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)


  1. your research is truly remarkable, and as usual your blog really stimulates me and leaves me with a lot to say- i dont want to stereotype all hollywood movies as linear and uni dimensional. there are some pretty good movies that hollywood produces too. i think what you are alluding to are the rom-coms and mindless action movies mainly.
    however,i do feel you are discrediting the importance of a director's ability to hold the audience's interest. unlike Goddard i believe that a story should have a beginning, middle and end in necessarily that order, as it serves to bring some coherence into the story. a movie can be remarkably deep, insightful and beautiful even if it is linear. i guess it is for this particular reason that i'm no big fan of either Goddard or Tarkovsky who take an infinite pleasure in perplexing viewers with their complex definition of art.

  2. Your love of "good cinema" has increased my curiosity to know about the movies you would suggest in those category.Linear and unidimensional movies too have the interplay and nuances of relationship displayed intelligently without being "talky."How Green was my valley" is a movie I have appreciated and found touching and related to the story as an onlooker. Good cinema,in your opinion are those where you relate to the character more than the story. Relating to the story and relating to the character of a film are two view points which the viewer is entitled to exercise while enjoying a film.And story telling is definitely an art."A slice of life " also exists in that ...just that we always may not relate to it as individuals...we may be spectators,an outsider viewing someone's life.meenakshi

  3. Your innovative research is fascinates me and emphasis to watch movies .Although i m born actor but hardly i watch movies.Cinema is not only an audio-visual medium,is also a one of the way to present or to express through media.Cinema is not only art is one of the hypothesis to show story line.Cinema is a summary of History,Science,technology,economy,society.We all are dramatic player ,playing role on land and cinema presenting it own way.