Discussing the esthetics of film can be a challenging task, especially when the term can refer to several issues. In a broader sense, it is a sort of philosophy of art, dealing with the judgment of taste and the authenticity of artistic values. This series deals with the cinematic world and explores the concept of esthetics in two ways: the strong connection between cinematic art and sensation, and how our esthetic categories shape the rules for certain cinematic discourses.
The esthetic categories explored in this series include beauty, the grotesque, kitsch, camp, and the sublime. The articles cover the historical definitions of these categories and the filmic concepts related to them while also giving various cinematic examples.
Film Esthetics 101 is divided into five chapters:
Film Esthetics 101: Obscure Echoes of the Sublime
The sublime is probably the hardest esthetic to define among the ones included in this series. It refers to an untouchable feeling, an uneasy state that paradoxically invokes excitement in the viewer. This esthetic has been described as a reflection of both the greatness and struggle of the human spirit. However, when analyzing it, one has to be careful to avoid going down the path of pretentiousness. In cinema, the esthetic is often thought of as a form of grandiose filmmaking that proposes essential questions about the human condition. But, the filmic form can find the sublime even in the most ordinary moments of daily life.
To understand the sublime as an esthetic concept, one must look at the origin of the word. Coming from the Latin word limes, which refers to a limit or border, the sublime describes what is beyond the social, cultural, or moral threshold. However, judging by the etymology - sub-limes - this esthetic never destroys the border it crosses, instead leaving room for an eventual return to the status quo it broke from.
Over the years, the sublime as an esthetic category has been discussed by many thinkers. Probably the most articulate description of it was given by statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke. For Burke, beauty is intertwined with pleasure, while the sublime is associated with physical pain and moral suffering. However, for the philosopher the esthetic is not exclusively a negative emotion, but a strong feeling of overwhelmed faculties, leading to a sense of euphoria: ”The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror” (Burke & Phillips, 1998, p.53).
The Sublime in Film
The cinematic sublime is often associated with an imposing style of filmmaking, a careful visual sensibility, and a meticulous observance of the formal composition. From a thematic point of view, a sublime film explores the extraordinary. While this is a rather vague definition that has emerged alongside the development of film history, filmmakers have often responded with the contemplation of colossal things found in nature, such as volcanoes, the ocean, or outer space. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is a fitting example of a classic take on the cinematic sublime. The philosophical musings on the origin of humanity, the future of artificial intelligence, and the existence of aliens are well-constructed within the diegesis, offering the viewer an experience of mesmerizing anxiety. At the same time, Kubrick’s meticulous visual style bestows the film with a solemn atmosphere, fit for a cinematic exploration of the physical and philosophical beyond.
However, the cinematic sublime is by no means limited to space exploration, nor is it an esthetic that can be simply achieved with formal and cinematic artifices. A gratuitous pursuit of the sublime should be viewed with a critical eye, as it can sometimes tread on the edge of kitsch. Treating this complex esthetic as a sort of supreme social value fetishizes and cheapens it, and both filmmakers and critics should focus on earnest and honest treatments of the cinematic sublime.
One of the more recent films that has been categorized as sublime is Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013). The story follows a mysterious young woman (Scarlett Johansson) in Scotland who seduces lonely men at night. The film’s strength lies in the pace of the film, which acts as a slow burn, teasing the viewer with ominous shots of the woman’s activity. At the same time, the film masterfully uses footage of everyday Glasgow, signaling the arrival of the unnatural visitor and materializing Burke’s astonishment concept by destabilizing daily life with an intense paranormal dread.
Moreover, Glazer carefully uses genre conventions to create a peculiar atmosphere that focuses on Johansson’s vulnerable yet commanding performance. Beyond the sci-fi tropes and the outlandish special effects, the film also creates “a sharp atmosphere of horror with the everyday mundanity of a woman driving about rainy Scotland in a battered transit van” (Calhoun, 2014).
Edward Yang’s 2000 film Yi Yi provides a less fantastical take on the esthetic of the sublime than Under the Skin, taking a tender look into the struggles of a middle-class Taipei family. Yang’s actors offer an acting tour-de-force, portraying existential dread with great sensibility and conveying the rawest emotions to the viewer in scenes of beautiful simplicity.
In this masterful film, Yang creates astonishment by combining gripping performances with delicate, almost documentary-like camera work. “Throughout the film, we are presented with visions of characters alone in the frame, simply existing within pockets of time” (Jones, 2011). These frames of pure stillness breach the threshold of a seemingly organized life, offering the spectator images of struggle and truthful humanity.
Cemetery of Splendour (2015), directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, is another modern take on the sublime and Burke’s concept of astonishment. The narrative takes place at a makeshift hospital in northern Thailand where several soldiers suffer from a sleeping disorder. Solidarity is a predominant theme and emerges from the activities of those who take care of the soldiers, but also from the connection between the three main characters. This closeness culminates in eerie moments that treat kindness as a supernatural phenomenon.
Weerasethakul simultaneously submerges his film into a dream state through exquisitely worked lights and colors. With the use of contrasting static night shots, the film manages to suspend time and offer the viewer otherworldly images that compel them to contemplate the very threshold of dreams. The experimental 2015 film is a hypnotic experience that dares to reach beyond the subconscious and extract fragments that highlight the strangeness of humanity.
The sublime seems to be a culmination of the esthetics presented in this series. It offers glimpses of the terrifyingly grotesque, hopeful beauty, and it can, at times verge on kitsch and camp. However, it is also vital to note that the sublime is difficult to define. How one experiences the sublime can be more subjective than in the case of other esthetics such as beauty. Nevertheless, it represents a fitting ending for this series, as the sublime can also encompass the very human pursuit of esthetic experiences.
Burke, E., & Phillips, A. (1998). A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Oxford World’s Classics). Oxford University Press.
Calhoun, D. (2014, March 12). Under the Skin. TimeOut. https://www.timeout.com/movies/under-the-skin-1
Jones, K. (2011, March 15). Yi Yi: Time and Space. The Criterion Collection. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/429-yi-yi-time-and-space
Glazer, J. (2013). Under the Skin. [Photo]. https://www.timeout.com/movies/under-the-skin-1
Yang, E. (2000). Yi Yi. [Photo]. https://www.filmlinc.org/series/a-rational-mind-the-films-of-edward-yang/
Weerasethakul, A. (2015). Cemetery of Splendour. [Photo]. https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/film-of-the-week-cemetery-of-splendor/