“I don’t really care for films that are simply photographs of people talking” - a quote variously attributed to Alfred Hitchcock or to earlier film directors
When I was a younger, much more opinionated movie buff, I used to have strident views about what is “cinematic” and what isn’t.
I loved the works of the great visual directors — from silent-era masters like F W Murnau and Buster Keaton to others, like Hitchcock, who made their best films in the sound era but who knew how to tell a story primarily through camera movement and skilful cutting rather than relying on dialogue. And I tended to disparage movies that amounted to filmed literature or filmed theatre — where the camera played second fiddle to the spoken word.
But over the years I’ve come to realise that the distinction between a “cinematic” film and one that’s “photos of people talking”, though useful, can be highly simplified. I was watching Mike Nichols’ film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf recently; this Elizabeth-Taylor-Richard Burton starrer is a very faithful adaptation of a successful stage play (and a wordy, four-character play at that), but it struck me that it was cinematic in its own way, given the constraints of the material. It made very judicious (sometimes startling) use of close-ups, and there were fluid camera movements and point-of-view shots. All of it added up to an experience that would have been very different from watching the original play.
Which brings me to a conversation with the veteran art director Robin Das, who has handled the set design for many theatre productions at the National School of Drama. At one point, Das told me about the mental adjustments he had to make during a brief assignment on a movie. When doing up the interiors of a small room on the film’s set, he would be instructed not to bother about every square inch of space, or every shelf on every wall; the exact camera set-up had been decided beforehand and the film’s audience would only get to see a specific portion of the room. It took some time for him to get used to this slapdash approach. After all, he had cut his teeth on lavish stage productions where set design had to be treated holistically: what if a viewer chanced to look at a prop placed at the edge of the set, instead of fixing his gaze on the centrestage action?
But of course, unlike the theatregoer, a movie viewer is at the mercy of what the camera chooses to show him. He has less freedom.
Or does he?
Jacques Tati’s superb 1967 comedy Play Time is one film that contradicts this idea. Set in an “alternate” Paris that’s made up entirely of pristine glass-and-concrete buildings, this is a movie that demands multiple viewings if you want to appreciate it fully, for the simple reason that many sequences have several different bits of action going on within the same frame. There are long shots where the viewer is free to look at whatever he chooses, and this freedom is heightened by the fact that the film has no “story” as such; it’s made up entirely of tiny sub-plots. Instead of protagonists whose actions can serve as focal points for us, there are groups of people who walk in and out of the frame.
Play Time is a film that contains very little dialogue and doesn’t at all rely on words to get its point across, but it is also, visually speaking, very minimalist — at least when compared to movies that are more obviously “cinematic”. For me, personally, it was a reminder that it isn’t wise to make sweeping statements about what an art form can and should do. There are many different types of cinemas, and one should just be grateful for the best examples of each.