Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Melodrama & minimalism: Au Hasard Balthazar & Pyaasa (video essay for Fandor Keyframe)

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Melodrama & minimalism: Au Hasard Balthazar & Pyaasa (video essay for Fandor Keyframe)


I've been pretty busy lately (just not online), and didn't realize that my most recent Fandor video essay had actually gone up back in June. I submitted it a few months ago, inspired partly by having recently rewatched two of my favorite movies, and partly by a minor controversy surrounding Kevin B. Lee's video "Inside the Rooms of NO HOME MOVIE" which altered the soundtrack of clips from a Chantal Akerman film. What difference does sound make in our emotional perception of a scene? What is the common ground between melodramatic and minimalist uses of sound?


I addressed these questions in the above video, as well as in the accompanying text (which you can read in full on Fandor Keyframe). Here is the intro to that text:
MELODRAMA & minimalism
in Pyaasa & Au Hasard Balthazar

Among cinema's many dichotomies, the difference between melodrama and minimalism may be the most visceral, concealing common ground. Both Guru Dutt's PYAASA and Robert Bresson's AU HASARD BALTHAZAR trace the suffering and martyrdom of innocent, frequently passive individuals - an idealistic poet in the first film, a speechless donkey in the second. The films are equally concerned with female characters whose painful paths intersect with the "protagonists", and with surrounding communities whose cynicism and cruelty offset the near-sainthood of the central figures. Yet the audiovisual approaches of PYAASA and BALTHAZAR stand in stark contrast. Despite its roots in social reality, the sweeping, deeply romantic PYAASA embraces many motifs of fifties Hindi cinema, with the cast breaking out into song at every turn. The crisp, clipped BALTHAZAR uses music sparingly, preferring to cultivate our senses with Bresson's hyper-sensitive sound design.

What happens when we switch these soundscapes? This video essay conducts just such an experiment, initially by juxtaposing the sorrowful music and lyrics of PYAASA's "Jaane woh kaise" with the stark power of the donkey's final scene. We then reverse directions to pair a stretch of Bresson's audio (in which Balthazar's loving owner Marie is chased from his side) with Dutt's portrait of painfully frustrated longing; despite some matching action the point is not so much sonic verisimilitude as evocation of mood. The images and sounds of all four scenes unfold without manipulation beyond the initial placement, and the results are wide open for individual interpretation. Are these two styles incongruous, or harmonious? I can see the merit in both conclusions although overall I was pleasantly surprised how complementary they seemed. Above all, I was reminded why both films are so effective. They are climbing the same mountain from different sides, and both paths are valid.
*one correction: I forgot to mention in the text that I did actually alter the Pyaasa clip, slightly - there was one cutaway to a singer nearby which I excised to keep all the action focused in one location...

update: published on YouTube in 2018



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