Brief glimpses of beauty.
I started a newsletter called “Calm.” a few weeks ago, but recent news highlighting Substack’s support for transphobic newsletters has prompted me to consider switching over to another platform. Despite not using Medium in a while, I already have a modest follower count and I know the discoverability here is pretty good. So I figure I might as well make my Medium the new home for Calm.
I’ll be uploading the first few entries that were already published on Substack over the next few days.
There’s an extremely long experimental documentary called As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty. I don’t know if I’ll ever watch it — it’s 288 minutes long and made up entirely of the filmmaker Jonas Mekas’ home videos, which is, well, a hard sell. But the phrase “brief glimpses of beauty” sticks with me.
I like movies. I’ve watched a lot of them and find that while I can get through most anything, I am pretty particular about what I really love. This select group seems to center on, at least in part, capturing brief glimpses of beauty. There’s a gentleness and slowness to them. Methodical. This genre, if it can be called anything, isn’t “slow cinema” or “arthouse film,” even if there are overlaps.
I’m calling it simply “calm.”
The blog The Art(s) of Slow Cinema very pointedly avoids outright defining what slow cinema is because it “is based on too many relative factors that, in fact, defy a definition.” That feels a bit like cheating — making the rules nebulous so it’s easier to include all the work I want to include — but it’s apt for my criteria here too. I made a list of films I broadly define as “calm” and find contemporary relationship dramedy, neo-noir, sci-fi, period piece, western, biopic, melodrama, even horror. There’s no rigid definition here. I’m guided more by a sense of what feels right.
Some directors that come to mind: Yasujiro Ozu, Claire Denis, Lulu Wang, Jim Jarmusch, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Kelly Reichardt, Sophia Coppola, Wong Kar-Wai, Barry Jenkins, Tsai Ming-liang, Pedro Almodóvar. And others who I would like to refrain from mentioning yet to keep the anticipation up. And there are probably others I haven’t discovered yet!
I’m also guided by this feeling that, lately, the big producers of the culture we consume (Netflix, Amazon, Disney, there aren’t that many more actually because we’re in a nightmare where all our culture is centralized within enormous corporations that have propaganda for hegemonic power structures in mind far more than they do artistic enrichment) are putting out art that seeks to comfort and uphold rather than challenge and subvert. But on the other hand, I understand everyone is very vulnerable right now. We were already subjected to being slowly crushed under the wheel. Now we’re slowly being crushed under the wheel and oh also there’s a pandemic that could kill you or any one of your loves ones, or else bog them down with a preexisting condition they’ll have to deal with the rest of their lives.
What I’m saying is, it makes more sense to me that after working your horrible service job for twelve hours to want to seek refuge in art that comforts you, that’s fun and breezy and doesn’t make you think too hard. I can’t be the only one whose night was made worse after a bad day by having wasted two hours on a movie that makes you feel unpleasant or bad — or that was itself unpleasant and bad.
But comfort can become coddling, can become “here are X and Y tropes, let’s let them play out straight again and again over and over.” Art like this is soothing but restricting. It encloses you in its grasp and, arguably, makes us worse people. Because it makes us believe there aren’t other possibilities. Keeps us contained within a narrow worldview.
But by the same token, we often associate movies that are harsh and brutal and cynical as somehow “deeper” or more challenging because they show more difficult subjects on screen. Like you see a handful of movies about systemic racism every year that are touted as “important” because they handle their subject this way. I don’t really like these movies by and large either. Like you cannot tell me Kathryn Bigelow’s brutal Detroit has more to say about the criminalization of Black men in America than Ava Duvernay’s gentle Middle of Nowhere, despite how extreme one is compared to the other.
These movies feign profundity through depictions of pain without taking the time to actually thoughtfully consider that pain. (Just to be completely upfront, I despise all Lars von Trier movies for this reason.) “Life is bad and you should feel bad” movies are just as useless to me, if not moreso, than light cotton candy flicks. At least the latter can inspire a nice night out with friends or whatever (back when we were able to see our friends anyway).
While I do love exploitation, horror, thrillers, and other hardcore genres — as long as they tactfully and explicitly deal with their on-screen cruelty (the work of directors like Abel Ferrara, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Mary Harron come to mind) — they fulfill a need that’s aside from what I’m trying to accomplish here, and explaining their merits would take a whole other newsletter (in the meantime I recommend consulting Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Patreon for commentary on these kinds of movies).
So I want to… well, I’m resisting saying “find a middle road.” Because this isn’t that. I just want to organize a canon of films that manage to communicate emotionally, politically, spiritually rich themes in a very calm, gentle manner. That doesn’t make them light or soft. That doesn’t make them “easy.” Sometimes these movies aren’t straightforwardly enjoyable. They’re often slow or confusing. They usually don’t follow traditional three-act structures. They withhold or show their whole hand far more than you’d expect. But they aren’t antagonistic to their audiences. They won’t punish you for caring or lacerate you with endless depictions of pain and suffering to seem edgy. They just want you to think about them. And they are in their own ways revitalizing. “Nourishing” is what I would say if I wanted to go with a food metaphor (which I don’t think I do, but let’s leave that word in here if it works for you).
Like I said at the beginning, I want to celebrate movies that capture brief glimpses of beauty. A sense of awe. Movies whose deliberate and gentle stylistic and narrative heft stay with you long after the credits roll.
Welcome to “Calm.”
Bryan tweets at @BryanOnion.