November 27, 2014

Must Watch Before You Die #42: Boyhood (2014)

On 15th of October, I watched 'Boyhood' for the first time at the Mumbai Film Festival and recommended it as a must-watch-before-you-die. Exactly one month later, on the 15th of November, I watched it again in a packed evening show. Since then, I cannot stop thinking about it and I feel the earlier post that carried a small discussion on it does not do justice to the film. Hence this post, and a stronger tone of recommendation.

A couple of evenings ago, I was having a discussion with a friend, a psychologist and a mother of two, on this latest Linklater movie. It was I who had introduced her to the director's 'Before' trilogy, which she had loved, and I had been waiting for her reaction to 'Boyhood'. As expected, our discussion went on and on, both of us sharing different but doubtlessly agreeable perspectives on the film. Suddenly, I stopped her. "I had a feeling just now" I said. "I can picture several people in different parts of the world talking about this movie at this very instant." In that moment I realised what a powerful achievement the film is. It is not only being understood and analysed by an unquantifiable number of people, like most Linklater movies, but deep beneath its casual and impressive surface lies something that is the stuff of materpieces, and a rare human achievement.

One big reason why motion picture, since its invention, struck an instant chord with people all around the world was how it became a rare human expression that could so powerfully affect our temporal perception. When we read a novel, or watch a play, or when someone narrates us a story, we understand the passing of time in the world of those characters, but never really feel it. When an author writes - "Several years went by," we develop an intellectual understanding of years going by, and fill in the gaps, and readjust ourselves to the changed temporal reality of the story. We never actually feel the passing of those years. Motion picture can use and alter our sense of time in more powerful ways. Slow-motion or fast-motion cinematography makes us experience time in a way no human can experience unless being under the influence of an intoxicant. The use of real-time storytelling in cinema has been another unique achievement of the medium - a 100-minute story told in 100 minutes is a rare experience, operating not just at the level of narrative, but also mood, and tone, and sensory feeling. But despite being the most powerful medium to play with time, no film, none before 'Boyhood', had managed to convey the feeling of passing of such a long span in less than three hours. Cinema has told stories spanning over decades and centuries, even millennia ('2001: A Space Odyssey'), but by using the same trick that the novelists use - "Several years went by..." With the use of time transitions, and most commonly - different sets of actors, movies have traditionally made us understand that years have gone by, rather than making us feel it. The young Vijay starts running and that shot dissolves to the shot of the adult Vijay, now Amitabh Bachchan, and we know that time has passed. Imagine a movie where we would see the same young boy grow up before our eyes. He would never grow up to be Bachchan, and hence no one ever conceived a film like that. By covering twelve years in the lives of its characters, played by the same actors who also, obviously, have aged, 'Boyhood' unfolds itself like an experience no human has had before. It's not the turning of the pages of the diary of your teenaged years, not even the flipping of the photographs in your family album. It something more real, alive, vivid, and affecting than anything you have felt. It is like the strongest memories of your growing up stitched together without the loss of its minutest details. The movie experience that comes closest to 'Boyhood', and I am amused at myself while making this analogy, is the Harry Potter series. It shows seven years of the boy's growing up, and since the cast remains primarily the same, we do feel that we saw Harry et al grow up before our own eyes. But even this experience was spread over eight movies that we experienced over ten years! That Linklater's achievment is not only a landmark in cinema, but in the history of human art and expression is well reflected in this succinct assertion by Rolling Stones about the film: "There has simply never been anything like this movie!"

But is the fact that it was shot over twelve years using the same set of actors the only thing that makes 'Boyhood' a great film? Of course not. Because then it would be easy to beat it, right? Let us start making a film today to be released after twenty years. There you go - we have a greater film! We all know that it doesn't work like that. Even if we try to underplay the passion and the persistence that the makers of this 'project' possessed, writing new scenes every year, shooting for a few days, and then going back to their other commitments, before reuniting again next year, we cannot ignore the wonderfully written scenes that became its ingredients and the imaginative edit that seamlessly joined it, with unforgettable transitions. I would recommend watching this movie more than once because only then you stop bothering about the plot and the whats and focus on how the film is one great scene after another, delicious dialogues, charming performances, and a gutsy, authoritative, self-assured narrative pieced together by perhaps the most organic editing in the history of scripted fiction films. Without getting overtly dramatic, and not once losing its tone, the film mimics life itself. It is like a great Marquez novel, containing within itself all that is funny and all that is sad about the human condition, with insights and themes that speak differently to different people in the audience, and also that will speak differently to us at different stages in our lives. If you are not convinced by the greatness of the film, try watching it about ten years down the line and you will find how the film appears all fresh. Today, I react to it like a son, although I relate most with the young boyish-man character played by Ethan Hawke. But ten years from today, I think I would react to it as a husband, or a father. How often does cinema come with this unique ability to reinvent itself with every passing decade? What else can be called 'timeless' if not this? And which other film can be called 'an unassuming masterpiece' as Peter Travers calls it in his glorious review of it?

Despite loving all kinds of movies and celebrating all the filmmakers we have among us today, in my heart I know that the biggest achievements in cinema are over, achieved by the films of the past. Technological innovation is the only tool cinema possesses today, the grammar of its craft and the originality of its narrative has already been explored to almost its fullest. But in 'Boyhood', we have a modern film that stands tall amidst its peers and contemporaries, and the great films of the past. It has given us something to talk about with the cinephiles of the next generation whom we will tell how we had waited for this movie, had excitedly watched its trailer, and then had experienced it on big screen with hundreds of equally enthusiastic women and men. And some, like me, would show-off by saying that we watched it more than once on the big screen, and immediately proclaimed it as one of the greatest achievement by not just a film-maker, but an artist, and a human.

November 14, 2014

Crafting Truth

This blog post is my attempt to answer a question a student of mine asked me: Movies are all about showing right emotions. Is it necessary to support it with dialogues? If yes, then how to select perfect dialogues? If no , then how to show perfect emotions? When do I know what to do with either of them ? Kindly advise.

If I'm getting the question, it is this: How to create a scene that is emotionally authentic as well as dramatically powerful? To be honest, the approach to this question not only separates good screenwriters from not so good ones, but also explains why screenwriting is one of the most difficult forms of writing. As film-writers we determine each twist and turn and all conflicts and resolutions of our story, and every action and reaction of our characters. We meticulously control every bit of our story universe to make it 'powerful', so that scene after scene the story can move forward. However, this much is not sufficient to emotionally affect the audience. Despite achieving all that is mentioned above, if there is one false note here or there, one moment when the audience stops believing in the authenticity of what they are seeing, every effort by us becomes visible, and the telling appears manipulative and contrived. In fact, in movies, the camera actually 'recreates' reality and such false notes are spotted more easily than in a novel, where the author need not 'show' every little thing and can hide behind words, trying to explain each 'untrue' motivation, or in a play, where the audience 'knows' that this is 'not real'. We brutally expect movies to mimic reality, so much so that we question the absurdities of a film more than we question the absurdities of life. It is this expectation of the audience, of authenticity, that makes film-writing so difficult, because unlike life, the 'truth' in the lives of movie characters does not shape up on its own. It has to be crafted, without appearing crafty.

I am listing down all that, I believe, may help in achieving this. The list is not absolute and can never be complete, and is mostly my spontaneous attempt at answering the question.
  • Know the world of your story. Through research and active imagination you can have a detailed and almost intimidating understanding of the universe in which you are setting the story - the location in space and time, the socio-cultural milieu of your characters, the colors and textures and so on. If the world you have created is rich in its detail, it will appear authentic - the greatest fantasy films have proved that. Also, research gives you an authority and the audience loves to be in the hands of a storyteller who 'knows'.
  • Create characters who are unique in their outwardly appearance and in their psychological make-up, but extremely relatable at the emotional level. If your story is about a woman, give her an emotional core that will resonate with all women, and men. But through her behaviour, her world-view, her interpersonal relationships, her experiences, and her appearance, make her truly original.
  • Know your characters inside out. Any level of detailed understanding of your character will not be enough. You should know them so closely that you can predict with certainty their actions and reactions at each and every situation. Never judge them, and love all of them - even your antagonist. You must know that each character behaves according to what she thinks is good and right. You need to understand her perspective to know why her idea of 'good and right' is different from someone else's.
  • Now, while creating your scene, treat it as a battle between your characters. In this battle, each of their actions and reactions, their dialogues and pauses, will be directed as per their individual behavior in the situation of the scene. And the end result of this battle is something you have already determined - your scene objective.
  • Guide their behaviour with the light touch of your scene objective. Do not make them do anything for the audience, but to each other or to themselves. Write diaogues (and every action/reaction of your characters) by getting into their respective minds. Let them speak when they want to. Let them react without dialogue if that appears truer. And finish writing the scene. Finish writing the first draft without worrying too much about how brilliant it is.
  • Read the scene aloud, especially the dialogues. Be ruthless in your scrutiny to find the false notes. Also, determine the dramatic impact of it. If you are honest to yourself, you will find that there are certain moments where 'truth' is missing. Also the dramatic potential of the scene will appear unfulfilled either because of too much of effort or because of lack of conflict. Also the scene will appear either too long or too short to create the desired impact.
  • Then ask this question: how can you add more genuine conflicts into the scene to make it more dramatic? The conflicts that you add must come from the characters and their world - and the first two points in this list will ensure that. Also, these conflicts should ideally not depend on chance. When a gun runs out of bullets at a crucial time in a movie, we never say it is destiny. We say - it is a film! It is important that we avoid such chance-driven conflicts to remain invisible as storytellers, to craft without appearing crafty.
  • Ask another question: how can you remove the false notes? The answer to this lies inside your characters. Ask them why they would behave in such a way and they will give you answers from their lives. You will find that they will either modify the 'false' action you gave to them or completely change it and surprise you with something new and original, that still helps you reach the scene objective.
  • Rewrite the scene based on the answers to above questions. Do not resort to cliches. In fact, fight all temptation to use them. Determine the correct length of the scene. Try to use as less diaogue as possible. And once you have rewritten it, evaluate it again, and prepare for the next rewrite. 
As should be clear from the above discussion, conveying right emotions does not essentially need dialogues. It needs truth - believable behaviour from relatable characters in an authentic world. If dialogues come naturally in this believable behavior, they must be used. We have to trust our understanding of the characters, develop a critical eye for our own work, and believe in the power of persistent rewrites. Eventually, we will get there. 

November 11, 2014

Studying Composition #2

'Ida' (2013) by Pawel Pawlikowski is a beautiful, black & white film I watched recently. It is Poland's official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Oscars. Shot in the 'Academy Aperture' of 4:3 Aspect Ratio, this film was a revelation for me with regard to framing. Hence this post.

The picture above is a classic Extreme Close-Up where the upper edge of the frame cuts the head and the lower edge cuts the chin. The Aspect Ratio here is 2.35:1 or Scope, and this is roughly, the ratio of the width and height of the projected image in our cinemas these days. However, the image above is cropped by me from the original image (look below), shot in 4:3 ratio. Note that the lower edge is still the same, but the upper edge is providing for an unconventionally large head-room.

This unconventional framing recurs in the film, giving us some daring, but surprisingly beautiful compositions. In fact, the very first frame (see below) of the movie sets-up this stylistic tone:

Before we move ahead, it's important to wonder why such an unconventional framing became an aesthetic choice for the director-cinematographer. The conventions of compostitions are based on the principle of finding ways to involve the audience effortlessly, by placing the 'Centre of Interest' in that part of the frame where the audience naturally focuses its attention while looking at the frame for the first time. Does this stylistic variation, then, is to invite the audience for a more active effort toward observing the 'Centre of Interest' and thus making it a more involved viewing experience in the contradictory way? Look at the frames below. What do you think?

It is important to note that such framing where the 'Centre of Interest' is to be 'found' with effort may not work when the edit is fast and shots do not stay for long. As is with all decisions of film-making, this decision with regard to composition has clearly been taken while keeping the edit in mind. There are times when this has been pushed to a maximum. And surprisingly, the aesthetic beauty of the frames is still not lost. In fact, these frames look fresh and extremely pleasing to the eyes. Look at the frames below:

And then there are certain compositions that not only play audaciously with the vertical negative space, but also the horizontal negative space, and still, surprisingly, look very appealing (look below). These composition-related decisions actually contribute to the 'voice' of the film, that is self-assured and unique. Without causing any hindrance to story-telling, the choices of cinematography of this film give it a visual texture that would be lost in otherwise generic or conventional aesthetics:

However, the biggest question to ask while studying the aesthetic choices made by the director is, in my opinion, do they serve the purpose of the storytelling? In this case, I think it does, and very strongly so. Not just the compositions add to the central conflict of the film which is very 'internal', by creating unconventional frames in B&W 4:3 ratio, the classical old-school template, it seems the filmmaker is conveying the premise of a certain struggle that the young nun is facing, challenging (or not) the traditional institution of Church and its faith. Is the enormous head-space, then, making room for 'someone' observing our diminutive characters from 'above' or, even better, being an omnipresent part of the story and an invisible 'Centre of Interest' for us to discover?

November 06, 2014

Mumbai 2014 Epilogue: The Return of the Story

Consuming movies back-to-back at a festival is very different from experiencing the daily dose of cinema. With more than 30 movies in the festival week, I often find myself simply going through the process, never allowing myself to be completely consumed, and enjoying this mad binging without caring too much about the details of each film. But every year, the increased awareness of cinema and the movie-making process gets tested during this week, as I observe my reaction to the images and sounds unfolding on screen. For example, last year I found myself paying extra attention to the aspects of cinematography - lighting, lensing, and composition, as well as the formats of filming, mainly because I had been focussing on these during the months leading to the festival. It happened very organically, as I saw things I never did before. This understanding into the craft has kept increasing every year, for obvious reasons, and gets reflected in my festival experience. And that's why this year I was amazed at realizing how my approach and attitude to watching films had taken a complete turn as I found myself seeking the most basic element in a movie experience - the story.

After watching ten movies in the first two days, I realised that form and technique, although more naturally evident before my eyes, did not interest me too much, unless it was too extra-ordinary to be missed. My strongest reaction would be directed toward the story - interesting characters in unique situations, going through a significant cinematic journey being part of some meaningful change in the end. I think 'The Little House' did this to me, my seventh movie of the festival. It was being screened through a DVD and the image quality was below average. I even contemplated leaving it for some other movie but decided otherwise. And thank God I didn't leave, because once the story engufed me, with its endearing characters, I really didn't mind about the picture quality. "What a story!" was my reaction as the film ended, and I felt strongly connected with it.

By the third day, it had become evident in the degree of pleasure I received from the movies and for the rest of the festival week, it was to remain one of my major criteria to select what movies to watch. This renewed faith got reaffirmed with other films. 'The Umbrellas of Cherboug' is a musical where every line of dialogue has been sung like a song. It took us some time to get used to it, and most of us found it extremely amusing. But as the film progressed, we were reacting to like any other film -  the story had taken over. 'Life of Riley' is filmed like a play on screen, and that made it very unique, almost uncomfortably so. Soon, I realised, every story element in this film is working as well as it should. We were more concerned with the characters than with the medium through which they communicated with us. And then, of course, there was 'Mommy'. Shot in 1:1 aspect ratio, it looked audaciously weird when it started. But when the story took over, none of us really cared about the ratio, and started reacting to it like any other film. The playful use of the aspect ratio, which was a complete surprise for me, was definitely a bonus by the end.

I am very glad that the signifcance of story has returned back to me, through all the unlearning and learning that movie-making requires. And I hope to stick to the importance I have learnt to give to story above everything else in future as well, especially as a film-maker than a film-buff.

I managed to watch 33 movies in the seven days of the festival this time. The overall experience was not as good as last year's, but in the end I did watch sufficient number of good movies to make it truly special for me. Following are my recommendations from those I watched:

If you are looking for unique, festival-like movies and have the patience and will to give all they require to enjoy them, you should go for:
However, if you want safe bets, well-made, high quality films that entertain you without too much of effort, these are my top suggestions:
I also watched three classics and as expected, they completely fulfilled my expectations. You can check them out as well, if you like classics:
From the sentimental outburst of the Opening Day of MAMI 2009, to watching festival promos directed by me on the screen before the movies this year, I have had such an eventful relation with this festival of ours. After religiously attending six of its seasons during which I watched 186 movies, all I can say is "MAMI 2015, we are waiting for you already!"

November 05, 2014

The Protagonist Puzzle III

Yesterday, I watched David Fincher's latest work 'Gone Girl' (2014) in a packed Tuesday evening show. This morning I read the chapter on 'Protagonist' in Robert McKee's wonderful book, 'Story'. And these two events have compelled me to revisit the discussion on the Protagonist that I had had in two of my previous posts. The first post was about identifying the protagonist in the first two 'Terminator' movies, where I had concluded that Sarah Connor was the protagonist in the first part (1984), while the Terminator was the protagonist in its sequel (1991). The second post had ended with the puzzle remaining unsolved as I failed to identify the protagonist in Hitchcock's 'Psycho' (1960). This morning McKee solved it for me by introducing me to a new concept.

According to McKee, a story can have three kinds of protagonist:
  • A single protagonist, as is the case with most movies.
  • A plural-protagonist: This is the new concept for me. The author argues that two or more characters can form the set of plural-protagonist if they all share the same desire and in the struggle to achieve this desire they mutually benefit and suffer with their motivations, actions, and consequences being communal. 'Thelma & Louise' (1991) and 'Seven Samurai' (1954) are examples of this. An extreme illustration would be 'Battleship Potemkin' (1925), where an entire class of the people, the proletariat, create a massive plural-protagonist.
  • Multiple protagonists: The case where there are several characters pursuing different desires, suffering and benefitting independently. E.g. 'Do the Right Thing' (1989), 'Short Cuts' (1993), 'Pulp Fiction' (1994).


Going by this discussion, both Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese form a plural-protagonist in 'The Terminator' fighting against the title character, the antagonist, to save Sarah, and eventually, humanity. Similarly, in 'Terminator 2', all three characters of the Terminator, Sarah, and her son, John Connor form a plural-protagonist up against T-1000, the antagonist, to save John. These two sets of plural-protagonists share the same desire and benefit and suffer mutually in their struggle to achieve this desire.

And, according to McKee, there is a remarkable formal innovation in 'Psycho'. For the first 48-minutes of the film, there is a single protagonist - Marion Crane. And after she is murdered, the three characters of Marion's boyfriend, her sister, and the detective take over the story, forming a plural-protagonist.

I am glad that this new concept has given certain explanation to the puzzle. But the beauty of art, and cinema in particular, is such that it gives rise to more puzzles. And this time, the unsolved puzzle for me, is the latest film I watched - 'Gone Girl'.

Who is the protagonist of this film? For the first hour or so, it is evident without doubt that it is Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) - a victim of the circumstances whom, despite his flaws, we want to succeed. His conflict appears to be the central conflict of the film, with odds getting increasingly difficult for him. This gets further affirmed when his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), reappears in the film, indulging in an extremely satisfying exposition of the truth, and solving the mystery for us. She comes across as a ruthless antagonist and the film turns into a game of chess being played through the insatiable greed of the modern media, between the husband and the wife, both aware of each other's willfulness, capabilities, and desires. I don't know about others, but I was supporting Nick throughout and hoped that Amy would fail. Despite this, I was amazed at how likeable the character of Amy was - we loved her flawless evil plans and her undeterred resolve. I also appreciated how despite the situation being against him, and he mostly relying on other factors for help and resolution, Nick continued to rise as a protagonist, with his wit, charm, and presence-of-mind. By then end of the third act though, as the story resolved itself, Amy has cleary won, in every possible way. The final act of the film, according to me, is its biggest triumph that makes it different from a regular Holywood thriller. And it achieves that mainly through the masterstroke played by the character of Amy. She wins. Nick loses. And I do not feel totally satisfied, because I really wanted Amy to suffer.

Then I had a conversation with a female friend of mine. She was amazed by Amy. She did not empathise with her, because according to her 'Amy does not seek anyone's empathy'. This friend of mine, without actually meaning to do so, made me rethink the story from Amy's point-of-view. A girl who fell in love and wanted to have a special marriage, realises that her husband is not only a selfish, financially-dependant parasite, he is also cheating on her despite all she has done for him and his family. She vows revenge, and although things do not work exactly how she had planned, she still manages to teach him a big, nasty lesson, something he truly deserved, and makes everything work for her all over again. Is Amy, then, the protagonist of this story, a protagonist who remains physically invisible for the first hour of the film, and then emotionally unrelatable for the most of the rest? I just realised that the author of this story, who based the screenplay on her own novel, is a woman. Does that help, in any way, to solve this protagonist puzzle?