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How To “Get” Minimalist Movies

Posted on the 28 September 2011 by Tjatkinson @T_J_atkinson

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.

How To “Get” Minimalist Movies
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.

How To “Get” Minimalist Movies
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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