CINEMA Artistic Technicality Or Just A Means To An End?

Praising the 'art’ (and not getting the technicality) in movies – oh, the propagated nonsense!

  • 23 Dec - 29 Dec, 2017
  • Mohammad Kamran Jawaid
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A few weeks back, a friend and colleague of mine were discussing the merits of Jami’s Rawaan, an advertisement-cum-commercial for a noted telecom company. By habit, writers, especially those writing on art and movies, tend to have a higher rate of disagreement than laymen. The gist of our difference centered on a peculiar notion that many choose to either bypass, or shun altogether: the technical aspect of cinema. Choosing “art” and “creativity” over technicality is easier. One can say that they like a particular instance based purely on emotional response and personal predilection. But isn’t that simply a pronouncement of one’s own sentiment, rather than a non-partisan analysis of the technical sophistications that led to the creation of that feeling?

I often question, to the initial contempt of many film-makers and writer brethren, the technical aspect of motion pictures, and not the art. The “art” – a term I believe too broad and vague that anyone can throw it in the mix simply to sound intellectual for five seconds in a congress of nincompoops – would follow naturally, if the film-maker, and his team think things through. The technicality is a means to an end; however, without perception, if not in-depth comprehension of its individual gears (meaning the different departments associated with film-making), would one even qualify as an authority on the film’s intended “art”?

One might praise the cinematography, based purely by the lushness of the frame, or the sound for its clarity, but would anyone really explain the whats and the whys of their conviction? Personally, I have yet to come across such detailed insight. The most I find are ineptly written congratulatory messes, or I’m-above-such-trivial-film’s-to-really-care pieces.

If a motion picture is a showboat-y enterprise designed to make money, it becomes an instant contender for ridicule; if it is a drab, low-budget endeavor, with hard themes and proportional pomposity, it becomes a film for the “classes”, deemed unworthy and above about 90 per cent of the general population.

Let me clarify with an easier example: would you label Kamasutra as an art, a technique, or just a source of exaggerated (or cheap) titillation? In film terms, is OMG – Oh My God! (2012), art? Or is Nightcrawler (2014) a commercial film? To me, they are all simply films.

Cinema is mostly about innovation or – to be precise – technical creativity, and the reality of “art” is how a technical choice is presented; of how its story is unveiled, and of how every component of its production drives the audience to an emotional conclusion. These choices help define a particular style of the director.

For example: early in his years, Steven Spielberg was cheered for his stories of wonder – E.T. – the Extra Terrestrial (1982) and Close Encounters of the Third (1977) – but was somewhat booed for his “emotional blackmail” in Color Purple (1985). The joke is that, on closer inspection, almost all of his earlier films from Jaws (1975) to Jurassic Park (1993) and even Saving Private Ryan (1998), use technical choices to provoke the right sentiment.

If the camera (and the lens) is wide enough, how would it make one feel? If the edit is paced up, even jagged, will you be anxious? If the set is confined, will you share the characters’ suffocation? If the music is droll during a funeral scene, how would you react? These are all broad instances, of course. The reality is in every aspect’s fine, technical details.

The technicality of understanding the movement of images, or the “persistence of vision”, we see on any screen, (including newfangled VR gadgets), historically date back to ancient Egyptians. The idea was, according to film historian David Parkinson, “satisfactorily defined”, by Peter Mark Roget in 1824, as the retina’s ability to hold the image of an object from 1/20th to 1/5th of a second. Later, studies replaced the brain with retina as the processor of the images, (similar to the processor in your computer or cell phone), but the science stayed more or less the same. By practice, we now know that we can “process” 24 to 60 still frames, moving within a second and consider that adequate movement. Ergo, the 60 fps in new-gen games and 48 frames experiment in The Hobbit trilogy, by Peter Jackson.

To quote Parkinson again from his book The History of Film (1995): “Cinema is, therefore, the first art form to rely solely on psycho-perceptual illusions generated by machine”.

In the beginning, there was a rush to create and cash in on technical innovations. In 1890, Thomas Alva Edison, the man we perpetually associate to the telephone because of school textbooks, and William Kennedy Laurie Dickinson, produced the Kinetograph – a movie camera capturing stills in celluloid, in layman terms – followed one year later by the Kinetoscope – a peephole jukebox like device, used to exhibit short films. Back in the day, there were no long-form films; editing had yet to be invented. Edison was an astute businessman, producing more than 1200 films between 1894 to 1911 via Edison Studios (think Warner Bros. or Disney), and establishing The Motion Picture Patents Company, a trust consisting of the top producers of the time, which standardised and monopolised regulations on the Cinema Artistic Technicality or Just a Means to an End?

industry until its demise by the Federal Court’s decision in 1915.

Edison’s was one of experimentation, refinement and commercial enterprise. Cinema, even in its infancy, was aimed for consumer consumption. Nearly all motion picture ventures were targeted towards laymen, while in a state of paced-up technical evolution. Fred Ott's Sneeze (1894), the first copyrighted film in the US, was a five second “clip” of man’s (Fred Ott), taking snuff and sneezing; The Kiss (1896), depicted the first on-screen kiss – to much denouncement.

Director Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), famous for its un-related “shocker” ending of the villain (Justus D. Barnes) firing a gun at the audience, had a clear narrative angle comparable to any conventional commercial action blockbuster; in 12 minutes, a group of bandits hijack and loot a train, and ultimately meet their demise when the authorities are rushed in with the help of a young girl. It was one of cinema’s first blockbusters, as well as the first western.

Georges Méliès, “creator of the cinematic spectacle”, according to Louis Lumière (one half of the Lumière brothers, cinema pioneers comparable to Edison), was prolific for his special effect pieces, including the oft-quoted A Trip to the Moon (1902), which has the iconic shot of a rocket puncturing one eye of the man in the moon.

Of the many extravagant effects Méliès mastered or the simpler ones Porter utilised, the “art” of the film will always be dependent of the technicality, and understanding technicality leads to a wealth of creative choices, all of which lead to commercial gains.

As I understand it, “art” or “art house”, are terms propagated by intelligentsia as a fail-safe tag to broadcast one’s snobbish superiority over the more commercial minded. One can identify such endeavours from a mile – they reek of drab alienation and drabber, darker production (the lack of light is a creative technical choice, by the way). When such films fail – and most do – the film-makers tend to recoil behind these safe zones, and label the audience idiots. They become “art” for art’s sake. •