Minimalism has been around since the 1960s. Every form of art has, since then, explored the concepts of minimalism. The main idea of the minimalist art is to reduce the concept being conveyed to its core, to strip it of all the useless parts, and to end up with the idea in its purest form. In terms of minimalist storytelling, names like Carver, Bukowski, and Hemingway appear repeatedly, and Samuel Beckett also made great contributions toward the staging of minimalist theater plays.
All of this leads us to the subject at hand: Minimalism in cinematic storytelling. First of all, let us differentiate between a minimalist film and a minimalist story in a film. Derek Jarman’s “Blue” (1993) could be considered a straight-up minimalist film, displaying 79 minutes of a blue screen. However, this list engages with movies that have a minimalist structure in their narrative, not necessarily in their aesthetic choices. These are stories that, because of their simplicity, become more humane and real.
Although it’s arguably considered a movement in the cinematic industry, a lot of the main concepts of minimalist art have impregnated filmmaking and have been widely used by many film-makers. While not following any sort of manifest, filmmakers extract from the minimalist movement some very useful ideas.
Counterintuitive as it may look in comparison to other forms of art, minimalist cinema strips from itself all of the superfluous baggage it has carried since its beginnings, and now resembles reality by showing the hidden complexity in seemingly simple and trivial occurrences.
1. Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1984)
It is said that the peculiarity of Jarmuch’s movies is that, from the beginning to the end of the movie, little to nothing changes. As one of the biggest contributors of the artistic movement known as the No-Wave, Jarmusch deprives his movies of the classic American narrative style, which is filled with action, love, and excitement.
Instead, Jarmusch presents a much more believable set of characters and scenarios that resemble real life’s modus operandi. His films include scarce dialogue, few important events, and characters that are easy to relate to—though not by way of admiration, but out of pure empathy for the lack transcendental meaning in their lives.
“Stranger Than Paradise” tells the story of two New-Yorkers, Willie and Eddie (played by John Lurie and Richard Edson, respectively), who are visited by Willie’s Hungarian cousin, Eva (Eszter Balint), who develops a friendship with them.
The film follows these three characters in their mission to find something interesting to do with their lives, parading across the USA, gambling, drinking, and simply contemplating the life that is passing them by. In a certain way, the biggest merit this movie holds is its being able to translate and depict what a classic “movie situation” would look like if it happened in real life
2. For Ellen (So Yong Kim, 2012)
Korean-American filmmaker So Yong Kim depicts in her third feature film one of the most tearful, devastating, and yet simple stories. A struggling musician (Paul Dano) has to put his national tour on hold in order to fight for his daughter’s custody. Reticent at first, he develops a relationship with his barely-known daughter based on simple and realistic encounters.
Kim’s particular directing technique exploits character development and interpersonal relations in a very subtle way that, for some, feels a little under-explored, but when put these scenes under the microscope, it is clear that it’s only by little lines of dialogue and small actions that the characters define themselves as whole and holistic human beings, rendering useless a more direct exposition of personal traits.
3. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000)
Hong Kong Second Wave’s prodigy Kar-Wai Wong is a master in invisible storytelling. This peculiar romantic drama has the singularity of practically not showing any contact between the main characters at all.
The affair between two married people (Maggie Cheung and Tony Chiu Wai Leung) is, instead, shown in their sporadic rendezvouses on the streets, that slowly grow into a shy but tender relationship. The most intense imagery actually shown is a kiss or a post-coital crisis, making it the task of the viewer to compose the rest of the characters’ connection.
This particular case is the best example to show that less is more. Given the scarcity of information given to the viewer, the story in this movie is relatable to almost everyone, and even if that is not the case, it at least presents a refreshing take on romantic movies. Instead of burning passion or eroticism, Kar-Wai Wong pays more attention to the real implications of a love affair, the complications, the ethical nuances, and the more likely culminations of such.
4. 25 Watts (Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, 2001)
What happens when “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Clerks” breed? The answer is “25 Watts,” a comedy that allows for the viewer to have a voyeuristic peek into the life of three teenagers with no real motivation whatsoever. They randomly wander through Uruguay’s capital city drinking and avoiding responsibilities, jobs, studies, and relationships. This film provides an interesting study in social archetypes of the region, presented in a satirical way, preferring this exercise in stereotyped portrayals over individualistic character creation.
Rebella and Stoll are considered the first Uruguayan filmmakers to achieve real international status and they did so in their own peculiar way, portraying the society and world around them in a very costumbrist fashion. By allowing the viewer to see in the span of the film a fraction of what could be the daily life of the characters, the directors are not distracted by an intricate story. Instead, they provide objective information and leave the interpretation of its meaning up to the viewer.
5. 4:44 Last Day on Earth (Abel Ferrara, 2012)
Ferrara’s very unique take on apocalyptic cinema doesn’t display any destruction, death or (as strange as it may seem) apocalypse. It focuses on the relationship of a couple (Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh), and the premise given is simple: at 4:44am, the world is going to end. It is never clearly explained why or how. From that starting point, the movie speculates of what people would do if they knew for certain that they only had a few hours left to live.
Basing in one of the most cliché topics in cinema history, Ferrara explores in-depth the basics of human interaction and the innermost parts of modern relationships. The weaknesses of the human psyche are brought to the fire at this critical moment as characters relapse in drug abuse, suffer sentimental breakdowns, or seek religion. It isn’t the possible repercussions on human society as a whole that matter in this film, but the interpersonal relations and the consequences that the disaster has upon them.