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Inaction: The Backbone of Cinema

Updated: Sep 1, 2021

In some of the best films you have ever seen, there might be one specific scene that allowed it to be as good as it is. Something that makes stories like those of Miyazaki and Life is Strange as good as they are.

What I'm talking about is the moment of inaction. Every movie has a plot that it follows, and every event in the movie tends to either further the plot or provide an obstacle. Well, inactive scenes are the ones in which nothing happens. It stops the plot and asks the audience to think, "Remember the last time things stopped? What changed between then and now?"

Miyazaki is one of the most respected directors of all time. His characters feel as real as they get, his stories do not need to compromise between narrative conflict, characterisation and allegorical value, and he is simply great at making his stories truly diverse. He has mastered the art of "Ma".

In his interview, he explained this in an interesting way. "Ma" is the Japanese word for emptiness. He went on to clap his hands and said that the moment between the clap, the time when they were apart, is called Ma. If there was no space between him raising his hands and the hands touching each other, it would not make for a good story.

Miyazaki's philosophies on storytelling are some of the most important we have today. Taking his best and most iconic movie, Spirited Away, we can easily pinpoint multiple moments where he puts in the pause. Most notable of these has to be the minute and a half pause during the train ride.

Not going much into the details, the plot of Spirited Away is simple. Chihiro is a shy and closed-off girl who finds herself in a mysterious and supernatural place after her parents are turned into pigs. The rest of the story is about her survival and her dealing with creating her own identity. The story is really simple from then on, with her having to face new obstacles, meeting new allies and confronting dilemmas. Anyone who has read any of my post know that these are what make a character, and the characters are what make a story.

For Miyazaki, just making an amazing character is not enough. He pauses the movie for moments at a time so that we can reflect at the world, the challenges, and most importantly, the characters. Coming back to the train scene, we're not just waiting for Chihiro and Kaonashi to reach her destination. We are being offered a minute to understand everything that has happened. We now have Chihiro's wounds, her motivations, her challenge and her allies in front of us. We don't get a montage of all of this, because that would not be contemplative, it would be him directing our thoughts. Instead, we just watch the train go and we literally see a reflection of Chihiro.

The other important part of this pause is remembering the last such pause. Last time, Haku was comforting a crying Chihiro who was afraid she does not have what it takes to face the upcoming challenges. Now, not only do we see her bearing every obstacle, but facing a conflict that came out of her own morality and decisions.

Another property that uses this element to its advantage is the Life is Strange series. Many locations in the game are accompanied by an amazing soundtrack. The player can find a place in these locations to just sit and enjoy these moments. Usually, they come before a rising action scene. The moments of inaction here not only have many of the advantages in films, but allowing you to sit for as long as you want allows them to maximise the advantage of autonomy in a video game.

After Kate Marsh attempted to (or really did) commit suicide, Max and Chloe attempt to unravel the truth about the events that led her to do so as well as find Rachel Amber by sneaking into Blackwell at night. Between these two moments, Max can sit in the field filled with fireflies for as long as she needs, for as long as we need. Actually, we are also accompanied by her thoughts about the events that happened before and her contemplation of the future. We are given a moment to catch our breath as we will soon be in for some important action.

The game actually plays with this concept in its last moment of calm. Max can sit comfortably in the middle of all of her worst nightmares combined and act like it is not different from any other. Weirdly enough, this detachment from commitment to the fear allows it to immerse us even more into the nightmare as well as give us one last big breath before having to make the big decision.

The sequel, Life is Strange 2 uses these moments to have these "brotherly moments" between the two protagonists. The Last of Us has optional dialogues to slow down the moment and have interesting interactions between Joel and Ellie. If two people are allowed to share the inaction, we are allowed to also contemplate the relationship between them.

While there are obviously no wrong ways of enjoying any work of fiction, it is a waste of one of the best elements in story-writing if you are just sitting through it, waiting for the next moment to come.

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