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Sunday, October 12, 2008

CCC gimmick exceptions

Edwin Mak : "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?"
Let's open a new discussion here for a question asked by Edwin Mak in a recent post (Atkinson on minimalism) about the pros and cons of stylistics techniques and mise-en-scene characteristic or not of the CCC trend. (My apologize for taking so long to put up this new post)

We seem to disagree on whether a particular film is part of CCC or not. We don't consider the same elements of film language as being "disqualifying", or as an evidence of a true/strict "contemplative" film. So let's see what everyone think are the cardinal sins found in a film that you consider "exploitation" or "over-the-top" or "betraying" or "objectionable" or simply "anti-contemplation".

Atkinson doesn't like Colossal Youth and thinks it's a hack job that discredits the purity of "Minimalism". And I disagree of course because I admire this film. So is it just a matter of taste difference that move us to approve or reject such or such film, whether we call them "Minimalist" or "Contemplative"?
Well taste aside, We can break down the mise-en-scene in technical terms and assess the whole intention of the auteur. In other words, does Costa seeks "minimalism" (or Brechtian?) or does he go for "contemplation" (whatever that means to him)?

Unlike neorealism or La Nouvelle Vague, CCC is not a conscious trend where like-minded auteurs gather around the same idea, mutually influenced by a common style. CCC auteurs come from all over the world and from different cultural background, but there is definitely some shared identity in their filmmaking language. And these new traits are all the more distinct and unique when compared to traditional filmmaking (which is still the overwhelming norm in mainstream cinema, and has always been). So I'm taking this into account to figure what are the "unspoken rules" of this emerging trend. When films look similar they "work" almost the same way (which serves as a tentative definition on the blog description) and when they do "contemplation" differently it highlights their exceptions (for instance the usage of speech, music, professional actors, CGI or classical narrative device).

That's how I define a "strict model" of hardcore CCC auteurs (Tsai, Bartas, Weerasethakul, Reygadas, Alonso, Tarr, Dumont...) with a nebula around them gradually less and less "contemplative" because they take more and more exceptions to the original purity of this self-defined trend, by slightly adding more narrative music (Kaurismaki, Wong Kar-wai, Lynch), more narrative editing (Wong Kar-wai, Gus Van Sant, Lynch, Martel), more plot-driven dialogue (Jia, Wong Kar-wai, HHH, Ceylan, Hong Sang-soo, Angelopoulos, Dardennes, Lynch), more stylized performance (Kaurismaki, Andersson, Barney), more special effects (Suleiman, Andersson, Lynch)... while remaining a lot more "contemplative" than the mainstream fare.

To me a true CCC film doesn't require any of this. It could be as bare as a single shot with non-actors filmed running errands without beginning nor end, without even a proper "message" or a point to the storytelling, without complicated staging, . They don't have to be all as ascetic as that. But it all comes down to the amount of narrative construction they add and how "distracting" it gets from a "contemplative perspective".

The state of contemplation (which is the focal point of this trend by definition) implies a liberty of the viewer to witness events taking place before his/her eyes, without being spoon-fed digested hints and codes, without attention-grabber framing, without walk-through montage. the contemplative viewer is sitting at the window, looking out into the world, a world offered for contemplation, for consideration, for reflection. And even if the meanings in CCC are implicit nonetheless (because the auteur meant to make THIS film and not ANY film), the range of interpretation and the level of participation is left at the viewer's discretion. Inasmuch as every viewer may watch a different film, project their own interpretation, imagine their own untold backstory to the characters. that's what make CCC films original.

Of course, the point is not to strive toward an alleged "purity" of this trend. But I can see how certain gimmicks can become distraction, interferences, perversions (Atkinson calls that exploitation) of how this new family of films tends to mark its difference. If a device tends to decrease the difference with the mainstream norm, then it does become "objectionable" (to use Edwin's word) in my book. Not objectionable in the sense that they are "excommunicated" (because auteurs never pledged to be part of this unspoken trend!) but objectionable to the meaning we give to the stricter model of CCC (which is what I defined above, and also evoked by these notions: wordlessness, plotlessness, slowness, alienation).

So when I see a film using reaction shots and narrative cues, or flashback techniques, I know that it is still operating within the known territory of mainstream cinema to some extent. Therefore it is a weaker representative of a stand alone trend (since true CCC doesn't require the usual narrative conventions to tell a story through atmosphere and visuals). It's as simple as that, either they resort to devices familiar to the audience, or they venture in uncharted territory, where narration doesn't earn its credibility from overstated cues and plot set up.

Well that's just to introduce the topic, you may add your own take in the comments below.


HarryTuttle said...

I guess I didn't actually answer to Edwin's question.
So to speak of the negative perspective now, I don't think that there is a "bad" way to use minimalism per se. I mean that movies may incorporate minimalist or contemplative scenes/elements/techniques in a very traditional setting, in a mainstream scenario, in an academic narration. And we've talked about such examples (i.e. Ozu inserts pillow shots in a narrative structure that remains quite melodramatic and traditional for the most part). We also see contemplative landscapes or wordless long takes (i.e. the intro of There Will Be Blood) used as a pause in the narration, without changing the traditional film structure into a "CCC format".

But we can't blame other movies for not being CCC, so it not objectionable to use "contemplative elements" and fail to achieve true "contemplative narration".

This said, I see exactly what Atkinson means when he says that sometimes, art-films tend to become actually boring when they rest on "artsy" gimmicks (aka "festival films" which is a generic term I hate for its superficiality).

There are situation where a film is trying too hard to be contemplative/minimalist in a superficial way and failing to achieve an actual ascetic purge.

Though the problem is when we don't accuse the same faulty films. One says Colossal Youth is artsy to a fault (like Atkinson) and others think Costa is one of the most edgy auteur out there in the art film world.

And that's one of my concern about the lack of theory on minimalist cinema. Movies are called "minimalist" like if it was an end rather than a means. Few critics wonder WHY such film chooses to operate within this minimalistic environment, and HOW such minimalism is achieved. There are various ways to get there and various results to attain with a minimal formalism. Minimalism is not just a simple united style (like the Avant Garde is falsely considered to be a united family while it is a default "none of the above" category!).

So in many cases, when a critic says "this movie abuses minimalism" it means the keys of its style and the point of its intention were overlooked, misunderstood or underestimated. That's why we need to study CCC deeper, to be able to articulate the mechanism and techniques used by these auteurs within the CCC setting.

HarryTuttle said...

We should be able to put a blame when a film goes too far, and runs too thin in substance. And the arguments should go beyond blaming the run time of the film or the lack of plot (which are the most common blames by detractors).

If I take a few examples of recent CCC films that I consider "faulty", IMHO (which is not saying that I'm right about it), I would mention El Cants dels ocells, Honor de Cavalleria, The Banishment, Paranoid Park, Eli, Eli, lema sabachtani?, Charly, Breath, Du Levande... But, I repeat, this doesn't mean that the auteur meant to produce the result we expect from CCC. So it's only faulty in our own subjective expectations, but maybe they were going for something else altogether.

Though we can identify clear intents of asceticism, and purification of the mise en scène, like in CCC. So the question is what do they achieve with this intentionally "contemplative" approach of filmmaking? And is this result in tune with a contemplative vision of cinema (which is to be defined)?

For instance we could compare Paranoid Park with The Man from London, both loosely based on a (classic) police investigation genre. While Tarr Béla refuses to show us any of the "action", the motives and the dramatic development, Gus Van Sant preferred to show off an overstated graphic scene (the severed body) and the progress of the investigation in the school to build up a plot driven tension. However, in Elephant, which was an even more dramatic plot, was treated in a much more contemplative way, but sidestepping any explanation/justification of the tragedy, and keeping the audience in a guessing position of outsider.

I mentioned Albert Serra in a previous post. To me, he only films people left on their own in the landscape, and doesn't have much direction to give them. One danger of this is to compose aesthetical views without a meaningful sense of direction (not one I could read and identify at least). The problem is that his non-actors aren't as "naturally talented" and as well directed as the ones discovered by the Dardenne bros, Kiarostami, Reygadas, Kore-eda, Dumont, Jia Zhang-ke, Alonso... Great directors should know what is out of reach for their non-actors, what can't be asked of them, and how to "manipulate" them to let go and look natural.

My problem with Serra is that he uses non-actors who are intimidated to be on camera, therefore don't act naturally. Which is what we expect from a non-actor, to bring in what they know best, their genuine personality, their mundane gesture, which professional actors only fake and mimic with more or less success. On the other hand they are not trained enough to make the most of their presence on camera when they are left lone wandering through the shot, and make it interesting.
So am I missing something there? Is it a directing style even more ascetic and abstracted so that I fail to understand it? Is it part of his aesthetics to show awkwardness, and pure meaningless vacuity? That could be. Then it would be more "Brechtian" than "contemplative" IMHO, because of the conceptual (anti-naturalistic) mise en scène.
Anyway, this kind of study of boredom appears weaker, to me, because it reveals to much of the staged shots and suspend disbelief, which inevitably distract from "contemplation". If we want to audience to immerse itself in a contemplative state, any tricks or gimmick revealing to fake setting, any conceptual point brought up by an artificial narrative technique, will get the mind thinking hard, instead of floating about after a whim not implied/dictated by the shot/plot.

With as bare a plot as Serra's films, we can see how Alonso, Weerasethakul or Kore-eda do with non-actors and turn this exercise in passive observation of people in their mundane gestures in something much more interesting, credible and emotionally powerful. Serra leaves me cold, he only engages me at an intellectual level, with an aesthetical surface, but there is no depth/life to explore in these shots. Though this is an argument I don't like (that's why I might be wrong about Serra), because every detractor uses this absence of emotional response, this frigidity, to justify their misunderstanding of a CCC mise en scène.

HarryTuttle said...

The problem with Isild LeBesco's Charly is similar. She films her own brother, who is a non-actor (unlike most of her family), and make him do things that don't translate as very natural on screen. There are beautiful scenes in the film (like the breakfast scene in the cold morning) but others seem forced, and over thought. One is underacting while another is overacting. And the presence of the hand-held camera doesn't always fit in seamlessly in the shot. Sometimes too far, sometimes too intrusive. There is a just distance to be found between the spectator and the subject.

So awkward performance and the distance of the camera are two examples of objectionable "misuse" of contemplative techniques, which could very well break apart the precarious equilibrium of this type of high rope cinema.
there is a reason why mainstream cinema sticks to tried and true formula... it's because it's safer! Venturing in CCC territory is very risky, and missing the mark is more obvious and less forgiveable on screen.

Edwin Mak said...

Lots to go on here, I will have to come back to this. But in the meantime I thought I should share this interesting looking, aesthetic heavy, essay by Ana Balona de Oliveira on Costa at Mute (which I shall also have to come back to).

Edwin Mak said...

Oops the link above doesn't work, my mistake. Here it is:


HarryTuttle said...

Thanks for the link. I've added it to our Costa LINKS page.
Though, like I said in the other post, the "exploitation of suffering" (if that's its fault) is not something that plays against the "contemplative state". So to me it wouldn't be "objectionable" to the achievement of CCC. It might be "objectionable" to the achievement of a film in general though, depending on what we expect from the content of cinema...

Edwin Mak said...

I agree on your last point; our patently subjective expectations of cinema go far indeed in forming the values of what is objectionable or otherwise. And it is this question, around the focal point of exploitation (or really), exoticism in CY that Oliveira sketches (with the help of Dargis) very well; albeit with disagreement with her eventual verdict:

It is precisely in the interstices of Costa’s mesmerisingly beautiful shots of the derelict architectures wherein the wandering bones of the downtrodden mutely speak and agonisingly move, that one of the most potentially polemical issues surrounding Costa’s filming of Fontaínhas shanty town arises – the danger of falling into exoticism and the visual exploitation of desperate poverty. Manohla Dargis states that Costa ‘flirts dangerously here with turning his characters into exotics, with making their misery seem somehow ennobling’.

So what is it that "ennobles" them? The answer is simple, because their misery is exotic (to lets face it: largely bourgeois audiences) that it becomes a perverse sort of glorification. Notice, how Oliviera's theme in the essay, evident in this citation, juxtaposes the 'beautiful shots of the derelict' environment with the ill bodies within them; dilapidation becomes beauty, misery becomes nobility and making a "contemplative" film from it becomes art.

Then, this is how Oliviera/Dargis putatively circumvented this problem:

However, this supposed approximation to the exotic is extraneous to Costa’s slum trilogy, as Dargis acknowledges by affirming that in the end ‘he never strays down that path, perhaps because the people in this movie [Colossal Youth] are as much his collaborators as his subjects’.

But really, what else could they have been, if they were to appear in the film? And would it make any sense for Costa to have claimed that they were not his collaborators, but merely his subjects? Doesn't all this veer ever too close to the domain of Pornomiseria (and half way down here)? I realise now that it is not aesthetics, formalism or film style at issue (no matter how beautiful it is considered to be), rather it is purely ethics. Then again, I could be entirely wrong.

HarryTuttle said...

This is a very good article! I understand the slight reservation Oliveira suggests but I don't think her opinion on Costa's filmmaking method is negative, is it?

I thought your question concerned "objectionable elements specifically for CCC", but I understand what you say about ethics in general. However I believe it's the artists prerogative to dismiss ethics and morality for the purpose of their work.

The scene that romanticizes the creativity of the dirty stains on Bete's wall, opposed to the sanitized white-wall, is a little deceptive I agree, but it's to be taken poetically rather than a political statement. These walls have a history, each stain is memorable, it's part of the past that is eradicated by "society" because they are marginal. So to show attachment to this dirt, is a symbolic statement.

This discourse about the inherent evil of new housing projects (clean, running water, heated, no leaking roof, no wind) is untenable. Of course the destitute will be better off with a decent dwelling! The artsy stains are not enough to justify keeping people living in hazardous and undignified conditions. The political reason to oppose these projects is because the land owner wants to get rid of the squatters and bring in a new population who can pay higher rent. It's the speculation that is to be blamed, not the "whitewashed walls and the rooms full of light".

This said, I don't think Costa ennobles the destitute... They don't stand high and proud (like in low class fairy tales: De Sica's Miracle in Milan, Fellini's Nights of Cabiria...) We can feel the weight of a hard life, shame and despair on their shoulders. So he's not glamorising what is miserable, we can still see it is miserable and that it is not fun living that way (despite the nostalgic speeches of the characters).

I see what you mean with the danger of "exoticism" but could this ever be attractive to a bourgeois audience? It's not a "Bohemian life in tune with nature", it's a cold, dirt, unhealthy environment.
Now I don't see why destitutes couldn't benefit from a lavish photography... does it make it more bearable to watch the destitute with poorly made shots? I guess you're going to pull a Kapo travelling on me ;) but I don't believe in such politisation of form.

weepingsam said...

The political reason to oppose these projects is because the land owner wants to get rid of the squatters and bring in a new population who can pay higher rent. It's the speculation that is to be blamed, not the "whitewashed walls and the rooms full of light".

I think that is about right - the problem with the housing project is that it's imposed from outside, disrupting the lives of people living there, without involving them n their fate. It's tempting, and probably fair, to link that directly to Costa's methods: his filmmaking is a model for cooperation - whether he remains in control or not, he is inviting the people to work with him to create their films. The housing project - is like Ossos - banks of light and machines and electricians taking over the neighborhood.... The ethics of the project seem to turn on the idea of offering a degree of agency to the participants, which is what the redevelopment denies them. It's better, obviously, if their lives can get better - but better still if they can maintain a sense of their own agency...

I think what protects the films from feeling like exploitation is that agency - even if it wasn't real, it seems that Costa is trying to present these people as choosing their lives, what they do with the circumstances they have. But so far as he is telling the truth about his methods, and the degree of collaboration between himself and Vanda and company, then this agency seems to exist outside the fiction as well. But either way - the main thing that resists exoticism and glorification of misery is the way the performers talk back. It's a way of having them take back control of a piece of their lives - of acting (in as many senses of the word as you want.)

weepingsam said...

Meanwhile, on another tack: going back to Harry's post... I am inclined myself to see CCC as a bundle of characteristics - mutism, emptiness, submerged plots and psychology, sense of slowness - that often occur together, but don't really gain any importance by being together, or by not working with other elements as well. Specific "contemplative" devices turn up in other kinds of films - with the same basic functions... it's an interesting to look at the effects of silence in There Will be Blood as in Honor de Caveleria...

I suppose it also comes down to my prejudices - I'm interested in the formal questions - and interested in the historical questions, where it came from, why now, how, etc. I think CCC is a kind of "intensified art film" - pushing the characteristics of Antonioni or Fassbinder or Garrel further along... probably developing alongside "intensified continuity" - stressing slowness and lack of obvious identification with characters as a counter to mainstream tendencies. But again I think that implies that it is not really a pure style, that it is always something of a set of devices to be used in service of some other thing the film is doing - referring back to its precursors, or providing a more subtle twist on a conventional genre than Hollywood might provide...

So I don't see a lot of value in "pure" CCC - mixing its methods and devices with others (more mainstream, or more experimental, for that matter) seems fairly inevitable. In almost every case, there are other, stronger forces, binding groups of films - genre, or historical movements (like the various new waves), or the filmmakers' influences, or more esoteric categories like Bordwell's art films (ambiguity and subjectivity etc.) vs parametric films (abstract, non-signifying formal patterns) seem stronger than ties we can describe as CCC...

HarryTuttle said...

The ethical issue I see it more in Vanda's Room than in Colossal Youth. How could a filmmmaker stand there and watch people destroy themselves without doing anything to help them? I appreciate Costa's non-judgemental approach, but I'm worried that his position of "documentarist" make him a voyeur who implicitly condones drug dealing, drug use, thievery, squatting, kids raised in unhealthy environment...
On the other hand, it's a "journalistic" duty to document and show to the world this fringe of the world to the public opinion. Because these people are rarely given a non-stereotypical portrait on TV or in the movies.
We could compare the reality check of Vanda's Room or Last Days as an anti-drug campaign, to the aesthetisation/glorification/exploitation of drugs in Requiem for a Dream, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Trainspotting or all the psychedelic movies of the 70ies... The contemplative approach is less exploitative narrative-wise, and always a degree more naturalistic (even if it's staged).

but Colossal Youth is a poetical impersonation of these slices of life, it gives these people the opportunity to play a role, to make a film, to recognize their creative input, instead of being the subject of a documentary (like in Vanda's Room). So adding aestetical shots and staging, a poem and a performance act is involving them in an act of collaborative creation (why would it be unethical for the destitute to play a role like the bourgeois do?), rather than exploiting them (like weepingsam says).

HarryTuttle said...

David Bordwell wrote a review post from Palm Springs (Jan 16, 2009)

With the example of Zhang chi's film The Shaft, he notes how a contemplative film lacking in dialogue exposition, deals with narrative developments of a couple relationship through repetitive settings featuring a variation of (silent) behavior. Illustrated with frame grabs!
Very interesting, even though he's a bit critical of this film and this "gimmick".

weepingsam said...

Well - he seems to be less critical of the style than the film - his complaint seems to be more that this film uses the style without doing anything special with it; that it's become rather comfortable. It's a good discussion of it, and the shots are quite lovely...

HarryTuttle said...

Yes you're right. Similar (gimmick) shots could be very poetical and wonderful given the right context. With Ozu, Wong Kar-wai, Tsai Ming-liang or Kaurismaki for instance.

But I haven't seen this film so I can't judge. A gimmick is not inherently bad, it depends how it's used. Though using visible recipe certainly makes it harder to pull it off...