The importance of being minimalistic

Art & Lit Screen

The power of little

‘See the world in just one grain of sand: you’d better take a closer look, don’t let it slip right through your hand’. World Party’s sleeper hit may not have reached the ears of many outside late-eighties rock aficionados, and yet these lyrics from ‘Put the Message in the Box’ encapsulate the unerring power and poignancy of minimalist cinema. To create lasting images and convey intense emotion without the benefit of changing setting or situation is a talent possessed by few, and mastered by fewer. As such, those who do so are rightly revered as bastions of the silver screen, introducing revolutionary techniques with such flair and tact that their films live on long after their original release, and will continue to for years to come.

In the world of theatre, minimalism is nothing new. The late works of Samuel Beckett, an integral figure in Esslin’s ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, are an excellent demonstration of this, with ‘Breath’, a short play that is arguably the extreme example of Beckett’s minimalism, lasting only 35 seconds, with no characters present. Along with his poems, Beckett’s plays are revered for their staggering assessment of the human condition, and his work represents the most notable move away from the realist tradition of all time. Similarly, American writer Cormac McCarthy divided opinions with his play The Sunset Limited, a medium-length piece driven by rich language and dialogue rather than actions. Responses to the work have suggested that this, therefore, is not a real play, and that it is merely a ‘dorm-room argument masquerading as a drama’. To suggest this, however, is to miss the minimalist point of the piece: action is not what is required to make a play dramatic, or even to make a play a play in the first place. In an age that is the antithesis of that which preceded it, silent cinema, the new face of respectable cinema is dialogue, whilst action takes a back seat. It is entirely possible to tell a captivating and endearing story with words alone.

The French director Robert Bresson had an influence so wide that he was once compared to Dostoevsky and Mozart when discussing his impact as a cinematic artist. He worked meticulously with his actors on isolating the performance from the language to create a finished product that was startlingly raw and subtle, and utterly unique to the art of cinema. In his work, a new language of moving images and sounds is put together that goes above and beyond mere ‘filmed theatre’, something pure and resonant that proves itself entirely different to its stage counterpart. His use of music was renowned for paring down dramatic form to the barest of bare bones in order to fuse perfectly that which he originally envisaged and that which is shown on screen once the filming is over.

Despite his assertion that a cinematographer should ‘set tactics of slowness, of silence’, Bresson led a cinematic revolution epitomised by a focus on the importance of speech: one that resulted in some of the most spectacular film of the 20th century. He showed that minimalism needn’t be confined to the stage, and proffered eternal examples of cinema’s undying influence. A minimalist film in Bresson’s mould is a masterpiece to behold, one that goes above and beyond the contemporary onto a higher, purer plane. Those that practice this noble art, however, are often underrated, and the praise accorded to all-action directors of today should most certainly be taken with a minimalist pinch of salt.