Sunday, 6 May 2012

Demystifying Aantlami: or, How I Learnt To Get Over Limiting Reservations and Love Cinema

For those not familiar with the second word in the title, a brief explanation. Aantlami is derived from aantel: a Jadavpur University catchword that is popular throughout Bengal (and wherever else Bengalis live). Its etymological root is a corruption of the French way of pronouncing "intellectual". Usage varies from knee-jerk putdown to friendly jab, but in all shades of meaning it spells pseudo-intellectual(-ism).


The present post is to debunk some myths about "art cinema" - which is supposedly the only sort of films I watch, or so my friends believe. The boundaries of "art film" are very broad and accommodating. Anything outside recent mainstream American, British and Indian cinemas falls in that huge set.

The problem with this classification is that a significant part of the films considered so were made in Hollywood or British studios with big budgets and bankable stars, and made sufficient profits back in the day (except perhaps a few Poverty Row classics like Detour). Yet the fact that they're sometimes in black-and-white (colour films were already in vogue by the 1950s) and not contemporary to us drives people away. So here's mental roadblock #1: black-and-white. We'll come to the demystification part later. For now, let us enumerate the problems.

The second big chunk in that very accommodating box called "art cinema" is foreign language films. The funny thing about this tag is that it represents the POV of an Anglophone audience. To them, even a mainstream Bollywood film would be foreign language (assuming it is not in English). And yet we have inherited both their broad definition as well as their prejudices. So here is mental roadblock #2.

The third chunk is possibly the most ignored form even amongst reasonably serious film-viewers - documentary film. The funny thing about viewing attitudes regarding documentaries is that most of us have grown up watching TV documentaries on Discovery, Nat Geo and suchlike. And while their usefulness as learning tools for children cannot be denied, the formal and thematic stagnation and sensationalistic tone (specifically when dealing with history) virtually render them no more than passable infotainment. Mental roadblock #3.

If you consider the vast amount of cinema made throughout the world, the viewing window that remains open because of these reservations and roadblocks is so narrow it merits thinking. The average guy who says he loves watching movies has therefore kept his mind open to only about 5-10% (and that's an optimistic estimate) of the choices he has. And yet he would bravely venture to say that The Godfather or The Shawshank Redemption or The Dark Knight is the greatest film in the world. Isn't that funny?

The principal problem with these reservations is the refusal to consider cinema as a separate language. For most film-goers, even some of the serious ones, a film is meaningless if it does not tell a story. More pointedly, if it does not tell a story in the way they are used to hearing. This explains the inability to look beyond plots, simple join-the-dots sort-of explanations, answers and "messages". This also explains the outrage when some critic gives away spoilers to make comprehensive analyses.

So here is a broadly counter-balancing rule #1: cinema is not all about stories, least of all easily understandable ones, though there are several good films that tell them the straight way. If you can't have cinema any other way, Classical Hollywood and its bastard offspring, the New American Cinema (of which The Godfather is only the most famous example), should meet your expectations. Along with Italian neo-realism and its spiritual successor, New Iranian Cinema - if you're not averse to watching subtitled films. But try to look beyond just that.

One of the greatest losses in moviemaking craft is that new studio directors have largely forgotten or given up long and medium-long shots. Even the most workmanlike director of old Hollywood knew how to block a scene (i.e. direct actors on how to move with respect to the camera) in an interior space. New directors simply have the actors followed around with a Steadicam. The difference between the old and new ways is the amount of trust the filmmaker puts in the audience. Whereas a Hollywood director trusted the audience to look for the relevant detail in an intricately composed frame till about the '70s, one just assumes that today's moviegoers have such short attention-spans that they have to be fed everything the fast food way (for all my lukewarm love for Darren Aronofsky, one of the better studio directors in Hollywood today, his strategy is all close-ups). This assumption about a deteriorating audience might be true to an extent, but the larger part of the blame falls on the studios and filmmakers themselves - as Jonathan Rosenbaum has convincingly argued in Movie Wars. To put it in another way, YOU WOULD NOT WANT TO READ A BOOK WHERE EVERY LINE IS IN UPPER CAPS, BOLD AND UNDERLINED BUT YOU WATCH FILMS MADE WITH THE SAME AMOUNT OF TRUST IN THE AUDIENCE'S ABILITIES (on second thoughts, even one where this strategy is employed intermittently).

The same with editing - preliminary calculations show how average shot length has reduced to something around 2 to 5 seconds now. What possibly started as an amalgamation of Soviet montage and New Wave jump cuts into traditional continuity cutting has degenerated badly into spoon-feeding. To take an example, the old way of highlighting, say, 5 things within the same physical space would be to set up a camera and within the frame (which may be altered by panning, zooming, tracking etc.) achieve an interplay between the elements: say, one of the things to be highlighted moves suddenly in an otherwise still background. The new way to do it is just taking a close-up and cutting to the next thing to be shot. Less confidence in the viewer, in other words.

On to some of the mental reservations. #1: Black-and-white. This one I find hard to understand, given the reasonable popularity of hi-definition monochrome still photography. Several of my friends dabbling in amateur photography love black-and-white stills; yet it seldom translates into love for black-and-white films. To be completely frank, I have counter-reservations about the use of colour in mainstream films. Many directors and cinematographers have no idea how to use colour judiciously so you have movies colour-coded by genre. Laziness in thought, laziness in action. At the very least, monochrome saves us from this monotony of colour. A decently lit b&w frame does not hurt the eyes and something from John Alton makes your jaw drop.

#2: Foreign languages and subtitles. Hostility towards foreign language films is also quite baffling to me. I can think of a few reasons why one might not want to see them:
  • The sound of a foreign language is distracting/funny. This is not so uncommon though I would assume most educated people to not burst into fits of laughter hearing strings of unintelligible syllables. The only psychological reason I can assume is insularity regarding one's own origins and language. Anything outre is funny for no good reason.
  • The problem with subtitles. This is a somewhat serious problem since many have earnestly complained that they find it difficult to follow the visuals while their eyeballs keep darting to the bottom of the screen to read the dialogue. Takes some practice. Once you achieve the ability to move your focus quickly all around the screen in fractions of a second, it does not impede the enjoyment of seeing the film too much. Again, longer camera takes help - so look out for directors who make films that way. I'd hate to see a frenetically-paced rapidly-cut thriller while trying to understand which direction the narrative is heading to.
  • Are their concerns really valid to us? Yes they are. Maybe not in the immediate sense. Settings may be regional and local, but human issues (social, cultural, political) are always universal. In fact, as some have noted, the more rooted in local details a film is, the more universal its reach.
  • Will we get their cultural references? This is, by far, the most serious of the reservations. Even the most serious of film-viewers have at some time or the other been confused about their opinions of a "difficult" foreign film. So I will admit at once that some of the imagery in Bunuel is lost on me since I am not familiar with Catholic theology. Or that the Persian poets Kiarostami often quotes are to me somewhat impenetrable. Yet no one but the impatient can escape the wicked sense of humour that permeates everything Bunuel did - if you have protested against authority, conformity and organised religion at some point of your life, your greatest spokesman in cinema is probably this guy. And if you have a palate for the gentle humour and deep profundity that underlies our everyday existence, you cannot ignore Kiarostami.

Which brings me to the major stereotype - preconception, rather - which stops people from exploring cinema more freely. The complaint that "art films" are slow, ponderous, hard to watch. As the preceding points explain, not every "art film" qualifies. Classical Hollywood and New American Cinema are largely well-paced and narrative-driven. A recent conversation with a friend who has seen a few Hitchcock thrillers throws light on what I mean by well-paced. I'm recalling a part of it:
Friend: I liked Rear Window, though it started slowly for me.
Me: No way, I can agree if you say, for example, that Vertigo starts a bit slowly. But Rear Window is captivating from scene one.
The only reason why his notions of instantly arresting material differs from mine is that he possibly has Hitchcock's popular conception as a master of thrills in mind and is therefore expecting something major to happen in the first few minutes itself. (North By Northwest would probably satisfy him.) In Rear Window, the murder (SPOILER!) happens late into the film and is moreover implicit. But does nothing of interest happen at all? Only if we're looking for an instant thrill and not enjoying the little pleasures. Hitchcock is gently inviting us to be voyeurs - looking into the lives of Jimmy Stewart's neighbours even before Jimmy himself starts doing so. We get an idea of what his neigbourhood is like and develop an interest in what might happen to each of these neighbours as the film progresses. We're also wondering which of these individual stories will later get involved with the story of our protagonist - wheelchair and plaster-cast bound Jimmy. It is the classic ploy of raising questions (in the viewer's mind) and gradually resolving them. But if our only investment is in murder and intrigue, we'll miss it. And Rear Window will seem "slow".

Of course, there are films where the pace is slow - i.e. something eventful rarely happens. Antonioni is a typical example, though in his case, he has full justification for doing so - most of his characters are upper-class high-society types with unfulfilled emotional and/or intellectual lives. I will easily admit that I take time to warm up to Antonioni, reasonably seasoned cinephile that I am. Nonetheless, in some cases, I realise (on repeat viewings) that even difficult directors of this sort have a sense of humour - Blowup is pretty much a laugh on the face of the disinterested viewer who finds the film boring. It has also to be understood that a lot of modern arthouse directors (the genuinely "art film" directors, in my definition) employ extraordinarily long takes, sparse soundtracks and visual designs (Tsai Ming-Liang, Bela Tarr, etc.) as a reaction to the oversaturation - all hyper-intensive close-ups and rapid cuts - that the mainstream cinema forces on us. Their films may be something of an acquired taste but the others are quite easily accessible. Nonetheless, I believe in Bresson's dictum that it is more preferable that a viewer feels a film first and understands it later, if at all. It is only the most facile director who assumes that the world is no enigma, that every question has easily digestible answers. Patience helps.


Lastly, why cinema? Tough question, one I can't objectively answer. I'm guessing, if you have actually read uptil this point, you already have your own answer, right?


A junior had asked me to write something long time back. I'd written a draft of this down some three months before. Never had the nerve to publish then because it is preachy and explicatory to a degree. Re-read it today and found that there were useful things in there. So putting it out. Whatever you have to say is welcome. 

P.S.: The target readership is someone who's interested in knowing cinema, but unsure about the hows and whys.