On Thickness and Thinness in Cinema

It is a long acknowledged axiom, vividly demonstrated as early as the films of the Lumières in the late nineteenth century, that the documentary element of cinema is a crucially important source of its power. “Every film,” Godard said famously, “is a documentary of its actors.” But the significance of the documentary qualities of fiction films goes beyond actors, indeed beyond human beings photographed by the camera. Places, landscapes, cities, dwellings, objects, clothes, animals – the unimaginably rich and varied non-human world – form a wonderful source and resource not only of images, but also of knowledge. Fiction films can acquire special, unique value when they draw from this resource, when they build into their images and sounds the details of the physical reality of the world at large.

When I was in India recently, I sought out a new thriller-drama that’s been getting a lot of national attention: Kahaani, directed by Sujoy Ghosh. One key reason why it has been praised as something special is that it was shot mostly on location in the streets of Kolkata, taking place in various neighborhoods of this remarkable city that have rarely been captured in a fiction film. To put it in perspective, the geographic diversities of cities like New York, Paris, London and Hong Kong have been vastly better represented in cinema, and Kolkata is undoubtedly in their league both in terms of size and its urban, architectural and human richness. So, for me, a film such as Kahaani represents a rare and wonderful opportunity. In addition to working as a genre film, it strives to give us a great variety of little-seen images of one of the world’s most vibrant cities.

But Kahaani – which does not exist in isolation but is part of a trend in filmmaking today – disappoints deeply on this count, for one reason: its maddeningly quick editing. A shot rarely lasts more than a couple of seconds, and no sooner than we get a bare sense of a fresh, intriguing urban image, the film cuts to a different shot – for no discernible rhyme or reason except the terror of allowing the audience to concentrate on the image, of giving it time to think. I’m not being hyperbolic here. An interview with the editor of the film confirms that the objective of the editing was to keep the audience from solving the narrative mystery on its own, and thus to rush it from one image to the next in order to guarantee a surprise ending.

Kahaani’s rapid editing and its close framings (especially in dialogue scenes) are very much in keeping with the practice that David Bordwell has named “intensified continuity.” But what do we lose of cinema’s documentary value – despite the extensive presence of actual locations – with the use of fast cutting?

One way to begin thinking about this question can be found in Lesley Stern’s terrific new monograph-book, Dead and Alive: The Body as Cinematic Thing. The book is devoted to the depiction of dead bodies in cinema – specifically, in three films: The Reckless Moment (Max Ophüls, 1949), Japanese Story (Sue Brooks, 2003) and Vagabond (Agnès Varda, 1985). She analyzes in detail the scenes in which a dead body appears in each film, and captures the effects that this body has upon the temporality of the film. For Stern, when life escapes from the body, a certain kind of time enters the body – and the film. Diegetically, the characters are dead, but their bodies persist, often in extended scenes. Due to their presence, and because of the films’ use of duration, these shots and scenes slowly “fill up” with time.

The problem with Kahaani is that, by using quick cuts, the film does the opposite: it thins out the profilmic reality of Kolkata. Shots are never allowed to build up a ‘documentary strength’, to fill up with time, to thicken.

The enormously successful Slumdog Millionaire (2009) suffers from a similar problem. The horrific (but complex) reality of Dharavi, the large slum that served as a key location and setting for the film, is thinned out not just by fast editing but also the use of hand-held camera, which produces an unstable image, making it impossible for the viewer to absorb its full detail in the brief instant for which the image appears. The documentary feebleness of the images that results from this fast and restless shooting style is only reinforced when accompanied by A.R. Rahman’s effervescent music. These formal qualities are absolutely of a piece with the other problems of the film, including its valorizing of individualism and chance, and its lack of interest in hinting at any larger, structural reasons for the material inequalities of the world in which it is set. (Mitu Sengupta’s pieces are essential reading for those interested in the film.)

When films such as Kahaani and Slumdog Millionaire tout their ‘realism’ of setting, it comes off as opportunism, especially when everything about the style of these films actively works against the viewer’s full registration of their onscreen reality. Such films squander the immanent power of this reality, reducing it to thin and weak documentary decoration.

Any thoughts or suggestions on fiction films in contemporary cinema that strongly capture a sense of place? I’d love to hear them.

* * *

Some links:

— FYI, a couple of my pieces have appeared online since my last post: Sam Roggen interviewed me on the topic of cinephilia at the Photogénie website run by the Flemish Film Culture Service; Dennis Lim invited me to contribute to the Museum of the Moving Image “moments of the year” collection (part one; and part two); and I wrote my first long-form essay for LOLA – on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2012. All of LOLA 3 is now up.

Adrian Martin’s essay on teen movies kicks off Teen Movie Week at the Spanish cinema magazine Transit. Pieces will be appearing throughout the week, in both Spanish and English versions.

— (via Joe McElhaney) A 2007 Cahiers du cinéma list of the 100 essential films for an “ideal cinema library”.

— (via Ehsan Khoshbakht) A great tribute to the way the sky has been rendered in cinema, at the blog Matte Shot, which is devoted to the work of matte painters of the Classic Hollywood era.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on “workflow” in contemporary filmmaking.

— Several new posts at Zach Campbell‘s blog Elusive Lucidity.

Jonathan Rosenbaum on Michael Roemer, “the best Jewish director you’ve never heard of”. Also: Jonathan’s DVDs and Blu-rays of the year. Finally: Serge Daney’s 1982 text “Too Early, Too Late,” translated by him.

— A couple of dozen critics construct their fantasy double bills at MUBI.

Richard Brody: “The December issue of Cahiers du Cinéma has a terrific dossier in which a group of critics sketch out “the ten pitfalls of the auteur cinema.” It’s a fun read and a trenchant—and, for the most part, well-aimed—critique.”

— De Filmkrant’s Slow Criticism 2013 dossier, including pieces by Adrian Martin, Richard Porton, Dana Linssen, and others.

— At Photogénie, Tom Paulus’ piece “Olivier Assayas: Global Cinephilia and Operational Aesthetics”.

David Bordwell rounds up some of the books he’s read recently.

Comments (26):

  1. girish

    February 4, 2013 at 6:51 pm

    David Bordwell's new post begins:

    "In January of 2012, while shooting The Other Sea, Theo Angelopoulos was struck by a motorcyclist and died soon afterward. In August, Tony Scott committed suicide by jumping off Los Angeles’ Vincent Thomas Bridge.

    Both men mattered to cinema. But which cinema?"

  2. Nathan

    February 4, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    Another detestable film theoretically built on "gritty" "realism" with a sense of "locale": City of God.

    One recent film that's stood in opposition to this in quite interesting ways is Alain Gomis's "Aujourd'hui." It's had pretty good reviews so far in France, though I have no clue how well it's doing financially. It charts the last day in the life of a man in Dakar (played by Saul Williams, whose presence partly makes the film), who will die for reasons unexplained but accepted by all the characters. He wanders around the streets of Dakar, moving from goodbyes to his family, to his friends in the streets, to his first lover, to his best friend…
    It's full of languid rythms and a few haunting scenes, but seems to be working at cross-purposes: on the one hand, the fable-like structure of the film weakens it, makes it into a "circle of liiiiiiiife"-type "journey" of undifferentiated humanism, where no one really has anything characteristic; but on the other, many of its street scenes are captivating precisely because they breathe, because they provide very humane visions of a city that has not been filmed much, so that the film is at its best (observational, full of the very specific detail of city life and cityscapes) when it is going against its own ambitions. Quite an interesting case study.

    (Personal tangent: I'm back at home, hopefully not for too long, and so I've decided to start blogging in French, where one of my posts so far has been about this film. Do you or any of the people who read this blog have experience of bilingual blogging? I'm still trying to figure out the paramaters of carrying out this work on two fronts…)

  3. Peter Labuza

    February 4, 2013 at 7:04 pm

    This is an interesting take, Girish, and I certainly agree. One film that perhaps manages to do both – use intensified continuity as well as capture a city – is Jonathan Demme's "The Truth About Charlie." A lot of its quick paced digital photography does dislocate the spectator and kind of loses you to its images, but there's also something else going on. Ie. Demme is using his camera to veer away from the narrative, to focus on details of the various multicultural elements and forgotten alley ways of Paris. He places them against each other; this classic Hollywood narrative that's constantly interrupted by this changing cityscape that evokes both the new and the old (through the cameos of the French New Wave). Compare this to the awful moment in "Charade" (a pretty good movie otherwise, I feel) where Hepburn goes "Look! It's the Cathedral!" and the camera whips up to say "Hey how awesome we brought these movie stars to Paris." Donen shows Paris; Demme lives it.

  4. Laurent

    February 4, 2013 at 7:17 pm

    Serge Daney provides an interesting counterpoint with the concept of "rapid contemplation" in John Ford's movies. Not quite an example in contemporary cinema but I think it shows that speed and "thickness" are not incompatible.

  5. Jonathan Rosenbaum

    February 4, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    Thanks once again, Girish, for a fascinating post–and, belatedly, particular thanks for your excellent Toronto coverage in Lola, as well as your generous links. But I'm afraid I've been running into a brick wall whenever I try to order the Stern book on Caboose's web site, which appears to be malfunctioning (unless I'm doing something wrong myself that I can't figure out). Anyone else having this difficulty?

  6. girish

    February 4, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    Nathan, blinigual blogging sounds fascinating. I'm sorry I know nothing about it, but perhaps you will blog about your experience exploring it. I've long wanted to maintain a small Hindi-language blog (to stay in touch with the language, since I speak or read or write it so little in my everyday life now) and your question is now giving me some ideas …

    Also, what you say about the street scenes "breathing" is just what I missed in KAHAANI and SLUMDOG …

    Peter, I've seen a lot of Demme (CITIZENS BAND, for me, is one of the forgotten masterpieces of the 1970s) but not CHARADE. Now I'm very curious to check it out…

    Laurent, thanks for posting the link. I'd not read that essay before…

    Thank you, Jonathan. I received Lesley Stern's book as a gift from a friend, and didn't order it online. But if I hear or come across any clarification about the ordering process, I'll be sure to drop you a line.

  7. Jonathan Rosenbaum

    February 4, 2013 at 9:43 pm

    I've subsequently ordered the Stern as an e-book (which is cheaper and quicker) to read on my Kindle–and Timothy Barnard, who runs Caboose, emailed me that I'm the only one who's ordered it so far. He's promised to investigate the problem further.

  8. jeni thornley

    February 4, 2013 at 11:02 pm

    Hi Girish – a great blog! Thanks. In a recent re-viewing of Agnes Varda's 1962 'Cléo from 5 to 7' , (not a contemporary example, but worth a look) , I was struck by the extent to which Varda is also filming as a documentarian. Varda herself describes the film as “the portrait of a woman painted onto a documentary about Paris.”

  9. caboose

    February 4, 2013 at 11:11 pm

    To clarify Jonathan's problem a little, we made some changes to the "structure" of the shopping cart a few days ago – after some successful transactions for the Stern and Gaudreault books – and discovered only today that it was malfunctioning. So for the moment yes the shopping cart on the caboose site is doen, my apaologies to Joanathan and everyone else, and thanks to Joanathan for alerting me. These are annoyingly cantankerous little things these shopping carts and we've been trying to get all the bugs out for weeks.

  10. David T. Johnson

    February 5, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    Your post raises an interesting point here, Girish, because it suggests to me that concepts we talk about a lot in relation to documentary, credibility and viewer trust, might equally apply to narrative cinema in the way you outline it here. I’m thinking this especially applies when one sees a film from an area where one has never been. For instance, lately, I’ve really enjoyed two films directed by the South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-Dong, Poetry and Secret Sunshine, but I’ve never been to either of the towns depicted in the films. I have a sense of the neighborhoods there that emerges as the film unfolds, whether in the older woman playing badminton outside her apartment home in Poetry or the widow’s piano-lesson business/home in Secret Sunshine, but I can’t possibly verify, in either case, that what I’m seeing is close to the reality of what it depicts, since I’ve never been to South Korea. But I trust that neither film is lying to me—or if it is, it’s doing so in a way that doesn’t distort my perception about South Korea or these people and their environments in particular. Like any act of trust, however, one always risks being fooled. But for me, with those films, the risk is well worth it.

  11. David T. Johnson

    February 5, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    As a follow-up, Jeni, I wanted to mention a film you've probably seen but well worth tracking down if not: Varda's _Remembrances_, available on the Varda Criterion boxset. It's a terrific essay-film very much in the spirit of lot of her recent work, and she reflects quite candidly there on her experiences making Cleo (and on place in particular).

  12. girish

    February 5, 2013 at 8:11 pm

    Thank you, all!

    Dave, I've never heard of REMEMBRANCES, and will definitely check it out.

    Peter, sorry, I meant THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE, and not CHARADE…

  13. David

    February 5, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    Nathan, that is an interesting question that you have raised regarding bilingual (film) bloging. Just through browsing your profile I see that you have two blogs "Uncommitted Crime" and "Du Fond d'un Naufrage", one in English and one in French.
    I find that it is more audience-friendly to have only 1 site, instead of 2. And if you are planning on writing in English and in French, it is good to know that you have an audience for that.
    I plan on putting up some old Positif pieces in the near future, which would be more for the fun of it.

  14. Nick

    February 6, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    Girish, excellent post that gets at the heart of the relationship between editing (and more specifically shot length) and affect. I do wonder if there is some connection between the strong "feeling" of place in a film and its shot tempo. Two films that come to mind are Antonioni's The Passenger and Van Sant's Gerry (I find myself shaking sand out of my hair after watching these) and of course both are long-take films. And yet, I perhaps age myself in these selections; perhaps a strong cinematic sense of place, and how that's even imagined, is generational.

  15. girish

    February 6, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    Thanks, Nick. What a "Sandy Cinema" double bill that makes! I remember seeing both in large, crowded theatres, and have vivid memories of them. Your idea of a cinematic sense of place being generational is really thought-provoking…

  16. girish

    February 8, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    Film Forum in NYC is showing a series of films from 1933. What a fantastic year for movies this was!


  17. Nidhi

    February 9, 2013 at 5:21 am

    Namrata Rao is a repeat offender. Have you seen Shanghai (dir: Dibakar Banerjee) also edited by her?

    The atmospheric middle portions of the film meant to signify the helplessness, anger and loneliness of the bureaucrat played by Abhay Deol contemplating the tough choices before him, are filled with shots that aren't allowed to linger. The abruptness of the cuts is jarring, as if the editor can't wait to get back to the 'action' and thinks the audience would become restless if the shot lingers any longer.

    Have you seen Shanghai? Would love to read what you thought of the editing.

  18. girish

    February 9, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    Hello, Nidhi. I've not seen SHANGHAI, but you nail the feeling I had when watching the sections of KAHAANI that were meant to be 'contemplative'. I was surprised to discover via interviews with her and Sujoy Ghosh that she had considerable authority and autonomy in cutting the film (I think it's quite rare for an editor to have such a large 'authorial' influence on a film), so your characterization of her as a "repeat offender" makes perfect sense here.

  19. Nidhi

    February 11, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    SHANGHAI was salvaged by its director Dibakar Banerjee who seems not to have given his editor total control. Like I said, the middle portions were somewhat ruined by abrupt editing (and it is more obvious in the scenes with Abhay Deol in them, because they are excellent, quiet scenes) but on the whole the film is an excellent mood piece. Do watch!

    Do you remember the scene in Kahaani where Vidya first reports her husband missing to the inspector at the police station? I don't know how it was shot, but it was edited to remove any pauses between her sentences. The editing is so painfully obvious in that scene (and many others). I thought the whole point of a thriller was to build slowly to a frenetic climax but this film showed plenty of impatience right from the beginning.

    Thanks for this piece. I thought I was the only one who realized the emperor wasn't wearing any clothes (on social media, she is praised by cinephiles as the best editor in Bollywood today).

  20. girish

    February 11, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    Fascinating, Nidhi.

    And thank you for the recommendation on SHANGHAI: I will make sure to see it!

  21. Anonymous

    February 13, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    Umm… seriously? Kahaani is a 'thriller'. A thriller – a book, film, play, etc, depicting crime, mystery, or espionage in an atmosphere of excitement and suspense. So you really want Kahaani to 'build' slowly to a frenetic climax? I'd rather have it at the pace it is, which is 'exciting'. Not have long, lingering pauses does deny it of a documentary strength, yes. But I believe that IS the intention of the film-makers. It's a suspense thriller based in Kolkata and not a documentary about the city And it works, and how. Try a repeat viewing and you might get the point.

  22. Nidhi

    February 23, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    Dear Anonymous

    Don't lie. You don't watch many documentaries, do you?

Comments are closed.