“Cinema and Literature”

“Cinema and Literature”

It is fairly well known that in literature, the relationship between signifier and signified is a main locus of art : the poet is building constructions that, on the one hand are composed of sounds (signifiers) and on the other, of meanings (signified), and the relationship between the two can be fascinating. In fact, much of the pleasure of poetry lies in the dance between sound and meaning.

But in the language of cinema, what we have is a ‘short circuit sign’. The shot of a table, for example, is extremely close to the image of that table which, in turn has an iconic relationship with the actual table. I am fond of quoting Christian Metz who summed up the phenomenon in a memorable phrase, many eons ago. He said, “Film is difficult to explain because it is so easy to understand”. In other words, the distinction between signifier and signified is almost non-existent and this is what distinguishes cinema from literature.

Cinema is also not a language, but in effect, like a language. Whereas in literature one moves gradually from the abstract towards the concrete, in cinema we begin, as it were, from the concrete and literally stay there for a long time before, perhaps, venturing in the direction of the abstract. What I mean is, the letters of the alphabet that make up the words in literature are the abstract symbols: the ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’s, the alphas, betas, gammas and the ‘alifs’, ‘be’s, mims’ and ‘lam’s. These abstract symbols construct the words and if one knows the language and can read the script – be it Greek, Cyrillic, Arabic or Brahmi – the words hit the cerebrum and one creates in one’s mind eye, an image of the word which leads to a comprehension of the meaning of the word and eventually to a concrete image of the object signified by the word. All this happens in a trice but in cinema, what you shoot is immediately projected as what you see, thus investing the beginning process in cinema with a degree of concreteness that is the very antithesis of the ontological process in literature.

Apart from this basic hiatus, the nature of cinema – its character and ontology – makes it quite for removed from literature and this leads to a very different exposition of metaphors, metonymies, tropes and such figures of speech. Cinema is essentially not metaphoric as a medium – the use of metaphors as in the case of Harihar’s death in Ray’s “Aparajito” or the sudden appearance of the owl in Bergman’s “Summer Interlude” seem rather heavy handed. Use of the metonymy as exemplified by the shapes on the walls of Giuliana’s room in Antonioni’s “Red Desert” seems much more cinematic.

And it is here that one, intentionally or otherwise, meanders into a cul-de-sac of sorts. What, indeed, qualifies as cinematic? I think, it is in the fitness of things that one pays heed to the philosophers of the postmodern condition and of the post structural, particularly the latter. I refrain, therefore from providing definitions. As Derrida has rightly pointed out, any attempt to define, or even explain, the concept of deconstruction would defeat the very exercise of demonstrating how any kind of linguistic communication is characterized by radical uncertainty and is, in that sense, writing.

So, no definitions for the moment. But what can one say about cinema? All I can say is that cinema – is general – tends towards a kind of subversion. In fact, subversion in cinema starts when the theatre darkens and the screen lights up, because the cinema is a magical place where a combination of psychological and environmental factors lead to an unlocking of the subconscious, perhaps even of the unconscious. The moving picture represents a shrine at which modern rituals rooted in atavistic memories and subconscious desires are acted out in darkness and seclusion from the outside world.

While dwelling on what may tentative be called cinematic, the theoretician Sigfrid Kracauer has touched upon a whole host of issues including the view that for artistic realization on celluloid, every literary work needs to be transformed. At the core of this contention is Kracauer’s opinion that cinema is uniquely equipped to record and reveal physical reality and hence gravitates towards it. And so, the essentially metaphoric nature of literary rumination needs to be transmogrified, as it were, into a different form for it to be truly amenable to cinema.

Let us begin with Shakespeare. And focus on Hamlet in particular. Having seen different film versions of the same and at least two extremely competent theatrical interpretations at Stratford-on-Avon -- the latter featuring Susannah York as Gertrude, I think I am in a position to delve into the nature of this transformation from theatre to cinema. Among the many cinematic interpretations of Hamlet, Grigory Kozinitsev’s version has become the most famous, not only because of the spectacular performance by Innokenty Smoktunovky in the eponymous role but also due to the sensitive use of the Russian milieu, the zeitgeist and, indeed, of the weltanschauung of that time. What strikes one right between the eyes is the authenticity, the honesty of depiction, and indeed, a propensity for realistic portrayal that contribute towards making this a film that is at once true to Shakespeare and faithful to cinema. This is also true of Kozinitsev’s “King Lear” where the gentle use of expressionism in the overall
mise-en-scene does not in any way, detract from the authenticity of the tract. Lawrence Olivier, in his version has a novel way of dealing with the famous soliloquy from Hamlet. Consider the lines:

“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.
To die, to sleep; to sleep; perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause:”

A soliloquy can be brilliant on stage but on screen, it can easily become an embarrassment. Olivier makes the text an interior monologue in that Hamlet here does not speak the lines but in fact remains brooding, as the lines are heard in his voice. This goes well with the essentially existential nature of his ruminations.

Mention must be made of Jean Luc Godard’s landmark interpretation of “King Lear” (1984) in which the narrative is deliberately subverted in order to make way for more unique cinematographic configurations to emerge. As is quite well known, Godard created a dialectical synthesis of mise-en-scene and montage – theories that had governed film theory for long. In fact, Godard rethought the relationship so that both montage and mise-en-scene can be seen as different aspects of the same cinematic activity. And so, he managed to redefine the limits of realism so that we not longer focus on plastic reality [the filmmaker’s concrete relationship with his materials or on psychological reality (the filmmaker’s psychological relationship with his audience) but on dialectical reality] (the filmmaker’s dialectical, or conversational relationship with his audience). Godard, therefore, is talking to his audience – his work is less a unique creative exercise and more an interactive tool in the fashion of Barthes’ view of a text that is less a personal statement from a Godlike author and more a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture. Clearly Godard was moving in the direction of the poststructuralist approach that sees the text as a site rather than an originating presence. In his “King Lear”, he uses the essential framework of power and domination to construct a complex political matrix of quotations, allusions and contemporary references. The appearances of Norman Mailer, Woody Allen and the ubiquitous can (not of worms but of film) serve to legitimize the interruption, contradiction and refraction which thought not strictly Brechtian are certainly useful in engaging the viewer in an interactive exercise.

Interacting with the celebrated British writer John Fowles in Downing College, Cambridge, I found that he was not happy with most of the adaptations of his work including that of the “The Magus”. The possible exception was “The French Lieutenant’s Women” (1982), the screenplay for which was effected by Harold Pinter. What must have been particularly difficult in the realm of adaptation is the fact that Fowles’ novel was at once a Victorian novel and a novel about Victorian novels somewhat in the fashion of Godard’s debut film, “Breathless” (1960) which was a gangster film and an essay about gangster films. Pinter did not employ the traditional and somewhat hackneyed technique of using a voiceover or an anchorperson, a narrator – as it were – and instead made it a film within a film, somewhat like Wajda’s “Everything for sale”. Mrinal Sen’s “Akaaler Sandhaney”, also, comes to mind. “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1982), therefore has two parallel stories, that of the film being made and the film within the film Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons who play the eponymous roles have to also participate in an extremely original denouement in which Pinter excels himself. There are two endings and they, in a sense fittingly, contradict each other. The happy ending of the Victorian tale of Sarah Woodruff and her French lieutenant contrasts with the tragedy of the American actress who has to disappear from the life of her actor boyfriend. In this context, it must be stressed that Pinter has been one of the very best screenplay writers of our time, excelling in the use of cinema as a medium and suppressing somewhat his own playwright persona, indeed a difficult task for a creative mind that has been – arguably – one of the greatest in the arena of British drama. Films that immediately come to mind are Joseph Losey’s “The go between” (1971) and “Accident” (1967). Along with Stoppard whose script for “Shakespeare in Love” is a tour de force of no mean proportions, and Jean Claude Carriere whose work for Bunuel has always been fascinating, he forms a formidable triumvirate that has been influential in the history of modern cinema.

Tonino Guerra, the Italian screenwriter, also deserves notice, not only for the pioneering work that he did with Antonioni in the ‘60s and’70s but also for the remarkable screenplay that he jointly produced with the redoubtable Andrei Tarkovsky, namely, “Nostalghia” (1983), strictly speaking not a screen adaptation but – in fact – a realization on celluloid of an original idea derived from history. It concerns a Russion poet, Gorchakov, who is in Italy researching the life of the eighteenth century peasant musician Pavel Sosnovsky, whose master sent him abroad to study music; he was a great success in Italy, but when he returned home, back to serfdom, he turned to drink and finally committed suicide. Gorchakov is accompanied in his search by an interpreter, an emancipated though dissatisfied Italian blonde, and the relationship between them, especially against the background of the memories of home which torment Gorchakov are only tremulous threads that lead to a multilayered cinematic tract of epic proportions. As always with Tarkovsky, a unique coalescing of the cinematic with the literary leads to visuals of a frighteningly beautiful ambiguity, not the least of them being the culminating visual of a modest Russian Landscape seen through a Romanesque Church that has lost its roof, reflected in the little mirror of a patch of water – not even a lake, more a kind of puddle, and there sits Andrey Gorchhakov with a dog. Snowflakes are spinning slowly, again a women’s voice is wailing, we hear a dog howling piteously and read the words: “In memory of my mother. A Tarkovsky”. And so the film ends.

Among the seven films directed by Tarkovsky, only three have literary precedents: Bogomolov’s “Ivan”, Stanislav Lem’s “Solaris” and the Strugatsky brothers’ “A roadside picnic”. In all of these, the eventual films have completely transformed the events of the novels to the extent that there has even been no attempt to preserve the spirit of the originals in any form.

This is because for Tarkovsky, cinema is always more than simply telling a story, however well constructed, more than a moral impulse, and even more than a last will and testament. For him, as in his last film, “The Sacrifice”, cinema is an exorcism, a gauntlet flung down to fate, an act of magic, an emanation of his artistic will to act upon reality and change it, change it by becoming a part of it and entering the world on fully equal terms.

To come back to where one began, it is perhaps useful to understand that the several strands of structuralist philosophy could provide clues as to why film is not a language in the sense that English or Bangla is but, in actuality is only like a language. And what of structuralism itself? To quote Michael Wood, “Structuralism in perhaps best understood as a tangled and possibly unnamable strand in modern intellectual history. At times it seems synonymous with modernism itself. At times it seems to be simply one among several twentieth century formalisms…… And at times it seems to be the inheritor of that vast project which was born with Rimbaud and Nietzsche, spelled out in Mallarme, pursued in Sassure, Wittgenstein and Joyce, defeated in Beckett and Borges, and is scattered now into a host of helpless sects : what Mallarme called the orphic explanation of the earth, the project of picturing the world not in language but as language”.

In short, structuralism, with is offspring, semiotics, is a generalized weltanschauung that uses the idea of language as a basic tool. To this, if we add Derrida’s qualification that writing – not being a system of positive designations and being, in fact, a chain of negative differentiations, the meaning of any item in the chain is deferred to some point in the indeterminate future, then we can comprehend the truly enchanting nature of cinema which is only like a language.

Before putting up your hand and saying, “The book was better” – something which one does often enough ever since the days of “Gone with he wind” which used the first curse word – “frankly my dear, I don’t it give a damn” – it is important to realize that cinema is indeed something quite extraordinary and in Baudrillard’s world of ecstatic communication, a medium with a difference.

Frankly, man has no divine or secular right to the world. Instead between birth and death he is forced into an adventure for which no happy end is guaranteed. And yet, we tend to cling to such outdated concepts and philosophical tenets as the predominance of Western Civilization, the supremacy of reason, simple causality and so on. Perhaps more appropriate symbols would be those propounded by Neal Postman namely relativity, multiple causality, incongruity and Maya. In effect, a series of concepts almost sadistically devised to repel the conservative mind.

In cinema, there is no scope for conservatism and so every adaptation has to take into account the ethereal, magical nature of this medium. Ray’s Pather Panchali was not a straight narrative, if anything, it was pyramidal in its structure, Ghatak’s “Subarnarekha” is a hydra-headed cinematographic construction of epic dimensions combining eclecticism with a unique visual aestheticism, and Schlondorff’s adaptation of Gunter Grass’s “Tin Drum”, a classic transformation of an appropriately magical text into a symbolic albeit realistic film tract.

To conclude, today’s cinema represents a density that is on the one hand, difficult to comprehend in it totality and on the other, a fluidity and openness that imbues it with a freedom that mere tradition can never approximate. This freedom finds expression, as it were, in the exercises of language dubbing and subtitling which is part and parcel of international cinema.

Cinema, like literature is revolutionary in its essence and its aim is to exist without being measured or weighed by anything but its own self approval.

--Ashoke Viswanathan

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