Reality in movies: Manufactured or Captured?

Yesterday at the library I found, among the stack of New DVDs, the “Apu Trilogy” collection from Satyajit Ray. I picked up the first one – Pather Panchali – and watched it later in the afternoon. It left a deep impression, and my mind kept going back to the scenes in that courtyard with Durga and Apu, their mother, father, the old lady, the kittens, the dog. It was as if Ray had opened a window into life in that family, for us to see, understand and empathize. Realism on the screen couldn’t be more real. And more poetic.

There is one aspect about movies portraying realism that has intrigued me for a while now: the impact of the movie seems to depend on whether the reality depicted on screen is manufactured – or seems manufactured – or simply captured. Watching Pather Panchali, I rarely got the feeling that people were acting: events unfolded at a natural pace, nothing seemed forced or exaggerated, and the characters – especially the children – seemed like those you encounter in street: ordinary and commonplace (and yet, through the magic of Satyajit Ray, very endearing).

I’ve felt similarly with Abbas Kiarostami‘s movies. Watching Ten, I could not for the life of me imagine that the child in that car complaining and fighting with his mother was acting. The feeling was stronger in A taste of cherry: if you’ve seen it, you would’ve probably asked yourselves if the director shot the whole movie ad hoc, with the driver picking up strangers on the road and filming their interaction through a hidden camera.

The power of such depictions of “captured reality” is immense; it disturbs you, and leaves you with a lasting impression. Which is very different from the impact of a “well-made” movie with healthy doses of “manufactured reality”. One may like such a well-made movie (an example that comes to mind is a movie I watched a couple of weeks back: Sophia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, which dazzled me, in a way), but in the end somewhere deep down you cannot let go of the feeling that all this is made up – manufactured for the benefit of your viewing pleasure. To me, this prevents a good movie from being great.

Kurosawa is another example. The villagers in Seven Samurai appear like real villagers, and their pathos seems real, not manufactured. One cannot say the same about the villagers in Lagaan. Again, the difference between good and great.

I watched Deepa Mehta’s Water some weeks previously. Thinking back, the parallels to Pather Panchali are noticeable, and so are the differences. The relationship between the little girl Chuhiya and the old woman who craves for sweets isn’t dissimilar to the one between Durga and her grand aunt; both movies revolve around a courtyard: one within a house and the other within an ashram. But Water, although delicate and moving, seemed manufactured in places, and the casting of Lisa Ray as a widow was inappropriate (Nandita Das would have fit better into the doleful atmosphere of the widow’s ashram).

How does it work ? What techniques do you apply to make a scene not seem manufactured ? When is it okay for a scene to appear manufactured ?

I need to learn to watch movies better.

8 thoughts on “Reality in movies: Manufactured or Captured?

  1. It’s important to note, though, that this is a difference of appearance not reality. The “captured” scenes are also manufactured. It’s a question of what effect the creators of the film want to instill in viewers, isn’t it? They manufacture a scene of apparent naturalness in order to achieve something, to make something happen for the viewer (I don’t know if I can say what that something is — perhaps empathy or understanding).

    What you feel when viewing a natural film, and your preference for that feeling over that of stylized filming, doesn’t necessarily mean stylized films are inherently inferior. It could be argued that achieving true empathy and pathos in a stylized film is a higher artistic achievement, because it is more difficult to do. And I think Seven Samurai, actually, is a good example of a stylized film (few scenes in that movie strike me as natural or purely life-like) that still manages to evoke empathy.

    It’s interesting to think about films along this axis, though. I appreciate the distinction and the difference. Thanks.

  2. Interesting post, Parmanu, but our notions of realism in cinema are often simplistic. Some movies that appear stylized/melodramatic/unrealistic can often reach deeper, more poetic truths than films that are “realistic” in the obvious sense.

    Glad to see the above comment by Andru because he’s said nearly everything I wanted to. (Especially “What you feel when viewing a natural film… doesn’t necessarily mean stylized films are inherently inferior.”)

    Also, while I’d agree about Seven Samurai being a better film than Lagaan, I wonder how much our perception about Lagaan’s village life being “manufactured” has to do with the fact that as Indians we are more familiar with the milieu (and with the actors, whom we’ve seen in a variety of other roles).

  3. It occurred to me, in the hours since reading this, that what distinguishes naturalist films from stylized ones is how sublime they feel. I may love Seven Samurai or, a more obvious counter example, Fellini’s 8 1/2 more than Pather Panchali or Ten or Ozu’s Tokyo Story (I’m not saying I definitely do, but I just might), but those latter, more naturalist pictures are much more sublime experiences. I think that may be what you’re talking about Parmanu.

  4. Andru and Jai, thank you for bringing more clarity to this matter. I’ve been
    struggling a bit to understand and explain my responses to some of these films,
    and I feel I’m getting closer.
    You are right: stylised films are not inferior – in a general sense – to
    naturalist ones. But my responses to each kind tend to be different. Andru, your
    remark about naturalist films leading to "sublime experiences" is very
    true. It’s the difference between a magician giving a show (you are dazzled by
    his performance, but in the end you know he used some device to create an
    effect), and a mystic turning water into wine (this, for you, is a religious
    experience). The magician cannot be called inferior to the mystic.
    Pather Panchali came close to being a religious experience (do not ask
    me what that is), and so did A Taste of Cherry.  In both cases, the
    use of stylistic devices may not have led to this effect – simplicity is key.
    Jai, it is strange that you brought up the point about familiarity with the
    actors – I’ve sometimes wondered how much more "real" movies would
    feel if each actor was allowed to act in just one movie in his or her lifetime,
    not more!

  5. I haven’t anything of substance to add (at least not in my current sleep deprived state) but I must say I’m pleased to see three of my favorite bloggers talking with each other here. I agree with much that’s been written.

    I do hold Pather Panchali in the same regard as you guys do. It’s the simple sublimity of it, the generous life in it, that I dare hope to replicate for when I sit down to do my own work. And when I read about Satyajit Ray, and his approach to filmmaking, and the story of his Apu trilogy, I feel even better about watching and loving the films.

  6. Teju: You’re right about bloggers with similar interests “talking” to each other in the same space: though short, such interactions are satisfying in a strange, inexplicable way.

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