Comparative Literature & the Study of Cinema

In this genre of cinema all possible disasters, natural or otherwise, invariably always befall the American people and what is often presented in the guise of the triumph of the indomitable human spirit is actually a celebration of the America spirit. The latest Superman film is a good example of this as well.

Films saturated with terror and sadism have issued from Hollywood in such numbers recently as to become commonplace. The trend undoubtedly had its source in the requirements of wartime propaganda. The original task was to depict the threat of Nazism to the American public – Gestapo tortures, shining parades that alternated with silent agonies, life under the oppressive atmosphere of Nazi-conquered Europe, etc. But even in wartime, the trend went beyond exposing brutality. Along with anti-Nazi films, a number of movies appeared that cultivated the same kind of horror sheerly for the sake of entertainment. And now, with the war over, the species continues to flourish and to increase.

Kracauer Hollywood’s Terror

Siegfried Kracauer, the unsung hero of the Frankfurt School, early mentor to Theodor Adorno, is also a Film theorist par-excellence and a journalist of some repute. Though Kracauer has extensively written on diverse issues including issues of historiography and socio-cultural research methodology, he is most well known for his work on cinema. The reason, one may surmise, is because Kracauer’s work presents the first attempt at consolidating a methodology to study cinema, where cinema is at the heart of the inquiry. It is in his work that we find the first organised exploration into the language of cinema. He was the first film-theorist to devise an approach that treated cinema as a complex system of codes and as a unique mode of enunciation. The essay the quoted excerpt is taken from is an insightful analysis of the construction of the figure of the villain in Hollywood cinema in the post-War era. The kind of conceptualising of the villainous that we find in the cinema of this period is reflective of the kind of changes in American politics and by extension every aspect of American life. Kracauer points out that the villain is no longer the obvious despot of War-time propagandist cinema. Like American politics, Hollywood too was now becoming obsessed with the evil hiding in plain sight. The threat was more sinister for the simple reason that it did not bear the visage of the obvious threat. As Kracauer puts it, “Sinister conspiracies incubate next door, within the world considered normal – any trusted neighbour may turn into a demon” (ibid). The earliest example of this trend can be found in the 1931 MGM film; Mata Hari, starring Greta Garbo in the title role and loosely based on the life of the Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, a.k.a. ‘Mata Hari’, an “exotic” dancer from Netherlands who was executed by the French Firing Squad under the charges of espionage for Germany during World War I. True enough, the story was not about America, but it did drive home the fact that sinister intentions may he hiding under even the most beautiful visages; a trend one can clearly discern in Orson Welles’ later films. Similarly, one can discern an over-whelming display of national sentiment in the ‘disaster-survival’ films produced by Hollywood. In this genre of cinema all possible disasters, natural or otherwise, invariably always befall the American people and what is often presented in the guise of the triumph of the indomitable human spirit is actually a celebration of the America spirit. The latest Superman film is a good example of this as well. I’d rather not start to talk about the genre of superhero comic books and superhero movies as that is a topic that deserves more than just mere mention.

It is this kind of ‘reading’ of cinema that theorists like Kracauer encourage and nurture. The logic of a discipline like film studies is geared towards precisely this. Using a Formalist turn of phrase, one might state, that if understanding the literary in literature is the goal of the study of literature then, the cinematic is the goal for the study of cinema. A paper read not too long ago at a Students’ Seminar at Jadavpur University had sparked off quite a debate regarding the issues of reading films. It would suffice to state that the “subversive” nature of the content got the better part of the attention of the writer. For the present discussion, let us consider as an example the famous ‘shower-curtain’ sequence in the 1960 Hitchcock film, Psycho. Now, an effective analysis of the sequence would have to negotiate a vast gamut of issues in order to grasp its full significance. The analysis would of course have to be historical in the sense it would have to look at the long history of the cinematic representation of brutal violence. How have directors and film makers before Hitchcock treated the issue of violence? To what extent does Hitchcock depart from his predecessors and to what extent does he conform to the demands of the general audiences’ revulsion to brutal violence? How is Hitchcock’s representation of such degree of brutality in cinema received by audiences and critics? These are a few of the many questions regarding the brutality of the violence depicted that an analysis of the sequence must negotiate. Besides this, there is also the misplaced depiction of nudity in the sequence, considering of course that the depiction of nudity in cinema has to be of a sensual or sexual one in an overt or covert manner. In considering the history of the depiction of violence in cinema one must think in terms of the historical trajectory of such representations. One might do well to ask: How long a way has the representation of violence in cinema come since Eisenstein’s famous “Odessa Steps sequence” or Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood? Also, what does this tell us about the historical trajectory of cinema as an organism and the diverse forces that go into sustaining it…?  

The other thing one might consider is where this notion of propriety concerning the enactment of violence (or for that matter even sex) on camera comes from. In recent times (fairly recent that is) one can think of Sarah Kane’s playBlasted, which uses gory violence to capture the horrors of the Bosnian War. In the literary world one can think of Milan Kundera’s (a fairly recent example) use of sex and violence in novels like The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. If one goes further back one will encounter a plethora of debates regarding the depiction of violence in writing, or its enactment on stage. Take the example of Senecan Tragedy; filled with blood and gore they were mostly considered unfit for enactment on stage. Again in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannous, Oedipus gouging his own eyes out is not shown on stage, instead narrated in all its gory detail. While it is true that Sophocles spares no detail in the narration of the deed but has the action off-stage. One cannot help but think that these debates inform, like other representational art forms, cinema as well.

It is perhaps what Ulrich Weisstein calls, in his book Comparative Literature and Literary Studies: Survey and Introduction, “The Mutual Illumination of the Arts”. This in his belief is a valid area, and justifiably so, within the practice of Comparative Literature. I shall not go into a detailed analysis of Weisstein’s theory on the subject, but I will, however, discuss the kind of practice that ensues from it. Now, Weisstein primarily draws on the work of theorists and scholars who have worked on artistic movements and styles such as Romanticism, the Baroque, Naturalism, Realism, Surrealism, etc., which have made their presence felt simultaneously in more than one art form. The practice that ensues from this idea however follows the logic of very obvious causes and effects or one might say of influences and receptions. The most common research generated under a rubric like ‘literature and film’ is usually (one says so loosely… there are of course exceptions!) focuses on literary works and their cinematic adaptations. One is not speaking of these studies disparagingly. They are major contributions to the study of the relations between the literature, cinema and the other arts. They also, no doubt, foster the consideration of issues of ‘inter-mediality’ in dealing with studies in the Arts but, they do limit themselves to the surface of things. They often do not plumb the depths to which such inter-medialities, inter-textualities and complex rapports of influences and receptions go into the construction of a complex entity like cinema.

The study of literature and cinema can be a truly rewarding exercise, especially in the Indian context, provided one does not concern oneself only with issues of adaptation. One can find plenty of examples of inter-medialities if one considers Indian cinema. Themes and motifs from both the literary and the ‘extra-literary’ consciousness have and continue to condition Indian cinema. Consider the famous Sooraj Barjatya films like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun or Hum Saath Saath Hain. While they may not be cinematic adaptations of the Ramayana, they do rely on stock characters inspired from it. The eldest son always tends towards “Raamhood”, the younger brother towards “Lakshmanhood”, the eldest son’s wife is always urged towards or praised for her “Seetahood” and if by chance there happens to be a step-mother involved in the equation then “Kaikaihood” is often invoked. The gamut of allusions grows even wider if one considers the sphere of Indian film music. They range from the Urdu ghazal or nazm to Sufiana kalaams and Bhakti padavalis. All of these diverse influences that go into the weaving of the complex fabric of Indian cinema form a rich area for exploration. I shall briefly demonstrate what I mean through the use of an example as a conclusion.

Let us consider the character of Gulabo; a “street-walker”, played by Waheeda Rahman in Guru Dutt’s 1957 filmPyaasa. She is what one might describe as the quintessential “prostitute with a heart of gold”. Now, this character-type can be traced in the Indian literary consciousness all the way back to the Mrichchakattikam, where we find a similar character, Vasantasena. She is a noble-minded and kind-hearted courtesan who falls in love with a generous, yet impoverished Brahmin named Charudutta. There is also mention somewhere of Charudutta’s love for and proficiency in music. One finds echoes of Vasantasena in the construction of the character of Chandramukhi in Sharath Chandra’sDebdaash. In Pyaasa, Gulabo is attracted to Vijay, played by Guru Dutt, initially because of the beauty of his poetry. If one looks at the extra-literary influence, one is reminded of the story of Ghalib and a courtesan from Calcutta who was in love with him for his poetry. Like Ghalib, whose acquaintance with the said courtesan is initiated by him hearing her singing his verses, Vijay too is drawn to Gulabo by listening to her singing one of his poems.

This was just one of many such examples that the study of the relation between the literary and extra-literary consciousness and cinema in the Indian context can lead us to, and thus, lead us to a better understanding of the relationship of “mutual illumination” shared by both these equally complex entities.

Works cited

Kracauer, Siegfried. “Hollywood’s Terror Films: Do They Reflect an American State of Mind?”. New German Critique 89 (Spring-Summer 2003):105-111. JSTOR. Web. 05/07/2013.

S Satish Kumar
S Satish Kumar

S Satish Kumar is a doctoral student with the Department of Comparative Literature, University of Georgia. He researches and teaches courses in African Literature.