more fun with contemplative cinema


New York, N.Y.
Franz Kline, 1957


Takka Takka
Roy Lichtenstein, 1962

A thought experiment on “contemplative cinema.”

As I mentioned in my previous post (towards an exploration of contemplative cinema) on the subject, I see contemplative cinema producing a distancing effect, but not in terms of the politics of the image, as one finds with Godard. In other words, not in terms of power. I see the distancing effect being much more subtle and ultimately inviting – a kind of drawing one into the subtext of the film by way of “asking” the viewer to contemplate the object (film, image, etc.). Contemplative film is, in this way, highly connotative. The reason I bring up Godard by way of comparison is because his work is such a good example of one kind of of disanciation, and I want to foreground the other. One side of distanciation pushes the viewer back, making her aware of the contingent and contrived nature of cinema, of the power of the cinematic image, and the ability (even necessity) of subverting that image by the viewer. The other side is to see the process helping the viewer to more fully and consciously participate in the philosophical and artistic implications of the cinematic image. For the contemplative film I believe those implications are frequently grounded in the sublime rather than the political.

[Note: I use the term “political” in a structuralist/post-structuralist sense developed within screen theory which treats filmic images as signifiers encoding meanings but also, thanks to the apparatus through which the images are projected, as mirrors in which, by (mis)recognizing themselves, viewers accede to subjectivity. In my view, contemplative cinema is concern with other things.]

In this light, I wonder what connections to other arts can we make. I believe that comparisons can be a good way to zero in on the topic. One thought is in the comparison we can create by placing two painting genres side by side: abstract expressionism and pop art. I see these two painting genres to be somewhat similar to the differences we find between contemplative cinema and what we might call, more or less, political cinema. It seems to me that New York, N.Y. by Franze Kline (1957) can be compared with Takka Takka by Roy Lichtenstein (1962) along similar lines as one might compare, for example, The Mirror by Tarkovsky (1975) and Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle by Godard (1967). I don’t have the time at this point to go into a full analysis (I would love to if I could), but I think there are a few salient points. I think it is fair to say that both paintings call attention to themselves, that both point to something beyond the obvious features of each, and that Takka Takka sets one back on one’s heels bit while New York, N.Y. calls for attentive, yet quiet contemplation. That is the difference, as I see it, between two possible intentions of distanciation.

This kind of comparison seems valid to me, but I am curious as to how others see it. I am also curious as to other contemplative cinema comparisons with non-cinema stuff, such as landscape archtecture or poetry. I welcome your comments.

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17 Comments

Filed under aesthetics, Art, movies

17 responses to “more fun with contemplative cinema

  1. >I admit the word “contemplative” is problematic but my conception of this trend of minimalist films that I call “contemplative cinema” doesn’t operate this kind of intellectual distanciation developped by La Nouvelle Vague, and Godard in particular. All of them would however probably cite films from la Nouvelle Vague as their motivation/inspiration to make cinema (like Tsai who casts Jean-Pierre Léaud).I understand what you say about “contemplation in cinema history”, but I don’t think the filmmakers who break with narrative plot and dialogue to adopt silence and slow pace seek the self-consciousness of the process of the cinematic image. Your analogy with painting art is quite insightful. And your selection is well representative of what movie genres would look like in painting. Takka Takka, could be Godard’s La Chinoise (onscreen writing, pop colors, caricature, posturing, outlines). But I’d rather associate Pop Art with a more mainstream genre, Lichtenstein, himself borrowing from comics, so that would be Kung-Fu movies or Action movies in general or Tarentino’s Pulp.My suggestion for contemplative art, I would like to mention Andy Goldworthy for land art, Tadao Ando for arcitecture. Both organise space is a very minimalist way to walk the audience through a peaceful meditative scenery and frame the natural landscape with “windows” of sights, to capture the gaze and direct it toward a certain direction, much like a contemplative filmmaker would frame with a fixed shot and let the viewer observe what takes place in this space (without forcing a close up on a certain detail).

  2. >Harry, thanks for your thoughts. As I see it, the distanciation found in the Nouvelle Vague (and other) filmmakers is an example of what I’m saying is not contemplative cinema. That is why I say, “I see contemplative cinema producing a distancing effect, but not in terms of the politics of the image, as one finds with Godard. In other words, not in terms of power.” And from my previous post on the topic: “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[.]” I see contemplative cinema more concerned with the soul. In fact, I see the roots of contemplative cinema less influenced by the more “popular” distancing kinds of cinema, such as Godard et al. I am inclined to see the roots of contemplative cinema (as far as its specific cinematic underpinnings) lying somewhere between Mizoguchi and ManRay, for example (I’m just throwing these names out there without much forethought). Or maybe a better analogy is that of yoga, where one becomes very “aware” of what one is doing, of one’s body and breath as a gateway beyond the physical. My desire is to describe a kind of distanciation by way of contrast that is fundamentally different than the Nouvelle Vague or similar approaches. My goal, however, really not to emphasis the distancing effects of some films so much as to open a door to the spiritual nature of contemplative cinema.I think your suggestion that Takka Takka is closer to La Chinoise and better yet, Tarantino and king fu movies, etc., is right on. Your mention of Andy Goldsworthy and Tadao Ando is interesting for me because I have been thinking exactly along those lines. I think there are strong connections between the ability to enter an architectural or environmental space and “entering” a film. How and why we enter a contemplative film is somewhat different, I believe, than how and why we enter a non-contemplative film – the “why” may be the more important factor.I welcome more thoughts. Thanks.

  3. >That’s precisely what I was considering writing another contribution on — the “why” of contemplative film, and it has a lot to do with the recurring theme of invitational direction (as opposed to Godard’s “push” or “thrust”). This sort of talk immediately takes me back to rhetorical theory and the suggestion of feminist communicatve theorists that to use language to persuade or change something held force; and, yet, that “silence is violence.” In this light, the feminist notion of communication revolves around that idea you bring up again and again, of stepping into or entering a frame (be it a 35mm frame or a more concrete canvas) and exploring the surroundings. Rather than attempt to persuade or dissuade — to force a message — the goal is simple exploration and the mystery of the unknown becomes the only “force” at work.The “why” becomes so instrumental and vital because most of culture does not follow this sort of high road (Harry would say “haute couture”) and disengaging ourselves from the messages, as it were, becomes as vital as the deconstruction of the film itself through communication.

  4. >Sorry about the late reply cineboy. Yeah, I was just making clear the distinction with active montage. The yoga analogy is good. Now how does yoga translates in terms of cinematic viewing?Pierrot Le Fou would be even a better example than La Chinoise. That shot with Belmondo painted in primary colors and strapped with dynamites and a rifle.

  5. >I love Pierrot Le Fou. Belmondo is wonderful – and I do like Godard quite a bit in general.As for Yoga, hhhmmmm. First, I’m not expert on yoga. Second, I think the link is more on the level of attitude or approach than merely action. It seems to me that contemplative cinema “works” best when the viewer goes into it with the right frame of mind, and then the film can do its magic. Maybe this is true of any film. I find it interesting that yoga is an activity that one both does and “enters” in to. The word yoga can mean something like the “union of the individual atma (loosely translated to mean soul) with Paramatma, the universal soul.” It seems to me that the goals of some contemtplative films may be something along those lines as well – to tap in to some kind of unversal soul and create the experience of doing so in the viewer.

  6. >yes, it’s this “state of mind” that is interesting in the yoga analogy. But I was wondering if the breathing, the biolgical rhythm, the inner peace wasn’t also a requirement to connect with a wordless film…

  7. >You’ve got an interesting point there. I do think that one’s body responds differently to different kinds of films. Some films are designed to create a kind of roller-coaster ride for the view, others more meditative. It’s probably that certain biological rythms are suited (or occur) for contemplative films. But I haven’t thought about it enough to know what those might be.

  8. >I know that when I saw United 93, that during the last moments of the film, my body arched and grew very tense — and that I attribute that to the rising musical score more than any visual or narrative cause…but that was before I started practicing yoga. I also know that I did not like that effect.It seems to me that different bio rhythms could easily play a part in viewership. I have this book that breaks down diet (i.e., the kinds of food we should be eating) according to blood type, the premise being that different chemicals in different blood types react differently with different chemicals in foods; and, as the types evolved over time, and blood basically acquired new proteins to go from O (the first) to A (the second) and so on, this makes a lot of scientific sense. The book is interesting, though, more in the sense that it describes different personality traits based on these types, some of which have to do with diet. I have often heard over the years that carnivores are simply more aggressive than vegetarians, for example — and my book explains that O types (being the “cro-magnon types”) have very quick impulses in general, quick tempers and reaction times in general, etc…and that B types (my type) still have an ability to react like that, but more often than not use thought processes before reacting, etc., and that, perhaps as more balanced carnivores — the O diet is heavy on meat, balance is the key to harmony in a B type’s life. Yoga, swimming, meditation and walking — instead of, say, racquetball, basketball and the like that require a great deal of aggressiveness first and thinking after.I would add that a contemplative cinematic diet would almost be prescribed as part of intellectual growth for someone in need of balancing forces; but, if I had aggressive or reactionary folks around me, I would not expect them to feel the same…or be surprised if they said a movie was horrible just by virtue of being too slow.And that would explain why a lot of people are not even interested in trying — even people who claim to love film.Sorry to write a book…

  9. >johanna, I think you are on to something. It seems to me that many theories of viewership understand film as a screen/eye/brain thing from a mostly phenomological or sociological perspective. But I have always thought that one should approach viewing films from a “whole self” vantage point. That is, when I see a film it is not merely a visual, or even emotional, experience. When I watch a film, I do so with my entire self – meaning I can’t really separate all that I am (psychological, physical, spiritual, etc.) from the experience. Bio rhythms must play a part because they have a reality outside the viewing experience as well. I’ve always thought it would be interesting to keep a film viewing journal like some people keep a food journal – in other words, describe the film, describe one’s reaction to the film, and describe all that happened that day prior to watching the film (work, play, food, mood, conversations, etc.). The process might point out some interesting connections between viewing experiences and the rest of life.

  10. >When I watch a film, I do so with my entire self – meaning I can’t really separate all that I am (psychological, physical, spiritual, etc.) from the experience. Bio rhythms must play a part because they have a reality outside the viewing experience as well.I do the same thing, which is why I hate being manipulated by a shoddily made movie so much — it has too much sway.I didn’t realize there is viewership theory circulating — anything in print, online or off?

  11. >johanna, I am using the term “viewership” in a rather loose way. What I mean essentially is that much of the work done on the relationship between film and viewer is founded on the concept of a rather passive viewer, that the film “does” something to the viewer, etc. This perspective begins, I believe, with the now largely un-accepted (though still accepted in many film circles) of the pi phenomenon and builds from there. A counter theory to the passive viewer position is that of the Russian constructivists, maybe best explained by Bordwell in his book Narration in the Fiction Film, in which the case is made that the viewer is still very active via the process of “constructing” the film from the pieces provided by the film. What I believe is that the constructivist position may not go far enough in describing the activity of the viewer, that the activity of the viewer is not merely constructing a story, but is in fact reacting and constructing on multiple levels, and that one’s experience of a film goes beyond merely understanding the story. Of course, I am suggesting something that the constructivists would probably not disagree with.

  12. >I’m not sure what the pi phenomenon was — do you mean the movie? If so, I could certainly see how a phenomenon regarding viewer participation in filmgoing could arise from such a work…This reminds me of the glaring contrast between the “banking” concept of teaching and more progressive methods like shared inquiry discussion — in which we become less empty receptacles and more active, organic and cognizant participants in our own education.

  13. >My apologies, I meant the “phi” phenomenon. see: phi phenomenon and persistence of vision.I really should proof read my comments better!

  14. >Thanks — ! (pi phenomenon indeed)Off-topic, but it looks like you’re having trouble with your sidebar…mine was getting pushed to the bottom of my page, too, until I switched over to Google. Sometimes I think it was deliberately set up so that I couldn’t add links until I switched — don’t know if that’ll help or not…

  15. >interesting about the sidebar… I get that issue when I use firefox on my linux laptop, but everything is fine when I use internet explorer at work or at home. What browser and OS are you using? I hope it’s not happening to everyone visiting this blog. I’ll have to look into that.

  16. >At school, where I do most of my online work, it’s typically MSIE 7.0 & Windows XP, with which I don’t recall having any issues…I still need to get access for the Mac at home…sigh.Damian’s blog had the same problem last I looked.

  17. >Damian’s blog had the same problem last I looked. Wait a minute… What problem does my blog have? 😦

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