Thursday, October 7, 2010

Cinema as an Art versus Cinema as a Product: A Perspective Part II

The film that I grew up with, are the “Classical Hollywood Narrative Style”, the most popular and prevalent form of filmmaking in the world.  This term was coined by David Bordwell. There are certain salient features of these films.  A film in this style would follow a convention commonly accepted amongst filmmakers. The film is structured with a clear, linear storyline to organize it into a series.  “….casually related events taking place in space and time”, with every scene being goal specific.

Lust for Life (1956)
            Now, to begin with, let’s delve into the typical structure and pattern of popular cinema.  Generally speaking, the film can be divided into three acts.  In the first act, the protagonist with well-fleshed out characteristics is introduced into the environment.  Next, clearly defined conflict is ushered in early in the plot.  The opening act of a film typically plunges us to immediately identify and understand the protagonist, who is the causal agent with a specific desire or goal.  The protagonist knows his aim and is ready to strive to attempt his goal by engaging himself in the conflict. 

            The second act is the progression of that situation to high point of conflict.  The protagonist single - minded strives to make his way through the conflict with “question and answer logic, problem solving routine”. 

            And the final act deals with how the conflict and problems are resolved.  Thus, you see the Hollywood film assemble a tight cause- and- effect chain of action.

            This narrative style, which is very popular (because you don’t have to think as every thing is offered to you on a platter),  favours cohesiveness  and linearity in narration and a seamless, free flowing style, which is achieved with deft editing and constantly focusing on the protagonist and his immediate zone of conflict with very conventional   camera angles. Because of these characteristics Hollywood films are very popular , no doubt about it, but is the experience and joy long-lasting? Mike Lorefice, the American critic, sums it up best when he writes, “One reason why Hollyplastic products, provide a wholly unsatisfactory experience is as they force feed every point to the popcorn chomping audience.”

Titanic (1997)

           To understand what I mean by good cinema, we have to first address Andre Bazine’s still seminal question, “What is Cinema”? According to me, certain assumptions are useful in evaluating quality of a picture.  Firstly, we need to understand cinema is an audio-visual medium.  By this I mean that the visual definition of the film is as   important,   if   not   more that the sound/ dialogues.  The second assumption presumes that cinema is a form of art. Cinema as an art form values chiefly the cinematic expression of ideas and functions and demand intellectual participation from the viewer.  Thirdly, all films   can be evaluated by the style and format of cinematic expression.  Next, it is imperative to comprehend that film is a discursive medium.  It gives the director the authorial freedom to structure his narrative style according to his philosophy /vision.  And finally, the filmmaker is the principal author responsible for his work.

            Truffaut and Rivette opined that cinema is primarily a way of self expression.  According to them, the auteurs held in high esteem were those who perceived to imbue their films with personal style, who acted, in Truffaut’s words “(to) bring something genuinely personal to (their) subject – instead of merely transferring someone else’s work faithfully and self-effacingly.”  As Godard observed in his essay- “…..cinema is an art …… one is always alone, on the set as before the blank page”.

            What are the tell-tale signs of good cinema? Well, according to me, good cinema has primarily two main characteristics: realism and specificity of auteur.
            Realism has been the “holy grail”   of artists since the dawn of mankind.  Our obsession   with realism drives us to create the art form that replicates what we see around us.  Andre Bazin claims cinema satisfies our obsession with realism.  Secondly, cinema is a medium for musing of the filmmaker, who uses it to explore his ideas and propagate his philosophy and thereby invariably puts his signature mark on the form, content and style of the product.

            To begin with, the first tenet of good cinema is to break free from the tight “cause – and – effect” chain of popular cinema.  Therefore, as you see, the narrative flow is deliberately made episodic and disruptive.  As Godard writes, “A story should have a beginning, middle and an end – but not necessarily in that order.” 

            It needs no emphasis, that storyline is an adjunctive   or a ploy to do character study.  The protagonist is never uni-dimensional, but multifaceted with complex characteristics, as in real life.  Therefore, it requires an in depth study of the myriad psychological traits of the individual.  Good cinema explores the inner drama that takes place in the character’s psyche, such as psychological issues dealing with individual identity, sexual or social issues, moral dilemmas, and personal crisis. Depiction of a slice of life only often portrays these aspects profoundly.

Van Gogh (1991)
            Thirdly, the dilemmas are probed in a pensive fashion, but usually without a clear-cut resolution.  The ending is often abrupt, or open-ended – leaving the matter at the viewer’s discretion to draw his own logical conclusion.  In this way, don’t you agree that the viewers participate in the film? As Michael Haneke, the noted Austrian film director asserts, “Films that are entertainments gives simple answers but I think that’s utterly more cynical, as it denies the viewer room to think.  If there are more answers at the end, then surely, it is a richer experience ……”   

The White Ribbon (2009)
            In my view the protagonist should have no clear definition and in some cases   no clear goal.  Thereby, the story line is de-emphasized and deconstructed and we can probe deeply into the complex issues of life and society.  Good cinema deal with such complex contentious topics, which are a taboo or not explored before.  Most of the Hollywood movies, avoid it totally or superficially gloss over it, or if at all dare to deal with it, resolves it at the end. In my kind a cinema, the realism is somewhat psychological and the sexual realism is raw.  There is no scope for hypocrisy in dealing with complicated issues and existentialism within characters also play a part in the development of this aspect.  “This is what …….Euroart – film masterpieces feel like, lean, qualmish, abstracted to the point of parable but as grounded as a grave digging,” wrote Michael Atkinson, film critic of Village Voice.  

            I find the Hollywood movies too “talky”. As if the script writer plays a more important role than the director in the film making process. I prefer a more visual style, because I feel more is said when it remains unsaid; with a glance or stare, or fine nuances of facial expression much more is conveyed than any words do. These films are aesthetically innovative, visually bold, languidly paced, socially committed and humanistic in outlook. The humanist approach concerns films about ordinary people and the expression of their real lives. Good films doesn’t align itself to superstardom, instead it foregrounds realism/and or visual style over narrative cohesion.

The Eclipse (1962)
           Unlike popular cinema, the spectator is engaged and made to think. “The reason I never like narrative is because traditionally narrative film has to have a resolution. By the end, you’re supposed to be able to figure out why things happened the way they did. And I’ve always been more into presenting a problem and getting you into an emotional place where you’re involved and understand the calamity, joy, desire, frustration, or duality, the whole range of psyche within a person’s life. It’s like a texture, or a mood, a moment- not this is the story and this is how it turns out,” noted Peggy Ahwesh, gifted American filmmaker.

             The greatest drawback of Hollywood cinema as envisaged by Alexander Kluge, the pioneer of German New Wave cinema, “The mainstream narrative cinema…works by a process of closing off the ability for the spectator to engage their imaginative faculties while watching a film- I can’t take for granted the notion of spectator as passive observer. In the right kind of film- the spectator can assume a much more active role during the screening of the film.”

            It is apparent by now, that good cinema challenges common conception of film-making. Needless to say, the   emphasis is on aesthetics, mood, and atmosphere over plots and superegos. These movies tend to challenge conventions in subject matter, narrative mis en scene and ideology and   dare to experiment with style and format. As Michael Haneke puts it” …films are intended as polemical statement against the American “barrel down” cinema and its disempowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus.”

            My kind of good films just does not exist merely to be enjoyed, but to be weighed upon, grappled with and possibly overwhelmed by it. To conclude, nothing is more apt then to quote from the book “Sculpting in Time”, written by my most favourite film-maker, Andrei Tarkovsky, “When less than everything has been said about a subject, you can still think on further…The alternative is for the audience to be presented with a final deduction…. No effort on their part. What can it mean to them when they have not shared with the author the misery and joy of bringing an image into being?....juxtaposing a person with an environment that is boundless, collating him with a countless number of people passing by close to him and far away, relating a person to the world, that is the meaning of cinema”.

Zerkalo (1975)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Cinema as an Art versus Cinema as a Product : A Perspective; Part I

The popular brand of Hollywood and Bollywood movies was my source of entertainment as I grew up. Later on, I started enjoying classic Hollywood movies. The DVD of "Bicycle Thief" that I picked up casually at a music store, couple of years ago, changed my perspective of the world of cinema. I graduated from the popular mainstream to realistic films. Self study and the availability of plethora of information on the internet helped me to build my collection of good cinema over the years. Cinema has inspired me so much that I want to share my views. 
It is common knowledge that Hollywood cinema was built upon the concept of commercial product. The film is treated as a commodity; its viability is tested and marketed vigorously on a global scale. American cinema has pretty much always been an industry from day one, which relies on the commercial success of the feature film. The film is a commercial vehicle.
Interestingly, no contemporary cinema better exemplifies Tom Gunning's “Cinema of Attraction” model than does that of the mainstream popular cinema. Bollywood is famously spectacle -driven in its emphasis on sets, costumes, melodrama, grandiloquent dialogues, choreographed dance and music, slapstick comedy interludes, larger than life presentation of stars. Such unrealistic escapist farce is yet to come out of the mode of folk theatre. 
Can escapism be a source of entertainment? Aren't we as human beings with higher cognitive abilities will enjoy more a realistic portrayal of life? I'm sure some of us go to a movie to experience something new, to make us ruminate. A work of art, whether it is literature, painting or cinema surely gives us pleasure- by enabling us to experience life with a macro lens.
Unfortunately, the media have popularized an impression that cinema is to "entertain" people without engaging them in a meaningful way. The concept is all storylines end with a resolution so that you go home unaffected.
However, undeniably, cinema is a major art form, and not just sheer entertainment, as are painting and drama. Artists express themselves by using paint and dramatists by using words. Filmmaker's canvass is the film stock and his brush is the camera. To understand the conflict and confluence of cinema as an art and cinema as a product we need to go to the beginning of cinema making and follow its journey through the last century.
Cinema has a brief history, compared to such art forms as music, literature and painting. It has its origin only in the last decade of the nineteenth century when Lumiere brothers held a public screening of projected motion pictures on 28th Dec, 1895 in a Paris cafe.
In the first years of the history of cinema, not much of a difference existed between the two forms- cinema as an art and cinema as a popular entertainment. Earliest works of Georges Meleies like "le voyage dans la lune" (1902) shows experimentation with editing to give the desired effects. The leading film producing countries during the silent era were Germany and Soviet Union. To compete with the lavish film productions of Hollywood, the German filmmakers like Fritz Lang, Murnau,Pabst and Paul Wegener developed their own style by using symbolism and mise en scene to add mood and deeper meaning to a movie, concentrating on the dark fringes of human experience. This particular style, called German Expressionism, created a visual art form far superior to Hollywood spectacle. Movies like "Nosferatu" (1922) and "Pandora's Box" (1928) exemplifies this. Not only this, it became the precursor of the great American film-noirs of the 30's and 40's. The Russian filmmakers, on the other hand, developed an unique style of editing- montage style. The canonical works of Eiseinstein ("Battleship Potemkin"), Dziga Vertov("The Man with a Movie Camera") and Pudovkin("Mother") influenced subsequent filmmaking process.

Pandora's Box (1929)

Even the American formula-ridden melodramas like "Greed" and "Foolish Wives", King Vidor's "The Crowd", epics such as Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance," and comedies of Chaplin, Buster Keaton and David Lloyd were of high artistic quality in spite of being popular cinema. Works of French film directors Feuillude, Herbier, Rene Clair, Feyder, Epstein and Gance produced great synthesis of art and popular entertainment.
With the advent of repressive era in Germany and Soviet Union, filmmaking in these two countries suffered. Many German directors fled to America and introduced German expressionism in Hollywood. Prominent among them were Lang, Preminger and Michael Curtiz. Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch and Sternberg enriched Hollywood. Simultaneously, with the advent of sound, the image making lost much of its brilliance and poetry, and commercial standards and studio system flourished. Popularity, market economy and iron grip of major studios led to the demise of art. The Hollywood system dominated film-making to up till 1945. Amongst the Hollywood directors, Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Otto Preminger and later on John Huston and Nicholas Ray defied the system and put some originality in their creative pursuit. Due to strict commercialism of the hollywood system artistic flair of directors like Welles and Stroheim were stifled and they went into exile in Europe. Only France was producing a large number of superb films, thanks to Renoir, Duvivier, Vigo and Jean Cocteau. Except for Mizoguchi and Ozu even Japan went into decline.
The war destroyed the economy of Italy and its studio set-up. This forced the Italian directors to make films that focussed on the society and its problems. With budgetary constraint, they chose outdoor locations, non-professional actors, natural lighting and delved on daily life and problems of common man. Artistic masterpieces like "Bicycle Thief", "Paisan", "La terra trema" and "Rome open city" were created by the likes of De Sica, Rossellini and Visconti. They pioneered the first important post-war film movement, neo-realism. These films, because of their gritty, realistic and documentary look, inspired generations of filmmakers and had a positive impact on French New Wave a decade later.

Paisan (1946)

An artistic movement whose influence on films has been profound and enduring, the French New Wave made its first splashes as a movement shot through with youthful exuberance, brisk reinvigoration and experimentation of the film making process. Under the guidance ship of Andre Bazin of the film critic magazine Cahiers du cinema, these young turks, critic-turned directors, Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette and Chabrol rejected the classical montage-style narrative filmmaking where script writers and editors played a dominant role. Instead, they favoured mise en scene, or literally "playing in the scene" (preferring the reality of what is filmed over manipulation via editing), the long take, deep composition, shooting on location, improvised dialogue and direct sound recording, jump cuts and freeze frames. Moreover, they had the conviction that the films are a personal artistic impression and should bear the stamp of the author.
Many of these favourite conventions actually sprang not only from artistic tenets but also from expediency of situation. These directors knew a great deal about film theory but less about film production. Plus being low on budget, they improvised, which later became conventions which while defining what good cinema is, challenged the classical concept of filmmaking of Hollywood. A dazzling number of original, passionate, personal films of the highest seriousness were made. These filmmakers changed the vernacular of filmmaking once and for all. The impact of “New Wave” spread all over the world and its footprints are still present today.

Jules and Jim (1962)

In the next edition, I will discuss classic Hollywood narrative structure and the alternative to it, which I prefer to call good cinema.