Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Didactic Cinema

In a couple of weeks I’m going home to visit my parents in Chennai; it’ll be my first trip back to India in 10 years. Watching films with my parents is a ritual I’ve enjoyed all my life, and the last few weeks I’ve been warming up for my trip by embarking on a ‘70s Hindi cinema bender. It’s been startling to revisit films I haven’t seen since I wore short pants and sported a topknot. There’s so much more swirling around in these movies (aesthetically, socio-culturally, politically) than I even began to suspect as a kid.

Below are some thoughts following a viewing of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s didactic comedy, Guddi.

* * *

I’ve supposed the word “didactic” to always possess a slight whiff of disparagement. Perhaps I’ve been mistaken. The word has three definitions in the American Heritage dictionary: (1) “Intended to instruct”; (2) “Morally instructive”; and (3) “Inclined to teach or moralize excessively”. The first of the three definitions doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation, and can be associated with the word “pedagogical” (“concerned with instruction or teaching”). This is the sense in which I’ll be using the word here.

* * *

Guddi (1971) contains one of the most famous screen debuts in Indian cinema history—that of Jaya Bhaduri, who later married India’s great screen icon Amitabh Bachchan. She plays a movie-mad schoolgirl, Kusum (Guddi is her family nickname, meaning "little doll"), who ‘bunks’ class to go play hooky and see Anupama, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1966 film. She falls hopelessly in love with the movie’s star, Dharmendra. This upsets her family’s plans to ‘arrange’ her marriage to a young man they've chosen.

Utpal Dutt, that great axiom of Bengali cinema, plays an “experimental psychologist” who hatches a plan to dismantle Guddi's confusion/conflation of illusion and reality by taking her behind the scenes of a Dharmendra film shoot. As you might expect, the “filmi duniya” (film world) stands in inverse relation to its appearance on screen. The glamour of cinema disintegrates, in the context of shooting, into a succession of banal, boring, day-to-day tasks. (Truffaut managed to color even these tasks with a certain wonderstruck quality in Day for Night, but not so here.) Dharmendra is revealed to her as a mere human being, a little full of himself, a bit dull, a star surrounded by a large crew and supporting cast, all of whom work harder than he does. Disenchanted, Guddi falls out of love with the star and consents to the arranged marriage. The patriarchal order is predictably restored.

* * *

Ousmane Sembene has likened the modern African filmmaker to the figure of the traditional oral storyteller (or griot) with a pedagogical purpose. Griot characters also appear in several of his films. Sembene moved from novel-writing to films for two reasons: the ability to reach African audiences in a wider variety of language groups, and also the capability to communicate with nonliterate audiences. Francoise Pfaff writes that Sembene’s films are accessible to popular audiences in Africa because

they represent a collective experience based on visual and aural elements with characteristics that can be compared to the griot’s delivery. Anyone who has attended a film screening in a working-class district of Senegal is struck by the intensely vocal participation of the viewers who comment on the plot of the film, respond to one another’s remark, address the actors and laugh at their mishaps just as they would during the griot’s performance in which dramatic mimics and gestures are used to encourage audience reaction.

Indeed, this kind of active audience participation is also quite common in India. I remember audiences at Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975) vocally echoing or anticipating not just dialogue but also music cues and sound effects (like bullets ricocheting off rocks!).

Brian Goldfarb, in his essay "A Pedagogical Cinema," recounts an interesting turning point for Sembene:

In his successful career as a novelist and in his earliest films, Ousmane Sembene worked most often in the language and cultural conventions he was taught by the French colonial educational system in Senegal. Sembene recalls that using the colonial tongue seemed appropriate at the time: French “was a fact of life.” However, when he began to show his films in Senegal, peasant audiences criticized his language choice, identifying it as emblematic of an internalized Eurocentrism. “The peasants were quick to point out to me that I was the one who was alienated,” he explains. “They would have preferred the film in their own language, without the French.”

* * *

A couple of more examples in the category ‘didactic/pedagogical cinema’: Rossellini’s late-period history films made for television; programmatic documentaries like The Corporation or An Inconvenient Truth; essay films like Varda’s The Gleaners and I, etc.

Your thoughts on didactic/pedagogical cinema? And any other examples of films from cinema history that set out to perform, however unconventionally, a teaching function?

* * *

A few links:

-- Michael Guillen hosts his first blog-a-thon at The Evening Class, on Val Lewton, during the week of January 14.

-- Shahn at Six Martinis and the Seventh Art has been posting screengrabs of snow images all month.

-- Chris Fujiwara on the traveling Max Ophuls retrospective.

-- Scores of critic top 10 lists from the past at Eric C. Johnson's website.

-- Keith Uhlich's photo essay for the movie year 2007, at The House Next Door.

-- Steven Shaviro on Richard Kelly's Southland Tales.

-- Errol Morris responds at length to his blog commenters at the NYT.

-- Pacze Moj, at Critical Culture, has an image-laden post on Rossellini's Francis, God's Jester.

-- Frederick Wiseman's films are now available on DVD at special prices for individuals (as opposed to institutions).

pic: The schoolgirl Guddi (Jaya Bhaduri) imagines her wedding night with the star Dharmendra.


Blogger Pacze Moj said...

I recently read a decent article about a blatant type of "teaching film": Hollywood propaganda in post-WWII Mexico.

Cartoons that told of the evils of Communism and gingivitis at the same time! So, they served the needs of both the American government, which was fighting the Cold War, and the Mexican government, which wanted to teach its non-urban citizens the importance of cleanliness.

A recently-experienced example of didactic cinema: The Man from Earth.

I'm not sure I truly understand what a didactic film is, though. With the dictionary definitions, for example: (1) would suggest that the filmmaker's intention makes the film didactic, even if the film "fails" to be; and (2) suggests the opposite, that the filmmaker's intention is trumped by the film itself. The first definition privileges the filmmaker, while the second definition places more importance on the viewer.

Even beyond that, though, it seems that every film is didactic to some extent...

Maybe it'd be interesting to also ask which films are the least didactic, then.


Thanks for the link, Girish

December 12, 2007 2:09 AM  
Anonymous jim emerson said...

First: Bring back the topknot! I hope they will become the latest fashion (again).

Second: I want to go with you. It's been 11 years since I went to India.

Third: I think you're right, that "didactic" usually has a negative connotation -- as in "preachy" or "If I want to send a message I'll call Western Union." But isn't art somewhat "instructive" by nature, in that it shows us new ways of observing, listening, imagining? In that sense (as pacze moj suggest), there's some moral dimension to any work of aesthetics, even if it's not overt -- whether it's a Moral Tale (Rohmer, Kieslowski) or an abstract expression. (There's an interesting question: What are the moral "lessons" of Brakhage's "Mothlight"?)

A film like Alan Parker's "Mississippi Burning" is, on the surface, a didactic moral lesson on the evils of racism -- but its aesthetics are racist to the core. (Southern blacks are portrayed only as helpless victims who need to be rescued.) Paul Haggis's "Crash" is even more blatantly didactic, but it's not saying what it says it's saying, either -- since it can only conceive of characters defined in racial terms. What's the moral of that story, then?

December 12, 2007 2:44 AM  
Anonymous Gautam Valluri said...

A marvellous topic to visit here. I remember 'Guddi' and especially the look on Jaya's face when the stunt man is critically injured during a stunt. You can see it in her face, the expression almost as if she's saying "what the hell is going on here?"

Yes, the film industry (and especially bollywood) can be quite harsh sometimes but thats the way it is I suppose.

Enjoyed the read! Have a nice trip home!

December 12, 2007 5:12 AM  
Blogger Tucker said...

When I think of didactic films I sometimes think of all the lousy Christmas films that have characters coming to realize the "true meaning" of Christmas. I suppose some are not so lousy, but there is the typical story of people focussing on themselves, or on the things "of this world", and they have to learn that Christmas is all about family, or love, or togetherness, or getting along with others, or giving not getting, etc., etc.

December 12, 2007 8:16 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Pacze, Jim, Gautam and Tucker. You raise so many good points!

I'm not exactly sure what a "didactic" film is either. But yes, every film does have certain (1) rhetorical and (2) ideological aspects to it, either overtly or not. Each film is trying to persuade us that its way of looking at the world (and the values and beliefs 'forming' that way of looking) is indeed different and distinct from other ways of looking. And the filmmaker, by privileging this way of looking, is automatically making an argument about its legitimacy (and the legitimacy of the values and beliefs, i.e. ideology, underlying it).

So perhaps we tend to call those films didactic whose "lessons" (and the film's attempt to teach them to us) appear especially overt, even though every film is basically didactic...?

There's an interesting pair of Cahiers interviews in Rossellini's book, My Method. In the first, conducted by Fereydoun Hoveyda and Eric Rohmer in 1963, Rossellini renounces fiction cinema and says that from now on he will make didactic films. They argue that art and didacticism don't make good bedfellows. He retorts that he doesn't care about making art and simply wants to be "useful."

3 years later, he speaks to Jean Collet and Claude-Jean Philippe. They praise his new film The Rise to Power of Louis XIV as a work of art, and he in turn tries to demonstrate to them that what he has made is actually a didactic work.

Jim's Crash example is a particularly illuminating one because of the clash between what the film thinks its saying (through its surface 'content' elements like story and dialogue) and what it actually is (which can't be parsed, revealed, exposed, without examining its form).

Jim, I was curious: where did you go in India? And were you there for a film festival?

December 12, 2007 8:41 AM  
Blogger Peter said...

I can not remember the title, but I recall a documentary from South America that I saw at NYU. An imprisoned murderer received the education he was denied as a child, eventually developing a greater sense of self worth.

Another didactic film I have some memory of is You're Lying by Vilgot Sjoman.

Many of the films by Prince Chatri of Thailand attempt to teach a moral lesson to Thail audiences.

The moral lesson of Mothlight is that as long as there is celluloid film and an imagination, there will always be movies.

December 12, 2007 10:49 AM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

I'm not exactly sure what a "didactic" film is either. But yes, every film does have certain (1) rhetorical and (2) ideological aspects to it, either overtly or not. Each film is trying to persuade us that its way of looking at the world (and the values and beliefs 'forming' that way of looking) is indeed different and distinct from other ways of looking. And the filmmaker, by privileging this way of looking, is automatically making an argument about its legitimacy (and the legitimacy of the values and beliefs, i.e. ideology, underlying it).

So perhaps we tend to call those films didactic whose "lessons" (and the film's attempt to teach them to us) appear especially overt, even though every film is basically didactic...?

I'd say, "Yes, with varying degrees." I thought of a few things. This might lose itself. Ahem:

0. It's great a word can move in different directions, though, right?

1. A friend of mine makes the argument that David Lynch's short film, _Quinoa_ (on the _INLAND EMPIRE_ dvd), is a pedagogy on the image, on looking. It's a film where you don't see much. Because, for Lynch, the image is aural as much as it is visual.

2. I'd say there's definitely rhetorical structure to everything, and definitely films. But I think the ideological component is trickier to pin down, especially in such an art as film, where everything is quite literally on the surface. This would make the ideology part of its rhetorical argument, sure, but I often find that viewers use their particular ideology to read films' arguments as they see it -- in a purely _subjective_ way, without checking their reaction to form a better _perspective_ on the art that isn't simply about what the viewer thinks but attends to how the film operates. I know that's mostly true of my review of _The Mist_, for one. I wasn't anywhere near a generous audience for it, so that review/argument was more about my taste than about the movie, which is something I tried to get across.

3. I saw _I'm Not There_ on Sunday. I dug it, mostly. But, wait-for-it, Haynes was a little too didactic, and didn't play around enough. For a movie about chaos and shit, it's a pretty tidy little film, even if its argument is a little lazy. I agree with my friend who wrote this to me in an email: "i enjoyed it; it was a pleasure to watch; i wasn't blown away -- except by how fucking cool dylan is. of course, in real life, dylan is stranger, dorkier, more out there than he is hip. and i think haynes could have exploited that."

4. The beginning of _Faces_ is one of those "I get it" didactic moments, with the projector shooting light into the camera and then the title card scrolling up the screen. (Cinema = faces. Alright, John.) Still, amazing film.

5. The beginning of _The Life Aquatic_ is one of those "Aha" didactic moments, as it begins on a stage: everything in this film (this life aquatic) is theatre, a spectacle, a role to be played. It's a great way to frame the argument.

6. If that everything (art, meals, a blanket, the city's grid) presents an argument about/for its subject and its method, then gauging how didactic something is just parsing an element of something's argument, right? Just as something can be pedagogical as well as artistic as well as didactic as well as visceral. It just so happens that I think the best arguments (films, books, meals, blankets, the city's grid) are the ones where everything works in harmony. For instance: _Faces_ and _The Life Aquatic_ are pretty tight arguments about film, and about life; one approaches life as kind of gaseous and dispersed while the other is explicitly arguing for a world of liquid relationships. Then something like _The New World_ comes along and blends those two, or synthesizes them, and things get really wacky, and cool, and beautiful.

December 12, 2007 2:25 PM  
Anonymous jim emerson said...

Girish: You bring up another dimension to the discussion, regarding the distinctions between "fiction" films and "didactic" (as in so-called "nonfiction") films. Is one any less of an aesthetic construction than the other? The moment you point a camera at something, you are making decisions about what to include and what to leave out, how to frame, where to focus, etc. A "documentary" is every bit as much a creation (the result of thousands of decisions, accidents, limitations) as any fiction film, I'd say.

Peter: That's it! Any work that values aesthetics is in some way a moral lesson about the value of aesthetics.

PS to Girish: I was in India for about 3 weeks in February-March 1996. A friend and I went for some other friends' wedding in Hyderabad. We also spent time in Delhi (and the Golden Triangle) and what was then Bombay. Despite the choking exhaust fumes in New Delhi that left all my air passages raw, I've never loved a country so much.

December 12, 2007 2:36 PM  
Anonymous gautam said...

Girish & Jim: I think you both will be surprised to see how much India has changed in the past 10 years.

December 12, 2007 2:48 PM  
Blogger nitesh said...

Hrishikesh Mukherjee certainly gave us some of the most heartwarming and playful comedy, and gave the common man a lot to cheer about. Though we no more have filmmakers like Hrishikesh Da or make such works here in India.

I get to learn a lot from this blog, whether the links or the post it always informative. And I have learned a lot from reading this blog and others, than going to college. Thanks Girish.

As gautam said, true, India has changed a lot, but the quality of movies here has gone down to dogs. Though it’s better in South India, than Bollywood.

Any plans of stopping by in Delhi? Girish.

December 12, 2007 4:50 PM  
Anonymous mike slagor said...

hey girish - mike slagor here. i've been trying to get ahold of you the past few weeks. emails and phone calls...just seeing if i can get ahold of you here!

December 12, 2007 8:23 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

Another interesting discussion.... to me, the negative use of terms like "didactic" ("propoganda" is another one; even negative genre references fit) comes from films that are nothing but didactic. It's not the messages or lessons of a film that hurt it - it's the lack of anything else. It's a Wonderful Life or the Charlie Brown Christmas are as full of lessons about the true meaning of christmas as any crappy film, but they are also superbly made works of art. Alexander Nevsky may be shameless propaganda, but it's damn beautiful. It's probably not fair to use the terms negatively - the presence of didactic elements in a film (or overt politics, or any similar "non-artistic" [if that means anything] elements) shouldn't be a problem: it's the lack of artistic value....

(The further question might be whether it is possible to make a good "didactic" film that isn't reasonably strong artistically. I can't answer that, at least not now.)

December 12, 2007 9:50 PM  
Anonymous jim emerson said...

A didactic Bollywood short film:


I am the condom friend...
I am good-natured and provide satisfaction
I am for you do not neglect me

Meanwhile, "Guddi" has joined my Netflix queue...

December 13, 2007 2:37 AM  
Anonymous delhi cinephile said...

greatly admire your blog, delurking finally.

staying with Indian cinema, i may suggest some films by Shyam Benegal, especially Manthan (The Churning), about Milk Co-ops, Samar (Conflict) about village administrative reforms, and Hari-Bhari (Fertility), about the girl-child in rural India.


dhananjay from delhi

December 13, 2007 12:37 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, all!

Hey, Mike -- Sorry I've been a slacker and not written--you'll hear from me today!

Ryland -- Lots of great stuff to chew on. I need to see Quinoa. I've been thinking along similar lines in terms of the points you make about "taste." I hope to post some thoughts on it soon.

Sam & Peter -- Just off the top of my head here but I think it is possible to make films that are both didactic and also artistically worthy, e.g. the late Rossellini films. I find a strong didactic streak in Haneke, but also admire his films.

Jim -- That's a hoot. I hadn't seen it before. When I was a kid, we'd see billboards for the official 'state condom' (yes, we did have such a thing), Nirodh, endorsed and employed by India's Family Planning program. The tag line was "Hum Do, Hamare Do," the clunky but literal translation being "Us Two, Our Two." There was no mention of STD's or anything; the key objective was population control.

Gautam, Dhananjay, Nitesh -- I'll be in Chennai, visiting my parents, and won't be traveling within India. I like Benegal a lot, and Samar is one of my favorites, along with Ankur and Bhumika.

December 13, 2007 2:01 PM  
Blogger girish said...

-- Alexis Tioseco interviews Chris Fujiwara about the "Defining Moments" book we've been discussing.
-- Speaking of, discussion continues in the comments thread of the previous (Fujiwara/Rosenbaum's 1000) post.
-- CelineJulie picks up Miguel's list of British movie recommendations and looks into their DVD availability.
-- Discussion of the Coens film at Dave Kehr's.

December 13, 2007 2:12 PM  
Blogger Gareth said...

I've been thinking about pedadogical films in the African context quite a bit recently, having just read James Burns's book Flickering Shadows: Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe; I'm in the middle of writing something about the book (slowly...).

Burns is especially concerned with literal instructional films of the kind produced by many colonial administrations across Africa - films designed to promote certain desired agricultural or health practices, for example. From his work, it becomes clear that the more the colonial film units felt that their productions would meet with the approval of "native" audiences, the more these audiences were likely not to identify with what they saw on screen, and frequently (and vocally) indicated their disapproval. Often, audiences showed up only because the mobile film units added an enticement in the shape of a western or other commercial film - the kind of thing the audience actually wanted. Burns also suggests that the kind of vocal participation you mentioned was linked to the fact that films were shown without a soundtrack - or with terribly bad sound - right up to the 1950s in some locations (there's some research that indicates that this kind of participation was common in the US/Europe until the coming of sound).

As you write, Sembène was a conscious educator in his films, and his influence on other sub-Saharan filmmakers is so immense that this kind of engaged, educational and pedagogic take on cinema is part of the work of many other directors from the continent (Souleymane Cissé's earlier films, for example, and much of Bassek Ba Kobhio and Cheick Oumar Sissoko's work).

Occasionally, I feel as though this philosophy gets in the way of their work. I find the ending of Sembène's Mandabi (1968) distracting, for example, whereas he brilliantly integrates the pedagogical elements into his much later Guelwaar (1992), making the conclusion the more powerful for the fact that it's less obviously didactic (I find that the end of Mizoguchi's Sisters of Gion, which recaps much of what has come before, shades too far toward direct didacticism, too; the whole film is an eye-opening education, mostly in the positive sense).

I also wonder what happens when an educator manipulates the facts in making his point, or in attempting to raise the consciousness of his audience. It's something I've thought a lot about in relation to Sembène's Camp de Thiaroye, which is an important effort to educate people about the realities of African military service under colonial rule. However, it takes major liberties with the actual historical record of the incident which it describes. We all know that filmed history does this kind of thing, but some of the choices in the film surprised me: the actual historical reality was hardly any better, but the manipulated version can then acquire the aura of truth given the power of the filmed image. I'm not sure how to resolve that.

Prem Chowdhry has a fine analysis of Indian audience reactions to the 1938 Zoltan Korda film The Drum, which was a pedagogical film in that it intended to represent the British position in a certain way and hoped to "educate" people as to what was "right". Audiences proved to be far less gullible than desired, according to Chowdhry's work. I'd like to see the film again in the light of her work, but I can't seem to find it on DVD.

Enjoy your trip home: I'm heading home for the first time in a couple of years, and almost without being conscious of it, I added five Irish films to my Netflix queue recently, as if to ensure a smooth transition...

December 13, 2007 3:45 PM  
Blogger dave said...

I am really enjoying these thoughts on didacticism, but I'm not sure that I've sorted out my thoughts on this approach theoretically; I would like to engage with some examples of didactic cinema more concretely. Perhaps I'll take a look at the work of Peter Watkins (esp. Culloden, The War Game, La Commune) or that of the Dziga Vertov Group.

I've long been interested in India, but I've never been. It's nice to be reminded of the world beyond my job, my bed, and the movie theater, as I've again fallen into the trap of compulsivity where film watching is concerned.

Also, allow me to join Jim i advocating the return of the topknot!

December 13, 2007 11:00 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Gareth and Dave.

Dave -- Those are great examples. In fact, we even see Watkins doing some explicit teaching with marker and whiteboard in The Universal Clock, the documentary about the making of La Commune.

And then there are the words spoken by Patricia (Juliet Berto), in the first Dziga-Vertov film, Le Gai Savoir: "I want to learn, to teach everyone and myself, to turn against the enemy the weapon which he uses to attack us: language." In fact, Berto and Leaud's plan in the film--to spend three years collecting images and sounds and rigorously investigating them--is a structured program of, simultaneously, education and teaching.

Gareth -- It’s interesting: Sembene realized that the role of the pedagogue is ideally played not just by the artist but the audience as well, as the audience’s reaction to Sembene's early films profoundly altered his practice.

In the Goldfarb essay I mentioned in the post (it appeared in Iris, spring 1995), he points out that colonial programs of education, development and assimilationism in Africa drew from social science theories in anthropology (the study of “other” cultures) but also, amazingly, from child psychology. “Lower” cultures were connected to “lower” developmental stages (i.e. children). These “lower” groups used (so went the belief) certain cognitive modes (visual-spatial) that were considered developmentally “lower.”

This led to a two-pronged colonial pedagogical strategy: (1) using visualism and visual media in ‘teaching’ Africans; and (2) simultaneously trying to move the colonized peoples into developmentally “higher” cognitive modes while privileging and applying Western measures and markers of class distinction (like literacy level).

I'll look for your post on the Burns book. And the Chowdhry article sounds very interesting.

December 14, 2007 12:40 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Wow, a lot to learn in this post on aspect ratios in Godard by David Bordwell.

December 14, 2007 12:53 PM  
Blogger Riley Puckett said...

Great post Girish!
If you don't know it, let me recommend an essay by Serge Daney called "Godardian Pedagogy." I think I've seen it on-line. Daney talks about how for Godard and other future new wavers of his generation, the cinemateque replaced both school and the family. But after 68, Godard realized this was no longer tenable and that cinema must become a school that teaches us how to leave the cinema.
Deleuze uses Daney's notion of pedagogy to talk about pedagogical images in not only Godard but Straub, Rossellini, Resnais and others.
I would want to separate this idea that attempts to combine aesthetics and politics with a didactic cinema that uses narrative to provide a moral lesson.

Another interesting tangent: chalkboards in cinema. I remember you once posted Kiarostami's "2 Solutions For 1 Problem."

December 14, 2007 2:02 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Riley! I don't know Daney's "Godardian Pedagogy" but here it is, at Steve's site.

Chalkboards in cinema is a great idea. (Myself, I'm one of those old-school, luddite, chalkboard-based, anti-Powerpoint teachers.) Can we think of some cool examples?

-- If I remember right, the credits to Kiarostami's Breaktime appear on a blackboard...
-- Samira Makhmalbaf's movie Blackboards.
-- Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc) writing on the board: "Cain et Abel/Cinema et Video" in Sauve qui peut (la vie).
-- The intricate calligraphy of equations on the board in Max's classroom fantasy in the opening of Rushmore.
-- The Eastern Bloc scientist spilling his secrets to scientist/spy Paul Newman in Torn Curtain.


December 14, 2007 2:19 PM  
Blogger celinejulie said...

--Girish, thanks a lot for the link mention. That post in my blog is actually a copy of my comment in a Thai webboard. I wrote it because someone in that webboard expresses interest in British films. So I copied Miguel Marias’ comments from your blog, because I think his comments are very useful. I wish I had more time to explore his list.

--I have learned many things from this post. I think your entry “Didactic Cinema” teaches me a lot of things. I don’t think I have any opinions on this topic, because I’m not sure about the definition of didactic film, and I always view films in a very subjective way. I just know that I tend to like films which convey messages I agree with, and I tend to dislike films with messages which are in contrast with my personal beliefs. For example, I like some social-conscious films of Prince Chatri of Thailand, but I don’t like something in his historical epic films, because they tend to convey some patriotic messages. I also don’t like some Thai short films, because they tend to convey the message-- “We should love our family, our father, our mother, our grandmother, etc.” I think I hate most films which try to tell the audience to love their family or their country. I also wonder why I like the style of Ozu’s films very much, but I feel very detached from the contents in Ozu’s films, especially if they are about family. I much prefer the contents in Nagisa Oshima’s or Shohei Imamura’s films to Ozu. I wonder if Ozu tried to teach the audience something about family values.

Is INEXTINGUISABLE FIRE (1969, Harun Farocki) a didactic film? If it is didactic, it may be one of my most favorite didactic films.

--I think there is a chalkboard in LA CHINOISE (Jean-Luc Godard). In this film, there are many famous names on the board at first, but Jean-Pierre Leaud keeps erasing the names on the board during the film until there are very few names left. I wonder whose names are erased and whose names are left on the board in LA CHINOISE.

--There is a brief scene in which a chalkboard appears in THE BURIED FOREST (2005, Kohei Oguri). In this scene, a teacher tells her students about how the forest was buried by using some drawings on the chalkboard.

December 14, 2007 2:30 PM  
Blogger Riley Puckett said...

I think (though I could be misremembering) that the last name erased in La Chinoise is Bertolt Brecht--the spiritual father of chalkboard cinema.

Some other examples:
--The child writing the golden rule in Bunuel's Las Hurdas
--Farrokhzad's The House Is Black

I took that opening of Rushmore to be a parody of Good Will Hunting--the kind of didactic cinema that is not pedagogical because intelligence (and catharsis) is assumed and not demonstrated.

December 14, 2007 3:19 PM  
Blogger dave said...

Riley, I'm almost sure you're right about Chinoise; my only question is whether Brecht is in fact erased or not. When a good (Region 1) dvd comes out I look forward to revisiting the list of names erased in its entirety.

Isn't La Chinoise a film (partially) about didactics (in general, and in the cinema)?

December 14, 2007 3:41 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

First and foremost, Girish, that photo of you as a child with topknot is adorable!! And what's so striking about if for me is that it shows the same mirthful intelligence in your eyes that I've recognized in the man I've met at the Toronto International. I laughed outloud with delight when I saw it.

Secondly, I'm most appreciative of your announcing the Val Lewton Blogathon. Believe it or not, I'm a terribly insecure person in constant need of validation and have held off on hosting a blogathon for fear I would throw a party that no one would come to. I don't know where this insane caution comes from because I throw real parties all the time that real people come to. I'm finally relaxing and realizing it is what it is. I interview Lewton's son and child actress Ann Carter on Monday.

As for the subject of yet another probing entry on your site, I loved the Sembene quotes. As you know I am very influenced by Sembene and his films. I sifted the name for my blog from him with its concomitant commitment to teaching and (more importantly) learning. And it is one of the great sadnesses of my life knowing that I will never have the chance to converse with Sembene. I longed for it so deeply.

These days in several examples of African cinemas, the usage of French is precisely a commentary on hegemonic colonialism. And the cry of the griot in Bamako is one of the most heartfelt reductions of language to the common agony of the human heart I have ever seen on film. You don't need English or French to understand his lament. What you need is an open heart.

Your comments on audience participation are intriguing. At lunch with Reygadas the other day he likewise remembered that going to movies in Mexico used to be a communal experience with people bringing picnic and calling out to each other in the moviehouse throughout the movie. It makes me wonder if the irritation we have these days with so-called "audience participation" is not so much because it's a communal thing but because cellulars and blackberries and laptops are so exclusively personal, actually working against a feeling of community. Though I have Bay Area friends who don't enjoy it, I love it when I attend a screening at The Castro and the audience is with it. It adds an energy to my experience of the film; even as if to say that being a little distracted from the film while watching it is part of the experience.

As for Hindi film, I feel so blessed that the communities in the Bay Area have created an appetite for revivals of such classics as Pyaasa, which I saw recently on the Castro Screen during the 3rd I Film Festival. The scene where the poet-protagonist wanders the misery-laden streets of Calcutta, morally reminding the audience through song of the rampant injustice of class and sex disparity should be "taught" in every grade school, in every living room. Beautiful, and all the more painful for being true.

As with proponents of propaganda, I would imagine that ascribing a film as "didactic" has much to do with where one is situated to the truths being taught. If one agrees with those truths, then perhaps "didacticism" is truly instructional. If not, then it's just preachy.

December 14, 2007 6:42 PM  
Blogger craig keller. said...

Let me second the (implicit) kudos mentioned above for Lynch's Quinoa, which is one of the best films of the year. (Also, his Lamp from earlier in the year, on the Dynamic:01 DVD.) The North American release (not the UK release) of INLAND EMPIRE is definitely one of the essential DVDs out there -- for the main film itself, obviously, and for Quinoa too, but also for More Things That Happened, which is excellent, and two of the scenes of which rank in the top tier of Lynch's work: the sequence that continues the adventure o the Hollywood hookers, and the conversation between the Phantom and the Lost Girl. In fact Karolina Gruszka in this film (More Things That Happened) gives a tour-de-force performance for the ages, that surpasses Laura Dern's own admirable intensity, and gets into the "zone" of Naomi Watts's in Mulholland Drive. She's just COMPLETELY off-the-zodiac brilliant.

And don't miss the Lynch "Stories" segment either (nor the Lynch: 2 piece, nor Ballerina) -- it's really fantastic.


December 15, 2007 12:02 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, CelineJulie, Riley, Dave, Michael and Craig!

Michael, there's no need to worry--your online party will be as successful as your real-life ones, there's no doubt in my mind!

Craig, those are dyno-mite Lynch tips, new for me.

I'm sitting here with 100 final exams on my dining table; I'll be burning the midnight oil on these babies for the next 3 days.

Some reading:
-- At film critic Neil Young's site: a 2007 poll featuring international critics.
-- Mike Newman at Zigzigger offers some of his "favorite movies, TV shows, videos, recordings, websites, books, etc., of 2007."

December 15, 2007 8:22 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Thanks, Girish.

You have me all Bollywood-enthused over here at Casa Maya this morning. I'm playing my two Bollywood Hits compilations, cleaning up the kitchen by dancing around to Sukhwinder Singh and Sapna Awasti singing Chaiyya Chaiyaa from Dil Se.

December 15, 2007 2:45 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael, my mom's making me some Bollywood mix CDs (old 'golden age' stuff). I can trade those with you for the French pop mix you've so generously offered.

Meanwhile, I think Acquarello is in New York for the Spanish cinema series...

December 15, 2007 5:36 PM  
Blogger Matt Zoller Seitz said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

December 16, 2007 1:42 AM  
Blogger Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Films that "combine aesthetics and politics" -- great phrase, Riley -- is a nutshell definition of didactic cinema worth watching.

If the work is all about the lesson, and if there's little or no sense of ecstatic creativity in the images, the result is two hours of your life you're never getting back. Tucker's "lousy Christmas films that have characters coming to realize the "true meaning" of Christmas" a perfect definition of that.

But if the lesson is conveyed in terms of an elegant, bold, clear argument, one that employs picture and sound as deftly as performance and text, then there's a reason to watch the film besides the possibility of learning something. And whether you're watching the film for the first time or the tenth, it's possible to enjoy the artist's command of technique -- his or her ability to communicate information cinematically -- regardless of whether you agree with the message, or find it worth conveying.

This is why "Birth of a Nation" and "Triumph of the Will" and "Olympia" have earned a permanent, rightful place in the pantheon of indispensable works of screen art: though politically and morally repugnant, they are groundbreaking and still fascinating art objects that illuminate film history and invite the viewer's imagination to participate as the director constructs his or her argument. Plus, there's a history lesson aspect. Cinema as we know it comes from Griffith; the traces of Riefenstahl's monumental fascist recruiting films can be detected in everything from music videos and political ads to TV sports coverage.

Godfrey Reggio's abstract features -- which might be the most commercially successful experimental movies ever made -- are such compelling and intricately constructed examples of Soviet montage theory that it's possible to enjoy them the way one might enjoy a live musical performance -- fixating on individual aspects of the movie's technique as one might focus on individual players in a band or orchestra, and appreciating how all the gears mesh to serve a common purpose.

"Didactic cinema" is a pretty charged phrase in and of itself. The "cinema" part has to pull the "didactic" part the way a locomotive pulls the rest of the train along. It seems to me that the more didactic the work is, the less likely it is to qualify as great cinema, or even cinema, period.

December 16, 2007 1:43 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Girish, you're on for the Bollywood mix/French pop swap!!

December 16, 2007 3:34 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi there, Matt and Michael.

Matt, thank you for those thoughts!

Buffalo is in the middle of a whopping snowstorm (although this time it isn't alone). About a foot has fallen and another foot expected by morning before it's all over.

December 16, 2007 3:52 PM  
Blogger Tucker said...

Anyone know what happened to The Shamus' blog Bad for the Glass? It's still down.

December 17, 2007 7:41 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Tucker: the Shamus is no longer the Shamus. He's someone else. This is his new blog:


December 17, 2007 9:22 PM  
Blogger Tucker said...

wow, I totally missed that switch. Thanks Flickhead.

December 17, 2007 11:39 PM  
Blogger girish said...

As did I. Thanks for that, Flickhead.

December 18, 2007 8:24 AM  
Anonymous dm494 said...

Girish, two chalkboard moments I remember are: the opening of TOM AND VIV, with the actor who plays Bertrand Russell writing out Principia Mathematica formulas in front of a class that includes Willem Dafoe's T.S. Eliot; I really dislike the film, but to its credit it gets the Principia notation right. And one of the intricate flashback-flashforward sequences in THE RUSSIA HOUSE, which involves Ken Russell (yes, that Ken Russell) as an MI 6 sovietologist gleefully filling a board with info from which he figures out the identity of one of the film's other characters.

Matt, your examples raise an interesting question. Are Riefenstahl's films or Griffith's really art, or is their value just historical? I couldn't agree with you more that politics/morality is one thing and art another--I can't stand people who want all art to be political or to supply moral instruction--but that doesn't mean that an artist's politics or morality doesn't affect his capacity to make genuine art. The vision offered by, say, BIRTH OF A NATION, is appallingly stupid; Griffith's racism and simple-minded sentimentality work to yield a movie that's as offensive as it is ridiculous, and I think it's a formalist mistake to value a film's artistry, its cinematic craft to such an extent that what that craft is used to say becomes, from an artistic standpoint, irrelevant.

I guess this leads to the question, Can there be immoral art? Interestingly, if you assume that everything is moral which isn't immoral, then this boils down to the old question, Is the good the same as the beautiful? But if you believe in the possibility of immoral art, then you're led to another issue: while certain offensive moral and political attitudes may be incompatible with art, perhaps it's also true that a genuine work of art which expresses offensive moral or political attitudes may, because of its artistry, be more offensive than a film (or other artwork) which expresses those attitudes ineptly.

December 18, 2007 9:10 AM  
Anonymous Chuck said...

I'm obviously really late to the party, but I am in general agreement with the comments here. "Didactic cinema" can have a slightly negative connotation, but films that are self-aware in their didacticism can be quite good (no one can dispute the fact that Eisenstein, to name one example, is didactic).

I think by "self-aware," I mean that filmmakers who are didactic should also be somewhat self-critical, something that comes across in the example of Crash.


December 18, 2007 2:24 PM  
Blogger Gareth said...

Girish -

It's the fact - which you highlight - that Sembène expected his audience to engage with his films in an ongoing process of pedagogy that, for me, means many critics fall short of the director's own high standards!

I'm always a bit bothered by those reviews of Sembène that lavish praise but don't tease out some of the open-ended questions; I don't think Sembène saw his films as closed texts that provided all of the answers, but rather starting points for debate.

I finally got around to posting about the Burns book (the end of the semester is not conducive to such activity); Prem Chowdhry's analysis is actually a book, Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema (2000).

December 18, 2007 2:44 PM  
Anonymous Walter (Quiet Bubble) said...

Totally unrelated, but there's a new issue of Rouge up.

December 18, 2007 3:22 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Another blackboard film: William de Mille's Miss Lulu Bett, the film I wrote on for the Silent Film Festival this year, has a charming ending with a chalkboard. It's like a diagetic title card (hope to comment on your silent cinema post soon, but it deserves a little more time and thought).

According to Kevin Brownlow, this ending was borrowed from de Mille's more famous brother's version of the Virginian. I haven't seen that one yet myself though.

December 20, 2007 7:02 PM  
Blogger Matt Zoller Seitz said...

dm494: Belatedly -- way belatedly -- I think that in order to truly engage with a medium, any medium, you have to compartmentalize the morality of the artist from his sense of style/form. It's not only possible to be aware of an artist's moral or political reprehensibility -- particularly when they're expressed in the work, as they invariably are -- while appreciating and even loving the art, I feel it's necessary.

Griffith's not just historically significant for the impact his movie had on American culture, he's genuinely innovative and rewarding -- and I feel similarly enthusiastic about Riefenstahl; the interplay of music, composition and cutting in her documentaries is superb, and has dated very well. These directors have moral asterisks next to their names and always should, but I feel that the aesthetic sensibility has to come first in these sorts of discussions, because in the end, that's the trump card that mitigates any other concern one might have. Richard Wagner embraced a social philosophy with strong elements of anti-Jewish sentiment that sometimes manifested themselves in his work; Roman Polanski is a rapist (according to some accounts, a violent one); William S. Burroughs was a junkie, a sometime patron of steambaths where he was said to pursue rather young boys, and drunkenly shot his common law wife in the head while playing a William Tell game and was saved from prosecution in Mexico after his brother passed some bribe money around; Frank Sinatra considered certain murderous gangsters to be among his very best friends. Should this knowledge cancel out, or heavily qualify, one's admiration for these artists' output, or otherwise prevent us from appreciating how the works are constructed and their impact on successive generations?

After years of wrestling with it, my final answer is, "No." In the name of selfish pleasure as well as a desire to be consistent, I feel I can't make those sorts of absolute distinctions. If I did, some great stuff would be off-limits to me -- and I'd be passing a critical death sentence on the artists I know are personally reprehensible while rewarding others artists who, for all we know, might be just as privately or politically repugnant but far more discreet. (Tom Hanks is supposed to be one of the nicest guys in Hollywood, but how do we know he doesn't have a collection of severed human heads in his basement dungeon that he fondles while wearing a Klan outfit?)

Bottom line: Polanski is a rapist, and one of the greatest directors in the history of movies; I've been listening to the overture to Wagner's "Das Rheingold" (used in Terrence Malick's "The New World") on the subway at least twice a week for nearly two years; I'm listening to Sinatra's "Summer Wind" as I write this.

December 22, 2007 3:56 AM  
Blogger Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Also, re: "While certain offensive moral and political attitudes may be incompatible with art, perhaps it's also true that a genuine work of art which expresses offensive moral or political attitudes may, because of its artistry, be more offensive than a film (or other artwork) which expresses those attitudes ineptly."

Not more offensive, I'd say, but certainly more dangerous, and worth parsing and qualifying with more care. I'd hazard to say that's why the relative merit of "Birth of a Nation" is still argued about, while the racist pandering of some of the 1970s vigilante movies has mostly fallen off the topical radar.

December 22, 2007 4:01 AM  
Blogger Matt Zoller Seitz said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

December 22, 2007 5:13 AM  
Blogger Matt Zoller Seitz said...

ringing in Sinatra was off-point, probably, but I'll stand by the citations of Wagner, Polanski and Burroughs, who did express a world view in their work that was obviously a continuation of their personal morality (or lack).

And finally -- as the insomniac turns in: Just be clear, I don't mean to suggest that innovation or simple technical excellence excuse racism, sexism or any other ism -- just that the presence of the latter shouldn't nix our ability to appreciate the former.

December 22, 2007 5:13 AM  
Blogger dave said...

Matt, I'm in full agreement. I think Triumph of the Will a truly great work of art that rewards much attention, in spite of its ('political' and aesthetic) politics. The same goes for Griffith and a long list of others (I'm separating moral judgements of artists from moral judgements laid upon works; the former doesn't interest me much if at all).

Art is more than just self-expression or emotional resonance; I think everyone here understands that art-making is a craft, something you work at and improve, like baking bread or making shoes. As such, it's something that can also be admired apart from that resonance, and apart from the given politics of a work.

December 22, 2007 12:31 PM  
Blogger Matt Zoller Seitz said...

As for the morality of the artist vs. the morality of the art he/she produces, I don't think they're really separable (and if they are, the person is likely a craftsman, or even a hack, rather than an artist). So it's practically six of one, half a dozen of the other for me.

That said, I do think that immoral art (or art that's not the least bit concerned with teaching one the proper way to live) can be great art. "Lolita," essentially an object lesson in how skilled narration can make one feel for any hero, expresses no disapproval of its main character whatsoever, and in fact encourages us to root for him to succeed in his pedophilia and be disappointed when he's thwarted. Patricia Highsmith's "Ripley" novels have held up well, and they're rather unabashedly devoted to the delights of a conman and murderer's trade. Ditto "Perfume."

One can attempt to mount a backwards defense of these as somehow moralist or morally instructive works, but such a claim ultimately seems a fig leaf covering the plain fact that the work's merits lie in their subversion, even inversion, of familiar moral dynamics, and more than that, in their sense of craft.

I once spent an hour arguing with someone who tried to convince me that Brian de Palma's "Scarface" is a deeply moral work, mainly because Tony Montana was a drug addict who died at the end. This is nonsense, of course -- there isn't a growth industry devoted to "Scarface" merchandise because millions of people crave a lesson on the wages of sin. They want to fantasize about transcending their social class while being badass. De Palma's sense of craft -- of style -- is the show, and it's great enough to ensure the film's durability; as in almost any other gangster melodrama, the fall occurring after two-plus hours of rise is pro forma.

I do think sometimes -- even most times -- craft is the whole show, or most of it, and if a morally correct stance is not obvious, we feel it necessary to invent one in order to appreciate the craft without guilt. I've been guilty of that myself at times, and I struggle to reconcile the social usefulness or truthfulness of a films message with the aesthetics of it, or lack thereof.

It push came to shove, and I were asked if I preferred a morally unimpeachable but aesthetically unremarkable film or a piece of vile tripe put together in high style, I'd nearly always ask for whatever was behind door #2.

December 22, 2007 1:14 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Really interesting stuff, Matt. I'm glad I'm continuing to read this thread.

One thing though: are these morally correct readings always "inventions" when they're not obvious to anyone on first blush? It seems to me that one mark of great art, besides craftsmanship, is an ability to hold multiple meanings.

For example, I've always thought of De Palma's Scarface as deeply moral, too, though not for the reason your conversation partner suggested. Every time I watch it I'm overwhelmed with the feeling that drug prohibition is futile and ultimately more destructive than beneficial. (Which is a message fond in Hawks' version too, as a matter of fact). And I don't think this interpretation even conflicts with the popular interpretations of the film. But I have to admit that an anti-prohibition attitude is something I bring in to the film, only to have it reinforced and amplified over the course of watching. I don't think the effect makes Scarface an example of didactic cinema...

December 22, 2007 3:09 PM  
Anonymous dm494 said...

Dave, Brian and (especially) Matt, thanks for your comments. I think, though, Matt and Dave, that you guys are begging the question when you speak, on the one hand, of compartmentalizing morality/politics and craft, and on the other, of regarding Triumph of the Will as art in spite of its politics. The issue, remember, is whether you can regard Triumph as art, given its politics, or can compartmentalize morality and craft--at least when the morality is hideous. An equivalent way of formulating the question is to ask whether there are moral stances incompatible with art. For instance, a lot of people take the defining characteristic of hardcore pornography to be a complete reduction of women to the status of sexual objects: they have no status as persons, as human beings. If this is true, then it's worth considering if hardcore porn could ever be art, given its reductive attitudes towards women. Your formalist answer would have to be yes, provided that the technique was good enough.

Just to clear up a potential misunderstanding: when I suggested that the value of Griffith's films or Riefenstahl's might be merely historical, I was including under 'historical value' not just cultural impact but also technical and stylistic innovation.

And Matt, I can only express vehement disagreement with your belief that there's no separation to be made between an artist's private life and his artistic output. Do any of Polanski's films advocate raping teenage girls? But take the case of (instrumental) music, which is much more difficult for your view. You mention Wagner, who's a special case--there's an industry devoted to showing that he derisively employs Jewish melodies in his work--but most composers don't reveal their private life in their music. And even when they do, you'd never be aware of it without some cognizance of nonmusical facts. Unless you know something about his life, you'd never realize that Brahms is referring to a singer he almost married when, in his String Sextet in G, he musically spells out the singer's first name (Agathe) with the notes A-G-A-D-E. And though you might suppose they're expressing something about their experience through music, you'd never know merely by listening to that music that Art Pepper was a junkie or that Stan Getz committed armed robbery to feed his addictions.

December 22, 2007 8:33 PM  
Blogger dave said...

one of the myriad ways I think Triumph of the Will is a genuinely great film is that it is so effectively fascist; it's ability to embody the concept so fully is part of what makes it great. Also, it is beautiful and fascist for the same reasons; throughout her career Riefenstahl is attempting to embody 'the fascist aesthetic' (Sontag) via a particular notion of formal beauty (of forms and of the human body). So I like Triumph of the Will precisely because its fascist. What to make of that?

December 23, 2007 11:12 AM  
Blogger Matt Zoller Seitz said...

dm494: "You mention Wagner, who's a special case--there's an industry devoted to showing that he derisively employs Jewish melodies in his work--but most composers don't reveal their private life in their music. And even when they do, you'd never be aware of it without some cognizance of nonmusical facts."

You're wrong here. Artists can't make art without somehow manifesting their personal values and experience in everything they do. It may be easier to spot in a novel or a narrative film than in music or dance, but it's there nonetheless. Everything Tom Hanks has experienced and done informs his acting, and the same is true for Tom Sizemore. Ditto Jackson Pollock, Miles Davis and Beethoven. No, Polanski has not done a movie advocating raping little girls, but he did make "The Pianist," an Oscar-winning film about how trauma destroys moral code and reduces man to the level of animal. This could be read as a partial apologia for Polanski's crime in light of his traumatic past (wife murdered by the Manson family, relatives killed in the Holocaust).

Fair enough -- but thus far much of your argument has rested upon the assertion that certain works of didactic cinema can be of merely historical value, as opposed to earning the label "art." In order to earn that label, it seems that the work in question must contain no repugant, alarming or disturbing values. I can't go with that flow -- it's too selective a way to categorize things into "art"/"historically interesting but not art." Riefenstahl and Griffith are easy targets to select out and place in the "historical value only" bin. But what about Martin Scorsese, who has often been accused of sexism and a glorification of macho behavior? And Peckinpah, whose films have variously been accused of sexism, racism and romanticizing fascistic ideals of manhood? Neither of these directors were entirely critical of the values they depicted; they often fell under their spells.

Must an apple be rotten to the core in order for us to select it out of the "art" bin and place it in the bin marked "historical value only"? At what point, and under what circumstances, does the audience member give himself permission to decide that the work is morally beneath him, whatever other values it may have?

The question we're really circling around here is, "What is art?" We toss it around like we all know what it means, but I don't really think we do.

Your point about hardcore pornography is well taken, though. I would suggest, however, that hardcore pornography has a difficult time rising to the level of art (er, no pun intended) not because it's offensive to women, but because its inherent conception (er, no pun intended) is monotonous and not conducive to emotional inquiry, or anything but a replication of mechanical physical activity.

There are some radical underground erotica/porn directors who would beg to differ, though.

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