April 22, 2010

Also a Cinematic Enigma

He is called the Father of the Nation. And my own father hates him! As a child, I was always confused. In high school, I asked the opinion of a professor I admired a lot – an expert in Political Science and Sociology – what does he think about Gandhi. His answer heightened my interest in the man, and has stayed with me. My professor said: “Why are you interested in my opinion? Go and read him, about him. Find for yourself what Gandhi is.” This wonderful reply by him initiated a process, one that continues.

The enigma called Gandhi has expectedly manifested itself in its various cinematic versions as well. To begin with, the first film to be made on the most famous Indian was, ironically, by a British. Interestingly, Richard Attenborough struggled for two decades to make that film. Most Indian filmmakers, I believe, would have given up. Gandhi was the most befitting tribute to the Mahatma. I can watch that movie any number of times.

Shyam Benegal’s Making of the Mahatma and Feroz A. Khan’s Gandhi-My Father went beyond the iconic image and explored more human, flawed side of the legend. I have seen the former only in parts. But Gandhi-My Father, in my opinion is a truly international, well-made film. Both these films fared extremely poorly at the Indian box-office. I also loved the way Gandhi was interwoven in the plot of Deepa Mehta’s Academy Award nominated Water, and the climax was a master-stroke. I have this strong feeling that hating Gandhi might be in fashion among Indians, but the international audience is still hugely fascinated by him. In Fight Club, when the protagonist and his partner are talking about which historic figure they would love to fight, Gandhi’s name works very well, approved by the characters in the scene and also by the audience in us. I believe, Lage Raho Munnabhai had a better chance at the Oscars than that year’s official entry – Rang De Basanti, although the latter, in my opinion, was a more powerful and path-breaking film.

This opinion of mine was strengthened today as I watched Road To Sangam – a film that merges fact and fiction and uses Gandhi more as a powerful idea than a plot element. Though with an honest intention, and a brave film to make, Road To Sangam works only in parts. It feels stretched, takes too long to set the premise and the conflict. And the shot taking and editing is amateurish. The film is saved by the realistic performances by Paresh Rawal and an underused Om Puri. Otherwise, all other performers, including the normally impressive Pawan Malhotra, fail to convince you. I must add however that the last half an hour of the film is truly affecting, but it has more to do with the idea than the execution. I must applaud the makers for deciding to make this film, rather than the work they finally put in. And I must recommend the film to you. What amazes me is the kind of recognition it received at international film festivals. Seems, lack of aesthetic quality is compensated by its idea, and it works for the foreign audience as long as it carries the tag called Mahatma Gandhi. Sadly, modern Indian popular culture has never been interested. My grandma says, about the evening when Gandhi was shot dead – even in a remote village in Bihar, no one had had their meals that night. Seems hard to believe. Almost everything associated by that man is.

April 19, 2010

Syntax of Film Language: How to Say What I Mean to Say

Film modifies space and time to tell a story. We switch from one location to other, and move along different time frames. Even within one scene, the camera keeps modifying our perception of space – from close to wide to reverse and so on, unlike theatre. And the edit pattern ‘cuts’ time, affecting our perception of it. There are various aspects of filmmaking that ensure this.

MISE EN SCENE: Literally, it means ‘putting in the scene’. You will find, in various French films, the director’s credit uses this term – ‘Mise en scene: Francois Truffaut’, instead of ‘Un film de Francois Truffaut’. Many critics use this term when they discuss cinema. In short, it just involves the decision of ‘how to shoot’. Well, ‘just’ is an understatement. ‘How to shoot’ is the difference between a great and an ordinary filmmaker. It involves, basically the following:
a. The Framed Image: How to use the scope and the limitations of the frame? How to compose it: the position, proximity and proportion of the subject? How to use light and shadow? Colour and Texture?
b. The Diachronic Shot: A shot that changes in its state across time. How to use the focus? The movement of the camera, and/or the movement of the subject during the shot? Change in the angle of the camera: panning, tilting or rolling? Zooming in or out?

Conveying what you want through mise en scene is always a greater achievement than doing the same through editing. I will give you an example. In Omkara (2006), there is this scene early into the film when Dolly acknowledges her love for Omkara before her father. A shot shows the dejected dad going away from her, as she stands close to the camera, with her back towards us. Here, we expect a cut to a reverse close shot of Dolly’s face – her reaction. But instead of that, the director makes her turn to her side, and we get the desired reaction in the same shot (by choreographing the movement of the actor) without resorting to a mechanical ‘cut’.

MONTAGE: Literally, it means ‘putting together’. It involves the question of ‘how to present’ what has been shot. Montage and Editing mean the same, except the latter apparently means ‘cutting out’ rather than ‘putting together’. American cinema uses the word ‘editing’ – traditionally being an organized industry that relies on set-patterns of ‘cutting’ to tell a story. European cinema uses ‘montage’ – essentially ‘putting together’ to create something from the raw footage. This is a philosophical distinction. As far as the craft is concerned, montage or editing do the same – modify time for presenting the story.

PUNCTUATION OF CINEMA: You must have noticed the fade outs or black screens that separate one scene from the other. Dissolve is used to imply time lapse. Tarantino uses intertitles: text on the screen, between distinct segments of the film. Freezing a frame is another celebrated punctuation.

SOUND: The omnipresence of sound in cinema is a distinct advantage. It is so pervasive that we tend to discount it and the intricacies of sound manipulation, or design, are tend to be ignored. But this pervasiveness of sound is what helps in realizing space and time.

Noted film semiologist Christian Metz says: “A film is difficult to explain because it is easy to understand.” Going into the details of the syntax of film hardly seems fruitful. But it is in these painstaking details that lies the magic of the illusion called cinema.

(The post is a part of my notes from James Monaco’s brilliant book 'How to Read a Film'.)

April 18, 2010

Getting Cinemate: The Three-Act Paradigm (Illustration)

Let us discuss the three-act paradigm with the example of Larry and Andy Wachowski’s The Matrix (1999). The plot can be outlined as: “A computer hacker learns about the true nature of his reality, and that life on Earth may be just an elaborate facade created by a malevolent cyber-intelligence - the Matrix, for placating us while our life essence is "farmed" to fuel its campaign of domination in the "real" world. He joins a group of rebels in their struggle to overthrow the Matrix.” (courtesy IMDB)

The Principal Characters and their respective Dramatic Needs are:

  • Neo, the Protagonist: To find out what is ‘wrong’ with him.
  • Morpheus: To find and train ‘the One’.
  • Trinity: To help Morpheus; also she is personally interested in Neo.
  • Agent Smith, the Antagonist: To prevent Neo, Morpheus and Trinity in achieving their dramatic needs.

Act I (page 1 to 29): Setting up of the dramatic premise and introduction of the main characters, esp. the strange and mysterious world of Neo. We do not understand too many things at this stage, but are constantly hooked to this thrilling cat-and-mouse game. The last part of this Act is Neo’s first meeting with Morpheus. Neo takes the red pill and decides to join Morpheus. This event is clearly the Plot Point I – leading the story into the next act.

Act II (page 29 to 92): This Act poses obstacles in the dramatic journey of our protagonist. Neo would not realize himself too easily- there are battles, within and without to be fought. This Act can be divided into two halves.

  • Part I: Neo is informed and trained. This part also includes the Sentinal attack on the ship, revelation to Neo about the earlier failures of Morpheus in finding the One, and Neo’s regret on his decision to join them. Neo is full of self-doubt and the Oracle does not help him much either. She says – if he does not believe, he definitely is not the One.
  • Part II: The Agents attack. Morpheus is caught in his attempt to save Neo. Neo decides to go back to save Morpheus – another active decision by Neo, the Plot Point II.

Act III (page 92 to 120): Neo and Trinity manage to save Morpheus, but Neo is trapped. An elaborate fight sequence follows. Finally, when Smith has almost killed him, Neo ‘realizes’ and returns back successfully.

The entire screenplay is Neo’s journey. His need to know what is wrong with him begins the journey, Morpheus’ need to find the ‘One’ propels it and Trinity’s love culminates it. Neo begins as a passive, confused, reluctant protagonist, but both Plot Points and the End are made possible only by his active action – eventually making him the all-powerful. By the end, Trinity and Morpheus, who once looked stronger than Neo, are limited to play supporting roles. Agent Smith fails in his attempts. The film ends with Neo’s declaration that he has ‘decided to make a few changes’ and then he ‘flies faster than a speeding bullet.

It is indeed amazing that a film that is so visual and technically advanced has, at its core, a story well-written – words on paper, following the classical paradigm of storytelling, with the Acts and Plot Points at mathematically exact positions. Cinema, definitely, is as much a craft, as an art.

April 14, 2010

Getting Cinemate #11: The Three-Act Paradigm

The classical storytelling in cinema involves three distinct acts. All linear screenplays, more or less, knowingly or unknowingly, have this structure, which I would share briefly.

Act I or The Setup is the first quarter of the screenplay. The main characters are introduced, the dramatic premise is established and the main dramatic need of the protagonist is communicated - what he/she wants to win or achieve during the course of the film. All good scripts have an extremely tight and engaging Act I.

Act II or The Confrontation is the second and the third quarters of the screenplay. During this part, the protagonist confronts obstacles in the pursuit of his/her dramatic need. The attempt to overcome these obstacles creates conflicts that are essential for any good story. It is generally the most difficult part to write.

Act III or The Resolution is the last quarter of the screenplay. The story need not end, but must resolve itself, reach “the solution”. The protagonist succeeds (or fails) in achieving his/her dramatic need.

Both the acts – I and II, end with a Plot Point – a scene or an event that spins the story around into another direction, leading into the next act. Apart from the end and the beginning, these two Plot Points are the most important events in the film. Act II, the longest part of the film, can be divided into two parts, separated by the Mid Point.

It must be noted that Hindi cinema, due to its unique concept of Intermission, does not adhere to this structure. We tend to write our films in two halves, rather than acts, and for us the Interval Point is more important an event than the Plot Points mentioned above. And this, I believe, is a main reason why most of our screenplays are inconsistent and flawed. The Three Act structure discussed above is not an invention of cinema – just an adaptation of the classical storytelling pattern evolved by man. Adhering to it is not always desirable and all innovations like Memento, Pulp Fiction, 21 Grams, Amores Perros etc. have successfully managed to break the convention. But mostly, it is a pattern safe enough to result into a gripping narrative and powerful cinema.

I would illustrate this paradigm in the next post with an example.