures the poignancy and brilliance of their forced separation - and, in true Sublime style, of any forced separation, of any feeling of loneliness. If we may make a generalization about aesthetics: it is in these moments that art kicks butt, when it can turn something conventionally tragic into something beautiful at the same time. This is (one of!) the moment(s!) in the film which works perfectly and transcends what it is, taking us with it.

Our original review of Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006).


Filmi Geek said...

Very nice thought-provoking piece. I have never seen *Kabhi alvida na kehna* and don't really have any plans to, but I watched the song all the way through and was glad to see it with your guiding commentary as it helped me to notice things I might not have noticed otherwise, like that lovely passage-of-time sequence you note.

Will have to think about my own examples of the sublime in Hindi cinema (I don't really have a working definition of the term in mind and will give some more study to yours).

Beth Loves Bollywood said...

If you managed to convert people to all things Hindi including KANK, then you must have some kind of mad converting skillz. Call me hater, call me a snob, call me a reptile, whatever, but I am no fan of KANK (though, like you, long a fan of using it as a word, discussed here and here ).

And I watched the song, and it made me want to staple my own hand to distract myself from the annoyance (there's a gesture that goes along with this sentiment that I employ during interminable staff meetings), and the only thing that moved me was Abhishek in white pants, just as I found his character the only tolerable person in the movie. I loathe Byronic heroes and SRK's in this movie is one of the most irritating Hindi film "heroes" I've met.

"For me," this is, of course. Not "I think you're wrooooong." Though when I saw the title of the post I naturally assumed Shashi would be involved.

Still, I applaud your application of academic-ishstyle pursuits such as discussing the sublime, and I hope to be able to join in better next time. Like FG, I have no definition of "sublime" handy and will ponder it.

a ppcc representative said...

FilmiGeek: Thanks! And yes, please do post your own experiences with the sublime. There's some variances on defining the sublime, though, to me, they always seem like variations on the theme of immensity, transcending normal reality. I suppose my own definition has always had a very mystical bent: it has a lot to do with transcendental states of being. Intense! Anyway, I'm very grateful that you took the time to watch the song and comment, since I always find it difficult to sit through new YouTube songs.

Beth - Ahh, sorry, I certainly didn't mean to imply you were a snob or a hater! Actually, everyone I know on the internet world hates KANK with the fire of a passion suns, while my RL friends are quite OK with it - we were really digging the soapy melodrama, the squishy romance, etc. But I think much of my enjoyment is, indeed, driven by SRK's beautiful limping, and so if you're not a fan of Lord Byron and his many offspring, I can see that there's not much else to keep you KANKing.

Sublime Shashi! Shashi is sublime in himself, hai na? Sigh! Though actually I think the most genuinely sublime moments of Shashi I've found were in Chor Sipahee - that movie is a gold mine, and the two songs are really something else. Anyway, yes, as I said to FilmiGeek, please do post your own sublimeness as well!

a ppcc representative said...

"fire of a passion suns"? Fire of a thousand suns.

Sigh, where is my head these days.

Filmi Geek said...

Okay, I reread your post and found an unlikely scene springing to mind as I pondered moments of the sublime.

It will not surprise you that Shabana Azmi figures into my thinking; see your note above on subjectivity. :)

Have you ever seen the film *Mrityudand*? If not, you ought to, if only for the pleasure of seeing Madhuri Dixit kick ass and take names. But there is also a side plot in the film, about Shabana's character, whose husband abandons her (he schemes to take over a monastery in a power bid); she ends up having an affair with the local leader of the backward caste community, Om Puri.

The scene leading up to their first tryst is the one I am thinking of.

She has been ill, and staying in a small place in the city while she gets treatment from some citified doctor. Om comes to visit her regularly and brings her sweets and presents, and that is how they become close. "It" happens when he burns himself on the chai pot; she rushes to rub something soothing on his hands and then they are standing there holding hands and looking at one another. She realizes what is happening and, frightened, starts to back away from him.

But she backs away from him right into the bedroom.

She keeps backing away and he keeps advancing and eventually she bumps up against the bedpost and that is when you know, and she knows, that it is all over.

It is the most delicately yet powerfully presented statement of a woman's ambivalence about sexual autonomy, sexual desire - no wailing, no verbal angsting just - silently backing away from him and leading him into the bedroom all at the same time. It is perfect, and I would even venture to say, sublime.

Janeheiress said...

What a great explanation of the sublime! I've never thought about it as applied to cinema before, but it makes sense. That may be the key to what draws a lot of us to Indian Cinema. The rich aesthetic and music add so much more to create that effect. I would even say that the films' often rough edges add to it.

Two of mine are from Star Wars, incidentally (not Empire Strikes Back, although it's my favorite of the trilogy as well).

1. When Luke stares at the binary sunset (one of my favorite moments since I was about four)
2. The close-up of Tarkin's profile and then the transition to the exploding Death Star, making it seem like his head explodes (when in effect, it really did).
3. Lawrence of Arabia: when Lawrence blows out a match and it transitions to a Lion King-esque sunrise (except of course, this was 30 years before the Lion King)
4. The Shawshank Redemption: The Warden throwing a pebble at the Raquel Welch poster, and then discovering what lay behind it.

I've experienced several sublime moments watching Hindi movies, but those need to stand the test of time, especially since so many of them are tied to romance.

ajnabi said...

Wah, Wah, PPCC! Just so you know, this post inspired my latest post, which you can find here should you be so inclined. I never would have noticed the KANK loveliness if you hadn't pointed it out, having had my nose put massively out of joint by that section of the film.