Prendre Le Large: Un Récit Initiatique

Prendre Le Large (2017) un film français réalisé par Gaël Morel sur un thème inhabituel.

A Still from the Film
Photo: Bonnaire et Fettu. Credit:

Prendre Le Large (2017) est un film français réalisé par Gaël Morel et incarné par la formidable Sandrine Bonnaire, Mouna Fettu et un aimable Kamal El Amri. C’est un film qui c’agit d’un sujet plutôt non-conventionnel. Il nous raconte le parcours d’une femme d’âge moyen, Edith Clerval, ouvrière textile, qui laisse sa vie confortable dans un pays développé pour travailler dans des conditions atroces à Tanger, Maroc.

Tandis que certains ouvriers decident de partir en grève pour protester la délocalisation de l’usine à Maroc (où la main d’œuvre est moins onéreuse), d’autres préfèrent le chômage et acceptent les indemnités. Seule Clerval, refuse le licenciement proposé par son entreprise textile et à la surprise générale, décide d’être reclassée au Maroc comme couturière.

La seule justification qu’offre Morel pour cette énorme invraisemblance est la profonde solitude de la cinquantenaire, veuve, rejetée par son fils gay et qui veut ‘prendre le large,’ une expression qui se traduit en Anglais comme ‘Catch the Wind.’ Elle est tellement affamée de connexion humaine qu’elle voyage au bout du monde à une ville sulfureuse et inondée de mer où, comme nous le dit le Musulman au volant, ‘il y en a autant de fous que des chats.’

Il y en a déjà dizaines de films à propos des voyages des immigrants aux pays développés dans l’espoir d’une vie meilleure. Mais ce film prend comme prémisse le voyage à l’envers. Enfin, il devient un récit initiatique d’une femme qui va se confronter à une autre culture et d’autres mœurs que les siennes et dans un pays où la religion a un poids très fort sur la vie des femmes. Le film se fait l’écho aussi du fossé entre deux manières de travailler dans des usines qui sont bien différentes. En effet, il réfléchit sérieusement sur la notion du ‘travail’ elle-même, qui chez Edith est une question d’éthique et de principe, mais chez Mina, la logeuse Marocaine, c’est une réalité incontournable.

On apprécie aussi comment le film met en relief le privilège que jouit Edith à cause du couleur de sa peau et aussi la vulnérabilité simultanée qu’elle expérience comme femme et ouvrière dispensable. En effet, ce qui avait commencé comme une simple balade finit par des expériences d’être agressée, malmenée, accusée à tort et renvoyée de son travail et finalement d’être ramenée à un hôpital en raison de l’épuisement.

S’il y a quelques baisses de rythme dans le dernier tiers et un passage un peu exagéré, ce film aborde des sujets épineux d’actualité avec subtilité et cette balance et son dénouement heureux charment durablement.

Haikus for the Pandemic

The simple elegance of the Haiku as a poetic form is intended to slow us down and live a more contemplative life. An important lesson for our times.

Haikus are well-known poetic forms from Japan renowned for their striking visual suggestiveness and their brevity of expression. They explore themes of life, nature and the impermanence of the world. Called haikai until the 20th century, haikus are usually defined as three-line poems of 5-7-5 syllables with references to the seasons. But with the experimental free-verse Haiku, this definition is fairly variable. Also, the freedom from syllabic restriction is useful for haikus composed or translated in languages other than Japanese. English for example has a different rhythm from Japanese. Where the former emphasizes stress, the latter marks its syllables.

The true power of a haiku as a form comes from its economy and the simplicity of the image that it evokes. This open-ended image made visible as a glimpse of a scene or into a landscape, taps into larger philosophical and often existential questions of the human experience. The haiku is also indicative of a more contemplative way of life and thought that emphasizes looking at the world, seeing process of transformations in their depths and slowness. In a world reeling under a pandemic and forced into isolation and introspection, the haiku is a reminder that a slower way of life is never irrelevant. It is centered on those experiences, explorations and sensations that essentially make us human. Here are a few haikus describing beautiful scenes of seasonal change and with them kernels of universal truth. The haikus have been taken from Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems, by Stephen Addiss and Fumiko and Akira Yamamoto, published by Shambhala Publications in 2011.

   The spring sun
shows its power
    between snowfalls

   Not in a hurry
to blossom-
   plum tree at my gate

   The warbler
wipes its muddy feet
    on plum blossoms

   Is the dawn, too,
still embraced by
   hazy moon?

   Over the violets
a small breeze
    passes by

   Each time the wind blows
the butterfly sits anew
   on the willow

   Spring chill-
above the rice paddies
    rootless clouds

   Crazed by flowers
surprised by the moon—
    a butterfly

    Misty day-
they might be gossiping
    horses in the field

    Out from the darkness
back into the darkness
     affairs of the cat

     On the temple bell
perching and sleeping
      a butterfly

     Flower petals
set the mountains in motion—
     cherry blossoms

     Summer rains—
leaves of the plum
     the colour of cold wind

     Alone, silently-
the bamboo shoot
     becomes a bamboo

      At the sound of the sea
the sunflowers open
      their black eyes

     Dragonfly on a rock
absorbed in
     a daydream

     On a withered branch
linger the evanescent memory
     of a cicada’s voice

     A rinse of vermilion poured
from the setting sun, and then
     autumn dusk

falls on snow-
     and remains silent.

     In the abandoned boat
dashing sliding-

     Sharing one umbrella-
the person more in love
     gets wet

     Having given my opinion
I return home to
     my wife’s opinion.

The Left Hand of Darkness

Revisiting Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hugo-award winning science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

The Left Hand of Darkness is a science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) that is breathtaking in terms of its world-building and deceptively simple given its slimness. Le Guin is a well-known name in the world of fantasy writing and children’s literature. Writing primarily in the 60s and 70s, she was one of the few women who wrote in a field largely dominated by mostly white men. Le Guin’s writings, especially The Left Hand of Darkness, which came out in the year of the Stonewall Riots, added a different perspective to existing literature. Most of all, it tackled larger human, social and philosophical questions through science, calling attention to an ideal of humanism, understood in its best sense, and of the need to rally beyond barriers of race, ethnicity and culture.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, an Envoy named Genly Ai from an advanced humanoid race is sent to the land of Karhide on a planet called Gethen to propose an intergalactic alliance with the Ekumen, a coalition that seeks to forge unity between the far flung planets of the universe and to unite them. In a land of political intrigue and vendetta, the astute and exiled Prime Minister of Karhide, Estraven is the only one who believes in Genly Ai’s cause and eventually dies for it after saving him and making an incredible journey across snow, mountain, forest and ice.

Each state in Gethen has evolved into its own society, politics, language and custom which the Envoy observes and analyses in an anthropological manner typical of Le Guin’s writing. Among these, one of the most striking aspects of Gethenian society, is the notion of gender understood by the term ‘kemmer.’

Gethenians are androgynous and ambisexual and become female across a cycle of 28 days at the end of which they go into ‘kemmer’, a few days in which they are sexually active while any partner in kemmer can conceive. This idea about cyclic gender was incredible for its time and had important implications. It envisaged a society in which continuous sexuality was no longer a norm which meant that a person could be on any point of a gender spectrum at any time. It also put forth the idea of ‘men’ sharing the reproductive labour of child-bearing and rearing so that gender was no longer one of the most prominent organising principles of a society. This reproductive serendipity is novel even for today’s times.

The study of the polis between Karhide and its rival state of Orgeryn run by a Commensal instead of a king, is another scintillating piece of writing. It traverses the gulf between a monarchy and communal governance touching upon notions such as Shifgrethor or personal prestige in Karhide to Orgeryn’s group conditioning and the boundaries between love for one’s motherland and nationalism as a political tool for power.

Amidst all this, Le Guin throws in mystical narratives about spiritual cults (inspired by her interest in Taoism), stories of origins about places, people and names from the points of views of different characters. There is also a breathless nightmarish account of the Envoy himself, describing his experiences to the Farm which eerily echo the treatment of Jews in concentration camps.

What is especially stunning is the journey that Estraven and Genly Ai take together, a journey that is both metaphorical and spiritual in order to meet halfway across their cultural differences and to forge a friendship and loyalty for a greater cause. The ecological descriptions of snow, forest, mountain and the terrain they traverse are vivid and detailed as is the empathy with which societies and polities are described.

While the novel is majestic in its sweep, it does have a few setbacks. The most striking of which is the representations of gender itself. Although we are reminded that Estraven is both a man and a woman, even in his/her mysterious elusiveness s/he appears largely ‘male’ both because of the travesty of language and of a template of femininity that has itself come into question in recent years. But The Left Hand of Darkness is a world by itself like most of Le Guin’s novels and seen in the context of its own time, it certainly spoke to a different age.

Patal Lok: Unleashing Hell

A Review of Patal Lok, a new crime thriller web series on Amazon Prime

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Recently India has seen a rise of metropolitan crime thrillers on digital platforms like Netflix, Hotstar and Amazon Prime. Starting with the trend-setting Sacred Games which came out in June 2018, many others followed such as Mirzapur, Delhi Crime, The Family Man and Criminal Justice. Patal Lok (The Nether World) easily fits into this crop of web series. Produced by Anushka Sharma and written by Sudip Sharma, this gritty and graphic series is directed by Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy and stars seasoned actors Jaideep Ahlawat, Neeraj Kabi, Abhishek Banerjee, Gul Panag, Swastika Mukherjee and Mairembam Ronaldo Singh.

Patal Lok, which released in the middle of the Lockdown this May, cashes in on its huge urban home-confined viewers with a tale that is a heady mix of all that we have seen before and banalised-crime, violence, and testosterone- along with a portrayal of society’s dark underbelly, its middle-class and its elites in almost what can be seen as a formulaic manner.

This representation is one that viewers have now come to recognise as a politically correct and complex representation of the ‘real India.’ Patal Lok, while belting out tremendous performances and keeping alive a wide ken of social representation and nuance, suffers from too much judiciousness in trying to cover all the liberal bases. These formulaic frames of the ‘real India’ with its stuffy allies and crowded slums, its liberal dose of women-centred expletives, its grim realities and toxic family dynamics, the worst forms of caste oppression, transphobia and xenophobia, all appear to be milked for violence that can be packaged on celluloid as verisimilitude for urban viewers. It seemed authentic with Gangs of Wasseypur and Sacred Games in parts but when one is merely invited to look upon graphic and grisly violence as a spectacle, then one wonders what is there to take away from it all. However, watch it for the scintillating performances of Ahluwat, Kabi, Bannerjee and an utterly unexpected Gul Panag.

The first season of Patal Lok has nine episodes each of which is around 45 min. At first sight, it appears to be a story of four suspects, a Muslim man Kabir M. (Aasif Khan), a Nepali woman Mary Lyngdoh (Mairembam Ronaldo Singh), a serial murderer from Chitrakoot, Vishal Tyagi (Abhishek Banerjee ) and a Dalit Tope Singh (Jagjeet Sandhu) who are all from the furthest fringes of society and arrested in connection with a failed assassination attempt of a high-profile Delhi journalist Sanjeev Mehra (Kabi).

The protagonist, Inspector Hathi Ram (Ahluwat) lands the case of a lifetime as he has to find out the motivations of each of these suspects to commit the murder and in that journey encounters characters from different walks of life. His investigations and the slip-ups of his juniors get him suspended while the bad blood between him and his boss, his brother-in-law’s freeloading and his teenage son’s maladaptibility in a posh school, add to his woes. After his suspension, the case is taken up by the CBI and is given a cross-border twist that serves a statist agenda while missing out on crucial pieces of evidence before painting the suspects as terrorists. Moreover, the journalist himself uses the media hype to get a new sponsor for his media house.

In the end, it turns out that the four suspects were planted unbeknown to each other for the sole purpose of facilitating the encounter of Vishal Tyagi, or Hathoda Tyagi under the orders of Bajpayee (Anup Jalota), a local politician. Bajpayee fears that the murderous Tyagi could be turned against him after the death of the only man who could control him, Masterji (Akshay Sharma). The other three suspects are merely dispensable distractions for this motive while Hathi Ram discovers that his own seniors such as DGP Bhagat (Vipin Sharma) are involved in the conspiracy and are unable to carry out the encounter as a media van appears at the spot at the crucial moment.

While the script is racy and the plot well-paced, at the end of the series one is still confronted with one simple question. Doesn’t such an elaborate set up involving politicians, policemen, and a host of other middlemen seem too convoluted to kill one local murderer? Couldn’t Bajpayee have executed the deed discretely in one shot, the way that Gwala (Rajesh Sharma) gets rids of his henchman Firangi ( Abhimanue Arun) who betrays him?

However, there are some truly memorable moments. Patal Lok clearly establishes its theme in the opening scene with the cop protagonist Hathi Ram teaching the ropes to a junior Muslim cop Imran Ansari (Ishwak Singh) while driving a police van at night. Hathi Ram captures the segregation of classist and casteist India with the metaphor of the worlds swarglok (Heaven, where the gods live), Dharti (Earth, where the men live) and Patal Lok (Hell, where the vermin and the demons live), a topography described in the scriptures but which he has read on Whatsapp. Both men are from different generations, and different religions yet share the occupation of the law at the Outer Jamuna Paar Police Station, in New Delhi, an area that largely qualifies as ‘Patal Lok.’

Within the opening scene itself, we see the dynamic between the two. Hathi Ram is the more robust, hardy Hindu middle-class cop, seasoned with the ways of the world and later resorts to liberal doses of violence to discipline both his son and the detainees in his police station. Imran on the other hand, is less imposing, and portrays a gentler and more sensitive masculinity almost reminiscent of Ayushmann Khurrana in Article 15, as he tries to go around situations with tact and sometimes kindness instead of the use of aggression. As a younger cop, with access to an English education, he is at an advantage compared to Hathi Ram even as he aspires to and finally clears his Indian Civil Services exam. Yet he has to nevertheless confront the stereotypes associated with his community both at the level of senior colleagues and higher officers who doubt his professional competency based on his religion.

The four accused themselves have their own gruesome backstories each more violent and brutal than the other. Kabir M, a petty thief, lost his brothers to a horrifying lynching and is himself brutally murdered in jail, while Tope Singh, a Dalit from the Manjhar caste, kills his upper-caste bullies and escapes without realising the hell he has unleashed on his mother. He is also further spurned by his upper-caste mistress Chanda who finds a way to get rid of him by getting him to take the assignment that would get him arrested. Abhishek Banerjee plays Vishal Tyagi to eerie perfection with hollow eyes, death glaze, ominous look and all, which we have seen before in his portrayal of the paranormal Fakeer in the brilliant Typewriter series. Tyagi, the son of a farmer, has committed numerous murders with nothing but a hammer and finally finds a mentor in Donullia alias Masterji- a local clan lord. The most poignant character is that of Chini, a transgender orphan who goes through abuse and violence right from a young age and whose wordless presence in the entire series is a little disappointing as more than anything else, it appears to merely serve ticking the box of transgender representation.

As in many crime thrillers, the women in this series are static characters who occupy only a subordinate space be it the anxiety-ridden Dolly (Swastika Mukherjee), Sanjeev Mehra’s wife or Renu (Panag), Hathi Ram’s wife. Both are portrayed in domestic spheres. Dolly never confronts Sanjeev about his affair with a junior journalist Sara Mathews (Niharika Dutt), but instead turns her attentions to Savitri, a pregnant stray dog who she begins to care for. Renu’s way of dealing with her husband’s transgression of slapping her is to slap him back. Even Dutt who gets a significant upgrade from her role of Pearl in Pushpavalli, plays a character who has an affair with Sanjeev (à la House of Cards?) and eventually walks out when her professional integrity is compromised.

The various mythological references in the series from a continuous thread throughout and bring the series full circle. It begins with the description of the different ‘loks’ or worlds and ends with Hathi Ram explaining the importance of Yudhishthira’s devotion to the dog when he refuses to enter the gates of Heaven without it. The trope of the dog is an emblem for Lord Dharma we are told and whether with Donuilla, or Dolly, or Gwala or even Tyagi, the dog emerges as a symbol of compassion and empathy, something which Hathi Ram himself learns at the end of the first season. All in all, the series is watchable (with reservations about the graphic episode 3) for a tight script, a widely cast net of motley characters, racy cinematography and memorable soundtracks such as Kabir’s ‘Sakal Hans Mein Ram Biraje.’

Tristram Shandy

A write-up on Laurence Sterne’s landmark novel Tristram Shandy published in the eighteenth century and marked by digression, double entendre, problems of language and graphic devices.

Laurence Sterne’s ‘novel’ Tristram Shandy, born in the latter part of the eighteenth century, found itself in a waning tradition of biting satire of the kind earlier propagated by Pope and Swift. Although it is itself clearly a satire, through its meandering in and out of “scintillating wit and whimsical baffoonery” (Stedmond, 53), Tristram Shandy is nevertheless much more good-humoured than its predecessors. Even its profuse bawdy humour that presents itself almost naively throughout the novel, prompted Samuel Johnson to respond with “Nothing odd will do too long.”

And yet, two and a half centuries later, Tristram Shandy came to be widely regarded as the godfather of modernist literature. Sterne’s wild experimentation with form and voice was a radical departure from the orderly, structurally unified novels of the day, such as Fielding’s Tom Jones, and considerably ahead of its time. Sterne’s childhood was spent following his father’s army regiment around England and Ireland. This early experience of military life was to inspire some of his most memorable comic characters, including the war-game obsessed Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim. The satirical and stylistic influence of Rabelais and Cervantes can also be felt throughout Tristram Shandy, whilst the philosophy of John Locke informs one of the book’s key themes: the association of ideas.

The protagonist’s constant straying away from the story, if it could be called a story at all, switching back and forth in time, the smallest of trivialities or comical accidents triggering off the most outrageous fabrications, all contribute to render Tristram Shandy, a novel of digressions rather than of narrative. “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – they are the life, the soul of reading! – take them out of this book, for instance,- you might as well take the book along with them” (50). And it is in this digression that the novel retains its uniqueness, a uniqueness upon which the author had long deliberated rather than stumbled upon. Thus although the author constantly laments having so much yet to write about, he still cannot check himself from straying into apparently irrelevant incidents. There is an implicit sense then, of the futility of recounting in the first place. This futility of communication seems to occur, not because of a lack of means but because the author takes on the impossible task of writing about his life while living it.

The central irony of the book is that the novel is being written more slowly than the life that is being lived, that while Tristram sits down to pen an incident, he nevertheless lives in a continuum of space and time and his experience keeps accumulating thus always adding to what he has to write.

Through this sort of hermeneutics, Sterne also seems to throw light on the complexity of human beings which are, like Tristram, brought into society by accident, or even through a process so mechanized and regulated that there is almost nothing human about it as suggested in the opening scenes with the winding of the clock. After being thus ejected into the world, human beings have to further undergo the trauma of baptism in order to exist and own an identity. It is Walter Shandy’s “magic bias” that will decide the character of his son through a name. But, Tristram is in fact a victim of several accidents, the biggest of which is probably his birth as not only is he mis-named and de-sexed in the novel, he appears, rather than the protagonist, more as a minor character or narrator whose voice is subordinated to the description of the other characters.

Tristram in the novel is in fact nothing more than a voice and yet it is Yorick that the author speaks through, deserting Tristram almost as cruelly as he does the other characters. The narration of the story is futile not because of the narrator’s continuous existence, but because of the characters in his world who are immune to him even in moments of severe crisis. This was the case when the maid and Dr Slop are trying to attend to Tristram after the window sash incident but fall to quarreling among themselves, leaving Tristram by the wayside. Everyone rides his hobby-horse and thus, not only is there no one to be part of the Tristam’s story, there is no one to listen to him as well. He is himself, like the rest of his characters, riding his own hobby horse of trying to recount a story that is never going to end.

This is where Sterne seems to equalize all his characters and allay a little bit of Tristram’s victimhood in a world in which everyone spins in his respective orbit but nevertheless in the gravitational field of the other. In a tower of Babel-like situation, everyone simultaneously talks about his own life and opinions in a desperate need to be understood and in the end, the confused hodgepodge of voices that is heard is not very different from the narrative chaos that undermines every attempt of Tristram to begin at the beginning. “Tristram Shandy is quintessentially a book about man’s attempt to give a reasonable and definitive form to his experience of the world-and about the inevitable tendency of experience to run counter to man’s formulations” (Briggs, 195).

Upon closer inspection, the narrator’s statements about narrating what he is doing and when he is doing it are seen as somehow “above or beyond the plot, as if these were outside the domain of the narrative proper- as if they existed as critical comments on narrative rather than as part of the narrative itself” (Williams, 1032). The narrator always freely shifts positions. He is self-reflexive in the way that he is aware that he is recounting his life ‘story’ and at the same time keep reminds us about it too. Unlike the self-effacing omniscient narrator, the self-conscious narrator of Tristram Shandy flaunts his whims and narrative agency to the reader. He can have a marbled page in the middle of the novel if he likes, he can have absurd patterns of asterisks or of any other typing symbol that he likes, he can even pretend the novel was suddenly a play and give stage directions to Garrick.

If he chooses, he can refrain from description altogether, then the reader might be at sea when it comes to certain events like the window sash circumcision: “It is in vain to leave this to the reader’s imagination” (377). This kind of narrator is then enormously powerful. Not only does he provide the narrative, but admits that he is as fallible as us, as ignorant. The reader’s interpretation is as biased as the narrator’s. There is no pretension of objectivity or reality. As the title itself spells out, the novel is not just about the life of Tristram Shandy, it is also about his opinions. Any act of narration is necessarily also interlinked with the act of sentience. To ‘be’ is necessarily tangled with the activity of explaining being.

In as much as Tristram may be considered as rhetor, the whole book consists of his “oration.” But this is the rhetoric of a “fool.” And it carries some interesting implications about Sterne’s conception of the nature of his audience. Like Swift in The Modest Proposal, he shocks the more squeamish members by reflecting upon their own underlying preconceptions. One kind of empty verbalism against which both Swift and Pope inveighed was the fulsome praise of the prospective patron. Sterne’s dedication of his first volume to Pitt is, significantly, not fulsome. Sterne was of course seeking a patron of a different kind-the reading public at large. He implicitly dedicates his book to them by titillating their tastes, while at the same time managing to satirize the human foibles involved in that taste. Thus, though dedicating his book to the “Lord Public,” he attempts to unseat that Lord from some of his “Hobby-Horses,” or at least to make him more aware of his “ruling passions.”

“With an ass,” Tristram says in his account of his travels in Volume VII, “I can commune forever.” Not so with jackdaws or apes, for they speak and act by rote. But with an ass, “surely never is my imagination so busy as in framing his responses from the etchings of his countenance-and where those carry me not deep enough-in flying from my own heart into his, and seeing what is natural for an ass to think-as well as a man, upon the occasion” (VII. xxxii.). The reader whose responses Tristram can gauge as accurately as he can those of an ass is one who will laugh at certain words in the bedchamber, but abuse them in the parlor. For his sake, Tristram must seek devices whereby he can “satisfy that ear which the reader chuses to lend me,” while not dissatisfying “the other which he keeps to himself” (VII. xx.).

Works Cited

Briggs, Peter M. “Locke’s ‘Essay’ and the Tentativeness of ‘Tristram Shandy’.”
Studies in Philology, Vol. 82, No. 4 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 493-520.

Stedmond, J. M. “Satire and Tristram Shandy.”Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 1, No. 3, Restoration and Eighteenth Century,(Summer, 1961), Rice University, pp. 53-63.

Williams, Jeffery. “Narrative of Narrative (Tristram Shandy).”MLN, Vol. 105, No. 5, Comparative Literature (Dec., 1990), The Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 1032-1045.

Reflections on the Formative and Realist traditions of Film Theory

An essay from a film studies class on the different traditions in the evolution of film theory

The cinematic aesthetic for the Formalists was that film is a making. Eisenstein considered the artistic activity to be, more precisely, of “building”. To attain reality one had to destroy realism, break up the appearances of a phenomenon and reconstruct them according to a ‘reality principle’. In contrast, the Realist tradition emphasized looking at life the way it was and to let nature speak for itself. The Formalists were always interested in the question of film as an art and what characterized art in the first place. Art belonged to the aesthetic sphere as an object, which does nothing but exists for our intense perception and contemplation. The Formalists prescribed to art the role of ‘recovering the sensation of life’ and revealing the defining qualities of objects. Thus the technique of art became a means to defamiliarize objects, to make forms difficult and to subordinate objects to the experience of their ‘objectness’. It ‘wrenched objects’ from their normal surroundings and distorted them in a way that called for attention. Technique thus became synonymous with art and deviation was required to stimulate the process of contemplation. With the second wave of Formalism, however, foregrounding required that the technique of art make objects necessarily challenging so that finally, the degree of deviation in an object served as a criterion for art.

Even though both the traditions believed in the process of perception or contemplation of the world, while the Formalist took upon himself to make objects strange in order to force extended attention, the Realist merely offered the viewer the chance for greater contemplation through devices like the long take and multiple plains of action using the depth of field. And it is precisely this continuity of vision that the Formalists, especially Eisenstein strove to break with his theory of montage and shock of attractions. While contrast was important to Eisenstein, Bazin rejected montage, though without discarding editing, in favour of images with depth that offered a fuller image for contemplation.

Although the formalists differ in their ideas of the raw material of film, (Eisenstein with his attractions, Pudovkin with the shot itself, Arnheim with the technical deficiencies that prevent cinema from replicating the visibly real perfectly) the realists more or less agreed that the raw material for film was the visible world around us. It is however interesting to notice the complementary points of views of Arnheim and Kracauer which would amount to saying that while Arnheim sees the glass half empty, Kracauer sees it half full. For Arnheim cinema attains its peculiarities through its technical deficiencies in replicating reality exactly; for Kracauer however, it is precisely the capacity of the medium to record or to photograph reality, although inaccurately, that is its strength and peculiarity. The Formalist theory noted a difference in the visible reality and the capacity to grasp it in various ways, but the Realist theory held that the photographed image was ontologically bound to its object.

Kracauer sees the function of the filmmaker to read reality and his medium justly and employ the proper techniques to find a balance between the two. With the Realists, there is a tendency that not all things in the visible reality are photographable; some things lend themselves to the camera more readily than others. Nature is allowed precedence and it is a pattern in nature that dictates the filmmaker, not his own impulses or desires for self-expression. The fundamental difference between the two traditions also arises from the fact that the Formalists saw film as a tool to convey a particular message. Though Realism was closely tied with social function, film was more a way of seeing the world, a window rather than a frame. The other difference lies in the way both traditions treated their audiences. Eisenstein conceives film as a machine which has predictable results and which is used after a particular end has been envisaged. The Formalist filmmaker designs, constructs, and destroys his elements with his audience in mind. But for the Realist, there is no specific audience, no specific end to achieve except that of showing reality. The Realist’s focus is not on the audience but on the perceived object that is mediated through the medium. Cinema, as Kracauer says, is about the curiosity about reality, not a medium for self expression. Thus, while Formalism uses the medium as a frame to neutralize the world, Realism uses it as a window to see the world.

The limitations with the Formalist tradition as Balazs remarks in the case of Eisenstein, is that it lacked naturalness. Eisenstein and Pudovkin were both engineers and they saw art as a machine with a specific purpose and a precise end. Even though they saw human beings as evolving and devoid of any essences, their notion of constructing meaning by consciously creating, against the naturalism of the mind, an environment for a psychological result supposed that they could control every aspect of the audience’s mind. They defined a specific manner in which they expected the audience to watch the film and interpret the juxtaposition. In his example of the Japanese ideogram, (a picture of a bird and a mouth means to sing, which a picture of a child and a mouth means to cry) Eisenstein knows how to interpret the juxtaposition. But in the case of montage pieces, the viewer is constantly confronted with new and ever-increasing number of alphabets, as it were, in addition to which unlike the static bird and child, the visual content is constantly in motion. In trying to assign a precise role to art, as if it were a work like any other, and in their obsessive fervour to deny realism in a strain similar to surrealists of the same age, the Formalists forgot to leave room for spontaneity.

The usefulness of the Realists on the other hand, lay in the fact that they did not try to manipulate their audience’s reactions. In their belief of naturalism, they hoped to provide a renewed perspective, which aligned the viewer with nature and thus laid the foundation for change. Yet, while Kracauer talks of a balance between Formalist and Realist tendencies, the film could not be the director’s self –expression, he could not exert his imagination. In their belief to see the world as it is, they seem to think of it as given and easily accessible. But the visible reality is not as objective or as obvious a phenomenon as it might seem, as Kracauer realises, because it attains meaning only in a human context as it is finally intercepted and grasped by a human mind. Thus as Balazs finally says, although the two traditions seem opposed to one another, they are ultimately different in emphasis rather than in choice: while the Realists began with reality and the photographic ability of the camera, the Formalists began with cinema’s own language ability, the principle of editing.


Andrew, J. Dudley. The Major Film Theories: An Introduction. London: Oxford University Press, 1976