It is easy to understand the narrative function of film, of studying film as a medium of telling stories, a medium for entertainment. So much so, that soon after its invention, cinema easily, and obviously, helped in the evolution of a commercial industry, with its own rules and surprises. But the medium is not limited to money-making or storytelling, and there are two other important functions of film: one, as a medium of communication (where the filmmaker wants to convey a point-of-view through his film, e.g. political and propaganda films, films carrying a strong social or philosophical message, and so on); and two, as a medium of pure art, free from its obligations of telling a story or communicating a message.
However, since film is one medium born out of form and obvious sensory signals, unlike poetry or music that are more abstract, it is very difficult for film to let go of its narrative function completely. Even an incoherent montage of shots, when perceived by the observer, inspires him to try to understand its ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’. Stanley Kubrick had famously proposed a marked departure from this when he said: “A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” Going by what the famous art critic Walter Pater believes: “All art aspires to the condition of music”, we definitely can observe such a trend in cinema over all the decades of its journey. But the biggest question would still be, whether cinema is a form of art.
Art critics were initially disapproving of cinema’s acceptance as art, and considered it a technological gimmick, a passing fancy. Surprisingly and ironically, Louis Lumiere, who is credited as one of the inventors of motion picture himself believed that “cinema is an invention without a future.” It took cinema some decades and several films to ascertain its position as a form of artistic expression. And the credit for that goes to some of the greatest filmmakers who dared to take cinema beyond the dimensions of commercial entertainment or political statement. One of those masters was Satyajit Ray, and his most famous film, also his first – ‘Pather Panchali’, is considered by many as cinema’s great achievement as pure art.
‘Pather Panchali’ is not an easy film to watch. It requires patience to be enjoyed. It requires multiple viewings to appreciate its effortless beauty. And it requires watching hundreds of other films to realize its unique purity and truthfulness. Roger Ebert says “[Pather Panchali] is like a prayer, affirming that this is what the cinema can be…” This huge compliment is a sharp contrast to the understated, underplayed brilliance of the film, reading which can help us understand cinema’s potential as a form of art.
A musician uses musical notes arranged to form a melody, often based on a certain rhythm to create his music. A poet uses words and syntax, a painter uses colours and canvas. A filmmaker has three basic tools for his expression: the shot and everything contained in it (and eventually all individual shots), the arrangement of shots or the montage, and the sound underlying and connecting the shots. There are sequences in ‘Pather Panchali’ where the narrative is totally forgotten, and the filmmaker uses these three tools in order to create a moody audio-visual segment. If we let go of our preconceived notions about cinema’s narrative purpose and lose ourselves in the sensory effect that is thus created, it can affect us like music does – we react intuitively and instinctively to a sensation that is vague (vague because it does not necessarily ‘mean’ or ‘communicate’ something) but powerful and even memorable. This again is difficult, because cinema is more ‘obvious’ than music and always ‘seems’ to be trying to mean or communicate. Also we can not close our eyes to ‘float’ in it as we do while experiencing, say, a Pink Floyd instrumental number. In fact, I had never experienced ‘Pather Panchali’ like this until recently. Films like these are an acquired taste. Only now, I hope, watching the movie will be easier and each subsequent experience even more magical. ‘The Song of the Little Road’ – which is the literal translation of the movie’s title, seems so much more appropriate, when we are willing to experience it like music – what Kubrick had aspired and Pater had asserted.