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  • Writer's pictureMiles Stephenson

the textbook approach of Gandhi (1982), Richard Attenborough [2/5]

Updated: Mar 25

A heartening story told through the visual equivalent of a high school history textbook or as some people have called it: the ultimate Wikipedia biopic. Gandhi Cinematographer Billy Williams hinted at this approach in an interview: “I would say that photographically it was fairly traditional. Richard doesn’t like to explore too much with the camera. He’s pretty straightforward in the way that he likes to shoot things because he is primarily of course an actor’s director.” Pauline Kael put it more bluntly: "Kingsley is impressive; the picture isn't... There is no trace of a point of view; the film feels as if it were directed by a committee."

In an online cinephilia environment increasingly inclined towards form and technique and away from content (and I could write a whole essay on why this is the case, perhaps something to do with an attempt to escape values, politics, and “discourse” and delve fully into style in what Sontag calls an erotics of art), the “coverage” style of shooting in Gandhi (1982) has gone decidedly out of style among today's “elevator horror” auteurs and genre directors. Michael Mann, the online cinephile's favorite "vulgar" auteur has said as much in interviews: that he detests the academic coverage style of shot-reverse-shot, that he sees the camera as something alive and participatory in the experience.

This is certainly the style of image-maker that stirs me, as seen in Richard Attenborough's 1980s contemporaries who were making much more modest pictures than this gargantuan saintly film like Paul Schrader, Stuart Rosenberg, Alex Cox, Joel Coen, and Jim Jarmusch who still managed to use their camera's eye in more inventive ways. The sets and costumes were elaborate and grounding; I see why it won Oscars for that. But without any camerawork to give them life, those costumes mostly just sparkle in the middle of the frame and do nothing.

Meanwhile in The River (1951), with Jean Renoir's intricate blocking and framing, the red saris of Indian women and blue and yellow dresses of the daughters of the Raj pop with saturated colors against the tangled Banyan trees and hanging baskets of the markets, every frame a multi-layered cake of contrasting flavors, and the camera always at the right angle to emphasize this depth of composition. It's a treat for the eyes that recalls Orson Welles' use of deep focus in films like Citizen Kane.

The message is Fukuyama meets Great Man theory. India approaching the end of history and the inevitability of democracy, but it just needed a gentle push over the edge by a barrister-turned-monk who defies the stodgy Cambridge men of the Raj, interrupts their cricket games, and demands an end to second class citizenship. 

There's a lot of pathos involved that can get a bit saccharine but it’s hard not to get preachy with such a David and Goliath story like this: one man stands before an entire empire and brings it to its knees. The funeral procession scene features a radio broadcast that quotes Albert Einstein in saying: “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” And that is the only glimpse of Gandhi we get: one from afar, him walking the earth making history as he went, too busy to offer any interiority to us.

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