>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…
…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.
…and so I humbly submit