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Thursday, January 18, 2007

(Technical) Minimum Profile

The original purpose of this blogathon was to discuss how filmmakers can make a film without a plot, without dialogue, without action, without editing conventions, without stars... and still produce a moving atmosphere transcending narration and touching the audience intuitively without resort to intellectual verbalisation of facts and psychology. So the point of these films is not to tell us a story, but to paint a "state of mind".
This idea came from a few auteurs who seem to follow this path in total contradiction to the narrative cinema tradition, to me they represent the epitome of "contemplation" since only images are left to hold the film together : Bela Tarr, Tsai Ming-liang, Bruno Dumont, Weerasethakul, Sharunas Bartas, Kore-eda, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Sokurov, Lisandro Alonso, Carlos Reygadas, Pedro Costa. So they are the ones I'd like to focus on primarily. There are also individual films by other auteurs that fit this profile perfectly without being a consistent trademark.
The discussions have been really exciting so far, but I'll ignore the "contemplation" argument for now, and instead concentrate on these 4 criteria (technical descriptors) :
  1. PLOTLESSNESS : no obvious (forefront) drama, no beginning, no denouement, open-ending, no drive to go forward, no major narrative gimmicks (flashback, multilayered stories), simplicity, atmospherical depiction, distanciation of protagonist(s) with background action, no imminent threat, no external forces pressuring the protagonist(s).
  2. WORDLESSNESS : laconical interactions (or silent protagonist), no plot-drive expository filling, no psychological arguments, no voiceover, direct-sound (no score), body language.
  3. SLOWNESS : long takes, static shots/slow camerawork, patient pace, uneventfulness (down time), "unnecessary" mundanity, uncut movements, activities filmed in their entirety, extended wait/pauses, conscience of time.
  4. ALIENATION : disconnectedness, wandering/idleness/listlessness, solitude, fatalism, ennui/melancholy/depression, non-conformity, no intellectualized existentialism, distanciation of protagonist(s) with the world, with other characters, emptiness, empty frames, distanciation of the camera from the subject.
I know the list of "contemplative films" stretches long and vague on the chronology page, which makes the family identity more difficult to pin point. So, from what I've watched firsthand, I only keep 34 films with the most representative profile, less compromising narration-wise, according to my understanding of the style we're talking about here :
Damnation; The Seventh Continent; A scene at the sea; D'Est; Satantango; Vive l'Amour; Few of Us; The River; Mother and Son; L'Humanité; Werckmeister harmóniák; Millennium Mambo; What time is it over there?; Blissfully Yours; Dolls; Hukkle; Japon; Uzak/Distant; The Brown Bunny; Elephant; Goodbye, Dragon Inn; Nobody Knows; Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring; La Blessure; Los Muertos; Tropical Malady; The World; Batalla en el cielo; Last Days; Seven Invisible Men; The Sun; Colossal Youth; Fantasma; Flandres.
For these I'm sure the proposed profile fits, so I use them as models of reference to define this "family". And I'd like to compare them and see how each film overcomes the 4 "constraints" (which are not creative limitation self-imposed by the auteurs). I'd also like to figure statistical occurrences in these films to see if these protagonists share similar concerns, and their auteur a common vision of the world.
Of course, this is my own humble interpretations of the topic. Everyone is free to disagree, argue, and propose a different profile, or continue to explore contemplation in narrative cinema. All this can be developped on this blog at the same time and inter-communicate, this is the value of a collegial workshop.


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8 comments:

adrian said...

Harry,
These are some great films, and as with any list, it suggests others. A few I'm familiar with (haven't a thrid of yours) but which seem to fit would include: Stalker, Noi, Eraserhead, The Son, Damnation, Mother and Son, Father and Son, Molokh (three by Sokurov), Passion of Joan d'Arc, Greenaway's The Falls, Jodorowsky's El Topo, and who could forget Chris Marker's La Jetee and Sans Soleil. I'm forgetting a bunch, and excluding Koyanisqaatsi and other pieces of visual art (Maya Deren? Bill Viola).

I'd like to write up a post around Deleuze's Cinema books, because I think there's reason to look at image making and the exposition of time here outside of narrative construction. Deleuze is the only film theorist who's attempted a "grammar" or "structural analysis" of film that doesnt reduce film to its narrative or semiotic construction. There are films that arouse contemplation, and films that contemplate. Contemplation can burn, in the hands of Herzog, for example, explode or smile, as it does in Beat Takeshi's quirky masterpieces. It doesn't require slowness I think but there's something to the rhythm of these films that separates them: Lou Kerrigan's Clean, Shaven, is cut schizophrenically but "slowness" is not its temporality so much as it is its discontinuity. Slowness suggests watching, which suggests contemplation, but as I sought to note in my piece on Tarr, it mgiht be use of sound as much as it is use of image that immerses the viewer in contemplation.

We all know what these kinds of films are like, more than we know what makes them this. We should think about the relation between image/film and thought as much as we think about the genre's tendency to suspend conventional narrative. methinks ;-)

David Lowery said...

I like your suggestion that we (at least in theory) drop the contemplation argument. I think what we're uncovering here is a certain trend in filmmaking that's not as generic as any one label might define. Rather, it's an interest on the part of the filmmaker, an interest in exploring his or her ideas through certain modes. It's those modes that interest us here - the prevalence of them, the cross-pollination of them, the refinement of them, etc.

I haven't seen all of the 34 films you list, but those that I have seen do fit your critera to a certain extent (I agree that they are not constraints in the sense of self-imposed limitation). But when you start getting down to statistical occurences - the protagonists' concerns, for example - I wonder if the film's will become separated from their form. You pointed out earlier the difference between two chase movies, Friedkin's The Hunted (which I cited) and Bartas' Seven Invisible Men. I haven't seen the latter, but would it be correct to say that the concerns of the characters remain the same - they fill the roles, and have the same concerns, as any other pursuer or pursuant - while the form with which those concerns are depicted change?

HarryTuttle said...

Adrian,
I like your suggestions. They are all contemplative in a way, and I don't disagree with that. Although I would argue that experimental films and films based on a concept or a formal "gimmick" don't fit the bill because the film's narration depends on an intellectual/formal rhetoric.
So Surrealism, Avant-Garde, formal experiment always exist from something more than just the mundane atmosphere depicted in my criteria. But, again, this is only my take on this trend. That's what I stick to, in the hope to make sense of it.

I've been intimidated by Deleuze for some time, while craving to read his books. I need to get into it soon. And surely his "Image-Temps" book would help here. I'd love to read your notes if you post them.

HarryTuttle said...

David,
From what I've read on our discussions, it seems the word "contemplation" is causing much confusion/distraction... so i'll try to avoid using it in the future. Clearly, my intention wasn't to define "complation", but to study this group of filmmakers that I think move forward cinema in the same direction.

You're right, separating form from content is an issue. Although I'm advancing in teh dark and I try to use formal similarities to put them films together. Then, in a second stage, I want to find out if there is actually one essence that exist in each of them. It's a backward process I know, not very academic, but that's because I don't have a these upfront to justify, I'm actually trying to find hints of one.
As for The Hunted and Seven Invisible Men, I think the only thing they have in common is the "pitch" in a broad sense (man on the run), but the film treatment is totally different, and therefore the concerns/priorities of the protagonists differ. The former is an action movie driven by a suspens plot (hunt, run and catch, hiding, hostage, chase, action, violence, thrill). The latter, as I told you, doesn't show the confrontation of fugitives with the police, the men escape in time and then are on the road, hiding a few days in a remote cabin. So the concerns here are about the isolation, the mutual suspicion, living together by constraint... and as it is a slow paced movie, the tension is only latent, not dramatized.

adrian chan said...

Good stuff people. Harry, I read your description of the chase before reading the title and thought you were talking about Down By Law! Strange, that.

Deleuze's angle on this would be: what are the signs associated with CC? What "optical," "sonic" "object" and other signs does this particular style prefer to use? I would guess:
--separation of what's on the screen from traditional narrative construction
--less reliance on action
--characters shown seeing, watching, observing; that is, not always "re/acting" and production action
--events from nowhere
--"any-place-whatevers" and "non-places"
--spaces over locations
--time treated as continuous, through the shot rather than through montage
--actions divorced from actions, choices, seemingly unhooked
--elements seemingly suspended, floating, aimless
--less emphasis on narrative resolution
--less emphasis on construing tension as personal conflict; instead using atmospherics, ambiguity to create mood and tension/enagement
--less use of dialog..
--continued use of B/W (as Tarr says, because it's richer in color)
--evacuated sound tracks, use of sound as punctuation, as an element separte from action
--movement/motion among things, natural phenom (wind, light, water, surfaces) and materials to create meanings, not just action/actors
--tendency away from drama/dramatic to poetic/lyrical

These are what came to mind. This kind of film starts with Italian neorealism, according to the historians, who claim its primary difference is that it invents new images, new cinematic expressions, in a way film's "abstract" moment (e.g. when painters stopped painting lines, representational figures against backgrounds and sought instead to explore color, form as pure elements)...

HarryTuttle said...

Down By Law is close to CC, but it relies maybe too much on the "cleverness" of dialogs, as in "actor's performance" giving a point to a scene, rather than there simple presence in their environment.

I like to see the distinction between Modernism and CC, like what Poetic Realism is to Neo-Realism. It's not a total revolution, nor a denial of the ancient model, but the latter develops a very different angle and emphasize things the former didn't.

These Deleuze-inspired ideas are excellent! This is what we should work on to define this particular aesthetics. And we should combine them with what Girish laid out in the Roundtable 3, and with my tentative criteria here.

acquarello said...

That's a pretty good stab at characterizing the essential aspects of "contemplative cinema". As a kind of loose genre, there is definitely a movement away from narrative and towards non-narrative cinema in these films.

It's also interesting to note that several of these filmmakers are also either involved in the more conceptual/theoretical aspects of filmmaking or arts/culture in general (Dumont, Denis, Klotz), or they also have rooting in experimental filmmaking (Apichatpong, Akerman, Bartas). Of course, there's also some overlapping in between the two.

One thing that I find interesting is the political implication in a lot of this minimalism. People like Sokurov, Tarr, Tarkovsky, Jancso, and Angelopoulos (Saura too) pretty much matured artistically under repressive regimes, so that silence is something of an act of defiance. I'd lump filmmakers like Akerman and Tsai in a similar situation in terms of repression through a marginalization of otherness (whether ethnicity, sexual orientation, or non-native status).

In that sense, that's where I think solitude is not so much an ingredient in the movement as much as it is a by-product of non-conformity. But then, this leads to the question, does the alienation inform/shape the aesthetic, or is it because of this "alone time" that these filmmakers have developed a more deliberative approach to cinema, where the satisfaction of instant gratification, the happy ending, the tidy resolution, isn't necessarily a given, as in their own lives.

HarryTuttle said...

So you think it's more like a genre? What's the difference between a "genre" and a "style"? I thought the former was more defined by its narrative structure (content), the latter by its aesthetics (form). It seems this trend covers a wide variety of stories and "genres" already, applying the same style.
Los Muertos (road movie?) and Millenium Mambo (romance?) aren't belong to the same "genre" (if they have a genre at all), do they? I don't know actually.

I hadn't noticed the affinity of filmmakers at the conceptual/experimental level... that's interesting. Yet their cinema is not particularly conceptual, not as drasticaly marked by theory than the cinema of Bresson, Eistenstein or Godard. I find these films to be quite "root", on the bare/simple side instead. What I like about htem is that however controled is the composition, the content is rather natural.

I don't know as well Denis, Akerman, Jansco, Angelopoulos or Saura, so if you want to add films that would fit the profile, I'd appreciate. Could we add Kiarostami, Aoyama, Dardennes, Kerrigan, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang?

What you say about Akerman and Tsai is fascinating. You open a new stage in the blogathon, which is to figure the cultural/political motivations to the emergence of this particular trend. And I think it could solidify this speculation that the trend was developped by a new "generation" of auteurs, one that had a particular implication with the world, like you say, frustrated by the current (self-satisfied) culture.

I've read other reservations about the "solitude" criterion (on exterior forums). Is it a misnomer? I thought "solitude" implied more than "loneliness", with a kind of metaphysical dimension to it...
If "alienation" is more meaningful I'll change the title.