19 August 2013
‘It’s like a kind of close-up magic,’ he writes, ‘where you can see exactly what’s going on – nothing special, no tricks, see – and then suddenly… Hey presto!’
I know exactly what he means, having embarrassed my wife by bursting into uncontrollable sobs after seeing Satyajit Ray’s film The Big City.
As with Nige’s experience of Cather, you can’t see what Ray’s is doing until suddenly you realise he has done it and left you feeling better, worse and ecstatic at the same time. I still can’t remember the last – on its own seemingly innocuous – scene without feeling a gulp coming on.
Ray makes film seem like a natural phenomenon which is probably what Kurosawa, one of his very few peers, meant when he said, ‘Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.’ His films feel like a necessary part of the world which is to say they do not feel MADE at all. So, for example, the opening shot shows a tram’s pantograph running along its cable. Each time it reaches a junction it sparks. I saw the cable as the city of Calcutta and the sparks as its stories. There are other interpretations, but it doesn’t matter. The point is this is an artful image, but it is so right it does not seem to have been made by an artist, rather it was always there as an image waiting to be recorded on film. He rounds off the film with a shot of a light bulb. It’s all so simple and so true.
This says something about great art, that it is more a process of discovery than invention. Mozart noted this in a letter about his feelings when ‘thoughts crowd into my mind’.
‘Whence and how do they come? I do not know and I have nothing to do with it. Those which please me I keep in my head and hum them; at least others have told me that I do so….Then my soul is on fire with inspiration.’
What is discovered is not simply the world as it commonly seems, it is the world as rendered by the artist’s medium.
‘Photography,’ said the great snapper Garry Winogrand, ‘is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed.’
Exactly. The Big City is how Calcutta looked filmed in 1953 – in fact, there is scarcely a single wide exterior shot in the entire film, but Ray’s Calcutta was a big place made by little intimacies.
It took me decades to understand any of this, to understand that great art is a whole way of seeing, not just an elaborated commentary. It is, in fact, quite hard to understand until, suddenly, somebody of the stature of Ray is in your face whispering ‘Hey presto!’ and it all falls into place.