No Plot? No Problem!

Corey Atad has struck again. This time he has attacked the cinema by seeking to contain it within the constructs of narrative. In his article, he points to director Stan Brakhage as someone who makes little more than abstract paintings, declaring they are not films. Furthermore, he places films as art within the confines of narrative storytelling.

My retort is to repeat that cinema is primarily a visual medium, not a narrative medium or a storytelling medium, but a visual medium. That means, first and foremost, film should be concerned with the images. It just so turns out that we can tell stories fairly well with images but that does not mean that this is the be all end all of films.

Film can be many things. I see no problem with embracing Stan  Brakhage as a filmmaker because he is crafting images in the context of what we technically understand as film. These visualizations may exist without the ease of narrative explanation, but that doesn’t mean we cannot draw out thematic depths and meaning.

To me, this is one way in which I see so much potential for film, the idea of simply exploring a theme outside the contexts of narrative and characters. The key example of this kind of filmmaking is Koyaanisqatsi, a 90 minute film about the clash between the modern and natural world. And there’s not a single named character or line of dialogue in the film. It exists outside narrative, an exhibition in thematic filmmaking.

This is where I would vehemently disagree with Corey about his issue with The Tree of Life. I can concede that parts of the film are indulgent, but I think the exploration of the minutiae he complains about is part of the way the film exploring this thematic depth. It understands that narrative is one way to explore ideas and convey meaning, but there are also ways to explore these same ideas and meanings visually.

Narrative storytelling doesn’t have a corner on the market of meaning. Music and paintings have long since existed outside the confines of needing to provide narrative in order to be meaningful and impactful for audiences, why must film artificially be limited to only conveying meaning through this one modality? Is not the collision of sight and sound an opportunity to take the best of two mediums, add the dimension of time and illusion of movement and go forward boldly into a new way of creating meaning?

Another example I would point to in understanding how film can uniquely generate meaning is Man with a Movie Camera. This silent film by Russian film theorist Dziga Vertov is simply an hour of shots edited together in such a way to create meaning and associations. Here, the contrast and juxtaposition of two images through editing convey visual motifs and ideas that give the film coherence outside the confines of any narrative or characters.

This opens meaning into a whole array of tools the director has at their disposal. The use of symbolism might be used to invoke ideas and then through the next image a bond might be created. For example, what if we cut from the images of an American flag to the interior of a sweat shop in China where flags are being created en mass? Does not that simple play of images convey meaning and make a point outside any sort of narrative? Could such a display be just as powerful, moving and meaningful as an engrossing space opera or a sweeping period piece?

At the end of the day filmmakers make films. What that film looks like and how it conveys meaning is up to the filmmaker. There is a wide array of tools available. Narrative is the primary tool used, and the most familiar to moviegoers, but to say that film is only art and only meaningful in the contest of narrative cinema is nothing short of cinematic fascism.

Therefore, to one Corey Atad I would quote from one of his beloved narrative films, “It’s all there! Black and white, clear as crystal! You get nothing about the nature of cinema and the complex array of tools available to those who toil in its craft! You lose! Good day, sir! I said good day! “

© 2011 James Blake Ewing