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Aesthetics of Cinema - I
"During the Odessa Steps massacre at the seashore, Eisenstein shows three lions statues in different moods, which are present at Odessa Steps. The first lion statue is in a sleeping position, the second lion statue is just awake and the third lion statue is roaring with utmost anger."
V N Jatla : February 7, 2008
AESTHETICS means the philosophy of beauty. The aesthetics of cinema are applicable to any branch of film making like Cinematography, Editing, Script, Sound, Editing etc. We find high aesthetics of Cinema in the films of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghotak, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Sergei Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Francis Truffot, Mizoguchi, Joseph Tarnitore, Zhangyimou etc. I will try to explain about film aesthetics right from the beginning of Cinema till today by mentioning some extracts of film classics, throughout the world.
In the film Battleship Potemkin which was made in the year 1924 was very famous for its Odessa steps massacre and its high aesthetic values. I will try to explain its values, as far as my knowledge goes. The film was about a revolt between the sailor of Battleship Potemkin and officers. Sergei Eisenstein was the director of the film. He made lots of experiments in this film and contributed a lot to world cinema. Here is the synopsis of Battleship Potemkin in a nutshell. The sailors in the Battleship Potemkin refuse to take the soup served in the ship made up of with rotten mutton. The sailors purchase canned food from the stores of the ship. The Captain of the ship is very angry and orders to shoot those sailors who proposed the idea of purchasing canned food from the stores. A revolt takes place in the ship. All the officers are killed and the sailors take over Battleship in their hands. In this struggle, the leader of the sailor is shot dead by an officer. His dead body is kept at the seashore near Odessa Steps for the civilians to pay their homage to him. The army suddenly opens fire to kill civilians at Odessa Steps. The sailors in Battleship Potemkin open fire against army as a counter action. At last, all other sailors from different parts of the country join together with the sailors of Battleship Potemkin.
During the Odessa Steps massacre at the seashore, Eisenstein shows three lions statues in different moods, which are present at Odessa Steps. The first lion statue is in a sleeping position, the second lion statue is just awake and the third lion statue is roaring with utmost anger. Cutting these three lion statues in different moods along with reciprocal action of the sailors in the Battleship Potemkin on behalf of people is a wonderful creation. The whole sequence of Odessa Steps massacre is having high aesthetic values.
Eisenstein composes the shots of COSSACKS (Boots worn by horse men) of army men indiscriminately killing civilians at Odessa Steps can be considered as visual metaphors of the massacre. Further, a mother is shown carrying her dead son’s body in her arms due to indiscrimate killing of the army, she is moving opposite to proceeding army on the steps along with their guns with continuous firing. We call the mother carrying her dead son as upward movement and proceeding army as downward movement.
Another great human angle of the incident is a mother carrying her baby in a perambulator to pay her homage to dead sailor Vladimir. The mother is shot dead by the army and she falls on the steps of Odessa. The perambulator with the baby lying in it slips into Odessa Steps and moves further. Imagine the fate of the baby. After Odessa Steps massacre, the pace of life at the seashore is very slow and calm. The dead body of the revolutionist Vladimir is lying at the seashore and ships are anchored. Some seagulls seen here and there depict the mourning which is highly aesthetic in its presentation.
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All of us know that sound was introduced to film in 1930s. The great Prabhat Studios at Pune (now it has become Film & Television Institute of India, world premier Institute) made a film titled Duniya Na Mane in the year 1934 made by great film maestro V Shantaram Garu. The film was about a widower marring a young woman. The main roles were played by Kesava Rao Date and Shanta Apte. Just before the ending of the film, the old man sees that his grown-up son tries to molest his stepmother. The old man realizes his mistake of marrying a young woman at his advanced age. In the night he writes a letter and confesses his mistake of marrying a young woman at his advanced age and apologies for his mistake. After completing the letter, he folds it and when he looks around —he sees a big wall clock along with its moving pendulum. He gets up and takes off the Pendulam from the wall clock and keeps the Pendulam as paperweight on his suicide note. Shantaram Garu cuts to a village pond and tells to audience suggestively about his death. What a great piece of aesthetics! One cannot forget the scene. I first saw this film, when I was a student of Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, many years back. Even now I can remember its high aesthetic values. That was the greatness of V. Shantaram’s Duniya Na Mane.
Alfred Hitchcock made a film in 1934 titled Black Mail. In that film he has used the sound most creativity. I will explain a scene of Black Mail and how the sound was used most creatively and aesthetically. The heroine of the film is having a restaurant in a railway station. Unfortunately one of her friends takes her to his room and tries to rape her. In that struggle to save herself, she catches hold of a knife and stabs the person and leaves the place. And she attends the restaurant from the next day. When her parents ask her in the restaurant to pass on the knife for cutting the bread, Alfred Hitchcock has shown the use of the word ‘KNIFE’ with slight reverberation on her close-up to show her mental agony. This kind of usage of sound in the film is highly aesthetic.
In 1938 Dada Saheb Phalke awardee B.N. Reddy Garu made a film titled SUMANGALI in Telugu in which he used background music most aesthetically. The film was about widow marriages. The hero of the film doing his higher studies abroad comes to India. His parents arrange marriage for him. At that point, the hero expresses his wish to marry a widow. At that particular point B.N. Reddy Garu used the sound of Piano in the background as background music. What does it mean? It simply means that the enlightenment of social responsibility in him, because of the higher education that he received from abroad. It can be considered as the high aesthetic usage of background score in the film. If it was a non aesthetic, the director might have asked the hero to speak the boring speech about the widow marriage to his parents!!
Mizoguchi from Japan was a great film maker who made film classics like Utamaro, Ugetsu etc, with high aesthetic values.
Mizoguchi was a master at what the French call mise-en-scene an architect of deep focus set up, where the action within the frame is so complex that the story turns and changes, not through cutting and sequencing, but with characters coming and going through doorways or crossing from left to right. He designed an environment that was open and available event, with windows and screens that hinted at the chaotic world about to come crashing through. He put people in the background of a shot, busting through their daily lives. He swept his camera fluidly across peasants as they gathered up what they could before fleeing an invasion. He craned and panned with precise intent in order to reveal a new landscape, or to allow us to stand back from a scene that may be too horrific to get close to. He did it not to judge, but to reflect on the horror and helplessness.
In Mizoguchi’s Ugestsu, a man named Genjuro, who has abandoned his family for greed, falls in love with a rich woman who praises him as a great artist, but she turns out be a ghost. Genjuro returns to his house in a single shot.
He walks through it end to end. It is dark and empty. The camera pans with him as he exits through the back door; we see him outside through the windows, and he comes back in the front door to find his wife and son now there, a fire lit, warmth and home returned. Genjuro does not question how this is possible, his relief is so great, his regret for his greed so palpable. His wife comforts him, he falls asleep with his son. It is upon awakening that he learns his wife was killed and it was her ghost that greeted him the night before.
That shot, that one flowing minute of film is, so complete in its synthesis of movement, sound, light, expression, intellect, and profound emotion that it reminds us of what the tools of film making can achieve – metaphor, transcendence, purity – when put in the unique hands of a great artist who is supposed to be a great sculptor of high aesthetics!! Continued... >>> Part-II
(Author is a Cinematography Graduate from FTII (Pune) and a Hyderabad based Film Director featured in the Limca Book of Records)