I wrote this for Tehelka back in June 2008.
The Charulata Water Park
VERY EARLY in Nayak (The Performer), a mid-career Ray masterpiece, then reigning Bengali superstar and Jude Law of North Calcutta, Uttam Kumar is washing his face (which we don’t see) in a train compartment. The character is that of a hugely popular actor, modeled on him at the time, heading to Bombay for a glamorous premiere but he has to take a second-class seat in an ordinary train because all flights are cancelled (what a pity socialism had to end in India. Great cinematic material is lost). His minion informs him that his recent opus has not done so well at the box office because people are now tired of the movies; there is so much else to do (I think that was a bit optimistic for 1970s India, but then again, perhaps I don’t know enough about Ludo or Morarji Desai speeches). He concludes by saying that the film may have had a few good songs, some exotic locations, a reasonably plausible story but that was it. “What else did it have?” he asks in regal Bengali. That’s when we see a close up of Mr. Kumar’s face, weary and famous, as he wipes his brow with a rag and turns to the camera and says, in a black and white art-house frame: “It had me”.
It is rare for us to go to the movies for a person, I don’t mean that in terms of stardom a la Shah Rukh Khan or Will Smith, but in terms of an entirely unique, sometimes deranged, always original cinematic voice. To watch a film to see what a person has done to a known idea, how they’ve created a thoroughly new world within ours, how they have transformed a mundane fact or moment into brilliant freshness, is more an exploration of a cinematic mind than the film itself. In the world of Spiderman franchises and animated Gods, why John Cassevetes lit only the side of Gina Rowlands’ face and let the room linger in darkness near the end of his classic, Shadows, is of no consequence. Yet in a different world, Roman Polanski’s Macbeth was called that because in the heyday of the auteur, what Mr. Polanski would do to Shakespeare was of far more interest to that audience than a well-known story of a Scottish assassination.
The 1950s-era auteur theory holds that a director’s films reflect his or her personal creative vision, as if he or she were the primary “auteur” (French for “author”). It was coined by former critic, creator of the French New Wave and the man responsible for depicting the most charming rascals in world cinema, Francois Truffaut — probably to describe himself, because he may have found “film director” a petty, bourgeois term.
Part of the problem is that the world now calls them movies. A concoction of some visual form, somewhere between a video game, a music video and an advertisement. It is an ideal accompaniment to snacks and a couple of hours in a velvety lounge resembling the first class of a fancy airline, ideally enveloped within a large mall stuffed with luxury merchandise. A movie, thus, is a product, somewhere between a Nike shoe and a chicken hot dog, albeit with a higher expectation to entertain.
For Hollywood, Bollywood and everybody else in the movie business, the unique vision that led to the astounding wit of Woody Allen, the vast complex circus of minds in Robert Altman, the suffocating language of Jean-Luc Goddard, the high-brow politics of upper class domestic infidelity in Satyajit Ray or Mike Leigh’s broken Britain, all belong to that forgotten form called cinema. Some movie moghuls would say, it was a suspect art form to begin with, that died somewhere near the end of the 20th century, probably in Paris, thanks to repeated assassination attempts supervised from LA board rooms.
And with good reason. Auteur cinema, Big Hollywood would argue, cannot be packaged and pre-sold on a star’s reputation, cannot be talked of in terms of audience surveys or target markets, doesn’t make sexy action figures, and more than often, doesn’t make for exciting rides at theme parks. As much as I’d like it, The Wind That Shakes The Barley Ferris Wheel — a crazy, fun-filled water ride through the Irish independence struggle — is not showing up at Disney World anytime soon.
Auteur cinema’s biggest drawback is that, like everything else in the world today, it can’t be summed up in one sentence. Hollywood lore goes that the pitch for the $4 billion mega-blockbuster Pirates of The Caribbean went something like this: “Last Of The Mohicans meets Braveheart, in Antigua, with Johnny Depp. In tights.” It is true that the idea for the movie came from a roller-coaster ride at a Disney park. It’s the first time in the history of the world that an architect is getting a screenwriting fee for an original idea.
The hilarious HBO show, Entourage has a wonderful bit when an actor portraying a loosely-veiled version of bad-boy producer Harvey Weinstein says, “I hate the world cinema section at Cannes. It’s filled with directors whose names I can’t pronounce, who are probably homeless. They all have beards, speak French and talk shit all day. About ugly foreign people in unknown foreign situations. Their movies have ten-minute shots of someone pouring a glass of water; it’s stupid. And usually black and white. I’d rather eat a cheeseburger and take a nap. Give me Quentin Tarantino any day over this nonsense”.
That comment, while partly exaggerated, is insightful about Hollywood’s fear of the auteur. A fine line exists between an auteur and a nonauteur. Many would argue that Tarantino is an auteur and would gladly have his movie sit (as it has) in the world cinema section, next to the Iranians and Chinese who inspired him. Many working auteurs have made one great film that defined their vision (Amores Perros, Yu Tu Mama Tambien, Momento) and have then gone on to work on huge Hollywood films with equal ease and brilliance.
On to the case of the insane genius. Nowadays, movie producers expect a director to own clothes, to be a sane human being and have logical progressions of thought, not unlike an investment banker or a television show host. Here’s the issue: Some auteurs were clinically mad, some aspired to it. All tended to avoid the expected. Woody Allen, as is widely known, tried to sleep with his adopted daughter. Wes Anderson never flies. Ingmar Bergman left his fifth wife for an uninhabited island, so he could catch up on his reading. Visconti used to shoot his neighbours with plastic pellets, protesting he had run out of good ideas. Stanley Kubrick used to walk down highways outside London dressed like a hobo, knock on doors, claim he had got lost in his thoughts and ask for money for a cab ride home.
I’m not claiming that big blockbusters are better or worse than auteur cinema. That is left for better people than I, namely, the critics. I believe that genius, madness, and art co-exist, usually, in one person. Art will never be the outcome of consensus, democratic voting or popular appeal (otherwise, pornography would be the only survivor). If the loose term “cinematic genius” needs to survive, it needs to co-exist with the term “business” and not be shut down by big money because it has naked, ugly people, shows war too cruelly, or is in Turkish.
In another Entourage episode, Billy Walsh, an auteur director, is so adamant about not showing his film till he feels its ready, that he roams around shirtless with the only original reel taped round his neck, and often escapes buildings on stolen motorcycles screaming “f…k commerce”, when producers come around asking how their money is being spent. If that reel, when run, shows us Day For Night or Charulata or Gosford Park, I wish for many more Billy Walsh’s because, as Oscar Wilde put it: “an art that has lost all its madness, has also lost its reason”.