Final Summary Post: Film and the sublime experience


I spent most of the time on this project researching art across various media, poetry, and aesthetic analyses of the sublime, as well as trends in how it has been interpreted by artists over the years. In my analysis of the works I studied I paid attention to two main categories of information:

> thematic elements: common motifs, symbols, and interpretations of what ‘the sublime’ means

> technical elements: what technical strategies work best for getting the ideas across, in various media.

 I planned to apply this information to creating a short experimental film about a sublime experience, focusing on visceral / sensual ways of presenting that experience, to engage with this abstract concept on an emotional level rather than on an intellectual one.

On the technical side of things, I’ve concluded that the best bet is basically anything which disorients the viewer in a way that supports the story/theme. (Hence: the grand scale of many paintings, sculptures, etc. re: the sublime — they’re startlingly large.) On its own, any one of these elements won’t evoke this idea specifically — it’s through their combination with the thematic elements that creates the right feeling.

> Scale: vast things provoke sublime experience by inviting the receiver to consider his or her own irrelevance and smallness. Within the film, to convey the main character’s psychological state, I interpreted this concept as a fluctuation between extremely close shots and very distant ones.

> Darkness / light: a common visual theme of the sublime. ‘Light’ commonly signifies knowledge, the arrival of a revelation; while darkness often creates a sensual expression of the unknown and threatening. As “dark” and “light” are probably the two most basic elements of human visual perception, there are a lot of ways to use them in art — but these are so common they hardly bear discussion here. For this project, I used darkness to create a visually confusing environment that fluctuates between two physical states.

> Non-continuity editing: that is, cuts that don’t preserve the narrative continuity of the setting or scene, such as ‘jump cuts’ between jarringly similar angles; these can create a sense of instability, especially w/r/t a character’s mind.

> Unnatural lighting: not just lights added to a scene, but lights that seem to defy logic: for example, a moment in The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick, 2011) where two actors move about in the dark with lights occasionally flaring into the scene, without a clear motivation; in Three Colors: Blue (dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993) where an unmotivated blue light spontaneously illuminates Juliette Binoche’s shocked face. Twin Peaks features on several occasions a logic-defying blue light illuminating the spectral Giant.

In art and writing that addresses sublime experience, here are some of the most important themes:

> Interiority: the sublime is usually conceived as an intensely personal experience, often alone, and which depends on the inner emotions and contemplations of one individual. This was necessary in my film, as it has only one character.

> Destruction: not only the sublime horror of an apocalyptic event, but also that the overpowering nature of the sublime threatens to destroy the individual perceiving it. In an earlier post I mentioned the film Pi (1998), whose main character faces blindness and crippling headaches as a result of looking too long at the sun — a metaphor the film use for knowledge too great for human understanding. One might also consider the religious concept of nirvana, the transcendental state which essentially separates those who attain it from human concerns; or the idea of transcending one’s earthly body after its death as a soul proceeding onward to heaven or to hell.

> A greatness inspiring simultaneous terror and delight (described in Edmund Burke’s 1757 essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful).

> The greatness of Nature that was a particular focus of Romantic artists; Coleridge’s “caverns measureless to man”, or Manfred’s attempt to leap from the terrifying heights of craggy mountains in Byron’s drama, (And you, ye crags, upon whose extreme edge / I stand, and on the torrent’s brink beneath / Behold the tall pines dwindled as to shrubs / In dizziness of distance” — Manfred I. II. 14-7).

> Suspension: that, faced with something so ineffable, the human mind should be removed from its usual habits; as Burke writes, astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror”. Additionally: the suspension of a normal understanding of time and place in the face of such an experience.

> Limits: sublime experience involves the limits of the individual’s ability to understand it, as well as the limit of relevance of things understood in individual, human terms.

> Unpresentability: most famously theorized by Jean-François Lyotard in the 80s, the idea that what is sublime denies the attempt to represent it, whether in visual art or words or some other medium.

> Power: and powerlessness. This concept underlies most, if not all, of the different interpretations of sublimity. It is something that cannot be controlled: it is “an experience so complex that our inability to form a clear mental conception of it leads to a sense of the inadequacy of our imagination and of the vast gulf between that experience and the thoughts we have about it.” (Morley 16) It forces one to consider one’s own inadequacy, creating a sense of powerlessness and frustration amid the terror of something vastly greater. Whether this feeling comes from the greatness of nature, a transcendent experience, an confrontation with limits, an unthinkable void, or something else entirely: human expression fails. It is out of our control.

I’ve incorporated many of these themes into my experimental film. The ones I found myself considering most often were those of power, limits, and suspension. The main setting is a suspension of time and place, and places my main character in an unfamiliar and unsettling situation. I think the most important concept for me in creating the film was that the sublime is something so overpowering that it creates a feeling of entrapment, and threatens the annihilation of the individual self.



1. The dilution of the term ‘sublime’: a lot of things get called ‘sublime’ which just weren’t that helpful to my creative plans for this project. A lot of contemporary writing I found on the subject had to do with social issues regarding things like gender, race, capitalism —  a lot of interesting topics that didn’t really fit with my experimental film. It’s a huge subject with many unique interpretations. So while I read up on these things, I didn’t end up thinking about many of them while planning the film.

2. An incredibly abstract concept in a medium where ‘visual storytelling’ is key: and a project for which I decided to focus on a primarily sensual presentation of it, rather than one dependent on explanatory dialogue or narration. It’s difficult to ‘explain’ some of the abstract concepts associated with this project in a visceral way. This has been the central challenge of this project from the beginning — but I definitely encountered more roadblocks than anticipated. After separating my initial ideas into a less conventional ‘video art’ project and a more conventional narrative reserved for future work, it became easier to figure out how to tackle this issue.

3. Research and planning took longer than I expected: leaving me less time to construct a film than I had hoped for. The topic is both wide and complicated, and has so many different avenues that it took a while to figure out which concepts would be most important to the film.

4. Filmmaking style decisions: specifically, the issue of narrativity vs. non-narrativity. I hoped to achieve a degree of narrative ‘abstraction’ to strike a balance between the space I needed for the uncanny effects I imagined, and enough causality to be watchable. This challenge was very much related to #2 above.

6. Size and presentation: visual artists often rely on sheer scale to evoke a sense of the sublime in their works. Really massive canvases (such as the approximately 8’ x 18’ Vir Heroicus Sublimis, by Barnett Newman). Or for example land art like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty or Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field. We expect canvases and sculptures to stay the same size, but video is a more fluid medium. You can project it in any size your resources will allow, you can show it on a forty-foot screen in a dark room or stream it from YouTube on a smartphone.

Some video art is installation-oriented: Bill Viola’s The Crossing is projected in a very specific way — two looping video tracks projected simultaneously on opposite walls — very large, with the sound turned up. Nam June Paik’s work combines video with sculptural elements and requires exact physical arrangements within its display space. And one of my first experiences with video art was seeing Paul Chan’s 1st Light projected onto a floor in a museum, with a skewed aspect ratio. 

For my experimental film, I don’t specify a way to display it. I intend to make it available online eventually, so anyone who wants to see it can access it. So I have forfeited any control over the scale and mode of the picture’s exhibition. However, what I was able to do was manipulate scale within the film: that is, odd combinations of extreme close ups and long shots.

(But if possible, please watch it with some good headphones, loud. Will post links here when I eventually make the film available online.)


Studying the sublime experience has been really valuable, and I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to spend so much time on my research and on this experimental film. I’m so glad to have had the support of the Charles Center for this project!


  1. Morgan Sehdev says:

    Sara – It seems as if your project this summer was extremely enjoyable, thought provoking, and in the end rewarding. I was very intrigued in reading the conclusions you have drawn from your research about the sublime, something I’m not quite sure I could easily define. I think your observations are poignant and on the mark, though. Thanks for sharing the difficulties you encountered as well- not all students realize that research will come with struggle, guaranteed. I look forward to seeing your film!

  2. Hi Sara,
    Your conclusions on the themes and elements that make the sublime are very insightful. They introduced me to concepts I have never heard of or thought about before. I am excited to see how your observations play out in your experimental film. Some of your challenges, are a normal part of research, especially the initial planning and solidifying research avenues. It can be difficult to accurately allocate time to various aspects of research before actually starting because in some cases time is dependent on the corporation and availability of people or resources.

  3. Rebecca Schectman says:

    This project is fascinating and I’m really looking forward to seeing your film! I think the combination of scholarly research and creating media is really powerful. Not only have you looked to past artists, scholars, and researchers, but you’re interested in incorporating your own ideas into a meaningful product. I didn’t realize the sublime was such a distinct and wide-ranging genre. I’ll have to do more of my own investigation now!