Between Reviews: An Analysis of Film Analysis

Posted on August 8, 2009


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If filmmaking is damned difficult, evaluation isn’t the easiest of things either. Here’s why.

AUG 9, 2009 – THE USUAL GRIPES I GET about my reviews – you know, that they’re too long, too analytical, too dense, that they employ too much wordplay instead of getting directly to the point – I can do little about. If you’re a regular reader, I guess you’ve by now gotten used (or resigned yourself, depending upon your point of view) to the fact that I don’t profess to be in the business of making you rush to the theatres based on my verdict. Even the star-rating is a (debatably) necessary evil that I assign based on a cryptic formula that’s essentially the square root of Personal Taste divided by Directorial Ambition, added to Random Individual Components of the Movie, all to the power of whatever prime number strikes my fancy at that particular moment. In short, venture out at your own peril.

But one aspect I do wish to address is why I prefer to look at the overall film rather than going at it piece-by-piece, talking about individual performances and the cinematography and the editing and whether the sunset was really captured at the “magic hour” or digital trickery was involved. It’s not that these aspects do not interest me. It’s just I have no way of knowing how these aspects came to be. Let’s, for instance, take the editing, which is as important in the post-production stage of a film as the writing is in the pre-production phase. If a series of scenes doesn’t play well, do I take issue with the writing or the editing? The editor’s handiwork, after all, comes into effect much after the writing, so perhaps the editor flipped around a reaction shot or two that undermined the writer’s intent.

In one of my favourite passages from Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies, the great director writes, “I’ve read that a certain picture was ‘beautifully edited.’ There’s no way [a critic] could know how well or poorly it was edited. It might look badly edited, but because of how poorly it was shot, it may in fact be a miracle of editing that the story even makes sense. Conversely, the movie may look well edited, but who knows what was left on the cutting room floor. In my view, only three people know how good or bad the editing was: the editor, the director, and the cameraman. They’re the only ones who know everything that was shot in the first place.” Along similar lines, the appraisal of other components of a film, say the writing, is a similarly iffy proposition. Did the line come out corny because it was written corny (namely, the writer’s fault) or was it delivered in a cornball fashion (ergo, the actor’s fault)?

That’s why I rarely drop behind-the-scenes names other than that of the director, who is, to quote the cliché, the “captain of the ship.” It is he that shapes the writing and okays the performances and has the final say on the editing, besides approving camera placements and suchlike. That’s why I prefer to say, for instance, that the film was “nicely written” rather than “nicely written by so-and-so screenwriter” – because, for one thing, perhaps all the zingers were courtesy the light boy who kept the set in splits, and secondly, whatever was written was according to the director’s specifications, so it’s perfectly legitimate to praise (or blame) him and only him. Just like you attribute the success or failure of a firm to its CEO, a film is slave to its director’s vision, and an overall analysis of whether it worked or not, courtesy this director, is all that a critic (who’s unaware of the actual goings-on during the making) can realistically hope to grab a hold of, rather than attempting to rate piece by problematic piece.

The reason behind all this soul-baring – other than, of course, the compulsions of filling up this week’s column space – is my recent review of the godawful Luck, which was hyped as the debut vehicle of Kamal Hassan’s daughter Shruti. From what was there on screen, she seemed truly comfortable only while performing in the after-credits song sequence (which probably owes to her real-life roots as a musician). She was otherwise just… uncomfortable. The lines didn’t sit well on her lips, but then no other member of the cast (including the veterans) survived the dialogues either. As for her gaucheness in the emotional scenes, it’s the director’s responsibility to guide a newcomer, isn’t it? And above all, this isn’t exactly her film, say, the way Saawariya was Sonam Kapoor’s. Shruti was simply part of an ensemble.

Given all this, I directed my ire at the director rather than the newcomer-actor. And the minute the review was published, everyone wanted to know one thing and one thing only: How was Shruti in the film, and why didn’t I rate her performance? And they wanted answers along the lines of “good” or “bad.” I guess this column is directed to all those who asked. By now you know that my reviews don’t exactly scream out a one-dimensional “good” or “bad” without getting into a truckload of hand-wringing, so it should come as no surprise that the answer to this question, too, is preceded by, well, a truckload of hand-wringing. Filmmaking is damned difficult, and by extension – especially given the number of elements that go into a movie – evaluation isn’t the easiest of things either. Sometimes you do need words, lots and lots of them, and never mind the gripes.

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Posted in: Between Reviews