I think a great film not only talks to the audience through its dialogue, but also through its silences. Somehow, when the characters are not doing anything action-filled or even speaking a single word, I still feel like I’m transferred into another consciousness and somehow understand the “nothingness” of it all. For me, this phenomenon feels like a combination of meditation and daydreaming. Where in a meditative way, the film compels you to sit in silence and feel, yet also, in a more daydream-esque way, pushes you to imagine beyond these quietness.
I think film has the power to effectively communicate in a way reality normally couldn’t, forming some sort of connection between the spectator and the screen. This beautiful concept and perspective toward cinema had actually been talked about throughout the history of film theory. For example, Jean Mitry, the renowned French film critic and theorist in the 1960s, actually uses the term “transcendence” to explain his view about the deep connection between film and the human psyche. Mitry explained that by watching a film, the viewer can be “everywhere at once,” transcending into the unknown, where all they need to do is sit, watch, and let themselves go.
Then, especially through the rise of “slow-cinema” which is a more minimalist, non-narrative, and observational kind of film storytelling, transcendentalism in film eventually found a more deep and complicated meaning. Paul Schrader, an American filmmaker and writer mostly known for writing Taxi Driver, has actually written a great book about this very topic. Shrader emphasizes on how filmmakers stylistically convey the impression of transcendence in their films, a style that many filmmakers have utilized to express the “unseen”.
Although transcendentalism is strongly anchored in religious context, the term has taken on a more specialized interpretation in film. Transcendence in film is made possible through the film’s form of expression, where meaning is expressed not through the intricacies of its visuals, but untraditionally through the quietness. Although I am not religious, this idea has always fascinated me. The notion that film could build an intangible, often unexplainable type of connection is a beautiful attitude to take. After reading Schrader’s book, I realized that spirituality extends beyond dogma and that art can be a source of spiritual experience in and of itself.
A great way to get the idea of how filmmakers try to transcend their audience through silences, is by understanding what Schrader calls “The Scalpel of Boredom”. This concept is all about withholding, not giving the audience all the answers, but rather keeping it hidden from them. In a more technical way, withholding means delaying cuts, keeping the duration of simple shots longer than usual, leaving it lingering for the audience to absorb every second. This concept sees that the soul of the film comes from the durational experience of a film, and in that duration is when the soul starts to move.
Transcendence through Jackson Segar’s films
Through my internship with Minikino, I gladly got the chance to watch two incredible short films by the New York filmmaker Jackson Segars; The Chicken (Producer, 2020) and Kimchi (Director, 2018). Mirroring what Schrader explained, I found this unexplainable connection upon watching. The films finds its beauty in its quietness. Both plots do not have a “punchy” premise, where the film utilizes its silences and small interactions between the characters to express its meaning.
I find that both films work beautifully as one coherent piece. Both films explore the concept of commonality beyond language. Where in both films, there’s an element of barriers formed by the character’s different backgrounds. Like the meeting of a Japanese son-in-law with his wife’s Korean family in Kimchi and the misunderstandings between a Japanese house guest upon meeting his friend’s American wife in The Chicken, both films find their characters trying to find common ground and some sort of understanding.
But what was specifically interesting to me was how both films express their conclusion to their stories in a more “hidden” and abstract way. Both films did not dictate a singular explanation to its meaning, but rather left it linger for us to conclude these stories ourselves. To confirm this, a couple of days after watching his films, I got the chance to meet Jackson together with my Minikino film writers 2022 fellows virtually through Zoom. Delightfully, when talking about the films, Segars didn’t try to overtly explain the meaning of both films. But instead, he forms conversations and opens the film’s meaning for our personal impressions and interpretations. This openness is a beautiful attitude to looking at one’s films; he didn’t try to bound the film’s meaning into one explanation. This itself is a form of withholding, creating gaps for the audience to dive in and contemplate.
Interestingly, Jackson actually referenced transcendentalism near the end of the discussion. When discussing his work that explores the concept of commonality, Jackson asked a philosophical question; “can we truly experience the same experience?” Jackson continues to read verses from a poem called The Cleaving by American Jakarta-born poet Li-Young Lee. By reading the poem, Jackson proposes the idea of how all beings in nature essentially share the same being, the same soul. Therefore, when we now know about how films move its soul from withholding, both The Chicken and Kimchi transcend the audience into itself. In a way, the audience share’s its soul with the film, creating a beautiful form of transcendence.
This concept of oneness and universality had never occurred to me before. Although I am not entirely familiar with this concept (there is so much more I need to learn), the idea of an unseen line linking us all is a meaningful and beautiful way to look at life. I believe both films, in some way, address the concept of universality. Despite labels, barriers, and different points of view that may separate us as beings, we all share the same experience of life. And through cinema, we see life. A snippet of life is projected on the screen, allowing us to transcend into all walks of life. Where all we need to do is sit, watch, and let ourselves go.