‘Art is partly communication, but only partly. The rest is discovery’.
- William Golding
Well I quite agree with William Golding but how far do we push ourselves to make a discovery in an art form like film. Also how much do the film-makers intend in making their films discoverable.
Well I consider cooking as an art form, and as far as I could think Food if considered the ultimate product of this art form is the only one that simulates all of our five senses. However there's one aspect where this art form has its limitations and where many other art forms such as painting, literature or cinema have excelled is the ability to provoke thoughts. And only provocation could lead to discoveries in any piece of art.
In one of the seminars I once attended, actor – film-maker Amol Palekar said to us, in Indian mainstream cinema one has to make sure that the message gets across. So if a character is crying on screen, to ensure that the audiences know that this character is crying, have another character emphasize it by saying ‘Tumhari Aankhon main aansu’ which literally means ‘Are those tears in your eyes?’. Hundreds of mainstream films have done it relentlessly and it has indeed worked every time, otherwise it wouldn’t have been so overused. But it’s not even exposition, it is more of a validation, though in any case it doesn’t leave any scope for discovery.
This example by Mr. Palekar reminds me of a scene from Bresson’s ‘A Man Escaped’ where Fontaine the protagonist seems to be crying but in his voice-over we hear him saying ‘I laughed hysterically. It helped’. Bresson here did exactly the opposite and provoked a long line of thoughts in my mind.
Discovery in films could be categorised into two : The first one would be discovering the story which hasn’t been exposited and could only take place in our minds, this could be done through narrative devices like ellipses or through use of metaphors. The second type of discovery is that of a larger meaning that doesn’t limit itself to the story but has a wider significance, it could be a social commentary or a thought about life in general. In both cases it is a paramount requisition that there is provocation of thoughts.
It is generally conceived that one requires intelligence to be able to discover, it could be true but in my opinion it is the intention that necessitates the need for discovery. A passive spectator whose only intention is a mere titillation of their senses could never make a discovery. Yes, this spectator would jump on their seat upon seeing a surprise element or would even feel emotional at times, but these reactions are mainly experienced when the elements that trigger them are handed over on a platter. Well I am not saying that we shut our minds whilst watching a film but usually we lack the intention of that of an explorer and such intention could only come through the love for the art form. Also with the modern times, the attention span for most of us has really reduced to a few minutes, no wonder YouTube videos are such a sensation these days. However this is not due to the lack of time but rather the increasing ability for multi-tasking. But in this habit of multi-tasking we sometimes lose on the most crucial information, now how could a person browsing through social networks on their mobiles while watching a film be able to make a discovery. We don't need ushers these days if we arrive late to any screenings, there are always two or three illuminated faces present in every row. The viewer is so used to this multi-tasking that paying attention to one thing at a time has become quite an arduous task these days.
Furthermore to the discovery, films can also be interpreted. And interpretation is what makes this discovery take a different route from the one that leads to a scientific discovery. Interpretation is the element that makes a film personal and hence it makes all the discoveries different from each other. A film when produced is just one film but with each discovery the film attains a different form and hence it becomes thousands of films rather than just one. Interpretation doesn’t necessarily follows the intention of the film-maker but it could only be possible if the filmmaker leaves scope for discovery and doesn’t feed the audiences with expositions.
Many film-makers try to make their films more accessible in order to reach out to a wider audience, there’s nothing wrong with that but in doing so over a long period of time they have made the audiences lazy. Fortunately to compensate for this convenience there have been film-makers provoking our thoughts for an equally long period of time. These filmmakers prefer to assume that the audiences are clever enough having being exposed to cinema of over 100 years.
To take a simple example akin to the theory of André Bazin, many film-makers literally magnify certain object or action for the viewers to notice, they then skilfully blend it by editing it along with the wider frame hence guiding the whole viewing experience and validating the point they want to put across. However a certain breed of film-makers simply assume that audiences will nevertheless observe these objects or actions even in a wider frame (and could possible even discover more), for e.g. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was shot entirely in deep focus and in preferably wide frames and long takes, hence allowing the audiences to take notice of every action taking place. It’s just like in real life wherein any object or action is never magnified and yet it is able to grab our attention, unfortunately we still require spoon-feeding when it comes to films, perhaps we are just conditioned that way. There are no rules of course and such magnifications too could be used to enhance the cinematic experience like the way Kieslowski used extreme close-up of the eyes of his characters, not to hand-hold us through his narrative but for us to rather explore the state of mind of that character behind those eyes.
Also Film-makers over the years have extensively been using analytical editing, wherein we always require an establishing shot in order to allow the spectator to perceive the exact space of that scene in our minds. Film-makers like Ozu or Bresson simply discarded this approach and shot their characters without building such establishments in our mind, they assumed we are clever enough to perceive such space without having being aided with the specifics of one.
Ambiguity in films many a times leave viewers in anguish, not everybody but many find it disconcerting when films don’t end on a definite note. Just taking a very simple and popular example, Ellis Boyd Redding in the original story of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ was supposed to just go out in a bus heading for the field hoping to meet his friend Andy, however the studio chose a teary reunion between the two friends. I would’ve rather preferred the ambiguous end because it is one of those ways where you could carry the film in your head for days on end. How else could you end a film like The 400 blows if not ambiguously. Bernardo Bertolucci has famously said “I left the ending ambiguous, because that is the way life is." Well if we could embrace life then why not films, and sometimes it isn't even ambiguity but rather an inexplicable scenario. Unfortunately we are used to Aesop’s fables with a moral presented at the end rather than discovering the idea of morality on our own.
I agree that some films could be denser and difficult to understand than others, but whoever said art should be understood in its entirety. And discovering is not deduction, it is more of an exploration. Film is an art form that doesn’t confine itself within its frame, the real art lies in what is beyond that frame. If film as an art form is not meant to be limited, then why should we as its viewers should limit our perception.