I've been following the contemplative cinema blogathon with great interest, though with reservations - the reservations, however, are one of the thing that makes it so compelling. The main problem is that I can't quite figure out what it is supposed to mean, and I'm having much luck finding definitions of it. Now, true, I don't expect definitions as such - sufficient and necessary conditions - but I'm also not clear on the parameters for "contemplative cinema." Who is involved - what traits they share. Or, since in fact many names and traits have been named and considered, which ones are most useful for creating this category of films.
I suppose one response to this problem would be to say that it's not a useful category of films - I'm not willing to make that claim. It seems to me that this is a genre that doesn't exactly exist - but it's a genre that people notice, a family of films that do seem related. They (or we, since I can see it too) notice that there are films with certain characteristics - slowness, plotlessness, etc. They are looking for what links these films, how they can describe them, how they can describe the links. The problem so far (for me) is that the links are too vague - the category is too broad. In some of the discussions around the blogothan, the "contemplative cinema" category seems in danger of expanding to include everything outside the mainstream - that seems to lose the value of the idea. Demonlover (say) may have something in common with Mother and Son (say), but I'm not sure you can make a meaningful genre (or genre-like thing) out of what they have in common.
S0 - I am going to dive into the thing and say what I think about the term. I'm not sure which direction this is: whether this is what I think contemplative cinema is, or if I see a category of films that could use a name, and this one seems to fit: we'll see. I do see a fairly identifiable group of films, with some fairly identifiable characteristics - so I will name them, and go from there. And this brings us to the title of the post, too: I've just seen my first Bela Tarr film (Damnation) - and it illustrates the devices listed below perfectly. If this is a meaningful category, Damnation is a quintessential example. Most of my examples will relate directly to it. These are notes - unfinished and sketchy. They are a start to thinking about how to define "contemplative cinema"...
1) Duration - perhaps in terms of how long the film lasts (that’s more true of Satantango - Damnation is normal length; on the other hand, many of Sukorov's films are relatively short, and yet duration is crucial to his approach) - but more in terms of the duration of the shots on screen, and the sense of time passing, of the duration of actions (or inactions) in the world. “Real time” as they say - though not exactly, since it could, as well, present a long period of time elliptically. Damnation, though, does it fairly directly - long (very long) takes; scenes unfolding in “real time” - lots of dead space between actions, and so on.
2) Emptiness - or blankness. Emptiness in terms of story, perhaps, in terms of absence of stimuli (nothing happens; there’s nothing to look at; simple, empty, minimalist sets) - but also emptiness shown: images of emptiness, of blankness. I do mean this literally - contemplative cinema seems to me to be marked by these kinds of images - images of blankness: walls; empty, featureless landscapes; close shots of the back of a man’s white trench coat; often surfaces of water; street surfaces. Damnation contains all those elements - walls, backs, empty streets, dirty window panes, featureless hallways and doors. Including several shots of perhaps the perfect blank image: a fairly close shot of a plain white wall, maybe with water running across it.
Now - one of the effects of images like this is to shift our level of attention: we look at a wall, featureless, and we notice the patterns on the wall - we see the grain of the wood or the swirls and bumps in the whitewash. That is almost Tarr’s method - to shift our attention from the levels we usually see in films, to details: faces and bodies, spaces, the textures of walls and floors and tables, the patterns of mud and water and spilled beer on the floor of the bar in the aftermath of a dance. I think this effect, though, is a secondary one - it is what some films do with these images, the function of this type of image. I think that function, while common, is not definitive - the images of emptiness themselves are the characteristic of the “genre”.
3) Backgrounding plot and story, narration and narrativity. Not eliminating it - just moving it to the background. Almost like racking focus - it's as if the story were out of focus. The film's attention is on the moment to moment details - with each scene often split off from the scenes around it. The story is told, but it’s told obliquely - or, sometimes, very simplistically, and very obviously: something in a scene will reveal its place in the story (the plot of Damnation is very simple and easy to follow) - but the scene will continue on another 5 minutes, or might only get around to the plot stuff for the last 30 seconds of a 7 minute shot.
4) Psychology and characterization are also minimalist: we are not given significant access to characters thoughts and feelings and emotions. We may know what they are - but in many cases it is because we are told, either they say what they are feeling, or they reveal it through their place in the story. But we see very little “acting” - very little conventional character development. This is the case in Damnation: all the actors behave like zombies - all the extras behave like zombies - everyone staring, posing, everything static, stiff, blank. Emotions are described - spoken about, not acted out. And other means of handling character and psychology, such as expressionism - the representation of inner states in outer reality - is - problematic., in this film. You can, of course, say that the constant rain, the drab, rotten setting, the stiff behavior, are all expressions of the inner worlds of the characters - it’s probably true - but it’s also overdetermined. There is a remarkable bit at the end where the hero confronts a dog, in a rainstorm - the dog barks at him - he barks at the dog until the dog runs away. Not too hard to see the symbolism there - but it is so obvious a symbol that it works like the speeches - it’s explicit - it’s another description of the man’s inner being, as much as his affectless speeches. Description opposed to depiction.
5) Most social, political, cultural, etc. issues are also backgrounded - not eliminated - but kept in the background, out of focus. This is also true enough here, and in contemplative cinema, though this starts to get sketchy. It isn't hard to see political and social significance in the miserablism of this film - it's just that it's always kept out of the frame, in a sense. This is where my little scheme starts to get messy, I think - but for now... I'll let it stand - and above the line, so to speak - though I am not sure how well it works.
6) [sort of] Along about here, there is a line I think - we start to get into characteristics that are common in the kinds of films I'm thinking of - but that are also common in films I don't think fit. The main one is a kind of mysticism. You see this in Tarkovsky, Sukorov, Dovshenko - a kind of ecstasy in the elements, or a landscape or a face - a kind of religious inflected revery. I have to say - if there is any of this in Tarr, it’s well hidden, and probably parodied. There is a deep sort of reverance for the earth, for water, for smoke - he's got the elements in there - but... he's not doing what the Russians are doing.
Similarly, this mystical revery (missing from Tarr, found in the three named Russians) borders on a general dream state. But I think this is where the contemplative genre clearly stops: when films start to insist, too much, on their likeness to dreams, they have moved away from contemplative cinema into something else. Surrealism, which makes the most of the likeness of dreams and films, and takes the desire to film dreams most seriously, is something different. It is well and solidly removed from the likes of Tarr. And I'm inclined to think the "contemplative cinema" "genre" is more useful if it is more specific. Or - put another way - that the "genre" described here is one it is useful to think about, and to distinguish from surrealism, say...
Anyway - looks like I am ready to post. The real test comes now - the rest of the day, I will be watching Satantango. I think, though, if I revisit the subject (I hope I do), it will be much more specifically about Bela Tarr's work. In the end, genres and types and the like are just useful guides - the films themselves (or filmmakers, though that gets you into some muddy waters sometimes) have to be taken as they are...