Are Movies Increasing Your “Capacity to See”?

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.

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  • http://thomwade.wordpress.com/ thomwade

    I notice Nicolosi is recommending it, appearing to be against the current…

  • Josh

    Excellent thoughts, Jeffrey. I just watched “L’Enfant” (on your recommendation) and found it full of the type of imagery you write of here. There’s an interview with the directors on the DVD that sheds a lot of light on some of the images in the film.

    Another recent image that has really stuck with me is the scene in “Children of Men” where the presence of the baby totally silences the battle scene. Though this image has been commented on extensively, it nevertheless still resonates deeply with me and even now brings tears to my eyes when I think of it, just as it did in the theater. What a remarkable image, just dripping with truth and transcendent beauty.

  • Jessica

    Woah, there’s quite a discussion going here. Just thought I’d mention the incredible take on this very topic by Robert Bresson in the extras of the Criterion edition of “Au Hasard Balthazar.” In an interview, Bresson expresses his desire to create a wholly new kind of art form using the tools of cinema – editing, sound, lighting, actors, direction, words, cameras, etc. He calls his endeavor “cinema,” and separates it from the art form of a “movie” — a filmed play. His aim is not to belittle the “filmed play” as an art form, but rather to point out that filmed plays are only a tiny fraction of what a cinematic art form can be and can do.

    When you watch Balthazar, it’s disorienting for that reason: the film communicates ideas and creates a non-naturalistic world using all of the cinematic techniques at its disposal.

    Wouldn’t it be strange if someone came to film in the opposite way most of us arrive? That is, someone who had only ever seen films that focused on visual poetry and the presentaton of visual ideas being exposed to fairly straightforward narrative-focused films? I wonder how much they would miss the reverberations, nuance, and mystery more often achieved by non-narrative or low-narrative films.

  • Sheila West

    Jeffrey Overstreet said:
    Believe me, I am not saying that I’ve lost any respect for “talky” movies. Wes Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Whit Stillman, Charlie Kaufman, David O. Russell… there are many, many filmmakers whose flair for dialogue is one of the highlights of the film.

    I just feel that the richness of the visual aspect of cinema is something I’m just beginning to discover, appreciate, and “read.” And I like what that kind of art does to me.

    Ahh! Okay. So you’re not here LAMENTING talky films. Instead you’re here asking for equal air-time for those movies that embrace visual story-telling.

    Okee-doke. I’m cool with that.

  • David McElroy

    Jeffrey, it’s too late in my time zone to respond fairly to your thoughts, but I wanted to clarify that I was kidding about making sure you never reviewed a film I made. I’m sorry that didn’t come through in my words. I certainly see why you took that more seriously than I meant it, so I apologize for not being more clear. Of course, I have to actually get a feature made before this is even an issue. :-)

    I’m not going to take the time to respond point by point, but I DO think we see film differently. I don’t see it as the same as a static painting in a museum or a sunset at the beach. I see film as being ABOUT the story. I appreciate other visual media (to varying degrees), but film is ultimately about the narrative TO ME. I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m merely saying that I think we see it differently.

    On a discussion board for filmmakers where I hang out (where one of the other Christian filmmakers told me about your blog awhile back), there was quite a bit of discussion about, “Children of Men,” not long after it came out. People seemed to either love it or hate it. Some people were spellbound by the visuals (especially the long shot during the battle), but a number of us found it rather irrational and pointless (if technically brilliant). Even those who loved it, though, couldn’t come up with anything rational that it was trying to SAY (without going into total speculation that went beyond the bounds of what was actually THERE).

    I was completely serious when I said that I’ll never be the visual genius that some gifted filmmakers are. At the same time, I don’t think anybody will look at my pretty shots and say, “Hold on! That scene didn’t make any SENSE,” as I seem to find myself saying a LOT at critically acclaimed movies these days. And the fact that I’m not a visual genius is why I’ll always give a lot of deference to a strong director of photography working with me. :-)

    I’m sorry not to do more justice to your thoughtful responses. My sleepy brain is turning to mush. :-)

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    I will give up the beautiful imagery any day in order to have a story that makes sense and is completely consistent AND which has something clear to say.

    I value story tremendously. That’s why I write novels.

    But I also love poetry. That’s why I spend as much money on poetry books as I do novels. I love both, David. You don’t need to persuade me. :)

    (Obviously, we would both prefer to have both things — story and visuals — done right, but we have opposite “must have” preferences.)

    I didn’t say it was a “must-have” preference. I gave Sophie Scholl an A, and expressed only mild disappointment in its lack of visual creativity. If a film does what it sets out to do well, I’m happy. If it reaches for visual poetry and ends up overly showy, or derivative, I’m discouraged.

    I’m just saying that I’m developing a greater understanding of, and appreciation of, visual poetry. Don’t worry… my appreciation of good storytelling is not diminishing as a result.

    …it seems as though the pendulum has swung SO far in the “image” direction today (among most critics) that those with your view tend not to respect those of us with the opposite view.

    My respect for big-screen storytelling only gets stronger with the years. Again, don’t worry. There’s no disrespect. I’m not dissing anybody’s preferences. I’m just encouraging readers to explore a different kind of movie, a different way of watching. It’s about expanding appreciation, not abandoning anything.

    But when you refer to the opposite conclusion as merely “storybook illustration,” it makes it seem as though those who disagree with you clearly are wrong.

    I didn’t mean that as an insult. It just a description, one I first encountered in an interview with Peter Greenaway: Film is, more than 90% of the time, an illustrated narrative. That’s fine. I’m a novelist. And I enjoy a good comic book from time to time. Nothing wrong with illustrated narratives. I just don’t want filmmaking to stop there.

    If there aren’t story points which make those visuals meaningful, it’s nothing more than pretty images with no meaning — just random emotions without a root in reason.

    Do you spend much time in art museums? Paintings can be loaded with meaning without having a narrative. They don’t even have to be pretty. They can convey all kinds of truth. Creation does the same thing. I don’t go stand at the beach and stare out at the ocean just for emotion. There is something about its beauty that speaks to me; just as the psalms promise, the heavens declare the glory of God and creation pours forth speech.

    What I’m saying is that your view is just as foreign to me as my view is to you.

    Whoah, there. As a storyteller, and as someone who loves narrative film, your appreciation of it is not at all foreign to me.

    I suppose it also explains why I detested, “Children of Men,” as strongly as I did while you and some others thought it was truly great.

    Actually, I rather liked the story in Children of Men. The amazing camerawork just sweetened the deal.

    I will just have to remember (as a beginning filmmaker who’s only done one short film so far) never to send anything to you to review.

    Aren’t you taking this a little too far? I mean, if you want to make a decision like that, I can’t stop you, but then…

    I’ll probably never be the artistic genius at generating the images you want. I’m merely a storyteller who finds film a compelling medium to do that.

    Best wishes on your filmmaking. If you’re a compelling storyteller, I’m sure your work will be interesting. Even to me. :)

    I’d encourage you to take an art history class, or an art appreciation class, sometime though. You might really enjoy discovering just how much a pretty picture can convey besides emotions. It certainly couldn’t hurt your moviemaking. And it might even give you a whole new world of ideas.

  • David McElroy

    Maybe this is why I tend to disagree so strongly with many of your reviews, Jeffrey. Story is everything to me in a movie. I will give up the beautiful imagery any day in order to have a story that makes sense and is completely consistent AND which has something clear to say. (Obviously, we would both prefer to have both things — story and visuals — done right, but we have opposite “must have” preferences.)

    There has always been a tension (even competition) between filmmakers who favor one or the other, but it seems as though the pendulum has swung SO far in the “image” direction today (among most critics) that those with your view tend not to respect those of us with the opposite view. I understand how someone can come to the conclusion that you do, and I accept that it’s a valid view. But when you refer to the opposite conclusion as merely “storybook illustration,” it makes it seem as though those who disagree with you clearly are wrong.

    For me, the visuals are there primarily to support what the story is doing. If there aren’t story points which make those visuals meaningful, it’s nothing more than pretty images with no meaning — just random emotions without a root in reason. What I’m saying is that your view is just as foreign to me as my view is to you. There’s nothing wrong with either view. It’s just that different films (and different filmmakers) are going to value one or the other more.

    I suppose it also explains why I detested, “Children of Men,” as strongly as I did while you and some others thought it was truly great. I will just have to remember (as a beginning filmmaker who’s only done one short film so far) never to send anything to you to review. I’ll probably never be the artistic genius at generating the images you want. I’m merely a storyteller who finds film a compelling medium to do that. :-)

  • Jeremy

    Opus, Miike can be off putting when he’s excessive. Ichi the Killer was probably the most disgusting movie I’ve ever sat through. But when he restrains himself, he shows a remarkable visual style for someone with such little money and time to work with. Dead or Alive is an example of fine nuance. Some dark subject matter, but not overwhelming.

  • SolShine7

    Well said. I think that’s why I like the film Garden State so much. Some people I’ve lended the DVD to just don’t “get it”. There’s a lot of cool imagery going on there like the scene when Zach Braff and Natalie Portman are on the old school motorcycle. And when they’re screaming at the “infinite abyss”. It’s soul stirring.

    Good post!!

  • Darren

    Hey Jeffrey,

    I don’t disagree with anything you’ve written here, but I think you might be projecting (no pun intended) onto the Snow quote something that wasn’t necessarily intended. (Partly that’s my fault. I’ve been collecting these little snippets about film form and posting them on Long Pauses without any context.)

    Rather than “filmmaking as revelation-through-imagery for those who look closely,” I would say that Snow’s first interest is film as this strange, formal thing — “picture as picture,” as he calls it. It’s light passing through a thin strip of film and hitting a screen. It’s images changing in time. It’s a sound wave moving at various frequencies, traveling through space, and vibrating our eardrums (or however sounds works).

    So for Snow, narrative not only prevents us from seeing hidden mysteries (or ideologies for that matter); it makes us forget what film is. If this all seems terribly pedantic, it’s worth noting that Snow is also a painter and sculptor (and musician) and that he has forbidden his most famous film, Wavelength, from ever being transferred to a digital or home video format. Unless it’s projected through film, it kind of loses its reason for being.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    Sheila, Gosford Park is one of my favorites to.

    Believe me, I am not saying that I’ve lost any respect for “talky” movies. Wes Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Whit Stillman, Charlie Kaufman, David O. Russell… there are many, many filmmakers whose flair for dialogue is one of the highlights of the film.

    I just feel that the richness of the visual aspect of cinema is something I’m just beginning to discover, appreciate, and “read.” And I like what that kind of art does to me.

  • Sheila West

    Jeffrey, I appreciate that film is foremost a visual medium. But I’m a dialogue-driven writer myself. You’d probably HATE my scripts because ofhow talky they are.

    One of my all-time favorite movies is “Gosford Park” which won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. And it’s one of the most dialogue-heavy movies of recent memory.

    Yes: film IS a visial medium. Yes: I also have done the film-student exercise of turning off the volume and watching a film just via its images and tried to see if I could follow the story and get the emotional impact without any sound. But dialogue is still a valid componentof cinema.

  • opus

    Heh… Never thought I’d see Miike mentioned in the same sentence as Melville and Dreyer. ;)

    I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of Miike. All too often, the extreme elements in his films get in the way for me. I prefer it when he settles down and does something like The Bird People In China.

  • Christian

    Great topic, Jeffrey, and something that’s near and dear to my heart. I’ve echoed much of what you’ve said over the years, but I do think there are limits to visual communication.

    For instance, as you know, I didn’t care for “The New World,” and unless Darren’s changed his initial view, I don’t think he cared all that much for that movie either. (I haven’t read the post you excerpted, but that’s my recollection of our original “New World” discussion at A&F upon the film’s release.)

    Nor am I big fan of “In the Mood for Love.”

    So *my* question has to do with why some viewers prefer visual poetry as expressed in certain films, but not others.

    Huge topic, and one that I’m content, for now, to dismiss with the comment, “To each his own.” I’m happy you value the movies you mentioned, and I’m happy that I have passionate reponses are primarily visual to other movies. The main thing is the recognition, as you stated, that films communicate visually, and that the tyranny of narrative shouldn’t solely dictate how we respond to a movie.

    The tricky part is expressing *how* the visuals move us. That’s where I’m still a novice.

  • Peter T Chattaway

    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.”

    Well, there is certainly a time and a place for eating simply because you’re hungry and you want your stomach to stop growling, as opposed to eating because you are a connoisseur of fine foods. :)

  • Josh

    “an engrossing movie with little or no coherent storyline”

    Sounds a lot like “Anchorman”, if you ask me!

  • Jeremy

    Akin to what Opus says, this kind of visual expression strikes me quite strongly with a number of Asian fimmakers, though different ones than he cites. Miike particularly has a definite visual language he uses. It’s also why he, or someone like Melville or Dreyer, can make an engrossing movie with little or no coherent storyline.

    Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc particularly said as much with imagery as with dialogue.

  • opus

    I’m not sure why this is, but I find it easier to slip into the mood you described while watching Asian cinema. Not all Asian cinema, mind you, but specifically directors such as Jia Zhang-Ke, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Hirokazu Koreeda, and of course, Wong Kar-Wai.

    Perhaps the perfect example of this for me is the aforementioned In The Mood For Love. Sure, it boasts wonderful acting by two of the world’s best actors, but the movements of the camera, the framing, the gorgeous colors are just as important — and perhaps even more effective — at communicating the film’s themes of loneliness and heartache.

    There are certain shots in that film that still give me chills and bring tears to my eyes, even after the many times I’ve seen the film.

  • Josh

    Excellent thoughts, Jeffrey. I just watched “L’Enfant” (on your recommendation) and found it full of the type of imagery you write of here. There’s an interview with the directors on the DVD that sheds a lot of light on some of the images in the film.

    Another recent image that has really stuck with me is the scene in “Children of Men” where the presence of the baby totally silences the battle scene. Though this image has been commented on extensively, it nevertheless still resonates deeply with me and even now brings tears to my eyes when I think of it, just as it did in the theater. What a remarkable image, just dripping with truth and transcendant beauty.


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