October 30, 2011

Gurudev Uvaacha #2

“To create the Storyteller, you have to bring alive not only the telling, but also the tale—that is, you must give the narrative the integrity of a quirky human mind that sees, weighs, wonders, feels, and supposes while the story unfolds. Do this successfully, and your work will have the humor and intelligence of work with a human character. In the struggle for high-concept plotting, filmmaking’s factory processes often trample the humanity out of their work. Few films have the feeling of a human soul, but when they do, audiences universally respond. It takes a director with a clear, strong identity—one not overwhelmed by the people and the procedures.”

- Michael Rabiger in his wonderful book 'Directing - Film Techniques and Aesthetics'.

October 23, 2011

Mumbai 2011 Epilogue: That Low Feeling

The last evening at MAMI always leaves me sad. This time I also felt guilty, of not being able to watch as many movies as I could. I could watch only 28. The factors were many: some technical problems with the screenings, the need to miss one movie in order to stand in the queue of another, missing the morning shows because of remaining awake all night, among others. But if I could sit through 35 movies during my first MAMI, when I had to travel every day for 3-4 hours and eat bad food, I don’t think any number of excuses can defend my low score.

The good thing, however, is that I am not saturated with movies unlike my first MAMI. And I can start my one movie a day routine soon. Also, I have started working immediately, and it feels as if a new professional year has started.

This time there were so many people I knew at MAMI. The number will only increase every subsequent year. So basically, when MAMI ends, you don’t only miss that madness and the movies, you also miss the company of those people, who for that one week share the biggest passion of your life. And hence the hormonal system of the body makes you feel low. The next day after the last most of us were feeling really bad. We needed something to cheer us up. And then some of my students started thinking of organizing a mini-fest at their place. I won’t be able to join them for that, but have selected the movies and prepared a schedule for them, including the ‘opening’ and ‘closing’ films. I hope they remain inspired and get caught in this vicious cycle of the craving for good cinema. The fest should continue, with or without the hormonal surges.

Mumbai 2011 Day #7: Not Satisfied with Myself

I had high expectations from ‘Restless’, since it is a Gus Van Sant film. It’s always interesting to see him attempt different genres, and this time it was a warm and funny reflection on death. I especially liked the end of the movie.

‘Tomboy’ generated a huge applause from the audience. This is the kind of movie you instantly fall in love with. I also appreciated how an intense and difficult topic like this was treated so interestingly. This film festival was full of films featuring children, and ‘Tomboy’ featured some of the best.

My closing film was ‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’. I found it difficult, but it was obviously good. I mean, I could understand that it has something, but couldn’t determine that something. This and ‘Sleeping Sickness’ will be two movies I would like to watch again and read about in order to appreciate better.

My final score was 28 in seven days. I’m not at all satisfied with myself. And now I can only hope of bettering it the next year.

October 19, 2011

Mumbai 2011 Day #6: Healers and Healing

Out of the three movies that I watched today, three intimately dealt with doctors and the medical profession. Needless to say, terms like 'Transient Ischaemic Attack' and 'Epidural Anaesthesia' do convey something to me despite my lost touch with medicine. So, i don't mind watching cinema featuring healers and healing!

'Best Intentions' (Romania, 2011) was a little demanding to begin with and inspired a major walkout by a good chunk of delegates. But by the time it ended, all of us could relate to the experience - how we react to a situation when a loved one is undergoing hospitalization and treatment, and how everyone around us tries to help with advice. All, doctors and well-wishers, of course have only 'best intentions' in mind!

'Sleeping Sickness' (Germany, 2011) was an extremely difficult film. It won the Best Director award at Berlin film festival this year. Apparently, it talked about a German doctor working in Cameroon for years, but I felt the movie had something more that we couldn't appreciate. At least the final act was baffling beyond words.

'Declaration of War' (France, 2011) was perhaps the most 'commercial' movie I saw during this fest. The story of a couple dealing with the ailment of their baby was treated in a surprisingly funny way, and their spirit was truly inspiring. The treatment of the film however was very 'Bollywoodish' (not in a bad sense). They even had one lip-synced romantic song!

I selected 'Savage' (Sweden, 2011) because of its title. The festival experience is never complete without one movie of brutal violence. And the climax of this movie, a story of four young adults driven by their animal instincts being forced to confirm with the society, did fulfill my desire - a shocking scene of two insane murders gave me the high I was looking for.

As a final note, I must share this beautiful feeling I have during most modern movies from World Cinema. For the first 15-20 minutes, not much sense can be made, but slowly, once you sit through the most difficult and demanding moments, a narrative emerges, organically, and then everything starts making sense. It happens sooner if you realize the 'motive' or the 'worldview' of the director early into the film, and then if you play it from the beginning every scene will make sense. It is this self-assured, purposeful though demanding, nature of these movies that always challenge and fascinate me as a viewer.

Mumbai 2011 Day #5: Magic Continues...

Jahnu Barua's 'Aparoopa' (1982) has become my first Assamese film. Loved it. The Q&A with the director that followed, as my friend said, 'completed the experience'. As he recalled the making of his first film when he was just 26, his enthusiasm was infectious.

The Spanish film 'Even the Rain' (2010) evoked in me the strongest emotional reaction. One of the best 'films on films' you are going to watch.

Poetic and profound, 'Stories Only Exist When Remembered' (2011) was so inspiring for me. The first-time director Julia Murat was present and she answered our questions after the movie. I will always like to remember her as the calm, mature, and down-to-earth person as she is. Wishing her all the best for future - I'll eagerly await her movies.

Lars Von Trier's latest, 'Melancholia' (2011), left me stunned. I wasn't expecting something like that. I feel fortunate to have watched on big-screen this movie that, in the decades to come, will be considered so important!

Just two more days to go.... Already feeling sad. And my score: 21 movies in five days. Not very good...

October 18, 2011

Mumbai 2011 Day #4: Thanks, Cinema!

When you watch several movies in one day, each from different part of the globe, the cultural perspective you gain is incredibly interesting. Without physically travelling, you get to know about people and places and practices that amaze you. This, at least for beginners, can be one of the greatest motivations to explore world cinema.

So a person like me, who has never traveled abroad, watches 'Death is my Profession' (2011, Iran), 'The Mountain' (2011, Norway), or 'The Mirror Never Lies' (2011, Indonesia), three different stories set in different socio-cultural spaces, he can not feel anything but fortunate. Each such experience only enhances our perspective of life and being alive.

So here is my perspective on my 'movie of the day'...

German master Wim Wenders' latest offering 'Pina' is a non-fiction film dedicated to the German dancer-performer Pina Bausch in 3D. Other dancers, who have worked with her or learnt from her, talk about Pina and her passion, and perform in her honour. This film was till date the most eagerly awaited film of the festival and there were people standing in the queue for hours before the late night repeat screening of the movie. Some of them had already watched it a few hours ago and waited for a re-watch. When my show ended, I was dying to watch it all over again...

For me it was not a documentary or a dance-movie, it was perhaps one of the most inspiring experiences of my life. I envied those talking about Pina, her proteges and colleagues, because I never had the fortune to spend any time with someone like her in my life. And I did dare to aspire for a fraction of her passion and hard work. Though I should be the worst dancer alive, the movie affected me on a more general level, at the level of a man's spiritual relationship with his life's passion. Please watch it as soon as you can. Some things might just change within and around you. Amen!

October 17, 2011

Mumbai 2011 Day #3: More About Children...

Sleep deprivation and long days are making it difficult for me to write detailed blog posts about the movies. Plus I also have to evaluate the exam papers of my UC students. So I'd rather be brief here, reporting my 3rd day....

'Toast' (2010): A British drama about the boy who grew to become Nigel Slater, a popular food writer and journalist...

'The Monster's Dinner' (2011): A dark Turkish satire on the present and future of the humankind... (it was great to talk to the director after the film)

'First Time for Everything' (2011): A minimalistic Russian drama about a young boy's bonding with his Dad... (met the child actor later!)

'Yelling to the Sky' (2011): An independent American coming-of-age film about a girl of a white Irish father and a black mother...

13 movies in 3 days... good enough!

P.S. It is interesting to watch so many different movies dealing with the issue of problem child and their coming of age... This is one of the most universal topics for cinema...

Mumbai 2011 Day #2: The High I Could Die For...

On the 2nd day, after watching five amazing movies, I already feel satisfied with this year's festival. Anything more will just be bonus...

'Omar Gatalato' (1977): An Algerian film, unforgettable for its documentary style, and its protagonist who looked straight from a Godard film ... and also for the scene where Mehboob Khan's 'Aan' is being screened - a French dubbed version for the Algerian crowd. But the songs - 'Aaj mere mann mein sakhi' and 'Dil mein chhupa ke pyaar ka' were in Hindi! The protagonist Omar loved Hindi film songs!!!

'Swayamvaram' (1973): Finally I watched my first Adoor Gopalkrishnan film, one more filmmaker apart from Ray and Ghatak who can match the world standards. This film also reminding me of 'Apur Sansar' - aesthetically it was as good as that; plus the story revolved around a newly-wed couple trying to survive in the city life, the hero wanted to be a writer, and the actress at times resembled Sharmila Tagore!

'Generation P' (2011): an in-competition Russian film. I won't be surprised if it wins! It is extremely entertaining, its 'trips' have some incredible surreal imagery, and it very interestingly shares with us the changes in the Russian commercial society after the disintegration of the USSR. One of the must-watch movies of the year!

British master Ken Loach's 'Kes' (1969): perhaps the best film of the festival. Counted among the greatest films ever made, it tells the poignant story of a problem child who, despite his troubles and weaknesses, develops some amazing talents. The child actor David Bradley's unforgettable role would be my favourite performance of the day. And I would recommend this movie as a Must Watch Before You Die. (#22)

However, for me, as for many others, the movie of the day was 'The Artist' (2011). It is one of the most loved films of this year and will definitely score well during the upcoming awards season. For its overwhelming celebration of cinema (a tribute to the Silent Era, to the Hollywood Star and Studio System, and tributes to various classics) it wins the honour of the day over 'Kes', though in the long run I think I'll consider 'Kes' a better movie. Movies like 'The Artist' are the best illustrations for the sentiments and the spirit of this blog, and my life. Please watch it as soon as you can!

October 14, 2011

Mumbai 2011 Day #1: Fine Start, Almost...

About half a dozen strangely masked humans carry on with some incomprehensible ritualistic march, till a frankly naked woman walks down the hall. She reaches an intimidating crocodile, live and menacing, waiting for her in the corner of the room. The woman looks pretty sure of herself as she faces the crocodile that then opens its mouth. Without any hesitation the woman crawls into the crocodile's mouth, and MAMI 2011 begins.

Watched four movies today, all latest offerings from world cinema. 'The Turin Horse' could have been the fifth, if the technical problems with its projection could have been sorted. Going by what I saw, it could have been the movie of the day. Hopefully they will organize its screening tomorrow and then I'll feel better. At this moment, however, I'm not feeling contented, and it's only because I could not finish this movie.

But otherwise the movies were very good. This year's Camera d'or winner at Cannes - 'Las Acacias' that told the quietly moving story of a truck driver who is taking a woman and a baby from Paraguay to Buenos Aires, was loved unanimously by the audience. The director Pablo Giorgelli was glad to present his film for the Mumbai audience and we were pleased to attend his brief Q&A after the movie.

The German movie 'Die Ausbildung' ('The Education') told the story of a young boy training at a customer care center and the people around him. I liked it for how the movie gave a glimpse of the ruthless corporate culture through a simple story. At the same time 'Pather Panchali' was being screened in the next screen. Watching it on big screen again (had watched it for the first time at AFMC Med Cine festival) was a tempting proposition and I'm not sure whether I truly not regret my decision!

'Above us only Sky' reminded me partly of Kieslowski's 'Blue', because of the situation faced by the leading lady, but mainly of Antonioni's 'L'avventura'. The film begins with a story of relationships that suddenly turns into an inexplicable mystery-thriller. But eventually, the story neglects the 'mystery' altogether and culminates as a strange and unexpected love story. The reaction by the audience was lukewarm, especially near the baffling end of the movie, but I truly loved it. Sandra Huller, playing the protagonist, is my pick for the 'performance of the day'. And the movie too was perhaps the best among the four. Perhaps, because one strong contender was the French political drama - 'The Minister'.

Watching the scene mentioned in the beginning of the post I was stunned, and excited. The movie turned out to be completely different from its opening scene, but it left me so satisfied. It was so well written, so well executed. Modern world cinema at its powerful best - that is 'The Minister'.

Excited about tomorrow - going by the schedule, it can be the best day of the festival...

October 13, 2011

Mumbai 2011: Annual Ritual Begins...

My delegate pass for MAMI Film Festival 2011 is lying beside me. It looks familiar now, as it is going to be my third installment of the great experience. Everything is put aside when this week begins sometime in October every year. Everyone associated with me knows that I can not be disturbed during this time. They may not factually remember that I managed to watch 34 movies in MAMI 2009 and 27 in MAMI 2010, but they now know that is is my binge time, the biggest celebration, an annual ritual....

Though the venue will be again new (MAMI keeps changing its main venue), there will be so many known faces - film buffs from Mumbai who know each other only through this annual festival. And every year more acquaintances join in. This year I hope some of my students will experience something like this for the first time, and some of them surely, will change for good.

The Opening Movie of the festival was screened this evening - Bennett Miller's 'Moneyball', starring Brad Pitt. As always, the entry was restricted to 'invitations only', and unlike last year I couldn't get any pass. Don't mind, though. This movie will surely be released in India sometime soon. And moreover, I have spent the evening trying to wrap up all pending work. Finally I'm set to experience another overdose of cinema - hope the seven hours I've spent in selecting the movies proves to be fruitful!

October 10, 2011

Baat Nikalegi Toh...

“Waqt rehta nahin kahin tik kar, iski aadat bhi aadmi-si hai, Aaj phir aapki kami-si hai…”

These lines in your voice have suddenly acquired an altogether new meaning. Perhaps the news was so unexpected that I couldn’t handle it. Or may be I had taken you for granted – that you are always going to be with us. This happens with family, right?

You know you had something that made me feel I’m related to you – as if you were a dear Uncle I had never met, but always shared great love with. Perhaps it was the kindness in your voice, perhaps it was the gentle demeanour of your face. And I’m sure you made everyone feel the same. You belonged to everyone. And it was never difficult to fall in love with you.

And falling in love with you meant falling in love with your music. You have to take credit for initiating in us a love for Ghazals when we were just kids. You made it accessible for us during an age when we were not capable enough to appreciate the likes of Ghulam Ali Sa’ab and others. You took the Ghazal form to the common man, you made popular its use in cinema. You gave us that push at the right time to develop a liking for something that was apparently not ‘easy to appreciate’.

So this naturally led to more exploration of this genre from our end. Once we ‘learnt’ some more and discovered the very classical form of Ghazals there was a time when we formed a strong opinion about your music. Let me confess this, there were times when I remarked that your music is repetitive and it does not have range. Too blinded by my ‘sense’ of music, I was beginning to forget my ‘Uncle’ who had initiated me into it. Again, this happens with family. I was taking you for granted.

The 23rd of last month, on my way from Pune to Mumbai, I got a chance to listen to ‘Teri khushboo mein base khat’. It was not for the first time that I was hearing that song, but suddenly my perception of you changed. I realized what your music was about. Your music was not about the melody or the voice, but about the words. No other composer-singer has achieved this – to underplay the composition in order to render the poetry in the best possible way. You sang as if you were talking to us – sharing those words of wisdom, making, among others, Gulzar sa’ab’s thoughts reach us unadulterated. You were the dear teacher-friend who shared great poems with us and made us understand what they meant only by reciting patiently, correctly, aptly. Despite possessing one of the best voices that we ever heard, you never tried to overpower the words, to overwhelm us with your singing. And yet, you managed to develop a style of your own, inimitable, pure, genuine.

During the last few days my brother and I talked a lot about you. A couple of days ago the two of us were singing your ‘Kya khoya kya paaya jag mein’ on the footbridge over Goregaon station. Not once we thought that you’ll be gone so soon. Today I feel like a son who never paid enough attention to you, never thought of paying back, mainly because somehow this thought never came to me – that one day even you’ll be gone.

Just talked to Mom over phone, about you, about your music. And then played your music. Was feeling really bad until these lines left me thinking, as your songs have always done…

“Shehad jeene ka mila karta hai thoda-thoda, Jaane walon ke liye dil nahin thoda karte; Haath chhooten bhi toh rishte nahin chhoda karte….”

If life is an opportunity to defy death, you have surely succeeded.

Always yours.

October 08, 2011

The End of an Experience

Over the last 3-4 months, I had the most fulfilling experience of my life. I was excited and apprehensive in the beginning, when I had started my ‘Understanding Cinema’ lectures at National College. Today I’m amazed to see the result – the way the students have responded. And it has nothing to do with whatever teaching-learning that happened during this time or with the short films they finally made. It is the way they reciprocated to my efforts that has elated and humbled me at the same time, with unprecedented passion, dedicated hard-work, and above all – tolerance, and humility. They are now prepared to embark on the wonderful journey of discovering the best of cinema. I wish them exciting and romantic times ahead as cinephiles.

On 26th September, which will remain an unforgettable day for me, the students screened their movies. (I will share the links of the best of those as soon as I can.) We also had a small award ceremony in the end where the best efforts were acknowledged. I could not afford buying trophies for them, so at the last minute came up with this idea. Following are the ‘awards’ that were handed out to the winners. This could not have been possible without the help of Mehar, one of my students, who designed these beautiful cards. I hope the winners liked what they got.

Wanted to share these on this blog since that evening. But two reasons kept me from doing that – one, I wanted to finish my discussion on ‘Citizen Kane’ and two, I wanted to live this beautiful emotional phase of my life before sharing it publically. Now I’m beginning to break free from the effect of the hormones, to resume the study of cinema. Hopefully, life will give me another chance to share it with a new bunch of enthusiasts. Successful films do inspire sequels, don’t they?

The Greatest Film Ever Made: Epilogue

Old age – it's the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don't look forward to being cured of.

What makes someone or something great? Incredible talent, brilliant performance, innovations, influence, test of time – all of these contribute, but there is one more thing essential for that final stamp of ‘greatness’. It is the legend associated, the folklore, the paradoxes, the enigma. Whether it is the symbolism of Muhammad Ali’s fight against racial discrimination, or the tragedy of Guru Dutt – these socio-political, poetic-philosophical elements always contribute to the unanimous acceptance of something as ‘great’, and often these have nothing to do with the actual performance of the act.

So here is a story, true, unbelievable…

At the time when the Hollywood Studio System was at its powerful best, when studio executives held more power than the stars or the directors, a unique contract suddenly became the talk of the town. RKO, one of the major studios, had just offered someone to produce, direct, write, and act in two feature films, without any interference and with the privilege of the final cut – something even the most established directors could not dream of. This offer was made to a 25-year old young man and this led to phenomenal jealousy in the Hollywood community against him, whom the world later identified as Orson Welles.

Welles decided to base the first movie on the life of a newspaper tycoon – William R. Hearst, playing the lead role himself. The name of the character in the movie was Charles Foster Kane, but the Hearst connection could not be retained as a secret. Fearing a negative portrayal of himself, William Hearst attempted to buy and destroy all negatives of the film but couldn’t. He then attacked the movie through his newspaper, and threatened to retaliate against theatres that showed it. The industry was terrified. A group of studio bosses offered RKO money to burn the negative. But the studio refused.

‘Citizen Kane’ opened to extraordinary critical acclaim. And my last three posts on it, which are only a glimpse into its brilliance, should at least justify that. I still feel that the unprecedented praise by the American media had definitely something to do with the controversy surrounding its production and release.

However, the movie failed to recover its costs at the box-office. Despite several nominations, it could not win more than one Academy Award in a ceremony where it was booed and insulted. Eleven years later, in 1952, Sight and Sound magazine voted it as the 11th greatest movie of all time. A group of French critics, who were soon to kick-start the most influential film movement in world cinema, the New Wave, were praising the movie highly during the 50s, and it was revived in America in 1956. When Sight and Sound released their next list in 1962, ‘Citizen Kane’ was voted as the greatest film ever made. Since then it has retained that spot for each subsequent decade, and today it occupies the top position in almost all great movies list. The story, though, does not end here.

The film did an everlasting damage to the career of Welles. The industry had realized that this man will always place his artistic aspirations over the finances. RKO violated the same contract by taking his next film away from him and changing the ending. Welles went into a self-imposed exile in Europe for much of the rest of his career where he found a more sympathetic audience. He acted in others’ movies to raise funds for his own. Two years before he died, he accepted that he “made essentially a mistake in staying in movies”. In the end, his first movie also became a prophecy for his own life which ended lonely and unfortunately like that of his character – Charles F. Kane.

‘Citizen Kane’ in my opinion, is definitely one of the greatest American movies. It is a wonderful film text, rich, influential, enigmatic, and also, once you start understanding it, entertaining. It is a brilliant expression of an auteur, a purely original work, an aesthetic and technical watershed in cinema history. But is it greater than ‘The Godfather’, ‘Seven Samurai’, ‘8 ½’, ‘Bicycle Thieves’? I don’t know. I’m not qualified enough to comment. However, when filmmakers and scholars and critics all over the world vote it as the greatest, I better listen to them. They know the medium better than me, and they have no reason to lie! "Everyone will always owe him everything" – believes Godard about Orson Welles. And just for this reason, I also recommend this film as a must watch (#21). You can not die without watching ‘the greatest movie ever made’.

October 07, 2011

The Sound of 'Citizen Kane'

You never should've married a newspaperman, they're worse than sailors.

Before making his first film, Orson Welles was already a name in theatre and radio, and was thus aware of the power of sound. While working on ‘Citizen Kane’ he employed all his experience to create the ‘right’ sound for the film. “If it sounds right, it’s gotta look right” – he believed. And the sound of this movie turned out to be a great achievement on its own. Here are a few examples of his innovations and imagination.

To complement his Deep Focus photography, he created ‘deep focus sound’ by carefully regulating his sound levels so that voices in the depth of the image sound farther away than voices in the foreground of the image. ‘Hear’ carefully the Colorado scene to appreciate that. Also note that in the shot that ends this scene, Kane’s sled becomes increasingly covered with snow, and the whistle of a train can be heard from a distance. It is so subtle you might miss it the first time around. But once you discover that, the image of the snow-covered sled becomes even more poignant.

Welles made his characters interrupt each other’s lines resulting in the overlapping of dialogue. He considered it more realistic than the tradition of characters not stepping on each other's sentences. Then there are scenes, like one between Kane and Susan in a tent, where apart from the characters talking, we can also hear the voices of characters around them who are not really seen (people outside the tent in this case). Welles also pioneered the J-cut, the technique of putting the audio ahead of the visual in scene transitions.

The efficient use of texture of voices is another remarkable achievement of this film. Susan’s voice is soft and warm when she first meets Kane, only to turn into high-pitched screams later. The palace of Xanadu appears even more alienating because of the reverberating echoes whenever Kane and Susan shout at each other from across the room. Also compare the might expressed through Kane’s voice during the political rally speech with the sterile flatness when he threatens Gettys.

Another brilliant innovation by Welles was the ‘Lightening Mix’. One sentence started by a person at the end of a scene is completed in the next and this new scene is at least a few years ahead in time. So, by using sound bridges, Welles devised an interesting way to signify passing of time. The best example is the Breakfast Montage where Kane and his first wife talk over the dining table and more than a decade of story time is compressed in two minutes of screen time. This scene amazes you every time you watch it.

The musical score of the film by Bernard Herrmann was also a landmark. Instead of the traditional practice of using non-stop music, Herrmann used musical cues lasting between five and fifteen seconds to bridge the action or suggest a different emotional response. This is superbly done in the Breakfast Montage. Also notice the score simulating the ticking of a clock during the bored life Susan and Kane are leading at Xanadu. Herrmann went on to become one of the prominent musicians for Hollywood, working in films like 'Vertigo', 'Psycho', and 'Taxi Driver'. But even he believes that he was at his best when he worked on this movie. If ‘Citizen Kane’ was a technical watershed, and it definitely was, its sound had as much to contribute as its cinematography.

October 04, 2011

The Cinematography of 'Citizen Kane'

"There's only one person in the world to decide what I'll do. And that's me."

Film scholars and historians view ‘Citizen Kane’ as Welles' attempt to create a new style by studying various forms of movie making, and combining them all into one, though Welles himself denies that. He believes it was his ignorance that led him to those technical innovations, all of which were not essentially pioneered by this movie but eventually became inseparably associated with it. The director here does not indulge in taking stand on the Realism versus Expressionism debate, but rather uses the best of both schools in order to create his cinema. We will discuss this with respect to the cinematography of ‘Citizen Kane’.

Observe this snapshot from the scene at the Colorado home. It might be difficult to appreciate it here, but in this shot all characters are in focus – including the kid Kane playing outside (he may appear out of focus, but it’s actually snow). This kind of photography is called Deep Focus, where the depth of field is enhanced and a lot of things appear to be in focus together. How is this achieved technically – I don’t know. Some of my photographer friends can help me understand. But Deep Focus photography in cinema has now become synonymous with ‘Citizen Kane’. We read this technique as being ‘realist’ – since everything is in focus the audience can choose what to focus on without the director ‘directing’ their attention to something in particular.

The shot on the left is also an example of Deep Focus photography.

Any time Deep Focus was not possible, and I guess it has something to do with the availability of light (though I may be wrong), the makers employed other tricks to create the deep focus effect.

In this shot, Kane is in foreground and his friend Leland is at a considerable distance. Yet both appear to be in focus. This was achieved by shooting the two separately and then visually layering the films together using an optical printer.

However, notice that in this shot after Susan’s suicide attempt, the imposing bottle and glass in the foreground as well as the men entering the room are in focus, while Susan herself is out-of-focus. This was achieved using in-camera effects. The foreground was shot first, with the background dark. Then the background was lit, the foreground darkened, the film rewound, and the scene re-shot with the background action. Of course, this choice of focus enables a crisp storytelling where no dialogue is required to explain what happened. The unconscious woman in soft-focus definitely enhances our perception of her delirious state. And focusing on her husband, and our protagonist, makes sure that this remains as much his scene as it is of the wife.

And then we move to the most expressionistic camerawork that this movie employs. This extreme low-angle shot is so different from our perception of reality. More such bizarre angles and lenses were used at various points in the movie. Here the director is producing his own version of reality. Welles had to create ceilings over the sets and dig the floors to create trenches that could accommodate the camera. In those days, all of this was unheard of. Why does he do that? May be it was a stylistic choice, but here is how the famous French critic Bazin reads this shot: “the gaze upward seems to come out of the earth, while the ceilings, forbidding any escape within the décor, complete the fatality of this curse. Kane’s lust for power crushes us, but is itself crushed by the décor. Through the camera, we are capable in a way of perceiving Kane’s failure at the same time we experience his power.”

This is only a glimpse into the bag of tricks that this movie is. You can watch the film again and again just for its cinematography, the importance of which can be assessed by the way Welles credited his cinematographer. There is no separate title card for Welles as the director. He shares it with the cinematographer! I have never seen something like this elsewhere.

Must Watch Before You Die #20: Alien (1979)

Alternative Horror is fast becoming one of my favourite sub-genres. I don’t know whether a term like this exists, but I kind of like it. I would define Alternative Horror as the sub-genre which horrifies us without confining to the conventions of the Horror genre. So the documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ on the issue of global warming is Alternative Horror for me, as are cult-classics ‘Angel Heart’ and ‘Eraserhead’. Perhaps the reason behind my fascination for this sub-genre is my love for one film-maker who has managed to horrify us without ever resorting to the classical horror elements. Whether it is his psychological thriller ‘Repulsion’, the surreal masterpieces like ‘The Tenant’ or ‘The Ninth Gate’, the unforgettable ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, or even the War Drama ‘The Pianist’ – there is always a foreboding of something terrible in the movies of Roman Polanski. With bated breaths we watch the protagonists’ struggle to survive against a supremely powerful and often invisible antagonist. These movies affect human psyche in more ways than a classical horror movie would, movies that rely on ghosts (wandering ex-human spirits) haunting someone or something and their exorcism being the only satisfying resolution. Not to forget that Alternative Horror also works better when you revisit the movie, and are already aware of the thrills and surprises.

I just watched another movie that can be classified in this sub-genre. Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic ‘Alien’ managed to involve me in a way many movies can not. Despite a long and tiring day, and it was late in the night that I started watching it, the movie did not allow me to blink. In fact during the final act, I was sitting up, leaning on my laptop screening, as if nothing else mattered to me but the survival of the female protagonist.

I always thought sci-fi is not my genre. And here I am, recommending this movie as a must-watch-before-you-die. But I realize that it is not its sci-fi elements that have impacted me, it is its inherent horror, and most interestingly its smart variation on the classic horror tale of a group of adventurers trapped in a haunted house awaiting their death or a miraculous escape. And yes, there is a cat too! Watch it NOW!

P.S. I have not spoiled your fun by sharing details from the movie. I promise you that.

October 01, 2011

The Screenplay of 'Citizen Kane'

"You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn't been very rich I might have been a really great man."

Statutory Warning: I am assuming that you have watched the movie before reading this. Please don't read further if you plan to and haven't.

Let's go through the narrative structure of 'Citizen Kane'. It begins with the death of the protagonist - Charles Foster Kane, followed by a loud 15-minute news film on his life, revealing to us almost every major landmark, almost all crests and troughs that came to him. At this point a group of journalists decide to find the relevance of the last word uttered by Kane. The word is 'Rosebud' and the journey that a journalist called Thompson undertakes to find its significance forms the body of the film. We hardly get to see Thompson's face, though we are constantly with him. And in the end we hardly come to know anything about 'Rosebud' - possibly the most famous MacGuffin, arguably the most talked about secret in the history of cinema.

The rest of the movie is a jig-saw puzzle, going back and forth in time, often repeating the same incidents with different perspectives. It is definitely not as twisted as '21 Grams' or 'Memento' or other such modern puzzles, but is definitely more mature in its narrative structure than most. Interestingly, unlike other 'time-twisted' films, it doesn't complicate matters just for the sake of it, nor does it rely on seducing you to solve it, rather it tries to prove the futility of such an exercise and revels in its inherent complication - the journey to explore the life of an enigmatic man. What puzzle can be more interesting to experience, more challenging to solve? And since the 15-minute short-film has already narrated to us his life, we are more interested in knowing 'why and how' rather than 'what'.

The film is told from the perspectives of multiple narrators. Like it would happen to all of us, after one dies, his life-story can only be constructed from others' memories of the person, and depends significantly on his relationship with them, and on their respective world-views. Furthermore, all narrators here - the news film, the memoirs of Kane's guardian, his old manager, his ageing friend who later turned against him, his alcoholic and depressed second wife, and the obviously greedy butler - are unreliable. Naturally, it makes us think - perhaps Kane was not as bad as he appears in the film. The eventual hint at the meaning of 'Rosebud' also creates an out-of-character image for him, thus establishing the limitation of the entire endeavour to try to understand a person through the perspectives of others. I believe that this helps us admire Kane better with repeated viewings, and an apparently anti-hero emerges to be someone we'll always want to know more about.

Go through the preceding three paragraphs again, one by one. You will agree that each has the promise for a truly fascinating and complex screenplay. Even today, to write something structurally and philosophically as complicated as this will be an arduous task. 'Citizen Kane' had it all organically woven into one, not to forget that most of these tools were unheard of back in those days.

However, the screenplay of this movie is not great only with respect to 'its time'. In my opinion, despite the various technical accomplishments of this film, it is its writing that remains its most timeless and unparalleled achievement. A screenplay as good as this will always end up as a memorable film, whether its translation on film employs the best of technique or not. If it can ever be considered a yardstick of cinematic excellence - the Oscar for Original Screenplay was the only win this movie could manage out of nine nominations. Even the worst of hostility towards it during that year's Academy Awards function could not prevent this to happen. Today, for all screenwriters, the script of 'Citizen Kane' remains the ultimate challenge, and inspiration, though ironically, no one can actually learn or teach to write something like this, a story which manages to impress and entertain without adhering to the classical screenwriting rules, and eventually mocking them with its sheer brilliance.

P.S. If you are interested in reading this screenplay, please send a request to s.satyanshu@gmail.com. I will mail it to you.