Themes

 

THE THEME OF 'DARKNESS' IN CINEMATOGRAPHY
Sunny Joseph

Presented at the Second Cinematographers' Combine Meet, October 2000, Mumbai.

Prelude
[Let me start with talking about two things that I experienced today. When Vivanji started his video film on the Calcutta installation, he immediately shouted, "It is too dark.". We stopped the projection, increased the brightness and then, everything was washed out! It was the opposite, it was too bright. Then we stopped the screenings again, and changed the element of darkness/brightness within the frame. Finally we realised that there is only one optimum level of tonal values as intended by the filmmaker, which will without doubt give/attribute the right meaning to his image. In fact this is a rare paradox. The darkness/brightness duality within a cinematographic image is simultaneously mutually exclusive as well as mutually inclusive.

The second incident was when Rahul Ranade played his music. Most of us closed our eyes and listened to it. It is true that whenever great music is played people tend to close their eyes. Does the feeling of darkness, by closing our eyes connect us to a primordial womb like experience?]

One of the meanings given to the word 'dark' in the dictionary is, ignorant, unenlightened: My attempt here is to take on a small journey to explore the realms of imagination and image creation. No ultimate truths, but only a loving attempt to communicate with all of you.

Narayana Guru once [1920] placed a small notice at the place of a gathering of world religious leaders: "Not to argue and not to win, but to know and to inform." I believe that this understanding will be a beautiful basis for any kind of dialogue.

As a cinematographer I believe in the power of images. I am also concerned about how an image is used in a particular context. The knowledge about our world today is transmitted more with images and as 'image makers' working in cinema, we cannot escape from the socio-political and philosophical questions as well as the aesthetic questions, on the process of creation and Use of the images. Until now, 'mythology' had a great role the evolution of culture and societies. In the new millennium it will be 'IMAGOLOGY' which is going to be decisive in the evolution of a new man.

All through my student days and even now, I stand in awe of the power of the moving images. I am always surprised about the ability of the human eye, 'the persistence of vision'. When did this ability originate in human physiology? Does this ability in any other way help the evolution of human species? Why this trait did not disappear from the species? "Persistence of Vision" must have been present even in the cave men! These are some questions I am constantly asking myself in wonder. In the distant past, the predominant sense organ for knowing our reality was the "EYE" and vision itself was an integral part of the endeavour. What the eye saw could be described, catalogued, and even subjected to mathematical analysis.

Plato's [350 BC] awe of eye and vision was stated thus:

"Vision, in my view, is the cause of greatest benefit to us, inasmuch as none of the accounts now given concerning the Universe would ever have been given if men had not seen the stars or the sun or the heaven. But as it is, the vision of day and night and of months and circling years has created the art of number and has given us not only the notion of Time but also the means of research into the nature of the Universe."

Now, as we have seen earlier, the best way to experience a near to DARK-DARKNESS experience is to shut our eyes. Of course a permanent closing of our eyes would be the experience of the ultimate darkness - death. Or is it the beginning of the ultimate experience of light? Who knows? If I were not to be attending this seminar, I was to attend another seminar in Trivandrum - again on darkness, another kind of darkness - 'suicide'. Any way it was nice of the doctors to invite an artist to be in dialogue with them, as we are doing here with writers, music directors, painters and directors.

Coming back to the theme of darkness, the first thing I did was to put the word 'darkness' in yahoo search and click 'go'. The search gave at least more than 16000 sites related/referred to the word darkness. My aim was to find out about what would be the very first account/description of darkness in literature. That will also connect me with the main theme of our seminar - 'word to image'. And as far as I could gather the information, by all probability it is in "Rig Veda", in the hymn of creation:

"In the beginning darkness was wrapped [hidden] in darkness."

TO BEGIN WITH, IN CREATION…."THERE WAS ONLY DARKNESS WRAPPED IN DARKNESS". BUT PARADOXICALLY IN CINEMATOGRAPHIC CREATION 'DARKNESS IS WRAPPED IN LIGHT'. WE ARE IN FACT TALKING ABOUT A 'VISIBLE DARKNESS'.

Nature and essence of "Darkness"

I asked Sudheer: What is the 'theme of darkness'! Will it be primarily the element of filmic viewing experience or of the practice of the creation of the image; of the lighting -'chiaroscuro' or of the darkness used to focus or of the darkness used to hide, or is it darkness as a matter of low budget/NFDC regional-film look /elementary Vs abundance/spectacle/lack of darkness in the mainstream films etc?

Sudheer answered: " The 'theme of darkness' is an abstract quality of nature, matter, time, light, emotions, nostalgia etc.etc; perceived differently by different people and artists/artforms. I think the 'darkness' in the discussion is, as you perceive as an artist & a cinematographer, might not be a political note. I am not sure let me put it very crudely, as one of the ways…[How do you react to a script of a film/scene which has night, evening, dark day interior etc. in different ways and what is the thought process before you get down to the numbers [of stock & foot candles etc.]. It will be this mental process that will lead to the calculated cinematographic image…"

And we cinematographers, in the darkness of a studio shout, "Lights On." Much before us, within the fathomless 'great void', someone wished:

"Let there be light."

People around the world seem to feel that darkness precedes light. Darkness is somehow older, more primitive, more fundamental, and light penetrates a darkness that was there before it. 'From non-being lead me to being', Says the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 'from darkness lead me to the light, from death lead me to immortality'. For the Jews and Arabs, the Germanic Peoples, the Celts and many others, each day begins in the evening - the night comes first and the light afterwards. Similarly at the very beginning of things: 'at first', according to a creation hymn in Rig Veda, 'there was only darkness wrapped in darkness'. In Hesiod's Theogony, 'Out of Void came darkness and black night, and out of Night came Light and Day, her children'. In Genesis, in the beginning there was darkness and God, said, "Let there be light". It was only after making light God went on to fashion his other creations.

Some people, however, have maintained the opposite tradition, that the light existed first and darkness came later. One explanation of why this happened is that the Creator grew weary of endless light and created darkness for relief from it. Or some say that light and darkness have co-existed from the beginning. In China the two great opposites of Yin and Yang correspond to darkness and light respectively. According to a Scandinavian myth, there was a great abyss of emptiness, which was charged with magic power. To the south of it was a realm of blazing heat and to the north a realm of freezing darkness. It was the meeting in the abyss of ice from the north and sparks from the south which made life, so that creation that creation resulted from the mingling of the opposites, of light with dark and heat with cold.

Among the first experiences of a baby must presumably be the sensation of coming out of darkness into light, and all our lives-long, one of the fixed characteristics of our environment is the alternation of light and darkness, on which we pattern the basic rhythm of our lives. In daylight we are active, at night we turn off our conscious energies and go to sleep. Light let us see, darkness walls us in makes us blind, groping and afraid. The light and heat of the sun bring Nature to life in the spring, the winter comes in with darkness and cold.

As a result, light naturally means good, activity, creativity, spiritual vision, while darkness means evil, fear and doubt, inactivity, sterility and spiritual blindness. What is done in the light of day is open, public, innocent, but what is done in the dark is secretive, furtive, harmful or shameful. The crowing of the cock at the first glimmer of dawn puts to flight the evil beings, which infest the night.

LET US NOW TRY TO VISUALIZE - TRY TO RECOLLECT IMAGES/FRAMES CORRESPONDING TO THE MEANINGS GIVEN TO DARK<>DARKNESS. THEN LET US TRY TO APPLY THE MEANING BACK TO A MOMENT IN A GIVEN STORY AND IDENTIFY THE ELEMENTS WITHIN AN IMAGE, WHICH WILL CREATE THAT MEANING!

dark adj.

1 a) entirely or partly without light b) neither giving nor receiving light 2 giving no performance; closed !this theater is dark tonight" 3 a) almost black b) not light in color; deep in shade 4 not fair in complexion; brunet or swarthy 5 hidden; secret 6 not easily understood; hard to make clear; obscure 7 gloomy; hopeless; dismal 8 angry or sullen !responding to criticism with dark looks" 9 evil; sinister 10 ignorant; unenlightened 11 deep and rich, with a melancholy sound

n. 1 the state of being dark 2 night; nightfall 3 a dark color or shade

vt., vi. [Obs.] to darken in the dark uninformed; ignorant keep dark to keep secret or hidden darkish, adj. darkly, adv. darkness, n. [Slides, video clips to be projected, discussed and technology analyzed. The 'how' of how things are done]

[The day I started for Mumbai, I photographed some more slides and stills from films. But I did not develop them. I will also request you to remember images from Bergman's "SILENCE" [cin. Sven Nykvist], "WILD STRAWBERRIES" [cin. Gunnar Fischer] and "CRIES AND WHISPERS" [cin. Sven Nykvist], Robert Wiene's "CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI" [cin. Willy Hameister], Sergei Eisenstein's "BATTLESHIP POTEMPKIN" [cin. Eduard Tisse], Orson Well's "CITIZEN KANE" [cin. Gregg Toland], Federico Fellini's "LA DOLACE VITA" [cin. Otello Martelli], Alain Resnais' "HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR" [cin. Sacha Vierny and Michio Takahashi], Guru Dutt's "KAGEZ KE PHOOL" & "PYASSA" photographed by our master VK MOORTHY, and Satyajit Ray's "CHARULATHA" & "PATHER PANCHALI" again photographed by our great grand master SUBRATA MITRA.

Also I wanted to show you some photographs by RAGHU RAI, a photograph of Mother Teresa, with the apt use of extreme tonal values, and the well known photo of the half buried kid in the sands, of Bhopal tragedy, where he avoids blacks and whites, it is all a cool gray, you almost feel cold death. It will be also interesting, if you could think of also the paintings of Vivanji, especially of those painted after visiting the Nazi camps in Poland]

In fact in the very process of doing this exercise will reveal to us the elements of cinematographic practice and realization.

[I would now like to project some slides, copies of paintings from masters who worked on the element of light. I want you to consider these paintings just for the use of light/darkness to evoke a certain definition/meaning of the word darkness. In its narrative, the slides also take you from a feeling of sinister darkness/shadow/hidden effect to a bright/open/tangible feel of light. Just watch/meditate on these slides. The masters are - Caravaggio, Vermeer, Joseph Wright, Velazquez and Rembrandt.]

Before I joined the film institute, I read one article written by James Broughton, an experimental filmmaker from America. He tells us the story of young boy who wakes up in the middle of the night and cries out:

"Turn on the lights, I want to see my dreams."

And I thought that it was me, and I joined cinema.

In the cinematic experience there are two realms in which we can observe the 'theme of darkness'. They are the viewing experience in a darkened cinema hall and the use of tonal values from black to white to represent forms/images.

The experience of darkness, shared in a cinema hall is unique in its revelations. It is the most primordial, womb-like and cave-like experience we have. We are unified in the 'dark void' with expectations and wonder. Probably, it is also the most secular experience we have today available in the society. Within the enlightened darkness, rays of love and wisdom, even subverts the power of money. ["Money is the alienated human ability" - Karl Marx.]

Hugo Munsterberg, in his 1916 classic book, 'The Photoplay: A Psychological Study", wrote about the power of Cinema:

"The massive outer world has lost its weight, it has been freed from space, time and causality, and it has been clothed in the forms of our own consciousness. The mind has triumphed over matter and the pictures roll on with the ease of musical tones. It is a superb enjoyment which no other art can furnish us."

Immediately after the first screenings of Lumiere Brothers, a critic emphatically wrote of the new invention:

" DEATH IS NO MORE AN ABSOLUTE TRUTH."

Let us now look at the element of darkness within a photographic image as the variations in tonal values:

On its own, darkness [black] or brightness/lightness [white] are formless. Mixing of light and dark create forms/images. [We can refer to the practice in cinematography by two terms: contrast ratio and lighting ratio.]

Light/dark relationships

Every element in an image has a specific brightness. One area will be seen as bright, another will be perceived as dark. The visual 'weight' of different brightness levels will depend upon proximity, area and contrast. The eye is naturally attracted to the highlight areas in a frame, but the contrast and impact of an object's brightness in the frame will depend on the adjacent brightness levels. A shot of a polar bear against snow will require different compositional treatment than a polar bear in a zoo enclosure. A small bright object against a dark background will have as much visual weight in attracting the eye as a large bright object against a bright background. [Consider portraits of great masters.] The difference in the brightness levels within a frame plays an important role in balancing the composition.

For John Alton, the definitive Hollywood cameraman of the 'film noir' genre, black was the most important element in the shot. The most important lamps for him were the ones he did not turn on. The high key/low key mood of the frame will dictate the styles of composition as well as the atmosphere. A few strong light/dark contrasts can provide very effective visual designs.

Strong contrast creates a solid separation and good figure/ground definition. When size is equal, the light/dark relationship plays an essential part in deciphering which is figure and which is ground. Equal areas of light and dark can be perceived as either figure or ground. The boundary area of a shape often relies on a light/dark relationship. A figure can be separated from its background by backlighting its edges. [A backlight on my head will improve the definition of figure/ground and also create definition of the space.] A highlight in the frame will attract the eye and if it is not compositionally connected to the main subject of interest, it will compete and divert the attention of the viewer.

Harmony and contrast

Although, perception seeks visual unity/harmony, a detailed visual communication requires contrast to articulate its meaning. Morse code can be understood if the distinction between dot and dash is accentuated. A visual image requires the same accentuation of contrast in order to achieve coherent meaning. Light, by supplying contrast of tones, can remove visual ambiguity in a muddle of competing subjects, but a wrong tonal contrast can produce a confused and misleading 'message' - the dots and dashes come close to the same duration and are misread.

Communication

Communication is achieved by contrast. The communication carrier - sound or light provides a message by modulation. There is a need for polarities whether loud or soft, dark or light, dot or dash. [Or in this digital age presence or absence.] Meaning is made clear by comparison.

Light is the perfect medium for modulating contrast. It illuminates the subject and therefore the carrier of the message. Lighting technique, as applied in cinema, balances out and reduces the contrast ratio to fit the inherent limitations of the medium. It therefore contributes in the drive towards perceptual equilibrium by catering simplified images. But light is also needed to provide modelling, contrast and tonal differences. In this sense it introduces diversity and contrast while identifying meaning.

To many, it is also the very fundamental principle of existence. In the Chinese Taoist philosophy, it is described as the:

Yin and Yang

Yin n. [Dark] The feminine, negative, dark principle in nature, which interacts with its complement and opposite, yang.

Yang n. [Bright] The masculine, positive, bright principle in nature, which interacts with its complement, yin.

Now let us see the opening sequences of Andrei Tarkovsky's great film "STALKER". [Screening of Stalker for opening ten minutes.]

One thing I want to tell you is about the use of 'islands' of darkness and brightness, each used to emphasis the opposite. We see it used a lot in Murthy Sir's work, like in 'Kaagaz Ke Phool', 'Pyassa', 'Sahib Bibi or Gulam' etc. In one of Vivanji's paintings this technique was used to emphasis the ethereal morning light on the face of a young girl, with the island of dark clouds behind her face.]

[Let me also talk about a few things, which I left out or not remembered earlier. One of the contrastiest tonal occurrences is in our on eyes. It makes it best suited for easy communication and makes the eye most powerful. In India we even make it more evocative by applying kajol to the eyes. It is no wonder that the only one advice, which Wajda gives to cinematographers, is: "Don't forget to light the eyes of your actors and actresses." Another concept is about islands of darkness and brightness used within a frame to enhance the opposite. Few other things I would have liked to talk here were:

a: Fade In and Fade Out used as the passage of time
b: use of shadows on the faces in a night scene and day scene
c: light used as to create hidden, dark spaces as in thrillers
d: use of backlight as an 'invisible light']