Cinema Sublime: considering contemplative cinema’s relationship to the infinite

Okay, the contemplative cinema blogathon is voodoo. I mean, I have been thinking about it too much when I should be working on my thesis. Bad, bad, bad. So here are more of my thoughts:

Contemplative cinema seems to have certain aesthetic traits. An excellent overview of the most obvious traits can be found at The Listening Ear: Defining Contemplative Cinema (Bela Tarr). I have also tried to triangulate somewhat on the traits with these posts on “Art Cinema” Narration: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. Then I tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to describe the distancing aspect of contemplative cinema by way of contrast here. And finally, I tried, feebly, to find some links to 20th century painting and contemplative cinema here. In some ways I feel my posts have only been scratchings at the surface and not really getting at the heart of the matter. I anticipate this post will also add to the scratching. Probably because I do not see a “solution” to the question of contemplative cinema, merely a myriad of signifiers in an ever expanding galaxy of meaning.

I firmly believe that contemplative cinema is not the sum of a set of unique traits – the long shot, narrative in the background, etc. – although there certainly are unique traits. Contemplative cinema must, I believe, come from a set of ideas – loosely organized and very arguable for sure. What those ideas are is too big of a topic for this post, but I have an idea that the ideas behind and underneath contemplative cinema are complex, very human, and have deep roots planted long before cinema was born.

Here’s just one possible approach to one kind of contemplative cinema.

The concept of the sublime and contemplative cinema
In the 17th and 18th centuries our (richer) predecessors trudged through Europe on their grand tours seeking that fullness of experience that would round out their lives and, if young, complete their educations. When confronted with the awesome grandeur of the Swiss Alps, these trekkers gaped in fearful admiration at nature’s terrifying and beautiful power. Trying to give name to the strange and conflicting experience of fearfulness and mutual attraction, philosophers gave it the name “sublime,” and then set out to argue about it from then until now. Edmund Burke and Emmanuel Kant both dove masterfully into the subject, but it is Schopenhauer who may have clarified it best for us when he listed off the stages of going from mere beauty to the fullest feeling of the sublime (taken from Wikipedia):

Feeling of Beauty – Light is reflected off a flower. (Pleasure from a mere perception of an object that cannot hurt observer).

Weakest Feeling of Sublime – Light reflected off stones. (Pleasure from beholding objects that pose no threat, yet themselves are devoid of life).

Weaker Feeling of Sublime – Endless desert with no movement. (Pleasure from seeing objects that could not sustain the life of the observer).

Sublime – Turbulent Nature. (Pleasure from perceiving objects that threaten to hurt or destroy observer).

Full Feeling of Sublime – Overpowering turbulent Nature. (Pleasure from beholding very violent, destructive objects).

Fullest Feeling of Sublime – Immensity of Universe’s extent or duration. (Pleasure from knowledge of observer’s nothingness and oneness with Nature).

For examples in painting we might look at Caspar David Friedrich’s Cloister Cemetery in the Snow (1817-1819)…

…or at JMW Turner’s Moonlight (1840)

In photography we might consider Edward Steichen’s The Flatiron (1905)…

…or Minor White’s Pacific, Devil’s Slide, California (1947)

I believe we can use these examples from other arts as part of the groundwork in understanding how the sublime might function within contemplative cinema.

Prior to the 20th century the sublime was found mostly in nature, which, for all its potential danger, is fundamentally morally neutral. But in the 20th century unimagined horrors were foisted on humankind – trench warfare in WWI, the Nazi genocide of European Jews, the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, and the list continues. I would argue that a shift occurred in the concept of the sublime to include the fact that human beings commit such horrors, both consciously and subconsciously, and that that inclusion has had a significant affect on the arts including cinema. In other words, one could extend concepts of turbulent nature, overpowering turbulent nature, and the immensity of the universe’s extent to the apparently overpowering aspects of human desire, the power of technology, and human evil. A fully engaged response to this reality could include a scientific approach where one just has to face up to the emptiness of human existence in a world created by time + matter + chance, or it could explore the soul as though on a sea of meaning both frightening and hopeful.

What I am saying is nothing new. However, I think the modern concept of the sublime, with its roots going back to 17th century, may offer pointers towards an understanding of contemplative cinema. For example, it is obvious the Bergman’s The Silence or Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour are artistic explorations of a human response to the modern world from within a position of the nihilistic universe, but a more sublime film, such as Tarkovsky’s Stalker, might address the same concerns, but from a different vantage point. I would argue that that vantage point is not the scientific perspective of the individual in a cold universe, but the soul in relation to the infinite. This is not to say the Bergman or Resnais (in these examples) did not make contemplative films, but they do so by rooting the viewer in the narrative process and therefore in a materialistic world. I propose a sublime contemplative film calls the viewer beyond the narrative – and to me this seems to be a higher level of contemplation.

Another angle on the sublime might be:
The experience of the sublime involves a self-forgetfulness where personal fear is replaced by a sense of well-being and security when confronted with an object exhibiting superior might, and is similar to the experience of the tragic. The “tragic consciousness” is the capacity to gain an exalted state of consciousness from the realization of the unavoidable suffering destined for all men and that there are oppositions in life that can never be resolved, most notably that of the “forgiving generosity of deity” subsumed to “inexorable fate”. (also taken from

Wikipedia )

In this sense the sublime is an almost religious concept – one might think of the concept of fearing God (a combination of love, reverence, and trembling), for example. A contemplative film which has its roots in the sublime might then call on the viewer to transcend narrative construction (mentally speaking) in order to enter into a feeling of the “tragic consciousness” of the universe, and thus transcend narrative climax. The potential issue with this way of thinking, however, is the reality that the viewer’s response is personal, which is unique for each viewer. That is why I cannot go so far as to say the characteristics of contemplative cinema are a set of particular visual or narrative cues. But there may be characteristic goals.

Does it make sense to see contemplative film, then, as primarily non-narrative? One might consider Love Song (2001) by Stan Brakhage, an abstract, undulating, “hand-painted visualization of sex in the mind’s eye.” No doubt this short, purely abstract film seeks to produce an effect within the viewer. No doubt it calls of the viewer to be open to exploration of the self in some capacity. But what can we really say about it? In my opinion, sublime contemplative film still needs something more tangible to hang on to, and part of that tangibility is narrative, even while seeking to transcend narrative.

Love Song (2001)


Of course, a question raised by considering a film such as Love Song is whether or not sublime contemplative cinema succeeds by accurately representing something that is already sublime, or whether by using cinematic means, however so, to induce a feeling of the sublime in the viewer.

A better option may be to consider another Stan Brakhage film, Window Water Baby Moving (1962). In this powerful short film about the birthing process there is the natural narrative of the birth. Although told unconventionally, there is enough of a narrative, and just enough balance between abstraction and reality, that one can “enter” into the film more fully. This entering process then allows the transcending process to be more substantial, that is, it seems more likely that the viewer will end up in a different place at the end than at the start, psychologically and spiritually speaking. The sublime nature of the piece shines through in the combination of the beauty of body, life, and love with the graphic intensity of actual birth in bloody closeup.

Window Water Baby Moving (1962)

Interesting, Window Water Baby Moving is constructed via the often rapid juxtaposition of many different images, and thus potentially subverts the idea that contemplative film is necessarily and characteristically made of lengthy shots in which very little action takes place.

Finally, a cinema of the sublime is not a genre or style or even a set of aesthetic choices so much as it is a particular attitude to the place of human beings in the universe. How this plays out in the arts can be varied and fascinating. I believe the concept of contemplative film includes the concept of the sublime whether is is of primary emphasis or resides in the background. I’m sure much more can be said, but I will leave it there.

2 thoughts on “Cinema Sublime: considering contemplative cinema’s relationship to the infinite

  1. >Hi,Thanks for this interesting post. As a matter of fact, I have written a small thesis on this subject a few years ago. Its title was : sublime, history, and cinema. Unfortunately it is in French, but I adress some of the issue you deal with in your article, especially the way the notion of sublime changes in the twentieth century, and how it appears in cinema.Great intuitions anyways, and thanks for adding Steichen. I have just been to its exhibition in Paris, it was marvelous.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s