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|January 18, 1999||
One Hundred Years of Solitude
The reason it is one hundred years of solitude is that great cinema is paradoxical: although it is by far the most complex of the arts, requiring a cast of literally hundreds of technical and creative personnel, it is the solitary vision of a single person that drives the entire thing. And this person, the director, has to be part general, part evangelist, part mendicant; in short, a holy madman (or woman).
The Soviet master Sergei Eisenstein was born in 1898; the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa passed away in 1998. In these one hundred years, in my humble, biased and entirely personal opinion, these two, along with Satyajit Ray, Federico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, Luis Bunuel, Stanley Kubrick, and Ingmar Bergman, raised cinema to be quite simply the greatest art form of all time.
As was said in an entirely different context, "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre" ("It is magnificent, but it isn't war") what Hollywood directors make is magnificent spectacle, but it ain't art. Even when they are most earnest (as in Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan"), their work is predicated on what will be popular. Market research dictates how a film might end, for example. Not too depressing an ending: bad for the box-office.
The American Film Institute recently published a list of their choice top 100 American films ever made, and predictably, Citizen Kane is number one. While I do like Citizen Kane, I think it is vastly over-rated; no doubt, Orson Welles was a very clever man and Citizen Kane is a tremendous film, but his work doesn't rise to the level of absolute genius, which, for instance Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin reaches. For my money, this is the greatest film ever made.
All the more fascinating is Eisenstein's work because he was a true-blue Communist and frequently a propagandist to boot. The Battleship Potemkin, in fact, is film as polemic, for it recounts the stirring, fictionalised story of how the Russian revolution got its start from a naval revolt on this battleship anchored off the port city of Odessa. It is accepted by all the best authorities that propagandists make poor artists, but apparently they forgot to tell Eisenstein.
Eisenstein did more than make polemical film: he invented a whole new element in the semantics of cinema and in the arsenal of the filmmaker -- the theory of montage. Montage was revolutionary at the time of its introduction, roughly equivalent to the impact that Picasso's Guernica had on contemporary art.
Eisenstein had the idea that by rearranging time and space, as it were, through the technique of juxtaposing images via rapid editing, one could create entirely new meanings, or epiphanies, in the minds of the viewer -- these do not have to be explicitly shown in images. This may have some similarity to the concept of rasa in Sanskrit poetics.
As viewers, we have become accustomed to montage now, both in film and on television; but Battleship Potemkin had the impact of a bombshell when it first appeared on the scene. Even today, watching the Odessa Ballet sequence, where a peaceful crowd is charged and massacred on the steps leading to the waterfront, it hits you with the impact of a sledge-hammer. It is, rightfully, considered the single most memorable sequence in all of cinema.
Conflicting images -- the jackbooted feet of the soldiers in unison, a pram with a baby in it speeding down the steps after the mother has been shot, a man dying with his cracked glasses slowly falling -- stun the viewer with shattering urgency, more than words can convey. Battleship Potemkin is a silent film, but it speaks very loudly, going straight for the heart.
Alexander Nevsky was allowed to be completed, and it has a grand battle scene on the ice, reminiscent of Kurosawa's later epic battles. But Ivan the Terrible Part III was destroyed: the mad emperor reminded Stalin too much of himself.
For reasons that are unclear to me, in 1998 Indian art cinema connoisseurs did not pay much attention to Eisenstein, with the single, notable and commendable exception of the International Film Festival of Kerala at Trivandrum, where they held what appears to have been a good seminar.
Akira Kurosawa had a different impact on me: the abstract and philosophical Zen of Rashomon and the manic yet austere majesty of Ran introduced me to the unique worldview and mindset of Japanese culture. I once saw a rather complete retrospective of Kurosawa's films: there can be no doubt even to the casual viewer that Kurosawa was a genius.
For me, personally, although I had been exposed to Japanese literature in translation in Malayalam (The Tale of Genji, Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, Junichiro Tanizaki), I had thought of Japanese culture as vaguely like other east Asian cultures.
Kurosawa's images and his intense humanism remain with the viewer. The images are striking -- the climactic battle scenes in Ran and Kagemusha, the extraordinarily fruitful collaboration with the brilliant Toshiro Mifune, the closing shot in Kagemusha where the shadow warrior, dying, drifts past the fallen flags of the clan that he once headed as a proxy. The outstanding universality of his work, which is at the same time entirely Japanese, is his trademark.
Kurosawa also mastered Eisenstein's montage and battle-scene techniques, but added his own flavour of unmistakable Japanese heritage. Because he was true to his traditions, his work resonates -- and the west returned the favour by adopting his classic "westerns" such as Yojimbo, Hidden Fortress, Seven Samurai, to make famous English films too. For instance, George Lucas' Star Wars is based on Hidden Fortress.
Normally, Indians seem to merely plagiarise, vulgarise, and trivialise. The only good cinema is perhaps that which the director makes true to his/her own tradition. This is what rises above the mundane -- there is no room for poseurs.
True to his Japanese roots, Kurosawa's medieval samurai epics are concerned with the nature of reality -- as seen most clearly in Rashomon, but also in Kagemusha, where a peasant is made the double of a great warlord, because of a strong physical similarity. It is important that the death of the warlord not become public, lest it demoralise the troops.
If it is true that great art requires great suffering, both Eisenstein and Kurosawa did suffer: the former under the whims of dictators; the latter, in his old age, unable to find funding for even his masterpiece Ran, and semi-blind. But what works emerged from the crucibles of these sufferings, in the solitude of these great auteur's minds.
The next hundred years of art cinema should be equally wonderful -- I hope the insidious influence of American culture does not overwhelm the native genius of various nations. I am sure Hollywood will not prevail -- after all, most nations are intensely proud of their traditions, singularly unlike India.
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