Want to hear a really bad idea? Take an example of something from two different cultures and then develop broad conclusions about those two cultures based on the examples. This, in terms of logic, leads to an inductive fallacy, sometimes referred to as the fallacy of the lonely fact. Trust me on this. I am not a trained logician, but I do have a Wiki app on my iPad. So, for instance, if I knew of an American movie about a judge, and I also knew of a Peruvian movie about a judge, it would be wrong to base conclusions about the United States and Peru on such flimsy evidence. So I will not do that. Because I also know of an Indian movie about a judge. And when you get to three, it’s OK.
David Dobkin’s The Judge, which opened this week in the USA, is about a curmudgeonly old guy in small town Indiana who is accused of vehicular homicide when he runs down a convicted murderer on whom he had once been too lenient. This results in the judge’s son, a high-priced defence lawyer from Chicago, coming to the judge’s defence. Problem is, they hate each other (though since this is an American movie, we know deep down they really love each other.)
The Mute, from the Vega brothers, premiered at Locarno in 2013 and has yet to gain wide release in the USA. It tells the story of a small-time administrative judge in Lima who suffers two major setbacks early on. He finds himself demoted to a provincial post for no apparent reason. And he also is the victim of a seemingly random shooting, which damages his vocal cords and leaves him unable to speak. He has no son to come to his defence. Instead, he has a father who tries to help out.
The third movie is old – coming up on its 65th birthday. But since I needed a third movie about a judge, from a third distinct culture, I am including it. Also, whereas both The Judge and The Mute are modest artistic achievements at best, I thought I’d include something that is positively glorious. Awaara was made by one of the giants of Bollywood’s golden age, Raj Kapoor. It is about a judge who believes his wife has been raped by a bandit and has become pregnant with his child. The judge banishes his wife and grows older, ignorant of the fact that his son is being forced into a life of crime as well. It’s a poignant tragedy. And a slapstick comedy. And a big-budget musical. And – well, if you’ve never seen a good Bollywood production, it’s kind of hard to describe.
So, now that we have our three distinct examples, what can we conclude? Well, first of all, we know that, regardless of the cultures, judges are all self-righteous assholes. Judge Joseph Palmer (played by Robert Duvall in The Judge) is more concerned with preserving his own legacy than admitting to a weakness. He is not above taking the law into his own hands, and he is not above bullying his own family when his short fuse is lit. Judge Constantine Zegarra, “Doctor” as he is called in The Mute (played by Fernando Bacilio), is a petty dictator, managing his office and his daughter’s life with equal inflexibility. He is not necessarily a bad man, but he demonstrates little vision and little compassion when dispensing his brand of justice. He too, is not above taking the law into his own hands when he feels he has been wronged. And Judge Raghunath (played in Awaara by Prithviraj Kapoor, real life father of his onscreen son Raj) is an ideologue so caught up in the theory of genetic pre-programming that he would destroy the life of his wife, and by extension, his son. He refuses to believe that a child born to a bandit can triumph over his faulty breeding. There is no firm evidence that he takes the law into his own hands, though there is a fairly compelling insinuation that he has improperly ascribed guilt to defendants based on their backgrounds.
So it would appear that this basic presumption – that those who would sit in judgment of others are prone to see themselves as somehow better than the rest of us – is common across multiple cultures. What about deeper cultural lessons? Can we use our lonely facts to make any further bold pronouncements?
How about this? Both the American and the Indian movies are decidedly sentimental. The sentiment is rendered far more effectively in Awaara because of the varying modes of presentation. Some of the most sentimental scenes are lavishly staged musical numbers, which divorces the substance of the sentiment from reality. Thus, it becomes easier to accept because we understand that this is simply an emotionally engaging cinematic convention. In effect, we are asked to accept the emotion, but not to take the narrative details all that seriously. The music and the comedy also leaven the more sentimental parts of Awaara. There is no such leavening and dissociation in The Judge. The judge’s son, played by Robert Downey, Jr., has a few one-liners, but this is not – even in part – a comedy. The Judge does offer a precocious child, who says things that no ten year old girl says outside of a movie, as well as a mentally challenged character who appears to be on board for comic relief and narrative victimhood, but the movie asks us to treat these characters wholly realistically. As such, they appear to be merely another sentimental contrivance. The Peruvian movie, on the other hand, is void of all sentiment. There are no cute kids to make us say “aww.” There is no music, and though there is comedy, it is of such a dark and subdued nature that it doesn’t exactly distract from the absurd situation in which Doctor Zegarra finds himself.
So on that score card, we can conclude that the USA and India share a sentimental nature. Peru, not so much.
The Mute and Awaara, however, do share an interest in some form of magical realism. It runs rampant in Awaara – virtually every time a character bursts into song, there is an implied other-worldly presence. The huge number, “Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi” (“My Foreigner Has Come Home”) is a classic in this regard. The Mute – a much shorter and, let’s just say it, more “muted” film – features only one such moment, but it is quite potent, coming at the very end and casting a new light on everything that has come before it. But in The Judge there is no hint of magic. Americans like things plain and simple. (Incidentally – as a brief aside, you can determine your own appreciation for magical realism by choosing which 2006 foreign language film you prefer. If you favour Pan’s Labyrinth, you are a magical realist. If you choose The Lives of Others, you are not. Being a proud, no-nonsense American who doesn’t have a magical bone in my body, I choose The Lives of Others. This could of course, lead to gross generalisations about the respective Spanish and German cultures, but as I cautioned at the beginning, you shouldn’t do that with only two examples.)
Finally, let’s take a brief look at the way each movie is constructed. Again, the Indian and the American movies share certain elements which are not to be found in the Peruvian entry. Most obviously, the Indian and American movies are both very long. Awaara, depending on the cut you see, runs in the neighbourhood of three hours. But that runtime does not feel as long as you might expect since it is jammed with entertainments. The song and dance numbers alone are magnificent. Kapoor’s comedy is wonderful. There is romance. There are fights, both physical and intellectual. It is three hours well worth investing. The Judge, it seems to me, is merely long. At well over two hours itself, it does not have major production numbers to provide relief. It establishes its narrative question – did Judge Palmer kill a man – and then spends a couple of hours taking us to a rather unsurprising answer. It devotes long sections to subplots which have no bearing on the story. One involves lawyer Hank and his precocious daughter. The other, even less germane and more uncomfortable, involves lawyer Hank and the daughter of his former lover. By the time we get to the denouement, after the narrative question has been resolved, we are ready for the movie to end. But it doesn’t – not until three or four more unnecessary scenes have played out. (It’s not as bad as Return of the King, but it’s close.) Once again, the Peruvian movie is the opposite. It is very quick. It might even be too quick, since it leaves open several basic questions. Depending on your point of view, that may be existentially mysterious, or maddeningly incomplete.
So, in conclusion…
You might like The Mute, if you like The Man Who Wasn’t There (or any of the Coen Brothers’ “slow” movies).
You might like The Judge if you like Nicholas Sparks (or any male-oriented soap operas).
You might like Awaara if you like Oliver and Alladin (or if you have a pulse).
Since I believe I have proven beyond any doubt that all Americans go on way too long, I will stop here. I have eight other paragraphs comparing the relative value of “small town vs. big city,” the nature of marital relationships, “weapon of choice: knife, gun, or automobile?” But I am sparing you all that. I know a bad idea when I see one.