Wednesday, April 09, 2008

On Plays , Movies and Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock once said that the silent movie is the purest form of cinema. The first time I read this quote, I dismissed it as a nostalgic remark of one who yearns for old fashion to return. It seemed ridiculous to claim that the addition of dialogue could detract anything from a film.
In retrospect, I think the reaction betrayed my lack of appreciation of the differences between theatre and moving pictures.

A play is a form of literature, notwithstanding the fact that it is primarily meant for performance rather than reading. Its success hinges almost entirely on the script penned by the playwright. The art of the Cinema on the other hand is not tied to language. It is essentially a montage of moving pictures that aims to provoke emotions among the audience. Silent pictures fulfil this criterion admirably. Unlike a play, a silent picture is universal in its appeal. Unlike a play, it influences the audience not by means of dialogue but by enabling the viewer to draw connections between a sequence of moving frames. It is no wonder that Charles Chaplin was the most recognizable face in the world in the twenties and thirties as his brand of pantomime transcended the barriers of language and culture.

However, the distinction between cinema and theatre became blurred with the introduction of sound in the late twenties. The cinematic style pioneered by silent film went out of fashion. Films became increasingly talky with a greater emphasis on dialogue and the performance of actors than on music and cinematography. Hitchcock, a director who came of age in silent films during the twenties decried this -
In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema: they are mostly what I call "photographs of people talking" . . . One result of this is the loss of cinematic style, and another is the loss of fantasy.'
The difference between a play and a movie became very apparent when I rewatched a couple of old favourites last week - Maltese Falcon, a fast paced film noir starring Humphrey Bogart, and Rear Window, one of Hitch's evergreen favourites. The former, though a fine yarn with superb performances, is not cinema. It is essentially a play that heavily relies on dialogue to convey the plot. Rear Window, in contrast, is a film driven almost wholly by visuals. Though it contains a lot of dialogue, it is possible to comprehend the movie in mute. Dialogue is used mainly to impart humour and develop characters and not for explaining the plot.

The coming of talkies also prompted filmmakers to focus more on content than on style, a development that was diametrically opposed to Hitch's 'content doesn't matter' dictum. Dialogue was used as a medium to explore themes that would've been beyond the reach of silent doyens like Murnau. Hitch nevertheless stayed away from dramatic material and stuck to the suspense/mystery genre as it enabled him to give full scope to his cinematic style. Ofcourse, he paid a heavy price for it as the Oscar Academy preferred substance over style and assiduously avoided his films every year.

The tendency to celebrate substance over style still very much persists among critics and moviegoers. This is especially noticeable in India where off-beat serious movies like Taare zameen par are glibly hailed as masterpieces with little regard to their actual cinematic merit. Whereas exceptionally well made light comedies and thrillers such as Bheja Fry and Johnny Gaddar seldom enjoy similar critical adulation or comparable box office success.

The first question audiences invariably pose while deciding to watch a movie is - "What is it about?". I wish they'd rather ask "How well made is it?"


Interesting point of view :). Although I personally rank substance over style :). Just as an aside, I was involved in a performance once - where we didn't use any words. It was for an hour, and it wasn't a mime. We just explored situations in life where there wasn't anything needed yet to be said or there was nothing left to be said :)
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