Making the Most out of Little

Minimalist cinema by it’s very nature is meant to keep things simple. A simple concept, a few articulately placed shots and an underlying theme hinted at, poked at, but never picked up and displayed. The idea of minimalism in cinema is meant to make the most out very little. It was once thought of as the art of the poor filmmaker (Iranian filmmakers, with their limited resources, freedoms and funding, used it as a terminal of artistic expression) , but then gradually, it made itself presentable to people as an innovative way of storytelling. It is the antithesis of the Hollywood spectacle, where drama fills the room just as fast and explosively as the characters voices or the lights or the luxurious sets. While the Hollywood movie will strive to make a point, the minimalist film will let the point form by itself in the mind of the attentive viewer. Minimalist cinema requires patience, it requires attention but most importantly, it requires insight. It is not for the viewer who is out to get his two hours worth of thrills and chills, but rather for the cinephile who seeks to learn from observation. It is not a pretentious cinema because it does not command anything, nor does it take itself seriously; it is only at the beckoning of the viewers ideas, thoughts, insights and formulations about what he just saw. The minimalist film will lay down an idea, but that idea can only become a topic of conversation through the viewrs subjective opinions and interpretations. While the preachy Hollywood drama aims to dictate its viewer on what to think, the minimalist obliges the viewer on how to think.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975)

In Chantal Akerman’s landmark feminist masterpiece, Jeanne Dielmann – 23 quai du Commerce – 1080 Bruxelles, minimalism is used to the effect of letting the viewer experience a character in ‘real time’. The film, 3 1/2 hours long, spends about each hour on a single, monotonous day in the life of an obsessive-compulsive housewife. The ‘routine’ that she goes through each day is never rushed and is portrayed in as close to its entirety as a feature film could allow. Johnathan Rosenbaum makes a brilliant observation in his critical analysis of the film, which in all respects, is about as landmark as the film itself, where he states that the still cameras in each room and Jeanne’s constant closing and opening of doors and lights helps to create a rigid and tangible separation between one room and the next. This is a prime example of how minimalist technique can say so much about the characters intentions and the atmosphere the director is implying just from the choice of camera placement. The genius of what Akerman was able to do with the minimalist style, is entrance the viewer in the monotony and the “anti-action” but slowly depict the unraveling of the systematic, almost machine-like movements through the subtle actions of the character as well as the subtle movements of the camera. As with all great minimalist cinema, tension and suspense for the viewer is only created through the viewers acute observations rather than the unfolding of a narrative. As we watch Jeanne suddenly drop a fork and stare at it unknowing what to do, we sense a disturbance, a quiet shock in the motions of the film, but we brush it off… until she forgets to cover the lid of her savings jar, when our confirmation is had and we know something is wrong. The suspense then becomes a methodical march, each moment adding to the culmination of these mishaps. In minimalism, this suspense is extremely important to sustain because it is what keep a viewer hypnotized in the world of the character and his ultimatums, in an otherwise pedestrian life.

Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1994)

An equally ideological minimalist film is Abbas Kiarostami’s award winning Taste of Cherry which deals with a man who drives around Tehran asking for someone to perform a favor for him. Of course, this premise in itself is both minimalist and suspenseful. Kiarostami’s minimalism is a little more barren than Akerman’s because Kiarostami’s is circumventing around somewhat of a plot while Akerman’s is purely character driven and thus truly unpredictable.  Taste of Cherry‘s suspense is built in two layers, first in finding out what Mohsen wants as a favor (this brings up issues of pedophilia, homosexuality etc.) and second, once it is revealed that he intends to commit suicide and needs someone to bury him, seeing who will accept the offer. The meat of the film then, is the voice and concerns of the Iranian people, some of whom who are too scared to perform the favor, others who don’t fear it as much as take offense to it from a religious standpoint (Islam frowns upon suicide), and a man who finally accepts if only because he believes in free will. The philosophical coversation which occurs throughout the film highlights Kiarostami’s theme of death, specifically through the intensely personal act of suicide, and brings it into a subjective world view. Minimalism then, for Kiarostami becomes a vehicle for powerful thinking; and what a vehicle it is since the quiet unassuming nature of minimalism is a perfect canvas for painting a deeply insightful philosophy, where there are no lucious visuals and loud-mouthed cynics hogging the screen.

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