At Long Pauses, Darren Hughes has posted a quote that I want to share with you here. (Thank you, Darren.)
The main problem with narrative in film is that when you become emotionally involved, it becomes difficult to see picture as picture. Of course, the laughing and crying and suspense can be a positive element, but it’s oddly nonvisual and gradually destroys your capacity to see.
— Michael Snow, speaking to Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema, Vol. 2
That’s beautiful. It expresses potently the very thing I spent a whole chapter trying to capture (Chapter 13 of Through a Screen Darkly, in which I share some of the things that I value about Three Colors: Blue and Terrence Malick’s The New World):
That is to say, Snow is speaking about the difference between filmmaking as a form of storybook illustration, and filmmaking as revelation-through-imagery for those who look closely.
This speaks to why I value certain films even though their stories don’t do much for me. I’m not a fan of M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, for example, but there are a couple of images in the film that move me powerfully. When I watch Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love or 2046, I’m more excited by what he does with light, shadow, and color than I am about the story. And Tokyo Story‘s most poignant moments are, for me, moments in which very little is happening.
Film is a visual medium first and foremost — you can cut the sound and still have a movie. You can make a film that isn’t a narrative (at least in the traditional sense). Because most films are focused on building suspense in a sequence of intense events, or the comic timing of jokesters, we lose one of the primary opportunities of cinema: discovery through contemplation of what we see.
Don’t get me wrong… I love the way that cinema gives us an opportunity to unleash the most vivid form of literary illustration. And there’s nothing wrong with narrative.
But I’ve come to value the poetry of cinema even more… and the poetry of imagery is something unique to this medium: It puts a frame around moments in time in which we consider the relationships between what is moving in the frame, and how those relationships converse with moments throughout the rest of the film. This can show us things that storytelling doesn’t. Thus, I’m more and more interested in films that invite me to be still, to watch closely, and to contemplate, rather than films that have me thinking, “And then what happens?”
I’m still a beginner. But this discipline trains me to observe any particular moment in my day and find revelation there. I’m sitting here looking out my window and appreciating the view better because of the way cinema has taught me to consider and appreciate the play of light and shadow in time. Instead of just smiling and acknowledging that it’s a lovely view, I’m watching the squirrel devour the flowers of the Japanese maple, looking at a hummingbird that is sitting on a bough of the magnolia tree, which is flowering against an ominous purple stormcloud, and students are moving through this courtyard in criss-crossing currents on their way to class… and now class has started, and all is quiet, and the squirrel is still eating, and the hummingbird is gone, and the storm is moving east. And this all is full of meaning, just waiting for me to apprehend the voice of God in it all. That’s why Psalm 19 has become my favorite psalm: Creation really truly pours forth speech.
And that’s good, because I don’t know the stories of those around me. I don’t even know the real shape of my own story… not much, anyway. Sure, I can learn from seeking the structure of life’s narratives. But life becomes richer and richer as I learn to think beyond the limitation of the “narrative lens,” and look through other lenses as well.
I do not know the stories of the individual monks in the Carthusian monastery of Into Great Silence. But I cannot tell you how deeply I am moved by the moments in which the director brings their faces into close-up, one by one, and we look into their quiet gazes. There aren’t words for what is said there… but something is said by each one of them, silently, through the beautiful ruin and grace of their expressions.
Of course, the cinema of visual poetry requires the audience to participate more actively in the experience of a movie. And any film that requires much from the audience is not likely to ever be a box office hit.
I’ve lost track of how many times moviegoers, upon learning that I write reviews, respond by saying, “Yeah, well, I go to the movies to turn my brain off.” Which is, I’m coming to believe, a lot like saying, “I go to dinner to turn my stomach off.” That’s why I’m losing my appetite for typical narrative entertainment. I want to meditate on the “meal” of a moment. I want to be nourished. I don’t want to be merely amused or entertained. I want to see.