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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Atkinson on minimalism

Michael Atkinson's introduction to his piece on The Forsaken Land (2005/Vimukthi Jayasundara) DVD, on the IFC blog (9-16-2008) :

Ah, minimalism, the miserable hairshirt pajamas so many critics still love to put on in the semi-privacy of their vocations, ostensibly separating them from the herd of passive filmgoers like enlightened monks separated from the peasantry -- or, at least, so it may seem to the mainstream, who have been trained from the cradle to desire only distraction, and for whom a movie that deliberately fails to deliver narrative excitement is akin to water torture. Honestly, both are fair and comprehensible positions, and if you can decry the ignorant impatience of the many viewers intolerant of the new movie by Jia Zhangke or Pedro Costa or Tsai Ming-liang, you could also legitimately wonder when and where art film asecticism steps over the border into pretentious tedium. (Just because it's not a terribly commercial gambit doesn't mean it can't be overexploited by filmmakers -- take Costa's "Colossal Youth," please.)

Everyone has to draw their own line, naturally, even if, let's face it, minimalist art film, done insightfully, rewards attentive viewing with transformative experience in ways cluttered, noisy, manipulative narrative films can't.

23 comments:

Edwin Mak said...

I for one, second his opinion on Colossal Youth, and 'overexploitation' (of minimalism) seems an appropriate description. Or even 'water torture' for that matter.

HarryTuttle said...

Really? There are a few films that I believe hurt the spirit of minimalist films by making a hollow parody of CCC, with only a formal copycat (let's leave out all dialogue, move slowly with long takes and use non actors) that don't know what they are doing with it. But Colossal Youth is not one of them, according to me. Costa doesn't go for strict realism, his mise en scène is clearly abstracted and intentionally "frozen", but how is that overexploitation?

To me, Albert Serra is one who navigates in dangerous waters, borderline caricatural of this trend and of himself. I don't really like his achievements (for my taste), but I can still see the point of his work. Though I could understand how the audience would feel appalled by a "pretentious" mise en scène. Part of me wants such filmmakers to keep experimenting this aspect of cinema though.
In the city of Sylvia is also a bit caricatural...

Edwin Mak said...

In response to your question, I believe Costa took minimalism too close to a weird sort of drab-Brechtianism. In evidence; actually, being flaunted, was an overbearing usage of so many of the ascetic formalisms (and I mean he really raided the stock cupboard) associated with minimalism. It was here that I found Colossal Youth over-exploitative, it seemed that what he cared more for was the method of his expression rather than any sincerity for its subject. The window-as-shadow-of-coffin sequence at the new flats indicated this type of fetishisation for me best. And in this regard, I find Atkinson's metaphor of 'miserable hairshirt pajamas' quite apt; not to mention funny. Perhaps, Costa found the pajamas, still, unfit for the sheer seriousness of his artistic ambition? Instead, that Colossal Youth carves out a path toward a truer ascetic plateau, that through a cinema of self-flagellation; dipping himself and his cast into a vat of tar and proceeding to roll atop a haystack of thorns – to an audience solely of critics. I appreciate, inevitably, discussions of this sort will lead only to the small matter of taste, but in this case I find mine in agreement with Atkinson.

HarryTuttle said...

The "miserable hairshirt pajamas" is not a metaphore that translates well in French so it doesn't inspire me much, though I understand it's intended to be pejorative, right?

So what is inherently wrong with Brechtian cinema?

Serra goes a step deeper in this ascetic formalism, since he removes instant motivation for the behaviour we see on screen. While Costa still nurtures the characters with emotional past, family background, existential preoccupations, even verbalised poetry. The stillness of Costa's characters are barely "credible" but we can make sense of it. Serra's characters are purely abstract and their indecision/wandering/apathy is seemingly unmotivated by anything we gather from the film.

Would you say Serra is less pretentious?

The only reservation to Costa's aesthetics I can see is if we expect "documentary realism", then we are disappointed by the lower-than-life lifeless beings. But there is a conceptual poetry delivered elsewhere, in the realism of the location, the realism of the non-actors playing themselves, the realism of the history.

How can you doubt the sincerity of the film, with people like Ventura and Vanda on screen? One doesn't even need sophisticated mise en scène with such characters, they are more genuine than any fictional characters.

Ascetism doesn't bother me in itself, neither does self-flagelation, "nihilism", misanthropy... I believe they are totally worthy subject for cinema examination.
I'm less bothered by the onscreen emptiness than by the absence of intentions in the auteur's aesthetics.
It took me a while to get into Colossal Youth, but it grew on me after a rather "painful" viewing. Serra still hasn't blown my mind in retrospect.

And the "ascetic formalism" of Straub-Huillet isn't far from our discussion. Who doesn't fit my "taste" either. But beyond the question of "taste" I don't think we can call either of them exploitative hacks.

Edwin Mak said...

Harry, your defense of Colossal Youth offers some fascinating co-ordinates, but I would want to stress again, that I pretend to know, and offer nothing beyond an opinion. That said, a few things I shall attempt to clarify:

Atkinson’s ‘pajamas’. His writing is quite witty, and the metaphor is weighted with irony, but I tend to think that it is not decidedly pejorative. Rather, that it is an ambiguous convenience. As an instantly recognisable style, it affords geniuses, as much those unworthy of such a plaudit, a cloak of familiar signifiers in which to smuggle their intentions (or pretensions) alike.

Brechtianisms. There is nothing inherently wrong with Brechtian cinema per se; what I alluded to about CY was, admittedly clumsily, that I found it half-hearted as an example of Brechtian technique, and in that sense took the form of merely a ‘drab-Brechtianism’. Perhaps, what I should have said is, Brechtianism in this context (which is appropriate since CY is clearly theatrically minded), reaches too easily for the pajamas. How often does Brechtian cinema actually succeed in its intent? Was not the purpose of the Verfremsdungeffekt to critique the context of a staged narrative or performance rather than to flatter itself? I, personally, felt that CY is guilty of the latter. To digress slightly, a similar criticism can potentially be made at Dennis Potter; the function of Brechtianism from his early to later works of which, marked a transition from powerful formalist critique to a regrettably, dubious self-parody.

Having not seen a single cell of Serra, I couldn’t possibly comment, from your description though, it sounds even further down the road to pajama purgatory. I gasp at the thought.

On the topic of character credibility, I found that Costa relied heavily on Vanda and Ventura for who they are. It was this that I also found dubious: is it not possible that his “real life destitutes” and “real destitute locations” were having their symbolic value extracted on one hand, in order to offset the pomposity paraded on the other? Does this not constitute a type of exploitation? Clearly, the film has its own passionate fans (including this high stamina audience at Cannes). But I am curious to know, how would the destitute (not featured in the film) react to the style in which their story was conveyed?

I must comment that it feels positive to question (and be questioned so rigorously!) the parameters of my own taste. It is the ethics of contemplative technique we are getting at here too, as much as taste. It seems that I prefer a minimalism that is in service more towards a wider accessibility of cinema, closer to the neorealist end of the scale: Hou Hsiao Hsien, Kaneto Shindo, early to mid-’90s Tsai Ming-Liang etc. but fully respect the impulse for exploring more esoteric stylisations of cinema, which is why in part I treasure Unspoken Cinema.

Continuing on the theme of the negative, and objectionable ethics, may I ask you and anyone else for your examples and why? What is it about your examples, delimited by your own tastes, indicate an objectionable usage of minimalism/contemplative technique?

HarryTuttle said...

I understand you express your taste, as do I. And you're right that this discussion is touching on the (subjective) validation of the CCC, or its mockery by its detractors. And of course we want to contemplate both sides of the debate on this blog. That's why I'm interested in figuring out, with your help, why you dislike this film. And you have the right to like a different set of CCC films than mine. I don't pretend my taste is more right than anyone else's.
It's by comparing our self-criticism of taste we get a chance to turn this "superficial trend" into something more meaningful. And one way is to spot the (alleged) bad apples or at least to understand the counter-arguments.

Lots to discuss there.

So this pajamas is getting old, but still feels comfortable, and our judgement is clouded by our affection for the nostalgia of the brand new pajamas it once was? Familiar but overrated. Something like that?

Brechtianism.
Well, I try to follow your train of thought there, but I wouldn't immediately associate Brecht with CCC, without further thinking. You criticize Costa for not doing justice to Brecht? But is it his point? Does he really claim that influence? (I honestly don't know).
So I never asked myself if CCC had to be Brechtian or not.
In any case, I'm guessing Colossal Youth is not stylised enough to be Brechtian. I don't think there is an "intellectual system" in this mise en scène. Though I could be wrong.
But the question you ask about theatricality is a problematic for CCC. I have hard time to reconciliate the extremes of CCC included on this blog. It spans so wide, from ultra-realism, to ultra-abstraction... that they can't belong to the same trend. That's why I need to isolate sub families, where their grouping are more meaningful.

I usually don't like theatricality in cinema ("cinéma impure"), and it contradicts the point of CCC to break off from the artificiality of "mainstream narrative". But this question remains open to debate. It's not obvious to me how easy it would be to rule out the theatricality of Matthew Barney, Roy Andersson, Aki Kaurismaki, Gus Van Sant, Tsai Ming-liang, Apichtapong Weerasethakul, Bruno Dumont... who rightly belong to this new contemplative perspective of the camera eye, and the film narrative.
Neorealism was motivated by a definite social content, but I'm not sure it is systematic in CCC filmmakers today. Some of them are. But they don't place it at the same level. And I don't think we could question the social concern of Costa's cinema, who films in low-tech conditions, immersed in the lives of destitute people, and letting them bring their own input. Though I admire him for keeping control of his own aesthetics, his own theoretical understanding of lighting, framing, composition, and a sense of stage presence (that his non-actors don't necessarily have naturally).

Serra. Well some CCC proponents around here are very much fond of his films, so I'm not counting it out just based on my subjective taste. I'm just sceptical.

On the topic of "real life destitutes", I feel it's a larger problem in cinema as a whole. Should films about destitutes, look destitute too? What is the appropriate aesthetics for poor people cinema? Why couldn't it be abstract, intellectual, or even pretentious?
Godard made movies about factory workers, for factory workers in his militant days... but are they the core of his fanbase?

e.g. Eisenstein's Potemkin. Isn't it formally "pretentious" and sometimes intellectually obtuse to the untrained eye? It's not the typical crowd-pleaser either, not the kind of film the navy men seen on the ship like to see. So we should divorce the analogy between the subjects on screen and their taste in real life (aversion to sophistication/formalism).

Edwin Mak said...

Thats an even broader scope of topics to discuss than before, but I only feel adequate responding to one set of questions at this moment.

You criticize Costa for not doing justice to Brecht? But is it his point? Does he really claim that influence?

I, felt, Costa had lapsed into a twisted version of Brechtianism, whether he intended it so or not. This will be a difference of opinion, since I did think that CY was extremely stylised (we can hardly consider it naturalistic can we?), and that an “intellectual system” was in operation.

But why I considered it so, was due to my viewing experience of the formalism involved. I felt there was a point in viewing it, where the stylised combination of screen time and lack of action exceeded conventional naturalism/neorealism, thereby alienating and distancing the narrative; enough for me consider the staging, the performance, the apparatus of Costa’s aesthetic as quasi-Brechtian. This happened not only in stasis, but also in action (or repetition), having heard Ventura recite his letter for the Nth time, I became suitably alienated from the film to be looking for an “intellectual system” to return to the narrative of the film. Perhaps this is why you have previously posited the notion of the ‘non-narrative’? This becomes an interesting idea, that conventionally this takes the form of a self-reflexive gesture (character addresses camera, camera turns around to reveal the crew etc.), but CY abstains from this ascetically. A non-reflexive reflexivity?

Perhaps I have thought too much about something that I should have just felt, like Bresson would have maintained?

What do you feel are the achievements of Colossal Youth?

weepingsam said...

(I thought I posted this last night: if this turns up twice - sorry!)

This is an interesting conversation - I might as ll throw my 2 cents in. I think Colossal Youth is an outstanding film. It is more aestheticized than Vanda’s Room (sticking to Costa), and more obviously "presentational" - it's a story being told. (I suppose that makes it more Brechtian.) Though VR was pretty stylized and formalized as well - all of Costa's films I’ve seen have been. And cinema-mad: loaded with links back to film history - Ford and Ozu and Godard and Lewton/Tourneur, etc. I don’t know how any of that could be bad: if Ozu, Godard or David Lynch get to raid the cupboard of film references, why not Costa?

CY itself seems to me to be an attempt to use the means - the places, people, the technology - of Vanda's Room, and make a different kind of movie. Costa's minimalism strikes me primarily as technical: he uses radically limited means - video cameras, sound, specific places and people, and works with them in specific ways. Vanda's Room came out looking fairly naturalistic - Colossal Youth is aimed at a more formalized, aestheticized type of film. More dreamlike, historical, symbolic, etc. Moving toward Lynch, maybe - or Lewton/Tourneur again. I thought it worked - it's beautiful, moving, fascinating to watch and think about.

HarryTuttle said...

Just to be clear, I would like to defend the merits of Colossal Youth as a film, but I agree that I share some of your reservations as far as a strict model for CCC. The speech is a core element in Costa's film and it's not really mundane speech. The lines are scripted and highly meaningful, not only Desnos' letter but the topics evoked for metaphorical purpose. So to me it is an "intellectual" movie, like Tarkovsky or Antonioni can be, a film intentionally spiritual and existentialist, in a conscious way. Because the auteur as well as his protagonists pounder on deep problems, intellectualize them, verbalize their identity crisis (a common trait of "Modernity cinema").
And this is something I feel CCC is not gearing towards, on the contrary. What I like about strict CCC is that they do not attempt to deliver a greater intellectual message, leaving life express itself, a mundane existentialism, without the theoretical discourse.
So in this sense Bretch is too symbolical and intellectually abstract to fit in.

This said, I still think Costa's abstraction is marginal in his cinema, or at least the formalism is mainly restricted to visual aesthetics. There is an aesthetical "system" in the framing if you will, some kind of deadpan stoicism for the actors (a little constrained by a rigid direction it seems) that doesn't feel natural. So it's definitely not "naturalism", or "neorealism" per se. It is formally stylized. But the film itself, as a whole, is much more "contemplative" than most everything else out there.

Now talking about its achievements will not necessarily be always related to CCC. If I want to defend it as (1) a CCC or as (2) a great film in general, I won't use the same arguments, and probably some will become a negative in the other appreciation.

1 - a good CCC
I just mentioned above the artificial aspects that are not representative of the CCC feel.
On the positive side, Vanda and Ventura zoning out in front of the TV, with the little baby girl improv is the essence of CCC right there, pure mundane life without dramatized mise-en-scene. The dinner scenes at Vanda's set up against a wall, with the camera in place of the 4th wall feels a little theatrical, these guys are acting for an audience, rather than actually being together, among themselves, around a meal. And this could be said of many scenes where characters talk to eachother without facing eachother. But it's a formalism easily overlooked by the presence of non-actors and the genuine location I think.
The pace of the film itself is also a definite trait of CCC, not bothered by dramatic cues and moving forward with a drama. Things move at their rhythm and events take place in due time, not on cue (like in dramatized melodrama).

2 - a great cinema in general
I wasn't bothered by the repetition of the letter, it feels a bit heavy-handed because of the awkwardness of the non-actors sometimes, but it fits quite well in the obsession of the characters (one as a paternal/magisterial figure, the other as a dependent illiterate). And what's interesting is that in a film of few words, Costa uses this recitation as a narrative marker for the audience. We are effectively learning to remember this letter with the onscreen character, because we don't have anything to write it down in the darkness of the theatre. And each "rehearsal" is slightly different from the last one (the text expands little by little, the context varies, the mood of the characters is different). The permanence of this hypothetical letter becomes the only static point in the universe, and by the end we realise the point is the desire to formulate it, to rehash it, to live with it that matters, more than to actually send it. This idea is very poetical in a film. And the meaning is all the more moving when we know the (non-diegetic) origin of this letter (last letter of Desnos to his wife in a WW2 POW camp).

P.S. I didn't forget your earlier question. Maybe we could expand this in another post for clarity, because the topics here are wide ranging indeed and it might get confusing.

Edwin Mak said...

@Harry

You make a passionate case for the film's merits, Costa's cinema (as much as CCC) will be in fine stead so long as you are around..!

What you underline for me, with CY as a perfect illustration, is what it is that I am (and am not) looking for in contemplative/minimalist styled cinema.

I like your suggestion to open up a new post, with the intention of discussion – perhaps outlining a breakdown of discussion topics? It would be very nice to see posts following from these thoughts, especially as there is such a rich base of contributors here.

@weepingsam

I see your point there about Lynch/Ozu/Godard et al. having raided the formalist cupboard themselves. But to be ever so pedantic, Ozu stocked that cupboard others have so often raided, just Godard, Ford and Lynch in their own ideosyncratic ways did too.

That aside, and ultimately why I felt disappointed was that the sum of these (yes, intellectual and cerebral) formalist parts, did not add up to anything more than just that. But I don't doubt that you, or Harry did "feel it".

Carlos Ferrao said...

Taste is taste is taste.

I am a big fan of CY and Costa in general although I'm not too sure if CY is a good example of CCC. It certainly has some elements that would endear it to a CCC aesthetic like the documentary style of shooting, the long takes, the use of non-professionals and so on. But on the other hand it has so much that is radically opposite to CCC that it should immediately forfeit that category like the "supernatural" elements, the very formalized structure working in parallel across two different timezones, the (I think intentional) expressionist lighting in Ventura's new flat. On the other hand, isn't Ming-Liang (another favourite) also incredibly stylized too? And if he's not CCC then are we funneling this definition to only docu-fictionists?

Overall, I like the film very much. Maybe because it's all so near and dear to me, having grown up in that city and knowing all those characters already even if in different bodies and with different names. I bet there's a lot in it that looks strange and fictionalized to audiences who aren't from Lisbon but that is actually very realistic. Honest. By the way, you might be interested to know that Costa is completely ignored, if not scorned, back in Portugal.

Carlos Ferrao said...

BTW, I didn't find the film hard to get through or boring at all. But maybe that's just my anthropological curiosity. Apichatpong's Blissfully Yours though... ZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzZZZZZzzzz

Edwin Mak said...

Ah Ferrao. Nice to hear from you about this film (SMS, isn't the best medium for responses are they?).

I take your point on anthropological curiosity, that does go a long way. I could happily sit through ""Empire" length single takes of London or Hong Kong, with just a little thought invested in it.

HarryTuttle said...

it's difficult to explain all that is great in a CCC film, with a few lines. There is a lot more to say about Colossal Youth.

It's interesting to see that we have a different understanding of the defining criteria for CCC. It shows how undefined this alleged trend remains. What is it that doesn't do it for you in Colossal Youth?

I agree with Carlos about the non-compliance of too much expressionism and formalism. To me, the narrative flashback and the recitation discredit a true CCC approach, because it means using dramatic effects drawn from theatre and classic cinema. I usually see a CCC as a linear shooting (if not in real-time-looking), and not relying on monologue delivery. But even with this in mind, I don't think Costa exploits these too much, at least they don't come in the way of my perception of a definite "contemplative" (set back, languorous, paced, unrushed, observational, distant) approach of film direction.

I guess the "supernatural" bit is the resurrected ghost Ventura talk to. But this isn't enacted with special effects, it's more like a theatre stage low-tech (no-tech) effect.

The expressionist lighting isn't something that bother me. I don't necessarily equate CCC with natural lighting (like Dogme 95). And you're right that CCC isn't always documentaristic, in fact it's interesting when used in fiction. Because doing a contemplative documentary, almost means leaving the camera roll and watching something happen, giving all the credit to the subject and none to the "auteur". What's fascinating is when the auteur recreates this genuine impression of looking at real life, which incorporates a certain level of aesthetical input from the auteur.

OK I'll open a new post to discuss "objectionable usage of CCC techniques" (sorry for taking so long). Thanks for keeping the discussion going here.

Carlos Ferrao said...

A final comment because I was answering other comments instead of replying to the posted item itself. I don't consider CY to be minimalist at all. All those narrative and pictorial elements we have mentioned certainly make it more than real, or otherwise push outside minimalism. For me the word minimalist applied to cinema would be something like Mike Leigh where there is an honest effort to show reality as it is with minimal distortion in the representation of time, realist acting and everyday events happening to everyday people. Example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcJoj7b5fnc

That to me, is a minimalist film even if it ran 120 minutes.

HarryTuttle said...

Nice video. I didn't know it. We could say it's less narrative than his latest Happy-go-Lucky, but I can still see the heavy editing of classic mise-en-scène there ( Countershots whereas a CCC would linger on a static wideshot during the conversation).

Well the word "minimalism" is ambiguous for us. I believe "Minimalism" is a wider trend than CCC, because it includes a lot more than the contemplative approach. There are conceptual artists, or stylized auteurs who are referred to as "minimalists". Duras or Straub-huillet are minimalists, but they use far too much declamatory dialogues to be considered "contemplative". The transcendental trio is also minimalist, but not really seceded from traditional narration like CCC is.
So we are talking about two things slightly different with "Minimalism" and "Contemplative", IMHO.
The title of my post was a little misleading, but Atkinson, does refer to our CCC trend, by the look of the contemporary auteurs he mentions. He doesn't speak of the precursors.

We could explore what you say about "supernormality" in CCC too. I'm thinking about the surreal scene in Divine Intervention (with the woman floating in the air Matrix-style, with the bullets around her head) which was made with CGI and special effects... Is it distracting the film from a contemplative mood? The whole scene is filmed like a musical number, thus non-plausible in term of narrative realism.

weepingsam said...

I agree with Harry - I don't think minimalism and CCC are the same thing. Related - maybe all CCC is minimalist in some sense (though definitely a sense that would include Colossal Youth - which seems about as quintessentially a "contemplative" film as you could get), bit not all minimalism is CCC... I'm also not inclined to think of either minimalism or CCC as being particularly equated to naturalism - minimalism isn't terribly naturalistic or realistic... reality isn't very minimalist....

Edwin Mak said...

I am still not convinced upon any stable idea of "CCC" either!

HarryTuttle said...

I know. It's a nebulous family of films. Because there are too many different films mentioned here.
But since the last blogathon I'm convinced that CCC is a new narrative style rather than a "genre" or an aesthetical movement. And this way it makes sense to me.
I don't know if everyone see it the same way though...

Carlos Ferrao said...

This discussion and blog is more about asking these questions and, errr, contemplating ourselves these films and their similarities and trends rather than creating a CCC stamp of approval.

HarryTuttle said...

I agree. That's why there are more films than necessary mentioned here, to remain inclusive and open to various options. but sometimes I'm worried that the wealth/variety of films might confuse people who are not too sure what CCC stands for, and ultimately it sounds like if we call CCC pretty much any "boring art-film" without reasoning.

So there is no "stamp of approval" yet, but ideally there should be a consensus on what film obviously belong, for known reasons, and what film is only tangentially related to CCC, for sharing only a couple of defining traits.

But this "definition" is yet to be produced. I'm not entirely sure myself.

P.S. I just posted a new roundtabel discussion for Edwin Mak's unanswered question. See you all over there.

Carlos Ferrao said...

I've found a blog dedicated entirely to Costa at http://pedrocosta-heroi.blogspot.com/

It's mostly in Portuguese but I could be persuaded to translate some of the articles into English if asked nicely. The video interviews are especially insightful. By the way, the blog's header reads:

"Nobody knows what's going to happen when you switch a film camera on. Nobody ever knew and that's why cinema is so great. Those who say otherwise are liars and the films they make are useless shit. Nobody ever knew what cinema is."
I've kept the mix of verb tenses as in the original.

HarryTuttle said...

Yes I noticed it and added a lot of links to our page on Pedro Costa LINKS. But as I can't read portugese, I welcome your offer to translate a few things. That would be very nice.