There are as many ways to characterise meditation. It essentially bestows on us the lens through which we can be in touch with reality. Now, one can’t help but wonder what reality is. Everything that appears to be real? By searching for the common thread we might be able to pin down reality to a simple definition: the present moment.
It’s obvious isn’t it? Anything that is not happening right now is unreal. Only when we are in the present are we in the real. And the innumerable techniques, methods and substances that inspire meditative states generally serve to propel our wandering minds into the present moment. So can art be seen as something that might induce meditation? All forms of art tend to provide us with the vision to transcend the banal. This is how I like to interpret Nietzsche’s quote: “We have art so we shall not die of reality.” The reality he doesn’t want us to die from is actually the unreal falsely being reflected as the real.
But perhaps no other art form comes close to meditation as effectively and as precisely as cinema, for the concept of time is an inherent construct of the art form. Cinema captures time more incisively than any other form of art. If cinema can be called sculpting in time, then while watching a film we are essentially witnessing time flow in front of our eyes. If we strip down cinema to its bare lifeblood, obliterating all things superfluous, what are we left with? Most people tend to associate a film with its story. Following the plot and empathising with the characters through the acting give the viewer a possibility to arrive at a resolution by the end of the film. However, while watching such films, one is constantly caught up in the anticipation of what will happen next. This doesn’t allow the viewer to remain in the present moment. We will then have to uncloud cinema of everything that dominates it. Therefore, we have to look at films where story and acting is secondary to cinema, not the other way around. So if the plot of the film is stripped of its emphasis, what happens? If there’s nothing to “follow” in a movie, what do we watch?
It occurred to me while watching Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room that whatever the film was leading to didn’t matter as much as what was being viewed right now, in the present moment. This doesn’t mean that the film has to be necessarily inconsequential, but I came to feel that the image presented exists on its own and is not bound to oblige the scenes preceding it or to progress towards the images to come. It might or might not be born as a consequence and might or might not lead to a consequence. Its functions are secondary, the fact that it is is primary. Thus the present moment becomes eternal. We become absorbed by the present moment, very much like a meditative state. Jean Paul Sarte’s “existence precedes essence” can illustrate this. What we’re watching is primary to what we are to derive of it, and in fact we have the freedom to derive anything out of it.
One might undergo such experiences while watching the films of Chantal Akerman, Andrei Tarkovsky or Bela Tarr. Such directors aim to present reality to us, using cinema. And cinema in its sheer inventiveness is able to communicate that truth miraculously. And I think as reality gets transmitted, our psyche begins to simulate it in one way or the other.
The problem that eventuates is boredom. It is not unusual that people get bored while watching such films. So one could very well ask, why even bother to indulge in such self-deprivation? However, isn’t that the case with meditation as well? If you try to sit with your eyes closed, doing nothing, you might end up feeling bored after a while and might even fall asleep. We have become accustomed to always keeping our minds engaged in one thing or another; thus emptiness seems tedious. Only after steadfast acquaintance with that emptiness are preconceived notions shattered. Such is the case with cinematic emptiness as well. Cinema as a means to meditation alters one’s perception of what film is and what it can be. And like all changes, it’s a bit demanding in the beginning but wonderful as it progresses.
This isn’t to negate the impact of other forms of art or films that emphasise the story. They all are doing their job in their own ways. The point is that cinema in its individual ingenuity is more likely to induce that profound meditative state than cinema that borrows its characteristics from other forms of art.
Paul Schrader begins his book Transcendental Style in Film with the quote, “Religion and art are parallel lines which intersect only at infinity, and meet in God.” Art and spirituality lie quite adjacent to each other. Art takes us closer to the truth of ourselves consciously and unconsciously. At every moment, eternity is waiting for us.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.