This article is part of Sunday Edition: “Minimalisms”.
The utilization of minimalism within cinema is distinct from the way the sensibility appears in other art forms. In the space of a gallery, we can consider a minimalist sculpture or painting on its own. A minimalist play lets us sit directly in such an environment, and allows the audience’s imagination to work with whatever actions the actors take. But in general, even the lowest-budgeted or single-location films will incorporate sets with all manner of furnishing to build their settings. (There are exceptions, like Lars von Trier’s Dogville, a heavily metaphorical film styled much like Our Town, with buildings and spaces marked out via lines on a stage floor.) A film being minimalist means something different than what we usually associate with the movement.
The great movie minimalists include the likes of Yasujirô Ozu and Robert Bresson, filmmakers whose styles are marked by their strict discipline with the compositions of their visuals. Every shot feels precise, with the acting similarly restrained. Ozu’s masterpiece Tokyo Story famously has exactly one shot in which the camera moves. Cinema is not just what we see, but how a filmmaker chooses to show it to us: choices in framing, the ways the camera lens orients us, and how and when edits occur all affect how the viewer processes what’s going on. Minimalism can also be seen in more readily recognized ways, and it’s important to keep in mind that the visual is but one element of cinema (which also incorporates speech, and ambient and added sound). In his work, Jacques Tati would incorporate elaborate set designs but subtract greatly from other elements, especially music and dialogue. Negative space is also crucial to his framing, as demonstrated by the scene from PlayTime pictured above.
Much of what I’m describing are basic elements of mise-en-scène. Film’s ability to not just create spaces but also visit extant environments means that it can incorporate previously made minimalist or minimalist-adjacent elements into itself. Look at one of my favorite sequences from Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen’s essential essay film:
Andersen unpacks how Hollywood has often used Modernist architecture as the homes of its villains over the decades. Sharp angles, lots of glass, and copious space within which one can scheme seem to make such houses ideal. Of course, as Andersen points out, this association frequently belies the intentions of the original designers of these houses. To location scouts and set designers, the minimalist aspects of Modernism can quickly and easily convey a sense of coldness.
That’s shifted somewhat since that documentary was first released in 2004. We’re now in the age of social-media-lifestyle porn, marked by a cultural infatuation with trendy possession reduction. (Just look at how popular Marie Kondo got just for telling us to get rid of stuff we don’t need.) See where any social media star lives, or Tony Stark:
The Marvel cinematic universe characters lead lives in the type of places that once would have been occupied by covert drug traffickers whom Schwarzenegger or Stallone would slaughter en masse during the climax. But now we love our hero billionaires. And so now a cavernous space is presented not as alienating, but a friendly forum in which superheroes can banter. The TV series The Boys, which satirizes many superhero tropes, further inverts this, giving its premier superhero team a soulless corporate tower for their headquarters, with Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall used as the filming location.
Documentary often has some degree of minimalism built in, at least when done conventionally. Many nonfiction filmmakers stick to the tried and true formula of talking heads + archive footage + animated infographics. (Said infographics will themselves crib from modern notions of standard informational design, sticking to clean, easy-to-understand imagery.) But some experiment more with the form. For example, in lieu of traditional reenactments or voiceover narration, Nanking has a group of actors in period dress, sitting in one room and taking turns reading contemporary accounts of the Rape of Nanjing. The filmed monologues of Spalding Gray, such as Swimming to Cambodia, incorporate the sparse set design and lighting used in his shows. But to me, the most intriguing examples of documentary minimalism come in the surprising number of movies that use it in their depictions of airplanes and air travel.
The 2014 film Charlie Victor Romeo, based on the Drama-Desk-Award-winning stage show of the same name from Collective:Unconscious, consists of six meticulous reenactments of what happened in the cockpits of real flights that crashed. The black box recordings from the doomed planes form the script, with the actors capturing the feelings and gestures of people trying their best to manage an emergency … always to no avail. It is one of the scariest movies I have ever seen. These plane crashes, depicted via simple sets, are more terrifying than the crash in Flight, or Cast Away, or The Grey, or any other Hollywood production. There is no insulation provided by the knowledge that we are seeing known actors guaranteed to survive the story, or the unreality of computer generated imagery. We get nothing but people doing their jobs, following the procedures for such events to the letter, only for those procedures to do nothing for them. Whenever a plane I’m in is jolted by turbulence, this movie is what I think of. It has made a lasting impact on how nervous I feel when flying.
Airplanes are themselves minimalist, crafted to maximize profit and capacity based on the strictures of what machines can feasibly fly, and how fast they can go. Boeing claims that its planes are designed with passenger comfort first and foremost in mind, but a thousand standup comics and millions of disgruntled customers on social media would disagree. Commercial passenger aircraft are stripped down to the most basic things they can provide for us: cramped seats, terrible food, small bathrooms, plain furnishings. Moreover, the experience of flying will restrict you. There are only so many physical actions you can take. Experimental filmmaker Shambhavi Kaul captures this beautifully in her 2017 short Hijacked, a scene of which she graciously provided Hyperallergic for this article.
Like in Charlie Victor Romeo, Kaul films actors against an all-black background, sometimes interacting with props. They perform the commonplace motions of air travel with theatrical flourish, as if they are rituals. The title posits flying itself as an experience of being hijacked, the restrictions of the machine holding those within it hostage — both in the sense that passengers can only move so many ways aboard an airplane, and that for all its headaches, it is still the most efficient way to travel long distances for most people.
Minimalism in film leaves as much to the viewer’s imagination as it does outright present information. In this respect, Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly is a fascinating look at how people “act out” their pasts and traumas. It is not a depiction of flight but its aftermath, focusing on Dieter Dengler, a German-American pilot who was shot down in Laos, imprisoned by the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War, and ultimately escaped. In the film, Herzog follows Dengler as he recounts his experiences, which partially entails returning to Laos and Thailand, where the director and the pilot reenact Dengler’s captivity with locals. The effect is uncanny, a literalized representation of sense memory and the past bleeding into the present. The recreation is obviously much more gentle than the actual events; it’s left to the viewer to fill in as many details as they can or wish to imagine.
For every obvious element in this type of film, there are many more that aren’t as evident. It’s an art form built on subliminal craftsmanship. Minimalism thus manifests in myriad ways in cinema, from composition to performative style, to cutting, to more ineffable aspects. Paradoxically, such efforts can yield the most evocative, resonant effects on an audience.