Not analysis or criticism, nor have I (deliberately) read any reviews: here are a few impressions about two popular films concerning hermits and eremitism: Into Great Silence and Amongst White Clouds. I don’t know if the prepositional phrasing of the titles is a coincidence or natural to the openness that both films project.
Although both documentaries seem to center around the quest of the producer, Philip Groening of Into Great Silence spent 16 years waiting for the opportunity to film, and when he does so he reveals a studied patience, an attention to detail that is observant but reflective. Time expands with this film, and the use of the seasons turning over their entire course, with the monastery in different natural light, is subtle yet compellingly beautiful. Groening also makes us last through the silence even when a viewer may grow impatient or wonder when it will break. The silence does break occasionally: the sound of a shovel or of chanting or the faraway animated conversations of the monks on their weekly walk. The poignant words of the simple blind monk are also a foray from silence into articulation. The presence of the old is in both films to great effect.
Lasting through the silence viewers of Groening’s film eventually find themselves within the monastery in a way that is more than a spectator’s. Once past the reality of silence the viewer can fall into the rhythm of the routines and within the spirituality that animates the setting. Thus the human routines from eating to working to studying to chanting, etc., are caught up in the cycle of nature and the entire film moves with deliberate but patient progress.
Technically, the monks are not hermits insofar as they live and work within regular proximity, a proximity that must grow psychologically in their lives, especially when one realizes the solemnity of their vows. Tradition and convention are so strong that no one breaks the silence to utter a word and violate the silence. The silence comes to represent more than the absence of sound or the desire to maintain decorum and atmosphere. The silence is the context, the tissue of existence, the true meaning of things. Silence absorbs and nurtures their commitment, shows them that each place on this earth is the same, but that this place, this sacred place where each hermit is consciously aware of his goal, is special. Silence gives support by reminding the monk of the infinite, while being flexible enough to allow sounds like those mentioned above to gently renew the texture of ongoing mundane reality.
One note of interest is the presence of a black man, and in the additional feature on the DVD, the recording of his daily routines on a spring morning. Who could not think of Abba Moses in the desert? It was a pleasing touch that gently forces the sense of universality in these eremitical values.
Edward Burger’s quest in Amongst White Clouds is not so self-effacing, as he has structured the entire film around it, from some initial autobiographical notes to his physical presence among the hermits of the Zhongnan Mountains, the fabled Chung-nan Mountains medieval Chinese lore. Although inspired by Bill Porter’s book Road to Heaven, Burger’s film is confessionally Buddhist (no Taoists, as in Porter’s book). The viewer is placed chiefly within a Pure Land context with its temple and ceremonies. Burger owns that he is a disciple of one of the monks.
The silence of the mountains would be broken only by the bell and chant of the monks, much as it would have centuries ago, much as at the Grande Chartreuse near the Alps filmed by Groening. Burger wants to show how an individual quest by the hermits is valid and fruitful, for his audience does not have the weight of tradition and the familiarity of the cenobitic setting that Groening’s would have. So Burger asks questions in order to elicit responses, sometimes with amusing results, as when one monk asked about methods and systems simply replies, “There is nothing to say.” Or another monk says that “the texts” are all one needs. The hermits understand the ineffability of their quest, the futility of summing up in a few sentences. Unlike Into Great Silence, the producer’s unenviable task in Amongst White Clouds is to elicit from the great silence.
But there are no set rules to the quest of the Chinese hermits, so Burger’s questioning and impromptu filming is within the style of the effort — and the genre. The introductory audience for whom Burger targets the film will find the entire adventure a piquant effort, inspiring them, hopefully, to “read the texts,” especially the texts of the hermits-poets.
The counterpart of the black man in Into Great Silence, is the woman in Amongst White Clouds. Porter had encountered women hermits, too. Her reflections on having to prove herself capable among the men hermits is well placed in the film. She demonstrates the hazardous trek to a mountainside spring to fetch water. Add to these the sequences of an old hermit planting seeds or another chopping or hoeing and we have a microcosm of material life on the mountainside.
One wonders at the winters here. The hermit-poets of the past have described them, and again Han-shan (whose name means “Cold Mountain”) has described it. A hermit in the film explains that meditation keeps the body warm enough in winter. Thus Burger compensates fairly for the full seasonal cycle presented by Groening (we can imagine the restrictions on Burger’s time).
The two films are pleasant counterparts. Groening’s scale is grander to accommodate the grandeur of an established history and tradition. His methodology reflects his mature resolution. Burger’s ambitions are more limited in the role of student or disciple, and his film techniques are simpler. Too, the eremitic tradition in China’s mountains was deliberately never institutionalized or circumscribed by place, while the Grande Chartreuse, like a medieval cathedral, is a significant institution.
Together these films are complementary and enduring testaments.