Sunday, March 15, 2015

the thing about living

The trouble with great acting is that its an oxymoron. Just like great cinematography. If, when looking at a particularly great composition, I become aware of its greatness, and am pulled out of the context of the film, it's not a great shot anymore. And acting is the same for me. When I'm watching an exquisite actor like, say, Kamal Hassan or Philip Seymour Hoffman, I am so taken away with the intensity of their adherence to the craft that I become more enamored with the actor rather than feel the emotions of the character. I don't know if its my fault, because of late I have been thinking more and more about the artificiality of the artistic medium, or if many people feel the same way, but I'd rather watch a good actor in medium shot going about his thing than a great actor in close up, his face all contorted in pain and potency. When I first read about Bresson's use of 'models' instead of 'actors' to convey an emotion, I didn't really get it. I grew up on a steady diet of fantastically talented classical actors who shouted and cried and roared and laughed on the screen with no inhibitions whatsoever that it was a pleasure watching them. What I didn't realize was that what I was watching was not the film medium but recorded theatre. The difference is subtle but crucial. Theatre, atleast till 19th century, had been associated with mythology and superhuman characters. The literature that fed it was that of epic poems and heroic narratives. I am no more than a novice in matters of the evolution of various art forms, but from what little I've read and understood, cinema, though starting off with the same aspirations, soon realized that it could be more. Two factors shaped 60s and 70s World Cinema, widely considered to be the Golden era of film, where cinema moved from being a low art to high art, thanks to contributions of powerful artists like Bergman, Antonioni, Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Bresson, Scorsese among a host of others. One was the realization that unlike Drama, Cinema didn't have to thunder along to involve the last spectator in the audience. Its power lay in the silence, in the everyday, in the minute, in the serendipitous. All this, thanks to the camera, which allowed filmmakers to show what exactly they wanted. The other major realization came thanks to Kuleshov Effect which showed that the power of cinema lay in its montage. By being able to control the tone and tempo of the narrative, filmmakers seduced the audience slowly into the world they were creating. And thus the central artist of the film was not the actor anymore but the director. Welcome to Auteur Theory.

I started reading Zia Haider Rahman's In the light of what we know, my interest piqued mostly due to James Wood's loving review, and for all that's nice about the book so far, not least its immense erudition and immersive voice, I can't help but flinch at the portions where the author walks out of the story to point to the readers his act of creating the story. I suppose a few years ago, this was vogue. The recurring images of film crew in A Taste of Cherry come to mind and how Kiarostami used them to point to the viewer the artificiality of it all. Initially, I was in awe of this brilliant conceit, like when I came across Calvino's If on a winter's night a lonely traveler where the writer literally guides the reader, but now it only irritates me. I know, I made a short film with friends about friends talking about making a short film with friends, but I'll be the first to admit it's no great idea. If anything, its overused, cliched and lazy. I don't know when this sort of literature caught on, that of writing about a writer's inability to write, but I think its time for us to move on.

The first and foremost requirement of all art is the suspension of disbelief from the audience. We know this isn't probably real, that this was rehearsed and fine tuned and that all emotions that we feel during the course of a film is the director manipulating us into feeling it. And yet we latch on because if only for a few fleeting moments, we want to escape from the prison of our heads and try understanding what it feels to be someone else. Well, it could be argued that even if we were to know what it feels to be in someone's else's shoes, it would still be Us Thinking Like Someone Else. That is what my rational mind tells me, that I can't escape the tyranny of being stuck in my own head. To paraphrase Nietzsche,  it's the unbearable burden of being. But yet, the romantic within me refuses to subscribe to that thought completely. Ebert called cinema a machine that generates empathy. I am a believer in the psychotherapy theory that says that we don't see things for what they are but we project our feeling onto them and see only a reflection of our moods and prejudices ( Rorschach Test ); Which again is what Advaita Philosophy seems to suggest.

I have assumed for sometime now that all art is just a fantasy to provide meaning and narrative to randomness and complexity. I am a fan of well written artist profiles, especially those of filmmakers', and I frequently compare my childhood and growing years to theirs, searching for similarities and attuning myself to the things they did differently so that someday I can be a filmmaker myself. But even while reading it, and though it satiates me at a very surface level, I can't come to believe that their lives could be so neatly divided into episodes. Dreamy childhood, troubled adolescence, young adult age plagued with doubt and existential queries, and finally a decisive moment that makes them realize their destiny and act in way of fulfilling it. When I read that Linklater watched 600 films a year at one point in time, or that Wes Anderson started directing shorts since the age of 8 or that Tarantino watched every film in his video library and writes like a possessed man, I think that's all I have to do be the next big thing. Yet, once I get to emulating them, I'm tormented with all sorts of doubts popping into my head, my mind wavering while watching a film, my laziness while facing an empty page. It is easier to dream of myself as the next big thing than it is to dive deep into myself and understand the basis of my thoughts, ideas, dreams and actions. For all my liking of learning and my curiosity in a lot of eclectic things, I sometimes question myself if I really have enough love for the art/craft to pursue it at the cost of everything else, like a possessed man. Like a true artist.

I often wonder what my are motivations for doing what I do. I like telling myself and others that the end of an action should be the process of doing the action itself. I don't know how that philosophy came into my head, I suppose from a collection of sources ranging from Bhagvad Gita to Sufi Philosophy, and Camus' The Stranger to Zen Buddhism, but I don't know if I believe in it all the time. Well, to begin with, as much as I had a great time making Based on a True Story or while writing 90s Blues, the fact that I started doing it in the first place was because of the romantic notion of the artist in my head. And the fact that I had to let a few thoughts out of my head to make space for more, newer ones. The process of creating in itself is more relieving than exhilarating. The writing just flows at times, but more often than not it is a labour of love, including procrastinations, frustrations and every artists's perpetual companion- self-doubt. For everything I've written or made, I have been plagued by thoughts of audience's reactions and the worth of the piece itself. And it is probably because of these things, that a subconscious switch went off in my head, and I tell myself even if no one likes it, I can always use it as a historical document to see what I was like at that point in time.

Now back to where we started off. What is art and why do we pursue it? Taking that question up another level, what's life for after all? Some tell me I'm here to attain realization and become one with the creator. But what sort of a creator would create me and then see me struggle and fight and ultimately realize that all this is Maya and I should transcend it. Sometimes I feel burdened with the prospect of living and growing into a grumpy middle-aged family man, a life full of compromises and unfulfilled promises, only to see it all go away as I enter the dusk of life. And yet at other times I feel I'm going ahead of myself, that for all my plans and expectations, life's going to happen the way its going to happen in real-life while I'm busy doodling and day-dreaming. The point of it all is still unclear. There's a certain artificiality to real-life as well. Like when you go meta and look at your life through the prism of art and narrative fiction. Both, the most methodical of directors like Kubrick and Anderson, and the free-flowing directors like Linklater and Jarmusch, consciously control as much as they can without strangling the inspiration but no matter how hard they try, they can't point to the source that bids them into doing what they do. The illusion of control is as real as it can get.

Like I said earlier, I detest it when an author talks like a character in a piece. And yet I do probably it because I'm an egocentric git and would like to bring it to your notice that I wrote this piece. But did I? Am I not just a scribe? The original title of this piece was 'the thing about acting' but now after all this meandering, I'm changing it. Because living is acting itself, in the strictest sense of the word. Wasn't it Shakespeare who said, "All the world's a stage, and all men and women merely players"? That man was onto something. And yet the bizarre thing about life is that even when we realize that all this might be a puppeteer's play, we can't decide if that's the real emotion of the actor or an actor playing a character who's supposed to think that.

2 comments:

  1. it is rather broad than deep. Tightly written stuff squeezed properly into the few hundred words.

    ReplyDelete