Two inches off the ground

Posted on 31/05/2011

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Tokyo Story

Alan Watts, the English writer, once said that when Professor Suzuki was asked what it feels like to experience Satori – a Zen Buddhist term referring to the experience of an “awakening” – the professor replied: “Just the same as ordinary, everyday experience. Except about two inches off the ground”.

Later, director and essayist Lindsay Anderson – whose work includes films such as If and O Lucky Man – would write an article for British publication Sight and Sound in 1957, as a reaction to seeing Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story for the first time. That article was called “Two Inches Off The Ground”, and so I have now lovingly and respectfully nicked that title, because it relates to an idea inherently Buddhist, but – if modern trends are anything to go by – sadly uncinematic: beauty.

In preparation for a blog of this nature, I did my research.

Well, calling it research is undoubtedly being a bit generous; it was more by chance that I saw it and thought it would tie in nicely. I opened the paper (down my neck of the woods, that’s The Geelong Advertiser, which is more akin to a copy of  MX than a newspaper) and flicked to the session times for Village Cinemas Geelong. At the moment, Pirates of the Caribbean, Fast & Furious, Thor, Insidious and Source Code are all doing pretty good business down my end. Y’know, big, loud, stimulating films with lots of stuff in them and lots of gloss smeared over them. The camera moves a lot,  there are about sixteen cuts a second (*insert gross exaggeration here*), there aren’t many instances wherein there’s no sound and there’s not exactly ample time to breath.

Now, I haven’t seen any of the films I’ve just mentioned, so I’m in no position to stroke my cravat, tilt my beret at a jaunty angle, cluck my tongue and say that these films are below me. If anything, I’m below them; they’re making money, I’m sitting on a train to Melbourne writing a freakin’ blog! But still, they represent a modern trend, and it’s a trend that’s becoming a problem for me.

More akin to a painting that an individual shot, Ozu's work is continually blurring the surprisingly fine line between art and cinema.

I was kind of astounded to discover that Mr. Anderson had had such a similar reaction to mine after seeing Tokyo Story, which remains one of my all time favourite films. It seems to come from a much quieter, much simpler place than a lot of films do now; the  kind of film that feels more like a prayer than stills on celluloid. It almost seems to be floating – as Anderson said – about two inches off the ground all the time. It’s a slow, absolutely meditative piece of work, patient and deeply introspective. I admire that in a film; it’s antithetical to the way we’re accustomed to receiving stories, but it’s end result is something quite beautiful.

Beauty is everywhere in cinema, at least certainly in Ozu’s work, and when one finds genuine beauty in a film – in a shot, in a camera move, in the  right combination of image and sound – it’s an incredible thing; at once uplifting, liberating, overwhelming and curiously emotional. One need only look so far as the 20s and early 30s – just verging on the advent of sound – to see just how important beauty is as a storytelling device. Having now gone away and looked at more of the work of Dreyer (following an all-too-brief look at Passion of Joan of Arc) Marnau and Lang, Ozu does not stand alone as a film maker concerned with beauty.

But is beauty –  on both an aesthetic and a deeper, more sub-conscious level – excluded to just the work of the silent era?

Hell’naw! (read ‘Hell no’)

Three Colours: Blue (1993)

It would be folly to make such a blanket statement as “Beauty doesn’t exist in cinema anymore”. Of course it does! Look at a film like Sauna which popped out of Finland in 2008, or going back even earlier a film like Three Colours: Blue or Pan’s Labyrinth or even Schindler’s List. Films that use the camera as a means of not only beautifying, but also inciting an emotional reaction. Three Colours: Blue makes amazing use of a very specific colour palate to immediately incite an emotional response from the viewer. The ever-present hue of blue seems to almost suck the sense of passion from the film – and indeed from the characters – and like Tokyo Story, it’s a film that moves with no sense of urgency, plodding along with a depressing gait that begins to rub off onto the viewer after a while.

Heima (2007)

But if ever there was a piece of contemporary cinema that walks a strange line between being a film, being an exhibition and being a piece of storytelling, it is 2007’s Heima, an Icelandic documentary film about post-rock band Sigur Ros returning home (hence the title, in Icelandic the work for ‘home’) after an extensive tour to play a series of free shows in Iceland. But not necessarily on stages or in legitimate venues. Beside lakes, next to mountains, in basements lit by candlelight; basically anywhere rustic and intrinsically Icelandic.

Now, lake sides, mountain sides, Icelandic villages and basements lit by candlelight all lend themselves to stunning cinematography, and Heima delivers that in spades, clubs, diamonds and hearts. The sheer scope and grandeur of what the camera manages to capture in this film is absolutely staggering, and the viewer does absolutely find themselves kind of lost for words throughout the film, trying to scoop their jaw up off of the floor and mop up the drool after it. Granted, Heima doesn’t have much of a narrative: Sigur Ros stand in this wondrous geological locale, play one of their innumerable beautiful songs with gibberish lyrics to-boot, do a brief interview wherein they talk about something relating to their process or the majesty and beauty of Iceland, and then move on to another beautiful locale. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

So is beauty a gimmick? Is it a cheap (although not really financially speaking) way of getting us emotionally invested, or is it legitimate?

Sigur Ros play around a nativity scene.

Sigur Ros play around a nativity scene.

 I would say not. In silent cinema (especially the German expressionist movement) visuals are the primary means of storytelling. Combined with a score and maybe some title-cards interlaced throughout, the silent era is absolutely about “Wow, look at that.” Without dialogue, what other means do we have of telling a story? We talked earlier about Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, but films like Murnau’s Sunrise and Nosferatu and Lang’s Metropolis are – even without dialogue – visually engaging and undoubtedly beautiful films, but also emotionally connective. The visuals form the living, breathing line that connects us to the film. Without audible dialogue, I need something to grasp. So I grab the pretty pictures and the lovely sounding music with every ounce of my being and rely on these things to carry me through.

This, to me, makes Heima somewhat more akin to a silent film that to a legitimate documentary. I – quite frankly –  don’t really give a damn what Sigur Ros have to say about their process or about home. That, by comparison to the images which (if these two stills are anything to go by) are pretty astounding, is where I am the least emotionally connected to what the film is about.

It is the sheer magnitude of the film’s aesthetic beauty that keeps me emotionally connected to it.

In closing, here is the film’s closing; the culmination of all that I have been discussing, wherein the visuals and the music come together and form an emotional, meditative experience.

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Posted in: Semester 1