A Quintessential Book for Cinephiles
[The below essay analyzing the book ‘Director’s Cut‘ was written and published in Tamil on the monthly magazine ‘Padachurul’. Padachurul — translates to ‘Film Reel’ — continues to make a dedicated effort to spread the significance and splendor of cinematic art among Tamil cinephiles.
This essay was translated to English by Arun Kumar S]
Understanding the films and analyzing them is a gradually attainable quality for a movie-lover. Apprehending or interpreting on a work of art is based upon our own involvement in undertaking a journey with the on-screen characters. It is vital to watch quintessential works of cinema to evolve our experience of cinematic art. But, apart from viewing great movies, it’s also important to read enriching cognitive film analysis to develop our interpretive qualities. This is where acclaimed movie critics & film scholars’ role becomes an essential part. The part played by critics and scholars in identifying the quality cinema or in postulating the need for quality cinema was as or more important than the role of general theater-going audiences.
Thanks to the glorious technological advancement, cinema, unlike in the other eras of our historical timeline, has become a consumable product that transcends language and other figurative boundaries. In such a situation, a critic’s task is to identify what is a good cinema, citing out the reasons for why it should be celebrated, and most importantly he/she should outline how an uninitiated viewer should approach a particular work of art. In my vast reading experience, reading books about cinema are comparatively lower. However, within my limited reading experience (on or about cinematic art), the one recent book that has endlessly fascinated me is the collection of essays written by film scholar and critic M.K. Raghavendra under the title “Director’s Cut – 50 Major Film-makers of the Modern Era”.
We can approach cinema through different dimensions. Addressing cinema through its themes or genre is the widely known method. Although cinema is a composite art which incorporates the labor of different persons, we perceive a director as its creator. As the book’s title clearly states, it introduces modern cinema’s fifty most influential directors. Each director’s significance in the broader canvas of cinematic art is explained through respective essays. May be, introduction is a much simpler word as the essays sharply dissects the substantial works by profoundly reflecting on each of the directors’ viewpoint or notions. Mr. Raghavendra has selected his favorite film-makers around the world, who had served cinema with their predominant creations by surpassing language boundaries. The author’s selected film-makers mostly don’t hail from the main-stream, although there are few film-makers in the list whose name we generally associate with mass entertainment. Such seemingly main-stream film-makers are considered to be the ones experimenting within the commercial boundaries of cinema.
The author, in his introductory passage [titled ‘Defining the Canon’], vividly explains on what basis he had selected the list of directors for his analysis. ‘Assisting a film buff to get a grasp of the most influential directors and providing useful evaluations of the well-known film directors’ is noted down as the primary goal of this book. Of the total 317 pages, including the ‘index’ and ‘filmography’ potions, the fifty essays take up 285 pages, which mean that at least 5 pages per director. Majority of the film-makers in the list would have already been revered as supreme creators by cinephiles all over the world. In fact, one of the reasons I bought this book is the elation I felt when going through the ‘contents’ part. Some of the film-makers named in the ‘contents’ have created enriching cinema, spanning between three and five decades. So, there was a doubt within me on how just five or six pages is enough to analyze or criticize a film-makers’ creative world? It’s also a question that provided an intriguing doorway, into which we enter with fascination. Each essay has the director’s name as its heading. Moreover, like the rainwater drop that instills the refreshing feeling of an upcoming rain, the headings were bestowed with a fitting sub-headings, which crisply remarks on the selected personalities’ basic viewpoints, found in each of their artistic endeavors (for example, ‘Krzysztof Kieslowski – Simulation of the Profound’). After finishing reading each essay, we can grasp the layered meaning of these sub-headings, which in turn exhibits the author’s profound understanding.
Each essay includes a brief note on the film-maker’s early life and education. The short passage that spans for not more than quarter of a page contains few unknown information that might enable us to understand each director’s inclinations. Mr. Raghavendra notes that the film-makers he has selected are persistently influencing cinema’s development or evolution. In the introductory part, he also comments that in the general movie-reviewing domain, films before 1950s or 60s are repeatedly identified as the pinnacle works of cinema. He says it may be due to the unreflective acceptance or confirmation. For example, the author states that the reason many movie-watchers are placing ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941) at the very top among the list of well-made 50 films in the cinematic history is because of this aforementioned mindset. Moreover, since there are many deep analysis written upon the French New Wave of the late 1950’s and 60’s, the author has decided to detach (from his list) the film-makers who were only prominent during that era. It’s also important to note the absence of documentary film-makers and few popular avant-garde directors in the list.
It is natural for us to raise a question about whether it is wise to approach the cinematic arc by studying the director. A creative work exists because of the creator’s desire to either search for the meaning of life or to pass off his viewpoints on the society or comment on the hidden-politics or to just purport a vision of singular beauty. So, in order to understand a creative work of art, it becomes significant to deeply grasp the creator’s beliefs and humanity. Of the film-makers who make rich, diverse works in different languages, the author has selected five Indian directors. Since Mr. Raghavendra explores the parallel cinema space, it becomes easy to guess, who would be those five directors from India. Among the films made in India, the face of parallel cinema for decades has been the regional cinema of Malayalam (Kerala) and Bengal (West Bengal). Works of Satyajit Ray & Ritwik Ghatak from Bengali cinema and the Malayalam cinema of Adoor Gopalakrishnan & Govindan Aravindan are chosen for analysis. Hindi film industry’s Raj Kapoor is the fifth Indian film-maker in the list. Almost all of the well-known world cinema directors are included and furthermore there are few unknown (at least for me) directorial personalities in the 50-members list. A lot of information about the early works of well-known directors bestows fresh knowledge.
There would be lot of differences in the viewpoints of general audience and a critic’s. Basically, a critic is a definitive lover of cinema who is one among the general audience. However, a critic explores the minute details a film fan ignores, or interprets on the film form to logically argue about the viewpoints. A true creator of art never likes to divulge information on what he has tried to create. Artists always expect their art to speak. This is where a little gap exists between audience and the created work. It means that a viewer must come to a conclusion on what a particular piece of art tries to say. To understand the notions weaved on the screen or to connect (emotionally or intellectually) with the soul of an artistic work, a viewer must sync with the creator’s wavelength. The natural disconnection that remains between a viewer and a creator can be bridged by the views of a definitive, rigorous movie critic/analyst. In the introductory article, Mr. Raghavendra expresses this in a very adorable manner: “To use an analogy, where the creative artist climbs an unknown peak, the critic attempts to locate it and build steps”.
A cinema with the use of simple gimmicks or unnecessary mystification can make general viewers to believe that it is a work of high quality art. Nevertheless, such false assumptions are smashed by a great critic. Every critic is part of general audience with particular prejudices and ideas. But, an audacious effort is made by a film critic to pass through the simple notions of a movie viewer. The language a critic uses is a fine example of that great effort. Take an artistic work and compare how you have approached it and how an eminent movie critic has comprehended it. You can understand my aforementioned point by doing that simple task.
At many junctures in the book, I was able to come across the author’s idiosyncratic views and approaches which totally differ from the general consensus (“While Kurosawa’s storytelling skills deserve the highest accolades his films have sometimes been appreciated for the wrong reasons” states Mr. Raghavendra and follows it up with an interesting evaluation). Some of the ideas he has conveyed upon the creative world of few highly heralded directors has opened new portals or dimensions within my mind to re-watch those works from a different viewpoint. The book presents that among the assortment of themes director deals in his work, there will be at least one pet theme which penetrates through all of makers’ vision. By solely focusing on the filmography, we are able to follow the trajectory of how a director’s creative world originated and understand the resultant transformation.
Popular opinions and standardized viewpoints are cut off to allow a large space for the author’s distinct (entirely new) perception on the creative works. Let’s see few examples. Mr. Raghavendra’s views on Ingmar Bergman, the film-maker whom we celebrate as the one perfectly sculpted & exhibited human psychology on-screen (since Bergman is most favorite film-maker, the first time I read this book I started with the essay on Bergman), is so different. Although the author hasn’t disputed the profound psychological approach to human emotions found in Bergman’s fictional world, he adds that Bergman is merciless to his characters (the sub-heading given to Bergman’s works is ‘Theatre of Cruelty’). Furthermore, Bergman is said to have been only interested in exploring the darker side of human emotions and the author cites the director’s significant characters and their nature to strengthen his viewpoint [“Bergman is considered a religious film-maker but this preoccupation with the flesh suggests that it is not its spiritual possibilities that draw him to religion. His films convey the sense that physiology and psychology are insurmountable obstacles to salvation”]. The author reconstructs his own perception through dissecting the film-maker’s recurrent themes of God, love, sex, and self-conscious nature. Moreover, he adds that German’s ‘Expressionist’ films have a heavy influence in Bergman’s fictions. He goes one step further and notifies that Ingmar Bergman is ‘not merely influenced but seems to actually continue the movement’ (to cite the author’s actual words).
Those who are all interested in learning the film form or visual language will come to appreciate the works of legendary American director Stanley Kubrick. But, once again Mr. Raghavendra’s analysis of Kubrick’s filmography remains totally opposite to the general opinion. The author doesn’t deny the wonder of Mr. Kubrick’s craft, but he identifies the auteur’s ‘unmeditated observation’ as a flaw. He states that even though the perfectly regulated frames (of Kubrick) give some sort of elegance, it sacrifices the natural storytelling qualities, so as to only uphold the beauty of his film form [“taking a position so high above his subjects so as to regard them as biological specimens is problematic”]. The author must have understood the bewilderment a reader would feel on seeing the name of Steven Spielberg in his list. So, the essay starts like this: “Steven Spielberg finds a place in this book not because he is a visionary or an auteur but because he has been the most successful American film-maker of the past few decades……….More importantly, his films are not only ‘entertainment’ but consistently give voice to a principal Hollywood preoccupation: the valorization of the family as the cornerstone of the ‘American way’”. By saying this, the author confirms a presence of ideology in Spielberg’s movies and the lack of it in Lucas and Cameron’s works. While addressing the experimental works (experiments within commercial boundaries) of acclaimed Canadian film-maker David Cronenberg, the author perceives that no other film-maker have vigorously approached ‘body-horror’ unlike Mr. Cronenberg. Mr. Raghavendra’s viewpoint on Danish auteur Lars Von Trier’s works that has women as the central characters is unparalleled, compared to general, critical perception. He states how Von Trier’s only possesses ‘evil’ as the core theme and how the women protagonists in his films are only shown in situations with no respite or protection in sight. He opines that the general nature of people (characters) around Von Trier’s women is to tap onto her flaws and debase her in the vilest ways.
The language Mr. Raghavendra has used in this book is not only acute, but also boasts a lyrical quality at many places. At times, the sentences are bigger and the used words are little complex for a casual English reader. But, I don’t think it isn’t big hindrance for reading & understanding. The employed dense language intends to take the idiosyncratic vision of the film-makers and their cinema to a wider demographic of cinephiles. So, the essays demand essential patience & focus from the movie-loving readers. In fact, the dense sentences help the author to create an efficient prose that speaks a lot within small count of words. I was surprised with the way he confines the whole central theme of a film-maker’s entire work within single, large sentence. Although the five or six pages that’s allocated to discuss each director doesn’t analyze their works to the fullest, the information given intrigues us enough to explore the different brands of cinema.
I also have to indicate the fact that these compacted, highly interpretative sentences define the skill of the author, which could be attained only after years of hard work and repeated viewings. The way he takes a particular cinematic art and minutely dissects & compares its themes and forms with similar works exhibits his profound understanding of entire cinematic canvas. The little details he had shared about directors’ life might have been possible due to the reading done about whole-wide cinema industry. When writing about cinema we usually fail to acknowledge the fact that we can’t ‘write’ everything about a cinema. Cinema is something that must be experienced. We can’t lay out every little details for the readers, who are about to have a subjective experience. The inadequacy of words is what pushes us from the realm of literature into this fantastic realm of cinema. So, we can’t talk all the aspects of a cinema through mere words. However, the genius of a movie critic or analyst can enrich our own experience of a cinema. In “Director’s Cut”, Mr. Raghavendra has exactly done that. The essays on film-makers like Luis Bunuel, Abbas Kiarostami, David Lynch, Krzysztof Kielslowski, Sergei Parajanov, Miklos Jansco, Angelopoulos — who either operated within distinct school of thought or solely based their cinema on complex visual language (relying very less on verbal communication) — conveys how their creative world operated. The essays go much deeper by making us contemplate the magnificence of this colossal art form. The realization that dawns upon us after reading this book would definitely take us further in our quest for watching ‘good cinema’ or it broadens our idea of ‘what makes a good cinema’.
It would be futile to just accept all the statements made by a critic, genius or not. I would definitely oppose few points made by this eminent critic. Nevertheless, the cited flaws or hard-to-digest views Mr. Raghavendra proposes (on some of my most favorite film-makers) are backed up with a seemingly valid argument, which forces us to re-watch the same cinema from a different perspective. I think what makes a work of art, genuine & lively is the thought-provoking, polarizing viewpoints it attracts. Mr. Raghavendra’s essays thrive with liveliness, waiting to positively infect an eager cinephile.
Director’s Cut – 50 Major Film-makers of the Modern Era,
Harper Collins Publishers.