Ah, minimalism, the miserable hairshirt pajamas so many critics still love to put on in the semi-privacy of their vocations, ostensibly separating them from the herd of passive filmgoers like enlightened monks separated from the peasantry — or, at least, so it may seem to the mainstream, who have been trained from the cradle to desire only distraction, and for whom a movie that deliberately fails to deliver narrative excitement is akin to water torture. Honestly, both are fair and comprehensible positions, and if you can decry the ignorant impatience of the many viewers intolerant of the new movie by Jia Zhangke or Pedro Costa or Tsai Ming-liang, you could also legitimately wonder when and where art film asecticism steps over the border into pretentious tedium. (Just because it’s not a terribly commercial gambit doesn’t mean it can’t be overexploited by filmmakers — take Costa’s “Colossal Youth,” please.)
Everyone has to draw their own line, naturally, even if, let’s face it, minimalist art film, done insightfully, rewards attentive viewing with transformative experience in ways cluttered, noisy, manipulative narrative films can’t. A prime core sample, Vimukthi Jayasundara’s “The Forsaken Land” (2005) is a Sri Lankan ode to desolation, set in a dune-beset desert range and haunted by the memories and present-moment traces of war. New Yorker Video is framing the film in the context of the 2001 cease-fire between the Sinhalese government and the Tamil Tigers, the result of which was increased military presence in the country, but Jayasundara is so sparse with cultural or historical cues you could imagine it takes place anywhere, or nowhere. What we get mostly is the flat Sri Lankan wilderness, magnificently photographed in various stages of thunderhead menace and shining dusklight. A civilian guardsman lives in an outland shack with his young and unfaithful wife and unmarried sister, other guardsman dally, the army comes and goes in trucks, tanks patrol the weeds (and always, slowly, retarget their gun barrels at the camera), a dead body is found, a monsoon breaks, sexual frustration percolates. Spent artillery shells are glimpsed lost in the sand, visits to an outhouse are observed in their entirety, impulsive copulation and voyeurism tempts nearly everyone. Late in the game, the uneasy protagonist is taken by the soldiers to a wasteland where he is instructed to finish beating a sheet-wrapped prisoner to death, which he does.
There is less a story here than an unassuming, aimless ramble of images and incidents, and ample opportunities for the characters to brood at the landscape while thinking about things we haven’t seen. My sense of it is that Jayasundara was not as careful as he could have been about allowing enervation to flow from the mostly mute characters to the audience. But his use of off-screen sound and incident are powerful (those alone are quantities the average moviewatcher has to be trained to notice), and once the ellipses and silences add up, “The Forsaken Land” comes off as having an undeniable sense of suspended apprehension that seems to be evocatively Sri Lankan, of waiting both for the war to resume and for life, such as it may be, to begin again. What’s that worth to you? Less or more than CGI explosions and costumed superheroes?
In homegrown America, the paradigm is more like “mumblism,” and as cynical as I’d like to be about the new run of D.I.Y., HD twentysomething shrug-&-hangout features (a world, you could say, where no one owns a bed, just a mattress), I still find myself appreciating the low volume and the 4-D characters and non-stories they offer. Andrew Nenninger’s “Team Picture” (2007) is a new fave, differentiated from the Swanberg-Katz-Bujalski pack by being decidedly Southern-suburban (the low-rent Tennessee neighborhoods here are one heavy rain from simply being decaying weed jungles), and by being decidedly unhip. Nenninger (who directed the film as “Kentucker Audley,” supposedly to shield his family from the shame of it) plays himself, essentially, a nowhere guy in the Middle Earth of rotten farmhouses, blow-up lawn pools, no-business strip malls and routines for time killing. Skinny, dull and completely affectless, Nenninger’s hero avoids college, quits his job working for his aging jock stepfather (a caricature possibility which is instead treated, like all of Nenninger’s people, with gentle respect), watches his live-in girlfriend walk out, opts out of his friends’ weekend trivialities, meets another girl, dabbles in songwriting, drives to see his father in Arkansas. No conclusions are reached, but moments are found amid the barely audible deadpan comedy — “Do you like enjoyment?” he asks the new girl, right before we’re gifted with the real-to-touch tableau of the lanky Nenninger lounging in the three inches of pool water as the girl (Amanda Harris) sips a beer on the twilight lawn and a train passes in the distance.
On one level, both Nenninger and his co-star/co-cinematographer Timothy Morton (who plays a gabby, loafy roommate) seem ready for their own MTV slacker anti-sitcom; on another, we cannot be prosecuted for wondering why we’re hanging out with these people, if they can’t even decide what to do with themselves as a real, ordinary person routinely does, day to day. Movies at their most basic are about rewardingly occupying our time with something other than own our lives, right? Charming as it is, maybe like Jayasundara’s film, “Team Picture” isn’t realism but rather a heightened Beckettian void, emptied of purpose or action or cause, reducing life to the downtime between words and vital events… maybe.
[Additional photo: “Team Picture,” Benten, 2007]
“The Forsaken Land” (New Yorker Video) and “Team Picture” (Benten Films) are now available on DVD.