A popular voice in Christian media recently described Alfonso Cuarón’s movie Gravity by saying “If only because it is the most purely cinematic non-animated movie ever made, Gravity deserves to go down in history.”

I’m not quite sure what to make of that statement. I suspect that the moviegoer was expressing a sense that Gravity offers something only cinema can accomplish — an experience possible only through immersive imagery — and I can agree with that.

But the most purely cinematic movie ever made?

Can such a claim be persuasively made? By anybody?

I doubt it. It’s difficult to make absolute statements about something as mysterious and subjective as a work of art. We’d have to agree on the definition of “cinematic.” Further, we’d have to determine our frame of reference, with a capacity for sifting through all of international cinema history. To make such a statement, one would have to be extremely familiar with film history, and with the wild array of cinematic offerings from around the world year by year.

This year alone, I can think of other films that feel every bit as “cinematic” as Gravity… perhaps even more so. But again, I’m not in the position to make that call.

What would you nominate as “the most purely cinematic movie ever”? You’re invited to share your favorites in the Comments below. (Remember this blog’s Comments Policy.)

I suspect that those with the patience and the willingness to endure and explore Leviathan may find it to be just as immersive at Gravity, just as intense, just as pregnant with implications and questions and challenges and ideas… if not more so. (Personally, I found it far more interesting, more enthralling, and much stranger than Gravity. It didn’t just take me into environments quite foreign to me, where the laws of physics test the capacity for human beings to adjust and survive. It took me there through perspectives foreign to a human being’s point of view. It expanded the stock of vicarious experience available to the audience in ways no other experience could. Moreover, Leviathan is an experience that operates untethered from a narrative, whereas Gravity, for all of its overwhelming imagery, is pretty much a formulaic “This Happened, and Then This Happened” survival story.

I would also argue that two more 2013 releases — Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder — are just as “cinematic” as Gravity, because they make meaning by asking us to attend to the composition of images and to the poetic implications established by editing. Their questions and implications can only be perceived by a studious attention to how the images are made.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t call Leviathan, Upstream Color, or To the Wonder “the most cinematic movie ever made.” What could such a statement possibly mean? How would we verify it? What does “cinematic” really mean?

Cinema is, by the definitions that make sense to me, not fundamentally about narrative. It is about imagery — about the composition and sequencing of images (moving images or otherwise) — that encourages us to consider associations, tensions, juxtapositions, and correlations between them.

You can take away a traditional narrative and still have a movie.

You can take away sound and still have a movie.

But if you take away a juxtaposition of images, you can’t have a movie.

Cinema can be plot-driven or poetic. It can be didactic or abstract. It can be feature-length or fleeting. It can be silent or a “talkie.” But it must engage the eyes with images — no exceptions.

(To this end, Matt Zoller Seitz has provocatively argued that an animated GIF is, actually, cinema.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iP4riIK0fa0In view of these distinctions, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — a movie to which many film critics are comparing Gravity — strikes me as even more “cinematic.” In that film, much is suggested by the alignment of contrasting and correlating imagery.

When it comes to movies about space travel and lossAndrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 science fiction film Solaris is probably going to rate higher on the “cinematic” scale with most film scholars than Gravity. 

The groundbreaking 1929 film Man With a Movie Camera seems to me to be an important landmark in the history of cinema, in that it’s one of the earliest films I’ve encountered that giddily explores, discovers, demonstrates, and celebrates what is possible in a “musical” assemblage of images. By “musical” I’m not referring to its soundtrack, but to the rhythms and rushes of its myriad images.

And, along the same lines, the slideshow qualities of Chris Marker’s 1962 short called La Jetée seem to me more “cinematic” than Terry Gilliam’s thoroughly enjoyable (and far more accessible) version of the same story — 12 Monkeys. The meaning of La Jetée is conveyed by its unique form… in how the succession of still pictures specifically challenge our understanding of lived experience and memory, and in how they set us up for a moment in which one image is fundamentally different in form from the rest. By contrast, the imagery in 12 Monkeys enhances its narrative, but the narrative is the film’s raison d’être and foundation.

To this end, the great director Raul Ruiz, who made Mysteries of Lisbon and Night Across the Street, wrote this in his second volume in his Poetics of Cinema:

What we have seen is something new, something the art of memory could not have foreseen: images striving for their independence. They aim to make themselves noticeable, to have greater worth than that of being a mere sign. As they say in my country: ‘They are telling themselves their own story.’ Well, that and not much else is what happens in a film, when we shift our attention from the course that the narration proposes, and allow ourselves to be carried away by the involuntary associations that proliferate among images.

(Thanks to Ryan Holt for sharing this quote on Facebook.)

Along the same lines, director Peter Greenaway has said,

I suppose, my general sense of anxiety and disquiet about the cinema we’ve got after 100 years — a cinema which is predicated on text. So whether your name is Spielberg or Scorsese or Godard, there’s always a necessity to start with text and finish with image. I don’t think that’s particularly where we should organize an autonomous art form. That’s why I think that, in a way, we haven’t seen the cinema yet, all we’ve seen is 100 years of illustrated text.

This resonates with what I have begun to suspect about most of the movies I have seen in my life: They have entertained me, dazzled me, distracted me, and occasionally caused me to feel something or think about something. But rarely have they startled me into an aggressive and involving participation. Rarely have they made me think about what I am seeing.

And that is something that cinema can do. Uniquely.

This line of thinking has helped me understand my diminishing interest in so much commercial filmmaking. In American big-screen entertainment, the big screen is used primarily as a space to fill with pictures that merely illustrate what is happening in the storytelling. The pictures themselves are there to entertain the senses rather than to intrigue us. We’re not often invited to think about why an image looks the way it does, or why the director set one kind of image in sequence with another kind of image. We’re not inspired to consider the possibility that there is something more to realize than what the characters are talking about, or than what the script suggests will happen next in the story.

By contrast, I am falling in love with films that are teaching me to look closer, to discover a foreign language that can convey truths, create experiences, and evoke emotions that the derivative, shallow, unimaginative, and (yes) abusive imagery of so much American media cannot begin to accomplish.

I like what director Wim Wenders has said:

… I think of films the same way I looked at stories in books, when I was little. I realized very early on that the story was not in the written words, but in the space between the lines. That’s where the real reading took place: In my imagination, and that happened in all the white between the letters and the lines. And when I started to see films, I approached them the same way. In fact those films allowed me to perceive them like that, they were asking me to dream myself into them. The classic American cinema has that same specific quality, and this is also the great tradition of European Cinema. I did not invent that “method”. It is an endangered process, though, these days. More and more films come as “wall to wall” entertainment. What you see (and hear!) is what you get. No more space between the frames, so to speak. No chance to sneak in with your imagination, to dream on and to project your innermost hopes or fears or desires into what you see and thereby pushing it further. You come out of the theatre and feel strangely empty. For two hours you were prevented from participating. You were obliged to “witness” instead.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I love storytelling as much as the next moviegoer. There’s nothing wrong with a well-illustrated text.

I’ve just seen director Steve McQueen’s new film 12 Years a Slave, and it uses imagery and dialogue to powerfully illustrate a narrative in a very prose-y fashion (although there are moments in which the imagery draws attention to itself — or rather, into itself — in a way that can only be described as “poetic”). This story has been told in writing for many years, but the big screen adaptation is very impressive.

But I think that the hyperventilation I’m witnessing among so many moviegoers who have just seen Gravity is evidence of the fact that moviegoers have become conditioned to accept a very tepid form of filmmaking. I’m not saying Gravity is “tepid,” but the superlatives used to describe it suggest that moviegoers just haven’t seen much evidence of what cinema can be and do. When they see something that is “cinematic” — and yes, as American blockbusters go, Gravity is quite cinematic — they feel things they haven’t ever felt before, and they sense that they’ve experienced something unique.

This is promising.

Perhaps it means that moviegoers will begin to realize what is uniquely possible in cinema. And they’ll start to notice that a lot of filmmakers, around the world and throughout history, have been making a kind of art that goes generally misunderstood, misinterpreted, and unappreciated.

They’ll make a leap equivalent to the radio listener who discovers that music is actually a much larger and more powerful world than just Top 40 songs. They may even come to see that Top 40 pop songs are actually a rather limited, even feeble, demonstration of what music is capable of achieving.

Or, put it this way: Having tasted an “Spicy Thai Salad” at a diner like Denny’s, they may learn that while they enjoyed this unconventional meal, they should not immediately conclude that this was the best representation of Thai food. They might actually become curious enough, and courageous enough, to venture into Thai restaurants and enjoy new worlds of cuisine that others have been attentively enjoying for ages.

American cineplexes usually invite us to wading pools. Those who broaden their horizons will find much larger bodies of water waiting for them. Those lakes, those seas, those oceans go by exotic names — like Denis, and Malick, and Hou, and Kiarostami, and Kieslowski, and Godard, and Tarkovsky, and Bresson, and Ozu, and Dreyer. And oceans are not a new innovation. Some of them have been out there, welcoming explorers, for a long, long time.

In view of this, what strikes you as the “most cinematic” movies you have seen?

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