Wednesday, May 5, 2010

On Ambient Films

On Ambient Films
(Text and art excerpted from the narrative essay Softcore World, viewable in its entirety at Art by Sam Beck.)

An ambient film is largely plotless, focusing on character through a more objective yet also more intimate viewpoint. In ambient films we see characters live their lives in long takes that are typically soundtracked with diegetic sound. There are only a few pages of dialogue to be found in these films, the characters preferring to speak when spoken to. More discerning audiences are able to see the character as nothing other than the actor broken down to his or her barest elements: we have Ana Torrent in Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, Lee Kang-sheng in Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is It There? and Yo Hitoto in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Café Lumière as examples. By watching the characters/actors go about their daily routes, accompanied by what is often mistakenly referred to as ‘silence’, the audience is more easily able to acknowledge the fact that characters are also actors, real people asked to do real things.

These films are referred to as ambient rather than minimalist as the minimalism is done in service to the ambience and not vice versa. We are able to experience the serenity of a small town in Spain, along with the bustling cities of Taipei, Paris and Tokyo on their own terms – by following these characters/actors as they quietly make their familiar treks, we are able to visit and breathe these locations with them, as opposed to films which relegate their settings to half-seen flashes of artifice.

What prevents all this from crossing over into documentary is the seemingly universal approach to gorgeous cinematography of ambient films: the camera tends to be set up for the framing of a setting rather than the framing of a character, while the character is there to balance out the composition and add humanism to the shot. With locations having the most major role in these films, they are filmed as lovingly as a genre film’s stars.

Along those lines, when non-diegetic music is incorporated into ambient films, it is used to complement the scenery rather than as a link to the emotional state of the characters – examples here would be Luis de Pablo’s score for The Spirit of the Beehive and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Ennio Morricone’s score for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.

To watch an ambient film is to enter the time and place in which it was made; not only are they objective experiences but also the purest form of escapism I have yet to come across. They are made to reflect upon us as we reflect upon them.

Ten examples of ambient films, in no specific order:

Café Lumière - Hou Hsiao-hsien (2003)
The Spirit of the Beehive - Víctor Erice (1973)
Linda Linda Linda - Nobuhiro Yamashita (2005)
What Time is it There? - Tsai Ming-liang (2001)
Days of Heaven - Terrence Malick (1978)
Small Change / Pocket Money - François Truffaut (1976)
Syndromes and a Century - Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2006)
L'eclisse - Michelangelo Antonioni (1962)
Flight of the Red Balloon - Hou Hsiao-hsien (2007)
Whisper of the Heart - Yoshifumi Kondo (1995)


  1. I havent seen any ambient films!

    must do, they sound interesting, do you think the music makes it any less great? say positioning the viewer to feel a certain emotion in certains sceens?

  2. For the most part I feel the music in these films is there to underscore the atmosphere of the setting rather than force emotions on the viewer. When music does appear in these films it's typically done in a tasteful way. And I would say half of what makes Days of Heaven so beautiful to me is its warm, evocative score.