Film Criticism

Our Films, Their Films by Satyajit Ray

Our Films, Their Films is a collection of perceptive, contemplative, and illuminating critical essays and personal memoirs by seminal filmmaker, composer, artist, author, intellectual, and cinephile, Satyajit Ray. Arranged into the two titular sections, Ray’s terse, candid, and often thematically overlapping expositions on Indian and international cinema reveal, not only profound engagement with, and sensitivity to, indigenous sensibilities in his own evolving creative (and learning) process, but also a cultivated, yet accessible approach towards the aesthetic appreciation of all forms of art – a cultural and analytical proficiency that is revealed through the modality and pervasive use of unorthodox forms of representation (often, music-based) that shape the logical arguments of his film criticism. This instinctual, cross-pollinated methodology is prefigured in Ray’s assertion at the book’s introduction that Orson Welles’ film, Lady from Shanghai was the first atonal film in the history of cinema – a music-based characterization that is also evident in his praise of Charlie Chaplin’s sophisticated, yet seemingly effortless choreography in the tramp films. Throughout the book, Ray often ascribes Chaplin’s silent films with a certain Mozartian quality of lightness and deceptive facility that underpins a more complex arrangement, a delicate achievement that is epitomized in his admiration for The Gold Rush:

If one thinks of Mozart and The Magic Flute and the knockabout foolery of Papageno merging into the sublimity of Sarastro, it is because the comparison is a valid one. Here is the same distilled simplicity, the same purity of style, the same impeccable craftsmanship. And the slightest tinge of disappointment at the happy ending – the sudden veering towards a bright key after the subtle chromaticism of all that has gone before – isn’t that rather like the cheery epilogue of Don Giovanni?

A similar sensibility may also be seen in his essay, A Tribute to John Ford, in Ray’s assessment of Ford’s signature style and aesthetic imprint:

A hallmark is never easy to describe, but the nearest description of Ford’s would be a combination of strength and simplicity. The nearest equivalent I can think of is a musical one: middle-period Beethoven. The same boldness of contour, the simplicity and memorability of line, the sense of architecture, even the same outbursts of boisterousness, and the same action-packed finales.

In the essay, Some Italian Films I Have Seen, Ray’s creative philosophy towards naturalism and social realism is revealed, not only through his continued fondness for Vittorio de Sica’s films (and in particular, Bicycle Thieves, whose fated discovery at a London screening propelled Ray to pursue his dream of adapting Pather Panchali to the screen), but also in his resistance to the formalism of Luchino Visconti’s early, quasi-neorealist film, La Terra Trema, an aesthetic that, in some respects, anticipates the overt stylization and visual grotesquerie that would pervade the filmmaker’s later works:

As it stands, La Terra Trema is a great bore, a colossal aesthetic blunder and a monumental confusion of styles. The grim naturalism of its locale is in constant conflict with the behavior of its human beings – deliberate and stylized to the point of ballet. Visconti’s meticulous composition within the frame heightens this feeling of artificiality. Moreover, in an effort to achieve a slow rhythm he holds his shots till long after they have ceased to perform their expressive functions, and boredom results from the cumulation of a hundred such ‘blank’ moments when the audience is obliged to contemplate on the abstract qualities of images which were, however, not primarily intended for such contemplation. A slow pace is not in itself a bad thing. It is, in fact, as legitimate to films as it is to music or ballet or any other art that exists in time. But it needs a Bach to write a Sarabande that needs a Casals to do justice to it. The long, slow passages in the epics of Dreyer and Eisenstein are sustained only partially by their purely visual qualities, rich and rewarding though they are; it is the emotional conviction of these sequences, achieved through precision of interpretation, of acting integrated to the director’s total stylistic approach, that is finally responsible for their strength, their artistic ‘rightness’.

Another particularly incisive criticism is Ray’s broader observation of Roberto Rossellini’s recurring tendency towards an inability to sustain a certain degree of discipline through the course of a film – the occasional outcropping of false notes in an otherwise well crafted (and perhaps, even sublime) film – that, I would agree, is a valid assessment of Rossellini’s more instinctual, and less formally methodical approach to filmmaking in general, evident in even his most cherished (and paradoxically, imperfectly “perfect”) works. Of Rossellini’s groundbreaking, postwar film, Ray argues:

Admittedly, Open City derives some of its power from the anarchic social condition in which it was made. But it seems certain that the jagged contours of its narrative, its slapdash continuity, are due less to the lack of apparatus than to Rossellini’s inherent incapacity for sustained constructive thinking. Perhaps his talent is best displayed in the short stories of Paisa, and the forty-minute Miracle. His formal indiscipline becomes a definite handicap to a film like Open City which has otherwise a well constructed plot within the conventions of melodrama. The children in Open City behave in a disconcertingly adult fashion, and the best histrionic moments in the film occur when seasoned professionals like Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi take the stage.

Nevertheless, despite a deep admiration for several key works of international cinema, Ray offers a cautionary analysis on the pitfalls of blindly imitating decontextualized, foreign aesthetic conventions (particularly, with respect to imitating Hollywood films) in the creation of an indigenous cinema: a sentiment that is reflected in the essay’s parting comment:

The present blind worship of technique emphasizes the poverty of genuine inspiration among our directors. For a popular medium, the best kind of inspiration should derive from life and have its roots in it. No amount of technical polish can make up for artificiality of theme and dishonesty of treatment. The Indian filmmaker must turn to life, to reality. De Sica, and not De Mille, should be his ideal.

Given his profound understanding for the cultural imperative of a native cinema, it is, therefore, not surprising that Ray’s critical inquiry on the evolution and state of contemporary Indian cinema is similarly probing and impassioned, whether through an evaluation of the cultural value of idiosyncratic, masala compositions of the requisite musical numbers in a Bollywood production in the humorous, but perceptive and appreciative essay, Those Songs, to an analytical examination of the (then) emerging parallel cinema through commentary on films such as Shyam Benegal’s Ankur and Mani Kaul’s Duvidha. What is reinforced in Ray’s thoughtful expositions on cultivating an indigenous cinema is the underlying idea that such indelible, timeless, and relevant images are borne of a desire to capture a cultural authenticity and not solely to engage in innately competitive, abstract demonstrations of technical innovation: “What our cinema needs above everything else is a style, an idiom, a sort of iconography of cinema, which would be uniquely and recognizably Indian.”

Acquarello, 2006 [reprinted]

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