Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Analyse This”

Posted on July 22, 2011

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The extent we engage with cinema has as much to do with the kind of films we watch as the kind of people we are.

Whenever you dive into cinema, whenever you gnaw at a scene like a dog with a rubber bone, a few questions invariably crop up: Why analyse? Why analyse so much? Did you find these meanings, these subtexts, on your own, or did the director put them there? It’s easiest to answer the latter, that I have no way of knowing if the director put them there because no filmmaker comes up with a book of annotations that’s handed out as you purchase tickets for his film, like a playbill for a theatrical production, stating that this scene actually means this and that shot actually means that. And even if you did speak to a director and he told you what he intended with a scene, there’s no guarantee that the execution retains this intent. On paper, a lot of filmmakers mean to do a lot of things, but given the vagaries of the shooting process and the skill of actors and what’s kept or thrown out during editing, there’s no saying if the director’s intent translated itself to screen, at least in a way that can be discerned by you, the viewer.

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In the absence of this guarantee, the only meanings we take away from cinema are the ones we ascribe to it, during our very personal viewing experience. As viewers, we have one of two choices, to sit back and let the film wash over us without entering it, engaging with it, or to enter it and engage with it. Both are entirely valid approaches to watching movies, and it essentially boils down to the kind of person you are. While at a restaurant, there are those of us who view food as mere background to a social encounter. The point is not what’s on the plate but who’s in the opposite chair. We order from the menu, we eat, we comment casually on the food, we leave. Then there are those who can walk into a restaurant alone because the only thing they care about is the food, its taste, its texture and colour, how it compares to another preparation from elsewhere, the kaleidoscopic rapture as they close their eyes and linger on every bite. With food, no one brings up the “why analyse” question. It’s accepted that food, to different people, means different things.

But with films, the general understanding seems to be that you’re a bit of a pedant if you look at, say, Antonioni’s Blow-Up and find in an early scene the semblance of a sexual act. The scene is that of a photographer taking pictures of a female model, and if you’re one kind of viewer, you could just say with a shrug that this is the beginning of the film and so it’s only natural that this man is introduced to us, and because he’s a photographer he needs to have something to shoot and the model is just that something, nothing else. It’s a day in the life of the protagonist and he’s taking photographs and there’s nothing more to this. And yes, you could be right. And if the film that follows works for you on the basis of this understanding, who could argue? Who would ague? After all, it’s your money, your eyes, your mind, your viewing experience. Who has the right to interfere with that?

But when the other kind of viewer sees the same film, he might be intrigued by the way this photographer goes about his shoot, the way he makes the model lie on the floor, the way he straddles her and lowers himself, camera constantly clicking away, the way she responds by writhing beneath his splayed legs, and the way he switches off and walks away after he’s got the shots he needed and she’s still lying there, as if spent. This, to the other kind of viewer, is a mirror of the sexual act (a voyeuristic sexual act even, given that we are watching him wielding his camera through the director’s camera), and it seems too specific to be about nothing more than a day in this photographer’s life. The question then becomes: If Antonioni just wanted to introduce the photographer, why do it in so specific a fashion, when he does, elsewhere, have him taking pictures of faraway models in frozen poses? And that’s a question I don’t have an answer to, and it’s possibly a question even the director does not have an answer to.

A lot of the creative process is unconscious and what’s up on screen is only partly intentional, and if you’re the second kind of viewer – even if you’re not a critic with a publication, you’re very much a critic of the art – your job, through your analysis, becomes similar to that of a shrink. You “analyse” the filmmaker’s unconscious and retrofit that analysis to what appears conscious and make sense of the film (if to no one else’s eyes, then at least to your own). And as a critic, you find that this process is iterative. Just as you play shrink to the director, entering his head, the alert reader (or listener, if you’re at a gathering and talking film) enters your head and analyses your unconscious, for an insight on why you responded to the film the way you did. Looked this way, it does seem a lot of work, but it actually isn’t because this process happens on its own, without your consciously willing it. You don’t go to the theatre and say, “Okay, I am going to pick this scene and analyse it now.” The scene picks you. It just happens. It’s as much a function of what the film is like as the kind of person you are.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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