Books


Conversations With Mani Ratnam
Baradwaj Rangan
Penguin/Viking, 2012

 

Conversations with Mani RatnamSomewhere near the midpoint of noted Indian film critic Baradwaj Rangan’s Conversations with Mani Ratnam lies a startling, self-referential moment, a moment so out of step with the rest of the book that it becomes a poetic aside in itself. In the middle of a dialogue about one of Ratnam’s movies, Rangan, with his characteristically keen eye for minor details of the mise en scène, makes a comment about the director clutching a bunch of pencils. Ratnam, perhaps as startled as the reader, asks Rangan if he’s found some deeper meaning to this gesture as well. He goes on to note that the problem with critics is that they try to find a hidden meaning when none exists. This confrontational exchange, the only moment in the entire book when the critic and director aren’t separated by the screen that is Ratnam’s body of work, embodies the central dialectic of Conversations, between a critic who sees an authorial presence, a motivation, an intention behind distinctive film elements binding a filmography and a filmmaker who considers them merely the product of logistical necessity or an instinctive thought, at best, between a professional who relies on bringing to surface structures and mechanics of films and another whose job is to conceal them.

Rangan’s book consists of a set of 17 conversations between him and Ratnam that takes us through the latter’s twenty-odd films in chronological order. This conversational format, as opposed to a paraphrased version¸ has the benefit of retaining the director’s voice, with all its conceptual blind spots (this book is perhaps the best source to understand my reservations with late-period Mani Ratnam’s naïve humanism, where personal dramas are planted obliquely on topical issues, almost like an afterthought, essentially making them, despite his refusal, “message movies”) and anecdotal digressions intact, instead of glossing over gaps and presenting a smooth, monolithic view of Ratnam’s oeuvre as a fully-formed, theoretically integral body of work. It also saves the reader a lot of time since he/she can read the simple, pragmatically-worded conversations quickly instead of having to stop regularly to admire the elegance of Rangan’s typically graceful prose. On the other hand, it results in passages where the two participants aren’t on the same page, where Ratnam, neither complementing nor contradicting, unhelpfully goes off on a tangent in response to certain questions.

It doesn’t help when a convincing critic opens his book with a review of his own and Rangan’s introduction to Conversations serves both as a sharp review of the material that follows as well as an autobiographical piece that details the author’s personal journey with Ratnam’s cinema and his motivations for taking up this project. In it, Rangan characterizes Ratnam as being specifically a “Madras” filmmaker – a term with both geographical and historical connotations – who, he believes, captured the sensibilities of a generation of Madras-dwelling urbanites and the rhythms of the city like no other filmmaker of the time. He also goes on to bifurcate Ratnam’s filmography into his Madras films – movies where the city and its inhabitants became the focal point – and his non-Madras films – ones where his concerns diffused and his field of vision widened. Intriguingly, on a lighter note, he points out two personal tendencies that he traces in this project: a desire as a man of science to document the thoughts of a filmmaker he considers very important in the national film scene and as a man of faith to channel the words of an artist who was a veritable god to his generation.

The duality is vital here. In a modest, reverential and otherwise undistinguished foreword, composer and long-time collaborator A. R. Rahman makes a striking contrast between his profound faith and Ratnam’s considered atheism after having elaborated on the symbiosis between him and the director. Dichotomies such as these, besides paralleling the book’s critic-filmmaker split, presage the book’s crystallization of the bipartite structure of Mani Ratnam’s films. The conversations gradually reveal the bed of binaries that the director’s films are founded on and the centrality of the number “2” in them. (Iruvar (“The Duo”, 1997), admittedly the director’s best effort, literalizes the image/text conflict that cinema itself wrestles with). They help trace this preoccupation, though not overtly, to Ratnam’s thought process as a screenwriter, wherein he eschews western scriptwriting models and instead constructs his screenplays around a single conflict involving two persons, geographies, ideologies, time-lines or emotions.

Throughout the conversations, Rangan keeps tracing auteurist strains in Ratnam’s work, deftly pointing out consistencies in plotting, character sketches, filmmaking style and world view across the movies. There appear to be three typical ways in which Ratnam reacts to these critical reflections. At best, Ratnam’s acknowledges these observations with no acknowledgement. Alternately, he would downplay Rangan’s remarks with peripheral comments that replace artistry, voice and authorial intention with accidents, logistical and functional necessities. At worst, like John Ford, he plainly denies the obvious. (Case in point, his denial that Laal Maati (“Red Earth”), the name of the tribal village in Raavan (2010), has no Maoist undertone is so moot that one is tempted to doubt the truthfulness of his other statements).  Ratnam’s modesty here is, in turns, gratingly vehement, as when he extensively uses first person plural or second person for explanation, and gratifying, especially the manner in which he avoids people politics and convenient namedropping.

But the most fascinating and, perhaps, the most important aspect of Conversations with Mani Ratnam is its unequivocal establishment of the director as a mainstream filmmaker. Neither does Rangan picture him as a “middle cinema” auteur straddling arthouse and grindhouse nor is Ratnam apologetic about his status as a popular filmmaker embracing all the conventions of the industry. (The latter uses the word “product” five times in the book to describe finished films). The conversations explore in detail Ratnam’s grafting of personal stories on tried-and-tested screenwriting tropes – familiar character arcs, interpersonal relationships, the mid-movie interval and devices for moral justification – that Rangan characterizes as a flirtation with melodrama and casting tricks (Ratnam’s fine point about casting famous faces for minor parts to do away with the need for building an emotional connection from scratch and to harness their screen legacy warrants further analysis). Most of all, Ratnam’s opinion of songs in Indian cinema as powerful, mood-enhancing trump cards that give the filmmaker the freedom to take to poetry, abstraction, secondary narration and cinematic experimentation makes for a strong counter-argument to the line of thought that advocates abolishing this tradition as the first step towards a better cinema.


[Excerpts from Paul Virilio's War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (1984/89)]

From the original watch-tower through the anchored balloon to the reconnaissance aircraft and remote sensing satellites, one and the same function has been indefinitely repeated, the eye’s function being the function of a weapon.

The industrial production of repeating guns and automatic weapons was thus followed by the innovation of repeating images.

 

A war of pictures and sounds is replacing the war of objects (projectiles and missiles)

War can never break free from the magical spectacle because its very purpose is to produce that spectacle: to fell the enemy is not so much to capture as to ‘captivate’ him, to instill the fear of death before he actually dies.

Apocalypse Now

…the history of battle is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception.

“I still remember the effect I produced I produced on a small group of Galla tribesman massed around a man in black clothes,” reported Mussolini’s son during the Abyssinian war of 1935-36. “I dropped an aerial torpedo right in the centre, and the group opened up just like a flowering rose.”

Dr. Strangelove

Rudolph Arnheim once remarked that, after 1914, many film-actors became props and the props took the leading role. Similarly, women became the objective tragedy in the wars from which they were excluded.

The star system and the sex symbol were the result of that unforeseen perceptual logistics which developed intensively in every field during the First World War.

Drums Along The Mohawk

World War One was the reason for Hollywood”.

Cinemas, too, were training camps which bonded people together in the face of death agony, teaching them to fear the death of what they did not know – or rather, as Hitchcock put it, of what did not exist.

Dr. Strangelove

…the Allies’ victory in the Second World War was at least partly due to their grasp of the real nature of Nazi Lebenstaum, and to their decision to attach the core of Hitler’s power by undermining his charismatic infallibility. They did this by making themselves the leading innovators of film technology.

Eyesight and direct vision have gradually given way to optical or opto-electronic processes, to the most sophisticated forms of ‘telescopic sight’.

Only serial photography was capable of changing troop positions or the impact of long range artillery, and hence the capacity of new weapons for serial destruction.

Dr. Strangelove

As Andre Malraux wrote: “Caesar could have conversed with Napoleon, but Napoleon has nothing to say to President Johnson

Positional warfare, then, had had its day. The extreme mobility of mechanized armies impaired a new temporal unity that only cinema could apprehend.

Napoleon

Just as weapons and armour developed in unison throughout history, so invisibility and visibility now began to evolve together, eventually producing invisible weapons that make things visible.

The projectile’s image and the image’s projectile form a single composite. In its tasks of detection  and acquisition, pursuit and destruction, the projectile is an image of ‘signature’ on a screen, and the television picture is an ultrasonic projectile propagated at the speed of light.

Dr. Strangelove

Camera Lucida
Roland Barthes (Translated by Richard Howard)
Vintage Books, 1993

 

Camera LucidaAt first glance, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1980/1981) appears to be the sort of material the author of Mythologies (1957/1972) will blow a hole through. Part a study of the nature of photographs, part a work of commemoration of the author’s mother, Barthes’s final book hovers frighteningly close to what, in his early years, he had deemed to be an act of bourgeois mythmaking: stripping a decidedly historical phenomenon of its sociopolitical traces and presenting it as an undisputable truth, a ‘nature’, a human essence. True, Camera Lucida finds Barthes’s interest turning away from the historicity of photography to its metaphysics, from the question of how a photograph signifies to what it represents, from a near-scientific system of classifying images to unwieldy pseudo-theory of the photograph, from the idea of signifier and signified to the material referent itself. (This sharply defined arc, in fact, follows closely the trajectory taken by critical theory itself.) Barthes himself makes no effort to underplay this recantation (“…a desperate resistance to any reductive system”) and keeps undermining any approach that could lead to the formation of a totalizing framework like the one proposed in that early book of his.

Camera Lucida, nevertheless, also underscores a significant attitude that illustrates an unassailable continuity between these two books – a continuity that’s most characteristic of Barthes’s thought: a vehement resistance to ‘Naming’. Both Mythologies (“[Astrology] serves to exorcize the real by naming it”) and Camera Lucida (“What I can name cannot really prick me”) work against a culture in which tends to naturalize ideas – dominant and dissenting – and provide immunity against possible threat by naming it and defining its bounds. The crucial difference, however, is that the Barthes of Mythologies, if not a full-fledged, had his sympathies overtly aligned with the Left, whereas in the latter book, written over two decades later, he seems to be holding onto an ideological zero point. Like many critics who are disillusioned by the rigidity of narratives of the Left and the Right and their daunting tendency to pigeonhole people and ideas into stable, tractable categories, Barthes, here, seeks to find the ground for a kind of writing that can not be assimilated, so to speak, by either of these ideologies.

Graham Allen, in his excellent introduction to Barthes’s works, points out that Barthes found the ideal neutral point in the figure of his own body – a site that scandalizes both the rational Left with its individualist inwardness and the moralist Right with its hedonist underpinning. Camera Lucida, perhaps also a result of his mother’s passing and his subsequent mourning, is rife with bodily terms (‘wound’, ‘laceration’ etc.) that are used not only in the evocative passages of the book, but also in association with the various theoretical terms presented. Further, Barthes extends this essential neutrality of the body to the photograph (another commonality between them being the dread of death that both invoke instantly), which, according to him, retains its wholeness, eluding the grasp of dominant forces and ultimately remaining irreducible. For him, the photograph perpetually resists mechanisms that attempt to pin down its meaning and it is in this non-thinking, non-partisan, non-determined nature (“indifferent”, “impotent with regard to general ideas”, “image without code”) of the image that its power rests.

The central theoretical framework of the book is grounded in a dichotomy between what Barthes calls the stadium of a photograph –all its theorizable aspects the engagement with which necessitates the involvement of external baggage such as the observer’s political and historical awareness – and its punctum – that unaccountable, non-conscious, partly-accidental detail or feature – a point of reversibility of text, a Derridean supplement – that defies classification and sets the meaning of the photograph into play. The stadium, we are told, is that which cries out to be read and around which discourses are constructed while the punctum remains invisible to precisely these forces. The latter, it appears, keeps changing shape, never becoming a concept or following what could be called an objective pattern across various photographs. Barthes’s own definition of the punctum keeps assuming various forms (“shock”, “idle gesture”, “undevelopable”, “cries out in silence” etc.), abandoning its history and avoiding coagulating into anything might be called a theory. What Barthes leaves, as a result, is the trace of a method, instead of a fleshed-out hermeneutic system, so that the readers never latch onto it, but merely discover newer ways of engaging with the photograph,

In the second part – a split among many others – of the book, Barthes moves from a description of the punctum as a material detail in the referent of the photograph – a definition that could be assimilated into the stadium by artful photographers no doubt – to one that is based on an experience of time. His reading of the photograph as an “image which produces Death while trying to preserve life” plants him firmly in the tradition of image-theorists like Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer (“Seemingly ripped from death, in reality [the photographed present] has succumbed to it]”). Andre Bazin famously traced photography’s roots to Egyptian mummification process and hence to a desire to transcend mortality and preserve one’s image for eternity. Barthes, in contrast, suggests that in the photograph’s assurance that what it represents is real and has been there before the camera in flesh and blood (unlike painted objects) only invokes utter dread, a sense of “double loss” where the beholder is made aware that not only is the person she is looking at already dead now, but that he is going to die some time after the development of this photograph – a moment that the photograph directly channels. In Eduardo Cadava’s words: “memories of a mourning yet to come”. (One is reminded of Scottie’s predicament when he sees Judy after his first loss in Vertigo (1957); Barthes himself calls this experience a “vertigo of time”.)

In itself, the central idea here is not entirely unheard of. Benjamin (a writer who deeply shares Barthes’s fascination with the visual) works towards a similar relationship in his Little History of Photography (1931, “No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and now, with which reality has (so to speak) seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.”) and Barthes himself touches upon similar notions in his earlier essay on Eisenstein. But Camera Lucida presents it in so many seemingly tautological forms, aided in no small part by the book’s structure (a string of minor theses), which prompt the reader keep shifting perspectives, to undo and redo the mental image of the ideas the book presents. In a way, then, the book itself enacts the duality that it proposes, continuously unsettling its model of the photograph – the stadia that most books are – with specific, eccentric punctum-like inflections on the text.

Camera Lucida is self-consciously grounded in on a number of such contradictory thrusts: Science and sentimentality, phenomenology and method (“I dismiss all knowledge, all culture, I refuse to inherit anything from another eye than my own”), the empirical and the theoretical, the universal and the ungeneralizable, For Barthes, such apparent paradoxes – these twin movements – are not indicators of the fallibility of his approach. Rather, it is a gesture in a direction opposite to the one taken by reductive, structuralist approaches. Instead of applying a universal rule to the specific and deeming the latter a mere variation, Barthes’s approach takes the specific – the present, the undeniable – as the starting point and extrapolates the result for every other instance in the world (“…to extend this individuality to a science of the subject”, to achieve “the impossible science of the unique being”). What he achieves by taking this almost anti-scientific route is a strong resistance to reduction of the individual – in this case, his mother. Barthes treads the precarious line between the necessity to remember his mother and the threat of his mother becoming Mother, a universal truth. (That he does not supply us with the crucial Winter Garden photograph of his mother indicates a refusal to generalize the specific). Camera Lucida is a work that conceals its radiant center, allowing us to only sense its emanations and forces us to become the center of our own image-theories. As Barthes puts it:

I am the reference of every photograph, and this is what generates my astonishment in addressing myself to the fundamental question: why is it that I am alive here and now?

 
Note: There is surely something to be said about the way Barthes examines photography in opposition to cinema. For instance, his insistence that there is no possibility of a punctum in cinematic imagery, thanks to the forward-thrust of montage. I think I disagree. Going by what I understand when Barthes speaks of it, I would say that the punctum – the wounding arrow that catches one off-guard, the spark of contingency – manifests itself in various shapes and sizes in cinema. See Daniel Kasman’s writings, for instance, for the ways one can find oneself moving away from the zone of general interest – the area where films consciously work – into a field of personal commitment – that point where, perhaps, cinema betrays its photographic roots.

(Nearly) random excerpts from Robert Bresson’s Notes On Cinematography (1977):

 

  • Cinematography, the art, with images, of representing nothing.
  • Make visible what, without you, might never have been seen.
  • Shooting. No part of the unexpected which is not secretly expected by you.
  • Many people are needed in order to make a film, but only one who makes, unmakes, remakes his images and sounds, returning at every second to the initial impression or sensation which brought these to birth and is incomprehensible to the other people.
  • Economy: Racine (to his son Louis): I know your handwriting well enough, without your having to sign your name.
  • Respect man’s nature without wishing it more palpable than it is.
  • Actor. The to-and-fro of the character in front of his nature forces the public to look for talent on his face, instead of the enigma peculiar to each living creature.
  • To defeat the false powers of photography.
  • Two persons, looking each other in the eye, see not their eyes but their looks. (The reason why we get the color of a person’s eyes wrong?)
  • From the beings and things of nature, washed clean of all art and especially of the art of drama, you will make an art.
  • X demonstrates a great stupidity when he says that to touch the masses there is no need of art.
  • Not to shoot a film in order to illustrate a thesis, or to display men and women confined to their external aspect, but to discover the matter they are made of. To attain that “heart of the heart” which does not let itself be caught either by poetry, or by philosophy or by drama.
  • Empty the pond to get the fish.
  • Don’t run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the joins (ellipses).
  • Your film’s beauty will not be in the images (postcardism), but in the ineffable that they will emanate.
  • Production of emotion determined by a resistance to emotion.
  • The CINEMA did not start from zero. Everything to be called into question.

What Is Cinema? Volume II
André Bazin (Translated by Hugh Gray)
University of California Press, 1971

 

What is Cinema - Volume 2The second part of Hugh Gray’s translation of Andre Bazin’s essays is, evidently, more coherent and wholesome and better compiled than its predecessor. It may be either because Bazin has sorted out the ambiguity discernible earlier in his theory, which he presented in the previous book, or because one gets accustomed to Bazin’s style of writing and his huge canvas of references that range from philosophy to science. Whatever the case, those who have persevered to read the second volume will only have a richly rewarding experience and get to know why Bazin was so enthusiastically supporting realism in cinema.  The anthology begins, fittingly, with a foreword by Truffaut where he recollects, through many interesting anecdotes about Bazin, how his life was enriched by his godfather and “the most unforgettable character” he has met. He closes the essay with a paragraph from Bazin’s letter that sums up his unassuming and open-minded attitude towards the whole of cinema:

“I’m sorry I couldn’t see Mizoguchi’s films again with you at the Cinémathéque. I rate him as highly as you people do and I claim to love him the more because I love Kurosawa too, who is the other side of the coin: would we know the day any better if there was no night? To dislike Kurosawa because one likes Mizoguchi is only the first step towards understanding. Unquestionably anyone who prefers Kurosawa must be incurably blind but anyone who loves only Mizoguchi is one-eyed. Throughout the arts there runs a vein of the contemplative and the mystical as well as an expressionist vein”

The first essay of the book is the legendary “An Aesthetic of Reality: Neorealism” in which Bazin traces out the characteristics of this New Italian School in contrast to the existing forms of cinema in Italy and elsewhere (including his views on the use of non-professionals, its advantages and shortcomings). He illustrates why he thinks that realism in cinema more an aesthetic choice than an ontological byproduct and how this “realism” can be controlled to present a world view of the director without being instructive (“But realism in art can only be achieved in one way – through artifice.”).  He then proceeds, taking Citizen Kane (1941) and Farrebique (1946) as examples, to elucidate the conflict between using deep focus (which could then be achieved perfectly only in a studio setting) and using real locations (which are cumbersome from the point of view of cinematography) and, hence, proves why every technological advancement that helps bringing cinema closer to reality must be embraced. This is followed by an analysis of Rossellini’s Paisa (1946), arguably the greatest neo-realist film, which studies the episodic narrative of the film, the elliptical nature of its editing and the ambiguity of reality that it offers.

This grand opening is followed by extremely insightful, individual essays on key neorealist films such as Visconti’s The Earth Trembles (1948, “La Terra Trema lacks inner fire… no moving eloquence to bolster its documentary vigor”), Fellini’s The Nights of Cabiria (1957, “I even tend to view Fellini as the director who goes the farthest of any to date in this neorealist aesthetic”) and De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1947, “Ladri di Bicyclette is one of the first examples of pure cinema. No more actors, no more story, no more sets, which is to say that in the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality there is no more cinema.”) and Umberto D. (1952 “De Sica and Zavattini are concerned to make cinema the asymptote of reality”), wherein Bazin, step by step, clarifies his championing of realism in cinema and his stance that realism in cinema must be concerned only with appearance and not meaning (“Realism is to be defined not in terms of ends but of means, and neorealism by a specific relation of the means to the ends”). Together, these sets of essays make so much meaning, even today, that one is able to see why the photographic property of cinema (and hence its ability to resort to absolute realism) makes it all the more powerful by providing it with the power to reveal the most abstract of philosophical ideas using the most commonplace of images.

Interspersed between these critiques of neorealist films are two essays that deal with the entire filmographies of two neorealist directors – De Sica and Rossellini. In the first of these, Bazin examines the attitude of De Sica towards the reality of the world in his films (“…in not betraying the essence of things, in allowing them first of all to exist for their own sakes, freely…in loving them in their singular individuality.”). He notes that although De Sica’s cinema is primarily based on love and compassion, his construction of the film’s universe is nevertheless rigorous and meticulous.  The second essay is actually a letter that Bazin wrote to Guido Aristarco, the Editor-in-Chief of the Italian film journal Cinema Nuovo, in defense of Rossellini against the claims of Italian critics who slammed the director for betraying his neo-realist roots. This essay is perhaps the central piece of his set of essays on neorealism and illustrates what kind of realism Bazin was looking for and what value it adds to cinema as a medium (“The traditional realist artist – Zola, for example analyzes reality into parts which he then reassembles in a synthesis the final determinant of which is his moral conception of the world, whereas the conciousness of the neorealist director filters the reality.”)

But what’s really the killer piece of the book is the essay called “The Myth of Monsieur Verdoux”. In this section that runs over 20 pages, Bazin explains why he thinks Monsieur Verdoux (1947) is Chaplin’s greatest work by deconstructing the film part by part and taking it into various levels of discussion. He argues that, in Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin absorbs from the myth of the tramp, which was developed by him and lapped up instantly by the world, in order to contrast the mute being with Verdoux. He examines how society has, in fact, killed Charlie and how Verdoux is a revenge of sorts for Chaplin. Bazin takes into consideration the whole of Chaplin’s filmography to explore the significance of Monsieur Verdoux, both to Chaplin and to Hollywood. He makes note of the Chaplin’s casting, which seeks out faces that can not only represent and portray the character in this movie but those which carry with themselves their own cinematic histories and mythologies. In the subsequent two essays on Limelight (1952), in one of which he speaks about the emotional impact that Chaplin’s presence in Paris had on critics during the film’s premiere, he examines how Limelight, in fact, takes the myth of Charlie into the realm of Chaplin, by integrating into itself facets from both Charlie’s persona and Chaplin’s life, and pushes the boundaries of authorship to a point beyond with it is impossible to separate the artist from the person.

Then there are also some pleasant surprises in the form of shorter essays, two of which deal with the Western genre, its evolution, its cinematic and historical exploration, its transformation following World War 2 and authorship of a director within norms of this genre. There is also one about the birth of the “Pin-up girl” wherein Bazin discusses the philosophy between the ways these posters are designed and later reflects on its relation to cinema. This is followed by two articles on eroticism in cinema and censorship, in one of which Bazin, taking up Howard Hughes’ notorious The Outlaw (1943) as the centerpiece, elaborates on the type of censorship that contained within the cinematic image and argues that it is because of Hays that Hughes was able to take cinematic eroticism to the next level by kindling the audience’s imagination using mere hints, unlike his European counterparts. There’s a lot of humour to be found in these essays (and the earlier ones too) that just adds to the effortlessness and confidence that is palpable in Bazin’s arguments. But, in the final analysis, it is Bazin’s inclination to realism in cinema that is the USP of the book and serves to explain why cinema can transcend other arts in some ways. Although this support of Bazin for realism seems to need a revision with the advent of modernist, postmodernist and animation filmmaking, his theories  still  seem very pertinent and precise as far as conventional narrative cinema is concerned, especially considering the tendency of today’s mainstream filmmakers to move away from realism by imposing a single meaning on the realities of their worlds.

 

Verdict:

P.S: You can read some part of the book here

Scorsese On Scorsese
Martin Scorsese (Edited by: David Thompson and Ian Christie)
Faber and Faber, 1979
 

“But prayer is really dealing with what you have in the home, dealing with the family, how you raise your children, how you relate to your wife. May be that’s what prayer really is in the modern world”


–    Martin Scorsese (Scorsese on Scorsese, 1979)


Scorsese on ScorseseAmazingly, last night I had the most memorable dream of my life and the best part is that I remember all of it in detail. I was at Scorsese’s house and talking to the man himself about the cinema in India and the deteriorating state of old regional films. How about that?! Dr. Freud would immediately remind me that I had finished reading Scorsese on Scorsese just the day before. Whatever the case is, reading Scorsese on Scorsese is best approximated as an extended conversation with the director. In fact, editors David Thompson and Ian Christie have done a splendid job by keeping factual autobiographical details to the minimum, presenting them as small italicized snippets between Scorsese’s talks, hence removing any hindrance for us to speak with Scorsese the man and Scorsese the director. Though compiled from a set of lectures and interviews the director had given around the world, Scorsese on Scorsese never gives you the feel of an authoritative person directing you towards what you have to know. Instead, Scorsese recollects events, almost from the top of his mind, lets us interpret and thus get to know the man and his films more.

Divided into six chapters, the first of which details his childhood and teenage memories and the rest taking us virtually through the making of each one of his movies, Scorsese on Scorsese is a joy ride for any film buff. There is much humour throughout the book and at times you almost hear Scorsese break out with his characteristic and infectious laughter. Many would agree if I say that Scorsese is one of the biggest film buffs of the world and this opinion is established as a fact in these texts. There is almost no line in the book where you don’t hear the man come up with a movie comparison or a simile that is related to the movies. Even in the most commonplace of statements, like feeling sick on the sets (“…I was coughing on the floor and sounding like a character from The Magic Mountain”), recalling parking problems (“…but destroying things as in a Godzilla movie”) or describing the streets of New York during summer nights (…reminds me of the scene in The Ten Commandments, portraying the killing of the first born, where a cloud of green smoke seeps along the palace floor…), Scorsese’s never flagging enthusiasm for the cinema surfaces.

Scorsese on Scorsese is a must-read for anyone who doubts Scorsese’s status as a genuine auteur. As one moves along in the book, one sees that all of Scorsese’s characters have a bit of Scorsese in them and could be seen as extensions of his personality in a fictional world (Be the screenplay officially by Schrader, Price or Minion, Scorsese invariably seems to have had a hand in their final versions). Although the book covers the directors career only till New York Stories (1989), one can see the same phenomenon carry on in his later films too. As Scorsese goes on explaining how each movie, each scene and each set piece came about one can actually see the deep influence that his childhood and teenage has had on his thought process and his vision of the world. He elaborates on what made him take to priesthood and then the transition to cinema (He says: “In my neighbourhood, the people in power were the tough guys on the street, and the Church. The organized crime figures would tip their hats to a priest and watch their language, an they would have their cars and pets blessed”).

This book was compiled just after The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) hit the screens and it is evident that the whole book centers itself on this event. Right from the unusual introduction chapter, which recounts the events that preceded the release of the controversial movie, one can see that the authors intend to take a look back at the director’s career standing at this historical point. The concept of religion is also manifest in Scorsese’s talks throughout the book as he subtly reveals how his experience during the days as a young priest, away from the meanness of the streets, shows itself in almost all his early films. Be it overt as in Mean Streets (1973) or underneath as in Taxi Driver (1976), the idea of God and religion, Catholicism in specific, seems to be always present, mostly in the form of a hope for redemption, in his movies. In hindsight, The Last Temptation of Christ almost looks like a confrontation of sorts with his own inability to reconcile between what he learnt in the Church and what he saw in the streets.

Another interesting thing is that even though he has had to put up with a lot, Scorsese never dwells on the difficulties much. Yes, he does talk about them in detail, but he makes all his travails sound like simple trivia and things of distant past. It is remarkable how he has earned the title of a major Hollywood director (in spite of his legendary association with New York), especially after his near ostracism by the studios after The King of Comedy (1982). He makes the trouble he had shooting After Hours (1985) and The Color of Money (1983) sound so amusing that one tends to overlook how appallingly tough it must have all been. The book complements these accounts with loads of rare, behind-the-scenes photographs from his movies, the complete story board of the final scene in Taxi Driver drawn by the director himself and other stills from famous movies, including the ones he cites as inspirations, placed side by side as if the director himself is showing us what went through his mind when he made those compositions. There is even a still of Michael Jackson and Martin Scorsese in discussion during the shoot of Bad (1986)!

During the course of all this recollection, Scorsese talks about some abandoned scripts and some ideas for future that now seem so fascinating. He talks about a script called “Gangs of New York” that couldn’t be realized (and which eventually got made in 2002 perhaps with much change), he mentions that he doesn’t really want to do remakes (he made Cape Fear (1991) almost immediately!) and that he was immensely influenced by the music in the Moroccan film Transes (1981) (which has now got restored by the World Cinema Foundation headed by him and shown online for free!). Those who still think that Scorsese has sold his soul to Hollywood of late, I think, would see that The Aviator (2004) is as personal a movie as Taxi Driver or Raging Bull (1980) once they read this book, or rather this memorable evening of reminiscing with Scorsese. At the end of it all, it feels like if Scorsese had indeed taken up priesthood as a profession, which seems to have seemed very likely, the world would have got one good priest more but one great director less. Now, what kind of an unfair exchange is that!

 

Verdict:

P.S: Scorsese on Scorsese contains one of the greatest forewords that I have read. I type it down for you here:

What’s Hecuba to Him?

The first Martin Scorsese film that I saw – or that saw me – was Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. The actors were directed with assurance. There was not a frame wasted. I said to myself: Michael Powell, you’re going to have a good time – this man knows where he’s going and you’re going with him. On the screen we were entering a fast food emporium, with two splendid actresses volleying words and phrases at one another. It was like watching a singles match on centre court at Wimbledon, between two champions. I hadn’t seen match play like this since I saw Pat and Mike.

We screened Taxi Driver. ‘Stop! Stop!’ I said. ‘Who’s that devilish actor who plays the Devil in the scene with Robert De Niro?’
‘That’s Scorsese.’ Said my friend, who had arranged the screening.
‘What! Can he act too?!’
He smiled, ‘want more?’
‘Is there more?’
He nodded vigorously. ‘Much, much more.’

He arranged a screening of Mean Streets. It was in a little projection theatre off Wardour Street, London WI. There were four of us and the projectionist. When the screening ended, we looked at each other, stunned. The five of us crossed a narrow street and went into a pub that was just on the verge of closing. Nobody else was there. Still we said nothing. There was nothing to say.

All art is one, and every artist owes a duty to his art. We can’t all be masters, but we can know a master when we see him, because he has something to say to us, and sooner or later imparts it. The difference between these films of Martin Scorsese’s is that with Alice and Taxi Driver he handles the materials like a master; with Mean Streets he is in direct contact with the audience, from the beginning to the end. This is the rarest gift given to a movie director. Most directors, however wise, however experienced, however resourceful, however bold, don’t have it and never will have it. Marty always had it.

He has this great, generous gift of creating a situation for an audience, and sharing it with them. He is the ventriloquist and his doll, the singer and the song. In his latest film, Life Lessons, Marty performs the same miracle, he is the painter and his palette, he is the pupil and the master, he is the cunning of the fox and the innocence of the child, he is the voice of the tape deck screaming ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’.

When Hamlet sees the tears in the Player’s eyes, and asks Horatio:

What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba
That he should weep for her?

he is asking the same question that we ask of ourselves when Scorsese, in The Last Temptation of Christ, gives us our first glimpse of that hill called Golgotha. For, as the tears spring to our eyes, we know that we shall see that hill again, and then it will be our last sight on earth – and his.


Michael Powell
March 1989

What Is Cinema? Volume I
André Bazin (Translated by Hugh Gray)
University of California Press, 1967

 

What is CinemaYes, I know this is the “inferior” translation. But hey, this is all I could get my hands on. But surely, the translation isn’t the bottleneck in understanding what the author is saying, for Bazin himself makes things tough with his analogies and references! Taking examples from almost every field of science and arts – from chemistry to Comédie Française, from geology to Christianity – he stacks one argument upon another, turning down existing critical principles and builds a vision of cinema that does not care as much about the artist’s vision as it does about faithfulness to reality. Presented as an anthology of selected essays from the author’s original four-volume work Que-est-se que le Cinéma? (1958-65), this translation by Hugh Gray has received a lot of flak after the release of the Caboose edition. But the historical importance of this translation remains unquestionable and the book still remains an immensely insightful introduction to the work of arguably the world’s most revered critic.

The anthology begins with the small chapter titled “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” where Bazin traces the need for plastic arts, especially cinema way back to the time of the kings. He argues that it is mankind’s ambitious need to preserve the living and hence achieve immortality that has caused the arts to associate themselves to the reality of the world. He pins down the origin of this practice to the Egyptian craft of mummification and then gradually draws out the evolution of the other arts right down to cinema and photography.  He illustrates how photography indeed freed painting from its ambivalence by allowing it to retain artistic abstraction and leave faithfulness to reality to photography (“…for photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption.“). This chapter, in fact, becomes the base for all of Bazin’s theory in the rest of the book, establishing his unshakeable faith that the power of cinema lies in its property to reproduce reality without any form of human interference.

In the subsequent few chapters, he builds on the first chapter and analyzes what reality and cinema mean to each other. In an interesting section, he puts forth the argument the introduction in sound in cinema was not actually the biggest turning point. He says that the dichotomy that existed was not between the talkies and the silent movies, but between films that relied on reality, like the films of Erich von Stroheim and the ones that were trying to do precisely the opposite, like the Expressionist cinema. He further points out that the introduction of sound was a mere technical triumph that enabled cinema to move one step closer to absolute realism. Carrying the argument forward and considering both extremes – spectacles concocted purely in reality that is faithfully filmed by the camera and spectacles concocted by montage which cuts out facets of reality that may hamper the truth of its world – he examines the advantages and limitations of montage where he exemplifies how montage and its avoidance alter cinematic reality and how montage should be used depending on the context of the sequence filmed.

But what the book primarily concerns itself with is the relation that cinema bears to contemporary arts like literature, theatre and paining. Almost half the book is devoted to studying how cinema absorbs and contributes to literature and theatre and how this phenomenon is just a symbiosis among the arts. He argues that although the relatively infantile cinema plunders themes and tales from literature, it is literature that gains audience. Furthermore, he lashes out against dogmatic purists who readily shrug off theatrical and literary adaptations that are faithful to their source. Bazin stands in support of adaptations that are faithful to the source and whose concerns are not merely providing a mutation through cinema. Using a separate chapter titled “The Stylistics of Robert Bresson”, which is more concerned with exploring the relation between Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1950) and Bernanos’ novel than with Bresson’s mise en scène and ideology, Bazin establishes the invalidity of existing comparisons between literature and their cinematic adaptations. To quote the author himself:

“But Le Journal has just proved to us that it is more fruitful to speculate on their differences rather than resemblances, that is, for the existence of the novel to be affirmed by the film and not dissolved into it. It is hardly enough to say of this work, once removed, that it is in essence faithful to the original because, to begin with, it is the novel. But most of all the resulting work is not, certainly, better (this kind of judgment is meaningless…) but “more” than the book. The aesthetic pleasures we derive from Bresson’s film, while the acknowledgement for it goes, essentially, to the genius of Bernanos, includes all that the novel has to offer plus, in addition, its refraction in the cinema”

A third of the book is taken up by a chapter titled “Theater and Cinema”, which inquiries in detail what precisely is the difference between the two media is. Strongly supporting Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1945) and Jean Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles (1948), Bazin slams the overused critical term “Filmed Theater” and elaborates on the features that separate theater from cinema and why the films that he supports are indeed true to the cinematic medium. He does not agree that it is the mere presence of the actor that makes theater unique, as proposed by earlier theorists. Instead, he postulates that it is the knowledge of being watched – for both the performer and the audience – that forms the basis of classical theater and the one facet that makes it distinct from cinema. A lot of arguments in this chapter went over my head, for Bazin frequently throws in examples from contemporary and ancient French theater to underscore his point. But it is clear that Bazin’s discussion boils down to his theory that that theater space is essentially a showcase of unreality (or a different reality) while that of cinema is true reality.

There is a minuscule yet extremely insightful essay on Charlie Chaplin where Bazin deconstruct the tramp and throws light on the social, cultural, comic and cinematic aspects the iconic figure. He stresses that Chaplin would have been a great theatre actor, but his stint in cinema wasn’t, in any way, less brilliant. He illustrates how Chaplin used the medium to not merely photograph a theater act, but to overcome the limitations of theater and derive maximum comic effect out of film editing. That said, one must also acknowledge that the selection of essays from the original French anthology could have been better or at least arranged in a more streamlined fashion. Since Bazin’s canvas of references is huge, spanning several centuries and fields, it is difficult for me to assess the exact outcome of this reading experience. At the end of it, one feels like having read more about other arts than cinema. It is as if Bazin is pruning down all that is not cinema, but usually associated with it, to bring to surface the real meaning and power of the most popular medium – exhausting what is not cinema to derive what is cinema.

 

Verdict:

P.S: You can read some part of the book here

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