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Communion: The Cinema of the Monomystical


“Experimental film” doesn’t mean enough anymore.


When you google “hero’s journey,” the first result is a Wikipedia entry for Monomyth. Monomyth is the basic formula for narrative structure theorized by Joseph Campbell, the textbook example being STAR WARS (1977), and is synonymous with the hero’s journey. Where is the Wikipedia entry for films that employ non-traditional narrative modes?

What word do we use to encapsulate a style that doesn’t employ a three act structure? Without a framework for understanding what these kinds of films are doing, how do we know how to view and evaluate them? What do we even call them? Experimental? What’s the experiment? What about filmmakers such as Godfrey Reggio or Ron Fricke, who make a career out of their “experiments”? Clearly, experimental is not the right word, because there is a methodology being employed repeatedly. Do we call it non-narrative? Malick style? Contemplative cinema?

I’d like to call it monomystical.

Which is to say, as I was watching Terrence Malick’s TO THE WONDER (2012), I couldn’t help but think he had somehow accessed my deepest thoughts and made the film directly for an audience of one: me. Of course I’m not suggesting I’m so special as to have the “right answer” to Malick. Rather, I’m simply referring to the feeling of propositional intimacy I felt, especially in light of the film’s narrative sparseness.

Malick is peerless in his ability to create world-class results using a small, agile crew. As his process has matured, his narratives have shed their roots in monomyth, becoming increasingly fluid streams of consciousness, vague and non-Campbellian. In my mind, Malick remains an auteur because of his rejection of Campbell’s monomyth narrative structure. If Campbell’s almost mathematical formula for a compelling series of events is termed monomythic, then the free-associating, metaphoric meanderings of Malick’s cinema give us a “monomystic” alternative, with focus on the relatable associations of complex emotions and even philosophical concepts, relying on the sketchiness of the events depicted to act as a salve to draw out the viewer’s participatory energy and engage in this monomystical communion.

Just as a poem is more idea-dense than prose due to the lack of hierarchical prosaic conventions such as the conjunction or preposition (or any adposition), monomystic filmmaking takes the shared human experience common to both filmmaker and viewer and encodes it into a visual expression without the limitations of structure or exposition. Monomystical exposition is the common experience itself.

Malick’s cinema departs from linear conjunctions. His imagery creates complex meanings within the mind of the viewer more strongly, thanks in part to the far less interpretive prejudice imposed by an idea-hierarchy created by monomythic conjunctions and prepositions. That is not to say intent is absent; on the contrary. Malick is a trained philosopher and there are very specific ideas clearly present in his films. But, with the absence of strong narrative elements, in favor of sparse glimpses, the viewer is invited to fill in the gaps from the well of his or her own experience, creating something larger than the film itself via monomystical communion. This is the same communion that might influence a poet to be incomplete or only suggestive of meaning, in order that the meaning become not prescribed but decoded in the mind of an individual reader. Readers (and film viewers) who can relate to the ideas presented are likely to re-assemble the true, unexpressable, intended feeling of the author, in their own mind. Readers who can relate to a subset of the ideas will have different interpretations, causing unintended insights and associations. This interpretive openness is the strength of the monomystical filmmaker. If a monomythic film is characterized by its specificity and completeness of its narrative closed-loop, then the monomystical is characterized by its interpretive openness and narrative incompleteness, to be completed by the viewer. A viewer who hasn’t gone to war would benefit from a monomythic war film, whereas a veteran would need only a single closeup.

Deeply monomystical filmmakers, such as SAMSARA (2011) director Ron Fricke, place a certain faith in the relative similarity of our private, interior human experience, which manifests as a respect for the viewer, such that his lack of lexical cohesion within the text of his films would be overcome by the (assumed) matching cohesion of the viewer’s inner emotional associations, within the context of the loosely common and largely unexpressable complexity of our human feelings. We talk about them, but we lack the words to typically feel satisfied with our expressions, owing to their complexity. Perhaps therapy session lengths are an example of this lack of suitable vocabulary. Through the wise use of implied, internal, mystical links instead of prescribed, pre-interpreted lexical links, a skillful monomystical filmmaker encodes expositionless meanings that are decoded by the viewer’s idiosyncratic emotional associations, to the degree that the viewer maintains a certain patience and negative capability. Thus, Fricke’s own description of SAMSARA (2011) calls the film a nonverbal guided meditation.

In practice, the transmission of meanings between the minds of the filmmaker and viewer will not result in anything close to identical, but this is smoothed by negative capability, patience, and imagination. If faith in the relative similarity of human experience has merit, then the meanings will resemble one another, the way a child will resemble her parent. Unique, but familiar.

Monomysticism within the Monomythic

Most of this piece has discussed monomyth and “monomystic” as opposites, but it should be noted that within a conventional monomythic story, the things that make it truly great — not just a paint-by-numbers exercise — are the monomystical elements encoded within the tried and true structure. It is one reason some scripts seem “correct” but flop. It is a reason among many why film studios are risk-averse to unproven forms, and is one reason wise filmmakers try to keep a pulse on the public consciousness.

So, the argument could be made that this mystical encoding is what any film does, and this decoding is what any viewer does. The difference lies in the relative level of interpretive prejudice employed by the filmmaker, mirrored by the level of negative capability — the comfort within uncertainty — of the viewer. Hopefully, we can create a context for understanding what unconventional filmmaking does, what it is, so we can learn how to watch unique and unconventional films in communion with the filmmaker, instead of being afraid of not knowing what it’s supposed to be about.

Jason Cochard