An Inadvertent Q&A with David Bond

June 9, 2016 at 9:15 PMJun (Cinema, Friends, Musings, Slice Of Life)

[A friend- Kiran- had put up a status on Facebook regarding film reviewing in the context of some Facebook discussions taking place around reviews of some recent Kannada films. Commenting on the post by Kiran, I raised some questions which were in my mind regarding reviewing of films.

Saying those questions were similar to the questions he has had in mind for some time now, Kiran sent the questions to film historian David Bond seeking answers. David Bond answered those questions or rather responded to those questions. Kiran later shared the answers with all of us. Thus happened an inadvertent Q&A with David Bond.

I wish I knew this was to happen so that I could have framed my questions in a better way and more structured manner than this, which are more casual due to the space of Facebook. But, it is okay…]

Samvartha ‘Sahil’: How to view/ read/ review/ critique/ analyze cinema in a country where film is not just art but also entertainment, recreation, a sociological text, a catharsis?

David Bond: Film is recreation as much as it is art at all times and in all countries. There is absolutely no difference in this respect between any of the major traditions (US, Japanese, European, Indian – to which probably we should now add Chinese). It is in the nature of film to serve both functions (and others also) and cinema would be the poorer if either function were disregarded. Catharsis is a significant element in all performance drama. In fact the cinema tradition which is most determinedly geared to “recreation” is without doubt that of the United States where the notion of cinema as “art” hardly exists at all (and is usually taken to apply only to foreign films, especially European, Japanese and more generally “world cinema”). The only difference one might point to, is the very unfortunate tendency in India to divide films of recreation and so-called “art” films into two different camps as though there were two entirely different types of films with two entirely different audiences. This has been particularly noticeable in Karnataka; it is far less true of Tamil and Malayalam film and seems to have no meaning in Telugan cinema any more than it does in the USA. Such an artificial division always has the result of weakening films of both kinds by cutting the natural and important process of cross-fertilisation that should take place between them. The good critic will always judge a film for what it is not for what it is not. It is, for instance, absurd to blame a superbly entertaining film for not having profound significance and it is equally absurd to blame an intellectually difficult film for not being a bundle of laughs. To create first-rate entertainment is not at all an easy thing; so-called “commercial” films are far more inclined to fail than so-called “art films” which play to a niche audience, usually very faithful and not in practice very critical. A critic should not therefore ask spurious questions of a film. I have known a critic here criticize the film Mughal-e-Azam (a wonderful film in my opinion) because it was not sufficiently political radical (for the critic in question) and then attempt to compare it with an experimental Iranian film with a strong political subtext (a rather irritating, pretentious film in my opinion). This is completely to misunderstand the heterogeneous nature of cinema by attempting to reduce it to one set of rules applicable to all films. One cannot I think stress too strongly that there is not one “film language”; there are many films languages. There is not one way to make a good film; there are many ways of making good films. Cinema has the duty and the great privilege of serving many functions in people’s lives. This is its great strength as a medium and no director nor any critic should ever forget it.

SS: How do we differentiate between film analysis, film criticism, film appreciation, film review, film studies? What should be the approach to be taken by a film reviewer writing for general public as opposed to academic writings?

DB: The object of good academic writing – and there is plenty of bad academic writing – is to add to knowledge and increase understanding. The journalistic reviewer has clearly a great deal more freedom. It is entirely legitimate for such a critic to write a commentary that is in itself intended to be entertaining and witty and such a piece, even if is abusive, can have a value of its own. I grew up on the drama-criticism of the very iconoclastic British critic Kenneth Tynan whose reviews were extremely amusing and a little unjust on the plays and the players he reviewed. Nevertheless Tynan proved very important at that period in moving attention away from the old-fashioned “well made play” which he detested toward more interesting and innovative forms of drama. Not everyone is a Kenneth Tynan and we must all attempt to play to our own strengths and develop our own styles of criticism. My own personal approach is different because I also have a strong academic interest in cinema and in cinema history. My attempt (and only the readers can decide whether I succeed or not) is always therefore to try and combine two things – a relevant and pithy commentary (which will aid the reader to know whether a film is likely to be worthwhile) with a contextual approach that varies from review to review, depending on what aspect of cinema or of cinema history the film in question appears to me to highlight or relate to.

SS: How important is it to take into consideration the atmosphere in which the film is made? Not just the atmosphere within the film but the atmosphere within which the film is made which is inclusive also of the social, political, economical conditions.

DB: These are all areas in which readers are in general very poorly informed. It is, in my view, vital for the critic to be as well-versed as possible in all these aspects. The English novelist and essayist, E. M. Forster, once summed up the object of all intellectual exercise in a very simple phrase – “only connect”. The task of discussing any film in isolation is inevitably rather superficial (the reader will in any case make up their own mind about the film when they see it). The entire value of a critique lies in its ability to make connections, to show how films relate to each other, to the tradition of cinema to which they belong and to the history of cinema as a whole. It is also the critic’s role to explain as much as he or she can of the background to the film, a knowledge of which invariably enriches the viewers’ experience. There is always the film and a story of some kind to be told about the film; to know the latter is to better understand and be able to appreciate the former.

SS: Can a film be viewed, in our context, without taking into consideration the cinematic literacy or the culture of cinema, not as we expect it to be but as it is in our time and space?

DB: We are in the twenty-first century. India, just like the US and Europe, has a culture of cinema that extends back to the 1890s. Along with the traditions of the US, of Europe and of Japan it is one of the four major cinema-traditions to have existed continuously over the whole of that period. The inferiority that some Indians continue to harbor with respect to their “cinematic literacy” or the supposed inadequacies of their “cinema culture” is perfectly ridiculous. I am never especially surprised by Indians’ lack of knowledge of other cinematic traditions (the Indian tradition has had a rather isolated development in many respects) but I am often shocked by their lack of knowledge of the Indian cinema tradition itself. Know your cinema and you will find plenty to be proud of.

SS: Should a film be, to borrow metaphors from MH Abrahms, a ‘mirror’ or a ‘lamp’? Should there be different frameworks to view/ review/ analyse/ critique art that is a ‘mirror’ and art that is a ‘lamp’?

DB: The metaphor is, I think, colourful but little else. If we take the “mirror” to be the reflection of life and the “lamp” to be that which shines light, it seems to me fairly evident that the one is in fact the corollary of the other and that the two are simply different ends of one single process. What needs to be examined in a film is the degree to which it is a true mirror and, therefore, the degree to which the light shone by the lamp is helpful. A falsely sentimental film, for instance, is a kind of distorting mirror and the lamp will therefore project a similarly distorted light.

SS: Should a film be compared just to those films which are of similar theme, across the globe, and films by masters or should it be seen with the films made in the same time and same culture, to see how different/ meritorious the film is?

DB: All comparisons are valid but all films should be seen to some extent within the context in which they are made. European films, for instance, are quite different from US films and belong to a tradition that has often seen itself as seeking entirely different ends (very broadly speaking a difference between the pursuit of drama/sensation and the pursuit, in intention at least, of “truth”). Film-makers are always wise, in my view, to respect the cinematic traditions within which their films are made. The “unrooted” film will always tend to be a rather bland product of only ephemeral interest.

SS: What is the role of a reviewer/ critic in a society where the cinema culture is not a trained one? How should the review/ criticism be in a society where culture of cinema viewing is not trained one?

DB: What on earth is an ”untrained cinema culture”? This is a completely meaningless notion. It can in any case hardly apply to a country which has been producing and watching films since 1898. Where is this “untrained cinema culture”? Outer Mongolia?

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