How a viewer benefits from knowing the plot of a film, through the lens of two titles at MAMI 2019

Does it matter Oliver Laxe's Spanish film Fire Will Come gives us a mere hint of plot, whereas Konkani drama Kaajro (Bitter Tree) gives the entire plot away?

Baradwaj Rangan October 24, 2019 13:37:59 IST
How a viewer benefits from knowing the plot of a film, through the lens of two titles at MAMI 2019

Oliver Laxe is at the Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival with Star, with O Que Arde (Fire Will Come). The Spanish drama premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes this year, and it won the Jury Prize.

How a viewer benefits from knowing the plot of a film through the lens of two titles at MAMI 2019

A still from Fire Will Come. Twitter

This is exactly how the film was described in the synopsis on the Cannes web site. "When Amador Coro gets out of prison for having provoked a fire, nobody is waiting for him. He returns to his home town, a small village hidden in the mountains of rural Galicia, to live with his elder mother, Benedicta, and three cows. Life goes on calmly, following the rhythm of the nature. Until the night when a fire devastates the region." Now, you may have some quibbles with the English (which was corrected in the MAMI brochure; for instance "home town" is now "hometown"), but you come away with a sense of the film, which is the whole point of a synopsis.

Now, consider the synopsis of Nitin Bhaskar's Konkani drama, Kaajro (Bitter Tree), which played in the India Story section at MAMI: "Tilgya belongs to an untouchable caste. His ailing wife dies just as his village is celebrating the annual festival of Dussehra, marking the triumph of Lord Rama over Ravana, of good over evil. Debarred from participating in the festival procession, Tilgya is forced to leave the village with his dead wife's body." This is the entire story of the film. Now, why would a filmmaker give away the ending? One reason could be that this movie is less about what happens than how. The whole film is shot in one take — it's a stunning technical feat. That's easily its most impressive aspect. The characters and the interactions between them fade in comparison.

Different filmmakers have different theories about plot. Jean Luc Godard, unsurprisingly, didn't care much about it. When told that movies should have a beginning, a middle and an end (apparently by  Georges Franju, the director of Eyes Without a Face) at a symposium in Cannes, Godard replied, "Certainly. But not necessarily in that order." Most of his films stand testimony to this sentiment. The "plot" is essentially a clothesline to support a series of Godard-isms. (His contemporary, François Truffaut, was more of a "plot" person.) Stanley Kubrick said that a film should be more like music than fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later. Kubrick wants you to have the experience first, like music — which has no "plot" to speak of.

I love this notion of film as music. Take Beethoven's Symphony No 5, one of the most famous pieces of Western Classical Music. The ominous opening — three short bursts followed by a longer note (da da da daaah) is instantly recognisable. And what follows is transcendental. But what is the "plot"? According to Beethoven's secretary, the composer intended the ominous opening to mean "fate knocking at the door". Others say that this opening motif is inspired by the sound of Yellowhammer birds in the parks in Vienna. Then we have the theory that it's not so much ominous as heroic, reflecting the state of Europe at the time, bursting with the idea of revolution. Google says the fourth movement quotes from a composition by French Revolutionary War army officer, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, who also wrote 'La Marseillaise', which would become France’s national anthem. But at the end, today, most of us listen to this music without the faintest idea about its "plot". Without this anchor, the music becomes purely sensory — and pure art. If we evaluate it at all, it on the lines of "this melodic passage is exquisite" or "that rhythmic transition is so wonderfully unexpected".

Returning to cinema, then, does it matter that Fire Will Come gave us a mere hint of plot, whereas Kaajro gave the entire plot away? I think there are two ways to approach this question. The first is from the viewpoint of the general (or casual) viewer, i.e., someone who is basically watching a movie to find out what happens. In other words, he or she wants to watch the plot unfold. And for this viewer, the synopsis of Kaajro is going to spoil the experience. (By revealing the synopsis in this piece, am I guilty of the same crime, too? I'd say no, because this kind of "casual viewer" is probably not going to be reading such a piece in the first place.)

The other way to look at this question is through the viewpoint of the film-festival viewer, who is more interested in the art form. By knowing as much as possible about the plot (what it is about), this frees you up to concentrate on the other aspects (namely, how the film goes about narrating what it is about). And now, we are "free" to appreciate the single-take technique, and so forth. Of course, if the film hinges on a reveal ("Bruce Willis is a ghost!"), then yes, revealing the plot is just not acceptable. But I would argue that you can still enjoy the film, in an entirely different way, if you know the end before going in. The destination becomes an afterthought. Now, it's only about the journey.

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).

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