Martin Scorsese’s recent essay on Federico Fellini makes a very important point about what cinema is
When you see certain films, you sense the presence of a director. And to me, that is the crux of defining “cinema”: whether it’s been made by a “director”.
Given his essays for mainstream publications, Martin Scorsese hasn’t been a happy man for a while. In 2019, in the New York Times, he wrote a lengthy clarification about why he felt the Marvel movies weren’t “cinema”. And now, in an exquisite piece on Federico Fellini in the March issue of Harper’s magazine and “the lost magic of cinema”, he reiterates the point. In talking about Fellini’s films, he talks about what “cinema” is (in his opinion) and what it isn’t.
In the broadest sense, everything created using the tools of the medium – i.e., cameras, editing machines, sound equipment, actors, lights – is “cinema”. But that’s also like saying everything printed on paper and glued together with a spine is a “book”. Even if it’s only academic (or maybe “pedantic” is the word), there needs to be a way to say “this book is literature” and “this one’s not”. That’s what Scorsese is getting at with cinema.
Some might say that Scorsese is the kind of person who is stuck in the past, romanticising the rotary phone where every call you got was an “event” because you did not know who was at the other end, and this quickening of the pulse can never be felt with smartphones that instantly display who the caller is. But I think what he means is important. I don’t mean to sound like a gatekeeper. I don’t think gate-keeping is the business of a critic at all. And yes, every film should be defined by what it sets out to do. For instance, if a “masala movie” is being the best “masala movie” it can be, then it’s a success on its own terms. Sholay, to me, is great... “cinema”. And yet...
Let’s do the devil’s advocate thing. Why do we need this differentiation of what is “cinema” and what isn’t? Isn’t it a kind of snobbery? As long as we “enjoy” something, who cares about categorisation? Why do we need labels at all? In this age of varied content, do we still need to stick to the notion of cinema as the “seventh art”, after architecture, sculpture, painting, music, literature/poetry, and dance? (It is, of course, a combination of all these arts.)
These are all valid questions. But I feel there is the need to separate a well-made “product” from “cinema”, and Scorsese defines this well (I am paraphrasing): What’s essential to “cinema” is the unifying vision of an individual artist. And this unifying vision is more than just a kind of sameness, a signature, a formula. It has to, with the way the artist uses the art form. Scorsese says: “You can say a lot of things about Fellini’s movies, but here’s one thing that is incontestable: they are cinema. Fellini’s work goes a long way toward defining the art form.”
This is the crux, I feel. It is in the last section of the essay, and I found it the most important part because I have been wrestling with this question for a while. And the simplest way I define “cinema” is that I feel it deep in my bones. It’s not just about telling a good story. It’s about how that story is told. Craft is everything. Form is everything.
This is not to say that I don’t enjoy, say, a Drishyam 2. I loved the film. I had a great time watching it. But it’s a writer’s film. It’s all about plot. It would work just as well as a radio play or as a theatre play. It’s not “cinema”. Here’s what Scorsese says about 8½: “Fellini made a film about film that could only exist as a film and nothing else—not a piece of music, not a novel, not a poem, not a dance, only as a work of cinema.”
PS Vinothraj’s Pebbles, which won the Tiger Award at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam: now that’s cinema. It wouldn’t work in any other medium. If you heard it on the radio, you’d hear long stretches of silence and wonder what was going on. And it’s not just these art-house films. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: again, that’s cinema. When you see these films, you sense the presence of a director. And to me, that is the crux of defining cinema: whether it gives you the sense of having been made by a “director”. (And I don’t even need to like the film very much. If there’s a sense of it being well-directed, if it has what Scorsese calls the “exhilaration of Fellini’s love for the art,” it is “cinema”. )
Here’s Scorsese, from a television interview when he was at Cannes to present The King of Comedy: “If the camera doesn’t necessarily need movement, then why move it? It’s the frame. It’s who’s talking in the frame, who’s in the frame with that person or is that person alone in the frame? And then, if he is in the frame (or she is in the frame), [then] where? At the bottom of the frame or at the top of the frame? And if they walk away, do you go with them: whole camera tracking, or do you pan? Or do you let them go out of frame? And which way do they go out of frame? There’s tons of questions. What looks like a very simple shot has many, many choices to be made as a director.”
To state the obvious, not every viewer needs all this information, all this “where to put the camera?” angst, all this feeling deep down in the bones, to define what’s cinema and what isn’t. But it’s something else to see the story being told through purely cinematic means, through the language of cinema. And I think –to some of us, at least – that makes Scorsese’s point worth mulling over. Yes, a bullet-point blog post may cover the same points as a well-written essay. But though the “content” is the same, the form isn’t. As Scorsese says: “The cinema has always been much more than content, and it always will be...” And that’s what this is about.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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