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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Roundtable 1 : Contemplative or not contemplative?

As the contributions keeps coming in, every day, at a nice pace (thanks everyone), I hope to still manage to foster the promised collective activity on this team-blog (despite the current bug, this is not a new post, I had to recycle an old one). So here's the first roundtable topic to discuss together. We can't publish new posts, but at least we can gather comments at the same place this way.

The main subject of controversy so far has been about the naming of "contemplative cinema" and the definition of its territory. I don't mind at all, the title of this blogathon is an arbitrary category. So let's talk about it here.

  • What does "contemplative cinema" evoke to you? What does contemplation mean to the audience? What other terms would better suit this trend? What are the distinctions with "Modernism", "Transcendental style", "Minimalism", "boring artfilms", "slow", "mute"?
  • There is already a fascinating discussion at Le Forum des Cahiers, about contemplation meaning to be in/outside the film, or "inside but on the side of the action", about the surface/depth of the immersion. What do you think?
  • Another point we could discuss in relation to this definition, is to speculate on the origins of this recent trend. Did it start around the early 90ies? What films inspired it (Silent films, Modernity, New Wave)? And in what way do they depart from these inspirators to create a form of cinema that only exists today? We could refer to the tentative chronology under-construction and editable here.
  • This is also the opportunity to say how pointless is this idea of grouping all these different films around an apparent common form. Don't be shy. It's free chat.
Please share your thoughts together in the comments below, from the top of your head, just to confront ideas informally, spontaneously. Subscribe to the RSS feed for activity notification from this roundtable.

Everyone is welcome to suggest other topics for next roundtables this month.

20 comments:

Michael Kerpan said...

I looked at the French discussion -- and I wish I could actually write in French. I do read well enough to see that the discussions are ones I would love to be able to participate in!

I also thought about the issue of the locus of contemplation -- whether in the film or outside -- and also the _time_ of contemplation -- mostly during the film or mostly after (or possibly both). ;~}

As to origin -- my personal guess is that "contemplative films" typically have a stronger tie to the silent film tradition than more "ordinary" ones.

Marina said...

Michael and Harry,

The idea of the "locus of contemplation" is truly interesting. I knew I had to learn French. :)

What if we look it this way: when we watch or read, it's normal to imagine ourselves in the characters' place, to react or imagine reactions, to think as if we were someone else but judge as ourselves; but contemplative cinema doesn't necessarily offer us characters or situations to which we can respond, or at least not as rich; then can't we assume that it's trying to rather make us step inside and react instead of the mostly motionless and indifferent actors, react so that the film starts to breathe through us; and this change of the roles probably happens in those "long-and-boring" shots when nothing seems to happen?

I guess this means I'm leaning towards inside contemplation...

HarryTuttle said...

Thanks for the comment Michael. You're most encouraged to join in and post a contribution to the blogathon too, if you like.
I'd love to read your take.

Yes this discussion at Cahiers takes on pretty well, and goes far deep too. You know what? You should just jump in and write whatever you want in French over there! The regulars are very welcoming. There are a few foreigners actualy, and I don't even spell my posts corretly most of the time. So don't worry a bit. I haven't seen anyone post in English yet, I don't know what is hteir policy, but I guess you could get away with it eventually ;)

The time of contemplation is an idea worth to futher.

The origin in Silent Film is my theory too, but I wouldn't know how to demonstrate it yet... let's talk about it.

HarryTuttle said...

Marina,

would you say the atmosphere of ennui, passivity, isolation is a welcoming universe for the viewer? I don't know, the films I have in mind are all dull and sad I guess. I gaze on them from outside (spectator), like paintings (surface). I feel more like the film is giving to us, food for thoughts, traces of fantasy, hints of imagination, for us to process. The relationship is from the film toward us. Rather than us stepping in the diegesis. Well this is my impressions. We obviosuly all react differently.
But I see what you mean, maybe it's the provoked frustration that develop an envy to interact, help, move inside this inanimated space offered, waiting for life.

btw, the developments at Cahier forum seem to conclude that "contemplation" corresponds to the wrong films, a cinema more mystical I guess.

Michael Kerpan said...

I see most of the films of Ozu and HHH and Jia and Kiarostami (for instance) as not asking for much contemplation (while watching) but rather for an especially high degree of attentiveness (always visually -- and some times aurally).

For instance, unless one is extraordinarily alert, HHH's films may not work very well. Unfortunately, some aspects of his films (and Jia's) might be virtually inaccessible to non Chinese speakers. The things said/sung on TVs, radios, public address speakers, juke boxes might be very pertinent but are rarely (if ever) sub-ttiled.

Ouyang Feng said...

I agree with Michael Kerpan that the environmental sound and imagery, (sound & visual signs), of a film from a specific region won't necessary be captured by non-native of this region, this remains to the cultural aspect.
For instance, with early Jia's films (much subdued now), what we hear on the public speakers, TV... are even more relevant in their visual context (Xiao Wu's ending is for instance a good example, but Platform shows plenty too).

Marina said...

Harry, I admit this was a spontaneous whim that I hadn't given much thought of, but basically, here's how I see it:

I believe that true contemplation comes when we no longer emotionally experience, or in order to achieve this contemplative objectivity we have to step outside the experiential subjectivity of the viewing. However, when watching a film, I unintentionally imagine how I'd react in the given circumstances and thus judge the characters' actions, though unintentionally. Sometimes I catch myself disagreeing but sometimes I don't pay attention to it. And I might realise I condemn a certain behaviour or decision after certain time. And it is then that comes contemplation, I think. After you've experienced the film and are no longer directly provoked by it. When you can dwell on shots, roles and thematic tendancies but from different angles and not simply the one you had obtained during the film.

Okay, does that make it an ouside conemplation?

I agree with Michael Kerpan that the environmental sound and imagery, (sound & visual signs), of a film from a specific region won't necessary be captured by non-native of this region, this remains to the cultural aspect.

Could we then assume that a viewer should prepare preliminarily, before the viewing? Or approach the film completely unpremeditated?

Ouyang Feng said...

To me, contemplation is something very emotional as it stimulates all kind of sensory and moody impressions and attitudes. It's also a state of reflection, I do not see it as passive condition. However, I don't involve myself or get into any personal implication in situations or characters of the film, but the situations and the characters that are presented in front of me lead me to a personal consideration. I found that a distance exists between the film and the viewer which doesn't leave place to identification of the viewer with characters, situations, as we are an observer, we receive the images & the sounds, but they don't take us in. Tsai's films are good example.

Concerning, your question, Marina, both are equal.
Anyway, the viewer will see things that even the director won't have necessarily seen, yet they are as much valid as the director's intention, and, obviously the other way round, the viewer will never catch entirely of what the director wanted to express in each scene of the film, as a Chinese filmmaker said, a film has its own life and fate.

HarryTuttle said...

Michael,
That's a good point, and it shows what is inherently wrong for us with the choice of the word "contemplation". Although, we should differentiate the critical scrutiny, which must pay attention to details, and the abandon of the general spectator. I think the mastery of these filmmakers is precisely to insert these details so skillfully that they work on us even if we don't aknowledge them consciously.
It's like the semi-conscience state of the psychiatrist who feigns inattention and pick up nonetheless the important hints from the noise-conversation. So I don't think these films require more work from the spectator, a more intensive brain activity. We have to flow with the film without intellectual resistance.
Well unless we compare with the mainstream walk-through, where the audience has nothing to do and everything is spoon fed.
But what you say about the soundtrack is very interesting, we could develop this in another roundtable that will deal with the non-verbal language developped to compensate the absence of plot (over)statements.

HarryTuttle said...

Marina,
I don't know if the contemplation is inside or outside, if the films we talk about here are inviting or repulsive. It doesn't matter. I mean, it matters to define the right words to use, but it all depends on personal interpretations, and a diversity of approaches.

HarryTuttle said...

Ouyang Feng,
Ok, I understand Michael's point beter now. This "high degree of attentiveness" maybe corresponds to the concentration required in meditation. So it is an effort of the mind (activity), only to empty ourselves (zen attitude of contemplation). Then the visual language feels apparent intuitively (because of our meditative state) without intellectualizing every detail, hints.
The "personal reflexion" you mention is another aspect exclusive to CC, we don't find the same level of enlightment and reflexive introspection with mainstream movies. So even though we are not forced to identify with the distant protagonist, we can learn from the contemplation and engage with the film.

Ouyang Feng said...

Harry,

I meant that in "contenplative" films, I don't think there is possible identification between the viewer and the characters as a distant has been created between the one who sees and the one to be seen. I took Tsai as an example, because his characters are "cut" from the viewer, and especially, Lee Kang-sheng who has much more relation with Tsai, since he is even more than his alter-ego, but also the representation, the icon, of the loneliness, the left-out body that needs to be nourished (or watered) and so on...
He is an example of contemplative actor (referring also to Marina's post about contemplative acting), the viewer and Tsai himself too are observing him.

HarryTuttle said...

Exactly. To me, Tsai is a referent model to define this trend I wanted to talk about in this blogathon (whatever we call it).
Tsai even says he always cast the same actors (in the tradition of family-cast like Cassavetes) to see them age and evolve. Their body but also their attitude, their maturity... This is a very interesting componant of "Contemplative Cinema", to install the filmic creation into the larger scope of real-time duration in life (out of the film).

John Santos said...

I find this roundtable, this blog (which i just recently discovered), and the current blogathon very interesting and exciting. Yay. However, as much as I like these movies being discussed, I would like to play the contrarian for a while. I submit that "contemplation" as it is being discussed in this roundtable is very, very problematic. I've nitpicked a few quotes from other comments to comment on. Comments on comments, yes. And a very long one too (and riddle with errors...yay for Notepad), so I apologize.

"I believe that true contemplation comes when we no longer emotionally experience, or in order to achieve this contemplative objectivity we have to step outside the experiential subjectivity of the viewing...When you can dwell on shots, roles and thematic tendancies but from different angles and not simply the one you had obtained during the film." How exactly can we think by stepping out of the subjective realm this thinking (or "contemplating") occurs? Thinking doesn't happen objectively; thinking isn't just a process of a few brain cells firing off, sending signals, which in time become processed into information. Just consider for example what we think about: let's say that Bazin is indeed right, that long shots and deep focus define cinema because it allows uninhibited observation and a free play of the senses to create meaning. But just because a given object is photographed does not mean we immediately think of it. That given object only gains importance as an object to be looked at because we have already previously assigned meanings and importance to that object. We aren't just "taking it in". In the act of taking something in, we are already not taking other things in. And yes, part of the reason for not taking things in and taking other things in is because our experiential subjectivity has already dictated to us what needs to be taken in within a context. The other is the existence of the cinematic frame which for the most part has already performed the act of exclusion for the viewer.

"I found that a distance exists between the film and the viewer which doesn't leave place to identification of the viewer with characters, situations, as we are an observer, we receive the images & the sounds, but they don't take us in. Tsai's films are good example." Again, the act of "receiving" doesn't just happen. In receiving, we take an active part in excluding, discriminating, and differentiating. And I think we need to stop thinking of identification as a "bad" thing, or even a "thing" that exists in some movies but not in other. A movie may be distant, but the photographic realism of cinema inhernetly makes it close. We always go back to the realism of cinema as a locus of identification, either as a way to authenticate or to invalidate the realism of a movie. And speaking of Tsai Ming-Liang, the one movie of his that have seen, Goodbye Dragon Inn contains much to connect with. The movie assumed an audience experienceing a dying culture of disintegrating celluloid, disintegrating cinemas, and disintegrating film industries. Goodbye Dragon Inn capitalized much of these assumptions and presented one of the most haunting and one of the most loaded image I have ever seen: an empty theatre.

"So I don't think these films require more work from the spectator, a more intensive brain activity. We have to flow with the film without intellectual resistance. Well unless we compare with the mainstream walk-through, where the audience has nothing to do and everything is spoon fed." Instead of viewing mainstream fare as "spoon-feeding" let us instead see it as spoon-feeding from multiple spoons of foodstuff the quality of which is a mystery to the one being fed, until the act of feeding has been done. Mainstream movies do utilize manipulative techniques to bring about reactions, yes, but I think that fact is the least interesting. What is more of value is the contemplation of political, social, economic, dramatic motives that encourage and bring about these manipulations, and the political, social, economic, and dramatic results of these manipulations.

"The "personal reflexion" you mention is another aspect exclusive to CC, we don't find the same level of enlightment and reflexive introspection with mainstream movies. So even though we are not forced to identify with the distant protagonist, we can learn from the contemplation and engage with the film." Again, the argument is not is it contemplative or is it not. Rather, how and why one chooses to participate in the contemplation of a movie. The transcendent contemplation of a mainstream movie never comes with "I symphatize with this and that protagonist." Rather, "this is how and why I symphatize with this and that protagonist." In looking at Spielberg's movies for example, it is extraordinarily boring and banal to listen to someone say "Spielberg makes me/him/her/it symphatize with this character and not with that character." Well, yes, and he also makes movies about aliens. But once the conversation becomes his use of light, his Oedipal issues, political concerns, his use of suspense, his mastery of camera movements, then the conversation becomes very interesting. It's really a matter of being engaged, period. Refusing to be engaged by Walter Hill or say Mel Gibson is as corrupt as refusing to be engaged by Bel Tarr or Andrei Tarkovsky.

John Santos said...

Oh yes, a note about silent films, New Wave, and the influence of these on contemplative movies:

I think silent films are only contemplative in the contemporary sense because they are silent. More than not, silent films are extremely spectacular and manipulative: from the Soviet montage, early commedic acrobatics, early Hollywood spectacle, even the weirdness of German expressionism. Heck, even the earliest--Lumiere and Melies (sp?)--focused on framing what they think the viewer should be interested in looking at. So to an extent, the silent film influence is very limited.

The New Wave: besides Rivette, the other French nouvelle vague filmmakers, both left and right banks, didn't necessarily shun spectacle. From the musicals of Demy, the politics and philosophy of Godard, the literary interpretations of Truffaut, Varda's examination of the fiction/nonfiction divide, Chabrol's genre exercise, Marker's video experiments, and even Rohmer's (mostly) hyper realistic yet character-driven movies, the characteristics of a "contemplative cinema" are not necessarily present with these filmmakers.

Ouyang Feng said...

I didn't mean identification to be as a negative aspect. However Tsai Ming-liang creates a distance between his characters and the viewer, but his characters, the situations, the atmosphere stimulate reflections, thoughts, feelings and emotions to us, but the viewer is always looking from far in order that he/she can have enough space to think, to feel what he/she sees on screen. The reason why the shot of the empty theatre is so long is because Tsai was actually contemplating the scenery while shooting, it recalled him memories and he forgot to say "Cut" and then left how it was. I don't think for us but for him.

Marina said...

But just because a given object is photographed does not mean we immediately think of it. That given object only gains importance as an object to be looked at because we have already previously assigned meanings and importance to that object. We aren't just "taking it in". In the act of taking something in, we are already not taking other things in.

It's true we can't perceive and appreciate everything in a film, there're things we have "taken in", others that have the potential of being "taken in" and everything else that eventually isn't "taken in" until another viewing (just as every force has a counter-force, receiving comes with excluding). When you've remembered something more vividly, naturally you start thinking about it afterwards, sometimes unintentionally - images that spring in your mind and provoke others. But some objects need to be unlocked and for this serves the process of contemplation. When you consciously dig into the shots and thoughts from the film and try to justify them - assign a different meaning, twist the point of view, skew and stretch it. Then, sometimes, the new reason you have found unlocks other images that at first you thought you hadn't noticed. But, of course, as you said, not everything can be "thought of" and "taken in". Not at least from one person. After all, the film is a compound of more than one point of view and experience.

Of Tsai Ming-liang's films I've only seen The Wayward Cloud and I must agree there was a lot of deliberate distancing - the frame-in-frame shot, the empty spacious shot, the vast and prolonged shot, never being able to "fill" itself, etc. Also, the moments where you were allowed to identify and permitted near the film were intentional, too - the musical capsules, where the shot became exuberant and quite colourful. I remember reading that it was films like Ming-liang's that Harry wanted to focus on and actually meant as contemplative. But as every term, subcategories occur and the initial intention has to broaden a bit.

HarryTuttle said...

Thanks for playing the Devil's Advocate John Santos, it helps to relativize our speculations.

What's interesting here is to contrast contemplative Cinema with Mainstream Narration, qualitatively, to compare how each operate on the audience. To say one is "good" and the other is "bad" is another debate we don't have to take part in. Besides there is no unique solution in cinema, all depends on the goals sets out and the desired result. Mainstream is pretty efficient at manipulation and the audience is grateful for it.

When I emphasis on the clash with mainstream cinema is because it has established itself the default standard everybody refers to, and pretty much our entire culture is founded on its conventions. Both styles can co-exist peacefuly for their "niche" don't quite overlap or conflict. To

Don't take the negative words as pejorative. When we say with irony that CC is "boring", "dull", "sad", "distanciated", "slow"... they are meant in a positif way, insofar as they give things the mainstream never dare to address.

It's funny how you assume "distance" equates to "non-realism"... I4d say that the stereotypical acting, the star-system close ups, the conventional cuts make cinema bigger-than-life, in a romanticized way, not in a realistic way. Thus I see CC much more in tune with real life.
Actually I'd like to draw a special connection between CC and Italian Neo-Realism. There is obviously a lot in common in their clash with their contemporean industry codes. Return to realism, everyday man, social background, unexceptional events, location shooting... are the roots of their respective aesthetics. We can also note their differences, but in my opinion they are closer than any other styles.
So if Modernism is the initial inspiration, we could trace back the aesthetic influence, against a chronological order, to Neo-Realism, and to finish towards Silent Cinema.

And what CC shares with silent films, is not only that there is no spoken dialogue, but their strategy to compensate the absence of words by development of an intuitive visual language out of necessity. CC is not silent at all, because the direct ambiant sound takes a very important role. And silent films, despite the absence of declamatory lines, still have actors act as if they were heard and scenes take time to show characters exchanging long conversations which, completed by intertitles, drive a word-based narration.

Marina Uzunova said...

Just a quick thought, I'll forget it otherwise.

It's funny how you assume "distance" equates to "non-realism"...

[...]

Return to realism, everyday man, social background, unexceptional events, location shooting...

I won't speak exclusively about "distance", but I think that the difference here with, say, Neo-Realism or any Documentary school, is that the unexceptional events are taken and developed into exceptional, uneveryday-like. Everything that happens in The Wayward Cloud or any Ki-duk seems down to earth, ordinary...at first. Then it becomes a sort of fest of the exotic, something that seems probable to happen to you, but actually never will. Often, you can call it twisted. :)

And the distanced camera and all other features that have been enumerated just add to this exotism.

HarryTuttle said...

The Wayward Cloud is a beauty of CC, but resorts to musical interludes... so it's a compromise towards narration device. So I can't say it's a good representative of the trend. But Tsai did other films without musical, that are just the same. What is exotic or exceptional in the lives of the characters in The Wayward Cloud? Except the fact that not everybody is a porn actor, the life of this porn actor is quite ordinary. I mean, Tsai does create a certain stylistic abstraction, but I don't think it's most obvious for the rendition of dailylife. He, like oter CC auteurs, seems to be drawn to the basic reality of life, and how poetry arises within this versimiltude.

I would only hand-pick a couple of Kim Ki-duk films to qualify for CC... because most of his films are rather dramatized, with action, blood, horror, cops/army. I mean the contemplation is distracted by lots of external plot-drives.

Look at the revolution in Tarr films, it goes without weapons, without explosions, without army deployment, it's all about the everyday man.
The trip to Paris in What Time Is It There? is un-touristic, there is no exotism that would have been easy to pull off with monuments and crowds in Paris. Even the arranged meeting with Jean-Pierre Léaud, is intentionaly under-exploited, against his verbal-act potential.
When Jia films the dancing routine at the entertainment park in The World, he uses only wide shots (if I recall well how frustrated I was), like if we are in the audience, and doesn't create a spectacular montage like they do on TV.
The war depicted in Flandres is all but anything we've seen in other war films, unspectacular.
And so on. The camera strategy is always not to go the easy way, to frustrate the audience from the interesting thing to watch and spend more time on what happens (or doesn't happen) around the spectacular action going on.
That's how I see a certain similarity with Neo-Realism when they broke with the spectacular theatrical tradition. CC does pretty much the same thing, with other means, more radical I'd say.