Essay: The Dangers of Narrative Cinema

Narrative_Arc

Blogging is today a list-maker’s delight. All blogging advice implores us to write for the scanner, for the people with short attention spans, for those who scroll rather than read. But there are some things that a list or a summary won’t achieve that an essay can. In this piece, Ritam Bhaumik speaks of this very ephemeral nature of art, with respect to Narrative Cinema.


Imagine a scene where a man walks into a kitchen with a cigarette in his hand, picks up an empty matchbox and shakes it, goes through the cupboards, finds a lighter and goes out of the kitchen with the lighter.

Now, if you see this happening in front of you, of course, you will experience the scores of different shades this apparently simple scene has: every detail (visual or otherwise) his senses catch and the corresponding reactions they evoke in his intellect and his emotions; every detail his senses fail to catch but might have; every thought that might randomly have sprung to his mind in that interval but did not; all that added to your own thoughts at the moment and all the details your own senses catch – all these make this simple scene a profound multi-layered experience.

If you see this happening in a movie, however, your entire experience can probably be boiled down to the one-line summary: “A man needs to light a cigarette, so he goes to a kitchen and finds a lighter.” The man is reduced simply to the word ‘man’; the kitchen to the word ‘kitchen’. Note that when you read this sentence in a book, you conjure up the image of a man and a kitchen, and let your imagination fill in all the details of the scene. In the movie, you do the exact opposite: you summarize a scene rich in all kinds of visual details into one short sentence.

But this is not the reduction I’m talking about.

The real danger shows up when this scene is part of a larger narrative. Because even if we merely think of a man coming into the kitchen to light his cigarette, it still has many narrative dimensions. It’s not a scene that you watch separately for ten seconds and are left without questions. Why did he need a smoke now? Why did he come to the kitchen to find some matches? Did his own box run out? Is he not a regular smoker at all? Is it even his own cigarette? Why does he not light it in the kitchen itself and replace the lighter? Does he intend to keep the lighter with him? Were others looking for a lighter as well? Notice how the man stripped bare of everything save his explicit purpose still gives rise to all these possibilities. When we watch this scene as part of a larger narrative, however, it is reduced even further: it becomes a narrative peg that fits nicely into a gap precisely carved out for it in the bigger narrative.

Take a moment to let that sink in: our original scene, so intricately detailed and so rich in possibilities, is now a mere brick in the entire narrative facade. You think about the scene for its precise duration, and even then you are not so much as thinking about the scene itself as mentally figuring out how it should fit into the puzzle. All that effort one puts into shooting a scene, all the carefully conceived and constructed visual layers, adds up to the experience of figuring out how a man looking for a lighter fits into the story. If the scene is shot lousily, it would have the exact same impact on the viewer, except that masterful directing makes those ten seconds of figuring out more pleasant for the viewer. The director’s craft here has in essence reduced to that of a man who takes a piece of writing and puts it in a smart font and a colour scheme that’s soothing to the eye.

Ow, I hear you say. That must upset the poor directors no end. Sadly enough, I must hasten to correct you. Most directors, for some reason, love just that. In fact, in the industry, it is one of the holy grails of directing. Smooth direction, they call it, implying direction that never makes you, the viewer, aware that there is some direction going on at all. That is what the directors out there strive to do – stay out of the viewer’s sight; not get in the way of the viewer enjoying the script; pretend that they do not figure at all in the movie.

I do not intend to belittle the craft of these men. I continue to be astonished at the level of smoothness that has been achieved by the craftiest directors over the ages. And I won’t deny either that I count myself among the viewers who love the shallow experience of watching a perfectly narrated film, where the story can be figured out and enjoyed very clearly, and it’s all very pleasing to the senses. And we must keep in mind that this is a more difficult and complicated craft to master than that of the font-setter, where the sheer number of little components the director has to have under his control is overwhelming.  However, at the end of the day, this kind of direction still remains a craft, and not an art.

It comes down to a simple thumb-rule for me: if the experience delivered by a work is so shallow that you can describe it completely in words, then it does not qualify as art. Art is about affecting you profoundly, in ways you cannot explain. If you watch a film once and get it entirely, it’s not art. In fact, if it’s something that you can ‘get’ at all, it’s not art. Art is not something you get, or even look to get. When da Vinci painted Mona Lisa, he wasn’t painting a smiling woman; he was creating that particular piece of art. When you stare at the Mona Lisa, you don’t expect to say after a point, ‘Ah, I get it!’, and move on to other (presumably yet undeciphered) paintings. When you listen to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony over and over again, it’s hardly because you did not ‘get’ it the first time.  The more you stare at Mona Lisa, the more you listen to Beethoven’s Fifth, the more you tend to get lost in them. They stir you, disturb you, unsettle you, make you see yourself in a new light. You can devote a lifetime to them, and yet never get them, for you were never meant to, in the first place.

Art, thankfully, is not a puzzle.

Cinema to me is an incredibly powerful medium, rich with possibilities. When I hold up a film for you, the viewer, I’m launching at you a string of frames coupled with a soundtrack that jointly attacks your eyes and your ears. My visuals and my sounds are meant to hit you directly, instead of being redirected to an analytical part of your brain, where they’re shred through for narrative meaning. Doesn’t that sound a bit like poetry being intercepted by military officials? I should not want you to ‘get’ my cinema; I should simply want my cinema to get you instead. You should stare and listen, and listen and stare some more, and then play the film over and over again, and drown deeper and deeper in it each time. That is how cinematic experience is supposed to be. That is how vast the scope of this medium is. To use all that for mere storytelling is like having a piano at your disposal and using it as an awkwardly-shaped dining table. This use, too, can be perfected perhaps, but do we want to limit ourselves to that?

That more or less is my defence for cinema that breaks away from narrative tradition. If I have been over-reliant on analogies, it is probably because I’m quite keen on driving in my points. I do not imply at all that breaking away from narrative traditions automatically makes cinema art. All I can say is that when I stop concentrating on the storytelling aspects, I start exploring the vistas offered by this medium.  That is perhaps where the art of cinema sets off on its path of evolution.

Image Courtesy: Biz Storyteller

Comments

  1. Wow, that was quite a write up, very nicely summarizing the job of the director and how he translates the written word on to the celluloid. As Ritam states, good and memorable cinema is that which has an immediate impact on you when you see it for the first time without necessarily having to experience it again to critically dissect it. Good cinema has instant impact, and that is something that only the masters of the craft can achieve.

    Lovely guest post 😀

    Like

  2. Impacting post.Good Wishes Ritam.

    Like

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