Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Automatic Instinct

(An essay to propose a more balanced style of criticism.)

Anuj M. Malhotra

Exercise to begin with. See the images below:-

Now, lets commence.

I seek to make clear at the very outset that I have disregard for any notion, so lofty, that it is higher than the art that is ultimately its subject. My disregard in the matter, is shared by an opinion or a critique which discusses the intricacies of construction, while discarding the constructed, and as a consequence, disposing the beauty of instinct. I have a Caulfield like cynicism for their very motive, and believe they are conceited, and basically convoluted waste of text that can be done away with.

To those to whom, this opening might seem unhealthily impassioned, I have my reasons.

The process of creation should, in my opinion, never outweigh the creation itself. Art scholars, or so-called, have expressed long discourse of how various thoughts converged and congregated, through tough, dark periods of lulls in creative capacities of their creators, and also through their anguish, agony, and contradictions. How they spent hours in nocturnal activity, introspecting upon the very intimidating nature of the monument they sought to construct, and sometimes disenchanted by it, threatened to quit the task altogether. And sometimes, the opposite. How they experienced nirvana like interaction with the subject of their creation, in which they witnessed the birth of an object so powerful that their minds explode with burden. How weaving the most minute of the details took up hours of thought, and after-thought, often resulting in rejection of the results, seldom in acceptance.

The passage above, accompanied also by the torrential dissertations, in the form of articles, thesis, blogs, basically a barrage of text, that seek to wholesomely and thoroughly describe the form behind the creation of an object of art, will make you believe that the artist is like a man stuck in a deep cave with icicles hanging on top, and man-mines on the floor, thus, having to take every step with terrible caution, and hesitation. It also makes you believe that the ‘artist’ (such a loaded term), has to sit down at every step, draw a map on a paper, and plan each and every move, so as to not take a wrong step, thus resulting in a perfect work, which gives everyone the pleasure of being present in the audience to it. It’s a terrible phenomenon, this large-scale discourse , its terrible, terrible, and if I could describe it in one word – its terrible.


There is a fourth wall between every construction, and the audience. In every art, though Brecht showed theatre as the most obvious manifestation of it through the Verfremdungseffekt, or the distantiation effect, besides the point. An author, or creator, or auteur, whoever, attempts to conceal his tools from the audience, thus revealing only the painting and not the brushes, the book and not the typewriter, or the film and not the camera. In most cases, thus, it’s the creation that’s essential, and not the process, or the tools used to reach that creation. The audience feels cheated if the tools of creation are revealed to it, and in most cases, it should be upto the audience if they wish to be informed about them. But the so-called art-intellects take it upon themselves the pressure to spoil the show every single time. They write, elaborate, detailed, long essays about how the work was put together. About the need to examine the various techniques used in the process of creation, about how ornately the creator sat for hours to design, but they forget to write on the result of the process, the creation itself. And there is an essential technical difference between the two. To believe that appreciation of the technique behind a work is appreciation of the work itself is a belief that is wrong on two counts-:

a) Technique is a means to an end. Not an end itself. So if Eisenstein used the intellectual montage in his Octobre, it might have been a great technique, or a masterfully designed sequence of shots, and yet, it was a failure in evoking any response whatsoever, intellectual or emotional. A study, thus, based purely on the eulogisation of technique will appreciate the competence, but it will not acknowledge that its human impact, in fact, is nil. So, a study of a technique used, is always separate and distinct from the creation itself.

b) The vice-versa, then will also be true. If you will then appreciate a work of art, then you also in a manner, appreciate the technique behind it. So if a guy tells me just that ‘the film is good’, it should mean, that he also is enabled appreciate the technique behind it, which ofcourse, is not true in most cases.

The conclusion thus, is that, it is essential to devote attention to both the technique and the result of it. However, if the question is : what is more significant out of the two? The answer should really be simple.

Because, simply enough, form or technique or method exists to facilitate a creation. The ultimate goal of all method, technique or design is the creation itself. To discard the impact of the creation, to ignore it completely, and begin discussing the processes utilized by the artist in reaching the creative conclusion he has reached, is a critical choice or stand that reeks of idiocy, condescension, and in some extreme cases, a disability to understand the creation in itself.

For instance, a discourse on the Van Sant film Elephant reads,

“ The director makes magnificent use of the long take, and the mid-70’s invention, Steadicam, when he follows his characters around a normal US High School, which faces an impending school shooting, for minutes and minutes together, thus creating an idea of space in the school, and also of the spatial relations between the various characters, and distorting time, in a way, using the expansion of time, in the overall context of the film, thus enabling him to spread 5 minutes over a period of 2 hours, a technique he uses notably, in his film Last Days, as well”

The above looks informed, but its not a critique which speaks much of the creation itself, and chooses to discourse on the implications of technique or the manifestations of it. Its purely scientific. More essentially, the review is of a film at a certain stage in creation. So if it takes 10 levels to create an overall film, the review is speaking of a film at maybe, the 3rd level, where the architectural and spatial arrangements are designed, and at the 4th level, where the subsequent achievements of those arrangements are considered. Deprived completely of any human response whatsoever, and I daresay, cold, unfeeling and insensitive. It does not really radiate any special understanding of the film, and talks about pretty basic things, if one really applies cerebral effort to it. Its not about the creation at all, and really lingers in the processes which move toward it.

A review, having incorporated the above, should thus, also include the effect of the expansion of time and spatial relationships between the characters – and that effect would usually be an emotion – felt by the reviewer as the viewer.

“ The normalcy is so ironic. Its terrible, as agonizing as seeing Reichelt’s last few moments before the legendary fall from the Eiffel. A strange serenity, almost salvation is achieved through the omnipresent long takes. We are humbled and shocked at the strange irony of the unawareness all our lead characters share about the upcoming murder. We are also, infact, guilty of knowing more than they do. Van Sant works our emotions, he tries to create a conflict wherein we are put in the same realm of not knowing, of not being aware, that the characters are in, while constantly challenging our guilt at not being able to tell them to run away from that school. We feel like mocking, and mocked at, at the same time. Its brilliant.”

To see someone write about what he feels and not what he notices, has become rare. Film criticism, and scholarly research on cinema, has reduced it to a bloody science, as if the only purpose of creating a piece of film is to play with light and shade, and with time and space. In doing so, they have reduced the film to being of the brain, and not of the heart; of the thought, and not the feeling. Its terribly untrue.


And this is even more essential. Since by analyzing it in such great detail, humongous discourse claims that each step involves such delicate planning and forecasting, and in the process of doing that, it has virtually eliminated the element of instinct or subconscious creation. An artist’s greatest gift, will be, and has always been his instinct. It’s the instinct which implements the technique as well, but by deeming the creative process as a mechanical and perfunctory exercise, the film-scholars have more or less killed the very influence of instinct.

From an upcoming film, the dialogue should be legendary,

“ We don’t need a script. We will let the locations motivate us.”

There are numerous such examples, wherein an artist’s instinct guides his decisions, rather than his knowledge of the mise-en-scene, or film history, or the Kuleshev experiment. A thousand things in a great filmmaker’s work may eventually be accidental, or instinctive. Not everything has to follow a certain pattern of temporal arrangements. Not even Kubrick indulged in so much pre-planning, I am sure.

By deriving the process of the beautiful element of instinct, the film scholars infact, again reduce filmmaking to a cerebral process, for they now deprive it of the human element from the artist’s side.

Truffaut gave a brilliant interview, where he admitted that so many of the exciting touches in his films were results of beautiful accidents, or as we can say, automatic creation. For instance, the final freeze frame of Antoine Doinel in 400 Blows was accidental. But then, we will have 500 essays on why and how Truffaut froze the ‘moment in time’, thus creating temporal conflict between our reality and the character’s.

The greatest heavy metal band on the earth, Metallica were asked about how the processes involved in writing a song, an intro, a bridge, a verse, so on and so forth, and they replied, “We play whatever comes naturally after the preceding music.”

This is automatic creation – instinctive. Instinctive art is the most brutal, for it emerges from the most unpopulated and uncorrupted areas of human soul, often a result of his experiences, his beliefs, his ideologies, and it is unfiltered, raw genius. For example, Otto e Mezzo’s last sequence, or huge chunks of Taxi Driver.

I firmly believe that criticism or any study of the film should indulge in as much effort as has been put in creating it. By that measure, a mammoth 173 take, take by Scatman Crothers from Kubrick’s The Shining, is more open to study than something done instinctively, for instance Un Chien Andalou by Bunuel and Dali. So, while a work resulting from instinct might be a brilliant entry door to the artist’s most raw emotions, and thus will be open to debate for subtexts, its technique should really not be questioned.

‘But cinema is essentially about shooting a scene, right?’ You may ask. An artist’s instinct might make him visualize, or envision a scene in his mind, but he still will shoot it, wouldn’t he? And there, can’t a debate about mise-en-scene or temporal arrangements still be initiated? I say no, because the instinct will incorporate also how he creates(shoots) the scene tangibly, and not in his mind. The camera angles, the editing patterns, the camera movements, might also be a part of his instinctive move, and thus deliberate study into them, with an aim of a revelation of the great planning that the artist indulged in to create the scene, is both baseless and is rendered meaningless.

Thus, too much study into everything is stupid. Intellectualisation of art is merited only by an equal effort by the artist himself.


As a conclusion to this piece, I would just like to say that cinema, in the end, and basically is created for human beings to watch. Ofcourse, other living beings can be stimulated in different ways by that, but really, that aspect is not considered too seriously by many filmmakers. So if we are ready to agree on one fact, and that is that films are essentially and down to their bare minimum, made for people, then its important, that while writing on a film, or criticizing it, we accompany our technical diatribes with the overall emotion they generate. Yes, some films are made specifically with the purpose of defying technique, and thus, they warrant that type of discussion based in technicalities, for instance A Bout De Souffle, but not all, and in fact, most films are made with the purpose of creating some human impact, and thus, it is important to, in fact, discuss them.

Also, to pay more attention to the creation itself than to the process of creation, and to respect the instinct.


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Ibrahim Kabir said...

Interesting post, I was watching a documentary on Francis Bacon where he said it was by ‘chance’ he had started using the wrong side of the canvas for his paintings. Don’t you think that the ‘ chance’ would hold value if and only if the painter gave it some meaning. In this case, you talked about Truffaut and people.

Srikanth said...

What an engaging write-up. criticism of criticism, appreciation of art appreciation. Clearly elicits why Tarkovsky's cinema will fare better than his technically sound counterparts of the west.

And the pics at the beginning, make so much sense after reading the article. Great language to go with great stuff. Yes, it is the personal aspect of reviews that make them unique, for you can get the scientific details universally. And only via such practices, that we will be able to bring out finer aspects of the film in the form of an open discussion among individuals - not scholars, technicians or film reviewers.

But what about the films whose technical aspects outweigh the emotional ones they tries to portray. Won't that go underplayed?

Nitesh, thanks for putting this up. BTW, could you give a brief description about the author too?

Anuj Malhotra said...


Even in an event which involves an element of chance or luck, no one can deny the value of an artist or his presence.

Now as an critique, the fact that the work we are watching is the creation of an artist is already a given. What I talk about is how we misconstrue the effort put by the artist in the work. Like I mentioned Truffaut, he never intended the last shot to be a freeze frame, its just that Leaud stared at the camera and then looked to his right too soon, thus not letting Truffaut have the moment of his character staring at the audience, and making them introspect, for as long as he wanted. So, he HAD to freeze the frame. Notice the 'had' in capitals. Here, an artist's decision to create is no longer his, and is infact, a result of circumstances he can't help.

Jason Pollock's decision to paint like he did was also only when he mistakenly sprayed his canvas with dots, but how he developed it, is his own genius.Or as you said, Francis Bacon.

So yes, its both sides, the artist as well as the element of luck or chance. No denying that, but we must appreciate the fact that chance did play a role. Also, I would like to make clear that I am not saying that the artist would not have survived without that particular moment of chance. There are other moments in his career that are deliberate and planned. But the ones augmented by chance, and the ones which are not, need to be measured by a different set of criterion, according to me.

As for the exact question you asked, "Don’t you think that the ‘ chance’ would hold value if and only if the painter gave it some meaning.". Agreed, but this question can very well be reversed and presented as an answer to the aforementioned, "Had there been no chance event, would it be possible for the artist to give it meaning in the first place?"

As to what precedes the other in this case, the artist's greatness or the event of chance, I'm sure we know the answer.

Thanks for asking.

nitesh said...

@ srikanth Will be doing so from the next round of articles.

There is a very interesting passage that Wittgenstein writes and, i think, it does go with the discussion we having:

2.0.11 In logic nothing is accidental: if a thing can occur in a state of affair, the possibility of the state of affairs must be written to thing itself.

2.0.121 It would seem to be a sort of accident, if it turned out that a situation would fit a thing that could already exist entirely on its own. If things can occur in state of affairs, this possibility must be in them from the beginning and all.

Anuj Malhotra said...

Nitesh Sir

In reference to the two points by Wittgenstein that you have quoted, I completely disagree with them.

The crucial mistake that he makes is that he claims that a thing HAS to have limited/pre-defined possibility(or -ies). That it must be written into the foundation of the work itself. Thats a wrong notion. Any 'state of affair' that does not have possibilities which cannot be extended or expanded beyond the initially intentioned, is in my view, in any case a failure, and more importantly, a case rare to find. I would like to hear some examples of a similar state of affairs.

Secondly, any such state would invariably collapse, since it would not allow any element of chance or luck to tamper with its possibilities or consequently - its proceedings, which if you think of it, is impossible.

Thirdly, and more essentially, what is a work of art that does not offer limitless possibilities?

If there were so many boundaries as to what can be included in a piece of film, there'd be no good film at all.

Yayavar said...

"Instinctive art is the most brutal, for it emerges from the most unpopulated and uncorrupted areas of human soul, often a result of his experiences, his beliefs, his ideologies, and it is unfiltered, raw genius."
This line really appeal to me.The saga of creativity,design and art is well depicted here.Once again u hit the nail on head.