On Thickness and Thinness in Cinema
It is a long acknowledged axiom, vividly demonstrated as early as the films of the Lumières in the late nineteenth century, that the documentary element of cinema is a crucially important source of its power. “Every film,” Godard said famously, “is a documentary of its actors.” But the significance of the documentary qualities of fiction films goes beyond actors, indeed beyond human beings photographed by the camera. Places, landscapes, cities, dwellings, objects, clothes, animals – the unimaginably rich and varied non-human world – form a wonderful source and resource not only of images, but also of knowledge. Fiction films can acquire special, unique value when they draw from this resource, when they build into their images and sounds the details of the physical reality of the world at large.
When I was in India recently, I sought out a new thriller-drama that’s been getting a lot of national attention: Kahaani, directed by Sujoy Ghosh. One key reason why it has been praised as something special is that it was shot mostly on location in the streets of Kolkata, taking place in various neighborhoods of this remarkable city that have rarely been captured in a fiction film. To put it in perspective, the geographic diversities of cities like New York, Paris, London and Hong Kong have been vastly better represented in cinema, and Kolkata is undoubtedly in their league both in terms of size and its urban, architectural and human richness. So, for me, a film such as Kahaani represents a rare and wonderful opportunity. In addition to working as a genre film, it strives to give us a great variety of little-seen images of one of the world’s most vibrant cities.
But Kahaani – which does not exist in isolation but is part of a trend in filmmaking today – disappoints deeply on this count, for one reason: its maddeningly quick editing. A shot rarely lasts more than a couple of seconds, and no sooner than we get a bare sense of a fresh, intriguing urban image, the film cuts to a different shot – for no discernible rhyme or reason except the terror of allowing the audience to concentrate on the image, of giving it time to think. I’m not being hyperbolic here. An interview with the editor of the film confirms that the objective of the editing was to keep the audience from solving the narrative mystery on its own, and thus to rush it from one image to the next in order to guarantee a surprise ending.
Kahaani’s rapid editing and its close framings (especially in dialogue scenes) are very much in keeping with the practice that David Bordwell has named “intensified continuity.” But what do we lose of cinema’s documentary value – despite the extensive presence of actual locations – with the use of fast cutting?
One way to begin thinking about this question can be found in Lesley Stern’s terrific new monograph-book, Dead and Alive: The Body as Cinematic Thing. The book is devoted to the depiction of dead bodies in cinema – specifically, in three films: The Reckless Moment (Max Ophüls, 1949), Japanese Story (Sue Brooks, 2003) and Vagabond (Agnès Varda, 1985). She analyzes in detail the scenes in which a dead body appears in each film, and captures the effects that this body has upon the temporality of the film. For Stern, when life escapes from the body, a certain kind of time enters the body – and the film. Diegetically, the characters are dead, but their bodies persist, often in extended scenes. Due to their presence, and because of the films’ use of duration, these shots and scenes slowly “fill up” with time.
The problem with Kahaani is that, by using quick cuts, the film does the opposite: it thins out the profilmic reality of Kolkata. Shots are never allowed to build up a ‘documentary strength’, to fill up with time, to thicken.
The enormously successful Slumdog Millionaire (2009) suffers from a similar problem. The horrific (but complex) reality of Dharavi, the large slum that served as a key location and setting for the film, is thinned out not just by fast editing but also the use of hand-held camera, which produces an unstable image, making it impossible for the viewer to absorb its full detail in the brief instant for which the image appears. The documentary feebleness of the images that results from this fast and restless shooting style is only reinforced when accompanied by A.R. Rahman’s effervescent music. These formal qualities are absolutely of a piece with the other problems of the film, including its valorizing of individualism and chance, and its lack of interest in hinting at any larger, structural reasons for the material inequalities of the world in which it is set. (Mitu Sengupta’s pieces are essential reading for those interested in the film.)
When films such as Kahaani and Slumdog Millionaire tout their ‘realism’ of setting, it comes off as opportunism, especially when everything about the style of these films actively works against the viewer’s full registration of their onscreen reality. Such films squander the immanent power of this reality, reducing it to thin and weak documentary decoration.
Any thoughts or suggestions on fiction films in contemporary cinema that strongly capture a sense of place? I'd love to hear them.
-- FYI, a couple of my pieces have appeared online since my last post: Sam Roggen interviewed me on the topic of cinephilia at the Photogénie website run by the Flemish Film Culture Service; Dennis Lim invited me to contribute to the Museum of the Moving Image "moments of the year" collection (part one; and part two); and I wrote my first long-form essay for LOLA – on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2012. All of LOLA 3 is now up.
-- Adrian Martin's essay on teen movies kicks off Teen Movie Week at the Spanish cinema magazine Transit. Pieces will be appearing throughout the week, in both Spanish and English versions.
-- (via Joe McElhaney) A 2007 Cahiers du cinéma list of the 100 essential films for an "ideal cinema library".
-- (via Ehsan Khoshbakht) A great tribute to the way the sky has been rendered in cinema, at the blog Matte Shot, which is devoted to the work of matte painters of the Classic Hollywood era.
-- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on "workflow" in contemporary filmmaking.
-- Several new posts at Zach Campbell's blog Elusive Lucidity.
-- Jonathan Rosenbaum on Michael Roemer, "the best Jewish director you've never heard of". Also: Jonathan's DVDs and Blu-rays of the year. Finally: Serge Daney's 1982 text "Too Early, Too Late," translated by him.
-- A couple of dozen critics construct their fantasy double bills at MUBI.
-- Richard Brody: "The December issue of Cahiers du Cinéma has a terrific dossier in which a group of critics sketch out “the ten pitfalls of the auteur cinema.” It’s a fun read and a trenchant—and, for the most part, well-aimed—critique."
-- De Filmkrant's Slow Criticism 2013 dossier, including pieces by Adrian Martin, Richard Porton, Dana Linssen, and others.
-- At Photogénie, Tom Paulus' piece "Olivier Assayas: Global Cinephilia and Operational Aesthetics".
-- David Bordwell rounds up some of the books he's read recently.