Picture Yourself Watching a Painting Dry and Loving It

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Ready for a brain change? Try watching a languorous, lovely film. Skill is required. But like a meditation practice, it is worth the effort. Or travel the world through imagination and time. I suggest four vehicles below from South Korea, Japan, the United States, and Russia.

In 2007, I had the opportunity to travel to South Korea. In preparation I watched an assortment of contemporary Korean films and discovered a film with a setting so mesmerizing, so gorgeous, I assumed it was fantasy, but it is not. Yes, the film is fiction, but the setting is real, a small Buddhist mountain retreat in the middle of a quiet lake. The deliberate pace is signaled immediately with the title: “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring” (2003). It is not snappy, but it makes its point. Divided into sections that follow the seasons, the film covers the education of a man from child to elder, and innocence to enlightenment. The filmmaker, Kim Ki-duk, wrote, directed and acted in the role of an adult monk who shares the mountain lake retreat with a boy in his charge.

The film offers lessons into Korean Zen Buddhist practices. The simple wooden structures are decorated in ornate yet weather-worn paintings. Gates with guardian-carvings signify the shift from secular to sacred. An oblique visual reference is made to sarira, the name for a type of pearl said to be found in the cremated remains of enlightened monks.

The first words we hear in the film are “Wake up.” But most of the story is told visually and through example. Expect to be surprised. Even though the film is quiet, suspense takes hold as we witness the way the monk guides the boy and then the man to a life of compassion after a life of crime. Many gorgeous shots hold the viewer spellbound.

Akira Kurosawa’s “Dreams” (1990) is another film that offers a great opportunity to slow down and tune in. At age 80, long after gaining international renown as a filmmaker with “Rashomon” (1950), “Seven Samurai” (1954), and “Ran” (1985) the Japanese director made “Dreams.” The two hour film is divided into eight fifteen minute segments, each a different dream. In style, they offer a kind of magic realism one would expect from a film that, reputedly, is based on Kurosawa’s actual dreams, but they are not scrambled the way night dreams usually are. Instead, each dream is more a fairy tale, fable, or allegory, and they tie together structurally. The same protagonist, representing Kurosawa, moves through each one from childhood to adulthood. (Watch the man in the hat.) Each dream carries a message. Many critics discern ecological warnings, and it’s easy to see why. Some segments are poignant — a boy apologizing to peach trees that were cut down — while others are nightmarish –urban devastation from a nuclear meltdown — but the last is idyllic, sending us off with a vision of an eco-paradise.

Notably, everything moves slowly in “Dreams”. How long can you take to pour molasses? Watching a film with this pace challenges our modern sensibilities. We have adapted to fast-paced editing and a camera always in motion. That the film is in segments helps. No need to watch them in a single sitting. Why even bother? Because they are beautiful and thought-provoking. Costuming, movement, color, lighting – all the formal visual elements are compelling and much like Kabuki theater. Look around the frame and sink into it. Fight the urge to fast forward.

My favorites are the first dream when the young boy follows foxes and witnesses their lush forest wedding and the fifth dream that features Martin Scorsese in the role of Vincent Van Gogh. He’s clearly a better director than actor, but the segment pays tribute to Van Gogh in a way many of us have dreamed of. We enter into his paintings. Kurosawa began his career as a painter and made elaborate storyboards for all his films. He clearly had a love of Van Gogh’s work. Thinking of “Dreams” as a series of paintings that happen to move serenely is a good approach.

One of my favorite films is not especially slow-moving but it is wonderfully imaginative and although produced in the U.S., it travels to 65 stunning locations in 18 countries such as India, Turkey, South Africa, and Brazil — a true getaway. “The Fall” (2008) directed by Tarsem Singh is a magnificent love letter to cinema and story-telling with universal themes of love and redemption. Set in Los Angeles, during the silent film era, movies are called flickers. The lead characters are a young Romanian girl from an orange-picking migrant family who is hospitalized with a broken arm resulting from a fall and a Hollywood movie stunt man, recently paralyzed, also as a result of a fall. I saw this film first at the Art, then during Ebertfest, and most recently on my television. Its magic has not worn off. Anyone captivated by old National Geographic magazines, silent film, and stories within stories such as “The Princess Bride” will go gaga for “The Fall.”

Another way to rearrange your brain with film is to watch “Russian Ark” (2002) by director Alexander Sokurov. This 95 minute film is a single shot. Yes, that’s right, one long take. We see the entire film through the eyes of one character. He’s medium height and never blinks. Even more marvelous is that we flow through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and 300 years of Russian art and history along with 2000 actors in period costumes. What a trip. Note: this film is currently streaming on Netflix.

These films can be enjoyed in a variety of situations, but if you ever get the chance to see any of these gorgeous films on the big screen: Take it!

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