In her book The Art of Describing, art historian Svetlana Alpers explains an essential distinction between Dutch painting in the 17th century and its Italian counterpart. The so-called history paintings that out of all categories occupied the highest status within Italian renaissance art had their purpose in depicting historic – either biblical or mythological – scenes filled with grandiosity and drama. Because of it, history paintings were as much pictures as they were told stories, thus having the essential character of being narrative. As seen in any work of this kind, the showcasing of specific and centralized motifs is inherently prominent, with all of the paintings’ visual information actively and purposefully working in favor of the depicted scene in question; the poses of the characters all form a direction towards the main focus, which is most often placed at the centre of the scene, while the less important aspects are given less attention.
Contrary to this, Dutch painting carried a more naturalistic sense of visuality. Instead of being concerned with depicting significant human actions from historic mythoses, Dutch painters wanted to convey the visual world around them. The purpose of their paintings was never to narrate a story, but to describe an environment. Not only did the motifs thus radically differ from those within Italian art, but the ways these motifs were portrayed also carried a number of disparate aspects: an optical instead of perspectival composition, showing the world as it appears before the human eye without any forms of visual hierarchies; a photorealistic attention to detail, treating all of the painting’s elements with equal care and interest; and the absence of a prior frame, giving the impression that the painted motif is just a part of a bigger picture that extends beyond the edges of the canvas.
This central distinction in character between Dutch and Italian painting was largely due to cultural differences; whereas Italian art was under the strong influence of the church, Dutch painting was closely tied to its culture’s large interest in exploring the world. This in itself also resulted in different evaluations for the artistic profession; as the seemingly opposite fields ‘art’ and ‘science’ were perceived by the Dutch for their similarities more than their differences, the artist wasn’t held up by some sacred status of creative wondrousness like in Italy, but was seen as a world documenter closely tied professions such as the mapmaker (as seen in the painting by Micker, the distinction between these two was sometimes remarkably vague). While the arguably most accurate equivalent to Dutch painting that exists within the realm of storytelling thus would be the documentary, it would still be interesting to explore stories of fiction that contain a descriptive essence in their narrative structure. That is, stories where the environment carries a central role and is inherently connected to the progression of the plot.
Conventional storytelling as we know it always follows a developmental line of narrative that provides buildup and payoff. Whether it be Aristotle’s three-act division of ”beginning, middle and end”, Freytag’s pyramid, or the hero’s journey, the things that all theories around the traditional dramatic structure have in common are a protagonist, a goal, and a number of obstacles that have to be overcome in order to reach that goal, which all then results in some sort of development. What I’d like to look at though are works of fiction whose dramatic progressions depart from this formula; that don’t have an established goal and obstacles but rather depict the development of their characters through a more directionless progression. Works that, similar to 17th century Dutch painting, focus on the environment that surrounds the story as a central part of the story itself, letting world building and narrative work in direct parallel with one another.
And since the subject of our study derives from a field of artists whose paintings were made under the strong influence of the world that surrounds them, what better way to start things off than by looking at a work whose central theme is exactly that. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 medieval epos Andrei Rublev tells the biographical story of the great Russian icon painter of the same name. In a carefully constructed medieval Russia, Tarkovsky follows Andrei through eight narratively scattered yet thematically interrelated episodes as he bears witness to life’s cruelties, trials and tribulations of his time; from the dreadful encounter of a group of naked pagans, to a Tatar raid of the city of Vladimir, to the dramatic casting of a bell. It is far from a conventional biopic, with its various parts creating more of a fragmented jumble than any chronological progression. Neither is Andrei any conventional protagonist, often being present merely in the sidelines as a silent observer, or in some instances not even present at all. Carrying the role of a neutral and impartial artist, he isn’t so much a consistently centralized main character as he is a simple witness experiencing the film’s events from a passive distance. This goes for the viewer as well; with Tarkovsky’s trademark combination of the long take and tracking shot being consistently present throughout the film, we are, like our protagonist, witnessing the world’s cruelties through merely passive observations, as the camera slowly and gracefully strokes the medieval landscapes.
Despite his often non-central presence, we yet see Andrei go through great changes as both an artist and a human being. During the encounter with the pagan group, he gets captured after having been caught spying on a couple making love. As a female member of the group sets him free, she explains to him that they are being persecuted for their beliefs. When the persecutors then appear, Andrei sees how the woman desperately tries to flee with the rest of the group, but in order to retain his impartial stance as an artist, he refrains from taking action, leaving the girl to die as he shamefully looks away. Later during the Tatar raid, he deviates from this impartiality – as if haunted by the regret of his previous choice – when he prevents a Tatar soldier from raping a young girl by killing him. In order to gain atonement for his sins, he decides to stop painting and takes a vow of silence. In the movie’s final act, which tells the story of a young boy who leads the casting of a bell for the now traumatized city, Andrei’s life turns around as he witnesses the astonishing accomplishment of this boy, and regains his role as a painter. As Andrei reacts and interacts with the world around him, he goes through significant acts of revelation, confrontation and ascension, finally becoming the master painter that the world knows him as today. As Tarkovsky himself explains in his book Sculpting in Time:
It looks at first sight as if the cruel truth of life as he observes it is in crying contradiction with the harmonious ideal of his work. The crux of the question, however, is that the artist cannot express the moral ideal of his time unless he touches all its running sores, unless he suffers and lives these sores himself. That is how art triumphs over grim, ’base’ truth, clearly recognising it for what it is, in the name of its own sublime purpose: such is its destined role. For art could almost be said to be religious in that it is inspired by commitment to a higher goal.
To Tarkovsky, the true artist – the one capable of moving man’s soul and guiding it to an ideally higher state of being – is one that must experience and endure the grimmer parts of life and its imperfections in order to overcome them. While this theme in itself is largely based on Tarkovsky’s own idealistic perception of art and life, which – like the old German philosophers that it derives from – deserves some critique, there’s still a lot to take away from Andrei Rublev. It is a stunning portrayal of the miseries of a harsh and violent age, and tells the complications and difficulties of maintaining moral ideals in such an age. Yet at the core beneath its very grim nature, it tells a hopeful story about a man who despite the hardships of his time (or perhaps because of it) is able to grow into a masterful artist.
A nearly polar opposite portrayal of the cruelties of a medieval environment can be found in Aleksei German’s 2013 final film Hard to be a God. Planned and realized throughout the last 15 years of German’s life, and then finalized and released by his wife and son eight months after his passing, this black-and-white mammoth of a film is a brutal and relentless portrayal of a civilization’s darkest hours. Like the 1964 novel of the same name by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky that it is based on, the film takes place on a planet similar to Earth whose civilization has become stuck in the middle ages. Due to the brutal persecution and murdering of any form of intellectuals done by the inhabitants, a renaissance era is completely unable to emerge. To this planet a scientist has been sent from Earth named Anton, with the mission to infiltrate the Kingdom of Arkanar and boost the progress of its society, but without interacting with its politics or forcibly interfere with its cultural and technological advancements in order to let the evolution run its natural course. As we see him at the beginning of the movie, he has taken the identity of a nobleman named Don Rumata and integrated with the society, living in a large castle with his bride Ari. He is a well known and respected figure by the local townspeople, perceived by some as a God while hated by others.
Unlike any other title in this study, there is a traditionally linear narrative present in Hard to be a God – involving the retrieving of a doctor named Budakh who’s been captured by Arkanar’s prime minister Don Reba – but it is far from the main focus. The nearly three hour runtime is instead primarily spent depicting Don Rumata interacting with the society in all of its violent activities, each more disgusting than the last. If there was one word to describe German’s film it would be ‘filthy’, being filled with as much mud, spit, blood and semen as imaginable, and with one scene after the other containing striking images of everything from corpses, deformed bodies, viscera and genitals. But despite all this, it is not an exploitation film; there is nothing being exploited here as much as it is being immersed. While each and every occurrence of filth and violence is utmost gut-wrenching in its own right, they all serve the soul purpose of adding to the portrayal of this gruesome society at large. The setting is masterfully built up in every detail, from all the set designs to the costumes and makeup, and as Don Rumata freely wanders through it, it gives the strong impression of being an actual place.
This is only further enhanced by how the place is presented to the viewer. In contrary to Andrei Rublev, Don Rumata is not observing the world from a distance, but is positioned in the very middle of the action and more often than not participating in it. As such, the viewer gets to similarly experience this society from within. The movie is filmed with a mostly handheld camera, jaggedly following Rumata’s antics through confrontational closeups, while its presence is constantly made visible with characters looking into it and objects blocking its sight, as if to suggest that the cameraman too is a character within the movie. As viewers, we are truly being placed in a role of not just observation, but also interaction.
While Don Rumata is indeed going through similar experiences as Andrei Rublev, the role of his character is an entirely different one. The passively impartial artist is replaced by a man whose very task is to interact with his environment in order to change it. His mission is an incredibly hard if not paradoxical one; to help the civilization progress into a better era, but without forcing said progress through radical means. How does one proceed with such a seemingly impossible task, especially when dealing with as hopelessly stubborn and broken a society as Arkanar? When we see Don Rumata, it is apparent that he has already struggled with this task for a long time, as he’s filled with as much weariness as disdain. By the end of our story, he hasn’t even come near succeeding, and simply leaves us with the statement: “It’s hard to be a god.” If Andrei Rublev showed us a passively witnessing artist getting shaped by the experiences of the world around him, Hard to be a God presents the frustrating experience of a man trying to shape that world himself.
Moving back two decades, we find similar portrayals of hectic environments in a number of movies by Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. Generally, Kar-wai is well known for having a very unconventional approach to dramatic structures, much accomplished by his unorthodox filmmaking methods. He doesn’t use scripts nor storyboards, preferring to improvise forth his films during production instead of planning things beforehand. Actors are given a minimal plot outline and told to develop their characters alongside shooting, and aren’t allowed to rehearse or use acting techniques in order to keep their performances natural. Camera positions and movements are never planned out but always made up on the spot. His films are shaped through means of improvisation and spontaneity, resulting in stories that progress more naturally than they do structurally.
And since he is so opposed against planning out his films, it would only appear natural that he isn’t one to typically use built up movie sets; instead, he tends to shoot in real and unaltered locations. This is a highly essential distinction to make between his films and our previously discussed titles, whose settings – as immersive and seemingly real as they are – are entirely constructed by the filmmakers themselves. Since Kar-wai’s sets aren’t built up to fit his own creative visions but are actual places with fixed spaces and uninterrupted activities, they involve conditions that the film team has to adapt to. Adding his improvisatory filmmaking method to this factor, you get movies that are shaped by their environments on a highly fundamental level. As his longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle has expressed:
What happens with a Wong Kar-Wai film is, you don’t have a script, you don’t know when you’re gonna finish shooting, you don’t know where you’re gonna shoot it – so all you have is location. So I think that’s what I learn; if once you get the location right, then the other things, [are] slightly less […] important, because the location […] pushes you in a certain direction, and that really informs. When people talk about style I think that’s what they’re talking about; that this space works for what you’re doing.
What we already can conclude from this alone is that the environment’s role in a Wong Kar-wai film is highly apparent in the very making of it. While almost all of his films could be argued of having this aspect to them in terms of filmmaking, there are three particular titles in his filmography where the environments that they are filmed in also are in an essential relationship to their narratives: his 1994 international breakthrough Chungking Express, its 1995 spiritual sequel Fallen Angels, and the 1997 movie Happy Together.
Being filled with a spirit of whimsicality and carefreeness in every aspect, Chungking Express was made during a two month break that Kar-wai had between editing his epic wuxia drama Ashes of Time. Because of the gravity and ambitious proportions of that film, as well as its long and demanding production process, he had become too overwhelmed and tired of the project and felt the strong need to turn away from it. So while he was waiting for equipment for sound re-recording, he gathered a small film crew, went out to various locations in Hong Kong and shot this innocently childlike romance film during the span of just six weeks. When he then came back to the editing room, he was filled with renewed energy. The film is divided into two parts, each telling a story about a heartbroken policeman at the streets of Hong Kong and his uplifting encounter with a charming woman. The first is about the platonic yet affecting meeting between an undercover cop who’s recently been dumped by his girlfriend on April Fool’s Day, and a mysterious woman with a blonde wig and sunglasses whose drug business goes wrong after a failed smuggling operation. The second story is about a patrol officer recovering from the breakup with his flight attendant girlfriend, and a young energetic woman newly employed at his local lunch place named Faye who, after having fallen in love with him, frequently breaks into and redecorates his apartment. While both seemingly uneventful, these two stories around unexpected encounters and lost and re-found love aren’t so much about the plots themselves as how they play out. Not only are they both filled to the brim with clever little details, puns and coincidences, but the seemingly insignificant events that they consist of turn out having great impact on the film’s characters. The two cops are able to recover from their broken relationships, and the two women similarly manage to grow and move on with their own lives. And surrounding these characters is the ever so present city of Hong Kong with its hectic urban environment, filled with life and color.
The film that Wong Kar-wai released the year after, Fallen Angels, can very much be seen as a companion piece to its predecessor in that it is an extension of what was originally supposed to be the third story of Chungking Express. Being mainly set around Hong Kong’s criminal underworld, it has a much grimmer approach to otherwise largely similar themes, although executed with just as much energy and upbeat personality. Instead of focusing on just a pair of characters, it follows five people whose different lives and relationships get paralleled and entangled with each other; a quiet and reserved contract killer named Wong Chi-ming, his distant but affectionate unnamed female partner, a whimsical mute delinquent named Ho Chi-mo, a brash and headstrong girl named Cherry, and a wild and naive prostitute named Blondie. With all of them having completely different yet equally colorful personalities, these characters can be seen as perfect examples of the many lives and people that make up Hong Kong’s vivid environment.
Chungking Express and Fallen Angels thus perfectly present two halves of the same coin that is this urban metropolis. The former is set primarily during the day, when the streets are filled with life and activity, while the latter is exclusively set during the night when the colorful neon lights illuminate the city. The former depicts lost souls surrounded by the city’s hectic liveliness, and the latter depicts the entanglement of the different lives that it contains. Both movies are filmed with an equally as stylish as playful camerawork, which is imaginatively shaped by the conditions of the locations. Both are filled with a wonderfully energetic tempo and charming attitude, present as much within the characters as the city itself. It is a beautiful portrayal of Hong Kong to say the least.
At the near opposite of this spectrum lies Kar-wai’s next film Happy Together. Contrary to its two predecessors, it does not take place in Hong Kong but in Buenos Aires, and tells the more somber story about a gay couple who’s traveled to Argentina in hopes of fixing their unstable relationship. The two men, named Ho Po-wing and Lai Yiu-fai, have a long track record behind them of repeated unfaithfulness, breakups and reconciliations, much due to their conflicting personalities; Ho is an easygoing young man who doesn’t back from taking advantage of his partner, while Lai is much more responsible but often lets his empathy get the better of him. As we see them at the beginning of the film, they are about to visit the Iguazu Falls as one of their traveling goals, but the drive there quickly gets interrupted by an argument which grows into a breakup. This is then followed by their usual struggle with each other going on throughout the movie, as if they never left Hong Kong at all. By the end of it, they come to terms with the fact that they don’t belong together and move on from their relationship, with Ho staying in Buenos Aires and Lai traveling back to Hong Kong. This film differs completely from its two predecessors; while visually containing the same stylish and vivid flavor, the energetic and spontaneous attitude is replaced by heartfelt drama and melancholia. The relationship to the surrounding setting too is an entirely different one; instead of getting changed by it as the pair hopes, they learn that it makes no difference where they are since the issue they’re struggling with is inherent. This conclusion was something that essentially grew out of the making of the film. As Doyle explained in an interview with The Seventh Art, the idea for Happy Together derived out of wanting something new, but instead quickly grew into a sort of confrontation:
The important thing about Happy Together is that we’ve made so many films in Hong Kong, and they’ve become so quote unquote iconic. So what the fuck are we gonna do next? So we went to the furthest place you can get from Hong Kong, which is Buenos Aires. […] And we took the two most important actors in Chinese cinema, and we just threw them into this mess. And that was the principle. But the result was, in the process of making the film, we realized we are really only talking about our own identity. It was very interesting, it was like, we went to the end of the world […] and all of the process of the film is about trying to disorient you to yourself. And the only answer was: we are who we are. […] Cause we’ve made these films and they were so popular […], and then we say no we gotta do something different, and we realized actually we’re just making the same film.
Instead providing the breath of fresh air that both the film’s characters and creators are hoping for, the city of Buenos Aires comes with the realization that some things aren’t changeable through a mere variation in environment. Ultimately, what this leads to for both the film, its filmmakers and its characters is accepting and coming to terms with one’s identity.
As we can see in the case of Happy Together as well as Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, what makes their stories so interesting is that they are shaped by the lives and conditions of the people behind them, making these two sides ultimately mirror each other. Chungking Express and Fallen Angels were conceived on an unambitious whim and filmed with an improvisatory playfulness, and contain stories that similarly center around doing the spontaneous, seizing opportunities and making the best out of your situation. Happy Together is about a self-realization and self-acceptance that the characters and filmmakers gradually reached in parallel with one another. And what ties it all together are these two crowded urban cities, Hong Kong and Buenos Aires, that surround and affect the films, their characters and creators. Wong Kar-wai’s three films are undeniably the ones out of all our titles that are closest to Dutch descriptive painting’s documentary aspect, being just as much about the fictional characters’ relationships to the world around them as about the actual filmmakers’ relationships to that same world.
However, the presence of descriptive storytelling and its effectiveness never quite reaches the same level as in the anime series Aria. This 53 episode show adapted from the manga of the same name by Kozue Amano, about the daily lives of a group of young female friends working as gondoliers in a peaceful utopian city, is arguably the epitome of narrative progression and character development achieved through nothingness. Much of this is due to the slice-of-life genre that the show embodies; a storytelling category within anime that in itself is a very interesting diversion from conventional dramatic structuring with its lack of an established goal and seemingly uneventful depiction of everyday life. But what makes Aria special is that it combines the typical characteristics of this genre with a central focus on world building.
The story is set in the 24th century in Neo-Venezia, a city on the water filled planet Aqua, formerly known as Mars. It follows 15 year old Akari Mizunashi and her job as an apprenticing undine – the name of the city’s gondolier tour guides – for the Aria Company under the mentorship of prima undine Alicia Florence. Together with her two close friends and fellow apprentices Aika S. Granzchesta and Alice Carroll, the three gradually train up their skills as undines while discovering the city and all the wonders it contains, aspiring to one day earn the title of primas like their respective mentors. From the very first episode, it becomes apparent that Aria is a slow, calm and meditative show focusing on celebrating life’s smaller details. Out of all the titles in this study, it has probably the most unconventional approach in terms of its narrative, being as ‘plotless’ as one can imagine. It is a show that quite literally depicts everyday life; nothing more, nothing less.
That is also where one of its key qualities comes from. Being over 50 episodes long – with each episode having a runtime on around 20 minutes – that all tell one single continuous narrative, the timespan at hand is significantly longer than even the longest of movies. All this time is spent on fleshing out its environment and the characters within it, which is entirely done through the mere depiction of the Neo-Venezian life. By following a group of characters during their everyday experiences within this city through such an extensive timespan, Aria manages to create an immersion like no other. As we see our main trio slowly but steadily grow both as people and as friends, all while discovering new things about the city they live in, we are gradually getting as attached to them and their home as they do themselves. If anything, Aria is a masterpiece in how it patiently builds up and develops its environment and the people within it. As mentioned at the beginning of this study, one of the key attributes of a Dutch descriptive painting is its lack of any fixed, preexisting frame, making it seem like it’s just one piece of a much bigger picture. To make a metaphoric comparison, one could see every individual episode of Aria as a ’painting’ of this kind, each adding to the large canvas that is Neo-Venezia. These are far from just geographical additions, as they also include the city’s lifestyle, its social environment, and not least its many characters. Through Akari and her friends, we slowly get to know more and more about this city, the people who live there, the daily lives of its undines, and the smaller mysteries that it contains.
Being modeled after real life Venice, the city of Neo-Venezia is beautifully designed with its byzantine- and ottoman-influenced gothic architecture and rich color pallet. Our protagonist Akari is the perfect in-between for exploring the city with her outward personality and constant curiosity, as well as her ability of finding excitement in the most trivial of things. Not a day goes by without her learning something new about the city, either by meeting new people, discovering new places, or experiencing some of its many traditions and recurring phenomenons. Her two friends, Aika and Alice, are equally as charming characters carrying unique personalities – Aika with her tomboyish attitude and Alice with her precocious self-confidence – that in combination create a beautiful trio dynamic. On top of this, each one of their respective teachers have their own strong personalities filled with quirks and attributes that play off both against each other and their students. And this is not to mention everyone else that the recurring cast consists of.
At the core of it all, Aria is about closely getting to know its many people and the place that they live in. By the end of the series, we’ve spent countless times in the building of Aria Company, at the St. Mark’s Square and on the city’s various canals and alleyways. We’ve become familiar with countless people and learned all about them as if they were close friends. But most of all, we’ve seen our three main characters gradually grow from novices to Primas, from innocent young girls to matured women. And all of this has been achieved through the mere depiction of everyday life.
These are the titles I’m familiar with where I find a form of descriptive storytelling to be present. But there are probably other works out there that I haven’t been exposed to whose narratives are similarly applicable to this concept. If there are any ones that you know about, then feel free to tell me about them in the comments!