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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Thoughts From an (Experimental?) Documentary Film

First, a re-cap of the events thus far that lent themselves to my thought processes (concerning what contemplative cinema entails, mostly) over the last week or so...

The discussion of BAFs (boring art films...although the internets offer more suggestions for the acronym) -- specifically how these subtle creatures invite the audience to participate and empathize -- and Marina's dissemination (just below) on acting as a contemplative engagement of its own accord.

Last night, quite by mistake, I walked into a film (in a class in a school I don't attend, no less) that challenged a lot of what I thought I knew about non-narrative film, and proved to me yet again that in life there are no real mistakes. The film, Koyaanisqatsi, can be described many ways; I do not think that for our purposes here the film itself serves much use: that's debatable, anyway, as the Glass score undermines the integrity of the "contemplative cinema" definition as outlined on this site. It did, however, raise a couple of questions in my mind that appear germane and, I hope, may be of some use despite their broad scope.

Note: You may read the entire thing (linked through the post title) if you wish...but I must warn you that it's an odd article. I'll just post the most relevant bits and go from there:


The film got me thinking about conceptual conflicts in non-narrative film, specifically music and expectation. These two major considerations challenge the supposed "open-ended" qualities of a non-narrative film like Koyaanisqatsi.

Whether the score acts as a driving force to the film's visual composition or as a counterpoint to the visual workings, the score instructs the viewer in ways less open-ended than the visual text. Tensions resulting from internal and external rhythms, reliefs provided by harmonies and dynamics of tone and pitch all provide rich and complex texts of their own.

While this may seem like a passé reiteration for a study of "contemplative cinema," the fact remains that films like Koyaanisqatsi have been and still are considered to be non-narrative film despite their heavy reliance upon a medium that engulfs an entire realm of scholarship and technique all its own.

The second major factor I see as inherent in the non-narrative experience remains the consistent human expectation of story-telling in art forms. Because it is a natural and fundamental human process to relate through narrative, when we are approached by and engaged with an art form that purports to (or that scholars identify as) being non-judgmental and solely experiential, an audience will inevitably -- collectively or individually -- try to arrange the film as a narrative to make sense of it. In and of itself, this process feels right, but it also trends toward a deeper aspect of human narrative expectations; i.e., because the director has selected material and arranged it in a certain way, the audience will not be satisfied with a narrative structure that is arrived at solely through experience, but seek to determine the author's intent, the author's point of view and what the author is trying to say.

The very act of experiential non-narrative viewing, in this sense, has the ability then (in my mind) to negate the wishes and efforts of the director to create a freely interpreted form as the audience seeks to find the narrative through the film's various elements -- regarding both what's used, and what is not.

Of course...


When talking about film without acting and without a written story, it could be easy to get lost in the various discrepancies between the aspects of non-narrative that takes the high road of challenging storytelling and the (less responsible?) experimental. Not that that sort of irresponsibility applies to this particular film per se...it's a documentary, after all. But I would like to voice a few questions concerning directorial responsibility in storytelling in general:

1.) If contemplative cinema invites participation, empathy and engagement with a film, and a film's storytelling capabilities actually strengthen and expand from that quality, what does that say about human expectations regarding narrative? What does it signify of the storyteller who has taken the responsibility to provide a story that includes room for expansion, depth and maneuverability within or navigation of that story?

2.) Perhaps more importantly, what does it mean for the future of filmmaking as an experiential, interactive process? What challenges do filmmakers face in terms of telling a story in this manner -- not just technically, but also concerning what the filmmaker wants to convey versus what the audience interprets from a given work? What examples are there, if any, of films in which the director's desired results for a film's reception greatly differed with an audience's interpretation -- to his or her delight?

I'm not sure that these questions can be answered to any degree of satisfaction; but, I'll put this up in hopes of generating some sort of discussion. Later, I'll give a preview of my thoughts on Chantal Akerman and Jim Jarmusch to try to get feedback on a potential entry.

4 comments:

Marina said...

Hey, it's an odd but highly enjoyable and stimulating article! I really love the way you described your encounter with the director. :)

"The first is the addition of musical score. Whether the score acts as a driving force to the film's visual composition or as a counterpoint to the visual workings, the score instructs the viewer in ways less open-ended than the visual text."

Your use of "driving force" sent me back to the role of the actor in CC. Could it be that in 'Koyaanisqatsi' -and the Qatsi Trilogy - the musical score is the actors' ensemble? There's no doubt that it does render the image of the film as a sequence of scenes and it actually implants in it a new meaning, but we also cannot say that it is the main driving force - other factors, like rhythm of the frames, composition, etc., play a role and, in fact, determine the the open-endedness of the film. Could music in this case be accepted as a substitute of the actor - the spiritualized element of CC? I mean, no matter how objective a contemapltive film is, it always carries its human message - in the eye of the actor can always be spotted something subjective/a judgement of some sort. In the same way, "the score instructs the viewer in ways less open-ended than the visual text." It carries the subjective, the interpretation.

"The second major factor I see as inherent in the non-narrative experience remains the consistent human expectation of story-telling in art forms. Because it is a natural and fundamental human process to relate through narrative"

A fascinating thought! Yet, why is it so? Is it the fear of abstraction? Or our brain-addiction to history? Narrativity implies linearity, but then again linearity denies doubt and possibility - and cages the open-endedness. So we're apt to reaching linearity, simplicity? But while doing so, we miss numerous other interpretentions/views...

"If contemplative cinema invites participation, empathy and engagement with a film, and a film's storytelling capabilities actually strengthen and expand from that quality, what does that say about human expectations regarding narrative? What does it signify of the storyteller who has taken the responsibility to provide a story that includes room for expansion, depth and maneuverability within or navigation of that story?"

Surely, the viewer needs narrativity: it might not be in the form we're used to perceiving it; it could be a gesture, a look, a touch, but we should be able to verbalise what we've seen. Through words a discussion is born - be it within us - that gives birth to newer views. Sometimes, the use of a single word unlocks a series of chain ideas. And in order to create a film of vastness - or the possibility of it - a director must learn to determine these words, these verbalised actions. He should examine every likelihood, render his images so that they might flow into countless stories; he should expect the narrativity that will arise in the viewer and by doing so limit the "maneuverability" to the precise boundaries. Those boundaries are his message.

"What examples are there, if any, of films in which the director's desired results for a film's reception greatly differed with an audience's interpretation -- to his or her delight?"

Well, there should be countless films of this fate, but can't think of any... :)
Anyone else?

HarryTuttle said...

Your long post is great Johana. I haven't seen Koyaanisqatsi though.

The open-endedness of CC is quite determinant in its making, but I don't believe we should narration as a viewing experience. I think it's alright for the audience to imagine their own story from the understated images. What is more distracting to meditation, is the habit of the mainstream audience to react to push-button cues and to investigate hints in the film. If this is what mainstream movies are made for and work on this bilateral interplay, we cannot use this habit with CC however. If we constantly ask ourselves what everything means, what are the characters motivations, foresee what will come next, strive to follow some kind of a plot... then we miss on the contemplative experience, it ruins the reception of teh film as a whole, atmosphericaly.
We can talk about the film afterward seeing it though. We can try to make sense of what we've seen, put words on the abscence of obvious meaning, invent a story. I don't think contemplative filmmakers are against personal interpretations of their films, on the contrary, the open-endedness favors this type of appropriation, as long as we are not trying to fit them in the conventional format of a classic plot. We have to find a meaning without resorting to references of what narrative cinema taught us during a century.
I guess Koyaanisqatsi is a special case.

johanna said...

It's hard to say that Koyaanisqatsi is an exception to any particular narrative rule of thumb. True, it is a documentary first and foremost and so we are left to draw our own conclusions with little more selection concerning the world around us than we make for ourselves on a daily basis -- by taking this street and not that one when walking or driving to a destination, et al.

If you have the time to watch it and can find it on a large-ish screen, I would recommend its viewing at least once; but, familiarity with the film should not be overly necessary to our discussion of CC and what informs the frame of CC, nor its direction, I don't think.

Rather, the very act of capturing nature -- or the "natural" (read: Margaret Mead or observational participant) aspects of those things clothed in the technology of buildings, pavement and automobiles -- remains, it seems, one of the great goals of CC, whether we talk of Bresson's modeling concepts (his idea that a tree and an actor must never be forced to try and inhabit the same plane -- that the comparison is ridiculous because they can not exist on the same plane -- is marvelous!) or of the sort of real time that CC affords us and allows us -- nay, invites us to...

From a writing standpoint alone, I am almost inclined to agree with Marina on the point of narration. But that is human hubris speaking -- my own, and others -- every bit as much as it is humility, I feel. We are taught that writing is a craft; and, so it is. We are not so much taught, though, that living is one, too. In the Western world, at least, the management of one's finances and household is considered a mastery of our own existence.

But what of the wealth of our experiences, no matter how small? What sort of boundaries must we set upon these, what must a director see as the edges of his or her frame in order to tell a story and how much of that story has already been decreed by precepts that have been handed down from the ancient Greeks?

That's the true vale of the CC, the process of rediscovered humanization, of life as it happens. If we must exist in societies that feed on mass communications and pedestalize the products of mass culture in an effort to forget that we are not truly free, then CC remains a spot of indistinction on the horizon of free-thinking and self-liberation.

Talking about a film afterwards, for those who choose to engage in the discussion, may be the closest we ever get to truly experiencing what CC attempts, in its way, to correct.

Forgive me for ending on a less than positive note. I've been reading Habermas and Adorno lately.

Can anyone tell? ;)

HarryTuttle said...

since you mention Philip Glass, here's what David Bordwell says in his blog post about Satantango :

"As a minimalist film, Sátántangó seems to exploit what Minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich have found: by pushing repetition to a limit, you can negate the sense of momentum and suggest that the action is hovering in a kind of pulsating stasis."