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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Meditation mode? (bore)

There is a readers' letter in Sight & Sound (Aug 2010, published 2 weeks before August!), paraphrasing Nick James' editorial (S&S July 2010), from a spectator who cares more about the subjective comfort in a theatre seat than about the content of a film program.

The only important point to discuss in there is the "meditation mode" : the idea that CCC lovers would walk in a theatre (after tracking down the only one playing that film, and having longed for months or years for its public release) just for a relaxation appointment, using the filmic material as mere "elevator music"... This assumption is insulting, not only for the spectators, but for the filmmakers' work.

Here is another misconception about CCC : boredom is not an end in itself. And that's what detractors call it, out of ignorance. Modern Cinema called it "ennui" in the 60ies, which had the snub distinction of borrowed French vocabulary. Ennui is an existential state of mind (see the philosophical literature on Existentialism before you compare it to XXIst century internet idleness).
  • Meditation is a self-absorbing ritual using a quality environment to reach inner calm (eyes closed, prayer, mantra) = centripetal
  • Contemplation is attention of the inner self projected outwards into the environment observed (eyes wide open, quietude, harmony) = centrifugal
Well, that's how I conceive the difference between the contemplative mode at work in CCC, and the other acceptions of the word "contemplation", either connoted with religious philosophy (Transcendentalism), devout ritual (prayer) or some sort of yoga (mediation). Anybody who has seen CCC films would appreciate the distinction between metaphysical introspection (Transcendental Style, Modern Cinema) and the floating rêverie (CCC) offered by an artistic attention to the world.
HarryTuttle (Slower or Contemplative?): The idea of the long take is not to reveal signs that are invisible at the fast pace of intensified continuity. The intent is not to populate this down time, these empty frames with a profusion of hidden signs that would suddenly give more content, more power, more value to slower editing. [..]
Is it impossible to attract a public to CCC with an invitation to a momentary contemplative state where the visual embrace of the screen supercedes the rationalisation we could make of it afterward? Can we get lost in the frame for a short while without questions, without answers? Can we appreciate a contemplative film for its contemplative value itself?
Can we get a public to visit an art museum for its offering of plastic aesthetics alone? Can we enjoy the self-evident harmony of a natural landscape?
It is an evasion without a destination. It is not advancing towards an end in sight with the pull of a suspense or the contentment of progression."
When I suggest that CCC proposes to enjoy emptiness for its sole contemplative value, I don't mean that this is an indifferent exercise in mediation, a lazy nap for the brains, an absent-minded lapse of reason.

In CCC there is no metaphysical cult of higher states of consciousness, like in the purist Zen enlightenment, or in the mystical austerity of a Benedictine monastery order.
In CCC there is no euphoria or Nirvana or catharsis to attain, like in the exposition to psychedelic or hypnotic slide shows, where the succession of images has no intrinsic purpose but to escape consciousness.
In CCC there is no indifference for the aesthetic material, like the tired man who uses easy-listening music or a quiet environment aiding access to deep sleep.
Otherwise all the creative input would come from the spectator's mind, its subconscious or its soul. And it would leave no role to the filmmaker. How could you consider CCC an empty vehicule to put bored people to sleep?

CCC has an artistic content and an artistic form that matter to the aesthetic experience of watching a film. But unlike the traditional narrative drama, a contemplative film does not ask rhetorical questions answered by the dénouement, it does not require the spectator to solve an enigma or dig out hidden symbols, it does not transport us on an escapist journey with immediate frustration/satisfaction, it does not seek stereotypical empathy with a hero. This is why CCC is not the typical storytelling that generates an artificial psychodrama providing a cathartic relief for our phobia and anxiety.
The purpose of CCC, like for non-figurative paintings or contemporary art, is elsewhere. There is no story to tell really, no plot to recount to your friends after the projection. Because CCC does not function with a causal dramaturgy that provides a state of departure and a state of accomplishment after a transformative journey. We cannot consume CCC like any other form of spectacle and entertainment, asking of it its dose of meaning and action.

Like in front of a painting, we venture inside a contemplative film. And despite the fact it unfolds within a duration of time (unlike a painting), the experience with CCC is more like a perpetual presence to the aesthetic landscape offered by the images, rather than a linear progression from one act to the next. It is not true in practice, as CCC also develops a filmic grammar in shots, scenes and sequences, with a de facto beginning and end. But their role in the contemplative storytelling is also changed. Each cut, each transition, each aggregation strive to represent the same presence to the film experience, rather than to add up successive logical bricks to form a big picture by the ending credits. Contemplation is an instant apprehension of the aesthetic universe developed by the filmmaker. The whereabouts of the characters become secondary, their fate accessory. This is not an assertive type of cinema that gives meaning to life with ready-made judgments and patronizing statements.
We don't go to CCC to get a masterclass on the state of the world, but to be present to that world, without fictive assumptions, without misdirected interrogations, without urgent solutions...

Appreciating contemplation for itself means to embrace a vista, to dedicate full attention to the images, to be aware of the details without trying to make sense, to absorb the fullness of its sum without confronting its parts to a competitive comparison.

Filmmakers often instill micro-dosage of intentions and signifiers, for personal reasons, to avoid alienating the narrative audience, to express a bit of themselves, their world view. But it works on another plane, and doesn't distract the purpose of the film constructed under contemplative modalities. It is rare to find a film that functions solely on a contemplative mode (not "meditative mode"), like stasis films for example.
However more and more art films incorporate the contemplative approach to mise en scène, to the point of transforming the narrative norms of storytelling in cinema, and confusing great many critics who have no idea what to do with them but to reject them and blame them for not fitting into the traditional mold they are comfortable with...

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see other posts on this debate : 1 (Flanagan) - 2 (James) - 3 (Shaviro 1) - 4 (Shaviro 2) - 5 (Thoret) - 6 (Guardian) - 7 (Boring is not an argument) - 8 (Lavallée) - 9 (Frieze) - 10 (James 2) - 11 (bore)

1 comment:

HarryTuttle said...

"The ongoing debate over the merits of 'slow cinema' implies a wider discussion about the future of non-mainstream cinema. In a cinematic context, where the corporate imperatives of speed and non-thought prevail, slow cinema has provided a welcome respite, a space where alternative culture and political priorities might be aired. when read as a reaction against the ever-quicker edit and the incessant drive to profitability, slow cinema seems less like a particular aesthetic mouvement and more like the polemical assertion of what have always been the benefits of art cinema: the attention to ambiguity, the concern for character over the demands of schematics narrative, the exploration of landscape and place, and so on. While encouraging other types of non-mainstream films to florish, we'd do well not to undervalue a mouvement that reminds of us of the most basic of art cinema's virtues."
Tom Eyers (London)
reader's letter, S&S Sept 2010