Thursday, March 29, 2007

In Praise of Silence

March provided New York City viewers with an opportunity to watch two meditative, wordless or nearly wordless films, in which the deliberate pacing, uncluttered visuals and long, silent stretches allow the viewer to disengage from the overstuffed world of information consumption, disable rational thought processes and immerse himself in a natural world, although one not unaltered by human presence. This is not to imply that these films ignore the intellect, merely that they engage the brain on a different, less logic-constrained level.

First up was Abbas Kiarosatmi's Five, which screened at MOMA on March 9 and 18 as part of a retrospective of the director's work. The film consists of five long, seemingly unbroken takes, each depicting a different seascape. Except for the first segment, the camera remains stationary throughout. Natural sounds, the roar of the surf, the squawking of ducks and, in one segment, the noise of human footsteps, provide the only soundtrack, with the exception of short, musical interludes between takes. The takes may seem dull and repetitive to viewers expecting a standard sequence of images, but by immersing oneself in the world portrayed on the screen and giving free reign to one's thoughts, the viewer can enjoy a thoroughly satisfying filmgoing experience. The work, too, is not devoid of humor. The fourth segment, which follows the movements of a group of ducks back and forth on the screen had the audience indulging in restrained, but palpable, laughter.

The second film, Into Great Silence, is currently enjoying a popular run at the Film Forum. Detailing the nearly silent day-to-day life of the Carthusian Monks of the Grand Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble, France, the film has a similar hypnotic pull to Kiarostami's work that director Philip Groning sustains for the duration of the film's nearly three hours. Images of the natural world complement shots of the bare interiors of the monastery where the monk's live their ascetic lives. What gives the film its mesmeric draw is the sense of circularity with which Groning invests his work. A full cycle of seasons is observed. The daily tasks of the monks are repeated. Even the various quotations from philosophers and bible verses with which Groning intersperses his work are used several times throughout the film, with the same long quotation beginning and ending the work. As many critics have noted, the film forces the viewer to adapt his own mental pace to the pace of the monks' lifestyle. If he is able to take this step and enter into the reflective, nearly silent, cyclical world of the monastery, he is in for a rich and rewarding cinematic experience.

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