Unspoken Cinema 2012 banner

Monday, January 14, 2008

Romney on the Contemplative trend

(This is a great article recommended by Celinejulie)

Are You Sitting Comfortably?
by Jonathan Romney, The Guardian (October 7, 2000).

Here are some highlights regarding CCC :
"The film in question was Satantango, made in 1994 by the Hungarian director Bela Tarr, and something of a legend among aficionados of painstakingly slow European art cinema. A film that long and that sombre is not likely to become an international art-house hit along the lines of Jean de Florette, or even to find a comfortable slot on the festival circuit. But Tarr's film has a reputation as something more than a lugubrious oddity of monstrous proportions - it is a powerful, visionary piece of cinema that creates its own stark world and keeps the viewer compellingly locked in for its duration.
(...) his most recent film Werckmeister Harmonies recently caused a stir at the Edinburgh Film Festival, where viewers received it as a genuine cinematic UFO. Filmed in Tarr's characteristic slow, analytically prowling shots, Werckmeister Harmonies is set in a desolate rural settlement where a violent communal madness is sparked by the arrival of a bizarre fairground attraction - the preserved body of a huge whale."
I've posted this snippet in the roundtable on CCC synopsis, as an exemple of a review that feels obliged to apologize to the reader/audience for the potential negative aspects of a contemplative film.
"Tarr is one of the film-makers named by Susan Sontag - in an article published in the Guardian in 1996 - as offering some hope for the continuation of cinema. Sontag was lamenting the death of cinephilia, the attitude that treats cinema as an exceptional art form, "quintessentially modern; distinctively accessible; poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral - all at the same time." In the 90s, Sontag argued, cinema had gone into "ignominious, irreversible decline", and great films would no longer be merely exceptions, but "heroic violations" of the norm."
Anybody has a version of the full Sontag article?
The "death of cinephilia" is another can of worms, but she mentions the problematic reference to the "mainstream norm", just like Rosenbaum and Durgnat argued in the roundtable mentionned last month on this blog (Non-narrative film criticism).
"This may not hold true in all parts of the world - film language seems constantly to reinvent itself in Iran, and in the work of Asian directors such as Taiwan's Tsai Ming-Liang and Korea's Hong Sang-Soo. But Tarr is one of a very few European directors determined to work outside mainstream forms, and who still believe in cinema's potential to transform the viewer. These film-makers are not out to convey obvious messages, and in these pragmatic days, they risk coming across like mystics. But the keynote of their work is not woolly transcendentalism, but intrepid and rigorous formal invention."
I'm happy to see he cites the same auteurs we are grouping here at Unspoken Cinema, under the banner of CCC. :)
The antecedents of such cinema are the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky, the almost forgotten Hungarian master Miklos Jansco, the German Expressionist cinema of the 20s, or the work of 70s German directors, especially Werner Herzog. This school of cinema refuses to spoon-feed us with ready-made experiences or easily recognisable beauty: the beauty in these films is easily mistaken for the ugly or drab. That would certainly account for the impatient, almost offended drubbing that British critics last week gave to Abendland, by the young German director Fred Kelemen - another of Sontag's favoured few, and a former student of Tarr's. "Bela and I share the same vision of cinema," Kelemen says. "We believe in time and not in speed - atmospheres and situations rather than stories."
... and the same precursors (see tentative genealogy here). So we're getting somewhere maybe. He emphasises like we do the opposition of this trend with "spoon-fed narrativity"!
"We believe in time and not in speed - atmospheres and situations rather than stories." This is exactly what we are talking about.
I've never heard of Fred Kelemen before though. Anyone here has seen his films?
Fred Kelemen (Frost, 1997) : "We are on a journey, very simply. We're born, we die and in between we have to make our way, and there's no way to stop. Even if you sit in your room and do nothing, time is passing and something is happening - which is a very big adventure."
Celinejulie cited this excerpt, and it echoes perfectly what Adrian Martin develops in his celebration of walking.
"Kelemen and Tarr may inhabit the absolute margins of European cinema but they are by no means alone. The science of long takes and landscape tableaux - as if the screen were a huge map to be unfolded - still flourishes in the work of Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, who has been refining his art of geographically spectacular slowness since the 70s. In Russia, Aleksandr Sokurov's pictorial finesse unequivocally follows Tarkovsky's mystical tradition: his muted, enigmatic miniature Mother and Son was a cult art-house success (although for my money, his follow-up Moloch, a chilly, anaesthetised political cartoon about Hitler's home life, is far more interesting).

Other pensive outsiders who fit the mould are the truly marginal Portuguese. For example, there is Pedro Costa, whose Lisbon junkie drama Ossos is one of the great overlooked films of the 90s. And surely the most waywardly unpredictable European auteur, bar none, is Joao Cesar Monteiro, who appears as his own roué-philosopher anti-hero in such demented, leisurely rambles as God's Comedy and The Hips of JW (about a mission to find John Wayne at the North Pole). It goes without saying that this cinema is very much prey to the vagaries of personal taste. It is possible to believe passionately in the virtues of slowness, alienation, the creation of a dream-like, hermetic reality - and still not be able to swallow the self-importance of a film like Bruno Dumont's L'Humanité, which would seem to fulfil all those criteria.

Kelemen admits that in the kind of cinema he practices, "it's always a question of openness, of state of mind, whether one enters into it or not - it can even depend on the day you see it." That is why many of these films are like messages in bottles, thrown into the ocean in the hope that the right viewer will see them in the right frame of mind. You could call it Castaway Cinema, and one of its most heroically strange castaways is globetrotting Lithuanian director Sharunas Bartas. Bartas's films include Few of Us, about a young woman's unexplained mission to Mongolia, and the baroque The House, in which a crowd of outcasts stage enigmatic indoor tableaux.

These poetic and exceptionally mysterious pieces are closer to art video than narrative cinema. His latest film Freedom, featured in the forthcoming London Film Festival, is again a wordless affair, of figures in a North African landscape and events replaced by images - crabs falling out of a bag, sand blowing across arid plains. One of the few British screenings of Bartas' work was provided by Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen, who pro grammed it in a recent season at the ICA. "It's almost like having a conversation with someone," McQueen says. "It's in real time, it takes a long time to finish a sentence, but you go through the whole process, and there's this result, the pay-off, and you think - yes!"

The work of these rare, rejected but vital castaway directors can't easily be defined in terms of where it comes from, how it is made, or even how slow it is. That would account for the challenge, and the unusual rewards, of this very subjective cinema, a cinema that practically psychoanalyses you - and if you're lucky, cures you of your Hollywood-induced traumas."
"Landscape tableaux", "a huge map to be unfolded", "art of geographically spectacular slowness", "pictorial finesse", "muted, enigmatic miniature", "enigmatic indoor tableaux", "wordless affair", "events replaced by images"... these are inspirational phrases for a (positivist) contemplative film criticism.
He even defines this trend by "the virtues of slowness, alienation, the creation of a dream-like, hermetic reality"!

And the name he proposes is "Castaway Cinema", what do you think?


HarryTuttle said...

Well celinejulie already answered my question about Fred Kelemen. Here is a post on Kelemen's Frost.

celinejulie said...

I don’t have the Sontag article in The Guardian. But in Fred Kelemen’s website, there is a Susan Sontag’s article, printed in New York Times in 1996, called THE DECAY OF CINEMA. The version appeared in New York Times doesn’t mention Bela Tarr.

You can read THE DECAY OF CINEMA from the link below:


In Chicago Reader in 1996, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote about Susan Sontag’s article. From what Rosenbaum wrote, it seems to me that Sontag wrote about Tarr, but his name was omitted when the article was printed in New York Times.

This is what Rosenbaum wrote:

“Tarr is mentioned twice in Susan Sontag's provocative, passionate essay about the decline and dissolution of cinephilia printed earlier this year in various publications around the globe, both times in contexts that make it clear she regards him as one of the few important filmmakers in the world. But when the New York Times Magazine printed the essay in its February 25 issue, both references were omitted, along with allusions to other directors (Theo Angelopoulos, Miklos Jancso, Alexander Kluge, Nanni Moretti, Krzysztof Zanussi) who have not curried much favor in recent years with New York Times reviewers or U.S. distributors.”

You can read Rosenbaum’s article from the link below:


HarryTuttle said...

Thanks for the helpful links. I remembered about the "Death of Cinema" essay but I wasn't sure if it was the same excerpt they referred to.