>towards an exploration of contemplative cinema

>Here are some of my thoughts on the concept and/or reality of contemplative cinema. I am writing this in response to the contemplative cinema blogathon . I must include that I don’t know if I will produce any clarity around the subject. I merely hope to explore some possibilities for approaching the topic.

The folks at the blogathon are loosely defining contemplative cinema thus:
contemplative cinema: 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.

Or, one could say “boring art films,” as so many do.

And so I dive (or flop) in…

What is going on in a film in which nothing is going on? As I ponder this question I cannot help but ponder a seemingly unrelated question, but one which is actually fundamental: Where is the film?

The contemplative film is, as it is with any film, both up there on the screen and in here – inside my head, and inside yours. That is why we can have very different subjective experiences of a very real aesthetic object – even disagreeing about seemingly basic aspects of the object itself. So, while we are conversing about those specific contemplative films out there in the world in which we can all share, we are also talking about the contemplative films which we construct in our heads. [Note: I won’t pretend to be either a seasoned film critic or professional philosopher, but I will try to make myself clear as best I can.]

In other words, a film is a complex combination of a number of things: images, sounds, editing, beginnings and endings, scenes, characters, music, etc. These complex combinations are organized in such a way that the viewer is encouraged to create a mental construction that is, in a sense, a mental version of the film, or what we might call the “true” film. This so called “true film” or mental film is the goal of the creator (or creators) of the film that is up on the screen. And films are made knowing that you the viewer have the capacity to “put it all together.” [It should be obvious on this point that I am siding with the Russian constructivist theorists via David Bordwell’s great book Narration in the Fiction Film (1985).]

An obvious question, then, is what are the cues being given us by contemplative films that other films do not provide, or provide differently? I believe the answer to this question could be long and debatable, even more so than a list of typical genre characteristics. However, I will posit that what makes a contemplative film one as such, is that the process of cueing the viewer is for producing two effects: (1) break the tendency to forget the brain is constructing the film – an act of distanciation, and (2) with a view to effect number one, to encourage the viewer to go beyond narrative construction into a higher plane of self-awareness. The first is about inviting the viewer to move beyond expectations of mere narrative construction, and the second is about inviting the viewer to become a conscious and personal participant in the film experience.

That’s all fine and good, but one could say the same thing about some of the not-so-boring art films, say Weekend by Godard (at least I don’t find the film boring or slow). Having the film push one away from itself, so to speak, for the purpose of thinking about something other than an imaginary story one can escape into, is a fundamental characteristic of modern art as a whole – to make strange, the “shock of the new,” etc. What then makes contemplative cinema unique? Or, maybe a better question is: What is it that we are contemplating? The film, ourselves, a cosmic spiritual dimension, the nature of film itself? In this sense I believe that intent comes into play, but I do no propose that we try to read any director’s mind. No, I believe that the intent of a film will emerge from its own qualities to suggest and imply a certain approach. Contemplative cinema, it seems to me, calls us to a mental state that is not always easy to clearly defined, yet we know it when we experience it, like love or ennui.

So then, what is going on in a film in which nothing is going on? A great deal. First, the mind is fully capable of being as active as it is with any other film regardless of pace or general “boringness.” However, with a contemplative film one might ask if a greater burden (or a more substantial request) is being placed on the constructive activities of the mind. This may be so. Certainly it appears that less is present on the screen so the brain may have to work harder (that is debatable). Second, one might ask if a contemplative film relies on more than just the mind to do the constructive task. This is the key question, I believe. In other words, might the intent of a contemplative film be to activate the soul as well as the mind?

So then, where is the film? It is up there on the screen, in my head, and, if I let it, in my soul. [Note: I am using “soul” rather loosely. I do not intend to dive deeper into a discussion of metaphysics per se.] Contemplative cinema is a cinema of the soul. That is its intent.

Of course, watching some contemplative films may feel a little like staring at one’s navel. And yet, a powerful film in this vein may, in fact, produce a powerful and profound spiritual experience for the viewer. [I am using “spiritual” rather loosely as well.] One might say that a “successful” contemplative film moves along a path from objective film to subjective film to spiritual film. But I want to be careful with the term “spiritual.” I do not mean to imply that such films transport one to a different plane, or that one, via the film, will somehow transcend this existence. No, contemplative film is not about an “out there” or “up there” or even cosmic gesture. I see the soul as being deeply rooted in this existence, in this world. In fact, one could say the intent of contemplative film is to strip away much of the artificiality found in mainstream cinema in order to encourage the viewer to more fully engage with reality.

Finally, if what I have laid out (and I admit not very well) is true, then what one brings to the film at hand is paramount – and I’m not talking about the popcorn. On the other hand, I don’t believe there is a formula or list for what one should bring. But it seems to me that a person who is inclined to explore deeper existential questions, who is inclined to see life as a journey, and who finds the quieter moments in life to be valued, may have brought the right things.

By way of example, a comparison might be in order – in this case Godard and Tarkovsky. I have already mentioned Weekend as a film which has some qualities found in contemplative cinema, yet does not, in my opinion, qualify as a contemplative film. In Weekend there is a famous tracking shot that follows a car driven by the two main characters as they try to pass a long line of cars on a country road.

The camera follows the progress of the car as it passes the other cars in the traffic jam…

…and continues past a number of social vignettes…

…plus a couple of titles…

…until we see the reason for the traffic jam, a bloody, gruesome accident…

…which our characters speed by without a care.

This shot takes up around 9 minutes (if I am not mistaken) and feels longer. Clearly the viewer is asked to consciously participate in the film in a way different from a more typical, seamless narrative structure. Godard does not seem to care if one becomes more attuned to one’s soul, he is concerned about the viewer being more aware of the film in the world (and the viewer in the world). This has a more critical arch to it and less of a contemplative arch as I am describing above.

On the other hand, another film and another wonderful tracking shot. Stalker by Tarkovsky has this long and contemplative scene in which “nothing happens”:

There is a rhythm to this scene that is entirely different to the one from Weekend. Here we have three men – one could say three souls – traveling into The Zone for personal reasons of discovery (I will not try to explain the film here). The qualities of this scene draws the viewer into a more contemplative mode. As the scene goes on for several minutes the viewer may begin to feel the sense of “watching” the film, and yet there is not the same kind of distance one gets from Godard. Here Tarkovsky is, in fact, inviting us to put aside our sometimes frenetic need for narrative and remember the deeper rhythms of the soul.

…and so I humbly submit

6 thoughts on “>towards an exploration of contemplative cinema

  1. >I have not seen Weekend, and so, before I really comment I must ask about this shot: would you describe it as an invitation to the audience to participatory viewing, or is it more forceful than that? I realize I’m asking a tricky question. What I’m looking for is how Godard treats the audience in that shot. How would you characterize that?

  2. >johanna, it is difficult, and a little unfair on my part, to compare shots or scenes without taking into consideration the entire context of the films in question. As I see it, in general Tarkovsky tends to “invite” and Godard tends to “push” or “thrust.” The two films from which these scenes come from, I believe, bear this out, and I think these scenes exemplify that as well. On the other hand, I could be wrong and I would like to hear what others think. Also, I certainly consider this post to be a work in progress and I am very open to different interpretations, etc. Thanks for your question.

  3. >Yes, of course. Sometimes blogathons remind me of those early high school dances — everyone’s there to do the one thing that they’re not doing! (Or maybe I’m just not shy…)The reason I ask is this thing I’ve been mulling over for weeks now, of the experience of thinking while watching a film, because we all do it whether we are aware of it or not; or, as you say, have attained some level of distanciation. And there’s such an ebb and flow between that screen and us that putting our minds in that place can be a dangerous thing.If you’ve ever come out of a film feeling battered or as though your mind’s been rifled, then you know what I mean…and that’s where the real responsibility of the director comes in, I feel, and part of what makes contemplative cinema such a vital part of our culture.

  4. >As always, Tuck, you make some great points and raise some provocative questions. If I could, I would like to respond to your post with a few thoughts of my own. I don’t pretend to be as smart or educated on these things as you, so don’t expect this to make a whole lot of sense. I am more or less thinking on my feet here. “Where is the film?”This is an EXCELLENT question and actually ties in with something that I’ve been mulling over in the past year or so, prompted by a conversation I had with someone over whether or not an actor’s stage performance was a “thing” in the same way that a recording of the same performance was a “thing.” This took a great deal of thinking on my part.I eventually concluded that an actor’s performance is perhaps not a “thing” in the sense that it is an “object,” but we would still be hesitant (even in our present-day materialistic culture) to say it doesn’t “exist,” and we would certainly consider it no less a work of creativity than any other artistic “object” (a painting, sculpture, book, etc). That’s when I began to realize that perhaps ALL art, in fact, exists only in the “realm of ideas.” The thing that makes a work of art what it is (“the content” if you will) cannot have any material existence, whereas the “form” of the work is really the ONLY thing that can have material existence… and sometimes not even then (as in the case of a theatrical/musical performance). This would, of course, include cinema and, not least of all, “contemplative cinema.”Now, this line of reasoning raises a possible theory regarding the “kind” of cinema that we are all discussing here. Again, although I have confessed to liking the term “conemplative cinema,” I am not so sure it is a very accurate descriptor. I mean, it’s as good a label as anything I suppose, but does not a conventional narrative movie have just as much potential to reach someone on a spiritual level, to feed their soul and to cause them to contemplate their life, their existence or other deep and important subjects just as much as anything made by Tarkovsky or Godard? I certainly think so, but perhaps there is something about these “boring art films” that still sets them apart from these other kinds of films.In reading the descriptions made by you and several others of such films as Elephant, Weekend and Stalker (films which, I am ashamed to admit, I have not yet seen) as well as reflecting on the movie I myself chose to highlight for this blog-a-thon (Slacker), I am struck by what seems to be a common characteristic. In most of these cases, the filmmaker seems to want to draw the viewer’s attention to the fact that it is a movie that they are watching, something that a Hollywood film hopes they will (more or less) forget. Most typical narrative films try to get the audience “caught up” in a story, try to offer some sort of a sense of “escape”, sometimes with the intent of getting them to think about something else, something that is indeed important. The “contemplative” film, though, attempts to remind the audience of what it is they are actually seeing as they are seeing it and, in fact, the knowledge of the experience of watching the film is part of the experience itself. It is included in the filmmaker’s intent that the audience be made aware of the form rather than simply the content. In other words, it is not so much what they are contemplating (as would be the case with a Hollwyood film) or even that they are contemplating anything, but rather what kind of contemplating they are doing that makes a “contemplative” movie.

  5. >Damian, thanks for you thoughtful response. I am borrowing my idea of the film being an aesthetic object that exits both objectively before us and subjectively in our minds from Monroe C. Beardsley’s great tome Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (1958). This book has influenced my thinking on criticism and meta-criticism (aesthetics) a great deal, and helped me to better appreciate other approaches, such as semiotics and post-structuralism. I think his approach is very common-sensical. It seems to me that, especially with contemplative film, we need to answer the question: where is the film? In part because we are, in some significant way, dealing with a particular mental state – that of contemplation.As for the process of a film distancing the viewer from the film; I think, as you point out, intent is critical. The process of distanciation is merely a tool and can be used for different purposes. Contemplation is one purpose, and within contemplation, as you say, what one contemplates can make the difference between what we are calling a contemplative film and, say, a typical Hollywood film.

  6. >I only got a chance to skim your second contribution today, but I’ll find time soon to read and comment.I think you should do that Akerman exploration you mentioned. She’s incredibly poorly known in the States — and incredible herself.

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