15 January 2007

Into Great Silence

Those poor unfortunates whose ears I so frequently bend in nocturnal sessions on Skype or phone may find it hard to believe, but I've not been talking that much this year. I've been working lots, of course, and the combination of poverty and industry have led me to socialise less, but in general it's just that I've been happier on my own - reading, working, watching films.

Despite being a huge cinema-goer in the past, my viewing slackened hugely in my time in Manchester, and I utterly wasted the fine opportunity that was the Cornerhouse being scarcely more than two miles from my domicile in halls. I think in the five years that I was there I doubt I saw more than four films in that marvellously pretentious treasure-trove of alternative and classic cinema.

Admittedly, I probably made up for that by becoming a regular visitor to the theatre in Manchester -- and another trip is lined up for my next Mancunian jaunt -- but still, leaving all that aside, it's good to again be a member of the Institute formerly known as the IFC.

Having yesterday slipped in to town to see the relentlessly entertaining masterpiece that is The Maltese Falcon -- and it really is a delight, isn't it, with its cynical heart, sardonic wit, and unforgettable gallery of rogues? -- yesterday, today I felt an entirely different cinematic experience was in order.

Yes, I know that visits to the cinema two days in a row might seem a bit decadent, but opportunity is all too rarely a lengthy visitor, and frankly, after the past few days I've needed this. I've been busy with something that's pretty far removed - though alas not far enough -- from my research, and everytime I get involved in this I feel indignant, tense, and angry. I won't go into it now -- perhaps later, when the dust has settled, I'll tell all here, or maybe elsewhere. But not just yet...

So anyway, this afternoon, having spent far too long photocopying and frowning and muttering darkly, I slipped into The Palace Bar, one time haunt of the great Flann O'Brien among others, there to have a quiet pint and peruse a paper, before strolling down to the IFI to watch Into Great Silence.

Have you heard of this? Unless you're German you'll probably not have had this on in your local multiplex, as it's a film unlike any I've ever seen before. It's a documentary about French Carthusian monks at the Grand Chartreuse monastery in the Alps, and is extraordinarily still, extraordinarily quiet, and extraordinarily beautiful.

The film's two-and-three-quarters long, and has no more than a couple of minutes of conversation in it, the only sounds being heard in the rest of the film being bells, footsteps, creaks, the buzzing of an electric trimmer, pages being turned, raindrops and even snowflakes. Time after time the camera settles on a Vermeer-like scene where there appears to be no motion at all, and then eventually somebody will budge, ever so slightly. And those almost imperceptible movements and those barely audible sounds gain a staggering significance in this still and silent world.

The film's not so much a documentary as it is a re-presentation of Carthusian life; if you can accept the film on its own terms, if you can allow yourself into its rhythm, watching it is in itself becomes an act of contemplation, allowing you, in a way, to join the monks in their asceticism.

It was exactly what I'd needed. Walking back into the street afterwards seemed almost deafening. I can see this being a film I'd like to own a copy of myself at some stage.

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