>Wrong Move & our institution of high art

>This post can be considered a contribution to the contemplative cinema blogathon over at Unspoken Cinema.

I am convinced that the existence of the contemplative in cinema gains or loses its power from the historical and cultural contexts in which it plays. In other words, one person’s contemplative moment is another person’s boring-art-film moment is another person’s slice of reality. And that those cinematic moments shift over time, for example traveling from a formerly populist cultural object used for “mere” entertainment to an archaeological/social artifact used for contemplation by a cultural elite. Take for example the two scenes in Wim Wenders’ Wrong Move (1975) in which the five central characters proceed on extended walks while talking, observing, and not talking.

Wrong Move is not a contemplative film the way a Tarkovsky or Tarr film might be, but it uses some contemplative devices. The plot is apparently thin, the motivations of characters are somewhat obscure, and the focus is on the character’s trying to solve the question of their existence and understand themselves. I do not imagine Wrong Move was a particularly popular film in its day. I know that no one would bother watching it today except for those who have an interest in such films. Regardless, it is a very good film.

In many films walking, like car chases, is a time filler. A director can lengthen or shorten such scenes to fit the desired length for the film. Ellipses exist, in part, to do away with obvious time-wasters as extended walking scenes. That is why we see a character leave an apartment and then see her driving her car; we just assume the action between leaving and driving took place and we do not care to see it anyway.

In Wrong Move Wenders uses ellipses when it is appropriate to telling the story. But then, twice, he creates scenes in which characters just walk, amble really, through a city first, and then through the countryside. In both cases the walking takes up minutes of screen time. And in both cases there are significant pauses in the conversations, which, other than the walking, is also the only “action” going on.

In the first walking scene the characters walk along side streets and back alleys, mostly in silence, observing the world around them.

Several times they stop and observer and listen to the sights and sounds of the city and its inhabitants. In one instance a man and woman are fighting and the man begins beating the woman. The walkers turn and keep walking. Another time a man yells out of his upstairs window about his extreme suffering. They stop, listen, and keep walking.

In the second sequence the characters walk up a long road in the country until they are high above the valley and the river below.

At moments they pair up and then switch pairings in a natural way that amblers do.

Along the way they talk of various things such as art and politics and history.

Overall, neither of these walks advances the plot with any kind of action. These walks are almost like detours from the story. That’s one way of looking at them. Another way of looking at them is that these walks are central to the story and that the plot revolves, in a sense, around these moments. In fact, these walking scenes are key contemplative moments that both draw us into the characters as human beings who think, rather than merely act, and foreground the film as a film, thus substantiating our own ambling.

By having the characters walk for such extended screen time one is faced with non-normative cinematic conventions. By having the characters talk one is drawn into their thinking. In both instances one is faced with either turning away or contemplating the film and one’s own thoughts. The fact that a film would ask the viewer to participate in contemplation places that film outside the assumptions underlying more popular films. Wrong Move, though it is built with a populist technology, nonetheless resides outside populist conventions, even if its themes are universal.

This “foregrounding” is a common contemplative process. By deviating from classical cinematic narrative norms, in this case by just having the characters walk for minutes of screen time, the viewer is made more aware of being a viewer, and of the film being a film. In this sense the contemplative aspects include not only what is happening on the screen, but the act of viewing, including one’s relationship to the film as film.

A note on contemplative cinema: We live at a time in which the discussion of art often assumes one underlying purpose of art, that is, art is for perceptual contemplation, and more specifically, for aesthetic contemplation. But art is also for many things, not least of which includes religious rites, or telling stories, or public ceremonies. We can also assume that art can roughly be categorized as works of high art, works of popular art, and works of the tribe. In all these distinction there is great cross-over and cross-pollinating, so much so that clear divisions are often impossible to maintain.

I want to point this out because when we talk of contemplative cinema we are typically referring to basic assumptions of our institution of high art. First, to borrow from Nicholas Wolterstorff, a society’s institution of art can be summed as

[T]he characteristic arrangements and patterns of action whereby works of art are produced in that society, whereby they are made available for the use of members of that society, and whereby members of that society are enabled to make use of them.

Art in Action, 1980

Thus, the institution of high art consists of those patterns and arrangements that create, support, and suite the needs and desires of those who would “use” works of high art. That art is for aesthetic contemplation is probably the single most assumed characteristic of this institution.

I recognize the term “high art” can be somewhat pejorative, but I do not intend it so, for it is not necessarily a question of valuation. But it might be a question of social class – an unwelcome and unrecognized term in the U.S.

One can observe that in our society there is a cultural elite: a group that is both open (anyone can join) and is closely tied to our intellectual elite (which also anyone can join). Lest we chafe at such notions, we should keep in mind that a very small percentage of people in our society will ever step into an art gallery or concert hall, and very few people will ever watch a Tarkovsky or Tarr film, or a Wenders film from the 1970s, or even a great Hollywood studio era film outside a handful of titles. And certainly even fewer individuals will read works of film theory or film history, or bother to write down their own thoughts on the subject.

We should also believe, however, that this cultural elite consists of individuals fundamentally no different than anyone else. The term is largely a technical one. I like to think that our cultural elite behaves as it does for much the same reasons, as described by Pauline Kael, that educated audiences see “art” films:

I would like to suggest that the educated audience often uses “art” films in much the same self-indulgent way as the mass audience uses the Hollywood “product,” finding wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and their liberalism.

from Fantasies of the Art-House Audience, in I Lost It at the Movies (1965)

Contemplative cinema is more than a category of cinematic effects or a collection of stylistic characteristics. It is also a social term, and maybe even a political term. To speak of contemplative cinema is to draw connections with our institution of high art with all of its assumptions, expectations, and motivations.

3 thoughts on “>Wrong Move & our institution of high art

  1. >Very interesting Tucker! You took the lead from the Rosenbaum-Durgnat roundtable on non-narrative criticism to the letter. And what you say about this Wenders film reminds me of what Kiarostami says of his on-car stationary-travellings where the camera is fixed on a static face to focus the eye of the spectator, while the background is in constant motion to change the composition of the frame and avoid monotony.I’d like to know how you would develop this idea of “contemplative cinema” as a social/political term, if you care to share with us.

  2. >Harry, thanks for the comments. Now I will have to go and read the Rosenbaum-Durgnat article. As for contemplative cinema being a social/political term – that topic interests me very much, but I’m not sure if I’m ready to fully dive into it as I would like. We’ll see.

  3. >Your writing about the walking scene in WRONG MOVE inspires me to think about something. Though what I think may not be directly related to the topic of your writing, it is still directly inspired by your writing. So I would like to share it with you.Here is what I think:–There are some outstanding non-narrative moments in narrative films, such as the walking scene in WRONG MOVE. Such moments may include:1.The riding-on-a-train scene in SECRET DEFENSE (1998, Jacques Rivette), in which we only see the protagonist riding on a train for a long time. Nothing is really happening in the scene, except what the heroine may be thinking during that journey. Jared Rapfogel wrote about this important scene in Senses of Cinema.2.Some moments in ALL THE VERMEERS IN NEW YORK (1990, Jon Jost). For the most parts, this film is like a Rohmer’s film, because it is full of characters talking naturally to each other. But some moments stand out from the film because they seem unconnected to the main story, such as the scene in which something is slowly moving across the sky, the one in which the camera just focuses on the patterns on the building floor, or the one in which the camera moves slowly between columns.3.A blackout scene in THE BANGKOK BOURGEOIS PARTY (2007, Prap Boonpan, Thailand). This film is full of characters talking passionately and angrily to each other about the political problems of Thailand. But in the middle of the film, there is a blackout scene lasting 3-5 minutes. The viewers are forced to watch a black screen, in which nothing is to be seen, nothing is to be heard, for the whole of this scene. This scene really urges the viewers to spend the time to contemplate many things they just heard from the characters, before the debates between characters continue in the next scene.In conclusion, I think these non-narrative moments are one of the best things in these narrative films. Some films can choose to tell stories. Some films can choose to discard stories. Some films can choose to tell story in one scene, and discard story in the next scene.–I like walking-and-talking scenes in films very much. While the walking scene in WRONG MOVE is a part of the whole film, there are also some films which are dominated by the walking-and-talking scenes in them. These films are:1.NIGHT TIME PICNIC (2006, Masahiko Nagasawa, Japan). In this film, a class of high-school students walk and talk for the most parts of the film. But I think this film is not a contemplative film, because there are many flashbacks and plot points in it.2.MUSASHINO HIGH VOLTAGE TOWER (1997, Naoki Nagao, Japan, 118 minutes). In this film, two young boys keep on walking along the power lines in rural Japan. This film might be a mainstream contemplative film, because there is so very little happening in the film, except the characters’ uneventful journey. Highly impressive.

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