Sunday, November 23, 2008

Metafilm, or when cinema gets self-conscious

It is not difficult to explain to an avid filmgoer the joy of watching illuminated faces of people in a cinema house from the front row. Movies create a world so fascinating, so magical, that some people just like to dissolve themselves into that world for hours. Nothing else appeals to them. Out of all modern means of entertainment, cinema is so powerful that it has become an integral part of human life; so much so that some people remember or associate important events in their lives with reference to movies.

One wonders how important the invention of kinematoscope was. Without it there would have been no Kurosawa, no Bergman, no Satyajit Ray, no Hollywood, no spaghetti westerns, no sholay, no make-believe synthetic sentiments, and no nauseatic celebrity scoops. No wonder cinema today has become a mammoth business enterprise; and most of the movies are, sadly, not art, but products. There are all kinds of films: sad, feel-good, noir, romantic, depressive, horror, hard-core action, you name it, but there are also times when cinema gets self-conscious, and looks inside to see what is actually going on. It is this self-reflexive activity that churns out films about the process of making films. And one such amazing film is Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night.

Its name refers to a cinematic technique of giving an illusion of night, while the actual shoot takes place in daylight. The story is simple: a film crew is trying to make a film called “Meet Pamela”, which is surely going to be a stinker of a film. Truffaut himself plays the director in the movie, and from the moment we see him, he is crazy busy, and his only concern is to finish the shooting as soon as possible. He is partly narrating his experiences of making “Meet Pamela” to the viewer. In one scene he says “When I started shooting, I wanted to make a great film. Now I just want to make a film, period.”

Day for Night shows the difficulties a crew faces while filming: personal and professional. When I started watching, I had mixed feeling about the film, but it turned out to be one charming experience. Beautifully shot at locations near Nice, in a fictional studio created for “Meet Pamela”, the process of shooting, the re-takes, the frustrations of actors, the laughter on the sets, the after-shoot romantic affairs, the ever changing script, the artificial snow in summer, death of an important star, a hysterical actress and her doctor husband, these are some of the snippets that make for a wonderful story in itself, far better and ambitious than the one the crew is seen shooting. Near the end of the film Truffaut’s character tells to the agonized actor: “people like us are happy only in making movies”. I was wondering how the process of making films, of being on the sets, and enacting the lives of unseen characters act as a potion for the glossy, but hollow lives of few actors. The film crew including actors, the producer, set designers, the director, among many others gather like a big family; they shoot the film, they go through difficult relationships like every family does, and eventually they leave each other once the shooting is done. An aging actress laments about how funny lives they (actors) lead. How many times have they married on screen? How many times have they died on screen? It may give a pointer to a thinking viewer about movies and their relation to life, or at least to the lives of those who make them. It is not a deeply thought-provoking film, but it points to the now-famous notion that behind the scenes things are not as glitzy as they are on screen.

In the film Truffaut’s character is seen dreaming about stealing publicity posters of Citizen Kane as a young boy. The scene clearly shows the inspiration movies have had on him. It reminded me of yet another beautiful film directed by Italian Giuseppe Tornatore: Cinema Paradiso.

Cinema Paradiso is a cinema-house in an old Sicilian village. The beauty of the film lies in the way love for cinema is depicted, almost nostalgic. Salvatore goes through varieties of loves during his life-time, but it is the love for cinema that gives meaning to his life. The projector room of cinema paradiso where his fatherly friend, the projectionist (played wonderfully by Philippe Noiret) teaches him things about life, movies, and off-course running the projector, becomes the most beautiful and nostalgic image in the movie, resonating a love, not only Salvatore, but we all share with cinema. Some critics will argue that the movie relies heavily on sentimentalism, and that is true. But it is told with so much passion and beautiful imagery that I couldn’t help but watch it over and over again. Most of the aspiring directors will see themselves in Salvatore, and one can also note that how a stranger can help you realize your destiny (if at all one believes in any such thing as ‘destiny’), and how, in one way or other, cinema can give purpose to one’s life. Salvatore goes through difficult choices in his youth; circumstances make him leave behind his first lover, and even though he becomes a director and fulfills his desire of making films, his life remains empty. The older Salvatore flings with a lot of women, and in every woman he is searching for that young girl whom he loved whole-heartedly as a youth. It symbolizes a simple understanding that life fulfills your one desire at the cost of other. Moreover, I loved the relationship between the projectionist and Salvatore: they were like father and son, like master and student; one seasoned in life and other very tender, passionate youth who is yet to encounter the bitterness that life reserves for all. The dead projectionist leaves behind a gift for Salvatore. The final scene when Salvatore encounters that gift was the most touching moment in the film, and yes, I came into the spell of sentimentalism. Cinema Paradiso left me smiling.

Films are important to those who make them. But there are individual cases wherein life means nothing, or has lost its value, and all that remains to keep one going is a projector-lit screen. Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo is a tragicomic, magical look at one such life. It concerns Cecilia (played by Allen regular Mia Farrow), a waitress working at the time of Great depression in America, who goes to watch movies to escape her bleak, loveless life. We see her watching films with dreams in her eyes, and a look on her face that tells that there is noting more to life that this moment.

Once there is screened a film called ‘purple rose of cairo’ whose hero Tom, an archeologist (played by Jeff Daniels) breaks the fourth wall and emerges out of the black and white screen into the real world, and falls for Cecilia. It is a magical situation and a dream come true for Cecelia. Tom is the most ideal lover she can ask for. He is almost child-like in his innocence, and never flirts with other women. In one scene in the film, Tom mistakenly drops in a whore-house where one aged whore asks whether there are other men like him anymore; but when the actual actor who played Tom on screen appears, an unusual love triangle forms between them. As the film comes to its conclusion, Tom has returned back into the movie, and we see Cecilia alone, dumped by the actual actor who played Tom. She sits in the theater hall watching the “cheek-to-cheek” dance sequence from Top Hat, absorbing herself into the ideal world of moving images, and forgetting, only for a moment, about her grief in the real world. Purple rose of Cairo is one of the few films I have seen that shows how the hyper-real replaces the real.

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