Having spent hours every week through the years in the dank, rippling darkness of a film theatre, exposed to imaginations that shock our fundamental smallness of being, I often ask myself, what is awe, have we lost the capacity for it, and will there come a day when we can learn to preserve it?
Brahmastra sprung from the eye of a storm, a tectonic shift in the way Indian cinema wanted to posture its 56-inch chest alongside Marvel Cinema’s blast of releases. Few moments from these films, however, left an aftertaste of awe, that lingering spike in the mind, that mushed sigh, that exaggerated memory of something so tender.
S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR moved between pageantry and awe with such swift narrative sledgehammers that you could only submit to Rajamouli’s feral imagination and eat from his hand in the theatre. When the two heroes, brothers who hold one in each other’s gaze like lovers, dance off, with the dust rising to leather-footed feet thumping, suspenders plucked and tucked, your mind is stuck between wondering how they shot it, the labour behind the limbs moving so energetically, and experiencing that wonder, while trying to stop wondering.
This isn’t awe. It is compelling pageantry, which is itself a disappearing thing from the movies, and must be celebrated for what it is. But this isn’t awe. I wanted to walk out of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, so dull and explained its pixellated world, so boring and sincere its politics. I started, and immediately stopped, Thor: Love and Thunder multiple times on my laptop. Not today. Tomorrow, perhaps.
The one time I felt something strong in my heart, weak in my stomach, was in Chloe Zhao’s Eternals—when two lovers held each other, and we could see sunlight dappling through the fibres on their sweaters, getting caught, trying to dance. Tender as the world it is made in. I wept.
But when every source of light in a frame looks created—the thick traffic-signal reds, the macabre icy blues, the greens lost somewhere between fluorescent and lime—every lit face looks bruised by “soft lighting”, every sputtering fire looks like sprinkles erupting, what do we react to, the labour or its effect?
Last year, a Netflix film Bulbbul was hailed for its new look, a striking redness of being. The red moon was integral to the narrative, and scenes were bathed in that aforementioned traffic-light red, a colour so synthetic, so unnatural it produced the feeling of looking at something concocted on a computer screen. It was the kind of beauty that required you to imagine the labour behind it.
Looking at the film, at its reception among critics, I was reminded of film critic Pauline Kael’s scathing review of West Side Story (1961), which she called “a piece of cinematic technology”. While most critics and audience members walked out in an ecstatic hum, she asked, instead, a subversive question: “Is the audience so impressed by science and technique, and by the highly advertised new developments that they accept this jolting series of distorted sounds gratefully—on the assumption, perhaps, that because it’s so unlike ordinary sound, it must be better?” To be striking is different from beauty, from awe.
What, then, is awe?
Part of awe is renouncing the need to explain it. It is a feeling that doesn’t ask for context, for meaning, for replication.
Part of this loss of awe is, perhaps, the dictionary. We have categorised almost every emotion into meaning, we have begun to reach out to other languages to pull out more specific words to describe more specific feelings. Joy is not enough. It is petrichor on a monsoon day. Silence is not enough. It is kasa kasa to describe the sound of desert heat. There is this awful fear to have everything stated, a fear best expressed in Edouard Louis’s autobiographical novel A History of Violence: “If a person never heard anyone talk of love, maybe they would not be able to fall in love.”
A friend once sat me down and explained the meaning of “sublime” to me for I had been using it all wrong. It wasn’t just any kind of beauty. It was beauty that put the fear of God in you. To see something so beautiful it terrifies you. Staring at the Pacific waters at Oceans Beach at dusk, the sky a shade of Prussian blue I had never seen before, had never known could exist, the jolt of cheap weed, the ocean so vast, it was so scary. I wept.
Experiencing the sublime
Maybe, then, to feel awe, is to experience the sublime, where the fear of that beauty, the pungency of it, renders you incapable of asking for more of it, looking for reasons where none exist. The Soviet film director and film theorist Sergei Eisenstein thought colour was “capable of profound psychological revelation”, that to stare into the abyss of colour was to feel unmoored enough to feel vulnerable, for something dormant or non-existent to be exhumed.
The painter Mark Rothko, who from the 1950s until his death in 1970, only painted fields of hazy full-bodied colour stacked on top of each other, thought this complete lack of narrative in painting allowed for “the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer.” It was radical. It was gorgeous. It was wasteful. Millions of dollars were spent in acquiring what millions of people thought was childish, unremarkable flinging of paint over canvas. And yet, when people stood in front of Rothkos—imposing as they are—they wept.
The American art curator Sarah Urist Green boils it down to three things: monumentality; simplicity; stillness. Looking at Rothko’s paintings, divorced from the world, from memory, from silhouettes, from meaning, something primal throbs. Like when looking at the shadow of vapours when boiling water for your morning coffee. Like when walking looking up at a cloudless summer sky, lost, and bumping into a pole. Like looking at a glass window on a train, sunlight streaming through days, weeks, months of grime collecting at the edges, filtering the yellow.
But what about cinema—where is awe in cinema? Paul Valery in the 1960s noted that “profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful”. From what I see, this reliance on technology has begun to confuse scale for sweep, budget for beauty. Awe is leaking out, slowly, steadily.
Many critics found the visual effects of Brahmastra excellent, but what does that mean? Everything looked real enough for you to not question its validity, but not beautiful enough for your eyes to stammer and stagger, so you just sit there unmoved as a piece of adequate technology unfurls?
It is impossible to feel what theological lecturer Jessica Frazieris calls “our vast imaginations [pulled] in the opposite direction from our small, frail bodies”, for there is no pull, no push, we sit and the pixellated imagination does its cartwheels on the screen, out there, beyond us.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.