Fullness of Minimalism
In the last few years I have been interested in the neglected values of slowness, an urge against the over-praised fast pace, the infatuation with feverish quickness, as it has become idolised in life as well as film. I wrote a series of essays about it, borrowing Italo Calvino’s favourite motto, festina lente (‘hasten slowly’), and have looked more closely at its major masters. Also, a new book, called Turbulence and Flow: Rhythmic Design in Film (forthcoming from Indiana University Press) was born, discussing what there might be to gain, the magic to be found, in dedicated attention, in patiently lingering on details. While analysing the best examples of both classical and new films, I detected another important aspect of the phenomenon: the beauty of a reserved economy in storytelling, the intensity gained through a deliberate reduction to a very few elements. I started to evaluate not only the Asian masters’ inclination toward calm meditation, recognised already by Ricciotto Canudo, but learned to enjoy on the whole the measured, saturated representation of arte povera filmmaking. It became pertinent that the scarce description of events and gestures, which suddenly take on the power of rituals, the tacit hiding of emotions, verging on a severe discipline, do not create distant coolness, but, on the contrary, in this withdrawal a new suspense may come to life.
It is not only the already paradigmatic films by Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love, 2000, Days of Being Wild, 1991, ‘The Hand’ in Eros, 2004), Hou Hsiao-hsien’s delicate Café Lumiere (2003) and Three Times (2005), the solitude of Tsai Ming-liang’s protagonists, the wise irony of Kiarostami, or the newly met Koreans, Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring (2003), and 3-Iron (2004) and Hur Jin-ho’s April Snow (2005), that address us in this same quiet, purified voice. Even sensitive European or American filmmakers, like the Dardenne brothers, Aki Kaurismaki (The Match Factory Girl, 1990), the unexpected Kazakh Darezan Omirbajev, or the young New Yorker Lodge Kerrigan venture to use this method and the force of their restricted language became truly strong.
The archetype or distant relative is undeniably recognisable: Bresson, the always solitary and consistent artist, is the long-lasting origin or influence. (He is the sole idol of the young Kazakh filmmaker!) I do not want to imply a direct influence, but rather the common use of a rarely experienced point of view, an ‘irregular’ approach to the story as opposed to more traditional forms of storytelling. But can we really consider it as irregular? Rather, isn’t it a deeper ability to observe which not so frequently infuses the whole narrative, and in these cases the profound insight justifies the fullness of lengthy time and modestly simple settings.
Because of the applied reduction, conspicuous economy is not the result of some formal decision. Stoical wisdom feeds it. The voluntary banishment of any loud ornament signals the stern striving for the substantial. Instead of attractive, spectacular devices the authors try to focus on the fundamental. Restriction postulates endurance, uncompromising determination, which pushes the artist to the more and more precise ‘naming’ of things. ‘Every truth is revolutionary’ said Witold Gombrowicz in his aphoristic sharpness, for the real core, the true heart of things uncovers the invisible, shedding light on the not customary features. Here are revealed the always unique and individual forms, the unknown faces of odd potentials, lending them a subversive power ...
1. Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer (London: Quartet Books, 1986)
|The ascetic concentration, the lack of emotional manifestations bring about concision through repetitive approaches. Its exactitude stems from the continuous process of denuding, peeling off the superfluous. So, the pulsation of nature appears as naked. It is also interesting that in his preface to Bresson’s famous notes the French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio discovers the connection with oriental art. (1) He mentions Hokusai, whose Zen Buddhism shows similar sensuality by means of his extreme parsimony of tools. ‘Traduire le vent invisible par l’eau qu’il sculpte en passant’ to quote Bresson’s poetic image. (Render the invisible wind by the water it sculpts in passing.) In other words, only by being restricted to the most refined alterations, expressed within ephemeral traces, can we grasp the quivering existence. Humbleness and reticence don’t contradict richness, to the contrary, they reveal the momentum of each distinct moment. Moving from the outside inward, downward, toward the hidden, this is the inspiring strategy of Bresson. He wants to ‘smooth’ the image, to work with only a few. ‘If one violin is enough, why use two’ he warns us, referring to Vivaldi’s famous quote. For in the drop, in the unmoving and in silence is the movement accumulated, he stresses. Therefore his enthusiasm for Mozart’s statement about his own concertos becomes so telling: ‘They are brilliant ... Yet, they lack poverty’. Bresson ruminates over the paradox, qualifying it as the real treasure of a work of art.|
This is a bold, apparently resigned statement, despite the amount of tension it assumes. Since multitude, cramming things in on each other, may easily conceal the energetic drawing of a statement. It is not the abundance of adventures, the dazzling light effects, that produce originality, but the chosen point of view, the new angle that suddenly illuminates a genuine interpretation. Only in this way can effort lead to meaningful discoveries. According to Bresson, this should be realised by ‘contiguity’, putting like with like, assembling the comparable parts. When we are following the leading voices of Un condamné à mort ... (1956), Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (1962), or Pickpocket (1959), we have to live through each stage of the path to redemption (to use Bresson’s vocabulary) with all their repetitive variations, in order to arrive at its final sense.
Each creation strives for a delicate balance between order and disorder, abundance and laconism. There are artists who prefer emptying their presented world and bring to light in this way their personal design. Then things may become visible like fish on the bottom of the lake. Only in this strict, sharp vision does the meaning of a shape, the relationship among parts become unmistakable.
Bresson belongs categorically to this trend, searching for the expressive power he creates by emphasising the connections among the narrowly selected elements. There is no image by itself, only combined effects realised in the configuration. Juxtaposition always modifies the previous image, like colours that exist only in their togetherness, never isolated. Contact and ellipse go hand by hand, like in Au hasard, Balthazar (1966), in which the physical reality of the poor donkey and its metaphoric meaning emerges when we experience the parallel between the two destinies, the suffering animal and the human being. We know well that pulling together two apparently distant things is, already according to Baudelaire, the true force of the metaphor. Although it may seem to be the application two different methods, showing matters in their puritanical uniqueness and yet stressing the constructive power of their unity with others, it is in this dynamic balance that the sensibility of the artist resides.
Needless to say, in his unique style Ozu is another solitary classic who elevates the quotidian to a transcendental level. And doubtlessly his direct impact on Asian film is strong and visible. But whether consciously or unconsciously, among the European directors, it is mostly Bresson, and often also Tarkovsky and Antonioni, who have had a lasting influence on contemporary filmmaking. I think that in the case of Hou Hsiao-hsien we do have the right to refer to these masters.
In this article I’d like to concentrate on his abovementioned films, Café Lumiere and Three Times, as the best examples to see to what extent he reveals something intriguing about the paradoxical power of minimalism.
Both Hou’s Café Lumiere, a deliberate homage to Ozu, and Three Times, surprise us with their low key tone and modest plot. Indeed, the human stories they relate are almost uneventful, ordinary occurrences as they mark the protagonists’ lives. The heroine of Café Lumiere, though she tries to find the man by whom she got pregnant, is not overly focused on this quest. She has time enough to make new relationships, being equally interested in her family’s life, telling them just incidentally of her condition, or she is engaged in other friendly encounters.
However, there is a telling phenomenon in this fragmented storytelling which speaks very significantly about Hou’s conception of time. He lovingly resorts to some visual elements which have barely anything to do with his protagonists’ worries. They belong more to the comprehensive feeling of daily city life, and with their repetitive rhythm add an odd though distinct charm to it. In the loosely unravelling episodes we repeatedly see trains moving through viaducts and overpasses; they appear, come and go, just as normal accessories of the environment. They carry on their monotonous yet rattling presence, representing at once the weight of their metal structure and the impression of unstoppable movement. This modest yet telling detail, a favourite of Hou, shows how things, common objects, are constantly and unyieldingly all around us in our life, reminding us of both what is fleeting and what is lasting. Without the frequent appearances of these heavy and mobile bodies the scenes could not have the same meaning. Beyond the incidental we always have to feel a kind of permanence that defines everyday lives.
Three Times, which is actually a series of three short stories, conveys even more emphatically this sense of different time dimensions. The stories deny any chronology or severely consistent style. 1966, 1911 and 2005 are the chosen dates, and each evokes with the most appropriate ambience the authenticity of the given times: the ‘best moments’ or ‘best of times’, as the Chinese title more literally translates. ‘A Time for Love’, ‘A Time for Freedom’ and ‘A Time for Youth’ are the respective titles of the episodes, and the reduction comes into full play through the fact that all three stories are performed by the same leading couple, stressing the stylised, symbolic nature of the tale.
Yet, the protagonists never appear in any kind of abstract space-time. The tiniest accessory, object and gesture, including the play of rhythm and light, or the application of music and colour, refer to an entirely closed, self-contained universe, though relying on only a very few elements. The first film shows the adolescent confusion of awakening, the growth of a timid desire. A bare poolroom is the setting of the evolving relationship, and the filmmaker spends more time on the careful striking of the colourful balls than on the psychology of the two young people. They watch each other, awkward smiles; little fragmented words weave the secretly developing emotions, disturbed only by the military service’s interruptions. Barren environment, abandoned villages, and then the enduring search of the young man for the girl fill the time, before we arrive at the clumsy, almost mute encounter, crowned finally with a faint enlacing of the two hands, under a soaking umbrella, bringing them close. Shu Qi’s girlish, embarrassed giggling, the boy’s ‘virile’ tenacity and seriousness tell us with minute precision the birth of love and its cautious passion.
Hou works with devices light as air, constructing a film from almost nothing. His camera looks at people’s movements and circumstances always from a distance, from a bit above, preserving the richness of each ongoing, diffuse moment. Registering without loud emphasis both the ‘important’ and ‘non important’, he calls forth, instead, the whole fabric of a segment of life. The more insignificant or ordinary a gesture is – closing a heavy door, gazing again at the little opaque window, moving to the blackboard to write on it the new results of the game – the more weight is associated with them. Or to put it in another way: dramatic action is never the leading force. We experience much more a subtle, levelled vision that is trying to seize all the present components. Therefore the daily comings and goings are repeated with such refined touch, that we gladly feel a sense of familiarity, a warm aura. The number of recurring objects is less than a dozen: a cheap, clumsy washbowl, next to it the wrinkled towel, the eternal pool table with its coloured balls, the creaking floors...all again and again the same. A small world? Definitely. Undramatic encounters? Doubtlessly. And notwithstanding this, or precisely for this reason, whatever is seen becomes livelier, fuller than duels and outbursts of emotions would be.
The second story, ‘A Time for Freedom’, is even more closed and elliptical. Here indeed we are faced with one unique setting in which the two characters are to perform, again and again, their repetitive encounters. The man, a monk, but also a secret freedom fighter, the woman a privileged geisha in a rich man’s house. What happens is nothing else but the always-similar arrivals of the monk, his almost solemn hand washing and the beautiful courtesan’s silent craving for more intimacy, expressed merely through the way she arranges her earrings, combs her hair. On top of this extreme austerity the film is literally silent, following the language of the epoch and that of early filmmaking. We visit a remote historical time, and the vanished, bygone past is evoked with sensuous beauty. Silence is not only the unsaid, but also the rule of the unspeakable. In this way the lack of words gains a charge and when at their final encounter, the woman dares to ask (in an intertitle!) whether the man would have any serious intention with her, the terse ‘no’ speaks with the tragic force of predestination.
Thus, the title, the time for freedom is obviously ambiguous. It alludes to the unbreakable lack of freedom, and to the fact that if anyone tries to revolt against the ruling order, it may only happen by sacrifice, surrender. The time of freedom remains merely the interior freedom, noble but deprived of individual happiness.
Finally, the last short story leads us to the chaos of a contemporary metropolis, Taipei, seemingly in opposition to the atmosphere of the former episodes. True enough, the rhythm and texture of the film work in a contrary sense, but the succinct presentation is similar. No explanations or detailed information are offered about the protagonist’s background, ongoing intentions or feelings. They live their vegetative life, wildly, yet mechanically. Pieces, like stones put next to each other, unfold. Continuity is created through mere succession.
I think there is a secret buried here: we have to understand how this ‘nothingness’ and deliberate austerity transcends the ordinary and builds to such a captivating emotional impact. It appears, even if it sounds terribly simple: the filmmaker succeeds to elevate the small parts to the higher level of metaphor, i.e. a hardly perceivable transfer. Instead of using analogy, accumulation, the naked demonstration of recurring details entail a deeper meaning.
The metaphor/Metaphor is the most elegant ‘transportation’ (remembering the Greek etymology of the word): thanks to the reductive abstraction when stressing a single feature. By engraving the same or similar in a repetitive way we associate a further meaning to it. We feel and visually perceive the substance. Banality conceals more than what the surface speaks. We attribute significance to the pool game, to the fine and clean hand towel, to the easily changeable partners ... Lingering on their real time vitality they gain an unexpected light. Duration lends to them a radiation, another illumination. Consequently, the series becomes more than the mere sum of the components, it is another, broader whole.
On the other hand, repetition dares to lift out physical details, tiny occurrences from their customary context. While, true enough, we do experience the characters being entwined in their environment, we suddenly embrace the roots in which they are embedded as organic entities. Yet the nakedness of these small components reveals their earthy existence, their essence. If the world of our protagonists is restricted to a pool hall, or some other quotidian space, the framing of these lives stresses through repetition the potential of transportation. They appear as free options, and precisely in this freedom can it be associated with something else, going beyond the appearance. The pool hall or the recurring white hand towel become true abstractions: they stand for something more, not exclusively for their practical functions. We can call them elements of ritualised actions, but for me the notion of metaphor is stronger and more succinct. The bold retake accentuates the weight of small things. If the recognisably, deliberately limited depiction, the decentered camera angle, as critics like to label it, and the often telling smoke in the foreground, define the scenes in unusual ways, as a consequence of this, our attention turns to the ‘invisible’. We have time to enter into the meaning of the ambience: what kind of feelings, pain, concealed desire feed the allusive evocation. However, there is nothing mechanical or automatic in the build up. In the first film we move toward a promising accomplishment. Thus the rhythm gains a certain accelerando, though always a very moderate one. In the second part, where the story closes with sadness and melancholic separation, the rhythmic design of the missed union brings a sense of decline, of silence, of decreasing dynamics in order to feel the weight of loss. Consequently, the principle of the reiterated set up doesn’t result in a levelled monotony; to the contrary, it reflects the heartbeat of the story with a subtle, expressive rhythm that conveys their respective meanings.
To what extent does the third story, ‘A Time for Youth’, show similar features? Although the protagonists’ behaviour, their restlessness, bring along a wild and throbbing texture, they just follow the media-dominated reality of the twenty-first century, in the same way as in Hou’s previous Millennium Mambo (2001). Certainly, in this story the fever might be high but the presentation maintains its non-dramatic nature, with scant use of speech, as if the characters could be marionettes. Hou always spares the spectator factual information or explicit dialogue. Instead of an explicit exposition, he resorts to repetition which has nothing to do with redundancy, but is the sign of a most consistent reduction. Through recognition, by returning to a similar constellation, the director suddenly directs the eyes to the significant, and calls attention to the substantial. Through the famous long takes, the smoothly moving camera focuses on the mood, the emotional attributes of gestures and actions, leading beyond customary details.
Like in Millennium Mambo, space is again unusually spare. The very few settings are only touched upon, never fully revealed. We are given very slight indications about the homes, rooms, in which the protagonists live, meet, maybe suffer ... Fragments and allusions are intended to help our orientation, part of the substantial emptiness of emotions, although on the surface we often see the outbursts and passions people enact.
Many critics call Hou’s inclination to depict the very ordinary as an attraction to the ephemeral. I see it just in the opposite way. It is Hou’s perception of time which creates the unusual dimension between the moving and the perdurable, the small and the big ... Time exists so far away that it behaves like a strange celestial body. It doesn’t have any direct impact on confused or disturbed people’s life. The emphasis on the ephemeral would mean the corrosion of time. As if events and emotions would fade away under the pressure of passing time. As if it would be a higher authority (Time itself) which constrains people to traverse their path towards the inevitable fall, to the ‘bitter end’. But here it is their interior, earthy, maybe bodily law they have to follow, pursuing their trajectory through small steps. If this is by principle transient, the weight of this temporariness is set against the permanence of time. As in the case of his great predecessor and model, Ozu (or again maybe unconsciously Bresson), the solemn aura, the elegiac tone derives from this wider vision of human life: isolated, separated from a mightier power, people are vulnerable, they weave their daily actions under the constancy and continuity of a larger universe.
The sensuous doesn’t know analysis. Elliptical freedom, if not arbitrary selection, governs the director’s universe: minimalist communication in order to leave place for sensation. But the overall experience goes much beyond the merely visible. The rhythmic design is telling, pregnant, suggesting and hinting at the duality of times. For next to quotidian time, the slow and patient lingering, the dominating long takes and long lenses magically place us into a larger cosmic fabric, in which we meet a more universal vision.
The plenitude of minimalism is not automatically achieved. With courageous restriction a much sharper observation is required in order to bring about novelty, emotionally rich experience. Only a sensitive and sharp eye can discover the telling and hidden values of a given aura. Beyond the detailed analysis of Hou’s recent films, the above mentioned other contemporary directors, I believe, share with him this kind of sensitivity and patience. Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane (2004) focuses on a truly heated and nervous central character, looking desperately for a lost child. Here, too, the young director dares to come back, again and again to the same location (The Port Authority Terminal), exploring every corner, the escalators, fast food stores. His restlessness never eases off, but precisely through this irresolvable tension gains the drama of high suspense. One state of mind, basically one location, few and transient secondary protagonists, but the attention is relentless and brings about a thrilling intensity. We are moving around in a hopeless circle and only this compulsion, being fixed to the traumatic place, this firm concentration (that characterises both the hero and the filmmaker) could lend authenticity and unusual sensuous power to the simple story.
The fullness of guarded storytelling is a rare gift, but it offers deep sensation only in a particular case if it is able to intimate that the visible foreground does comprise more than the obvious, and beyond the incidental events a more substantial experience exists.
© Yvette Bíró and Rouge 2006. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.