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The Torch: Modes of representation Pt.1 – minimalism versus exuberance

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If being rude or being polite in a given situation is a choice, your preferred feedback will most likely decide which code of conduct to follow. A trivial observation such as this nevertheless does have its subtleties when applied to an alternate field of interest outside of your everyday socialising strategies.

The TorchTake linguistics for example, where speech-act theory-like questions are being scientifically addressed; or in the world of marketing where pointedly targeting your audience is the key to success in any professional campaign. Just as there are various distinct registers of speech in language, and just as musical harmonies exist in different keys, we can rightfully speak of an array of antagonist modes of representing reality in film. As a principal assessment of such visualisation techniques, I will in this column and the next, focus on two prototypical pairings that pretty much make up the axes of that coordinate system which defines the art of filmmaking and its range of expressions.

Minimalism and exuberance both exist in visual telling as well as in the means applied to these ends. While minimalism serves to gradually transport us into the narrative, thereby enhancing the experience of a cinematic real, any mode of exuberance elevates the viewer out of the picture proper as it is a tool for referentiality, which relates us to some pre-established meta-level. So when content comes at you in a condensed fashion, you’re bound more tightly to the story, whereas the imagery arabesque positively asks for your digression by giving you an overload of things to look at – aspects to pay attention to and a display of lavishness which doesn’t want to be precise.

Minimalism

In film, to have a focal point of high concentration and a very closely defined theme circumference, like elucidating a single human emotion for instance, is minimalism on the part of the narrative.

That’s just the most obvious interpretation of the term. As far as representation goes, the beauty of the minimal lies in a deliberate renunciation of anything in your artistic inventory that would call for the viewers’ attention without need. And this is where the challenge lies exactly: in mustering the level of restraint necessary to go for the seemingly least refined always – the most low profile way to arrive at your intended expression. To me, there is no underestimating the firmness of resolve that this approach requires, as well as the enormous strength of mind to trust in your capacity as a filmmaker. Whether you be a screenwriter, cinematographer or an actor, this approach calls for you to fully immerse yourself into a subject matter and enliven it by just the most basic elements of your craft.

The inherent wisdom in minimalism is the fundamental knowledge that there is nothing to explain. It always speaks with a double voice and offers you more by telling you less. There is an invitation implicit to fill in the blanks, and the talented viewer, the one we all envisage, the one who really sees, will substitute the archetypical by something personal and dear to him. To not let this openness give way to arbitrariness – that precisely is the higher art of any story’s minimalist rendition. The question then has to be: how can you miss something you’ve never had? And a possible answer lies with the kind of recognition one Zen-Buddhist riddle knows of: the face you had before you were born. So don’t just prose, and do not confuse with sparsity – the clarity of sight that comes only with reduction.

If minimalism be a purposeful forfeiting of anything not utterly elemental to either the look or the essence of the film (its basic nature storyline), then unerringly the result will have to be subdued and rather silent. Again this goes for both: the question of what a movie is about, and how this is being expressed visually.

A neat little twist to this formula can be observed in one of Zhang Yimou’s not too recent classics, “The Road Home”, admittedly one of my all-time favourites. In there, you will (in at least two of the indoor shots) happen across a wall calendar and a poster display of Cameron’s “Titanic” by an almost accidental sideway glancing of the camera – just a quick reminder of what the director was doing without. And how much more complete a love story Zhang told so “effortlessly”, how much richer in humanity!

To give you another telling example, take Victric Tng’s “Locust”, the epigrammatic short-short film included in the Asian Film Archive’s collection entitled “Singapore Shorts”. What it does so exceptionally well is to give you this flawless reductionist treatment of frame composition: one steady shot and a transitory chance procession caught in a memory antique that’s geared to the almost aquatic hue of a filter – fond distance of another time, another country in wandering the ocean floor. There you have one distinguished example of a visual narration told in a mode of minimal perfection – in this case, fittingly helped along by a most delicate use of the voice-over. And this approach works, and very simply so, but you would be utterly wrong to take the surface simplicity of this piece for uninspired artlessness. Underneath the seeming lightweight easiness there is a profound complexity wherein each component was chosen with much careful deliberation to enhance the aimed for imagery effect, to maximize its emotional impact on the viewer.

And this exactly is the proprietary value which defines true and sensibly applied minimalism, the creation of simplicity that can be disturbingly complex; and the more true-to-life films, the best among them, certainly capture this inner balance. It is honesty’s last stop – at times it might just so happen that an image arrives there to the point, while words may be too late in coming or fail to make it altogether. For once in here, the paradox of something gained in the process of subtraction comes to full meaning. But beware, this also asks a lot of you as filmmaker. It asks of you the serenity of an ascetic monk; a strong-willed determination to see it through to the end, for a minimal approach to putting an idea into motion pictures is fundamentally incongruous to any other mode of presentation. To mix it in with something else will invariably reduce either one of your ingredients and spoil the outcome, making one appear dull and the other plain pretentious.

Exuberance

Exuberance, by contrast, is the art of measured overstating, of stretching a point or your design further than what is customarily expected in order to commandeer an attitude ex-center. It always and deliberately plays out the entire range of what it tries to overdo, be it the story or the specific excess it works to driving it home with the viewer. Accordingly, it has to be very well calculated so as not to miss the point. What eventually comes onto the screen may be chaotic for a reason, but it has to be reason first that sets the agenda and exerts firm control over the elements it wants to set loose. For liberty demands to be mastered with maturity, and in this again, it demonstrates that real life and film are very similar indeed.

Every filmmaker, no matter which part of the process is theirs to worry about, have to arrive at some general understanding of the project’s main ambition. Is it an immediate emotional address to the audience, or is making a case the prime concern of that particular movie-to-be? Does what you’re working on directly respond to some issue outside the cineast frame of reference, and do you want your film to be seen as a continuation of some ongoing argument? Or perhaps you might want it perceived as a strictly hermetic entity which consummately enfolds and transports? It is always answers to basic questions such as these that determine the interrelation between the visual and the content aspects of a film, and their mutual proportionality in it. So only if trespassing illusion into social intercourse – if crossing this virtual boundary seems appropriate and called for – only then will exuberance of any kind be your legitimate choice of arms.

A good example to validate this point is made in Royston Tan’s internationally acclaimed short “Cut”, which won its deserved accolades for a show of stylistic flamboyance precisely because there simply was no better way in which to take on the fight that we all know of. Here you have a genuine match of communication objective and choice of form. The visual vernacular perfectly fits the film’s aim, which of course is to be found outside the sphere of cinema projection and right there in the reality beyond, affecting art – something every audience across the globe instantly understands and honours for its justified imbalance. On top of that, it was the stylistic consistency of that particular short film, its full embrace of sheer excessiveness in one grand finale, that turned it into the triumph that it was. “Cut” ostensibly externalised its impetus by the adequacy and consequentiality of applying this mode of film representation to express an anger.

If film exuberance is like dragging a phoenix from the ashes of his sleep with all sorts of skilled histrionics willfully being used to that end, by necessity it speaks to the viewer directly and rather loudly. This may also be the reason why in most of the cases where it actually works, it can be found in satire. In the very best of these, where you get an overload of pathos like it’s used in parody, or bathos to make for travesty, this masquerade eventually serves to bring out human features with a rare degree of honesty. Like for instance in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”, the film has not just style, and much of it, but above all, dignity!

I am, however, not just talking about means of caricature here. As before, there do exist two sides to what the term of “exuberance” can mean with respect to filmmaking. The second angle pertains to all that which can be utilised to expressly render your film a sight to behold by its visualisation technique alone. Take Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers”, where you have at least two successive layers of flashback with a constant (and quite enervating) hopping back and forth that is simply too much of directorial intervention. Likewise, we all have our pedigree of special effects grandezza in a movie, and know how this in itself may hold the power to capture our imagination and amaze us on a level of spectacle achievement. Excessive CGI can even, if well done, turn an otherwise rather braindead picture into an experience and endow it with greatness, sort of. Here, “House of Flying Daggers” comes to mind, and I think it is this beautifying capability which lends itself to the grotesque as well, and fascinated me and many others about the Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Exuberance’s proprietary value is the joy of virtuosity unabashedly put to the fore, and in such a manner as to ensure it will be noticed for what it is; which is why its working magic is always prone to failure and tiring heavy-handedness. Originality is more crucial with any form of spirited excess, because you want your audience to draw comparisons – and ultimately to conclude that, yes indeed, something like this never has been seen before! After all, it’s the mode of portrayal that paints in bold strokes and mostly larger than life, and the effort that has to go into making it work is easily underestimated. In essence, what it requires you to do is to stand your ground as a tamer must in the middle of a menagerie, and with a like measure of oversight. Only then will the result be convincing and entertaining in its own right.

Personally, I prefer minimalism over stylistic exuberance. But whatever you would opt for, if indeed much in making a movie comes down to making choices first, then I think it best to actually know the options well and be aware of all the consequences they entail. And at this point I am more than happy to leave it to other wisecracks to discuss the likelihood and feasibility of something like an exuberance of minimalism, or minimal exuberance, or anything else for that matter.

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