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The man is walking along a city street at night, the camera following him in the side-scrolling style of a 2d videogame. At this point the audience settles into the notion that the stories of these characters are taking place at different times.
Both the man and camera stop in front of an overly lit arcade, its glass doors sliding to let out two bikers. A young teenage boy is standing in front of the arcade’s left window, taking a long drag off a cigarette; the boy is wearing a tattered jean jacket and has muted green hair. Through the left window can be seen the back of a man playing an arcade cabinet.
The arcade’s name is aglow in large violet letters, the letters burning so brightly they are nearly impossible to read – when deciphered, however, they form the words PLANET HARDCORE.
The man is gazing up at the sign. He then looks to the boy and, with his head turned away from the audience, asks him a question. The boy bounces his head side to side as he considers the question, holding his cigarette at mouth level and holding his elbow with his other hand. He then answers, his lips forming several syllables. Both instances of dialogue are removed from the soundtrack, leaving only silent gaps amidst the ambient sound.
The man nods. The ambient sound is replaced by the sound of an orchestra tuning its instruments, and shortly after this cue the camera follows the man as he enters the arcade.
He is walking intently. Light hits him from all sides. The audience has a sense that he has been here before and knows exactly where to find whatever it is he is looking for.
The cabinets that fill the large arcade are running in attract mode, the colourful characters and cars fighting and racing themselves. A pair of patrons in loose black business suits, their hair tousled and their eyes drunk on the night, are sitting on short red stools on either side of a small green table by a wall. Their table is to the right of the arcade owner’s counter, the owner eyeing the man as he walks past the patrons.
The man finds his game. The cabinet is actually a conjoined twin, with the other side intended for use by a second player. The camera swings around so that the audience can see the man on the right, holding his joystick motionlessly and resting his other hand on the buttons, while the unattended half of the cabinet is on the left, where enough room has been left in frame for someone to stand. The actual game is never revealed to the audience.
After several seconds the teenage boy from outside enters the left of the frame. He slides two quarters into the cabinet and manipulates the joystick and buttons as if working some finicky crane. The man slides two quarters into his side of the cabinet and follows suit.
Suddenly both pairs of hands spring to life, jigging the joysticks and mashing the buttons as if shocked by the equipment. Their faces, however, are utterly expressionless, watching the screens with eyes that do not match the intensity of their thoughts and movements.
The audience watches them as they watch the screens. This goes on until the two players cease their animated motions, their muscles relaxing into soreness.
There is a pause before the man mouths a single word. The screen goes totally black, the sound of tuning dropping out with it.
The black leader remains onscreen for a few moments before switching to a shot of the two patrons sitting at the table. Ambient sound returns. The men appear to have run out of conversation: the man on the left is staring blankly at the floor with angled eyes and absently tracing the edge of the table with his finger, while the man on the right is slouching in his seat and gazing up at the ceiling, his arms hanging like dead weights. The arm of the arcade owner sometimes appears in the left of the frame.
‘Is this the end of our night?’ the man on the right asks, sighing out the question like a deflated balloon.
‘I didn’t think DDR would be so difficult,’ the man on the left responds, still staring blankly at the floor.
The man on the right sits up and places his hands on the table. He looks directly at the man on the left.
‘The Japanese aren’t going to kill our night. They might’ve done it before but not this time.’
The man on the left moves his eyes to meet those of the man on the right, but otherwise he remains in the same half-bored position.
‘We need more people,’ he says. ‘Drinking alone might as well be suicide.’
‘We were drinking alone but we’re together,’ the man on the right corrects him.
The man on the left sits up as well.
‘We’ll hit up Kappa Koffee and call those girls, the ones who thought we were straight.’
‘And call up a straight guy to make the whole group experience more interesting.’
‘Dan. Dan’s a cool guy. We’ll get together as a group and do that karaoke room, the one with points.’
The man on the left pulls a small purple cell phone out of his inside front pocket. He does a quick search through the directory and presses the number labelled Bar Girls; this small detail is implemented despite the audience being unable to make out the cell phone’s screen.
An intertitle appears, this time with white text on a black background, reading ON AMBIENCE.
The film returns to the shot of the two men. The man on the left is chatting on his cell phone as the man on the right watches with interest, his hand covering his chin and lower lip.
The dialogue cannot be heard on the soundtrack. The ambient sound is still that of the arcade but from an earlier recording, taken when only the cabinets and none of the players had been present.
Here the audience is given the means and opportunity to consider what exactly ambience does for a film, provided with the sincere hope that the notion of an ‘ambient film’ will form in the audience’s mind.
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.
The man on the left replaces his cell phone. The man on the right pulls out his, flipping it open and pressing it to the side of his face as both men get up to leave.
Concluded in Part 4: With the Sun
Part 1: Softcore World
Part 2: The Spirit Of The Commuter Train
Part 3: On Ambience
Part 4: With the Sun