Cinematic Lounge

Thursday, October 19, 2006

What is contemplative cinema?

The following posts are pre-notes to the 8th-of-January-2007 Contemplative cinema blog-a-thon over at Screenville:

the kind that rejects conventional narration to develop almost essentially through minimalistic visual language and atmosphere, without the help of music, dialogue, melodrama, action-montage, and star system.

In the process, I'll reject part of the initial definition, broaden and categorise it, hoping to appropriately justify myself. These will be only directions (most necessary to me) towards assimilating contemplative cinema.

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When faced with innovation and the unknown, people feel the urge and necessity to define. It is in our nature to seek order in the chaos of life, and particularly - art: the "visual" projection of philosophy (a science of everything human). Being a social phenomenon, art, as well as philosophy, derive from the past, present or [concepts of the] future. Where then should we look for the thereby named contemplative cinema? We could trace its essence back to WWII, the demagogy of which now evokes a visual spirit of maximum objectivity and sincerety (how many of the contemporary "contemplative" directors have been directly affected by the propaganda idealism of the past century?). Or, we could relate it to the current "trend" of alienation and lonesome living death (how many of the directors are successors of and living among these nests of remoteness?). Also, we could find a connection between its culturally unsaturated monotony and the notion of the future as a universalised world.

To choose, we need to know what we are choosing. What is contemplative cinema? Being aware of its nature, we'd be able to find its most probable origin (which could just as well be a result of the interaction between the mentioned processes). Yet again, when we conclude on the meaning of contemplative cinema, there's the danger of proceeding from a false - or incomplete - assumption: that this kind of cinema is truly contemplative. Using a word as a definition suggests trapping the actual phenomenon, restricting it. How to operate then? There're two ways: 1) explore the "behaviour" of this cinema and in the end find a better term or confirm the present one; 2) take the word as a basis from which to make deductions and prove its pertinence. I'd rather go with the second...

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Contemplation is a process that demands concentration and is based on or seeks interest. However, contemplation is an outside process. The viewer can never be a part of the observed phenomenon - he might partially be absorbed, but never entirely - the viewer must remain outside, he mustn't be involved into the sentimentality of the inner vision, he must think before reacting. Physically, cinema is the most contemplative of arts. You don't see where it arises from - as in live music, you can't touch and feel it - as in painting, sculpture, etc. Why? Because you can't touch light. Cinema is a light illusion. Therefore, cinema is contemplative physically because physically it leaves the viewer outside itself. However, there're devices by means of which the viewer can be engrossed into cinema mentally. You can reach conditions in which you're unable to distinguish film from reality or - you simply don't want to. So, it is important to note that the contemplative cinema discussed here, and that's the best and broadest definition I've reached so far, is the cinema before which the viewer is [intended to be] an outside observant physically and mentally.

As an observant process, contemplation is possible because of the five human senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste. But, practically, during the contemplation we use no more than three - sight, hearing, smell. Now, back to cinema, which are the senses we rely on as viewers? Definetely sight and hearing. Smell has been integrated in the viewing experience but is still uncommon. What's more, it is not part of a film, but part of a distribution campaign. So, since contemplative cinema consists of numerous filmic observant moments and is cinema in its purest state of perception, shouldn't we define its various forms in accordance to that perception? What I propose is a categorisation in terms of human perception and how it is used and altered through a particular film [director] and not in terms of narration:

  1. Visual contemplative cinema=[VCC]=cinema that relies on the image and might use music as an accompaniment or diegetic noise. Here sound is a secondary cinematic device and carries no significance to the [concept of the] plot. //Remember Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Last Life in the Universe

  2. Visical [Visual+Musical] contemplative cinema=[VMCC]=cinema that carries out its message by using the philosophy of image and sound. Here, the movement of the camera - the visual music - stops when music sounds - the aural music (Angelopoulos). Sound and image are inextricably bound together to form a harmonious movement of the imagery.

As stated earlier, contemplation demands interest or is performed to seek interest. However, interest/fascination suggests emotion, which leads to the viewer reacting before thinking. How do you then control fascination and yet use it purposefully? Purely VCC doesn't exploit sound and that's why is usually condemned extremely boring. It lacks the emotional feeling of interest in the process of contemplation. VMCC, however, drags the viewer closely to itself by using sound. Sound is the warmth that the silent image lacks. It occupies our second "spare" sense - hearing - and attacks the mind on two fronts. Why isn't music emotional in VMCC? Because it is an extension of the image. It is the acoustic movement that replaces the visual movement when the camera stops to rest. Here's an example of what I mean:

As soon as the song - Young Man's Theme by Eleni Karaindrou - starts, the camera freezes in this position and breathes through the musical notes. Angelopoulos, The Weeping Meadow.

In VMCC music is no less important than the image itself and is just as crucial to the evaluation of the film. It's not a [emotionally] manipulative device as usual, but - movement. We can even say that music is the movement in these slow-paced films. It is the missing element towards synchrony. Why doesn't music function emotionally in VMCC? Well, for one thing because it's opposed to the stillness, rookery of the camera and thus keeps the viewer in an extreme moment of concentration - being fascinated by the harmony between sound/vision and provoked by the uncompromisingly poor of hints and details cinematic frames.

In the end, concerning narrativity, which films are more prone to being plot-driven? Those with or without music? Kar-wai, Angelopoulos - both notorious for their splendid concemplative cinematography as well as heart-felt compositions (note the fact that their soundtracks are almost entirely composed, no voice, no song in the traditional sense) ... Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang - no deeply tangible narration, no music, no dialogue... It seems that music is a natural link between the plot and its visualisation. Lack of music is usually accompanied by lack of plot - it makes the film seem dry and incomprehensibly torn. And challenging, very, very challenging...


HarryTuttle said...

Don't you want to cross-post this interesting reflexion on the Unspoken Cinema event-blog?

Marta said...

Keep up the good work!


Marina said...

Okay, so comments had to be allowed? I didn't know that... Now they're all visible.

Thanks. Ok, I'll post it, since we already can. :)

johanna said...

Oh, you didn't know that? And here, I thought you were just being a mild-mannered totalitarian ;)

"When faced with innovation and the unknown, people feel the urge and necessity to define. It is in our nature to seek order in the chaos of life..."

So I've been mulling this; and, it is interesting to note that when we see something that already feels ordered, we often then attach a "like" or "dislike" to the subject -- and we want to re-order it when we don't like it. Also, when we see a film that has no chaos for us to control and fashion, we call it "empty" or "weak" or "thin."

This could just be me, but -- isn't that fascinating?!

"...interest/fascination suggests emotion, which leads to the viewer reacting before thinking..."

What a loaded statement. And this is very much an integral component of a theory I'm working on concerning the audience state of mind being as important to a film -- even though the viewer had no hand in the filmmaking process itself -- as the director's emotional and cognitive imprint.

There's a lot to think about in here, Marina...nice work!

Marina Uzunova said...

Thanks, Johanna! Heh..yes, sorry about that :)

it is interesting to note that when we see something that already feels ordered, we often then attach a "like" or "dislike" to the subject -- and we want to re-order it when we don't like it.

It is fascinating! And, I guess, it applies mainly to narrative films and the ones we call contemplative are the chaos-less and "empty". I remember, while recently watching The Break-up, thinking: "Why can't he understand the reasons for which she's displeased? And why does he act this way?" I mean, it was obvious! And, of course, he's character was deliberately created in such manner, so that it provokes reactions. It was made to be disliked (by most people) and re-ordered - a moral was subtly provoked to be extracted, but was not directly provided.

I'd love to read your theory!

johanna said...

Hey Marina -- Sorry it took so long for me to get back to you, but I did have this thread tucked under "important"...alas, I have not seen The Break-Up but your blog has already given me more than one film to add to the everlasting queue!

It was so nice to meet a likemnided person with the kind of enthusiasm, candor and cognition you supply! I've made few inroads on my theory, but I did lay the first strokes down in an essay you can read on my blog at your leisure, if you feel so inclined.

I miss our CC discussions. Hopefully, we will do it again next year (Harry must be keeping us in suspense!) but I hope to see you around the blogosphere sooner!

Cheers, Marina!