So, inspired by Ari and Polaris’ discussion of Koyaanisqatsi as an accessible gateway into non-narrative cinema on the voting game thread, I impulsively watched Bill Morrison’s Decasia on Youtube last night. Annnnnd…… I don’t really get it.
But it’s worse than that – not only do I not get it, but I don’t really have any idea how to evaluate it in my own mind, since I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be looking for. The images were certainly beautiful and disturbing, often at the same time, but I didn’t feel that collectively they made a cohesive statement… at least not one that I could glean. Perhaps this is what makes Koyaanisqatsi an accessible gateway into this type of cinema – it wears its message blatantly on its sleeve. Decasia ’s meaning, on the other hand, if it has one, remains obscure to me.
And I feel like this will be the case with other non-narrative films that I watch. If they don’t beat you over the head with their meaning, I won’t really know how or why to appreciate them. I’ve watched several of Brakhage’s short films, and felt this way about all except Window Water Baby Moving, which I loved, but probably because it’s the one with the strongest narrative. So can you guys give me any guidelines of what to look for and think about when I watch non-narrative films? Or any recommendations for which ones I should try?
I liked the music too.
I like this topic. I’ll post later after I think of some examples.
OOOOooooohhhhh okay, I see what you did there.
Okay then like you I will start with Decasia. In the StL! thread I mentioned how it is mostly “experiential”, as in the experience of it is more important than any thematic statement. This is not completely true of all of Bill Morrison’s work, as sometimes he re-edits or redoes older archival footage into narratives, but in this case it more seems to be about the presentational manner. Keep in mind that this movie is sometimes shown live with orchestral accompaniment of purposefully detuned instruments and broken pianos. It’s sort of an event movie, in the art world sense. It’s easier to watch on DVD than YouTube and with all the lights off on a big screen so that you’re pretty subsumed by the whole thing.
But anyway, what do you take away from it than creeping, haunting music and rotten celluloid? Basically, I’m surprised you didn’t dig this because of your interest in Resnais—here are the recorded memories of the past, but like Marker sez in Sans Soleil, “Memory is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining.” The ghostly soundtrack is in tune with the ghostly mood—you’re watching ghosts. These are all images that have been lost, and you are watching the impression of the images, the remnants. Within the images are people who have been lost, cultures that have been lost, and stories that have been lost. You only have the phantasmagoric remainder.
One of my favorite shots is of a boxer. The decay fills half the frame, covering up the opponent; or rather than covering, that whole idea has been lost, so now the boxer is fighting the decay itself. And at the very end, the decay wins. It blows across the frame and there is nothing the boxer can do about it. The shot cuts at that point.
Celluloid is a preservationists’ medium and yet this is what we’re left with, in a more graphic manner than can be understood by glitchy digital copies (ironic to see it on YouTube, n’est pas? ) and faded books in glass cases in museums. Decasia is more an observation into the material of the medium itself, celluloid, and that common phrase “indelible images”. The fact that it is supposed to be played live sort of showcases its temporal requirements. These images in time are fleeting and fading and obviating. In that same sense, then, the purpose of point of the whole show is to sit back and experience it. As a presentational piece, passive participation is acceptable.
In that sense, what Ari is complaining about with Koyaanisqatsi and stoners is actually kinda sorta the point. Except that instead of being stoned and saying, “Oooo that’s trippy mannnn!” you’re supposed to be dead sober. But hey, bless stoners for being open to having more reasons to sit in a dark room staring at something a little more interesting than an iTunes visualizer. And at least with these movies, you can enjoy them intellectually as well.
Brakhage is not doing the same thing, nearly at all. He is composing the images himself and creating specific effects. He is not only non-narrative, but confrontationally anti-narrative. Dog Star Man is so named for a variety of reasons, but one of them is to give an impression of a sort of science fiction/meta-allegorical narrative underlying the variations of themes that he is employing, which may or may not actually be there.
Because non-narrative cinema is relatively rare in comparison to the much more popular narrative cinema, it tends not to be given enough differentiating or even genre distinctions. Within the world of experimental film there are certainly named movements, and you get the essayists comparing Decasia’s “found footage” style to Koyaanisqatsi’s “montage” style, and in a way you have to ask if the types of movies you mentioned are in any way similar other than the fact that they are not narrative pieces.
Whereas there is plenty written about why narrative film took over as the dominant mode of filmmaking, if you think about it it is still a little odd and kind of random that it happened. People got bored of the spectacle of images actually moving, fine, but why the form did not enrich itself more toward cinepoetry, moving painting, and other senses of having a beautiful moving piece of art to look at is sort of depressing. So in one sense Decasia is also “about” that: Morrison’s obvious love for archival footage looks back at the early days of cinema when not only was it not all just about telling a story, but even the stories told were sort of trippy and psychedelic from the very fact that nobody knew how to string them together quite the way they go now. The rules of continuity are a fascinating and honestly beautiful thing, the idea that your eye actually cuts logically from the moment the eyes of the character leave screen left and then start perceiving again once they’ve darted across the screen to see the character enter screen right, and that that time is literally lost, completely not registered in your brain at all, the fact that an auditorium full of movie watchers is spending half of the time during the movie in complete and total darkness… that stuff’s really neat. But it’s surprising how people watch non-narrative films and don’t “get it”, but are willing to vouch for the entertainment value of spectacle such as chase sequences and explosions. There’s a real value to the experience of watching pretty images in and of itself, but non-narrative cinema gets a bad rap arbitrarily.
Wow! Thanks for the great response, Polaris!
I guess I shouldn’t have been looking to hard for or expecting a “Meaning” from Decasia – it does make a lot more sense to just let it happen. Also, since I watched it impulsively, I didn’t read anything about it before watching – literally all I knew before going in was that it was a 70-minute black and white non-narrative film from 2002 with a score by Michael Gordon. I didn’t realize while watching it that it was all found footage and that that was the actual decay of the celluloid – I thought he had etched onto the actual frames a la Brakhage! Also, throughout the movie, I kept wondering whether it was found footage or if he shot it himself, which was distracting. Your summary of it makes me really want to go back and watch it again with all that in mind!
Okay seriously, I don’t want this thread to die. I cannot have the only stuff to say about non-narrative cinema.
So. here’s another question. If you grant what I’ve said above about non-narrative movies not necessarily being very similar or “genre” together, how would one go about recommending non-narrative works? For instance, if DFFoO wanted to watch more things like Decasia, I’d reference towards more of Morrison’s work and then add in some Peter Tscherkassky because he also deals with the material of the celluloid himself. There’s also a filmmaker I have forgotten the name of but who would put celluloid through things like acid baths and then project the warped, messed up, and rather explosive and violent resultant footage. I need to track that artist down….
…but anyway, and to follow up, how does one go about finding non-narrative cinema, considering much of it is non-commercial? I learned from my history of experimental film class that most of what we watched was rented—there are film renters out there who store and protect and maintain these prints. Also, I learned from an old coworker that Stan Brakhage films still get “discovered” because so many different universities own their own unique prints and occasionally are looking through them and realize, “Oh, huh, nobody has seen this one since it was bought by us decades ago. Ooops.”
I tend to think of (some, not necessarily all) non-narrative films as visual compositions in motion i.e. a temporal series of “paintings”. In other words, generally when I look at a painting, I am NOT looking for a temporal story or plot with a beginning, middle and end; rather, I am looking for a visual abstraction of shape and colour (whether the painting is figurative or not; that is, even a figurative painting remains static, despite it having the obvious potential to evoke dynamic and extrinsic “scenes” in the viewer’s imagination) which evokes an aesthetic emotional response within me. This is not to say that I never consider the content/meaning of figurative (or even abstract) paintings carefully either, but this is generally a secondary consideration for me in an artistic sense, and the same sort of thing generally applies for me in my experience of non-narrative films.
In other words, my aesthetic experience of the intrinsic formal properties of non-narrative films are far more interesting for me in an artistic sense than any other extrinsic “meanings” or “plots” which I could potentially interpret from within them.
Here is a thread about painting directly on celluloid if anybody is interested in participating in a discussion of it.
Ok! So lets don’t let this great thread die…
Jose Val del Omar’s “Elemental Triptych of Spain”. You have it in three different parts in MUBI: “Made of Clay”, “Water Mirror from Granada” and “Fire in Castilla”. Outstanding, brilliant incredible work by this avant-garde spanish filmmaker.
I know, I know… I’m always talking about Val del Omar, but I won’t rest until everyone who truly loves cinema watches his film.
To know more about him, his work, biography, etc… check out this web page: www.valdelomar.com
I just watched “My name is Oona” another experimental non-narrative film. Only 10 minutes and you can find it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pe8O5h9EEs I suggest that before watching it, it would be good to read a little bit about the directress and the concept for the movie. It helps quite a lot to be able to look at it from a different point of view.
Then, there are many others, but I would also suggest the Quay Brothers. Some people would discuss with me that they do narrative films, but if they do (I’m not completely sure about that) at least the way they tell those stories is extremely challenging for the audience. Probably we can watch the same movie together and we’ll understand complete different meanings. Is that narrative filmmaking? I don’t know. But I think they’re brilliant, I’m pretty sure you already know them, but if you don’t, you must check them out.
And before I forget…
“Blood of the beasts” by Georges Franju. Some people say it’s a documentary, others a narrative film… I think it’s a brilliant experimental film that raises loads of questions not only in the subject matter of the film itself, but also in cinematic technique and language.
And I’m sorry, I just got carried away by PolarisDiB comments and completely forgot what this thread is about.
For me, to be able to understand better, or to get more into non-narrative filmmaking, I always need to do some research before or after watching the film. Of course it’s important to find something appealing in the film by itself, without further knowledge of what are the intentions, techniques used, etc of the author… But what for me makes a huge difference is when I don’t understand something.
When I was younger, my first experience with this kind of feeling in a movie, happened to me with “Mullholand Drive”. I know it’s a narrative film, but when I finished watching it for the first time, I was 16/17 years old, I felt extremely stupid. I didn’t understand what the movie was about or what it was trying to tell me.
Therefor my first reaction was to defend myself, as normally happens to everybody when they feel attacked, physical or intellectually. So I start coursing and convince myself that Lynch just wanted to fuck around with me. Later on, 2 years after that, I approached it again, but this time taking into consideration that somebody spent 2 years making that movie. Instead of been furious, I decided to let myself know that probably it was about me not knowing enough, not understanding the process and concepts of the film.
That made me change the way I understand almost everything since then. Maybe it’s me who’s lacking knowledge, who doesn’t understand something… And not somebody trying to look cool and weird in front of the world.
Now “Mulholand Drive” is one of my favourites movies, and this happened because I made a research on Lynch. I watched his movies, read interviews and did some research before and after watching it again.
Now, lets forget about Lynch and lets go back to non-narrative filmmaking. I mostly understand it as modern art. I would not be able to appreciate Picasso’s Cubism era if I didn’t study first the historical context, and most important than that, if I didn’t read about what cubism was about, and why there were some artist trying to represent the world in a complete new way through their paintings.
I think it’s all about understanding why the author is doing what he’s doing, and why. What is his intention? We’re too used to narrative filmmaking, it’s been like that since they discovered that film could be a great business, and form that point until now, we’ve been taught that movies are just to tell stories. And that’s probably the worst disease of cinema.
Cinema is the only art capable of representing all the rest, and even more important than that, cinema is art by itself.
And summing everything up, the most important thing to be able to approach non-narrative/experimental filmmaking is doing research (intention, techniques, style, movement, process,etc…) before or after watching the movie. And also, to let yourself understand cinema as something else than a story telling device.
I would not be able to appreciate Picasso’s Cubism era if I didn’t study first the historical context … I think it’s all about understanding why the author is doing what he’s doing, and why. What is his intention?
I respectfully disagree! I remember as a young kid being fascinated by cubist paintings without knowing anything about their history, or even about the artists themselves. Their formal and aesthetic mysteries tantalised my artistic and spiritual sensibilities, I think.
As for intentions: these are extrinsic considerations, and so I personally care little for them. However, if I do happen to learn something about the intentions of the artist in relation to his/her artwork, then this knowledge will generally be of secondary importance for me in my artistic appreciation. Ere erera baleibu icik subua aruaren (1970) is genuinely one of my favourite and most influential non-narrative films as a painter, and yet I know next to nothing about its creator, José Antonio Sistiaga.
When I was in my teens, I genuinely derived a youthful yet profound appreciation from listening to the artistry inherent in Ludwig van Beethoven’s string quartets being performed, even thought at the time I knew little about the extrinsic circumstances surrounding their composition. Today, in my twenties, I happen to know much more about Van Beethoven’s artistic intentions, and yet my aesthetic repsonse from listening to (or even studying the scores to) his quartets remains just as profoundly intense.
Thank you for respectfully disagreeing! You’re completely right, and i express myself wrong. Yes, I do like Picasso, or Bacon, or Miro, or… without needing to do a research on them before approaching their art.
BUT, in my chase, there’s a big difference in how much more I like their paintings, and how much deeper I’m able to comprehend not only the aesthetics, but also the intentions of the author, when I know about their techniques, their way of work, when I understand better their style.
Specially with film, I’m sometimes a big slave of the technique.
Going back to the example of Val del Omar’s “Elemental Triptych of Spain”. When I first watched that movie, I really, really liked it. I enjoyed it deeply. But then, due to my curiosity, I decided to read a little bit about him, what techniques did he use, reading his essays… Then I found out what he called PLAT technique (Pictoric Luminic Artistic Tactile), that’s probably the main concept in his filmography. I also read, that he want people to have a tactile experience with some of the sequences… That he invented a new kind of sound design, the predecessor of Stereo and how it worked…
The more I read about it, the deeper i was able to get in this movie, more things came out of it, new ideas and concepts appeared in front of me thanks of doing that research.
That’s why I think it’s so important to read and learn about the author, the piece you’re watching, and the techniques he used. Because in my chase, the more I learn about them, the more I realise I don’t know anything.
And that’s probably one of my favorite feelings.
If you think the intentions of the author are important, then you know Foucault.
… when I know about their techniques, their way of work, when I understand better their style.
Oh yes, I agree with this. I certainly like to explore an artist’s technique if such information is available; in the case of Sistiaga, I’m not aware of any information regarding his formal technique, but in the case of, say Rembrandt, here is an awesome book which analyses just that: Rembrandt’s technique (highly recommended!).
It’s not only about that Mischa. In many chases, with experimental and non-narrative film, the process to make the film is more important that the message or aesthetic of the film itself. The different techniques, transfers, film stocks, ways of editing it, sound wise… All those different technical aspects matter in some cases, as much as the message or the aesthetic themselves.
Also, i think it’s quite obvious that film is a very technological art form. Starting from the film stock and its chemical qualities, to the camera (shutter, frame speed, multiple exposures, time you expose each frame), camera movements, transfer of the film stock, different processes, editing… The list has no end…
Without some technical knowledge I think it’s pretty difficult to understand or to get deep in many great non-narrative/experimental films. That’s why, again, for me it’s so important to do some research.
Yes, for a filmmaker I’d imagine that these technological processes would indeed be important to study for practical purposes; but even for someone who does not make non-narrative films i.e someone who simply enjoys watching them, I can see how a knowledge of the medium could also be an advantage to some extent, depending on the individual.
Personally, I’m particularly interested in exploring the art of painting on celluloid (see the link from my earlier post), and I would like to try it one day. But as of yet I’ve never made a film and so I’m somewhat ignorant of these matters in a practical sense; but as a painter I often find myself being influenced visually (i.e. compositions, framing, structures, lighting, colours) in certain ways by certain films, whether narrative or non-narrative, and this is what I was trying to get at earlier in this thread.
I love it how we both defend completely different ideas but I definitely agree also with your point.
I’d check that link you posted tomorrow first thing.
I’m finding my way between screenwrite and images too.
Visual language is about perception. dimensional, metaphor, symbol, hint, surreal, gestalt, suggest, passive, active……. so I would be prefer much more the way that image looking upside-down.
some photographer select image like this way. Cartie Bresson, too. so this way is helpful to understanding what is abstract exactly? What’s your think, people? am I old-school?
and I heard Martin Scorsese watched Kubrick, Bertolucci movie without sound.
What’s your think, people?
Visual is not a language. Visual thinking is about the integration or disintegration of structure e.g. looking at an image upside-down.
That is my thunk.
I heard Martin Scorsese watched Kubrick, Bertolucci movie without sound.
I’ve not heard this but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true.
Abstract visual language can indeed be suggestive and symbolic of more concrete emotional connections we humans can forge with certain things and ideas in our lives (i.e. visual symbolism in narrative cinema), but this is also where it can often be so subjective and difficult to pin down which images are effective and why, because every individual viewer will bring their own personal experiences and biases into viewing the exact same film, and will thus perhaps interpret the same images in their own unique fashion.
I personally found the images in Death in Venice (a narrative film) to be structured in such a way that they were often (as far as I could feel them) symbolic of the content of the film i.e. of the plot and the characterisations; my interpretations are reasonably subjective, but on the other hand, because the film has narrative elements, I believe that there is more room for agreement here in interpretation than in a non-narrative film. For instance, on the other hand with non-narrative films, visual structures don’t necessarily need to be so obviously suggestive or symbolic of this or that (i.e. of plot elements or characterisations), which is why I often find them (in my evaluation) to be more personal experiences i.e. imo the viewer of non-narrative cinema has more freedom to interpret and derive their own personal extrinsic meanings from their experience of the “abstract” images as they feel them, even if these extrinsic “meanings” are not entirely necessary to interpret anyway.
thanks for your detailed correction. That’s what I want to tell. integration or disintegration of structure …… yes right. but, that needs perception at before. my perception mention is about looking at an image upside-down. I learned photography eyes before moviegoer.
photography also needs narrative.
To Drunken Father F O Old,
Cool topic! I took a class with a Professor of mine, Gene Youngblood about Avante Garde film. I just found the textbook we used, it’s called Visionary Film: The American Avante Garde 1943-2000 by P. Adams Sitney. I think it’s a pretty good over view of non linear cinema in America. Professor Youngblood actually has a fairly instructive commentary on the Criterion Collection dvd of L’Avventura (dir by M. Antonioni) that also helps to explain ways of perceiving Director’s intentions.
I’d also highly recommend By Brahkage DVD or Blu ray- Dog Star Man being the epic one to study or read about. And it has Interesting Commentaries by Brakhage.
The Work of Maya Deren is interesting and of course the early Bunuel and Dali shorts Un Chien Andalu and L’age D’or.
And more modern guys like Bill Viola have been called geniuses.
As a side note: Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker always have on TCM with the volume turned off in the edit room while they edit.
Research can be informative to set you up with a framework for thinking about the piece, though for some, like Michael Snow’s Wavelength, you just have to sit down and take it. Preferably on the big screen (which I have not).
Others, like Peter Hutton’s Portrait of New York are meant to make you think about the city, and humanity’s place in it. There isn’t a narrative as such but it’s very accessible.
Then there’s something like Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, which is a seven-hour, narrationless documentary that, despite being narrationless, nevertheless shows and tells you an incredible amount about its subject over the course of that running time.
There are so many different kinds of non-narrative cinema that even talking about the subject at that high a level is not very useful.
“There are so many different kinds of non-narrative cinema that even talking about the subject at that high a level is almost not very useful.”
To me, the probably with that distinction is that many non-narrative films have narratives, including some of those already mentioned. But I think you can talk about a subject called “experimental film” as a particular tradition that can be useful.
For what it’s worth I will link to these two essays by the late Hollis Frampton:
In a strange way both texts are kind of like scripts for imaginary films. I think he makes an interesting case all around…
maybe it’s about intuition that could explain. so I need suggest some hints for this topic. suggest and hint.
ah.. Franpton! genius of narrative! wait, I’m reading those pdf files-
Well, it can be easy to confuse an irrational narrative or a difficult-to-understand narrative or a non-linear narrative film with a nonexistent-narrative film, if that makes sense. That is, there are plenty of narrative films/documentaries which are often confused with non-narrative films simply because they don’t follow the traditional and easily-digestible beginning, middle and end “story arc” format, etc.
right. it’s kind of layer structure on the Photoshop, example. So very hard to get stable image, to get helpful upside-down images.
I guess narrative means whole movie stand for orgasmic ending. The rules except for this makes me satisfy.
Silence Please said, I didn’t understand what the movie was about or what it was trying to tell me.
Therefor my first reaction was to defend myself, as normally happens to everybody when they feel attacked, physical or intellectually. So I start coursing and convince myself that Lynch just wanted to fuck around with me. Later on, 2 years after that, I approached it again, but this time taking into consideration that somebody spent 2 years making that movie. Instead of been furious, I decided to let myself know that probably it was about me not knowing enough, not understanding the process and concepts of the film.That made me change the way I understand almost everything since then. Maybe it’s me who’s lacking knowledge, who doesn’t understand something… And not somebody trying to look cool and weird in front of the world.
I think what Silence Please said above is great—and it doesn’t just apply to non-narrative films, but any film we don’t get initially. Still, it’s worth repeating for this thread.
Silence Please said, I think it’s all about understanding why the author is doing what he’s doing, and why. What is his intention?
I agree with this—especially, if by “intention,” you mean something closer to the filmmaker’s overall philosophy and approach. Mischa responds by stating that he appreciated cubist paintings without any knowledge of the history or intentions of the artist. That happens, but sometimes it does not. Personally, knowing more about an artist’s ideas and philosophy towards their work can be crucial, especially for experimental artists. That has been my experience with Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, to name two. Or somebody like Robert Bresson. The first couple of films I saw and I thought: what’s with the wooden acting? The actors aren’t behaving like real people. Discovering later that this Bresson intended this for a particular effect really changed the way I viewed his films. (I need to re-watch some of them, so we’ll see to what extent this changes my appreciation of the films.)
Also, with regard to intention, while I don’t pay much attention to a director’s stated intentions for specific films, I do try to determine the intentions of the film. What I’m suggesting is that one can approach a film as if the film itself has intentions and objectives. We already do this automatically to some extent. Because of different clues and hints, we can determine if a film is trying to be serious, facetious, scary, etc. If we pay attention we extrapolate other goals and objectives from a film as well.
To do this well, one might want to put aside whether one enjoyed the film or not (at least for a moment). In other words refrain from judging whether a film is a good or bad and instead try to determine what the film is about and what it’s trying to do, first.
Once you feel you’ve come up with good answers to these questions, you can then determine if the film really has achieved its objectives and done a good job of expressing what its about.
Silence Please said, And also, to let yourself understand cinema as something else than a story telling device.
I suspect DFFoO already knows this, but the sentiment is worth repeating. Films don’t have to tell stories; they can even be indifferent to stories or characters. This is important to keep in mind because one doesn’t always know if one is watching a non-narrative film or not. Some non-narrative films actually have a story to a certain degree, but the story may not be the primary concern of the film. In that case, one might find themselves condemning a film because the story sucked.