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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Purpose and style

In the 1920s, after Germany's downfall in the First World War, a new cinematic style of reflexing reality is formed (before that - in painting, literature, theatre), namely expressionism. It's a natural consequence of a drastically changing socio-historical situation. Deformed scenery, prolonged shadows, dark figures, lurking actors. With its exclusive style expressionist cinema is born out of a necessity and solid purpose - to criticise the political moment and protest against the horror of war and its consequences. It's a predominantly social tendency - emerged from its conscious and developed by the faith in its better future.

In the 1940s, after the Axis Powers' downfall in the Second World War, a new cinematic style emerges in response to the events that shaked Italy: war, fascism, the struggle towards a democratic society. Thus neo-realism is born in Italy. Again socially orientated, it supports a political view - that of the anti-fascist opposition, this time directly mirroring reality to evoke admiration for the struggling man, "the little man", the man of the people.

In the 1950s, during a hard crisis in the French cinema, an enthusiastic group of film critics and directors agitates towards sculpting cinema as art and rejecting the current trade film. It carries a stylistic message - to reshape cinema until it becomes "as flexible, as sophisticated as the written language". It is born out of an aesthetic stagnation and its main purpose is its elimination.

Every new wave is provoked by an event (be it social, political, aesthetic, etc.) that defines its purpose. And that purpose is justified and approached with the help of a certain correspondent style. Harry spotted the signals of the CC style, its aesthetics. Consequently, these signals became a set of "minimal profile", a solid base. But still, can we say what is the purpose?

Judging from all the discussions, I'd assume CC doesn't astonish with plot, nor with acting. It doesn't concern or criticise social policies, it's not politically engaged. It's narrative structures range in minimum scale. It reacts by visual language. It provokes the viewing experience. It chalanges the audience to indulge in a new way of understanding cinema, of looking it.

As we had the chance to observe, many films fall into the CC style category, but most of them seem to differ somehow - how? I guess, they don't share the same purpose - rendering the way we experience cinema, our attitude. Most of the films that seem to be out of place have a different primal goal, which can be found in their use of narrativity or the visual language, or music. So could we say that CC's purpose is aesthetic, or rather aesthetically social since it is aimed directly towards the audience?

During the 80s, 90s and 00s, the blockbuster gains force. It floods the whole world and results in a situation similar to that prior to the New Wave. Around the same time, though, another style can be spotted in Asia - a minimalistic in every sense aesthetic with a sometimes vague goal. What do you think of CC's purpose? If we find it out, probably we could differentiate contemplative films better.
Note: During the 80s and 90s, the so called Asian Horror emerges, too. Could it be accepted as a contrary reaction to CC? Or are they a reaction to the same "event" but in two radical ways?

7 comments:

HarryTuttle said...

Maybe we could parallel this return to minimalism with a similar tendency in litterature, or in the Arts, which would reflect the same response to political and social events at the end of the XXth century. Litterature is not my field so I wouldn't know.
If so many auteurs in so many countries all decided to develop the same aesthetics there must be a common cause. And I don't think we could accuse some of these masters of following a style imposed by festivals... they are too good to sit their identity on a fad.

acquarello is onto something :
"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). "

I guess this generation is anti-comformist, reacting against everything. Against speed (TV), against noise (words, music), against action (plot), against the mass (crowd, society). This generation is disappointed by the way globalism goes. Their reaction is to show the opposite : slowness, silence, peace and solitude.
We should find political evidences that would explain this attitude.
This trend develops mainly outside the major traditional cinema-nations, in developing countries, or small western nations. Or is it a sudden confrontation of the old regime with globalisation and consumerism? The block from Eastern Europe, the opening of China to Hong Kong, Taiwan... We could look into the local history of all these countries (Argentina, Mexico, Portugal, Iran, Hungary, Lithuania, Turkey), but there is no mass conversion in these places, it always a couple of individuals who developed a CC style. So my guess is to prove such a worldwide trend exist is to refer to a global history/events/culture.

This is also a cinema-related crisis. A tangent taken by a few mavericks to give up the traditional formula and the growing influence of TV on cinema. For instance everything making up the Minimum Profile I described is anti-TV, because these are exactly the kind of things that don't work on the small screen. Wide shots with tiny characters, no close ups, no mainstream-walkthrough dialogs, no escapism entertainment... If you don't want your film to be shown on TV, going CC is the answer.

HarryTuttle said...

From Michel Ciment's State of Cinema address (2003)

"On the map we see the appearance of new cinematographic territories, which had attracted almost no attention 40 years ago such as Australia, Iran, Taiwan, China, South Korea, or Hong Kong.
(...)
Recently and unexpectedly Diego Lerman, Lucrecia Martel, Pablo Trapero, Carlos Sorín and others have revealed a new wave in Argentinian cinema. Without excluding the factor of snobbism one must acknowledge that the shift in cinematographic geopolitics corresponds to an observable reality. Directors like Abbas Kiarostami, Im Kwon-Taek, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang, and Wong Kar Wai have put Asia on the map and experiment fruitfully in film style.
(...)
When a country has been under a totalitarian regime and starts to breathe again, even within certain limits, the artistic flowering is almost immediate. This is what happened in Eastern Europe with the thaw in the Communist regime during the late ‘50s and ‘60s. This is what happens today in Iran, South Korea, Taiwan and Argentina.
(...)
Facing this lack of patience and themselves made impatient by the bombardment of sound and image to which they are submitted as TV or cinema spectators, a number of directors have reacted by a cinema of slowness, of contemplation, as if they wanted to live again the sensuous experience of a moment revealed in its authenticity. Angelopoulos in Greece, Nuri Bilge Ceylan in Turkey, de Oliveira and Monteiro (who died a few weeks ago) in Portugal, Béla Tarr in Hungary, Abbas Kiarostami in Iran, Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien in Taiwan, Philippe Garrel and Bruno Dumont in France, Souleymane Cissé and Idrissa Ouedraogo in Africa, Sharunas Bartas in the Baltic state, Aleksandr Sokurov in Russia, and several directors in Central Asia have been proponents in recent years of a resistance to the fetishism of technology."

weepingsam said...

It also strikes me that there could well be a relationship between the spread of "intensified continuity" in mainstream film (inh Bordwell's terms) and that of what we're calling "contemnplative cinema." It makes sense that slow films, with diffuse plotlines and not much dialogue, etc., would appear in reaction to talky, active, fast cut Hollywood films. Though the relationship might not be so antagonistic as all that - both seem to me to owe some of their existence to video. Video is likely to be a major player in the reason why we are able to see films from around the world - and people around the world are able to see those films as well. It's also interesting that a lot of the aesethetic of these "contemplative" films owes something to video - the confessional, experimental style of video art, the interest (in video art) in duration as such; use of imagery similar to surveillance video, etc....

And - one of the odd effects of "intensified continuity" I think is that it both rewards being seen on a big screen, with all the sensory overload a good theater can muster - and still works on video: Bordwell has written about the flat staging, the reliance on closeups, the "walk and talk" method of showing conversations - all elements that translate to television. I think some of the same contradiction comes up in some of these films - Harry mentioned the things that are lost on TV in these films: at the same time, though, the simpler stories, the pared down mise en scene, the tendency to concentrate on mood over plot, or on minimalist beauty over the kinds of dense, complex compositions that turn up in filmmakers like Gidard, Imamura, Altman, Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao Hsien - all tend to play better on video... So like contemporary action films, "contemplative" films are trying to reward those who will see them in theaters, while preserving as much of the experience as possible for those who can't.

Maybe.

Marina said...

Harry, yes. When I first sall the period 80s-90s, what I thought of was the fall of communism (in Bulgaria, particularly). During the 80s, our cinema gave birth to lots of our classical films - some, bordering on confrontist ideas and others, obtaining themes from Bulgaria's great Middle Ages' rulers and power. The 80s were a period (from what I've read and been told) when limitations were very tight but as we can see, cultural revolutioners emerged here and there - be it writers, filmmakers, musicians. Then came 1989 and the regime fell, but wht happened? The cinematic glory of the 80s melted into cinematic poverty in the 90s (in Bulgaria). Too long has it lived in the regime and when the world was finally open, there was nothing we could offer. That grew into a crisis that Bulgaria is only now overcoming.

So, it's true, we can see China's cinema now as the blooming period before the official fall of the regime - the silent revolution that will lead to it. It's truly a unique revolution because it's creating a new vision and style.

Then again, in the 80s, Taiwan is blossoming after being given its recognition and that's when Ming-liang emerges. Interesting note: he's worked for television, writing scripts, so it could be something in that collision that formed his style.

Angelopoulos is another filmmaker marked by war and political extremism of the XX century. He was raised during the WWII and had to again face communism.

I suppose, this generation (over 40) is undeniably marked by those political regimes and repressions and that's one of the things to explain the strength and security with which they create their art. The focus is off man and on nature, space. As if man is something that disturbs nature and can only cause its death - as it is already. Or that can be spotted in some films.

Sam, Chinese painting is compared to literature/text/caligraphy. In its origination it was drawn so detailedly and masterfully that in order to appreciate every fragment you had to observe it from closely. Thus, the whole picture was lost and the viewer had to read the painting - image by image, word by word.

I see something similar in CC - the image covers a vast territory, but when you start to observe closely, you actually read it - part by part and that can be easily done on the TV, because the function "pause" gives much more time to read and reread and interpret every single frame.

But the initial intention of this post was to stimulate discussions on the purpose of CC. How are all these films united - aesthetically? socially? politically? Whom are they primally addressed to - a historical situation? a cultural tendency? What do they try to change with this revolutionary style?

HarryTuttle said...

weepingsam,
what does mean "intensified continuity" exactly? And what does it mean within CC?
Like you, I don't think that "slow, silent, plotless" is necessarily the celebration of such contemplation, maybe these filmmakers are developing a contrarian style, to make a point through contrast. So like Zach Campbell explains in his Farocki post, maybe contemplation is not to be taken at face value, for its inherant positive purity. Maybe we are given a therapeutical contemplation, to experience then danger of passivity in today's world. Are CC protagonists always benefiting from this contemplative pace? We can't say the universe described in CC films (disconnectedness, alienation, emptyness, fatalism, listlessness) is a promising utopia. Au contraire. It's like a vision of a "post-apocalyptic" world, or an interpretation of today's world through the prism of our worst instincts (individualism, misanthropy, interiority, protectionism, xenophobia, voyeurism, superstition...) not as visible/spectacular as the usual ones in mainstream stereotypes (violence, murder, criminality, hatred, jealousy, envy...)

I'm not sure about video. Although I think "TV culture" is a universal phenomenon that touches everyone in the world, so it could be one of the global causes for the "international style" that is CC. But TV is not only the form (in competition with cinema), but also of content (MTV culture, news, entertainment, P.C. values, Hollywood hegemony).

HarryTuttle said...

Marina,
I guess what happens in Bulgaria is like the post-Prague-Spring in Czech republic. What you say makes me think that there are very few period films in CC, it's usually taking place today, in the world we know, without the invention of a fictitious/fantasy world. Much like Neo-Realism in its time.

Environment consciousness is another global phenomenon that could explain this trend, although I'm not sure it was that much publicized in the 80ies already, when CC start to boom.

Purpose : these films are united formaly above all, through an aesthetics of minimalism. But WHY? is not as evident. I'd need more time, and more case studies to form a serious idea. So far I can only speculate. And the hint of non-comformity suggested by acquarello suits me.

If we think about it these films don't offer any solutions, they are passive, fatalistic, desillusionnized, desperate. So it's hardly a revolution, but a muffled scream in the desert, a provocative inertia, a peaceful accusation.

They realize the world is getting more and more intolerant. Political speechs are vain, words are meaningless, powerless, communication is impossible. Having an active participation in this world is rendered useless by the anonymous multitude we are engulfed in, action is helpless, minorities are overwhelmed by majority's mediocrity. Something like that, or something completely different. what do you think?

weepingsam said...

what does mean "intensified continuity" exactly? And what does it mean within CC?

It's David Bordwell's term for contemporary Hollywood style - fast cutting, long lenses, tight framing, lots of closeups, constant camera movement. It's both a contrast to classical ocntinuity style and a continuation - it's faster, it eliminates a lot of the establishing shots, the two shots and medium shots, in favor of closer shots, etc. - but maintains ocnventions like eyeline matches, respect for the 180 degree rules, avoidance of 45 and 90 degree cuts, etc. It tends to give a sense of busyness and movement, while in fact reducing the variety of staging, framing and so on, making almost everything that's not an actual action sequence into a series of talking heads...

The style seems to have kicked in in earnest around the beginning of the 90s - if what we're sort of calling "contemplative ciema" also took a jump in the early 90s and onward, it's possible that it's a reaction to this. It also seems possible to me that both intensified continuity and this slower style are reactions to video - both seem to me to be attempts to make films that reward theater viewing, but don't penalize home viewing: to find a way to make either format work...