A yellow beam of light flashed through a series of fast-moving square images, the now scattered light then passed through a small circular lens to expand upon a humongous white curtain, creating a beautiful reiteration of reality, lovingly known throughout the years as “CINEMA”.
Movies are an integral part of our lives. They teach us about the many crucial elements of our lives. Those elements are love and hatred, life and death, violence and peace. They also teach us about one of the most important tools of human evolution, a small, three-lettered world called “SE_”,………. Moving on.
Cinema was invented by not just any person, but “Edison”, the man who invented the lightbulb made the first version of the experience possible through his invention of the “Kinetoscope”, which enabled one person at a time to watch moving images in the year 1893 and was popularised around the same time in most public parlours. Kind of a full circle isn’t it? I mean, “Netflix” does the same kind of thing. Following this, The Lumiere’s – French of course, introduced the world to the “sitting-in-a-dark-room-staring-at-the-screen” experience which was not less than freakin’ revolutionary at that time. They accomplished this by their invention of a wonderful device called the “Cinematographe” , which was a camera and projector in one box. The first so-called movie show was just 50-second footage of the “arrival of a train at La Ciotat” , which coincidentally is the short’s name. The first reactions were not a fresh 86% score on rotten tomatoes, but the running out of the theatre by a terrified audience because they were sure the train was going to run over them. Kind of a full circle moment, isn’t it? Early 3D had a similar reaction. The moving film mechanism, which I assume you are familiar with, unless you were born in 2010, was inspired by the working of a sewing machine. So, when you go watch the 45th Batman kicking the 26th Spider-man’s ass while an 87 year old Tom Cruise flies a rocket into a black hole for “real” in his 50th instalment of the MI series, deep down you have to remember that this is possible only because a 70-year-old granny was sewing a shirt for her grandson. (Oh! And also, Akshay Kumar is making a biopic based on Ranveer Singh’s energetic life.)
In the early 1910s, this craft started spreading fast across the seas, with many nations inducing their cultural influences in their respective movies. Pre WW1- France, Italy, Russia, and Germany were the major players when the Americans were still not on the map. German Expressionism influenced by Italian Futurism was in a steady incline steered by the firm hands of Robert Wiene and Ernst Lubitsch. Movies started to get influenced by political ideologies and were entering the phase of subtle propaganda. World war had a major influence on movies at that time.
And BAM!! 15-20 years in the going and silent black-white movies continue to cherish the audience with different ways of engaging storytelling. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton’s respective “Tramps” made the audience laugh hysterically, while D.W Griffith invented “Hollywood” with his innovative use of editing and cinematography in his epic scale stories. Fritz Lang and F.W Murnau established the sci-fi and horror genre respectively, while an independent Dadasaheb Phalke was laying the roots of Indian cinema by capturing the rich Indian mythology on film. At this point of time one might think that we had achieved everything but as they say “A man’s need should exceed his grasp”(the grasp and the need of women should also be included in this quote). Lo and behold now sound was transferred from the real-time orchestral music and synchronised dialogues on record disks (The Jazz Singer) to the variable density soundtrack recorded photographically along the edge of the film which was originally developed for newsreel. Films that were hand-painted(literally painting each square of film, that’s a real nightmare of a job) seen in the magical work of George Melies, were now experimented with the expensive Technicolour processes. But it was the introduction of the three-colour process that led to the switch from the grainy blacks to Judy Garland’s somewhere-over-the rainbow to which I say “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” (a little in-joke). Now entering the late 1930s with all the ingredients in the same dish, this new modified artform was ready for its big bang. And so it did. It jumped right into the pool of entertainment with such a big splash that it compelled the audience to settle down for 2 hours on an uncomfortable red seat. People were so bedazzled by this new thing that they went twice a week to the theatres.
In came the 40s and movies were now a part of day-to-day life. Hollywood rose to fame with its innovative storytelling at the time. The actors started to become celebrities while the directors started to become the old dudes who dated their young actresses. Audiences were now so romanticised by the characters on screen that if Humphrey Bogart or Jimmy Stewart told the audience to behead a German, then they sure as hell would do that, which is how my friend propaganda started infiltrating cinema. The great imbecil Adolf Hitler used this medium to its maximum state for manipulation, embedding in the minds of the innocent Germans the false vision of an ideal nation and the unwanted weeds they had to remove to accomplish this. Under the iron hands of the Minister of Propaganda led by Joseph Goebbels, the film director Leni Riefenstahl directed one of the greatest (in a bad way) propaganda films of all time “Triumph des Willens” The power of cinema had just been unleashed upon the world, a realisation that films too can be dangerous. The allies answered to this with films such as Chaplin’s satire “The Great Dictator” and Frank Capra’s seven-film series “Why we fight”.
(Somewhere else in Russia a 46 years old Sergei Eisenstein started conceiving the idea of making the two-parter propaganda fueled film “Ivan the Terrible” and can you guess whose favourite movie this is- none other than the great Vladimir Putin. Kind of a full circle, isn’t it?)
Now the big guys had settled their foolish quarrels, but inevitably this harmed the film industry. The audience, having been hit by the harsh reality of war, were no longer excited by the sugar-coated melodramas or by the immortality of the lead stars. The dark age of cinema had begun and it was not going to end anytime soon. The industry was grabbed right by its throat by the fear of spreading communism mainly in America and their greatest rival of all time – a box on four skinny feet with a curved grey glass screen commonly referred to as the TELEVISION. To avoid being choked by these threats, they grabbed any and every opportunity leading to some very bizarre ideas such as Smell-O-Vision – a system that released odours during a film so the viewer could “smell” what was happening (Why??) and Hypnovista which means and you guessed it right, the audience was hypnotised before watching the show. (again, Why??) But with a lot of bad stuff came something unique – the widescreen aspect ratio such as Cinemascope, VistaVision, and many more. Kind of a full circle isn’t it? I-MAX. This led to a small revival in the audience to get their butts back on the seat since the crappy television only showed grainy and inconsistent small images. During the early beginnings and steady-state of the dark age, some filmmakers such as Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock rose to fame due to their unique individual stylistic approaches to visual storytelling. This was presented beautifully in their movies such as “Citizen Kane”, “Lady from Shanghai”, “Touch of Evil” from the boy wonder, and “Rear Window”, “Vertigo” and “Psycho” from the fat man. While this was happening a jolly young Billy Wilder treated his audience with the classic American humour through his films such as “Sunset Boulevard” and “Some like it hot”.
But it was not until the superior French that the Americans were given the status of auteurs. Oh! I almost forgot about the rest of the world. My bad. When the Americans were making John Wayne shoot Red Indians while riding a horse, an economically devastated post-war Italy started to deconstruct the subject of day-to-day reality to give birth to the Neorealist movement/ Italian neorealism. Movies like “The Bicycle Thief” by Vittoria De Sica, and “Rome, Open City” by Roberto Rossellini garnered international praise for their focus on ordinary people caught up in simple yet extraordinary events shot in a more documentarian style with post recorded soundtrack. A few years later, shaped by neorealism, visionaries such as Federico Fellini (who explored surrealism in his truly personal masterpiece “81/2” )and Michelangelo Antonioni (who extended character personality in the settings surrounding them in his disjointed drama “L’avventura”) brought Italian cinema back on the map. Somewhere around 2000 km from Italy at the same time, a young Bengali guy after watching “The Bicycle Thief”, came out of the theatre fully determined to be a filmmaker.
On the contrary, the French produced many exceptional films in the post-war period but many French critics found that their cinema was too prototypical and that there was not too much experimentation in it. One would say “Oh! These people can just complain, they don’t know what it takes to make a movie ”….. So what happened next was that film critics took this personally. They took a camera, a 5 member crew, and a wheelchair and started the French New Wave. (because that’s what heroes do,…Sorry) They rejected the traditional filmmaking methods and implemented a raw and rebellious approach to the visuals while simultaneously diving deeper into the existential nature of the written narrative. Their film aroused questions in the minds of their audience sometimes by breaking the 4th wall(the thing that deadpool does) but they refused to give any answers. François Truffaut’s “400 blows”, Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” and Agnes Varda’s “Cleo from 5 to 7” were some of the most influential films of the new wave as well as world cinema. They also introduced the Auteur theory which holds that the director is the “author” of his/her movies, with a personal signature visible from film to film. They praised the American directors(Welles, Hitchcock, Ford) for their distinct directing styles, giving them the auteur status and giving an idea to the dumb Americans who freakin’ Hitchcock was.
Next were the Germans, who were in a real tight spot for a long time after their Fuhrer’s unsuccessful attempt to conquer the world, I guess? A young group of intellectual filmmakers revived the industry to its glory by introducing the world to New German Cinema. Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre the Wrath of God”, Wim Wender’s “Alice in the Cities” and Werner Fassbinder’s(this guy had some real catchy titles, google them at your own risk) “Ali: Fear eats the soul” were pivotal in the emergence of this new form. Russia found its cinematic messiah in Andrei Tarkovsky who deconstructed cinema as a tool for bending time through his films such as “Stalker” and “Mirror”.The Japanese garnered worldwide attention through the likes of enigmatic and stylish directors, Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. While the great Kurosawa handled Shakespearean epics and Dostoevsky’s cruel realism with a unique evolving artistic approach, Ozu approached his humane stories in a much more still, traditional, and theatrical manner. Even though their styles varied drastically, they were pretty much similar in their use of cinema as a medium to tell stories which everyone could relate to. They were making global cinema. While this was happening, in Sweden, an independent Ingmar Bergman was intrigued by a mediaeval painting on the ceiling of the church which depicts a knight playing chess with death.
As movies entered the early and late 70’s, young film enthusiasts inspired by the power of cinema, successfully made their most significant works which included a drug-fueled Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver), a Hitchcockian Steven Spielberg (Jaws), a not-so-rich George Lucas (Star Wars), a mafia-threatened Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather I & II)and many more. They defined this era as filled with the political uprising, the hippie thing, rising capitalism, and of course, the Vietnam war (Psychedelic music starts to play in the background as a 70-year-old war veteran sees a bush moving in his backyard)
While all this was happening, a 19-year-old kid named Chang Kong-Sang was accidentally hit on the head by Bruce Lee in the martial arts action classic “Enter the Dragon”.
With the new and old working together, 80’s cinema gave eternal classics like Stanley Kubrick’s horror outing “The Shining”, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi neo-noir “Blade Runner”, Sergio Leone’s final film “Once upon a time in America”, Elem Kimlov’s disturbing war film “Come and See”, George Miller’s adrenaline-fueled “Road Warrior”, Spike Lee’s socially provocative “Do the Right thing”, Terry Gilliam’s dystopian black comedy “Brazil” and of course “No Luke, I am your father” (spoiler alert)
In the ’90s, Hollywood grew even larger, with new directors entering the race. David Fincher made “Fight Club” and established the 8 rules of fight club, Quentin Tarantino made the Royale with cheese smash hit “Pulp Fiction”(what a movie man , just voila!!!) Wes Anderson found symmetry in his cult classic “Bottle Rocket”, an amateur Paul Thomas Anderson annoyed Burt Reynolds in his adult drama “Boogie Nights” and The Wachowskis made Keanu Reeves bend through bullet time in their sci-fi action masterpiece “The Matrix”. In the east, Hong Kong cinema was blessed with Wong-Kar Wai and Takeshi Mike while Bollywood tried its best to make Ajay Devgn dance
(I came to realise that I had talked nothing about Stanley Kubrick and it would remain the same for Quentin Tarantino because if I start writing about these legends, it would be nothing less than a 100-page essay)
With the introduction of digital cameras and believable vfx, movies should have been changed for the better, right? After all this, where are we today in terms of the status of cinema? If you have read this article till here(You better have read this, Punk), then you already know the answer. With franchise and big budget films being the only major movies running in theatres(with the exception of Nolan and Tom Cruise) while OTT platforms are overstuffing our minds with multiple seasons and spin-offs,(and of course Will Smith’s peaceful approach towards critical humour being the only thing we can remember about the naked golden statue awards – THE OSCARS) cinema is destined to fall on its head and it’s going to fall real hard. Today, there are two types of movies being made: the ones that make money and the ones that want to tell stories. I’m not quoting Scorsese or something like that. For me, anything that the projector projects on the screen is Cinema. I’m trying to tell the audience that there’s a world beyond superheroes and monsters (Just go watch a Greta Gerwig movie or any A24 movie for a change), trying to tell them that they should at least make an effort to see something new. What I’m trying to do here is make a failed attempt to flash light on the eyes of blind people hoping that they will open their eyes someday.
(And yeah, the MCU sucks now,……. Is that Kevin Feige standing on my neighbour’s roof with a sniper?)