"the Monk and the Fish"
The atmosphere of the film "the Monk and the Fish": Three Aspects - Architecture, Christian Theology, Graphic design and composition
By: Alisa Zingerman, Xenia Dubrovsky, Rafi Yaniger
“To the student of form, the history of maturity is written in the refinements associated with the projection of surface images. Similarly, the student of literary cinema measures development in terms of plot, character, and symbolic evolutions. As for the former, he may easily recall compositional details… conversely, the literary or dramatic-minded observer is prone to recall scenes, not shots, and discuss in detail emotional or intellectual meanings… the student of cinema should avoid this insidious division into form, subject matter, and content but at the same time be aware of their interrelation.” (Kepes, Gyorgy, p. 160)
We will discuss the design and compositional elements of the film, but will attempt to relate them to the essence of the film, the atmosphere and feeling it generates within the viewer. In discussing the design of the film we can separate the discussion between the ‘static’ elements of design which are evident in still frames of the film, to the elements of design ‘in motion’, apparent only when viewing the sequence of frames in play.
De Wit, relating to his films said: "In my drawings I am extremely sensitive to atmosphere, light and shadow, and space." (Liz Faber and Helen Walters, p. 178) In reference to 'static' design, the main contributors to the peaceful and quiet atmosphere of "the Monk and the Fish" are the watercolor backgrounds. The colors are muted blues and browns painted very lightly in transparent watercolor washes. The film begins in broad daylight and as darkness approaches the colors become even more desaturated, eventually reaching complete monochrome in the nighttime scenes. The contrast between the light washes and the black inked areas in the shadows and contours is very strong, creating a distinct look, reminiscent of book illustrations.
The use of watercolors is especially
effective in the main part of the scenery of the film, the sk
The monk as the main character in
the film occupies a surprisingly small area of the frame throughout most of the
film. Most of the frame is taken by either large buildings or sk
The use of rhythm in the design creates great interest, besides the obvious use of rhythm in the actual movement. Donald Graham defines rhythm as “the recurrence of elements in alternation with opposite or differing elements.” (p.231) Rhythm is especially prominent in the design of the architecture with recurring arcs in various sizes. Near the end of the film the monk passes a row of trees spaced irregularly. The spacing is more condensed at the right side of the frame, where the monk enters the frame, so the spacing adds to the sense that the monk is moving into wider and more open spaces. The reflection in the water is very noticeable in the film, and also creates a sense of rhythm. It is an exact upside-down clone of the reflecting objects, and in certain shots, slightly lighter in tone. It is interesting to note that the reflection immediately generates an impression of water without any need of small waves and ripples (or even a shimmer in the reflection).
Concerning 'in motion' design, it is interesting to see what Mitry says regarding cinema: “In a painting or a photograph, perspective provides a ‘feeling’ of depth, size, and the shading of the volumes, the ‘feeling’ of relief. But this ‘feeling’ is less a sensation and more an ‘idea’… In the cinema, on the other hand, the photographs move. Their succession represents movement… we immediately feel the depth of space. It is movement which determines the feeling of space – in fact it effectively creates it.” (Mitry, Jean p. 32-33)
describes the ‘experience’ of depth and space in cinema, in contrast to the
static ‘idea’ of space created b
In ‘the Monk and the Fish’ there are a few shots showing movement in extreme perspective, but most of the feeling of space is generated by the background images, giving the film a more ‘flat’ look, especially considering the squarish and ‘flat’ design of the monk. This helps give the film a feeling of a painting in movement rather than a simulation of three-dimensional reality.
Another means of accomplishing this feeling is the type of movement applied to the monk in the animation. The animation is characterized by sharp and quick movements that settle into static poses very quickly. This accentuates the impression that we are looking at an illustration, a visual translation of a certain mood and experience, rather than at a representation of reality. Even when walking or running, the monk is not depicted in a natural continuous fashion. He moves across the screen in a series of quick bounces that bridge between static poses, in De Wit’s typical style of animation.
Although it is possible to give many meanings to the film, the plot itself is very basic. The film’s strength lies in this picturesque feeling we have described. It evokes certain moods in the viewer without the need of any dialogue or dramatic story, making it a masterpiece of visual communication.
As it was already noted, in Dudock
De Wit's film lots of the screen time and space is dedicated to prolonged shots
of the background, especially in its first part. The surrounding plays a
significant role in the creation of the film's atmosphere: due to the small
size of the protagonist - the monk - the background dominates the space of the
frame. The main place that is shown from man
In order to identify it, a journey has to be taken to the roots of Christian architecture. Looking back at the period when Christian architecture might have started, historians observe that "until A.D. 200 … Christian architecture did not and could not exist." (R. Rautheimer, p.24) Until then, the "early believers had neither the means, the organization, nor the slightest interest in evolving an ecclesiastical architecture. They met in whatever place suited the occasion." (ibid.) Such a place could be a private house or an apartment temporarily rented by the congregation. As a result, such a meeting place (ecclesiae) presented, as a rule, a building built within the traditions of Roman utilitarian domestic architecture.
Therefore, when about fourth century purposeful Christian architecture started to emerge, it was still "fully rooted in domestic architecture" (ibid, p.29) and heavily influenced by its classical antecedents (R. Calkins, part 1.) It explains the apparition of the arched aqueduct in De Witt's film, which strongly resembles Pont du Gard (see Appendix, picture 1), the classic example of Roman perfection of arc's construction (ibid.). Without the explanation above, the aqueduct could seem an eclectic borrowing within the walls of a typical Christian building. But yet, what was the look of a typical Christian building? Where and when do we begin to encounter the sloped roofs, small arched windows and inner yards, featured in De Witt's setting, in the history of architecture?
According to R. Calkins (part 2, p.17) it is by the third
century, that the Christian congregation grew larger and started to adopt a
variety of buildings for their specific purposes, though they contained
"no identifiable element that could be related to any certain religious
usage." One of such first churches, that, being "rectangular, aisles,
truss-roofed, and modest" (R. Krautheimer, p.37)
resembles the dwelling-place of the monk in our film, is being reconstructed
from the walls that have survived in
Further, Christianity gained a more official status with the
There was another especially prominent and commonly spread
feature in monastic architecture that was not mentioned yet - the cloister,
"enclosed courtyard, surrounded on all four sides b
It seems that our investigation after the origins of the
monk's dwelling place in De Witt's movie came to a conclusion: all its features
evidence that it is a typical example of European monastic architecture. But it
is still unclear, does it belong to the earlier period, around the forth
century, or to the later eleventh century? Both guesses can be equally
reliable. Furthermore, after the eleventh century the monastic architecture
developed as more complex and grandiose, such as architecture of Cluny III which represents one "extreme of monastic
thinking, the conviction that the more perfect the building, the greater the
offering to the Lord." (R. Stalley, p. 175) Of
course, the great beautifully ornamented Cluniac
architecture does not really come close to resembling the modest monastery
drawn by De Witt. However, "as monastic building became more and more
grandiose during the eleventh century, isolated hermits and small 'protest'
groups abandoned conventional monasteries, seeking solitude amongst the woods
and mountains." (Stalley, p. 176) Such group,
Cistercians, "refined the nature of monastic architecture," reviving
the ascetic strain in European monasticism. (see
Appendix, picture 6) May be our investigated monastery belong to this later
period? As well, it is necessary to note that monasteries, visually resembling
the discussed one, were also built in eleventh century
So what strain in architecture does our modest monastery
belong to? Where could it have been built? And when?
The answer to these questions, even after investigation, still stays undefined.
Why would that be? At this point, it is necessary to turn to the theory of
architecture. Roger Scruton in his book "The
Aesthetics of Architecture" names what he counts for the distinguishing
features of this art. The
Speaking of the
architectural aspect of an animated short, we often tend to forget that this is
no real architecture. And this is not because it doesn't look like one; it is
because its functions are radically different. It mustn't be built correctly to
stand upright; there are no laws of physics in animation. Its purpose is not utilitarian, it is no facility for the viewer (though it
could be for the animated character inside the movie). Its correctness and
usefulness is measured by its functioning as part of the movie. It is measured
by the extent to which it assists the plot to reach the audience, to transmit
some meaning, to tell the story. Along the way, it may resemble some real
building, belonging to this or that epoch, but this is not where it ends, it is
And that's why it so difficult to classify De Witt's monastery in terms of the theory of architecture. "In my drawings," says De Witt, "I am extremely sensitive to atmosphere, light and shadow, and space. The abundant use of shadows has become my favourite visual technique." (Liz Faber and Helen Walters, p.178) So the utter goal of the arched architecture in the movie is not so much to reconstruct some real monastery, it is the stage for playing with shadows that create the beautiful aesthetic effect so typical of De Witt. The cloister is not so much imitation of medieval cloisters, as the ultimate space to emphasize the smallness of the monk's figure, and perhaps his loneliness. The nearly Roman aqueduct and the pool lead us to another point of this research: the water in this movie and its symbolism.
According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, “The natural symbolism of water led to its liturgical use” (p. 660). Water, being a necessity for all living things, symbolizes life. In Christian liturgy, water is a symbol of life and purification.
short animated movie, De Wit places the monk most of the time b
In Christian symbolism the fish represents Jesus Christ.
It appears both as an acrostic and as a symbol. Sanctus Aurelius Augustinus (354-430) writes about the possible origin of
the acrostic in “Creations.
In the New Catholic Encyclopedia it says that “The abbreviation ΙΧΘΥΣ… was current by the end of the 2nd century.” Apart from the Sibylline Oracles and Augustine (Civ.18.23), who refer to it, it appears that it is also employed by Lactanius (Div. inst. 7.16-20) Eusebius (Vita Constant. 5.18). The fish appears as a symbol of Christ, side by side with this acrostic, in art, literature and inscriptions. (p. 746)
So what do we have? Our Monk suddenly discovers Jesus.
What he does next, seems quite logical for a man who
saw a fish. He tries to catch it and put it into a bucket using a fishing rod,
to capture and keep it to himself. When we look for
symbolism in his actions, it is quite safe to suppose that he simply wants to
“grab” his discovery, to be able to “touch”, explore and understand it better.
Alas, the elusive fish refuses to be caught. It taunts the Monk, plays with
him, always staying close, but out of reach. He chases it along the side of the
pool, and ends up falling in, a baptism of sorts. That is when the madness
starts. How else would one describe the actions of a man who tries to karate
kick a fish to death? He then chases the fish with a butterfly net all along
the aqueduct and back to the pool, and ends up falling in again, looking quite
aggravated. Failing to grasp his discovery by force, he tries to come to his
senses, to go back to the calm life he led before, by returning to the monaster
However, it does not work. The thought of the fish, of his discovery, keeps him restless and unable to concentrate. He goes back and confirms his fears, for the fish is truly there, and he didn’t just dream it all up. His life has really changed.
Once he made sure he wasn’t mad and imagining fish where it shouldn’t be, he tried to share his discovery with the other monks. When the fish failed to appear at that precise moment, they immediately lost interest. They simply turned around and deserted him. He was left with the fate of beginner prophets – alone and unheard. The monk reacted negatively, panicking and almost falling off the edge. It appears that his burden of knowing was rather heavy for him.
night, the Monk went back to the pool and lighted twelve candles at the edge of
the pool, sitting himself in the middle. It is a well known fact that candles
are the most common attribute to most religions’ ceremonies. In our case, the
first association is that of the twelve apostles. It was most likel
reaches the peak of absurdity by trying to hunt the fish down with a bow and
arrow. According to James Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, the
arrow is “Not merel
The next scene almost looks like a stroll in a park, very
similar to the birch trees in De Wit’s “Father and Daughter”. It seems that the
Monk started chasing the fish at first out of desperation, and then, after a
rather long swim along the aqueduct, seeing the error of his ways, he starts to
simply follow it. After that, with each following scene, the Monk's chase
becomes easier and easier. He almost hops down the stairs, after the fish, and
then plays 'hide-and-seek' with it between the huge jars filled with water. By
the time they pass Egypt (we come to that conclusion upon seeing the two
pyramids, modestly placed in the distance), the Monk possibl
In the end, the fish no longer needs water, and instead it just hovers around the Monk. The Monk even opens a door for it to go through. After that, he starts to float together with it, and reaching total harmony they become one, floating up into the distance, where he finally embraces it.
It is possible that one of the lessons we can learn from this tale, is that one won't reach his goal by brutal force. One should not impose his initial understanding unto reality, but rather one should let himself be led by the power that is above us.
Another valuable lesson is that one should not leave things like buckets by water edges, for one will undoubtedly trip over and fall into the water, or off the edge itself.
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