Mdeii Life - Anand Krishnamoorthi's blog
Sunday, July 31, 2005
Anniyan, Hitchcock, cinema, politics and yet another sexual metaphor
I never knew that there were as many Tamilians in Bristol. Of-course, considering that it was screened in fairly decent-sized cinema, it did seem like a small crowd. I have also never seen such a clean projection print of any Tamil film...
Isn't it terribly obvious that I am trying to avoid talking about the movie as much as possible? Considering the effort we took in getting to the cinema complex (quite a bus ride from the city centre) and having spent quite a bit of money on tickets, popcorn, cola etc (I got off light on both counts: student discount on my ticket, and a friend bought all the food), we wished we were a little drunk as well. We'd have enjoyed the film a lot more.
The first things that came to mind while and after the film were those little posts on Nilu's blog. I guess I can use the very same examples while talking about Anniyan as well.
While I consider the movie to be among the worst I have seen in quite a while, I do so for certain specific reasons (and don't they all!). I take NO exception to the fact that this story is a rehash of Gentleman and Indian and also to the fact that it is full of naive and misdirected political idealism perfected into an artform in Tamil cinema, so much that most actual political drama and rhetoric in our colourful state actually feeds from and into cinema like in some far-eastern mystic motif (I can even imagine snakes devouring each-other in the picture).
Now for some good points about the film, for which I might sound (and erroneously so) like an apologist for mediocrats (ah! thats a nice word): I for one keep harping on about the fact that in today's world of globalised media, it would be difficult in getting away with the sort of blatant plagiarism that Tamil cinema has been practicing for decades. I also keep insisting like a nice politician that it is the people who decide if a film is good or bad, and not the critics. And insist that when the audience is exposed to what us self-proclaimed 'experts' call good cinema, they would soon stop elevating regressive trash like Sakalakala Vallavan into super hit status. Anniyan I have heard, is a big hit. So again like a good politician I shall try to tailor my ideology to make it sound more attuned to a reality that surprises and confounds me.
Why is Anniyan a hit? Maybe I might actually find some valid reasons and continue to remain faithful to the assertion that I DO NOT believe in the statement: nobody can know what makes a hit (That is one statement I hate being used in Tamil cinema circles, as I believe many creeps hide behind it!). I hope not to contradict myself in the process (also like a good politician), so if I do, please point it out to me!
The example I continue to state, as I did in a comment to Nilu's post in that of Hitchcock. As long as you keep giving the audience constant thrills and keep them on edge, you can be cocksure that they are not going to bother about motivation or plot holes. What I do find disturbing is the notion that if a filmmaker masters this kind of storytelling, he or she shows scant respect for the intelligence of the audience. On the contrary, I appreciate the guts of the filmmaker in trusting the audience.
Shankar has guts. He rehashes his own story; he has a silly logic to events; displays a dumbed-down version of society; stages elaborately colourful song and dance routines; and he overdoes all this to such an extent that the film is almost self-parody. Does Shankar think that every member of the audience is a fool to fall for this? Does he think that with doctors mouthing detergent commercial jargon, people would be impressed? Does he think that people actually think that investigating officers go to work in fancy dress for no reason? Or pray, does Shankar think that people would actually believe that the answers to social ills lie in vigilante terrorism? Or pray harder, considering that this is an oft-repeated theme in his films, does he himself believe that a violent hero is the one who'll actually change the face of this world? Pray mighty hard now, by making each of those films a hit, do Tamil people think likewise? The answer to all this is (an albeit soft) no!
Shankar might display a typical political naïveté that links cinema and politics in Tamil Nadu. MGR became chief minister, but can anybody replicate it? Will Vijaykanth think that he can nurse political ambitions simply because he fights crime and corruption in his films? In fact, it takes a lot more than 'image', and the surprising thing is that we who vote them in, (and by extension, Shankar who writes such stories) might actually not know that politics is not so simple. Vijaykanth could become chief minister, but not even he or his individual voters might know that he has become one because of 'other' reasons. It is wholly another post that could talk about individual ignorance, but collective enlightenment (the ramification for our ideas of democracy need to be explored), so I shall now get back to Anniyan.
So while the previous paragraph might explain why the 'no' is soft, I'll elaborate on why the answer was 'no' in the first place. Shankar is a naturally gifted storyteller. While Hitchcock knew why he was one, Shankar might not! (The 'might' is strong). Most Tamil filmmakers (or for that matter, many spontaneously successful artists the world over, throughout history) never get to understand their natural gifts. Some like Mozart die before decay (it is only a matter of speculation that he did not realise the reasons for his genius... or for that matter can anyone completely understand it at all?) Others decay before death because they try to replicate their work badly, simply because they misunderstand the reason's for their success and most often suppress their real genius in favour of the more obvious manifestations of it.
I have never really got a chance to talk to Shankar about his storytelling the way Truffaut got to Hitchcock. Maybe Shankar is somebody who does in fact know himself well.
Does Shankar have scant respect for the intelligence of the audience? Or to better put the question, do you have to hate yourself for enjoying Anniyan? Definitely not! In my case, the film I often refer to as the one that fascinated me into the Tamil film industry was Sakalakala Vallavan. It is most certainly regressive trash, certainly not a classic, but at its time, was a very good display of simple and effective storytelling. Anniyan is its modern equivalent. These films can be hits, but never be timeless (finally self-proclaimed 'good taste' film commentators can sleep in peace), as storytelling is an artform that changes continuously. Some of Hitchcock's films though remain timeless, as the filmmaker knew himself you see! (Plus, films like Vertigo, were much more than just cleverly told stories)
While watching Anniyan, the audience knows that what they watch is utter nonsense, and the filmmaker too knows that the audience knows. It is only us in the middle that cannot explain terrible super hits! Shankar knows his strengths and weaknesses, and knows storytelling. An example from the film can illustrate better.
A common complaint against Anniyan is the lack of proper 'motivation' for events. Years ago, Hitchcock came up with the concept of a MacGuffin-the nonsense motivation: absolutely insignificant motive to drive the narrative forward. Social corruption is but Shankar's MacGuffin. It need not be strong; it is how to move forward from there that matters. He skilfully makes the Anniyan murders very very gruesome, that the audience is immediately caught up in events and story-beats. But forcing the audience to try squirm away from the film, he again skilfully has caught them in the diegesis. Think of Brechtian alienation. Anniyan rolls his eyes: almost funny! (the audience now gets outside the diegesis) but he immediately inflicts terrible violence, where he forces the audience to want to shy away from what they have now come to believe is actual violence. This is master filmmaking. The alienating effects of obvious makebelieve actually help in pulling the audience into the story. Shankar is a master of the ostentatiously artificial.
Theatrics work simply because they are theatrics. Cinema works simply because it is cinematic. Not because it is real. But then, why is it not universally liked. Why do I hate the film? Just like we might not immediately know why we like a film, we might not know why we hate it too.
I hate the film because it for one, has so many possibilities left unexplored. So many more storytelling tricks that the filmmaker could have employed to have actually made it a classic. The ones Hitchcock used to make a hollow piece of yarn like North By Northwest a classic.
Shankar has not exploited well, his own skills in fantasising the starkly real. I still feel that his Boys experiment was worth it. He tried to use his aforementioned skills to full extent, but soon realised that his strength was his ability to relate escapism to reality and his weakness was in being unable to pace the storytelling to match the change in his story, theme and treatment. I hoped he would have learnt from Boys and come up with a nice way of narrating mature social commentary—the story providing the backbone for an entertaining superstory. But instead, disappointingly, Shankar had chosen to completely abandon ironic social commentary: which he's so good at, in favour of harking back to the Vijaykanth or SA Chandrasekar brand of social naivete of his earlier films.
The other gripes: For one, themes of MPD, or Schizophrenia (mind you, they are two different mental disorders) are not strangers to a Tamil audience. Who will not remember Marma Thesam? But Shankar's exposition of its details resembled the terrible architect sequence in the Matrix sequel. All substance and no style!
Plus, I take total exception to Vikram's portrayal of Ramanujam alias Ambi. It was proper bollocks... not becoming of an exceptionally hardworking and talented actor. But, why do people like his acting? Simply because cinema is cinematic. We want to see hamming in a Shankar film; a film that has roads painted like saries, lorries painted like dolls, and cheap song words like ‘...Nokia blah blah’. If Vikram had done the very kind of acting in a much more realistic sort of film, then the same audience would have called the bluff—termed it overacting. Maybe I am contradicting myself? If I think his acting was appropriate, then why do I not like it? Simply because his overacting was misdirected! If he really wanted to have exaggerated the simplicity and docile nature of Ambhi, he need not have strapped on a paunch and propped up a 'velakkenai' face. He could have left the camera and editing to act for him. Remember Lev Kuleshov? But, yet again maybe it is just my middle-rung 'taste' that still finds it jarring.
On a related note, I simply feel that brahmin violence is something that only a cunningly knowledgeable filmmaker can exploit. Kamal Hassan attempted it in Hey Ram! His brahmin terrorist is a typicaly middle-class guy with middle-class values. But Kamal Hassan was too well built to explore that dimension. Though, Saket Ram's violence is much more internal. His violence is that of a small-made 'thair saadam', vegetarian, 'saambhar': the violence of the cowardly; the guts of the physically weak; the psychological frenzy of the conformist. This is a character full of contradictory, and hence, very theatrical dimensions (in fact, for those who grew up in or around brahmin families, you can actually find these characters everyday—they are very much real). Something left unexploited in this film.
My mom spoke to me about the film and told me that she found the sound-track very jarring. I am not even going to talk about that aspect of Tamil cinema.
Why else do we, the more refined, hate this film? Simply because it confounds us. In having learnt to make and watch 'classics' I have failed to understand the dynamics of the fleeting successes! I am sure with poorer marketing, Anniyan could have failed miserably, but it has been successfully marketed (correctly) as an escapist potboiler—a film that knows what the audience wants in today's world, knows its politics, knows its history, has resonances in contemporary fashions.
However much we'd like to believe that us South Indians are isolated from the events of the world today, all of us grapple with exactly the same issues and indulge in mild fantasies of alternatives and new-fangled dogmas for bringing back order: we try to deal with with increasing cross pollination and anarchy, be it through terrorism or through Musharraffism. Elsewhere in the world, repercussions are actually more manifest, but thank god we guys have cinema, we docilely masturbate away our libido instead of going in for the whole revolutionary gangbang!
As I feel, "Among the powerless, those who have not chance to fuck, masturbate; those who have no choice but to fuck, have orgies. Among the powerful, they bugger before being buggered. Yet there are others, like the 'tasteful' middle-rungers like us, who have access to all, the choice as well and maybe even the power to be powerless, loathe all the others and remain frustrated celibates."
Monday, July 25, 2005
Bristol had its annual Harbourside festival over the past weekend, and it had all the necessary hallmarks of a proper 'Thiruvizha' or 'Ejjibijan': Food stall from all over the world, rides, lots of people, and of course, music.
Well, a friend of mine needed somebody to handle the roving camera to film one of the gigs. Having convinced myself that I had become a 'sound' person, I took up the job with a certain amount of circumspection. But, after all, camera-work is what I trained for in Loyola, and that what I started off doing anyway.
Just realised that I'd lost none of it! As the gig progressed, I started having more fun. The advantage of operating the roving camera is exactly that: It is roving! Yet, to look at framing, exposure, focal length and focus, was a change from looking at sound level, microphone proximity, frequency response, and tape saturation.
Thursday, July 21, 2005
Updates on the Rani Chandran Memorial
Vikram has some info for us:
The Rs. 5,000 collected thus far will be presented by Srivi to Mrs. Parthasarathy during the awards ceremony at this year's anniversary celebrations (that's happening next week). This money goes towards upgrading the facilites at the Rani Chandran Language Lab.
As far as the memorial fund is concerned, it has been decided that a part of the money collected will be used to fund the entire schooling of a deserving kid. Mrs. Ramdas is to help identify a deserving candidate, and this will be coordinated with prominent voluntary organisations in Chennai to make sure this is done properly.
Vikram goes on to say:
This project requires a little over $1000 and I appeal to ALL of you to help make this possible. Even a modest contribution of $20 from 50 people could help do the job. Ofcourse, we need not restrict ourselves to this figure as we have other things planned as well.
The purpose of the fund established will be to support "The Rani Chandran Memorial Award" . The first recepient will be awarded thishonour during the Anniversary Celebrations next year(2006).
The award constitutes a certificate, useful books and a medal. This will be presented to a deserving class 12-graduating candidate for overall excellence in creative writing,oratory and theatre.
The criteria to decide the recepient will be based on a 30% weightage given to performance exhibited in each of the 3 areas of creative writing,oratory and theatre. Out of a total of 100 points, a student's achievements can be recognised by awarding him (sic) points for his (sic! again) merits in these 3 divisions. The final 10% will be decided by reviewing his (sigh!) conduct and obtaining feedback from relevant members of staff. Should there be a tie for this position, the student with impressive academic performance shall be awarded this honour.
We plan to allocate a certain portion of our collections towards meeting the expenses of maintaining this award each year.
The memorial fund to collect all donations is now officially established. You can make your contributions by writing a check to
"THE RANI CHANDRAN MEMORIAL FUND"
and mailing it to
FIFTH THIRD BANK
30, EAST CORRY STREET
CINCINNATI OH 45219
It would be wise to mention the corresponding account number on your checks. This is going to be 7021699462.
We are working to create a similar account in Chennai to facilitate easy collections from people in India. Details about that will be released eventually.
I cannot stress the importance of your contributions. Some of you have asked me about information already and I'd like to thank you for your patience. Please continue to support this effort with your enthusiasm. While $20 is a minimum that I would venture to ask of you, larger amounts are more than welcome.
I will keep you informed about our collections regularly.Please let me know if you are facing difficulties in sending your money.
Wednesday, July 20, 2005
It's like I've been stuck in my sound edit suite for what seems to be an eternity. I've officially hit boredom! So I presume this is the right time to take a break from work before it turns me psycho. Also I've just had a meeting with the composer and it seems he'll need some more time before I can get hold of his work.
Now, what do I do? I've got a movie to watch this Saturday. My first Tamil film in a year! Then?
You know what? I might even post some pictures from my shoots on this blog. That would be interesting.
Saturday, July 16, 2005
The Rani Chandran Memorial
This is a message for all PSBBians. Many of you might be aware that efforts are already underway to keep Mrs. Chandran's memory alive. Considering the overwhelming response the news of her passing away generated, we hope to continue with our efforts to translate our fondness for her into something concrete that would be in keeping with her spirit and all that she stood for.
Two things are in the pipeline already. At school, there are efforts on to institute an annual award in her name. People like TS Vikram and Srivi are spearheading the effort and need as many people to get involved as possible. In typical Bob Geldof fashion, "We need the money, and your ideas! So get in touch with Vikram right away. vikramts(at)yahoo(dot)com."
Another thing happening is a scrapbook of memories, also in Live Aid fashion, being put together in three places across the globe. If you have thoughts about RC, little anecdotes, pictures, etc.. please post them (write, and not type messages) ASAP (with added Geldof stress!) to either of these addresses:
Vikram Srinivasan (Vikram.T.S)
(from the 12F1 class in the '98 batch)
The other idea I have is a little too 'Geldof' ambitious as well. Vikram first got in touch with me with an idea for this. I have to admit that the reason I caught on to it might have a lot to do with a weird sense of adventure on my part, but nevertheless, here goes:
I think we can put together an audio-visual scrapbook. This would involve audio/visual testimonials delivered and recorded from around the world by her students (from all three schools she taught in), her friends, and family. Now, if somehow people got together, recorded stuff through DV cameras, webcams, mobile phones, directly onto to computers as audio files, or whatever; the stuff could be sent over to me, and I'll attempt to put together what would be a multi-author documentary. Mail me details if you have any ideas for this as well.
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
But then again...
Whenever I mention Murch, I cannot but continue. I think I've already posted this link, but here goes again: Walter Murch articles
Apart from a link to the Dense Clarity, Clear Density article I spoke about in the last post, there are quite a few other nice articles, and in the one titled Stretching Sound to Help the Mind See, he talks about the in utero soundscape. This somehow has an uncanny analogy in my very own 'cave experience'. After all, at the end of the mini caving adventure, emerging out into the noisy blinding city through a small hole somehow compared to being born; and just like how Murch finishes his article, the pleasures of being able to use the other senses, is somehow coupled with the saddening loss (in primacy) of subtle sound perception.
As far as film sound goes, Murch cites Michel Chion's concept of the acousmêtre. One can stretch its definition a bit. Storytelling is all about creating tension. There are tremendous possibilities present in the audio-visual medium (the A-V order is deliberate). For those of you who have read Ponniyin Selvan, and have found the tunnel scenes fascinating; there is a way in which it can be properly translated from the written word.
Monday, July 11, 2005
Dynamic Range, Batman, Underground and Ponniyin Selvan
Well, I wanted to write quite a bit about the new Batman film; but I suppose I should stick to one area that seems to be my preoccupation for now.
Most time these days I spend holed up in a sound edit suite in front of a DAW, looking to make tiny adjustments to (on last count) a ten track sound edit. I'm trying to bring it down to a manageable four tracks of effects with separate location audio and music. BTW, there was another place I loved spending time holed up in last week.
Getting back to some tech basics; even though the format our finished film will most circulate in would be DVD (we somehow never have the budget to make prints), the film will nevertheless be premiered in a proper cinema. Plus, the DVD format, or for that matter, the Digibeta video master, have surprisingly good audio reproduction abilities. I hope to keep the dynamic range of the audio content as large as possible on the film I'm working on.
The dynamic range of any piece of recording (and also of any medium) is of primary concern whilst mixing. In classical music, the softest and the loudest sounds are referred to as the pianissimo and fortissimo respectively. Middle-school physics teaches us that the range of hearing of the human ear is in between the threshold of hearing 0 db(SPL) and the threshold of pain, roughly about 140 db(SPL). In digital media, it is generally agreed that the bit rate of the audio data multiplied by 6 corresponds to the dynamic range of the data (the difference in volume between the highest possible and lowest possible sounds). So 8 bit data gives about 48db; 16 bit data gives about 96db and so on. In reality though, a floor level of noise usually takes up quite a bit of space at the lower end reducing the effective range by quite a bit.
Now, apart from the range and latitude (the levels of difference) present in the data, listening atmospheres and conditions also affect the dynamic range of an audio performance. A noisy atmosphere can affect the rendition of the pianissimo of uncompressed audio.
Getting back to audio content itself, the best way to enjoy the entire dynamic range of any piece of audio would be to listen to it straight: i.e. live! If you've listened to a cello played in front of you, you'd know what I'm talking about. When it comes to listening conditions apropos the medium, apart from real life, (included stage performances), it is the cinema hall that offers a comparatively large dynamic range. With noise reduction systems in operation from the 70s and digital sound since the 90s, the dynamic range offered is substantially high (almost close to 120 db).
Why this huge theoretical lecture when all I said was that I'd talk about a film? Any theatrical film that does not exploit the big dynamic range offered, is doing injustice to the medium. I saw Batman Begins, not just in a cinema, but in an Imax theatre. Unfortunately. the film's soundtrack was designed (though not necessarily mixed) for it to be seen on a DVD in a stereo television set in a medium size living room.
I do not know if the excuse is aesthetic preference of the filmmakers, but Hans Zimmer seems to have slapped mood-music almost throughout the film, over all the dialogue scenes. This for one, effectively raises the floor level of the audio by about 30db... That is a waste! Curiously, this 'made for a small screen' concept extended to the visuals as well, that seemed to hover fairly close-up to faces.
I do not blame filmmakers for creating films for the medium it is likely to make the most money, but when you intend to strike Imax prints, please take the effort to use the medium. I for one would love to exploit the 'size' (both aural and visual) offered by Imax.
Finally, what was the other place I liked to be holed up in?
Last week, I had the opportunity to do some sound recording on a documentary shot under the city of Bristol: That's right: Under the city of Bristol, in a cave system. Apparently, in the middle ages, a group of monks (and the name of their order slips my mind) built the one we filmed in: called Raven's Well Very Lord of the Ringsy!
I never thought I'd like spelunking, but the invitation to record 'silence' was too tempting. The moment we descended into the cave system, I knew what was coming. We're all familiar with the English expression that talks about hearing a pin drop. In Raven's Well, I could in-fact hear the (sometimes far away) water dripping sounds from many cracks through which an underwater spring spilled into the tunnels. After the core crew went away to shoot specific areas of the cave, I went into a branching tunnel, isolated myself in complete silence. I did do some recordings on the most convenient thing to take in there (a portable DAT recorder), but for most of the one hour I spent alone, I switched off the system, took off my headphones, switched off my head torch and sat there in complete darkness and complete silence.
For those of us who spend most of our time in aurally saturated places, the complete silence (accentuated by steady dripping sounds from various distances, and from variously shaped caverns on various surfaces) offered an aural experience I wish I could replicate for others. This was the exact aural opposite of where one would normally spend a weekend: a noisy nightclub. These caves gave me a symphony in pianissimo. The melody of the lowest sounds one can ever hear. The floor noise level was purely internal (I have tinnitus in my left ear).
In an hour of pure meditation, I could occasionally imagine Gollum sat next to me, but what I most thought about was how to replicate this experience in a cinema. I sure have a wonderful excuse in the exquisite dark tunnel scenes from Ponniyin Selvan.
When one designs the sound, one needs to be very aware of the technical details as well. The same selection of sounds, could be mixed differently for various media: broadcast radio and television, mono television in a noisy flat, stereo television, home theatre, stereo headphones, padded hedphones, computer sound system, small cinema, large hall, Imax etc. The dynamic range can be compressed correspondingly (raising the piannisimo level and reducing the fortissimo). Ravel's Bolero can certainly be mixed for radio broadcast and listened to in a kitchen, but the compression effectively takes away the beauty of the piece. But even while designing a soundtrack; ie. deciding on what sounds go in when and how, one can accomodate for the vagaries of the media. I feel that slapped on mood-music, effectively 'Muzak', is certainly a very television thing to do. Kubrick used Muzak as almost a parody of itself in (the very large) 2001 A Space Odyssey, but if one can design a soundtrack where one really respects the effect music can have on the audience, then I suppose it has to be used wisely, especially if one wants to exploit a large dynamic range. This hold true not only for music, but for any sound in a film. Walter Murch points out the meaning of clarity and density when it comes to film sound.
And when I start mentioning Murch, it is time to wind up!
Wednesday, July 06, 2005
A few things
I've started my sound edit. I've almost finished cutting all of the dialogue together. But I've also added a few effects tracks. Also managed to do some levels mixing and EQ correction. Even though it is said that only after the dialogue is cut, that you go on to the effects and then finally mix, I somehow like working non-linear. Such a routine was drawn up specifically because each of those things was a separate job carried out by a different individual. But in my case I have to do everything. Production mixing, effects recording, synching and tracklaying, dialogue editing, foley, foley mixing, effects editing, multitrack processing and final mixing; apart from designing the entire soundtrack. The only things I do not do are location boom swinging, music recording and mixing, sound transfer and mastering.
Because I have complete control over all the things I do do, I can chose to do most of it in the order I am comfortable with; barring scheduling, budget and euqipment availability issues. The last thing I wanted to be was a techy geek, but I am turning into one. One of the reasons I did not take up Guru's book tag was because the last five books I've read are all technical handbooks or manuals. I do have to admit that I somehow like being a geek!
After a couple of really 'low' weeks, just figured that I've to get back to life with a vengeance. The first attempt at which ended with three of us having consumed many pitchers of real ale, and thus having missed the last train back, and then having been turned away from every single hotel/B&B in the train station's vicinity, finally remebered to get to an apartment belonging to a friend of a friend who lived in the area! We managed to catch part of the concert in Philadelphia before losing consciousness.
Though it could have ended better, I would not consider that night a total failure at bringing my spirits up. Just in time for me to start the sound edit.
Meanwhile, I managed to watch quite a few films, one of them was Batman Begins on Imax. I might put up a post on my own take on that film.
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