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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Roundtable 3 : Aesthetic economy

The team-blog seems to be working now. Everyone should be able to post content here in new posts. And I encourage everyone to do so. You can re-post your contributions here for archive purpose. And you can create new topics, new roundtables, new activities as you wish.

So I'm taking this opportunity to post a new Roundtable, continuing to explore the nature of this trend we're trying to define here. The main criterion to me is the form it takes, in particular clashing with the narrative tradition. These films coming from various corners of the globe seem to share at least a common concern for visual minimalism, a passive, uneventful (non-plot-driven) non-narration, and laconical dialogue.

Let's talk here about the formal characteristics of these films, the specific visual language developped by their auteurs and the new intuitive "conventions" they had to invent to replace dialectic plot and overstated montage.

As suggested in weepingsam latest post : Defining Contemplative Cinema (Bela Tarr)
"They (or we, since I can see it too) notice that there are films with certain characteristics - slowness, plotlessness, etc. They are looking for what links these films, how they can describe them, how they can describe the links. The problem so far (for me) is that the links are too vague - the category is too broad."
These roundtables are opportunities to link to the contributions already posted where this question was developped, threading a web of interactive discussions and summing up a synthesis here together. Subscribe to the RSS feed for activity notification from this Roundtable.


girish said...

Harry -- I apologize if these are obvious and redundant (as I'm sure they are) but to kick things off, a few of these formal characteristics might be:

--Long takes
--Stationary camera
--Slow camera movement or pans
--Contents of the frame relatively static, so that small motions register with great force
--Use of desaturated colors in the frame
--Deliberately spare decor (e.g. Mamet's House of Games, which also signals its theatrical roots)
--Uninflected emotionally neutral performances (Bresson, of course)
--Low level of "central conflict"
--Rather than traditional dramatic structure (like 3-act), an episodic and loose structure
--Distance of camera from players, e.g Hou places his camera far back in part to attenuate our emotional responses to lines and players.
--Cutting after the "content curve" peaks (Giannetti).

Louis Giannetti is his book (a commonly used intro text for undergrads, esp non-film majors) talks about the idea of the "content curve". It relates to the amount of time it takes for the viewer to fully absorb the contents of a shot (image). Filmmakers can cut in three ways: before the content curve peaks, right as it peaks, and after it peaks. He gives examples for all three (e.g. music-video aesthetic; Hitchcock; and Tarkovsky respectively).

HarryTuttle said...

You know what, I was just about to post a link to your great post on Long Takes where this form had already been discussed in-depth. Nothing too obvious or redundant here, this blog is meant to gather all existing informations in one place.

Your Giannetti "content curve" peak is very interesting, and essential to contemplative films indeed. Its content is also understated (but I guess the music-video content isn't much narrative either). So it's like the counterpoint of an "efficient cut", which serves another purpose, and opens new ways in non-verbal visual language. The shot doesn't try to spell out a significant message (clue, plot-point, psychology...) but induce a certain atmosphere through duration and "endurance".

I didn't find time to read Schrader's Transcendental Style like I wanted to. So if anyone wants to recap. It seems his taxonomy (Mundanity/Disparity/Stasis) defines pretty much our contemplation, although his examples are narrative auteurs (Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer), so the new generation (Tarr, Tsai, Dumont...) pushed this model further. And we need to look in their singularity.

weepingsam said...

Your Giannetti "content curve" peak is very interesting, and essential to contemplative films indeed. Its content is also understated (but I guess the music-video content isn't much narrative either).

One of the fascinating things about Tsai Ming-liang is how he subverts this: I mean, those long long shots, where nothing seems to happen until almost the end - or right at the end, when something - usually a joke - is revealed. If I remember right, a lot of those shots are cut fairly conventionally, after the content peak - just that this comes at the end of a very long shot. It's a cool effect, probably because it does turn everything you expect, even from slow films, upside down.

HarryTuttle said...

I guess the "conventional" cut is Hitchcock's way, because mainstream go right to efficiency. No time is wasted on lapse that do not push the plot forward or yield an expected dramatic effect. To cut "after" peak, means to let the camera roll longer after the moment the audience expect the film to cut to something else. For exemple, an expression of horror calls for a countershot to see what the character is afraid of.
So we could say that CC filmmakers clash with conventions again, by filming mostly before, or after the action, not so much at the peak of the action. The time we spend watching the uncut moment is a moment of inner mediatiton since the still scene doesn't add new content. The meaning is not in the WHAT is on screen, but HOW LONG the wait is between significant moments. That's why we call it "contemplative", maybe as opposed to "efficient".

You say "of course" Bresson, but I can't really link together the controlled formalism of Bresson very precise and calculated aesthetic with the seemingly nonchalant and real-life-like people in CC films. I do think Bresson's cinematographe is a great influence on this trend, yet they don't really comply with his principles. Like fragmentation, compression, abstration of reality. Bresson is more a filmmaker of close ups and CC filmmakers are more fond of wide shots, schematically.
But the comparison is interesting to explore for similarities and differences. I was talking about that with Doug Cummings about his Quixotic piece.

girish said...

Sorry Harry I should've been more clear.

I wasn't claiming Bresson or Mamet as CC, just using them as examples/illustrations of specific formal characteristics (emotionally neutral acting and spareness of decor respectively).

Tsai uses both, definitely the former....e.g. Rather than the performers signalling the emotions/motivation/psychology of the character (providing them for us, without our having to do much work), the blankness of the performances spur contemplation about these aspects....that's the connection I was trying to make.

girish said...

"I can't really link together the controlled formalism of Bresson very precise and calculated aesthetic with the seemingly nonchalant and real-life-like people in CC films."

I'm not sure CC filmmakers (like Tarr, Jia, etc) are any less precise in their aesthetic!

But what they do (I suspect) is give us more time to absorb the image, and reflect/contemplate upon it (and anything else it spurs) since their shots are of longer duration....

girish said...

Let me just add: of course, Bresson is one of the most highly controlled and precise filmmakers in the history of cinema. But I don't think of CC filmmakers as necessarily being uncontrolled and imprecise and less concerned with 'form.' What many CC filmmakers do share perhaps is high ASL (average shot length), as Bordwell might put it....

HarryTuttle said...

Yeah I agree. It's difficult to make categorical generalisations in a few words like that. CC might be precise in the image, but what they don't do is to impose a artificial choreography, diction and rigidity to the actors like Bresson did. I don't think people in CC look unnatural in the way they move and inhabit the scene. There is a certain formalism in mise-en-scene, like in any film, but its purpose is not to construct an artificial world. Maybe slower or duller than usual that's all.
Ok, I realize this could be argued in fine details though.
Anyway, I guess we understand the same thing. ;)

Btw, I was looking at the ASL database linked at Bordwell's blog, and wanted to talk about this. But I notice 1) CC is underrepresented (not even Santantango (2'30" according to Bordwell)... their slower film is at 56") and 2) there doesn't seem to be any significant differences between CC and non-CC.

David Lowery said...

A few thought (and apologies if any of this has been dealt with earlier - I'm going through these roundtables in reverse).

1. "The meaning is not in the WHAT is on screen, but HOW LONG the wait is between significant moments."

Definitely! And you know how people will say sometimes that a joke goes on for so long that it runs the gamut of being funny, ceasing to be funny and then winding up funny again? I think that's pretty definitive of contemplative cinema, not just of the humorous scenes in Tsai's films but of highly dramatic moments as well - just substitute 'funny' for another adjective.

2. While reading Girish's list at the onset of this discussion, I suddenly found myself taking umbrage at his inclusiong desaturated color as a trait of contemplative cinema. My problem was not with that particular line item, which was certainly astute, but with the precedence of technique over intention. I really don't think contemplative cinema is black and white enough to warrant such explicit categorization as has been given it. There are trademarks, to be sure, and among them are many of the attributes that Girish pointed out. But what is it about these traits that makes them, when applied to a whole, contemplative? And do they need to be applied to a whole at all? Can contemplative cinema include more traditional films that include contemplative moments, that aren't so easily shoehorned into a checklist of stylistic decisions?

Make what you will of my taste, but I'm going to cite here a film that I thought was pretty outstanding, and that is William Friedkin's most recent picture, The Hunted. There's a moment, dead in the middle of a big action scene, where Friedkin cuts to a shot of a supporting character weeping over the death of an even more peripheral character. It was a moment of unexpected sensitivity, and it made you think about what was transgressing amidst the otherwise thrilling chases and fights. A cut like that - and indeed, it is a cut - for me extends the definition of contemplative cinema beyond the usual long takes and seemingly noneventful events.

3. But that's not to take a dig at Girish's list. Indeed, as I mentioned above, all those traits are pretty much on the money. To look at the flipside of that desaturation issue, the common thread I'd draw from these traits is that they make the viewer look, instead of allowing him or her to merely see.

girish said...

Great, thoughtful points, David. Thank you.

First off, I should confess that I'm not clear what contemplative cinema really is! I'm simply guessing as I go along...

I'm proceeding on the assumption that it is the kind of cinema that does not perpetually hold us hostage to swift movement, carrying us along in its narrative flow from moment to moment without our being given time to reflect/meditate/contemplate at leisure both about what we see on screen and "the real world" those on-screen stimuli evoke....

In order to contemplate, one must be given time by the work to contemplate....

When one encounters an image, before one can devote oneself to contemplation, one has to apprehend the image: run our eyes all over it, make sense of its contents, see how those contents fit into the narrative thus far. After we have done that (and the "peak of the content curve" has been reached, so to speak), we now have surplus time left over, with which perhaps to contemplate....

The formal elements I listed above work in 2 ways: (1) Either to extend the amount of time given the viewer (e.g. long takes or slow camera movement, etc) or (2) To reduce the audiovisual stimuli to the viewer so that the image is simpler to apprehend at first glance. e.g. spareness of decor, desaturated color....

Again: I'm not exactly sure what CC is, just firing off shots in the dark here...

"Can contemplative cinema include more traditional films that include contemplative moments, that aren't so easily shoehorned into a checklist of stylistic decisions?"

My own take would be: absolutely....

btw, David, I haven't seen The Huntedyet but I ran across this great review of it by Dan Sallitt in the 24 fps archives...It really made me want to see the film.

girish said...

David -- To me, a great example of contemplative cinema would be the scene in the car in The Outlaw Son when you play the entire song from beginning to end. It is by no means the only contemplative moment in the film (at all!) but because of its length (and thus, the time you gave us to permit this contemplation) the one I think of first...

HarryTuttle said...

David Lowery,
your joke analogy is a little awkward but it describes the phenomenon well. These films are testing our tolerance to boredom and ultimately offer a reward of illumination in the end, in retrospect. But it's no different from meditation, watching paint dry in lotus position, until we can empty our mind of weight, interferences and worries. The experience of a contemplative film is an endurance process to cleanse our mind from the conditioning of Classic formulas. And it's not an easy task to stop reacting instinctively to long-learnt editing conventions. Only the length of these shots can leave behind our false expectations, to really be ready for something new. A cinema that doesn't functions on primal instincts but on meditative engagement. Unlike the dramatic tradition, the film-spectator relationship is not a tit-for-tat interaction, but a complete immersion that only reveal its importance if we accept to leave the logical mind and the immediate reward on the side. The contemplative film only provide a meditative moment, its meaning will have to work inside us long after the film ends, as we think about it more.

The color desaturation might not be a transversal rule that applies to all contemplative films, but we find it quite often, as a recurring device. I agree it would be difficult to define a group from photo direction alone.

HarryTuttle said...

Girish, your definition is pretty much what I had in mind.

I'm like you, I don't know what defines "contemplative cinema" exactly, and our discussions here, all the contributions, are helping to figure this all out. I thought of including as much films at first to make sure most readers could find an example they know, for personal reference. But now we should start sifting the examples only to keep the ones that are not problematic, the ones that are self-explainatory, evidently represenative of the trend. And like weepingsam suggested, defining sub-categories to group like-minded filmmakers would make things clearer for everybody, don't you think?

I'm all for studying the contemplation in narrative films, but including too many films disparate in style, is what confuses the definition we are trying to establish here. The core purpose of The Hunted is not "contemplation" even if it is part of its devices. It is primarily a narrative film. The contemplation is unsignificant if we compare to Bartas' Seven Invisible Men, which is a long uneventful journey of criminals on the run without the police chase or the dramatic cues. What is developped in the film is not the classic hunter-hunted tension (will they be caught???) but the anxiety of being an outlaw mistrusting everyone and avoiding contact with the public.

The Outlaw Son, however is definitely a contemplative film, like I told David already.

David Lowery said...

I think I always get a bit claustrophobic when definition are distilled past a certain point! Where I got off the track was in looking at contemplative cinema as an element, rather than a genre unto itself. It's inclusive of both, of course, but a traditional film with contemplative moments utilizes contemplation for ulterior (narrative) purposes, as opposed to letting it be the modus operandi.

Paul Martin said...

I'm reading this thread with interest, though I think I come to it from a different direction to some of the previous posts. I don't have a cinema studies or film-making background.

I'm also a little unclear as to what constitutes 'comtemplative cinema', but appreciate films that may use some of the afore-mentioned devices. Old Joy and Iklimer (Climates) are both narratives that employ contemplative devices. The opening scene of Climates is a good example.

David Lynch's films would not fit into the definitions of contemplative cinema, yet it is his use of some of those devices that I find fascinating about his work. On the one hand we can have a wild soundtrack and action, yet there are long contemplative moments where we are left to wonder. For example Lost Highway: the scenes with Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette in the darkened rooms of their house. Pullman dragging slowly on a cigarette. It really tests the audience to get into what Matt Riviera calls 'the zone'.

I don't know if these examples are outside what you're looking to explore.

HarryTuttle said...

I know, putting art into little boxes makes some people uncomfortable (not me though, I don't think it has any impact on art itself to put labels or not), but the purpose of this blogathon was to figure whether certain films could be part of the same family and if such family exists. We need some sort of a Leitmus test to at least know we talk about the same films. This trend doesn't claim the monopoly on the word "contemplative", it's just a convenient term often used in reference to them.

HarryTuttle said...

To avoid confusing people, the Roundtable #2 was there to discuss contemplation in genre films, narrative films which are not part of the trend we define here.
I don't mind the cross-genre comparisons, because I have a pretty good idea of what is "Contemplative Cinema", but I'm afraid I'm the only one who knows here...
So keeping narrative genre on one side (even Lynch, Tati, Bresson, Mizogushi) to focus on definite recent plot-less atmospherical films (Tarr, Tsai, Dumont, Reygadas, Weerasethakul, Bartas) would hopefully make things less arguable.
We should start naming contemplation sub-families to know what we're talking about when you mention a film.
I'll try to post a summary of what we've got so far.

Marina said...

I thought I knew, at least roughly, what was meant by CC, but now as things get more and more vague, I only suspect...

There was a nice article (in the Reference section), exploring what is called pan-Asian style or Asian Minimalism, elsewhere. It focuses on three directors - Tsai, Hou and Hong, respectively, and to what extent they've shaped this new tendency. It proposes Hou as a "founder" and a period of this foundation between 1984 and 1993, just a year before we assumed something was happening with CC through Tsai. And since, these three directors are truly closest to each other and to what was originally named contemplative cinema, we could go back from there and set their style as a form of initial standard - something akin or equal to Girish's aesthetic characteristics. That is, of course, if we assume that CC is a compound noun of a cinematic wave, rather than an adjective, describing similarities in film, as was decided somewhere earlier in the boards.

It's also interesting to note that Taiwan, China, Korea and Japan are countries that have continuously interwined with each other in history, Japan ruling over Taiwan and Korea and vice versa. Thus, Chinese and Jpanese culture has been a great factor in forming Taiwan culture and cinema, in particular (since film in Japan has a more distinctive history and style, naturally it will play a bigger role). Until the 90s, there was also the Japanese modernisation, still having an impact on the other neighbour countries. Films from Hong Kong, Japan, China, India would be screened in Taiwan and then those films would be spread back all over again. In this way a some sort of inner-Asian cinematic circulation had been functioning.

But most interesting of all is this Asian (and particularly Japanese) minimalism that can be traced back to filmmakers like Ozu or literature genres like haiku. There's a nice quote from Todor Andreikov's "History of Cinema", concerning the impact of Japanese religion and culture on the formation of this style (my translation, don't be scared!):

The most ancient religious-philosophical and cult system in Japan is shintoism ("Shinto" - "path of the spirits"), which includes the inherent of primitive beliefs animism, totemism, magic, cult of the dead. Characteristic of shintoism is the spiritualizing of all nature phenomena - up to plants inclusive. [...] shintoism marks forever and defines such essential specialities of the Japanese culture and art as the exceptionally keen sense of nature, contemplation, static character and outer idleness, but also the promotion of proportionality and harmony in cult.
In cinema this conception is expressed in the decidedly predomination of the wide shot in Japanese films and the rare use of close-ups.
The notorious Japanese film historian Akira Iwasaki defines Western cinema as a "style of the close-up", and the Japanese - "style of the wide shot", and concludes: For the style of the Western cinema is characteristic an interest in the man. Towards space, towards nature, surrounding man, as a rule the attitude is indifference, excluding a few special cases. Reversely, Japanese people want to see man, surrounded by nature, as frequently as they can.

It's still interesting to trace the development of this Asian minimalism in the other arts too. I'm trying to now, and when I end up with anything particular, I'll post it.

weepingsam said...

A couple notes: First - reading the recent comments, I think I'm coming to the position that "contemplative cinema" is better defined in terms of the response it gets - or tries to get - than the means it uses to get it. Except to talk about inspiring contemplation, you have to talk about the formal and aesthetic devices used... devices that can have different functions. I don't know if that makes it harder or easier to talk about, though.

And: I think Marina's comments about Asian cinema are part of what I was getting at talking about Dovshenko, Tarkovsky, Tarr - I think it's easier to find clumps of films sharing history, influence, as well as style and tone, than to find a shared style or tone or history to a general idea like "contemplative cinema".

HarryTuttle said...

Great analysis Marina! This comparison with Zen (or Yoga, as cineboy suggested) could bring interesting ideas, notably to consider film viewing in terms of meditative connection with the screen (instead of the hypnosis of dreamwork), and a certain rigor and purity of style. I like it.

"Reversely, Japanese people want to see man, surrounded by nature, as frequently as they can." That's the new paradigm CC intends to approach, by breaking off with the Western conventions established early in cinema history. That's why CC is so different from the rest. Wide shots and environment gives a radicaly different vision on storytelling, and it allows to show something mainstream films never show, the context (spatial and temporal), the downbeat, the back street, the unspectacular dailylife, because the enlightment is in the least moments, in the communion with the environment.

About origins, we can link (vertical) today's auteurs with earlier masters, and I did already (it's interesting to know where they come from), but I think what's most interesting is to establish an horizontal bond between filmmakers who work today. Tsai and Reygadas have more in common than Hou and Ozu. The cross-culture mimetism is more direct today, than through the distinct steps of historical generations. Ozu, Bresson, Antonioni belong to another era, because of their specific political and aesthetic context. Now it seems, and this is my hunch, that the horizontal influence (or simultaneous inspiration without copying eachother) is more prevalent outside borders.
To make a silent, slow and bleak cinema today goes against the evolution of the cinema technology from silent to speaky, the evolution of attention span from patient to speedy, the evolution of society from serious to spectacular. So there is no historical logic to the emergence of CC today.
I don't think the history of boring artfilms has always been this much minimalistic. Bergman was "boring" but not "empty", it was full of dialogs, action and drama.

So if weepingsam tracks back to Russian history and Marina to Japanese history, we could assume CC as reconciled the East and the West, unless Tarr and Tsai can't be compared on any level.