Underviewed, Undervalued, Underground

Meditative Mode

Exemplary artists include:

Abbas Kiarostami

Carl Dreyer

Yaujiro Ozu

Claire Denis

Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Tsai Ming-Liang

Satyajt Ray

Theo Angelopoulos

Andrei Tarkovsky

Béla Tarr

Michelangelo Antonioni

Truth is disclosed by duration and rhythm.  Elements of style include long takes, minimal action, limited camera movement, repetition of the same shots and sparse mise en scene.

“Meditation” is a word often bandied about in film criticism.  It is often used as a shortcut, a trick of vocabulary that grants intellectual weight either to the subject matter or the critic.  A reviewer can sound like a scholar by referring to a movie about a relationship between a married couple as a meditation on relationships or by referring to a very violent movie as a meditation on violence.  Filmmakers like John Woo and Sam Peckinpah come across as much more serious than they actually are when their carnivals of gratuitous violence are referred to as meditations on violence.

Nothing could be further from the meditative cinema that we have in mind.  We hope to resuscitate this word, to give it new life and explanatory power.  I wish not to use the word as decoration, but to enumerate several qualities of the meditative mode.  To watch a truly meditative film is as different a viewing experience from mainstream cinema as meditation is to waking life.

The first thing one may notice about the meditative mode is the effect of the film on the body.  Not to suggest that it is more visceral than psychological, but that psychology is as visceral as it is intellectual and emotional.  Anyone who has ever practiced meditation knows that it is completely normal to fall asleep when you are just starting out.  Meditation slows down the body to a point usually only reached when asleep.

The goal of meditation is to stay awake, to remain mentally alert, while the body is in this state.  As I understand it the idea is that one becomes more alert if one is able to maintain consciousness while his or her body is in a sleep-like state.  The purpose is to achieve, in fact, a higher consciousness.  Ideally, meditation allows for recognition of events and objects normally missed and richer experience things normally taken for granted in daily, waking life.

This is what meditative filmmakers are after as well.  In a meditative film the action and is minimal and the mise en scene sparse; these directors want us to learn how to see the world that is around us every day rather than populate it with interesting events and objects.  Often they rely on repetition to create the rhythm.  Kiarostami uses only five or six different camera set-ups in his “driving” films.  The static camera is also common.  It is an event when the camera moves in an Ozu film.

Seeing clearly takes time and attention.  Film in the meditative mode give us time to look – at faces and bodies, at empty rooms, at landscapes.  The long take is essential to this mode.  Tarkvosky wrote a book about his theory of cinematic time.  He believed that what people look for in a film, and he meant the act of going to a darkened movie theater to watch a 35mm print, was an experience of time that is felt more deeply than the time that passes in day to day life.  Cinema for Tarkovsky is time concentrated and distilled, and thereby made more intense and vivid.


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