Saturday, January 13, 2007

Defining Contemplative Cinema (Bela Tarr)

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...


Marina said...

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.

You raise a good point (your note about the reiteration of surface images is penetrating). I feel that our inability to clearly, or at least to a certain degree, define contemplative cinema comes from our not knowing its origins. There's a roundtable at the Unspoken Cinema blog, which hasn't still touched that matter properly.

We already see the characteristics but fail to justify them. Why are these features present, and why at that particular time? There's also a great list of example contemplative films, but I think we should look at this tendency, rather than genre, from a non-cinematical view. What were the social circumstances at the time it was born and which are the films that we now assume as contemplative, but are in fact predecessors (before that time)? Or what were the artistic circumstances that caused it to originate?

As Harry commented in one of the posts, these films arise somewhere around 1994, just before Dogme95 comes with its manifesto of cleaning up/ressurecting/rescueing cinema. It laid out its reasons: "no" to individualism in film, "no" to fooling the audience with illusions, "yes" to the naked honesty.

So, was really cinema choking with lies? What were the prime influances and representatives of cinema in the early 90s? To what extent did that find an effect in the young contemplative cinema? What events/ideas shaped the late 80s and early 90s?

Then again, the years could be wrong...

HarryTuttle said...

Thank you for tackling this groundwork of making meaning of all this. You did a beautiful study! I like your reservations and I share them maybe. There is no exact definition I agree. Part of the fun of this blogathon is the work-in-progress exploration.

Technically it would be a stylistic movement (like Neo-Realism, La Nouvelle Vague) beacuse it's defined by its aesthetic, rather than a genre. But it's not absurd to look at it this way since they share so much narrative concerns (boredom, existentialism, slowness, fatalism, disconnection, helplessness, unresolved arc), without being born from a single country (like most stylistic movement usually do).

Damnation is definitely quintessential, as you say. I hope that the blogathon made you look at your first Bela Tarr (and Satantango) with an eager (not bored) eye.
And the peripheral films such as Demonlovers illustrate the dissemination and mutation of this trend into various traditional genres and styles, so they shouldn't cloud the trend, but make it richer by nurturing it from outside.

You raise a lot of fascinating points I hope to come back to soon.
They make it clear that these features are new and never used in other films, which makes it important to talk about a new way of making cinema.

I just opened a new Roundtable to now define the singular aesthetic of this trend. Your post is a solid foundation to go from.

HarryTuttle said...

Marina, the socio-political context would be really interesting to dig up indeed! Although it probably requires a deeper research of scholar scope...
Another interesting thing about 1994, is Pulp Fiction, the birth of a popular trend in narrative films : multilayered stories. which is the polar opposite of CC, by exaggerating the importance of the plot as an artifical gimmick.

weepingsam said...

Thanks for the comments, Marina and Harry... A couple points: first - I don't know if I ever quite named the filmmakers or films who would be in the group of films I was trying to describe: I do have a fairly clear set of names. In fact I did name most of them: Tarr; Dovshenko, Tarkovsky and Sukorov; I'd add Antonioni as another definite. Dumont, I think, is a particularly good fit. Jia Jiang-ke might be - there are undoubtedly others. I am thinking of a very narrow type of film, as a starting point: it's a group of films I think I can nail down somewhat.

Second - I think a lot of the confusion I feel about the discussion of contemplative cinema comes down to something like the difference between considering it as a noun: as "contemplative-cinema", as a type of film; vs. considering it an adjective and a noun - cinema that is contemplative. With the latter, the focus is on noticing characteristics (formal devices, maybe themes or approaches to stories) that can turn up anywhere; with the former, it is more like identifying and describing a particular group of films. This was a definitely a contemplative-cinema as noun post... I think starting there helps clarify the characteristics I think are important in a broader approach to the question.

Third - as the list of names should indicate - I don't think this is a new invention. I think a lot of the things that come under the "contemplative" heading can be traced to Tarkovsky and Antonioni, in particular. Filtered through things - through neo-realism, definitely - through Mizoguchi and Ozu, through the new wave, and American parallels like Cassavetes... Though with filmmakers like Tarr, Sukorov, Dumont, the lineage seems very direct.

There are a couple other things I want to think about some more - maybe at the roundtable. Like the fact that I tend to think of this as applying to narrative cinema - however buried the story might be, it's still fiction. I'm inclined to distinguish it from non-narrative cinema, like early Warhol, or Michael Snow. That has implications I haven't thought through enough....

pm said...

Hm. I share Sam's reservations, and I'm confident enough in them (and others) to say contemplative cinema, which exists outside popular art, certainly isn't a genre nor, considerin' the fact that this might well go back to Dovshenko and continue to, say, Gus van sant, is it a tendency that can be identified historically or regionally (though if you want a common social context from which these films arise, perhaps the film festival? You see Gus van sant wandering out of Bela Tarr film in Toronto...)

And, given that second point, it's no surprise the list of features gets messy when it hits on mysticism, something that seems more a theme than the formal attributes listed before it. Instances of contemplative cinema, though they might employ similar devices and can share a vague set themes we can invest such devices with, are more distinct from each other than alike (unlike other genres, I daresay). Hou's slowness differs from Tarkovsky's, differs from Tarr's, differs from van Sant's, etc. Sukorov goes for mysticism, Tsai for the punch line. Or: "the films themselves have to be taken as they are," here more than elsewhere.

But as long as we're looking for historical origins... On psychology: The "description as opposed to depiction" formulation reminds me of cinema until 1909 or so (substitute tableaux for description). There, psychological states were indicated by poses and arrangements or characters (not particularly complicated ones), and, as a result, narrative content--to eyes used to watching conventional, narrative films, where one sees psychological states depicted, as a process the film follows--is slight. The comparison is slightly useful, maybe, if only to describe how much of popular narrative filmmaking has been rejected...

Also: I do think these should be treated as narrative films. How and why they bury their narratives might be a good way to sort them out.

HarryTuttle said...

I only consider earlier predecessors to trace back the inspiration that led to this trend, but I don't include any films before the last 15-20 years. Because any film before that didn't really break with narration (exceptions are Antonioni, Tarkovsky). Dovshenko belongs to Soviet Montage, Antonioni and Tarkovsky to Modernism. It's something else, even if they share some important characteristics. But we don't define a trend by its exceptions.
I'm with you about the "noun" description. "Contemplative Cinema" is a nickname, not an adjective that covers anything remotely "contemplative". That's why I'm open to consider other names, although the film family we are talking about is itself pretty well circonscribed.
Do you think that films from the French New Wave are more alike than unlike? There is a great diversity of style and personality within the New Wave, yet they all belong to the same family. But the problem is a bit different because they were born from a group of friend from the same place, who followed some kind of manifesto. With CC there is no manifesto, but auteurs happen to be inspired by the same aesthetics, which is different from anything else around.
The new invention is in the non-verbal narration. Ozu and Mizogushi use speech and conventional drama with resolution.
There is an evident lineage as you say (I say inspiration), but I can see a very distinct/new nature in the style too.
To me Warhol and Snow deal more with Experimental Cinema than anything else. Their purpose is in experimenting forms for the sake of conceptual art. They are on the tangent of CC, exceptions that do no define our trend.
I don't think Sokurov, Tarr or Dumont are conceptual artists, they do try to make fiction film.

pm, I don't know any such thing as a "Film Festival genre"... You might call it that because this aesthetics is not defined otherwise, but festivals have nothing to do with that. Gus Van Sant's own filmography is mainly narrative, he only "converted" to CC recently, so he's a guest member, not a defining founder of this aesthetics.
Your question about why they bury their narratives is worth developping thoough.

weepingsam said...

A couple notes: my reservations are particularly strong about creating a kind of metagenre around this idea of contemplative cinema. On the other hand, I think we probably can identify a number of more localized movements or trends. Looking at Tarr, Sukorov, Dumont - the lineage from Tarkovsky and Dovshenko seems fairly clear: the shared formal attributes, even a certain eastern and middle European location (for most of them) rise to the level of a noun, just about.... I think there's some value in finding relatively stable clusters of films like that, and working out some of the ways they relate to each other....

I would hope eventually this could move to looking at how Hou's slowness is different from Tarr's - something like that is important. Some of that can be analyzed in terms of influence or history: like, Hou's long shots look very different from Tarr's - Hou arranges spece in depth, Tarr can be strongly horizontal, all those walls (though it's a flatness that is punctured in places - doors and windows and alleys and holes.) Some of that seems traceable to Hou's resemblance to Japanese filmmakers (some of his shots are as complex, full of multiple planes and frames and such, as Imamura, which is approaching the limit) - similarly, the flatness in Tarr seems inspired by Tarkovsky, if not Antonioni and the like. (And almost certainly others I have not seen.) I'm thinking too of Bordwell's remark about the different ways Hou and Tarr stage scenes - Hou using complex movements of actors, Tarr tending to create his effects primarily with camera movements.

Anyway - the last thing for now is that I suspect the festival is important in any sort of trend in the 90s and 00s - the way festivals have created a kind of international parallel to the more local film movements like neo-realism or the new waves.

pm said...

Harry, I didn't mean to propose a film festival genre. I was responding to Marina's question about a possible cultural source of the CC trend, and, since no one's going to find an overarching cultural link between Taiwan, Russia, Iran, LA, Hungary, and France that could be a causal agent in the creation of CC, I think the international film festival circuit is as good a guess as any.
And now that you mention it, I'm not sure distribution and exhibition models should be considered irrelevant to any cinematic phenomenon...

HarryTuttle said...

Here is another recent post on Damnation ;)

I agree that defining a core model would help to identify what is/is not CC. And analyzing the subtle differences between Tarr's and Hou's slowness is one of the fascinating aspects to look into for this blogathon.

I know what you mean. I guess Festivals are more a means (catalyst) to share a common culture beyond borders, rather than a generative cause.

The Venice festival has been around over 60 years, and contemplative precursors like Bresson and Antonioni were welknown long before the 90ies. Silent movies were highly influenced by the Hollywood golden age and the French school. I mean there is no evidence that makes festivals more influencial in this case.

pm said...

Well, in terms of festivals influencing production, we can cite Mizoguchi making Life of Oharu with an eye on Venice's Golden bear back in the early fifties. Festivals not always featuring something like contemplative cinema isn't evidence that festivals in the 90s didn't have something to do with a number of people making similar types of film. Festivals are dynamic things, film culture is too, funding, exhibition, etc., etc. I think if someone looked into it, the rise and spread of CC could be rationalized in these terms... but, since I'm not going to, I'll concede the point.

Awaiting Sam's additional Tarr posts. Caught Damnation last night-- it had some of the formal properties attributed to CC but they weren't present throughout (eg there's a scene in the bar at the beginning that has three shots that are, in their editing at least, more noiry than contemplative) or uniformly (the dance hall sequence at the end stood out as something different from the rest-- maybe still meeting the definitions above, though). I was also surprised at how heavy on characterization the film was next to Werk & Satan.