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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Oversparse

Back in 1972, right at the time when CCC was coming to life in embryonic form (Deligny's Le Moindre Geste, 1971; Kiarostami's Breaktime, 1972; and soon Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 1975), Paul Schrader was talking about another particular transversal, transcultural, transgenerational style in world cinema : the Transcendental Style of Dreyer, Ozu and Bresson, which he defines as the only successful kind of "religious film" -- seemingly against the grain of the dominant artfilm trend, in the margin of Modern Cinema (Antonioni, Pasolini, Bergman). Tarkovsky follows right down this path, and should have been included in this interesting thesis about the formalism of film spirituality. And probably certain films of Abbas Kiarostami (whose connection to the divine is as much a stretch as for Ozu).

Inside the (broad) CCC extended family, maybe Angelopoulos (many films), Sokurov (Oriental Elegy among others), Kitano (Dolls), Kim Ki-duk (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring again), Groening (Into Great Silence), Reygadas (Stellet Licht), Serra (El Cant dels Ocells), Dumont (Hadewijch), Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady; Uncle Boonmee) would have some affinity with the religious or the Transcendent. But this would rather be an affinity of subject matter (i.e. religious/spiritual genre, which is also Schrader's selective process to establish his trio) than a specific film form translating a definite expression of the "The Holy". In fact the profane CCC films use the same contemplative approach to filmmaking without the elevating end in sight, whether the content is religious or not. Are they "transcendental" or "contemplative"?
There are many ways to interpretate the term "transcendental" (the theological sense doesn't really fit with CCC), but Schrader conceived it necessarily as a religious statement.


TS vs CCC

Overall, the major distinction with CCC is that the later form of ascetic cinema is not motivated by religious, mystical, spiritual or transcendental ambitions. All in all CCC does not seem to work towards an existential reflexion, let alone the formal articulation of a spiritual discourse. So it is impossible to put "The Holy" at the center of CCC's concerns and aspirations, in its content or in its form. If Schrader's criterion is transcendence, then CCC's criterion ought to rather be immanence (or Sartre's immanence-transcendance). I believe these films observe the triviality of existence, its pragmatic reality, the featured greatness of Nature is in the importance of details (instead of a hidden higher principle), in the smallest ineffable, invisible, futile, underarchieved, suspended things, the emptiness, the rituals, the banality.
This is one clear distinction that separates the "Transcendental Style" generation and the more recent generation of filmmakers following that epoch.

Back then, Schrader thought that Ozu's "pillow shots" were the closest cinema could get to Zen art, that Bresson was the most minimalist within narrative cinema...
In his concluding chapter (previously cited here), the "stasis films" represent a Transcendental Style gone wrong, a spiritual film overdone, excessive, extreme, to the point of losing any narrative drive and/or audience appeal.


On this point I would argue that "immediate understanding" or "intuitive apprehension" is only a concern in the case of commercialisation of art (commercial movies). Art critics can deal with obscur/esoteric forms (that the audience avoids) without disregarding their importance in regard to the history of arts. If nobody watches Andy Warhol's or Michael Snow's experiments, it doesn't diminish their contribution in the grand scheme of film form evolution. Granted, Schrader precises that he only meant to discriminate them in contrast with his definition of Transcendental Style (to which Structural films don't owe anything). He clearly establishes intentional variants : either the film is oversparse on purpose, or it failed to transcend its self-imposed ascetism. It's OK to blame entertainment for dragging too much or leaving us wanting more. But it would be disingenuous to blame a cinema that means to be bare and dry, for being too minimalist (like it's silly to blame a comedy for being TOO funny). Wavelength doesn't attempt to simulate the emotional content of An Autumn Afternoon, likewise, contemplative filmmaking (allegedly "oversparse") does not attempt to channel the styles and achievements of Transcendental Style films, Modern Cinema or any other more traditional, mainstream narrative forms. A distinct praxis cannot be judged honestly with inapt values.
This is a discrimination we could make just the same for CCC. Is there such a thing as an "overcontemplative" film? And maybe this is an argument the recent "slowish film" detractors could build up to consolidate their analysis. Mistaking the audience's expectation and the filmmaker's intention is what explains this general misunderstanding of slower films. Critics ask for more content to ponder, more "active forms of rebellion", more provocation, more creativity, more technology... and feel short-changed because these filmmakers had something else in mind. But this isn't a failure of CCC, it is an inadequation between global zeitgeist cravings and a marginal aesthetic developing from other concerns and objectives.

"Oversparse" is a subjective evaluation, one that has evolved since the emergence of CCC. What was considered "oversparse" before CCC, is no longer as anti-narrative or unwatchable as it used to be. CCC filmmakers pushed the limit of effective minimalism further and made (watchable) masterpieces with "oversparse" shots. Apparently, a bad Transcendental Style film would be considered today a good Contemporary Contemplative Cinema film.

CCC is the missing link in the gap left by Schrader between the purely narrative (religious stories) and the purely experimental (conceptual art). CCC is less relient on the traditional modes of theatrical narration (even less than Bresson who in this triad is probably the further away from traditional narration). However CCC is decidedly more narrative than Structural films. Contemplative films still tell a minimal "story" about humans, societies, cities, landscapes; it's never a mere plastic composition with an abstract conceptual message. Yet Schrader's insular taxonomy could sometimes consider them "oversparse" and flat out discount them.

Recent CCC filmmakers developped a type of minimalist mise en scène throughout an entire film that goes beyond what Transcendental Style achieved only in selected scenes/moments. Let's say that the so-called "Transcendental Style" films are *sometimes* transcendental within a traditional narrative model; while CCC films are *most of the time* contemplative through and through, with very little narrative support.
We find another generational step between the film style Schrader defined in 1972 and the new film form emerging thereafter in the hands of the CCC filmmakers. The most exemplary models of this radical evolution are : Omirbaev, Bartas, Tarr, Tsai, Costa, Weerasethakul, Diaz, Alonso, Serra.


Stasis shots

James Benning, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Benedek Fliegauf make "pillow shots" that last an entire film, "extended stases", without any narrative exposition or counterpoint, like Andy Warhol : the "isolation and prolongation of an Ozu coda". They are even closer to a Zen painting, a Zen garden, a Zen haiku than Ozu ever was because his narrative imperative was inescapable at the time. Though Ozu Yasujiro is unquestionably greater, this is not a matter of qualitative hierarchy here. Only the minimalist degree is examined in this case. Ozu's minimalism level was not as low, but we could say he mastered that level for a purer, more profound result within the constraints of a family drama genre.

Contrary to what Schrader declares, a true "stasis shot" is far from solipsistic, it is the biggest sacrifice a film auteur could make by abandonning to the camera more artistic direction than they could input themselves. Such extreme form of documentary is the ultimate suppression of the artist's ego, stylistic mannerism and autobiographical exhibition. These few isolated artists mentionned could be the "new transcendental style in movies" that Schrader had predicted in Michael Snow's Wavelength. These shots are absolute icons that contain all the essence of a divine world.

Though I'd argue that this example is created around an overwhelming "concept", which is largely absent of the rest of CCC. Thus why Structural films are precursors rather than included in CCC. A strong concept at the basis of a film, generating, structuring and inducing certain images are a kind of intellectual commentary, that the audience may pick up to influence the direction of their observation, which could produce a controlled, restricted contemplation. Generally CCC films do not try to provide an intellectualised explanation for the images, scenes do not suggest psychological purposes or narrative cues which would be hinted by an overtly formal/intellectual concept. Anticipation, suspense, intentional causes, escalation, chain reaction, predetermined order, rhythmic sequence distract from the contemplative power of understated images.

Films like Ten skies, 13 Lakes, RR, Ruhr (Benning), Our Daily Bread (Geyrhalter), Milky Way (Fliegauf) -- as well as Kiarostami's Five; Pálfi's Hukkle; Groening's Into Great Silence; Michel's Les Hommes -- are effective without the viewer's "special knowledge and commitment". They may be analysed conceptually, and replaced within a certain genealogy of structural films (Benning uses a fixed shot length, but Geyrhalter gives each scene its own full extension, long or short) or Experimental cinema (Warhol, Brakhage, Gordon/Parreno...). Yes, they have more to say than their documentaristic face value. But the virgin audience wouldn't require such level of theoretical awareness to get immersed in these landscapes, inhabited or not, to make their own sense of this succession of unexplained stasis shots. Stases may contain a self-explainatory meaning, ever so basic and superficial, a minimal purpose that would validate such unusual contemplative state for the observer.

However the singular static plan sequence is a marginal "gimmick", a particular case, almost a perversion of the contemplative modality to the point of becoming a conceptual experiment rather than to develop a narrative in a minimalist manner. There is a fine line between 10 minutes of a sky and 8 hours of an Empire State building's view, but the contemplative praxis remains identical if the concept is rather discreet. These are the most extreme minimalist/formalist films of the CCC trend. And they should be studied separately, but in conjunction with non-conceptual minimalist narrative CCC.

Often they are strictly documentaries : everything in front of the lens is an unaltered slice of the world. The filmmaker is merely an observer and limits his/her "artistic control" to point, frame and define the duration of the shot. But these simple choices are no less crucial and determinant to justify the purpose of such contemplation.

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4 comments:

Tiago De Luca said...

Hi Harry,

I'm a final-year PhD candidate in World Cinema at the University of Leeds in the UK. I've just recently chanced upon your great blog and would like to talk to you if possible since my thesis is pretty much about CCC. Actually, I have an article which discusses this question of the transcendental apropos of the films of Carlos Reygadas - it will appear on Senses of Cinema in the next five days or so. If you could email me that would be great as I couldn't find yours here:

t.deluca@leeds.ac.uk

Best, T.

HarryTuttle said...

Nice article on Carlos Reygadas and Transcendence by Tiago :

Carnal Spirituality : the films of Carlos Reygadas” (Tiago de Luca; Senses of Cinema, Jul 2010)

HarryTuttle said...

Immanent Hutton (Sitney) (2008)

HarryTuttle said...

Jonathan Romney : "These film-makers [Tarr Béla, Tsai Ming-liang, Hong Sang-soo] 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 wooly transcendentalism, but intrpid and rigorous formal invention."
(The Guardian, 7 Oct 2000)