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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Roundtable 2 : Contemplation and Genres

Another roundtable discussion, more playful. Although the other will keep on going in parallel. I like the idea of having topical conversations, at the same time, so they can interact but stay focused on their specific question. This way we don't digress too much, avoid being redundant, and this produce a more contructive exchange of ideas. Hopefully easier to use, less "boring".

Let's take a look at minimalist films that however understated, still refer to traditional genres, either by their effort for a dramatic arc, coded characters, traditional setting, or by breaking one of our "contemplative rules" : adding either music, or dialogue, or plot, or action, or gags... but still remaining definitely slower and more quiet than their mainstream counterparts.

as suggested by contributor Damian at Windmills of my mind :

"One of the possibilities I was pondering was that the definition might perhaps be slightly altered so that the list of characteristics a filmmaker would try to avoid in making a contemplative film (i.e. "music, dialogue, star system, etc') doesn't have to be accumulative. In other words, the contemplative film could refrain from using one or more of these elements but not necessarily all of them."

So let's find films on the frontier between "contemplative" and genre. How do they reconcile both worlds? What genre codes do they incorporate and what others do they leave out without distracting the characteristic genre identity? Subscribe to the RSS feed for activity notification from this roundtable.

25 comments:

HarryTuttle said...

I was thinking for examples :
Les Triplettes de Belleville in the Animation genre. There is hardly a plot (the kidnapping of the bicyle boy, and a mysterious mafia traffic) which is ironically a self-derision because of the absurdity of the events. A fantastic sound design substitutes almost entirely dialogues with great effect, we have no problem understanding the scenes and follow the complicated story. The greater expressivity and drawing deformations is of course helping to develop an intuitve visual language that can do without words.

In the vampire genre, Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day is a perfect example of genre transgression, since horror is usually the most push-button, manipulative of all genres. Here the film is quiet, slow, silent... and even if there is enough blood, it is not in our face.

Tarkovsky'sStalker is a good example for the Sci-Fi genre without special effects, without spectacular scenes, without action. The fantasy is in the pace, the anxiety, the unbearable threat of something that is about to happen but never does.

Boorman's Deliverance, is a rather speechy "Road movie" or Adventure, but the pace is incredibly slow and contemplative without an escalation of violence and action.

What are your examples now?

Marina said...

Haven't seen Trouble Every Day, but if I had to pick a contemplative vampire film, I'd probably go with The Wisdom of Crocodiles or Nadja. The second one was quite gloomy and quiet, but it was long ago when I saw them. It'd be good to revisit them some time.
Oh, I guess Nadja has something noir-ish too.

What about Dancer in the Dark as a representative of musicals, or The Saddest Music in the World? Have you seen it? Of what I read it could be called contemplative. Or not?

Tzameti can be considered boring by some, which is a bad thing for a thriller, but if observed carefully it fascinates with a wonderful atmosphere and rhythm.

johanna said...

Marina has just reminded me of several films to add to the Netflix queue...

I love that you suggested Triplets, Harry. That and Richard Linklater's Waking Life are easily my favorite animated films, and both just as easily fall into the evolving concept of the contemplative.

Both invite the viewer to something new that can be analyzed and laughed at with the sort of absurd spectacle it creates -- like the filmmakers had to laugh at themselves first to make these.

Neither are typical stories, yet each has a believable quality to it in that, somewhere in there, we can relate to what's going on on one level and enjoy the movie itself as a sort of playground for the mind on another level. If only more animated features could transcend the child-adult relationship we have with ourselves as easily and freely.

Marina, how is Dancer in the Dark?

HarryTuttle said...

I haven't seen Nadja. All I remember from the The Wisdom of Crocodiles is the atmosphere was kinda special. It also emphasized the human side of the vampire indeed.

I like the mention of Dancer in the Dark. I'm not so sure about Saddest Music of the World... Maddin's Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, being a silent ballet would suit better. Incidentally it's in the vampire genre too.

I didn't see Tzameti. I heard it is quite slow and genre-bending.

weepingsam said...

I'm surprised Ouyang Feng hasn't posted in this thread yet - if Ashes of Time isn't a contemplative wuxia, I don't know what it is. I suppose as far as Wong Kar-wei can fit in a classification of "contemplative cinema" all his films are very strongly genre related - he works off genres: gangster films, melodramas, romantic comedy, even science fiction...

Tarkovsky seems to provide multiple examples too - Solaris as well as Stalker, say...

Actually - you could probably make a pretty strong case for most of Takeshi Kitano's films - Sonatine, Hana Bi, A Scene at the Sea - all genre films, with a lot of the features of contemplative cinema, I would think: the displacement of plot, the emphasis on duration, the tendency to underplay (or skip) dialogue...

Ouyang Feng said...

hehehe.. :)
And in wu xia pian, I can also think of King Hu, particularly, Raining in the Mountains and Touch of Zen (but also Legend of the Mountain, Dragon Inn to an extent...), both very influenced by traditional Chinese arts, such as paintings, Chinese Opera... and in which Nature is a strong inherent component of the spirit of the film.
To go back on WKW, yes, I second your saying. Also I can think of various fragments of scenes, especially the ones in Days of Being Wild, like the aerial pan on the green tropical forest (which takes its full meaning at the end in the train where Leslie Cheung is drifting away) or again when he dances by himself, a self-contemplation, another example could be found in Ashes of Time when Brigitte Lin fights against her reflection in the water... or even the conversation between Yaoshi and Ouyang Feng concerning the wine that helps forget memories; wine, water, desert, all are reflections of their existential emptiness, the landscape is the reflection of their soul, the weather & the seasons of their action. Sand (the ashes of time) evokes the remains of their regretted memories....

Paul Martin said...

The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) recently screened Old Joy. Most film-goers would find this boring as hell (though it does have some beautiful meloncholy music by Yo La Tengo). There is very little dialogue and very little explanation of what has taken place in the past as reference for the present.

It reminded me of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Climates (Iklimer) which was cinematic poetry (though perhaps less minimalist than Old Joy).

Michael Kerpan said...

I'd suggest the name of Kiyoshi Kurosawa as the creator of "contempative" pseudo-genre films. I wonder how much rivette he watched in his formative years. The significance of his films resides in the imagery and sounds (but not really the dialog itself).

Marina said...

Johanna, if there's such a thing, I'd say Dancer in the Dark is a quiet musical... In the end, I had the feeling that every song was born diegetically, by accident sounds that gradually form a rhythm and they probably were, but I can't say for sure. It seems to me that Trier used sound in the way that contemplative films use the frame - to prolong, to compose, to create something with a message of its own. And these naturally evolving sounds indeed opened a second, parallel world where the observed reality was enriched and given beauty and meaning.
Here the music is organic, it is created before our very eyes and you could even say that the frame echos in unison until the melody starts to sound, unlike, say, Last Days where the frame is numb, distancing itself - and thus us - from the sound.

HarryTuttle said...

Very good suggestions all around, keep them coming.

I consider Climates to be very "contemplative", so if Old Joy (haven't seen it yet) is even more minimalist I'll add it to the chronology list.

In the section "Road Movies", I would nominate Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider, Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, Coppola's Rain People, Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise and probably the most minimalist of all Vincent Gallo's Brown Bunny. In these films it is all about the journey itself, its mundanity, its duration, its down times, not about the goal or the action. Thus the atmosphere develops the actual feeling of being on the road, the true spirit of wandering, drifting, getting lost, away from oneself, away from the world, by staying on the move, keeping the environment changing in motion.

Ouyang Feng said...

I don't think it's too surprising to find many road movies being contemplative films, as on a spiritual level, the act of wandering, traveling is in the way a quest of identity or of the one true self, an harmony with the self and the environment.

I would add Paris Texas and other Wim Wenders, Foreign Land by Walter Salles, Gerry by Gus Van Sant, even Los Muertos by Lisandro Alonso even though it's not a road movie in the strict sense.

johanna said...

Thanks, Marina--sounds excellent. I've been meaning to watch this.

I would second both Touch of Zen (I got this from Netflix 6 months ago, and still haven't sent it back!) and Stranger Than Paradise.

To add to your "Road Movies," Harry, I'll mention Electra-Glide in Blue.

It's sort of the working man's Easy Rider.

Ouyang Feng said...

Raining in the Mountain is to me one of the best wu xia pian I've seen, but different from the SB productions (it's a Taiwanese film anyway).
Perhaps I could add Cold Blade by Chu Yuan (at least the very poetic opening scene with the swords fight on the bloomed tree).

On gangster, crime films, I'd add also the latest Johnnie To films such as PTU, Election 1&2, Exiled (and also The Mission), more minimalist than his early films, based on the atmosphere (no much dialogue, a great sense of the composition, camerawork, editing, lights & shades, lines & shapes...).

Also on road movie : Eureka by Shinji Aoyama.

HarryTuttle said...

Never heard of Electra-glide in Blue. Election 1 & 2 are in theatre now in Paris, I'll try to see them this week.
The Mission, remind me of Roland Joffé's film, I saw it a long time ago, was it somehow contempaltive or only part of it?
Boorman's The Emerald Forest (1985) to some extend, is maybe a better candidate.

johanna said...

It's been too long since I have seen The Mission myself, but Roland Joffé strikes me as documentative in general -- The Killing Fields director, correct?

How about Aguirre: Wrath of God (Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes) while we're on the rainforest bent...

HarryTuttle said...

To me, the voiceover narrator is a self-conscious narrative device, filling in what the image cannot tell by itself. So the commentary make it less "pure" contemplative. Aside from that and since it belongs to the genre-bending/precursor collection, the mise-en-scene and camerawork is especially observational and not didactic. There are magnificent wordless sequences lasting for ages.

weepingsam said...

I have to note that whatever else it is, Bela Tarr's Damnation is a pretty straightforward film noir, and a musical. A fairly honest musical, with two complete diegetic musical performances, and a major dance scene.

Bob said...

Re: Contemplative vampires and such, as it happens my post in the vampire blogathon a few months back was semi-relevent. One part focused on Madden's "Dracula" film, which I don't really think is contemplative except that it's a ballet shot as a pretty traditional silent film, so maybe it is.

The second portion was on "Vampyr", which certainly is the kind of film we're discussing. (You can tell because I don't really know what to make of it!)

Since I'm genre-blending boy, this is where I start to get really interested. I just finished re-watching Aoyama's "Eureka" and it brings up a bunch of things, which I guess I'll discuss in a new post sometime soon.

It's interesting to note, though, that considering Aoyama's constant homages to "The Searchers", it kind of opens the door to classic Hollywood films and how a much slower paced, and therefore more contemplative, those films were when compared to today's mainstream movies.

HarryTuttle said...

note : I was talking about Aguirre in my previosu comment.

Another film on the fence between narrative and contemplative (which is what we list here), is Bent Hamer's beautiful Kitchen Stories. The plot drive is mostly based on light gags and a certain melodrama, but the narration is quite minimalist and the scenes stretch long enough without dialogs to communicate a self-explainatory visual language. The silence imposed to the characters and the surveillance of one over the other also favor this type of "contemplative" mise-en-scene.

johanna said...

It's likely that for German speakers that you are absolutely correct; but in subtitle form (even with my smattering of Deutsche-spreche) I felt that Aguirre had a purity about it all its own...as in, I didn't even notice the narration.

Perhaps start a new category of films that get away with contemplative attribution thanks in large part to language barriers?

I had forgotten about Kitchen Stories. You're the first person I've talk to yet who has seen it besides me. I like the notion of a contemplative mise en scene. The light touch of the direction in that film generally underscores its more contemplative aspects -- the long silences and the absence of need-driven plot.

Steve said...

Couple ideas from the horror side of things:

Glad to see Michael Kerpan mentioned K. Kurosawa -- his Curse and Pulse are among the most contemplative horror films ever made.

I think there's probably also a case that could be made for McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as this sort of film. And I'm surprised nobody's mentioned Dumont yet -- if Twentynine Palms isn't a horror film masquerading as an art film, I don't know what is.

HarryTuttle said...

Spielberg's debut, Duel, rarely use dialogs, and the main action, between the 2 drivers is entirely a matter of visual syntax to build the tension of this road-movie thriller.

Bob said...

Maybe I don't even need to say this, but because they rely on anticipation horror films are, by their nature, the slowest and, yes, most contemplative of genre flicks. "Alien", for example, would likely be unbearable for a mass audience if it weren't so freakin' scary.

I don't know if it really qualifies as contemplative, but certainly Franju's "Eyes Without a Face" is very much a horror film and an art film...or at least a work of art.

HarryTuttle said...

I'm not sure if it is always true for Horror. They might postpone action till the last moment, but are we really in a state of contemplation when anxious and freigthened? The first Alien yes, but the others of the series are more action-driven I thought.

I'm thinking of Luc Besson's The Big Blue, and Sofia Coppola's Virgin Suicide and Lost In Translation.

Grandrieux' La Vie Nouvelle, which is barely identifiable as a genre, but follows a loose crime investigation about prostitutes traffic.

HarryTuttle said...

Contemplative Porn : Winterbottom's 9 songs :p