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.