June 29, 2011

Understanding Cinema Lecture: Italian Neorealism and ‘Bicycle Thieves’ (1948)

Italian cinema in the early 40s was dominated by ‘white telephone’ films – a derogatory term to describe bland mainstream stories of the affluent class. This and the best of Hollywood provided the escapism the Italian audience aspired for – especially in the situation of poverty and depression post the Second World War. As a reaction to this, and further forced by limited resources, some film-makers started making starkly different films. Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, and Vittorio De Sica were the prominent makers who gave birth to a movement that has been celebrated in cinema history by the name of Italian Neorealism.

These films were strongly and unashamedly political, set among the poor and the unemployed. Instead of taking the audience on a fancy ride, they exposed the bitter reality of the contemporary period. Mostly shot on real locations, using natural light, simplistic camerawork and editing, and most importantly employing non-professional actors in leading roles, these films, perhaps intentionally, tried to imitate newsreels rather than movies, and hence appeared so much more real. They attacked the Church, the government institutions, and often did not provide any solution to the plight of their characters. The impact of these films on world cinema was exceptional. The Americans, especially, were pleasantly surprised at the realistic acting, a sharp contrast to the Hollywood style of acting during the then Studio Age. Academy Awards and other international recognitions followed, though the power and people of Italy remained allergic to these ‘grim’ films that were ‘washing their dirty linen in public’. But the biggest achievement of Italian Neorealism was that it freed cinema from the restricting domains of studios, sets, and stars.

A young Bengali artist, and film-buff, watched De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’ (1948), and decided to turn into a film-maker. He knew that if he had a powerful story to tell, he can just go ahead and shoot it, using non-professional actors, and in real locations using natural light. The boy was Satyajit Ray and the film that resulted – ‘Pather Panchali’ (1955) – went on to become the most celebrated Indian film around the world. Satyajit Ray was just one of the filmmakers inspired by Neorealism – the aesthetic style of which is evident in films all across the globe, over all decades that followed. From Bimal Roy’s ‘Do Beegha Zameen’ (1953) to Majid Majidi’s ‘Children of Heaven’ (1997), Italian Neorealism continues to be reflected in some of the most loved films we have seen.

Coming back to ‘Bicycle Thieves’, also known as ‘The Bicycle Thief’, I must share my first experience of it three years ago. I knew it was historically important but had never expected its impact would be so powerful. The lump in the throat remained throughout its 90 minutes, but the biggest blow came in the end. After the devastating climax, as the film closed, I shut the laptop, and let my emotions flow. I wanted to go back in time, to that part of the world, and somehow help Ricci and Bruno – two of the most unforgettable characters in film consciousness. Knowing that it was not possible, I cried, uninhibitedly, inconsolably. This, I’m sure, is a reaction common to everyone who loves the film. And I believe it will evoke the same reaction in anyone who watches it now, or even fifty years later. For its universality of emotional impact and timelessness, ‘Bicycle Thieves’ is a definite must-watch-before-you-die.

June 23, 2011

Understanding Cinema Lecture: Hollywood Studio System and Alfred Hitchcock

The two decades of the 30s and the 40s are considered the Golden Period of American Cinema. The year 1946, in fact, is till date the most profitable year for Hollywood. This was also the period of the Studio System – when a handful of filmmaking companies dominated the American film business. Close to 75% of the revenue was shared by the Big Five – MGM, Fox, RKO, Paramount, and Warner Bros. Then there were the Little Three – Columbia, Universal, and United Artists. Their oligopoly was based on some malpractices like ‘block booking’, and in order to ensure greater profits, studios adopted Vertical Integration (that is, the entire chain from film production, distribution, to exhibition, being controlled by respective studios). The much controversial contract system bound talent (stars, directors, etc.) to different studios and the studio executives controlled the films they made – directors were often not allowed in the post-production stage. Films were treated as commodities, produced through an assembly line, with respective studios specializing in specific genres. However, the most important and long-lasting contribution of the Studio System was how it helped in the aesthetic evolution of cinema by development of certain styles and conventions – the concept of continuity-editing, maintaining the sense of verisimilitude, closure-ending, etc.

By the 50s, though, this dominance had ended. Some legislations passed during this period brought an end to the malpractices and vertical integration. Stars began to seek greater independence from the studios. A rise in independent productions, import tariffs imposed on American films abroad, migration of Americans to sub-urbs, and rise of the TV were other important factors that cause this change. The Studios are still functional, and to some extent they still dominate film-business, but the scope for independent players and for artistic expression beyond the control of studio executives is much more.

One major contribution of the Studio era was the evolution of the Classical Narrative – the classical way of story-telling on film. The rules were simple – tell a story the audience wants to hear, and in an easy to comprehend way. The chronology of events should be linear, from beginning of the story to end, with the permissible use of flashbacks for specific elaboration or exposition. Everything should be connected in the thread of cause and effect. The characters should be believable and must have clearly-defined wants and functions. The protagonist should be likeable and motivated to achieve his/her want against all odds. In the end, there should be a closure that would fulfill the audience. I believe it was important for the evolution of this narrative to make cinema such an integral part of the popular culture it is. I would also like to add that the Classical Narrative can be understood better when compared to other alternative forms of narration, including some that totally defied the narrative approach.

The lecture on 20th June covered these topics. And it was followed by a discussion on the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock,‘Vertigo’ (1958) in particular. It was interesting to see how the students reacted to this movie. Some thought it was painfully slow and predictable, some thought otherwise, and defended its ‘slow’ pace. Most of them liked the film, some even loved it. However, the acting of James Stewart did not go down too well with the students. They thought it was hilariously theatrical. Perhaps I would have felt the same as a 19-year old. But I’m happy that they have been introduced to the cinema of Hitchcock so early. This is a discovery they will thoroughly enjoy. And they too will wait for those blink-and-you-miss cameos by the master, who stood tall amidst the dominating Studio System, one of those few filmmakers who exerted complete control over his film-expression, and rose to the status of a star himself.

June 16, 2011

Must Watch Before You Die #13: Paths of Glory (1957)

My reaction on discovering the genius of Kubrick and subsequent attempts to share the merits of his craft have been embarrassingly inadequate, although, perhaps he is the only great filmmaker about whom I have talked objectively in one of my earlier posts. But I am not uncomfortable in sharing my incapability to describe what his cinema does to me. Somehow, when it comes to talking about him, my favourite English-language filmmaker, I am always lost for words.

There is this much I can say - if there is one filmmaker whose individual filmography is sufficient to represent the best of the achievements of cinema, it is Stanley Kubrick. In a previous post of mine I talk about dividing the great filmmakers into 'authors' and 'masters of genre'. But when it comes to Kubrick, all efforts to classify and label him appear futile. Discovering his cinema can be one of the most enriching experiences of your life.

It is only obvious that a lot of his films will qualify for the 'must watch before you die' recommendation. But as I have stated earlier, I'll let the list grow as I watch (or re-watch) movies, without getting into the endless exercise of looking for movies from my past. So for now, let me recommend 'Paths of Glory', that I watched just today. Brilliant. Devastating. Unforgettable. Go for it, as this Kubrick worship of mine continues...

Understanding Cinema: Intro Lecture

Film semiologist Christian Metz had famously stated that cinema is difficult to explain because it is easy to understand. Last Monday I started taking lectures at National College. The paper is ‘Understanding Cinema’ for the Second Year in Bachelor in Mass Media. Going by Metz, seems the work for the students (understanding cinema) is easy, but I’m up to a difficult task (explaining cinema)! More importantly, it is going to be a challenge to make the subject simple and accessible for those 19-20 year-olds, to encourage them to look at cinema with a new perspective, without trying to turn them to film makers, critics, or film scholars.

I’m therefore forced to devise a method to make that possible. So here is what I am doing, though it might appear contradictory to my intention. I have divided the batch into groups – filmmakers (writers, directors, producers, editors etc.), film journalists (including reporters, critics, and gossip columnists), marketing and promotion experts, and above all, audience. The students have respectively opted for the roles they want to play. I’ll try to encourage them to look at the movies to be screened with their perspectives as these professionals, and then try to initiate a discussion among them that would result in covering of the important topics. The flip side is that this method relies a lot on the participation of the students. But I’ve always been an advocate of making education interesting and involving, and hope I won’t be disappointed.

In the first lecture I also tried to cover topics like: ‘Star System in Hindi Film Industry’, ‘Hindi Formula Films’, and ‘Modern Hollywood Cinema’. These topics are to be covered as per University guidelines, but I believe the students already know about these. So I just tried to give them an enhanced perspective on these issues. The real fun begins from the second week when we will actually start ‘reading films’. Today the students were screened the first movie of the semester – Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ (1958). Looking forward to the discussion on Monday.

June 15, 2011

For Trivia Freaks

Two Hindi films, about 30 years apart. Both were shot in the same state of India.
The names of the lead pair are the same. Also, the name of the male lead appears in the title of the first film.
The lead actress of the first film played the role of the hero’s mother in the second.
Also the narrator of both films is the same.

Watched Mrinal Sen’s ‘Bhuvan Shome’ today. There were merits in the film, telling the story of Bhuvan Shome sahab’s redemption. He is a middle-aged Railway Officer, a strict disciplinarian and a lonely widower leading a monotonous life. One day as he goes hunting, an encounter with a young woman brings about a subtle but important transition in him. He no more wants people to be scared of him. I loved that this graph of the story was not on-the-face but I thought the film itself was slightly over-indulgent. Also, the style was clearly inspired by the French New Wave and hence I can not give the film any credit for originality. By Hindi film standards, yes, it must have been an innovation, and an important film.

However, I loved the young Suhasini Mulay – she was spontaneous, natural, and raw. She should have done more films and I think it is our loss that she didn’t, until recently.

Well, today is the 10th Anniversary of the other film in question. I no more respect its makers as much as I did back then, but this film will remain special for me, and for Hindi cinema.

June 12, 2011

Must Watch Before You Die #12: Soy Cuba (1964)

I recently watched three extremely political films of historic and cinematic importance. However, two of them left me pretty unaffected. They must have been great films, but for me they were difficult to appreciate. Not knowing their respective backdrops also left me wondering what they were exactly about, and it took me some reading to make myself acquainted with their content. But once I did, I found it interesting.

Two groups had led the anti-German struggle in Poland during the Second World War – the London-directed Home Army and the pro-Moscow People’s Army. As the German occupation comes to a sudden end in May, 1945, amidst a confused transition, the pro-Soviet faction takes control, resulting into the emergence of a Russian-backed Communist regime. The Home Army reacts to this and a state of civil war is created. Andrzej Wajda’s ‘Ashes and Diamonds’ (1958) is one day into the lives (and deaths) of characters from both parties – the Communist regime and the armed adversaries.

Jean Pierre-Melville’s ‘Army of Shadows’ (1969) tells an even more personal story of the French Resistance against the German occupation during the same war. The French government had surrendered on June, 1940 signing an armistice that provided for the German occupation of northern France. The struggle by some Frenchmen against this occupation came to be known as the Resistance, and soon the French government was helping the Germans suppress them with its own police and special forces. ‘Army of Shadows’ is a tragic insight into the difficult lives and dilemmas of these heroes of the Resistance.

Both these movies are highly acclaimed and celebrated over the years. And I can understand why, especially after reading about them. But perhaps it will take me some time, some years may be, to adequately appreciate them.

This, however, was not the case with ‘Soy Cuba’ (1964). Though clearly a propaganda film, and relying much more on form and style than the above-mentioned couple of films, this film by Mikheil Kalatozov will blow you away. I have never seen something like this. The film was not released after its completion and the world discovered it only three decades later. According to Martin Scorsese, the face of world cinema would have shaped differently if this film had got its due when it was made.

Following is the poem that opens the film along with a stunning imagery that makes it one of the best opening sequences in cinema:
I am Cuba.
Columbus landed here once.

He wrote in his diary,

“This is the most beautiful land
Human eyes have ever seen.”
Thank you, Mr. Columbus.
When you saw me for the first time,
I was singing and laughing,
I greeted the tufted sails,
I thought they brought me happiness.

I am Cuba.
My sugar was carried away in ships.
But my tears were left behind.

Sugar is a strange thing, Mr. Columbus.

So many tears go into it,
And still it's sweet.

It is poetic, and it is vitriolic. ‘Soy Cuba’ is as powerful as cinematic expression can get. I’m so glad that this film is now a part of my must-watch recommendation. You have to watch it before you die!

June 03, 2011

Philosopher’s Comedy, Warrior’s Tears

Great filmmakers have often been, and arguably so, divided into two categories: the auteur (“author”) and the metteur en scene (“scene-setter”). To be classified as an "auteur", film critic Andrew Sarris argues, a director must accomplish three things: technical competence in technique, a personal visual style, and an interior meaning running through the various film “texts” made by him/her. I believe all such auteurs, through the body of their works, become genres by themselves. Fellini, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Kurosawa, and lately David Lynch, are not just filmmakers. They are authors, who write on celluloid with their distinctive styles; their movies collectively form ‘genres’, rich and influential, and inimitable. A greater achievement, perhaps, has been made by Alfred Hitchcock. He obviously qualifies as an auteur (going by Sarris’ criteria), but goes beyond by operating within the confines of the ‘suspense’ genre, and often setting rules for it. He relies on telling a story powerfully, without dwelling into intricate and esoteric artistry, profound philosophy, or surrealistic puzzles. And despite numerous well-made suspense films by other filmmakers, no one has been able to match the legendary stature and the popularity of the Master of the genre.

The second category is of the matteur en scene. They do have an aesthetic style detectable in their works, but they do not qualify as authors. I have tried to understand the basis of this classification. Perhaps this term is used for directors whose filmography lacks a thematic, philosophical, or artistic consistency, but they achieve great success by operating within the genre-system and often creating memorable works. So a John Ford film can be a great Western or a great Drama, but the words ‘John Ford’ do not refer to any particular ‘genre’. He might be a great director, but his work lacks an authorial signature. If my understanding is correct, despite a great body of work Steven Spielberg remains a ‘matteur en scene’, but Jim Jarmusch is an ‘auteur’.

This discussion is a reaction to two movies I watched recently – ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ by Ingmar Bergman, and ‘I Live in Fear’ by Akira Kurosawa, two of the greatest auteurs, trying to do something they often don’t. The usually philosophical and dark Bergman presents a romantic comedy, and the creator of epic historical and Samurai stories, Kurosawa, narrates a modern, urban tale of a family torn by its patriarch’s phobia of the nuclear weapons. The former was very good, though its impact on me might not be as that of Bergman’s other works. But the latter was ordinary, suggesting yet again that perhaps Kurosawa can not match the effortless brilliance of his compatriots Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu when it comes to telling extremely personal, sensitive stories involving families and women. Even ‘Ikiru’, which is perhaps Kurosawa’s best attempt at telling a personal and modern story, changes its course and becomes, albeit an excellent, social commentary on modern life and urban corruption.

These two movies make me think further – perhaps the ‘auteurs’ are at their best when they operate within the genres they have created for themselves. And this perhaps is the biggest argument against them. A Billy Wilder might not be an author, but has made some great comedies (‘The Apartment’, ‘Some Like it Hot’), and stays in supreme form while making a Noir like ‘Double Indemnity’. Perhaps not being much of an artist, but a master craftsman enables him to do great work in whatever genre he attempts. As I discover more great makers and movies, this discussion will continue. Watching a comedy by Hitchcock would be a great case study!

P.S. The views expressed in this article are ‘controversy-genic’. However, it must be insisted that the attempt here is not to compare and criticize the great filmmakers mentioned above, but to try to understand the mechanism behind their greatness.