I remember reading the review of Terence Malick’s adaption of the James Jones WWII novel, The Thin Red Line. I think the review was favorable, I don’t recall, it was so long ago, but I do remember one word the film critic used: “meditative.” I also remember thinking, that’s code for boring! Still, being a Malick fan at the time, I decided I’d try it. It turned out to be one of the more powerful movie-going experiences I had in my life.
The first half of the film focuses on AWOL Private Witt roaming around an idyllic Pacific Island ruminating about man’s place in the universe. The shots of the landscape, flora, and fauna are spectacular, and these scenes are indeed meditative, in the very best sense of the word. What made the film so powerful was how Malick obliterated that state of mind with the battle scenes that make up the rest of the film. All of that precious beauty we enjoyed earlier? Destroyed. All the noble musings by Private Witt replaced by the brutal actions of war. I was in tears when the U.S. troops stormed the hill and everything and everyone started getting blown to bits.
That kind of juxtaposition doesn’t happen in A Life’s Work, but I don’t shy away from telling people I intend the film to be a meditative experience. If after watching the film viewers come away feeling like they’ve meditated, I’d be one happy camper.
So, if you need to recover from the adrenaline rush of the summer blockbusters — all those exploding cities, buildings, cars, and bodies — and you’re perhaps looking for a film that’s a little more … contemplative, I have a few recommendations for you. But first, here’s a minute of calm for you, courtesy of us here at A Life’s Work Central.
Just about anything from Yasujiro Ozu (good starters include Tokyo Story, Late Spring, and Early Summer). Ozu made the same film over and over: quiet, understated family dramas with characters who do not express themselves in a typical Western fashion. The big moments happen off-screen — weddings and deaths, notably — and what we see are the moments in between, the moments we call life: waiting for the train, commuting to work, sitting down to dinner. The most dramatic ending you’ll see in an Ozu film is a character peeling an orange and the peel falling to the floor. It doesn’t sound like much, but in the context of the rest of the film, it’s just as moving as the first battle scene in The Thin Red Line.
Still Walking: A family convenes on the anniversary of the eldest son’s death. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s tribute to Ozu (there’s even an Ozu-like shot of a train), the drama here is more ramped up than in an Ozu film, and a character cries, but mostly its quiet, lovely, and melancholy. A contemplation on family dynamics and mortality.
Spirit of the Beehive: Made during the waning days of Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s dictatorship and set during the dawn of his power, this film combines sneaky elision, poetic imagery, and gorgeous cinematography to cast its spell. Shots linger and an air of mystery pervades every scene. I love this film so much I’ve written about it twice for Extra Criticum, here and here.
Heart of Glass: In a Bavarian village in the late 18th century, a glassmaker dies and takes to his grave the secret of his world-renowned and town-sustaining ruby glass. The glass factory owner goes mad trying to discover the formula. And as he goes, so too goes the village. Nothing special there. Except iconoclastic director Werner Herzog decided he would hypnotize the actors before they went before the camera, resulting in a dreamlike, hell, down right somnambulistic film. (You can read my review of the book Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of Heart of Glass on Filmmaker Magazine‘s website.)
Into Great Silence: Director Philip Gröning spent six months in a monastery in the French Alps filming Carthusian monks, who live isolated from the rest of the world and have taken a vow of silence. No commentary, no music, no effects and shot using only ambient light. We see the daily lives of the monks and a LOT of prayer. The film is so immersive at one point I got up from it without pausing, made a yogurt and fruit concoction, and returned to the film feeling not only guiltless about leaving it, but as if in the preparation of my snack I was in some way taking part in the monk’s daily routine.
Sweetgrass: An austere documentary about modern-day shepherds in Montana as they lead their flock to pasture. The big dramatic moment is a shepherd on his cellphone having a freakout about his loneliness and how much he hates his obstinate sheep. I confess when I watched this film I wasn’t in the mood for it, and it still won me over.
Andrei Rublev: Andrei Tarkovsky. Oh, I can see a certain someone rolling his eyes, but like Into Great Silence, you need to be ready for a different kind of cinematic experience. Andrei Rublev is an invented biography of a 15th century monk and icon painter. It checks in at 205 minutes, and you COULD watch watch it in a few sittings since the film is broken up into seven distinct chapters, but to appreciate its knock-out ending you really should set aside an evening. And be prepared to be transported to medieval Russia.
Tender Mercies: One of my all time favorite films. Like Ozu’s films, Tender Mercies avoids the big moments. People get married but we don’t see the wedding, people die in a car accident but we’re nowhere near the wreckage. We are at the wake, however, something Ozu wouldn’t show. (Significantly, the big life event we do see is the former country singing star’s baptism.) It’s all small moments, beautifully directed and acted. Screenplay by Horton Foote, directed by Bruce Beresford, and starring Robert Duvall in a performance that’s a study in brilliant understatement.
Thoughts? Care to share your favorite, blood-pressure lowering films? Leave a comment.