Peter Greenaway once said that cinema as an “art form” has yet to be established.
He meant that, so far, movies aren’t much more than illustrated narratives: books with moving pictures to bring the manuscripts to life.
That comment has stuck with me, as I’ve begun to appreciate, more and more, how film can communicate through methods other than storytelling. Like the animals who respond to the beauty of the music in The Story of the Weeping Camel, I think human beings respond to imagery, to light, to color, and cinema can give us uniquely powerful experiences regardless of the story that the film does (or doesn’t) tell.
Now here’s Doug Cummings talking about Jean Renoir’s The River (1951).
He refers to Andre Bazin’s praise of the film, saying,
Bazin writes at length on the film’s atmosphere (“its majestic dimensions, its sense of grandeur, its universal spirituality”) and its refreshing simplicity: “Some are surprised by the slightness of the content of The River. . . . I think they are blinded by their literary frame of reference. They judge the film on the basis of the novel it could be turned into.”
Those words immediately reminded me of Greenaway, and now I’m sitting here thinking about the films that have moved me in ways entirely removed from their PLOT.I keep going back to Kieslowski–I think his storytelling is wonderful, but in his later years, he began to repeat himself as a storyteller. He wasn’t merely redundant; he refined and refined certain ideas. But when I think of why I love Three Colors: Blue, I don’t think about the story much. I think about the light. I think about the way the music comes bursting through, like unexpected visitations of an imploring spirit. I think about subtle changes in Juliette Binoche’s face, which is often in close-up. I think about long, patient shots that develop in the viewer emotions that few films are brave enough, and smart enough, to provoke.
I think of Wim Wenders, who seemed to be resisting the inevitable tyranny of Narrative in Wings of Desire for as long as he could, using his angels as excuses to just drift and see.
A film’s rhythm and method affects our state of mind as we leave the theatre. After a cocky action-hero film, I often find myself overcome by the urge to swagger … for instance. (Did I just admit that?) But great artists influence the way I *look* at things. I begin putting frames around things in front of me, to look for whatever meaning God might be waiting for me to discern.
While I do not mean to discredit narrative–I love big screen narrative in all its myriad forms–I’m grateful for those artist who are more interested in helping us learn HOW to see, rather than just insisting on our attention for two hours.