Sunday, February 19, 2012

Notes from a Workshop on Film Criticism

Being alone in Maximum City gives you sometimes the time to indulge in passions that you may not do so otherwise. Last weekend, I found myself enrolled in a 2 day Workshop on Film Criticism, conducted by popular literary and film blogger Jai Arjun Singh, organized as part of the annual Kala Ghoda Art Festival. So, I have attempted to jot down a few of the ideas that we academically debated (yes, cinema and academics!). Some of the thoughts have just been left hanging without taking them into any conclusion...

What is the role of a film reviewer? If you think that people are going to watch or atleast judge movies simply based on what you write, you are taking a trip down the ego lane. There are hundreds of opinions floating around in social networks, even before you have got down to the basic task of watching the movie. Beyond the courtesy of providing a plot summary and casting arbitrary iron clad judgments on the movie, the reader needs to be offered something more substantial. What you experience, at a normal and subliminal level, in those few hours when you see the movie and decide to put it on paper is a valued perspective that can be communicated by you and you alone.

There is no absolute movie review – the same movie that cast a spell on you earlier may leave you embarrassed when seen a few years later. Many movies fare poorly in theatres but become classics later on through the DVD circuit like The Shawshank Redemption and Hotel Rwanda while many others lose their sheen over a period of time (American Beauty?). An experiment like Psycho was largely ignored by critics initially but became a cult-movie primarily because of the positive buzz it generated among the New Wave French Directors of the 60s. Expecting reviewers to know all is a fallacy; the system of star ratings is primarily for customer consumption and cannot be an indicator of the artistic merits of a movie.

Reviews will always be subjective but at the end of the day, good writing is fundamental to it. When a motion picture shakes the fluids in your cerebrum, can you capture that zigzag movement of the brain cells and translate that into words that people can relate to or better still, visualize? Does a particular shot remind you or tell you of something that you’d want to communicate with the reader? On many an occasion, you want the movie to tell you what you wish to hear instead of trying to interpret what the director wants to tell us (sub-textual interpretation as Jai put it), forgetting that you are not its creator.

But it goes beyond the choice of right words; it requires the ability to empathize with the subject. When a reviewer of Khalid Mohammad’s stature goes berserk and vitriolic in his review - actually tirade -  against Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking, it defeats the very purpose of the exercise. His review talks so little about the movie and is extremely caustic and vindictive about the film maker, with no apparent interest in the movie. It’s just so easy to trash a movie, ridicule it and you’d easily find people cheering from the sidelines if you find the right words to tickle the reader’s funny bone.

How many times do you hear reviewers talk blandly about a mediocre script or a poor performance without actually qualifying their comments with any observations? Cinema being an egalitarian medium attracts all kinds of people who want to offer their wisdom for whatever it is worth. Since we rarely discuss cinema on the basis of its craft unless you are a serious drab academician, a lot of the criticism is purely focused on the story and dialogues and very less on the story-telling technique. Is it possible that a certain story can never be made into a good movie? People will tell you that there are just 7-8 basic plots in the world and every story is fabricated from these and if you agree with this cliché, it leaves the auteur very less space to manoeuvre with the plot. However, Shakespeare dramas have been adopted in celluloid by directors as diverse as Kurusawa, Vishal Bharadwaj, Polanski and Jayaraj and each has brought a different sensibility to the same basic story. If a film cannot tell you anything new that its source has already done, then why make the movie at all?

In that context, look at Gus Van Sant’s Psycho which is the closest shot-by-shot remake of the original but it was panned by critics. Roger Ebert writes ‘ demonstrates that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless; genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted.’ Even Van Sant admitted that it was an experiment that proved that no one can really copy a film exactly the same way as the original but his attempt must be seen as a creative rather than a commercial endeavour.

Typical reviews organize a review into basic elements like acting, cinematography, script etc and discuss these as stand-alone threads.  However, they act in unison and need to be understood as the sum total of the impact created rather than as islands of performance. A movie like Urumi with Santosh Sivan at its helm sparkles through his lens but it is so narcissistic that it forgets that it has a story to tell. A more positive example that Jai referred to was George C Scott’s performance in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove; Kubrick and editor Anthony Harvey while picturising scenes on George C. Scott who acts as General Buck, snipped his scenes just before he completed each of his shots making the performance abrupt and creating a more cartoonish character than was intended in the performance. The famous shower murder scene in Psycho was pictured as 70-90 separate shots and stitched together on the editing board to give the scene a gory feel which does not exist when the same scene is seen in slow-motion. Would Scott’s performance or the shower scene have had the same impact without the editor’s scissors at work?

Cinema is essentially a visual medium (pure cinema as Hitchcock called it) and what you see or even sometimes don’t see on the screen plays on the senses of the viewer in a subliminal fashion. Hitchcock uses visual echoes in Psycho (as Jai mentioned) to draw a parallel to the two main characters –similar gestures or scenes playing out at different intervals that evoke a déjà vu. The repeated stabbing of Marion vis-a-vis the movement of the windshields in her car, the camera zooming into Bates’ eyes as he peers into her room and zooming out of her eye as her cold body lies in the shower and similarity of their gestures like their palm movements. It is arguable whether the director ever meant to provide such an interpretation and if there is any significance in this interpretation. Well, art, at a basic level, can be reduced to a mathematical theorem but the beauty of it is not just in the logic but in the aesthetics surrounding it. A film is more than a story told at a superficial level - its ideas are ingrained in the way it is composed. 

Form and content cannot be split and discussed separately – the content is the base template and the form comprises the layers that are put on it to give it a feel that is needed. Take for instance, Christopher Nolan’s Memento whose talking point was the way the entire movie plays backwards. The treatment of the movie leaves the viewer confounded and unsure of what to expect next but this puts him at a similar wavelength with the character who is supposed to suffer from short term memory loss in the film. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the Dogma style, followed by certain auteurs in Denmark, which aimed at purifying film making by refusing expensive and spectacular special effects, post-production modifications and other technical gimmicks and concentrating on the story and the actors' performances. This is in stark contrast to the world of Goddard or Aravindan where the audience is confounded as to what the director means.

Critics are generally kinder towards subjects that tackle real life stories but it is a moot point whether realism is class specific and only consists of cinema that tells stories reeking of poverty and small town crimes. If a Wake Up Sid or Aisha shed a few of its props, would we be kind enough to also refer to it as realistic? Yes, a movie bred in a real location or a real story speaks to viewers easily but a critic should view a film from a prism of its existence and not what he views as logical reality. A Lord of the Rings cannot be dismissed just because it is a science fiction movie and not grounded in our definitions of reality. But then is there even a need to judge a movie based on whether it is realistic or not? If literature is not bound by these invisible norms, why strangle cinema with these chains?

Should a reviewer judge a movie by the merits of the movie alone or consider even the intent of the film maker? The German movie Triumph of the Will (1935) is a Nazi propaganda movie made by Leni Riefenstahl. Her innovative techniques earned the movie immense acclaim but the movie poses a classic question of the contest between art and morality: Is there such a thing as pure art, or does all art make a statement? After viewing the controversial film Kick-Ass which was lauded by several critics, Roger Ebert says - Shall I have feelings, or should I pretend to be cool? When kids in the age range of this movie's home video audience are shooting one another everyday in America, that kind of stops being funny. At a much lower level, the same criticism can also be applied to the Godfather series which unabashedly celebrates the gangster cult (those were my impressions when I saw the movie as a kid). I suppose a reviewer must analyze a movie for its craft but at the same time, make his stand clear on what he thinks of the intent of the movie too - they cannot be divorced from each other.

Finally, before sitting on judgment on others, it is imperative to love cinema. Restricting yourself to a certain type of cinema probably narrows your vision of what constitutes good cinema, assuming that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ movies exist separately as if in the classic definition of Yin and Yang. We have sub-consciously classified cinema that talks about poverty, suffering, conflicts and other ‘larger’ serious issues as good cinema and movies that tickle our funny and action bones and talk about ‘lesser’ emotions like love as poor cousins who receive our love but not respect. I have never got around to this philosophy of watching all kinds of movies and been partial to a certain genre, unlike another friend and fellow blogger who is game for all brands of cinema. The first step to appreciate the world of cinema possibly is to be open about it -From Fellini to Ray to Manmohan Desai to Sathyan Anthikad!