Book Excerpt: In Locating World Cinema, MK Raghavendra examines the role of socio-cultural context in a film's creation

MK Raghavendra's Locating World Cinema: Interpretations of Film as Culture highlights the importance of understanding the local context within which a film was created and the ensuing naunces it conveys to viewers.

MK Raghavendra March 26, 2020 10:01:35 IST
Book Excerpt: In Locating World Cinema, MK Raghavendra examines the role of socio-cultural context in a film's creation

MK Raghavendra's Locating World Cinema: Interpretations of Film as Culture highlights the importance of understanding the local context within which a film is created and the ensuing nuances it conveys to viewers. It also examines how the conditions of exhibiting for art house cinema have bypassed the local by transforming into the global art film, and addressing an international audience.

The book delivers this idea through examining the work of renowned auteurs like Japan's Kenji Mizoguchi; Robert Bresson, Jacques Rivette and Éric Rohmer from France; Iran's Abbas Kiarostami; Martin Scorsese from the US; China's Zhang Yimou, and Russia's Aleksei German.

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter, The Engineered Look: The Film Festival Circuit and the Aesthetics of the Global Art Film and has been reproduced here with kind permission from the author.

Book Excerpt In Locating World Cinema MK Raghavendra examines the role of sociocultural context in a films creation

Cover for Locating World Cinema.


On Film Festivals today and how they influence the future shape of cinema

While many of these characteristics (exhibited by new international cinema) pertain to the politics of the film festival circuit, it is also to be expected that some of them will influence the course of art cinema. As an example, there will evidently be films made — which will appeal directly to festival audiences — without passing through a local cultural filter in the home space. The ‘look’ of many films, it may be anticipated, will gain importance over the local (political/cultural) purposes that the films serve. A ‘look’ could also be engineered to simulate the ‘artistic’ in cinema, a signal that the film is ‘art’. Filmmakers from far-flung corners of the world may be tempted by the demand for ethnicity to ‘report’ on their own cultures to festival audiences who are constituted differently from the way art film audiences once happened to be. The proliferation of film festivals keeps a class of festival-hopping film professionals busy throughout the year, and this ‘public’ will have a major say in the impact of any global art film. If a comparison can be made with the older cinema, where the avant-garde addressed an informed and cosmopolitan cultural elite, global art cinema addresses film professionals like journalists and critics who are prone to judging cinema largely in terms of film trends, which they are more familiar with than the high culture that art cinema once demanded some acquaintance with.

On Michael Haneke’s French film Amour (2012), winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes 2012 and Best Foreign Film Oscar

Amour may be described as ‘humanist’, in that it shows concern at the conditions under which the old and the sick are required to live; but the absence of psychological or political nuance leaves the interpretative critic with little to work on. Great humanist works of the past, like Jean Renoir’s films or those of the neorealists, always suggested enough to make audiences wonder at the portrayed relationships, and the one between Ricci and Bruno in Bicycle Thief (1948), once reflected upon by André Bazin, is an illustration. It is the banality of the three-way relationship between Georges, Anna and Eva that makes Amour lack complexity and ambiguity. In characterising the fourth among the seven types of ambiguity, William Empson notes that two or more meanings that do not agree can sometimes combine to make clear a complicated state of mind in the author, and this is arguably what auteurs in cinema had sought to emulate.

On Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Turkish film Winter Sleep (2014), winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2014

The relationships in Winter Sleep are well drawn because of finely etched performances, but the slightness of the conflicts is difficult to conceal. Aydin and Necla come into conflict with each other, but there is hardly any deeper exploration of the divide between them than the irritation of two people bored with each other. There are, for instance, no property issues between them, or issues carried forward from their youth or childhood that need resolving. Necla says that Aydin (a former actor) raised expectations of greatness within his family, which he did not fulfil; but these expectations are not spelt out. Aydin just seems like an average, moderately intelligent person, who is not up to anything very important or wrestling with deep personal issues. The conflict between Necla and Nihal is also due to some differences of opinion on ‘philosophical’ matters, such as how evil should be treated. Nihal resents Aydin’s money but uses it in her philanthropic ventures. Aydin treats these ventures as ill-thought-out indulgences and tries to render advice, but this is once again resented. The slightness of the conflicts may be judged from the fact that only one finds a conclusion, the one between Aydin and Nihal, which appears resolved when he brings home a conciliatory rabbit from a hunt after a night when he was out drinking with some acquaintances. Nihal, we are told, married the much older Aydin out of her own free will, but the details — why a beautiful young woman should marry such an old man, or if there was ever someone else — are scrupulously avoided. The film is reportedly based on a story ‘The Wife’ written by Anton Chekov. The similarity rests in the protagonist of Chekov’s story being a rich man with scholarly ambitions being similarly approached through a letter from a distant village for material help. But the letter in Chekov’s story is brutally graphic in its portrayal of the misery of the poor, while the letter in Ceylan’s film only makes a casual appeal. Yet, in spite of its narrative slightness, Winter Sleep exudes gravity like Amour, which is never justified.

On Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014), which won the Best Director Silver Bear at Berlin in 2014 and the FIPRESCI Grand Prize for Best international film

Since Boyhood was filmed over twelve years with the same set of actors, Linklater may have been uncertain about how his actors would turn out, and these uncertainties could have infected his story. The closest film relative of Boyhood is Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle of five films (1959–1979), which all starred Jean-Pierre Léaud. The actor’s persona as a boy is very different from the way it turned out when he became an adult, and the later films suffer after the dazzling 400 Blows (1959). Linklater may have wanted to avoid Ellar Coltrane’s development taking an unforeseen direction and affecting the film adversely; he does not delineate his chief character as strongly as Truffaut does Antoine Doinel in 400 Blows. But despite these doubts, it is still possible to say a few things about the conception of Boyhood. Olivia and Mason Sr. are the most agreeable adults in Boyhood and they are the only ones seen throughout the length of the film. The casting of the film’s only two stars — Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke — as Mason’s parents suggests that Boyhood is intended as a paean to the model American family. We see the two fighting in the first segment, but we are deliberately kept from hearing the words spoken, which otherwise might have made us judge one of them adversely. Although Olivia and Mason Sr. are divorced, we are still persuaded to pair them off in our minds. The good-natured Annie is also correct in her conduct, but the film is ambivalent about her parents who are from the Bible Belt — committed to evangelical gatherings and presenting Mason Jr. with a shot gun on his eighteenth birthday, which his father takes away.

While the individual events (set over a period of 12 years and played by the same actors) were probably thought out over time and the whole story may not have come to the director before he commenced shooting, there are aspects of Boyhood that need commenting upon. This has to do with there being no visible teleology in the narrative: Each crisis is not determining the development of the children and no psychological residue is carried forward from each experience. Every happening in the narrative does not always happen on-screen, and one wonders why some psychologically determining events could not have been placed off-screen, in case they could not be filmed. There are some potential crises in the narrative and one is struck by none of them leading anywhere to actually threaten — and shape — the children. In a sense the children are generic constructs corresponding to people going through ‘normal childhood’ and belonging to a ‘model American family’ in which the parents are mindful of their duties while also being conscious of needing to be individuals, which will serve as models for their children. That the parents are divorced suggests only that parenthood as an ideal is distinct from marriage, which has its own logic driven by another set of needs and responsibilities, and that each of the roles, as a parent and a spouse, needed to be attended to separately. The constant reassurance provided by the father works against the divorce — otherwise representing a past trauma — which might have been psychologically determining in another story.

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