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.


  1. Interesting to read about the style and travails of movie making.However not all Bollywood movies are "spectacle-driven".It is fair enough to classify movies as a reflection of reality and also escape from it.meenakshi

  2. Insightful, intelligent and articulate.

    I hope to see more on specific genres.

  3. brilliant...looking forward to the next one!!way to go!!