I have a suspicion we're on the verge of a sub-prime crash in commercial film style. It's a crash that has been postponed by Hollywood's traditional strengths in the script and acting departments, not to mention the studios' marketing muscle and distribution leverage. But it seems to me that in our attention-deficit age, audiences are becoming increasingly bored with the look of many commercial films.
Let me pitch this in a roundabout way. In transit to the Dubai film festival, I flicked through the hundreds of movies available on the in-flight entertainment system. As the airline was UAE-based, the menu covered not only the Arabic world and the international business brigade, but also Dubai and Abu Dhabi's large diaspora communities from South Asia and further afield. So you had Ratatouille, but you also got Hong Kong cop thriller Eye In The Sky. Dodgeball was on the list (as an 'All Time Great'), but so were Filipino comedies, Bollywood romances and Korean mafia weepies.
Wonders of the world
I decided to scroll through the list and stop at the first unknown title that grabbed me. Around 60 films in, with the Hollywood-dominated new releases behind me, I paused in the 'World' section.
Now here was something a little different. A tad showy, perhaps, with its edgy jump cuts, desaturated colours, smart use of focus pulls and long lenses, and off-centre framings of faces - but definitely original.
The film was called Pokiri. An undercover cop tale with echoes of Infernal Affairs, it was made in Telugu, the second most widely spoken Indian language after Hindi, centred on the region of Andhra Pradesh, and associated with a thriving film industry, sometimes referred to as Tollywood.
Like most film critics, I can reel off a list of Taiwanese or Korean directors - but I don't speak cine-Telugu. Even those of us who are sensitive to breakout Bollywood titles such as Devdas or Lagaan are unlikely to have a radar that stretches as far as Hyderabad (the capital of Andhra Pradesh). Yet around 240 Telugu features are released each year. Box-office takings are so buoyant that Telugu films can count on a respectable average budget of $2.5m.
It goes without saying that Pokiri had never been considered by any serious film festival - though to be fair, it had probably never been submitted. Too kitsch for Cannes, not earnest enough for Berlin, this Telugu blockbuster nevertheless became the biggest South Indian movie of all time in 2006, grossing $16.9m (rup665m) in India.
Sinking in Ocean's of style
It was only when I could access the internet that I discovered this much. Back on the plane, I admired the film's visual panache and pared-back syntax. My neighbour was watching Ocean's 13, and without the audio, it looked tired in comparison. Sure, we get the occasional flashy action sequence, but there were also lots of obvious two-shots, and plenty of 'clothesline' set-ups: our cute criminal cronies arranged, in long or medium shot, on a horizontal axis, in a retro style. And this from Steven Soderbergh, reputedly one of our most able US stylists.
Of course, no film is an island, and Pokiri owes a debt to the fast-cut, extreme-close-up 'intensified continuity' style that film theorist David Bordwell has identified as the dominant idiom of contemporary Hollywood. But like many of their Korean colleagues, director Puri Jagannath and DoP Shyam Naidu have grabbed what they need from the style and used it as the basis for something fresh and new.
Perhaps the solution for Hollywood's current stylistic constipation will evolve out of the adrenaline of handheld docudrama, in the style of Paul Greengrass.
Perhaps it will be found in the more classical, homegrown HD stylisation of Michael Mann, or the MTV generation pop aesthetic of indie films like Napoleon Dynamite or Juno. Or maybe - call me an optimist - it will derive from increasing exposure to world cinema. Wherever it comes from, something's gotta give. If only to keep us awake on long-haul flights.