The Cloud-Capped Star ★★★½

What creates style? Talking about style is easy (to an extent), but finding the motivating factors behind it is difficult. We'll talk about influence in the most common terms (he influenced him, etc), use the context of a nation, or simply point to a theoretical or philosophical system. I found myself pondering this watching Ghatak's "modernist" (a tenuous word) cinema, made in 1960 at the same time Breathless debuts in Paris, L'Avvenutra in Venice, Cruel Story of Youth in Tokyo, Shadows in the United States, and The Housemaid in South Korea.

But Ghatak's formal system even feels like an outlier to the various New Waves cresting around the world. The almost amateur quality to his filmmaking at first feels like a fault, but there is a rigorous play at work to take odd aesthetic choices and make a system out of them. I noticed this at first during the opening sequence, as the brother sang in under his giant tree, and the soundtrack competed with a train in the background. What felt like a mistake of poor sound mixing at first became the impetus for the film: the competing sounds of existence, and the voices that are essentially silenced ("But I wanted to live!" Neeta finally shouts at the end of the film, followed by a 360 tracking shot in utter silence).

Ghatak's choice in shooting normal conversations is equally alienating at first. Many of his shots break the rule of shooting at eye level, choosing angled shots without obvious motivation. Many conversations are also shot across the 180 degree line, but not in the Ozu style—instead we watch a conversation unfold from behind their heads. What do these get us? The Turn. The turn seems to be Ghatak's most crucial visual gesture, the type of key mise-en-scene move that Adrian Martin identifies in his new book on the subject. At key points, Neeta's face will be away from the camera, she will turn toward it, her eyes moving from a up situation to a down. These poetic turns are also deeply human, and bring us into her interiority. If we had to thematize it, we can generally say it is about identifying Neeta's own desires, ignored by everyone else, but caught by the camera. As Bhahksar Sarkar describes, Ghatak uses his strange lighting, framing, and editing to place us in "the 'impossible' physical space of the character's head" in order to bring us into the excessive melodrama.

There are other aspects to Ghatak's cinematic form worth exploring, but then there's the million dollar question: where does Ghatak's form come from? Sarkar goes to great length to attempt to identify this within his own greater project of examining cinema's ability to view "partition...as a national trauma." And while we can place his narrative trajectories (the use of both melodrama and myth), as well as personal history as part of a partition-trauma narrative, how can we see the aesthetics themselves as a system that speaks to this as well? I was struck by Sarkar's description of the repetition of the sound of cooking, identified with the mother and thus when repeated out of context, it becomes "a vernacular expression that describes a soul ravaged by life's hardships as one that has been burnt to cinders." I'm not sure I entirely buy that, though the general point about how sounds become identified, constant repetitions of anxiety (most notably the UFO sound with Neeta's sickness—a literal alien invasion) is a key observation.

Sarkar notes that Ghatak is at least in some way indebted to Eisenstein's own writings on film, his "dictum that meaning is generated from the collision between elements, and not their union." But does the general principle 'His world was broken into two, so his cinema is broken up as well' hold water? I'm not so sure I can totally buy that beyond narrative elements. I'm reminded of the famous Movie interview from 1972 with Vincente Minnelli when asked about a shot of Glenn Ford looking at the sky in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.*

"Why does the camera go up now?
"Because he's looking at the sky."

*Stolen with love from Adrian's book.