I love movies in which nothing much happens—the ones that take their time, that emphasize poetic images and moments and give us enough time to soak all that up.
While I appreciate well-told stories, I do find that the emphasis on plot will get my mind a little too active. I’ll sit there and try to figure out what’s happening or where the story is going, and while that can be fun, it also fills me with a kind of anxiety that I often become self-conscious of, which then takes me out of the experience. Then, I’ll start wondering when the climax is going to come, and when the movie is going to end so that I can go home and get something to eat.
I know that a lot of moviegoers get annoyed with movies that don’t emphasize story, as if there is nothing else a movie can offer. There has to be conflict, resolution, action, a beginning and an end, otherwise they’ll say, “What was the point of that movie?” and mean it as less of a question than a statement that the movie was a waste of their time.
Most moviegoers have very specific expectations of a movie, and they often get angry when a movie does not fulfill that expectation. Sometimes it doesn’t fulfill that expectation because it’s a bad or inept movie, but sometimes it’s simply because the movie was trying to do something else instead.
There’s all sorts of things that a movie may be interested in doing instead, but I’m going to write specifically about the slow film that emphasizes mood over story. Even in these films, there is almost always a story, and it’s usually very clear. So, I suppose I shouldn’t say that there is no emphasis on story, but rather that there is not a lot of story. There is minimal story.
One of my favorite films is OLD JOY, which tells the story of two men. They’re old friends who have not seen each other in a long while. One of them has followed the traditional notion of growing up, and has a stable family with a child on the way. The other has held onto his college self, still bumming around with no money but seemingly carefree. They decide to catch up and go camping for a weekend at a natural hot springs in the forest. They get lost for a while, but eventually find their way. They never do really get into their old rhythm, as time has put them on separate paths. So there is this unspoken discomfort during the trip. Then they come home, and will probably never see each other again. That’s the whole plot.
It’s one of those movies in which, if you are waiting for something big to happen, you will be disappointed. So can you just sit and experience the film without holding it up against your specific expectations?
The reason I titled this post “The Zen of Cinema” is because I find the above question to be one of the central tenets of Zen thinking, with it applied to the whole of life. Can you experience things as they are without holding it up against your specific expectations? If you can’t, you are doomed to suffer, because it takes a lot of effort to bend yourself and others into some particular shape, and it’s never going to be what you expected anyway. Having your eyes on a specific outcome for the future means a lessened ability to see the fullness of this moment.
So, taking this idea and going back to cinema, I’ll write a bit about why I like OLD JOY so much. Plot-wise, it’s about as simple as you can get. There isn’t a whole bunch of dialogue, and what’s spoken is mostly unimportant. What’s there are beautiful images, with that kiss of film grain that sends my soul aflutter (the movie was shot on 16mm film). There is the sound of the birds in the trees. It quiets your mind and you begin to see perfection in everything. The film is, as all films can be with the right mindset, a joyful experience of the perfect shots in the perfect order, with each shot/edit/sound/piece of music saying everything and nothing all at once. Meaning becomes a very small idea; experience becomes all.
Films like this work their magic in the moment, and if you can see it as it is, in this moment, in every moment, without worrying about whether or not you’re understanding what’s going on or what just happened or where this is all going, then the experience can become so full and perfect. It becomes a meditative experience, clearing the mind with its stillness, allowing the clutter to dissipate so that one can see with clear eyes and an open heart.
This is not necessarily what cinema is meant to do, and not a lot of movies are interested in doing this, which is fine. I love all kinds of cinema and cinematic experiences. This post is just about one kind of experience that I have gotten from a few movies, and I take these movies as welcome reminders that there can be so much fullness in experience, even with nothing is happening.