Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Unspoken Journal I: Béla Tarr

The debut issue of the Unspoken Journal is now online. This is a new online journal focusing on "contemplative cinema," which the journal's website describes as "chiefly recognizable in a series of undramatic traits such as: plotlessness, wordlessness, slowness, and minimalism." The new journal "aims to publish criticism that examines, explores and seeks theoretical understanding of developments within this cinematic terrain."

This first issue focuses, appropriately enough, on the work of Béla Tarr, one of the modern auteurs most representative of the style evoked by the term "contemplative cinema." Various articles explore specific Tarr films as well as larger trends within his oeuvre as a whole, with contributions by Edwin Mak, Harry Tuttle, Pacze Moj, Matthew Flanagan and many others. I also have an essay included in this issue, an expanded and revised version of a piece previously posted at this blog, on Tarr's film Damnation. Go check out the Unspoken Journal site for a lot of interesting reading.


bill r. said...

Here's what I want to know -- if "contemplative cinema" is recognizable by plotlessness, wordlessness, slowness and minimalism, then what's left to contemplate?

Ed Howard said...

I included that description mainly to pull up those kinds of objections, actually. I'm not sure I'm really fully behind "contemplative cinema" as a genre or movement or whatever it is. But Tarr's films, though they're minimal and largely plotless (or at least narratively oblique) and slow, are contemplative in the sense that they, as I said in my article, "encourage deep concentration on the reality onscreen." That to me is the essence of contemplative cinema, if such a thing can be said to exist.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Melville's films often remind me of contemplative cinema. I just recently watched Le Cercle Rouge, and there is a shocking amount of silence for a heist film -- of course that shouldn't come as a surprise since Melville's Le Samourai had a shocking amount of silence for a movie about a hitman. I think Melville's films succeed at what you talk about when you say these types of films "encourage deep concentration on the reality onscreen." Sure, it may feel like there isn't, aesthetically speaking, anything left to think about, but there are certainly elements of the films narrative that are left to be contemplated.

Melville takes the necessary genre tropes and turns them on their ear by waiting things out; by allowing the audience to contemplate past histories between characters and unspoken intentions.

The very idea of contemplation is to strip away all unnecessary things so that once can focus more ernestly. That's what I appreciate about these kinds of films, especially those of Melville's. I guess another obvious filmmaker of contemplative cinema would be Bergman.

I kind of agree with you Bill, but once you strip everything away, the really good films can still leave you something to contemplate about. This past years minimalist masterpiece Wendy and Lucy is a good example of that -- often times the film wandered, but it was such a beautifully poignant journey that left the viewer in the perfect state of reverie so that they could contemplate just what the film is getting at.

Okay, sorry for my ramblings. I think I agree with you two in the sense that this movement wouldn't work; however, I think if you look at these films separately, and not as a movement, and kind of cherry pick certain titles, "contemplative cinema" is a pretty powerful thing.

Ed Howard said...

Kevin, Melville's probably a good example, especially something like Le samourai -- though maybe there's too much plot for diehard "contemplative cinema" types? I don't know. But I think there's a lot to be said for the kind of stripped-down minimalism practiced by filmmakers like Melville, Tarr, Ozu, Tarkovsky, Van Sant, etc.

I guess what I'm saying is that though I'm not crazy about the term "contemplative cinema" -- and I'm certainly not interested in any dogma about what is or isn't included -- I do tend to really like the films that are labeled with this term. I think of it more like a utilitarian term, a way of loosely grouping together unrelated filmmakers who have similar aesthetic and stylistic concerns.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Ed, that makes sense. I would agree with your assessment that there may be too much plot in something like Le Samourai. So, yes, I guess there should be a distinction drawn between stripped-down minimalist films and "contemplative cinema" as a movement.

I'm also right there with ya on how the lack of interest in any kind of dogma about what constitutes "contemplative cinema", because really, the job of any good film is to make you think about the film long after you've finished watching it. So, I guess my mention of Bergman above is more due tot he fact that it's almost impossible for me to not think about his films hours, sometimes days, after I've watched them; they certainly put me in a contemplative state.

I have to admit that I've never heard of Béla Tarr, and those essays have definitely piqued my curiosity, if nothing else.

Ed Howard said...

The whole problem with attempting to start a new critical movement like this is that nobody's going to agree on definitions. As long as the focus remains on the films, themselves, though, it's all good.

Tarr is a filmmaker who definitely requires some patience, his films are extremely minimal and slow-moving. They're worth the effort, though, at least in my opinion. I can especially recommend the sublime, apocalyptic Werckmeister Harmonies for a first look at Tarr's work.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Ed. I've added it to my Netflix queue.

srikanth said...

Thanks Ed for the link... Tarr is one of my favorite directors and I'm going to follow this one.

Sam Juliano said...

Great comment thread here with Kevin and Bill R. making terrific contributions. Yep, Tarr is one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers, and I certainly second Ed's promotion of WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES, a perfect "starter" piece of his work. Ed is right-on in saying he does require supreme patience, and that his work is "minimal and slow-moving." But he is ultimately entrancing. His seven-hour SATANTANGO may way be my #1 film of the 1990's and the ultimate expression of his style and essence.