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December 3, 2006

Our Films, Their Films by Satyajit Ray

ray_ourfilms.gifOur 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. In the end, 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."

This entry is part of the Film Criticism blog-a-thon, hosted at No More Marriages!. Please visit the site for a list of all participants.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 03, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Film Related Reading


This just went onto my Christmas list. I didn't realize Satyajit Ray was such an avid viewer and writer. Thanks for posting this.

Posted by: davis on Dec 05, 2006 11:48 PM | Permalink

Yes, a wonderful exposure to one of my favorite filmmakers. I envy your attention to detail, not only in film, but in film writing.

Posted by: Maya on Dec 06, 2006 3:02 AM | Permalink

Thanks, davis and Maya. Indeed! Ray was not only an avid viewer and writer, he was also a graphic artist, children's book author, composer, jack of all trades. He was actually employed in the publishing trade at first (as an illustrator and editor, I believe), but was also actively involved with the local film club, and when he went to London on a work-related assignment, he caught a screening of Bicycle Thieves and decided that he could make Pather Panchali and not need a big budget either. Anyway, the essays in the book are articles that he wrote for film journals and correspondences to the film club. The other part of the "Our Films" are more like diaries from his experiences with scouting and shooting his films. These articles are closer to his My Years with Apu book in tone.

Anyway, Ray's one of my very favorite filmmakers too, and probably the one who I most aspire to as a human being... very cultured, intelligent but accessible, well-rounded, humble. It's a noble character that definitely shows through his films.

Posted by: acquarello on Dec 06, 2006 9:09 AM | Permalink

This one is one of my all time fave books... Ray was an eminent writer, particularly in writing detective and sci-fi ones. I think few are already translated in english.

@acquarello - For years your site has been my priority # 1
for referring to films (hardly I missed any of your reviews -infact I saw many after going through your comments)..
this is a good time to pay my thanks n gratitude :))

Posted by: debanjan on Dec 06, 2006 7:56 PM | Permalink

Thanks for the compliment, debanjan, it's much appreciated. In hindsight, I'm glad that I bought this book in hardcover. It's such an engaging read that I can already see coming back to it over and over again.

Posted by: acquarello on Dec 07, 2006 8:52 AM | Permalink

Another example where the best critic happens to be a filmmaker too. I like this idea of a musical inspired criticism. I've once asked Girish what would look like film criticism based on jazz improvisation. Actually I would prefer an experiment disconnected from direct musical references (a Mozart comparison is unfair...), but observing the film components through musicology analysis (harmony, rhythm, tonality, melody, counterpoint, consonance/dissonance, modulation, alteration, symmetry, synchrony/diachrony, inflexion, gradation, interpolation, difference, repetition, dissolution, stratification...) because cinema is very much like music in that it composes with time and movements.
This book was on my to-read list for a while, now I have to buy it. Ray's one of my very favorite filmmaker too. The insights in these quotations so pertinent. This is indepth-analysis that gets right to the heart of the matter. I appreciate you giving us these samples.

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Dec 09, 2006 9:33 AM | Permalink

Hiya, Harry, you're right about differentiating between musical references and actual syntax. I think Ray makes a good differentiation between the two as well, since he bases his observations on commonalities of structure rather than just general "impressions". It makes sense this way too, since there are certainly elements within a musical piece that can also be classified as auteurist, so it's interesting to see Ray work through his arsenal of cultural analogies that are not just film-based.

Music-inspired criticism sounds fascinating to me too. I'm pretty much from a straight literature influence, so I don't have the vocabulary or the background to do something like that, but I'm willing to bet that Girish or Culturespace could come up with something pretty snazzy.

Posted by: acquarello on Dec 09, 2006 12:05 PM | Permalink

Yes, Ray's confrontation of cinema with music, other arts reminds me of the inter-disciplinarity of Bazin's insights. That's what I like about it.

My background comes from pictural history and I'm not a musician so I'm lost with musical references too, but I'd like to see this approach developped. I'd love to read Girish and Michael's take on this.

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Dec 10, 2006 1:35 PM | Permalink

Apologies for coming to the discussion so late, fellas. This is an interesting topic. I haven't thought too much about music-inspired film criticism, but I think many parallels can be drawn -- to some degree in the technical terms Harry mentions, and in the sense that narrative is like music: an idea is presented and then developed over time. And you might say that filmmakers who create abstract narratives are doing something quite similar to composers/musicians who develop in abstractions (experimental jazz, 20th-century classical composers like Stravinsky).

I think there's also a "qualitative" method as well, emboided in Ray's allusions to Mozart and Beethoven. Something like "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" has a great descriptive quality to it, and I think writing about music in this manner is as valid as writing about music the way professional music critics do (which, generally speaking, involves more formal and technical analysis). In other words, someone like Beethoven certainly had a keen sense of architecture, and an impressionists, qualitative account of this could be very compelling -- in the same way that a film critic could write a compelling account of film using the same approach.

Combining the two is interesting, and Ray's doing something in those passages you quote that we don't often see in art criticism in general -- a pan-artistic approach, as opposed to thinking within one artistic medium. It's a good idea in a lot of ways because impulses often transcend a single medium; so, for example, some of the same qualities you might find in painting or music will appear in literature and film, and vice versa.

A nice post, acquarello; I had no idea Ray wrote things like this.

Posted by: Michael on Dec 13, 2006 5:59 PM | Permalink

Thanks, Michael, I agree with you about Ray's pan-artistic (great term) approach to critical writing. It's one thing to be versed in several cultural arts, but it's quite another level of comprehension (assimilation?) to be able to tap into all of them interchangeably and not compartmentalize the information the way that Ray does. He can hone in on an artist's structural qualities empirically, distill it to its essential form, and be able to identify their aesthetic kindred spirits who are using other modes of expression. That's more of an abstract or conceptual knowledge than an algorithmic one. It's genius! :)

Posted by: acquarello on Dec 14, 2006 12:53 AM | Permalink

Most erudite. Satyajit Ray was a true Renaissance man.

Posted by: derek mcahon on Jul 13, 2010 5:00 AM | Permalink

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