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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Tentative genealogy

Tentative CC genealogy overview

The list of films on the chronology page is getting very large, assembling more "contemplative" work than I imagined. Yet I don't think these represent the entire artfilm niche. We are still talking about the slower and most minimalistic end of the non-mainstream spectrum.

Now I needed to refine this disparate family in the hope to find sub-groups with more coherent characteristics. I know some people can't stand labels and typologies. But it helped me to put in order the various speculations of our blogathon with clarity, and made me reconsider the auteurs I originaly wanted to associate.

This schematical chart (updated, old one here) maps the territories of "Contemplative Cinema" through its evolutive generations and sorted horizontaly on the dramaturgy axis (from reality to fantasy). I don't know if my repartition is accurate (correction/addition welcome), but at least it materializes the distinction I make between the older generation (Transcendental Style and Modernity) and today's auteurs who shifted away from the tradition of literary narrative structure (dialog, plot arc, demonstration), towards less plot, less words, less fiction.

The horizontal spectrum of dramatic structure (B to F), between documentary (A : zero fiction, the Lumière tradition) and fantasy (G : zero reality, the Méliès tradition), is gradualy modified by the accumulation/deprivation of filmic language elements in vertical columns (see top of the chart) :

  • I : Diegetic universe (Real world unless it is Sci-Fi or dreams), which is divided by ...
  • II : Versimilitude (attempt of recreating credible situations unless it is stylized for abstraction or caricature purpose), which is divided by ...
  • III : Dialogue (Silence, laconical or speechy), which is divided by ...
  • IV : Protagonist (real people, or fictitious character), which is divided by ...
  • V : Direction (either Life creates the action or the auteur does)

This way we can trace back the filiation of today's "contemplative" auteurs according to the characteristics of their cinematic language.

For instance, the mainstream tradition would be part of the E column, and certain classic genre verge on the F column when dramatization is excessive. So what I'm saying is that the "contemplative" precursors remained true to the classic tradition, in comforming (more or less) with the dramatic structure of a scripted dialogs inherited from literature and theatre.

The innovation developped by the recent generations was to (re)conquer the territories towards less dramatization, less escapism (bigger-than-life), less words, less sophisticated acting, and more non-actors, more silence, more real-life uneventfulness.

This allow me to split the list of today's "contemplative" filmmakers between the true mnimalists (B, C, D) and the dramatic/stylized narrators (E, F, G).

So in my opinion the likes of Wong Kar-wai, Kiarostami, Kaurismaki, Sokurov rely on words and basic dramatic structures to install their narration, while the most contemplative auteurs today depart from the tradition and really explore new territories requiring the invention of a new visual language : the likes of Bela Tarr, Tsai and Costa. Not to mention silent documentaries.

I hope my schemas looks clear and will foster discussions. Any reactions?

[EDIT] updated map (11-26-2007)


Marina said...

Incredible work, Harry!

I recently saw Dumont's Flandres, knowing it is considered to be contemplative (from the genealogy list) as well as Dumont as a whole, though I haven't seen anything else by him. However, there was something different than what is observed in, say, Tsai or Hou, or Hong (of Tarr I've seen bits and nothing of Costa). The camera wasn't always static, but it was as if following the actors. Waiting for them to appear in its space. There were less images of pure person-less landscapes and they were almost always a reflexion or reference to the actors' point of view/ vision. Also, when the movements of the actor started to quicken, the camera quickened, too; when the actor was static or slow, it projected on the rhythm of the camera. This gave me an impression of the actor (as an object of investigation) being more important than the image, of his presence in the frame being essential.

Can something similar be spotted in his other films?

HarryTuttle said...

Thank you Marina. :)
That's an interesting comment.

Actually this "genealogy" is not a stylistic map (I agree that the auteurs ending up in the same subgroup have very personal/distinct style), but more like a repartition of basic domains in cinema grammar (the constitution of their universe, WHAT they film, their subject, not HOW). On this map I tried to figure what kind of characters they film, in what kind of settings, and whether the characters are talking a lot of not.
It's one way of looking at it, so this division of "contemplative" filmmakers could be rearranged differently.

I've only seen Flandres and L'Humanité. Flandres is a little disappointing but Dumont's challenging vision is really interesting to engage with (even if it can be uncomfortable).
Are you saying you prefer the "asian school"?

I'd need to rewatch L'Humanité to comment on the camerawork (which I don't remember specificaly). But you're right, the world vision is not the same as these asian directors you mention. Although I would say Tsai is probably the closer to Dumont, with this cold distance to the characters (as you see, I didn't put HHH/Hong in the Tsai/Dumont column).
Dumont is inspired by the fragmentation of Bresson, but doesn't stylize his characters as much, his characters look like real people, and events are banal/mundane without/against any moralization, while Bresson's events are (usually) out-of-the-ordinary, and dramatized/abstracted/transcended to give a moral undertone. (well that's my perception of their differences)

So you say that the war part in Flandres is faster than the part back home in France? Interesting. We should try to differentiate auteurs in function of their camerawork now.

adrian chan said...

interesting comments on the camera work -- Tarr has several ways of using camera to control motion/movement and time. Tracking a moving actor actually eliminates the distance from movement, resulting in a kind of still image of motion (e.g. two actors walking, shot directly alongside, will appear to be on a treadmill). As a still he removes the "action" and instead we contemplate their determination, or silence, or the time it seems to take; or we contemplate our own physicality and wonder at how long the shot might continue! He has camera moves that rise above a scene, as if to create a transcendental reflection, a crane or steadicam move that's deliberately removes us from the scene, but not in order to now leave it; in order to dwell for a while. He has very slow tracking and zoom shots, as did Nyquist/Tarkovsky, Sokurov, that represent the smallest possible camera move to create time in a still shot. When the subject is fixed, this move is a proximity move, it brings us closer; when there is a small bit of action on the screen, the move keeps us enrolled. So in the former it's a subjective move, in the latter its an objective move. There are plenty more I'm sure.
All these film-makers need new ways of creating time in the image and in the shot: time as fast, slow, urgent, plodding, waiting, melancholic... Time is rhythm, is visible only in rhythmic movements and repetitions. Which is why we have a lot of clickety clack sounds (they're metronomes, heart beats). Since these are films in which action is de-emphasized and the image, the seeing, the waiting, the listening, etc are means of telling, and because they create time within the shot in place of cuts/montage/edits, camera moves are a means of regulating the film's time. The only way, then, to shoot two guys walking, and to keep it slow, is to track their heads from the side, remove their legs, their feet, the sidewalk, and give us instead a rhythmic still.
Harry I think the map could make a great heuristic device, a way of finding our way to the films. But i dont think CC is in the film, it's in the viewer's contemplation, and the languages used are more than just a departure from straight action/narrative film. It's not just less is more, they have created a languge out of "less," so that it's not less as a pause, a moment, or a period; it's no longer less at all, because so much more is happening in the viewer's perception and mind. I think perhaps that by working in "less" the viewer becomes an active viewer. Rather than just reacting to action, we become involved with inaction. Given less to react to, we can act, in an affective thinking with the film... Just my thoughts on it!

cineboy said...

Harry, this a rather wonderful achievement. I don't have much to say here except that I plan on examining your geneology in more detail. I assume this is a work in progress and will change over time? If so, I hope this blogathon has been helpful.

HarryTuttle said...

Thanks Adrian Chan,
I like your description of time in the camerawork. Certainly a stylistic map would issue a different genealogy. But maybe it's more difficult to establish precisely as there are so many components.
The rhythm-time-camera association, which was also an idea developped by cineboy and Johanna at PilgrimAkimbo (around the viewer-film relationship) is an interesting path to explore.

I understand what you say about "less is more" and the greater participation of the viewer, although I wouldn't present it in term of "activity". It's not so much a complementary action, but a freedom of imagination. We don't have to fill in the gaps, to solve a mystery. I like these films to remain vague and unresolved.
Continuing what was discussed in the Purpose and Style post, I think more and more that CC should be considered in ironic terms, rather than a positivation of the lacks. I believe these films affirm their minimalism as a philosophy of emptyness, poverty, absence, shortage (of meaning, of content, of moral, of psychology, or drama...). They don't try to compensate with a clever subtext, transcendental spirituality and grand reflexions on the world. What is valuable in this "contempaltion" is precisely to re-discover the satisfaction with little. A zen attitude.

Thanks cineboy,
This is defintely a work in progress. Actually I already want to tweak a few things... Though it is not a thesis. ;)
Shouldn't De Sica be in the "laconical" column (D), Ozu makes more speechy films than Umberto D. or The Bicycle Thief. Jansco could be in (D) also I guess. Sokurov needs a mention in the C column too, not all his films are stylized.

Zach Campbell said...

This is an excellent resource, Harry, really an interesting way of categorizing things. I don't have anything else to say to that yet, really.

The one bad thing is that I feel my own follow-up contemplative cinema blog entry (which also deals with genealogy and history) needs major revision in light of this--and now I don't know when I'll be able to finish it for sure!

adrian chan said...

This comment thread would make an interesting post.
You caught me with your suggestion that we not be positivistic about the filmic elements used in CC (our term, after all; and a term many of our film-makers may not agree with!)... In Ozu, no doubt, CC is zen. Tarr is a bit more wily, but I think he's a painter of sorts. Very involved in his films, and in some ways his minimalism is a result of inadequate budgets! Tarkovsky it's spiritual and that's well-documented in books and interviews.
I'm in general opposed to analogical thinking, so for me what the artist does at the filmic level has to have its own reasons. They may be different from the viewer's reasons for enjoying the film, but the zen master works very hard to sit still. It's easier to film people running about than it is to make them interesting in the seated position. I don't think CC is an ironic style: or if it is, isnt the film-maker serious about it nonetheless? And doesnt this mean something? I can see irony in some Fellini perhaps, in a lyrical or poetic form. Pasolini, more so, but he was known for his lyrical project. CC? I dont know.... Contemplation and irony dont fit together, for me...
We may not disagree. Some people think of some pop music as "parodisical," "satirical". I've had this debate about Beck. I dont think music can do parody. We disagree violently and then order another drink.

Michael Kerpan said...

Of course, Ozu himself spoke quite dismissively of those who tried to pigeonhole as "zen or something". Using Schrader as a starting point for understanding Ozu is like deciding to run a race in the opposite direction from the other runners. Every step one takes leads one father from success.

HarryTuttle said...

Thank you Zach. I'd really like to know what you think of this (arbitrary) categorization. Please don't change anything to your post because of my speculative genealogy, I think it's more interesting to confront various perspectives. The blogathon ends with January, but later developments will resurect this blog hopefully.

I assume an auteurist position so my preference in this trend goes to the auteur's intention and the film construction, not so much the audience's response (not to say this angle isn't worthwhile). To me the zen master is the auteur creating a zen piece. Maybe to others the zen master is the viewer, and the film is the temple.
What I meant was the choice to go "minimalist" today (which is a little backward in the history of cinema, return to the roots) is ironic, not necessarily a spiritual quest (like it was for the Transcendental Style, or Bergman, Tarkovsky, Wenders...). But I agree with you they are serious about it. It's a cultural irony, not a (comical) satire.
So I don't think there is a grand meaning in this "contemplation" today. It's a contemplation of boredom (from inactivity), rather than a certain ascetism designed to elevate the soul (religion or philosophy). Contemporean CC is mundane, and its philosophy is mundane too. They tell us stories about everyday people, about everyday life (much like Neo-Realism), and do so through a delicate attention to unsignificant details. The poetry is in the observation of emptyness for itself, to understand beauty is in the absence of signification, the absence of action, the absence of words. I believe the meaning is in the facts depicted themselves, the reality, people, things, nature, without symbolism.
What is the meaning of Tsai's Goodbye Dragon Inn? What we see, is what we get. I don't think there is a complex/spiritual symbolism in there. It's about the death of a movie house, of a certain era, as shown through its characters.

We can say all we want to justify slowness and boredom, but all in all, we can't ignore the irony of such cinema in contrast with everything else made around. For instance when Tsai (The Wayward Cloud) or Reygadas (Battle in Heaven) add porn to their contemplation there is a lot of irony : clash between action (excitment) and passivity (apathy).
So matter-of-fact (face-value) significance and (deap-pan) irony are angles I'd like to explore further.

HarryTuttle said...

I understand that Michael, like Adrian says, the auteurs we talk about here might very well disagree about being called "contemplative" or even put in the same box with another auteur they don't like... But criticism is not meant to give a representation of reality (or the auteur's reality, which is not necessarily the most correct one), this kind of work here propose a framework to read the films from a new perspective. It's one potential perspective (and still speculative at this point), not the only one.

Marina said...

I believe the meaning is in the facts depicted themselves, the reality, people, things, nature, without symbolism.

Harry, what an irony, the same happened in Bulgarian post-war poetry - Atanas Dalchev, for example, created his lyrics out of "dead" objects: a room, a door, a mirror, a street (that's how they're called: "The Room", "The Door", etc.), in his poetry there's almost no human presence, but in some, it is suggested by the memory, locked in the objects - and these poets were called "symbolists"!
That poetry destroyed everything created before the war: the perfect rhythm (indeed pre-war poets accomplished a high proficiency in rhyming), the lirical choice of words (with the "symbolists" every word was allowed, nomatter how inadequate), the lirical structure of the poems (poetry slowly shaded into prose) and so on. It was a full and merciless transition, obtaining inspiration from the everyday, mundane experience.

A similar deconstruction of the cinematic form is present in CC, again drawing thematic basis out of the ordinary. With the "symbolists", and Dalchev in particular, the poem is perceived visually and sensually: the described objects provoke images and the dry verse distants us from them, as if we observe from the stretch of a memory.
In CC, the visual is predominant, the purely visual: the photographic image without the aid of the forth dimension (time). And how the director will manipulate that image through time creates the rhythm of contemplation.

The only way, then, to shoot two guys walking, and to keep it slow, is to track their heads from the side, remove their legs, their feet, the sidewalk, and give us instead a rhythmic still.

Adrian, fantastic observations!
It's really intrigueing to what extent can the event of action be removed from the shot by excluding the source of the action. Can the viewer perceive the movement, without seeing it, through indirect signs? But if the director excludes the feet, sidewalk, etc, doesn't the movement transfer into the "circulation" of the disbalanced breathing, the wandering look? The movement then becomes more subtle, blunt.

So you say that the war part in Flandres is faster than the part back home in France?

To some extent... In the war part, there were some quite slow moments, though not as prevalent as in the part back home, where, on the other hand, the camera sometimes dashed after a running character (the girl, racing through the forest).

Yeah, I think I prefer more the "Asian school". :)

HarryTuttle said...

I made a few changes to the map picture above.

Paul Martin said...

I think an evolving chart like this is very helpful to conceptualise things for certain brain types (like my own). A picture paints a thousand words. It reminds me of the similarly fascinating genealogy tables that were presented in the documentary, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (Sam Dunn & Scott McFadyen, 2005).

Paul Martin said...

Harry, what have you created the image in originally? Excel? It'd be interesting to get a soft copy of the source document (not just the jpg).

HarryTuttle said...

Hi Paul,
What were these tables in that documentary? I haven't seen it.

Unfortunately I did it quickly by hand on a paint board. I wish I had used Photoshop layers. I'm not familiar with Excel, I wouldn't know how to do something like this. Do you know how?

There are more changes to update, and to discuss together. Although the visualisation of this table helped me to figure how more diverse were these filmmakers than I originally thought. There are more sub families within the general "spirit" of contemplative cinema, well at least under the formal categories I've defined there around versimilitude.