How To “Get” Minimalist Movies

Something which really angers me (as I’ve spoken of before) is people who are unable to understand a movie, and thus label it bad or poorly made. I’ve written in length about the over-usage of the word ‘pretentious’ as a go-to word for critics and writers who don’t understand a film.

I’ve tried to think of the term that best describes the type of movies I feel are unfairly labelled such things, and I’ve decided the best word is ‘minimalist.’ Minimalist art has existed for decades, employing the motto less is more to make its point. Thus in film, there are some directors who believe strongly that less is more, and that to make a movie you don’t need to have a big budget, big ideas, or a big cast.

The perfect movie to illustrate my point is one that I’m rewatching tonight, just after I finish writing this: Gus van Sant’s Gerry. It is the first of three films in van Sant’s “Death” trilogy; all three films employ small casts and very small plotlines to make their point, but none do it more eloquently, beautifully, or effectively as Gerry.

Heavily booed by critics and audiences as unfathomably boring, Gerry is the story of two men (Casey Affleck and Matt Damon) who go hiking in Death Valley and get lost. That’s it. That’s the whole plot. The film lasts one hundred minutes and there are precisely one hundred takes, with an average shot length of 60 seconds. While there are a few quick cuts in the film, most of the takes are incredibly long, but I didn’t find any of them “excruciatingly” long or too long; I thought the film was perfect. I initially approached it with caution, as I’d heard nothing but bad things, but I was surprised how much I genuinely loved it.

The film’s follow-ups, Elephant and Last Days, contain slightly more activity, but do a poor job of capturing the sweet silence of Gerry.

So What Makes a Film ‘Minimalist’?

 Minimalist movies can be defined as movies where very little happens, and the director is more focused on cinematography and visual skills rather than plot details or dialogue. Simple as that.

Minimalist movies are often referred to as avant-garde movies, which is often true but can sometimes be a misconception. Avant-garde movies are similar, but not exactly the same. Minimalist films are allowed to have plot and character development, but avant-garde is generally more experimental stuff like Andy Warhol’s Empire or Michael Snow’s Wavelength.

Another annoying colloquial term that gets thrown around in connection with this sort of film is “arthouse.” Let me get one thing clear: arthouse is a stupid, offensive term. Arthouse is used to encompass various subgenres of film as one genre, which I find incredibly ignorant. It’s like putting Mexicans, Argentinians, Brazilians and Peruvians together and saying they’re all one people. They’re not. There are differences.

Aren’t Movies Supposed to be Enjoyable? I Find Minimalist Cinema Boring!

 That’s fine. Some people are bound to find it boring. And in this day and age of swift action, Michael Bay movies and continuously bad, overly budgeted James Cameron timewasters, people are becoming more adjusted to having something easy to swallow and simple to follow.

What happened to the time where movies actually made people think? When people left the cinema and couldn’t get a film out of their head for days, not necessarily wholly because it was good, but because it raised questions and made them contemplate the meaning of the visual images?

Movies are supposed to be art, and art is supposed to be thought-provoking. What’s thought-provoking or artistic about a tracking shot of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s ass for longer than necessary?

I absolutely love going into a movie where sense is completely abandoned, but not for action. If sense is going to be abandoned, it needs to be replaced by something decent. Hot chicks and exploding transformers are not what I paid for. Take for example the films of Luis Buñuel, with particular emphasis on The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie; that film made no sense; it abandoned sense entirely, but it was for a noble cause: to point out the flaws of the middle-class and to laugh at them, which at the time Buñuel relished in doing.

Michael Bay abandons plot and reason for nothing but senseless action, and there is nothing noble about that. He wastes our time and he completely devalues cinema, ruining the idea of the great contemporary summer blockbuster by completely nullifying and rejecting any intelligence he thinks his audience might possess.

If you go into a film that’s in a minimalist or avant-garde style, but you’re not used to that sort of thing, then be prepared. Don’t go expecting a twist-ridden plot, just go, look and the images, and consider their meaning. That’s all you have to do. And the great thing is… every single person interprets the images differently, based on their own opinions and experiences with cinema and the themes that are being evoked on screen. It’s absolutely magical to go into a minimalist film, look at the images, hear the sound and just interpret it your own way; not the way you think it’s meant to be interpreted, but just the way you see it, the way it makes you feel. Everyone’s different, so everyone gets something different out of it. Take for example the proverb about five blind men who walk up to an elephant and each of them have a different interpretation of what they think the creature is. It can be exactly the same with movies, which is what makes writing reviews and sharing opinions so unique and special, because everyone sees things differently and there is always room for debate.

Probably the best example of a film where everyone’s interpretations are different is David Lynch’s Inland Empire. This is a film which disregards general plot sense and chooses to adopt a unique, non-linear approach at storytelling, interweaving various seemingly unrelated scenes and sequences and allowing the audience to make connections and interpret them their way. Lynch never tells anyone what he thinks his films mean; he leaves it up to the viewers, and prefers each one of them to see things a different way.

So don’t be afraid to try something minimalist, if you’re new to that sort of thing. Even if you find a film boring in terms of plot, just look deeper into the meaning of the images and bring from that collection of colour and light your own thoughts and opinions. It’s a wonderful, wonderful moment to be sitting watching a film, mulling it over, and to be having that switch in your head finally click into place.

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Posted on September 28, 2011, in Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. I personally think there is a lot of room between a Micheal bay film and Lynch that a film can occupy. For me, most of my fav movies are somewhere in between those too extremes. They Came Back for example is one slower paced film that i happened to enjoy far more than anything Michael bay has done, but The Thin Red Line i found to be overly long and not all that memorable to me.

    Generally, for me a movie has to be either enjoyable or has to have some kind of point, which is one reason why i liked Irreversible far more than Enter the Void. With Irreversible i saw a point to it, but with Enter the Void i didn’t see a point to it. The point doesn’t have to be absolutely clear, but i would like at least something to go on. And this is one reason why i love Eyes Wide Shut so much. it was slightly ambiguous without being frustrating imo.

    And then there are those few films that manage to be both serious and entertaining. The Rise of the Planet of the Apes.comes to mind as a recent example of a movie that was entertaining without being dumb. Nolans batman movies also combined serious and entertaining rather well. The short film i am planning to do i would like to fit into this category also.

    • Interesting. I definitely agree with what you’ve written. I think the problem with some of these movies is that they aren’t accessible. But isn’t that the whole point? Gaspar Noe didn’t make ENTER THE VOID so people could go “Ohh now I get it.” He made it to fuck with their heads. A film doesn’t necessarily have to have a point but if it chooses to be pointless, it needs to have a good reason. ENTER THE VOID makes up for a pointless series of visual images by forcing the audience to focus on those images, those hallucinogenic sequences, and enjoy them. I think VOID is seriously flawed at times, especially in the final third, but it is so amazing to watch and it’s a visual experience, which I love. But you’re right, IRREVERSIBLE is a million times better. I too much prefer it when a movie, even a minimalist one, has a point.

      • I think for me i just need more than just a visual experience/experimentation.But one thing i’ve learned through interacting with the film blog community is how varied peoples taste in movies can be. I don’t think its possible for any film to please every single person, and i also don’t think there is any 1 filmmaker every person agrees on.

      • You’re exactly right and that’s the great thing about blogging; finding people’s varied tastes and interacting with them, whether you agree or disagree with what they’ve written.

  2. Now this is interesting. And I do agree.

  3. i love how passionate you are tyler. i remember feeling the same way. my favourite thing about you however is your distaste for michael bay and james cameron. there are too many apologists out there for my liking.

    these days i find my feelings are a lot closer to those of dirtywithclass, i’m less passionate and require some entertainment from my art more often than i would have imagined once upon a time. i am both ashamed and happy to admit that too.

    • You’re not the only one who wants entertainment from art. Everyone does, to a degree, I suppose. It just depends on whether you’re willing to be experimental and sacrifice entertainment value for the value of having your brain fucked with.

  4. I find that it varies by film whether I enjoy the slow, languid pace. To look at some of your examples, I loved Elephant but found Last Days to be maddening. I’m a huge fan of Inland Empire. Catching that in the theaters, I was able to stop worrying about plot specifics and just let the images wash over me. This also was true for Uncle Boonmee, which could also be accused of having a “slow” pace.

    I think the point that you’re making very well is that audiences should take an open mind and not immediately dismiss something for being slow. On the other hand, popcorn entertainment can be great if it’s done well. What I’ve been seeing too much of lately is the inability to give anything a shot that doesn’t fit in a neat box. That’s what concerns me the most of the future of the film industry.

    • Minimalist cinema and popcorn entertainment are two seperate genres of film with two very different purposes. I much prefer the former of those two, but the latter is important and fun, too, if it’s done well, as you said.

      I love directors who dare to go experimental and try something new; not necessarily in the hope that people will like it, which is not the primary objective and shouldn’t be, but rather in that they’ll take something away from it that they’ll remember. Inland Empire is a good example of this; you don’t have to love it, you just have to take in what’s on screen and formulate your own opinion on what it means. This type of cinema, to me, is the more powerful and important one.

  5. Just like any film style, there is a good and a bad one and sometimes it depends in what mood you’re in when you watch it I think. I like Le Samourai which is probably as minimalist as it gets but I can’t say the same about Somewhere (which you already know). I don’t mind popcorn cinema once in a while, and I’m not ashamed in liking a lot of James Cameron’s movies. I don’t think every non-minimalistic films are simplistic or daft, it really depends on how it’s written and directed.

    “Lynch never tells anyone what he thinks his films mean; he leaves it up to the viewers, and prefers each one of them to see things a different way.” I believe that description applies to Terrence Malick as well.

    • I like Cameron’s movies too (well… most of them). It’s just that he’s… well, not my first choice.

      That statement about Lynch applies to a lot of filmmakers; I was just using it as an example. I think there is a degree of simplicity and minimalism in Malick’s films, too.

  6. Great article. I haven’t seen Gerry, but will it a point to watch it now. I like GVSs films. Elephant remains one of my favourites. I am not sure, but for Elephant he talked about his style of filming (can’t remember what everyone called it), but it’s like all natural. So if a person is walking from point A to B the camera will follow it for that duration even if nothing happens during the entire walk. I saw that happen in Elephant, and I liked that form of filming, but understand if people found it boring.

    Once again a great article that I hope people will read and thus appreciate different forms of cinema even more.

  7. You want thought provoking? Watch films with a young Matt Damon and tell me that’s not Hillary Swank. Hmmm…

    Minimalist films are good in small doses, for me anyway. You have this incredible tolerance for continuous viewing of ‘art’ films that I find admirable. I certainly can’t watch so many personal interpretations of esoteric metaphors as you can. I will certainly watch more independent and foreign films continuously but only if they have witty dialogue, engaging characters or clever uses of crash zooms. And I always crave a guilty pleasure that I can quote to my hearts content every now and again.

    I have watched films that have stumped me in the past but that alone would not make me dismiss it. In fact the questions left unanswered should provoke more interest in a film.

    The enigma of El Topo is a good example. The story and main theme are really quite straightforward but there is a huge bombardment of iconography, personal symbolism and downright oddities that confuse the mind. I felt I should understand all this and was stupid for not making sense of it. I watched the directors (rather intriguing) commentary and quickly realised that a lot of this subtext is all esoteric and very few people other than the director could decipher his convoluted and often irrelevant (to the key themes/plot anyway) vision.

    When I was a foolish young teenager and only really watched mainstream films one film made me take that all important step from being and ‘average movie goer’ to branching out and watching everything on offer. This film was The Royal Tenenbaums. A pseudo-indie film that I watched for the cast to begin with but after viewing it was left with an odd sensation of missing out on something – and I was in some cases. It nagged me for ages and I watch it again and like a slap in the face I understood it and I was a changed man.

    Many people hate that film. I’m sure many people hate El Topo as well. I find them intriguing still. Neither person is wrong. My point is, what does it mean to ‘get it.’ To appreciate what another person is trying to communicate and share that understanding or to connect with it emotionally? Sometimes you don’t even have to fully understand it to have an emotive response, but I’m sure the mystery is half the attraction rather than a hinderance.

    To say someone doesn’t enjoy a film because they don’t ‘get it’ is a little insulting. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure in some cases it is a factor but if a film fails to connect with an individual it is most likely on an emotional factor rather than an intellectual one. I’m sure that can be said more so for your readers who are most likely more exposed to intellectual films than the everyday cinema walk-ins. And if a film does fail to reach a viewer on a emotional level it’s necessarily the films fault, or the viewers for that matter, people are different, pure and simple.

    However it is general knowledge that people watch films to first and foremost be entertained. Again, you can’t please everyone but if you can’t depict your views on screen in a way that is interesting at the very least you have missed the point.

    It is the art vs. entertainment debate but here is the problem, how much would you pay for a bar of soap with Tom Friedman’s pubic hair meticulously placed in a radiating pattern? Some people would pay a lot. I wouldn’t. I understand you dislike for the use of ‘pretentious’ and it is misused a lot but in can be used often in the art world, not necessarily directed at the artist but to the consumer. People like to laud their art collection over others, to make others feel inferior for not seeing what they do, problem is they may be just as ignorant of the true nature of the artists vision, liking it simply because it is in vogue. This too happens in the cinema enthusiast realm and which is probably why the term ‘pretentious’ is thrown around haphazardly. Whilst it is hard to prove a film or director to be pretentious it is often easy to spot the film viewers who are.

    To claim to like something when you don’t for personal image is true pretension. I could agree with you that Vincent Gallo is a artistic genius and a true Renaissance man and The Brown Bunny is an unabashed and heartbreaking view of male sexuality but I would be lying.

    I know you ‘get’ this film which means it strikes a cord and you relate to it on some level. I don’t connect with it at all but that is not to say I don’t understand it’s themes. I first heard about the film from an article by an impassioned writer who delved deep into its themes and character’s psyche and I wanted to watch it (oh they also mentioned renowned actress Chloe Sevigny performs unsimulated filatio and that I had to see to believe.)
    Upon completion of viewing the film I felt let down on every possible level and it was not from lack of understanding. Overall I was not entertained.

    To surmise I think to ‘get’ a film is to connect with it rather than dissect it intellectually, and by that definition alone you can not teach someone to ‘get’ a film. You either like it or you don’t.

    PS sorry if it sounds a little militant. I’m not trying to be and in past responses you’ve felt the need to apologise for any offence taken. Let me assure you I have never been offended by any view you’ve posted and I hope you feel the same regarding mine. (Ugh it just went from militant to care bears. Sorry for that too. I need to work on tone.)

    • That is probably your longest comment yet, but I loved every word of it.

      I understand what you mean, and maybe I didn’t communicate what I meant so well. Definitely not as well as you did.

      I wasn’t necessarily trying to teach people how to appreciate those sorts of films, it was more of an experiment targeted toward people who’ve been hammering away at minimalist cinema for a long time, completely missing the point of it, which is not to be entertained but to be inspired.

      Granted, if a film is not “entertaining”, few will choose to watch it and that is fine – I don’t think any less of them. I was simply trying to get the attention of those minimalist cinema haters, and help them to realize that if they choose to switch off their brain for 90 minutes and just “have an experience,” then truly wonderful things can happen. People can have revelations about the film, themselves; the images on their own affect peoples’ minds, and everyone associates them with something, so that’s how we get these really diverse opinions on meaning. EL TOPO is a good example; while Jodorowsky might believe we should choose not to find meaning at all from his film, it is still a marvel to watch for its imagery, and a truly satisfying experience.

  8. Reblogged this on omen faces.

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