- Seven Scraps on Fiction by Tanuj Solanki
- Piali Bose on Tarun Majumdar’s Ekhane Pinjar
- Pragyan Mohanty on Firoze Chinoy’s pulpy films
- Dr. Susmita Dasgupta on South spectacles in the Modi era
Seven Scraps on Fiction in Literature, Cinema, and Dreams
The difference is basic, and it starts with “I.” Natural for literature. An irritation for cinema.
In Sofia Coppola’s 2010 film Somewhere, the actor sits on a chair in a make-up room. A prosthetic mask is set around his face. The camera slowly zooms in after the task is done. It does what it does longer than we expect it to. We are looking at the fake monster, and we are slowly approaching it. At some point, we get ‘access’ beyond the mask, beyond the real face, inside the actor’s head — into something we are not seeing right now but know exists. The mind. We find that we are anticipating the actor’s thoughts. Largely inarticulable, but connected somehow to one simple idea: lack of authentic connection in the actor’s life leading to alienation and sadness. (‘I’m nothing,’ he will say later in the movie.) This hypothesis in the mind of the viewer about the mind of the person that they are seeing on the screen — a person without a face, and thus offering no expression — is the miracle of the silent moving image.
Cinema has to go sideways to access interiority. Perhaps it succeeds most when it stays cinema.
Imaginable visuals for the setting and the characters therein, the ambient sounds, the words and volume of the conversation the characters are having, the displacement of objects as they move by inertia or are moved by force, jump cuts from one narrative space-time to another, or a montage of visuals as perceived or imagined by a character or an incorporeal narrator — most novelists spend a lifetime trying to do these cinematic things well.
The maxim that ‘richer the texture, richer the experience’ holds true in both literature and cinema. But even where the components of material reality presented or represented are the same, their rich rendering is received differently in either case. Time is consumed differently. One experiences detail serially while reading: one thing follows another. We first learn of a yellowing shower curtain, then of a big burn hole in it, then of how three of its rings have come undone from the top bar. While watching a movie, however, one experiences detail at-once: the whole curtain shows up if the framing is desirous of showing it so.
But when the whole curtain shows up, we don’t necessarily notice the three components of the image distinctly. We are immediately concerned about their combined effect, unconscious about the fact that these three details are a combination.
And there are more things in the frame — a piece of the wall, a sliver of the side mirror, grey-tiled floor.
Cinema reveals literature as convoluted and pretentious. It shows literature’s make-believe processes as erroneous; by simply showing that the world is not a chain-link thing, that it’s not one thing punctuated next to the other and so on. Cinema revels in the reality that it (the framed part) is all here, all at once, and that most of its detail will pass by unnoticed.
This unnoticed remainder creates a paradox, though: despite its characteristic and inevitable surplus of detail, cinema is more about the essence of things than literature is.
A film critic sometimes posts, on Twitter, screenshots of dogs appearing in the backgrounds of certain movie shots. At times he opines on whether the dogs are intentional or accidental. It’s always interesting to read those tweets.
In cases where a stray dog’s appearance is accidental, I argue that it is best if it is not noticed by the viewer. Inevitable surpluses are best if they are inanimate. Needless to say, such animated surpluses are impossible in literature.
Accidents like a stray dog walking in out of nowhere don’t happen in literature because literature is absolutely fictional. Its events have never been enacted in the material world, not even for make-believe. There is no shooting on location. In point of fact, all the locations in a work of literature were first made inside a single mind, where they were lit and focalised with intention and/or inspiration. When a particular vision came with too much clarity, the writer grew anxious — because she knew that to translate an at-once sight revealed in the mind’s eye to a serial, verbal medium would require extraordinary memory. Keeping a notebook was not an antidote to this problem.
Insofar as intention and inspiration are not coached into some kind of control, a writer cannot write.
Writing down dreams is a unique kind of literature — a kind of making literature out of cinema, formally. It is the only kind of writing where the possibility of a stray dog passing in the background exists. Of course, unlike cinema, this stray dog is not a real dog walking into a set frame, but a dreamt dog first remembered and then penned in a record of that remembrance. This dog is the result of two mental processes — dreaming and remembering — and is in that sense a ghost of a ghost of a dog, that will be recreated as a ghost again in the mind of every person who reads the text.
One can never be sure if the dog existed even in the dream, or if it was just a misremembering. The text of a dream is only a representation of the dream and not a presentation of it.
But does anything remain in the background in a dream? If you dream of a dog, will the dream-eye not focalise the dog? It will. A dream is, in fact, all focus. And it is in this that it differs from cinema. Yes, sure, cinema uses the language of dreams. Yes, it is also a presentation that is asking to be consumed as is. But framing introduces a background there. And there is a stray dog in that background about which nothing can really be done.
Tanuj Solanki is a writer of short stories and novels. His next novel, Manjhi’s Mayhem, will hit bookstores in November 2022.