October 21, 2009

The Most Powerful Art Form

The phenomenon of cinema can be studied in three ways: economic, aesthetic and political. The economic aspect of movies is indeed important, but with respect to the economics of the world, it is hardly significant. The aesthetic aspect of cinema concerns with its study as a form of human expression. But it is the politics of films – the way it relates to the world, is something that makes it the most powerful form of art. While the socio-politics of film describes how it reflects and is integrated with human experience in general, the psycho-politics explains how we personally and specifically relate to it. So, in order to study the ‘impact’ of films, we need to study its political nature, which can be done on three levels: the Inherent nature of films, the Mimetic nature of films and the Ontological nature of films (Ontology= the metaphysics of the nature of being).

  • Inherently, its intense communicative nature makes it strongly political. It is a widely popular phenomenon. It represents reality more powerfully and convincingly than any other art form. In fact, the ‘dream function’ of the film is a major reason behind its success and acceptance. Film is plural, rather than unique, that is, it is infinitely reproducible. It is available at regular basis to a large number of people and unlike other traditional arts, it meets the observers on their home grounds. It has also enabled the observer to participate directly in the logic of the film. In fact, this art form has exceeded from being a relation between the artist and the art. It has involved the observer as well, and the relationship between the artist, the art and an active observer is the power of cinema.
  • Mimetic: There is this traditional film debate on Realism versus Expressionism on how to use the medium. Realism celebrates the raw material of films: the realistic plot, characters and issues. Expressionism gives more power into the hands of the filmmaker. It allows them to re-create or modify reality. While the earliest films of Shyam Benegal easily qualifies as an expression of realism, the films of V. Shantaram is the finest example of good quality expressionist film making in India. Whichever be the case, film either reflects or re-creates reality and does it so well that has indeed developed into an essay in which we can work out the patterns of a new and better social structure.
  • Ontological: Film tends to deconstruct the traditional values of culture. While on the one hand, its depiction of sex and violence does disturb the moral norms of the society, its ruthless exposure of the ills of the society is definitely a desirable virtue. Films have historically mirrored the cultural and moral values of our culture and, to a lesser extent but definitely, have helped in modifying them. Cinema today is not only an illustration to sociology, it is an important tool of sociological change.
However, two strong limitations have definitely lowered the possibility of impact of films. One, its production: the huge costs involved do not allow everyone to use this as a medium of expression. It is indeed the costliest art form. Secondly, the channels of distribution are limited. Even if I make a 2-hour film of mine, how do I make people watch it? Another challenge is what cinema faces from television. The phenomenon of TV has appeared to be more powerful than cinema. But, and I invite criticism in this regard, TV is hardly art. Like the radio, it is a medium of communication. It is a tool that broadcasts art forms like music, dance and fiction.

One important point here would be to study the Celebrity phenomenon. Traditional heroes were either fictitious or real. Films fused the two types: real people became fictional characters. In fact, the earliest of Hollywood producers insisted that the actors work in anonymity. Obviously, it was not to happen. And the complex relationship between stars and the public has been a prime element of the mythic and political nature of film ever since. Amitabh Bachchan was not popular for being AB, nor for being Vijay, but for being the Angry Young Man. Of course, later, as he successfully played romantic and comic roles, he became Amitabh Bachchan. Although it seems ridiculous, but it is a fact that the only ‘characters’, apart from the numerous Hindu Gods who are worshipped in a movie-crazy society like ours is (apart from a couple of cricketers) the film stars (the first name that comes to mind here is Rajnikanth). You can dismiss this fact if you wish, but sociologically speaking, it is an extremely valid point. And the interesting observation here is, people do not worship the real man behind Rajnikanth. Neither do they worship the individual characters he plays. It is the fusion of the real and the fictitious that people are crazy about.
It seems appropriate to mention that the basis of cinema is indeed an illusion. What we see on screen is a series of stills that give us the perception of ‘motion picture’. The process is extremely painstaking and clinical and even ‘boring’ for the common man. But what cinema has done is to achieve an amazing confluence of the best of all art forms: fiction, theater, dance, music, architecture and fine arts, not to mention costume design and jewelry design as well, and has emerged as so strong a force that has the ability to move hundreds of people at a time, deeply affecting their emotions, thoughts, belief and value-system. Cinema is an illusion, and what a grand illusion it is!

The article is a part of my personal notes from the study of James Monaco’s brilliant book How To Read A Film.

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