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The Need For A Visual Syntax

April 1, 2012 | By

The quest to create strong, powerful and most importantly – relevant visual syntax for the written word is alive in every serious director working in the medium today.

When films are adapted from complex, non-narrative novels-the first imperative of the director or screenwriter is to procreate the central point of focus of the novel – which is essentially a world created out of written words using literary techniques – within a world where images and sounds, rather than words—assume greater importance.

And to do this, directors need to come up with a visual syntax which will properly translate the written word into a relevant, significant and memorable imagery on the screen. The flashes of brilliance in a film, more often than not, come from a perfect visual syntax that the director/screenwriter has been able to create out of the written word.

Pather Panchali

He decided that Apu would throw the object into a পানাপুকুর (moss covered pond). (Pic: Youtube)

To illustrate, let us consider Bibhutibhushan’s Pather Panchali. Recall the moment when Apu chances upon the gold pot which Durga was accused of stealing.

Bibhutibhushan writes –

“দুপুরে কেহ নাই, কৌটোটা হাতে লইয়া অনেকক্ষণ অন্যমনস্ক ভাবে দাঁড়াইয়া রহিল  |বৈশাখ দুপুরের তপ্ত রৌদ্রভরা নির্জনতায় বাঁশবনের শন শন শব্দ অনেক দুরের বার্তার মতন কানে আসে |.. … সে একটুখানি ভাবিল, পরে ধীরে ধীরে খিরকি দোরের কাছে গিয়া দাঁড়াইলো | বহুদূর পর্যন্ত বাঁশবন  যেন  দুপুরের রৌদ্রে ঝিমাইতেছে…. একটুখানি দাঁড়াইয়া  থাকিয়া সে হাতের কৌটাটিকে  এক টান মারিয়া  গভীর বাঁশবনের দিকে ছুঁড়িয়া ফেলিয়া দিল | তাহার দিদি ভুলো কুকুরকে ডাক দিলে যে ঘন বনঝোপের ভিতর দিয়া ভুলো হাপাইতে হাপাইতে ছুটিয়া আসিত, ঠিক তাহারি পাশে রাশিকৃত শুকনা বাঁশ ও পাতার মধ্যে বাইচি ঝোপের ধারে কোথায় গিয়া সেটা গড়াইয়া পড়িল |”

Now, in written words ‘রাশিকৃত শুকনা বাঁশ ও পাতা’ forms quite a strong impression in one’s mind as the graveyard of the object which is associated with Apu’s only black memory of his dear sister. However, translated to a visual imagery — ‘রাশিকৃত শুকনা বাঁশ ও পাতা’does not create a remotely powerful image at all. It becomes prosaic and mundane.

Satyajit realized that and came up with a more apt visual idiom which essentially captured the mood of those sentences. He decided that Apu would throw the object into a পানাপুকুর (moss covered pond). As the moss parts away in a circle the instant the golden pot hits the water surface, it slowly closes in upon itself and literally “buries” it within its bosom. Here the central theme was ‘burying a dead memory’. The visual syntax was a moss-covered pond. And herein lies the touch of brilliance.

Now consider Nabarun Bhattacharya’s cult classic Herbert. The passage where Nabarun emphasized Herbert’s isolation and loneliness, he writes–

“নিজের ঘরে খাটের ওপর উপুর হয়ে বালিশ ভিজিয়ে হাউ হাউ করে কাঁদে  হার্বার্ট | বিনুর জন্য কাঁদে | নিজের জন্য কাঁদে  হার্বার্ট | বুকির জন্য কাঁদে | মিত্থ্যে কথা বলার জন্য কাঁদে | কাঁদতে   কাঁদতে  একসময় ঘুমিয়ে পরে | ঘুমের মধ্যে ফোপায় | চিত হয়ে শোয় | ঘুমের মধ্যে হাসতে থাকে | আবার  ফোপায়   | হাসে পিতা ললিত কুমার ও মাতা শোভারানী শিশুপুত্রের এই  বিচিত্র ভাব দেখিতেছিলেন | বিশ্ব্বিত  ললিতকুমার জিগ্জ্ঞাশু দৃষ্টিতে শোভারানির দিকে তাকাইতে  শোভারানী ইষৎমায়াময় হাসি হাসিয়া বলিলেন  — ‘দ্যায়লাকচ্চে’ ”

The reader will remember that in the novel, Lalitkumar and Shobhaarani are already dead, long back. Here Nabarun uses a common but a very potent literary technique of ‘the dead speaking from the grave’. However, to transcreate this into a visual imagery, the director understood that he needs to create a powerful visual idiom-because on screen, literally showing ‘the dead speaking from the grave” becomes a B-grade cliché.

We all know, those who have seen the movie, what Suman Mukherjee came up with. He filmed a super-slow tracking shot of the parents who, in turn are filming their son Herbert’s loneliness through a movie camera which is being operated by the father from outside a window. The surreal shot not only recreates the hallucinatory mood of the written words, but perfectly encapsulates Nabarun’s vision of the orphan child’s desperate loneliness.

The ingenuity lies in the fact that both in the novel and the film, Lalitkumar was shown to be a failed filmmaker during his lifetime. And thus, Suman’s visual syntax captures in a single stroke the poignancy on multiple levels.

The interesting fact to note is that, in written words -Lalitkumar’s soul ‘filming’ his son becomes a very awkward and inappropriate literary metaphor. On screen, however, it’s the opposite. On asked about scenes which comes to mind instantly when thinking of the movie – it is this scene which majority of the viewers recall. Therein lies Suman Mukherjee’s credit.

Turning to Europe and to one of the most powerful classics written in the last century — ‘The Trial’ by Kafka, we see that in Chap V, K gets to meet the friend of Fraulein Burstner, with whom he had developed a kind of sexual obsession. The latter had left her apartment and in her place, her friend, Fraulein Montag had moved in.

Those who have read the novel will know that Kafka introduced this character Montag solely for the purpose of a long and significant conversation with K, after which she entirely disappears from the novel. But as with Kafka—he couldn’t let go of an opportunity to create a sense of unease and hyper-sensory awareness even in the most commonplace of situations. He writes:

“Won’t you take a seat?” asked Fraulein Montag. In silence they pulled out two chairs at the very end of the table and sat down opposite each other. But Miss Montag stood straight up again as she had left her hand-bag on the windows ill and went to fetch it; she shuffled down the whole length of the room. When she came back, the handbag lightly swinging, she said,” I’d like just to have a few words with you on behalf of my friend.”

Orson Welles in his classic adaptation of the novel in 1962 realized the potent possibilities of Kafka’s hallucinatory words and decided to render as many scenes as possible as close to Kafka’s vision of the surreal and absurd.

The Trial

He devised a supremely engaging outdoor shot of K and Mrs Montag, the latter wearily pulling along a large heavy suitcase (an indirect nod to Sisyphus’s Myth) which belonged to her friend Fraulein Burstner, through a desolate, depressing and grim cement wasteland bordered on the horizon by equally gloomy tenement high-rises.
(Pic: Internet)

When it came to this particular scene, Welles promptly decided that on screen, getting Mr. K (Anthony Perkins) to talk with Frau Montag in her own room-even with distorted ultra wide-angle shots would not make much of a visual impact. And therefore he devised a supremely engaging outdoor shot of K and Mrs Montag, the latter wearily pulling along a large heavy suitcase (an indirect nod to Sisyphus’s Myth) which belonged to her friend Fraulein Burstner, through a desolate, depressing and grim cement wasteland bordered on the horizon by equally gloomy tenement high-rises.

The entire dialogue takes place within a single-take tracking shot with K helplessly following Fraulein Montag as she keeps trudging heavily and admonishing K all the while. Kafka’s sense of alienation, aloofness and the comically absurd is brilliantly portrayed in this single sequence through the use of the visual syntax of a constantly moving, yet forever unchanging desolate landscape and the two, tiny, lost souls.

A Clockwork Orange is available on Amazon

A Clockwork Orange
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee
Director: Stanley Kubrick

Moving from an existentialist classic to a post-modern one, cinelovers here will surely recall the one book that made Anthony Burgess famous, or rather, the film adaptation of which made the author famous – the cult A Clockwork Orange. The film version abounds in one visual syntax after the other-dreamed up by the ever imaginative Stanley Kubrick.

Here is the opening paragraph from the novel –

“What’s it going to be then, eh?”

“There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim. Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither. Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They had no license for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new veshches which they used to put into the old moloko, so you could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or twoother veshches which would give you a nice quiet horror show fifteen minutes admiring Bog And All His Holy Angels and Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg. Or you could peet milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I’m starting off the story with.”

First off — the novel itself was extremely experimental in the way it played with words, freely mixing archaic English and Russian slangs to create what is today commonly known as ‘Nadsat’. Kubrick at the very outset realized that for a successful recreation of the comic yet bizarre feel of Burgess’s words-he would have to invent an entirely new visual style while at the same time fusing it with sharp visual idioms to let the feel flow.

A Clockwork Orange is available on Amazon

Alex looking straight at the camera with the eyeballs slightly above centre
(Pic: Amazon)

Anybody who has seen the movie cannot fail to recall how magnificently Kubrick set the apocalyptic mood and tone of the movie in the opening sequence itself. He made use of his signature ‘Kubrick Gaze’ — (Alex looking straight at the camera with the eyeballs slightly above centre), false eyelashes in one eye, and skintight white clothes with silicon bulging in the crotches for Alex and his friends (‘malchicks’ as Burgess calls them).

To make the sexual connotations even clear — the Korova Milkbar was decorated side to side with plastic nude female mannequins in a variety of copulating positions, the breasts of which squirted the much-in-demand  ‘milkshake’ which gave them fifteen minutes of quiet ‘horrorshow’.

None of the visual details of Korova Milkbar came from Burgess’s pen; but the idiomatic sexual imagery created out of inspired set design and Kubrick’s trademark slow back-tracking shot developed into a powerful visual metaphor which captured the essence of the novel in one single stroke.

Any discussion on interrelationship between literature and cinema can never be complete without a reference to the Renaissance man Rabindranath. Charulata/Nashtanir has scores of visual idioms created by Ray and they have been analyzed and dissected n number of times. I’ll therefore focus on one of Ray’s severely underrated adaptation of another Tagore classic — Postmaster.

Towards the end, when the postmaster leaves for home and Ratan breaks down in agony, Tagore writes:

“কিছু পথ খরচা বাদে তাহার বেতনের যত টাকা পাইয়াছিলেন পকেট  ইতে বাহির করিলেন | তখন রতন ধুলায় পড়িয়া তাহার পা জড়াইয়া ধরিয়া বলিল, “দাদাবাবু   তোমার দুটি পায়ে পরি, তোমার দুটি পায়ে পরি, আমাকে কিছু দিতে হবেনা;  তোমার দুটি পায়ে পরি, আমার জন্য কাউকে কিছু ভাবতে হবে না” -বলিয়া এক দৌড়ে সেখান হইতে পলাইয়া গেল| ভূতপূর্ব  পোস্টমাস্টার নিশ্বাস ফেলিয়া, হাতে কার্পেটএর বাগ ঝুলাইয়া, কাঁধে ছাতা লইয়া মুটের  মাথায় নীল ও শ্বেতরেখায় চিত্রিত টিনের পেট্রা তুলিয়া ধীরে ধীরে নৌকাভিমুখে চলিলেন|”

He needed to show Ratan’s love-stricken desperate cry as powerfully as possible. (Pic: Youtube)

He needed to show Ratan’s love-stricken desperate cry as powerfully as possible.
(Pic: Youtube)

It didn’t take much of an effort for Ray to promptly discard this overtly melodramatic reaction from Ratan at the very outset of filming (he did a similar thing in Pather Panchali involving Harihar’s reaction on hearing Durga’s death). But at the same time, he needed to show Ratan’s love-stricken desperate cry as powerfully as possible because the whole point of the story and the film rests on this moment.

And Ray finally came up with the visual metaphor of ‘silence’. Tagore’s lines, Tagore’s words condensed into a 3-4 short shot sequence, where the postmaster (Anil Chatterjee) sees Ratan coming down the road from a distance dutifully carrying a pail of water. He stops, calls out ‘Ratan’ once. Ratan pretends not to even notice him and nonchalantly passes him by. A close-up of the postmaster’s face says all there is to say. Interesting point of debate in this context would be, if Tagore were to write this story today, or even during his later years-he might have been much more restrained in his expression of grief. But nevertheless, absolute silence in text would not have worked. That idiom of ‘silence’ belongs to cinema, and cinema only. And it was put to remarkable use by Ray here.

The quest to create strong, powerful and most importantly – relevant visual syntax for the written word is alive in every serious director working in the medium today. However, as with every form of art – it requires a stroke of genius, or at the least, flashes of genuine inspiration. Both, thankfully, are in short supply.

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